washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Matt Compton

An Argument Worth Having

Midway through reading Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine profile of Mark Warner in March of 2006 (the one accompanied by the famously unflattering cover photo of the Virginian), I opened an instant message from a friend who said, “Matt Bai is great at writing about conventional wisdom a couple hours after it becomes conventional wisdom.”
But in The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, Bai has penned an unconventional and fascinating account of the various elements of the recent insurgency movement inside the Democratic Party, based on three years of close personal observation.
He was one of the first journalists in Washington to see the now famous Rob Stein PowerPoint presentation charting the rise of the “Right Wing Message Matrix.” He was the only writer in the room when some of the richest donors in progressive politics committed to build the Democracy Alliance. He was the first reporter to book a seat at the inaugural YearlyKos convention. And when Markos Moulitsas Zúniga and Jerome Armstrong went on a tour to promote their book, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, Bai rented a car and drove them the length of California.
All of which is to say that Bai was way ahead of the collective wisdom on this one. The mainstream media recognized something was up, but from top to bottom, everyone was slow to grasp that the new activists in the Democratic party weren’t like the old constituent groups. They weren’t content to raise money for a little access. They weren’t patient with authority. And whether they liked to admit it or not, they weren’t happy with the Clinton legacy.
Bai captures all of that artfully. Armstrong and Kos emerge from the book as complex individuals, not as representatives of an “angry blogger” stereotype. Important figures unused to the profile treatment, like Gina Cooper (the woman who organized the first YearlyKos) and Rob Stein (the man who convinced some of the wealthiest people in the country to commit millions of dollars to the Democracy Alliance), are rendered candidly and sympathetically. And the scene where Bill Clinton finds himself in a heated disagreement with one of the donors from the Democracy Alliance smolders with significance.
Though I’ve heard some of the stories he describes before, all of this feels fresh — perhaps because, with the exception of Crashing the Gate, The Argument is the first thing I’ve read to give book-length treatment to this whole phenomenon. That said, you expect all this from a writer as talented as Bai. What you don’t expect are the insights all these details provide.

Bad Company

As I wrote about last month, placing political ads linked to search terms on widely used web sites is a smart and rapidly growing practice. But you do have to be careful about the inadvertant associations such ads sometimes create, as Barack Obama’s campaign has just learned.
A reporter for the New York Sun happened to notice that an Obama ad appeared as a “sponsored link” on the Amazon.com page for The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the highly controversial book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that some observers have claimed reflects ancient anti-semitic conspiracy theories. Whatever you think of the book, it’s definitely not one that a candidate for president (unless Pat Buchanan runs again) would want to snuggle up to.
Contacted by the Sun, the Obama campaign quickly took down the ad and foreswore any endorsement of the Mearsheimer/Walt book.
The Amazon ads are run by a subsidiary of the retailer called Clickriver, which associates advertisements with keywords that customers use to search for products on the Amazon website. The Obama camp purchased “politics” as a keyword, and thus, their ad got placed beside lots of political books — one of which happened to be particularly controversial. The whole thing was done by computer and was obviously unintentional and unavoidable.
This is going to happen more and more often. And who knows what the reaction will be next time? But when an algorithm determines the link between content and an advertisement without any human input — what’s a campaign to do? You might think to avoid the situation altogether, but that’s the wrong answer.
Here and now, I think we need to decide on a rule — when computers fail to anticipate a controversy, we don’t blame campaigns. Through the course of a modern election, there will be plenty of times when candidates legitimately stumble — an operative will develop foot-in-mouth disease, a senator will fall off a stage, or a nominee will completely underestimate the importance of an attack and go a solid month without refuting the charges. These are the times at which a media circus will be quasi-justifiable. But not when an innocuous ad is automatically linked to a contentious book.

The Strategist’s Bookshelf

Just as fall is the start of the Oscar movie hunt — when the studios shelve their popcorn features and roll out their character dramas — September marks the return of the serious book. While much of the literary buzz will be focused on bright, new novels, the autumn calendar is loaded with political nonfiction. Among the highlights this month:
Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush by Robert Draper. In late 2006 and early 2007, Draper — a journalist with GQ and a former writer for Texas Monthly— was granted six hour-long interviews with the President. During the writing of this book, he also interviewed more than 200 source close to Bush. What emerges is an attempt to give an intimate view of the Bush White House from the perspective of an outsider without an ax to grind. Excerpts from the book are already running on Slate. Early reviews say that the general picture is familiar to readers of the Woodward books (Bush at War, Plan of Attack, etc.) but that the details are fresh and revealing.
Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes by Mark Penn. Any kind of book by Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist and pollster released this close to the 2008 elections is intriguing for reasons beyond the particular content. But Penn’se ffort to identify the national cultural trends in religion, leisure, politics, and family life is interesting on another order of magnitude. He uses decades of research to produce the data and numbers which make up his trends, and much of what he writes is fascinating (for instance — he notes that 57 percent of journalists are women, and that in the fields of public relations and the law, gender proportions are trending the same way). If that sort of thing isn’t your cup of tea, you can always read every page looking for insight into Sen. Clinton’s campaign strategy, and if I’m a high-level guy for Obama or Edwards, that’s exactly what I’m doing this week.
Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World by Bill Clinton. We all know that President Clinton’s current gig is philanthropist-in-chief, and Giving is a call to action for individuals to develop creative solutions to combat the problems of the world. It will be fascinating to see how the publicity for this book develops. Remember, Clinton’s memoirs set a worldwide record for single day non-fiction book sales, and he won a Grammy for the audio-version he recorded. You can be sure that each of his media appearances (starting with his appearance earlier this week on Larry King Live) will be closely coordinated with his wife’s campaign. My guess is that you can start queuing up for the book signing at the Barnes & Noble in Des Moines now.
The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgement Inside the Bush Administration by Jack Goldsmith. This weekend, the New York Times Sunday Magazine will publish a profile of Goldsmith, former chief of the White House Office of Legal Counsel, charged with telling the president what he is legally allowed to do. In 2003. In his first weeks on the job, Goldsmith came across the infanous “terror memos.” For the rest of his tenure in the White House, he tried to bring the administration back under what he saw as the rule of the law, fighting entrenched Bush officials on everything from trials of suspected terrorists to domestic surveillance. The preview of the NYT Magazine piece is already on the paper’s Most Emailed Articles list, and Goldsmith’s book hits the shelves on Sept 17th. Given that this thing comes out after Gen. Petraeus gives his report, I suspect it’s going to be in the news — a lot.
Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics by Jonathan Chait. Big Con, by the LA Times columnist and New Republic veteran Chait, is already getting debated on economics and politics blogs all over the Net. The book’s hypothesis is that reverse-Robin-Hood economic policies have been the most consistent feature of the Bush-era GOP. Chait offers a history of supply-side economists and a study of the baleful influence they’ve had on the Republican Party and public policy. The book is being excerpted on TNR’s web page, and the first sentence begins, “American politics has been hijacked by a tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists, some of them ideological zealots, others merely greedy, a few of them possibly insane.” While I’m not sure Big Con will convince any card-carrying Club for Growthers of the error of their ways, for the rest of us, I imagine this will be a good introduction to a subject we could all know a little more about, delivered in Chait’s trademark acidic style.

Reaching the Searchers

Google is the biggest search engine on the planet. In the month of June, in the U.S. alone, its algorithms delivered answers to 3.9 billion questions. That’s fully half of the search traffic in the country.
AdWords is the service that enables Google to pay for all those searches. If you use Google, you’ve seen AdWords — it powers the text advertisements that show up on the right side of your search results.
AdWords works like this: the advertiser bids in an auction for search terms, creates a block of text to display with the search results, and then pays a cost per click every time someone follows the ad to their website. Even though Google only makes pennies on each ad, this service is the reason for the company’s billions in revenue. And because advertisers only pay when someone actually clicks on their text, hundreds of people can see the ad, and it won’t cost the buyer a thing.
This is all to say that Google and its ads are one of the most important media outlets on the web. You’d think that the presidential campaigns would recognize that, but for the most part, you’d be wrong.

Susan Collins And the Right Track(er)

One of the defining moments of the 2006 congressional elections was when Sen. George Allen of Virginia interrupted his own campaign speech, looked into a handheld camera, and mockingly referred to the young man behind it as “Macaca.”
That young man, of course, was a campaign operative for now-Sen. Jim Webb — fulfilling a role that has come be called a tracker. He was hardly the first to catch a bad moment on video, but because of YouTube, he changed the modern campaign.
Trackers are now ubiquitous — politicians see them at every public campaign stop, and smart campaigns have begun filming their own events so that they can respond quickly to any “macaca” moment and have the chance to put quotes back into context.
In Maine, Sen. Susan Collins is running a tough race for reelection. She’s a Republican in New England – already an endangered species. As such, she’s one of the Democrats’ top targets for 2008. And her opponent, Rep. Tom Allen, already has more than $2 million in the bank.
Sen. Collins has a tracker; the Maine State Democratic Party begun sending someone to record her public events. And Collins’ handlers would like to see that stop. In an open letter sent last week to the Allen campaign, Collins’ chief of staff, Steve Abbott, says, “Tactics such as tracking demean the political process, contribute to voter cynicism, and have no place in the type of substantive issues-oriented campaigns that our voters deserve.” For the next 15 months, Abbott suggested that both campaigns agree to keep the cameras turned off.

Web-Based Bundling

Which political action committee gave the most money to congressional campaigns in 2006?
MoveOn.org? EMILY’s List? The National Rifle Association?
Nope, nope and nope.
ActBlue – the web-based bundler – was the single biggest PAC contributor in the last cycle. It delivered some $17 million to candidates in 2006, with about $15.5 million going directly to congressional campaigns. t’s proving to have an even bigger presence in the presidential election, and the organization’s founders are predicting that they will move $100 million dollars during the 2008 cycle.

When Small Is Big

In the 2003 New Yorker profile of Karl Rove, which Ed linked to on Monday (for obvious reasons), Nicholas Lemann made a point that really stuck out to me. Lehman was suggesting that this might have been Karl Rove’s blueprint for the Democratic party. This is what he wrote:

“The [Democratic] Party has three key funding sources: trial lawyers, Jews, and labor unions. One could systematically disable all three, by passing tort-reform legislation that would cut off the trial lawyers’ incomes, by tilting pro-Israel in Middle East policy and thus changing the loyalties of big Jewish contributors, and by trying to shrink the part of the labor force which belongs to the newer, and more Democratic, public-employee unions. And then there are three fundamental services that the Democratic Party is offering to voters: Social Security, Medicare, and public education. Each of these could be peeled away, too: Social Security and Medicare by giving people benefits in the form of individual accounts that they invested in the stock market, and public education by trumping the Democrats on the issue of standards. The Bush Administration has pursued every item on that list.”

One year later, Democrats broke every presidential fundraising record they had. Two years after that, the DSCC and the DCCC outraised their Republican counterparts in route to retaking both houses of Congress. This year, the trend continues – the presidential candidates are pulling in breathtaking amounts of money, and the DNC, DSCC, and the DCCC are all, once again, beating the GOP.
Despite a lot of GOP effort, nothing on the money front seems likely to change anytime soon. And while the big donors and constituencies that Lemann described four years ago are all still contributing, they aren’t the reason for the Dems’ newfound prowess.
But a lot has changed since 2003. Small donations solicited online changed the game. Thousands and thousands of people are making regular donations to candidates on every level, many of them giving money for the very first time. Together, they’ve carved themselves a wholly new role in Democratic politics. And that’s happened in just four years.
I think it’s important that we remember how far we’ve come in so little time.

The Internet Gap

The Republican presidential candidates are all on the Web. Fine. Most of them have even taken the first, halting steps into the brave new world of social media. They have MySpace pages, load video up to YouTube, and control their Facebook profiles. That’s delightful — probably even good for democracy. But as of yet, you haven’t seen one of them (who isn’t named Ron Paul) embrace the change that the Internet has wrought.
Joe Trippi believes that is going to hurt them badly in the general election.
In a video recorded by a blogger for TechPresident (which does a terrific job chronicling the ways in which technology is transforming presidential politics) the current Edwards strategist and former Dean guru sounds off in a segment that strikes me as particularly unguarded, and interesting.