Yesterday I finished reading “Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics” by Ari Berman, which Rick recently gave me. It chronicles how the 50-state campaign, originally created by Howard Dean for the 2004 Democratic primary, was improved upon by the Barack Obama campaign such that it helped him win in 2008 in a landslide.
Obama carried Colorado, North Carolina and Indiana, states that Republicans tended to ignore because they had been red for years. Indiana went from 21 down in 2004 to one up in 2008 for Dems, thanks to campaign efforts in populous counties. Obama lost Idaho but helped Democratic candidates down ticket, like Walt Minnick, who won in the conservative First Congressional District. These were areas that had largely been ignored by the Democratic National Committee because they were seen as a waste of money. However, with Dean as the head of the Democratic National Committee and Obama as the candidate, counties got money and attention that they never had before.
During this time, there remained a large rift between Dean and Clinton-era Democrats. As James Carville, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, said in his book, “The revitalization of the Democratic Party has occurred despite, not because of, Howard Dean’s disastrous tenure as DNC chair.”
It’s hard to imagine how he came to that conclusion after Democrats won the presidency, House of Representatives, Senate, many governors’ seats and statehouses. The DNC had not been noted for its effective campaigning before Dean came on board, and he deserved a lot of the credit for helping so many counties and states turn blue.
But another Clinton-era adviser, Rahm Emanuel, was determined not to reward Dean for his hard work by giving him a job in the new administration. Emanuel clashed with Dean when he was heading the DCCC in 2006, and Emanuel is famous in Washington for his hot temper and lasting grudges. So Emanuel got the cushy job of chief of staff and Dean was left out in the cold.
That came back to haunt the administration when Dean became a vocal critic during the long haul toward health care reform. A doctor himself, Dean was a longtime advocate of a public option and was dismayed when Obama backed away from his commitment to government-sponsored health care. He was also skeptical of how his successor at the DNC, Tim Kaine, was handling relations between the national and local Democratic parties. Instead of listening to party leaders on the ground, Kaine and others were largely ignoring their concerns and curtailing money that had been flowing in under Dean.
The disagreement comes down to grass-roots activists who want to have more say in their party and lifelong political operatives who don’t want to have to listen to them. I think it’s shortsighted for either Democrats or Repbulicans to ignore the county parties, who are perfectly capable of turning on national candidates and campaigning for someone new. As Barack Obama said in his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, “We worship an awesome god in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”
Republicans live in San Francisco and Democrats live in Oklahoma City. Politicians cheat themselves out of votes if they write off what they think is enemy territory instead of trying to recruit new supporters. They can also anger staunch advocates by taking them for granted and concentrating only on a few swing states.
As Obama gears up for his re-election run, I will be interested to see if the Democrats have learned their lesson or if they target the states they think they have the best chance of winning. One thing is for sure: The White House and DNC won’t endear themselves to the base by courting them only when they need their vote.