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Herding Donkeys | The Nation

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Herding Donkeys

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Obama's movement did not begin on the steps of the old state capitol in Springfield, Illinois; it began in the governor's mansion in sleepy Montpelier, Vermont. Howard Dean, the five-term governor of one of the country's tiniest states, entered the Democratic presidential primary in 2003 because he wanted to talk about a balanced budget and healthcare reform. But after he became the first major candidate to denounce the war in Iraq and aggressively challenge the Bush administration, his campaign, quickly and unexpectedly, became much bigger than that—an experiment with a new kind of politics aimed at revitalizing American democracy, reviving the Democratic Party and ending the Republican Party's electoral dominance.

This article is adapted from Ari Berman's Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2010 by Ari Berman. All rights reserved.

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Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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Dean's run for the presidency embraced and amplified a few unique notions that profoundly altered modern American politics, namely, that committed volunteers are cheaper and more effective than the same old crew of professional campaign consultants; that small donations in large numbers can do more than large donations in small numbers; that the Internet and new social networking tools can level the playing field for seemingly quixotic candidacies and attract hordes of new people into politics for the first time; and that Democrats needed to compete everywhere (including in the hinterlands of long-forgotten red state America), stand up for some core principles and stick with them. The cause was as much about the means of doing politics as the ends. Dean and his followers fervently believed that the Democratic Party could still be fundamentally reformed, and they focused their activism toward that end. This spontaneous new insurgency—a response to the corporatization and triangulation of the Clinton era—wasn't about left versus right as much as outside versus in. The soul of the party and the future of politics were suddenly up for grabs. Dean certainly did not intend to become a catalyst for these changes, but that's where his campaign ended up.

That campaign ended after Dean's disastrous loss in the 2004 Iowa caucus—punctuated by his world-famous, media-generated "scream"—but a year later, when he became chair of the Democratic Party in a stunning turn of events, he really did help restore party fortunes in all those states he shouted out on that chaotic caucus night. Barack Obama continued that revival three years later, in the midst of an endless primary that everyone originally expected would end with Hillary Clinton's nomination. So many of those red states, like Indiana and North Carolina and Virginia, long regarded as enemy territory by Democrats, ended up holding the key to the party's electoral resurrection. Dean saw this trend before nearly anybody, and he got a second chance to do something about it as chair of the DNC.

The Dean campaign provided the manual—albeit a messy, imperfect one—for a bottom-up mass movement, and his fifty-state strategy provided the foundation for electing Democrats across the map in 2006 and 2008. The Obama campaign proved it was willing and able to perfect both of these visionary ideas. In the wake of John the Baptist, Jesus came forth. Some even called Obama "Dean 2.0."

Yet after the election, Obama quickly dispatched the insurgents—Dean chief among them, who was excluded from a plum job—and assembled an administration that looked surprisingly like a third Clinton term. Today the parallels with President Clinton are even eerier; as in 1994, Obama is presiding unevenly over an unwieldy Democratic majority and facing the prospect of an avalanche of losses in his first midterm election.

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Despite locating OFA in the DNC, changing the Democratic Party didn't rank as Obama's foremost priority. He had more pressing problems on his plate—not least, digging the country out of its worst economic crisis in decades. In those critical days following the election, OFA opted largely to circumvent the party rather than enhance it. On November 5, 2008, the DNC's nearly 200 local organizers, the core of Dean's fifty-state strategy, awoke to the news that their contracts were expiring at the end of the month. The e-mail from headquarters called it a "bitter-sweet moment." When Obama's DNC reconstituted Dean's strategy a few months later, funding OFA staffers across the country took priority. Unlike the organizers hired under Dean, who worked to strengthen the party at the state and local level, the new Obama organizers were instructed to focus strictly on helping to pass the president's legislative agenda, forming a parallel structure to the existing party. "I'm not trying to build a bigger and better Democratic Party," says Colorado OFA director Gabe Lifton-Zoline.

You couldn't really blame Obama for not wanting to take full ownership of the Democratic Party, given its status as a perennial punch line—the Buffalo Bills of politics. He was following a long line of historical precedent. Republican presidents routinely sought to strengthen their parties, while Democratic presidents tended to ignore them, Northwestern University political scientist Daniel Galvin observes. But the president, Galvin argues in his book Presidential Party Building, neglects his party at his peril. If it atrophies too much, Obama will find himself in a situation similar to that of Clinton following the disastrous '94 midterms, facing an increasingly hostile Congress and unable to push through the bold legislative agenda he campaigned on.

Democratic Party officials, as much as they want Obama to succeed and see their fates largely determined by his success, point out that they have additional responsibilities, ranging from candidates for governor to county commissioner. That's why party strategists believe it's so critical to bring independents, Republicans and first-time Obama supporters into the fold. Reagan Democrats, after all, became Republicans after the 1980 and 1984 campaigns. "There's probably not a more front-and-center issue for the Democratic Party than that," says Obama pollster Cornell Belcher. "You'd think they'd build infrastructure at the grassroots level within the party to work that very diverse and younger constituency." One former high-ranking member of Obama's campaign describes OFA as a "massive fucking power grab" that siphons much-needed resources away from the party. (There are some notable exceptions; in Texas, for example, the OFA investment in local organizing is much larger than in recent years. And this past June, the DNC launched a $50 million outreach effort to persuade first-time Obama voters—and register new ones—to go to the polls in the upcoming midterms.)

Dean's strategy decentralized power away from Washington, but under Obama, Washington once again calls the shots. "The DNC is just not as energized and connected to local activism as it was under Howard Dean," says Margaret Johnson, former Democratic chair in Polk County, North Carolina. After the election, pundits predicted that Obama's DNC would launch a "fifty-state strategy on steroids," but in some places—especially outside the typical battlegrounds—it feels more like the fifty-state strategy on Ambien.

The state chairs now receive far less money than they did under Dean and are struggling to pay the bills. One chair called the $5,000 monthly stipend the state parties eventually got "money to shut us up." "If we had what we previously had," says Idaho state chair Keith Roark, "we'd be in far better shape." The gains of the fifty-state strategy are by no means permanent, the chairs warn, and can evaporate as quickly as they accumulated. Indeed, in Obama's first year, the party lost three straight major elections, in states the president had won by six, sixteen and twenty-six points. In Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, Obama's "coalition of the ascendant"—blacks, Hispanics, young people—failed to turn out in large numbers for the Democratic candidates. With the midterms a month away, Democrats are struggling to defend vulnerable incumbents across the map.

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