The Beat Bush Brigades
How far the invitation will be extended remains to be seen. Underneath the excited talk regarding media campaigns and mobilizations there remains a good deal of uncertainty about what the outside-the-party projects will achieve. One of the biggest challenges involves the delivery of a coherent message. "During the primaries, the issue for a lot of Democrats was 'Who can beat Bush?' Now, the message has to evolve," explains former Congressman Jim Jontz, who runs the "Regime Change" campaign of Americans for Democratic Action. "Now there's got to be clear and well-focused communication about what is being offered as an alternative to the Republican agenda." Groups are not always on the same page; there's a genuine ideological chasm, for example, separating the corporate-funded New Democrat Network, with its history of backing free-trade pacts, and the AFL-CIO. Additionally, election rules make it illegal for the Kerry campaign to coordinate with groups that are independent of the campaign and the Democratic Party.
While Republicans have gotten good at working around legal constraints in order to communicate with their base, Democrats still struggle. With constant asides about "judicial activism" and the definition of marriage, Bush telegraphs messages that aid the work of officially independent groups such as Americans of Faith, which plans to spend $2.5 million to register 2 million conservative Christian voters. Kerry has proven less adept at subtly sending mobilization messages. For instance, farm activists who want to develop independent voter mobilization initiatives in rural areas, which have seen a severe decline in support for Democrats, urged Kerry to address the March convention of the National Farmers Union, the county's largest progressive farm group. But the candidate couldn't be convinced to adjust his schedule. "That," explained the head of an independent group working in rural areas, "was a real missed opportunity."
There are also concerns that, like the Kerry campaign and the DNC, independent groups are too focused on those seventeen presidential battleground states. That does little to help Democrats retake Congress, since most of the open Senate seats are in states like Oklahoma and South Carolina, which will never be presidential battlegrounds.
And there remains the very serious question of whether the infrastructure is in place to turn passion into practical politicking. Howard Dean's presidential campaign motivated thousands of volunteers to travel to Iowa, but Dean aides now acknowledge that they failed to provide the training and direction needed to utilize the campaign's human capital effectively. Veteran activists worry about whether the many grassroots initiatives that are now being developed are adequately prepared to absorb the thousands of volunteers they plan to attract. "It's great to have so much enthusiasm and activity," says Heather Booth, who has worked with many of the groups. "But I still worry about whether, in the end, there will be enough planning, enough staff in place, to assure that somebody is on this corner and somebody is on that corner."
Other strategists fret about whether too much money is going to television and too little to the grassroots, and about whether outreach to young nonvoters and other traditionally disengaged groups is striking the right chords.
And then there is the question of how to make sure all this new infrastructure will last longer than one election cycle by developing the broad-based, small-donor funding that is key to turning a "project" into a permanent force. There really are no guarantees that what is being developed now will do that, let alone that it will give George W. Bush that "one-way ticket back to Crawford, Texas," that ACT mailings promise. But Jess Goode, who took a leave of absence from his job with a Democratic congressman to work for ACT in Ohio, is certain that something important is going on. "When I talk to people who were involved in politics here before I was born, they tell me they haven't seen this kind of activity in forty years," says Goode. "Forty years! That's all the way back to when our side was good at winning elections."