Can the Democrats Win the Ground War at Home?
"We progressives, we just keep going back for more and more punishment," Rachel Barber says to me between sips of coffee. "We never learn." It's just after 9 AM on a wickedly gray, damp October Saturday in Westerville, Ohio, just outside Columbus. Barber, a music teacher with a sunny demeanor, is sitting in a union hall with 150 other volunteers and grassroots activists.
If you had fallen asleep, Rip Van Winkle-like, a year ago and awoken inside this meeting room, draped with the familiar banners of Democracy for America and America Votes and overflowing with earnest volunteers munching on bagels, you'd think it was still 2004 and the quest to defeat Bush was at its height. But it's 2005, and Bush hardly gets a mention. The volunteers are here to help pass a November ballot initiative called Reform Ohio Now (RON), a package of reforms aimed at the increasingly wide-reaching scandals of the state's governing Republican machine.
Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political science professor emeritus who helped initiate RON, warns the room that they face a formidable opponent: "Most of the Republican grassroots organization is intact because the people involved were from right here in Ohio. And a lot of the people who supported our side were from out of state. So the fact is, we're bragging about our grassroots organization, but let me tell you: We have to work hard just to match them." Asher proves prescient. Despite polls late in the campaign that indicated several of the RON initiatives would pass, all four were defeated by large margins.
Last year's presidential election inspired an unprecedented mobilization on both the left and the right, but while the pro-Bush mobilization happened primarily within the channels of the Republican Party, things were far different on the left. Because the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law banned the unrestricted donations called "soft money," which had previously formed the financial backbone of the Democratic Party, a broad coalition of independent organizations arose to accept the checks the party could no longer take. These "527" organizations, most notable among them America Coming Together and the America Votes coalition, executed their very own campaign on Kerry's behalf, raising hundreds of millions of dollars, training thousands of new organizers and contacting millions of voters. (Conservatives made use of 527s as well, most no-toriously the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.)
Given the Bush victory, Democrats could hardly call the enterprise a success. But last year's mobilization pointed the way--albeit in a sometimes dysfunctional fashion--toward a future progressive movement radically different from the loose conglomeration of Washington-based issue-advocacy organizations that have dominated the liberal-left since the 1970s. "Last year was the League of Nations phase of the left's reorganization," says Dan Berwick, who managed several swing-state field programs for the League of Conservation Voters. "The basic idea--the basic need--was identified and addressed but with at best marginal success."
There were three key features of last year's effort. First, the 527s and their issue-advocacy partners in the institutional left rediscovered old-fashioned, face-to-face voter contact. While the bulk of this work was carried out by paid canvassers, a significant portion was done by volunteers--hundreds of thousands of them, often in unfamiliar terrain and at great personal sacrifice, renting vans, driving to swing states and sleeping on floors. Second, without a Democratic Party or candidate's campaign to coordinate efforts, the disparate groups within the broad America Votes coalition, from the NAACP National Voter Fund to MoveOn.org to the Sierra Club, had to figure out a way to work together. In many places coordination was flawed, but the presence of any coordination at all was a serious breakthrough. Finally, there was the money: The 2004 election was the most expensive exercise of democracy in history, and for the first time in recent memory the center-left was able to keep pace with the corporate loaves-and-fishes bank account that is the Republican Party.
"Infrastructure" is a word so resolutely unsexy it makes "think tank" sound erotic. These days, though, you can't get five minutes into a conversation with a strategist, activist or donor without the word cropping up. Since the infrastructure last year was built, like a refugee camp, for a short-term purpose, you might think that a year later the camp has been struck, with the equipment rolled up and stored away for the next election. That's partly true--America Coming Together announced this past summer that it could raise only enough money to continue as a skeletal research organization, and dozens of the grassroots groups founded last year have folded as well.
But it's striking just how much has carried over. Democracy for America meetings in cities from Austin to Cincinnati draw hundreds, and there are small, informal progressive groups meeting at this moment in some of the most conservative counties in the country. None of this existed just three years ago. Dozens if not hundreds of activists who worked on last year's election are now running for local office, and the big institutional players like the labor and environmental movements continue to build power through grassroots organizing. "It wasn't a blip," says Robert Kraig, political director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Wisconsin. "It was part of something that's seriously going on, on the left."