October 1st, 2006

Voted for Dean

The Democrats' Own "State of Denial"

There's an interesting article in the Sunday New York Times, Matt Bai's "The Inside Agitator" (NYT, 10/1/06). Well, I found it interesting, anyway. I'll admit right now that it's the kind of political insider analysis that would make most of your eyes glaze right over. So I'll cut to the chase for you. The main point, analyzed in great detail, is this: Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Rahm Emmanuel are tearing their hair out, terse when not bellowing with rage, about their own party's national chairman, Howard Dean. He's not especially fond of them, either. You'd think that, as the two men in charge of winning back the Senate and the House this year and the one man most in charge of transforming the Democratic Party from perpetual losers back into a party that can win elections again, they'd be on the same side. You'd be wrong.

Here's the issue in a nutshell. While he'd clearly like to win control of Congress on November 7th, it's not his top priority. I suspect that if the truth were to be told, Howard Dean might have to admit that he really couldn't give a rat's hindquarters whether or not we win the (improbably large) necessary number of races to be the majority party in both houses of Congress this particular year. Schumer and Emmanuel see the President's and the Republican Congress's historically low poll numbers, and a steady drip of corruption and perversion scandals, and they think that control of Congress is so close that they can almost smell it. But they know that it's going to be close, close enough that it'll be trivially easy for Republicans to steal it. More importantly, they know that it'll be close enough that they'll be deeply enraged if it turns out we lose by a squeaker. Why enraged? Because in their opinion, it'll be Howard Dean's fault. They want him to cough up at least another half a million dollars of national-party money that they can use, at the last minute, to pay the expenses of get-out-the-vote drives or buy just one or two more 30-second TV spots in critical races where that tiny amount of extra effort might just be enough. Instead, he's "wasting" that money by using it to hire office staffers for state Democratic Party offices in places that Democrats haven't won an election in for decades, places like Mississippi and Texas and even Alaska.

He's right. They're wrong. They're wrong in exactly the same way that President Bush is wrong about his global "war on terror," and that's this: they have no idea just how badly screwed they are, and refuse to look at the evidence. They actually think that they can win, win big, and win permanently right now. And it's not going to happen. Nor is it going to happen any time soon. If you want a short-term indicator, take a good look at any analysis, like Slate's "Election Scorecard" feature. If, like Schumer and Emmanuel, you are blind enough and incapable of doing basic arithmetic, you might think that a race that closely split with the momentum favoring the Democrats looks like good news. What you'd be failing to notice, what they're failing to notice, is that for Democrats to win a majority in the Senate they'd have to win every single close race. And I'm telling you right now that that's so statistically improbable, even if the voting machines weren't controlled by Republicans, that I've ruled it out as a possibility. In the House the situation is no better. So while I'm delighted to say that we're going to be rid of some real sleazebags, scumbags, cowards, and defenders of war profiteers, this simple fact remains: we are going to wake up on November 8th with a Republican still in the White House, Republicans in the majority in at least one and probably both houses of Congress, and Republicans still in the governor's seats in most states.

Why? Because we don't have what it takes to win. And I don't just mean that there's a shortage of opportunities on the ballot. I mean flat out that the Democrats do not have what it takes to win national elections or enough state-wide elections to matter on a national basis. We are so far behind that (just as for Bush in Iraq) "more of the same" is simply not an option. "Stay the course" isn't a winning strategy for Democratic victory in 2006 or 2008 or beyond, any more than it is for the war on terror. "Stay the course" is, in both cases, a symptom of mental illness, a flatout schizophrenic unwillingness to see what's in front of our own eyes when it contradicts what we want to be true.

There's other goodness in Howard Dean's mostly excellent book You Have the Power: How to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America, and I'll say more about it later. But the relevant part to Dean's fight with Schumer and Emmanuel is that he, unlike they, understand how we went from being the majority party in America to being the minority party: we stopped standing up for what we believe in. Democratic Party leaders, yes including Bill Clinton, concluded that after Reagan's "southern strategy" of soft racism and religious bigotry peeled an awful lot of working class voters throughout Dixie and the southwest away from their natural alliance with the Democrats and to the Republicans, that those regions were permanently lost to us. But, they decided, we could still win by consolidating our power in what are now called "the blue states," the handful of states where that strategy didn't work. But it's a strategy that wouldn't have worked for anybody without Clinton's personal magnetism, because it's a strategy for eking out so narrow a victory that absolutely nothing must ever go wrong. Nor is it a strategy for being able to govern once you've won, because it leaves voters in half the country completely opposed to you or, at best, indifferent to you because you didn't even bother to talk to them. And even in the blue states, let alone in the red states, we stopped arguing for what we believe in. We took it for granted that "everybody knows" that we're right and the Republicans are wrong, no matter what the Republicans say, without bothering to explain to people why that was so.

Dean's strategy is a long-term strategy, and that's what we need. And step one of that plan is to run in all 50 states. Even if we're guaranteed, in the short term, to lose many of those races, running in all 50 states means that we have something we don't have now in more than 20 states: someone making our case, someone whose job it is to answer the Republican Noise Machine in all 50 states' local newspapers and on local TV news. If the Republicans, after 1964, had decided to try to squeeze out narrow victories on the most favorable terrain and hope that the stars aligned just right for them to be in power, only Californians and old-movie buffs would have ever heard of Ronald Reagan. Instead of wasting their money and efforts on a few high-profile races, they built a nationwide organization from the ground up, from the local township club level up, dedicated to challenging the Democrats in every precinct in America, and to challenging them on their ideas. By so doing, they won the war of ideas so thoroughly that even Bill Clinton, with all his natural abilities, had to tack so far to the right that his politics were almost indistinguishable from Richard Nixon's in order to win, and nobody any more left-wing than Nixon has a chance right now. They didn't do so in two years. Or in four, or six. If you count forward to how long it took them to control not just the White House but also Congress, it took them thirty years to build the necessary organization and to make the necessary case. To take all three branches of government, to persuade voters in almost every state in America to give them that kind of power, took forty years. There is no rational reason to think that we can do it any quicker. This is no time for guaranteed-inadequate "quick fixes." This is about planning for the long haul. And the fact is that whether you like him or not, Howard Dean has a long-haul strategy and the Emmanuels and Schumers of the party just don't.
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