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The Democrats' Mad Money

By Chris Suellentrop,
a freelance writer in Washington, who was Slate's 2004 campaign correspondent
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page C04


By Byron York

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Crown Forum. 277 pp. $26.95

Five months after their November debacle, Democrats are still trying to convince themselves that they haven't died and woken up in hell. It's okay, you can hear them saying, that we don't have the presidency. Or the Congress. Or a national figure -- at least one not married to a former president -- who has a Q rating higher than that of any of the cast members of "C.S.I." In spite of all that, Democrats manfully tell themselves, things are looking up because it looks as if they can stop the dismantling of the party's most beloved legislative accomplishment. It's sad, really; like a battered spouse, the Democratic Party has taken to celebrating commonplace events that, in an ordinary household, would qualify as the unremarkable status quo.

The Democratic mood is so dreary that even a National Review writer has to admit that, in fact, the situation isn't as dire as it seems. Sort of. In "The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy," Byron York, the White House correspondent for the conservative magazine, implies that the prospects for the Democratic Party as an institution are fairly dismal. But the state of the political left as a whole, he suggests, is another case entirely.

York spent the 2004 campaign cycle covering the liberal "shadow campaign," the assortment of 527s (tax-exempt political action groups), interest groups and celebrity projects that amounted to a unified defeat-Bush organization -- one that operated alongside the formal effort by Sen. John F. Kerry and the Democratic Party. In his opening chapter, York describes this "vast left-wing conspiracy" -- let's call it the VLWC -- with the breathless tone of a Silicon Valley journalist in love with the new new thing. The VLWC, "the biggest, richest, and best organized movement in American political history," would Change Everything, York writes -- not just by raising more money than any presidential campaign ever had before, but also by, in effect, building a new liberal political party outside the structure of the Democratic Party. The VLWC may not have achieved its primary goal but by reinventing how a political campaign can be organized and funded, it "ensured that future campaigns will not look like those of the past." In defeat, the VLWC is akin to the post-Goldwater conservative movement, York argues, only "bigger and better funded."

Then, having erected this incipient juggernaut, York proceeds over the next 200-odd pages to demonstrate that he was only kidding about its fearsome nature. The subsequent chapters follow a fairly pat formula: A rich liberal outsider, either George Soros or a Man Who Would Be Soros, decides he wants to do something to help elect Kerry -- or, more precisely, to defeat President Bush. But the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance legislation's prohibition on unlimited, soft-money donations to the Democratic Party requires that the donor construct a new, more creative way to conduct politics in order to find a recipient for his multimillion-dollar contributions. Use the Internet! Make a movie! Start a think tank! No, start a liberal talk-radio network! Each innovation draws dollars and headlines. But the political impact of each, York concludes, was at best insufficient, more often negligible and, at worst, counterproductive.

From Move On (the Internet) to Michael Moore (the movie) to the Center for American Progress (the think tank) to Air America (the talk-radio network), York's verdict is the same: The VLWC was a closed loop, a heated conversation among people who already, before they even met, hated George W. Bush. Yes, millions of people were involved. But in a universe of 110 million voters, York writes, "the political fringes are big, too." Even the massive voter-contact operation by America Coming Together and America Votes, York concludes, was a gigantic but "essentially closed conversation" among like-minded white liberals and their organizations.

Maybe. But York's closed-loop explanation isn't sufficient to explain the VLWC's failure. The White House's Karl Rove, after all, devised a similar preach-to-the-choir structure (albeit within the Republican Party apparatus) for President Bush's victorious reelection campaign. And the VLWC's counterpart -- the right-wing message machine that Hillary Clinton bemoaned and that liberals attempted to emulate in 2004 -- out-527ed the left with the most notorious group of them all, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, along with other, lesser-known GOP 527s that outspent the VLWC in the final three weeks of the election.

In the lingo, 2004 was a "base" campaign, not a "swing" one. Rather than trying to persuade members of the other side to change their minds, the two campaigns spent the bulk of their time attempting to uncover new voters who agreed with them.

In fact, the most depressing news for liberals in "The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy" is that, to the extent that the VLWC was successful, it may be because Karl Rove designed it. The most effective elements of it, York reports, were lifted from a PowerPoint presentation -- "a secret, cutting-edge political strategy document prepared by Karl Rove" -- that was made "unintentionally available" to the Democrats early in 2003. The PowerPoint included Rove's plan to replace the traditional Republican campaign tactics of phone banks and direct mail with a union-style, person-to-person, voter-contact operation. The organizers of America Coming Together had already planned to emphasize person-to-person contact in 2004, but the Rove document persuaded Soros to commit $10 million to ACT and other 527s -- a dollar figure that grew to more than $25 million.

"The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy" suggests that a base campaign like 2004's is almost always going to be won by the Republican candidate, because the Republican base is simply larger than the Democratic one. York predicts failure in 2008 if the VLWC continues a strategy of "squeezing just a little more juice out of a lemon that had been nearly squeezed dry in the past." Liberals should try to persuade the middle, York recommends, instead of brashly assuming that the VLWC represents the middle.

Either way, York says, the vast left-wing conspiracy is here to stay. The Democratic Party's reliance on big-dollar donations from big donors doomed it to institutional obsolescence after the passage of campaign-finance reform, when the big donors took their dollars and erected organizations that allowed them to exert even more influence over political strategy and tactics than they had before. York thinks the trend is permanent, and he's probably right. If the enthusiastically antiwar and anti-Bush donors of 2004 find themselves less energized in three years, the Democratic Party may be even more reliant on eight-figure donations than it was this past election cycle. Maybe in 2008, the VLWC will carry the Democratic nominee to victory. But the growth of the VLWC means that, even if their electoral fortunes improve, Washington's establishment Democrats are, in one sense, in even worse shape than they think. Dry or not, their party's a lemon.

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