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In a Clueless Party

By Michael Gecan
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page A19

Thirty-two years ago, in the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago, I believe I witnessed the destruction -- actually, the self-destruction -- of the Democratic Party. I was attending a rally for George McGovern. The place was packed. And the stage held scores of Chicago pols -- red-faced aldermen and county committeemen in dark suits.

There were the usual speeches from the usual Democratic functionaries, but the warm-up act for the candidate was not some tongue-tied Polish pol from the Northwest Side. Onto the stage strode an actor everyone knew -- Warren Beatty. He was a vision -- handsome, tanned, long-haired and dressed almost entirely in black leather. He dramatically discarded his floor-length leather coat, only to reveal leather pants and shirt. The crowd inhaled, gasped and burst into applause. The faces of the pols onstage went white with shock or red with rage.

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Beatty is now a married man, with a family, back in California, but the Democratic Party is still the same star-struck, celebrity-driven, immature mess that it was in 1972. Instead of Warren Beatty, this year's headliners were Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen and the inimitable Michael Moore.

Incredibly, on the night before the election, in the crucial swing state of Ohio, in the incredibly important city of Cleveland, John Kerry appeared at a rock concert headlined by The Boss. If any of those jowly pols who were on that auditorium stage in Chicago are still alive, they must have howled with disbelief and expired. If buried, they were rolling in their graves. There is nothing dumber than bringing all of your troops out of the trenches at the very decisive point of a major battle. While Kerry was playing McClellan, the distracted, cautious and self-involved Union general who led from the rear, Karl Rove was Stonewall Jackson, using maximum force with maximum mobility for maximum effect at all the key points and moments of the campaign.

The other trend I witnessed, in 1972 and beyond, was the development of a style of organizing, practiced by several so-called progressive groups, that involved door-to-door canvassing, an almost scientific method of person-by-person fundraising, a set of prepackaged issues that were primarily meant to excite people to sign petitions and donate dollars, and a talent for attracting media attention. Its central dynamic was to recruit scores of young people, who would go door to door, distributing information and raising money. That is exactly the dynamic used by most of the heavily funded Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts.

Scores of thousands of people, many of them paid (how else do you squander $200 million?), knocked on millions of doors during this campaign. The Democratic-leaning canvassers left information, repeated a canned sales pitch and moved along. They did not engage the people in real conversation. They did not listen to their concerns. They did not recruit real volunteers to work on their own blocks. They did not take the time to find out which pastor or rabbi was a leader in an area and which congregations people attended. They were progressive salespeople with a high quota of contacts and no time to relate, who disappeared from people's towns and lives the very moment, on election night, that they learned the sale had not been made.

It was as if they had never been there. And in a way, they never were. These two tendencies -- celebrity worship and quick-hit canvassing -- betray the central problem at the heart of the Democratic Party's political culture. The party has no time or patience for the complex work needed to listen to Americans, to understand their range of views and positions, and to engage them on their deepest interests. Even worse, many in the hierarchy of the Democratic Party have contempt for ordinary Americans -- for their red faces and moderate churches and mixed, often moderate, views.

No amount of money can solve this problem. No think tank has the answers. No rising senatorial star can save the day. And no Hollywood hero can substitute for the fundamental changes the Democrats need to make to contend for the large, pivotal middle of the American electorate.

The writer is with the Industrial Areas Foundation, an organization that works for social change.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company