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E.J. Dionne Jr.

The Democrats' Rove Envy

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page A27

Democrats have come down with a serious case of Rove Envy. It is a form of jealousy that could have some useful consequences.

The longing is for the strategic clarity and organizational acumen that Karl Rove, President Bush's political top gun, brought to the 2004 campaign. Put aside the fact that Rove has been mythologized by both his friends and his enemies. Ignore (just for the moment) the fact that Bush's campaign against John Kerry was relentlessly negative. What really irks Democrats is that they did a lot of things right this year and were still out-hustled by the GOP. Figuring out why is -- and should be -- a Democratic obsession.

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Last weekend offered important public glimpses of the Rove Envy that runs deep in Democratic ranks. In an unusual speech before a gathering of state Democratic leaders in Florida, outgoing Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe went out of his way to praise the Bush campaign.

"They were smart," McAuliffe said. "They came into our neighborhoods. They came into Democratic areas with very specific targeted messages to take Democratic voters away from us."

McAuliffe was much taken with the Republicans' use of consumer marketing techniques to target voters, suggesting that the GOP is at least one technological revolution ahead of the Democrats in figuring out how to turn out loyalists and persuade the persuadable. While Democrats used old-fashioned mobilization techniques -- think of them as Turnout 1.0 -- Republicans were already at Turnout 2.0.

The Republicans, McAuliffe said, "were much more sophisticated in their message delivery," going after a "very specific, targeted niche," which "is what we now need to do as a party."

Howard Dean and McAuliffe don't agree on much. But they do agree on Rove Envy and the need for new approaches.

"We ran the best grass-roots campaign that I've seen in my lifetime," Dean said on "Meet the Press." "They ran a better one. Why? Because we sent 14,000 people into Ohio from elsewhere. They had 14,000 people from Ohio talking to their neighbors, and that's how you win in rural states and in rural America. If we don't do those things, we aren't going to win. We have to learn to do those things."

The comments from Dean and McAuliffe underscore the disconnect between the widely publicized post-election debates over the Democrats' ideological future and the intense discussion among grass-roots activists and bloggers over what the party needs to do to build stronger organizations to compete with Rove Inc.

It's easy to muster a crowd and win press clippings for debates on Iraq and foreign policy. It isn't quite so sexy to talk about why it is that Republican state party organizations are, with a few exceptions, much stronger than Democratic organizations. Strong parties in red states allowed Bush to build his popular vote margin by turning out the faithful in places where he was already strong. Democrats concentrated almost entirely on the battleground states.

That's why the contest over who will chair the Democratic National Committee looks different in the regular press than it does on the activist blogs. Dean's potential candidacy is conventionally seen in ideological terms: a Dean victory would be interpreted as a move to the "left." But on Web sites such as Daily Kos, Dean is seen as a "reformer," an outside-of-Washington figure who will build a stronger party. Dean's comments on "Meet the Press" spoke to this view.

The "reformer" sobriquet is also bestowed on Simon Rosenberg, a dark-horse candidate for DNC chairman who heads the New Democrat Network. Although Rosenberg's roots are in centrist politics, he has ties to Dean and has been arguing since the election that Democrats need a thorough reorganization.

True, organizational obsessions are often linked to ideological concerns. But the thirst for a 50-state Democratic organization transcends ideology. As Ken Rudin reported on National Public Radio, the words "50-state strategy" tripped off the tongues of Dean and Rosenberg -- but also of such party veterans as former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, former Michigan governor Jim Blanchard and former representative Martin Frost of Texas. Clinton administration veteran Harold Ickes also laid heavy stress on building state parties, while Donnie Fowler of South Carolina spoke for beleaguered Southern Democrats.

Thus, even before Democrats get to the question of ideology, they will have to decide what their party needs most. Is the new party chairman's primary job to be public spokesman? Or is it to move the Democrats up the organizational and technological curve, to rebuild atrophied party structures, to keep asking: What Would Karl Do?

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