A Gap In Their Armor

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Democratic Party has a self-image problem.

Talk to Democrats at every level about the strong position the party is in for this fall's elections and the conversation inevitably ends with a variation of: "Yeah, if we don't blow it." Karl Rove's greatest victory is how much he has spooked Democrats about themselves.

This, in turn, leads to a problem among political elites and, especially, fundraisers: While Republicans believe in their party and in the cause of building its organization from bottom to top, Democratic sympathizers tend to focus on favorite causes and favorite candidates, notably in presidential years.

If you understand this, you can understand the polemics over the past few months between Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the leader of the party's campaign committee for this fall's House elections.

Emanuel has expressed frustration over how much DNC money Dean has spent in his effort to create strong party organizations in all 50 states -- money that congressional Democrats believe should be saved for this fall's key contests.

Dean argues, correctly, that Democrats will not be truly competitive if they are strong in only 18 or 20 "blue" states. Emanuel argues, also correctly, that this year offers Democrats their best chance in 12 at winning one or both houses of Congress. The party, he says, can't afford to fritter money away on long-term dreams.

There are many underlying issues here, including whether Dean's spending will actually be effective in achieving his goal and whether the national party is demanding enough accountability for the money it is sending the states. Dean defenders, in turn, note that he has directed more money to states with competitive races this year, and that Dean needs to worry about governorships and state legislative contests, not just Congress.

But Dean and Emanuel are both struggling against the same overlapping realities: Democrats have chronically underinvested in building state parties. Wealthy donors who bankrolled grass-roots organizing in the 2004 presidential campaign have largely gone to the sidelines this year. And Republican-oriented interest groups are, on the whole, better financed and disciplined than their Democratic counterparts.

Emanuel is especially frustrated with large donors such as billionaire George Soros, who donated heavily to such organizing efforts as America Coming Together (ACT) two years ago. "These guys -- where are they?" a frustrated Emanuel asked in an interview. After John Kerry's loss, Emanuel said, "they walked off the field."

Steve Rosenthal, who was ACT's chief executive officer in 2004, said his organization's financial backers were "very candid that they weren't in it for the long haul and never said they were." Nonetheless, Rosenthal worries about what the missing money will mean this fall.

There is a lesson here about campaign finance reform and those who pretend that Democrats can rely on a handful of wealthy donors when crunch time comes. There is also a lesson about how a political party needs to see itself -- and be seen by those who support it -- as a long-term operation, not simply as a label of convenience at election time.

"On the Republican side, everyone plays a role in supporting the party and building a party structure," says Amy Chapman, executive director of Grassroots Democrats, which raises money for state party organizations. "It's too big a job for one part of the party to do," meaning that Dean and the DNC can't do it alone.

The odd result is that Republicans, who defend individualism in theory, act like communitarians where their party is concerned. Democrats claim to be more community-minded but act like radical individualists in their penchant for candidate-centered, one-cause-at-a-time politics.

The organizational gap has spurred national Democrats to countermeasures. Emanuel has hired Michael Whouley, one of his party's premier organizers, to create turnout programs in the 40 most contested congressional races. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's two top staffers, J.B. Poersch and Guy Cecil, have long experience in field operations. The unions are kicking up their turnout efforts. And an anti-incumbent tide against the Republicans could counter the GOP's organizational advantages.

But Republicans -- from President Bush on down -- have long dismissed the fashionable claptrap about political parties becoming meaningless. If Democrats are to shed their self-image problem and create a durable majority, they, too, will have to learn to operate as a party.


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