Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Bill Bradley on building the Democratic Party 

Bill Bradley -- long one of our smartest and most principled liberals -- has published an interesting and revealing op-ed piece in today's New York Times on the need for Democrats to develop a long-term plan for rebuilding their party. Bradley's essay is excellent in describing what Republicans did right to recover from their years of decline in the wilderness (1964-1974), and precisely nails the Democrats for dreaming that the path to broad-based victory lies with sufficiently charismatic presidential candidates. He is also correct when he argues that it will take the Democrats at least a decade to recover from the ideological and organizational incoherence under which the party labors. I wonder, though, if he is right that the Democrats can succeed.

Bradley's description of the organizational strategy that built today's ascendant Republican party is useful in what it says about both Republicans and the assumptions that inform liberals like Bradley:
When the Goldwater Republicans lost in 1964, they didn't try to become Democrats. They tried to figure out how to make their own ideas more appealing to the voters. As part of this effort, they turned to Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and soon to become a member of the United States Supreme Court. In 1971 he wrote a landmark memo for the United States Chamber of Commerce in which he advocated a sweeping, coordinated and long-term effort to spread conservative ideas on college campuses, in academic journals and in the news media.

To further the party's ideological and political goals, Republicans in the 1970's and 1980's built a comprehensive structure based on Powell's blueprint. Visualize that structure as a pyramid.

You've probably heard some of this before, but let me run through it again. Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.

The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate. That language is sometimes in the form of an assault on Democrats and at other times in the form of advocacy for a new policy position. The development process can take years. And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.

At the very top of the pyramid you'll find the president. Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.

It is not quite the "right wing conspiracy" that Hillary Clinton described, but it is an impressive organization built consciously, carefully and single-mindedly. The Ann Coulters and Grover Norquists don't want to be candidates for anything or cabinet officers for anyone. They know their roles and execute them because they're paid well and believe, I think, in what they're saying. True, there's lots of money involved, but the money makes a difference because it goes toward reinforcing a structure that is already stable.

Minus the blinkered snarkiness (TigerHawk was friends with Ann Coulter in law school -- let me assure you that she has believed the things she says since long before any Republican organizer knew who she was, and would make a lot more money litigating for corporations), Bradley is broadly correct. From a purely political point of view, the Republicans clearly have a much more coherent system of ideas and means of communicating them. This means that even in defeat -- 1992, for example -- the Republicans have the institutional wherewithal to recover (as in 1994). The reverse does not for the moment seem to be true.

Bradley then describes the Democrats:
To understand how the Democratic Party works, invert the pyramid. Imagine a pyramid balancing precariously on its point, which is the presidential candidate.

Democrats who run for president have to build their own pyramids all by themselves. There is no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on. Unlike Republicans, they don't simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus - they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too. Many Democratic fundraisers join a campaign only after assessing how well it has done in assembling its pyramid of political, media and idea people.

There is no clearly identifiable funding base for Democratic policy organizations, and in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas. Campaigns don't start thinking about a Democratic brand until halfway through the election year, by which time winning the daily news cycle takes precedence over building a consistent message. The closest that Democrats get to a brand is a catchy slogan.

All of this description strikes me as substantially correct. The wheels come off only when Bradley grasps for the reason:
Democrats choose this approach, I believe, because we are still hypnotized by Jack Kennedy, and the promise of a charismatic leader who can change America by the strength and style of his personality. The trouble is that every four years the party splits and rallies around several different individuals at once. Opponents in the primaries then exaggerate their differences and leave the public confused about what Democrats believe.

Not being a Democrat and being most familiar with Jack's younger brother, Senator Jowls, I've never understood what was so hypnotic about the Kennedy family. But even if Bradley is right -- that Democrats love charisma -- how can it be that they have devoted so much mindshare to fantasizing about charismatic candidates that they have failed to do all the basic organizational work necessary to build a political party? Powell's memo was hardly a secret, and the Republican organizational strategy has been obvious for at least twenty years. Nostalgia for charisma, which certainly flows through conservative veins as well, does not inherently displace strategy or organization. There is a more pervasive cause for the organizational and policy weakness of the Democrats.

The Democrats are weak organizationally because the party's elites -- lawyers, academics, non-profit activist groups and public sector unions -- do not understand or respect executive function. As a proportion of the whole, there are very few Democrats experienced in managing, and in any case the great masses of Democratic lawyers, professors and activists would not follow the relatively few executives who chose to assert themselves. Meetings of law firm partners or university faculty are famously dysfunctional. Democrats think they should "speak truth to power" and "question authority." These are admirable traits up until the point that a decision is made, and then they become counterproductive.

The Republicans draw their elites from corporations and the military. As a result, the GOP has a very deep bench in people who understand the management of effective organizations. More importantly, the Republican rank-and-file understand that large organizations depend on people carrying out the directives of the management, even if they personally disagree with those directives. Republican foot soldiers think that their leadership is wrong at least as often as Democrats think theirs is wrong, but Republicans carry out instructions anyway because they know that once a decision is made it is more important for the organization to act than to rehash that decision. This deep cultural difference explains more than anything else why Republicans do such a better job of staying "on message." This willingness to elevate the good of the organization over personal opinion is wired into the DNA of businessmen and soldiers. The lawyers and professors and activists of the Democratic Party deride this message discipline as "groupthink," and will not adopt it no matter how many of them read Louis Powell's memo.

Bradley is also wrong that Democrats can correct the unpopularity of their policies by funding a bunch of think-tanks, as conservatives and libertarians have done. The Republicans resorted to this strategy out of necessity, because universities and the mainstream media were so pervasively liberal. Republicans had to establish alternatives to traditional academia and media because universities were not a rich source of conservative ideas and the big networks and newspapers did not do a good job of spreading those conservative ideas that emerge.

The Democrats, to the contrary, have a long history of harvesting their ideas from universities and (since the 1970s) mission-oriented activist organizations and NGOs. Of course, by "living off the land" as they have, the Democrats had no organized influence over the communication of the best liberal ideas. This has made them seem incoherent. The challenge for Democrats, therefore, is not developing ideas -- academic journals and university lecture halls are full of them -- but organizing the communication of those ideas. This is a different and much more difficult problem than that facing the Republicans, because it requires the Democrats to muster the respect for executive authority that does not come naturally to them.

All of this leads me to conclude that Bradley is wrong to suggest that Democrats mimic Republican methods. In order for the Bradley strategy to succeed, Democrats would need to attract many more executives and soldiers into their party elites, and all the lawyers, professors, activists, and unionists would have to be willing to follow their orders in the interests of victory. What are the chances that will occur?

No. The Democrats need to find their own way, capitalizing on their own strengths. They need to get control the levers of power in state governments so that they win the close elections (as they did in Washington but did not in Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004). They need to motivate their huge base of students, retired people, and teachers to get the word out, door-to-door. Because these efforts are fundamentally local, Howard Dean and the rest of the leadership must find a way to increase the prominence of state politicians above the Senators and Congressmen who so dominate the news cycle.

Above all, though, Democrats must stop defining themselves as the opposition to Republicans (as Bradley, to his credit, did say, although I think he got the reason wrong). We get a lot of Democratic Party mail in our house, and it is virtually all negative. Within the last month or so Nancy Pelosi sent a three page fundraising letter to the party's "big list" (I got it, so it must be the really big list). The letter was entirely devoted to criticizing Republicans. There was not one word describing Democratic priorities, other than to stand in opposition to Republicans. The Democrats will be in opposition for precisely as long as they act and speak as though they are the "not Republican" party.


By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Wed Mar 30, 02:14:00 PM:

Thanks for taking the time to examine the Bradley piece, Tigerhawk. I think that he and you make excellent points, and I especially agree with your conclusion that the democratic party must form a vision and stick with it. However, they don't need to do this in order to become viable, they need to do this in order to regain majorities in the House and Senate. Democrats won all over the country in the last election cycle, despite the disparate platform planks and the efficiency of the Rove/Luntz political machine.

Democrats are on the verge of reclaiming every corner of governance due to the Republican party shift to radicalism under George W. Bush, Rick Santorum, etc. If democratic leaders like Howard Dean and Harry Reid can get the party ducks in a row and then hold it all together, then the democratic party will sweep the '06 elections.

IMHO, of course.

Thanks again for the forum!  

By Blogger Tool, at Wed Mar 30, 02:34:00 PM:

Bradley's idea won't work. Dems have too many prima donnas, loud mouths, race/sex/seuxal
"victim"-mongers, fiefdoms, neo-socialists etc. etc. to make this
work, unless Howard Dean rolls in and acts like Ivan the Terrible,
slaps everyone
from unions to Michael Moore down under his heel. That's simply not going to happen. Not with the Democrats the way they are
currently constituted.

The Federalists learned this the hard way from 1800-1820. The key is to morph into something new. Indeed, the
Democratic Pary is the descendant of the same Democratic Party of
Jefferson and Jackson, and thus the one that fractured in 1860 to
cause the Civil War. The
GOP of today is the party of Lincoln and liberals Charles Sumner and Horace Greeley; the GOP in turn was the Whigs,
who in turn were made up dissaffected Democrats (called Republicans at the time f
Jefferson through 1825 or so). Confusing? Not really. The key is
utter renovation and re-alingment, evolution, even taking a different name.

Another reason building a pyramid like the GOP did isn't going to
work is simply that we are in different times, a different culture, different electorate--it's dangeorus to copy the blueprint stone
for stone. Better to just let the old structure fragment and
re-constitute, draw away the intelligent, non-DeLay scumbag
moderates in the GOP, rename the whole lot the Bull Moose, the
Whigs, the National Republicans, anything...and start over.  

By Anonymous Mike M, at Wed Mar 30, 03:21:00 PM:

I am an independent who has voted for both parties as well as Independents like Perot. As an outsider I offer the following observations. I think the democrats are much better at:
1 Presenting a unified front.
2 Marching to the leaderships orders.
3 They back their leaders right or wrong, aas well as fellow party members. Democrats never condem democrats
4 Staying on message. No matter what the message is. Witness the inability to state any positives in the Iraq war.
The Republicans are more likley to go after their own or disagree publically with their parties core.
The Republicans are winning because the Democrats are self destructing faster than the Republicans. It's the Democrats message that is a mess not the party or presentation. The Rupublicans still cannot get over their image as the party of the rich and being anti union. If they could do these two things they would destroy the democrats.  

By Blogger geoffrobinson, at Wed Mar 30, 08:47:00 PM:

May I boldly suggest that the reason for the Dems decline is that they organize around principles which aren't true and have been found wanting. Or, after debatable economic arguments, they embrace moral relativism which leaves a large segment of the public cold.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Mar 30, 08:51:00 PM:

I think Independent (3rd comment)is close.

The Democrats are more, not less, organized than the GOP. That is exactly their problem. They support each other in any situation - and that alienates voters. It makes DEMS goosestep as if they cannot individually think. As if they will support anything that wins elections (think Kerry, Gore, etc.) Clinton didn't kowtow to any DEM Totems, and he won.

In contrast we see McCain, Snow, Spector, Jeffords (formerly), etc. who vote as they believe in the GOP.

Bradley was fuzzy minded in the Senate and running for President. He hasn't changed. He confuses form with function, cooperation with bondage.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Mar 31, 08:55:00 PM:

The Republican machine works because of the great power of money in today's politics. The Bradleys, the Olins, the Scaifes, as well as Murdock and Moon, have bought an enormous noise machine, and it keeps cranking. No lie is too outrageous, no smear too transparent, no tactic too vicious for today's Republicans: when the latest talking points emerge from Scaife-funded propaganda mills...sorry, I mean "think tanks",
or from the party leadership, they are repeated endlessly on Fox, on hate radio, by that oh-so-liberal media. Ann Coulter is just one well-paid cog in this hate machine. It churns and churns, and what keeps it going, ultimately, is the rich, the racists, and the religious fanatics.

Democrats can't imitate that: they don't have the vast wealth, and enormous reserves of hate and mendacity that are required.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Apr 06, 12:31:00 AM:

Democrats can't imitate that: they don't have the vast wealth, and enormous reserves of hate and mendacity that are required.

You've obviously never lived in a college town with lots of rich people, such as, for instance, Princeton.  

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By Blogger Meme chose, at Sun Dec 25, 12:00:00 PM:

I guess the comment spammers found a way around this captcha thing :(

I think the current disarray of the Democrats should be seen as the product of two separate causes.

Firstly they will always tend to go nuts at the prospect of seeing the other party get to run a war. A war diverts attention from both them and their issues, a double whammy which is just more than they can take.

But of course the current Republican ascendancy was built before this war. I think the Democrats' big problem there is a growing awareness that we live in the richest really big country in the world, and that even 'poor' people here are generally affluent by global standards. This continually marginalizes the academics, union leaders and government employees who make up the core of the Democratic party and start from an assumption that our economic system should largely be torn down.

I dread the day when Democrats in the US figure out Tony Blair's strategy, which is to present himself as they guy who can appropriate just enough of the economy's output to fund every faddish scheme his base can think of, while stopping one step short of wrecking its productive potential. It's a question of moving from "the economy must be wrecked" to "the economy should be almost wrecked".  

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