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Who Cares

I've been trying to follow some of the ins-and-outs of the race for DNC Chair, but it's a bit hard for me to get too worked up about it since the job doesn't honestly seem to be very important. Chris Suellentrop makes the case against caring in Slate and it seems pretty convincing to me. If Howard Dean (or whomever else) wants to change things, the logical thing to do -- or so it seems to me -- is to build up an independent para-party institution that can put out ideas, funnel money to causes or candidates it likes, and work through indirection. Somewhat ironically, while an independent (or at least quasi-independent) actor can, to some extent, muscle other party figures around by dint of his control of money, media access, etc., the party chairman is more-or-less a captive of the congressional leadership and then a hostage to the presidential primary campaign, unable to to really influence the course of events.

December 14, 2004 | Permalink


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Of course, and Dean has been and will continue to do that no matter what. He's of course looking for as much room and as many resources as possible in order to push his message. Doing it outside the party can be done - just look at Robertson and Weyrich in the 1970s and 1980s, but it really helps if you are going to have all the tools at the disposal of the full national party.

Posted by: dstein | Dec 14, 2004 1:06:55 PM

If the whole point of the game is to change the way the Party operates, it does seem kind of silly that the way the Party operates now isn't particularly effective.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Dec 14, 2004 1:39:50 PM

While Dean is building the organization MY talks about with his group, Democracy for America, the DNC chair would be of greater use to him than some of the other candidates.

Dean still has the appearance of a sort of marginal, outsider within the party.

Even if he is beholden to Congressional Democrats or to the eventual 2008 candidate, the DNC chair gives Dean a seat of conventional authority.

He can makeover the DNC chair into a sort of bully pulpit on which he advances his own, intraparty agenda.

Posted by: talboito | Dec 14, 2004 1:47:03 PM

I get the point of Suellentrop's piece - that the DNC chair and the DNC itself has no real control over the party's makeup, direction, or message - but Dean's major thrust of late has been in relation to structure, not message. That is, he wants to change where the party puts its money: running races nationwide as opposed to concentrating in perceived "friendly" states, racking up downticket wins. How much control does the DNC have over that? My perception has been that the DNC does indeed stick its fingers pretty deeply into both fundraising and fund-dispersal; if that's true, then Dean's narrower goal of changing the structure of the party is still achievable through the chairmanship. It's true that he wouldn't have the freedom that he has as a semi-independent operator, but he would have far more legitimacy, and by getting a seat at the table he gets to shush the more Fromian Dems who've been trying to kick him out of the room.

Posted by: Cmas | Dec 14, 2004 1:48:19 PM

Gah, please spare us another para-party organization... the DLC is quite enough, thanks.

Just because the position has no real power now doesn't mean that can't change. Look what Cheney did for the vice-presidency!

Posted by: Chance the Gardener | Dec 14, 2004 1:55:31 PM

ESPN: It's DLC vs. MoveOn!

Posted by: jerry | Dec 14, 2004 2:10:50 PM

If having Dean as party chair makes the base feel happier, that's good by me.

Posted by: Ethical Werewolf | Dec 14, 2004 2:26:24 PM

I disagree. It is very important, and therefore best not overly politicized. To win elections, the party needs to be built up especially at the local level. A once a month meetup to swap politics face to face is the best way to build party support and get everyone working together and forming consensus.

Posted by: bakho | Dec 14, 2004 2:40:53 PM

Go Howard Dean go!

Posted by: Dan from Cos | Dec 14, 2004 2:43:04 PM

Matthew...Agreed on this. C'est la vie, on this one. Hope people show wisdom in their selection, but I can't get worked up over it compared to our continued occupation of and spedning on Iraq, the social security debate, our trade deficit, etc.


Posted by: Debi | Dec 14, 2004 2:46:06 PM

Suellentrop does miss two critical points. First, as someone notes, Dean's whole goal is to change the way the DNC operates. In short, to make the DNC actually effective.

Secondly, Dean -- at least -- is a candidate for the chair because he has an outside power-base. Normally you get the job by sucking up to the DNC, and you get the seat owing a LOT of favors.

Dean's a candidate because he's got a strong grassroots movement behind him. If he gets the job, he's not really going to owe that many favors.

I have no idea if'd manage change or not. He's got a better chance than most, though.

Posted by: Morat | Dec 14, 2004 2:49:13 PM

Normally, I would agree with Matt about the DNC chair selection being a non-event. This time, though, the devastation of the party is so great, its governing philosophy so incoherent, and its program for reform so bankrupt that the choice is critical.

The selection of the next DNC chair will send a clear message about the direction of the party. That's why it is so essential that it be Simon Rosenberg and not Howard Dean.

Rosenberg is the right person at the right time to renew the Democratic vision, redefine its agenda, and rebuild the party's ability to compete in any race anywhere in the country.

For more on why, see:

- "Simon Says: Rosenberg for DNC Chair"

- "Dr. Dean: Wrong Prescription for Democrats"

Posted by: Jon | Dec 14, 2004 2:55:28 PM

Something must be said about the power of the blogosphere here, and not perhaps just that the blogosphere has the power on occasion to shape events, but that it also has the power to turn minor events or non-events into Events of Importance. Remember the vice presidential pick brouhaha? Reading certain liberal blogs made one think that the fate of the world hinged on who John Kerry was going to pick to be his running mate, and yet by November 2nd John Edwards had become simply another vice presidential running mate, of no greater or lesser importance than most others.

That said, there may be some import (and not just of a symbolic value) if Dean were to get the job, and instituted some tangible reforms in the way the organization operates.

Posted by: David C | Dec 14, 2004 3:49:14 PM

The Suellentrop article is somewhat mystifying. While seeming to stake out a general position that it doesn't much matter who is the DNC head, the desultory article is full of all sorts of items that suggest that the position is fact a very big deal, and that it is poised to become a bigger deal in the new environment in which the party is not as dependent as it once was on a handful of big donors.

First, the DNC chair makes key daily decisions on how to raise money and how to spend it. What could be more important? The chair is also responsible for coordinating the national electoral strategy, and for cooridinating the daily message.

The article is perhaps framed in the wrong way, with an undue focus on the immediate question of whether the party should move left or right, thus viewing the DNC chair decision in the light of decisions on ideology or policy positions. Suellentrop correctly notes, of course, that the DNC head does not function as an ideologue-in-chief who formulates the message and then dictates it to Democrats all over the country. Where the party moves is ultimately up to the people in the party, and their local and national leaders, and is thus to a great extent outside the control of the DNC chair. But this completely misconceives the power of the DNC head, and more importantly misses Dean's point. Here is what Dean says:

The destination of the Democratic Party means making it a party that can communicate with its supporters and with all Americans. Politics is at its best when we create and inspire a sense of community. The tools that were pioneered in my campaign -- like blogs, and meetups, and streaming video -- are just a start. We must use all of the power and potential of technology as part of an aggressive outreach to meet and include voters, to work with the state parties, and to influence media coverage.

The most practical destination is winning elective office. And we must do that at every level of government. The way we will rebuild the Democratic Party is not from consultants down, but from the ground up.

Dean's main emphasis in his recent public statements is on fund-raising strategy, organizing strategy and electoral strategy, not ideology. While stressing that he wants the party to defend its core values, he is not proposing to rerun the Dean campaign from DNC headquarters. He wants the party to put more effort into grassroots outreach and organizing, and into competing in local races across the nation. He is suggesting that there should be a vigorous Democratic presence everywhere, even in places where we are currently a minority. He wants fundraising to focus on using all the technological and networking tools available to bring in lots of small donations from many small donors. He's also pointing out that he has already built a successful organization based on these principles, and will use that as a foundation for DNC activities. In fact, the recent election showed that this is already the direction in which the party is moving. Dean's biggest selling point is that he is the guy most in tune with the trend of the times, who best "gets it". In short, Dean wants to build a stronger, more enthusiastic and connected Democratic national community.

Dean has his own particular political positions, but as DNC chair I believe his focus will not just be on the message, but on how the message is formulated. Will it be formulated in Washington by political pros who pour over poll results, and decide how to tweak the message to get it just right for capturing an electoral majority, and then send the message out from the top down? There is another way: by listening at the the grass roots level nationwide, supporting grass roots organizing and outreach across the country, running candidates in local races everywhere, learning from experience what it takes to compete and win in those local races and then using that experience to build a stronger, more broad-based national message and organization that will be effective in the national race for the presidency. I think Dean will stand strong for core Democratic values, but is willing to allow the details of the message emerge from sensitivity to the grass roots. The fact that people's minds immediately go to "what position should we formulate" rather than to overall organization and strategy is part of the problem.

The complaint of Rendell about the 27-year old operatives with no real world experience is precisely the point. Dean, as I understand him, wants to diminish (though obviously not eliminate)the importance of professional operatives.

In my opinion the Dems need to build more "team spirit", with more community-based neighbor-to-neighbor contact. This is a tremendous source of strength for the Republicans these days.

It is true that during a presidential campaign season, the role of DNC chair as party spokesman is diminished as the candidates move to the front. But during the other three years, the DNC chair is actually a prominent public figure. Dean is a cheery, decent, likeable, enthusiastic and optimistic figure who puts a good face on the Democratic party.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 14, 2004 4:03:34 PM

A question: doesn't the DNC chair have
a lot of influence over the schedule for
the primaries ? With the current
schedule, it's essential to raise money
early and win (or at least do well) in
Iowa and New Hampshire. A change of
schedule could make a big difference -
to take an extreme case, if New York and
California went first, more progressive
candidates would have a better chance at
the nomination. Whether that's a good
thing or a bad thing in terms of
winning the general election is hard
to guess, but it certainly would be

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Dec 14, 2004 4:54:57 PM

Ok, maybe it doesn't make much difference but it COULD. It depends on who occupies the chair. I have a feeling a Dean or a Rosenberg could make a big difference. Actually McAuliffe made a big difference in terms of modernization, organization and fundraising. So, Terry M. having done the "top-down" style revamp, it's time for us to work on the grassroots part.

McAuliffe tended to stay out of the spotlight. Dean probably would get right into it. He'd be tough on the talk-show circuit, and give Congressional Democrats more confidence to make them stand up to the Repubs. Backbone is of great importance right now.

Matt may be right, but he's sounding more and more like a Beltway media voice. "Whatever, it doesn't matter, politics as usual". Fight it, Matt.

Posted by: Al Peck | Dec 15, 2004 12:53:49 PM

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