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                                       politics + culture

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Here's some post-Alito thoughts on Democratic strategy.

First, I think, as a basic political principle, debates regarding strategy within a political party should be done with respect and realism. That was why I thought Markos's Reality Check post showed leadership.  Markos did two things:

  • he highlighted the broader 2006 political strategy that most Democrats can agree on.
  • he highlighted how strategic differences about a Filibuster, and even Samuel Alito's confirmation itself, directly relate to that 2006 electoral strategy.  ie. Kos did not just say, "Elect more Democrats" as folks have reported somewhat unfairly, he said, "Elect more Democrats who would have taken a concerted stand against the confirmation of Samuel Alito."

  • That's significant.  It highlights a broad common ground where we can come together.

    That being said, my post in support of Markos, this moment, added something to the mix that I'd like to revisit: We need a generational shift in strategy and tactics and leadership...We need to define new strategies for  a new Democratic Party.

    I'd like to talk about strategy in the wake of Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court...


    I'd like to talk about strategy in an open-ended way, to start a discussion, not end one.  Personally, as a 37 year-old Democrat, I think the confirmation of Samuel Alito, as inevitable as it now seems to have been, is highly significant for this generation and the netroots.  I think it will have real consequences for our grassroots activism in the next three years.

    I would like to focus on how we might best define those consequences ourselves and move forward together.

    As a veteran, like many of you, of Gore 2000, I cannot emphasize enough how significant the impact of Howard Dean's message in 2003 was.  In 2000, Ralph Nader ran a campaign that lambasted the Democrats as essentially indistinguishable from the GOP.  He mocked the Democratic Party's lack of discipline and fight, our lack of willingness to take a principled stand.  That hurt all of us who were trying to win votes for Gore in 2000; essentially, we had to overcome an enormous surge of activist energy that accepted Nader's arguments.  (In part, of course, because aspects of those arguments had real merit and grassroots appeal.)  We Gore supporters had to convince even life-long Democrats that our party was still willing to fight, that we were different from the GOP.

    Howard Dean's "people powered politics" of 2003 changed the playing field.  While always insisting that his political views were centrist and mainstream, Howard Dean talked frankly about doing a "backbone transplant" on the Democratic Party.  The grassroots were hungry for the Dean message. It formed a powerful antidote to Nader's cynicism. In many ways, many of us would not be here on dailyKos or working in the netroots had that message not resonated for us.   Following Howard Dean and the DFA phenomenon, we rallied around the idea of defining the Democratic Party as a party of "willing to fight" for its principles.

    I would like to point out that this "we" is primarily the Democratic grass roots.  The "liberal base" of our party and its close allies; us political junkies, the people who "show up" whether to DFA or other organizations like the Young Democrats and Wellstone Clubs. The reality is, however, that Dean's message and his movement, let's call it the "Centrist, Nationwide, Fighting" Democratic message, is still working its way out across the nation and our party.  It is still being defined as we speak.  As Chairman Dean has always said, this wasn't a "flash in the pan" movement; people-powered politics is a long-term national strategy.

    The Alito confirmation, both in its results and in how it proceeded, is a serious challenge to this movement and this concept.

    What we just went through forces us to ask what "fight" means.  It forces us to ask what "centrist" means (especially, I think, of Howard Dean).  It forces us to ask what our principles are.  It forces us to ask what "Fighting in all 50 states" means. The Alito confirmation reopens, once again, the latent cynicism about our Party exploited by Ralph Nader.

    If you ask me, at its core the Alito confirmation forms a very real challenge to Chairman Dean's emphasis on "backbone."  What the hell does backbone mean now?  

    I think you can read that question between the lines of Meteor Blades excellent post yesterday:

    ...every time I walk a precinct or call somebody for a financial contribution this election year, I'm going to run into a lot more "Screw the Democrats. They don't stand up for me." And my only reply will have to be a sheepish, we have to elect more Democrats so those unwilling to stand up for you don't weigh as heavily on the party.

    In agreement with Meteor Blades, what I would like to argue is that we in the grassroots need to seize this moment, and these questions, and define them by saying more than simply that it's time to redouble our efforts to elect more Democrats. That is frankly not enough; it is an insufficient response.

    I think the Alito confirmation deeply challenges us to do two things:

  • We in the netroots need to come up with a strategy, or a set of strategies that we will be able to point to and say:  this is OUR response to the Alito confirmation battle.  We need to define real consequences of the Alito battle and do our best to make them happen.
  • I think our party, and its grassroots, needs to shape our strategy for a new generation.  It is simply not good enough to say that we will just fight harder.  We need to find a new way to fight.  We need to ask the hard questions that get us there.

  • Chairman Dean and Rep. Rahm Emannuel have put "fight" and "backbone" at the core a proposed reinvention of the Democratic Party.  In the wake of Alito, and for the good of our party, it seems to me, we need to better define what the hell "fight and backbone" means or have those terms be something that vaguely embodies our grassroots movement but are not reflected in the disciplined actions of our party.

    Strategy Proposals: Consequences from Alito:

    The netroots has a choice.  We can put our energies together and define this moment in a manner of our choosing, or not. I would argue that undertaking any of the possibilities listed below in a concerted manner would have ripple effects succeed or fail.  Here are some of the possibilities on the table.  (I'll happily add to this list from your comments.):

    1. As many have suggested, we might challenge Senator Joe Lieberman, or another sitting Democratic Senator, in his upcoming primary as a way of saying: playing both sides of the fence is simply no longer acceptable.
    2. We might challenge Chairman Dean and Senator Charles Schumer to reconsider the party's early support of candidate Bob Casey Jr. in the Democratic Pennsylvania primary.
    3. We might support a fresh candidate who represents the change we want to see, in a race where we can really make a difference:  I would suggest looking at Amy Klobuchar in her fight against Santorum-wannabe Mark Kennedy in Minnesota.  
    4. We might create a way to "brand" our contributions as being in support of "Fighting Democrats/Dems with Backbone" and coordinate that on a nation-wide level, perhaps with a new, clearinghouse website.
    5. We might use a targeting model like the one proposed by Joshua Grossman and I: Starting with the Districts...and pick 15-20 vulnerable GOP House inumbants...and create our own, insurgent, "netroots version" of the DCCC in support of a new brand of Democrats intent on taking back the House.
    6. We might create a nation-wide network of blogs like SayNotoPombo dedicated to combining netroots activism with offline, grassroots action to defeat Republicans.  We might link these blogs together and say to the nations, this how we can fight in a new way.
    7.  We might pick one or two "contrast" issues...an investigation of NSA wiretaps...election and voting reform...Senator Feingold's challenge to the Attorney General...and make them a "backbone" issue that we insist every single Democrat endorse.  We might say, this nationwide effort is our response to Alito, get on board, or get out of the way.

    Those are just 7 possibilities.  We should agree on one, or two, or three and brand them as relating to Alito.  I do think we need to do SOMETHING defined, branded and focused. We need to define the consequences of this last battle to the best of our abiilities.


    Defining "backbone" and "fight": a generational challenge to Democratic leadership on strategy and principle.

    Personally, I think the Alito nomination must mean, in very real terms, some challenges to both Chairman Dean and to current Democratic leaders like John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Dianne Feinstein.  I differ from many here whose focus runs more to opposing "moderate Dems".  I don't necessarily agree with that strategy.  I think the Alito confirmation forces us to ask some tough questions of our core, liberal Democratic leaders.

    These are my questions, you may have your own.  I strongly advocate that we ask tough questions of our leaders now.  That is a part of leadership, and, in my view, our leaders have failed us too often.

    Chairman Dean, what does backbone mean?  What does "fight" mean?  Do you have second thoughts about making 2005, a year with 2 Supreme Court nominations, the year you embraced "Pro-life Dems"?  Do you still intend to continue to actively support Bob Casey Jr. before the primary is decided? How do you justify that?  What is your message to the Senators who voted for cloture and for Samuel Alito?  What is your message to those of us who would like to see a "fair playing field" in Democratic primary contests?

    Senator Obama, what does leadership mean?  Do you get out in front and lead the way with a clear message, or do you follow and equivocate?  Why does your message seem to be "wait and see" and not "lead the way?"  You may think you have more time to form a leadership style. Many of us, however, are hoping to see real strategic leadership from you right now.  That means getting in front of issues.  Will you do that?

    Senator Feinstein, you will ask us Californians to support your leadership this fall.  Why should  we support you and not someone who represents a fresh face and new leadership for our party?  Why should we rubber stamp your candidacy?  How will you lead us forward?  What is your  message to Democrats who are hungry for new leadership? How are you relevant to us now, in the battles we face going forward?

    Senator Kerry, you led us in the fight in 2004.  You led the filibuster fight against Alito in 2006.  You lost in both tests.  Why should we rally behind you the next time?  In particular, why should we in the netroots who received leaked hopeful messages at the last minute from both your Presidential campaign and the filibuster effort, not feel that we've been jerked around?  How do you justify your strategic leadership of our party if not by results?

    Senator Clinton, you seemed poised to ask for our support in the 2008 Presidential campaign.  How are you getting in front of the issues and shaping them?  How are you anticipating events like the Alito nomination and helping your fellow Democratic Senators show unity and fight?  Can you bring us together?  Have you shown that ability?  If you can't get your fellow Senators to work together on our central principles, why should we support you for President?

    I would add that I feel strongly that we need fresh leadership for the Democratic Party.  We need new faces speaking for us even if we rally behind a familiar face  when the situation merits.  (Al Gore and John Edwards, I mean both of you if you're listening.  In my view, as well, we need more women and candidates of color at the forefront speaking for all of us.)

    But, my challenge to our leadership is also a challenge to the netroots:
  • How can we target our efforts so that we aren't churning...and are always building?

  • How can we focus our arguments so that we are less arguing among ourselves and instead testing our case in the public at large, including debating directly with Republicans?  (Is it time for us in the netroots to make that a more formal part of how we do things?)
  • What are the core principles that give "backbone" meaning to US?  What does backbone even mean if we can't agree on the principles or issues that are supposed to make it up?  

  • (As an aside, to be honest, I'm still pretty stunned at the vindictiveness against NARAL....and the reluctance in some quearters to talk frankly about Choice.  I mean, especially with Alito on the court, let's make common cause and work with the broad support of the foundations of Roe. Too much is at stake.)

    I leave you with one thought.

    We all watched and participated in the Alito fight, just like we will watch the SOTU tonight.

    It is my hope that this November, having fought together, we will have answered a few of the above questions not just with answers in words but with ACTION.

    I firmly believe that a "surprise" swing of either the House or the Senate is possible.   I would love to think that between now and November the same passion we brought to the Alito battle will be shown...day in and day out...in the effort to win our country back for every American citizen.


    • a good start. i do not think that we can mount an effective run against the republicans in 2006 until the party takes us seriously enough to actually engage in honest discussion with us about where we're going, and why they're doing what they're doing. the simmering frustration that both nader and dean tapped are representative of issues that cannopt be overlooked, and resolving them is a major prerequisite of any future win IMO. we also need to get our ducks in a row and decide what it is that we want, before we will ever effectively exert pressure politically.

      By Anonymous wu ming, at 5:07 PM  

    • Thanks, I agree.

      I was talking with a friend today who asked:

      When are Democrats going to mention that unless you make over $273,000/year,a vote for the GOP is voting against your own interests?

      Or that 1% of the population now owns 57% of the nation's corporate wealth?

      At what point in our break neck dash to the 19th Century will folks wake up???

      By Blogger kid oakland, at 5:43 PM  

    • we have to make the sell as a party, it won't happen on its own. i think a lot of it dates to two false visions of american politics that appear to be commonly held in the consultocracy:

      1. that democrats are the natural governing party, and equilibrium alone will eventually restore us to power when the republicans make a big enough botch job of things

      2. that the backlash against the 1960s and 70s by the american electorate (read: white men) is still in effect today, and that the only way democrats can win is by denouncing the symbols of the 60s within their own party (blacks, gays, uppity women, students, youth, hippies, libruls), to demonstrate "independence."

      in fact, neither is true, and basing our tactics on them, and eschewing any sense of strategy (because #1 supposedly negates the need for it) is precisely what has gotten us into this funk. somehow we have either got to convince the establishment of the wrongness of their assumptions, or else manipulate into acting differently against their will. the way forward then lies in the means of how to accomplish that without blowing things part at the seams in internecine factionalism.

      By Anonymous wu ming, at 9:34 PM  

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