Sunday, October 23, 2016

Democrats "down-ballot" - cautious optimism may be in order

One hopeful sign for the upcoming years is that President Obama has announced that he plans to promote building the Democratic Party at the state and local levels, an effort with which former Attorney General Eric Holder has also associated himself.

Edward-Isaac Dovere reports in Obama endorses all the way down ballot Politico 10/23/16 on Obama's high-profile presence is some down-ballot races:

President Barack Obama will make a late splash into races for state senate and assembly over the next week, endorsing roughly 150 candidates across 20 states.

He’ll also back a candidate for North Carolina state supreme court.

The endorsements — which will come along with a variety of robocalls, social media, mailers, photos of Obama with the candidates taken as he’s been traveling to campaign in recent weeks, and even a few radio ads — are Obama’s biggest investment in state races ever by far, and come as he gears up to make redistricting reform at the state level the political priority of his post-presidency.

This is the beginning of that effort, an unprecedented engagement all the way down-ballot for any president. [my emphasis]
A caution on that last assertion: "unprecedented" for many reporters and pundits means that they haven't heard such a thing being talked about in Beltway gossip before.

I've seen reporting about what a good get-out-the-vote operation the Clinton campaign has in place. But I don't recall coming across any reporting that evidenced any investigation beyond what they Clinton campaign was telling the press. The nitty-gritty reporting that would be involved in doing detailed investigations across the country, or even in key swing states, is not considered a sexy enough topic to make it into the horserace chatter that is the main interest of TV pundits. Even though the GOTV effort can have a decisive effect on the outcome of the horseraces, i.e., elections.

According to this, the Democratic Party establishment may be finally taking better account of the reality that has been hitting them in the face for a couple of decades or so:

Six years ago, Democrats felt they couldn’t even get Obama interested in House races. But now, after years of the Democratic bench being depleted on his watch, Obama’s looking to build it back. On top of all that: a concern within the Oval Office and through the West Wing with how much policy is being crafted in state capitals, from laws on reproductive health to climate change to voting rights.

“While Congress has been obstructionist and there’s been no substantive legislation moving under Republican control, what you see in the states is very, very different,” Simas said. “This has not been a focus of presidents in the past. But given what’s happening in state legislatures throughout the country, it has to be.”
This is something that progressive Democrats have been complaining about for years, shaking our heads in amazement that the Democrats seemed to be neglecting even though it is something that is important even in the crassest, careerist, opportunist mode for a Democratic Party that is competing against the Republican Party. On some issues - too many, actually - it may really not matter a lot whether a Democrat or a Republican is elected because they agree. But it does matter to the egos and the career opportunities of the candidates and their closest allies.

Part of the reason it's so frustrating is that there have been actual moments in very recent history when the Democrats did take greater account of the need for better state and local mobilization. One was during Howard Dean's chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 2005-9 during which he pursued a "50 State Strategy" to build the Party organization in all Congressional districts with the goal of regularly contesting Congressional elections in them all. Including ones conventionally considered "safe" Republican territory. It combined a long-term perspective (create as strong a Democratic presence as possible in politics everywhere) and short-term urgency (be positioned to take advantage of unexpected local developments). At the very least, contesting even "hopeless" elections would pressure Republicans to spend money to defend safe seats instead of channeling those funds to more heavily contested districts.

The 2006 mid-terms elections produced evidence that this was a promising approach. The Wikipedia entry on Howard Dean as of this writing observes:

The success of the strategy became apparent after the 2006 midterm elections, where Democrats took back the House and picked up seats in the Senate from normally Republican states such as Missouri and Montana. In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama used the 50 state strategy as the backbone of his candidacy.
It would go too far to say the 50 State Strategy was solely responsible for those results. Five years of war and misrule by the Cheney-Bush Administration, the Iraq War disaster and Hurricane Katrina significantly contributed to both those results. And then there was the financial panic of 2008 that was the hallmark of the Great Recession from which the US economy is still recovering.

The other major example is theorganizing effort headed by Marshall Ganz, a veteran political organizer for the United Farm Workers union, also under the auspices of Dean's DNC. Ganz has discussed the experience of that project in various places, including Organizing Obama: Campaign, Organizing, Movement August 2009. This is a good example of how grassroots activism affected the outcome of the 2006 election. It provided anr indication of the tremendous popular appeal Obama had and the potential he had for mobilizing public opinion for progressive goals.

Unfortunately, once in office Obama reverted to the conventional Democratic establishment approach. As Marshall Ganz frames the concepts, the Democratic Party went back to relying more on the marketing approach and less on the organizing emphasis behind OFA and the 50 State Strategy. Obama and the Democratic leadership abandoned the 50 State Strategy, replacing Dean at the DLC with Tim Kaine (yes) 2009-11, Donna Brazile as interim (2011), and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (2011-16), the BFF of the payday loan industry who became one of the chief symbols for the Sanders campaign of everything that is wrong with the Democratic Party. Donna Brazile is now back as interim chair, itself not an encouraging sign for progressive. Did I mention that it was Tim Kaine who succeeded Howard Dean in that position?

The grassroots organizing effort morphed after Obama's first inauguration into Organizing for America (OFA), which operated largely as a more conventional lobbying arm for the President and the Party. It later changed its name to Organizing for Action. If it has any notable continuing distinct influence of progressive politics or the Democratic Party, it has been successful in keeping it well concealed.

In the conclusion to the paper linked above, Ganz notes that adapting the organizing approach in 2008 was an exception in Obama's political career, despite having been a community organizer:

A highly motivated constituency, rooted especially, but not only, in the young, moved by a story of hope that engaged their values and drew them to candidate and campaign was transformed into a very powerful electoral force. To be sure, the financial resources generated to support this effort were extraordinary, but other campaigns have raised lots of money and not used it in this way. This effort was able to combine the enthusiasm, contagion, and motivation of a movement, with the discipline, focus, and organization that it takes to win.

This was not a foregone conclusion. Many have observed that since Obama had served as a community organizer, his campaign would of course feature organizing. However Obama‘s run for the Senate was as conventional a campaign as any. In fact Obama‘s experience of organizing was within an orthodox Alinsky approach of the lone organizer who "agitates" people into awareness of their "real" interests, takes values for granted, focuses on what‘s "winnable" over what‘s urgent, and views social movements as inherently unstable. And as Obama recounts, this experience left him disturbed by the loss of control he experienced, and unsatisfied by the limited aspirations. This is a far cry from the kind of "movement building" organizing that became typical of the campaign and of which Obama, in fact, had no real experience. In fact, Obama wrote of his belief that the way to win a campaign was to "turn it over to the professionals."

Although the inner circle of the campaign included many talented and creative people, skilled political operatives, and people who had run field programs for many years, it did not include anyone with any organizing experience outside the realm of conventional politics – and no one with movement organizing experience. The New Hampshire campaign was allowed to proceed with no organizing at all, relied almost exclusively on full time staff to get the "real" work done, supported by volunteers bussed [sic] in from Boston, not unlike the unsuccessful Bradley primary campaign in which the state director had been involved. Had this approach been utilized everywhere, it is very unlikely the movement [for Obama's 2008 election] could have ever flourished as it did. [my emphasis]
Combining "the enthusiasm, contagion, and motivation of a movement, with the discipline, focus, and organization that it takes to win" sounds like a good way for a party to go.

But while there is nothing inherently progressive or left about this approach, in the real existing Democratic Party the people who get active in politics through such an effort will tend to be those more closely aligned with the New Deal wing of the Democratic Party rather than the corporate wing.

That doesn't fully account for the Democrat's willingness in practice to concede so much political territory at the state and local levels to the Republicans. But it's certainly part of it. Corporate Democrats who drool at the thought of privatizing Social Security don't want a bunch of hippies who support expanding Social Security instead pouring into the Party.

The kind of people who will be paying Obama six figures or more for individual speeches over the next few years will mostly not be among those who would welcome such an influx. Nor will the clients who Eric Holder's Wall Street law firm services.

But good signs are good signs. Democrats need to take those when they come!

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