Thursday, January 22, 2009

50 state strategy

A farewell to Dean, but not to 50 State

It was overshadowed in the inauguration, but in another big transition this week, Howard Dean stepped down at the Democratic National Committee, replaced by President Obama's choice, Virginia governor Tim Kaine.

A flurry of A-list bloggers hit the panic button yesterday, worried that the Kaine era means the end of Dean's "50 State Strategy," a play and organize everywhere approach that gave the Democrats house seats in Mississippi and Idaho and an electoral vote in Nebraska.

Chris Bowers was first off the mark:
In short, the DNC will be moving away from the long-term, decentralized, fifty-state strategy of Howard Dean's tenure, and toward serving as a short-term, centralized re-election effort for President Obama in 2012. It will continue the move away from paid media ushered in by Howard Dean, maintain or increase the amount of resource expenditures in most states, and the number of states it targets will be a broader effort than the narrow focus we saw in 2001-2004 (but more narrow than 2005-2008). However, it will return to the traditional role of the DNC as a supplement for the sitting President's re-election campaign, rather than as the long-term, localized institution building operation that is was from 2005-2008.

In some ways, this may be inevitable. A lot has changed since the 50 state strategy started. In early 2005, Republicans held the White House and both houses of Congress, so Dean and the DNC were was in some ways THE face of the Democratic Party.

But when you win, it becomes the president's party, and the mindset moves from offensive plays like the 50 state strategy into a defense mode. So in some ways 50 State is undercut by its own success. As Nate Silver notes:
One can imagine a lot of scenarios in which there is a potential trade-off between enhancing Barack Obama's election chances (and/or his political capital) and those of a down ballot candidate for Congress or some other office. In the special election in Georgia, for instance, Barack Obama did not want to visit the state because he evidently felt that stumping for Jim Martin would be a poor use of his political capital. That might or might not have been the "correct" decision (in retrospect, since Martin got beaten badly, it looks wise). But the point is, there is a trade-off there: Obama's interests versus those of a congressional Democrat. And with Obama largely taking over the DNC, such trade-offs are liable to be resolved more often than not in Obama's favor.

(In defense of Martin, and in defense of 50 State, note that as late as mid-October the seat was rated as Solid Republican, yet we forced Chambliss into a runoff. We won everything else that was even remotely close: Begich, Merkley, and Franken. OK, that last wasn't "remotely" close.)

Kaine has already moved to calm the fears, saying:
"The 50-state strategy is now and forever what Democrats do," Kaine told Democrats, who were assembled for their winter meeting. "The results speak for themselves. I'll oversimplify: everybody matters. Every state, every region, every community matters," Kaine said, before cautioning: "We'll do some new things, because we can never rest on what worked yesterday."

But still, Kos is stressed:
The reason that there's an inherent conflict with turning the DNC into Obama's 2012 reelection effort is that there's no reason for the Obama operation to have staffers in Utah. But there's a reason for the Democratic Party to have staffers in Utah -- helping Democrats get elected to important local- and state-level offices and building a bench for federal offices.

Witness, for example, Walt Minnick's House win in Idaho. (My guess is, right now, 2012 will look like the mirror image of 1984, with Obama whupping Sarah Palin in about a 47 state landslide and zipping up to Alaska at the last minute like Reagan going to Minnesota. But that prediction, on Day Two, may be just a tad premature.)

Kaine, per se, doesn't matter. It's Obama's party. Presidents who have been weak party leaders have been primaried, and they've lost. Ford vs. Reagan, Carter vs. Kennedy, HW vs. Buchanan -- all those were battles not just over a nomination, but about the party itself.

Democrats have by and large settled that battle for now, and the move to morph the Obama campaign structure into Organizing For America shows that there's a commitment to a nationwide grassroots network, and that's good. (But I still think it's time to shut down the Howard Dean Meetup, I mean Dean Democracy For America.)

I wonder how 50 State felt out there in the red places that hadn't seen a Democratic organization in years. I've been sitting in the bluest county in my state for a couple decades, and our campaign has always been about running up the score. My own campaign was a longshot (well, a no-shot really) in a red district, but four years later with a better candidate who had full party resources, the result was only about seven points better. Some contests just aren't winnable.

But eventually, after redistricting, my opponent got beat, and we took back some of the turf I ran in. Johnson County has expanded its playing field toward the southwest, taking the Becky Schmitz state Senate seat in 2006 and winning the corresponding House seat with Larry Marek in `08. Both of those were close, and in both of those Johnson County made the difference.

The 50 state MINDSET certainly won't be abandoned. Obama, Plouffe, Axelrod, et al. know how they won. There'll be a 50 state strategy of some sort, but it just might not be as much under the auspices and funding of the DNC. Where there's gaps, the locals will probably have to carry more of the load.

The main question is resources. Organizing needs organizers and organizers need to get paid. Not much, but enough to survive certainly, and even a pittance adds up when you multiply it by hundreds or thousands. (And Democratic Party political correctness being what it is, a health care package is de riguer.)

As for Dean himself, his election in early 2005 was a watershed moment for the netroots, a break from the Terry McAuliffe era of 18 states and high-dollar donors. It's fair to say Obama won in 2008 by running Dean's 2004 campaign: grassroots, people intensive, and funded by small donors.

Much has been made of perceived slights against Dean, with a lot of the blame directed at White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (who was deeply invested in the McAuliffe-era strategy). I'm not sure if there's a there there. Dr. Dean clearly wanted to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, but Obama went another direction. Tom Daschle's job is clearly going to be getting The Bill passed, and that concept of the job plays more to his strength than Dean's.

As for me, I would have liked to have seen Dean stay on at the DNC. Surgeon General would have been an interesting job, too, with Dean as public health advocate plus Daschle as legislative workhorse. Sanjay Gupta still may not fly. A blog ad at Kos is plugging dean for a spot as a Food and Drug Administration commissioner. Whatever happens, I'm hoping Dean finds some sort of public policy role. He's earned it.

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