Friday, January 28, 2005

The Wave of the Future

Joshua Micah Marshall thinks Simon Rosenberg should be the next DNC Chair.

As most all of you know, there's a heated race going on for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, something that hasn't happened since before the Clinton era. The race will be decided in about two weeks; but so far I've only done a handful of posts about it. ... If I were one of the four-hundred-odd people who have a vote in this race, I'd be voting for Simon Rosenberg. And I'd feel very strongly about the vote and cast it without reservation.

Mr. Rosenberg's political ideas are on display in two of his speeches: "Where We Are", "Some Thoughts on Internet, Politics and Participation" and an NYT article called "Wiring the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy" all of which are linked to his site. The NYT article describes the core of Rosenberg's thinking at length. It begins through the eyes of a venture capitalist, Andy Rapaport, who thinks he knows how to fix the Democratic Party.

Rappaport was surprisingly downcast about the party's prospects, which, he said, would not be improved simply by winning back the White House. ... ''There is a growing realization among people who take very seriously the importance of progressive politics that the Democratic Party has kind of failed to create a vision for the country that is strongly resonant,'' he said. ''And our numbers'' -- meaning Democrats as a whole -- ''are decreasing. Our political power has been diminishing, and it's become common knowledge that the conservative movement has established a very strong, long-term foundation, whereas we've basically allowed our foundation, if not to crumble, to at least fall into a state of disrepair. So there are a lot of people thinking, What can we do about this?'' ...

Actually, Rappaport says he may be on to an answer. Last summer, he got a call from Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a fund-raising and advocacy group in Washington. Would Rappaport mind sitting down for a confidential meeting with a veteran Democratic operative named Rob Stein? Sure, Rappaport replied. What Stein showed him when they met was a PowerPoint presentation that laid out step by step, in a series of diagrams a ninth-grader could understand, how conservatives, over a period of 30 years, had managed to build a ''message machine'' that today spends more than $300 million annually to promote its agenda. Rappaport was blown away by the half-hour-long presentation. ''Man,'' he said, ''that's all it took to buy the country?''

There were two elements to the Roseberg-Stein Powerpoint presentation. The first was the idea that it was possible to offer up parts of the liberal policy agenda direct to ideological 'investors' and then sell that agenda to the country via a powerful 'message machine'. The Republicans had done it! What remained was for the Democrats to harness the same mechanism to a higher purpose.

Stein and Rosenberg weren't asking Rappaport for money -- at least not yet. They wanted Democrats to know what they were up against, and they wanted them to stop thinking about politics only as a succession of elections. ... In March of this year, Rappaport convened a meeting of wealthy Democrats at a Silicon Valley hotel so that they, too, could see Stein's presentation. Similar gatherings were already under way in Washington and New York, where the meetings included two of the most generous billionaires in the Democratic universe -- the financier George Soros and Peter Lewis, an Ohio insurance tycoon -- as well as Soros's son and Lewis's son. ... The plan is to gather investors from each city -- perhaps in one big meeting early next year -- and create a kind of venture-capital pipeline that would funnel money into a new political movement, working independently of the existing Democratic establishment. ...

Into this vacuum rushes money -- and already it is creating an entirely new kind of independent force in American politics. Led by Soros and Lewis, Democratic donors will, by November, have contributed as much as $150 million to a handful of outside groups -- America Coming Together, the Media Fund, -- that are going online, door to door and on the airways in an effort to defeat Bush. These groups aren't loyal to any one candidate, and they don't plan to disband after the election; instead, they expect to yield immense influence over the party's future, at the very moment when the power of some traditional Democratic interest groups, like the once mighty manufacturing unions, is clearly on the wane.

The key to defeating the 'Right Wing conspiracy' was freeing ideological spenders from the constraints of the institutional Democratic Party. The New Democratic Network aimed to duplicate Ronald Reagan's rebuilding of the Republican Party. The way to go was to learn from the enemy.

Stein spent much of the spring of 2003 consumed with connecting the dots of what Hillary Clinton famously called the ''vast right-wing conspiracy'' and then translating it into flow charts and bullet points. The presentation itself, a collection of about 40 slides titled ''The Conservative Message Machine's Money Matrix,'' essentially makes the case that a handful of families -- Scaife, Bradley, Olin, Coors and others -- laid the foundation for a $300 million network of policy centers, advocacy groups and media outlets that now wield great influence over the national agenda. The network, as Stein diagrams it, includes scores of powerful organizations -- most of them with bland names like the State Policy Network and the Leadership Institute -- that he says train young leaders and lawmakers and promote policy ideas on the national and local level. These groups are, in turn, linked to a massive message apparatus, into which Stein lumps everything from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to Pat Robertson's ''700 Club.'' And all of this, he contends, is underwritten by some 200 ''anchor donors.'' ''This is perhaps the most potent, independent institutionalized apparatus ever assembled in a democracy to promote one belief system,'' he said.

There was optimism, at least in the beginning, that this process would could drive George W. Bush from the White House in 2004 and create a Kerry presidency; others were not so sure; nor did they care.

But if Kerry does not ascend to the presidency, and Democrats fail to make significant gains in Congress, then the party and its various factions will be as close to debilitating disunity and outright irrelevance as they have been in almost a century. Leftist investors will see their opening -- a chance, at last, to swoop in and save the party from empty centrism. The struggle for control in 2008 will begin almost immediately.

In a memorandum distributed by the New Democractic Network, Rosenberg summarized what he thought to be the salient components of the conservative revolution. The Democratic Party had in its way, suffered a private and political 9/11 -- an asymmetrical assault from the right -- due Rosenberg believed, to four reasons.

  1. The Republican/conservative alliance has built a superior information-age political machine.
  2. As an intellectually-based movement born when the Republicans were a true minority Party, their infrastructure is built on a foundation on the need to persuade.
  3. 9/11 gave the Republicans an opening that they have adroitly exploited.
  4. Bush’s brand of conservatism has had a particularly big impact in the South.
  5. The new Republican momentum with Hispanics is a grave threat.

From a superficial point of view, Rosenberg's analysis fits all the facts he cares to acknowledge. But it begs the question of whether conservative ideas have succeeded, at least in part, because they were more consonant with reality than the 'progressive' ideas of the Left. It is not my intention to prove the superiority of one ideology over the other; simply to point out that the very possibility is excluded from Rosenberg's analysis; and by excluding the possibility that Conservative ascendance might be due to a careful selection of 'correct' positions into their portfolio, the NDN is really assuming what must be proved.

The book Reagan's Revolution : The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds) points out that Reagan rebuilt the conservative movement, not by putting the message machine on steroids, but by changing the message. One book reviewer observed.

What is remarkable about Shirley's stirring account of the start of the revolution is his description of the state of the GOP in 1976. The party establishment had been practicing a move to the left strategy for years, unhappy conservatives were beginning to talk about forming a third party, and open talk about a "brain dead" Republican party devoid of ideas was commonplace. As I read his book, I felt I was reading the description of the Democratic Party of today.

Yet it was not simply changing the message, nor even improving its dissemination that was the key to Reagan's success. Their real power came from the fact that the ideas embodied in the message worked. It's possible, however, that Simon Rosenberg is not Ronald Reagan. That observation at least, would probably flatter both.