Democrats are ready to put 2004 behind them -- and who could blame them? After raising more money than ever before and building a turnout operation for the ages, Democrats this week will join the world in watching George W. Bush take the oath of office once again.
While this image will be a bitter reminder of this past fall, Democrats are resolutely looking toward the future. There is new leadership in the Senate; a heated race for a new party chair is well underway; and any number of thinkers and wonks are shopping their prescriptions for the party's resurgence. As the party's elder statesman, Senator Ted Kennedy, told CNN last week, when asked about the 2004 election: “You can learn from history, but we are looking towards the future.”
Not so fast.
After every battle, the military insists on an “after-action report” to determine what happened and to learn from it. If a major corporation had a $1 billion product launch that failed miserably, it would not just walk away; it would conduct a rigorous analysis of what went wrong so as not to repeat those same mistakes.
Well, Senator John Kerry was the Democratic Party's New Coke. So, before the Democratic Party leadership embarks on rebuilding, the party owes it to its millions of supporters, volunteers, and donors to undertake an exhaustive, unbiased examination of what went wrong with the Democratic effort this past fall. With the risk of sounding crass, the Democratic Party needs an “11-2 Commission” -- a panel comprising disinterested, rigorous, and smart individuals with the power to examine fully the entire Democratic effort; the acumen to praise what went right; and the bravery to place blame as to what went wrong.
Of course, individual organizations on the Democratic side have taken time to examine their efforts. Countless lunches and dinners have been convened these past few weeks, rehashing the wreckage of the campaign. And there have been press accounts -- some devastating -- about the deficiencies of both the Kerry campaign and some of the 527 efforts.
But what has not been undertaken is an examination of the entire Democratic campaign -- from the top of the Kerry-Edwards '04 apparatus to its operation in individual states, from the DNC's effort to the independent campaigns waged by Americans Coming Together (ACT) and other 527 organizations. While these groups and the Kerry campaign could not coordinate their activities, let's not kid ourselves: They had the same goal and were part of the same effort. To understand the Democratic campaign, one must examine all its facets at every level.
Because of the legal barriers that exist between the groups, the 11-2 Commission would have to be established as an independent entity, with its own funding. I am sure that George Soros or any number of the wealthy contributors to the effort to defeat Bush would not flinch at kicking in a million or two to discover how they squandered tens of millions of dollars.
To give the 11-2 Commission power, Kerry -- along with the candidates for DNC chair -- should pledge to make all staff and records available to the Commission and should urge allies to do the same. To give the 11-2 Commission truthful answers, sources should be given anonymity. And so as not to not give the Republicans a leg up in 2008, its findings should be issued in a confidential report.
To staff the 11-2 Commission, I propose a mix of recently retired politicians; political strategists who did not have a dog in this year's fight; academics with an interest in politics, not just political science, to bring a historical perspective and intellectual rigor to the effort; and management consultants who can look coldly at campaign management and operations.
What is not needed on the 11-2 Commission are ideologues or public opinion experts, because the 11-2 Commission is envisioned specifically not to be a forum to debate whether Kerry had the right message, policies, or values. The deep and almost equal partisan divide in the nation and the Democratic Party's inability to articulate its core beliefs -- or a creative response to a post-September 11 world -- in order to reach across that divide are serious problems and demand attention.
But if you step back from the hysterical snap analyses of the 2004 election, you will find that this was an extremely close, very predictable, and, from history's perspective, totally unremarkable election. As Alan Abramowitz of Emory University noted in a recently released article, over the past century, Jimmy Carter was the only unsuccessful incumbent presidential candidate from a party that had held the White House only for one term. Statistically speaking, 2004 was basically a replay of the 2000 election, with the power of incumbency as the small boost that pushed Bush to a second term. Or, as Harvard's Barry Burden put it: “[T]he overwhelming pattern is one of stasis.”
In such a world, politics matter. The quality of a campaign's organization, planning, execution of those plans, management, allocation of financial and other resources, and chosen techniques can make a critical difference in a 50-50 nation.
To be sure, good tactics are necessary but not sufficient: A well-organized campaign with a candidate that is wrong on the issues and without a vision of the country still will lose. But while many Democrats focus on fighting over the ideological direction of the party, there also must be another effort that recognizes that, while ideas matter, politics make them powerful.
Kenneth S. Baer, former senior speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, runs Baer Communications, a Democratic consulting firm.