An unassuming building at 430 South Capitol Street, in a forlorn corner between the Capitol and a highway overpass, is the home address of the Democratic Party. But though mail still gets delivered to the Washington, D.C., address, many of the Democratic National Committee's employees--the men and women who make up the party's central infrastructure--are no longer around to receive it. They are in Chicago, where Barack Obama moved them after he captured the Democratic Party's nomination.
It was a peculiar decision for Obama, who had built his campaign, and even his political identity, around an eloquently stated, post-partisan revulsion with the divisiveness of modern party politics. Following the strategy of "outsider" candidates before him, Obama set his headquarters outside the District in order to create distance, both physical and perceptual, between himself and the consultants, interest groups, party hacks, and congressional busybodies who populate the nation's capital.
The effort was so successful that some feared the Obama phenomenon--the millions of young people passionate about his campaign, the thousands who have lined roadsides just to wave at the Illinois senator's motorcade--had become a force unto itself, indifferent to the fortunes of the traditional Democratic Party, unbound by a commitment to progressive ideology, and wholly dependent on the character of Barack Obama. As blogger Matt Stoller writes on OpenLeft.com, "Power and money in the Democratic Party is being centralized around a key iconic figure. [Obama] is consolidating power within the party."
This was a new critique of Obama: not that he was beyond parties but that he had personalized them. That rather than building the Democratic Party, he was building an Obama Party, with all the good and bad that that centralization entailed. Though some were nervous when Obama sent the moving trucks to South Capitol Street, further tightening his hold over the party apparatus, the relocation neatly fit the broader, and rather unexpected, reality of this campaign: For all the talk of post-partisan "unity," Barack Obama has been proving himself the most party-focused presidential candidate in recent history--possibly ever. Paradoxically, although Obama's success has been more dependent on personal charisma than any recent nominee's has, he's been leveraging that charisma to build a broader Democratic infrastructure less dependent on the presidential nominee.
This should be no surprise. Though Obama himself is a newcomer to Washington, the upper echelons of his Senate and campaign staff are populated almost exclusively by experienced Democratic Party operatives. Continuity with the established party infrastructure is a defining characteristic of the Obama campaign. When Hillary Clinton conceded the nomination, Obama's first major staff change was not the incorporation of a former Clinton operative meant to heal the divisions of the primary, nor the elevation of a national-security graybeard meant to reassure general-election voters of Obama's commander-in-chief credentials. Rather, it was to install Paul Tewes, the skilled organizer who served as the architect of Obama's crucial victory in Iowa, at the DNC to head up the committee's election-year efforts. A few weeks later, it was announced that the DNC would cease accepting contributions from lobbyists or political action committees.
Then it came out that much of the DNC was moving to Chicago. In the months that have followed, the Obama campaign has announced plans for training camps that will turn out thousands of new organizers dedicated to electing Democrats, and has signaled that it will spend millions in blood-red states where Democrats haven't seriously invested in building party infrastructure for decades. The campaign has constructed a fundraising machine based around small-donors that promises to end the age-old competition for dollars between different wings of the Democratic establishment, enabling the creation of a unified electoral strategy. It has argued that "real change" requires the sort of legislative successes that only a strong congressional party can produce. In short, the candidate running on his exhaustion with traditional party politics has directed his campaign to build a new kind of Democratic Party--one that may put to shame anything that came before it.
The aftermath of the 2002 elections was a low point for the Democratic Party. Much of the blame fell on the shoulders of Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt, the Senate and House party leaders judged responsible not just for the political failure of losing seats in the midterm election but for graver substantive deficiencies: Gephardt was complicit, some would say crucial, in George W. Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq. Daschle was, at best, ineffectual against it. Both paid for those failings. In 2004, distracted by events in Washington, Daschle lost to Republican John Thune, and Gephardt retired after losing the Democratic presidential primary to John Kerry. Their staffs paid, too; come January of 2005, the experienced legislative tacticians and political operatives who had served the party's congressional leadership found themselves abruptly unemployed.
The bright spot of the 2004 election was the emergence of a brilliant, charismatic, young African American politician named Barack Obama. Obama burst onto the scene with a keynote speech at the Democratic Convention that would probably be remembered as little more than a neat piece of oratory if Kerry hadn't lost and congressional Democrats hadn't been wiped out. But, in a dark moment for Democrats, Obama was one of the very few points of light. Which is probably how he got a meeting with Pete Rouse in the first place.
Often called "the 101st Senator," Rouse, an understated 62-year-old with 30-odd years of Capitol Hill experience, had been Tom Daschle's powerful chief of staff. When Daschle was ejected from the Senate, he hoped Rouse would continue to work with him in the private sector. But Rouse received an expected call from Cassandra Butts, the policy director on Dick Gephardt's 2004 presidential campaign and an old law school chum of Obama's. Butts asked Rouse to meet with the newly elected Obama. Grudgingly, Rouse had lunch with the young senator. Obama asked him to sign on as chief of staff--a demotion of sorts, dropping Rouse from the office of the most powerful Senate Democrat to that of the most junior member of the body. Rouse politely declined. Obama kept asking. Eventually, Rouse accepted.
Most outsider candidates for the presidency recruit an outsider team to deliver it. Bill Clinton's main strategists in 1992 were the little-known Paul Begala and James Carville. His first chief of staff was Mack McLarty, a childhood friend who had risen to become chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party. It was a team untainted by Washington but also unschooled in how Washington worked.
The Obama campaign and Senate staff, by contrast, are full of Daschle and Gephardt veterans--an unexpected rebirth of the power bases and reputations of two politicians who had long been written off. Obama's chief of staff is the aforementioned Daschle associate, Pete Rouse. His deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, managed Daschle's 2004 campaign. His director for battleground states, Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, and his director of communications, Dan Pfeiffer, were both deputy campaign managers for Daschle in 2004. Obama's foreign-policy director, Denis McDonough, was Daschle's foreign-policy adviser, and his finance director, Julianna Smoot, was head of Daschle's PAC. Many of those who didn't come from the Senate minority leader's office came from the House minority leader's office. Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, was Gephardt's deputy campaign manager in 2004. His head of delegate operations, Jeff Berman, played the same role for Gephardt. His national press secretary, Bill Burton, was Gephardt's Iowa press secretary. Dozens of others come from related arms of the party, in particular the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
It's a tremendous operation for a first-term senator who hadn't worked a day in Washington before 2004. But it's exactly the team you'd expect a former chief of staff to the Senate minority leader to construct. "The person most responsible for this was Pete Rouse," says Tom Daschle, sounding almost wistful. After all, Obama's campaign was in part based on plans Rouse had drawn up for Daschle in 2004, before Daschle decided to sit out the presidential race. The Obama staff's familiarity with the workings of the party and comfort with its procedures proved crucial in the primaries. Obama won the nomination largely because his team better understood the byzantine mechanics by which the Democratic Party chooses its nominee: The campaign used proportional-apportionment rules to hold down Clinton's delegate totals in large states and pumped resources into caucus states to run up Obama's delegate numbers. The Obama campaign succeeded, in other words, through a superior respect for the party's internal infrastructure.
Historically, the Democratic Party has operated less as a strong party than as an uncertain coalition. It has been regionally fractured, racially divided, ideologically torn, and economically disparate, frustrating those who believed that voting for the more-left party should further a progressive policy agenda. A broad ideological range is good for constructing raw congressional majorities but tricky when you're trying to reconcile the fiscal conservatism of the Blue Dogs with the social investment favored by liberals. Rather than acting as a single institution united around a common agenda, the party was all too often a nominal nation-state in which sets of warring fiefdoms protected their properties and sought expansion.
By the early 1990s, this incoherence had left the party bereft of a single agenda and full of tired incumbents interested in little but the protection of their own power and patrons. As a result, the Democratic brand had turned toxic, a scarlet D that national candidates had to hide or publicly burn off. "I was the polling adviser for the Democratic Leadership Council back then," says pollster Stan Greenberg. "Clinton's candidacy, and that effort, was very much focused on addressing the historical problems of the Democratic Party." Those problems included a long-standing perception that the party was soft on crime, captured by an array of entrenched interest groups, fiscally profligate, and, at least in Congress, simply corrupt. Before Clinton could build a new image of the party, however, he had to get elected. That meant not strengthening the party but holding it at arm's length, except as a useful vehicle for fundraising. This was explicit in his campaign: Clinton ran as a "New Democrat," a symbolic break from the actual Democratic Party--especially its liberal wing.
That strategy had its logic, but it also had its drawbacks. "Clinton became very identified with the presidential wing of the party," says a former member of Clinton's famed campaign war room. "But there was a lot of resentment from the Daschle and Gephardt people to the way they were treated by the Clinton people. I think the people who acted in Clinton's name didn't generate an awful lot of goodwill for them." This wasn't widely understood until 2008, when Hillary Clinton ran for president only to find that the party's leadership was devoid of individuals with any connection or loyalty to her husband's administration. Of the three most powerful Democrats—Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Howard Dean—none could be considered Clintonites, and Dean's ascension was, in many ways, an explicit repudiation of the Clintons. The cool relationship between the Clintons and the leadership continued down into Congress. "Obama got more Senate endorsements than Hillary did," continues the Clinton insider. "That's incredible. The guy's been there for three fucking years!"
Obama's staff, however, had been there much longer. His is a political team whose understanding of power is inextricably linked with the central question it asked every day in Congress: "How many votes do we have?" Thus, Obama's campaign operation was built to amass two different types of votes: those that will win Obama the election and those that will pass his legislation if he becomes president. For Obama's advisers, years in the party's non-executive wing have bred a visceral understanding that the president is simply one part of a larger political infrastructure, and if the president is to succeed, the rest of that infrastructure must be healthy. It's an unusually sophisticated and holistic understanding of political power, and it's come to underlie Obama's campaign for the presidency.
But the will to build the party would have been little more than an airy pile of good intentions if the party's brand, coherence, and finances hadn't improved since the 1980s and 1990s.
A fairly good indicator of the health of a party is the attitudes of young voters who are being exposed to it for the first time. In the 1990s, Generation X was coming of political age, and according to polls conducted by the Pew Research group, Republicans held a 1 percent edge in party identification. In 2008, it is Generation Y that is choosing political allegiances for the first time, and these under-30-somethings show an astonishing 24 percent preference for the Democrats. Even Generation X, which gave Republicans a 3 percent edge as recently as 2004, now prefers Democrats by a margin of 12 percent. In sharp contrast to the early 1990s, it is Republicans who now have a nominee best known for his apostasies against his own party. Democrats don't have to run from their party anymore. And so Obama hasn't. Rather, he has run against polarization, against legislative gridlock, against special interests. This is why he could bring the DNC to Chicago: The problem isn't Democrats. It's the atmosphere and working relationships that impede their work in Washington.
There's also a sense that the party is more ideologically unified than it has been in the past. "There's no center-left divide in this nominating fight," says Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama. "All the candidates lined up within 20 yards of each other on virtually every question. That is an important, interesting change that shouldn't be overlooked in the Democratic Party." It is, in part, the function of being in the opposition. But it's also the product of the electoral realignment of the last 15 years, in which white Southerners moved solidly into the Republican bloc and socially liberal suburbanites finally became Democrats.
Money has also proven a powerful unifying force. Partly as a result of the party's increasing health, and partly as a result of the birth of Internet-driven small-donor democracy, the party and many of its candidates suddenly found themselves flush with funds. "Fundraising was a zero-sum game for a significant part of the Democratic Party's recent history," says Davis. During the 1990s, the Clintons had worked assiduously to build out the party's capacity for fundraising, putting legendary moneyman Terry McAuliffe in charge of the Democratic National Committee. "Clinton viewed the DNC and the party in general as a vehicle for fundraising and media," says Mike Lux, a former special assistant to Clinton. It was an outlook born of the pre-McCain-Feingold period, in which Democratic candidates were strapped for cash, while the DNC was free of many of the current legal restrictions on fundraising. That spurred candidates to treat the party as an ATM of sorts, responsible for generating as much cash as possible, from any source willing to donate.
This cycle, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has raised over $70 million. The Democratic National Committee has raised over $80 million. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has raised over $100 million. And Obama has raised almost $330 million, much of it from small donors. "When you were raising your money mostly through large donors and PACs, there was a continual sense that there was a limited amount of money that could be raised, and if you spent it now, you couldn't spend it later," Greenberg says. "Now there's a totally different view of money: the more you spend, the more you raise." That view, however, is not the work of Barack Obama. It is the work of his predecessor, Howard Dean.
If Barack Obama is, in some ways, the accidental beneficiary of the long-delayed strong-party opportunity, he is also succeeding because he, and the party veterans who surround him, understand the moment's promise and consciously chose a strategy capable of fulfilling it.
Their approach has amounted to picking sides in what has been an unusually bitter battle over the correct strategic direction for the party. In 2004, John Kerry ran as the nominee of an impoverished, regionally fractured Democratic Party. The Democratic National Committee was still headed by a Clinton loyalist, Terry McAuliffe. Though Howard Dean had run a revolutionary primary campaign, using the Internet to mobilize grass-roots support and attract more small donations than ever before, the party's Beltway apparatus seemed more frightened than inspired by his example. In the meantime, congressional candidates across the country were forced to compete with one another for the attention and resources of the DNC, which was working off of a small list of swing states targeted by Kerry's people and McAuliffe.
Chris Gates, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party from 2003 to 2005, remembers the resentments bred by the party's targeting plan. The Kerry campaign painted a big red bull's-eye on Colorado, in no small part due to the efforts of Gates, who understood that being "targeted" could mean the difference between map-changing victories and down-the-ballot losses. The DNC set up dozens of field offices in Colorado and flooded the state with hundreds of staff and volunteers. The Kerry campaign ran television and radio advertisements there, and although Kerry lost Colorado by about five points, Democrats picked up a Senate seat with Ken Salazar and a House seat with his brother, John Salazar--one of only two Democratic House pick-ups that year.
"We benefited from the thing people complained about, which was that Kerry was hardcore about targeting," recalls Gates. "If you were targeted, you got everything you needed, and if you weren't, you got nothing. People who weren't targeted were pretty bitter being told that if they wanted buttons they had to go to the Kerry Web site and buy them," Gates says. "As good as it was for Colorado, it wasn't a sustainable model."
Backlash took the form of Howard Dean's 2005 campaign to become DNC chair, which was calibrated to answer the frustrations of party activists in states written off by the party establishment. Dean promised a "50-State Strategy" in which the DNC would send paid organizers to every state in the nation, even to the Deep South. Not every state would receive the same resources--swing states like Ohio, Nevada, and Florida would still be the subjects of intense targeting efforts--but every state would receive something.
The theory was simple: Dean believed winning county-executive and school-board races today would mean winning congressional seats and electoral college votes in coming years. He believed the DNC was well situated to focus on the party's long-term future rather than its short-term fortunes; it just needed the courage to do so. Grass-roots Democratic activists agreed, electing Dean chair.
Dean's vision brought him into conflict with those accustomed to the party's more traditional role. In 2006, Rahm Emanuel, then-chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, got into a screaming match with Dean over the 50-State Strategy. Emanuel, whose outlook was typical of former members of the Bill Clinton war room, was furious because he didn't feel Dean was raising enough to justify spending dollars in states Democrats had no chance at winning. Dean was organizing when he should have been fundraising.
Dean saw things differently. As an insurgent candidate in 2004, he had outraised the scions of the establishment with ease, riding an enthused base to a huge cash advantage. His comportment at the DNC reflected his residual trust in that base: If the party spoke to its supporters, the money would be there. Dean was proven right. The party picked up 31 House and six Senate seats in the 2006 midterm elections, and many 50-State skeptics became supporters.
Among those watching was the Obama team. Obama's field operation essentially implemented a 50-State Strategy modified for the primary season. So in part, it was no surprise that once he clinched the nomination, Obama chose to keep Dean in place as DNC chair, even as he merged the DNC into his own campaign. The two men have been remarkably in sync. "I am proud of the fact that we're the first campaign in a generation to run a 50-State Strategy," Obama told the Netroots Nation convention in Austin, Texas, in a taped statement. "Not a 50 percent-plus-one strategy, but a 50-State Strategy made possible by the volunteer activism and organizing you and others have made on the ground and support by Governor Dean's efforts at the DNC."
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign's most aggressive effort to influence the down-ticket races that Democrats traditionally ignore is playing out in solidly Republican Texas. In June, Obama sent his chief strategist, David Axelrod, to Houston to deliver an important message to Texas Democratic funders. The Obama campaign had decided, Axelrod announced to a crowd of 250 at the downtown Wortham Center, to send 15 paid staffers to the state and organize thousands of volunteers to get out the vote, an unprecedented commitment of resources to the Lone Star State from a Democratic presidential campaign. The goal isn't for Obama to win Texas' 34 electoral votes. Rather, by registering Democrats, Obama hopes to help the Texas Democratic Party regain control of its state legislature, which would allow Democrats to redistrict the state's congressional delegation for 2010, potentially winning House seats in the process. That's not simply down-ballot organizing--it's way down-ballot organizing, reaching into state legislatures to influence coming congressional reapportionments in order to create large national majorities years down the line. Obama, looking ahead to governing with as large a congressional majority as possible, is determined to take advantage of a population boom in the Houston area, which is increasingly dominated by immigrants.
At times, the campaign's down-ticket energy takes on a life of its own. Jeremy Bird, field director for Obama's record-breaking victory in South Carolina, likes to tell the story of Stephen Wukela. Wukela, an attorney in his early 30s, was an Obama neighborhood team leader in Florence, South Carolina. Energized by his work with the campaign, Wukela decided to challenge Frank Willis, the 13-year incumbent mayor of Florence. It seemed a quixotic idea, but Wukela tapped into the activist network built by Obama's organizers, ran a campaign straight out of his hero's playbook ("a Real Democrat for Real Change"), and won--by a single vote. "It shows what we were able to do," says Bird, "which is not only win, but leave something behind, so we can begin to turn South Carolina blue in the years to come."
Of course, Obama's party-building may not be successful in winning him the presidency, and there are still skeptics within the Democratic Party who question some of his tactics. There has been some grousing from congressional Democrats that the Obama campaign isn't coordinating with them enough and has a tendency toward insularity. The 50-State Strategy remains controversial, particularly with those Democrats who were seared by the experiences of Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. They see it as a waste of money and staff time.
Chris Gates, the former Colorado Democratic Party chair, says that Obama has smoothed over tensions in the Democratic Party about field organizing but that fault lines still exist under the surface. "The 50-State Strategy is certainly not the unanimous strategy," he says. "If Obama were to lose, those folks would come out of the woodwork."
On the other hand, some grass-roots activists worry Obama isn't committed enough to the 50-State Strategy. Aside from sharing information from the newly centralized DNC voter list, the campaign has no uniform way of coordinating with state Democratic parties. In Iowa, the Obama team took over the state party's door-to-door operation, leading to worries that state-legislature candidates would be given short shrift by the White House–focused national campaign. In Colorado, Obama's staff is doing its own fieldwork, despite the existence of a state party–coordinated campaign in support of the entire Democratic ticket, somewhat of a duplication of resources. And in Ohio, Obama canvassers are joining the already-existing, locally coordinated ground campaign, going door to door to identify undecided voters for both congressional races and the presidential.
There is even some eye-raising at Obama's ties to the congressional Old Guard. After all, the candidate promising to change the culture of Washington hasn't surrounded himself with 20-somethings forged in the crucible of the Netroots, but rather with veterans of the party's impotent era. Independence from Congress can be just as important as the ability to work within its internecine power structures, says Rep. George Miller, a 33-year House veteran who serves as chairman of the crucial Education and Labor Committee. "There are a lot of people in this Congress who are heavily invested in the status quo," Miller says. "Obama has got to guide Congress to get the results that he wants. It's a tough relationship."
What Obama wants is, in some ways, the key question. If Bill Clinton's project for the Democratic Party was mostly ideological, Obama's is mostly organizational. Clinton sought to change the party's ideas; Obama is more interested in building its infrastructure. But for what? Obama's health-care plan was the least ambitious of the three major candidates, and his recent gestures toward the center on government wiretapping, choice, and gun control have some of his supporters concerned. At times, Obama can seem so focused on building that it's unclear if he's really thought through the blueprints.
Obama's supporters have invested so much in their candidate that betrayal, or even insufficient fulfillment, could be devastating. It's bad enough to be disappointed by a candidate you don't believe in. Being let down by the one who inspires you is a much more demoralizing experience. "The issue," says Joe Trippi, who ran both Dean's and John Edwards' presidential campaigns, "is not what happens if Obama loses or if he wins and continues to build, but if he gets there and leaves out his grass roots." winning elections, counting votes. There's little new about that. Obama's theory of change is simultaneously less inspiring and far more pragmatic than he's given credit for. It relies less on a new vision of politics than on an uncommon mastery of old procedures, institutions, and organizing tactics.
"We're building lasting infrastructure which will not only help us win in November but build the progressive movement for years to come," Obama says. "Our 50-State Strategy isn't just about winning the presidential election but lifting Democrats up and down the ticket. We have a historic opportunity to elect more Democrats at every level, from city councils to state legislatures to the United States Congress, and that's how we're going to bring about a working Democratic majority, and that's how we're going to see real change in America." It is a vision of political power that requires more than a strong president: It requires a strong party. The strategy is not necessarily in opposition to Obama's top-level message of bringing the country together and healing partisan divisions, but it mostly seeks to do so through the machinery of the Democratic Party, by building party organizations in counties where voters haven't had a respectful conversation with a Democrat in decades, and electing the sort of governing majorities that can end the legislative gridlock that so enrages the polity. The theory is that Democratic successes--or at least Obama successes--will ease divisions because voters will be glad to see something finally getting done.
A focus on legislative achievement as an answer to polarization was always, to some degree, implicit in Obama's rhetoric. He described divisiveness as the result of ineffectual politics and unity as the reward for effective policy-making. "I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes, not incremental changes, not small changes," said Obama last January. "I think that there are a whole host of Republicans, and certainly independents, who have lost trust in their government, who don't believe anybody is listening to them, who are staggering under rising costs of health care, college education, [who] don't believe what politicians say. And we can draw those independents and some Republicans into a working coalition, a working majority for change."
At the time, observers focused on Obama's promised outreach to independents and Republicans. His rhetoric has often signaled an appetite for compromise that has left some wondering about what, exactly, Obama's core policy commitments would be in office. But less attention was given to what Obama seemed to think would attract folks from across the aisle: real policy-making, which Obama's campaign believes requires a Democratic Party infrastructure strong enough to pass the president's priorities. In other words, strong parties aren't the problem; they're the solution. And now that he has one of his own, Obama is determined to prove it.