Party Crashers

How ironic that liberal bloggers Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, after teaming up to transform online politics, offer a stinging critique of the Democratic party using a medium that's been around since Gutenberg: A book.

Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics (Chelsea Green) is muscular not only in its language, but in how Armstrong and Moulitsas play the heavies with a variety of Beltway insiders, consultants, and other political “experts” within the mainstream national Democratic party. Knowing both authors (disclosure: I blogged for Daily Kos during the 2004 election), readers can be assured that Armstrong and Moulitsas blog the way they speak, and write the way they blog: In the sometimes caustic but always conversational tone that makes otherwise arcane “insider” topics accessible to non-Beltway readers.

Regular visitors to their respective websites, MyDD and DailyKos, will be familiar with many of these criticisms and targets. That bill of complaints includes:

  • A generally slow-footed response by the Democratic Party to the organizational and fundraising potential of internet-based grassroots Left politics—the so-called “netroots”;

  • The party's unwillingness to use new media to develop alternative messages, to employ more sophisticated demographic tools to target voters, and its refusal to market-test campaign ads to discover what works and what doesn't;

  • An intolerance among Beltway know-it-all's toward outsider candidates and movements in favor of familiar insiders, recycled ideas and antiquated coalitions, which thereby limits unnecessarily the electoral playing field;

  • Ossified, comfortable consultants who recommend the same old products (i.e., the ones they sell), and bill on a percentage basis rather than with flat fees; and,

  • Finally -- and whenever possible -- a general dressing-down of Mr. Robert Shrum.

    Lest anyone think Armstrong and Moulitsas are muddle-headed idealists, they also unleash their unsparing disdain on stale, ineffective liberal interest groups. Their description of one politics-as-therapy conference actually made me LOL:

    The conference was full of the silly group-building exercises that seem to infect all such gatherings, and had no shortage of reality-addled liberals. You know the type -- the ones that believe that we should just “visualize world peace,” as though [global bad guys] will simply vaporize if we just visualize.

    Armstrong and Moulitsas do not say the “netroots” can replace the national or state Democratic parties. Their ambition is not to execute a coup, nor even call for one. They don't care to wear the crown, and would be rightly dismissed if they tried: Despite its ability to find new candidates, infuse new ideas and generate new funding sources -- and even with Howard Dean at the helm of the Democratic National Committee -- there is simply no way the netroots can replace the party.

    But therein resides the tension between their calls for more organic netroots in one breath, and expressions of grudging respect for the way Republicans handle their party business in the next. How is the small-d democratizing of the Democratic party supposed to match the ruthlessly insular but effective machine Republicans have built?

    Sure, the GOP rewards good strategists and dumps the bad, and there's little doubt that Republicans find ways to involve and mobilize their base -- especially the “church-roots,” for lack of a better term. But, having seen myself inside the Bush-Cheney campaign offices in 2004, you can believe that the suit-and-tie insiders who managed the president's re-election do not allow their gates to be crashed. Republican politics is not bottom-up organic; it's top-down corporate.

    On his site, Moulitsas has lately been relishing the inability of national Republicans to drive Katherine Harris out of the Florida Senate race, a failure that may prevent them from unseating incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. But when national Democrats do the same, they are pilloried as tin-eared insiders who think they know what's best for the party.

    So, which is it: Is it better to have a ruthless but effective, Rove-style political ethic -- one recently epitomized by Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chair Chuck Schumer's disgorging of Iraq veteran Paul Hackett from the Ohio Senate primary -- or an inclusive, netroots-inspired party with no Democratic Roves? Admittedly, this is a somewhat false dichotomy, but choices must be made here.

    Armstrong and Moulitsas also might have aimed their long overdue criticisms at higher targets. So consultants have grown too comfortable, and the Democratic Senate and House campaign committees already think they know everything there is to know about running congressional races. Doesn't blame for these failures ultimately reside with the Democratic politicians who make not only their own campaigns' personnel decisions, but also choose the leaders of the campaign committees who make the consultancy decisions for the party as a whole?

    The gates crashed and gatekeepers shoved aside, in their next effort perhaps, Armstrong and Moulitsas can charge the tower where the commands are being issued.

    Still, these are small nits to pick in what is otherwise the single best articulation of the party's tactical failures, large and small. Republicans criticize themselves in private. If Democrats must air their grievances publicly, it's hard to find two better critics to crash the party.

    Thomas F. Schaller is associate professor of political science at the University of Marlyand, Baltimore County, and author of the forthcoming book, Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South (Simon & Schuster, Fall 2006).

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