Campaign 2008: Democrats Must Work Smart By BOB BURNETT News Analysis

Tuesday December 28, 2004

In Silicon Valley folklore, a typical project goes through five stages: unwarranted enthusiasm, unmitigated disaster, search for the guilty, persecution of the innocent, and promotion of the uninvolved. Evidently, the Kerry-Edwards “project” has advanced to the fourth stage where many, including Berkeley’s MoveOn.org, are being blamed for the Nov. 2 loss. 

If Democrats are to learn the difficult lessons from the defeat, they are going to have to stop whining; quit claiming that they lost because Republicans cheated or because certain individuals or groups were incompetent. Democrats need to face reality: Republicans won because they ran a better campaign; one where the GOP made fewer mistakes and did a superb job of getting out their base. Democrats worked hard, but did not, alas, work smart. 

There are five big lessons to be learned from the Kerry defeat. Democrats must take in each of these lessons if they are going to work smart in the future. 

Lesson one is that the Democratic Presidential candidate must be perceived as authentic; someone who is not easily typecast as a free-spending liberal or a member of the cultural elite. Neither John Kerry nor Al Gore was seen as authentic, but Bill Clinton was; and many contemporary Democrats, from Barney Frank to Nancy Pelosi, are viewed as authentic by their constituencies. 

To be regarded as authentic, it is usually the case that a presidential candidate must be seen as an outsider, someone not easily associated with the Washington beltway. In this past election an example of such a candidate was Howard Dean, who gained early support because he was an outsider claiming to represent, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Many new Democratic faces, who won on Nov. 2, carry the same sense of authenticity; for example, Brian Schweitzer in Montana and Barack Obama in Illinois. 

Lesson two is that a successful Democratic presidential candidate must run as an unabashed economic populist. In 2000 Al Gore seemed to be embracing this as the centerpiece of his campaign, “They’ re for the powerful, and we’ re for the people,” but inexplicably backed away. In 2004 the Kerry-Edwards campaign flirted with populism, most notably in John Edward’s evocation of the “two Americas,” only to retreat into wonkdom. Once again, most of the new Democratic victors won because they espoused a basic populist message, for example, Obama in his rousing keynote address at the Democratic convention, “it’s not enough for just some of us to prosper. For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people.” 

The point is that Democrats must not let themselves be suckered by Republicans into fighting America’s class war on cultural grounds. The GOP has been successful diverting the masses with a media campaign that warns of a liberal attack on ill-defined moral values. Real Democrats understand that standing up for Americans in need, honoring our commitment to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper is an authentic moral value. When Democrats engage the GOP on the vital issues of class warfare, they should fight it over economic issues; they should fight it on their home turf—populism. 

The third lesson is that Democrats must move beyond their historic focus on identity groups, such as African-Americans, and forge new alliances with affinity groups, as MoveOn has done. In 2004 Republicans ran an affinity-group-based campaign, skillfully utilizing multilevel marketing techniques with conservative churchgoers, gun clubs, and chambers of commerce. In the future, Democrats should forge new relationships with natural allies such as environmentalists, progressive Christians, and small business people. 

The fourth lesson is that Democrats must recognize that while presidential elections only occur once every four years, America has entered the era of the permanent campaign. Bush won in 2004 because from the moment he took office, in 2000, Karl Rove began planning his reelection. The Democratic Party needs to start organizing the 2008 Presidential campaign now. 

The final lesson to be learned is that from an organizational viewpoint, comparing the Republican Party to the Democratic Party is like comparing a traditional relationship to a one-night stand. The Republican National Committee is hierarchical and disciplined; it runs the state and county committees with an iron hand and demands conservative ideological purity. In comparison, the Democratic Party is a loose coalition of groups that range in capability and ideology. The Democratic National Committee is primarily a collection of fundraisers lacking overall organizational competence. Meanwhile, the state and local committees go their own way, supplemented by independent groups, such as MoveOn, and the political wings of advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club. Every four years there is an attempt to patch together a “Party” for the purpose of electing a Democratic president. 

It’s clear that to be competitive in 2008 Democrats need to take in these five lessons: find authentic candidates who run as economic populists, embrace affinity groups as well as identity groups, and wage a permanent campaign with a real national party—one that provide a substantial infrastructure that supports precincts in every state. In other words, Democrats have to learn to work smart.