Via Wizbang, I read two sensible op-eds in yesterday's New York Times, one by Jon Danforth (former Republican senator from Missouri) and one by Bill Bradley (former Democratic senator from New Jersey), analyzing their respective parties. The one by Bradley, in particular, reminds me of why I supported him in the New Hampshire primary five years ago. In particular, I think he has this description exactly right:
Bradley then attributes this lack of structure to the belief that another charismatic leader will save them. That seems right, too. Consider Bill Clinton's success, Howard Dean's initial appeal, Kerry's subsequent appeal based on his military record, and the ultimate failure of Kerry's campaign. To conclude his editorial, Bradley writes:
To further the party's ideological and political goals, Republicans in the 1970's and 1980's built a comprehensive structure based on Powell's blueprint. Visualize that structure as a pyramid.
You've probably heard some of this before, but let me run through it again. Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.
The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate. That language is sometimes in the form of an assault on Democrats and at other times in the form of advocacy for a new policy position. The development process can take years. And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.
At the very top of the pyramid you'll find the president. Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.
It is not quite the "right wing conspiracy" that Hillary Clinton described, but it is an impressive organization built consciously, carefully and single-mindedly. The Ann Coulters and Grover Norquists don't want to be candidates for anything or cabinet officers for anyone. They know their roles and execute them because they're paid well and believe, I think, in what they're saying. True, there's lots of money involved, but the money makes a difference because it goes toward reinforcing a structure that is already stable.
To understand how the Democratic Party works, invert the pyramid. Imagine a pyramid balancing precariously on its point, which is the presidential candidate.
Democrats who run for president have to build their own pyramids all by themselves. There is no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on. Unlike Republicans, they don't simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus - they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too. Many Democratic fundraisers join a campaign only after assessing how well it has done in assembling its pyramid of political, media and idea people.
If Democrats are serious about preparing for the next election or the next election after that, some influential Democrats will have to resist entrusting their dreams to individual candidates and instead make a commitment to build a stable pyramid from the base up. It will take at least a decade's commitment, and it won't come cheap. But there really is no other choice.I don't necessarily agree with the last one. With the decline of organized labor and the migrations in the country away from traditional Democratic strongholds, the Democrats are probably always going to rely a bit more on personality and a bit less on structure than the Republicans. The Democrats just need to cultivate (not find, cultivate) more credible personalities to run. Given the way he's taken to his new job, for example, Barack Obama looks good for 2012 even with the current Democratic structure.
I'd love to see an Obama vs. Jindahl matchup in '12 or '16. Or, even better, how about putting them at the top of a ticket for a new political party that includes Bradley on its left flank, Danforth on its right flank, and everyone in between?
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