Thursday, March 31, 2005

Can We Put These Two on a Ticket?

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:

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.

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:
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?

Other blogs commenting on this post


Roland Patrick said...

What would the ACLU, NOW, NARAL, Americans United, the NEA, Hollywood, CBS News, CNN, , PBS, Lanny Davis, Susan Estrich, James Carville, Paul Begala, Michael Moore, George Soros, Al Franken, Jesse Jackson, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and thousands of other organizations and people be, if not the equivalent of Bill Bradley's 'pyramid'?

It's simply that more voters identify with the Republican 'pyramid', than with the Dem's.

A Red Mind in a Blue State said...

I agree with roland. It's not that the Democrats don't have that pyramid-- indeed, in the period 1932-1980 they institutionalized much of their base into expanded federal and state programs-- it's that the Dem's pyramid sits on unstable ground. They came to power with a vision, an understanding of the problems facing everyday Americans. It's just that they haven't adjusted, they haven't recognized when their solutions didn't work.

And they can't change because they have come to rely on inflluence groups, rather than ideas. Instead of supporting their pyramid, to beat this analogy to death, with the granite of core beliefs and visions, they have built it on independent boulders that shift and move.

They have the money. They have the support groups. They have the advocates. They just don't have the courage to press forward with new ideas.

PGL said...

Off topic - but Max Sawicky is asking for your comments on Baker-DeLong-Krugman v. Mankiw. Over at Angrybear, I suggested Greg owes you a citation.

Brian said...

I think the members of Roland's pyramid are lacking crucial components of the larger idea of cohesiveness that Bradley was trying to get across: Ideas and the money to fund them. The "influence groups" that Democrats rely on instead of think tanks are often at odds with each other (Enviros vs. Unions on drilling, for example) and the ones that aren't often cannot provide a message that most of American wants to hear (

James Carville and Al Franken are not the sources liberal policy ideas. They're merely mouthpieces to bring those ideas to the public, the equivalent of Karl Rove or Rush Limbaugh. What the Democrats do not have, and what they need, is a Grover Norquist on taxes and a Michael Tanner on Social Security (Tanner, by the way, more than held his own against a hostile crowd in NYC last month while debating Paul Krugman, Josh Marshall and the ridiculously biased moderator at the same time).

I agree with Professor Samwick about Bill Bradley. I'm a fairly conservative guy (A Red Mind in a Blue State) but I held up signs for Bradley at Dartmouth in the 2000 Primary. Rather than Hillary Clinton or even the insanely overhyped Barack Obama, perhaps the party could turn to Bradley, who provides a sound and sane intellectual backing for his policy ideas, in 2008.

Arnold said...

Why don't college campuses count as Democratic Party think tanks?

As a Conservative, I would say it's because college campuses are not places where much thinking takes place, but that's presumably not the answer that a Democrat would give.

JG said...

Brian said:

"I think the members of Roland's pyramid are lacking crucial components of the larger idea of cohesiveness that Bradley was trying to get across: Ideas and the money to fund them."

As to the money to fund them, no, that's false. Forget the labor unions, Soros, how the universities have been Democratic think tanks for 50 years, etc.

Bradley goes on with the myth of money from "the Scaife family and Olin foundations" funding a base of the pyramid that the Democrats can't match.

But as Jack Shafer wrote in Slate a little while back...
[Liberals]would have you believe that conservative foundations both outweigh liberal foundations and suppress the liberal message with their big spending. But that's not the case.... in the American Prospect in 1998, Karen Paget notes that none of these conservative foundations rank in the top 10 American foundations measured by assets, and most don't even break into the top 50.

What sort of media do liberal foundations fund? The liberal John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which reported assets of $4.2 billion in 2003, made grants of $7.5 million to various liberal media projects...

The Schumann Center for Media and Democracy gave money to liberal media organizations in 2003 at rates that would make a Scaife faint....

But as to the ideas that they're funding with all that money, yes, sure.

Look at what's happened to the Democrats' issues during their long secular decline since Democratic veto-proof majorities turned into what we see today:

Civil rights has become quotas ... free speech has become speech codes ... reproductive rights has become partial birth abortion ... getting kids out of bad segregated schools has become locking kids in failing schools ... low-cost programs to protect the old-and-poor from poverty in their final years have become $50 trillion of unfinanced promises to the old-and-richer-than-anybody-else that threaten future national insolvency ... opposition to a war abroad on the ground that it was harmful to those we were trying to help has become knee-jerk opposition to all things military... etc, etc.

Democratic positions have just become a whole lot less attractive to voters -- it's as simple as that -- and to many Democrats too, which is why they split so often.

E.g.: Kerry couldn't take a coherent position on what he'd actually do in Iraq if elected because, as Dick Morris and others noted, whatever he said would have antagonized half the Democrats. So he could only posture that he'd do "better".

That's why the Dems depend on having a "charismatic" candidate, to mask problems like that.

And Bradley just doesn't tell the truth when he says that after 1964 the Repubs didn't change their ideas but only got better organized at selling them.

After 1964 there was internecine war among the Repubs until the Goldwater-Reagan wing supplanted the Rockefeller-Nixon wing in the leadership and brought in a whole new set of ideas and values and strategies.

Bradley is selling soft soap to the Dems when he denies that -- and ignores the fact that his "Repubs in 1964" model implies the Dems will have to go through the same.

JG said...

"Why don't college campuses count as Democratic Party think tanks? As a Conservative, I would say it's because college campuses are not places where much thinking takes place..."

Well, the were valuable think tanks for the Democrats once.

But Posner has said that the monopoly that the left established among universtity faculties, eliminating intellectual competition, has lead to university leftists becoming mutton-headed and politically ineffective -- for which the right should be grateful.