Saturday, January 03, 2009

Dean's List

The Nation has a great profile on Howard Dean and the 50 state strategy here. The entire article is good, but here's the section that Liberals should pay close attention to in the coming months as we decide how to structure and rebuild the party:

As he prepares to step down as DNC chair in January, giving way to Obama's handpicked successor, Dean has cemented his legacy as a prophetic, if underappreciated, visionary in the party [see Berman, "The Dean Legacy," March 17]. When pundits saw the country hopelessly divided between red and blue--with the blue part of the map restricted to the West Coast, the Northeast and an increasingly embattled Midwest--Dean argued that the party had to compete everywhere. After the epic meltdown of his presidential campaign, punctuated by the endlessly looped "Dean scream" after the Iowa caucus, Dean took one of the most thankless jobs in Washington and turned it into a laboratory for one of the most exciting experiments in modern Democratic Party history. He radically devolved power away from Washington by cultivating a new generation of state political organizers and lending support (and money) to long-forgotten local parties, bucking the Beltway establishment and enabling grassroots activists. He rehabilitated his party, and his image, in the process. Dean's fifty-state strategy, as it came to be known, "fertilized the landscape" for Obama's fifty-state campaign, Brazile says. If his strategy is extended during the Obama administration, we'll find out what a true fifty-state party looks like.

At the 2004 Democratic convention, Dean, who was running Democracy for America, the grassroots organization he founded after his presidential bid, met with state chairs from around the country and heard all about their woes. "They were all talking to me about how hard it was to win governorships and Congressional seats and state legislative races because nobody would put any money in except in the presidential race," Dean recalls in an early December interview in his Washington office. He'd learned during the primary that year how much the party had atrophied organizationally, "lurching from one election to the next," slicing the electorate into narrower and narrower targets (remember Florida and Ohio?). The meeting with the state chairs confirmed his worst fears. "I realized we weren't a national party anymore," he says.

A few months later the state chairs asked Dean and the other contenders for DNC chair to give $200,000 a year to each state party. Dean enthusiastically embraced and enlarged the plan en route to easily winning the DNC race and gave every state the resources to hire at least three or four organizers and access to a high-tech database of voters, which became the twin cornerstones of the fifty-state strategy. Under Dean, battlegrounds like Ohio still took priority, but every state got something. That might not sound like much, but it was practically a revolution within the Democratic Party, which tended to view the DNC as a PR agency and ATM for Congress and/or the White House. "We had a great building and no debt," Dean says, referring to the work of his predecessor, the high-flying Clintonite Terry McAuliffe. "But there was essentially no technological infrastructure and no political infrastructure of any worth." The states, by and large, had been left to fend for themselves.

Indiana is a good example. When Dan Parker became chair of the state party in November 2004, his first order was to slash his staff in half after Democrats lost the governor's mansion. Indiana, like so many states, had been written off by the national party--the last Democratic presidential contender to carry it was Lyndon Johnson. But Dean gave Parker the money to hire three field organizers and a full-time communications director, the first the state had ever had. (When Dean came in, thirty states had no such important position.) In 2006 that staff worked on three competitive Congressional races long before the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) arrived. The party picked up all three seats that year and elected a record number of Democratic mayors in 2007. By the time the Democratic primary rolled around this past May, Hoosier Dems had been revitalized, and Obama--to the surprise of many--invested heavily in the state, visiting forty-nine times. On November 4 Obama won Indiana--a state John Kerry lost by twenty points--by 26,000 votes. "We're a poster child for the fifty-state strategy," Parker says.


  • Folks,
    I cringe every time I see the 308 logo.
    (Note it was 50 STATES not 435 congressional districts that Dean went after.)

    Now a coast-to-coast-to-coast (or 10+3) strategy I can go for but the 308 thing just bugs me.


    1) Most important, I am sick of fighting my Green/NDP friends. We should not run a candidate in most ridings that have a sitting NDP MP or where vote splitting let a Con win over a leading progressive. Of course reciprocity is mandatory.
    This doesn't have to be permanent - a transferable vote or a PR system would preclude the need for this - as would the re-emergence of a Reform-type vote splitter on the right.

    2) There are some ridings in Alberta, BC, Quebec and likely Sask. that should not get national resources to support their local election campaigns - at this time.
    We might as well burn our cash send the volunteers to the movies rather than push in places that are stuck in the 19th century.

    By Blogger Northern PoV, at 6:24 PM  

  • Well, I wouldn't be opposed to a focus on 200 key ridings, but as long as the campaign subsidy is in place, there is some value in building up the party in all ridings.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 7:04 PM  

  • I'm wondering where all of this money will come from. The Liberals are broke and they came 4th in many western ridings.

    The comparison with the Dean strategy is like comparing apples and oranges.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:54 PM  

  • You won't understand why the ridings don't vote for you unless you campaign there. Disparaging them by saying they are stuck in the 19th century misses the mark.

    By Anonymous fooz, at 7:57 PM  

  • And here I thought it was verboten to use American strategy to win elections in Canada. After all thanks to Liberal informants it was all over the news that Harper was bringing in American ringers to help him win!

    By Anonymous Joe, at 8:19 PM  

  • Is this a case of "A Liberal is a Liberal" no matter where they run, or is there room in the Liberal Party for small-l liberals that may have a regional interpretation of what it means to be a liberal?

    If it's the former, then I would have to agree with Northern PoV that there isn't much point in allocating resources where Liberals won't get elected. However, to say that the LPC is "progressive" is a bit rich; Liberals might campaign from the left, but they govern from the centre, if not the right.

    If, on the other hand, there is room in the Liberal Party for a wider range of viewpoints(i.e. the "big-tent" approach), then it's important that the regional associations get support. Fooz is correct that you won't know why you don't get support unless you campaign everywhere. And that knowledge is important when considering policy and programme development.

    Joe, it's not an "American" strategy, it's a "democratic" strategy, which should be applicable in any country that has pretentions of being democratic. I agree that Liberals' complaints about using "American" expertise was misplaced; if the point is to win elections, then one gets the help one needs from any source.

    In any case, it's debatable whether Harper's decision to use "American ringers" (how are they ringers, btw? They didn't run as candidates, did they?)was all that productive.

    One should note, however, that while the political spectrum in the United States is considerably narrower than in Canada(there's really no significant presence of anything like the NDP, for example), there is significantly more overlap between the parties than exists in Canada. For example, a Southern Democrat might be more "right-wing" than an Eastern Seaboard Republican, or one from California.

    The parties themselves are not nearly as ideologically committed in the US as they are in Canada. Nor is there the extent of party discipline that we "enjoy" in Canada; in fact, I would argue that the conventions of party discipline in Canada is the single biggest obstacle to true democratic governance, significantly more so than in other parliamentary democracies such as Britain, India, Australia, or Japan.

    Even a change in electoral system such as to STV or PR won't change that as long as the PMO continues to wield its overly extensive powers of appointment.

    The fundamental question to me is, does the LPC really believe in the grassroots, or is it just paying lip-service to the idea?

    By Blogger Party of One, at 9:01 PM  

  • I really hope the Liberals spend more resources in Alberta. This way, they can split the left wing vote in the one non-CPC seat and allow the Conservatives to retake it.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:08 AM  

  • Anon: Forget Linda Duncan.

    I'll happily risk the one seat of the party that's too left wing for my tastes to build a party that can take on the 27 that are too right wing for my tastes.

    C. of Centrebloq

    By Blogger C., at 7:46 AM  

  • This article is a great find.

    However, I think the most important passage - at least as a Liberal in Alberta - is this one:

    More important, "it made Alaskans proud to be Democrats again," says state chair Patti Higgins. When opportunity struck, as Dean predicted, Democrats were ready. "It doesn't look so dumb now that Ted Stevens got indicted [in July] and today we have a Democratic senator from Alaska," Dean says. "But without a voter list and a party that knows what it's doing and is well trained and staffers that are up there for four years, we don't win that seat, plain and simple."

    By Blogger Albertosaurus, at 11:29 AM  

  • A couple of things. First, I think the fact that the structure of the LPC is still federal is the first obstacle to jump. No point in giving money to people and places that are totally unaccountable to the national structure for how it gets used.

    Second, the US parties contest everything. Governorships, senate seats, house of representative seats, state legislatures, down to mayors, sheriffs, and judges.

    The LPC, on the other hand, doesn't have anything to do except elect MPs. So the net benefit of giving local organizations some money is drastically reduced. There is no training like experience, and there is no opportunity for experience.

    That's not to say that you shouldn't give them money, of course. That's just to say that you should probably also give them something to do with it, and hold them accountable for doing it.

    That's how you catch the good ones and eliminate the bad ones.

    By Blogger Gauntlet, at 11:41 AM  

  • fooz is right. If you think ridings that don't vote Liberal are "stuck in the 19th century" that's your problem right there. The 308 strategy will never work until the party learns some humility.

    And if you don't like the 308 strategy because what you don't want the vote splitting, then you should be pushing to unite the left. It sounds like you're not actually a Liberal, simply an anti-Conservative who favours the strongest of the non-Conservative parties. And obviously the 308 strategy wouldn't appeal to someone like that. The 308 strategy is meant to appeal to actual Liberals, not people who merely hate the Conservatives.

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 12:11 PM  

  • "Second, the US parties contest everything. ... judges."


    While judges in the lower courts (State Supreme Court, State Court of Appeals, Circuit Court, Probate Court) do stand for election, it is on the Non-Partisan section of the ballot.

    By Blogger paul.obeda@, at 2:25 PM  

  • "You won't understand why the ridings don't vote for you unless you campaign there. Disparaging them by saying they are stuck in the 19th century misses the mark."

    Additionally, the "stuck in the 19th century comment" helps to cement the notion of the LPC being the party of arrogance. Accepting the fact that people have different, but not illegitimate, political views would be beneficial to a party that fancies itself as a national party.

    OTOH, if the LPC wishes to be the Toronto Party, then by all means continue with the condescension - your choice.

    By Blogger Jim R, at 6:45 PM  

  • That's the nature of leadership.

    In the NDP, Jack Layton is the agent of the members. He has to think about what the supporters want e.g. union members. But, a winning centralist team has to do it differently.

    They have to ask what does it take to hold the center? They build their vision around the goal. They recruit and build, ala Obama, to get the job done within the context of the time and place.

    By Blogger JimTan, at 9:13 PM  

  • "In any case, it's debatable whether Harper's decision to use "American ringers" (how are they ringers, btw? They didn't run as candidates, did they?)was all that productive."

    I couldn't care if American conservatives wanted to help the Conservatives, up here. What help could it be, especially now? The hands-off, deregulating, you're-on-your-own Republican conservatism that has had its hand on the tiller in the US for much of the past decade has been pretty thoroughly discredited with the recent financial meltdown.

    As for cross-pollination in the past.... well, I'd wager it wasn't productive, either. Even given whatever "help" and "experience" (*cough*) imparted by American conservatives, and the Tories' donation-heavy war chest, it's important to remember that Harper & Co. have still only managed to fight the resource- and leadership-poor Opposition parties to an effective draw at the polls.


    Big whoop.

    By Anonymous rc, at 12:51 AM  

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