Mark is right that Democrats should be thinking of how to undercut the extra-governmental mobilization that continues to advantage republicans. For example, there’s just no way that Democats can expect to continue to win control of the House if they give up even 2 or 3 percent of the vote to the Republicans on accountof the turnout apparatus. But I’m not sure I completely buy Mark’s implication that the main piece of the puzzle here is trying to dismantle what the Republicans have built. I think there are parts of their apparatus that can be challenged. Certainly there is every reason to believe that the businesses who form the members of major industry groups are going to be asking themselves whether they feel comfortable being headed by so many Republican ex-Delay-staffers. Most of the continuing (but declining) electoral money advantage should be balanced by Democratic control of Congressional committees. That’s a big piece of the pie. I also think that some of the Republican organizational nexus can be challenged through investigations–any serious set of investigations are going to come up with even more Abramoff-type collaboration between interest groups and the former Republican majority, and the Bush White House. Some important parts of the think tank world will probably get pulled into this as well.
But as important as weakening our Republican opponents is, it has distinct limits. The most important piece of the Democratic organizational agenda is positive–building up our own capacities. This is why I think the calls for Howard Dean’s resignation in favor of Harold Ford are almost unbelievably stupid. I was NOT a fan of Howard Dean in the 2004 primaries, but I actually think he’s been quite a far-sighted DNC chairman.Those who say that the Dems could have won even more seats if Dean had just devoted even more money to winning Congress are substantially missing the point. Whatever else happened, the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress under Dean’s DNC chairmanship. You don’t fire someone after something like that. And most important, the Democrats won control of Congress while simultaneously making very important long-term investments in improving the party’s ability to compete across the country–investments that the party will begin reaping the benefit of over the next few years. If anything, the Democrats need to do even more of this, even more intensely. As Democratic wins in places like Montana, Virginia, North Carolina, etc. show, the idea that we’re a permanently 50/50 nation, with all the voters locked up, is wrong. Much of the electoral map is actually in play, and even more of it could be if the Democrats put serious resources into candidate recruitment and party building beyond our near-270-electoral-vote core of states. Even if we don’t win in some of the states where we continue to be weak, we can force the Republicans to defend as much territory as possible–don’t let them act as if any flank can be left undefended. So, the first order of business is to put as much money into state party-building as possible. Don’t fire Dean–give the man a raise.
Second order of business, in my mind, is gerrymandering. Republicans have done this quite effectively in a number of places, and Democrats need to do so as well. To do that, we need to win control of state legislatures. I think this fits very well with the Dean strategy of putting money into state parties. Where Democrats win complete control of a legislature, we should gerrymander the hell out of it. Where Democrats only win one house (or a governorship) they ought to veto any plan that does not come along with a state constitutional amendment to establish some form of non-partisan Congressional districting (which I think is preferable from the point of view of a citizen, rather than as a partisan).
Finally, and to some degree connected with the first order of business, is to rebuild the popular base of the party. This is where simply replicating what Republicans did is not such a brilliant stategy. Conservatives (as I argue in the book that I’m just weeks away from putting to bed) built the network of elite organizations we now know and love because they were in a state of profound organizational disadvantage vis a vis liberals. That is, they built the Federalist Society, conservative public interest law, think tanks, etc. because liberals had such substantial control of much of the country’s elite institutions, while conservatives’ strengths were mainly at the grass roots. This is the opposite of the problem faced by Democrats, who continue to be strong at the elite level, but whose grass roots are still fairly weak. “Netroots” don’t really serve as an adequate substitute, because they don’t translate as well into ground level action (like turnout). I think the Democrats need to find ways, as part of Dean’s state party building project, of rebuilding the Democratic party as a genuine source of solidaristic benefits at the local level–to make the Democratic party a more profond part of people’s daily lives–more Democratic softball teams, drinking clubs, speed-dating scenes, church social issues discussion groups, hunting and fishing groups, etc. These are going to vary across the country, which is one of the advantages of having a more decentralized party. The basic point is that Republicans have a durable advantage because their party has more of a real social role in more people’s daily lives. Democrats need to find a way to match that, and NOT just among college-educated, upper-middle-class people, but especially among the citizens who continue to be somewhat suspicious that Democrats really are ordinary people like they are.