Published Jan 20, 2007

Well, now Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are running for President in ‘08. That means that us lefties can say goodbye to the White House for probably the next 12-16 years. The decision of these two people to run in two years says awful things about the Democratic Party machinery and its long-term planning capability.1 Obama and Hillary2 can’t win in 2008, and, by overexposing them now, we’ll ensure that they can’t win later. It’s lose-lose and it will keep a Republican in the White House for eight years or more.

A quick look at each of the candidates individually shows why they can’t win in 2008. At least a third of the country would never vote for Hillary, short of Jesus Christ himself coming down from heaven to be her running mate. Obama is an inspiring speaker but has almost no record; his election was so recent that he hasn’t even been able to establish a strong local constituency, to say nothing of a national following. While there are advantages to being unknown and to being able to define exactly who you are, and while this is definitely year for people who are “outside the Beltway,” a lack of both local and national profile is hardly a strength.

Now, both Hillary and Obama are solid candidates. Hillary, in particular, has a powerful machine and good fund-raising capabilities. She’s likely to make it deep into the primaries and could even win the nomination. But, with 30-40% of the country unwilling to vote for her under any circumstances, can she win?

But in 8-12 years, after another Democratic President, Hillary might not be the bugaboo to conservatives that she is now. In 8-12 years, she’ll have had more time to establish her centrist credentials — and she has been very centrist — and build alliances that make her someone other than that wife of Bill Clinton who tried to nationalize healthcare.3 Obama will have time to become well-known throughout the midwest, to introduce major legislation that can define him, and to take meaningful positions. He could even serve as a Governor, expanding his expertise and base of power. Both are young enough to wait that time — why not enter the fray with a greater chance of winning?

If we in the Democratic Party want to take and hold Congress, the states, and the White House, we need to stop sniping at targets of opportunity, as we are with hot new fads like Barack Obama. We need to have a solid strategy that finds and funds strong candidates at all levels, advancing those who are able to win at a higher level. That’s right, the Democratic Party needs a farm team.

Let’s be the Yankees in the late 1990s

In the late 1990s, the Yankees went to, and won, four World Series. Now, we all hate the Yankees,4 but we can learn something from them. The Yankees’ big streak came from two things:

  • A strong farm system
  • Strategic free-agent pickups

The strong farm system brought in players like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, while strategic superstar pick-ups like Roger Clemens filled key spots. In contrast, my Orioles are losing these days because we overspend on mid-level free agents and fail to develop our own talent. Miguel Tejada may be a great shortstop, but he can’t win if he’s not surrounded by talent, and two years ago we gave big bucks to Sidney Ponson5 because of one flash-in-the-pan pitching season; he turned out to be nothing but trouble and imploded.

The Dems now are being like the Orioles now. Obama had a hot ERA so he’s looking like the #1 starter, but what’s his record? Can he bring the heat next year, or in two years? If not, why are we giving him the big contract?

Instead, like the Orioles, we’re raiding our farm teams for short-term solutions, compromising our future. Two years ago, John Edwards walked away from a Senate seat that he could have held for years in order to run for President, after just one term. Of course, being in North Carolina, that seat went Republican. What kind of a strategy is that?

To win, we need to focus on our A team. In California, and in my home state of Maryland — both strongly blue — a strong slate of Democratic city and county officeholders (A ball) continually trickle up to statewide offices (AA ball) and provide a number of options for the Governor and Senate and House seats (AAA ball). In California, although we lost to Schwarzenegger, the Democratic Party was able to put forward two totally plausible candidates — a guy from AA who had risen through the A and developmental leagues (Angelides) and a hot AA free agent acquisition (Westly). Best of all, with two people leaving their statewide positions to take a run at the Governorship, we had strong enough A-ball players to keep their seats Democratic.

Having a strong farm team nationally, like we do in very blue states, will thus have two advantages:

  • Provides a number of strong candidates, with built-in messages and constituencies, to run for higher office
  • Ensures that we can keep the seats of the people who run for higher office

That’s a big win-win. Of course, we have to start at the City Council level to play the game this way, but that’s ok — City Council races are cheap. Throw $10k a few places and it’ll make a big difference. Which races? Ones in the cities in which we need to keep mayors. Then we need to be selective, supporting Mayors and County Administrators and the like who can move to wider office, such as State Senator or Governor. Again, it’s cheap to win a State Assembly race, but a strong Assemblyperson is a strong House member. It’ll take 25 years, but, with vision and strategy, we can find ourselves with strong candidates at every level in strategic states, able to take and hold seats that are safe not because of fancy redistricting but because of the range of viable candidates that the Party can offer.

But, for the moment, we need to realize that our current, short-term focused plan will fail. Howard Dean needs to sit down with Hillary and Obama and get them to sit down themselves, waiting for a few years to make the big run. Then he needs to sit down with solid candidates, such as Bill Richardson,6 and get them to stand up this year.7 Until we start having a solid, long term-focused strategy, we’ll be staying up late every election, wondering who won State Attorney General and Governor and House seats, rather than going to bed early, confident that we’re bringing the all-around game that will win. And we need to start this soon, because the Republicans won’t always have such an albatross around their party’s neck in the White House.

1 It should surprise nobody that Howard Dean would run an organization that was weak in planning.

2 I hate to come off all Republican, but “Clinton” isn’t sufficiently specific when speaking about politicians.

3 She didn’t. But that’s a discussion for another time.

4 If you don’t, then I hate you. Personally. Watch your back.

5 That’s Sir Sidney to you!

6 Bill has probably decided that he doesn’t want to face down the deep-pocketed Hillary and the charismatic Obama and therefore is sitting out this one, waiting for these two to ruin their future chances to win the Oval Office and open up the playing field for him in 2012.

7 Assuming that there’s another Democrat who can win the New Mexico Governorship — let’s not hobble our AAA team.

6 Comments

Your sniping at Dean is entirely wrongheaded. The 50-State Strategy, the Permanent Precinct Program, the efforts to get permanent organizers on payroll all over the country, and the various DFA training programs for organizers, activists, and potential candidates, all play into the kind of thing you’re talking about.

BTW, Richardson is problematic as a Presidential candidate because he just isn’t very charismatic. One can argue over whether charisma / looks / telegenic speaking should be a qualification, but in this age, it is. There are also rumors that he may have some, er, Clintonesque secrets waiting to be found.

I do wish Warner would’ve run. I also think Mike Easley, successfull NC-Gov, might’ve been an interesting candidate. Brian Schweitzer, too. Both are more interesting to listen to than, say, Evan Bayh. (Of course, all three of these folks are more conservative than I’d really prefer. But, maybe the country is more conservative than I am. #shrug#)

(You know how many things I had to try before I found something with which to replace asterisks, for indicating action? Sheesh.)

Oh, and BTW, while I do think Edwards ran prematurely in ‘04, I think that in the past couple of years, having shown leadership on the living-wage issue even outside gov’t (he was a major driver in getting min-wage increases in seven states), he’s better positioned this time. Acting as if this race is going to be only Barak Obama vs Hillary Clinton, counting Edwards out entirely, is nuts. (For one thing, the polls I’ve seen show Edwards as the best performer, of the known candidates, against all hypothetical Republican opponents.)

I’d love to see Edwards go further, I just think that Obama and Hillary will draw too many big-name contributors.

The charisma thing is a big problem. Frankly, I think the DNC should spend a bunch of money on improv classes for everyone. It’s a fair knock on Richardson, about whom I probably think too highly.

And I probably do think too poorly of Dean. I agree that he’s built good structures, but I’m suspicious of his focus on activism. Activism’s not incompatible with the kind of program I’m talking about, but nor does it lead to it. I guess I’ll believe in 2-4 years.

I just do feel that he’s fallen down in bringing party discipline to the choice of who runs for what office. The Ben Cardin vs. Kweisi Mfume primary is clearly an instance I care far too much about; having two candidates who are really strong in 6-10 years, as Hillary and Obama are, throw their hats in the ring now suggests this is not something he can control.

To use another sports metaphor, it strikes me that Dean likes to blitz on every down, which is a great way to get a dramatic sack, but since the Democratic Party has a weak secondary, if the rush doesn’t get to the GOP QB fast, then it’s a sure touchdown. I don’t think we need such a risky strategy; I think we can win surer if we play for field position.

Clearly I need to work harder; there’s got to be an Ultimate Fighting reference I can work in here somewhere.

Activismís not incompatible with the kind of program Iím talking about, but nor does it lead to it.

Tell that to the veterans of DFA training classes on how to run a campaign, many of whom are now running for office. My friend Elizabeth Lasensky ran for Menlo Park city council this past cycle. (She didn’t win, but she ran a credible campaign.) Oh, and the candidates that the local DFA backed, did win the Mountain View city council seats that were up.

Oh, and, hello! I’m an elected official! I represent over 100,000 registered Democrats!

Re: party discipline and conflicting egotistical candidates… Uh, yeah, I agree that we have issues with that — like, I wish we hadn’t had three good candidates for LtGov, and none for IC. But did you expect the guy to turn back the tide of Will Rogers’ “not a member of an organized party” in less than four years? Cut the guy some slack!

You’re totally bass-ackwards about Dean’s strategy. Consultant types like James Carville looked at the situation in 2006, and said we should blitz for a majority by picking “targeted” districts, dumping money there, and shredding principles in search of any candidate who’d wear a “D” label and would appeal. Dean said, no, I’m pursuing the 50-state idea, where we invest everywhere, and back candidates who do at least agree with our fundamental principles (even if they interpret them a little differently).

As it turned out, if we’d focused only on the “targets”, we wouldn’t be in the majority — only ~10 of the original targets were flipped. Because of Dean-style activism, we picked up a lot of “long shots” like McNerney’s CA-11, and three districts in Indiana. If we hadn’t, there would’ve been calls for Dean’s head, but he still would’ve been right.

First of all, I think it’s dangerous to give too much credit to Dean for the Dem victory — let’s not lose sight of the fact that the President is disastrously unpopular, Congress was a bunch of shlubs, the War is widely hated, and Republicans seem to be into gay underage employee sex. That’ll cost a lot of seats.

That said, I agree the “50 states” thing was a much better idea than the targeted races approach. There’s a supposed puff piece about Rahm Emanuel in last month’s GQ that I can’t find on their web site, but it really shows how pointless the targeted races approach was.

The real answer is probably somewhere in between. Certianly there’s a lot of evidence that targeted campaigns can be spectacularly effective, but a few wins make no sense if there’s no overall rising of the tide. Sometimes it’s even worth it if we lose — Tammy Duckworth, for instance, was absolutely worth running and backing. But there is a downside to running a marginal candidate in an area with no fundamental support. Take the GOP in the district of Baltimore that I grew up in: 90% Black, probably 97% registered Democrat. The only guys the Republicans could find to run were boring, semi-successful White small businessmen who suggested that maybe we couldn’t trust African-Americans in positions of power to be effective. That kind of a candidate doesn’t help the party.

The focus needs to be not just on all 50 states but on all eleventy-quintillion minor local offices. That’s where many candidates can start out. It’s great that the Democratic party has people like you getting on at the first stop, because who knows how far you’ll go. It’s probably the weird local LA politics that’s hiding a lot of this from me — we haven’t seen any new blood here in a while, not least because the City Council’s so small and the County Commissioners so few. Of course national media never covers a City Council or County Assessor win, so I’d never hear about it.