“Battle for the soul” of the Democratic Party

Daily Kos has a great article up today — The New Republic, which generally keeps its Web archives for subscribers only, has given Kos a link into an important article they’re running entitled “Outside In”. It’s the first piece I’ve seen yet that hits the nail precisely on the head about the critical distinction that’s arising in the Democratic Party between the “old guard” (the DNC & DLC crowd, led and installed by the Clintons) and the “reformers” (a loose collection of interests that have coalesced around the Dean campaign). If you’re at all interested in this election, you must read this article.

The division in the party over Dean is less about ideology than about power. Three years after Bill Clinton left office, he and Hillary still control what remains of a Democratic establishment. Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), was installed by Clinton. Most of the powerful new fund-raising groups, known as 527s, and the new think tanks, such as the Center for American Progress, are run by the best and brightest of the Clinton administration. As National Journal noted in a detailed look at what it called “Hillary Inc.,” the senator’s network of fund-raising organizations “has begun to assume a quasi-party status.” And some of the best Clinton talent is heavily invested in non-Dean campaigns, especially Joe Lieberman’s (Mandy Grunwald and Mark Penn), John Edwards’s (Bruce Reed), and Wesley Clark’s (Bruce Lindsey, Eli Segal, and Mickey Kantor).

Dean, by contrast, has come to represent the party’s anti-establishment forces. While the other candidates, especially former self-styled front-runner John Kerry, started the campaign by wooing party leaders, Dean built a grassroots army first–in part by bashing D.C. Democrats and their disastrous 2002 election strategy–and is only now leveraging his fund-raising power to win over establishment types. No Democrats closely associated with the Clintons are working for the Dean campaign. In fact, it’s hard to find a Clintonite who speaks favorably of the former Vermont governor. This evident schism is not just about Dean’s opposition to the war–or even his prospects in the general election. It’s a turf war to decide who will control the future of the party.

This struggle is playing out in several of the party’s organizations and constituencies. Indeed, Dean’s high-profile labor endorsements–the cornerstone of the tipping-point argument–actually emphasize the party’s divisions. Andy Stern, the leader of SEIU, is to the labor movement what Dean is to the Democratic Party–an anti-establishment reformer. When the AFL-CIO failed to adopt reforms recommended by Stern earlier this year, he started a breakaway organization–the New Unity Partnership–with several other unions that is now seen as a major challenge to the AFL-CIO establishment. And SEIU is a lot like the Dean campaign. It’s the fastest-growing union and one of the most democratically run. It’s obsessed with organizing new members to whom it imparts a message of empowerment, unlike the more centralized AFL-CIO. Stern and SEIU, with their emphasis on health care instead of globalization, are the future of the labor movement in the United States, while the industrial unions, which back Dick Gephardt and have been bleeding members for years as they fight an uphill battle against free trade, are the past. SEIU’s backing of Dean isn’t a nod from the establishment–it’s a protest against it.

Note that first sentence: “The division in the party over Dean is less about ideology than about power.” That’s it exactly. Dean’s politics aren’t radically different from Clinton’s — he’s a pragmatic centrist, just as Clinton was on most issues. The difference is where they get their power from. When Clinton became the de facto leader of the Democratic Party in 1992, he inherited an organization that had in many ways ceased to exist except on a symbolic level. He rebuilt the organization into an impressive fund-raising machine by taking a page from the GOP’s playbook: the Clinton-era DNC focused on reaching out to large corporations and wealthy individuals, tapping their wealth for Democratic candidates. However, while this approach was great for the bottom line, it ran against the grain of the Democrats’ traditional strength: the ability to connect people together into a cohesive movement, competing with sweat equity rather than with money. In the ’90s Democratic Party, “grassroots politics” was for suckers and rubes, something you did only when you couldn’t afford to do real politics via slick multi-million dollar media buys.

The end result of all this was a kind of devil’s bargain that Clinton struck with the rest of us who called ourselves Democrats: don’t ask too many questions, let me and my people raise the money and run the campaigns the way we want to, and we’ll keep you at least nominally in power. And, for the most part, we went along — even when it became clear in 1996 that the fundraising tactics had gotten way out of hand.

However, the last few years have seen the Clinton team’s magic touch disappear. It began to unravel in Florida in 2000, and the debacle of the 2002 election further tarnished the “trust us, we know what we’re doing” mystique. So, when people talk about Dean as a “rebel” or a “protest candidate”, you have to understand that this is a big part of what he’s protesting against — the takeover of the Democratic Party by people who essentially sold it to further their own political careers. And candidates like John Kerry are never going to get any traction until they figure out which side of this internal split they come down on. (Kerry talks the talk of a reformer, but all his financing and organization are strictly old-school.)

This fight between big-money and shoe-leather politics really is a fight to determine what the shape of the Democratic Party is going to be. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out…