Wednesday, December 01, 2004

THE PASSION OF JOE TRIPPI. Howard Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, offered his prescription for what's wrong with the Democratic Party and how to fix it on the editorial page of yesterday's Wall Street Journal. If you're into conspiracy theories, you might ponder the fact that the leading forum of ultraconservatism would choose to post Trippi's decidedly left-leaning thoughts. It could be that Paul Gigot hopes the Democrats will take Trippi's advice even more than Trippi does.

Trippi's piece is online here. And though he's got some smart things to say, for the most part Trippi shows that he fundamentally misunderstands the phenomenon he helped to create, a phenomenon that was reaching its peak - lest we forget - just about one year ago.

I'll get to some of Trippi's specific observations in a moment. In general, though, what Trippi doesn't get is that, in retrospect, it's clear that there never was a Dean campaign. There was a Trippi campaign, and for a while it was impressive. But Dean himself - a smart, somewhat unpleasant, fiscally conservative former governor from a microscopic state - was never more than a blank slate on which Trippi could try out his innovative ideas. By using the Internet to build a decentralized, grassroots campaign, Trippi was able to capitalize on Democratic anger toward the Bush administration and especially its war policies at a time when the more-mainstream candidates were trying to take a more cautious path.

Trippi generated a great deal of excitement, especially among politically involved young people (a tiny group), over the idea of an in-your-face anti-war movement. Dean himself was never particularly important. If he was, well, maybe someone might have actually voted for him. Instead, he was an also-ran, filling the left-wing (despite Dean's actual views) truth-telling slot that might have been taken by Dennis Kucinich had Dean never run.

As to some specific points by Trippi:

Mr. Kerry raised nearly half of his war chest over the Internet. He was so successful at this that he actually outspent the Bush campaign. But it was the outsider campaign of Howard Dean, reviled by most of the Democratic establishment, that pioneered the use of the Internet to raise millions in small contributions; Mr. Kerry was just the beneficiary as the party nominee. And it was the risk-taking Dean campaign that forced the risk-averse Kerry campaign to opt out of the public financing system. Had that decision not been forced on Mr. Kerry, he would have been badly outspent by George Bush; he would not have been competitive at all throughout the long summer of 2004.

There is some truth to this. Certainly John Kerry, a lifelong advocate of campaign-finance reform, would not have opted out of public financing had Dean not essentially forced him to do so. But the idea that no one understood how to raise money on the Internet before Dean (actually, Trippi) is ridiculous. The notion of using technology as a fundraising tool, especially by outsiders, is an old one. Jerry Brown mentioned his 800 number every chance he got in 1992. In 2000, John McCain constantly flogged his website, and had some success raising money that way. Trippi took it to a new level not because he understood something different about the Internet, but because he built a campaign that specifically appealed to young, technologically savvy, well-educated activists who spent a lot of time online. Kerry didn't so much emulate Dean as he did benefit from a change that was already taking place.


Mr. Kerry's lead among young voters hid just how bad Election Day really was for Democrats. In 2000, voters between 18 and 29 split their votes evenly: nine million each for Mr. Bush and Al Gore. But in 2004, two million more voters in this age group turned out to vote. And while Mr. Bush won the same nine million, 11 million voted for Mr. Kerry. But when we set aside his two million new younger voters, the true disaster is revealed. In 2000, Mr. Gore and Ralph Nader won a combined total of 54 million votes. This year Mr. Kerry and Mr. Nader got 53 million (ignoring the two million new young voters).

Mr. Kerry was a weaker candidate than Mr. Gore. He lost so much ground among women, Hispanics, and other key groups, that the millions in Internet money, the most Herculean get-out-the-vote effort in party history, and the largest turnout of young voters in over a decade, couldn't save him. Had the young stayed home, the sea of red on the map would have grown to include at least Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Hampshire - perhaps one or two more.

Is this really all that hard to explain in terms other than "Kerry was a disaster"? Four years ago Gore ran as the inheritor of a popular president and a legacy of peace and prosperity. Bush was a lightly experienced former governor who didn't seem all that bright. In 2004, by contrast, Kerry was faced with the unenviable task of trying to defeat an incumbent president during a time of war - something that's never been done - and of trying to convince the country he would be more effective in the fight against terrorism than a president who'd done a good job selling the public, at least, on the notion that he'd stood up to the terrorists.

Trippi continues:

Since the Democratic Leadership Council, with its mantra of "moderate, moderate, moderate," took hold in D.C., the party has been in decline at just about every level of government. Forget the Kerry loss. Today the number of Democrats in the House is the lowest it's been since 1948. Democrats are on the brink of becoming a permanent minority party. Can the oldest democratic institution on earth wake from its stupor?

Trippi seems to forget that Bill Clinton was elected president twice by chanting the DLC mantra of "moderate, moderate, moderate." I've got some problems with Clintonism, but, politically at least, Trippi cannot credibly claim that it didn't work. It's true that Kerry campaigned as a centrist, and he's got some genuinely moderate credentials. But it's equally true that, in some ways (like his voting record), Kerry was the Democrats' most liberal nominee since Walter Mondale in 1984. I don't think it was his liberalism that did Kerry in; more likely, it was his difficulty in communicating a simple, understandable message to ordinary people. (Not that that would have necessarily worked, either; Bush's advantages were considerable.) But Trippi simply can't say that the Democrats have been laid low by rightward drift. The party needs a coherent message; maybe, as Trippi suggests, that message can be liberal. But lacking a message shouldn't be confused with Trippi's own ideological longings.

Trippi closes with a grocery list of micro-recommendations, including trying to give a boost to organized labor - as if the Democrats weren't trying to do that already. Trippi sensibly whacks Wal-Mart for paying "substandard wages with no real benefits," and he wonders why the Democrats can't take advantage of that. Unfortunately, the Republicans have figured out that more people shop at Wal-Mart than work there.

So what's the way back for Democrats? At the presidential level, I actually think it's pretty clear: a Clinton-like figure who can connect with ordinary voters on populist/liberal issues such as the economy, health care, college tuition, and the like; who doesn't betray the party's progressive ideals on such matters as gay rights, but who can at least communicate with cultural conservatives (this is how you win over moderates; the religious right is obviously lost to the Democrats, and it ought to stay lost); and who can at least reach the threshold of credibility on matters of national security. (In reality, the Republicans have zero credibility, so this is about communication more than it is actual policy.)

Joe Trippi is obviously one of the guys that Democrats ought to talk to. Just so long as they don't take him too seriously.

ELECTION FRAUD ROUNDUP. In today's Globe Brian Mooney's got a comprehensive overview of what we know about voting problems in the presidential campaign. Yes, it's a mess. No, Kerry didn't win. I remain intrigued by this story, but have yet to see any evidence that there was such massive fraud as to call the outcome into doubt.

MEDIA LOG PREDICTION. Remember, you read it here first. Former state senator Cheryl Jacques, who resigned yesterday as the top official at the Human Rights Campaign, will move to Cambridge. The city's congressman, Mike Capuano, will run for governor in 2006. And Jacques will run for Congress, standing a much better chance of winning than she did in the special election of 2001 to replace the late Joe Moakley, a contest won by Steve Lynch.

There is a certain purity in this prediction: it is based on absolutely no knowledge whatsoever.

STAY TUNED. Check out the website of WBIX Radio (AM 1060), which is remaining on the air after dumping all of its employees yesterday. A shame ... but if the Brad Bleidt scandal proves anything, it's that the money was never there. (Globe coverage here; Herald coverage here.)

WHY GOD MADE TABLOIDS. John Strahinich has a great story in today's Herald on some troubling fundraising questions involving the late Molly Bish and the Masons.

SPINELESS WIMPS. CBS and NBC tell the United Church of Christ that being welcoming is "too controversial."


Anonymous said...

Re Trippi: I'm a political junkie and even I couldn't slog through the (probably spot on) verbiage. DK, wasn't this Kerry's problem?
Re election irregularities: Ditto. Brian Mooney, the city's best columnist, wasted a column yesterday whining about Conservative hypocrites. In politics? Stop the presses! (Sure glad there are no analogous "progressives")..
Perhaps I (and others),am suffering from campaign fatigue and need a period of decompression to avoid the "bends"....

Anonymous said...

Strahinich's story re Masons IS excellent. Unfortunately your link is to the (basically) unrelated WBIX piece....

Dan Kennedy said...

I've fixed the Strahinich link - as well as an erroneous reference to the year that Steve Lynch won a special election to Congress.

Lis Riba said...

Regarding CBS ad policy, here are some other examples of ads CBS would and wouldn't air. [MoveOn: no; Bush Medicare policy: yes]

It seems to me that CBS equates controversial with "disagrees with the Bush administration"

Anonymous said...

Can Capuano get by the Atty.General for the Dem nomination? I don't think so. Romney has even been less impressive than I thought he'd be, and that isn't saying much?

Anonymous said...

Best take I've seen on Rather is at
You may not like her politics but I think she nailed this one.

Anonymous said...

The Dems have a potential candidate who meets your criteria. His name is Al Gore. And just like Nixon in 1968, a "new" Al Gore can be elected in 2008.

Forget about Kerry, Edwards & Hillary. the American people haven't elected a member of Congress to the presidency since Kennedy in 1960. Before that Warren G. Harding in 1920. The electorate prefers governors & Vice Presidents.

Anonymous said...

Boy, Dan, usually a fan, but your analysis of the Dean campaign was completely off the mark. I personally didn't follow Trippi, I was a fan of Dean. I saw Dean speak on Meet the Press in late 2002 and was immediately taken with the straight-talking Dr. I gave my first campaign donation ever a month or so later. I thought I was the only one. It was people like me, who were attracted to Dean early on, that allowed Trippi to expand the campaign's influence to the extend that he did.

I'm sorry you find Dean unpleasant; I find him refreshinly low on bullshit. I understand that many people are very fond of the current occupant of the White House, and yet look at his policies.

Anonymous said...

Cheryl Jacques, rhymes with "fakes," running for Congress again? Ugh, no please no. Isn't one "alternative lifestyle" candidate, state Sen. Jarret Barrios, running enough? He is planning on running. Why is there a need for Jacques in Congress? She is pathetic. What she did to get her pension extended was a waste. There are other "liberals" in the district who could run for the seat who would be better than Jacques.

Capuano is clearing jockeying for the corner office. And the primary between him and Reilly will be a bloody one.

Anonymous said...

"Trippi seems to forget that Bill Clinton was elected president twice by chanting the DLC mantra of "moderate, moderate, moderate." I've got some problems with Clintonism, but, politically at least, Trippi cannot credibly claim that it didn't work."

Dan Kennedy seems to forget the damage done to the democratic party by Bill Clinton was the worst experienced under any incumbent president since Grover Cleveland.

Here are some of the stats:

- GOP seats gained in House after Clinton became president: 48

- GOP seats gained in Senate after Clinton became president: 8

- GOP governorships gained after Clinton became president: 11

- GOP state legislative seats gained since Clinton became president: 1,254 as of 1998

- State legislatures taken over by GOP after Clinton became president: 9

- Democrat officeholders who became Republicans since Clinton became president: 439 as of 1998

Oh and those (pyrrhic) victories in 1992 and 1996 came with no small help from Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, enabling the "great triangulator" to cobble to together pluralities both times.