The staggering defeat of the Democratic Party and its
ever-accelerating death spiral weren't obvious from the election
results. Two factors masked the extent of the party's trouble.
Without the innovation of Internet-driven small-donor fund-raising
and a corresponding surge in support from the youngest voters, John
Kerry would have suffered a dramatically larger defeat. And the true
magnitude of the Democrats' abject failure at the polls in 2004 would
have been more clearly revealed.
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.
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
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.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush, received 50 million votes in 2000, and 59
million in 2004. He added nine million votes. That's because Karl
Rove had a plan and the campaign executed it brilliantly. But the
problem for Democrats is not Mr. Rove; it's that they're doing the
same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. That's
the definition of insanity.
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? Here are some steps to pull out of the nose-dive:
- Democrats can't keep ignoring their base. Running to the middle and
then asking our base to make sure to vote isn't a plan. And to those
who say talking to your base doesn't work -- Read the Rove 2004
- Democrats must reconnect with the energy of our grass roots. One of
the failures of the DLC was that its ideas never helped us build a
grass-roots donor base. As a result, Democrats held a lead over
Republicans in only one fundraising category before this election
cycle: contributions over one million dollars. That shows how far the
party had strayed from grassroots fundraising before the Dean
campaign. We must build a base of at least seven million small donors
by 2006. With the Internet it's possible. But it can't just be about
the money, it also has to be about ideas.
- The one thing we learned in the Dean campaign was that the 30
people in Burlington weren't as smart as the 650,000 Americans who
were part of our campaign. Instead of a DLC in D.C., Democrats should
be holding Democratic Grassroots Councils in every county. Democratic
National Committee members in each state, along with the state party,
should host and moderate these meetings to develop ideas that come
from the people, instead of the experts in D.C.
- A party that ignores the needs of state and local parties is
doomed. We must begin to invest aggressively in states we continually
write off in national elections. If we don't, the decline of the
party in these states will continue until we're non-existent. Look at
- In a world in which companies like Wal-Mart pay substandard wages
with no real benefits, our party has got to find innovative ways to
support organized labor's growth. A declining union membership is not
good for the country, it's not good for working people, and it
certainly isn't good for the Democratic Party.
- The Democratic Party has to be the vehicle that empowers the
American people to change our failed political system. We all know
the damn thing is broken. Democrats should lead the way by placing
stricter money restrictions on candidates than the toothless Federal
Election Commission does. A party funded by contributions from the
people can do this. A corrupted and corroded party cannot. The
Democratic Party shouldn't wait for campaign-finance reform -- it
should be campaign-finance reform.
- Finally, what is the purpose the party strives for today? What are
our goals for the nation? You couldn't tell from the election. Very
few good ideas come from the middle, and they tend to be mediocre.
Consultants have become adept at keeping candidates in that safe
zone. But the time has come to develop bold ideas and challenge
people to sacrifice for the common good. Experts will tell you that
you can't ask the American people to sacrifice individually for the
common good. Those experts are wrong -- it's just been so long since
anyone has asked them.
Mr. Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's presidential campaign, is a
fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School and an MSNBC commentator.
© 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.