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Only the Grassroots Can Save The Democratic Party
Published Tuesday, November 30, 2004 by the Wall Street Journal
Only the Grassroots Can Save The Democratic Party
by Joe Trippi
 

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 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.

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 playbook!

  • 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 the south.

  • 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.

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