Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Diagnosing the Democrats

The New York Times has an interesting pair of op-eds today in which a prominent Republican and a prominent Democrat offer constructive criticism of their own parties. For this post I'll be commenting on the Democrat's op-ed which was written by Bill Bradley. The Republican's op-ed was written by John C. Danforth and might get a post later this week.

The first part of the op-ed is an analysis of the Republican Party based on the metaphor of a pyramid:
You've probably heard some of this before, but let me run through it again. Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.

The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate. That language is sometimes in the form of an assault on Democrats and at other times in the form of advocacy for a new policy position. The development process can take years. And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.

At the very top of the pyramid you'll find the president. Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.
This is actually a pretty reasonable metaphor. After all, the combination of secure funding, innovative creative design, efficient concept-to-product development, and a long-term advertising campaign sounds like Management 101 to me.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is described as an inverted pyramid:
To understand how the Democratic Party works, invert the pyramid. Imagine a pyramid balancing precariously on its point, which is the presidential candidate.

Democrats who run for president have to build their own pyramids all by themselves. There is no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on. Unlike Republicans, they don't simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus - they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too. Many Democratic fundraisers join a campaign only after assessing how well it has done in assembling its pyramid of political, media and idea people.

There is no clearly identifiable funding base for Democratic policy organizations, and in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas. Campaigns don't start thinking about a Democratic brand until halfway through the election year, by which time winning the daily news cycle takes precedence over building a consistent message. The closest that Democrats get to a brand is a catchy slogan.
This also seems like a reasonable analysis to me, since it correctly identifies President Clinton as both as a strength and a weakness of this inverted pyramid structure. You have to admit that President Clinton successfully assimilated a huge chunk of the Democratic party into his pyramid during the 1990's. The massive list of Right-Wing best-selling books expressing their impotant rage about the Clinton scandals also attests to the strength of President Clinton's efforts to keep the structure intact. The real problem that developed was Vice-President Gore's dilemma about whether to run on the Clinton record or in contrast to the Clinton record: the favorable media attention needed to keep the Clinton administration in power through the impeachment hearings also made it more difficult to make a realistic assessment of the liabilities of associating oneself wholeheartedly with the Clinton administration.

Thus, one obvious advantage of organizing a party around a single individual is the unity of command that such a structure provides. For a Presidential candidate who is amazingly charismatic and who is notorious for innovating the "never let a charge go unanswered" style of information management, unity of command seems necessary for winning an election. The obvious drawback of organizing a party around a single individual is that it also risks institutionalizing the negative aspects of the person in charge. I used the Clinton scandals as an example, but if you prefer, just look at the horrendous consequences of putting Senator John Kerry at the apex of the pyramid in 2004: a party organization based around unity of command is probably destined to lose when its leader can't even establish unity of command over his own public opinions.

Unfortunately, the problems of the Democratic party are also dramatically understated by this article, because the contemporary Democratic party is a lot more than just a traditional domestic political party of the United States. For many Democrats, the Democratic party is also a leading advocate for a just global politics, multilateral institutions, and an international rule of law based on a consensus reached by a global public opinion. A Democratic presidential candidate must be able to assemble elements of domestic politics and international projects such as the Kyoto treaty into a winning campaign while a Republican candidate is presumably less burdened in this respect. If you believe that the Kyoto treaty cost Vice-President Gore the electoral votes of West Virginia (due to its prominent coal production) in the 2000 elections, then this type of instability of the Democratic Party may already have cost it at least one presidency.


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