Devolving The Power: What Dean Gets Right

(Guest Post by Big Tent Democrat)

Howard Dean is a controversial figure in our Democratic Party. I did not support his Presidential run - I think he was and would be a flawed Presidential candidate. I did support his run for DNC Chairman, I thought he could bring an energy and a grassroots following to our Party, which was sorely in need of it.

But I think Dean has brought a vision that is as valuable as that energy - and that vision is described thusly in Matt Bai's NYTimes Sunday Magazine piece:

the Democratic Party needed to be decentralized, so that grass-roots Democrats built relationships with their state parties but had little to do with Washington at all. "State parties are not the intermediaries," he said. "If I get them trained right, they're the principals."

In other words, I suggested, he was talking about "devolving" the national Democratic Party, in the same way that Reagan and other conservative ideologues had always talked about devolving the federal government and returning power to the states. "That's what I want to do," Dean said firmly.

Matt Bai misinterpets this vision as an attack on the national party structure - an attempt to "starve the beast" to irrelevance, Bai called it. I think it is quite the opposite. It is an attempt to renew the relevance of the Democratic Party as a whole, which is much more than the DNC headquarters in Washington, D.C., indeed the heart and soul of the Party is the millions of Democrats across the nation - our Big Tent. Let me explain why I think Dean's vision is the right one on the flip.

Devolution of power in the Democratic Party is inextricably tied to Dean's 50 state strategy. I don't know if I agree with Dean's execution of the strategy, in fact I am pretty sure I disagree with a lot of it, but the idea of a 50 state Democratic Party is sound, even essential, to its continued relevance.

It is no secret that I am a proponent of a politics of contrast for Dems. I am also a proponent of a Big Tent Dem Party. Are these two ideas mutually exclusive? I think not.

For example, while I am skeptical of a short term strategy that can deliver significant wins for Dems in the South, the medium and long term offer opportunities. But I think they come from the devolution strategy that Howard Dean is trying to execute, creating strong state Democratic parties that control their own local message. National branding still requires a national message and, more importantly, negative branding of the Republicans.

Last year, Mark Schmitt wrote a compelling piece, "One Democratic Party, Or Many?" that I think nicely illustrates this point:

A few months ago, I heard Ed [Kilgore], in response to a question at a talk, explain how Democrats had, over several decades, crafted several different ways to win in the South, the most recent being a coalition of white suburbanites, African-Americans and rural whites based on improving education, with Governor Hunt of North Carolina an example. His argument was that Democrats would win again, with a different coalition. If Ed's written this up, I hope he'll share the link -- it was more useful than the complete works of Earl and Merle Back.

Beyond the Deep South, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, Arizona and Tennessee all have Democratic governors and they all have one thing in common: they are very popular. In addition, the big Midwestern states that were a powerful base for Republicans in the 1990s have now mostly swung back; if Ted Strickland is elected governor of Ohio next fall it will be a significant shift back.

It is tempting to pick any one of those governors -- Schweitzer in Montana, Bredesen in Tennessee, Napolitano in Arizona, etc. -- and say, "that's the formula for Democrats." Obviously, each of them has figured out some sort of formula that works for them in their state. But their formulas are all very different -- Schweitzer populist, Bredesen high-tech, Napolitano tough and clean -- and all of them would face a different situation if they ran for U.S. Senate, where voters' opinion of the national Democratic party comes into play. . . But clearly something about the national Democratic party was pulling these candidates down.

True enough. But Mark picked states where Dems simply aren't going to win in the short term. And no message we deliver will change that. Oklahoma and Alabama? Forget them, in the short term.

And this is where Mark's analysis faltered in my opinion. He looks at states where we have no chance to prove what? Mark thinks a better national message can deliver Oklahoma? Alabama? Puhleeaze. No more than Massachusetts can be delivered to the GOP at the national level. Thus Mark made this error:

[Competence in governing is] very different, though, from the idea that we need a single, coherent national message (economic populism or cultural moderation or national security). But even if there were a strong national message, would all of our state-level stars, the Napolitanos and Granholms, the Easleys and Sebeliuses, embrace it? And if they wouldn't, what's the point?

The point is we can win in PURPLE states. We can find a message that works in purple AND blue. And, to be frank, it is basically a negative message about the extremists that run the GOP.

But that is not to say that multiple local messages are not also necessary. The Big Tent. And Howard Dean understands this. Thus his devolution strategy is essential to making a national Democratic Party, a Big Tent Democratic Party, a relevant and powerful reality. The devil is in the details of course, but the big picture is essential, and I think Dean gets the big picture.

< Torture: The World Can't Wait | A Child of Jihad >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    Re: Devolving The Power: What Dean Gets Right (none / 0) (#1)
    by Che's Lounge on Mon Oct 02, 2006 at 08:27:29 AM EST
    I don't need to read more. Any involvement of the voting public in shaping the political structure is both advantageous to progressive candidates, and destructive to the ruling class. Guess who gets called the spoiler?