Memo to sore losermen

You've had more than a week to mourn the election results. Now it's time to emerge from your pathetic fetal position.

Published November 11, 2004 9:30PM (EST)

The range of emotions out there in the progressive community since Election Day has been all over the map -- from sad and mad to sullen and resigned. But it's time to move forward.

I'm not going to tell you how to feel, that you shouldn't do whatever you need to do to get back on your feet -- grieving, primal screaming, or perhaps shooting cans in the backyard as a way to get in touch with your red-state cousins. I was kidding on that last suggestion: It won't really help, in my view, for you to be mad at red-state voters who found Bush and his optimistic, confident style preferable to Kerry, who unfortunately stumbled over some easy opportunities to explain himself on the war. It also won't help that some Democrats are getting mad at the mayor of San Francisco or gay rights activists for maybe pushing too fast on an issue that our Puritan-settled nation isn't ready for just yet. And it really won't help if you move to Canada -- because we need you right here. The time to act is now.

As one of the progressive movement's self-appointed referees and evangelists, I offer a new round of organizing principles and to-do's -- for the next 100 days and onward -- to mull over as you unfurl from the fetal crouch position.

Get up ... and get your war on. Enough resting and moaning already! The day that the Democrats and progressives run a perfect campaign, with a great message and great mechanics, with our values and a compelling, hopeful vision of American community truly on the line, and then we lose to cultural class warfare and gay-baiting, that's the day to give up. That didn't happen on Nov. 2. This is a long struggle, and admit it: We're Americans who want instant gratification, even in our politics. This was not a 1984 or 1964 landslide. We put 56 million votes on the board and 252 electoral votes. Remember, the right-wing didn't just stop working when they hit pay dirt in 1994. Change takes time. Think Nelson Mandela.

Muzzle the "mandate." While some among us worry about whether Bush stole the election, or why the red states don't like us, Bush and crew are busy claiming a radical policy mandate despite a mere 51 percent win. So wake up already. These people are Energizer bunnies; they keep going and so should we. For now, we need to be obstructionist on oil drilling and Supreme Court appointments without seeming, well, obstructionist. That simply means defining what we are for: Can we name a conservative judge or two we'd be happy to see nominated who isn't a creationist nut ball? Let's do that. Can we define big ideas on energy independence that aren't a tiny drop in the bucket like drilling in the Arctic? Done that; see the Apollo Alliance.

Stop the hand-wringing about the DNC, the DLC and the Democrats. People, how many times do we have to explain that the old era of political party identification is giving way to a disaggregated thunder dome of cause-based politics, distributed democracy, MoveOn.orgs, house parties and do- it-yourself politics? Peer-to-peer politics -- in churches, workplaces, schools, music clubs -- is replacing the party as the place where new stuff happens. Are you ready to pick up a hammer and help build a new network for change, rather than pick fights over who runs a political party with a declining brand? We've seen that movie -- it's called "Groundhog Day" and it stars Al From and Dick Morris -- and we saw it in 1984 and 1994.

Still wanna take over the Democratic Party? Feel free. The Democratic National Committee chair controls 2.5 million e-mails and it's a pretty good brand to hold sway over once every four years. Plus, you get $10 million for a convention with lots of balloons, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. While the DNC picks a new chair in January, it's likely to be decided by Bill Clinton, Harold Ickes of America Coming Together, Donna Brazile of Gore 2000, Howard Dean, Henry Cisneros, MoveOn's Wes Boyd and some other folks. So a better bet might be taking over your own state party. Hell, I'll bet they'll be glad you come to their meetings.

Senatorial spine: Emergency infusion required. If you have the time or connections, please get in the faces of our 44 Democratic senators, from the Mary Landrieus to the Ron Wydens, and give them love, encouragement and the gumption to stand tall against the coming Bush juggernaut. Urge them to read that groundbreaking book by Thomas Frank, "What's the Matter With Kansas?" and ask them to think hard about where "moderating" Democratic principles has gotten us. We should listen to that Kansas fella: Now is not the time to lie down on economic populism. Remind them that Republican senators who sell mainstream values (like environmental protection) down the river will feel the pinch in 2006 at the polls -- not them.

Yes, we need a better message. And better mechanics. Yes, we need to win over our base voters -- but also persuadables. Yes, we need to "go big" on our thematics, yet micro-target our audiences. Every campaign I have ever been in struggles over these either/or choices, when the right answer is usually doing the best of both! On message, keep reading, we'll get there, I promise. On mechanics, I actually think we're in pretty good shape. We have the technology, training and talent to effectively manage high-tech and high-touch grassroots politics; we just need to rinse and repeat with what works. That means the third M -- money -- had better be there.

Money, money, money. So what's with all these rich dudes who want to help the Democrats? Weird, huh, but hats off to George Soros for supporting and jumpstarting civil society here in America again. (More hats off, of course, to Howard Dean's campaign for showing the way on online fundraising, taking John McCain's virtual money machine of 2000 to a new level.) But while it's nice that there are progressive sugar daddies and mommies, the key here is building a sustainable revenue stream for our politics through small-donor networks and a membership-based, business model (wow, it almost sounds like a new union).

How do we steer in this general direction in the next 10 years? Well, we've got some real capacity with our many single-issue, cause-based groups, so let's make sure that we nurture and network them, and create new links between them, before we create another round of new 527s and other groups. When we do, a gentle reminder to our friends in Silicon Valley and at the new Democracy Alliance: Please make sure that for every great new group and big new vision, some percentage of that budget gets tithed to the grassroots infrastructure that every group needs (see the Fertilizer Fund, below). That's the missing piece from the America Coming Together model that I'd like to see in the new ACT 2.

Meet the Fertilizer Fund. Before we create another new group, or launch another new ad campaign, let's leave behind a little money to seed success for the long haul. Rich dudes, big groups, everyone, should pay in -- 1 to 3 or maybe 10 percent of their new money raised given to organizations that provide needed infrastructure. We know what we need (list matching, voter files, election protection), and what works (living wage, boots on the ground, a growing farm team of state and local candidates through great groups like Progressive Majority and Wellstone Action). Also needed: a new collective of smart state directors to run states, their way. Folks, you know who you are. Get organized and get your proposal out there.

States: The coin of the realm. Until the rules change in the Electoral College, ya gotta win states to win the presidency. They are the prizes that count. But we shouldn't wait four years. In 2006 and beyond, we will win elections when and where we can create effective state electoral networks that bring progressives and Democrats to the polls. The issue might be healthcare, it might be education, it might be some other local concern driven by a national player like SEIU, People for the American Way, the PIRGs, Sierra Club, you name it. The organizing center of that network might be the state Democratic Party or a new one like the Working Families Party in New York, or a homegrown organizing effort like the Oregon Bus Project.

In short, devolution is our friend. Because while we can't win diddly in Washington right now, we win all the time out in the states on issues like living wage (hello, Florida, and hello, Nevada, just last week). So let's leave behind an elite fighting force for existing federal regulations in D.C. and gather our strength in the hills. And remember one other thing: Both progressive and more centrist New Democrat Network candidates actually agree on most state issues, like workforce training, fighting sprawl, energy efficiency, public education, and an end to corporate subsidies and government waste. Not bad huh?

National Velvet. There is always a great deal of jockeying after an election, and with openings at the DNC, a postmortem on what the Soros money bought, open wounds in the labor community, head-scratching over the Latino vote loss, and the famous Rob Stein PowerPoint play calling for a new Democratic message machine, it's hard to know what will shake out. Plus, it's way above my pay grade.

What I do know is this: We do need a little bit of cultural change among our top leaders to help open new doors and share our strategic thinking more widely among the community. Last year, I wrote this in my original "Kumbaya Dammit" piece: "So take a deep breath if this collaborative-kumbaya stuff gives you shortness of breath. If you can't work with someone who theoretically is on your side, don't. But do find a way to share what you are doing. Just sharing that is useful data -- because transparency is a form of collaboration. Transparency, for progressives, is progress."

The good news is that a new generation of leaders is emerging -- folks like Cecile Richards of America Votes, Mark Ritchie of National Voice, and Amy Chapman of Grassroots Democrats. Rob Stein, of slides fame, is also a ray of hope. That Stein and others are focused on developing younger leaders and talking about training and leadership academies is heartening indeed.

Show trials for Shrum & Co.? You don't have to tell me that we've spent too much in the last 20 years on Democratic TV spots while underfunding infrastructure. But let's save the show trials for the creeps who OK'd the torture sessions at Abu Ghraib and tarnished our nation. Besides Rumsfeld on trial, the accountability I most want in politics applies to our candidates. But we can't expect party loyalty without something to discipline candidates who sell us out on key Medicare votes and the like. At a minimum, candidates who take money from progressive PACs should sign a pledge to certain core progressive values -- lots of examples abound. We need only look at how well Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, as well as Common Cause on campaign finance, have used broken pledges to exact a price down the line.

Third parties and other structural changes. After an election like this, there will be some percentage of folks who will have "had it" and will be moving to Canada -- or at least claim to be looking into it. If that's you, my suggestion involves getting lots of hugs, because I've been there, I have. I respect your instincts. But really, if you buy the point about winning states, you'll worry less about the future of parties. That said, if you really, really want a third party in your state, at least talk to Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party in New York about how to do it right. If you are into other structural reforms (voter rewards, instant run-off voting, open primaries, or parliamentary politics), know that they aren't my cup of tea. Personally, I'm a public financing, state clean-money kind of guy who likes a dash of fusion. But if your passion fits with taking strategic power for your state, I say good luck.

Message 101: Hope beats fear. I have not been ducking the message question, just warming up to it. First of all, forget the "values" debate -- that's their word, their frame, their Luntzian head game. Are we really as naive as the media? Do you really believe that the Republicans won the "values" game by espousing higher moral principles? By gay-baiting? By saying John Kerry would ban the Bible? By having dusted-off Nixon cronies lie about Kerry's war record? This is values politics? Give me a break. All this election proves is the old adage that "you can't fight something with nothing." We can't beat a fear-based, Republican message with silence. The Kerry campaign failed to articulate a hopeful, national call to action in the post-9/11 era and instead offered vague "plans" under the theme of "not Bush." This is not a moral crisis for the Democrats -- it's just a weak message.

Puritan/parental politics. That doesn't mean we don't need to distinguish between what is always going to be in our platform (abortion rights, gay rights and so on) versus what isn't always a great front-line message for red-state, Puritan descendants who are understandably reeling from Monica Lewinsky's dress, Janet's boob and whatever else is on MTV that day -- and I mean that. I have kids, as do millions of other parent-voters, and we all wish American culture would slow down just a tad. There are plenty of ways to talk about these issues effectively: Go ask Obama.

The perfect message. Guess what? There isn't one. We've got lots of inspiring core beliefs to share, from faith and tolerance in our hearts, to dignified retirement and childhood at home, to girls' education and citizen diplomacy abroad. Whatever we call the New American Dream, we just need to speak from the gut and articulate hope -- and echo it all via the new, collaborative platform for media, entertainment and activism now taking shape. We also need to micro-target, organize and motivate different audiences, in different places, at different paces. This iterative approach can work, especially if we mimic the right on one score: patience. Newt Gingrich, Eddie Mahe, Paul Weyrich and other top conservatives didn't look for one single slogan to win power in an instant or an election cycle; they crafted solid messages, organizing and executing over many years. Let's copy that.

And the war? Well, that's George Bush and Dick Cheney's problem for now. Along with the deficit. But this will be all of our children's mess for the long haul unless we get up and campaign smart.

By Dan Carol

Political strategist Dan Carol was staff director of the Democratic Party Platform in 1992 and served on the Clinton debate team.


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2004 Elections