Strategies Change Based on Circumstance

I’ve been fairly critical of the certain segment of progressive activists who generally assume that everything good that happens is the result of the “50 State Strategy” Howard Dean came up with as DNC chair, and consequently attribute anything bad that happens to the decision to end it in 2009. Indeed, I’ve been fairly critical of the strategy itself. Dean basically devised it in an overreaction to his crushing defeat in the Iowa caucuses when, after busing in volunteers from outside the state and ignoring precinct captains and prominent local activists, he was trounced by Kerry and Edwards, whose campaigns had courted these local fixtures who could actually deliver votes in the caucuses. Dean’s response was basically to overestimate the effect local effects have on elections, or at least national elections. Congressional general elections are not the Iowa caucuses, after all. And so, Dean took DNC money and paid for state parties to hire additional field staff, which left less money to spend directly to Congressional candidates. But hey, Democrats won big in 2006 and 2008, so it’s not really a big deal now, nor would I necessarily say it was a failure, even though the 2006 elections pretty clearly showed that Dean was overreacting to 2004. But all’s well that ends well.

By contrast, 2010 simply isn’t 2006, or even 2008. Whereas the Democrats were an opposition party in 2008, and especially in 2006, now they control every lever of the legislative process, especially the White House. And the sort of strategy that works for an opposition party simply doesn’t work for a governing party. The criticism that the DNC is too heavily geared towards advocacy for the Obama administration is just stupid; how voters feel about Obama’s Presidency will be (along with employment) the primary factor in how Democrats do in national elections, and to a lesser extent state elections. That’s just the place our national elections have evolved to; we have a parliamentary political system without having a parliamentary governing system. People view the President as the leader of government, assign outsized blame/credit to him for what the government does, and then votes accordingly. If unemployment stays around 10% and Obama’s approval ratings slip to the low-to-mid-40’s, it won’t make a bit of difference how many field organizers the Democratic Party has on payroll. This is something Republicans did a good job of recognizing, and getting their members of Congress on board for, for the most part, and something Democrats really need to figure out. Everyone staking out their own positions and haggling against one another isn’t really effective at managing public opinion, signing on the White House’s agenda and working to get it through Congress quickly would provide a much better political strategy, especially given that the President is much more popular than any Congressional actor, and certainly more popular than Congress as a whole. Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman posturing against the President is one thing, but the Democratic caucus as a whole would do well to look out for the political fortunes of their President, because they’re inextricably wedded to him electorally.

On a more personal note, I’d add that one problem with the SPP worship is that the field organizers it paid for weren’t necessarily that good at what they were doing. Speaking from personal observation, Ohio Republicans ran strategic and tactical circles around their Democratic opponents in 2006. In fact, it wasn’t even close; it was sort of like watching the #1 team in the country play an FCS division school. But Republicans were so unpopular, nationally and at the state level, that it simply didn’t matter how good their campaigns and staff were; people didn’t want them in charge of government anymore. And so even though the Democrats were operationally overwhelmed, they won 4 of 5 state executive offices, got more votes for their House candidates, and even got Sherrod Brown elected to the Senate. All this, of course, because George Bush and Bob Taft were incredibly unpopular.

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