19th Jun, 2008

Culprit Number Two in the Democratic Party Mess: The Feud Between the Democratic Leadership Council and the Democratic National Committee

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obama and dean

In the current feud running through the Democratic Party, supporters of Hillary Clinton blame the Democratic National Committee for much of the mess because the DNC would not bow to Clinton’s demands over the Florida and Michigan delegations. But actually the situation is more complex than that.

It goes back at least as far as the 2004 Dean campaign and actually back even to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. Both Dean and Clinton challenged the regular establishment–Dean from the left and Clinton from the right. By the time Clinton left the White House he and his Democratic Leadership Council were the establishment as signified my the elevation of Clinton aide Terry McAuliffe to head of the DNC.

But McAuliffe was bounced after the debacle of 2004. John Kerry’s loss was bad enough, but the Democratic Party took a big hit in that election and blamed McAuliffe. There were some in the Party who felt that McAuliffe had not mastered the new modern campaigns that Howard Dean and Karl Rove both emblemized, campaigns that used the Internet and other communications technologies to mobilize the grassroots. The grassroots Rove and Dean appealed to were, of course, entirely different, but each in his own way had proven effective.

So when it came to selecting a successor to McAuliffe, Dean threw his hat in the ring and even though the DLC types were not happy with his candidacy they failed to mount a formidable opposition candidate. From the beginning Dean clashed with the DLC which by now had become the old guard.

Some of the conflict between Dean and the DLC stems from the 2004 campaign. In that campaign Dean was asking a very relevant question: What if the whole Hollywood production that has been titled “America’s Right Turn,” was nothing more than a phantom, a marketing creation, a fad, right up there with Pet Rocks and Cabbage Patch dolls? What if the strategy of the Democratic Party was merely like one of those bad Hollywood sequels, Rocky VIII, Crocodile Dundee Does Kansas City, Superman Redux? What if there was an error on the part of all the pundits who have made American politics a cacophonous squawk like a huge flock of crows descending on a particularly foul and rotting corpse?

Dean officially announced his presidential candidacy in June 2003, fully a year ahead of the convention and half a year before the first primaries. In his announcement he threw down a gauntlet to his own party saying, “Most importantly, I have wanted my party to stand up for what we believe in again.” What Howard Dean was trying to tell us was that the rise of the Republican Counterrevolution could be a much more complex and sinister phenomenon that the mere fact that one bright morning in America people had suddenly awakened and decided to become Republicans.

Howard Dean showed that Liberal America still had a pulse, and a pretty strong one at that. All the prescriptions and therapies being advocated by the self-designated care givers such as “slowing down” and “relaxing,” “toning down” the advocacy may in fact be doing the patient more harm than good.

After his election as head of the DNC, one of the biggest disputes was over Dean’s “Fifty State Strategy,” which was designed to rebuild the party from the ground up in every state. The old guard saw this as ridiculous because it was essentially throwing away money on states the Democrats could never hope to win.

After the Democrats won in 2006, you would have thought it was a time for rejoicing, but the DLC-types were determined to poison the water. Former Clinton aide and now-television-commentator James Carville fired a shot at Dean during an election night analysis on CNN. It surprised me that a person for whom numbers represent the main weapons of a well-stocked arsenal should come out shooting without any ammunition other than remarks from some anonymous Republicans (his wife, maybe). After comparing Dean to Donald Rumsfeld (as low a blow as one Democrat can make against another), Carville pointed out,

“There was a missed opportunity here,” he said. “I’ve sat down with Republican pollsters to discuss this race: They believe we left 10 to 20 seats on the table.”

The morning after Carville became even bolder calling for Dean’s resignation in a meeting with reporters:

Asked by a reporter whether Dean should be dumped, Carville replied, “In a word, do I think? Yes.”

The candidate Carville actually proposed to replace Dean was none other than Democratic Leadership Council chair and Kentucky Representative Harold Ford:

Suppose Harold Ford became chairman of the DNC? How much more money do you think we could raise? Just think of the difference it could make in one day. Now probably Harold Ford wants to stay in Tennessee. I just appointed myself his campaign manager.

For those of you not familiar with the Democratic Leadership Council a brief aside is in order. In 1985 a group dominated by conservative Southern Democrats including Al Gore, Chuck Robb, Sam Nunn, John Breaux, and an Arkansas governor named William Jefferson Clinton organized the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) with the initial mission of securing the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination for a moderate Southerner.

By 1990 Bill Clinton had became chair of the DLC. His first act was to preside over the formulation of the 1990 New Orleans Declaration. This document would become the blueprint for Clinton’s future and that of the Democratic Party. The most telling of these principles are:

We believe the Democratic Party’s fundamental mission is to expand opportunity, not government.

We believe that economic growth is the prerequisite to expanding opportunity for everyone. The free market, regulated in the public interest, is the best engine of general prosperity.

When Howard Dean entered the race in 2004, many saw his candidacy as an opportunity to end the reign of the DLC. When he became head of the Democratic National Committee similar hopes emerged. But the DLC would make like difficult for Dean. Carville was not the main thorn in Dean’s side, that came from former Clinton staffer and supporter Rahm Emanuel, who during the 2006 campaign openly feuded with Dean, at one point storming out of a meeting with DNC chair. According to Chicago Tribune reporter Neftali Bendavid, who witnessed the meeting Emanuel banged his hand on the table then:

Chided Dean’s grassroots plan, “No disrespect, but some of us are arrogant enough, we come from Chicago, we think we know what it means to knock on a door. You’re nowhere Howard. Your field plan is not a field plan. That’s fucking bullshit.”

Emanuel then released a letter demanding Dean release funds to his own Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Fortune called the letter:

The political equivalent of Microsoft executives arguing over how many Xboxes to ship where for the Christmas season.

Fortune went on to note Emanuel could sling the mud just as well as Carville, saying that in a meeting Emanuel:

Obliquely suggests that Dean is nearly as big an obstacle as Karl Rove to a Democratic win.

Any systems thinker worthy of the name could see the ultimate result of the Emanuel strategy would be a one-state party. But what is more important to note is that the Emanuel-Dean feud is about more than money–it is about ideological control of the Party. A lengthy investigation by Truthout uncovered the ideological roots of Emanuel’s machinations:

According to Democratic candidates who ran for House of Representative seats in 2006, Rahm Emanuel, then head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, took sides during the Democratic primary elections, favoring conservative candidates, including former Republicans, and sidelining candidates who were running in favor of withdrawal from Iraq.

An examination of individual races reveals a pattern of financial and political support for wealthy conservative candidates and an assault on their grassroots-supported opponents who were running on platforms that included a full withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

In review of Bendavid’s book on Emanuel in The American Prospect, Sarah Goldman writes:

He is adamant that “we have no base!,” a view that clearly guided his strategy for selecting candidates. As Bendavid writes, “he would not support the most loyal Democrats, or those whose populism was purist. His only criterion, he said, was who could win.” This kind of single-minded, values-be-damned vision is anathema to some on the party’s left.

The plot gets even more elaborate. In researching this article, two names popped up that make the credentials fight a bit clearer. One is Donna Brazile, the former Gore campaign manager who is currently being pilloried for her vote in the seating of the Florida and Michigan delegations and the other is Nancy Pelosi. Here is reporter Nina Easton’s account of a meeting between Brazile and Emanuel:

As I arrive for a July interview with Emanuel at DCCC headquarters, former Gore campaign chief Donna Brazile is standing on the sidewalk, buttonholing him. A party veteran, Brazile has seen more than her share of internal Democratic Party squabbles, and she’s worried about this one.

Some party activists view Emanuel as the instigator of a feud that is dividing the party. Dean may be the object of sighs and eye-rolling by pragmatic, big-donor Democrats-the crowd that has generally signed on with Emanuel-but as a populist hero to party activists and the “netroots” he helped spawn, the former presidential candidate has his own powerful base. So Brazile tells me she is here to deliver a compromise plan she hopes will cool the fires between the two men.

So TWO YEARS AGO, Brazile, to her credit, was trying to settle the dispute.

As for Pelosi, according to a recent report, guess which candidate she is supporting to replace Barack Obama in the Senate should he win the White House? Rahm Emanuel.

At this point, we need not go over the bitter hearings over the seating of the Florida and Michigan delegations other than to place them in the context of this larger dispute between Howard Dean and the DLC:

There has been a struggle in the Democratic Party between Howard Dean’s DNC and the Clinton wing of the Party. The alternative organization Dean formed after his unsuccessful bid for president, Democracy for America, was a direct slap at the Democratic Leadership Council. So the struggle yesterday was a struggle between two factions of the Party.

In the end the dispute was about something much bigger–the future of the Democratic Party. In many ways it resembled the conflict between Dean and the DLC resembles the conflict that almost tore apart the 1912 convention. That also was a dispute between Democratic progressives and conservatives. While my ideological sympathies are clearly with the Dean wing, it is clear the feud has to end or the result will be disaster next fall.

Donna Brazile may not exactly be well-liked by Clinton supporters but two years ago she had the right idea when she went to visit Rahm Emanuel and propose a compromise. Brazile and others like her will hold the key to extricating the Democratic Party from its difficulties.

Several weeks ago I predicted Dean would be gone as a result of the delegates dispute. Sometimes it is nice to be wrong. Barack Obama renamed Dean as head of the DNC, showing where he stands in the feud. Hopefully this will move the party forward and perhaps end the feud.

I wrote a piece about Obama facing a task comparable to that of Woodrow Wilson in uniting a divided Democratic Party. Let us hope this move helps to heal those divisions much as Wilson was able to heal those of 1912.

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