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REICH: The Rebirth of the Democratic Party

If Democrats hope to regain the White House in 2004, they'll need to mobilize grassroots groups and thus rebuild the party from the bottom up.
 
 
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Democratic activists are pushing for a midterm convention next summer. The party hasn't met at midterm for more than two decades. But activists make a convincing case for rallying the troops next year before the 2002 midterm elections and using the occasion to articulate a new progressivism for America.

The stakes in 2002 are huge. If the Democrats don't make major gains, they may be a minority party for years to come. Notwithstanding George W.'s plummeting poll numbers and Jim Jeffords's splendid defection, Republicans are busy solidifying their power while Democrats have almost none to solidify. Dems don't have the presidency, don't control the House, don't occupy most governorships, and hold the Senate by only a single vote. What's more, Democrats face a brutal round of redistricting run largely by Republican state officials. All this means that the 2002 elections are pivotal -- and that in the months leading up to them, Democratic activists will have to work harder than ever to get out the vote. A midterm convention could charge up the party faithful for this formidable task and draw in new blood as well.

In addition, the Democrats' grass roots need strengthening. The official Democratic Party has ossified into a Washington-based financial service. It's become ever more efficient in seeking out likely donors but has forgotten how to inspire local crusaders. As a result, there's a large and growing political vacuum at the local and state levels. That vacuum is being filled by Green Party activists, labor organizers, students campaigning against sweatshops and for a living wage, Latino community organizers, and church-affiliated community activists, none of whom are especially interested in a resurgent Democratic Party. If Democrats are to have any hope of regaining the White House in 2004, they'll need to mobilize these troops and rebuild the party from the bottom up.

And what better way to mobilize them than by loudly and clearly enunciating goals they share -- goals to which Democratic activists are already committed? These include affordable health care for all families, high-quality child care, excellent schools for all our kids, strong environmental protections combined with energy conservation, a living wage, and effective campaign-finance reform. A midterm convention offers an opportunity to send a clear message to America that Democrats stand for these goals, in sharp contrast to Bush, Incorporated. Dems could use the conclave to nationalize the midterm elections of 2002 -- playing against the Republicans the card that Newt Gingrich played against the Democrats when he nationalized the midterm elections of 1994.

Finally, a midterm convention would enable activists to take the measure of potential presidential candidates for the 2004 race before the candidates begin rounding up money and locking in squads of campaign consultants and pollsters. Anyone even thinking about a run will want to attend and make a pitch because the race to become the Democrats' standard-bearer begins in earnest in 2002. By the time the 2004 convention rolls around, it will be over. Unless activists use a midterm convention to gauge prospective candidates, the next Democratic presidential candidate will be selected, in effect, by the party financiers who bankroll the primary campaigns.

Which brings me to the underlying rationale: A midterm convention would strengthen the hand of the party activists relative to the party financiers. That would be good for the Democrats and good for America.

For years now, the financiers have been gaining power in the party. They're the big rollers from Wall Street, K Street, major corporations, and national law firms. Their main interests are free trade, financial austerity (also known as balanced budgets and debt elimination), and privatized social services. Their main argument has been that Democrats must win over white males in upscale suburbs in order to win back Congress and the presidency. Their main voice in the party has been the Democratic Leadership Council.

The activists who have been losing ground in the party are teachers, unionized service workers, retirees, state and local employees, social workers, environmental advocates, and local politicians, including a rising number of blacks and Latinos. Although such groups have comprised most of the delegates to recent Democratic presidential conventions and have supplied most of the ground troops in get-out-the-vote drives, they've been outgunned and outmaneuvered by the financiers when it comes to crafting the party's agenda and fielding its candidates.

Democrats need to keep both groups in the fold. But the activists' agenda outlined above is closer to that of most eligible voters in America than is that of the financiers, even if it doesn't hold special attraction for white males in upscale suburbs. Such an agenda would draw to the polls a portion of the large number of eligible voters who don't vote and would lure back some of the Greens and independents.

A midterm convention isn't all that's needed for party activists to gain the upper hand, of course, but it's an important step. Whether it occurs at all depends largely on whether organized labor pushes for it. The AFL-CIO still wields clout at the upper reaches of the Democratic Party. It's in both camps -- obviously an important source of Democratic campaign money but also critically important at the grass roots, and becoming even more so.

The betting here is that labor will side with the activists. After all, that's where labor's future lies. Labor needs to inspire and ally itself with grass-roots activists across the country. And it needs a strong Democratic Party, built from the ground up.

That's why next summer the Democrats will hold a midterm convention that launches a new progressivism in America. Planning for it starts now.