Bloggers and Billionaires, MoveOn and Howard Dean: The Battle for the Soul of the Democratic Party
As anyone who follows politics knows, there's been a revolt against the "old" Democratic Party represented by Clinton insiders and an array of powerful political consultants, pollsters, and gate keepers.
Frustrated by Clintonian triangulation, two losses to George Bush in elections that were widely perceived to be stolen or given away too easily, and enraged by the party leadership's support of the invasion of Iraq, outsiders have risen up in an attempt to displace the insiders and their losing ways and bring more progressive values and vision to the political process.
It is a widespread uprising, which, according to Matt Bai's new book, The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, is "led by baby boom liberals, wealthy investors and defiant bloggers whose faith in party and country had been severely shaken by 12 years of Republican rule."
Battle for the Democratic soul
Make no mistake: this is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. It's primarily a fight between the grassroots and the elites. It's a struggle that has been fought many times in political history, but it's never been fought at a time when the insurgents could tap into the kind of power represented by the Internet, probably the single-most significant shift in political organizing and communication capacity in decades.
Who will eventually prevail in this donnybrook is unclear, and of course there will be compromises and dÃƒÂ©tentes reached along the way. But many feel that if Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic party nominee, those who have exercised power for the Dems over the past two decades will keep their hands on the reins, while if it ends up being Obama or Edwards or someone else, it may usher in a new era of Democratic politics.
Arrayed on the establishment side are a host of recognizable names including Terry McAuliffe, former head of the DNC; James Carville, longtime Clinton advisor, author and talking head, who is married to chief Dick Cheney protector Mary Matalin; Harold Ickes, another former Clinton official who raised many millions of dollars for media on behalf on the Democrats leading up to the Kerry nomination in 2004; and Bob Shrum, media consultant-cum-campaign manager who led the failed Kerry campaign in 2004. It was Shrum's fifth consecutive defeat in the presidential sweepstakes.
In Mathew Yglesias's Washington Monthly article: "Shrum and Dumber: Memoirs of the Man Who Thrice Saved Us From a Democratic Presidency," the writer explains that "Democratic consultants are in the enviable position of both earning a percentage of their client's ad buys and deciding how much money their clients spend on ads. This is an obviously absurd arrangement; it can hardly be expected to do anything but hurt the effectiveness of Democratic campaigns Ã¢â‚¬Â¦" It is circumstances like these that have the grassroots rebellion savaging the corruption and parasitic nature of the Beltway insiders who have their grips on the election process. As ÃƒÂ¼ber-blogger Markos Moulitsas likes to say: "I went into politics to eliminate the middleman."
And lest we forget, perhaps the most formidable factor in the "old" political establishment is none other than Bill Clinton, to many still the most popular politician in America and by all accounts a savvy strategist who appears engaged in his wife's ongoing campaign at many levels, including stumping for her on the campaign trail.
On the legislative side, establishment leaders include Rahm Emmanuel, former Clinton aide, and current House member who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's successful 2006 effort to win back a majority for the Dems for the first time since 1994, and Chuck Schumer, Emmanuel's counterpart, who led the Dem effort in the Senate and who has received particular notoriety of late for breaking with his party and promising to work very hard to maintain the 15 percent income tax rate for hedge fund billionaires, while the rest of us frequently pay a tax rate twice as high.
For the grassroots insurgents, the key players include the hugely successful citizens group MoveOn.org and the influential blogosphere made up of thousands of activated and informed citizens. Both have excited, large constituencies, aggressively campaigned against the war in Iraq, mobilized grassroots activism and money and supported a wide array of Democratic candidates, working both within and outside the party infrastructure. MoveOn raised $27 million in 2006 for the Democratic takeover and has more than 3 million internet members. According to leading progressive blogger Chris Bowers, the progressive blogosphere attracts between 2 million and 4 million readers each week. This August the second YearlyKos convention was held in Chicago, attended by the top six presidential candidates, 1,400 progressive activists and the national political press.
The grassroots insurgency has already scored major blows against the Dem Party establishment. They supported Howard Dean's campaign for chairman of the DNC in 2005 and truly panicked the Beltway insiders who mounted a failed attempt to stop him. Soon after, Dean embarked on his 50-state strategy, which had given party insiders conniption fits. In his campaign, Dean insisted that the Democratic Party was never going to get its mojo back unless it stopped being a triaging, pollster-driven operation, collecting money from big donors and parachuting in outsiders to focus only on key "swing" states, while starving the rest of the party's political infrastructure nationwide.
More recently, the Democracy Alliance (DA), a relatively new grouping of wealthy donors, came together to finance a political infrastructure, including think tanks, media watch dogs and groups developing progressive candidates. Investing upwards of $80 million already, their effort is designed to help Democrats regain power and govern with the vision and ideas necessary to counter the powerful Republican noise machine that had been assembled and funded by a cadre of rich right-wingers over the past 30 years.
The DA coalesced into a formal group as a result of the now-famous PowerPoint presentation created by Democratic Party activist Rob Stein, which cataloged in comprehensive detail how conservatives, clearly in the minority in terms of values and political positions, were able to take over the country.
Enter Matt Bai
Into the fray enters Matt Bai, New York Times Magazine political writer, with the first attempt at a comprehensive history of the current Democratic insurgency, along with a major critique. Bai has a big problem with all this progressive insurgency activity. The theory of Bai's book is that the new "progressive movement," which clearly has wrested significant pieces of power away from traditional Democrat party domains, lacks a unifying vision -- or an "argument" as he suggests in the book's title. The New Dealers had one, Goldwater Republicans had one, but what is the "argument" of the progressives? Put another way, the insurgents don't have any new ideas -- they are all tactics, and for Bai, it is the ideas that matter.
Whether you agree with Bai's critique or not likely depends on your vantage point. Beltway insiders and the largely elite think tanks that are seeking a "third way" probably agree wholeheartedly. If you are a blogger, a grassroots activist or otherwise outside of the D.C. insiders' clique, you're likely to take major umbrage with what Bai has to say.
At its most fundamental level, Bai's "no new ideas" argument seems flawed. He has organized his book around a false dichotomy; nobody is against smart ideas, but what good are ideas without political power and without the fundamental vision that has been the foundation of progressive values for decades?
There has always been an ongoing preoccupation with "new ideas" by the mainstream arbiters of political status, kind of a magic-bullet approach to politics. That's what drives the insider establishment.
But the basic tenets of progressivism -- fairness and equality; human dignity and the ability to earn a living and support a family, no matter if it is gay or straight, married or not; corporate responsibility and an end to the rampant political corruption and corporate cronyism that so dominates the Republican party; affordable healthcare for all; green economic development; cutting back a bloated military budget and investing in infrastructure and education, and real security without fear-mongering -- none of these ideas are new. And if a candidate ran on them aggressively, and had the necessary resources, he or she would be on the road to getting elected.
And Bai never fully digests the essential point of the new internet-facilitated democratic revolution. He doesn't appear to grasp the significance of the transformation that is occurring in politics today -- from the hierarchical political machines of yesterday to a grassroots, bottom-up, person-to-person model that involves millions of new people who are fed up with the so-called wisdom from the top. It is a specific rejection of the manipulation and the triaging by the consultants, the lack of engagement with local people seen in the Kerry campaign and its centralized Boston operation in 2004. Bai doesn't get that this aim to democratize the political process is itself a vital and worthy idea.
While Bai pays lip service to the energy and success of the grass roots and the netroots, he fundamentally doesn't trust it. It is not him. He can't accept that the grandest idea of the new politics is to spread the power and resources and get people involved.
The new democratic revolution is not about smart guys inside the Beltway -- like many of the guys who were Bai's sources and mentors for the book, consummate insiders like Steve Rosenthal, Harold Ickes and Simon Rosenberg. "New ideas" do not win elections -- elections are won with good candidates and strong organization at the local level, and a message that looks to the future, with a vision of fundamental values that has the potential to change people's lives.
Money is like manure
The firebrand Texas populist Jim Hightower is fond of saying "money is like manure, you have to spread it around." It turns out this is a popular phrase most notably uttered by Barbra Streisand in Hello Dolly: "Money is like manure -- it isn't worth a thing unless you spread it around, encouraging things to grow Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ ya know what I mean." And oil billionaire J. Paul Getty had a slightly different version of this expression: "Money is like manure. You have to spread it around or it smells."
But the spreading of resources is not what happens when the Beltway stays in control, when power emanates only from the center. It didn't happen in the Kerry campaign, nor did it happen in the gargantuan effort by Democratic elites to pave the way for a Democratic victory in 2004, when the big three -- former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, who created the Media Fund; heiress Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List; and Steve Rosenthal, former political director of the AFL-CIO -- joined forces to create Americans Coming Together (ACT) for the big push to beat up on Bush (527s like ACT can't directly support their preferred candidates; they use their resources for "public education" that makes the case against their opponents.)
In these 527 operations, funded to the tune of $200 million in 2004, the power control model exercised by the big three failed to motivate voters as was necessary to overcome the superior organizing effort by the Republicans. The Media Fund efforts contributed tens of millions to the big media corporations by taking out a vast number of ads, and other efforts transferred millions of dollars to the Sulzbergers via endless New York Times ad buys. In the case of ACT, thousands of outsiders -- often college kids parachuted into unfamiliar neighborhoods with their handheld PDAs -- failed to connect with ordinary Americans.
The end result was that after spending that $200 million, they had virtually nothing left in place to show for it. Little infrastructure was built, and there was no real public accounting of what that money was spent on. And many expect that if Hillary Clinton gets the nomination, she will implement the same type of command-and-control operation with insiders like Ickes and others -- the same people who have been busy trying to build the same voter database that failed the Dems in 2004.
As I wrote in 2004 right after the Kerry election loss in Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics (Chelsea Green, 2005), "Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ 2004 should be a wake up call for progressives. Among the major lessons: that the gap between the Democratic establishment and its grass roots must be bridged; that the party must listen less to its consultants, pollsters and insiders in D.C. and more to its activists and rank and file base; and that it must nominate a candidate who can articulate a broad vision that American's can identify with. Ã¢â‚¬Â¦"
All that is still true. And if Howard Dean is emulated more and attacked less, there would be more resources shifted out of the hands of the command-and-control freaks and into the more risk-taking, ears-to-the-ground hands of local activists, particularly in black and Latino neighborhoods, but also among party activists and bloggers.
New ideas are nice. But if Democrats want to succeed and throw off the conservative yoke, they are far better off moving as much of the operations as possible to the local level and making democracy breathe again. Only when there is a dynamic back-and-forth relationship among national and regional media, candidates' messages and a revived grassroots will the Democratic Party truly assert itself.
The Bai bias
Every book, every article, every review, including this one, comes with a built-in vantage point and bias. Establishment writers like Bai have a way of signaling where their bread is buttered and just how far outside of the conventional wisdom they're willing to go with their analysis. Bai's vantage point is fundamentally from within the D.C. Beltway. And while he made a stop in Las Vegas for the first YearlyKos convention in 2006 and car trips up and down the coast of California with progressive blogosphere kingpins Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong, as they promoted their book Crashing the Gate, he never quite gets the passionate contempt for politics as usual that motivates the insurgent bloggers.
You can divine Bai's perspective from the intellectual company he keeps. Among Bai's tutors are Simon Rosenberg, Harold Ickes, Steve Rosenthal and Mike McCurry, former Clinton press secretary, along with a number of the key characters in the book.
The very first hint of Bai's perspective and a signal that bloggers might be in for a hard time is the presence of Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein as the author of a defining and most prominent dusk jacket blurb supporting Bai's book. Progressive bloggers already know how Klein feels about them:
"... [T]he smart stuff is being drowned out by a fierce, bullying, often witless tone of intolerance that has overtaken the left-wing sector of the blogosphere. Anyone who doesn't move in lockstep with the most extreme voices is savaged and ridiculed .... [T]he left-liberals in the blogosphere are merely aping the odious, disdainful -- and politically successful -- tone that right-wing radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh pioneered."Bai thanked Simon Rosenberg for his contribution to his understanding of the progressive movement and in the book's preface he describes Simon Rosenberg as "one of the early visionaries of the progressive movement." I laughed when I read this. Just when did Bai think the "progressive movement" began? Rosenberg's relatively young career included stints at the Democratic Leadership Council and in the Clinton administration -- neither of which are exactly symbols of progressive thinking.
Thinking that I had perhaps missed something, I asked several people in the know: "Is Simon Rosenberg a progressive, and what did he do to deserve the title?" I got knowing smiles in return and a couple of quizzical looks. Everyone who knows Simon thinks that he's very smart and a very good self-promoter, and that he tries to stay ahead of new developments. But no one thought he was a progressive. And the people I talked to liked Rosenberg. His New Democratic Network is no doubt doing good work in terms of helping to modernize the party technologically -- particularly in the efforts of Pete Leyden in San Francisco. But when I think of a visionary, I think of labor leaders, civil rights icons, successful organizers and human rights advocates. Not Simon Rosenberg.
So if Bai thinks Rosenberg is a progressive visionary, what does he call people like: Cornell West, Roger Wilkins, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, Van Jones, Anthony Thigpen, Bob Borosage, Tom Hayden, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Antonio Gonzalez, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and many more ?
It is interesting how the word "progressive" has been co-opted to such a point where a supposed savvy author like Bai thinks that Simon Rosenberg was an early progressive visionary. Maybe he's playing a joke on Rosenberg? I guess progressives should be happy that the tent has grown so broadly that even Hillary Clinton is calling herself a progressive instead of a liberal. But just what does it mean?
The book's narratives
The book is organized around a series of narratives that trace the key players and organizations in the Democratic insurgency. The stories, which switch back and forth from chapter to chapter, are often insightful and a fun read.
Bai spent time on the road with superbloggers Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas as they toured their book, Crashing the Gate, up and down the California coast. Bai depicts Armstrong, who is regarded by some to be a "blogfather" of the bottom-up approach of the progressive blogosphere, as a very strange guy. In one hysterical scene at the home of progressive Hollywood mogul Norman Lear, Bai portrays Armstrong as a buffoon, as he clumsily pimps for the short-lived presidential candidacy of Mark Warner. But in other parts of the book, Bai portrays Armstrong as thoughtful and almost clairvoyant in his insight. Moulitsas, on the other hand, does not fare well.
Bai describes Moulitsas thusly: "His limbs moved in yogalike motion, elbows folding into hands, feet wrapping themselves around ankles. He had an effeminate way of talking, or maybe it was just Latin American, tilting his head every so often and thrusting his wrists to the sides." Hmmmm.
The MoveOn narratives focuses on a couple of small house parties where the clumsiness of engaging MoveOn's local membership is evident, and also on Eli Pariser. Pariser, the wunderkind who helped build MoveOn into a powerhouse, probably gets the most favorable treatment in the book (along with Andy Stern, the powerful and controversial head of the Service Employees International Union who is featured in a highly respectful narrative in the book; Stern represents Bai's prototype for the "progressive" who is willing to think outside the box.)
While Pariser is universally respected for his tech-savvy, organizing skills and maturity beyond his years, Bai inexplicably ignores Wes Boyd, dissing him for being rich (he and his wife, Joan Blades, sold the company that created the flying toaster screen savers) despite the fact that Boyd founded MoveOn, lives modestly, and has been the organization's brainiest thinker and strategist from the beginning.
Boyd, the blogger Moulitsas, the framing guru George Lakoff, who gets short shrift in the book, and Guy Saperstein, a prominent member of the Democracy Alliance, all get put down by Bai for various reasons. Interestingly, all live literally within a couple of miles of each other, around Berkeley, Calif., far away from the Washington Beltway. (Disclosure: This author splits time between NYC and this same general neighborhood and knows each of these people.) Maybe Bai just doesn't like California. The very strong Beltway orientation of the book and the general hostility to the West Coasters just gets to be too much for coincidence, or maybe many of the progressive outsiders end up on the West Coast?
Perhaps the book's best chapter is "The Argument," a nuanced and enjoyable recounting of Dean's ascension to head the DNC, and his ongoing struggle with the party establishment, and particularly with the electoral heavy hitters, Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer. The major bone of contention is the 50-state strategy with which Dean, in some key ways, continued the movement his presidential campaign began.
It is here where Bai is at his most colorful, grasping how important Dean's continued "symbolic importance, in defeat was." Bai notes that Democratic Party insiders considered Dean a "polarizing liberal with the political equivalent of Tourette Syndrome." Bai adds: "Party lobbyists and consultants asked each other the same question over and over: What in creation was going on in Dean's addled brain? Just what was that little fucker trying to prove?" I laughed at the description of Dean's famous scream speech after Iowa -- which Bai calls strangely "captivating" -- delivered "through clamped teeth like a man trying his damndest to give an upbeat toast at his ex-wife's wedding."
In what might be the nut graph of the entire book, Bai describes how Dean had tapped into a current of resentment that went to the heart of the modern Democratic Party, the same current that ran through MoveOn and the Democracy Alliance and the blogs. Dean would never actually say so, but he was running against Clintonism and everything that it stood for. This of course was what was motivating the blogs and grassroots Democrats all over the country. They were tired of the targeting syndrome, of the ideological triangulation and wanted some big changes.
The Democracy Alliance
In terms of the book's winners and losers, many of the villains appear in Bai's discussion of the Democracy Alliance (DA). It's the most gossipy part of the book, leading more than one person to suggest that Bai's work is more like a Vanity Fair article than serious political history. However, that didn't stop a number of DA members from devouring a review copy of the book during the recent "Take Back America Conference" in D.C. to see just how their history was being told. Most were not too happy.
Many juicy, previously unknown tidbits emerge from the secretive first two years of the DA, suggesting that Bai had good sources and pieced a lot together. Even Rob McKay, who was a donor/partner from the beginning and who later became chair of the Alliance, said that he learned things he never knew about the early days of the Alliance by reading the book.
The DA's founding was directly connected to the PowerPoint created by Rob Stein, a veteran Democratic politico, who, after the 2000 election gave the Republicans control of Congress and the presidency, realized that we had "a one-party state." Stein researched the patterns of the wealthy right-wing funders, becoming a pied piper among donors and elite Democrats and slowly building a constituency that eventually coalesced in the formation of the DA at its first gathering at The Boulders, an exclusive resort in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The DA was formed in part to emulate the right-wing's success in centralizing a small cadre of large ideologically aligned donors and effectively distributing their largesse year after year to a collection of increasingly effective think tanks and other groups. This conservative infrastructure provided the research, developed the leaders, and pushed out the propaganda and coordinated messages that ushered in the current conservative period -- first the Reagan era in the '80s, and then the much harsher Bush II period of the past six years.
Very briefly, the DA is a 2.5-year-old organization of approximately 100 wealthy donors, including a small group of billionaires, particularly the "big three," the most famous of whom is George Soros, and which also includes Peter Lewis, founder of Progressive Insurance, and the San Francisco Sandlers, Marion and Herb, who sold their World Savings Bank, one of the United States' largest savings and loans, to Wachovia Bank for $24.2 billion in 2006.
To be a part of the group, one must give $250K to groups tabbed by the DA, but well over half of the members give much more than the minimum, so the average donation per member totals more than half a million a year. In the first period, the big three billionaires provided more than 40 percent of the total resources that the DA distributed, but that number has dropped to around 25 percent, according to chairman Rob McKay.
Bai is harsh in his criticism of the DA, though ultimately sympathetic to its original crusading figure Rob Stein, who Bai sees as a zenlike figure whose tenacity resulted in the fulfillment of his vision.
Bai is unrelenting in his criticism of the first chair of the DA, wealthy venture capitalist Stephen Gluckstern, who took over as part of an attempted organizational coup against Stein by bigtime fund-raiser Erica Payne, an ally to several donors she brought into the DA.
While the miscalculated coup ultimately failed for Payne, who had to leave the organization, it still maneuvered Gluckstern into the chair. According to Bai, Gluckstern eventually drove the organization into a ditch. With the emasculated Stein on the sidelines (only to reappear later in a different role), the unsavvy Gluckstern hired longtime McKinsey consultant Judy Wade to run the organization.
Wade, according to Bai, whose assessment was confirmed by a number of DA members, was a disastrous choice. Wade set out to "McKinsey-ize the DA, and, as Bai caustically notes, "McKinsey consultants traffic in numbingly esoteric and abstract techniques, the effectiveness of which is debatable." Bai dryly adds that "McKinsey had exalted one of it most prized clients as a prime example of its talent-driven philosophy: Enron, which later became synonymous with fraud and corporate malfeasance." Basically, according to Bai, Wade's controlling habits and caustic personality were oil and water among a group of wealthy donors unaccustomed to being bossed around. Soon a full-blown rebellion was under way.
The next stage
As a consequence of the fallout, a new team -- the powerful duo of Rob McKay, the San Francisco-based Taco Bell heir, and Anna Berger, the powerhouse deputy to Andy Stern at the SEIU, took over the board leadership. McKay, a longtime California philanthropist who supports grassroots groups and political reform, and Berger, with the money, political muscle and acumen of the SEIU, promised a new kind of leadership. Drummond Pike, the head of the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation, became treasurer, and the center of gravity moved away from the Beltway and more towards the Left Coast, at least in attitude.
When I spoke with McKay about the Bai book, he laughed and said that Bai's history stopped too soon, just as he was taking over. And arguably things have changed quite dramatically at the DA. McKay, who has a collaborative style, sees the organization as much more of a network and not the "center of the universe" that Wade and Gluckstern tried to create. McKay didn't contradict Bai's negative critique of the earlier period, but insisted on looking forward, saying it was "pretty ridiculous to imagine that an organization with the complexity of the DA would be able to iron out all its wrinkles in two years."
McKay, in tune with Democrat insurgents, insisted that the DA would work best if it were somewhat decentralized. He applauded Dean's efforts with his 50-state strategy, and likened the DA to the "starfish model," a concept from the new book the Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.
McKay explained: "The spider model is the command-control version where one big smack and it's dead. But when you cut off part of the starfish, it quickly grows back in a new way. Think about Napster and all of its progeny like Kazaa, Grokster and eDonkey, ever more decentralized versions, where eventually you didn't know who the leader is, versus the rigid recording industry, which has been unable to cease the flow of red ink."
The authors of Starfish and the Spider explain that the linckia, or long armed starfish, "can replicate itself from a single piece of an arm Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ because in reality a star fish is a neural network, basically a network of cells." One of the key principles of starfish decentralization is that "an open system doesn't have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system. Information and knowledge naturally filter to the edges, closer to where the action is." The authors cite Alcoholics Anonymous and Craigslist as variations of the starfish model, where catalysts can instigate a process that, if left well enough alone, can then multiply ideas and become ever more effective.
The DA is now broadening its reach, inviting unaffiliated donors and foundations into discussions about voter education and mobilization. In fact, key players in the DA will play major roles in a new 527 effort for the 2008 election which will harvest somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. But McKay says they will not use the all-star model of Ickes, Malcolm and Rosenthal, hoping instead to emulate the "starfish."
While it will be a challenge for the DA and whatever the new 527 will be called -- maybe the "starfish fund "-- to truly decentralize in the relatively short time before the 2008 elections, the fact that the DA's leadership is willing to look at new models and not do the same old thing is encouraging.
In the end, Bill Clinton frames Matt Bai's book
In probably the book's most riveting scene, former President Bill Clinton shows up as a surprise guest at the Austin DA confab. After Clinton's usual smooth presentation, Guy Saperstein, one of America's most successful trial lawyers and a DA expert in foreign affairs and healthcare, rose to ask a question. Saperstein mentioned that John Edwards had already apologized about voting to authorize the Iraq war. "Why shouldn't every Democrat who voted for the war -- including presumably Hillary Clinton -- do the same thing? How were Democrats supposed to have any credibility if they wouldn't admit when they had been so calamitously wrong."
Clinton quickly went ballistic: "He leaned forward belligerently and pointed a finger at Saperstein. 'You're wrong,' he said. 'Everything you just said is totally wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.'" He went on to explain away Hillary's vote on the war and tell Saperstein he wasn't productive. "Only in this party do we eat our own. You can go on misrepresenting and bashing our own people, but I am sick and tired of it."
Clinton later apologized and realized he had made an error, but it was too late for many of the people in Austin. On the surface, the exchange had been about the war, but it symbolized much more: "It had been about Clintonism itself and the centrist governing ethos that had led the party to this place in its history." To the progressives, Clinton's desire to remake the Democratic Party "had stripped the party of its moral authority."
Bai documents Clinton's attempts to patch up what almost all attendees perceived to be a defensive reaction from the former president. Some sensed deeply that the exchange represented the chasm between the more issue-oriented and anti-war progressives -- probably a majority of the DA -- and the "pragmatic" insiders who prefer to steamroll dissent.
Later, Bai travels uptown to Harlem to visit Big Bill, who ironically is meeting with a group of progressive bloggers brought together by Peter Daou, a prominent blogger hired by Hillary Clinton to serve as liaison to the internet crowd and develop the online arm of her campaign. Apparently, Bill reads blogs and his curiosity led to the meeting.
Near the end of his book, Bai gives the misunderstood and underappreciated former president Clinton the chance to frame his book: In Bai's view of Clinton, "The new world required something different, not the perpetuation of sprawling Democratic government nor the Republican version of a docile bureaucracy, but a third way -- a way that would retool the welfare state without dismantling it."
Bai then sets Clinton up with the soft-ball pitch that will make his book. He tells Clinton that "he hears a lot of skepticism in D.C. and online about the power of ideas in politics. Most of the new progressives seemed to think that winning elections is more about machinery and political dexterity." Clinton responds forcefully: "They're not right about that. I still think that ideas matter. We still have to be the party of ideas, because otherwise there is no reason to buy us. "
The lines are drawn
So there you have it. In Bai's view, bloggers, 50 state advocates, wealthy donors, Moveon members -- "all those new progressives" -- are missing the essential ingredient for success -- they don't care about new ideas. The "new progressives" are shallow and tactical for believing in the grass roots, for wanting to move resources to the local level, for wanting to push the manipulating Beltway class out of the way -- for getting rid of those middlemen in politics.
As much of what passes for politics these days, we have yet another case of the "pot calling the kettle black." In terms of tactics, it is in fact the other way around. The insiders blame the outsiders for what they truly are themselves. One main reason for the uprising from the new progressives is that the consultants, the fund-raisers, the gate keepers, the power brokers, and those officials who straddle the fence, are the ultimate tacticians. They appear to care little about values, vision, passion and, yes, ideas. They are more about controlling the resources and the message, buying the media, getting rich, forwarding their careers, becoming TV stars, and getting rehired or retiring wealthy. And they keep losing to the conservatives as the country slides into a black hole.
They are the talking heads and the party insiders who want to write off whole parts of the country, whole slices of demography, and want to squash the anger and passion of a new class of political activists who don't seem to be rolling over and playing dead, no matter what Matt Bai writes.
So the lines are drawn. In The Argument we have the Bai worldview. Centrist politicians are good, especially as they seek to find a way to work across the aisle, believe in "ideas" and embrace a post ideological bipartisanship. This third way perspective is characterized sympathetically in the book in descriptions of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Mark Warner, as well as groups who don't get the funding Bai thinks they deserve from the DA.
Bai's hostility toward the bloggers is clear and steady. In the chapter interestingly called "Into the Abyss," Markos is portrayed as a self-centered ranter, the women from Fire Dog Lake are venomous and Mark Warner comes away from his critical interactions with bloggers "profoundly disturbed and wondering if all this hatred might ultimately consume his party. "
Matt Bai has written a slice of history in progress. It is a fun read and will no doubt spark all sorts of debates and disagreements. And like all perspectives, it must be weighed and measured by those who influenced it, and what you, the reader, believe to be the most important element of politics and change. Have fun.