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Crashing the Gate

"Now it's our party: We bought it, we own it and we're going to take it back." -- Eli Pariser, MoveOn PAC, Dec. 9, 2004

"Crashing the Gate" is a manifesto aimed at fixing the structural defects that have caused the steady decline of Democratic power since Lyndon B. Johnson abdicated in 1968. Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga brilliantly exploited bleeding-edge technology to create a new kind of interactive political media that brought open source journalism to the ordinary internet user. They helped convert the netroots (the digital equivalent of grassroots) into a $40 million ATM for the Howard Dean campaign.

Their book is at once awesomely inspiring and profoundly depressing. Devoting themselves almost entirely to analysis of political technique rather than ideology, Armstrong and Moulitsas describe the massive superiority of the Republicans in creating and deploying political infrastructure, the greedy incompetence of the Democratic consultants who enrich themselves while losing again and again, the fanatic single-issue pressure groups that have made it impossible for the Democratic party to present a unified, disciplined public image.

"In April 2005, about a hundred progressive leaders descended on Monterey, California, to extract lessons from the 2004 election debacle while finding ways for progressives to move forward," they write. At the beginning of one session about collaboration, a participant complained, "This isn't speaking to my issue. When are we going to talk about my issue?" Armstrong and Moulitsas write, "That set off an avalanche of copy cat complaints -- 'What about my issue?' -- from all corners of the room."

The session then split into five subgroups, each discussing its own individual issue. When Rhode Island Democrats were choosing a Senate candidate, polls showed that Rep. Jim Langevin had a 41 percent to 27 percent lead over incumbent Republican Lincoln Chafee. Eminently progressive on most other issues, Langevin "opposed legislation that would have allowed women to obtain abortions at overseas military facilities using their own money, and voted for the criminalization of transportation of minors across state lines for abortions without parental consent," they write. Lincoln Chafee had a 100 percent pro-choice rating. Langevin withdrew under heavy fire from NARAL and the National Organization of Women. NARAL endorsed Chafee for senator.

A Brief History of Netroots
In "Crashing the Gate" Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga claim that Armstrong coined the term "netroots" in 2002.
Actually, a Paper Tiger Productions film, "Net Roots: Cultivating the Digital Park," was -- ironically -- already skeptical of the Internet collectivist hype in 1995. In 1997, lobbyist Jack Bonner formed a division called NETroots to dispel the myth of global warming.
Armstrong did mention netroots in a 2002 blog item about the Dean campaign. "It just came to my head as I was writing the post to describe the online activism of participating in online polls, blogs, and other online activity," he told me.
[Read more]

A few weeks later, Chafee voted to confirm pro-life (and more important, pro-business) Janice Rogers Brown to the federal appeals court in D.C. Chafee voted against the Alito filibuster (when there might have been a chance of stopping the nomination). Then he polished his pro-choice rating by casting the purely symbolic lone Republican vote against confirmation. So he was able to have it both ways. But if Democrats had controlled the Judiciary Committee, neither Brown nor Alito might ever have made it to the Senate floor.

Armstrong and Moulitsas argue that other self-serving political strategy errors deprive the Democrats of some of their strongest candidates. Armstrong and Moulitsas claim that the grotesque caricature of Howard Dean as some kind of unelectable loony leftist didn't originate with Republicans but with Democratic insiders who feared his threat to their control of party policy and funding. With the exception of his very strong and early opposition to the Iraq war, as governor of Vermont, Dean was a classic centrist, a very effective fiscal conservative. Yet the word started going out that he was a wild man.

Armstrong and Moulitsas write:
On November 7, 2003, a mysterious new group called Americans for Jobs and Healthcare ran a series of ads against Dean in Iowa, distorting his record, criticizing him for his positions on trade, Medicare growth, and gun rights, implying that Dean was not a progressive. The worst of the lot zoomed into the eyes of Osama Bin Laden on the cover of Time magazine while the announcer intoned, "We live in a very dangerous world. … Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy."
The ads were financed by forces backing Kerry and Gephardt. CNN helped bury Dean by showing the dubious footage of his grotesquely distorted "scream" over and over again, but it was his own party that depicted him as a political vampire and drove the wooden stake into his heart.

The main theme of "Crashing the Gate" is not ideology, but winning. Democrats mainly lose on the ground, not the issues, the authors observe. For the past 40 years, conservative Republicans have been training and supporting an astoundingly effective cadre of killer bee operatives. Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership has been doing its best to imitate Republicans on the issues, while ignoring their ferociously effective political marketing techniques on the ground.

Many will disagree with one or another of the prescriptions in "Crashing the Gate" for curing the Democratic rot, but this book could be the most important political work of 2006. Although the language is blunt, the aggressive self-confidence a bit obnoxious at times, the overall enthusiasm and just plain political good sense offer Democrats a tantalizing glimpse of hope in a very gloomy time.
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