It's His Party
Barack Obama might be running on a post-partisan platform, but he is more focused on building the Democratic Party than any other candidate in recent history.
Dana Goldstein and Ezra Klein August 18, 2008
An unassuming building at 430 South Capitol Street, in a forlorn corner between the Capitol and a highway overpass, is the home address of the Democratic Party. But though mail still gets delivered to the Washington, D.C., address, many of the Democratic National Committee's employees--the men and women who make up the party's central infrastructure--are no longer around to receive it. They are in Chicago, where Barack Obama moved them after he captured the Democratic Party's nomination.
It was a peculiar decision for Obama, who had built his campaign, and even his political identity, around an eloquently stated, post-partisan revulsion with the divisiveness of modern party politics. Following the strategy of "outsider" candidates before him, Obama set his headquarters outside the District in order to create distance, both physical and perceptual, between himself and the consultants, interest groups, party hacks, and congressional busybodies who populate the nation's capital.
The effort was so successful that some feared the Obama phenomenon--the millions of young people passionate about his campaign, the thousands who have lined roadsides just to wave at the Illinois senator's motorcade--had become a force unto itself, indifferent to the fortunes of the traditional Democratic Party, unbound by a commitment to progressive ideology, and wholly dependent on the character of Barack Obama. As blogger Matt Stoller writes on OpenLeft.com, "Power and money in the Democratic Party is being centralized around a key iconic figure. [Obama] is consolidating power within the party."
This was a new critique of Obama: not that he was beyond parties but that he had personalized them. That rather than building the Democratic Party, he was building an Obama Party, with all the good and bad that that centralization entailed. Though some were nervous when Obama sent the moving trucks to South Capitol Street, further tightening his hold over the party apparatus, the relocation neatly fit the broader, and rather unexpected, reality of this campaign: For all the talk of post-partisan "unity," Barack Obama has been proving himself the most party-focused presidential candidate in recent history--possibly ever. Paradoxically, although Obama's success has been more dependent on personal charisma than any recent nominee's has, he's been leveraging that charisma to build a broader Democratic infrastructure less dependent on the presidential nominee.
This should be no surprise. Though Obama himself is a newcomer to Washington, the upper echelons of his Senate and campaign staff are populated almost exclusively by experienced Democratic Party operatives. Continuity with the established party infrastructure is a defining characteristic of the Obama campaign. When Hillary Clinton conceded the nomination, Obama's first major staff change was not the incorporation of a former Clinton operative meant to heal the divisions of the primary, nor the elevation of a national-security graybeard meant to reassure general-election voters of Obama's commander-in-chief credentials. Rather, it was to install Paul Tewes, the skilled organizer who served as the architect of Obama's crucial victory in Iowa, at the DNC to head up the committee's election-year efforts. A few weeks later, it was announced that the DNC would cease accepting contributions from lobbyists or political action committees.
Then it came out that much of the DNC was moving to Chicago. In the months that have followed, the Obama campaign has announced plans for training camps that will turn out thousands of new organizers dedicated to electing Democrats, and has signaled that it will spend millions in blood-red states where Democrats haven't seriously invested in building party infrastructure for decades. The campaign has constructed a fundraising machine based around small-donors that promises to end the age-old competition for dollars between different wings of the Democratic establishment, enabling the creation of a unified electoral strategy. It has argued that "real change" requires the sort of legislative successes that only a strong congressional party can produce. In short, the candidate running on his exhaustion with traditional party politics has directed his campaign to build a new kind of Democratic Party--one that may put to shame anything that came before it.
The aftermath of the 2002 elections was a low point for the Democratic Party. Much of the blame fell on the shoulders of Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt, the Senate and House party leaders judged responsible not just for the political failure of losing seats in the midterm election but for graver substantive deficiencies: Gephardt was complicit, some would say crucial, in George W. Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq. Daschle was, at best, ineffectual against it. Both paid for those failings. In 2004, distracted by events in Washington, Daschle lost to Republican John Thune, and Gephardt retired after losing the Democratic presidential primary to John Kerry. Their staffs paid, too; come January of 2005, the experienced legislative tacticians and political operatives who had served the party's congressional leadership found themselves abruptly unemployed.
The bright spot of the 2004 election was the emergence of a brilliant, charismatic, young African American politician named Barack Obama. Obama burst onto the scene with a keynote speech at the Democratic Convention that would probably be remembered as little more than a neat piece of oratory if Kerry hadn't lost and congressional Democrats hadn't been wiped out. But, in a dark moment for Democrats, Obama was one of the very few points of light. Which is probably how he got a meeting with Pete Rouse in the first place.
Often called "the 101st Senator," Rouse, an understated 62-year-old with 30-odd years of Capitol Hill experience, had been Tom Daschle's powerful chief of staff. When Daschle was ejected from the Senate, he hoped Rouse would continue to work with him in the private sector. But Rouse received an expected call from Cassandra Butts, the policy director on Dick Gephardt's 2004 presidential campaign and an old law school chum of Obama's. Butts asked Rouse to meet with the newly elected Obama. Grudgingly, Rouse had lunch with the young senator. Obama asked him to sign on as chief of staff--a demotion of sorts, dropping Rouse from the office of the most powerful Senate Democrat to that of the most junior member of the body. Rouse politely declined. Obama kept asking. Eventually, Rouse accepted.
Most outsider candidates for the presidency recruit an outsider team to deliver it. Bill Clinton's main strategists in 1992 were the little-known Paul Begala and James Carville. His first chief of staff was Mack McLarty, a childhood friend who had risen to become chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party. It was a team untainted by Washington but also unschooled in how Washington worked.
The Obama campaign and Senate staff, by contrast, are full of Daschle and Gephardt veterans--an unexpected rebirth of the power bases and reputations of two politicians who had long been written off. Obama's chief of staff is the aforementioned Daschle associate, Pete Rouse. His deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, managed Daschle's 2004 campaign. His director for battleground states, Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, and his director of communications, Dan Pfeiffer, were both deputy campaign managers for Daschle in 2004. Obama's foreign-policy director, Denis McDonough, was Daschle's foreign-policy adviser, and his finance director, Julianna Smoot, was head of Daschle's PAC. Many of those who didn't come from the Senate minority leader's office came from the House minority leader's office. Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, was Gephardt's deputy campaign manager in 2004. His head of delegate operations, Jeff Berman, played the same role for Gephardt. His national press secretary, Bill Burton, was Gephardt's Iowa press secretary. Dozens of others come from related arms of the party, in particular the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
It's a tremendous operation for a first-term senator who hadn't worked a day in Washington before 2004. But it's exactly the team you'd expect a former chief of staff to the Senate minority leader to construct. "The person most responsible for this was Pete Rouse," says Tom Daschle, sounding almost wistful. After all, Obama's campaign was in part based on plans Rouse had drawn up for Daschle in 2004, before Daschle decided to sit out the presidential race. The Obama staff's familiarity with the workings of the party and comfort with its procedures proved crucial in the primaries. Obama won the nomination largely because his team better understood the byzantine mechanics by which the Democratic Party chooses its nominee: The campaign used proportional-apportionment rules to hold down Clinton's delegate totals in large states and pumped resources into caucus states to run up Obama's delegate numbers. The Obama campaign succeeded, in other words, through a superior respect for the party's internal infrastructure.
Historically, the Democratic Party has operated less as a strong party than as an uncertain coalition. It has been regionally fractured, racially divided, ideologically torn, and economically disparate, frustrating those who believed that voting for the more-left party should further a progressive policy agenda. A broad ideological range is good for constructing raw congressional majorities but tricky when you're trying to reconcile the fiscal conservatism of the Blue Dogs with the social investment favored by liberals. Rather than acting as a single institution united around a common agenda, the party was all too often a nominal nation-state in which sets of warring fiefdoms protected their properties and sought expansion.
By the early 1990s, this incoherence had left the party bereft of a single agenda and full of tired incumbents interested in little but the protection of their own power and patrons. As a result, the Democratic brand had turned toxic, a scarlet D that national candidates had to hide or publicly burn off. "I was the polling adviser for the Democratic Leadership Council back then," says pollster Stan Greenberg. "Clinton's candidacy, and that effort, was very much focused on addressing the historical problems of the Democratic Party." Those problems included a long-standing perception that the party was soft on crime, captured by an array of entrenched interest groups, fiscally profligate, and, at least in Congress, simply corrupt. Before Clinton could build a new image of the party, however, he had to get elected. That meant not strengthening the party but holding it at arm's length, except as a useful vehicle for fundraising. This was explicit in his campaign: Clinton ran as a "New Democrat," a symbolic break from the actual Democratic Party--especially its liberal wing.
That strategy had its logic, but it also had its drawbacks. "Clinton became very identified with the presidential wing of the party," says a former member of Clinton's famed campaign war room. "But there was a lot of resentment from the Daschle and Gephardt people to the way they were treated by the Clinton people. I think the people who acted in Clinton's name didn't generate an awful lot of goodwill for them." This wasn't widely understood until 2008, when Hillary Clinton ran for president only to find that the party's leadership was devoid of individuals with any connection or loyalty to her husband's administration. Of the three most powerful Democrats—Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Howard Dean—none could be considered Clintonites, and Dean's ascension was, in many ways, an explicit repudiation of the Clintons. The cool relationship between the Clintons and the leadership continued down into Congress. "Obama got more Senate endorsements than Hillary did," continues the Clinton insider. "That's incredible. The guy's been there for three fucking years!"LinkHere