"THE ELECTION" Post-Mortem: Jonathan Wallace and others still don’t get it



Peter Bearse, Ph.D.

[ peterJ@politicalcommunity.us ]

Jonathan Wallace’s lead contribution for the December issue of THE ETHICAL SPECTACLE serves as more of a sometime Democrat’s lament rather than a post-mortem analysis of "The Election." It is more of an editorial than an article. It is more of a post-mortem reflecting the death of a candidacy than an article covering what went wrong with the Democratic Party. It’s amazing how Jonathan, most Democrats and even many Republicans just don’t get it: It’s people who won the election, not money. The fact that Jonathan makes such a fetish of the money factor is indicative of what may be the most significant failing of the Democratic Party over the past generation – a failure to both reform itself and attend to the care and feeding of its organizational base at the local level. As a major Democratic fund-raiser remarked:

"I have seen greater and greater attention paid to high-level donors. People in the

party’s select circles…the big donor groups, have access… This would have been

my characterization of the Republican Party 30 years ago, but it applies to all

parties now…"

So the Democratic Party has also become beholden to big money.

Contrary to Jonathan’s repeated insinuations that the Republicans’ "advantage in money" was a major factor in the Democrats’ loss, the Democrats actually raised more money for the Presidential contest than the Republicans, including funds raised by "527" organizations. The latter include, especially, ACT and Moveon, bankrolled in part by billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis. John Kerry’s campaign ended up with at least $15 million of unspent funds.

For the first time in recent memory, a presidential election season demonstrated, again contrary to Wallace, that the incestuous mix of money and media did not win the day. It was NOT true that "money is the first and last thing that counts" or that "control of the means of communication" was key. The really big story of Election‘04, largely ignored by the major media, is the way people returned to politics in droves as political actors and producers rather than just spectators and consumers. This is the big win-win result for us all, better than the outcomes of the win-lose, zero-sum, horse-race political games that the media love to feature.

I saw this close-up at ground zero of the great political ground-war, in Florida during Oct.

20-30. People were coming out the woodwork to help out with the "ground war" essentials of people-to-people politics: going door-to-door, planting and/or holding signs, talking to friends and neighbors, handing out political literature, etc. – the kind of political activity that enables people to take back their politics from the political media, pundits and pro’s who would otherwise take it over. Readers wanting to know why and how this kind of politics should be continued can check out the new book and website footnoted earlier. As one buyer and reader of the book said to me just after the election, "You know, Bearse, the election validates your book." Why? – Because the ground war won the election, not the "air war." Even political consultants, who make a good part of their money by taking cuts of media buys for air time, have come to realize that saturated TV political advertising has long since hit diminishing returns. People have now become the "killer ap" of politics, even in the Internet age, as WE, THE PEOPLE revealed how they could be and should be.

But it’s amazing how many of the political and media pro’s still don’t get it, even among leading Republicans. Note, for example, the op-ed piece by former Republican Congressman Mickey Edwards in the Boston Globe of of Dec.4th. Headlined "Elections over, but strains remain," the piece tried to provide a post-mortem on the Nov.2nd elections. Not unlike many Democrats, Edwards strained, all right -- to strike another note on political "polarization" (divided electorate) while entirely overlooking the waves of volunteers who won it for Bush in key battleground states, Florida included.

Mickey also asked: "So what can we expect before The (political) Season is once more upon us." Here, too, he misses one of the most important political developments. The Republican Party is already building on its 2004 ground-war victory to increase its dominance of the Congress in 2006, just as it built on its victorious 72 Hour Task Force GOTV (get out the vote) experience in 2002 as a basis for winning this year. Since the media don’t pay attention to local political organization, they’ll wake up, surprised once again at GOP victories in 2006. The apocryphal "great right wing conspiracy" is now flying below their radar.

The new book cited earlier could become the bible for a winning Republican future, ensuring continuation of the GOP majority for many years to come. It has already been adopted by many county and local Republican committees and clubs for grassroots’ inspiration, fund raising and political education. Meanwhile, Democratic Members of Congress are giving away liberal Professor George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics, hoping it will enable rank and file Democrats to win future elections by being able to talk the political language of "values" in ways that the great American, mainly conservative, majority will understand. Isn’t it more important that the party has people who can walk the talk?

If, instead, Republican Members of Congress, the Republican National Committee and Republican state committees promote WE, THE PEOPLE and advocate a conservative populism, the game is over for the Democrats. The GOP will become recognized as the party that not only represents but engages and empowers the American majority in the political process. Thus, the left would no longer own the populist label and be able to pretend that they speak for "the people." Contrariwise, if the Democratic Party were to use the book as a guide to rebuilding their party’s local foundations, it would at least have a fighting chance to win back control of the Congress in 2006.

The key to maintaining and enlarging the political realignment accomplished by the 2002 and 2004 elections is for Republicans to build and strengthen what’s called the GOP’s "local political infrastructure – the thousands of county and local Republican committees and clubs nationwide. Then, millions of foot soldiers will be ready to help win local, state and congressional races nationwide in 2006. "Blue" counties and states will turn "red" if this strategy is adopted and implemented aggressively, starting now. For example, the chairmen of the Alachua, Clay and Lee County, Florida, Republican organizations have captured the hundreds of new volunteers who worked to get out the vote for "W" in each of their counties onto their data bases. They are now following up to get them involved in their local committees and clubs between elections and give them reasons to stay involved.

The importance of this aspect of political organization, as shown in WE, THE PEOPLE, should not be underestimated. Political "pro’s" and consultants, whose advice is biased by the fact that the media grease their skids, should not be allowed to dominate party and campaign decision-making by continuing to advocate electoral politics as just a media game or "air war." One major reason that the GOP won the ground war is that grassroots political mobilization in 2004 was a major and integral part of party campaign activity at all levels, from the RNC down to the smallest town. By contrast, Democratic grassroots activity was largely carried out by so-called "527" organizations like those funded by limousine liberals George Soros and Peter Lewis, ACT (Americans Coming Together) and Moveon, whose activity could not legally be coordinated with that of the Democratic Party even though the 527 organizations were dedicated to beating Bush.

Judging by the beating of liberal breasts and the gnashing of Democratic teeth that has been going on within these organizations, post-election, as they whine about the election results and try to reorient themselves toward the future, it looks as if the Democrats still don’t "get it," either. Unless they elect Howard Dean new Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, they are likely to repeat the mistakes that led to their 2004 defeat. The question that the Republican Party needs to face is whether it can learn the lesson of success – that people make the difference, so that a nationwide grassroots strategy between elections can make an even greater, future difference.

A corollary lesson for all parties, highlighted by the final chapter of WE, THE PEOPLE, is that the country needs a political (not just an electoral) reform program to reduce barriers and constraints to people "getting involved" and to empowering those who get involved at the grassroots. Bush could return to his 2000 claim to be "the reformer with results." Failing that, it’s likely that the Democrats would pick up the reform mantel, throw it over their shoulders and run with it.

If the GOP fails to pick up this great opportunity, then even the Party’s wonderfully effective grassroots efforts in 2002 and 2004 may fall short in 2006 and 2008. One reason was revealed by the 2004 experience in Florida. "Effective" was not "efficient." Hordes of paid "volunteers" were sent by the RNC out of Washington, D.C. to help organize and spur local efforts. Many of the imports could not substitute for the fact that local organizations had been left to atrophy, even in Republican areas like Naples, Florida. Political pro’s from out of town can’t substitute for intimate knowledge of the local turf that only real volunteers who are active members of their party committees can provide.

In Naples, for example, I was sent out with two other volunteers to do door-to-door for the Bush-Cheney campaign. The person who sent us out was a young, "go-get-‘em" GOP staffer on loan from a Republican Senator’s office. He sent us out to canvass a couple of gated communities. There was no way we could even get past the guards at the gates. A local activist would have known this and avoided wasting volunteers’ precious time. The upshot: Though Bush won the state by a significant margin, the effort to do so was far from cost-effective. A lot of money was spent to deploy help from out-of-state that needn’t have been spent. So, if the party fails to build up and vitalize its county and local party committees and clubs between elections and, next time, the Democrats are better organized as well as on a par with the GOP in terms of fundraising, the result could well be different. Thus, for both major parties, there is no substitute for building and energizing the capacities of their local organizations to truly empower WE, THE PEOPLE ("us") as political producers and actors in their political theater rather than treating them as spectators or consumers of a political game played by "them."