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Who Runs the Democratic Party?

By       Message Bob Burnett     Permalink
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It's convenient to blame Democratic leaders for the Party's disastrous 2014 midterm elections. But which leaders? Who runs the Democratic Party?

Not President Obama. He may be the commander-in-chief, but other than as a symbol he's not the leader of the Democratic Party.

In 2008 and 2012, Obama insiders, such as David Axelrod and David Plouffe, ran Barack's presidential campaign. However, they weren't involved in the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014. Furthermore, in 2014, the President was left out of the campaigns for many Senate and House seats because of his weak poll numbers.

There's a significant organizational difference between Democrats and Republicans. When George W. Bush was President it was generally accepted that Karl Rove -- Bush's campaign manager and White House deputy chief of staff -- was the leader of the Republican Party and the architect of both the presidential and midterm GOP campaigns. Bush is gone but Rove continues to be in charge.

In the last decade, the closest Democrats have come to the Republican hierarchical organization was from 2005-2009 when Howard Dean was chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Dean sponsored the "fifty state strategy" that produced a sweeping Democratic victory in the 2006-midterm elections: Dems achieved a 233-202 advantage in the House of Representatives, a 51-49 plurality in the Senate, and a 28-22 governorship advantage.

Since Dean retired, the Democratic Party hasn't had a leader comparable to Rove.

It's not that the Democratic Party lacks smart people. The Dems claim politicians such as Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren, message mavens such as George Lakoff and Mike Lux, policy wonks such as Paul Krugman and Katrina vanden Heuvel, and moneyed supporters such as Paul Soros and Tom Steyer.

Nonetheless, the Democrats lack focus. They don't have a strategy comparable to that of the GOP. In between presidential elections, Democrats collapse into factions. When Dems compete in the midterm elections the operating philosophy has been good luck, candidate; you're on your own.

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Democratic candidates compete against Republicans who are cogs in a well-oiled machine. The results reflect this reality. In 2010, the Dems lost 63 House seats to the Republicans (who gained a 242-193 majority). They also lost six Senate seats. The biggest loss was in the states where Republicans controlled 29 governorships and 26 state legislatures (they gained a record 680 seats). This put the GOP in charge of the redistricting process -- which happens every 10 years -- and many congressional districts were gerrymandered to benefit the GOP.

After 2010, Republicans revealed their grand plan to retake Congress and hold it. Rolling Stone magazine observed: "This tilting of the electoral playing field was the result of a sophisticated campaign coordinated at the highest levels of Republican politics through a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) -- a Super-PAC-like entity chaired by Bush-era RNC chairman Ed Gillespie and backed by Karl Rove. Shortly after President Obama's first election, the RSLC launched the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) with an explicit strategy to 'keep or win Republican control of state legislatures with the largest impact on congressional redistricting.'"

In 2012, riding on the backs of the successful Obama campaign, Democrats retained control of the Senate (55-45) but did not retake the house even though they had the aggregate majority of votes. Mother Jones magazine reported that in 2012, as a result of Republican gerrymandering, "Most Americans voted for Democratic representation in the House but Republicans [retained] a 234-201 seat majority."

In 2014, the Republican strategy produced more gains. Republicans now have a 54 to 46 advantage in the Senate, a 246-188 advantage in the House (with one race still being determined), and a 31 to 19 advantage in governorships. And, according to Real Clear Politics web site, Republicans "now control 68 of 98 partisan state legislatures -- the highest number in the history of the party."

Democrats Debbie Wasserman Schultz (DNC), Michael Bennet (DSCC), and Steve Israel (DCCC) oversaw the Dems 2014 midterm campaigns. Like most national Dems they are tactical but not strategic. Karl Rove and associates defeated them.

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Since 2008, the Republican Party has systematically executed a broad political strategy: raising millions, gerrymandering districts, restricting the voting rights of traditional Democratic constituencies, depressing likely Dem voters, firing up the Republican base, and controlling the message. It's working.

In 2016, when Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presidential candidate, team Clinton will drive the national Democratic message. That may be enough to retain the White House but it's unlikely to produce the strategy required to reverse the Republican accomplishments of seizing the House and Senate as well as control of most state legislatures.

There must be a national Democratic strategy comparable to that developed by Karl Rove for the GOP. This is more than a compelling populist message. The strategy has to reach throughout the party to recruit viable candidates, raise money, establish a modern get-out-the-vote infrastructure, and, most of all, re energize the Democratic base. There has to be a strategy with a message that involves and excites the 99 percent.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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