Monday, April 25, 2011

The 50-state strategy: A Life

Originally printed October 21, 2010.

In his long-titled new book, "Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics," Ari Berman -- a political correspondent for The Nation and a native of Fairfield -- has tried to write a biography, not of a person, but of a political strategy: Howard Dean's 50-state strategy.

Focusing on ideas and characters that he views as being either overlooked or underappreciated, Berman traces the 50-state strategy from its failed implementation by Dean in 2004 to its resurrection when Dean became chairman of the Democratic National Committee to its evolution and successful implementation during the Obama campaign. Berman also speculates on how the grass-roots, bottom-up, change-focused qualities of the 50-state strategy have been co-opted and further adapted by the Tea Party movement.

"The Tea Party movement is really Dean 3.0," Berman said in a phone interview Wednesday. "They're even using the same slogan, 'Take Back America.'"

Iowa becomes an important part of the story because it's here, in 2004, that caucusgoers stopped Dean cold and kept him from claiming the Democratic presidential nomination. But it's also here, in 2008, that caucusgoers gave Barack Obama a decisive victory and set him on the way to the nomination and eventually to the White House.

"Obama succeeded in doing what Dean tried to do," Berman said. "He expanded the electorate and brought more people in. He turned what was movement enthusiasm into a successful campaign. ... And he learned that it doesn't matter how many people you have donating online if you aren't also on the ground and ready to win in Iowa."

But something happened on the way from the inauguration to the midterm elections. Although Obama the candidate had promised to keep his coalition together as a force to unleash on politicians who were less than enthusiastic about enacting his agenda, Obama the president-elect appointed Rahm Emanuel (a 50-state scoffer and one of Berman's villains) to be his chief of staff. The administration soon adopted a far more secretive, behind-closed-doors model for moving legislation.

Suddenly, rather than become the Reaganesque transformative president that his supporters had hoped he'd be, Obama began to seem every bit the politician that Bill Clinton had been. The message "Yes We Can" seemed to become "Yes I Can." And once enthusiastic supporters found themselves with no role in the legislative process -- and with little support for what compromises came out of that process.

At the same time, the right -- learning much from the Dean/Obama strategies -- proved far more successful at organizing everyday people, unleashing their fury on Washington and ensuring that their representatives and senators would unite as a "party of no."

The Wall Street Journal calls Berman's book "a well-reported tour de force that would be worth reading as a snapshot in time even if the Democrats went the way of the Whigs after November."

Berman, however, says he is not just looking backward. He still sees value in the 50-state strategy, and he wants to see his party continue to mobilize itself for the long haul. Although Democrats are triaging their races for this election, Berman includes a lengthy epilogue on how the future for the party means expanding into states such as Texas -- Republican strongholds with growing and changing populations.

"That's the next frontier of American politics," Berman said. "To be ready in those areas for when those demographic changes finally catch up with the politics."

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 391-887-5435 or

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