Home Virginia Politics Executive Summary: Hard Lessons from the Deeds (and other) Campaigns

Executive Summary: Hard Lessons from the Deeds (and other) Campaigns


The day after the Deeds Campaign and the Democratic Party of Virginia lost the election, I wrote my after-action report from the point of view of a grassroots worker, and published it on the blog bluecommonwealth in three parts. This report highlighted what I regarded prophetically as systemic problems in the DPVA. It was, at popular request, condensed into an executive summary and circulated about. In view of the recent elections, I am re-publishing that summary inasmuch as very little has changed (unfortunately), and the observations and conclusions might add to today’s dicussions.


Do not believe the self-serving explanations for the recent Republican landslide victory in Virginia, such Conventional Wisdom mantras as: “Deeds was weak and ran a lousy campaign,” “Obama wasn’t an issue, it was all local,” “Democrats were over-confident, history was against them,” and the ever-useful, “Democrats were exhausted by the Presidential campaign and couldn’t whip up any enthusiasm, whereas Republicans were angry.”  

All these no doubt have a kernel of truth but they are mostly CYA.  The loss goes deeper than the Powers That Be care to admit—- or even acknowledge.  What follows is a summary of my first take on the systemic problems in the Democratic Party which this election exposed, and which I believe must be addressed, or greater defeats will follow. (First published in extended versions on BlueCommonwealth.com in three parts entitled “Hard Lessons,” with Tag “Reform Handbook;” that Tag includes other analyses by other authors as well).  Disclosure: I am an ordinary  member of a local Democratic Committee in the City of Fairfax; I had been a life-long Republican until May of 2004, when I converted.  This is entirely IMO:

1) THE UN-INCLUSIVE BIG TENT: The Democratic Party squandered a great opportunity when it failed to integrate the numerous new Obama voters into the Party.  I understand that some 500,000 new voters were registered for the 2008 election, mostly young and/or minorities, and probably more liberal than conservative.  These citizens had heretofore been invisible because they never voted, which had enabled Republicans and pundits to claim that Virginia was right-of-center because the usual pool of regular voters was reliably very conservative—- meaning that Democrats had to run to the right to win elections. The sudden appearance of these formerly invisible new voters at the polls called into question that bit of Conventional Wisdom, and grassroots Democrats made noises about follow-up, about cultivating them into becoming lifelong Democrats. The Party did no such thing. Had they done so, it could have made a difference in this election. Why didn’t they?

I suspect the Democratic Establishment, which is right-of-center itself in Virginia, was afraid that bringing Obama voters actively into the Party would not only endanger their control of their turf, it would change the face of the Party, not to mention its political orientation—- Obama voters were outside the comfort zone of the Good Ol’ Boys (GOBs) in Richmond.  Then, too, the Obama organization itself, Organizing for America, was wary of the Democratic establishment, and was unwilling to share its voter lists. This has to change at once; Republicans are already going after these new Obama voters.

2) PHILOSOPHY ABOVE ALL: Democrats must immediately stop pretending to be Republican Lite, and that includes making obeisance to the Milton Friedman Free Market theories which have become like a secular religion for Republicans and corporate America. As the Republican Party has moved right since the 1980’s it has acquired an explicit politico-economic philosophy which has married it to a curious combination of corporate business sponsorship combined with a militant evangelical Christianity, turning the formerly moderate GOP into something more like a “movement” than a typical American political party. By adopting Friedmanism, with its emphasis on short-term profits and its sanctification of greed, both personal and corporate, Republicans earned the endorsement of Big Money. Republicans were so successful in cozying up to their corporate sugar daddies that jealous Democrats, needing big donations to run increasingly expensive campaigns, created the Democratic Leadership Council and proclaimed their pro-business adherence to Free Market Capitalism, becoming, in effect, Republican Lite, at least on the national level (the grassroots was not so sure).

As it happens the Free Market theories, rigidly enforced by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and our own Federal Reserve, are exactly what helped to create most of the nasty problems we now face, including globalization and the shipping of jobs out of America, unregulated pollution and climate change, unregulated financial derivatives on Wall Street, the dot.com and housing bubbles, banking collapse and the Great Recession.  Yet neither political party has condemned this theory, nor pointed out its many flaws and gaps, nor offered an alternative—- you still hear Republicans attacking Democratic initiatives as being anti-Free Market.  

Democrats running as Republican Lite Free Marketeers lose elections to the real article, Republican corporotist puppets.  Obama’s agenda stalls at the hands of his own Blue Dog party members combined with Republicans whenever the agenda deviates from Free Market dogma.  Listen to Bob McDonnell in the Virginia elections, his pretensions of being pro-business versus the big government regulations, big tax Democrats…. a playbook Republicans will be using in 2010 and 2012.  It is impossible to respond effectively to such Republican attacks when fighting on their ground, using their frames of reference. Therefore, the Democratic Party must ditch Free Market Theory and develop its own politico-economic theory, re-frame the debate and respond to Republican attacks on its own, Democratic terms. Such alternate theories do exist; even Free Market could be used if improved.  (These two points 1 and 2 are more fully developed at  http://www.bluecommonwealth.co…

3) OBAMA AND THE BASE: Because exit polls showed that most voters, including those who voted Republican, claimed they had a generally good opinion of the President, the Conventional Wisdom says that the election was not a referendum on Obama. I say that the political climate had changed adversely since inauguration, based on public perception of how Obama and the Democratic Congress had performed, so that, while the election was not a referendum on Obama, how people voted, or if they even voted at all,  was indeed influenced by their perception of Obama, Congress, and his agenda.  All Republicans were incensed; much of the Democratic grassroots felt betrayed.

Agreed, Obama inherited many messes, one bucket of worms after another, and every time he touched a bucket handle or pulled out a worm, a cacophony of protest arose not just from the Right but from the Left (which had been starved so long they now wanted instant total gratification), not to mention a swarm of entrenched special interests, most of whom had been spoiled by eight years of Bush.  So far as grassroots progressives were concerned, Obama seemed excessively concerned about placating business interests, Blue Dogs, and Republicans, as in his appointments of Geithner, Summers, and other acolytes of the Free Market.  Progressives wondered how we could get any Change when the same Old Guard was in charge?

Health care became the signature issue, mostly because Obama chose it himself, rather than having it thrust upon him. He tossed health care in the laps of Congressional leaders—- and walked away, giving no guidance,.  He then appalled his base by immediately giving away a bargaining chip when he removed the option of universal single payer. He unleashed no public relations blitz (surprising after his adept election campaign), which surrendered the initiative to Republicans and led to a long, hot summer of Town Hall wars, tea baggers, and blowhard hysteria, even threats of armed rebellion and assassination.  Obama showed an initial lack of political leadership on health care, and also did not fulfill his function as head of his political Party.  He appears to be making motions toward rectifying the latter, but it is too late both to help the former and to save the elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

4) THE CANDIDATE-CENTRIC, SHORT-TERM LIFE-CYCLE: The Democratic Party is hamstrung by a candidate-centric, short-term life cycle: it exists to get people elected, the election is the organizational template, period. The candidate, usually self-selected but anointed variously by Party regulars, controls the campaign, including determining policies and messaging. After the election most local Committees fall into a coma. There is no continued support system, no way to raise the Democratic profile among voters as issues arise, no continued messaging of Democratic principles, no development of a bench of future candidates, nothing until the next election appears on the horizon, another candidate or two selects him or herself, and the somnolent Committee shakes itself awake again.

Candidates can be formally selected by various means, but Virginia Democrats often use the primary, pitting one Democrat against another, which can be divisive and expensive, and the candidate favored by the GOBs of Richmond usually wins anyway (but not always, see the primary victory of now- Senator Jim Webb against Harris Miller).  This year Creigh Deeds came from behind to beat Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe after those two killed each other off in a bitter campaign. Did Democrats get the strongest, best candidate? Results suggest not, the Party was split, Deeds was literally broke going into the general, and Republicans had several uncontested months in which to define their candidate (Bob McDonnell), Deeds, and the issues, while the Deeds’ campaign was non-existent.  Virginia needs to reconsider how we select our candidates and how they run their campaigns.  Local Committees should in the future have broader functions, including candidate development and training candidates and local campaign workers. The State Party must develop more non-invasive support for (but not control of) local committees and candidates.  (These two points 3 and 4 are more fully developed at http://www.bluecommonwealth.co…

5) THE PERMANENT CAMPAIGN: Thanks to the fact that Republicans are now in relentless permanent campaign mode with sudden, angry, irrational attacks, unexpected swift-boating, and obstructionism, Democrats have learned that simply winning elections is not enough to control the agenda and govern successfully. This modus operandi actually began in Virginia with a Republican Assembly frustrating Democratic Governor Kaine.  To Democrats the spectacle passes bizarre—- yet how does one respond to such irrationality, to inexplicable eruptions of fury fixated on minor irrelevancies blown out of proportion, to stubborn obstructionism for the sake of obstructionism, to outright lies and fiction repeated so often the public accepts them as fact?  If you are in office, how do you govern when there is no cooperation from the counter-party?

Most Democratic voters are not political junkies; you could describe them as generally indifferent to the administration of government.  They may have special or personal concerns, but Republicans have Causes and can be whipped into an alarming agitation almost at will.  There is, in other words, a gap in enthusiasm and commitment, not to mention the constant talk-talk which means in any eventual election a Democrat almost certainly starts behind the power curve and in defensive mode. Democrats must develop a 24/7 response system within the Party, a mechanism for continually presenting Democratic values and an alternate view, as well as a permanent, broad-based presence in the new media, because control of information is the key to controlling out-of-control Republicans, and if you are always reactive and behind the power curve, you lose.

6) GETTING ORGANIZED; NOT A FOUR-LETTER WORD: I hesitate to use the word “organize” with Democrats, but they really can do it—- look at Barack Obama’s stunningly efficient campaign organization. The permanent campaign forces Democrats to have a top-to-bottom make-over. Example: it makes no sense to develop local voter lists intermittently, hinging on a candidate, when establishing a strong base of committed Democrats enables the Committee to turn them out reliably for every election including niggling special elections or mid-terms.  Turnout will be the name of the game in the future.

Every local committee should know its turf.  Precinct captains should keep records, know who moves in or out, who dies, who goes to college or overseas, who needs help, and who has special concerns (like climate change or abortion).  At election time that captain or someone local should walk the precinct with the candidate, arrange functions for the candidate, provide internet coverage, whatever is helpful. Since this is a lot to ask of volunteers, there must be paid professional staff available. The Committee must also run a special Outreach program which, among other things, includes recruitment of members, proselyting, and promoting Democratic policies to the otherwise uninvolved public (which may be brainwashed by pro-Republican media outlets).

Such endeavors require money and, unless there is some law against it, every State should have a permanent endowment fund which frees the Party from excessive dependence on corporate or special interest donations in order to fund Party administration, training or education, and some aspects of campaigns.  After considering this further, a separate foundation which funds paid party staff might do as well as an endowment—- or, consider a super-PAC.

Local Democratic Committees need to be beefed up, provided with professional staff support so as to develop a strong local Party presence with control of their own turf; State Committees should have an endowment fund to support stronger administration and development of the Democratic response to the Republican permanent campaign.

Welcome to the 21st Century.

(These two points 5 and 6, are more fully developed at http://www.bluecommonwealth.co…


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