Winning Elections Is ALL That Matters

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Winning Elections Is ALL That Matters

Post by Corlyss_D » Sun Aug 21, 2005 11:25 am

August 21, 2005
Machine Dreams

If you needed any more proof that Democratic politics were in a profound state of upheaval, consider this: on the eve of the 2004 election, there were three especially powerful groups, aside from the Kerry campaign itself, working to turn out votes for the party in critical states, and those were the Democratic National Committee, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and a lavishly endowed start-up known as America Coming Together. Nine months later, not one of these institutions has emerged entirely intact. First, Howard Dean staged a hostile takeover of the D.N.C. Then big labor unraveled on its 50th birthday. And finally, earlier this month, ACT announced that it was suspending most of its operations and closing down its state offices, effectively shuttering the largest independently financed turnout drive in history after a single outing.

It was hard not to think of ACT's demise as a kind of political version of ''Titanic'' -- a story of hubris and oversize ambition. It was a saga that began in 2002, when Congress tightened the nation's campaign-finance laws, making it illegal to contribute unlimited amounts of money to national political parties. The law did, however, leave donors a loophole: they could contribute as much as they pleased to outside groups known as ''527's,'' named for a section of the tax code. That's when three of the Democratic Party's smartest and most influential strategists -- Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.; Ellen Malcolm, the founder of Emily's List; and the longtime liberal power broker Harold Ickes -- had the idea to raise money for a giant turnout machine that would essentially supplant the party's efforts. A couple of sympathetic billionaires, the financier George Soros and the insurance magnate Peter Lewis, liked the idea enough to contribute about $20 million each to ACT and a sister organization, Media Fund. Other donors then kicked in millions more. For wealthy Democrats, ACT was the best available vehicle for dethroning George W. Bush. As Soros once candidly told me, ''I used 527's because they were there to be used.''

Just how it is that ACT failed in this mission is a question no one seems able to answer. After all, ACT exceeded its own goals for voter turnout, and in most of the Democratic urban counties on which it focused, John Kerry received more votes than any Democrat before him. ACT didn't do much to change the balance in more conservative rural and exurban areas, but then persuading undecided voters was (and always has been) the candidate's job; blaming ACT for the loss of Ohio or Florida would be like firing the Yankees' grounds crew because Derek Jeter failed to get on base.

Even so, ACT wasn't supposed to simply increase the vote count -- it was supposed to win -- and in those grim months after the election, some of ACT's supporters turned their fury on the organizational monster they had helped bring to life. When it was announced in March that Ickes would become ACT's president, a typical response on the organization's blog read: ''I'm tired of these same old recycled insiders blowing one election after the next because they can't see the writing on the wall and step aside. We need new blood and new faces.'' Many of ACT's largest donors, apparently, concurred.

There is an important twist, however, to this story. It's true, perhaps, that the organizers who ran ACT were working off an outdated playbook, written when the great urban machines of the 20th century were able to dominate almost any state or national election, cleanly or otherwise. The nation's demography no longer confers such power on a handful of manufacturing centers. (Did anyone notice that sunny and sprawling San Jose just bounced Detroit from the list of the nation's 10 largest cities?) But to cast ACT as the last breath of a dying party establishment is to miss its significance. In fact, ACT represented the first serious challenge to the industrial-age structure of the modern political party. Before Soros and Lewis plunked down all that cash for ACT, liberal donors had assumed that their only avenue into the political system was through supporting the party and its candidates, both of whom seemed to regard them as little more than a cash machine with some annoying voice commands. Through ACT, Soros and Lewis showed Democrats, and more than a few Republicans, that there was a new way of doing business, and it didn't require fealty to an inefficient party apparatus. From this revelation -- no matter how Congress or the Federal Elections Commission may try to yet again amend the campaign-finance rules -- there is probably no going back.

In this way, ACT helped to usher us into the post-party world. We are now confronting a period in which the power and the innovation in American politics will reside not in some party headquarters on Capitol Hill but in a decentralized network of grass-roots groups, donors and Internet impresarios, all of whom seem to be increasingly entwined with one another. There's peril in this trend -- it would seem to favor millionaires over workers, and ideologues over pragmatists -- but it was probably inevitable. Everywhere else in American life, after all, we see evidence of what the Democratic speechwriter Andrei Cherny, in his 2000 book, ''The Next Deal,'' presciently identified as ''the Choice Generation.'' We surf hundreds of cable channels and endless Web sites, assemble customized computers with the click of a mouse and choose from every imaginable permutation of mortgage and credit card. Was it really reasonable, then, to expect the same top-down system that has governed American politics since the time of Martin Van Buren to somehow survive the revolution intact? In the end, ACT's contribution was to act as a bridge from the last political moment to the next, hastening the chaotic process of democratization -- even without the capital ''D'' that its founders would have preferred.

Matt Bai, a contributing writer, covers national politics for the magazine.

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