Cancel the Circular Firing Squad
Democrats need to build the party from the ground up; here are 4 ways to do that. — By Mark Riddle | President New Leaders Council
As we near President Donald Trump’s 100th day, the Democratic party has risen to the occasion — by forming a circular firing squad aimed at itself and its future.
Last week made clear that the internecine bloodletting has not been put to rest. Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, blamed President Barack Obama for the historically weak position the party is now in. Meanwhile, new DNC Chairman Tom Perez was booed while traveling across the country on his party unity tour. (The irony there needs no pointing out). Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — who despite asserting he is not a Democrat, is now a leading voice of the party — nevertheless questioned the bona fides of Jon Ossoff just days after that candidate’s impressive showing in Georgia’s deep-red 6th district. Add to this the ongoing recriminations about the recent past — whether it’s the new Hillary Clinton campaign autopsy, “Shattered,” or the hand-wringing over the party’s lack of investment in the Kansas special election.
Sure, there is a lot of energy in our midst right now. This is a great thing, but if we can’t direct it, we will stumble before the next race even begins. We need leadership — real leadership. Now. So how do we move forward?
We must understand why we lost. It honestly had little to do with former candidates Clinton or Sanders or lack of resources or good and smart people. We have resources, we have good and smart people and we have a vision and values that Americans believe in.
Our opponents, however, are masters of the marginal gain. They have played the system well and have leveraged its rules to ensure their victory time and again. This is true in the Electoral College and gerrymandered House districts, of course, but it is also true in the broader political arena. They have built a pipeline for their ideas and leaders that maximizes the marginal value of each. They focused on school boards, state legislatures, courtrooms and county commissions, and groomed people for governorships and Congress.
We lost because we have little patience for the marginal game. We bring awesome resources to the table, and then squander them on short-term battles, “shiny object” projects and singular candidates or causes.
Consider one statistic, which I think is the most important explanation for our party’s long-term decline. In 2015 alone, the conservatives spent $103 million on leadership development organizations while progressives spent $16 million. This 6-to-1 advantage is just a snapshot of a decades-long conservative investment. Since 2008, the conservatives have spent $818 million compared to $82 million. Read this paragraph again, and let those numbers sink in.
Yes, we can argue around the edges about which organizations should be included or not, but the numbers are staggering, no matter how one slices the pie. Smart business people focus on a simple concept: return on investment. The left has spent billions with little to show for it. The right’s billions are beating our billions because they invest from the ground up and get massive return on their spending on an extensive, often unknown, cadre of organizations that form the foundation of their electoral success.
Yes, we have to fund candidates, parties, thinks tanks, war rooms and important issue groups. Our opponents do as well, but they have kicked our butts on developing and keeping talent. If we want to fix this, really fix it, we need to understand the historic nature of our weakness.
This isn’t news. Smarter analysts than I have looked at these problems and warned us. But, because I am in the proverbial trenches, I offer up this 4-point plan for interested progressives to consider.
Establish and support a progressive training and strategy table. This sounds simple. I assure you, it is not. Most of the organization leaders do not even know each other, let alone each other’s missions. We must break down these communication barriers and bust out a map to compare notes on recruitment. A real plan and strategy need to be developed, similar to how America Votes organizes around elections. Several groups have already started this process, but it needs to be formalized as soon as possible.
Establish a $50,000,000 leadership fund to coordinate efforts. Major donors are being bombarded with asks, and grassroots donors have to pick between far too many groups. A unified fund — a progressive political venture fund for lack of better terms — can help clarify this mess. The Democracy Alliance needs to focus on the backbone and the resistance. This fund would enable us to double or triple most leadership and training budgets; seed able, new ones; and develop the stories that lead into a compelling message. It will also vet new technology and should build communications infrastructures in the states lacking strong state parties, which, sadly, are most.
Establish a coordinating group for nontargeted races. Unless a race is targeted, it is extremely unlikely to get support today. By support, I mean dollars, but more importantly, I mean know-how. We need to get out the maps, match notes, find out who is trained and get them the resources to run campaigns where the DNC and other committees can’t help them. We cannot afford to let these seats go unchallenged. People will run, and we need to get them the know-how they need to win. We have to run everywhere, and win everywhere.
Present a unified commitment to America. Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America pulled together a disparate conservative movement and got them into power. We are still living in its aftermath today. We need a similar project. I am biased because my organization is currently working on its Millennial Compact with America, but it is important. Whether it is my organization’s compact or another unifying statement, we need a platform built on principles that is built from the grassroots, not from D.C. pollsters. We are united by our principles, and we need to claim them loudly and proudly in service to ordinary Americans.
These are just a few of the many steps we need to take to fix our party. We need to maintain the long view; get patient support from our donors large and small; be clear about our values; accept that those values are expressed uniquely across the country; and run and win everywhere across the country. And for God’s sake, and our own, we have to break out of the circular firing squad we already seem to be forming.
Mark Riddle is the President of New Leaders Council and NLC Action. All views expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect endorsement by New Leaders Council.
This story was originally published in U.S. News on April 25, 2017.