a word from bill bradley

No time to blog lately. Super swamped with other stuff. Sorry…. I did, however, want to pass along a link to this op-ed by former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley though. It struck me as right on the money. A lot of it is stuff we’ve discussed here before, but he’s done a really good job, I think, of tying it all together. Here’s a clip:

Before deciding what Democrats should do now, it’s important to see what Republicans have done right over many years. When the Goldwater Republicans lost in 1964, they didn’t try to become Democrats. They tried to figure out how to make their own ideas more appealing to the voters. As part of this effort, they turned to Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and soon to become a member of the United States Supreme Court. In 1971 he wrote a landmark memo for the United States Chamber of Commerce in which he advocated a sweeping, coordinated and long-term effort to spread conservative ideas on college campuses, in academic journals and in the news media.

To further the party’s ideological and political goals, Republicans in the 1970’s and 1980’s built a comprehensive structure based on Powell’s blueprint. Visualize that structure as a pyramid.

You’ve probably heard some of this before, but let me run through it again. Big individual donors and large foundations – the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance – form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.

The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid – the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate. That language is sometimes in the form of an assault on Democrats and at other times in the form of advocacy for a new policy position. The development process can take years. And then there’s the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.

At the very top of the pyramid you’ll find the president. Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine….

Democrats who run for president have to build their own pyramids all by themselves. There is no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on. Unlike Republicans, they don’t simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus – they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too. Many Democratic fundraisers join a campaign only after assessing how well it has done in assembling its pyramid of political, media and idea people.

There is no clearly identifiable funding base for Democratic policy organizations, and in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas. Campaigns don’t start thinking about a Democratic brand until halfway through the election year, by which time winning the daily news cycle takes precedence over building a consistent message. The closest that Democrats get to a brand is a catchy slogan.

Democrats choose this approach, I believe, because we are still hypnotized by Jack Kennedy, and the promise of a charismatic leader who can change America by the strength and style of his personality. The trouble is that every four years the party splits and rallies around several different individuals at once. Opponents in the primaries then exaggerate their differences and leave the public confused about what Democrats believe.

In such a system tactics trump strategy. Candidates don’t risk talking about big ideas because the ideas have never been sufficiently tested. Instead they usually wind up arguing about minor issues and express few deep convictions. In the worst case, they embrace “Republican lite” platforms – never realizing that in doing so they’re allowing the Republicans to define the terms of the debate.

A party based on charisma has no long-term impact. Think of our last charismatic leader, Bill Clinton. He was president for eight years. He was the first Democrat to be re-elected since Franklin Roosevelt. He was smart, skilled and possessed great energy. But what happened? At the end of his tenure in the most powerful office in the world, there were fewer Democratic governors, fewer Democratic senators, members of Congress and state legislators and a national party that was deep in debt. The president did well. The party did not. Charisma didn’t translate into structure….

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3 Comments

  1. chris
    Posted April 1, 2005 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Mitch Hedberg is dead. I am sad, he was funny. Sorry, mark I know this has nothing to do with this post (though he did die in NJ), but I just had to share w/ people who might have seen his comedy routines.

  2. dorothy
    Posted April 2, 2005 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    excellant article mark. we democrats have been sounding shrill and argumentative lately. this behavior makes the average sheep turn to self serving bloviators like dick cheney, who sounds reasonable and comforting in comparison. i have relatives, i’m sorry to say, who are taken in by this very tactic. AND, i have friends who are taken in by the “aw shucks” posturing of boy george and his down home daddy. i don’t see how so many people swallow this shit without thinking. these idiots actually believe that georgie boy is a regular person with a ranch and cattle. note the pseudo fence-making and brush cutting. do they really think georgie is a cowboy? WTF is the matter?

  3. chris
    Posted April 2, 2005 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Yes, this is all right and true. And yet…I am an “upper middle class” woman of color with a graduate degree and yet I feel utterly powerless. This state, I believe, is a result in part by living in the isolation of the urban environment.

    I cannot help but believe that this power base is a result of idealogical dogma (ie-abortion, living wage, immigration). WHAT is it that they really want? How do we expose the little man behind the curtain controlling the show.

    I definately agree with Senator Bradley on the ability of the Democratic Party to coalesce and present a coherent, consistant party and an unanimously represented candidates.

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