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Shake Up Democratic Insiders

November 14, 2002|Kenneth S. Baer | Kenneth S. Baer, former senior speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore, is the author of "Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton" (University Press of Kansas, 2001).

The Democratic Party's clamor for new leadership may bring fresh faces to the Sunday morning talk shows, but it won't bring the change the party needs.

In this age of highly individualized and televised politics, the keepers and crafters of a political party's ideology, agenda and strategy are neither congressional nor party leaders but a loose group of consultants, pollsters and strategists. Although they hold no elected office, these operatives have more influence on who runs and how they run than anyone with a fancy title.

Only by shaking up the make-up of this group of insiders will the Democratic Party get the fresh thinking needed to awaken it from its intellectual slumber.

Political consulting as a full-time profession began to flourish in the wake of the 1972 reforms that replaced the party's smoke-filled rooms with primaries as the way to choose a party's nominees. This not only increased the importance of individual candidates but boosted the power of those with the specialized knowledge of how to run a modern campaign.

In time, political consultants became the new party bosses.

That doesn't mean that the national parties became irrelevant. Rather, the advent of unregulated soft money transformed the parties into vast holding companies of campaign cash. With money comes influence, and the national party committees are able to steer candidates to Beltway consultants of their choosing and intervene directly with polling and advertising developed by these advisors. This has democratized professional political advice, giving the rookie congressional candidate the same access to experienced strategists that a three-term senator has.

Yet this nationalization of political strategy has its drawbacks, entrenching those with long winning records and stifling the rise of strategists with new ideas from beyond the Beltway.

It is these outsiders who challenge the prevailing ways of doing business and score the big victories for their parties. In this year's elections, it explains why Democrats did so well in gubernatorial races, winning statehouses not only in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan but also in Republican Oklahoma and Wyoming. Although gubernatorial candidates use nationally known consultants, they always have at the table other strategists from within their state who not only have local knowledge but also a perspective not skewed by the myopic world of Washington.

The same goes for the most successful presidential campaigns of the modern era. The masterminds who orchestrated the rise of George W. Bush -- Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and media man Mark McKinnon -- all are Texans, none of them considered to be in the top tier of Republican operatives even three years ago.

When the Clinton campaign hired James Carville and Paul Begala, they were just getting noticed for engineering Harris Wofford's stunning victory in the 1991 Pennsylvania Senate special election. Pollster Stan Greenberg was a political scientist known more for his analysis of Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Mich., than the few winning candidates he advised. Ronald Reagan relied on his California crew, and Jimmy Carter's improbable victory in 1976 was put together by an almost entirely Georgian team, along with the brash young pollster Pat Caddell.

The Democratic Party suffers today because its last infusion of new blood and new ideas happened in 1992. Since then, welfare reform has removed race from anti-poverty debates. We have lived through a cycle of recession, prosperity and recession. The electorate has changed significantly, moving to the exurbs, investing in the stock market and becoming more nonwhite. The terrorist threat has pushed foreign affairs back to one of the top concerns of voters.

Yet Democrats are waging campaigns that are stuck in a time warp. This year's mantra of protecting Social Security and fighting for a prescription drug benefit has been overused for so long that it has been rendered meaningless.

The only way to get voters to pay attention is for the Democratic Party to put together a compelling reason for why its values and vision for the future best fit the challenges and realities Americans face today. The first step is opening the door to the present-day smoke-filled rooms in Washington and letting in a fresh breeze of new ideas and new thinkers.

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