Bringing a Knife to a Gunfight

Zack Exley makes several good points. In fact, his post was a good deal more thoughtful than my offhand comment insulting Democratic party organizers. So let me respond in kind.

First, I should never, ever have denigrated young men and women who are working in the political trenches in places like Mississippi and Utah. I was being arrogant and flippant when I said they're just picking their noses. Mea culpa. You live by the smart-ass quip, you die by the smart-ass quip.

What prompted that comment was a report that the Democratic National Committee had raised $74 million, but only had $10 million cash on hand. This in contrast to a Republican National Committee with $43 million cash on hand. That disparity is a crisis.

For months I have been traveling the country -- free of charge -- raising money for Democrats who have the guts to take on Republican incumbents. I've been in Nevada and New Hampshire, in Ohio and Florida, in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and more - all campaigning for Democratic challengers. These men and women are risking their reputations, their careers, their financial security -- and they're about to get hit with the most vicious negative ad campaign we've ever seen. If you think Karl Rove is going to surrender power without a fight, you're wrong. And if you think we can answer a last-minute mass media blitz with field organizers you're delusional. That's bringing a knife to a gunfight.

All you desktop campaign manager-wannabes, let's do a little war-gaming. You're the real-life campaign manager for, say, Joe Sestack - a retired Navy Admiral running against the odious Curt Weldon in Pennsylvania. You know that Weldon and his sleazoids have already attacked Adm. Sestack for having his five-year-old daughter's brain tumor treated in Washington instead of Pennsylvania. So you can damn well bet the last weeks of the campaign will be an all-out effort to "Swift Boat" the heroic Admiral. They've started in the gutter; they're going to finish in the sewer. Which would you prefer on Labor Day: four more state party field organizers, or a wave of DNC-paid media attacking the dirtbag Weldon and defending Joe Sestack? Think carefully. Control of the House may be determined by your decision.

Still, this may be a false choice. It turns out I was wrong when I fingered the DNC's State Party subsidy program, wherein Washington pays for state party organizers, for this disparity. After a little checking, I've learned from reliable sources that the State Party program costs about $8 million. Not cheap, but not exactly the primary cause of a $64 million spending spree. I'm also told that the DNC spent about $11 million on the New Jersey and Virginia governors' races. Good. We won them both (although why we needed to subsidize the candidacy of multimillionaire John Corzine is beyond me.)

Bear with me, I was a liberal arts major. But it seems that leaves $45 million in expenditures. Perhaps fundraising costs have gone through the roof. That would be especially tragic given that part of the appeal of the Dean for DNC Chair campaign was his potential to raise money cleanly and cheaply through this newfangled Interwebnet thing.

So, where's the money gone? I have no idea. I do know that the Washington Post reports that salaries and consultants (Gasp! The dreaded C-Word) have gone through the roof at the DNC. Consultants' costs alone have increased from $1.7 million to $2.8 million. Could it be that the netroots' hero is actually bloating the DNC's Beltway bureaucracy?

I am deeply frustrated with a party establishment that does everything except tell people what we stand for. They spend millions on voter files, field work, phone banks, staff, consultants, etc...and yet people don't know what we stand for. I am not opposed to hiring organizers. I'm opposed to pretending that hiring organizers is in any way a substitute for having a message.

I've lived almost my entire life in red states -- not Berkeley, not Burlington -- but Texas and Virginia. I know better than most how vicious these Republicans can be. And I can't bear the thought that we're going to leave these brave, ballsy challengers naked and vulnerable to the tender mercies of Mr. Rove. Ideally you'd like to make sure they have both the message and the organizers they need to win.

I strongly believe in a 50 state strategy. And I stand in awe of the Zack Exeleys of the world, who have found ways to galvanize folks into political action. But I believe that the way to build the party in all 50 states is to begin with the message. With a message - and the money to spread the word far and wide -- we can attract and fund staffers in all 50 states. And they in turn can recruit thousands of volunteers - people who are energized by the party's principles and values and vision. But without a message, even the best organizers are merely clanging cymbals.

What should our message be? Carville and I have already weighed in with a 349-page book that comes down to two words: Progressive Patriotism. No doubt others can improve on that. But that is what we should be arguing about. And I regret that my smart-ass comment once again sidetracked us from the discussion we ought to be having.