“The Message or the Machine”: A Debate Between Tom DeLay and Martin Frost
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An Internet newsletter called The Politico currently features an exchange of ideas about the Democratic resurgence between two former Texas congressmen, Tom DeLay and Martin Frost. What you’ll find in this brief debate is more analysis than rhetoric. (If it were the other way around, I wouldn’t suggest that you read it.) DeLay’s article follows:
For years, the media — either out of ignorance or mendacity — perpetuated the myth that elections basically came down to Republican money (because all conservatives are rich) versus Democrat shoe leather (because liberals are all passionate and hard-working). Like most stereotypes, the media got it exactly backwards. For most of the post-Watergate campaign finance era, Republicans won their victories thanks to strong grass-roots organizing and Democrats did their best thanks to a smaller but preposterously wealthy donor base.
Things started to change as President Bill Clinton’s administration ended in 2001. Thousands of well-connected, battle-hardened, experienced and talented political operatives were out on their ears in the wake of the Republican Party’s sweep of the 2000 elections. The Clintonistas lacked influence and jobs. Around that time a handful of smart and extremely wealthy liberals decided it was time to close the gap on the Republicans’ enormous advantage in grass-roots politicking. It worked.
Yes, the Republican Party under Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie and Ken Mehlman broke new ground on the precision of their voter identification and mobilization technologies, but what the Clinton administration-in-exile has put together in the last six years is nothing short of incredible — admirable from the perspective of pure politics and terrifying from the perspective of a conservative hoping to reverse the outcomes of the 2006 elections next time around.
The sizable liberal coalition’s true strength is its unity, its diversity and especially its bankroll. Conservative activist David Horowitz has begun the process of unpacking and cataloguing what he calls the left’s “Shadow Party.” Centered on an organization called the Open Society Institute, a granting entity endowed with more than $330 million from George Soros, the liberal coalition has branched off into every direction imaginable. On the fringes are some real doozies that, among other things, have called for the United Nations to ban all private ownership of guns and the defense fund for a lawyer convicted of aiding and abetting a terrorist mastermind.
But the bulk of the money is going to former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta to start a think tank, the Center for American Progress. It’s going to Harold Ickes to coordinate political activities. It’s going to MoveOn.org to muster local activists. It’s going to the Thunder Road Group, a political and media strategy firm run by former Clinton and John Kerry flack Jim Jordan. It’s going to America Coming Together to identify and mobilize Democrat votes.
Most of all, the money is going, indirectly, into the real and in-kind coffers of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The Clinton administration-in-exile has worked harder than either party in the last six years to restore what is, in their mind, the natural order of American politics: liberalism ascendant with the Clintons back in the White House and themselves back running the government.
What this network of tax-exempt foundations, “educational” organizations, 527 political groups, and political businesses has accomplished in a short time is staggering. A good case in point is the defeat of U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. Until last year, the Northern Californian was chairman of the Resources Committee, and a good one at that. In 2006, admittedly a tough year for Republicans, he lost to a relatively weak challenger by six percentage points.
And the Democrat Party hardly spent a dime on the race. Pombo wasn’t defeated by Jerry McNerney or the Democrat Party, but by George Soros and his Shadow Party. His organizations and operatives provided the money, the television ads, the grass-roots manpower, and the media connections, with the card signed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It makes you wonder whether the former first lady really intended her crack about the existence of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to be an insult, or a compliment.
Frost’s article responds:
After years of bragging about how good their grass-roots turnout efforts were, Republicans are suddenly bemoaning the unfair advantages Democrats have supposedly accumulated. What a difference one election makes.
Let’s look at the real facts. Republicans in recent years have spent a great deal of money organizing locally. Their efforts, in conjunction with well-funded activities by the religious right, generally are credited with carrying the crucial state of Ohio for President Bush in 2004. Republicans also had a superior grass-roots turnout effort in the 2002 midterm congressional elections, which prevented Democrats from making gains in the House.
In the days leading up to the 2006 midterm congressional elections, Republican operatives were once again touting their grass-roots efforts as the reason they would hold onto majorities in the House and the Senate. Of course, they lost control of both chambers in that watershed election.
What these election results really demonstrate is that it does not make any difference how strong your grass-roots organization is if you are on the wrong side of history and the public does not agree with your stances on issues. In 2006, the Republicans had no message that resonated with the American people and they lost despite their strong grass-roots efforts. The GOP could not overcome the unpopularity of Bush’s Iraq war policy, the mismanagement of the House page scandal and the pathetic government response to Hurricane Katrina. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put this Humpty Dumpty back together again.
It is possible that the Republican grass-roots effort did keep their loses from being even greater than they should have been in 2006. While House Democrats picked up 31 seats, several Republicans stemmed the tide and were narrowly re-elected, including Reps. Deborah Pryce, Ohio, Heather Wilson, N.M., and Christopher Shays, Conn.
The two parties until recently followed different strategies and approaches to grass-roots organizing. The Republican Party, under the leadership of Karl Rove and some very astute Republican National Committee chairmen, has devoted millions of dollars to sophisticated targeting and list building. The Democrats, by contrast, have largely relied on outside groups such as organized labor, environmentalists and pro-choice women to do the hard organizational work of getting voters to the polls on Election Day.
This approach began to change several years ago. Under the leadership of then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, the party invested millions of dollars in list building and sophisticated computer hardware. His successor as chairman, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, has taken this one step further over the past two years by investing money directly in party organizations in all 50 states.
However, even with this new dedication to grass-roots activity, the Democratic Party is still behind the Republicans in grass-roots organizing. It still relies heavily on outside groups.
But for Tom DeLay to poor-mouth the incredibly successful grass-roots machine carefully constructed by the Republican Party over the past decade is nonsense.
Get over it, Tom. In the words of President Bush, your party just took a thumpin’ in 2006. I just hope the Democratic Party is successful in copying what Republicans have done so that we don’t have to rely so heavily on our friends to make up the difference in the future.