Sunday, February 24, 2008

Book Review: "The Argument"

It's been awhile since I've been able to plow through a good political read. This 24-hour age of hyper-blogs and continuous filings makes books hard to get to. After all, there's always another AP wire to check or web-post to peruse.

Still, a well-written hardbound book can still stand the age of time and provide long-term knowledge and lessons that outlast the pithy post of the day. It's just a coincidence that this book is in part about how the online influence of bloggers is changing our politics.

"The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle To Remake Democratic Politics," is an inside look at the movement grass-roots bloggers and wealthy progressives are waging to change the landscape of the Democratic Party. It chronicles Howard Dean's movement in 2003 through the 2006 election cycle and the early innings of campaign 2008. Writer Matt Bai does a great job of putting you in the room where the high-stakes conversations between the leaders, volunteers and donors are driving the future of the party. But after 300 pages, Bai's conclusion is that after all the money, enthusiasm, and hope that's been built by the party heading out of 2007, many of the leaders, movers and shakers in the progressive movement still lack the courage and vision to offer a big idea that could drastically change the country and the party's future. (Take note, this book was penned pre-Obama phenomenon . . . you can argue amongst yourselves if he's yet offered that big, grand idea.)

Bai quotes former New York Governor and legendary Democratic orator Mario Cuomo to make his case. Cuomo argued that big elections are usually about one single issue. Just one. And sometimes, it's not an issue, but an argument. Jimmy Carter won on cleaning up government after Watergate. Ronald Reagan ran and won on supply-side economics and forcing a showdown on the cold war. Bill Clinton won on fundamentally changing the economy.
Cuomo argued in 2000, there was no big issue and that void amounted to a virtual tie. In 2004, it was all about President Bush's war on terror. Cuomo said in 2006, Democrats got a gift because of Iraq. Then before a room full of progressive Democrats, Cuomo did the equivalent of throwing a bucket full of cold water on them. He said, without Iraq, Democrats would have nothing to talk about.

"If Iraq is not an issue, then what issues do we have to talk about," Bai quotes Cuomo asking the group of leaders at a meeting in Miami. "So far the Democrats have talked about what I think it's fair to say are very timid proposals. The minimum wage? No one in this room would say that's not a good idea. It's a good idea. Lower prices for prescription drugs? Another good idea. And yet, he went on sadly, none of these were grand enough to restore the soul of a party. "Where does that leave you," Cuomo asked. "It leaves you in the same position you were in 2004-without an issue. Because you have no big idea."

Again, this was written before most of the 2008 campaign. So it's fair to ask, have Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton offered up one big idea in this race? Is it universal healthcare? Is it ending the war in Iraq? Or does that big, overarching rationale remain muddled?

More notable anecdotes and observations from Bai's book:
  • He compares the Democratic party's problems to the problems of automaker General Motors. "Just as GM couldn't begin to consider a world without Pontiacs, neither could Washington Democrats and their interest groups envision a world where every single liberal provision of the last seventy years didn't exist intact," Bai writes. "This made real innovation . . . all but impossible."
  • A classic political ploy. Bai describes a scene where former President Clinton has lunch with one of the party's top donors in order to squeeze more money out of him. As the lunch went on too long, an aide touched the president's arm, urging him to move along. Clinton snapped at the aide -- lashing out so he could continue talking with this really? interesting? campaign contributor he just met. It's an old Washington trick. But it worked. Before the donor left, he wrote a check for fifty grand.
  • Old Democratic political pro Pat Caddell was incensed. House Democrats had voted down a more lenient amendment on designating illegal immigrants as felony criminals. Bai writes the reason they did it was entirely tactical. They supported the gentler misdemeanor bill, but just wanted the G.O.P. to pass the harsher felony bill so they could use it against them in November. Caddell disagreed with the tactics supported by the progressive bloggers. "They had no convictions --- only tactical maneuvers -- and they were willing to endanger helpless immigrants to score a few points," Bai writes.
  • Howard Dean's 50-state strategy was criticized by many Democratic insiders and elected officials. Why should the party spend money in Idaho that could be used in a battleground like Ohio? Bai writes that Dean was undeterred by the criticism. He writes of a trip to Alaska, where Dean decided allocating just one organizer to the state wasn't enough. He wanted three or four . . . in ALASKA! After meeting with Dean, Alaska's party chairman announced to four hundred Democrats assembled at a fund-raiser that Dean just decided to spend more money on another Alaska organizer. Dean's personal aide began rolling his eyes, and typing a text message in his cell phone. It was the aide's job to tell some poor staffer that they needed to find $35,000 for Alaska . . . of all places.
  • Dean's 50-state strategy came from his campaign for president, according to Bai. Bai writes about a Dean stop in West County, Missouri, where he met a woman who said there was no longer even a Democratic Party to join in her county. Those types of encounters lead Dean to believe that if you lived in a targeted state like Ohio or Pennsylvania, you could hardly avoid seeing a Democratic nominee. On the other hand, in Nebraska or Wyoming, you might not even know there was a Democratic party. "Targeting meant that Democrats no longer even tried to be a truly national party," Bai writes.
  • Why did Virginia Governor Mark Warner decide against an '08 run? Bai believes it was his close encounter with bloggers and the progressive movement. "I suspected his various run-ins with the donors and bloggers of the new progressive movement had also convinced Warner, that in order to succeed, he was going to have to be more angry and divisive than the governor who had won over so many Republicans," Bai writes.
  • Bai writes that in a meeting of top Democratic officials after the 2006 election, Washington Congressman Adam Smith argued against pushing big ideas towards 2008. "Big ideas were overrated, he said, and usually unworkable. What Democrats really had to do was show they were competent, so they could build on their majorities, two years later. Others seconded this . . . This wasn't the time to overstep with big ideas or new paradigms," Bai writes of the meeting. "Here were some of the leading progressive minds in a party that had just days earlier taken power . . .and all they could think about was one thing: keeping power."

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