Election 2006 Postmortem

What a difference two years makes! Two years ago this week I surveyed the results of the 2004 election with dismay. President Bush, who should have handily been defeated for bungling the War in Iraq, was reelected, although the difference in the popular vote (2.4%) and the electoral vote (35 votes) made it one of the closest wins in recent history. While the Republicans picked up only three House seats, they solidified a formidable 30-vote majority in the House. In the Senate, Republicans picked up four seats, making the odds of retaking the Senate this year so small that even most Democrats (like me) thought it was a long shot.

Now that the dust has settled, the results of Tuesday’s election are stunning. Democrats picked up 29 House seats while losing none. A number of elections in dispute are likely to add to this total. In the Senate, with the concessions today by Montana Senator Conrad Burns and Virginia Senator George Allen, the Democrats took a 51-49 majority. This majority though feels rather fragile. It assumes that the newly reelected Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, who ran his independent campaign more like a Republican than a Democrat, doesn’t feel a case of sour grapes and align himself with the Republicans. Amazingly, not a single Democratic incumbent running for the U.S. Congress lost, which may be a first for either political party.

This amazing upset hardly ends at the national level. Looking at state races, Democrats will now control a majority of the governorships (28) next year, up 6 seats. Five state legislatures switched from Republican to Democrat; not one went from Democrat to Republican. New Hampshire turned stunningly Democratic. (The New Hampshire House went from 37.5% Democrat to 59.8%. The New Hampshire Senate went from 45.8% Democrat to 66.7%. In addition, it elected Democrat John Lynch as governor.) Counting state Senate and House seats nationwide, Democrats picked up 349 seats out of 7393, a gain of 4.7 percent.

You have to look very hard for any Republican successes. If Republicans succeeded, it was in not making their losses completely catastrophic. Republicans held on to a retiring senate seat in Tennessee and a retiring governorship in Florida. That was about it. Tuesday was an overwhelmingly Democratic night. Republicans can take some comfort in that the margin of victory for Democrats was in many cases achingly small. Both Conrad Burns and George Allen lost by less than 1% of the popular vote. Still, it was remarkable how in very tight major races, they went consistently for the Democratic candidate.

There is no single reason why Democrats faired so well. Clearly, the voters were expressing extreme unhappiness of the last five years of one party rule. Many were voting to express their disgust with President Bush in general and his bungled War in Iraq in particular. Many others were expressing their unhappiness with their more precarious standard of living.

However, there were also demographic changes that came into prominence in 2006. This country is becoming less white and the minorities are voting disproportionately for Democrats. As young voters begin to vote, they vote predominantly for the Democrats. These demographic forces bode well for the Democratic Party’s future.

Those who discount the force of netroots are in denial. While the netroots community is overwhelmingly progressive, that does not mean they were myopic enough to give money only to progressives. Clearly, the netroots lost in Connecticut, but they picked up impressive victories too. Donations from the netroots to candidates like John Tester and Jim Webb were not only instrumental in their election, but they also made it possible for them to mobilize in the first place. Arguably, neither Tester nor Webb would be senators elect today had it not been from the netroots. The netroots are now a proven means of winning seats. Netroots won the U.S. Senate for the Democrats. It is not your father’s smoke filled room anymore.

Having won the reigns of legislative power, it is another question entirely whether Democrats will prove to be competent to govern. Voters in general were expressing more extreme displeasure at Republicans than enthusiasm for the Democrats. Democrats have traditionally been the “none of the above” party, rather than a party with a coherent message and platform. Perhaps after being out of power for so long they will absorb some important lessons. At least our initial rhetoric is encouraging. The likely next Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi talks about being the Speaker of the House, not the Speaker of just the Democrats. She is stressing bipartisanship. Senator Majority Leader elect Harry Reid is expressing similar thoughts. If history is a guide, this spirit will not last too long, but it is a hopeful sign nonetheless.

Having spurned bipartisanship, President Bush now has to embrace it if he wants anything in his last two years to be more than a footnote. His prompt dismissal yesterday of our disastrous Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a hopeful sign. (I called for it in 2004.) Bush’s dismissal is bizarrely inconsistent with remarks he made a few days earlier wherein he promised he was never going to get rid of him. Since the plans for Rumsfeld’s replacement were clearly well along before the election, essentially Bush was lying. He probably justified it as an attempt to attempt to fire up his base in order to win the election.

No amount of bipartisanship will solve some problems. One of them is our quagmire in Iraq. Both sides are likely to embrace the recommendations of the nonpartisan Iraq Study Group. They will use it for political cover, because it will be politically unacceptable to make a recommendation for withdrawal that is not contingent upon Iraqis achieving benchmarks that they will not be able to meet. For the next two years, expect that our troops will remain in Iraq. Perhaps some small percent will come home to give the illusion to the American public that we will extricate ourselves from the war. Undoubtedly, the real responsibility for Iraq will remain with Bush, not the Congress, because strategy and tactics are the responsibility of the Commander in Chief. This bodes well for Democratic prospects in 2008. It is quite possible that in two years our government will move from Republicans in charge of all branches of government to Democrats being in charge of all branches but the Supreme Court.

For myself I am savoring this exquisite moment of victory. I would like to think it is the first of many, but I am sanguine. What goes around comes around. Without a hardnosed attention to the people’s business, Democrats will be lucky if they are still in power ten years from now, despite the carnage inflicted by Republicans these last six years. I am trying not to think about these sad political realities right now. For a Democrat like me, Tuesday night was magical. It was perhaps a once in a lifetime event. The closest parallel was the Election of 1974 following Watergate. However, in that election, Democrats already controlled both Houses of Congress. I would dance from the rooftops, except I have two left feet. Nonetheless, I am beaming, as is everyone in my very Democratic household. I helped make this election possible through my own contributions in time and money. I feel vested in its outcome and am thrilled to have Jim Webb, my netroots candidate, as my new Senator elect.

Goodbye Smoke Filled Room

Politics in America is undergoing a fundamental change. Say goodbye to smoke filled rooms and party directed elections. Say hello to true grass roots democracy.

For the most part the powers that be haven’t caught on yet. The Republicans in particular don’t get it. They raise money the old fashioned way: through fundraiser dinners where wealthy patrons write very large checks. Admittedly this is a pretty effective way of raising money, but the supply of wealthy Americans able to drop two thousand dollars at a fundraiser is a relatively small. Even with innovative techniques like “pioneers” and “rangers” that work their network of friends to bundle larger sums of money there is a limit to the amount of money even Bush can raise through this process.

The Democratic leadership isn’t much more innovative. Most presidential candidates are working the phones talking to wealthy donors and are speaking at rubber chicken fundraisers in order to fund their campaigns.

Both parties have in place national, congressional, senatorial and state campaign committees which depend on a core network of committed activists willing to tow the party line. One gets in power by working within the existing power structure and by being willing to compromise your political principles for the greater good. Effecting political change is almost an afterthought; getting and retaining power is the primary focus of political parties.

Increasingly this is not a game many of the disenfranchised grass roots want to play. They’ve seen the results, and what usually happens is that whoever gets in charge becomes disconnected from the real needs of the people, and spends time pandering to their base. As a result tax dollars are squandered toward those who keep politicians in power. I witnessed this in the 1980s working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. While hundred dollar checks were appreciated, the focus was large contributions. This was done through means like “The Speaker’s Club” that allowed wealthy contributors to have face time with top congressional leaders. While this was the way the game had been played for years it was very disillusioning to actually see it in practice. I felt kind of dirty facilitating the process through information technology.

The internet has changed things. Since the cost of connecting with like minded people is dramatically lower, those with good technological and organizational skills can use the internet to find people of a similar political persuasion. Most Americans can afford an AOL account. The internet also allows for collaboration among communities that would otherwise be discouraged from coming together due to geography or time. Those with the most to gain from using these new tools were the first to leverage them. Consequently while Republican donors kept writing large checks, insurgent candidates who spoke to the common man like Howard Dean found a way to network those people. And these people found they could afford to send Howard $50 a month. It was a revelation that a whole lot of small contributions equaled or trumped the effects of $2000 contributions from the fundraiser circuit.

Last quarter Howard Dean raised nearly $15M, mostly from supporters primarily using the internet. When the Democratic National Committee tried a similar strategy by contrast it raised a couple hundred thousand dollars. This should tell the DNC something. But I’m not sure they are getting the message. The message is the Democratic Leadership is out of touch and estranged from its base. The Democratic Party is being taken over by its grass roots. I personally think this is a great thing, and I hope fervently that in the process we truly end up with a party that represents those who voted for it.

The energy I feel at the monthly Dean Meetups is palpable. These are people who are determined to win this election and take back the country. We are talking to our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers and we are investing significant amounts of our time, energy and money to make it happen. We are empowering ourselves. This is the most amazing aspect of the Dean campaign: it is decentralized. We don’t wait for someone to tell us what to do. We will certainly listen to direction if Joe Trippi, the campaign manager, says we need to write letters to uncommitted voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. But others are networking with senior citizens, or are talking with veterans, or are reaching out to African Americans. We are effecting real change, and we don’t have to curry favor with some party hack in order to do it.

It remains to be seen how far this phenomenon goes. Clearly most Americans have tuned out politics and are more concerned about making a mortgage payment or having time with family. But organizations like MoveOn.org have proven there is a committed base of people who, through small donations and by targeted phone calls and key moments can change policy. It was MoveOn.org’s members, for example, that raised holy hell about the FCC’s change of policy on media ownership rules. This caused the Bush Administration to back down. Instead of 45% ownership of a media market that Chairman Michael Powell pushed through the FCC it looks like it will be raised slightly from 35% to 39%. Even with all branches of government controlled by the Republicans, MoveOn.Com members got it done. Bush’s veto threat apparently was toothless.

Such victories only embolden us to work harder. Howard Dean calls his campaign special interest free. It is not just words. It is a fact. If Howard Dean wins the nomination and the election he may well be the first president elected accountable to no one but the people. Rather than the faux Republican revolution we’ve been experiencing, we might well get that government of the people and by the people that we’ve claimed to have.

Let’s make it so.