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DNC chair

Am I really expected to have an opinion about who should be the chair of the Democratic National Committee?

It is a mark of the opening up of the party in so many ways that so many people actually do have an opinion, and that even though it is a decision to be made by 400-some people in a smoke-free room, those 400-some people are conscious that people are paying attention to the choice. I was about to write that I have never known anyone who paid the slightest attention to a contest for DNC chair, except that I vaguely recall a friend of mine worked on the "Anybody but Ron Brown" campaign in the late 80s, as part of a faction that believed that Brown was either a stalking horse for Reverend Jackson or, more bluntly, that the fact that he would put an African-American face on the party would destroy it. Brown won, though, and those fears proved, shall we say, unfounded.

The majority of bloggers in my general center-left circle have endorsed Simon Rosenberg. And I'm also very comfortable with and enthusiastic about Rosenberg. I think the New Democrat Network is brilliant in many ways. Recasting the insights of the New Democrats without divisiveness was a great achievement, and NDN's outreach to Latino voters last year was one of those things that is painfully obvious, but no one else bothered to do it. I've never met Rosenberg, but I know lots of people who know and like him, from high school friends to people who work with him now or serve on the board of the New Democrat Network. I've been getting talking points and other pitches from the Rosenberg campaign for months, and they are persuasive.

But some caution or modesty is in order here. Bloggers should at least acknowledge that just "getting it" when it comes to new technology and new forms of participation isn't the only thing that makes someone the best person to run the DNC. There are a lot of things that the chair of the Democratic National Committee has to do, and some of them are relatively mundane things that matter a lot, but that us bloggers and pundits probably know less about. Particularly important is the health of state parties. I think it's fair to say that if Ohio had a better-functioning state party apparatus that had been working statewide for several years before the election, the odds of Kerry winning the state would have been a lot better. But I don't have a full diagnosis of what's wrong with many state parties or how to fix them. Do any of the candidates? I don't know: Wellingon Webb comes from one of the few states, Colorado, where the state party seems to be doing things right and has some serious victories to show for their efforts. How much he's a part of that, I don't know, but if I were voting, I would be intrigued. Likewise, David Leland is a former chair of the Ohio party in its healthier days, and I know he's been very involved with Project Vote, one of the best non-party voter mobilization groups. But he seems to have faded from the race. Apparently Donnie Fowler has won the endorsement of the state chairs, which seems odd but perhaps he had the most persuasive plan to them.

I don't think the chair of the DNC has to be or should be the main public face of the party, even out of power. I have no problem if the chair is as little known as Brown was at the time, or Paul Kirk or Charles Manatt were in earlier decades. In fact, I think a less public figure can be healthier for the party, if the chair understands that the party must have different faces in different situations and can skillfully deploy people like Senator Obama, Governors Granholm or Schweitzer, or Mayor Hickenlooper of Denver as appropriate. (All randomly chosen, and as I've admitted before, I just like writing Hickenlooper.) That's why I'm not particularly enthusiastic about Howard Dean chairing the party, even if it keeps him out of the presidential race. It's not his ideology, which I think is as malleable as they come, it's that he's a candidate at heart. I know, I know, he says it's about the people, but I would paraphrase former Senator Dale Bumpers in his great defense of Bill Clinton: When a candidate says, it's not about me, it's about the people, it's about me.

So that counts in Rosenberg's favor, and also the other lesser-knowns. The factor that I'd be most interested in if I had a vote would be that the chair not be completely immersed in the system and structure of the Democratic Party. By that I mean that he or she must appreciate the role that organizations and individuals outside of the party play in strengthening the party itself. Most people don't interact with politics through the Democratic Party establishment, but often the party doesn't seem to understand that. The role of local organizing groups, advocacy groups on all sorts of issues, candidate training and recruitment projects outside of the parties, state-level policy think tanks, and various other intermediaries between the people, the media and politics are all every bit as important as "the party" itself. Yes, the blogosphere is part of that large external world, but a very small part of it.

I do think Rosenberg understands this, and he's already built a record of working inside and outside of the party itself to make it stronger. I don't know whether the other DNC candidates get this. Dean probably does, but in a different way.

So, if I'm expected to have an opinion on this, it's two cheers for Simon Rosenberg. And the only reason it's not three is that I have some doubt that I'm qualified to have an opinion on this.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 31, 2005 | Permalink


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"It's not (Dean's) ideology, which I think is as malleable as they come..."

Heh. That's a polite way to put it.


Let's also not forget that Dean's approval percentage is in the teens nationally, and only in the 20's among Democrats (!)

Perhaps not the best face for the party.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 31, 2005 4:17:34 PM

"Am I really expected to have an opinion about who should be the chair of the Democratic National Committee?"

The thing almost no one seems to realize yet is that the big news is that we've just witnessed a Hillary/Dean alliance, which is quite likely to both result in both Dean winning the DNC chair, and Hillary winning the '08 nomination.

My feelings about this are quite mixed. While I was looking for a non-northeastern candidate in '08, a Hillary/Dean alliance would unite the party across the spectrum like no one since her husband in '92. And there's an interesting case to be made for her electability since she won't have to pander left, recently expressed well by Marshall Whitman.

But it's worth noting that the party tectonic plates have moved drastically in the past week, and nobody seems to have noticed.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 31, 2005 4:27:21 PM

Petey, what evidence is there for a Clinton-Dean alliance? Maybe the reason no one's noticed is that the party tectonic plates haven't moved, much less drastically.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Jan 31, 2005 7:16:09 PM

"Petey, what evidence is there for a Clinton-Dean alliance?"

In plain light of day - Ickes.

Behind closed doors - the abandonment of Frost.

"Maybe the reason no one's noticed is that the party tectonic plates haven't moved,"

Believe what you like, but watch how things go down, both over the next two weeks, and over the next three years.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 1, 2005 12:29:00 AM

Hmmm...that's an interesting observation, Petey. There would appear to be some shape that comes out of connecting the Ickes-Clinton-Dean-Frost dots.

I am not sold on Hillary Clinton in '08. Early on, I'd much rather see Russ Feingold. But I have to admit that after enduring the Great Summer Laydown of '04 from the Kerry campaign, I'll give anyone who is willing to call a pig a pig and call a Republican an inequality loving thug that wipes his ass with the Constitution a chance to make his or her case.

I do think that Hillary will battle with both fists like Bill did. That's my only un-negotiable demand so far for '08. The only language these Republican curs understand is the boot; it's way past time that we give it to them.

Posted by: Patrick | Feb 1, 2005 3:00:28 AM

and what are the positive things you think Dean would bring to the role?

Posted by: james | Feb 1, 2005 8:48:04 AM

I have no reason to believe Dean won't do a decent job as DNC chair. His Prez campaign probably (hopefully) taught him he has limits, and if he delegates properly to compensate for his weaknesses he can get done what needs to get done by focussing on his strengths. Everybody brings their own mix of pluses and minuses. That said, I like Rosenberg, too.

While I think Petey's observation is noteworthy and possible, I can't see the deal being sealed. I don't see Dean being able to "deliver" his followers to Hillary, and there weren't that many Dean followers (relative to the whole of primary voters) anyway. And there's plenty of background skepticism of Hillary, and no shortage of other talent chomping at the bit to run in '08.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Feb 1, 2005 1:22:17 PM

"I don't see Dean being able to "deliver" his followers to Hillary, and there weren't that many Dean followers (relative to the whole of primary voters) anyway."

Dean doesn't have many voters as followers, but he's got a lot of activists as followers.

Since the new primary rules were instituted in the early 80's, the party establishment choice in the year before the actual primaries has ALWAYS received the nomination. An alliance between Dean and the Clintons would give them unstoppable power to select that party establishment choice.

While an Edwards, Warner, or Richardson will be able to run, they'll have to run an insurgent campaign, which is very difficult to pull off under the rules.

And finally, on the topic of "delivering" followers, I thought it was interesting that a couple of days before the Ickes endorsement, Markos had a post up asking people to lay off Hillary. This is how the new machine works.


"I have no reason to believe Dean won't do a decent job as DNC chair."

The main problems with Dean that I see are threefold:

- The guy has serious baggage, and at a bare minimum, he will make it more difficult to ameliorate the existing problems with the Democratic brand.

- If he actually pursues the "appeal to the base" strategy that his rhetoric centers around, it will cause problems given the GOP's huge margin in self-identified conservatives over self-identified liberals.

- There is a moral hazard here. Dean has risen inside the party by attacking the party. Rewarding him for doing so will encourage more discord and division in the future.

All that said, it looks like this is a done deal.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 1, 2005 5:29:33 PM

Petey, I agree with you that Dean's baggage and questionable campaign conduct and strategy make him a bad Presidential nominee, but I don't think these sink him as DNC chair. I mean, how many "bad" party chairs have there been? I don't think the DNC is a likely locus of reform for the party anyway - that's gonna come from 2 places : 1) innovative candidates, and 2) the work of places like NAF and CAP -- and the innovative candidates who pick up their ideas.

I don't think Markos can be corralled to be such an inside player as you imagine. He's a maverick; that's my take on him.

I think a lot of money will line up for an "anybody but Hillary." And the whole 'establishment choice a year before' thing you mention reminds me of the nonsensical "senators can't win" argument. It's a very small sample size from which to make a generalization. (like McCain couldn't win if he had the nomination? like Kerry didn't come close?)

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Feb 1, 2005 11:10:45 PM

"And the whole 'establishment choice a year before' thing you mention reminds me of the nonsensical "senators can't win" argument. It's a very small sample size from which to make a generalization."

You are right that it is a small sample size. And I agree that an insurgent nomination isn't impossible. But I do think it is much more difficult than many people think.

Given the rule changes of the early 80's that were put into place specifically to stop insurgencies, it's a high hill to climb. Not many folks realize that Hart got more votes, and won more delegates than Mondale in '84, for example.

In 2000, things were set up so that even if Bradley had pulled out NH, Gore would almost definitely have still won the nomination.

In 2004, if two thousand Iowans had gone for Edwards instead of Kerry, Edwards would have won Iowa and had a serious shot at the nomination. But given the process, I'd wager Kerry still would've won the actual prize.

Of course, there is always the possibility of a perfect storm insurgency. And you are correct that we are dealing with a sample size so small as to be basically meaningless.

But if the Deanie forces get behind Hillary in 2006 and 2007 as I expect, she'll be operating from a position of such strength as to make an insurgency almost impossible to pull off. Think about the Bush '00 primary campaign in the other party for a template of what it'll look like.


"I don't think Markos can be corralled to be such an inside player as you imagine. He's a maverick; that's my take on him."

I see him as a very old fashioned party machine hack in a very new field. I think the reason you perceive him as a maverick is because his forces have been outsiders in the party until this week. But in the sense that being a maverick implies independence, I think your take on him is dead wrong.

To return to the Hillary example, there was a perception at dKos throughout and after the '04 primaries that the Clintons were hostile to the Dean Presidential campaign. As a result, there was a large amount of hostility directed Hillary - the general tone toward her was like something you'd expect to see at a right wing site. And then, a couple of days before the Ickes endorsement was made public, Markos posted a defense of Hillary, which is something I'd never seen before.

That's not a maverick. That's an old fashioned power politico trying to deliver for his faction.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 2, 2005 5:30:32 AM

As little as I know of what it takes to succeed as DNC Chair, I understand it takes at the very least a massive sublimation of one's own ego.

Memory fails, but when's the last time a DNC Chair was a former elected official? A prominent EO? (RNC examples come to mind more easily.)

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Feb 2, 2005 12:06:25 PM

"Memory fails, but when's the last time a DNC Chair was a former elected official?"

As recently as the 90's.

Chris Dodd and Roy Roemer both were chairs, each paired with an executive director to do all the non-talking head work. (Dodd was not 'former', and I'm not sure if Roemer was 'former' when he held the job.)

It'll be interesting to see if the Dean steamroller is willing to put up with that kind of arrangement or if Dean will have control over the executive director. Dean, personally, seems to be mostly on a long Nixonian quest for reputation redemption, which would not necessitate control of the party machinery. But those in his camp are definitely looking for control.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 2, 2005 2:38:00 PM

As I said, memory fails ;-)

FWIW, I endorsed Rosenberg a while back as the business end of a split chair arrangement.

Now it's opportunity time for Rosenberg. Streams of Democratic money, activists, consultants, technologists, candidates and voters may take refuge outside the DNC loop -- some whose minds are made up, some opting out on a probationary basis, and some insufficiently Deanish purged by the true believers.

NDN can catch the wave. Or Simon can fold it in, staunch some of the flow, and let other vehicles pick up the remainder.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Feb 2, 2005 5:18:23 PM

"Now it's opportunity time for Rosenberg. Streams of Democratic money, activists, consultants, technologists, candidates and voters may take refuge outside the DNC loop"

Maybe. But maybe not.

The whole point of a Dean / Clintons alliance is to create a consensus Democratic establishment again, with Dean inside the tent pissing out.

If Dean plays his role properly, there won't be a need for a shadow party.

It's obviously very early, and things could still break in many different directions. But unless Dean is truly a whacko, it'll be in everybody's interests to keep things together.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 3, 2005 12:19:09 AM

From Lizza's article, Dean is quoted thusly:

"I am the Howard Dean who knows how to build things. I'm not Joe Trippi's creation."

As someone who's always thought the price for Dean's readmission into polite society was his public repudiation of Trippi-ism, I'm partially mollified.

I'd prefer, ""I am the Howard Dean who knows how to build things. And Joe Trippi is a cancer on the soul of the left." But I'll settle for what I can get.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 4, 2005 4:19:59 PM

It's Dean by acclamation, and Rosenberg's opening bid is to maintain NDN (and his role in it) as-is.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Feb 5, 2005 12:26:04 PM

I am not an american, so please bear with me. I have followed your politics for 40 years,and the Democrats seem to be going around in circles.

Election results are affected by party policies and also by the technicalities surrounding the process of voting. Democrats seem to be impervious to words and ideas that point out to them that the US electoral system is RIGGED against them.

Does it tell you something that the US is the only major country in the world without a national government organised automatic enrollment of all citizens over 18 years onto a public register for the purposes of voting?

How much money and energy is spent simply getting people enrolled? And anyone can do it...no wonder there is so much corruption.

Why can't the Democrats introduce State Election Commissions which enroll every person legally resident in the state onto a voting register. There are states controlled by the Democrats where this can be done. Democrats will benefit from more of the disenfranchised being able to vote.

Why not do it?

And twenty other sensible technical improvements to the process of voting and counting votes.

If you refuse to see commonsense, you may as well elect Homer Simpson as Chair of the DNC.

Posted by: mike | Feb 6, 2005 5:32:58 AM