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Why Are Dean and Emanuel Fighting?

By Jay Cost

For the second time in three months, stories are once again circulating about the feud between Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chairman Rahm Emanuel.

Last week, the Chicago Tribune's Jeff Zeleny reported,

More than a month after a strategy meeting between Emanuel and Dean ended in an explosive dispute, the two men have not spoken directly. And Emanuel said he is beginning to doubt whether the party's nuts-and-bolts operation will be ready to compete with Republicans in key districts. (snip)

At the party's new headquarters, the friction is so palpable that during a recent fire drill staffers worried that Dean and Emanuel might bump into each other on the curb.


The timing of this feud could not be worse. For the first time in decades, the congressional arms of the party are operating at roughly the same level as their GOP counterparts. This is a very important milestone. For over thirty years, the national Republican organization has been much more effective than the national Democratic one. Specifically, the Republicans - to a greater extent than the Democrats - have embraced the rise of new technology, adapted to the post-Watergate campaign finance laws to build a vast network of donors, integrated state and local organizations with the national party, and modernized the three national elements of the party: the Republican National Committee (RNC), the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee (NRSC), and the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC).

Lately, however, it has been looking as if the Democrats have begun to make up sizeable ground on the GOP - at least in the congressional arms of the party. Emanuel is easily the best DCCC chairman since PAC maestro Tony Coelho; while he has not raised as much as NRCC chairman Tom Reynolds, he has brought the organization out of debt and into parity with the NRCC in terms of cash on hand. Charles Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), has actually raised more money and has more cash on hand than his counterpart at the NRSC, Elizabeth Dole.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, the net result of this will be less than what we might otherwise expect. Despite rough parity among the congressional parties, the GOP as a whole has about $15 million more in the bank than the Democrats. If you combine that with the cash advantages state GOP organizations have over their Democratic counterparts; their greater capacity, thanks in no small part to President Bush, to raise more between now and Election Day; and the fact that, since most incumbents are Republican, GOP candidates are better funded - it is clear that, once again, the GOP will have a significant money advantage over the Democrats.

One reason for this is that the DNC under Dean has been spending a large amount of cash on activities unrelated to the midterm. It has already spent about 90% of the funds it has raised in this election cycle. The rift that divides Dean and Emanuel reportedly has to do with the fact that Dean has apparently told him that the DNC is not going to support the Fall campaign to the DCCC's satisfaction.

Instead, Dean is pursuing what he calls the "50 State Strategy." According to the DNC, its purpose is: "to (win) elections at every level in every region of the country." Specifically, the plan calls for the following elements:

1. The Democratic Party is hiring organizers chosen by the state parties in every state - experienced local activists who know their communities.

2. We bring those organizers together for summits where they can learn from each other the best practices for getting organized to win elections.

3. Armed with the knowledge they've shared with each other, Democratic organizers return to the states and recruit and train leaders at the local level.

4. Those local leaders recruit more leaders and volunteers until every single precinct in their area has a trained, effective organization of Democrats dedicated to winning votes for Democrats.

As a practical matter, this has meant spending dollars on Democratic organizations in places like Alaska, Utah, Kansas and Montana to build party organization. The strategy, or rather the fact that Dean has prioritized it at the expense of the 2006 campaign, is apparently what has spoiled the relationship between Emanuel and him. Note that this does not mean that the DNC will be ignoring Democratic candidates. But it does mean that Dean is taking money from candidate support and dedicating it to party building.

The Dean plan, in itself, is a very smart one. Party building is an important activity - and Dean's interest in modernizing state organizations will pay off in the future in a number of ways.

First, it will create the groundwork for Democrats to pick up the odd seat here and there in "red" America. As long as our political divide remains constant, a robust Democratic organization in Utah is not going to significantly change the balance of power. All things being equal, Utah voters will still vote Republican in congressional and presidential elections. However, all things are not always equal. Frequently, incumbents resign in disgrace, alienate themselves from their constituents, say something stupid, etc. These create great pick-up opportunities for the other side. To maximize the chance of success, a good party organization is helpful.

Second, it should make the party more competitive on the state level. The national political divide is such that this is not going to give liberal or even moderate Democrats a win in places like UT-02 or OK-03 unless there are extenuating circumstances. But, the divide between state Democrats and state Republicans is such that Democrats can often win on the state level. Over time, a strong Democratic organization in Oklahoma will help the Democrats in races for the state house, the state senate and the governorship.

Finally, what Dean is doing essentially amounts to party integration. He is connecting each state party with the national party, and each state party with each other in a professional, election-oriented way. This will enhance Democratic prospects generally - an integrated party is better able to coordinate fundraising, campaign strategy, tactical assistance, etc.

In the long run, this is the kind of party building which the Democrats must effect if they wish to match the Republicans, who are today organizationally superior. So why has Dean's plan so incensed Emanuel?

The reason is that it will not have any net electoral benefit in 2006 - on any level. This year, the way to maximize the number of successful Democratic candidates is to fund the candidates. To the extent that Dean is not doing this, he is not helping the party's campaign efforts. Presumably, Emanuel is angry because this year is the Democrats' best chance to take the House since 1996; Dean, from this perspective, is passing on a historic opportunity.

Even in a year where the Democrats did not have such an opportunity, this strategy would probably still raise eyebrows. Party building is not usually emphasized in election years - for two reasons. First, it can just as easily be done in the off year; but elections cannot be won in the off year. Second, party building is necessarily a means to an end, which is winning elections. Thus, when faced with a choice of spending money directly on promising campaigns or building the party, we would expect a party leader to choose the campaign route. Dean's spending decisions seem like his principal goal is to build the party - with electoral success being a secondary goal. Dean is actually directing party resources in a way that runs contrary to the definition of a political party that political scientists accept: a team whose purpose is to win elections.

Why, then, is Dean pursuing this strategy now?

Recall the context of Dean's election, including the work of the previous chairman. Emanuel is essentially asking Dean to pursue the same strategy that Terry McAuliffe pursued: focus on elections, directing money to the most competitive races. McAuliffe's strategy did not pay off during his chairmanship. The party's congressional caucus in both houses shrunk, and Bush was reelected. State party organizations, meanwhile, felt jilted - they felt that the DNC had not paid sufficient attention to their needs, and had ended up getting no return on the money they spent elsewhere. In 2005, after the party had raised record sums only to lose once again, Dean promised the Democrats that he would change course. He promised to address their organizational deficiencies and rebuild the party from the ground up - focusing on the weak state parties. This is exactly what he is doing today. So, Dean is being responsible to those who elected him.

The key to the puzzle, then, lies in the composition of the DNC itself: its members voted for Dean knowing that he would pursue the 50 State Strategy with such gusto. Why would they do this? An examination of its membership rules helps to clarify matters. Like the RNC, the DNC allocates three membership spots to each state; unlike the RNC, it then also allocates additional members to each state based roughly upon population. It also has spots for "at large" members, for elected state officials and members of Congress, for college Democrats and for women.

The RNC's composition is well-suited to its congressional caucus. The GOP tends to do better in less populous states than in more populous ones. The Democrats, on the other hand, have some regional gaps in their electoral coalition. On the presidential and congressional levels, they do not do as well in the South, the Mountain West or the Midwest as they do in the Northeast and the Pacific West. So, relative to their congressional delegations and their votes for Democrats in the Electoral College, the former regions are over-represented in the DNC.

What is more, most of the historically weak party organizations come from states where Democrats do not do well on the presidential and/or congressional level. In particular, the South, the Mountain West and portions of the Midwest have sported the weakest Democratic party organizations. This might sound counterintuitive - given the fact that the Democrats controlled the South for a long time. However, decades of one-party government in the South essentially meant that there was no party organization at all.

So, there is a large bloc of members in the DNC who (a) do not matter much for national Democratic politics and (b) come from organizationally weak state parties. As a matter of fact, if - as a candidate for the DNC chairmanship - you won the support of all of the delegates from the states that Bush won by 5% or more in 2004 and states with historically weak party organizations, you would have the support of 95 members, almost half of what you would need to win.

In other words, the DNC's makeup could enable a candidate to run and win on a platform of promising aid to regions that sport organizationally and/or electorally weak Democratic organizations. This seems to be what Dean did. The first assertion he made when he announced his candidacy was: "The Democratic Party needs a vibrant, forward-thinking, long-term presence in every single state and we must be willing to contest every race at every level. We will only win when we show up and fight for the issues important to all of us." Which type of party leader would prefer such a strategy? Is it the leader from a state with a robust and successful Democratic organization, or the leader from a state with an anemic and unsuccessful organization? Assuredly, it is the latter. The former, on whose turf most of the big electoral fights occur, does not require the kind of party building the 50 State Strategy promises. Talk about beefing up party organizations to contest - as opposed to win - elections is talk designed for weak organizations in conservative states.

It therefore seems that Dean was elected by promising remedial assistance to lagging Democratic organizations. Today, he is doing what he promised, which is what his constituents - the state party leaders who elected him - prefer. So also is Emanuel. He was selected by his colleagues as DCCC chairman to bring about a Democratic majority in the House. All members of the Democratic caucus have two goals: first, secure their own reelections; second, build the caucus. Emanuel promised to work toward these goals.

So, Dean's constituents prefer one strategy; Emanuel's constituents prefer another. This answers our puzzle. The strategic problems that the Democrats have are actually due to the fact that its party insiders - the ones in charge of electing the leaders we see on TV - prefer different strategies. Accordingly, it is as inappropriate to blame Dean for the Democrats' dilemma as it is to blame Emanuel. The problem is, at its core, an organizational one. Dean and Emanuel are being responsible to their constituents. The real problem is that their constituents disagree.

What we are witnessing, then, is a symptom of a larger problem: Democratic elites have fundamental disagreement over organizational issues. Ideologically speaking, disagreement can be a good thing; it means a "big tent." Organizationally speaking, it means two things: an incoherent strategy and an inefficient outcome. The disagreement between Emanuel and Dean ultimately means that neither party building nor caucus building will be done as well as they could be because the party as a whole cannot cohere around a single strategy.

This organizational weakness is essentially the same problem that has plagued the Democrats for more than a generation. The GOP has for a long time been better at the business of politics than the Democrats. Their organization has been more coherent, with members being generally unified on party goals, and more efficient, with an apparatus quite capable of achieving party goals. The rift between Emanuel and Dean indicates that this superiority continues.

Will this matter on November 7? Absolutely it will. A more efficient, coherent GOP organization will be an organization that mobilizes its electorate better than the opposition. What this most likely means is that the GOP will be able to "beat the spread" in November. Their organizational excellence has enabled them to do this at least five times in the last twenty five years - 1982, 1986, 1994, 1996, and 2002. These are years when the party either gained more House seats or lost fewer House seats than expected. It was the GOP organization that also made the difference for Bush in 2000 and 2004.

Virtually nobody in the Washington press cabal cares a whit about party organization. They tend to focus exclusively on "sexy" political stories. Talk about party organizational coherence is not sexy, but on Election Day it matters a great deal. In what Michael Barone calls the "49-49 nation," the party that will get to half-plus-one is the party with the more coherent and efficient organization. Today, that party is the GOP.

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