Again . . .
More On The Marked Man
By Pejman Yousefzadeh Posted in 2006 | Featured Stories — Comments (20) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
It really does bear repeating just how much trouble Howard Dean will likely be with his party should it fail to do well in the upcoming midterm elections. The following passage from this story is a long one, but it is instructive as well (read on):
Not all states are equal on an election map, and Alaska is one of those less populous states -- like Kansas or Idaho or Alabama -- that national Democrats almost never bother to visit. For one thing, just getting there presents a logistical ordeal: the journey from Washington takes as long as it would to reach, say, Nigeria, and even then you sometimes need a hydroplane to get around. And more to the point, there aren't a whole lot of people to see once you get there. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a margin of 2 to 1 in oil-crazed Alaska, which hasn't sent a Democrat to the House or Senate in more than 30 years. To put it another way, there were more Democrats in Central Park for the Dave Matthews concert a few years back than there are in the entire state of Alaska -- all 656,000 square miles of it.
It seemed somewhat bizarre, then, when Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, chose to make the long odyssey to Alaska at the end of May, near what was the beginning of one of the most intense and closely contested national election campaigns in memory, when every other Democrat in Washington was talking about potentially decisive states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. It was also strange that no one in Democratic Washington seemed to know he was going. Although I had been following Dean closely for months, I found out about the trip accidentally and invited myself along -- an intrusion that Dean seemed merely to tolerate. We met up first in Las Vegas, where he was making appearances with Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader. Dean, who enjoys his image as an unpretentious New Englander, is given to finding his own flights on discount Web sites, so it's sometimes hard for even his own staff to track his itinerary. On the morning we left for Alaska, Dean went missing for a good half-hour. It turned out that he was in the business center of the MGM Grand, where he had been trying to figure out how to print his boarding pass but somehow ended up in an impromptu game of online backgammon with a guy who claimed to be in China.
Touching down in Anchorage, we were greeted by Jonathan Teeters, a 25-year-old former offensive lineman at the University of Idaho who had been hired to help the state party begin to organize Democrats. It took less than 10 minutes, as Teeters drove us through a pounding rainstorm to the state headquarters, for Dean, seated in front, to unleash his usual brand of havoc on a state unaccustomed to it. First, he absently asked Teeters what kind of radio interviews he would be doing during his 24-hour stay and was told that he was booked on the local Air America affiliate, the only liberal radio option in town. This is what party chairmen get paid to do -- rally the faithful, collect their money and urge them to vote.
"Bull," Dean snapped, using a slightly more elongated version of the term.
"Huh?" Chris Canning, Dean's personal aide, suddenly looked up from a loose-leaf binder. He seemed to think he had misheard.
"I'm not going to do that," Dean replied firmly, craning his neck to address Canning in the back seat. "I didn't come all the way up here just to talk to people who already agree with us. I want to talk to everyone else. I'm fine with doing Air America, but we have to do something else too. Isn't there some conservative show we can do?" Teeters warned that the few right-wing shows in town could get nasty for the chairman. "If you can set something else up too, great," Dean said with finality. "Otherwise, I won't do Air America."
Then Dean wanted to know how many organizers the state party now had on the ground, and Teeters told him there was just one: Teeters himself. The D.N.C. created his job -- along with a position for a communications director -- last year as part of Dean's signature program, known as the 50-state strategy. Under this program, the national party is paying for hundreds of new organizers and press aides for the state parties, many of which have been operating on the edge of insolvency. The idea is to hire mostly young, ambitious activists who will go out and build county and precinct organizations to rival Republican machines in every state in the country. "We're going to be in places where the Democratic Party hasn't been in 25 years," Dean likes to say. "If you don't show up in 60 percent of the country, you don't win, and that's not going to happen anymore."
In paying for two new staffers, Dean had, virtually overnight, doubled the size of Alaska's beleaguered state party, which used to consist of only an executive director and a part-time fund-raiser. But now, as Dean considered the vastness of the state's landscape, he decided that one organizer wasn't enough. "In most states, we have three or four," Dean said, thinking out loud. "Seems like you should really have more. We should be able to find that money in the budget."
That night, after meeting with Dean at the sad little storefront office that houses the state party, Alaska's party chairman, Jake Metcalfe, announced to 400 assembled Democrats at a fund-raiser that Dean had just promised to hire an additional organizer for the state. The ballroom erupted in grateful applause as Dean sat there beaming. The members of his staff, gently rolling their eyes, began calling back to Washington, warning the political staff that they would need to find the money for yet another salary in, of all places, Alaska.
In just a few hours, Dean had nicely demonstrated why so many leading Democrats in Washington wish he would spend even more time in Alaska -- preferably hiking the tundra for a few months, without a cellphone. It's not that Democrats in Congress don't like the idea of building better organizations in the party's forgotten rural outposts. Everyone in Democratic politics agrees, in principle, that party organizations in states like Alaska could use help from Washington to become competitive again, as opposed to the rusted-out machines they have become. But doing so, at this particular moment and in this particular way, would seem to suck away critical resources at a time when every close House and Senate race has the potential to decide who will control the nation's post-election agenda, and when the party should, theoretically, be focused on mobilizing its base voters -- the kind of people who live in big cities and listen religiously to Air America.
It's true that adding a second organizer in Alaska will cost the national party only a modest sum, maybe $35,000 this year, but that same money could pay the salaries for canvassers in Pennsylvania or Connecticut, where a few thousand votes could mean the difference between swearing in Speaker Hastert or Speaker Pelosi next January. Overall, Dean's investment in state parties could cost the D.N.C. as much as $8 million this year, every dime of which could be crucial when you consider that the Republican National Committee says it will pour as much as $60 million into local races to defend its Congressional majorities. (The D.N.C. has pledged to spend $12 million on this fall's races.) With the president's approval ratings stuck around 40 percent, and polls suggesting that the Democrats may have a real chance of rolling back 12 years of Republican rule, numerous Democratic insiders are privately and, at times, publicly deriding the 50-state strategy as an indulgence that could cost them their best and last opportunity to sweep away the Bush era, once and for all.
But Democrats are safe, right? The tide is turning against the Republicans, right?
Well, maybe. But then again, maybe not:
The polls keep suggesting that Republicans could be in for a historic drubbing. And their usual advantage--competence on national security--is constantly being challenged by new revelations about bungling in Iraq. But top Republican officials maintain an eerie, Zen-like calm. They insist that the prospects for their congressional candidates in November's midterms have never been as bad as advertised and are getting better by the day. Those are party operatives and political savants whose job it is to anticipate trouble. But much of the time they seem so placid, you wonder whether they know something.
They do. What they know is that just six days after George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, his political machine launched a sophisticated, expensive and largely unnoticed campaign aimed at maintaining G.O.P. majorities in the House and Senate. If that campaign succeeds, it would defy history and political gravity, both of which ordain that midterm elections are bad news for a lame-duck President's party, especially when the lame duck has low approval ratings. As always, a key part of the campaign involves money--the national Republican Party is dumping at least three times as much into key states as its Democratic counterpart is--but money is only the start. "Panic results when you're surprised," says Republican National Committee (r.n.c.) chairman Ken Mehlman. "We've been preparing for the toughest election in at least a decade."
Thanks to aggressive redistricting in the 1990s and early 2000s, fewer than three dozen House seats are seriously in contention this election cycle, compared with more than 100 in 1994, the year Republicans swept to power with a 54-seat pickup in the House. Then there's what political pros call the ground game. For most of the 20th century, turning out voters on Election Day was the Democrats' strength. They had labor unions to supply workers for campaigns, make sure their voters had time off from their jobs to go to the polls and provide rides to get them there.
Now, though, Democrats are the ones playing catch-up when it comes to the mechanics of Election Day. Every Monday, uberstrategist Karl Rove and Republican Party officials on Capitol Hill get spreadsheets tallying the numbers of voters registered, volunteers recruited, doors knocked on and phone numbers dialed for 40 House campaigns and a dozen Senate races. Over the next few weeks, the party will begin flying experienced paid and volunteer workers into states for the final push. The Senate Republicans' campaign committee calls its agents special teams, led by marshals, all in the service of the partywide effort known as the 72-Hour Task Force because its working philosophy initially focused on the final three days before an election.
So Republicans hope to close the deal in tight races with a get-out-the-vote strategy that was developed in the wreckage of the 2000 presidential campaign. Bush's team was led then, as it is now, by Rove, Bush's political architect and now White House deputy chief of staff, and Mehlman, then White House political-affairs director. Their theory was that Bush lost 3% or 4% of his expected vote in 2000 because those people just stayed home.
Again, all of this effort and preparation might come to naught. But what if it doesn't? What is to stop Democrats from turning on Howard Dean and what would be considered a wasteful and disorganized fifty-state strategy in the event of a disappointing failure to capture either one of the two chambers of Congress?
Nothing. Nothing at all. The sound you hear in the distance is that of knives being preemptively sharpened.