Between 2004 and 2008, grass-roots politics were a Democratic domain. From former presidential candidate Howard Dean to President-elect Barack Obama, Democrats riled their progressive base, handing the party momentous victories in districts nationwide. Yet according to Ari Berman, a political reporter for the Nation, conservatives in 2010 have turned the tables, while the Democratic Party has let its base appeal dwindle. In Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, Berman illustrates how Dean and Obama energized their party from the ground up and brought Democratic control to Washington. The author recently chatted with U.S. News about how Democrats lost that control and why the Tea Party has made such strides. Excerpts:
It seems like Democrats are going to lose a significant amount of past elections' gains this November. What happened to the party between then and now?
There was this incredible grass-roots mobilization, and a lot of people expected that was really going to translate into the White House. It hasn't. Obama was the new guy who was going to come up and shake up Washington. Instead, he definitely followed a much more conventional playbook.
How was Obama influenced by inside-the-beltway politics?
They looked at the last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and both of those presidents came in with a lot of people from outside. They had a really hard time dealing with Congress. So Obama thought, "OK, I'm already bringing all the Chicago people with me, so I need to bring in legislative insiders who will know how to work with Congress." The problem is [that] it seemed like on healthcare and on other issues, Congress was setting the agenda and not the president. People saw the legislation being passed in a very business-as-usual way, and they didn't like that. Now Obama looks like the inside-the-beltway, Washington insider, which is exactly what he ran against.
Was it possible for the president to maintain the outsider image?
What the Obama people should have done better is figure out how to present him as a reformist outsider who was trying to change Washington. He views himself that way, and they're trying to present him that way, but when he's just very deferential with Congress, it doesn't look that way. It looks like he is just part of the system as opposed to fixing it.
Your book illustrates Dean as an insurgent. How is he like the Tea Party movement?
The slogan of the Dean campaign in 2003 was "Take Back America." That's the Tea Party slogan. Dean had a 50-state strategy when he was DNC chair. That is very much the Tea Party's motto too. The whole grass-roots mobilization of the Obama campaign, how they organized through the Internet but also how they got people out to organize in their communities offline, the Tea Party has followed that. They picked up both the insurgent spirit of the Dean campaign, and they also picked up the organizing prowess of the Obama campaign, and they really tried to build on both.
When did the disconnect between Obama's campaign and presidency happen?
It started pretty much right after his election, when he was picking his team. He put Rahm Emanuel in there and decided to rely pretty early on on some pretty conventional Washington players. Larry Summers was in the Clinton administration for a long time. Tim Geithner, who was in the Clinton administration, is very close to Wall Street. They're not really reformer guys. At the same time, there was a critical two-month period where the Obama supporters thought, "OK, we elected him. We're done." At the same time, the Obama people didn't give them anything tangible to do. That's when the power of the Washington establishment asserted itself and the grass-roots part went away.
Where did Obama go wrong in his message?
He's been wary, for whatever reason, to make an affirmative case for the power of government to help people, which is really the core of the Democratic Party. He's tried to appear so nonideological that he hasn't made that case. The Tea Party and the Republicans are making a very anti-case about government. They're demonizing government, and Democrats aren't defending it. Lots of people are blaming the government because they're only hearing one argument, which is "government is bad."
What surprised you while you were writing this book?
There was just this interesting push and pull inside the campaign versus old and new politics. It wasn't at all inevitable that the campaign would turn out the way it did. Then the other thing . . . was the rise of the Tea Party [and] how they seemed to emulate the exact grass-roots politics that I was writing about. A lot of people didn't take it seriously in the same way they didn't take Dean seriously, and they didn't really take Obama seriously.