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Democrats Move to Plan B

Ordinary Democrats, defeated and disillusioned by last November’s whuppin’ by George W. Bush, may still be trying to figure out just exactly what went wrong. But at least one group of key party players have come up with an answer: Whatever the problem was, throw more money at it.

Meeting behind closed doors last month in San Francisco, billionaire philanthropists who donated more than $60 million to the anti-Bush cause in 2004 agreed to pony up big bucks to help develop progressive machinery to battle the conservative ascendancy.

Billionaire hedge funder George Soros, his son Jonathan, California bankers Herb and Marion Sandler, and Ohio insurance mogul Peter Lewis were all in on the meeting, where, The Financial Times reports, they agreed to fork over as much as $100 million over the next 15 years to build what one person involved in the plan called "intellectual infrastructure."

The core concept is to match right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute with effective liberal and left-of-center idea incubators.

Few additional details of the plan are known, other than that the coordination of funding is likely to be directed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, who has spent the last two years running his own think thank, the Center for American Progress.

I think this is a terrible idea.

Not that I’m opposed to "infrastructure." The question is, what kind of infrastructure to do what?

Indeed, the conservative right has an awesome media echo chamber. And some spiffy foundations and idea shops that effectively propagate the GOP message. But none of this would be effective if the message itself didn’t somehow resonate.

Compare and contrast, please, with the recently expired John Kerry campaign. Kerry spent every bit as much as Bush when these same billionaires inflated a host of so-called 527 committees to keep him afloat. And yet, there isn’t a standing American who can neatly repeat in a sentence or two what Kerry’s campaign was all about. And Democrats are not likely to get any closer to imaginatively and effectively defining themselves if the new message infrastructure is handed over to the likes of dull, triangulating Clintonistas like Podesta — no matter how many grants he doles out.

All of this reminds me of so many people I have met over the years who aspire to become writers. They spend endless amounts of time putting together an office or studio. They buy file folders and cabinets to hold their research; whiteboards to map out their storylines; ergonomic chairs for those all-night scribbling marathons; wireless laptops ready for service in a Starbucks; even expensive and gimmicky software guaranteed to help them generate, organize and elaborate their ideas. Only catch is, the ideas never seem to come and nothing actually gets written.

 

The Democrats need some ideas — any idea, really — that can ignite the imagination and enthusiasm of Americans and take us beyond either primitive and quite wearisome Bush bashing or a rote defense of absolutely necessary but deeply flawed institutions like Social Security and public schools. What, exactly, is the promise that Democrats can make to a new generation of voters that will inspire and motivate them? Merely defending Social Security, so today’s 20-year-old can retire at age 69 with 700 bucks a month, may, in fact, be marginally better than the Scrooge-like option of the Republicans, but it’s hardly the stuff of sweeping political vision.

Continuing to define the Democratic dilemma as merely a deficit of resources compared to the Republicans is to radically misjudge the depth of the liberal crisis. The Democratic Party is a sick, dysfunctional institution that has been in slow-motion collapse for at least two decades (depending on when you want to start the clock). It’s not about to be fixed with some Soros-funded cosmetic rearrangement.

Instead, the party — if it is to survive as a national force — must find some way to re-connect with tens of millions of ordinary Americans who, for myriad reasons, have ceased to identify themselves as Democrats. I am not so presumptuous as to hand out bumper-sticker recipes, but one place to start might be developing a Southern strategy to re-connect with a white working and middle class. Either that or begin one more election cycle by writing off 22 states where the Democrats refuse to even compete. Remember back to a year ago, when loose-cannon candidate Howard Dean actually said the unthinkable: that he wanted to be the candidate who could win back the "guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks." His reward for such candor and obvious wisdom was a public lynching by the other candidates.

Indeed, liberals who hear that kind of talk often begin snorting and shaking — protesting that someone’s trying to sell out the party to redneck Christers. But if you think that’s the only way to re-attract an estranged white working and middle class back to the Democrats, then you really don’t have any imagination and ought to be applying for one of those new jobs over at Podesta’s shop.

The Democratic elites are hardly the stereotype pushed by the Rush Limbaughs and Michael Savages. They are, nevertheless, severely out of touch with their potential base. The Democrats have become a party too dominated by social issues, lifestyle posturing and politically correct cultural sensibilities, and not enough by old-fashioned class-based economics. Real politics isn’t about finding other people who agree with you on the Web and exchanging Meetup.com dates. It’s about the hard work of persuading people who don’t ordinarily agree with you to join you in supporting a given candidate or cause.

Writing a post-election piece in The New York Times, lefty author Tom Frank concluded that the Democrats "lost the battle of voter motivation before it started" by choosing high-profile assistance from "idealistic tycoons" over a more natural class-based alliance with common people. As a result, "they imagined themselves as the ‘metro’ party of cool billionaires in some kind of cosmic combat with the square billionaires of the ‘retro’ Republican Party." Billionaires were our friends; guys with big belt buckles, our enemy.

And, seemingly, here we go again.