Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ford as DNC Chair?

Tennessee Politics blog ( is reporting that James Carville is leading a group of DNC insiders aiming to dethrone Howard Dean and replace him with Harold Ford. I like Harold Ford, and I think he has an incredible political future, but this news is not about Ford or Dean, it is about the struggle for control of the Democratic party. There is an on-going split between insiders associated with Carville and the Clintons who believe that the secret to winning national elections is the focused, polarizing get out the vote strategy that Karl Rove has championed to such success over the past three election cycles. Dean, on the other hand, publicly battles with insiders as he tries to create a national party (one that wins votes all over the nation).

I am interested in opinions about this question. The insider approach will take Ford from Tennessee. It will take every other new Democrat with ideas and leave Tennessee as a permanent Red state. I MIGHT be able to be persuaded by this strategy if it had any empirical success. The simple fact is that national elections have not been won by democrats since the collapse of the New Deal Coalition during the 1960's. The two apparent exceptions (and the ones that convince the insiders of the wisdom of the strategy) are Carter and the 2 Clinton elections. To read these as evidence that focusing on the blue state base and generating intensity and turnout through polarization works for Democrats is to seriously misread those elections.

Carter: Beat Ford 50% to 48% nationally and claimed electoral success on the strength of a total sweep of the South (including Texas, a solidly democratic state at that time). Carter won in large part because of Ford's pardon of Nixon, but he still did not win a single state west of the Mississippi (except Texas).

Clinton: Beat Bush when Ross Perot bled some of the economic conservatives out of Bush's camp and Clinton capitalized on an economic downturn that crippled Bush who was a victim of his own success. Winning the first Gulf War in 30 days, Bush also presided over the end of the Cold War, so the complete absence of any apparent security concerns left Bush with nothing in the face of the economic campaign. Clinton focused on "the economy, stupid." 1992 and 1996 did convince the Clintonites that simply picking off one or two southern states would be enough to win as long as the basic coalition of big states could be maintained.

The erosion of focus on Texas completed its transition to a Red state, and the razor-thin margins that the strategy was based on have failed democrats spectacularly in 2000 and 2004. With no margin for error, the GOP can easily gather its red state votes without serious challenge and fight hard in the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Since the Democratic strategy requires winning most of those states to carry the electoral college, the GOP is at a tremendous advantage. The vaunted GOTV machine of Karl Rove focuses in those states, and the Democrats lose close one after close one.

Whether or not the "national party strategy" of Howard Dean's is the right one, only time will tell. I guess there is the risk that reaching out to the West and South will alienate the big state liberals, but that kind of deference to the New England liberals was the strategy that produced Mondale, Ferraro, and Dukakis, Bentsen. Those good candidates not electable nationally.

Sound familiar? That's the leading fear about a Hillary nomination. Let's give Dean's national strategy at least one national election cycle before with subvert it from within. Let's get Harold Ford elected in Tennessee (readers of this blog can start organizing to make that difference now), and let's nominate a presidential candidate who can restore the national appeal of the Democratic Party.