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David Sirota Headshot

Note to Dems: Put Voters Ahead of Broders

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In most political circles today, it is assumed that there are three tiers of people that a candidate must satisfy in descending order: 1) Media and financial elites 2) grassroots organizations and 3) the public at large. The key point here is the descending order - very often Democrats have their eyes first and foremost on media and financial elites, to the exclusion of grassroots organizations and the public at large.

This is not a secret to anyone who has spent 5 minutes around any Washington campaign people - it is pretty much accepted by the Democratic political class that the David Broders, Joe Kleins and Tom Friedmans are the Serious People and the Glorious Keepers of the Flame of the Vital Center - and that they, above all else, must be OK with anything a candidate says. Most insulated political operatives working on Capitol Hill really do believe it is far more important to get a New York Times columnist to flippantly mention the boss once in five years than it is, say, for a major union or grassroots group to send out a newsletter to all its members about what the boss is trying to accomplish (that likely goes for many of the bosses themselves, too).

The same goes for the financial elite - the Democratic political class is obsessed with having everything blessed by Robert Rubin and his friends on Wall Street. To paraphrase LBJ, many Democrats really do believe that if they've lost Broder and Rubin, they've lost middle America.

Some of this attitude may have been understandable in the past. Just a few years back when media audiences were much less fractured, it was true: the Serious People really did dominate everything. In this environment, people like Broder found it totally acceptable to publicly declare American politics his own personal property, angrily saying that a President "came in here and he trashed the place - and it's not his place."

Similarly, it used to be that Wall Street rainmakers like Rubin held a tight grip on most of the major campaign funding resources, and that thus paying fealty to this element was merely doing what a candidate had to do to appease the people holding the purse strings.

But this is not the world we live in anymore, thanks to the Internet and subsequent proliferation of new media and funding sources. The "national" opinionmaking machine may still hold clout (which is why it is such a crime that "national" opinionmaking is made almost exclusively in New York and Washington), but it no longer has a monopoly on agenda setting. Likewise, Wall Street may still have a lot of cash, but small dollar political fundraising is growing rapidly.

At the same time their relevance has significantly decreased, the Serious People have become even less representative of the general population than ever. As I wrote in a previous post, almost the entire opinionmaking apparatus that is portrayed as "nationally" representative actually lives in Washington, D.C. or New York City, meaning almost 100% of opinion is coming from locales that represent less than 3% of the country's population.

Most of these pundits and financial elites are wealthy, and spend almost no time in the rest of the country. Not surprisingly, their entire definition of basic concepts like the "center" and "moderate" are defined only by the very wealthy, cloistered and conservative sociocultural circles they travel in, meaning the definitions are at odds with those same terms in the heartland. Watch an episode of the Beltway Boys or Meet the Press's journalist roundtable, and you would think the "national" pundits you were watching truly believed the place outside the New York-Washington corridor known as "America" is a foreign land.

Having worked in some of these Democratic political circles myself, I can tell you that the Democratic Party's obsession with appeasing the Serious People is very, very real. It explains why Rubin is always brought in to address the Democratic House and Senate caucuses, regardless of the right-wing prescriptions he pushes. Democrats don't just want his input, they want his blessing on anything they do.

Same thing goes for their attitude towards Beltway journalists. As a longtime progressive magazine editor once told me, the reason no major Democratic presidential candidate has challenged free market fundamentalism in any serious way even as polls show the public wants our trade policies reformed is because these candidates fear that every major columnist and editorial board member would skewer them. He's right, of course - as Jeff Faux documented in his book The Global Class War, at the time NAFTA was opposed by the majority of the American public, almost none of national columnist wrote against it and when asked about this discrepancy, the Washington Post's editors actually said they weren't going to "create an artificial balance where none exists."

This explains why leading Washington Democrats have gone out and said we can't do anything about job outsourcing, we should consider Social Security benefit cuts, we should support the deregulation agenda, we should encourage efforts to weaken post-Enron corporate accountability reforms and we can't do anything real in terms of ending the War in Iraq - those are positions that the Serious People support, even though the actual people in the country do not.

And remember, even some of the more ridiculous characters inside the Washington Establishment admit just how skewed things really are. Take the Washington Post's John Harris - the guy who has never worked on a political campaign, yet who authored a recent book purporting to be about how to run winning political campaigns. In an interview, he admits:

"If Washington political reporters ran the government their ideal would be to have a blue ribbon commission go into seclusion at Andrews Air Force base for a week and solve all problems. It would be chaired by Alan Greenspan and Sam Nunn. David Gergen would be communications director, and the policy staff would come from Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute. They would not come back until they had come up with sober, centrist solutions to the entitlements debate, the Iraq war, and the gay marriage controversy. It took me a while to realize how this instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics can itself be a form of bias."

He's absolutely right - it is a form of bias to present the boundaries of America's "center" as being between Sam Nunn and Alan Greenspan - both people with views on economimc and defense issues significantly to the right of the rest of the country. And the more Democrats play to this faux "center" the more they alienate the country's real center.

All of this said, I believe the 2006 election represents a real break from near-universal Democratic worship of the media and financial elite. Just take a look at the trade issue. "Free" trade is a matter of religious assumption among media and financial elites - even questioning our current trade policy is blasphemy to these people. Yet, as Public Citizen showed, many candidates ran and won on their opposition to these trade policies.

Sherrod Brown's successful Senate campaign in Ohio was particularly instructive. Back in July, the Associated Press wrote a breathless story declaring that "In the race for U.S. Senate, Democrat Sherrod Brown is increasingly emphasizing his opposition the Bush administration’s trade policy, a campaign strategy even his supporters call a risk." The story is the usual media fare, attacking Brown for using economic populism in his race for the Senate in the most politically important swing state in America.

Brown ignored the criticism. "Reporters and editors in Washington have always hated my position on trade,” he said. “Out here, they don’t feel that way.” Discussing the campaign early on with him, he accurately predicted to me that nearly every major newspaper in Ohio would endorse his opponent and cite Brown's economic positions as the reason. He didn't care - because, as he told Roll Call in 2005, the only people who support our current rigged trade policy "are Republican politicians, large corporate interests and newspaper publishers and a few corporate farmers" - not the vast majority of citizens. And his crushing victory in November proved him right.

This disconnect between the Serious People and the Actual People is carrying into the new Congress. The Hill Newspaper today reports that Bush has asked for a meeting with Democratic "centrists" - that is, the Democratic faux "centrists," the people who may be liberal on social issues but are in the pocket of Big Money on everything else; the people who are inside Washington's "center" and get praised by the Serious People, but are nowhere near the center of public opinion. You will notice that the list of Democrats the Hill references are the people who support most lobbyist-written trade deals and voted for the bankruptcy bill - a piece of legislation that no one even pretended was for anyone other than the credit card industry.

While no one can blame Democrats for meeting with Bush, you can bet this signals the White House's effort to find "common ground" on Money Party issues (trade, deregulation, corporate accountability, etc.) that continue the war on the middle class - and you can bet when this happens, the David Broders will hail the new day of "bipartisanship" and "comity," praising heaven that the Guardians of the Flame of the Vital Center still dominate what they see as the Dirty Hippies (aka. the vast majority of the country).

This is all carrying into the presidential election, as well. U.S. News and World Report is fretting about the possibility of John Edwards running successfully as a - horror! - economic populist. Reporter James Pethokoukis recounts a conversation he had with my old boss, John Podesta, where Podesta "wondered aloud if there would be any 'full-throated Sherrod Brown types' running for the Democratic nomination" and then says on economic issues, "the big question is where Edwards comes out." Indeed - it is a big question for all of the candidates: will they run campaigns aimed at making columnists and Wall Street executives happy, or will they run campaigns designed to actually attract votes? Put another way - will they run as shills for the Money Party or representatives of the People Party?

The hope is the latter and more generally that Democrats are finally learning what Republican operatives like Karl Rove learned a long time ago: that the David Broders, Joe Kleins, Tom Friedmans and Bob Rubins who make up the national opinionmaking and financial elite actually represent nobody, command dwindling audiences/power, have positions wholly out of touch with ordinary Americans - and that it doesn't matter if you make these Serious People happy and get lots of nice columns and editorials in newspapers most Americans don't read - if you are not making actual voters happy, you are going to be thrown out of power faster than you can say "permanent minority."

The GOP has never cared what the op-ed pages say - and while they lost this last election, few would argue that their ascension to dominance and lock on power was impressive. The same can be said of more Democrats these days. You will notice that many of the people in listed as People Party leaders in this article are those who are interested less in speaking to the chattering classes with soothing talk of nebulous "bipartisanship" and "centrism" and more interested in speaking directly to real people in blunt terms (Most of the Money Party, however, still aims their comments right at the elite, and not at actual voters).

The key here is for all Democrats to understand the opposite of LBJ's famous line: that if they've lost David Broder, they've likely GAINED middle America. If they have internalized this, we will be entering an era where Democrats realize that it is the labor unions, environmental organizations, netroots and other grassroots organizations that are far more important than a handful of Washington and New York elites, because these organizations actually represent millions of votes, while these elites represent only themselves.

ADDENDUM: Per this post, just read today's piece by David Broder. You'll notice that this Dean of the Serious People and Supreme Guardian of the Flame of the Vital Center spends not oncehis entire column bloviating about how wonderful it is that 10 old Washington veterans got together and got along - he spends not even one sentence on what the Iraq Study Group's report said, or on the Iraq War in general. What is important in Washington is not that a war is threatening to destabilize the entire Middle East or that American troops are dying every day - no, no. The most important thing is that old Serious People who are not Dirty Hippies or "partisan polarizing finger-pointers" and who are personally approved of by David Broder get put on commissions, fly all over the world together and are nice to each other - regardless of what they actually do or don't do. Because as the world burns, that, and only that, is what the American people are most concerned about and thus worthy of an extra long column by the Dean of the Serious People: old Washington hacks being polite and cordial to each other.