05/16/2006 02:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Shame On You, Paul Begala

"Yes, he's in trouble, in that campaign managers, candidates, are really angry with him. He has raised $74 million and spent $64 million. He says it's a long-term strategy. But what he has spent it on, apparently, is just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose. That's not how you build a party. You win elections. That's how you build a party."
  - Paul Begala on Howard Dean and the DNC's 50 State Strategy,
    CNN - May 11 2006

Yes, Paul, we have to win elections. But a myopic obsession with squeaking through in a few high-profile races is not party building, it's suicide.

begala2.jpgI've read your books and I know you've been fighting the good fight up there on TV every day. And so it was with complete dismay that I listened to you on CNN savaging the DNC's "50 State" program organizers.

Your comments came as part of a series of attacks on Dean and the DNC from big-name members of your Clinton Class of '92. A whole generation of new Democratic activists finds these attacks totally bewildering and appalling.

You should be up there on TV celebrating that we finally have a DNC who understands that winning means building real power and standing for something. Your entire career has been about teaching Democrats to "stand for something." But, coming from a communications background, maybe you just don't understand the "building real power" part of the equation. So let me try to reach you on that point.

Starting with George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, the Republican Party slowly built a powerful grassroots machine, county by county, year by year, across the whole country. That "50 State" grassroots machine trounced us, achieving the highest voter turnout of any candidate ever. On our side, the combined efforts of fifteen separate swing state "Coordinated Campaigns," the national Kerry campaign, and all the 527's put together couldn't match the work of one unified, well-organized political party.

I spent the last couple months of the campaign in the field, in almost every one of the targeted swing states. On our side it was utter chaos on the ground. Both the party organizations and the 527 organizations had been slapped together in a few hurried months. Operations varied in quality from state to state, and even county to county, but overall it was a disorganized mess -- a disservice to the record hundreds of thousands of passionate volunteers who threw themselves into the campaign. On the Republican side, their organizations had been formed years before the election, and scaled up during the campaign under the tested and stable leadership of organizers rooted in their home states and local communities. (It is worth noting that the AFL-CIO's voter contact program ran very smoothly and effectively, having been built slowly and consistently over several cycles.)

I've heard some of you Clinton '92ers say, "We built a great field program, and we didn't get started until May!" Well, I hate to be this blunt, but: you guys didn't get that many votes. In fact, you won with almost the lowest percentage of the vote of any victor in the 20th Century. Yours was not an election that needed a strong field program. Every election for the rest of our lives, however, will be.

So please, before you insult the 50 State program organizers any more, go down to DNC headquarters and see who these people are and what they're actually accomplishing. I've been there frequently over the past year, and that big meeting room on the first floor is almost always filled with organizers from all over the country being trained in how to win elections. The program has trained more than 190 organizers from 40 states, in areas such as:

- Building strong precinct programs.
- Voter contact.
- Targeting and using voter files.
- Communicating a unified Democratic message, tailored to states and local communities.
- Internet organizing and communications and use of other new technologies to expand the base.
- Reaching out to all constituencies, including seniors, veterans, rural voters and faith-based voters.
- Leadership skills, leadership development and organization building.

Most exciting to me, these organizers are being hired at the local level and are rooted in their own communities -- these are not the typical kids on an adventure between college and grad school that you'll find flocking to your beloved high-profile Senate races this year. These organizers are in it for the long haul.

Singling out Utah and Mississippi is particularly sad because of the great gains organizers have made in those states. In Mississippi, for example, the state party has been transformed from being essentially a one-man operation into a real organization. Democrats have won four special elections in a row in 2005-2006 thanks to the State Party's ability to support those candidates.

Not everything is perfect with the 50 State program. There are criticisms you could make that would actually help things get better. But you're not close enough to the action to see what those are. For example, I'm sure there are states where the new organizers are being held back by the old guard. If someone like you were publicly cheering on the organizers and the DNC's program, then just think how that could help them blow past those obstacles. The director of training at the DNC right now is actually a young guy from your own home state who, caught up and inspired by the 2004 elections, led a mini revolution in his county party and threw out the do-nothing old guard. The folks behind the 50 State strategy are a new generation of organizers who learned their stuff in the most intense election in decades. They know what they're doing, and they're doing it well.

I'll tell you what this onslaught by Clinton '92ers looks like. It looks like you guys are stuck forever thinking about that one big election you won. And it looks like you haven't noticed that, ever since then, your way of approaching elections has kepts Democrats in a tailspin. I know the way you see it: candidates aren't getting exactly the right spin, aren't making exactly the right ads. But it's time to take a deeper look and understand the consequences of your generations' total neglect of the grassroots.

You guys are still held in high esteem by this massive, new generation of Democratic activists. Keep it that way: Go to DNC headquarters, go to Utah, go to Mississippi -- go see what they're building and be a part of it.