THE BLOG
09/04/2007 07:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

HuffPost Live Chat with Matt Bai on the Future Direction of the Democratic Party

HuffPost's LiveChat with Matt Bai on the future direction of the Democratic Party has concluded. Topics discussed included: Where are the party's new big ideas coming from? What role will the blogosphere play in the transformation of the Party? Is Clintonism 2.0 the answer for 2008? Or is there a new way that is better than the third way?

BAI: Hi everyone -- thanks for logging on and for your interest in The Argument, which has just been published. This is a lot of fun for me, because I like Huffington Post a lot, and I like being able to talk directly to readers (and critics). So please keep the questions coming, and I'll get to as many as I can. Also, let me apologize up front for typos. I'm a two-fingered typist, surprisingly fast but not all that accurate. Like a young Randy Johnson, I suppose.

DANIEL: Most would agree that the Republicans have a far more organized and effective traditional media infrastructure, but where do they stand when it comes to their online power? Is this power overrated by the Democrats you write about?

BAI: This is a good question, and I wish I had a more informed answer. The truth is I've spent so much time looking at Democrats over the last few years, while working on my book, that my knowledge of the Republican machine is probably a little outdated. As you might remember (or maybe I flatter myself), I wrote a long cover for the Times Magazine in 2004 about the Bush campaign's operation in Ohio. My sense after that campaign was that, while Democrats clearly had a more mature, more dynamic and more influential online movement (I don't think many conservatives would disagree there), Republicans were more advanced at using online technology to target voters and turn out votes. The Bush crowd understood the organizing power of the Internet very early, in the same way that MoveOn did. It will be interesting to see whether the Democratic Party and its nominee next year will be as adept as exploiting the technology. Given the resources the campaigns are putting into online development, I suspect they will.

ALEX: Which of the Democratic candidates for president have come closest to articulating your vision of an "Argument" or "Big Idea"? Where are the Republicans on this question?

BAI: My own sense is that no candidate in either party is yet making a very compelling argument about how we can change government to meet very new and very complex challenges, beyond a lot of rhetoric you and I have heard any times before. But it's early in the campaign, and I'm still hopeful.

I haven't thought of it this way before, but it seems to me that there's a weird irony here. The Republicans are pretty good about acknowledging how much has fundamentally shifted in the country and the world, in terms of the postindustrial economy and the rise of global terror,but they don't seem to make much of a new or persuasive case for what to do about any of it. (I have a cover out next Sunday about Rudy Giuliani and terrorism, which elaborates on this point.) The Democrats are more focused on changing policy, which is great, but they don't seem to want to tell people the hard truths about how time and technology have conspired to radically alter the landscape; their policy ideas are largely rooted in the last century. So I guess I'm still of the basic belief that the problem here is less ideological than it is generational -- that this generation of baby boomer leaders may just not be constitutionally capable of navigating us through a world that so little resembles the one into which they were born.

I'm sure that's going to make some readers pretty unhappy, but there it is...

JEFF: Your book mentions MoveOn members being "furious" at Hillary Clinton over Iraq, but that MoveOn "leaders refused to criticize her publicly." Given that Clinton has so little support among the Netroots and Edwards/Obama so much support among Kossacks and MoveOn members (see here, why do you think MoveOn leaders and top progressive bloggers are fairly muted about Clinton? Are they afraid of her or her machine? Do they think Clinton's nomination is unstoppable? Are they simply less opposed to her candidacy and policies than the grassroots -- perhaps out of step with their members/readers?

BAI: First off, Jeff, thanks for reading the book. Not all online progressives have been so muted -- I think Markos Moulitsas, for instance, has been pretty tough on Senator Clinton when he's felt it was necessary. But maybe there is a basic power dynamic at work here. As I point out in the book, Clinton very shrewdly made sure to spend some time with the guys from MoveOn, just as she has with the leaders of so many Democratic constituencies, including many who have criticized her. On a basic human level, it's a lot harder to attack a leader who has taken the time to understand your views -- you never know if she's going to call you personally and demand an explanation, or if maybe she'll refuse to talk to you at all anymore. (Journalists know this phenomenon well.) So it seems to me that this strategy of engagement has probably paid off for Clinton in small but significant ways.

CAMERON: Given that Lieberman misrepresented his position on Iraq -- that "no one want[ed] to bring the troops home more than" he did -- do you think Connecticut voters are happy with sending him back to the Senate, and was it a mistake for the blogosphere to put so much weight behind Lamont?

BAI: Well, Cameron, I have no idea what Connecticut's voters think, beyond my mother, who likes Lieberman a lot less than she did five years ago. So that's a statistical sampling of one. But I don't at all think the bloggers made a mistake, given their aims. It's possible to lose and still win, as conservative groups like the NRA and the Club for Growth have proven for years. Sure, Lamont lost in the end, but as Markos likes to say, "No one wants to be the Joe Lieberman of 2008." If you can scare incumbents into thinking they might face a serious challenger, then you've gained some significant power over the party. And that's what happened for the bloggers and other progressive activists when Lamont won the primary.

BETH: It seems to me that the MSM has only seriously covered two Democratic candidates -- Clinton and Obama. This has happened since day one of the democratic race. All of the other candidates were dismissed out of hand. Of course, this is a self fulfilling prophesy. If only two candidates are covered in the press, then of course those two will stay the front runners, as no one has any information about the other options. Do you see any way out of this situation, where the media is completely controlling our political process?

BAI: Excellent question, Beth, and we could spend hours on it. I agree with you somewhat, but not entirely. I don't think it's realistic to expect equal coverage of all the candidates. That would betray a basic tenants of news, which is that you have to exercise some judgments about what your readers need to know. By that standard, a fire in a dilapidated old warehouse isn't as newsworthy as, say, a fire in a crowded apartment house, and an appearance by Dennis Kucinich just isn't as newsworthy as an appearance by Barack Obama. That's just reality.

However, and this is where I get off the train that carries most of my colleagues, I do think we have a responsibility to let voters make the choices and not to make those choices for them before the campaign has even begun. The early emphasis on money is silly and counterproductive. We ought to make sure every candidate does get heard if he or she is serious about the campaign. And I feel the same way about efforts to limit the debates by the use of polling. If you can get on the ballot, you should have the chance to debate, plain and simple. I have always believed that this presidential debate commission exists to limit choice and free exchange, and it should be abolished.

LAURIE: I know more and more people who do not use land lines and only have cell phones. Do these potential voters ever get polled? Doesn't this mean the polls are less and less valid as the number of cell-phone-only users increase?

BAI: Yes. The polls are in fact less valid and getting more so all the time. (I believe Arianna wrote about this very early on in her book Overthrow the Government.) And I have to tell you, I'm glad. There are to many cheap polls, and I think they have more of a chilling effect on the process than the media Beth was just talking about. They make everything into a game, and worse yet, a game whose end is often predetermined. I love a good campaign as much as the next guy, but I don't think politics is a game or should be treated that way.

CHRISTENA: A vague, but very important consideration: what about the Vision Thing? As opposed to the Triangulation Thing, I sense little.

BAI: That question sounds vaguely poetic, almost like a haiku, but the wrong amount of syllables.

Yes, Christena, I sense little, too. We throw around lots of words to describe the absence we feel in politics today (not just in Democratic politics, either): vision, ideas, narrative, agenda. I chose to call my book The Argument because to me that's what we're really talking about. Like a trial lawyer in front of the jury, political leaders need to advance some central argument that both explains why we're at this moment and how government must adapt to meet it. That's what great movements -- the 20th century progressives, the social equality marchers, the Goldwater-Reagan conservatives -- and their leaders have managed to do. Arguments can be very divisive and controversial, but they also force us to make choices as a country, and those choices matter very much. We need some new arguments today, and my book is about the beginning of the progressive search for one.

ROBERT: I find almost every democrat I talk to agrees with Mike Gravel on
most issues. Why won't he be our next president?

BAI: Robert, I think you need to meet more Democrats.

Top three reasons that Mike Gravel probably won't be our next president:

1) He doesn't seem like a serious guy. (Case in point: at the YearlyKos debate, which I helped moderate, he dismissed a question on one of his own proposals by saying it would never get passed, anyway. That's just wasting voters' time.)
2) He's not been in public office for decades and no one knows who he is.
3) His name sounds like a Flintstones character. That can't be helping.

By the way, I had the opportunity to meet him at that debate. He's an awfully nice guy.

HUFFPOST POLITICAL EDITOR TOM EDSALL: You have been well reviewed in the New York Times and other print publications, but some bloggers have been critical. How do you explain this difference?

BAI: Simple, I think: the reviewers have actually read the book. I'm not being facetious about this. Most of the critics I have seen online admit they haven't actually read the book. They don't like some of what I've written, or they perceive the book to be bad for Democrats, and so they're critical. I wish they'd read it. First off, it's really more of a colorful narrative than a polemic. There's no preaching. I don't claim to have all the answers. And second, I don't think it's healthy for a movement to dismiss constructive critics out of hand, without at least considering what they have to say. To be fair, there have been some online reviews by people who have read the book and hated it -- I haven't seen them all. That's fine. I think a lot of people want me to play for "the team," as it were, and that's just not how I see the world. But I've been really gratified by all the major reviews. When you work this long and this hard on something, it's a great feeling to have people say that you've added something important to the debate.

RICHARD: In your NY Times Magazine article on Mark Warner you made the statement that there are '...only 35,000 people in the Democratic party who matter.' Given the results of 2006 and the tremendous grass-roots organization that led to that victory, do you still stand by that statement? Do think that the Washington elite of the Democratic Party still believe that only a small number of Democrats actually matter? What do you think are the reasons that party elite finds it so difficult to work with a grass-roots? Why do they keep bringing up the lame excuse that the grass-roots are just rude bullies? Thank you.

BAI: Richard, thanks for the question. I don't have the copy at my fingertips, but I very much doubt I wrote that only 35,000 people matter -- if your direct quote is accurate, which I don't think it is, then it's surely out of context. I think what I wrote was that there are maybe 30,000 or 35,000 grassroots activists who exert a disproportionate influence on the primary process, because they're active in local parties or in organizing campaigns. If you can win over these people, you're in good shape. That may be changing as the online movement grows and matures, but it's one of the reasons I don't like the current primary and caucus structure, which gives too few people too much power. I think it's time for a national primary day, and i think we'll get it soon.

I'm running out of time, I see, but at the risk of annoying my wife, I'm going to go a little past the deadline so I can take a few more questions, if that's OK with the folks at Huff Post. A lot of questions have come in and I want to try to get to at least three more....

TEKA: I met you when you spoke at Stanford. I have two questions:

1) Thematically, how should the modern Democratic Party's communicate strength on National Security, like Kennedy did?
2) Has the Democratic Party's GOTV apparatus improved to the level of the Republican operation?

BAI: Hey, thanks for coming out to see me and Dan Balz at Stanford. We had a fun time. Now, that said, I'm going to completely dodge your questions, and I'm going to tell you why. First, I'm not a strategist. One can only imagine the chaos that would ensue if some idiotic candidate entrusted me (or any journalist, for that matter) with his campaign. Second, I don't care. I really don't. I mean, I love tactics and messaging in the same way I love ghost managing the Yankees and reading box scores in the morning. But I've just written a whole book on the premise that these things aren't as important as we tend to think they are. So while there might be a time for that conversation, this book and this conversation are, I hope, about something different, which is not what you communicate or how many votes you turn out, but how you actually want to create a more modern and effective government.

Anyway, i think I got to the heart of the GOTV question earlier, when I talked about the two parties and the Internet...

LIS: Do you feel that enough people really do want to see an end to 'Washington as it Works, Today"? And if so, do you feel that Obama may be the one to break the mold?

BAI: I do think people feel that way, Lis. I might be crazy, but I do. My theory -- and maybe not a popular one here -- is that we shouldn't look at the GOP wave of 1994 and the Democratic wave of 2006 as distinct phenomena. They were part of the same exact wave of deep discontent -- the only difference was in which party that symbolized incumbency. Voters are so fundamentally smart. They sense when modern challenges aren't being met. They know when the changes in their lives are more profound than the changes their leaders seem to grasp. They're just not sure what to do about it.

As for Obama, short answer is I don't know. He's still finding his voice. It's early. If he can tap into that sentiment, he can be a very powerful force, because he's younger and a great orator and well positioned to be that kind of messenger.

MYLES: The Republicans are pretty good about acknowledging how much has fundamentally shifted in the country and the world, in terms of the postindustrial economy and the rise of global terror.

But how much do they NOT acknowledge how much else has fundamentally shifted?

1) Their idea of a family is 2 heterosexual white parents with 2.2 children in a black-and-white scene out of Leave It To Beaver. That isn't the majority of America!
2) They like to pretend that our post-industrial economy can just keep borrowing infinitely more money to buy stuff from China.
3) Their model for the global economy is nineteenth century capitalism, in terms of undoing regulation and protections for the working class, not to mention the environment and so forth.
4) They like to pretend we're going to have cheap fossil fuels forever.

And I think the final peg you're insisting on, "the rise of global terror", vastly overstates what has changed. Reagan was using the word terrorism to describe Nicaragua, way back when. Scaring the people always works to scare up votes.

BAI: Well, OK. I don't entirely disagree. I hear you. But guess what, Myles? Health care just can't come from your employer anymore. Wal-Mart will never provide for its employees what GM did. Mutually assured destruction will not stop terrorists. And so on. Have Republicans articulated a persuasive argument to address these and other new realities? I don't think so. But I can tell you this: the first movement or party that does will build a long term majority and will determine the course of the country, for better or worse.

Time for one more...

NOEL, a college student: What are the chances of Clinton winning the primary states given the apparent ties between all three front runners? I am nervous of her potential nomination and pray that the early voters have an open mind. I recently visited my Grandmother, a very conservative Christian living in the most republican county in the US and she said that if the election was tomorrow she would like to vote for Barack Obama, and that Hillary needs to 'crash and burn'. I was really shocked to hear a former Bush supporter ready to switch parties for shiny new Obama. What does this say about the differences between Clinton and Obama. This of course is not the first time I have witnessed/ heard of this phenomenon. Doesn't this mean Obama could easily win the general election? If so I don't understand why he is still behind in those pesky polls! Thank you for your time!

BAI: Noel, that's lot of complicated questions, and so I'm going to just tell you this: anyone who says they have the slightest inkling as to the answers to those questions should not be trusted. Who knows? It's up to you -- the voters. I don't think this primary is decided, no matter what my colleagues are writing or saying on TV. It really is early. More differences will emerge. Unforeseen moments will arise. That's politics, and it's a beautiful thing.

Bear with me, because I want to share one more question with you, and that'll be it....

I think it's only fair that I put this question out there:
CHUCK: I am the 'Chuck Fazio' you write about in your book.

I have some issues with your representation of me and the guests at my MoveOn house party you highlight in an early chapter.

In general, your quoting my use of such words as, "dude" and "man,' and calling Bozell an 'asshole' (which he is) without any corresponding words to show the depth of my knowledge on the subjects we discussed, were obviously done to paint me in a light that clearly changed the substance of everything I said that night. You also seemingly mocked my stated concern to you that the government now seems to have the power to do any search they wanted even of, in your words, 'White guys who drive Beemers.'

Remove my colloquialisms and my views on Bozell, Fox, illegal government intrusion, elimination of any privacy were, based on what we now know, rather prescient.

So don't you think for better context, mentioning the fact that my words came well before the world found out about this government's illegal domestic spying, the virtual elimination of habeous corpus, the endless facts that have proven this administration's continual lying about this war rather than focusing in the fact I say 'dude' and 'man' a lot would have made a more accurate representation of the evening?

You also made reference to some of my guests' lack of knowledge of Tim Kaine in a way that made them look, in the words of a Daily Kos writer, politically ignorant.

And for someone whose job it is to 'get the story' you missed the big one that happened by that grill you talk about. 45 minutes into the event, Adam Green of MoveOn told me that I now had to speak in front of everyone. "You do it, I said. No, Adam replied, Moveon is about the members, not about staff. So for twenty minutes, NOT reading from a script as you wrote, I spoke about the fight against extremism on either side but again, instead of writing about my command of the assembled masses, you chose to highlight the fact that I forgot a simple word, Petition.

So my question is, why, instead of accurately portraying us as who we were -- regular folks, some politically independent, some angry, who made the effort -- because of MoveOn -- to get together to try to make a difference -- did you find it important to more highlight the fact that we are novices at both activism and dealing with both a Washington Post and NYT reporters so much so that that fact overshadowed the reality of the night?"

BAI: Chuck, I've sent you a separate response by email, but I thought you deserved to make this point publicly. I didn't give you advance warning that the book was coming and that you were in it, and for that I apologize. It was an oversight and not very thoughtful of me. That said, and without getting into too many specifics here, I just don't think that section is nearly as negative as you seem to think it is, and I don't think the average reader will experience it that way. I made the point that MoveOn members didn't connect to politics in conventional or traditional ways. That doesn't make them foolish. I have real admiration for all the people in the book who cared enough to get involved and change their country, and if that doesn't come through, despite whatever criticisms I may level, then it's my failing. Thanks for making yourself heard, though.

Well, that about does it for me. Time to put my kid to bed. I've really had fun doing this, and I'm grateful to HuffPost and its readers for giving me the opportunity. The book is called The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, and I hope you'll check it out and let me know what you think on my website, www.mattbai.com. Thanks.