03/10/2008 12:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The DNC Needs to Get Started -- Without a Nominee

Suddenly, the DNC finds itself with the responsibility for saving the campaign of the eventual nominee, whomever that may be. But no one seems to notice.

If Super Tuesday had been decisive, then, by now, the presumptive nominee would already be two months into building the strongest national field campaign ever seen in U.S. politics. Both Hillary and Obama have brilliant field teams and, as the nominee, either one would have virtually unlimited financial and volunteer resources. It was going to be beautiful.

But now it's possible that decisive work on a national field campaign won't even begin until August. Essentially, that's what happened in 2004 (for very different reasons). I witnessed the consequences of that train wreck close up in a dozen swing states in September and October while working for the campaign. And I'm telling you, if that happens again, it doesn't matter how much more money the Democrat has than McCain: if its a close race where field organizing is important, then the Democrat will lose.

In 2004, the Kerry/DNC campaign proved that, without a long period of meticulous organization building in advance, no amount of money can buy you an effective national field campaign. The Bush campaign taught us the exact opposite lesson, with its meticulous preparation and high-accountability organization that extended all the way down to volunteer county chairs as early as 2002.

If you don't take the time to build an organization large enough and true enough to gather millions of accurate voter IDs, then money won't help you to turn out base votes effectively. If you don't have well trained and already-experienced field staff and volunteers in every important county and precinct, then money won't help you persuade swing voters. If you don't have the right field directors in charge of important states, counties and cities starting now (March) at the very latest, then they won't have time to build teams that are reliable and deep.

No amount of money spent on consultants or big names from past races will fix the organizational messes that the nominee is being set up for now. In fact, those consultants and big names will only mess things up worse, despite their best intentions.

It is simply impossible to build a multi-hundred-million dollar grassroots organization that works in less than six months -- let alone in one or two months. In fact, building it in six months will still require a miracle. And all that organization-building needs to be finished before September to give the organization enough time to do its work of winning the election.

For Democrats, the key step that begins that process in a swing state is the appointment of a talented and respected field leader by the presumptive nominee. That's not to say there aren't some amazing people at the state parties now doing great work. But anyone who seems to be in charge of a state field operation now will be subordinated to the nominee's person. They have a different skill set than what's required for a full-blown general election field operation -- they know it and they're waiting for the new leadership to arrive. But even if the old team and the new team get along perfectly (which rarely happens), it still means disruption and redirection. That's why it's so important that those appointments should be made now, not three or four months from now.

It's possible that each presidential campaign could today start to build its national field operation for the general election. Unfortunately, they are too busy trying to kill each other to think about that. And even if they tried to do it, they'd be forced to build without many of the best people from the other side, and without their own best people who are consumed with PA, FL, MI and the super delegate field.

That's why the DNC, like a scrawny kid who caught a ball he didn't mean to catch, is the only one who can save us now. In an act of unconventional leadership, the DNC should poach the best state directors from the primaries, put them in charge of the most important states, and let them start building. (And put its foot down, with the support of the grassroots/netroots, if the eventual nominee stupidly tries to replace them all arbitrarily when the primary is finally settled.)

It's true, the DNC doesn't have unlimited resources now, but the work that has to be done right now isn't costly: it's hiring a handful of key state field directors and letting them go to work hiring deputies, establishing structures and work habits, integrating with the existing state party infrastructure and integrating with the vast grassroots/netroots volunteer networks.

The problem is, the DNC has (correctly) been waiting for the presumptive nominee to appoint general election state field directors. The DNC has done its job well for this cycle: it built the DNC's first ever accurate and usable voter file (despite what Harold Ickes keeps telling reporters). It miraculously brought every state party on board with that unified voter file system. Also for the first time ever, it brought all the states onto a standardized set of end-user tools for field organizing (the Voter Activation Network). All of that amounts to an historic achievement for the party.

No, they haven't built a presidential-sized field organizing operation. But it would be unfair to expect them to have done that. Field organizers want to be in the middle of the action on the campaigns, not waiting patiently at the party for a candidate. The DNC did exactly what it was supposed to do: lay down the infrastructure that only the national party could.

But now the unimaginable has happened. And the DNC needs to step up to an unexpected challenge.

I know that insiders at the party and on the campaigns will chuckle at my suggestion that the DNC take the lead in setting up the general election field leadership. Yes, it's more than unlikely to happen -- and to happen successfully -- for many reasons.

But what is the alternative? The sequence of events that is now unfolding guarantees disaster in the field for Democrats this summer and fall unless someone starts building right now. And who else can do that except for the DNC?