Subscribe via RSS Feed

Developing the Bench

[ 72 ] January 19, 2012 |

So the recall vote against Scott Walker will happen. But progressives are really worried about one unforeseen problem: there really isn’t anyone to run against Walker. The Wisconsin recall law is more of a new election than a straight recall. So Democrats need an opponent. The obvious choice is Russ Feingold, but as of now, Feingold has shown little to no interest. I’ve read a lot of worried columns in the last few days about this. The other choices seem to range from the blah Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010, to the equally uninspiring David Obey to a bunch of little known state and local level politicians. There’s a campaign to draft Feingold, but he’s unpredictable so who knows if he’ll bite.

This led me to wonder why there isn’t a more active national campaign to develop the state bench. I follow state politics fairly closely (though I haven’t really talked about this much since I joined LGM) and you hear this all the time–the bench is weak. Isn’t it the interest of everyone for the party to take an active role in developing the bench. Ensure ways for up and coming politicians to get their voices heard. Give them important speaking spots. Get them on the right legislative committees.

I can see some problems with this for sure. A centrist Democratic party is perhaps likely to promote centrists rather than progressives. It could smack of cronyism and help create machines. So I can imagine arguments against this idea. At the same time, it also seems valuable to think of your state legislatures and mayors as minor leagues for potentially excellent politicians and for the national party to develop that talent in concrete ways.


Comments (72)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Bijan Parsia says:

    What has the DNC done since Dean left? I see a lot less emphasis on the 50 state strategy which emphasised building up the state parties.

    Did it really all get subsumed into Obama’s orgs? (Not too surprising I guess.)

    • Erik Loomis says:

      As far as I can tell, the DNC has done nothing since 2008. Is Tim Kaine still in charge over there?

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        Nope, Debbie Wasserman Schultz took over in 2011.

        I’ve seen a bit more mention of her pushing back against Republicans, but that could be an artifact of the upcoming election. I’ve not heard any reiteration of the 50-State strategy. I expect Rahm killed it.

        One of the cool things about the 50-state strategy as Dean enacted it is that he put money and aid (e.g., voter database help, etc.) in places that just never got it at the grass roots level.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          Damn it, I can’t find any of the articles I remember reading, but this and this have some hints.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Ah this is much better:

            After years of being virtually ignored by the DNC, state party leaders are extremely enthusiastic about Dean’s state partnership program. On April 8, Dean announced the first round of his investments in the states, half a million dollars that would be spread among the state parties of Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Since then, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Wyoming, and Kansas have received DNC funding. In Nebraska-which received ten times the $12,000 they got from Terry McAuliffe last year-the state party is putting organizers in all 93 of their counties. In West Virginia, Casey is excited about using the additional funds to recruit teachers to serve as mentors for Young Democrats clubs at high schools, and energizing long-stagnant groups like the Federation of Democratic Women. “In 2004, we started campaign after the May primary,” says Casey. “We just started our coordinating campaign a month ago for 2008. That makes a hell of a difference.”


          • Bijan Parsia says:

            And this:

            Indiana is a good example. When Dan Parker became chair of the state party in November 2004, his first order was to slash his staff in half after Democrats lost the governor’s mansion. Indiana, like so many states, had been written off by the national party–the last Democratic presidential contender to carry it was Lyndon Johnson. But Dean gave Parker the money to hire three field organizers and a full-time communications director, the first the state had ever had. (When Dean came in, thirty states had no such important position.) In 2006 that staff worked on three competitive Congressional races long before the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) arrived. The party picked up all three seats that year and elected a record number of Democratic mayors in 2007. By the time the Democratic primary rolled around this past May, Hoosier Dems had been revitalized, and Obama–to the surprise of many–invested heavily in the state, visiting forty-nine times. On November 4 Obama won Indiana–a state John Kerry lost by twenty points–by 26,000 votes. “We’re a poster child for the fifty-state strategy,” Parker says.


        • Erik Loomis says:

          This feels to me one of the underreported stories of the last 4 years. There was always tons of bitterness toward Dean among DLC hacks like James Carville. Even though Obama isn’t exactly one of them, he takes over and undercuts what Dean had put together. And we suffer the consequences.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            I agree, though it’s not quite so straightfoward as Obama had and maintains a considerable grass roots organization, which, afait, Kaine supported. What’s unclear is whether it’s devoted to building up the state level party in the same way or whether it’s just Obama and/or issues.

            But the weakness you’re hearing about is an indicator that the Dean approach was scrapped.

          • Larry says:

            Revealingly, Obama’s name initially as U.S. Senator actually appeared on the DLC organizational literature as a member. After some progressive blogs noticed it, complained to his staff, and publicized it, Obama’s name was withdrawn from DLC materials and publicity. So….there you go. We have another DLC president, which explains a lot, Lucy. So even as the DLC dissolves as an organization it has become more powerful than we can even imagine.

          • FMguru says:

            It’s of a piece with the disappearing act they pulled on the grassroots social network that volunteers built in 2008. Handed a magnificent pre-constructed infrastructure for organizing and activism, Obama’s organization took it over and buried in sealed metal cannisters deep in the Nevada desert, like nuclear waste.

            And then they wondered where all their voters went in 2010.

            • Holden Pattern says:

              That was completely predictable, though. The Obama campaign (and from what I can see, the administration) was about as open to outside influences and interested in building independent infrastructure as Apple is.

              Most campaigns are like that, of course, at least on the Dem side; it was only noticeable with the Obama campaign because it was so radically at-odds with the rhetoric.

              • That was completely predictable, though. The Obama campaign (and from what I can see, the administration) was about as open to outside influences and interested in building independent infrastructure as Apple is.

                That is grossly at odds with the demonstrable record of how the campaign was run.

                The Obama campaign broke new ground in the level of independence it provided to its volunteers and local offices, as well as the page.

                This “predictable” development was so “predictable” that nobody predicted it, while many people expressed surprise.

          • mark f says:

            Is that right? It seemed to me like the Obama campaign was operating on a modified version of Dean’s strategy in 2008. They carried North Carolina and Indiana, after all, and made (as far as I recall) a real effort in Georgia, Montana and North Dakota.

          • As is usually the case with these sorts of paeans, this pretty badly misunderstands what the 50 state strategy did.

      • Larry says:

        No, Kaine’s gone. He failed upwards, to run for Senate against Robert E. Stonewall Beauragard Nathan Bedford George Allen. I have no idea who the DNC has running it into the ground at present.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Don’t know how she’s doing. She does seem a bit more aggressive than Kaine.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Oh well, this is promising:

            “Over the past few years, we’ve maintained a strong democratic organization staffed in all 50 states thanks to the 50-state strategy put in place by Howard Dean,” Wasserman Schultz said. “And I can tell you that I am looking forward to sitting down with Chairman Dean next week so I can pick his brains clean on what he thinks that we should be doing to continue the fight to make sure that we can elect progressives all across the country.”

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      It’s worth noting that Ron Paul is also opposed to strengthening state Democratic Parties.

    • Did it really all get subsumed into Obama’s orgs?

      That always happens when a party takes over the White House; the national party apparatus and the White House political office sort of merge.

      And incumbent President is the legal head of the national party. When a party has no incumbent President, the national committee’s political strategy is actually in the hands of the committee chair and board.

  2. StevenAttewell says:

    Surely the answer is to create a progressive bench.

    And developing leadership isn’t machine politics – it’s movement politics.

    • Slocum says:

      Right, cronyism is when the choices about who to promote and who not are done for reasons that are more or less obscured to concerned parties. That the leaders of a state party see such-and-such as a rising star and can make a public case for it–not that they have to trumpet it in full page ads–, then they should move on it.

      • StevenAttewell says:

        Precisely; the more visible and straightforward the bench-development process is, the fewer shenanigans there will be.

        Moreover, a proactive system also increases the likelihood of candidates who are female, of color, non-wealthy, etc. since the party can counterbalance the usual inequalities of social capital that are so telling in the early stages of who becomes candidates.

    • Hogan says:

      Which is why we shouldn’t count on the DNC to do it.

  3. Scott Lemieux says:

    Feingold really needs to step up here.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Damn right he does. But by all accounts, he’s a weird dude and an independent operator. I have no idea what’s holding him back. The job is ripe for the picking.

      • Rob says:

        He wants to run for Senate. He’s not going to go for Governor. You really don’t know what you are talking about. The only reason the election was even close last time was due to Barrett

      • Karate Bearfighter says:

        The word I’ve heard among Wisconsin progressives is that he really enjoys teaching, and that wants out of a fairly gruelling political lifestyle for personal reasons. He apparently likes being an elder statesman, and frankly, he’s earned it.

      • I have no idea what’s holding him back.

        You COULD simply read what he’s publicly said about it if you want an idea. I’m just sayin’.

    • Greg says:

      Russ Feingold is doing the right thing by not running. He’d be a really shitty governor, and I respect him more for knowing it. All the things that make people like him as a senator–the independent mavericky stuff–don’t work in an executive. You don’t have the luxury of sitting back and complaining about “politics as usual”, you have to actually accomplish things. You have to cut deals and settle for something that’s less than perfect in order to get things done. Feingold has shown no interest in that kind of politics.

      Our bench here in Wisconsin is fine. If anything we have the opposite problem. The Wisconsin State Journal had an article that mentioned eight different candidates considering the race, and two–Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and State Senator Tim Cullen–have already announced.

  4. Funkhauser says:

    Kathleen Falk.

    • markg says:

      the same Kathleen Falk that has already lost two statewide elections, including the AG’s race that was hers for the taking if she wasn’t quite so charisma-deprived? Or that stirred up so much anger and disaffection among so many democrats for her tactics in the primary of that race? We are so screwed if she ends up as the candidate.

  5. joel hanes says:

    Unfortunately, the national Democratic Party organization does not seem to want flourishing state-level party organizations, and quietly undermines them. I think it’s because the DC folk see strong independent state parties as loose cannons — impossible to fully control from the top.

    And top-down control, especially of messaging, is apparently what Rahm desired above all.

  6. elm says:

    Of the current 50 governors, only 3 left the Senate to become Gov. Only 2 others were big city mayors prior to becoming governor. By far the most common route was Lt. Governor or some other state executive position like AG: 11 of the former, 9 of the latter. (This option isn’t available for Dems in Wisonsin, though.)

    The other 50% of the governors came from other sources, including House of Representatives (6), medium-sized-city mayors (3), state legislators (5), US Attorneys (2), other parts of the Fed. executive branch (2), and the business world (5). Scott Walker himself was a county executive.

    In other words, that the candidates are not nationally known does not mean they aren’t good candidates. Greg, above, identified 2 people currently running, both of whom seem to have a reasonable shot given their background (County executive, state legislator.) David Obey would fit into the list of current governors even if you think he were blah, as would Barrett.

    The problem, I suppose, is that a lot of the leading candidates are moderate rather than liberal, but I think we need to start coming around to the idea that Wisconsin isn’t all that liberal anymore. Kerry and Gore both barely won the state, the House delegation is 5-3 Republican, Walker won the governorship, the Reoublicans have majorities in both branches of the state house, etc. Maybe we shouldn’t be expecting the second (third? fourth?) coming of La Follette anymore.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      Has Wisconsin changed? This is the state of both the LaFollettes and Joe MCCarthy. It’s always been divided between conservatives and progressives (though in the first half of the 20th century these fights were within the GOP). Is the closeness of those presidential races anything new?

      What does seem new in the FitzWalkerstan moment is the anger and intensity of these political divides.

      Or at least that’s what it looks like to this distant observer.

      • elm says:

        Fair enough. The state did vote for Reagan both times, but Dukakis won it by over 3% and Clinton won it fairly handily both times and it’s had Democratic Senators and majority Dem reps for much of the past 20-30 years. Wisconsin has never been Minnesota, that’s certainly true, and I may be overstating the change.

        On the flip side, Obey is actually quite liberal and is nationally known. Aside from his age, I don’t know why Erik thinks of him as a “blah” candidate.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          From a policy perspective, Obey’s big problem IMO is that he’s anti-choice. He is also not a particularly dynamic personality.

          • elm says:

            Yeah, I had forgotten about Obey’s position on abortion. That is a good reason to be “blah” about him (and then some.)

          • Tim says:

            Would a Governor Obey attempt to change the current laws in Wisconsin?
            Would a different Democratic governor
            have any success removing the current restrictions?

            • Greg says:

              To your first question, he voted for the Stupak amendment, which would have closed the health care exchanges to abortion coverage. The final compromise of the bill left the decision to the states. As governor, he would be in charge of implementing and running the health care exchanges, and he would be in a position to sign or veto laws that would restrict abortion coverage.

              By him or herself another Dem wouldn’t be able to roll back current restrictions–we would need control of the legislature first. The Senate we’ll probably take back in the recalls, and the Assembly we could win back in a term or two. The opportunities for the trifecta come by so rarely that we can’t afford to risk missing the opportunity by electing an anti choice governor, especially when pro choice Dems have never had any trouble getting elected statewide.

  7. David W. says:

    Wisconsin has plenty of decent Democrats, but it’s the uncertainty of running in a special election in a very charged political climate that’s the issue.

    FYI, Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) would be a decent candidate, but he doesn’t seem interested either and it’s perhaps better he hold his seat in Congress.

  8. John says:

    What “progressives” exactly are worried? National progressives who will shockingly find local Wisconsin politicians unexciting compared to Russ Feingold? Or activists actually in Wisconsin?

    Since you don’t provide any links here, it’s hard to tell if this is a real story, or if you’re just hyperventilating over nothing.

    • Greg says:

      It’s happening here too. The Cult of Feingold is strong and really fucking obnoxious.

    • sue says:

      I agree. I actually live in Wisconsin, and the post doesn’t reflect what I’m hearing at all from other people who actually live here. There are plenty of possible excellent candidates, some of whom have declared, some of whom are considering. I love Feingold and wish he were still my senator, but really, there are other good choices. At this point, he’s said no enough times that I’d lose respect for him if he did decide to get in.

  9. DK says:

    I don’t think the national party organs are particularly interested in strengthening institutions that could compete with them for power or pursue agendas that are contrary to what the party elites agree on. That I suppose is not surprising, if you remember that there is competition within parties, not just between them, and those at the top are wedded to controlling the party at the expense of winning inter-party competitions. That such a path is a result of electoral considerations is difficult to accept if you look at polls or notice the disconnect, even in the rhetoric, between how Democrats run and how they govern.

    What’s stranger to me is that those of us outside the halls of power need to learn the same lesson. Erik has been hammering away on twitter about how much attention is paid to the clown car and how little to important battles like IN’s right to work. There has been enormous energy spent complaining about ALEC but almost none to the good (and not shadowy) work bring done by the Progressive States Network. Senator DeMint uses the bulk of his energy ensuring that conservatives win primaries for open seat race but who on the left is doing that? We seem to be enthralled with activities that focus on big names and personalities and symbols while ignoring the day-to-day battles that matter most.

    Look at the response to Citizens United. I see a couple of paths for fighting back – people-powered electoral strategies (that obviously cost less), public funding, shareholder rights laws, pressuring institutional investors to tamp down on political spending (including lobbying). But the bulk of the energy goes to talking about a constitutional amendment, and focused only on corporate electioneering (not individual spending, not lobbying, not jobs for former members and staffers). Even if it could be done (and it cant’) it’s not clear how much that would help.

    I’m ranting. It does seem to me that building a bench is an area where activists can have a real impact, whereas presidential elections or the other things that dominate our discourse are going to tend to be determined by larger forces. The party isn’t going to work on this in the near term, but maybe the rest of us could.

  10. Ben says:

    The Democratic Party is an utter failure and well to the right of the Tories here in Canada.

    What your country needs is a real American Labor Party, rather than being stuck with the American Tories on one hand(“Democratic Party”) and the Imperial Fascists (“Republican Party”).

  11. kathleen says:

    It is true Feingold would make a lousy governor, but, in my opinion, other than speechifying, he wasn’t much of a senator either. “He is unpredictable” says it all; I have never understood the cult worship of this guy.

    • Greg says:

      People don’t just want someone representing them in the sense of looking out for their interests (as a lawyer would), they’d also like to be represented in the sense of having an avatar in the halls of power. Russ Feingold (and Anthony Weiner, Alan Grayson, Barney Frank, etc.) all scratch this itch through their speechifying. For some, it’s not enough to do the right thing, they also want to see someone who gets angry about the same things, and says so.

      • Mark says:

        Some of us also believe that aggressive rhetoric, in the aggregate, has an effect on policy in the long-term by affecting the overall narrative surrounding important issues.

        Note that I didn’t say, “believe that calling Republicans dicks can magically change votes in Congress regardless of other factors.”

  12. The obvious choice is Russ Feingold, but as of now, Feingold has shown little to no interest said “Hell no”.

  13. mds says:

    The other choices seem to range from the blah Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010

    On the other hand, his favorables supposedly aren’t too bad, some of the polling conducted when the Walkerites began to dismantle the state showed Barrett winning a do-over, and he’s already run once. I could even see how “giving the other guy a shot” might flip voters who otherwise would be turning out only to vote against Tammy Baldwin.

    On the gripping hand, it was a 52.3% – 46.5% loss, which wasn’t exactly a nailbiter, and Barrett unilaterally trampled Milwaukee employee health benefits, which fails to heighten the contradictions. But then we’re back to square one.

    On whatever comes after the gripping hand, though I agree with the point that Russ Feingold doesn’t seem to have the skills that would make him an effective governor, I can’t conceive of any scenario in which he was as bad for the state as Walker has been. And his contrarian persona has previously played well with voters otherwise uncomfortable with Democrats. Obviously, if he’d rather lie low for four years, then seek a rematch with Johnson, that’s up to him.

  14. In my experience, “lack of a bench” has generally been a lament from people who didn’t see anyone they personally cared for, or as an ex post facto rationale for a lost election. Back around 2008-09 I heard a lot of Ohio Republicans complaining about their short bench and how they were going to blow a chance to win the governorship back because they didn’t have anyone better than Kasich, who obviously couldn’t beat Strickland. So yeah.

    My own view is that, more often than not, all you need is someone who isn’t inherently polarizing/hated and can raise money. Once you get that, in almost all cases, factors larger than the candidates themselves will cause the break. And I would assume that given the nature of the Wisconsin situation, opinions about Walker himself will be the most important factor in how a person votes regardless of who the Democratic candidate is.

    • DK says:

      That may well be something people say to justify losses, but the history of the parties shows that conscious energy to develop the bench matters and that the quality of candidates matters a good deal (there is a lot of political science research on this). Conservative Republicans did a really good job of that in the past, and there was a push by the DLC, but progressives haven’t really done that.

      This doesn’t mean that candidate strength is the only thing that matters, which is why you can have a blood bath when other conditions are against you.

      • I don’t think you’re saying what you think you’re saying. Yes, Republicans have done a better job focusing on victories at the state and local level, but that’s been a victory because it’s led to a lot of Republican favored policies being enacted on those levels. I don’t see any evidence that it’s led to Republicans having any sort of overwhelming electoral advantage in national politics solely on the basis of having stronger candidates than Democrats.

        • DK says:

          I’m pretty sure I am saying what I think I’m saying.

          I’m not saying they had victories and therefore the cause I favor must exist. I’m saying it is well established by research that the quality of the candidate matters. Republicans have created institutional structures to work on this – it was a conscious and long standing organizational strategy.

          It matters, in a not insubstantial way, but it’s obviously not the only thing that matter. The word “overwhelming” is not helpful here. Disentangling the multiple causes of elections is something that requires statistics – it can’t really be done with the naked eye.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Ooo, that book looks interesting! From the review there I gather that they argue that the much bandied about “it’s all structural factors” line is misleading, though perhaps only at the congressional and below level? (I.e., structural factors influence the quality of the candidate and the quality of the candidate is a more significant proximate cause of winning.)

            Ok, this summary confirms that this is the argument.

            But this is from 1983…it doesn’t seem to be conventional wisdom among polysci people at least for presidential elections. Huh.

  15. Mark says:

    Isn’t part of this what Progressive Majority does? Recruit and train progressive candidates and help them run for office at the local and state level?

  16. Raven says:

    Much as I’d love to see Russ Feingold in office, where I want him most is back in his own Senate seat displacing Ron Johnson.

    Don’t think Tom Barrett too “blah”: he had the personal physical courage to intervene in the street beating (with iron bar) of a woman, which is how his hand got broken. He’s done honorable service as elected official (congressman and now mayor), unlike some other politicians we could name. Earnestly serving one’s constituents, rather than filling one’s own pockets, should be worth a better comment than “blah.”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.