Why Democrats Lost Momentum–and How to Get It Back

Editor’s Note: A lot of Obama’s supporters are bitterly disappointed with him, and what they thought would be a radical new approach to government. Author Ari Berman eloquently explains what happened to the Democrat’s strong lead–and what we may still be able to do. This post originally appeared on The Progressive Book Club

There are those who see Barack Obama’s obvious preference for deliberation and compromise over partisan combat as a plus; others–the netroots types, the grassroots Democratic activists, the folks who got behind him because they thought he would change the way our politics is conducted –it’s a source of rage and resentment, as we saw last week with the flap over the president’s tax cut deal.

Ari Berman, one of progressive journalism’s rising stars, is in the latter camp. In his excellent recent book, Herding Donkeys, he recounts the story of how a grassroots resurgence revitalized the Democratic Party in the four years between Howard Dean’s insurgent presidential bid, in 2004, and the election of Barack Obama. In Berman’s telling, Dean gets credit for first tapping the activist energy across the 50 states both as a candidate and then as chair of the Democratic Party, laying essential groundwork for Obama’s success.

As president, Obama had a real opportunity to build on the momentum of his historic election, says Berman, by harnessing his grassroots base to push for fundamental change in Washington D.C. Instead, his administration quickly adopted a traditional top-down, work-within-the-system kind of approach to politics, to the bitter disappointment of his most ardent supporters.

Berman spoke with PBC several weeks ago about Obama, Dean, and the Democratic Party’s short-lived resurgence.

What did Obama’s grassroots supporters hope their role would be under an Obama presidency?

The Obama model, which he talked a lot about in the campaign, he was going to take all these grassroots supporters and make them part of the legislative process in Washington, [as a] parallel force that could really put pressure on the entrenched interests that had been blocking change for so many years. And that hasn’t happened; instead we’ve seen a much more conventional, top-down White House following a familiar Washington playbook.

How has that hurt him, and Democrats, in practice?

During the health care debate, when Max Baucus was stalling and fruitlessly negotiating with Republicans, you could have had the Obama supporters in Montana put pressure on Baucus and say, “Max, Let’s move this along, this is really draining the president’s political capital.” That doesn’t happen; the White House didn’t want independent groups to put pressure on anybody, because they thought it would backfire. Then, when MoveOn.org wanted to run ads against conservative Democrats blocking health care reform, Rahm Emanuel called them “f-ing retarded,” which I think had a very demoralizing effect. Meanwhile, Obama wasn’t telling people what to fight for–what he was for. The result is we finally get a bill, but it takes so long and the process is so messy and it depletes Obama’s capital so much that success looks almost like a failure.

Some argue that grassroots Democrats expected too much from the Obama presidency.

Well, you have to hold him responsible for the expectations he raised, because nobody did more than he did to raise them. The inspirational rhetoric was key to his candidacy. He probably should have done a better job after the election of managing some of those expectations, particularly on the economy; he could have said, “Look, we have a plan, but we inherited a huge mess and it’s going to take a long time for it to get better.”

You credit Howard Dean, especially in his role as chair of the Democratic National Committee, with developing this grassroots that model Obama followed as a candidate but emphatically hasn’t as president. Remind us what changes Dean made at the DNC.

After 2004, when everybody was slicing the country into red and blue states, Dean ran for party chairman with a 50-state strategy, basically arguing that there were a lot of Democrats in these red states and that if Democrats were going to win a majority they would have to start winning in some of these places, like Indiana, Idaho, North Carolina. He argued that the way to do that was to start rebuilding local Democratic parties, giving them an infusion of staff and money and training, upgrading their technology for keeping track of voters, and creating a bench. They had organizers out there knocking on doors, and morale is very high, and I don’t think you can overstate the value of that, as we’ve seen in 2010. As a result, in 2006, as the country soured on Bush, the Democrats were well placed to take advantage, because they had all these different candidates in different states.

What happens after Obama is elected and Dean leaves the DNC?

Dean wanted to leave anyway, but he’s unceremoniously pushed out, and he doesn’t get a job in the administration; that’s one signal that they don’t think they need his constituency any more. At the same time, all these organizers who are part of the 50-state strategy aren’t kept on–their contracts expire and they’re not replaced. Basically, the president tries to replace them with people from Organizing for America [the successor to his campaign arm], but the OFA people aren’t working on the party stuff, only Obama stuff. So for about a year the party’s just stumbling. They’re getting $5,000 a month, which is a lot less than they got before. One of the lessons of the Dean era–and from Obama’s campaign–is that you need to invest in them very early on and give people ownership and empowerment. Instead, here the party is weakened at the very moment you’d think it would be strengthened.

What does Obama need to do heal the rift with his base and strengthen the party?

I think that reconnecting with the base is critically important. The Obama people seem to be really frustrated, like the base just doesn’t appreciate them, and they may have a legitimate point, but that’s not going to make it better. What’s going to make it better is the kind of dialogue that existed during the campaign, and giving them some ownership and some tangible things to fight for. Obama’s essentially being pulled in two different directions: one direction is to try to moderate his agenda and try to work with the GOP on issues like tax cuts and the deficit and trade, and others, and try a triangulation strategy, like Clinton. But it’s not clear to me that he’s going to be able to triangulate successfully with a Tea Party-infused Congress.

So if GOP obstruction is a given…

Then the question is, how do you use that to your advantage? I would lay out a much bolder economic agenda and figure out a) how to pass that in whatever form you can or b) if you can’t pass it, you do it through the authority of the executive branch or else just make the Tea Party people block it and talk about it over and over and get your base fired up and draw a sharp contrast for the American people. It’s not clear to me which way he’s going to go, but if the economy doesn’t get better and the base doesn’t get more enthusiastic, then Obama’s going to be in trouble heading into 2012.

And what lessons do you hope Obama and his advisors will draw specifically from the 2010 midterms?

I wouldn’t necessarily extrapolate too many of the lessons of 2010 to 2012, because the dynamic will be different. A lot of Democrats are in a hard-core despair moment, but the fact of the matter is midterm elections generally speaking tend to break against the party in power, especially when there’s a weak economy and it’s a lot easier to make it a referendum on a party. I do think 2012 is going to be much more of a choice than a referendum. Also, we’ll see where the Tea Party goes; the quest for ideological purity could really end up hurting the Republican Party in the 2012 primaries. So I’m not convinced that 2010 tells us a whole lot about 2012.

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Photo credit: terren in Virginia via flickr


Nancy Dodson
Nancy Dodson7 years ago

Happy Holidays Everyone

Helen C.
.7 years ago

Where there's a will there's a way.

With God all things are possible.


jane richmond
jane richmond7 years ago

When politicians don't respond to the people's wants they loss power.

Nancy Dodson
Nancy Dodson7 years ago

Hi Donald, As promised I just spent a couple of hours fact checking your information.

I first Googled Georgia Guidestones. I find this site to be mostly crap. Way too far out for me. Probably dangerous. That's where the view that the world will be limited to 500 billion was discussed. Makes no sense.

We already discussed my ideas on airport scanning.

Next I Googled David Icke and Alex Jones and found a lot of fantasy. I personally don't agree with what they seem to believe but it is America. They are entitled to believe what they want. I actually enjoyed Jesse Ventura's sites. I find I agree with him more than not. I'm surprised you would like him AND Icke and Jones. Their ideas seem diametrically opposed.

The HW Bush pedophile charges are interesting. I had never heard this. Some of the info seemed credible, but then I found a post that stated that the charges were cleverly crafted lies. The jury is out with me. As I stated previously the two George Bush's were not favorites of mine. Nor was President Reagan.

So Donald, you haven't convinced me and I'm sure I didn't convince you. That's fine with me. It is American after all. My problem with the present state of affairs in the US these days is that there is way too much misinformation swirling around in the universe and all I ask of anyone is to think for yourself, fact check, and then form your opinions. Enough of the lies and distortion.

I've enjoyed our conversation! PEACE! Nancy

Donald MacDonald
don MacDonald7 years ago

Hi Nancy,


" I will definately do some research on David Icke, Alex Jones and Gov. Ventura. Never heard of David or Alex. "

Soon you will realize that all political parties are owned and controlled by a heinously corrupt elite...as are we, presently.


Martin S.
Martin Stride7 years ago

I think a rising number of people are fed up with the drift to rightwing capitalism taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. It's not truly reflective of the public will.

A lot of Democratic supporters are ordinary working and middle class people, and it's hard for them to enthuse about supporting a party who seem to just posture about being for them, when in office they just turn into another rightwing party in the pockets of big business.

The Democrats need to be bolder about setting out a radical progressive agenda, taking on the iniquities of big business, and then actually doing it when they're in office.

Nancy Dodson
Nancy Dodson7 years ago

Hi Donald,

Thank you for answering me! I appreciate that.

I don't know exactly who is going to kill me and my family but I'm a pretty good shot and I won't go quietly! No, I don't hunt. Despise that. I'm a dedicated animal lover and rescuer. And what are the means by which the world population will be limited to 500,000 lucky souls? I guess one way would be to keep electing Republicans as their main objective seems to be fighting wars. They've already succeeded in eliminating millions of innocent men, women and children to say nothing of the thousands of our best and brightest young men and women. That would help. As for the first President Bush I hadn't heard that he was a pedophile but I will definately research that. I was never crazy about either one of the Bush's (to put it mildly!) I do however love Barbara. I especially loved her comment on Shooter Palin. I would rather have a "sexual assault" at an airport than have itty bitty pieces of me spread over a mile or so along with many scaps of metal that was once an airplane. The big protest at Thanksgiving was a bit of a flop, eh? I will definately do some research on David Icke, Alex Jones and Gov. Ventura. Never heard of David or Alex. I like ole Jesse but he does have some strange ideas!

I'll definately do lots of fact checking on these items and get back to you. If any of this info is accurate I'll apologize to you. I have to say, though, that this is some interesting stuff!!Quite unbelievable, too

Donald MacDonald
don MacDonald7 years ago

" * Nancy Dodson says
* Dec 19, 2010 6:47 PM

Donald, exactly what is this corrupt agenda you are talking about? If you are going to diss our president let's have the facts! Not just Fox News, Limbaugh blather! Facts! "

Ultimately Nancy, the corrupt agenda is to kill you and your family.

Numerous discussion agenda's exist, as well the ''georgia guidestones', to the depopulation discussions.

In order to maintain world population @ 500 million, billions need to go somewhere.

They already have you submitting to sexual assaults at airports...coming to a mall near you.

Watch some David Icke, Alex Jones, and gov Jesse Ventura on youtube, and you will be all caught up.

How do you think Icke can continually get away with very publicly accusing Bush the 1st of being a pedophile ?

Other interesting sidebars along the way are all over the place also.

There's more than love all around you...all you need to do is peek.


Paul B.
7 years ago

Democrats have lost their way by selling their soul to the progressive movement that rears its ugly head every so often. There very few if any Democrats, only very Liberal progressives. Many Republicans have also fallen prey to the progressive ideals, although many of them are gone, more to go next election. Americans ideals are NOT in line with the progressive mantra. Sure the term progressive sounds great, moving forward, expanding, understanding the times and looking to the future, etc. But that is the cover word for control and manipulation by an elitist group who feel they know better than we do. It is where those who were elected to serve become the masters. American has awakened to what is happening and are now fighting against that movement. We will never return to the prosperity we once enjoyed until these people, our government leaders are taught that they serve us, instead of us serving them. Their power has evolved into corruption and greed. Term limits would be a great start to curbing that power and control. The Democratic party is not the same party our parents trusted, but neither is the Republican party. New blood, with the right frame of mind and perspective of who is serving who, is what we need now.

Charlene R.
Charlene Rush7 years ago

I just heard on TV, that there are 34,000,000 evangelicals in the U.S.A. That's an astounding number. Most, if not all, are FULL OF FEAR, fear of the devil, fear of war, fear of next wave of immigrants, fear of just about everything. They listen to these TV preachers, who simply are moving the money from the gullible, to the pockets of the charismatic.

Then, you have the conservatives, not exactly uneducated or unwealthy. However, they suffer from the same fears. When these fears are constantly, reinforced, they lack the ability to distinguish fact from fiction.

Fear is at the handstrings of their thinking.
Their second problem is NARCISSISM. This is a protection from being hurt. When you worry about your own welll-being to such a degree, no time is left to love and be loved.

Moderates and liberals, generally speaking, HAVE A LIFE and are too engaged in enjoying it, to waste their time on unrealistic fears.

We are in charge of our destiny. We only _get_, what we _give_, in life. That is life. That is what life is all about.