The Progressive Path to November 7, 2006

“Training the Left to Win” in the July/August issue of Utne Magazine, is an overview on teaching progressives the basics of grassroots organization for advocacy groups, media attention, congressional staff work and eventually elected office. The benchmark is the GOP history of these training programs going back to 1979 when Morton Blackwell started the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Some of the graduates include Karl Rove, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist.

Historical perspective is essential to understanding this. When Kennedy was elected in 1964, the GOP was in the position the Democrats came to 30 years later. Conservative was the dirty label and the party was reeling. Various leaders looked for a long term plan to reestablish the party – on a rock solid base. The founders (Weyrich, Kristol) and funders (Coors, Mellon-Scaife), got help from Lewis Powell (a Democrat ?!), who wrote the blueprint for the multifaceted plan – and was appointed to the SC by Nixon. Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority was another handbook for the project.

… movement conservatives picked themselves up and began patiently constructing a network of think tanks, foundations, advocacy groups, and training seminars for new leaders. Groups such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Young America’s Foundation, College Republicans, Young Americans for Freedom, and the Leadership Institute started recruiting and training tens of thousands of conservative youth.

Today the … graduates of these well-established programs work in the White House, occupy congressional seats, report for (and manage) major media outlets, and run conservative think tanks and lobbying firms.

Included in the plan was training thousands to run political campaigns, the party and turn the elected offices of the country over to as many Republican faithful as possible. With the help of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jim Baker, much of the southern Democratic base became Reagan Republicans. The Moral Majority was neither, yet it succeeded in capturing the fears and allegiance of the evangelicals.

Much to Kevin Phillips’ dismay, a GOP he did not respect emerged. The addition of the neocons and the millitary-industrial cabal brought to reality Ike’s farewell warning. By 1984, Phillips had distanced himself from the party and continues to write extensively on the problems the country is being led into by the GOP empowered elite.

The 2000 election woke progressives up to the idea that the Democrats needed to start the same kind of rebuilding program the GOP had been successful with. The convergence of the internet, the Iraq war and Howard Dean’s ’04 campaign helped propel the issue into a wider vision. Although the energy and effort of the ’04 campaign exceeded anything most Democrats had seen in decades, the GOP was still ahead in church based grassroots strength, the fear factor, control of the media and the election process.

Since George W. Bush took office in 2001, a raft of progressive organizations have emerged, including Campus Progress – an affiliate of the Washington think tank Center for American Progress – which [David] Halperin founded last year to provide media training and financial support to activists and journalists at more than 400 schools.

Like other strategists on the left, Halperin [a former Clinton speechwriter] has studied the right’s methods and, recognizing the need to take a longer view, is looking to build power far beyond any given election cycle by recruiting fresh young talent and training them to lead for decades to come.

Campus Progress and groups such as People for the American Way, MoveOn.org, and Green Corps, as well as … Wellstone Action, Democracy for America, the Center for Progressive Leadership, and the League of Young Voters, are using a similar approach .

The Wellstone Action group has trained 10,000 in weekend courses for the ‘ground troops’, emphasizing the ultimate goal of getting the trainees to run for office using the campaign strategy that worked for Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and Colorado Senator Ken Salazar. Jeff Blodgett, executive director, conveys Wellstone’s successful tactic as “messaging”:

[using] a diagram called the “message box,” … A simple table with four quadrants, it allows you to weigh the strength of different messages side by side. In one column, you fill in your own messages: what we are saying about ourselves; what we are saying about them. In the other column, you write down your opposition’s messages: what they are saying about themselves; what they are saying about us.

The 24 year old Green Corps program is a year long training with actual internships in environmental activist organizations. Most trainees go on to work for some of the other 200 Green Corps graduates and become the leaders and directors of advocacy groups, think tank scholars or legislators.

According to Leif Utne, the progressive programs compared favorably to the Leadership Institute’s Campaign Leadership School – other than the obvious differences in “framing” the issues with the familiar ideological code words (family values, freedom..) There is the inevitable funding gap, which is easing some as donors like George Soros have come forward. Utne also covers some concepts that are still up for debate. Although MoveOn and Wellstone Action want to emphasize getting candidates elected by taking off the gloves and simplifying the message (no 10 point plans), many progressives are not power hungry enough to pursue elected office. As Green Corps trainee Stephanie Powell put it “My goal is to deconstruct power, I want to work with other people. I want to empower, but I don’t want to hold power.”

Despite quoting Wellstone on the equal importance of electoral politics, community organization and sound public policy; Howard Dean is criticized for not going to the internet grassroots to develop new leadership. The DNC emphasis on the 50 State Strategy has been debated elsewhere. I simply cannot wrap my brain around the idea that it was not fundamentally essential to rebuild the infrastructure at the state levels. Much of my own experience in past elections and complaints from the ’04 campaign, were problems related to rebuilding the local staff every two years. The leadership roles are certainly essential, so are the managers and the ground troops.

I am not convinced using Montana or Colorado success strategies in other states – after two years and 180 degrees of voter orientation change – will obviously work. Aside from the fact that Ken Salazar barely made a C in his voting record for middle class issues (no surprise), the New England voters may just want a 10 point plan. I have never had the sense the voters really appreciated the gloves off campaign tactics. I would personally look at Elliot Spitzer’s campaign for governor of NY – especially the ads – as a more positive model that would resonate very well with voters who want candidates they can vote FOR.

Additional steps in the progressive path will be just as essential for winning in November. The election process, from registration to count is getting good attention – it couldn’t hurt to have more.

Robert Stein, former CoS for Sec of Commerce Robert Brown, developed his own power point presentation “The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix” after the ’02 election. Taking it across the country to wealthy progressives, he obtained major contributions to form The Democracy Alliance to fund liberal think tanks and strategic alliances amongst progressive groups.

Amy Goodman and Air America have gained steadily in getting liberal ideas and talk forums into the airwaves; as have Media Matters and FAIR in getting media mistakes and complete misses identified. The liberal blogs are doing their part to research, discuss and disseminate information and ideas the MSM ignores.

Last and best, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Thanks for the sanity moments. With enough work, we will have more of them after 11/7.

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