Throughout the week I keep looking for reactions the article in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine about the future of the Democratic party, about its challenge from the New Democrat Network. In a thoughtful post on this and related articles, Daniel Drezner quotes from the heart the Times' piece:
In March of this year, [venture capitalist Andy] Rappaport convened a meeting of wealthy Democrats at a Silicon Valley hotel so that they, too, could see Stein's presentation [Rob Stein is an operative for the New Democrat Network]. Similar gatherings were already under way in Washington and New York, where the meetings included two of the most generous billionaires in the Democratic universe -- the financier George Soros and Peter Lewis, an Ohio insurance tycoon -- as well as Soros's son and Lewis's son. On the East Coast, the participants had begun referring to themselves as the Phoenix Group, as in rising from the ashes; Rappaport called his gathering the Band of Progressives. More recently, companion groups have come together in Boston and Los Angeles.
What makes these meetings remarkable is that while everyone attending them wants John Kerry to win in November, they are focused well beyond the 2004 election. The plan is to gather investors from each city -- perhaps in one big meeting early next year -- and create a kind of venture-capital pipeline that would funnel money into a new political movement, working independently of the existing Democratic establishment. The dollar figure for investment being tossed around in private conversations is $100 million.
For the ideological donors... the new era seemed quite promising. McCain-Feingold left untouched and unregulated a vehicle that had been little used on the national level up to that point: the 527. And last fall and winter, the surprising success of Howard Dean's campaign convinced a lot of wealthy liberals that a new ideological movement could be nurtured outside the constraints of the Democratic Party. By controlling 527's, donors believed, they could determine, to a greater extent than ever before, the message and the strategy of a Democratic presidential campaign. ''This is like post-Yugoslavia,'' Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, told me. ''We used to have a strongman called the party. After McCain-Feingold, we dissolved the power of Tito.''
Having financed projects in the former Communist bloc, Soros understood the opportunitites that political tumult can create. He and the more reclusive Peter Lewis began by contributing about $10 million each to America Coming Together (ACT), the largest of the new 527's, which was designed to do street-level organizing for the election; the donations enabled ACT to expand its canvassing campaign from five critical swing states to 17. ''I used 527's because they were there to be used,'' Soros said bluntly during a conversation in his Manhattan office.
Soros's and Lewis's donations made it possible for longtime leaders of Democratic interest groups to do something they had never done in the modern era: work together. Now the insular factions have begun to form alliances. The founders of ACT included Ellen Malcolm and Carl Pope, the heads of Emily's List and the Sierra Club respectively, Andy Stern from the service employees' union and Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Suddenly, because they no longer had to compete with one another for contributions -- and because they had such a galvanizing villain in Bush -- the leaders of the party's most powerful adjunct groups were able to look beyond the more limited interests of their own membership....
It is, perhaps, futile to try to predict what the Democratic Party -- or much of anything in politics, for that matter -- will look like in 2008 or 2012. Terry McAuliffe, the party's chairman and one of the best fund-raisers in its history, says the party's continuing relevance in American life is assured, no matter how many rich donors establish their own competing groups or how many factions vie for dominance. With a new high-tech headquarters, $60 million in the bank and 170 million names in a voter database, McAuliffe said, the old party apparatus isn't going anywhere. ''In 30 years, the institution of the Democratic National Committee will be stronger than it has ever been,'' he said with characteristic bluster.
And yet implicit in Dean's prediction are two possible outcomes worth considering, if only because they lend themselves to historical precedent. The first is that the new class of Democratic investors could conceivably end up skewing the party ideologically for years to come. A lot of the political venture capitalists were strong supporters of Dean in the primaries, in the fervent belief that his campaign -- which became, in effect, a classic liberal crusade, in the Jerry Brown mold, only with more money -- was leading the party back in the right direction. Although several donors described themselves to me as ''pragmatic'' in their worldview, the moderate Kerry seemed to elicit in them all the passion of an insurance actuary (Soros labeled him ''acceptable''), and they manifested a pointed distaste for Clintonism as a political philosophy. The way they look at it, centrist Democrats spent a decade appeasing Republicans while the right solidified its occupation of American government. The donors see themselves as the emerging liberal resistance, champions of activist government at home and multilateral cooperation abroad.
There is, of course, a striking disconnect between the lives of these new Democratic investors and those of the party's bedrock voters: laborers, racial minorities and immigrants, many of whose faith in sweeping social programs has been badly shaken and who tend to be more culturally conservative than the well-off citizens of New York and Silicon Valley. But if the multimillionaires harbor even the slightest doubts about their qualifications for solving social and geopolitical ills, they don't express it.
It's very possible that this is the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party. History teaches us that parties come and go. Or maybe not. Maybe it is a radical reinvention. Either way, it's disheartening to see the "bedrock [un-monied] voters" left behind, especially when you think about the motivation for this move. The motivation is that the Republicans have already done it. The Republican Party has already sold out to the highest bidders. But somehow, that doesn't strike at the core of what it is to be a Republican in the way that this move seems almost a betrayal of the real Democratic base. The New Democrat Network's agenda is dedicated to "hope and progress," but at what price to representative democracy?