Saturday, November 11, 2006

Midterm postmortems - Democrats

Success has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.

One might think that after the most successful midterm elections in over thirty years that most Democrats would be applauding the '50 states' strategy of Howard Dean. Not so, James Carville is attacking Dean claiming that the party could have won another 10 to 15 seats by targetting the resources.

Dean supporters counter that if the party had followed its usual strategy it would have only backed 18 seats and almost certainly fallen short of the 15 necessary to win. This argument has a lot going for it, particularly as it is far from clear that the Democrats would have suceeded in picking up 8 GOP seats hit by scandal without the ground-work laid under the 50-state strategy.

The more important argument is that Dean and Carville were trying to achieve very different things. When Dean became chair two years ago very few people expected the Democrats to take the House or the Senate in 2006. Dean's strategy was designed to start building infrastructure that would support the party in the years beyond. As the political mood of the country changed and Democrats realized that there was an opportunity the argument was made for a tactical shift to the 'battleground states'.

This conflict between strategy and tactics is not new. Nor is it necessary for one to exclude the other. US politics has long been oversaturated with cash. It is not clear that Allen could have beaten Webb or Burns have beaten Tester by spending another million dollars.

Nor is the system a static one as Carville implies. Strategy is dialectic, if the Democrats had adopted different tactics the Republicans would have responded. Attacking the Republicans in 50 states reduced the amount of money flowing from 'safe' seats to the battleground states. The amount spent on the 50 states strategy was small compared to the amount of Republican cash that was pinned down.

The Democrats might have gained more seats in 2006 with a different allocation of resources. But like betting on roulette it is easy to see how you might have done better after the fact. If the 18 seats strategy promited by most of the party had been followed the Democrats would have won fewer seats. It is hard to see how 40 seats could have been won when nobody argued for that strategy.

Which does the party need more: another 10 seats in the House it already controls by a 15 seat margin or a nationwide party infrastructure capable of taking the Republicans on in any state of the nation?

Until Dean the Democrats had no party organization whatsoever in Alaska. Even today the staff is small. Ted Stevens, the incumbent Senator up for election in 2008 is facing a major corruption investigation. The offices of his son were raided recently after which the son decided not to stand again. Stevens is also a target for Republican criticism, his bridges to nowhere costing $315 million and $1.5 billion are widely considered to be a major cause of the loss of the Senate. If Stevens is replaced by a Democrat in 2008 the 50 state strategy will be the reason.

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