One way out of the 2016 mess: think government, not president

Sam Smith – Before politics became theater rather than process, presidential election years also included considerable concern over who would run Congress and who might be on the Supreme Court. But the constitutional tripartite system began to fade in importance as television and other factors transformed elections into something much more like deciding which car to buy or who should get an Oscar.

Today the tripartite system gets little attention from the media and so we have learned to gauge an election almost entirely on the faults, assets, and statements of the candidates for the White House. Despite the Constitution, Congress and the Supreme Court no longer seem to matter as much.Nor do state and local elections.

This helps to explain the deep depression any sane person can feel contemplating a choice, say, between Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz.

But regardless of what the media tries to teach us we are still capable of approaching the 2016 election as our founders intended: namely a choice of the government we want rather than merely who will be our next president.

For example, there are four Supreme Court justices who are over 75 and thus there is a good chance the next administration will get to select their replacements. Despite all the common faults of both parties, imagine a court more inclined to follow the Constitution rather than its current reactionary soul. You won’t get it voting Republican  or staying home.

In the Senate only 5 seats need to change to give it back the Democrats. In the House the number in 30.

This may seem a high hill to climb, but in part this is because it has not been tried in any serious manner since Howard Dean was chair of the Democratic National Committee. Wikipedia’s summary of his efforts notes:

After Dean became Chairman of the DNC, he pledged to bring reform to the Party. Rather than focusing just on swing states, Dean proposed what has come to be known as the 50-State Strategy the goal of which was for the Democratic Party to be committed to winning elections at every level in every region of the country, with Democrats organized in every single voting precinct.  State party chairs lauded Dean for raising money directly for the individual state parties.

Dean’s strategy used a post-Watergate model taken from the Republicans of the mid-seventies. Working at the local, state and national level, the GOP built the party from the ground up. Dean’s plan was to seed the local level with young and committed candidates, building them into state candidates in future races. Dean traveled extensively throughout the country with the plan, including places like Utah, Mississippi, and Texas, states in which Republicans had dominated the political landscape.

Many establishment Democrats were at least initially dubious about the strategy’s worth—political consultant and former Bill Clinton advisor, Paul Begala, suggested that Dean’s plan was “just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose.” Further changes were made in attempting to make the stated platform of the Democratic Party more coherent and compact. Overhauling the website, the official platform of the 2004 campaign, which was largely criticized as avoiding key issues and being the product of party insiders, was replaced with a simplified, though comprehensive categorizing of positions on a wide range of issues.

Dean’s strategy arguably paid off in a historic victory as the Democrats took over control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 2006 mid-term elections. While it is likely this is also attributable to the shortcomings of the Republican Party in their dealings with the Iraq War and the scandals that occurred shortly before the election, Dean’s emphasis on connecting with socially conservative, economic moderates in Republican-dominated states appears to have made some impact. Indeed, Democratic candidates won elections in such red states as Kansas, Indiana, and Montana. And while former Clinton strategist James Carville criticized Dean’s efforts, saying more seats could have been won with the traditional plan of piling money solely into close races, the results and the strategy were met with tremendous approval by the party’s executive committee in its December 2006 meeting.

The 50-state strategy relied on the idea that building the Democratic Party is at once an incremental election by election process as well as a long-term vision in party building. Democrats cannot compete in counties in which they do not field candidates. Therefore, candidate recruitment emerged as a component element of the 50-state strategy.

To build the party, the DNC under Dean worked in partnership with state Democratic parties in bringing the resources of the DNC to bear in electoral efforts, voter registration, candidate recruitment, and other interlocking component elements of party building. Decentralization was also a core component of the party’s approach. The idea was that each state party had unique needs, but could improve upon its efforts through the distribution of resources from the national party.

The 50-state strategy was acknowledged by political commentators as an important factor in allowing Barack Obama to compete against John McCain in traditionally red states, during the 2008 presidential contest. In 2008, Obama won several states that had previously been considered Republican strongholds, most notably Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Today nobody in power or in the media is discussing how the grassroots politics of the country might shift. It’s all about Clinton and whomever she runs against. There are serious dangers in this.

Someone as controversial and with as questionable a past as Clinton could easily blow up during the campaign in some presently unpredictable uproar. At which point, Democrats all over the country would be in deeper danger.

Further, led by a dismissive liberal elite, Democrats do little to find issues or arguments to turn current Republicans – including Tea Party members – away from policies and programs that are damaging to whole segments of the population including themselves.

We have been increasingly taught to debate personalities rather than policies and so no longer pay enough attention to picking the right issues, presenting them in the right way, convincing the right people, and doing it in the right places.

As things now stand, the choice will not only be between Clinton and her opponent but between the sort of legislation we want coming out of Congress and the sort of decisions the Supreme Court will make. And our states, counties and cities.

Having this choice rest overwhelmingly on people’s reaction to Hillary Clinton is, at best, extremely dangerous. Making it a choice, not only about the White House, but about Congress, the Supreme Court, state houses and city hall with an ample collection of good issues that a majority of Americans can support changes both the tone and the potential outcome of the vote in 2016.


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