Wednesday, March 30, 2005

From the Top of the Key to the Bottom of the Inverted Pyramid

Bill Bradley, my favorite NBA Hall of Famer turned Presidential Candidate, has a fine column in the New York Times today about the difference between the Republican and Democratic power structures. He's not happy about that difference:

Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.

The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate. That language is sometimes in the form of an assault on Democrats and at other times in the form of advocacy for a new policy position. The development process can take years. And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.

At the very top of the pyramid you'll find the president. Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.

It is not quite the "right wing conspiracy" that Hillary Clinton described, but it is an impressive organization built consciously, carefully and single-mindedly. The Ann Coulters and Grover Norquists don't want to be candidates for anything or cabinet officers for anyone. They know their roles and execute them because they're paid well and believe, I think, in what they're saying. True, there's lots of money involved, but the money makes a difference because it goes toward reinforcing a structure that is already stable.

To understand how the Democratic Party works, invert the pyramid. Imagine a pyramid balancing precariously on its point, which is the presidential candidate.

Democrats who run for president have to build their own pyramids all by themselves. There is no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on. Unlike Republicans, they don't simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus - they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too. Many Democratic fundraisers join a campaign only after assessing how well it has done in assembling its pyramid of political, media and idea people.

There is no clearly identifiable funding base for Democratic policy organizations, and in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas. Campaigns don't start thinking about a Democratic brand until halfway through the election year, by which time winning the daily news cycle takes precedence over building a consistent message. The closest that Democrats get to a brand is a catchy slogan.

Democrats choose this approach, I believe, because we are still hypnotized by Jack Kennedy, and the promise of a charismatic leader who can change America by the strength and style of his personality. The trouble is that every four years the party splits and rallies around several different individuals at once. Opponents in the primaries then exaggerate their differences and leave the public confused about what Democrats believe

One of my favorite movies is Heat, with Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, and a bunch of other good actors. It's unbelievably violent, but to me it's really about the distinction between serious people and amateurs. Both DeNiro and Pacino exemplify the serious people and have to battle amateurs on their own side for the chance to do things the right, or serious, way. I feel the same way about Republicans and Democrats. Whether or not you like either ideology, the GOP just seems more serious about getting the job done. Bush is a lot of things, but frivolous is not one of them. He does not deviate from the task at hand, or the plan to achieve that task, no matter what distractions pop up. Kerry seemed all too willing to leave the track, and in the end more people than not didn't take him seriously, whatever place his heart seemed to be.

Until the Dems get serious, I won't consider voting for one. I'm not nearly as conservative politically as I may appear in this blog, and would have voted for a number of Dems had they been given the chance by their own party to run for president. Kerry was not a serious choice, and until one is made, the party will continue to decline.

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