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Herding Donkeys

Are the Democrats a party in desperate need of an ideology?

By Justin Moyer / October 13, 2010

Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics By Ari Berman Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 288 pp., $26

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Political consensus is a lot like pancakes. Both look great on the menu but, after a few bites you've had enough.

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That riff isn’t borrowed from any well-connected Democratic Party operative but is from slacker comedian Mitch Hedberg (R.I.P.). Still, in 2010, what Howard Dean called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party” faces quite the syrupy dilemma. Inspired by a campaign that bridged timeworn ideological divides to try to win every state in the union, leftists ordered up a consensus to elect Barack Obama in 2008 and expand the Democratic Party. Now, they must govern with conservative Democrats-in-name-only who surrendered health care’s public option, oppose gay marriage, and recoil at the mere sight of House Leader Nancy Pelosi. Meanwhile, a candidate who seemed very liberal turned out to be a president who’s frustratingly moderate.

“What was the point of having a Democratic congressman in Idaho or Western North Carolina ... if that person simply opposed whatever the most popular Democratic president in a generation proposed?” asks Nation contributor Ari Berman in Herding Donkeys, a nostalgic, often angry, look back at the past six years of Democratic electioneering. “[H]ad Obama been co-opted by the very forces he promised to fight during his campaign? Did his tenure in the White House represent a profound shift among the American public or a mere electoral anomaly?”

This question can’t be answered before the Congressional midterms this November, let alone before 2012’s presidential election. Still, Berman unearths the underappreciated “50-state strategy” – an ingenious, grass-roots campaign to turn red states blue and blue states bluer that “reinvent[ed] the everyday practice of politics” – which couldn’t save Dean in 2004, but elected Obama four years later. An unabashed Deanaic (who will appear with Dean at least once this fall to promote this book), Berman wastes no opportunity singing the praises of the former Vermont governor’s inspired-but-doomed primary bid even as he disparages Democratic heavyweights like James Carville and Rahm Emanuel who lined up to support Gen. Wesley Clark and John Kerry. “Widespread establishment chatter proved to be a rather self-serving and myopic bit of hackneyed political analysis,” Berman writes. “Many of Dean’s sharpest critics, who as it happened would end up on the losing end of the following presidential election, saw only the campaign’s dysfunction and demise rather than its unrealized potential.”

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