Herding Donkeys

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

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

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

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?”

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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.”

On this score, Berman’s right. If he was a lousy candidate, Dean proved an unlikely but effective Democratic National Committee chair, turning an office that had been a sinecure into the fundraising machine that would help Obama paint Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina blue in 2008. The bulk of “Herding Donkeys” is devoted to cataloging these victories ad nauseam, detailing unlikely Democratic successes in Republican strongholds like Alaska and Idaho. “Under [Dean’s] tenure, Democrats elected a president and picked up six governorships, fourteen Senate seats, fifty-five House seats, and fifteen state legislative chambers,” Berman writes. “Not too shabby a record for someone whose political obituary had been penned immediately following his failed presidential campaign.”

Though Berman’s obsessive Dean cheerleading weighs down his narrative, “Herding Donkeys” has a bigger problem: timing. Weeks before an election that may prove as pivotal as 1994’s Newt Gingrich-sponsored Republican revolution, why is a prominent liberal rehashing 2008 to offer dubious lessons for 2010? “The Republicans had become obsessed with ideological purity, losing their majorities and staggering in the wilderness as a consequence,” Berman writes, “but Democrats, if anything, weren’t ideological enough. Their red-state contingent had so blurred what it meant to be a Democrat that the party itself could barely see.”

This reading of Obama’s record is myopic. Our 44th president’s signature legislative accomplishment – health care – barely survived a year of debate in Congress. The compromises that kept it alive will not satisfy the left, but it’s not clear that a call for more ideology will lead to success this November. If anything, Berman should remember that, though he destroyed John McCain in the Electoral College, Obama took only 53 percent of the popular vote.
“At a time of rampant disillusionment with Washington,” Berman writes, “the perseverance and tenacity of determined organizers in unlikely locales such as Dallas and Waco, in spite of the news of the day, offers a path forward for Democrats in red and blue states alike.”

But these organizers won’t succeed by convincing “Tea Partyers” that abortion should be legal or that “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be repealed. They will succeed by putting these divisive cultural issues aside in the name of victory. In other words, by ordering more pancakes.

Berman’s book is a worthwhile document of a American political revolution. Now, the revolution is over. He should be looking for the butter and maple syrup.

Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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