Ed. note: This post by Matt Stoller gets it brilliantly correct. I urge you all to follow the OpenLeft blog as I do for truly thoughtful political journalism. I am a lifelong Democrat and current member of the Stonewall Young Democrats Executive Committee, and I think we rightly need to take a critical look at ourselves; this is a good start. -Ed
by: Matt Stoller
Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson has an interesting article on the campaign against Proposition eight in California, and what they did wrong. What's interesting about the post-mortems, though widely known, is how little scrutiny the anti-prop 8 leaders have actually gotten. Dickinson's article is useful to a point in that he got five people to go on the record with what the group did wrong, but most of his piece is framed by sniping from anonymous top level Democratic consultants and strategists towards the (mostly) unnamed leadership of the No on Proposition 8 forces.
According to veteran political observers, the No on Prop 8 effort was slow to raise money, ran weak and confusing ads, and failed to put together a grass-roots operation to get out the vote....What is so frightening to 'top' Democratic consultants in California that they can't discuss the reasons the campaign structure dithered and failed using their own names? Just what are they afraid of? Could it be that the real story here is damning to the entire Democratic California political consulting class? Perhaps.
"This was political malpractice," says a Democratic consultant who operates at the highest level of California politics. "They fucked this up, and it was painful to watch. They shouldn't be allowed to pawn this off on the Mormons or anyone else. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and now hundreds of thousands of gay couples are going to pay the price."
"They had no ground game," says a leading Democratic consultant. "They thought they could win this thing by slapping some ads together. It was the height of naiveté."....
"The ad was a huge fucking mistake," says a top Democratic campaign strategist. "Any objective consultant who has done any research on this issue will tell you that the struggle for marriage equality is not accepted by minority communities to be equivalent to the civil rights movement. In fact, it pisses minorities off."...
Let me add what I know to the story. No on Prop 8 was run by an unwieldy bureaucratic committee that rejected help from most quarters and organized a strategy to pretend like hiding from homosexuality and Obama's opposition to gay marriage would work. The initial campaign leaders basically thought that the pollling data showed they were going to win, were completely out-organized by Mormons, had a website "someone would've been proud of in 1996", rejected most offers to help, and finally, six weeks before the election, ceded control to prominent and effective gay rights leader Patrick Guerriero and a team of volunteers, who took control and attempted (successfully) to turn a route into a narrow loss. I remember when the distress call went out about Prop 8, and cash started pouring in (not just through their website designed by volunteers from Google, but also through Actblue, which had Prop 8 as their top donor item for weeks); we added Prop 8 to our Better Democrats page, and Markos raised hundreds of thousands for this cause. There's no way to tell what happened, but it seems fairly reasonable to assume that the leadership transition worked and the Guerriero was able to at least narrow the margin to where it ended up in November.
That said, this was too little too late. You can't really run a multi-million dollar campaign like this in six weeks, so the framing and tone was set by the executive committee, which refused to make decisions for fear of offending blocks of voters. This was a centrist cautious campaign similar to John Kerry in 2004. Campaigns like this are completely predictable, it's how Democrats have worked for decades, and though the Obama campaign provides a nice reminder of how far the party has come in just a few years, the progress is obviously uneven.
California is especially bad, because it's an expensive state and TV is where the consulting money is made. While you wouldn't notice it on a national level because California always goes for the Democratic Presidential nominee, 'top' California Democratic consultants have a history of this kind of nonsense. Consider their recent legacy of defeats: Gray Davis's recall in the face of a fiscal crisis orchestrated by conservative interests who helped Enron steal much of California's budget through price fixing, the embarrassing campaign to oppose Arnold Schwarzenegger for reelection by Phil Angelides who not only ran a horrific campaign but was repeatedly sabotaged by insider California consultants and his primary opponent Steve Westly, and the overfunded losing campaign to pass Proposition 87 to increase the use of alternative fuels with an oil tax in 2006. These weren't just awful campaigns, they were embarrassingly awful, with money going to fill the coffers of the consultants who preached TV TV TV and failed to do any significant field, internet work, or basic outreach to different constituencies. These campaigns shared the standard characteristics of the No on Prop 8 campaign; entirely TV dependent, passively messaged, no field, hostile treatment towards possible allies, and anonymous sniping from other consultants not cut in on the cash.
I don't see how Prop 8 was any different. Geoff Kor, the head of the executive committee, hired Dewey Square principal Steve Smith to run the campaign. In his article, Dickinson misses Smith's role, and misses that Smith, while nominally running Prop Eight until late in the game, was also working on the campaign against an anti-abortion proposition (prop 4) at the same time. Smith was clearly overworked and took on too much responsibility, which is probably why the more labor intensive activists, such as field and web outreach, were marginalized in favor of simpler TV buys. Dewey Square, a field oriented Democratic political consulting group run by Michael Whouley that at various points had employed three Presidential campaign managers from 2004 (Gephardt, Lieberman, and Edwards), itself is ensconced in a profitable racket to suck up corporate money by opposing policies like net neutrality while running these pro-Democratic campaigns on the side.
What makes this so galling is that it's quite obvious that the people who ran this campaign learned nothing and are simply incapable of effective advocacy for progressive causes. What this California consulting racket wins they win by accident. For instance, after the campaign, Smith diagnoses the primary problem as insufficient resources to get up on TV, and then pleads with the gay community not to target the Mormon church.
"It's hard not to act out, but I'm telling you, don't act out. The spray paint on the Mormon Church, that hurts us. Any violence, that hurts us."Framing protests towards the Mormon Church as 'violent' is sure helpful, now isn't it? I can literally smell the Bob Shrum on this statement, both the inappropriate attempts at leadership (who the fuck is Smith to tell people he betrayed by doing a bad job what to do) and the reluctance to demonize and personalize the fight against those with different values. Smith also argues that the group should have released its polling numbers and done outreach to allied groups earlier: "The community woke up. We should've done that earlier. It felt bizarre to do it, but it worked." Smith is saying that it it 'felt bizarre' to be honest and open with allies, and then says like the community of allies was 'asleep', as if they weren't dormant because Smith had refused to correct the misimpression that the proposition was in the bag. Unbelievable.
It's a very lazy and cash-soaked business, this California Democratic consulting world, in which risk-averse TV dominant consultants waste money from donors and lose to the right while sniping at each other anonymously like wealthy high school gossips. And that's why these consultants won't go on the record, because they are all part of the cartel. They have to pretend like the system itself works, that this was just an isolated instance, that there's no problem with a corporate lobbyist running two progressive campaigns inefficiently at the same time, only this instance of a corporate lobbyist-type running two progressive campaigns inefficiently at the same time. I mean, look who else is a 'top' Democratic consultant or strategist in California - Gary South and/or Chris Lehane come to mind, and there aren't that many, so these guys are probably sources for Dickinson. Lehane's record is wonderful; he screwed up Wes Clark's Presidential campaign and most reprehensibly took money from the anti-labor studios to go after the Writer's Guild during their strike. Sniping at a fellow club member anonymously is a sure way to signal to others that this was simply a problem isolated to Proposition 8, instead of systemic inefficiency and corruption in the California consulting establishment itself.
But that's what it was. This corroded group lost significant statewide races and initiatives in 2002, 2003, 2006, and 2008, in good years and bad years, by running cautious and ineffective TV dominant lazy campaigns. I'm quite confident that Proposition 8 shook the gay community to the core, and gay rights is going to take a more radical and effective tact from now on. Still, this consultant racket can still do a lot of damage. In 2010, Barbara Boxer is going to be up for reelection, and she might be very heavily targeted by Republicans in a year that probably won't be great for Democrats. She'll have a lot of money and it might just be a very expensive race; let's just hope that Boxer chooses someone other than a 'top' Democratic strategist to run her campaign.
Matt Stoller is a political activist/blogger in DC, and was an editor at MyDD from November 2005 until June 2007. He also consults for the Sunlight Foundation, FreePress.net, and Working Assets as well as proactively networking other progressive bloggers/internet activists and progressive professionals. In 2006 Stoller was very involved in supporting Ned Lamont's campaign to replace Joe Lieberman as senator from Connecticut, a project he undertook after he came off of the Jon Corzine for Governor in New Jersey, where he blogged for the campaign. Stoller was one of the co-creators of The Blogging of the President, which explored the ongoing digital transformation of politics first in weblog format and later as a nationally syndicated talk radio show from Minnesota Public Radio. This represented one of the first attempts to bring the conversation in the blogosphere directly into the broadcast media. In addition to his daily work, he has testified before the Federal Election Commission on the role of electronic media in politics, and is the co-author with Chris Bowers of a report on electronic communities in politics. Stoller started blogging in response to the buildup to the Iraq War in 2002. Stoller worked on the Draft Clark movement to bring Wesley Clark into the nominating race for president of the United States.