Chapter 12: The Party | Crooked Media
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September 04, 2018
The Wilderness
Chapter 12: The Party

In This Episode

How democratic should the Democratic Party be? The evolving relationship between party leaders and grassroots organizers. Learn more:

The Wilderness with Jon Favreau is presented by Honey. Join for free at




Speaker 1 [Sponsor note]


[voice clip] Colorado . . . Mr. Chairman, Colorado rises to a point of information. Is there any rule under which Mayor Daley can be compelled to suspend the police state terror perpetrated this minute on kids in front of the— [crowd roars]


Jon Favreau: Imagine for a moment if the long, bitter primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ended at the Democratic convention with party leaders nominating Joe Biden for president. It sounds batshit crazy, and like something I’d never want to debate on Twitter, but it’s not entirely different than what happened in 1968. A few months earlier, Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated after winning the California primary. That left two major candidates: anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy, who won the most primary contests, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who entered the race very late and didn’t even compete in a single primary. The delegates in Chicago nominated Humphrey, even though 80% of primary voters had cast their ballots for anti-war candidates like Kennedy or McCarthy, the party leaders and insiders who controlled the nominating process chose a candidate who basically promised to continue Lyndon Johnson’s policy in Vietnam.


[voice clip] The vice president was a candidate along with the rest. We were dealt with the same as they were and we won, I think, in a convention, which is as fair as any has ever been.


Jon Favreau: Outside the convention, thousands of anti-war protesters clashed with police, who responded with beatings and tear gas.


[voice clip] It would have been impossible to hold the Democratic National Convention in any city in the United States or throughout the world without demonstrations or disruption, because the Democratic Party has blood on its hands. [crowd chanting]


Jon Favreau: It was an unmitigated disaster. After Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon, the Democratic Party decided to become more Democratic. Starting in 1972, delegates to the convention were more or less bound to vote for the nominee who had won their state’s primary contest. There were also reforms to make sure that the delegate selection process was open, transparent, and better represented party outsiders and people of color. But after a landslide defeat in 1972, and another divisive primary in 1980, the party changed the rules again. In 1984, superdelegates were created: a special group of party leaders, party chairs and members of Congress who could theoretically vote to overturn the decision of the primary voters, just in case the primary voters chose a candidate who the party leaders believed was unelectable. Needless to say, this debate hasn’t lost any steam in recent years, and it goes beyond superdelegates to a much larger question: just how democratic should the Democratic Party be? How much control should Democratic leaders, insiders and consultants have over the party’s direction? Has the party strayed too far from its grass roots? And what’s the best way to harness all the energy and enthusiasm that currently exists outside the official party structure? In this episode, we’ll find answers to those questions and more. I’m Jon Favreau. Welcome to The Wilderness.


Jon Favreau: America’s two-party system has been around since 1796, the first election after George Washington left office. In his farewell address, Washington warned the country about the dangers of political parties, which he thought subverted patriotism in favor of narrow self-interest. And then everyone was like: why listen to George Washington, what has he ever done? And 200+ years later, here we are: smooth sailing. We covered this in the first episode, but the Democratic Party began in 1828 as the home of free-market conservatives and pro-slavery forces in the South. That changed in the early 20th century, when populist reformers moved the party to the left on economic issues, which culminated in FDR s New Deal coalition. Things changed again in the 1960s when the civil rights movement pushed the party to embrace social justice and equal opportunity. We’ve debated how the party has shifted since then, but these are the basic principles that Democrats still stand for today. And the official institution that organizes people around these principles is the Democratic National Committee.


Tom Perez: The purpose of the Democratic National Committee is to elect Democrats up and down the ticket, from the school board to the Oval Office.


Jon Favreau: That’s Tom Perez, Chair of the Democratic National Committee since February of 2017.


Tom Perez: And we do this by building partnerships. We build partnerships with state parties, with the progressive ecosystem. We’re not the US Congress. We’re not the governors. We are working side-by-side to help make sure that we are supporting them, that we’re helping to shape message, helping to deliver message, and helping to make sure that when we have the debate on the Affordable Care Act, for instance, the effort to repeal it—we were working with our partners in the state parties and we were working with our partners in the ecosystem to make sure they were armed with the information so that they could talk to constituents in their communities about that, and be those ambassadors and advocates on the ground. That’s what we do.


Jon Favreau: The DNC is mainly made up of the chairs and vice chairs of each state’s Democratic Party, along with more than 200 members who are elected by Democrats throughout the country. In presidential elections, the DNC establishes rules for caucuses and primaries, but the state parties are in charge of actually running those elections. The DNC is also in charge of the Democratic National Convention, where we write our party’s platform and officially nominate our candidates for president and vice president. Beyond that, the DNC’s job is to help elect Democrats by coordinating strategy, message and fundraising throughout the party. It also provides one particularly valuable resource to campaigns that they really need.


Tom Perez: One of the most important things we do is manage the voter file. Let’s say you’re running for the House of Delegates in State X, you’re going to get a voter file, and that voter file is going to have information about people that you want to talk to.


Jane Kleeb: In our state, we had different ballot initiatives like minimum wage and the death penalty. And so we have those IDs on the voter file.


Jon Favreau: Jane Club, Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.


Jane Kleeb: We have scores, we have vote models. All of that’s in the voter file that candidates can then create call lists and walk lists and call sheets for donors. So that’s obviously a critical piece of the infrastructure.


Jon Favreau: The DNC helps fund and work with these state parties, which are on the front lines of recruiting, training and electing Democrats to state legislatures, Congress, and all kinds of other state and local offices. Historically, if you’re an early primary state like New Hampshire, or a swing state like Ohio, you got plenty of resources and attention from the DNC. But if you’re a red state like Nebraska, where Democrats haven’t done as well, you didn’t. In 2005, former Governor Howard Dean becomes chair of the DNC and decides that he’s going to change this. He puts in place what’s known as the 50 State Strategy, where the DNC devotes more resources to every state so the Democrats can organize and compete in every region at every level. And this strategy starts to pay off when Democrats sweep the midterms in 2006, and then again when Barack Obama brings in huge Democratic majorities in 2008. But then things start to change. When a party wins the presidency, Washington becomes the center of the political universe, and the party’s national committee usually focuses its time and resources on reelecting the president. On top of that, Obama decides to set up a new organization so that all of the campaign’s volunteers and staffers can stay involved in the political fights to come. This meant that the DNC and the White House political operation were less focused on state and local party operations. It was not lost on Jane Kleeb, a Democrat in the middle of red Nebraska.


Jane Kleeb: We lost over a 1,000 seats during President Obama, at the state and local level.


[overlapping news clips] It was a tough night for Democrats, it was a difficult map . . . The worse midterm losses of any president in the last 50 years . . . state legislatures and governorships across the country . . . democrats still literally have no idea why they keep losing elections.


Jane Kleeb: President Obama created Organizing for America, which was essentially a parallel track for state parties, and that competed with all the best volunteers, all of the donors, and all of the best staff inside of our states. And money essentially got stripped away from state parties. So state parties under Dean were getting anywhere from 5 to $25,000 dollars a month. And under President Obama, it was more like $2,500 a month. And so you had no state party infrastructure whatsoever to elect the first woman as our president. And she inherited a party that had been completely decimated. None of the donors had any faith in the Democratic Party at the local, state or national level anymore.


Jon Favreau: Obama talked about this problem during an interview with NPR before he left office.


[clip of President Obama] I am a proud Democrat, but I do think that we have a bias towards national issues and international issues, and as a consequence, I think we’ve ceded too much territory. And I take some responsibility for that.


Jon Favreau: President Obama’s 2008 campaign was the most successful in history when it came to grassroots organizing, grassroots fundraising and winning over new voters and young voters. But that success didn’t trickle down to the rest of the party during his presidency. Clare Malone, a senior political writer at, wrote a piece in January of 2017 called “Barack Obama Won the White House, but Democrats Lost the Country.” I talked to Claire about the state of the Democratic Party


Clare Malone: We were talking about: is the theory, right, that Obama was the one who really let the party decay out from under him? The conclusion we came to was that Barack Obama was a personification of a lot of trends inside the Democratic Party, but he wasn’t the reason why it was all going to pot. Bill Clinton in ’92 and ’96 won a bunch of states in the south or the middle south. So he won Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, West Virginia—and the Democrats haven’t won those, they haven’t really been making plays for those states at least in national elections really since Clinton in a big way. So you saw Democrats kind of get worse at playing in more geographic areas around the country. And a lot of what happened after 2016 when the wreckage was cleared, was that you saw that there have been a lot of focus on the National Democratic Party for the eight years of Obama, while the slide of state legislatures and governorships had continued on the Democratic state level. And some of that also you can factor in the idea that there are restrictive voting laws that have come in, but also Republicans have just been a lot more focused on state legislatures. So they realize that it’s more economical to buy a state legislature—not to use that term to flippantly, but you can run people in local elections a lot cheaper than you can run them for Congress. It basically comes down to Democrats were doing a lot worse at the state level.


Tom Perez: The DNC, to say it was underperforming is a charitable description of what I walked into in February of 201. We stopped organizing. Politics, I think, became all too transactional. We didn’t show up at all in some places. We really moved away, I think, from the 50 State Strategy. And by the way, when you move away from the 50 State Strategy, you have a disproportionate impact on African-American voters, which is our most loyal constituency, because you’re saying to Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and elsewhere, that we’re not going to compete there. And given the African-American population there, that’s just wrong. We also allowed our edge that we had on technology, to wane. And you’ve always got to be ahead of the curve on that. And, you know, the Obama campaign was second to none. And Howard Dean before him at the party built a remarkable voter file and the remarkable first generation of digital mobilization. And the Republicans studied us and they beat us at our own game.


Jane Kleeb: You can’t have a strong national party without a strong state party system, and because we did not have the resources—and still today are struggling with resources in both blue, purple and red states—you won’t win elections. Here’s the thing, people think of Nebraska as corn and cattle and football, and those three things are true, and you have to love all three if you’re a Nebraskan. And we’re also a lot more, right? Like we are a state that has 100% public power. We don’t have any private utilities. We are 100% public schools. We don’t allow charter schools or vouchers in our state. And we were one of the first states to give Dreamers the ability to go to our state universities at the same cost as other kids that were born and raised in Nebraska. So we have this kind of populist, independent progressive streak. But unfortunately, because the Democratic Party has been so starved of resources, we have not been competitive in elections in the last 10 years. We’ve stopped talking to our rural communities because we’ve essentially written them off and then we haven’t been able to field strong candidates because candidates don’t want to be kind of sacrificial lambs.


Jon Favreau: So, yeah, as Jane points out, it wasn’t just a question of state parties not getting money and resources from the DNC, there was also a collective failure to organize and communicate with Democratic voters and activists who were working at the local level. Theda Skocpol, a political scientist and sociologist at Harvard University, saw this firsthand.


Theda Skocpol: I’m doing some research now where I’m visiting eight pro-Trump counties repeatedly in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, outside of big cities. And in every case, the local Democrats in those places say: wow, 2008 was really different. There was a lot of effort to organize networks of people here who were in touch with each other and who were talking about the issues and making sure people were getting ready to vote. That waned by 2012, and they all tell me that the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party weren’t even there in 2016.


Jon Favreau: Theda argues that organizing networks of Democrats isn’t just about creating official party structures, but about developing meaningful communities of like-minded people in places that aren’t just big cities in blue states.


Theda Skocpol: The first thing you always have to ask about any political formation is: what are the preexisting organizations and networks in which it is based? Conservative Republicans in our era have an enormous advantage in that in vast swatches of the country they are woven into community life through Christian evangelical networks, which are often the only community places people regularly interact outside of workplaces. Meanwhile, the unions, where a lot of Democrats and liberals and people who believe in an active public sector have historically interacted, have been waning or have been deliberately hobbled and destroyed, in vast parts of the country. So that’s part of it. Meanwhile, if you visit a lot of these places outside of the big cities and you try to be in touch with local Democrats, they may not answer the phone. They may not answer email. Their office may be dark all the time. That’s not true everywhere, but it’s true in a lot of places. There’s not a regular round of activity going on the same way it often is around the Republican headquarters. Those are correctable deficits. Those don’t have to be that way. It’s about building on relationships that already exist in places, and encouraging people to interact all year round, not just in the month before an election.


Jon Favreau: Basically, the National Party became too much of a top-down Washington-centric institution that didn’t spend enough time cultivating the grassroots, and building a progressive movement. Instead of paying more attention to activists and organizers, the party became a little too reliant on Washington insiders, political consultants and corporate donors. First, let’s talk about the donors. When Obama became president, he asked the DNC to institute a ban on political donations from lobbyists and corporate political action committees, which they did. But in February of 2016, the DNC got rid of that ban, worried that they wouldn’t be able to raise enough money to compete with Republicans in the general election. It’s one relatively small example that’s indicative of a much larger challenge about how to deal with money in politics. We spoke with Tiffany Muller, President and Executive Director of End Citizens United, on how this problem has escalated so much in the last decade.


Tiffany Muller: I think a lot of people use Citizens United, the case that was decided by the Supreme Court in January 2010, as kind of a shorthand for the overall problem of money in politics.


[clip of Rachel Maddow] Corporations are free to inject unregulated billions into the political system now. If you are a regular person who’s ever made a campaign donation before, forget about ever having to do that again. What’s the point in and individual people trying to influence politics with their donations if Exxon or some other company can quite literally match, and therefore cancel out, the combined donations of every single—


Tiffany Muller: the decision itself completely changed the landscape of American elections. And it really took the legal basis of ‘corporations are people’ and applied it to political spending, and basically opened the door for the unlimited and undisclosed money in our elections to reach unprecedented levels. In the 2008 election cycle, there was 143 million dollars of outside spending in our elections, which is absolutely a lot of money.


Jon Favreau: Tiffany’s referring to spending on the general presidential election. When you add in spending on House and Senate races, about 400 million was spent in 2008.


Tiffany Muller: But in 2016, just three election cycles past Citizens United decision, there was about one billion dollars of outside spending in our elections. Prior to the Citizens United decision, if you were running for Congress and you were in a competitive race, you controlled 2/3rds of the communication that went to voters. So voters were are hearing directly from you on who you are, what your priorities are. And outside spending, so spending by groups—many times with innocuous names like Americans for a Stronger Government—only we’re spending about a 1/3 of the money in those races. Nowadays that’s flipped. And so nowadays, if you’re running for Congress and you’re in a competitive congressional election, these outside groups control 2/3rds of the communication going to voters. And as the candidate, you’re getting drowned out. The Democratic Party as a whole? It’s hard to say: I’m not going to take certain money—because we know that these campaigns are costly and it takes real resources to reach out to voters.


Jon Favreau: And it’s not only a matter of where the money comes from, but how the party spends it once they have it. Van Jones, political commentator and former Obama staffer, explains what happens when you follow the money, in the context of the 2016 election.


Van Jones: Most of the money didn’t go to African-Americans and Latinos on the ground in Michigan and Florida. They were starved for money and resources. Most of the money didn’t go to white guys in industrial Rust Belt. They weren’t even spoken to at the message level. Most of the money went to professional political operatives and data dummies, who were so proud of themselves that they had run all these polls and they didn’t understand: data doesn’t vote.


Jon Favreau: Van is referring to consultants, political strategists who may have started their careers on campaigns, but have since started or joined professional firms. They’re ad makers, public relations experts, message gurus, pollsters, data analysts, direct mail vendors, and other outside advisers who do work for multiple campaigns at once, and usually other companies and nonprofits, too. During my 10 years of politics, I’ve worked with and against some truly outstanding consultants, good liberals who got into politics for the right reasons and offered brilliant winning advice. A few of them, like David Axelrod, Celinda Lake, Cornell Belcher and David Binder, you’ve met on this podcast. I’ve also worked with and against some truly awful consultants, people who seem like they’re only in it for the money and the glory, who offered pretty terrible, pretty losing advice. I will not name them here. Except for Mark Penn. Mark Penn is bad. Don’t ever listen to Mark Penn. But I don’t want to focus on individual consultants because I don’t think individual consultants are the issue. I think the culture of the consultant class is the issue, and it’s something that nearly everyone I spoke with brought up on their own without me even asking. I had a good chat about this with Amanda Litman, who is the email director for Hillary Clinton before becoming the co-founder of Run for Something. She pointed out that one of the big reasons that talented political operatives become DC consultants is because it’s a lot easier than moving from campaign to campaign, which can be all consuming.


Amanda Litman: I think the lifestyle of campaigns has done something really interesting to the consultant class and that if once you decide to be an adult, and stop moving around the country, and you want to get married and have kids and raise a family, it is really hard to do that and work on campaigns. There is no work-life balance. There is no expectation of having a life outside of your campaign job. Once you become a consultant, that’s where, tend to be the best talent. In part, because of that. Like, that’s where the grownups are. I think about this because like, I’m a young woman, I’m thinking about what I want to do with my life. If I wanted to stay working on campaigns and also one day get married and have a kid, that’s going to be really hard. So how do you balance that and still stay engaged with the work that you want to do? You then have the best talent be consultants, and not campaign managers or communication staffers or digital directors, which then leads to campaigns being run by consultants.


Jon Favreau: Right. And then when you’re a consultant, suddenly you have five or six clients.


Amanda Litman: Yeah. You’re not on the ground anywhere, and you’re not incentivized to take a risk.


Jon Favreau: Right.


Amanda Litman: Because you as a consultant are judged on your win or loss rate, or on your most recent cycle’s history. Why tell someone to test something new or try something scary? And the consulting firms have 20 or 30 clients. Of course, they’re going to churn out cookie-cutter bullshit.


Jon Favreau: As pollster Cornell Belcher points out, it’s also true that consultants aren’t particularly diverse in their backgrounds and perspectives.


Cornell Belcher: There is an old boys club in the Democratic consultant class, right? That’s a cabal, that’s hard to break, and it’s problematic. I mean, this is a multibillion dollar industry. And just like any other industry in America, that industry is dominated by a group of old boys that make an awful lot of the decisions, and benefit a lot of from the economics. And it is not in their economic interest to, in fact, expand that table, and bring more diverse voices to that table.


Jon Favreau: Cornell raises another big issue with the consultant class: their financial incentives. Becky Bond, former senior adviser to Bernie Sanders, explains:


Becky Bond: Consultants don’t have to charge the campaign that much money because they’re taking 10% of the advertising by and paying themselves out of that. And so they can make a lot of money, it doesn’t look like the campaign is wasting a lot of money, and it’s all pretty tidy.


Jon Favreau: In our media episode, we talked about how campaigns are too focused on traditional media like television ads and mail pieces, and not focused enough on digital advertising. Well, if you’re a consultant who’s getting paid a percentage of how much the campaign spends on television ads, you have an incentive to propose more television ads. If you run a direct mail firm, you have an incentive to propose more mail pieces. Another piece of the puzzle here is the process by which consultants help candidates and campaigns develop their message.


Jake Sullivan: How do you select a message in a presidential campaign if your candidate isn’t walking in the door with already having essentially a one or two liner?


Jon Favreau: Jake Sullivan, a senior adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.


Jake Sullivan: Well, you go to your consultants and you say: this is what I want to say, can you test that? So they shrink it down to 80 words, and they test those 80 words. And just in the act of shrinking something down to 80 words, you necessarily kind of strip out the personality from it, so that it becomes boilerplate language, it becomes slogan-y language, and then you test it. And normally, what tests well is the most basic statement you could possibly make. Like “I believe in a good economy rather than a bad one” you know, kind of thing. Right? And people are like: yes, I agree with that. And so that tests out on the top. To argue against that is to argue from a fairly evidence-free perspective, right? You’re like: well, I just feel that actually this way would be better than that way. But at the end of the day, I think we have now seen repeatedly over enough races and enough contexts, why it is that this particular methodology doesn’t work, that we have to try something different.


Jon Favreau: And it’s not just a problem that has to do with the message itself. It’s a problem that has to do with who that message is intended for.


Becky Bond: When campaigns start, the first thing that they do is, you know, usually hire an expensive consulting firm that does a lot of predictive modeling to try and understand who the voters are that the campaign needs to talk to. And their goal, because campaigns are expensive, is to figure out the least number of people that you can talk to and still win. And then what messages do you deliver to those smallest number of people possible in order to win? And this is way easier to manage and is way more transparent for the campaign managers. The danger in that is that we’re talking to fewer and fewer people.


Jon Favreau: So a lot of consultants are out there micro-targeting, generic, lowest common denominator messages from their perch in Washington, or they’re surrounded by other consultants who often think and look the same as they do. They’ve got a bunch of other campaigns that they’re working on, and they’d like to tailor their advice to each specific candidate. But inevitably, it all starts to sound the same, because they only have so much time, and they’re not incentivized to take any risks. Like I said, it’s not an individual issue. It’s a systemic issue. And it’s been around for a while.


Heather McGhee: Most of them have been playing this game since the Clinton era, and in fact, came into politics at that time.


Jon Favreau: Heather McGhee, Distinguished Senior Fellow of Demos, a progressive think tank:


Heather McGhee: Demos, is in the middle of a project working with some of the most reputable Democratic pollsters and we are trying to find out what language works with young people, African-Americans, immigrant communities, single women who lean progressive—and yet the scripts we get back for the focus groups, even among the pollsters of color who are, you know, the veterans, the sort of top of the line, always hew to this sort of imaginary moderate white voter. It’s amazing, but the most fundamental thing is the problem with the pollsters and the consultants is that the politicians in the Democratic Party look to them to find out what they believe, instead of to find out how to talk about what they believe. I mean, candidates say: what should my policy agenda be? And they ask pollsters.


Becky Bond: I think we really have to take a look at what’s been lost in terms of the professionalized culture that we have around politics. And I think the professionalized culture has led to people with a very particular experience in life, setting messages, and informing politicians on the policies that are possible. And I think it’s also led to campaigns being run in a certain kind of way, which has gotten smaller and smaller, smaller, and led a lot of people disengage.


Jon Favreau: Keith Ellison, Deputy Chair of the DNC, agrees.


Keith Ellison: Democrats have allowed the personal, palpable, up-close relationship between the Democratic Party and the Democratic voter to sort of atrophy. We went into a lot of TV advertising. We were heavy on technology. But just the relationship stuff, it just seemed like we got away from it.


Jon Favreau: Keith and Heather and Becky are all talking about the ways that the Democratic Party became less Democratic. Too many consultants, too much money, and too much Washington. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, that lack of small ‘d’ democracy extended to our nominating process, which gave too much power and influence to superdelegates.


Jen O’Malley Dillon: So essentially, there are a host of groups that fit into what is technically called or known as unpledged delegates. But most people call it superdelegates.


Jon Favreau: This is Jen O’Malley Dillon. She knows a lot about superdelegates. She knows a lot about everything, really. Jen was President Obama’s deputy campaign manager in 2012, and recently she was tasked with improving the party’s election process. We’ll get into that later. For now, you should know that every four years, delegates from all 50 states get together at the Democratic National Convention and choose the party’s presidential nominee. Most delegates vote for the winner of the primary in their respective state, but superdelegates don’t have to vote how their state voted. They’re only about 15% of the delegate vote, but in a close nomination process, that can make a difference. So who are they? Superdelegates are usually party leaders like current and former elected officials. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are superdelegates, for example,


Jen O’Malley Dillon: Even before 2016, if we went back to 2008 and President Obama’s campaign, there was a lot of heated discussion about superdelegates. So you probably remember, you know, you’re always looking at some kind of count of how many superdelegate votes each candidate had, and that meant that that became a big part of how people were determining how successful one candidate was over another. And I think that there’s—rightly so—concern that that in many instances became as important, if not more important, than what was happening in the states. And that’s certainly a significant concern for states that are coming later in the process.


Jon Favreau: Gen’s referring to how this bloc of superdelegates can appear to be a sort of firewall for whatever candidate is leading early in a primary race. And that has the potential to favor the establishment candidate, who usually has more connections with these superdelegates. In 2008, we knew that Obama wouldn’t start off with as much superdelegate support as Clinton because his ties to the party weren’t as deep. And we saw that in 2016 as well.


[clip of Bernie Sanders] In other words, the establishment determined who the anointed candidate will be before the first voters got into the process.


Jen O’Malley Dillon: And then you also have grassroots voters in states who, you know, maybe one candidate won statewide, but ultimately the superdelegates from that state ended up voting for the other candidate. And so I think there are some legitimate questions, both in 2008 and in 2016, on how do you level that out?


Jon Favreau: For this reason and all the others we’ve covered, it’s fair to say that in the years leading up to 2016, the National Party lost touch with the grassroots activists and local organizers whose passion and energy should help define the Democratic Party brand. The good news is, even though there’s lots of debate about the future of the party, just about everyone I spoke to: Hillary people, Bernie people, Obama people—they all agree that Democrats need to be more democratic, from the way we organize and fundraise, to the policies we propose.


Keith Ellison: Look, Democrats, we say, we’re the party of the working people. And yet, let’s be honest, we’ve been behind these trade deals that have not been good for American workers. Democrats were implicated in changing welfare as we know it, which is not working out very well. I think that a message is more than a slogan. It is relationship, it is program, and then it is follow-up. And as a Democrat, you got to be, you got to be willing to throw down for what you say you believe in. And we’ve got to be demonstrating commitment, fight back. We’ve got to be demonstrating real passion. I think we’ve gotten a little cerebral, and we’ve forgotten that this really is about people at the end of the day. And that’s what I think we’re getting back to now. So I am optimistic.


Jon Favreau: How do Democrats reconnect with people? What kind of work has the National Party been doing since 2016? And where does the DNC go from here? We’ll find out after the break.


[ad break]


Keith Ellison: This idea that the Democratic Party is not necessary, or is too broken to be fixed, I think is crazy. I think that we need to fix it. We need to strengthen it. We need to return it to its roots.


Jon Favreau: That’s Deputy DNC Chair Keith Ellison making sense again.


Keith Ellison: Here’s what I want to tell everybody who supported Bernie or who thinks that we should think about a third party: there is no institution positioned to confront Trump and Trumpism better than the Democratic Party. No institution that has the national reach, the name recognition, the infrastructure. You may like it and you may not like it, but if you try to start something brand new to try to confront the situation that we’re in, you are talking about a David-Goliath situation on steroids. The Democratic Party can, if we do the right reforms, take care of business so that we can really restore economic fairness and social inclusion.


Jon Favreau: Keith would know. He was a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders, who ran for the Democratic nomination as an independent. But when Bernie lost, Keith endorsed and campaigned for Hillary Clinton. And then he decided that the best path forward wasn’t to throw rocks at the DNC from the sidelines, but to try to change it from within, as deputy chair.


Keith Ellison: If you want to support the systematic advance of a set of ideas, then you got to support the Democratic National Committee. If you say: look, I want somebody who’s going to be consistently for health care, consistently for immigration reform, consistently for civil rights—then you can’t just say it’s only about the candidates. You’ve got to say: I’m going to support the party that supports all [?unclear] candidates. It’s kind of like are you going to support the solid foundation that the House sits on, or you just going to put money on the shingles. You got to put money into all of it, but you cannot shortchange the foundation that the whole thing sits on.


Jon Favreau: Speaking of money, let’s start with campaign finance reform. Obviously, Democrats need to raise money to win elections. Lots of money. And so long as right-wing billionaires are funneling unlimited amounts of money to Republican candidates, Democrats can’t just unilaterally disarm. But we don’t have to raise the money we need by cozying up to lobbyists and big corporations, which opens Democrats up to the charge that the rich can buy access that most voters don’t get. This is Tiffany Muller again:


Tiffany Muller: What I focus on day in and day out is that, frankly, a group like in Citizens United, which is grassroots powered and made up of three and a half million members across the country and is funded by an average contribution of just $14, wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago. But now we have these massive movements of people joining together and saying: look, I can’t match the Koch brothers dollar for dollar, but I’m going to join my voice with these other three million people and we’re going to stand up and make enough noise that we’re going to take our democracy back. Long term, obviously, what we need to do is, we need to overturn Citizens United. I look forward to working myself out of a job and being retired on the beach, surfing every day. But to be able to do that, we need to either pass a constitutional amendment, or we need to elect a Democratic president and Democratic Senate in 2020 and change the makeup of the Supreme Court. Both of those things seem really big. So what I focus on day-in and day-out right now is making sure that we’re fighting every day to elect people who will pass some common sense reforms tomorrow. Because, look, there are 20 good bills sitting in Congress that aren’t getting a vote right now because Republicans are blocking them. There are bills right now in Congress that would strengthen the Federal Elections Commission and actually give us a oversight committee that had real teeth. There are bills that would take us to a public financing system or do small dollar donor matching, which actually then makes the entire system less reliant on big money. I hope if we take back the House in this election, that we will see a really sizable reform package passed in the first 100 hours. And I believe we will. And we know that this is a winning issue. So this isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart strategic thing to do.


Jon Favreau: Becky Bond, president of the Big Organizing Project, which advises candidates on how to create volunteer-driven campaigns, thinks changing campaign finance will shift dynamics in a crucial way.


Becky Bond: I think bringing a real focus on what it takes to build a resilient and robust small-dollar donor operation to the DNC, will be important to having an institution that is, because it’s funded by the people, will be more responsive to the people in the party.


Jon Favreau: OK, so that’s number one. Number two, we need to reinvigorate the party at the state and local level, so that we can compete for every office everywhere and start winning back seats that we lost over the last decade. And flipping new seats, Tom Perez, chair of the DNC, says they’re on it:


Tom Perez: We’ve increased our investment in state parties by a third, and above that and beyond that, we’re investing additionally in those races in 2018 where we see remarkable opportunity. Places like Pennsylvania and Florida, Georgia, Arizona—it’s a very wide map. I was in Oklahoma a while ago and there were four special elections in beet-red Trump districts that we won, and we supplied funds that enabled them to hire organizers. And they were all saying: gosh, I didn’t realize that the DNC, you know, was going to care about me here in Oklahoma. And what we’ve been saying very clearly is: every zip code counts. And I firmly believe in the year 2018 that we can win everywhere, because we’ve demonstrated it. We’ve seen it not only in Alabama, but we’ve seen in Oklahoma. We’ve seen it in Wisconsin. We’ve seen it in New Hampshire, Florida, Iowa and elsewhere, where we’ve won seats that we weren’t supposed to win.


Jon Favreau: The new leadership at the DNC also seems to understand that they can’t just show up right before an election. They have to be reaching out, connecting and communicating with people every single day.


Keith Ellison: We should keep our eye on the election and we should think a lot about elections, but we got to remember that for so many Americans, it ain’t all about the election. You got family and friends who are like: I’m not into politics. Well, so what do they mean? They mean like, they care about what happens between the elections, right? They care about: will the minimum wage go up? Will I get overtime pay? Can I get health care? Can I afford to go to college? Can you drink this water? You know, that’s what they care about. And we got to start thinking more like them, right, if we want to get them on our side. So 365-day-a-year campaigning means that when the elections are not going on, the Democratic Party should be convening meetings around water. Can we get a clean glass of water in West Virginia and in Flint and in a lot of other places? What are the policy choices that need to be made to make sure we get clean water? The Democratic Party should be convening, training and organizing all the time. It should be inviting people to stuff like holiday parties, of course, because, you know, Democrats like to have fun—but it should also be doing a lot of public education to say: look, really, it’s not Hispanics and other immigrants who are making the jobs picture look tough across America, it’s actually some of those companies that have a tax structure that they can use to offshore jobs. So we should be driving the dialog. We should be upholding the conversation, and we should be training people, organizing people and connecting them. That’s what I have in mind.


Jon Favreau: In theory, the groundswell of activism that we’re seeing right now should make it easier to pull off Keith’s idea of 365-days-a-year campaigning. I had a real fear when Trump won that it would break people, that a lot of Democrats would decide that politics and activism just wasn’t worth it anymore. Of course, the opposite happened. We’ve been doing Pod Save America live shows all over the country, and I haven’t seen this level of energy and enthusiasm about politics since the 2008 campaign. You see it in the Black Lives Matter movement. You see it in the immigrants’ rights movement. You see it in the record number of women running for office. And it’s not just people who are excited about elections. It’s something more.


Becky Bond: Since the election, I know I’ve felt this way, but a lot of people tell me: I’ve been giving money, I sign petitions, I go to marches, what I really want to do is get together with people in person where I live, and do things that are valuable that will help things change. And I think that is such an amazing impulse and I think it’s the right one. Part of making our politics more people-driven is recognizing the need for giving people a role, a real role in how we fix things.


Jon Favreau: People are fired up. Which brings me to number three on the National Party’s to-do list: working closely with grassroots organizers and activists so that all that enthusiasm can be translated into engagement and winning elections. To me, this is one of the most important things for Democrats to get right. We cannot fuck this up.


Theda Skocpol: Well, let’s take Indivisible and the grassroots resistance groups that have grown up everywhere.


Jon Favreau: Theda Skocpol again.


Theda Skocpol: When I visited last spring and into the summer, the eight conservative counties that I’m studying, I found active groups everywhere. These are not places that are naturally full of liberals. And a lot of those groups included moderate Republicans and independents, along with people who think of themselves as various kinds of Democrats. In every case, the groups were female-led, mainly populated by women, and had definitely tried to reach out to the local Democratic Party—not to necessarily collapse into the party, but to cooperate with it in various ways. And in some places that happened. But in other places there was just plain hostility to the new energy. So, I’m a historical institutional political scientist, and I can tell you that change comes from parallel intertwined structures. That’s a complicated phrase, but let me tell you what it means. There definitely has to be a strong Democratic Party. It has to be strong nationally, in the states, and in every single county. It has to be a there. An actual social presence. There have to be some issue groups around. They’re full of people who overlap. Just make sure that everything is networked. Make sure that there are some cooperative events. Make sure that there are chances to make people recognize that there are Democrats who are talking about things that are along the same lines as their resistance group or their League of Women Voters group. That’s what it takes. And I don’t think that’s rocket science.


Jon Favreau: Keith Ellison has a good analogy for all the nonpolitical science majors out there.


Keith Ellison: I analogize it to, you know, a group of cars driving down a highway all headed to the same destination. There’s one bus, and that’s the Democratic Party. But there’s a few brand new cars that have got on the highway, too. And we are all going in the same direction. We should not cut each other off in traffic, right? We should not get into car accidents. And we certainly should not try to be speeding each other in a hazardous way. But we are all going to the same direction. And if I know the directions, I should share them. If I have an extra, you know, wrench in my car and you need one, I should share that. So we have this program called Winning with Partners. And what it is, is a very deliberate outreach to all of the groups that share the values of the Democratic Party, but that are not in the Democratic Party. We’re not trying to take you over. We’re certainly not trying to tell you what to do. But we do want to know that if you’re out canvasing, well so are we. If you’re running the training, so are we. Can we tell some of the people who want to train with us, they can train with you if we are at capacity? That kind of thing, we believe is going to work. So, like, if you look at what happened in, say, Alabama, certainly the Democratic Party didn’t do that alone. I mean, you had all kind of groups out there making sure that folks were involved. But we did do our part. Right? Same thing with Virginia. Same thing with 36 state legislative seats so far.


[overlapping news clips] Democrats seeing a lot of success, you know, coming out on top in that closely-watched race for governor . . .  Democrats continue to win in Virginia, Ralph Northam . . . Democrat Doug Jones won Alabama’s special Senate election on Tuesday . . .A turnaround at the Tulsa district, a young Democrat woman wins the Senate seat . . .It is officially the end of the Chris Christie era, Phil Murphy, the Democrat with a big win yesterday in New Jersey.


Jon Favreau: Just for the record, as I’m recording this, we’re now up to 46.


Keith Ellison: The fact is that if Indivisible is recruiting, training, mobilizing, and inspiring and informing people to push forward the values that we all share, it’s going to help the people of the United States, which should be our focus. Right? People don’t like it when all we care about is our little label. We need to care about the bigger picture of what’s happening to our countrymen and women. I think if we do that, we win. We win anyway. So I think that’s kind of our basic approach. And we really do believe it, because at the end of the day, who is Flippable and Indivisible and Our Rev, and all them going to be getting elected? 99% of the time, Democrats. So it’s all good.


Jon Favreau: Now, obviously, there are real differences and contentious debates that get in the way of Democrats acting like one big happy family. We spent most of the series talking about that. The question is: what happens during a primary? What role should the National Party committees play? The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, known as the D Triple C, is the party committee that’s responsible for helping Democrats win back the House of Representatives. Unlike the Democratic National Committee, which is separate and focused on helping all Democrats at every level, the D Triple C made the decision that in certain primaries they’re going to endorse the candidate of their choice. In the 7th District of Texas, the D Triple C went so far as to publicly attack a Democratic candidate because they didn’t think she could win in November. DNC Chair Tom Perez said he wouldn’t have done that. After 2016, when DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned, after it was revealed that the DNC wasn’t entirely neutral during the primary, Perez wanted to make sure that people view the National Party as completely impartial. Later, he made an exception to his own rule when he personally endorsed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in his primary against Cynthia Nixon, which surprised and annoyed a lot of Democrats, including other DNC leaders like Keith Ellison. I think Tom’s initial stance in favor of neutrality makes a lot more sense. As a voter, what kind of message does it send when the party insiders and consultants in Washington tell you that the candidate you support in a primary isn’t electable in November? At the very least, it seems like Democratic leaders could be much more transparent about the criteria they use to endorse candidates. Again, it all comes back to a need for the National Party to become more democratic, and the same is true for the presidential nominating process. After the contentious 2016 primary, the Democratic Party organized something called the Unity Reform Commission. The task of the 21 members, chosen by Clinton, Sanders and DNC Chair Tom Perez, was to reassess the party’s nominating process. Jen O’Malley Dillon said on the commission.


Jen O’Malley Dillon: Ultimately, we recommended a 60% reduction of superdelegates moving forward, and that’s currently under review by the National Party. But, you know, I don’t think there’s any pathway forward by the end of this year where we won’t see that there will be either no more superdelegates, or at least a 60% reduction in them. I think you’re going to see big changes across the board, both in the nominating process and also in the national parties. The national parties already rolled out a lot of things this year on transparency and on programing, and so I think there’s a lot of elements that are already in the works. But I think a lot of these reforms will be really valuable to both make the process seem, and actually be, more clear, and to just increase people’s desire to participate and vote and make it as easy as possible for them to vote.


Jon Favreau: And now we’ve come full circle to where the party went after 1968. The move away from party bosses picking the candidate, and towards primary voters having the final say. It’s another step towards a Democratic Party where the power ultimately rests with the people, a party that trusts activists and organizers and voters to make the big decisions about its future. Sometimes that will result in a win, sometimes it won’t. And it will always be messier and more combative than a process where party leaders have greater control. But people like Becky Bond believe that’s OK.


Becky Bond: I think that people within the DNC are focusing a lot on this concept of unity and how to find unity. And I think in some ways it’s a little, it’s kind of self-involved. Instead of trying to find out what do we need to do to become a party that the people believes will deliver material improvements in their daily lives. And how do we deliver that? And then how do we build on that to win elections? There is a focus on unity, and we don’t agree on everything, right, within our party. And we’re not going to agree on everything within our party. And trying to reach this false sense of unity, the idea is that we’re all for the same things in the same way—that’s just not true. But there are certain things that we are all for. And even though we might have some differences, you know, we need to figure out how to work together to move forward. People are really willing to do something big, to win something big, but they’re less likely to do something, even something small, if what they feel like they’re going to win is small. I think the party really needs to stand for big, bold ideas and not worry about avoiding controversial stands when they know it’s the right thing to do.


Jon Favreau: Big, bold ideas that inspire people to work their asses off for Democratic candidates. But who should those candidates be? Who can we rally around as a party? And where do we find those leaders? That’s what we’ll get into next week on The Wilderness.


Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Zach Akers and Skip Bronkie of Two Up, and Ruth Lichtman. Tanya Somanader of Crooked Media is our co-producer. Andrea B. Scott is our editor, and David Fox is our assistant editor. Our archival producer is Rebecca Kent, and our archival researcher is Gianna Jefferson. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Joel Robbie. Tracy Lien is our lead interviewee researcher. Additional writing from Zach Akers and Andrea B. Scott. John Maynard and Dan Kelly were our recording engineers. Fact checking by Anna Altman. Promo segment editing from Allison Grasso. Agency services from Ben Davis at WME. Legal Services from Dean Bahat at Ziffren Brittenham and Chad Russo at Ramo Law. Clearance counsel is Kathryn Alimohammedi from Donaldson + Califf. Thanks for listening.