Monday, February 28, 2005

Hitchens on Ohio

I haven't agreed with much of what Christopher Hitchens has had to say about the war in Iraq, but I still respect him as much as any writer (for his writing and rhetorical skills, if nothing else). So I was happy to see that he's taken on "Ohio's Odd Numbers" for Vanity Fair.

There's a lot that smells in the Ohio results and Hitchens covers most of it. I don't believe whatever funny business went on there had any impact on the ultimate outcome (and I'm not even sure there was funny business, though Hitchens builds a pretty good circumstantial case). But people standing in line for 11 hours, wildly high numbers of undervotes in certain (Democratic) precincts, and more votes for one candidate (Bush) than there were voters in a particular precinct is an absolute embarrassment.

I don't want to wax indignant here, but we ought to be able to perfect the process of election administration in this country. Unfortunately, the level of paranoia is so high on both sides in Washington that any reform effort will be suspect as soon as it's announced. Place that suspicion in the context of federalism and you've got a recipe for stasis. Thus, unfortunately, the Count Every Vote Act of 2005 isn't going anywhere. As a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article [free registration required] put it this weekend...

Democrats want all 50 states to let former felons vote. Republicans want all 50 states to require photo IDs from voters.

These and several other election reforms now circulating in Congress have two things in common.

One is that they pit the two parties squarely against each other, and thus have little chance of winning bipartisan support.

The other is that they are federal mandates on the states, designed to create more uniformity in a messy patchwork of state and local rules. That makes them unpopular with many officials outside Washington.

News from California

Like president, like governor... Taking a page from President Bush's playbook, Gov. Schwarzenegger's administration has produced a mock news story and distributed the videos to news channels. Because these videos mislead the public into thinking that neutral journalists did the story, I find them to be unethical. But much of the blame for this propaganda should also be placed on the news channels that run the videos. It's no surprise that the target of these efforts is local news stations (18 of which ran Schwarzenegger's tape), which are often just a step above incompetent.

On another matter, there's a mayoral election coming up (March 8) in Los Angeles (see here and here).

Finally, Ron Brownstein's column in the Los Angeles Times highlights the mindset of those in the political trenches today. It's a "with us or against us," mentality that leaves no room compromise. It's the natural product of the 24 hour news cycle and single member legislative districts.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

From the Sunday Papers

A few articles of note from today's papers:
Maureen Dowd on Bush's "Stiletto Democracy." (See her column on USA Next from Thursday, a subject I've written about too).

Via the Washington Post, fifteen governors are considering bids for the White House in 2008! Will either party nominate a legislator ever again?

Matt Bai's New York Times Magazine essay tries to figure out Howard Dean in the context of a "Democratic Party whose ideology feels... muddled and incohesive."

Perhaps most interesting of all is David Kirkpatrick's New York Times piece on religion and American political history. Both evangelicals and secularists try to claim the founders for themselves and both should give it up. There are far better arguments in favor of a thoroughly secular nation than that one or another of the founders would have wanted it that way. (Of course, secularlists have a better reason to appeal to the authority of the founders. Since it is simply assumed that all great American leaders were devout Christians, noting the less than orthodox views of some of them would serve to remind people that one can be a strong leader, even a moral one, without believing in angels, Satan, the virgin birth or resurrection.)

And some British politics - voters in the UK appear tired of Tony Blair's "presidency" and some ministers are wondering whether he's now a liability for the party. One parallel and one lesson in this story for Democrats - Labour is currently losing ground among married women with children; and it is going to "refocus its efforts on bread-and-butter economic issues."

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Conservative group to put 9-yr old on the Soc. Sec. stump

Progress for America - the same outfit that ran "Ashley's Story" during the presidential campaign, an emotional ad featuring a girl whose mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks, and that ran misleading attacks on Kerry's voting record - is once again turning to a child to hawk its agenda. The New York Times is reporting that the group will use (I'm tempted to say, exploit) a 9 year old boy to help sell the president's Social Security plan. While "officials say the effort is a lighthearted way to underline Mr. Bush's message" - he'll "travel to a handful of states ahead of visits by the president and will go on radio programs, answer trivia questions and say a few words about Social Security" - there's a serious strategic purpose to the idea. Ultimately, the goal is to "have Noah [the 9-yr old] there as the face of Social Security reform," according to the operative who came up with the idea (more on him below).

Testimonials are always useful for making an issue real to people. A campaign I managed while in college ran an ad featuring a woman who had been raped and became pregnant as a result. She made a powerful appeal to keep abortion legal, which was the hot-button issue in our race. (Importantly, SHE came to US asking what she could do for the campaign and she also happened to be an adult.) We lost, but the race was very close, much closer than it really should have been. Having said that, I think Progress for America's approach in both the Ashley and Noah cases raises some serious ethical questions about the appropriateness of using children for political purposes.

And a footnote to the story: the "brainchild" of the 9 year old stump campaign is Stuart Roy, a former aide to Tom DeLay. Should we be surprised?

UPDATE: The use of children in political ads isn't always problematic. Thousands of candidates, Democrats and Republicans, have shown images of kids playing in a playground or sitting behind desks in school. These nameless (and virtually faceless) children aren't being exploited. But there seems to be something very different about using individual kids as spokespeople (of sorts) for your political agenda.

Since writing the original post, however, I remembered's ad called "Child's Pay," wherein little children are shown working, mostly at jobs requiring manual labor, with a tag line that reads, "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?" And my friend Dale Miller mentioned the Johnson campaign's "Daisy" ad from 1964. Both of these ads seem a more deliberate use of kids to evoke emotion than the typical "students in the classroom" ad. And, yet, the kids aren't offering - under their own names - their personal stories or opinions about the candidates or the issues. So, while MoveOn and the Daisy ad were bumping up against the line, I think they're ethically acceptable.

Dionne on the Price-Herman Commission

In his column yesterday, E. J. Dionne wrote about the Democrats' Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling (a.k.a. Price-Herman Commission), which is set to begin its work soon. A few things in his piece are noteworthy.

First, he starts the column with the following truism - "When the going gets tough, Democrats form commissions." Indeed, as Philip Klinkner showed in his book The Losing Parties, Democrats do tend to react to electoral losses with procedural (i.e., rule) changes, while Republicans (reflecting their business-like party culture), tend to make organizational changes. But while the Price-Herman Commission appears to be a continuation of that pattern, I think the Democrat's most significant transformations in the near future will be organizational. That's what Dean's selection as chair was all about. (If this turns out to be true, it raises an interesting question - what changed in the Democrats' party culture to make organizational concerns paramount?)

Second, Dionne suggests that Democrats should do something that parties rarely do - reexamine their core beliefs. He proposes a Commission on Values, Ideas and Policies. It might be a good idea, but it isn't going to happen. In Klinkner's study, which looks at the years 1956 to 1993 - only once did a party undertake a policy response, as opposed to a procedural or organizational response, to a loss (the Democrats did so following the 1956 election; even in 1964, the Republicans' response was primarily organizational, though policy was addressed).

Finally, the purpose of the Price-Herman Commission is to examine the nomination calendar. The Commission should strongly consider endorsing either the "Regional Rotating Primary Plan" put forward by the National Association of Secretaries of State or the "Delaware Plan" created by the Republicans' Brock Commission in 1999-2000.

In the former, the nation would be divided into four regions; states in a given region would hold their primaries in the same month (as close to the first Tuesday as possible); and the order in which regions may hold their primaries would be rotated every four years. In 2008, the plan calls for the East to begin in March, followed by the South in April, the Midwest in May and the West in June. (Iowa and New Hampshire would keep their "first in the nation" status under the NASS plan but that, of course, isn't necessary.) The Delaware Plan is sometimes called the inverted pyramid plan because it divides states into four categories (or "pods") based on size and then begins the process with the smallest states and ends with the largest states.

There are a lot of problems with the current nomination process, including frontloading and the disproportionate influence of Iowa and New Hampshire. Choosing a nominee in what amounts to a snap judgment by voters in one or two small states isn't a very rational process. There are advantages and disadvantages to all the reform proposals currently under consideration, but virtually any of them would be an improvement over what we have now.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

GOP's Permanent Campaign

The "permanent campaign" in American politics is often misunderstood. Many believe it's simply the politician's never-ending quest for reelection. It's true that elected officials begin their next campaign the morning after the last election, but that's not new.

What is a relatively new development is the use of campaign tactics in governing. The permanent campaign, in this sense, didn't happen overnight - Teddy Roosevelt's bully pulpit is an early manifestation of the notion that you have to use public relations techniques to effectively govern; from there, it was a short step to press conferences (beginning in the Wilson administration), the use of polling (first seriously employed in by FDR), and an organized communication effort in the White House (the Office of Communications, created in the Nixon Administration). Parties and individual members of Congress, as well as interest groups, quickly followed the White House's lead.

But the permanent campaign took a huge leap forward in the Clinton years. Remember the ad blitz put on by the insurance industry that sunk the Clinton health care initiative? And then Clinton responded in kind with ads (paid for by the DNC) in the summer of 1995 that portrayed Republicans as wanting to cut Medicare.

Today, the permanent campaign is being perfected on an almost daily basis. A new story in The Hill describes the House Republicans "message machine." They've created communications teams - each with its own pollster for guidance and a "war room" in the conference office - to help move the GOP agenda in eight policy areas. The teams won't craft policy, but will focus solely on message coordination.

The new structure will allow the conference, and leadership in particular, to schedule issue outreach as legislation moves to the House floor. The Retirement Security team, for example, will get increasingly active as Social Security advances within the Ways and Means Committee. The Economic Competitiveness team will be responsible for trumpeting, or downplaying, jobs numbers as they are released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The War on Terror team will coordinate constant message strategy regarding the war in Iraq and other issues relating to homeland security.
The Republican conference (their term for their caucus) will oversee coordination with lobbyists, while the
new groups help [conference chair Deborah] Pryce’s office monitor press from individual districts and... vet that information as it comes in. But the teams’ primary function will be crafting a conferencewide message as it moves quickly from one agenda item to the next.

“Just like a full-service public-relations firm, House Republicans have streamlined and mobilized our conference so that we are accessible, articulate and ahead of the game on every issue,” [conference spokeswoman Andrea] Tantaros said.

According to The Hill, this is an "unprecedented communications strategy." The empirical and normative effects of this sort of activity are still uncertain. The partisan implication, however, is crystal clear - Democrats once again find themselves losing the permanent campaign.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"Gannongate" (a.k.a., Nothinggate) and Divided Government

I feel as though I should have said something about "Gannongate" by now, though so many others (particularly Media Matters) have done such a good job that I have little to add. However, Hendrik Hertzberg's column in this week's New Yorker got me thinking. He claims (for reasons I'll mention below) that Gannongate should be called "Nothinggate" since nothing will ultimately be made of it.

Like many of you, I've been outraged by this scandal and I've been following it closely. But I also had the sense that few people outside the blogosphere (despite Keith Olbermann's best efforts) have been paying attention to it. So I did a little experiment this afternoon. I called my mother to ask her if she had heard of "Jeff Gannon" or of the story of the fake White House correspondent (and alleged male escort) who has been lobbing softballs at press conferences. She hadn't. Now my mother follows the news closely - far more closely than the average person but certainly not as closely as news junkie political scientists. So the fact that she hasn't even heard of this story is a pretty good indication of how much most Americans know about (i.e., nothing).

Hertzberg's right; the story isn't going anywhere. But his explanation for why is instructive. He argues that all of the presidential scandals of the past thirty years have happened during times of divided government. That is, the opposition party controlled at least one chamber in Congress and, therefore, could conduct investigations into questionable executive activities. I've always disliked divided government because it makes even the semblance of "responsible party government" impossible. But Hertzberg's is a pretty powerful argument in favor of it.

Giving Campaign Handlers Far Too Much Credit

Yesterday, my colleague Bob Gray drew my attention to an interesting item in the latest New York Review of Books. In it, Mark Danner replies to two letters written in response to his (very good) election postmortem in the January 13 issue of the NYRB.

Danner suggests that journalists aren't very good at covering the subtexts of campaign discourse because they're too caught up in "horserace coverage," which includes detailed reporting on the internal machinations of campaign "war rooms." That critique has been around for a while (and is made very well in Thomas Patterson's Out of Order), so in and of itself this wouldn't be noteworthy.

But Danner illustrates the problem with horserace coverage by calling attention to an incident that seems to show journalism's complicity in campaign manipulation. He notes that two prominent stories early in the campaign revealed that the Bush team was reeling from criticism over its first television ads. (One ad used footage of the flag-draped body of a dead fireman being carried away from Ground Zero, prompting complaints from the firefighters union and some families of 9/11 victims.) However, Danner implies that the campaign faked their response to the criticism in order to fuel the controversy over the ads, thereby kicking the story along and giving the ads even more coverage than they would have otherwise received. As evidence, he cites Newsweek's reporting from inside the Bush campaign, which, in exchange for extensive access, was allowed to be published only after the election. That reporting suggests (when juxtaposed with Danner's summary of the earlier stories) that the ad flap was welcome by the Bush team. "So much for the 'inside story,'" writes Danner. For him, this is a perfect example of how

The public, offered the impression that they are being given a pathway into the inner sanctum, in fact is simply offered another constructed story carefully designed to reinforce the kind of attitudes campaign strategists have decided, in the real "behind the scenes" meetings, are critical to their candidate's success.
In fact, the original pieces Danner cites never really claim to show a campaign in crisis; instead, Bush aides freely admit, in each story, to welcoming the attention to their ads and the issues therein. The first piece, a New York Times article from March 5, 2004 does say that the Bush campaign was "scrambling to counter criticism," but it also notes that "Mr. Bush's aides said... the battle over [the ads] could even work to their advantage by focusing new attention on what they said was the president's forceful response to the attacks and the continued threat from terrorists." Furthermore, "They said the controversy had been expected and was serving their aim of changing the debate from Democratic turf like health care and jobs to Mr. Bush's strongest suit, national security." The article cites unnamed Democrats - not Bush campaign insiders - as saying the Bush staff wasn't prepared for the response they got.

The second article, from the March 15, 2004 Newsweek, has "some GOP insiders" and "some GOP strategists" - not Bush insiders or Bush strategists - questioning whether the Bush campaign had made a mistake in running the ads. But when they used campaign sources to comment on the story, those sources "were dismissive and insisted the flap had only strengthened their plan to make 9/11 'a central topic of the campaign.'" Danner wants us to believe that the Bushies had a devious plan to get the media to do their work for them by pretending to be on the ropes when, in fact, they knew all along that controversy would draw attention to their message. But it doesn't seem too devious to publicly acknowledge the effect you hope to (secretly) produce!

Ultimately, I agree with Danner when he argues, "our political campaigns are built largely of... pseudo-events and rely fundamentally on the press and the commentariat to play their necessary part in constructing them and conveying them to the public." But there's another problem with horserace journalism that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves; namely, it treats campaign operatives as wizards who are so wickedly clever that a wave of their wands casts a spell over even seasoned reporters, not to mention voters. Unfortunately, Danner is guilty of perpetuating that myth with his inaccurate characterization of the 9/11 ad flap.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Labour in Trouble

Labour's lead in the upcoming (May) elections in Britain is shrinking fast. A new Guardian/ICM poll gives Tony Blair's party a mere 3 point advantage over the Conservatives (37% to 34%).

I wouldn't want to overstate the lessons Democrats could take from this, because Blair's support for the war in Iraq (among other things) muddles easy analysis. But one thing is clear - in fully-developed, modern party systems (i.e., those that are "frozen"), major parties don't stay down for long. Not long ago, commentators in Britain were writing the obituary of the Conservatives. Even a former Vice-Chair of the party warned that Conservatives were in danger of being overtaken by the Liberal Democrats as the main opposition party. Now, they may be a little more than two months from returning to power.

Take heart Democrats!

Monday, February 21, 2005

New Strategy - Attack an Opponent's Strengths

My colleague Bob Friedrich suggested to me during the fall campaign that a new strategy was emerging - rather than exploit an opponent's weakness, it seemed that the anti-Kerry forces were going after his strengths. Now, a right-wing lobbying outfit, USA Next (formerly United Seniors Association), appears to be employing the same approach. The New York Times is reporting that the group has hired consultants who assisted the Swift Boat Veterans to help assail the AARP because the latter opposes Bush's efforts to "reform" Social Security. I realize the AARP is unpopular in some circles, but generally speaking they're viewed quite favorably by the public.

Nevertheless, USA Next plans to take them down. Here's a sense of the subtlety of the group's efforts (from the Times article):

"They [AARP] are the boulder in the middle of the highway to personal savings accounts," said Charlie Jarvis, president of USA Next and former deputy under secretary of the interior in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. "We will be the dynamite that removes them."

One USA Next official predicted that this time around, the campaign would be so aggressive that the White House might not to want to associate with it.

"We are going to take them on in hand-to-hand combat," said Mr. Jarvis, who is biting in his remarks about AARP, calling the group "stodgy, overweight, bureaucratic and out of touch."

It also doesn't seem to matter to USA Next that nearly everything the Swift Boat Veterans said about Kerry was thoroughly discredited (see here, here, here, here, and here, all of which are from the highly respected, non-partisan, Annenberg Public Policy Center's

To USA Next, the battle lines have already been drawn, and it does not shy away from comparisons to the veterans' campaign against Senator Kerry. "It's an honor to be equated with the Swift boat guys," Mr. Jarvis said.

Now, I'm not squeamish, and I know that politics "ain't tiddlywinks," but at some point the nastiness of campaigns (for office or over policy) steps over the line (though don't ask me where to draw that line). I know politics has always had a negative edge and that there really isn't a Golden Age of Substantive Political Debate. But in an age of hypermedia, this sort of thing will eventually begin to have a negative effect on democracy - if it hasn't already.

Having said that, it's the content, not the tone, that's most problematic. I don't mind groups or individuals yelling at one another, though it's unseemly. But what does being "stodgy, overweight, bureaucratic and out of touch" have to do with the AARP's argument against Bush's Social Security proposal?

Perhaps even more than the normative concern over what this means for democracy, however, I'm interested in whether or not - or rather, under what conditions - this strategy is effective. Will candidates be able to engage in it, or is it strictly the bailiwick of advocacy groups? To this point, the basic approach has been to highlight an opponent's weakness, emphasize your own strength, or some combination of the two. Attacking the opponent where he/she/it seems most invulnerable is relatively uncharted territory and it deserves to be watched closely.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Beinart's Naive Suggestion

In his latest column in The New Republic, Peter Beinart suggests that Democrats need to express their approach to foreign policy in a way that will inspire the American public. He says, "Bush's second inaugural doesn't challenge liberals at the level of policy; it challenges them at the level of rhetoric."

If I understand him correctly, he asks Democrats to acknowledge the United States' less than democratic history in the Third World. Such an acknowledgement would include admitting mistakes and "recognizing U.S. fallibility." Doing so, Beinart continues, "has implications for how the United States promotes democracy today." The upshot? "The United States should hold the world to a higher standard, but ultimately the best way to do that is to allow others to hold us to a higher standard as well."

Beinart is calling for a rhetoric "that fuses idealism with humility." If you read closely, though, you'll notice that he shifts from a prescription for Democrats to one for the nation as a whole. He's right that the country's foreign policy elite should be more humble. But if he thinks that's the way for Democrats to gain an upper hand over Republicans on foreign policy, he grossly misunderstands the American electorate. In the post-9/11 era, few swing voters will warm up to a party that humbly admits the faults of the United States - at least not while Republicans offer nationalistic certitude.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Presidential Public Funding Fix Introduced

Roll Call has reported that Reps. Bob Ney (R-OH) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD) have introduced legislation to establish a single date for presidential candidates to receive public funds for the general election. The date would be the Friday of Labor Day weekend.

This is in response to the grossly unfair situation that occurred in 2004, whereby John Kerry received his public funds five weeks before George Bush because the Democratic Convention was held first (and the Republicans set their convention date unusually late). As a result, Kerry had to spread the $74.6 million in public funds over almost 14 weeks, while Bush had just under 9 weeks in which to spend the same amount. Another way of putting it is that Kerry had roughly $5.5 million to spend per week whereas Bush had an average of $8.8 million per week.

This isn't sour grapes and it isn't a partisan issue. At some point, the Republican nominee is going to face the same situation.

The legislation is a no-brainer - call your member of Congress and tell him or her to support this TODAY!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Mellman's Take on Election 2004

In a series of columns since the election, pollster Mark Mellman has been offering some insights into what happened in November. I don't agree with every word, but I highly recommend them, particularly the November 17, December 8, February 9 and February 16 columns.

Mellman has been the target of great deal of criticism, especially in Noam Scheiber's piece following the 2002 midterm elections. Most of those who want to blame the consultants for recent Democratic losses assume consultants have far more influence over the outcome of elections than they actually do. (I'll have more to say on this topic - one which is very close to my academic heart - soon.)

Anyway, Mellman is a very bright guy and I think his general approach to campaign strategy is sound. Take a look at what he has to say.

Gallup Poll of DNC Members

[This is a post I intended to publish last Friday, when the software problems occurred.]

Gallup recently released the results of a poll [subscription required] of 223 members of the Democratic National Committee. Among the findings are that a majority of DNC members have great confidence in Howard Dean as party chair; believe "major changes" are needed to the party's approach to winning elections rather than a "complete overhaul" (or "minor changes"); and think that persuading swing voters is more important for future success than is mobilizing the base.

However, I was most interested in the responses to the following question:

2. Next, here are a few reasons some people have given for why the Democrats lost the 2004 presidential election. Which of these do you think is most to blame for the Democrats' loss - [ROTATED: the Democrats' inability to match the Republicans' grass roots efforts, the fact that the Republicans ran an incumbent president during wartime, the Democratic Party's positions on major issues, (or) the weaknesses of John Kerry as a presidential candidate]?

2005 Jan 27-Feb 8:

Inability to match grass roots efforts ---- 20%

Incumbent pres. during wartime --------- 49%

Party's positions on major issues ----------7%

Weaknesses of Kerry ---------------------- 16%

OTHER (vol.) ------------------------------- 2%

None/No opinion -------------------------- 6%

The plurality response here - that Bush was a wartime incumbent - isn't exactly the explanation I'd give, but it's close. And it suggests, correctly, that Kerry's loss was the result of circumstances that were largely out of his control.

I'll soon be offering a more detailed explanation of why I think Kerry lost, but it's good to see so few DNC members on the "blame Kerry" bandwagon that others are pushing (e.g., the editors at The New Republic, particularly Martin Peretz).

Software Problems

Blogger was having some problems for a "small number of users" for the past six days. Unfortunately, I was one of those users. Things are working now and I should be able to post more regularly.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Dean as DNC Chair

For my "maiden" post to On The Hustings, I was planning to offer an explanation of why John Kerry lost the 2004 election, but Howard Dean's presumptive victory in the race for chair of the Democratic National Committee is a more timely matter.

Let me say at the outset that I did not support Dean for president. I had a number of problems with his candidacy, but the biggest was his complete lack of credibility on security issues. It's not that I thought the Democrats could capture that issue - they couldn't (and they won't be able to going forward) no matter who they nominate. But they could go some distance toward neutralizing it. That's why I was for Kerry from the beginning (though I did toy with the Wesley Clark idea for about two weeks; see this column that I wrote for when Clark announced). We can argue, in retrospect, about whether Kerry had the right kinds of security credentials - despite the Swift Boat Veterans attacks, I still believe he did - but at the time I thought it was clear that Kerry offered some protection against the "weak on defense" attack that was certain to come from Republicans regardless of who the Democratic nominee was.

Having said all that, I do believe Dean is a good choice for DNC chair and I think the handwringing in some quarters is misplaced. Dean, more than any other candidate for chair, will be able to maintain and build upon the base of the Democratic Party. It's too early to tell just how effective party activist blogs like Daily Kos and MyDD are, but my hunch is that there is great potential there to transform the Democratic Party into a grassroots juggernaut. The "netroots" will be a big part of the Democratic base in the future, both in terms of money and organization. Had an "establishment" candidate been chosen as chair, there's a good chance the Democrats would have lost a lot of the new recruits who were brought into the party in 2004. With Dean as chair, the energy and excitement of the MoveOn and Democracy for America crowds can be tapped to help rebuild the Democratic Party.

Of course, the argument against Dean is that, by appealing to the party's base, he'll turn off swing voters. But running the party isn't like running for president. The party's message won't be Dean's alone; he has already said that he's going to leave the policy agenda to governors and members of Congress. Furthermore, swing voters don't pay attention to political minutia like what the party chairs have to say. If Dean keeps his head down and organizes, as he's promised to do, he'll be successful.

There is reason to be slightly concerned about Dean as chair. As Jonathan Chait points out in a rather snide LA Times column, Dean is something of a "loose cannon." And while he may not be crafting the message (at least not by himself), he will be coordinating it. Thus, even if the party message is a good one, the messenger may not be. In addition, his presidential campaign lacked managerial oversight. That may not be entirely Dean's fault, but he'll need to oversee the day-to-day operation at the DNC and ensure that it's being run efficiently.

The chair of a political party is not as powerful a position as it might seem. Nevertheless, the most influential chairs have been those who lead their parties when they were out of power. As I hope to make clear in future posts, I don't think the Democratic Party is in any sort of crisis. However, a good dose of organizational reform would be useful. For that task, I think Howard Dean is the right choice.