Monday, March 27, 2006

Review of Crashing the Gate

A few weekends ago, I read Crashing the Gate by Markos Moulitsas, of Daily Kos, and Jerome Armstrong, formerly of MyDD. A few hours in an airplane gave me the perfect excuse to finally write up a quick review. The book describes the problems with the national Democratic party in particular and the wider progressive movement (such as it is) in general. Regular readers of their blogs will notice some familiar themes in the book; Moulitsas and Armstrong cover little new ground here, but are able to go into much greater depth in book form than blog form. While you might expect a book by bloggers to be about blogging, most of it is dedicated to real-life party and grassroots organizing, with a focus on how the Internet can be used as a tool to facilitate organization.

Curiously enough, the book reminded me of Moneyball by Michael Lewis, about Billy Beane's Oakland A's, particularly the chapter that covers the quality of political consultants on the Democratic side. Baseball managers, scouts, and political consultants are all concerned with making the move that will not get them fired. Scouts evaluate prospects based on whether or not they "look" like baseball players, regardless of their measurable ability; likewise, political consultants are often evaluated more on who they know than on their ability to win elections.

So, here's my question for those people who have been involved more heavily in campaigns than myself. Is there any way to objectively measure the performance of a consultant? Won-loss record? Dollars spent per vote? Year over year turnout increases? I don't know what criteria you would use, but I do know that there is so much data associated with an election, and it's available at such a discrete level (down to the individual voting machine, even) that there should be some way to quantify the performance of a campaign team, if not an individual consultant. Is there some way to move political consulting into a "Moneyball" era? Is it even possible to measure effectiveness without creating a new set of incentives that are just as dysfunctional as the current ones?

Of course, Crashing the Gate is about more than just the weaknesses of Democratic political consultants. As I mentioned before, Moulitsas and Armstrong spend much of the book expanding on themes that they have developed through their respective blogs over the past few years. Two particular failures of the progressive movement stand out. First, it lacks cohesion. Interest groups -- environmental activists, reproductive rights groups, labor unions, etc. -- tend to work within their narrow issue silos, without consideration for the success of the broader movement. The example most often given is that pro-choice groups will often work with or for a nominally pro-choice Republican, even though the Republican party as a whole is anti-choice and increasing the number of Republicans increases the strength of anti-choice Republican leadership and the likelihood of unfavorable legislation being on the agenda. Conversely, if the election of a pro-life Democrat tips the control of a house of Congress to the Dems, they will be less likely to have the opportunity to vote on abortion restrictions since Democratic leaders can control whether those issues ever come to a vote.

Additionally, progressives have not developed a professional infrastructure as much as conservatives have over the last thirty years or so. This is, perhaps, related to the previous point in that what infrastructure on our side exists does not tend to work in concert, but it's also that Conservatives have done a much better job creating and funding think tanks and other "idea factories." These institutions serve a double function -- as a source of policy, and as an incubator for up-and-coming conservative operatives. Progressives, Moulitsas and Armstrong argue, are less likely to mentor their youth than conservatives and particularly are less likely to pay them at market rates when they're on staff.

Unfortunately, the authors offer little by way of suggestions for improving the situation. The two recent Democratic victories they focus on -- Colorado and Montana in 2004 -- were won in nearly opposite ways. In Colorado, interest groups came together, shared information and formed a large grassroots organization that won the Democrats a majority in both houses of that state's legislature. In Montana, now Governor Brian Schweitzer led the Democratic ticket and eschewed help from interest groups, refusing to even fill out any questionnaires except for the one from the NRA. Even if we could take something away from those victories, our situation locally is fairly different than the situation nationally. While the gates of the Massachusetts Democratic party certainly could use some crashing, the book is less of a field manual and more of a description of the playing field.

All in all, the book is certainly worth spending a few afternoons reading if you're a fan of their blogs. As a blogger myself, I was hoping that they would spend more time discussing the role we can play in politics. Still, the book is a pretty good accounting of where the Democratic party is now and how it got there.