Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics by Matt Bai




(Mildly Recommended)




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New York Times reporter Matt Bai has written an interesting new book, The Argument, that explores the search by many Democratic Party operatives for what the title reference: a single rallying cry that will lead to victory. Herding cats would be easier. One would expect that many of the billionaires described in this book would be able to “buy” such an argument, but there’s great divisiveness. The bloggers have plenty of voice, and no unity. Readers who expect the Democrats to win the White House in 2008 will come away from this book with doubts, and readers who expect the Democrats to continue to founder may come away with an increased appreciation of the amount of money and attention being devoted to their success. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 7, “The Argument,” pp. 153-155:


While the bloggers were busy storming the party's Washington establishment from outside its towering walls, the man who was their political icon had somehow slipped inside, taking the fight to the innermost sanctum of the Democratic machine. Howard Dean had swept into Democratic headquarters promising to rebuild a moribund Democratic Party-his way. Like Rob Stein and the Democracy Alliance partners, Dean, too, talked about building a permanent "infrastructure," but when Dean said it, he didn't mean think tanks and media watchdogs. He meant organizers on the ground in every state, a volunteer chairman in every county, and a volunteer captain in every voting precinct in America. He called this the "unsexy" stuff of politics, the inner pipes and cables that made the party run and that its leaders had allowed to rust and fray over the years. As chairman, Dean instituted what he called his "fifty-state strategy," under which the national party would spend an unprecedented amount of money as much as $8 million in 2006 alone to hire new organizers in states where the party had all but disappeared.

"We're going to be in places where the Democratic Party hasn't been in twenty-five years," Dean liked to say. "If you don't show up in sixty percent of the country, you don't win, and that's not going to happen anymore." Which is why, at the end of May 2006, Dean decided to show up in Alaska, a state so remote that if you accidentally pass it, you end up in Russia. Dean was the first national Democrat in several years to set foot in the state, which hadn't sent a Democrat to the House or Senate in more than thirty years.

When I heard about the trip, I invited myself along. I had learned a few things about traveling with Dean, which I had done many times since we first met in 2003. The first was that you never brought a bag that had to be checked at the airport, because Dean didn't wait for baggage; he brought only the suit he was wearing and a few L.L.Bean wash-and-wear shirts, since he thought $1.25 was way too much to pay for dry cleaning. Second, it was best to show up with something chocolate—cookies or brownies, maybe—because this tended to lighten Dean's mood and help him forget that he was enduring your presence. "Don't mind if I do," he would say when offered sweets, wiggling his fingers in the air.

It was pouring when we landed in Anchorage. The wide-chested cinder block of a guy who picked us up from the airport introduced himself as Jonathan Teeters. He was twenty-five and a former offen­sive lineman at the University of Idaho. Teeters was among the first class of organizers hired under Dean's fifty-state strategy. Before, the withered Alaska Democratic Party had consisted of two staff members for the entire state: an executive director and a part-time fund-raiser. The party hadn't even kept a list of volunteers. Now the DNC was paying Teeters to set up local committees spanning every acre on the vast Alaskan frontier.

As we drove through the rain, wipers swishing furiously, Dean asked Teeters how many organizers the state party now had on the ground. “It’s just me,” Teeters said, almost apologetically. The DNC, he said, had also hired a press aide for the state party. Dean grunted and stared out the window at the soggy landscape. Then he suddenly decided that one organizer simply wasn't enough. "In most states, we have three or four," he said, thinking out loud. "Seems like you should really have more. We should be able to find that money in the budget."

Teeters nodded. I could imagine what he was thinking. After five minutes in a car with Howard Dean, during which he had probably been instructed not to say very much, he had somehow talked the chairman into spending even more money in Alaska. He probably would have been rewarded with a promotion, if there had been some job to get promoted to. Maybe if he hung around Dean for another half hour, there would be.

That night, after meeting with Dean at the sad little storefront office that housed the state party, Alaska's party chairman announced to four hundred Democrats assembled at a fund-raiser that Dean had just decided to spring for another organizer in Alaska. The crowd erupted in applause. I could see Dean's personal aide, Chris Canning, standing to the side of the room, gently roll his eyes and begin typing a text message into his mobile phone. He was telling some poor staffer back in Washington that they were going to have to find another thirty-five grand for Alaska, of all places. Dean sat there beaming, basking in the adulation.

The alliances that Bai describes in The Argument are interesting in and of themselves. The result of this interesting book is an enjoyable excursion for readers into the world of politics by those who play hard to win power and influence.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2007 issue of Executive Times


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