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The Gross National Debt

Monday, March 27, 2006

It's been an interesting day. I have had it on my calendar to go to the inaugural book signing for Crashing the Gate at Politics and Prose, a book store in downtown Washington DC. Being as addicted to my Blackberry as the next person, Cho at ePluribus Media sent me an email asking if I was going to attend the Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos) and Jerome Armstrong (MyDD) event later in the evening at George Washington University. Unable to make that, but sitting patiently in my seat at the book signing, I emailed back that I would gladly write up the appearance at the book store.

Here is the write-up. A disclaimer - I don't really know how to write this up so I'm totally winging it. Make the jump.

Initial Impressions

I arrived at the book store at about 12:30. The book signing, with comments from both Markos and Jerome Armstrong, was scheduled to begin at 1:00pm and conclude at 3:00pm. The book store itself is a great member of a dying breed - the independently-owned book store. It was deceptively large, spread out over two levels and encompassing a great deal of store-front real estate on the busy Connecticut Avenue corridor in Washington DC. I would have to describe the neighborhood as affluent - a part of old-school Washington DC's northwest corridor, a mere mile from the Maryland state line and the pricey Chevy Chase neighborhood.

The first thing I did was actually buy the book (no, I didn't have one already. I had planned to support the store by buying mine there). I moseyed on towards the back of the store where there was a large table with two chairs, a podium with a microphone, a big, comfy wing-backed chair set off to the side of the table, and rows of folding chairs facing the podium. I situated myself right in the front.

I recognized some faces in the crowd: teacherken from Daily Kos was in attendance, sans beard. thereisnospoon was also there, with his lovely girlfriend and brother. I came to realize much later that 5oclockshadow was also in attendance - he was advocating, along with a few others, for Jim Webb, who is running for US Senate in Virginia against George Allen Jr.

But there were also many in attendance who came because they had heard Markos and Jerome interviewed on the Diane Rehm show a mere hour before the book signing. There were others there from other blogs, (firedoglake is one notable blog in attendance) and some who simply subscribe to the Politics and Prose email list and take interest in a variety of things, not blog-exclusive.

Before the program started, I got up and went behind the podium and asked the crowd if I could take a few pictures and explained that I would be posting at ePluribus Media and cross-posting at Daily Kos and no one complained - here are a few of the shots:

Shortly thereafter, Markos and Jerome made their way to the front and the program began.

Opening Comments

NOTE: All comments will be paraphrased as I was taking notes and do not have an exact transcription.

First came the introductions. A woman who was presumably the owner, an attractive silver-haired lady, stepped to the podium to make introductions. One of the interesting things she said in her brief remarks went something like this:

Inside the [Washington DC] beltway, the center of political stupidity, Republicans don't know how to govern and Democrats don't know how to get elected.

I liked her immediately. She set the stage for Markos and Jerome to step to the podium and make their opening remarks, which they did in tandem, handing off to one another in a very relaxed fashion. Jerome began.

  • Crashing the Gate is about breaking down the glass doors in politics.
  • After the 2004 election, Democrats were standing around trying to figure out how the hell they lost.
  • When Jerome and Markos set out to the write the book, they were initially focused on the issue of Democrats having no message and no brand.
  • As they explored further, however, they discovered that the issues were systemic and larger - they were structural issues.

From there it went to Markos:

  • He's tired of being ashamed to tell people that he's a Democrat.
  • Republicans aren't ashamed - We can't go on like this!
  • Republicans have a nationwide structure and effort - if you're a Republican in San Francisco, there's somewhere you can go to find out how to support your party.
  • Republicans have enormous outlets - the AM talk radio dial - Fox News - think tanks and institutes.
  • If you ask anyone, Democrats included, to articulate the Republican message, they can do so by highlighting three points: strong military, family values, smaller government.
  • Democrats don't have any of that.
  • So even if the Democrats could get together and strategize and agree on the perfect brand, it [winning] STILL wouldn't happen because of the lack of leadership, institutions, and mainstream outlets for the message.
  • There is, simply, no party machinery in place to facilitate distribution of the message and winning.
  • In short, Markos and Jerome realized that the book they set out to write and the book they would write were two fundamentally different things. You can't talk about ideas until the structural and systemic bottlenecks are removed.

Jerome then talked just a bit more:

  • Dean was instrumental because he returned political power back to the people - he took it [control] away from political consultants.

Markos then wrapped up their comments before taking questions:

  • As they were writing the book, they were in Montana looking at thousands of pages of notes from 160-180 interviews they had conducted about "the Democratic brand".
  • It dawned on them that branding, as mentioned, was not the issue.
  • To wit, blogging is simply one tool in a toolset of lots and lots of tools.
  • Blogs help political footsoldiers get information - and Republicans are realizing that.
  • Rupert Murdoch knows and has purchased MySpace, the predominant place where teenagers and other young people blog and talk and share information (this was met by very large groans in the audience).
  • Republicans think 30 years ahead - Democrats think 2 years ahead.
  • Democrats have to work towards parity in this - to think much further ahead.
  • The opportunity is there. Even with all of their mass media and radio shows and money and influence, Republicans still only won by inches in 2004. Democrats own the ideas and people relate to those ideas - the mechanism has to be in place to deliver the ideas and win elections.
  • Markos believes strongly in the 50-state strategy. If you target every district and get out and go door-to-door, you force the Republicans to spread their grass-roots efforts thinly. Conversely, if you focus only on a few districts, Republicans target their considerable resources and beat you every time. You have to fight in every district to have a hope at winning. There is evidcence that this is working.

My emphasis added. Then in was off to the Q&A portion.

Questions and Answers

The question, loosely, was this: How do you get the swing voters, who seem to be pretty disaffected and make up their mind shortly before any given election?

  • Markos: Republicans have given up on those voters. They prefer to mobilize their base because in the end, the swing voter doesn't really vote. They focus on their own get-out-the-vote effort. Because Democrats are so afraid to draw clear distinctions, even registered Democrats don't show up to vote.
Extrapolating here, my general impression was that Markos feels we shouldn't even focus on the swing voter and spend more of our time focusing on drawing clear lines of difference between Republican and Democratic candidates.

The next question came from a gentleman who is working for the campaign of a Maryland Democratic Senate candidate - He wanted to know how to get "buzz" going for a candidate in the blogosphere.

  • Jerome: Generally, running blogads is a good way to get visibility, though the cost can be a factor. Candidates should also closely monitor what is being said about them in the blogs - Technorati is a resource to find out who has said what and a candidate and his staff should carefully respond to every mention in an effort to be engaged with the blogosphere.

The next question asked generally about the response to the book from the political "establishment".

  • Jerome: The initial response was skepticism. He can't understand the Shrums (Democratic political consultant) of this world and, more importantly, why Democrats continue to hire them. The "establishment" tends to disregard Howard Dean because he ultimately lost to Kerry for the Democratic nomination and in doing so, they miss the point entirely.
  • Markos: A year ago, the Dean 50-state strategy was laughed at. Now, more and more, Democrats are coming around to adopting the strategy and implementing it.

There was a question about emerging out of a purely two-party system - the questioner wanted to know how either of them felt about that as a possibility.

  • Jerome: Many people identify themselves as political independents. The problem is that those people don't really vote. Republicans win the voter registration and get-out-the-vote game. Republicans totally rule the wedge issues - they have the resources to reach the base and mobilize them to vote.
  • Markos: Generally, we should work within the system we have and take the long view to change it so it is more effective. He is not an advocate of a parliamentary-type system.

The next question was specific to Virginia and was asked by 5oclockshadow. Virginia is dealing with the protection of marriage issue - it will be on the ballot. Democrats can challenge this but they aren't organized enough. Is there some way to fight this?

  • Jerome: You have to change the mentality of how we view campaigns and elections. We have to be able to give the technology and tools for activists to turn around and reach out to friends and neighbors on the issues.
  • Markos: In the case of Paul Hackett, there were no consultans involved and he raised a stark distinction between himself and his opponent. With any candidate who had the consultants who were tied to Democratic money, you never heard them speaking out against the war and they didn't even bring up the gay marriage issue. Hackett was different. When he was asked about gay marriage, he said something to the effect of "If they want to get married, good for them. If someone doesn't allow that, that's un-American." That was the beginning and the end of the issue in the Hackett campaign - he gave his view and closed the door on the subject.

The next question came from teacherken. Before he asked the question, however, he talked about money and although I can't remember the context, the quote was priceless. Speaking on the subject of JFK's father, the quote was "[he] paid for a victory, not a landslide." Heh. His question regarded young people - whom he teaches and engages regularly in the DC Metro area. He has found that on the issues, even the most conservative young person is persuadable. In a new political paradigm, where do 16-25 year olds fit?
  • Markos: The right spends $48 million a year on high school and college Republican programs. Once they are out of college, Republicans hire them and pay them well. Democrats give young people unpaid internships - unless you're a trust fund baby, you can't afford to work extensively for Democrats. You are forced into the private sector to make a living. Meanwhile, Republicans are giving their post-college advocates dormitories in which they can live and providing networking opportunities where they can talk and exchange ideas. There is a stranglehold in Democratic circles that don't let the young rise up. That has to change.
My emphasis added.

The next question dealt with politicians and their interaction with the blogs. The questioner talked about a lot of appeals for fundraising and asked if either of them saw politicians getting intellectual property from the content posted on blogs.
  • Markos: He directly referenced Sherrod Brown, John Conyers, and Louise Slaughter. In the case of Conyers and Slaughter, two politicians in "safe" districts (and therefore not needing to use the blogs to fundraise), he talked about their desire to leverage the passion and activism of people engaged in political blogs.
  • Jerome: We have to continue to build the infrastructure online that bypasses the political consultancy approach.

Sorry to say I missed one question in here and only got part of the next one, asked by thereisnospoon (Spoon, if you're reading, perhaps you can enlighten me in the comments and I'll append the diary). The answer to the question I didn't write down, however, is worth repeating (and I DID write this down).
  • Markos: The Kerry loss in 2004 was a total turning point in the progressive movement. Democrats had been figuring that the pendulum would magically swing back and they'd win and they lost. Kerry's loss in 2004 marked the beginning of the end of the conservative movement. It woke Democrats up. But we can't give up if we don't win back one or both houses of Congress in 2006. It will take time to restore parity. The Republicans didn't pack it in after Goldwater lost - they built and planned and stayed in the game.
My emphasis added.

What do Markos and Jerome think of the subject of election fraud? If Diebold and others have the voting machines, how do we deal with this?
  • Markos: The tone of the entire voting machine issue is so negative. You get people who just say "well, my vote won't count anyways" and then they don't vote. There are so many other pre-voting issues - the Secretaries of State who decide how many machines go to what district - the canvassing boards who decide who will be include on the felon list. The issue of electronic voting is less important that addressing the systemic and structural issues.
My emphasis added.

The next question dealt with the fact of so many Democratic issues. Republicans have issues but they seem to be able to consolidate them under a few broad headers. Democrats, on the other hand, won't give up their pet issues. How do we deal with that?
  • Markos: This falls totally on the issue groups themselves. Democrats have to try to get them together and get them to start working together. He was in a meeting in Texas where NOW and NARAL actually agreed to share donor lists. The NOW representative's comment was that they "have nothing left to lose". That's what they have to do.

The next question was how you can help if you have a day job. How do we prioritize? We always seem to be busy putting out the fires that Republicans set - How can you influence under these conditions?
  • Jerome: Buy the book (laughter).
  • Markos: The key is to talk to people. THEY (Republicans) work their grass roots every day. WE have to do this also. We have to learn little by little.

And FINALLY, the last question dealt with how, as we make incremental progress, people can plug in and help?
  • Jerome: You have to go candidate to candidate and sometimes staff to staff.
  • Markos: A year ago, there were calls to oust Jerome and Markos from the party - this came from some of the Democratic darlings like Peter Beinart. Yet now they don't make those calls. Beinart, who the New York Times had review the book, gave them faint praise - this was unexpected. As the netroots gains credibility and momentum, it will service itself.

Whew. And that concluded the questions and began the actual signing - I have a few pictures of that.

At last - my closing remarks.

I am awful at judging crowd size but there were a lot of people there. It was literally standing room only. Jerome and Markos were very gracious, answering all questions and staying until all the books had been signed. I stayed behind and talked with a few people and by 3pm I was on my way.

Note - again, if I have hastily recounted something that winds up being inaccurate (I tried to give at least a sense of what was said and of the questions and answers) my sincere apologies. I was trying my darndest to get all the relevant information so I could recount it here. :-) Thanks for reading!



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