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The politics of the DNC chair

What the next chairman of the Democratic Party has to be able to do, and why I'm coming out for Simon Rosenberg.

The other night I was on MSNBC’s "Hardball with Chris Mathews" and Chris went to work on me, doing what he does best, getting straight to the point and making you give him an answer.

“We have a battle going on for DNC Chairman” he said, and then turned to me and asked “are you supporting your old boss, Howard Dean for Chair?”

I intended to announce my support for party chair on a press conference call the following morning. My choice was somebody I had called months earlier and on that call had urged he run for chairman of the Democratic Party because it was so clear to me he had exactly the skills and assets the party needed to rebuild and reform itself.  I also knew that Chris wasn’t going to let me off without an answer.  

“I am coming out for Simon Rosenberg for chairman of the Democratic party,” I told Chris and those who were watching Hardball that night.

The next day I was on that long-planned press conference call with Mike McCurry, Sergio Bendixen, and Rob Stein to announce that we all thought Simon Rosenberg was the right choice.

Sergio Bendixon and I had battled and fought during the 1984 presidential campaign. He, for the aging senator from California, Alan Cranston. I was in the trenches for Vice President Walter Mondale.

Bendixen was running a brilliant insurgent/guerilla campaign under impossible odds and somehow his Cranston campaign defeated Mondale at the Wisconsin state convention.  I was dispatched to Maine to stop him.  It was a battle I will never forget.  Bendixen and his crew just kept coming at us, and with all the resources of the frontrunning Mondale, we were lucky to hold him off.  Except for a few cursory “hellos” at party gatherings since, I can’t recall us ever working for the same person, let alone being on the same conference call over the past 20 years.  Still, I always considered him one of the smartest strategic thinkers in our party.

I first ran into Mike McCurry in similar times, under similar circumstances.  McCurry was the press guy for Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt’s campaign for president.  No matter who’s presidential campaign you worked on in 1988, you envied the Babbitt campaign for McCurry’s abilities.  It was clear to every one that he was simply one of the best communications guys in our party in decades, a fact that most of the country would find out about when he served as President Clinton’s White House Press Secretary.  In 1988, I hated reading McCurry’s quotes because they were so damn good.  

But McCurry was more of a Democratic Leadership Council guy, a more conservative Democrat than I was,  so like Bendixon we were polite with each other at party gatherings. Again, I can’t recall ever working with him or being on the same conference call with him in the past for a candidate.

I only met Rob Stein a few months ago. I knew Rob had helped Ron Brown get elected DNC chair back in the day, but I had no idea what Rob had been up to since nor, frankly, did I even have a clue what he looked like before Simon Rosenberg introduced us several months ago. I quickly became convinced that no one has studied the Republican Party’s tactics and institutions more, and no one has a better understanding of the sophisticated political and communications apparatus the Republicans have built and that Democrats are up against than Rob Stein. Moreover, it was clear to me that no one has thought more about what we need to do than Rob.  Rob has proven what I have thought for a long time, that the Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman, and the Republican Party is playing on a completely different chess board than the Democrats.  

The question for the next Democratic Party chairman is not, and should not be “How do we reshape our message?” The role of our next chair must be to build a competitive apparatus, and organization that can win elections and defeat the Republicans.

Historically, the message of our party has been determined by who we nominate for president.  To impact message and direction of our party, that is where you have to play.

The Democratic Party has a big tent, and under that tent are a disparate assortment of interests and ambitions.  For the Democratic Party to have any chance at building a competitive apparatus and organization that can win elections, everyone has to put their own interests aside.

What we need to do now, regardless of who our next chairman is, is bring all the elements of our party, and all the talent in our party, including the grassroots, into one room— put the past in the past— and move this party forward.

That’s what the next chairman of the Democratic Party has to be able to do.

Joe Trippi is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and is the author of the recent book “.”

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