Saturday, July 24, 2004

The End of the Democratic Party 

Here's what may replace it, as envisioned by George Soros, Peter Lewis, venture capitalist Andy Rappaport, and others. From tomorrow's NYT Magazine:
In fact, Rappaport was surprisingly downcast about the party's prospects, which, he said, would not be improved simply by winning back the White House. Though he sat and thought about it, he said he was unable to name a single Democratic leader in the years since Bill Clinton left Washington who he thought was articulating a compelling new direction for the party. ''There is a growing realization among people who take very seriously the importance of progressive politics that the Democratic Party has kind of failed to create a vision for the country that is strongly resonant,'' he said. ''And our numbers'' -- meaning Democrats as a whole -- ''are decreasing. Our political power has been diminishing, and it's become common knowledge that the conservative movement has established a very strong, long-term foundation, whereas we've basically allowed our foundation, if not to crumble, to at least fall into a state of disrepair. So there are a lot of people thinking, What can we do about this?''

Actually, Rappaport says he may be on to an answer. Last summer, he got a call from Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a fund-raising and advocacy group in Washington. Would Rappaport mind sitting down for a confidential meeting with a veteran Democratic operative named Rob Stein? Sure, Rappaport replied. What Stein showed him when they met was a PowerPoint presentation that laid out step by step, in a series of diagrams a ninth-grader could understand, how conservatives, over a period of 30 years, had managed to build a ''message machine'' that today spends more than $300 million annually to promote its agenda.

Rappaport was blown away by the half-hour-long presentation. ''Man,'' he said, ''that's all it took to buy the country?''

Stein and Rosenberg weren't asking Rappaport for money -- at least not yet. They wanted Democrats to know what they were up against, and they wanted them to stop thinking about politics only as a succession of elections. If Democrats were going to survive, Stein and Rosenberg explained, men like Rappaport were going to have to start making long-term investments in their political ideas, just as they did in their business ventures. The era of the all-powerful party was coming to an end, and political innovation, like technological innovation, would come from private-sector pioneers who were willing to take risks . . . .

In March of this year, Rappaport convened a meeting of wealthy Democrats at a Silicon Valley hotel so that they, too, could see Stein's presentation. Similar gatherings were already under way in Washington and New York, where the meetings included two of the most generous billionaires in the Democratic universe -- the financier George Soros and Peter Lewis, an Ohio insurance tycoon -- as well as Soros's son and Lewis's son. On the East Coast, the participants had begun referring to themselves as the Phoenix Group, as in rising from the ashes; Rappaport called his gathering the Band of Progressives. More recently, companion groups have come together in Boston and Los Angeles.

What makes these meetings remarkable is that while everyone attending them wants John Kerry to win in November, they are focused well beyond the 2004 election. The plan is to gather investors from each city -- perhaps in one big meeting early next year -- and create a kind of venture-capital pipeline that would funnel money into a new political movement, working independently of the existing Democratic establishment. The dollar figure for investment being tossed around in private conversations is $100 million.

''You're talking about raising a lot of money,'' I said doubtfully.

Rappaport tilted his head to one side. He looked as if he felt sorry for me.

''A hundred million dollars,'' he said, ''is nothing'' . . . .

Meanwhile, Rappaport and the other next-generation liberals are gathering on both coasts, having found one another through a network of clandestine connections that has the distinct feel of a burgeoning left-wing conspiracy. They have come to view progressive politics as a market in need of entrepreneurship, served poorly by a giant monopoly -- the Democratic Party -- that is still doing business in an old, Rust Belt kind of way. To these younger backers, investing in politics is far cheaper than playing in the marketplace, and the return is more important than mere profit: ultimately, they say, it is the power to take back the country's agenda from conservative ideologues.

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