The DNC in the age of Trump: 5 things the new chairman needs to do
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The Democratic National Committee is neither the Black Hand nor the paper tiger that its critics contrastingly assert.

It’s simply a bureaucracy like any other, with an amorphous mission and management challenges that too often overshadow its talented staff.   

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How do I know? Until recently, I served as associate communications director at the committee. I don’t get to vote in the chair’s election, but I do have some advice for whomever wins:

 

1. Lead the way on anti-Trump messaging.

The DNC should invest heavily in its rapid response operation (including its top-notch research team). Ceding these responsibilities to super PACs or advocacy groups would further deplete the DNC of credibility among allies, the press, and the public.

The DNC should lead the way in long-term message research to answer key questions. For example, which most effectively mobilizes voters: Trump’s racism and sexism, his grifting, his temperament, his finger on the nukes, or his economic plans? (So many choices!)

The election gave us some insight into the answer above (it’s the economy, stupid!) – but we need full stakeholder buy-in and research to back up any message strategy the DNC pursues.

2. Deploy surrogates (and candidates) across the country.

The DNC chair will never be the best messenger on every issue or in every locality. In fact, voters are more receptive to messages from their own local officials. That’s why we need a deep surrogate bench in every media market, trained and ready for television, radio, print, and public events.

Such a strategy will also strengthen our candidate bench:

By arming talented legislators and mayors today, we will be grooming tomorrow’s governors and senators.

3. Create hands-on ways to improve the state parties.

It’s not enough for the national party to write checks to the state parties. The DNC should facilitate a process for the state parties to institute best practices and hit benchmarks in media, fundraising, field, and technology.

Last cycle, the DNC digital team launched a pilot program with a handful of state parties. By every metric, including fundraising totals, those parties benefited from the implementation of best practices. We can replicate that kind of success many times over, but only with resources from the DNC and buy-in from the state parties.

How do we achieve buy-in? Through working hand-in-hand with local leaders to identify areas where the DNC can assist. With such varied levels of strength among the state parties, the national party cannot apply a cookie-cutter solution to every locality.

4. Take the message to our core constituencies (i.e., women, people of color, LGBT, labor, youth, etc.) and to every region of the country.

Outreach to core constituencies needs to continue to be central to everything the DNC does. The DNC’s headquarters, blocks from the Capitol, should be bustling with roundtables, briefings, panels, and celebrations.

Without the White House, the DNC should consider taking on some of the constituency-building responsibilities that Valerie Jarrett’s team executed from the West Wing.

And the DNC must continue taking the show on the road, as they have under Donna Brazile’s leadership. Leading up to the chair’s election in Atlanta, the DNC has recently held forums in Phoenix, Houston, Detroit, and Baltimore.

Prior to the election, I staffed a bus tour that hit 19 states. Not just swing states, but also deep blue states and deep red states with down-ballot opportunities. Where did we get the biggest crowds? Red states. Specifically, blue cities in red states. Volunteers in places like Gary, Indiana, and Kansas City, Missouri, were elated to have party officials devote time and effort in often overlooked Democratic areas.

These cities may not swing the next presidential election, but Senators Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocrats turn on Al Franken Trump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE can tell you how critical they are to our party’s future.

5. Move beyond cycle-to-cycle thinking and invest in long-term infrastructure, including tomorrow’s leaders.

The DNC, with a few notable exceptions, empties out after each election, with little infrastructure (exception: technology) and few personnel left behind. This derives partially from a “leave it all on the field” philosophy that is natural in electoral politics. However the DNC is an institution, not a campaign, and this mentality has forced incoming staff to recreate the wheel – and rebuild relationships – cycle after cycle.

Taking it a step further: when we are forced to think only in terms of election cycles, we are neglecting the long-term investments our party needs to make.

For the past 40 years, right-wing groups like the Leadership Institute and the Heritage Foundation have invested in youth training programs to identify and groom talent like Grover Norquist and Karl Rove (each of whom started as head of the College Republicans).

Over the past decade, progressive groups like Center for American Progress and People for the American Way have begun to level the playing field with their own efforts (Disclosure: I am a product of PFAW’s youth leadership programs). Still, Republicans are vastly outpacing Democrats when it comes to investing in its rising stars.

The DNC’s Youth Caucus, or another DNC-affiliated entity, can initiate programs to train the next generation of Democratic operatives and candidates. Within its own walls, the DNC should create a culture that attracts cream-of-the-crop talent and gives them every incentive to keep working within the party infrastructure.

The DNC has an important responsibility – and exciting opportunity – in the years to come.

If the next chair effectively reforms the DNC, Democrats will win more races.

And if not? Well, then the super PACs and advocacy groups may be able to plug some of the holes, but the party will suffer. When the DNC is not at the top of its game, we lose. It’s simply too important an institution to allow it to become sidelined.

Bottom line for Democrats: we have a bright future ahead of us, but we have a lot of work to do.

T.J. Helmstetter worked in the communications department of the Democratic National Committee from July 2015 until December 2016, ending the cycle as Associate Communications Director. He previously led communications efforts at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the Working Families Party, and three U.S. House races.


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