Commentary - April 17, 2006

Reviving Republican Grassroots Politics

The piece that follows was originally written about a year ago but recently edited for submission as an op-ed piece to the Union Leader and Eagle Tribune. The latter will publish it later this week. One implication? -- the GOP may have run out of time to avoid serious losses this year, as it takes more than a few months to rebuild a party's "local political infrastructure."

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THE GOP CAN MAINTAIN ITS MAJORITIES LATER THIS YEAR BY WATERING THE GRASSROOTS and FLYING BELOW THE RADAR OF THE MAJOR MEDIA

by

Peter Bearse, Ph.D.

As Republicans look forward apprehensively to November, it would help to remember what won victories in 2004. The really big story of that election year, largely ignored by the major media, is the way people returned to politics in droves as political actors and producers rather than just spectators and consumers. This was a big win-win result for us all, better than the outcomes of the win-lose, zero-sum, horse-race political games that the media love to feature. The big question hanging over the Republican Party ever since has been: Will the GOP be able to build on that experience to effect the great political realignment of American politics that it had begun in1994, or will the uptick of people’s participation in politics in 2004 turn out to be little more than a transient blip on a graph showing long-term declines in political participation?

I saw the “big story” close-up at ground zero of the great political battleground in Florida during Oct. 20-30, 2004. People were coming out the woodwork to help out with the “ground war,” which was people-to-people politics: going door-to-door, planting and/or holding signs, talking to friends and neighbors, handing out political literature, etc. – the kind of political activity that enables people to take back their politics from the political media, pundits and pro’s who would otherwise take it over. Readers wanting to know why and how this kind of politics can be continued and advanced may want to check out the book WE, THE PEOPLE and its companion website, www.politicalcommunity.us. As one buyer and reader of the book said just after the election, “You know, Bearse, the election validated your book.” Why? – Because the ground war won the election, not the “air war.” Even political consultants, who make a good part of their money by taking cuts of media buys for air time, have come to realize that saturated TV political advertising has long since hit diminishing returns. People have now become the “killer ap” of politics, even in the Internet age, as my book predicted (in advance of the 2004 elections) that they could and would be.

The Republican Party nationwide has been trying to build on its 2004 ground-war victory to increase its dominance of the Congress in 2006 by “institutionalizing the grassroots,” just as it built on its victorious 72 Hour Task Force GOTV (get out the vote) experience in 2002 as a basis for winning in 2004. Since the media don’t pay attention to local political organization, they may wake up later this year, surprised once again by GOP victories. The “great right wing conspiracy” is flying below their radar.

WE, THE PEOPLE could be bible for a winning Republican future. It has already been adopted by many county and local Republican committees and clubs for inspiration, fund raising and political education. Meanwhile, Democratic Members of Congress are giving away liberal Professor George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics, hoping it will enable rank and file Democrats to win future elections by being able to talk “values.” Which is likely to be more useful to party-building, a book that tries to show pol’s how to “talk” or a book that shows both party members and American citizens how to “walk the talk“? If Republican Members of Congress, the RNC and Republican state committees promote WE, THE People’s “conservative populism,” the game may well be over for Democrats hoping to overturn Republican majorities. The GOP can become recognized as the party that not only represents but engages and empowers the great American majority in the political process. The left could no longer claim to own the “populist” label or be able to pretend that they speak for “the people.”

The key to consolidating the political realignment accomplished by the 2002 and 2004 elections is for Republicans to strengthen the GOP’s “local political infrastructure” – the thousands of county and local Republican committees and clubs nationwide. Then, millions of foot soldiers will be ready to help win local, state and congressional races nationwide later this year. For example, the chairmen of the Clay and Lee County, Florida, Republican organizations have captured the hundreds of new volunteers who worked to get out the vote for “W” in 2004 onto their data bases. They have been following up to get them involved in their local committees and clubs between elections and give them reasons to stay involved. The question for NH Republicans, is: Will we learn the lesson to be drawn from our 2004 success – that people made the difference -- in time for the 2006 elections?

The facts to help answer this question have been there for us to see in Chapter 5 of WE, THE PEOPLE. This provides statistics from a national survey that can be used to benchmark the performance of GOP county and local political committees in any state. Too many are undermanned, underperforming, nonexistent or in limbo. The facts have also been there for those who have eyes “to see” in the party’s experience with special elections. 7 of 8 were lost to the Democrats over the past year. Two lessons from these losses seem apparent: local Republicans were asleep (showing turnouts less than 10%), and local Republican Committees provided little help in most cases. My own experience with NH politics over the past two years suggests that the state’s reputation as one whose grassroots flourish and whose politics is mainly people-based is largely a myth derived from presidential primary seasons. Low rates of political participation and voter turnout between the seasons tend to refute the myth.

So, wake up and water the grassroots, New Hampshire! Now is the time, before it is too late to maintain our party's majorities in the state legislature, to strengthen the foundations of a community- and people-based politics. At the same time, it would make sense to use some of the new money raised to mount a statewide media campaign to support the party’s candidates for the state legislature -- by broadcasting what values and goals they stand for as the party’s leading-edge representatives. Then, we will not only do what we did in 2004 -- beat the Democrats at their own game -- we will take over and redefine the game as a politics that is of and by people as well as for them.

If we don’t, then even the wonderfully effective grassroots efforts of the GOP in 2002 and 2004 may fall short in 2006 and 2008, nationwide as well as state-wide. If the party fails to strengthen and energize its county and local party committees and clubs, and the Democrats are better organized as well as on a par with the GOP in terms of money, the Republican Party and many of its candidates may find themselves on the short end of the stick later this year. The serious political dog never sleeps. Should we?

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Peter Bearse, Ph.D., resides in Danville. He is Director of RLC Activism for the Republican Liberty Caucus, GOP Team Leader and member of the NH GOP Platform Committee, reachable via democracyanddevelopment@msn.com or 603-382-6150.

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