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Sara Miles is a San Francisco based journalist who has covered the nexus of politics and technology for the NY Times and Wired magazine.   When her work in Silicon Valley brought her into contact with Wade Randlett, a manic Democratic fund raiser and self described passionate centrist, who had decided to make it his mission to bring together the New Democrats with the entrepreneurs of the New Economy, she recognized the makings of a good story.

    I saw Wade Randlett as the guy who could be the pivot point for the major political realignment
    that was under way in the Democratic Party.  He wasn't the most important figure in politics or
    high tech by any means, but he occupied an incredibly interesting position bridging the two.  What
    Randlett represented was nothing as predictable as a political organization or a business entity; he
    articulated a political sensibility that was new, as yet uninstitutionalized, and utterly of the
    moment.  His intelligence, his shrewdness, and his unfettered ambition made him someone well
    worth following.  If the Democrats were going to be able to claim high tech as their own, and if
    Silicon Valley was going to choose the Democrats to represent its interests, I was sure Randlett
    would be there at the center of things.  If I kept track of him, I thought, I'd be able to watch the
    connection happen.

Beginning in 1996 she followed Randlett as he embarked on his patently absurd quest, working through two successive trade associations--the California Technology Alliance and TechNet--to purchase Democratic loyalty with high tech money, and she put her access to good effect in this insider's account of the doomed courtship.

Why absurd ?  Why doomed ?  Well, Randlett's, and the author's. basic premise was that the election of Bill Clinton represented a genuine shift to the center by the Democratic Party, which with a little encouragement, mostly financial, might become the official party of the High Tech economy and, thereby, dominate American politics for a generation, in the same way that it had after FDR and the New Deal.  They believed that :

    The New Democrats who triumphed with Clinton in 1992 were a perfect match for entrepreneurs
    whose bedrock conviction was that the rules of the market guided all human endeavor.  Silicon
    Valley businessmen acted as if they believed that money was the universal and only accurate
    standard of measurement in the world.  They seemed to think that the question Does it maximize
    shareholder value ? meant the same thing as Is it morally right?  Efficiency, in their world, had
    become worth; wealth was proof of rightness.  And so the industry whose most influential
    spokesmen insisted that ideology was dead met the party whose President had no apparent ideology,
    a party that took their money and hailed them as the future.

    Clinton's election in 1992 confirmed the DLC's [Democratic Leadership Council's] belief that its
    New Democratic politics were gaining ground--and that it was attracting a "core" of business

Some of their confusion, as expressed above, is understandable given the unique circumstances of the Clinton presidency, but the rest is a product of simple historical ignorance.

Bill Clinton's presidential campaign and subsequent election in 1992 were sufficiently remarkable that folks can be forgiven for misunderstanding them.  After all, conventional wisdom by the late 1980's had determined that the Democrats were the institutional party of Congress, and that Republicans had a hammerlock on the Presidency.   When Bill Clinton, a former head of the DLC, positioned himself as a New Democrat, ran against most of the Party's traditional constituencies, and actually won, it was possible to interpret his victory as a triumph for a new brand of Democratic politics, more conservative on social issues, especially crime, though still relatively pro-abortion, and more favorable to business and economic growth than the Party had been in the past.

Despite a lackluster or even incompetent cabinet overall (think Ron Brown, Henry Cisneros, Janet Reno, Donna Shalala, Mike Espy, Les Aspin, Warren Christopher, etc.), he did surround himself with the most conservative group of economic advisors of any Democratic president : Lloyd Bentsen, the old Al Gore, Alice Rivlin, Robert Rubin, and Leon Panetta.  In addition, he paid obeisance to Alan Greenspan, even though tight-money Federal Reserve chairmen have been historic whipping boys of the Democratic Party.  Together, this group pushed him towards the right on spending issues and encouraged him to sign the two Reagan era free trade bills, NAFTA and GATT, which finally made it to fruition on his watch.  Outwardly at least, one could argue that the potential existed then for a paradigm shift, with the Democrats, already closer to libertarianism than Republicans on social issues, now co-opting the GOP's more libertarian pro-business positions.  This "new" politics of the Democrats might have been particular attractive to Silicon Valley's whiz kids, who tended towards a kind of libertarianism, which made them uncomfortable with the Republican Party's anti-abortion, anti-gay policies.   The problem is that it was never a realistic platform for the Democrats to adopt, as soon became obvious.

Things began to unravel with the Health Care debacle.  David Gergen argues, I think convincingly, that when the original Troopergate story broke Clinton was forced to yield control over Health Care to Hilary as a price for his infidelity.  She steered the plan in the direction of old style Democratic politics and left him in the position of defending policies that ran counter to everything else he was trying to do.  Republicans then draped the plan around his neck and, even more unbelievably than his winning the presidency, took over both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years.  the ranks of moderate Democrats were decimated because they came from swing districts which Republicans had carried.  What remained of the Democrats was a rump party of the unreconstructed hard left, which Clinton wisely distanced himself from, at the behest of Dick Morris.  This did suffice to win him another term, using Morris's strategy of triangulation to portray himself as the only man who could hold back the worst excesses of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

Then came impeachment and the effective death of even Clinton as a "New Democrat."  With only the Democrats in the House and political activists on television to defend him, Clinton was forced to curry favor with the Left wing (by then the only wing) of the Party.  Once arguably moderate, he became an enemy of tax cuts, deregulation, school vouchers, partial privatization of Social Security, and other proposals of the Republican Party, most of which had been supported in a general way by New Democrats like Joe Lieberman.  The Left saved his hide and he paid them back by accepting their agenda unquestioningly.

Any remaining illusions that the New Democrat ideology had a future in the Party were obliterated as first Al Gore and then Lieberman jettisoned every single moderate position they had ever held in order to hew as closely as possible to old Democrat positions.  Al Gore's speech to the Democratic convention in 2000 was a virtual eulogy for moderate politics.

At first blush, it may appear that Randlett's original premise had some merit, but that unique events caught up to it; however, the truth is that the premise was false from the beginning.  This is obvious by simple reference to the issues that Miles talks about throughout the book as being those which most concerned the folks in Silicon Valley.  These issues include : low taxes, education reform, freedom from regulation, anti-union policies, protection from shareholder suits, H1-B visas for high tech workers from other nations, the right to hire the most qualified people for jobs, etc.  In essence, they wanted the Democrats to help them defeat : unions, teachers, consumer groups, environmentalists, trial lawyers, and civil rights activists.  Those groups are, of course, along with feminist/pro-abortion groups, the core constituencies of the Democratic party.   It is patently ridiculous to think that under any circumstances the Party was going to take these groups on; the fact that Bill Clinton got himself in so much personal trouble that he was completely dependent on them for his survival only hastened an inevitable date with political reality.

In fact, there's already a group which represents the ideals that the DLC and other New Democrats were talking about in the mid-90's, the Republican Party.  Earlier we quoted Miles to the effect that : "The New Democrats who triumphed with Clinton in 1992 were a perfect match for entrepreneurs whose bedrock conviction was that the rules of the market guided all human endeavor."  Take out the words from "The" to "1992," and you can put in the word Republicans, without having to qualify it by year.

The main reason for this misanalysis by Randlett and Miles would appear to be threefold; first, a belief that the entrepreneurs of the "New Economy" are different than the moguls, robber barons, an men in the grey flannel suits, of the old; second, a belief in the power of money to shape political agendas; and, third, their personal discomfort with the social atmospherics of the Republican Party.  as to the first, for all the talk, which Miles does an excellent job of reproducing, of how the "New Economy" will transform everything, at the end of the day these techies are just like every other group of businessmen throughout history; what they want more than anything else is for government to leave them alone.  The idea that there was a natural fit between such businesses and the party of government is absurd on its face.

The second error, which the media has done so much to propound in the fights over campaign finance reform, takes a real beating here.  The entire population of blacks in America may not contribute as much money to the Democratic Party as the companies of Silicon Valley, but they do something that's even more important in politics, they vote Democrat in rates over 90%, and they are blindly loyal to Democrat leaders.  No matter who gives how much to the parties, they always have the same fall back position, and it's not to their contributors, it's to their core constituencies.   If a contributor truly is trying to influence a politician's policy positions, he is, by definition, not loyal.   As soon as the pol gets in trouble, the contributor moves along to the next option.  On the other hand, the interest groups that make up the backbone of a party have a real investment in the politicians who support their causes, an emotional investment, so they're loyal, as Bill Clinton likes to say, "'til the last dog dies."  Money, though helpful to politicians, will therefore never be determinative of their political positions.

Finally, Randlett and Miles, probably fairly, don't think Republicans are "cool" and this seems to have clouded their judgment.  At one point, Miles says of Tony Podesta, brother of Clinton Chief of Staff, John :

    Basically, I liked Podesta a lot : at first, because his sophisticated taste in art, his aubergine suits,
    and his genuine enjoyment of female company had led me to think he was gay.

Try for a moment to imagine a serious player in the Republican Party who would appeal to her on similar grounds : you can't, can you ?  The Democrats are the party of Hollywood.  They are the "with it" party; the cosmopolitan party.  As the infamous map of the 2000 Presidential, vote broken down by counties carried, amply demonstrated, Republicans are the party of "fly-over country."  This does mean that people for whom issues like abortion and gay rights and other permissive cultural stances are central, will feel some level of discomfort with the GOP.  However, the Democrats, the "cool party," the party of the East and West Coasts, though they want government out of your personal life, want it to dominate every other aspect of your life.  The fundraiser at Steven Spielberg's house will have infinitely more cache than any Republican event, but the "beautiful people" you're surrounded by want to redistribute wealth, raise taxes, expand government,  and so on.  It's a high price to pay for not wanting to hang with the fuddy-duddies on the Right.

These three factors combined to make Randlett and Miles engage in a bit of what is probably wishful thinking--that we might see the imminent emergence of a party that would combine their own liberal social views with a conservative business ethos.  Miles's account of Randlett's futile attempt to midwife this birth is fairly amusing, and it's an object lesson in the limits on what money can truly accomplish in politics.  But there's a certain inescapable obtuseness here that will leave readers shaking their heads at Miles even as she's dissecting the delusions of others.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : How to Hack a Party Line (FSB Associates)
    -ESSAY : The Nasdaq-ing of Capitol Hill : Think big money rules politics? Wait until the new dot-com lobby makes good on its plan to hand out stock options as campaign donations. (Sara Miles, August 13, 2000, NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY : Political Clout for Sale (Sara Miles, Contentville)
    -ARCHIVES : "sara miles" (Wired)
    -ESSAY : Check Mate  Politech (Sara Miles, HotWired Netizen)
    -ESSAY : A Man, a Plan, a Challenge (Sara Miles , Wired)
    -ESSAY :  Do YOU Know Tony Podesta? : Ten years ago the power matchmaker foresaw that Silicon Valley and Washington would need each other. Now they need him. (Sara Miles , Wired)
    -ESSAY :  Special Report : Tomorrow's Weapons, Today's Wars (Sara Miles, HotWired Netizen)
    -REVIEW : of Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace by Lawrence Lessig (Sara Miles, Wired)
    -INTERVIEW : Mommy Melissa ... talks about her new album, the joplin movie, narrating After Stonewall, touring with children, coparenting with Julie, and finding her true purpose in life: Motherhood (Sara Miles, The Advocate)
    -ESSAY : 'your verdict sets the standards of what we should have' : THE SEX INSPECTOR'S NOTES (Sara Miles, Echo NYC)
    -ESSAY : Net Stocks as Political Fodder (Deborah Asbrand, The Industry Standard)
    -REVIEW : of How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley By Sara Miles (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW : of How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley by Sara Miles (Tim Dickinson, Wired)
    -REVIEW : of How to Hack a Party Line (Elizabeth Angell , Brill's Content)
    -REVIEW : of How to Hack a Party Line (Steven Johnson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of How to Hack a Party Line (Robert L. Turner, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of HOW TO HACK A PARTY LINE: The Democrats and Silicon Valley By Sara Miles (Joan O'C. Hamilton, Business Week)

    -Democratic Leadership Council