Why This Democratic Strategist Walked Away
Simon Rosenberg delivered a major surprise last week when he announced that he was shutting down NDN, the Democratic advocacy and research group he has led since the mid-1990s.
After working for three decades as an operative in the upper reaches of the Democratic Party, Simon Rosenberg in 2022 became an overnight sensation. While most of the media was breathlessly predicting sweeping Republican gains in the midterm election (“Red Tsunami Watch,” Axios blared in a late-October headline), Rosenberg was the most visible public skeptic of the GOP-surge scenario.
For months, in a series of interviews, blog posts, and tweet streams, Rosenberg challenged the predictions of Democratic doom and highlighted a long docket of evidence—polls, early-voting results, fundraising totals, the Kansas abortion referendum—that contravened the prevailing media narrative. For anxious Democrats, in the weeks before the election, he was as much therapist as strategist.
Apart from a few allies, such as the Democratic data analyst Tom Bonier, Rosenberg was so alone in his conviction that Politico wrote last summer that his “proclamations would carry profound reputational risk” because “history is on the side of big Republican wins this cycle.” Instead, after the election, Vox called Rosenberg “the guy who got the midterms right.” On MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell said Rosenberg was “the only person I paid any attention to about polls” last year, because he “was always right,” and one host on the podcast Pod Save America asked, “Is Simon Rosenberg our God now?” before another host answered, “I think so.”
Amid all this attention, even adulation, Rosenberg delivered a major surprise last week when he announced that he was shutting down NDN, the Democratic advocacy and research group he has led since the mid-1990s. (From 1996 through 2004, the group was known as the New Democrat Network.) This week, I spoke with him by phone to talk about that decision, how the competition between the parties has changed over his career, and what he saw in the run-up to the 2022 election that so many others missed.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Ron Brownstein: You just had an election in which you were unquestionably the most visible Democrat questioning the widespread expectation that a red wave was coming. We’ll talk in a minute about how you reached that conclusion. But to start, I think it’s a surprise to a lot of people that you would close up shop at NDN so soon after that success and the notoriety it generated. What prompted this decision?
Simon Rosenberg: Two things. I think that the age of the New Democrats, which was a very successful political project for the Democratic Party, has come to an end. The assumption of that politics, which began in earnest in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was that the Cold War had been settled, that democracy had prevailed, that the West was ascendant. But with China’s decision to take the route that they’ve gone on, with Russia now having waged this intense insurgency against the West, the assumption that that system is going to prevail in the world is now under question. And I think that it’s birthing now for the United States a different era of politics, where we must be focused on two fundamental, existential questions. Can democracy prevail given the way that it’s being attacked from all sides? And can we prevent climate change from overwhelming the world that we know?
What I’ve been thinking is that I need to take a step back from what I was doing day to day, to give this more thought. I want to try to write a book and to take the perspective of having been part of the beginning of the last big shift in American politics, the emergence of the New Democrats, and start imagining what’s going to come next for the center left in the United States and around the world.
Brownstein: You mentioned that your political career started around the time of the last big shift in American politics. What were your first experiences in national politics?
Rosenberg: I had been working at ABC News in New York, and I was offered a job to go work for Michael Dukakis. I worked as a field organizer all over the country. And then in ’92 I became the communications director in New Hampshire for Bill Clinton.
That experience in the Clinton campaign was formative for me. After I started NDN, he came and gave a speech where he said there are a lot of people in Washington who can do politics, who can’t do policy, and there are a lot of people who can do policy but can’t do politics, but NDN is where we do both. I always felt that that was the best of Clintonism: this powerful connection between what we needed to do to make the country better and how to build the politics to get it done.
Brownstein: I want to stick with Clinton for a minute, because NDN’s original name was the New Democrat Network. But certainly, as we have seen over the last two Democratic presidential primaries, Clinton’s legacy has become very contested. What do you think Clinton and his generation of New Democrats got right and wrong?
Rosenberg: Any honest assessment of the New Democrat project has to view it as wildly successful, because when I went to work for Clinton in 1992, Democrats had lost five out of the six previous presidential elections. And the central project of the New Democrats was to make the Democratic Party competitive at the presidential level again. Since then, we’ve won more votes in seven of eight presidential elections. That’s the best popular-vote run of any American political party in our history. We’ve also seen three Democratic presidents that have served [since then]—Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden have also made the country materially better during their presidencies.
Brownstein: Now that we’ve seen Donald Trump’s rise, and we’ve also seen the pushback against Trump in the last few elections, what’s the main lesson you take from his emergence?
Rosenberg: Yeah, it’s obviously disappointing. The emergence of what I call “Greater MAGA” has been a dark period in our history.
You have to recognize just how central to that is this narrative of the white tribe rallying around itself, and the sense of grievance, the sense of loss, the sense of decline. That’s what MAGA is. That’s all it is. Nothing more to it than that. We know from history, we know from other countries, when countries go into sectarian or tribal warfare, it can destroy a country, pull it apart. And Trump has created a domestic argument here that could potentially destroy the U.S. Look at Marjorie Taylor Greene this week—advocating for the country to split into two, red and blue.
Part of the reason I’m taking a step back from NDN is that I don’t think that we have yet figured out how to talk to the American people about the nature of the conflict we’re in right now, with rising authoritarianism around the world, the weakening of democratic institutions here and in other places. My hope is that because Biden won’t be able to legislate very much for the next two years, he’ll spend his time talking to the American people and the West about the necessity of winning this conflict.
Brownstein: Certainly, there’s a collective exhale across America in the prodemocracy ranks that says, “We came up to the brink in 2022, but voters said no to the election deniers, and it looks like we’re heading back on course.” Is that too optimistic?
Rosenberg: The threat is still here. Look, I think [Florida Governor] Ron DeSantis is even more MAGA than Trump. This idea that in 2024, Republicans are going to end up with a moderate, center-right candidate and distance themselves from the insanity of the Trump years, that’s just fantasy talk.
DeSantis has decided to double down on extremism and on MAGA. We will learn in the next year and a half about how it all plays out. But I think he misread the room; he’s misread the moment in history. He needed to become an anti-Trump; instead, he became more Trump than Trump. And I just don’t think there’s an appetite for that politics, particularly in the battlegrounds.
In this last election, there were really two elections. There was a bluer election inside the battlegrounds, and there was a redder election outside the battlegrounds. We actually gained ground in seven battleground states: Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. It’s an extraordinary achievement given high inflation, a low Biden approval rating, traditional midterm dynamics. My view is, that happened because the fear of MAGA has created a supercharged grass roots; our candidates are raising unprecedented amounts of money; we have more labor to work in these races than we’ve ever had before. And where we have these muscular campaigns, we were able to control the information environment. And also push turnout up through the roof.
But outside the battlegrounds, we fell back in New York and California, and in Florida and Texas, the four biggest states in the country. And the admonition to us is that we are still not competitive enough in the national daily discourse; the Republicans, because of this incredible noise machine that they built, are still far louder than we are. Democrats have to become obsessive about being more competitive in the daily political discourse in the country.
There are two things we have to do. We have to build more media institutions. Republicans use ideological media to advance their politics in a way that we’ve never done. And we’re going to have to match that to some degree.
The second piece is that average Democratic activists have to recognize that they need to become information warriors daily. I worked in the [Clinton campaign] war room 30 years ago, and the way we think of the war room is 20 sweaty kids drinking Red Bulls, producing 30-second videos. I think the way we have to think of the war room now, it’s 4 million proud patriots getting up every day, spending a little bit of their day putting good information into our daily discourse to try to crowd out the poisonous information and right-wing propaganda. There’s a lot that average citizens can do in this.
Brownstein: Let me give you the devil’s-advocate view. Isn’t there a case that while the Republicans’ message machinery has proven extremely powerful at mobilizing their voters, it has pushed the Republican Party toward a politics that cannot win national majorities, and cannot win independent voters?
Rosenberg: One of the projects that I’m involved in is a way for Democrats to start thinking about how to get the 55 percent of the vote nationally and to not accept this unbelievably precarious place that we’re in. For all our success in 2022, we still lost the House, and MAGA is now in control of the building that they attacked two years ago. The Supreme Court isn’t done changing the United States. There’s still a lot of power and potency in MAGA, even if they don’t win this next election. The key is to defeat MAGA in such a definitive and declarative way that Republicans move on to a different kind of politics and become something more like a traditional center-right political party.
Brownstein: If you’re thinking about getting to 55 percent, let’s talk a little about what it might take to do that. There is a whole school of journalists and analysts making a late-’80s-style argument that Democrats are too influenced by a college-educated leadership class and are taking excessively liberal positions on cultural issues, especially crime and immigration, that are driving away working-class voters of all races. Are they right?
Rosenberg: I don’t think that we’re as out of position as they think we are, as evidenced by the last election.
We must stick together as a party because what will cause far-right political parties to succeed is when the prodemocracy coalition splits, and we can’t allow that to happen. As much as sometimes we want to have interfamily battles, those are self-indulgent at this point.
Those voices in our party that are arguing that we’re weak and we’re struggling, they’re wrong. When I look back at the arc of the Democratic Party since the late 1980s, we are arguably the most successful center-left party in the developed world over this period, probably with no near peer in terms of our ongoing success. And I’m very proud of that, but we now have different things we have to do than what we did before.
So I don’t think that this emerging criticism is entirely wrong, but it’s only half right. The goal should be to expand, not to reposition. There are four areas that I think we have to bear down on in the next two years for a potential Democratic expansion: young voters, Latinos, Never-MAGA or -Trumpers, and young women, post-Dobbs.
The No. 1 job is we just need more young people voting, period. It’s more registration, more communications, targeting them more in our campaigns. In the Democratic Party, young people are still at the kids’ table; they have to become the center of our politics now.
Brownstein: There was a widespread narrative in the media about the red wave. I spoke on the weekend before the election to half a dozen top-level Democratic operatives and pollsters who were anticipating disaster. You and a couple others were really the conspicuous exceptions to that. I’m wondering why the general wisdom, not only in the media, but in much of the party, was so off? And what are the implications of that for 2024?
Rosenberg: When I look back at what happened, I go back to something we’ve been discussing, which is the power of the right-wing propaganda machines to bully public opinion into places that it shouldn’t be going. And I think there was never a red wave, and there needs to be a lot more public introspection done by those of us who do political analysis about why so many people got it wrong.
The only way you could believe that a red wave was coming was if you just discounted the ugliness of MAGA. You had to get to a place where insurrection and these candidates that Republicans were running and the end of American democracy were somehow things that really weren’t important to people; where, as you heard commentators say, “Well, people, I guess, have settled that eggs costing 30 cents more is more important than loss of bodily autonomy by women.” It was always one of the most ridiculous parts of the discourse in the final few weeks of the election.
We had real data backing up everything that we were seeing, and we were sharing that data with reporters. I was writing it in my Twitter feed, which got 100 million views between the middle of October and Election Day. It wasn’t like the data wasn’t available to all the media analysts and others. But what happened wasn’t a failure of data, but a failure of analysis.
Brownstein: So, roll all of this forward for me into 2024. Are you comfortable with Democrats relying on Biden running again? And how do you assess the landscape at this point?
Rosenberg: I think that Biden is running for reelection. And I think that we’re favored in the presidential election. For us to win next year, the economy has to be good. And we have to look like we’ve been successful in Ukraine. Those two things are going to be paramount in him being able to say, “I’ve been a good president, and I may be a little bit old, but I still got 90 miles an hour on my fastball, and I’m able to get the job done right versus they’re still a little bit too crazy.”
What the Republicans should be worried about is we’ve had three consecutive elections where the battleground states have rejected MAGA. And so, if the Republicans present themselves as MAGA again, which looks almost inevitable, it’s going to be hard for them to win a presidential election in 2024 given that the battleground has muscle memory about MAGA and has voted now three times against it.