Mark Schmitt in the Boston Review:
A month before the 2008 presidential election, the cover of The American Prospect, which I edited at the time, depicted an empty Oval Office and the headline, “The President Doesn’t Matter (As Much As You Think).” Inside we ran articles about the institutions of Washington, such as the Senate Finance Committee—and its feckless chairman, Max Baucus—and the Federal Reserve, explaining the limits they would impose on the scope of change that might be possible under an Obama administration.
The issue fell flat on the newsstand, and the Prospect’s board of directors was apoplectic about the cover. Even if my colleagues and I were right, the publisher complained, the cover “wasn’t appropriate to the moment.”
We were right, as it turns out. But it’s also true that it wasn’t an appropriate moment to make that point, because no one wanted to hear it. Remember when all we could talk about was the possibility of a “transformational president”? In the thrill of what was, for many of us, the first decisive Democratic victory in our lifetimes, and what seemed to be—and probably is—a demographic shift in the electorate toward the younger, the nonwhite, and the socially tolerant, it was too easy to imagine that the 30-year conservative era dating from roughly halfway through the Carter administration had ended with a bang and that change on the scale of an FDR or a Reagan was possible.
In that moment, many liberals forgot an insight that they had painstakingly learned—or should have learned—in the Bush era: conservative dominance was not just a matter of electing a president, but of building, in the words of former Senator Bill Bradley, “a stable pyramid” of organizations focused on policy development, grass-roots mobilization, and media, “at the top of which you’ll find the president.” That president could be almost anyone—even, as if to prove the point, George W. Bush—because the ideological and organizational infrastructure is more important. Democrats, Bradley argued in a 2005 New York Times op-ed, “invert the pyramid,” vesting all hope in individual presidential candidates, who are expected to build their entire infrastructure from scratch. Three years later Obama did exactly that.