Two Former Democratic Aides Raise a Ruckus
September 8, 2011 · 10:08 AM EDT
Nathan Daschle and Ray Glendening are two of the last people you would expect to be politically homeless.
With prominent fathers, Democratic politics is literally in their blood and, more recently, the duo worked at the Democratic Governors Association. But Daschle and Glendening no longer feel the same personal or professional connection to the Democratic Party and are launching Ruck.us, an online organizing tool that they hope will push the parties to functional irrelevance.
"I was an unwavering Democrat because that was my best option," said Daschle, son of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). "My principles have not changed. ... The only thing that has changed is the medium I choose to realize my political goals."
To Daschle and Glendening, the two parties have simply failed to keep pace with today's world. In an age where customization is king, the two parties force people into rigid ideological boxes that often don't fit.
"Not only do I not agree with either party a lot of the time, I truly do not believe someone's politics falls on a linear scale," Glendening, son of former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D), told Roll Call. "I think most people feel left behind by the parties but 'settle.'"
"The idea of Ruck.us is to no longer settle," he added.
"On a number of issues, the Democratic Party is not progressive enough for me. On other issues, the party is too liberal. Yet on another set of issues, I am right in the party's mainstream," Daschle said in an interview. "Technology changed the game."
The goals of Ruck.us are to match politically like-minded people, help them share information and empower them to collective action, regardless of partisan affiliation.
Users create a profile by answering a series of questions and then are given a "ruck," a rugby term the duo refashioned. That ruck is organized around an issue instead of a party.
Daschle and Glendening only reluctantly talk about themselves because they believe Ruck.us is for the many more Americans who share their feelings about the political parties.
So far, more than 2,000 people have signed up for early access and set up profiles on Ruck.us, including former Nirvana bassist and political activist Krist Novoselic. That's not a lot of traffic, but they are encouraged that almost 20 percent of unique visitors to the site took the next step to set up their profile.
An official launch is scheduled for later this month, and the photogenic "Gary," "Carl" and "Alicia" on the home page will be replaced by genuine "ruck-bringers."
Ruck.us certainly isn't the only group vying for the attention of Americans who are dissatisfied — or downright angry — with the political system. But unlike No Labels or Americans Elect, Ruck.us is not a nonprofit group, but instead a startup corporation. According to Daschle,
Ruck.us received an initial round of money from angel investors to build the site and will explore different ways to monetize as more people have a chance to interact with a fully functioning website.
Thus far, the formerly Democratic duo seems to be enjoying the transition from political campaign to tech startup.
Daschle and Glendening now share a small office space in Washington, D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood, almost a dozen blocks north of the DGA offices on K Street, and their walls feature more boxing memorabilia than political propaganda.
They've also traded in their suits and titles (executive director for Daschle and national political director for Glendening) for jeans and the more businesslike titles of CEO and chief strategy officer.
At this rate, you're more likely run into them at South by Southwest — the annual music, film and interactive conference in Austin, Texas — next summer than at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
But the transition hasn't been seamless. For years, both men were forced to hit major milestones every couple of days, whether it be the next fundraising report, the latest poll or an upcoming election.
"It's difficult to wean yourself off of that type of decision-making," Glendening said. Now, they have self-imposed deadlines and the opportunity to make more thoughtful decisions based on what the market demands.
But despite the polls showing widespread dissatisfaction with the political system, it remains to be seen whether enough Americans will turn from the parties to a site like Ruck.us.
Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher of prominent liberal blog Daily Kos, has been a vocal critic of Ruck.us since January, before the site was even launched.
"You need a market to gain traction with any startup idea," said Moulitsas, who also co-founded SB Nation, a nationwide network of more than 300 sports blogs. "Politically engaged people on the left and right already have outlets for political expression and organizing," he said, also using more colorful terms like "moronic idea" when discussing Ruck.us.
But because Ruck.us does not push a specific ideology, Daschle sees opportunities to partner with groups that might look like competition. Despite their Democratic backgrounds, Daschle and Glendening don't care whether liberals, conservatives or moderates use Ruck.us.
Groups such as Students First (former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's group), LiveStrong (cyclist Lance Armstrong's cancer-fighting foundation) and Rock the Vote are onboard to use
Ruck.us, which should give them an organizing vehicle and the opportunity to find people with similar mindsets who weren't previously familiar with their cause.
Team Ruck.us isn't navigating this venture alone.
Mark McKinnon is a veteran media consultant who also shuns a partisan label and has his hand in multiple anti-party groups, including Ruck.us, where he is on the board of advisers. McKinnon is a founding member of No Labels, and in 2006, he helped launch HotSoup.com, which ultimately failed.
"In recent years, it has become increasingly clear to me that the parties care more about partisanship, scoring political points and winning than working together and moving the country forward," said McKinnon, who worked for Democrats for more than a decade early in his career before he left politics — only to return to work for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
In 2008, McKinnon was an adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for his presidential run but memorably stepped down from the campaign for the general election because he didn't want to be involved in a race against then-Sen. Barack Obama.
"I found it compelling, interesting, ironic and ultimately disappointing that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama campaigned on the idea of trying to change the tone and culture in Washington," McKinnon told Roll Call. "I think they were both genuine in their convictions. But both encountered the same roadblocks and divisions once they got to Washington."
Even though Daschle and Glendening wouldn't be saddened by the collapse of the two parties, their past gives them perspective.
"We're careful in not making it about bashing people," Daschle said, recollecting his father's difficult political battles. "I think it's just the structure. I don't blame the people involved.
"I think we're more sensitive to not cheapen it with anti-Washington rhetoric just to get a response."