“The Blueprint” is well written. But its predictions have now been repeatedly falsified, and it downplays critical elements in its analysis. Therefore, I cannot recommend it except as a narrow and dated historical analysis of Colorado politics in the middle of the last decade.
Schrager and Witwer (full disclosure—I know Witwer slightly, or did many years ago, and think highly of him) identify elements of a strategy adopted by left-wing political strategists to take over state and federal offices in Colorado. In sum, this strategy involved (a) finding and welding together a small group of left-wing billionaires; (b) getting those billionaires to directly fund numerous separate pressure groups, which all collectively worked to get viable Democrats (not necessarily left-wing) elected; and (c) coordinating such activity for maximum impact with existing Democratic power centers, such as teachers’ unions. This strategy is the so-called “Colorado Model,” resulting, in 2008, in Democratic dominance of the state.
In the authors’ telling, the spark for this plan was the earlier circulation by Democratic activist Rob Stein of a PowerPoint presentation called “The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix.” This presentation apparently (it is not available to the public anywhere) describes how a network of monied conservatives (Coors, Scaife, and a few others) created a think-tank infrastructure (Heritage Foundation, Cato, AEI, etc.), which then fed conservative-leaning data and points to media outlets. Stein’s idea, which he apparently shopped around for years, was that the Left should do the same, but focus on elections, not message. Moreover, the Left should elect Democrats, without bothering overmuch about whether they were left-wing enough, on the (sound) presumption they would act reliably left-wing in office.
(Stein’s exaltation of the power of the conservative message machine strikes me, knowing quite a bit myself about the Great Right-Wing Conspiracy, as a gross exaggeration. First, messaging success is not electoral success. While the Heritage Foundation, AEI, etc., contribute to the intellectual underpinnings of conservatism, they (by law) have nothing to do with electoral campaigns. They are not a counterpoint to the Colorado Model, and the Colorado Model is not a reaction against them. Rather, they are themselves a reaction to the dominant leftist ideological messaging and power centers, many entrenched for the past sixty or seventy years, which are vastly more powerful and all of which formally or informally coordinate. These include all major universities, the federal bureaucracy, essentially all major “charitable” foundations such as the Ford Foundation, all major tech corporations (such as Google, which has been an active participant in recent elections on the Democratic side), and, of course, the entire mainstream media apparatus that solely determines what constitutes “news.” That conservatives managed to create a messaging network that provides a counterpoint to the Borg-like power of the leftist coalition is certainly admirable, but not indicative of real power.)
But in any case, whatever the spark for the Colorado Model, it was focused on electoral success, with the (privately) declared goal of massive social change, hidden by a (publicly) declared goal of centrist pragmatism, focusing on such non-partisan issues as education. Stein correctly identified why he cared, which is the same reason the architects of the Colorado Model cared. “The reason is it so important to control the [federal] government is because the government is the source of enormous power.” The Colorado Model had the same goal of grasping power, just limited, in the beginning, to Colorado.
What unabashedly drove (and drives) these rich leftists was leftist ideology. The four billionaires the book focuses on are Rutt Bridges, Tim Gill, Jared Polis, and Pat Stryker. Not coincidentally, three of the four made their money in computer software (the fourth, Pat Stryker, made no money—she inherited it). Also not coincidentally, two (Gill and Polis) are gay, as is Stryker’s brother—this resulted, although Schrager and Witwer don’t focus on it, in the group prioritizing social issues in their politics.
Nothing in the Colorado Model seems particularly original. Money and discipline; combined with tech savvy; organization; demanded accountability; a weak, divided, unprepared opposition; and the constant cooperation of the media, can always take any political group far. This is not news. Schrager and Witwer go into great, and interesting, detail about the personalities and specific actions involved. But nothing done was truly original, despite Schrager and Witwer’s best efforts to portray it as such. And Schrager and Witwer don’t adequately focus on two key elements of the Colorado Mode that DO have broader implications: the role of using the judicial system as an attack vehicle, and the role of the media.
The first key element, which is addressed in the book to some degree but not put forward as a key element of the Colorado Model, is the deliberate and explicit tactic of using malicious, trumped-up civil lawsuits and criminal complaints to bankrupt, stun, tie up and harass opponents. This tactic is viable because most lawyers lean left and usually have either lots of time or lots of money (and the same reasons largely foreclose the tactic to conservatives). And this tactic works particularly well when the targets are individuals with little money, a fear of lawsuits and criminal complaints, and reputations to maintain—in other words, it works well on most conservatives. (Reputational harm is particularly damaging to conservatives, who are less likely to derive their livelihood and social status from their political activity, and are therefore surrounded by non-political types to whom a lawsuit or criminal complaint is prima facie evidence of wrongdoing.) Finally, this tactic is the most pernicious, because it (deliberately) undermines the rule of law, an endeavor, if successful, that never ends well and usually ends in blood.
The second key element is the essential role of the mainstream, supposedly neutral, television and print media. These acted as reliable allies of the Colorado Model (as they do of any left-of-center political movement), including deliberately and constantly broadcasting and amplifying all of the numerous fake civil and criminal charges. And, of course, they acted their usual role of determining “what the news is,” always to benefit the progenitors of the Colorado Model, which is something that conservative domination of the commentary media cannot resist or counter.
Schrager and Witwer seem to treat these two elements as the natural order of things, not as key aspects of the Colorado Model, but that’s an incorrect analysis. Without these things, the Colorado Model would have been a total flop. Yes, the money and organization were also important, but not sufficient. These two things are the real danger and challenge to conservatives, not just money and organization.
As to their prescriptions, Schrager and Witwer are Republicans. The point of their book is to be warning and a call to action. They seem to think that conservatives should adopt their own Colorado Model. But that’s not sensible, for a variety of reasons. First, as I discuss below, Democratic efforts to achieve electoral success outside the Presidency, frequently through analogs of the Colorado Model, have been a total failure since 2008. Second, even if money were the proven key to success, there are not enough conservative rich people. Very few billionaires are conservative. Some may be Republican, and some, like Sheldon Adelson, donate a lot to politicians. But for the most part, rich Republicans are not driven by ideology, like the leftist billionaires behind the Colorado Model. They want political success, in the “establishment” mold, and they want a friendly environment for business (which is typically the opposite of the free market), but they are not out to push social issues important to most conservatives, such as curtailing abortion, limiting illegal immigration, or preserving and enhancing gun rights. Republican billionaires, to the extent they exist, may give to individual politicians, to achieve influence and flatter their own egos. They are unlikely to give to a broad range of ideological pressure groups.
Therefore, the real lesson for conservatives of the Colorado Model isn’t that they should, like an inverse Diogenes, scour the world for sympathetic billionaires. The first real lesson is that the Right should focus on de-funding elements of the Left’s programs, many of which are funded by the taxpayers. You can’t de-fund billionaires, but you can de-fund their critical allies, like teachers’ unions (as Scott Walker has so brilliantly done in Wisconsin). Second, they should punch back twice as hard with respect to lawsuits and criminal complaints, by demanding fee-shifting to impose the costs of frivolous lawsuits on those who bring them, and by stripping rogue prosecutors and judges of immunity and pursuing them personally with extreme aggression, including with appropriate (not trumped-up) criminal charges for past behavior (such as the recent vicious attacks on conservatives in Wisconsin). The key here is increasing costs for those who undermine the rule of law, who now not only don’t bear costs, but are rewarded and lionized.
These things are necessary in order to prevent bad behavior by the Left and allow a fair chance for public policies to be voted on, and perhaps even to preserve civil society. But they are not necessary to prevent the replication of the Colorado Model, which is Schrager and Witwer’s fear and predicted outcome. For that prediction has been totally falsified since the publication of this book. While the Colorado Model had success, in Colorado in 2008, the subsequent impact has been zero. In Colorado itself the pendulum has swung back, although not to total Republican dominance. But that’s probably because Colorado’s demography has changed, not due to the lasting success of the Colorado Model. And in the rest of the country, the Republicans now have near total dominance at every level other than the Presidency, with the exception of a few states (most notably California).
So, for example, Schrager and Witwer conclude the book by warning that “Wisconsin and Texas [are] in the Crosshairs.” They profile the Texas Democratic Trust, whose stated goal is to “take control of the Texas state legislature by 2010.” But its website, as of October 2015, is a blank page with the text, “I am host a16c.” The Texas state legislature has a 2/3 majority of Republicans in each house and a Republican governor. Both Senators are Republican, as are 70% of the congressional Representatives. In Wisconsin, the Republican majority across the board is similarly overwhelming. Yes, it may be (or it may not be) that the Republicans will have difficulty getting the Presidency. It may be (or it may not be) that demographic changes will erode the current Republican dominance. But what is definitely not true is that the Colorado Model has had any legs. Even using illegitimate tactics, even with total dominance of the news-setting media, gay billionaires simply can’t buy everything. That’s good news for America.