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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: May 2007

Exposing GOP Candidates’ Bogus Populism

Noam Scheiber’s irresistibly-titled “Pickup Artist: Populist Poseur Fred Thompson” in The New Republic illuminates a cornerstone of GOP strategy — to portray their rich boy candidates as good-ole, aw-shucks working-class guys. Scheiber has some fun describing Thompson getting all gussied up in blue jeans and boots, delivering folksy speeches from the bed of a rented, used pick-up truck, and then explains something Dems need to better understand:

…Thompson is hardly the only Republican to have ridden phony populism to elective office. In 2003, Haley Barbour, perhaps the most accomplished Washington lobbyist of his generation, pig-in-a-poked and dog-won’t-hunted his way to the Mississippi governor’s mansion. (One of Barbour’s signature tricks was to have himself paged at Ole Miss football games.) And, of course, a certain Yale-educated Northeastern Brahmin reinvented himself as a brush-clearing country boy en route to winning the White House in 2000. These days, phony populists win with such regularity that you’ve got to look beyond any particular candidate to find an explanation.

Republicans are very good at this scam, despite the fact that it would be extremely difficult to identify even one of their policies that actually benefits the working-class. Conversely, they are adept at portraying Democratic candidates, whose policies actually help working people, as elitists. Witness now, for example, the GOP’s concerted effort to portray John Edwards, the son of two union organizers and an advocate of genuine populist policies, as an elitist.
Dems need to get wise and mount a relentless assault on the GOP’s bogus populism. Reading Scheiber’s article is a good start.

Obama’s Health Plan: The Best of Incrementalism

As you probably know if you’ve been following the presidential campaign news, Barack Obama released his long-awaited health care reform proposal earlier this week, and it’s getting decidedly mixed reviews from the chattering classes. Two progressive blogger/journalists with pretty good street cred on health care issues, Ezra Klein and Jon Cohn, have published quite similar takes, praising many of the details of the plan but decrying its timidity in challenging the health care status quo–most particularly its failure to provide universal coverage (other than for children). On the positive side, it does indeed seem that Obama’s plan represents sort of a greatest hits collection of incremental health care reform ideas. It picks up John Kerry’s underappreciated 2004 proposal for federal reinsurance of catastrophic health costs, which could have a big impact on rising insurance premiums. It adopts the federal employee health plan model for a national insurance purchasing pool, which makes abundant good sense substantively and politically. It calls for a federally-driven shift towards prevention and chronic disease management, along with IT investments to help control costs and improve quality, which ought to be a point of agreement among those who may disagree on financing mechanisms and/or the role of public and private sectors. It includes a direct assault on health care industry abuses through federal regulation, instead of treating such abuses as an unavoidable byproduct of for-profit involvement in health care. It does cover all kids, which makes sense if you aren’t going to cover everybody. And it provides very robust subsidies to make voluntary health insurance affordable to as broad a segment of the uninsured as possible, along with an employer mandate to avoid erosion of existing coverage. Those are a heap o’ positives, but the negatives, most especially the plan’s failure to include a universal individual mandate for health insurance, and its complexity, are likely to get more attention, on both substantive and political grounds. Substantively, the plan obviously fails to fundamentally overhaul the current system, with its patchwork of public and private programs, its heavy reliance on economically damaging and arguably regressive employer-based coverage, and its failure to cover everyone. And politically, the plan will reinforce claims that Obama isn’t quite the transformative, great-leap-forward progressive so many have seen in him. One particular problem for Obama is that his plan superficially resembles the Massachusetts initiative signed by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, with the crucial exception that Massachusetts did include a universal individual mandate for coverage (underfunded, to be sure, but still in place). Another is that Obama’s plan achieves less than universal coverage at a pretty steep price tag, given its lavish subsidies to tempt rather than force individuals into obtaining insurance. Beyond the initial reactions, perceptions of Obama’s plan will be crucially influenced by his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. John Edwards is already in a position to exploit Obama’s incrementalism on health care, given his own comprehensive universal plan, which not only embraces an individual mandate for coverage but also provides a stronger Medicare-style public option attractive to Democrats who favor a single-payer system. Given Edwards’ competition with Obama for the support of left-leaning Democrats, this could become an important point of distinction between the two candidates, at least among activists. But the other shoe that will soon drop is Hillary Clinton’s; she’s slowly rolling out a very thorough and comprehensive health care reform proposal, building on her unquestioned expertise in this field. Still under wraps is what she would do to achieve expanded coverage. If she goes for a universal plan (which is quite likely), then Obama will begin to look like an incrementalist outlier among those who care about policy details.

Exposing GOP Candidates’ Bogus Populism

Noam Scheiber’s irresistibly-titled “Pickup Artist: Populist Poseur Fred Thompson” in The New Republic illuminates a cornerstone of GOP strategy — to portray their rich boy candidates as good-ole, aw-shucks working-class guys. Scheiber has some fun describing Thompson getting all gussied up in blue jeans and boots, delivering folksy speeches from the bed of a rented, used pick-up truck, and then explains something Dems need to better understand:

…Thompson is hardly the only Republican to have ridden phony populism to elective office. In 2003, Haley Barbour, perhaps the most accomplished Washington lobbyist of his generation, pig-in-a-poked and dog-won’t-hunted his way to the Mississippi governor’s mansion. (One of Barbour’s signature tricks was to have himself paged at Ole Miss football games.) And, of course, a certain Yale-educated Northeastern Brahmin reinvented himself as a brush-clearing country boy en route to winning the White House in 2000. These days, phony populists win with such regularity that you’ve got to look beyond any particular candidate to find an explanation.

Republicans are very good at this scam, despite the fact that it would be extremely difficult to identify even one of their policies that actually benefits the working-class. Conversely, they are adept at portraying Democratic candidates, whose policies actually help working people, as elitists. Witness now, for example, the GOP’s concerted effort to portray John Edwards, the son of two union organizers and an advocate of genuine populist policies, as an elitist.
Dems need to get wise and mount a relentless assault on the GOP’s bogus populism. Reading Scheiber’s article is a good start.

Winship Weighs In

It’s rare these days to find a blog post by someone calling him or herself a New Democrat, and rarer still when that someone is a member of the post-Clinton generation of political activists and analysts. So I have more than a passing interest in the Table For One guest blogs being posted by Scott Winship (former managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, and now with Third Way) over at TPMCafe. Scott’s talking about the need for empiricism among progressives, and secondarily, defending the progressive credentials of what used to be called the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. I’ll be doing a post or two myself in that discussion, but for the time being, Scott is certainly holding his own without reinforcements. Check it out.

Party Regulars, Street Join Forces

In These Times has a pair of articles spotlighting the working relationship between the Democratic party and progressive activists. Adam Doster’s “Dancing Into the Majority” provides an encouraging look at how “once alientated” activists are finding creative ways to work with the “party establishment.” Says Doster:

…more and more progressives who refused to support spineless Democrats and instead backed unsuccessful third-party candidates have come to understand the pragmatic necessity of working within the Democratic Party.

Doster focuses on the innovative efforts of groups like the Progressive Democrats of America, Code Pink, the Aurora Project and the Party in the Street, as well as MoveOn, to work in coalition with the Democrats. His article explains the problems and pitfalls the groups have experienced in working with the Democratic Party, as well as the accomplishments. Doster’s piece should be of interest to a broad range of progressive activist groups seeking new paths of cooperative action with the Democratic Party.
While Doster focuses on activist organizations, Connor Kenny’s ITT article “Hello, I’m a Democrat: Meet the netroots activists who have moved online and into political office” shines a light on four of the nation’s most energetic progressive activists: Mario Champion; Chris Bowers; Anna Brosovic; and Jeremy Horton. Notes Kenny:

In coming years, netroots activists will be moving up from local party positions to state and national ones. And, while they are more progressive than the party as a whole, first and foremost they are committed Democrats who want to win, and who are willing to put in the money and the time to make it happen. Though their outsider identity may sometimes cause them to break the door down rather than ask for a key, they want to help.

Taken together, the ITT articles paint a promising picture of the Dems’ future, energized by an infusion of netroots and grasssroots activists, determined not only to win stable Democratic majorities, but to elect diverse candidates of stronger character and heightened commitment.

The Decline of Conservative Envy

Over at MyDD, Chris Bowers has an important post about one of the most fundamental but insufficiently discussed lessons of the 2006 elections: the collapse of the supposedly invincible Right Wing Machine.

One of the nice side effects from our great electoral success in 2006 is that the tide of books, speeches, and studies by progressives with conservative movement envy has been significantly reduced. No more do we have to hear about how great Republicans are at virtually everything political: language crafting, staying on message, voter identification, GOTV, paid media quality, free media booking, etc. Now that Republicans and the conservative movement have been historically trounced on the electoral front, their political sophistication no longer appears all that profound. We beat them at the height of their fundraising prowess, the height of their early voting programs, the height of their voter contact programs, and basically the height of their everything. Republicans did not lose in 2006 because of mistakes. In fact, their machine was working so well that supposed uber-genius Karl Rove was convinced that Republicans would do just fine in the 2006 elections.

That’s all quite true. But I’d go a bit deeper on why the machine crashed, and what progressives should infer not simply about the quality of that machine, but about the seeds of destruction that were inherent in its very nature. The “conservative movement envy” Chris is talking about, and that I’ve deplored on many occasions, was all about admiration for the unity, discipline, ideological rigor, “base” orientation, and sheer ruthlessness of the conservative apparatus in all its many subelements. Progressives who were convinced that Democrats as a whole were losing elections because they were disunited, ideologically heterodox, disloyal to the “base,” and cowardly, looked across the great divide and often expressed a desire to make Democrats more like Republicans in every one of those respects. To put it simply, many progressives reflexively thought that a coalition party like the Democrats was at a permanent disadvantage against an ideological party like the GOP, and moreover, that its coalition character made even electoral victories bittersweet, given the necessity for both internal and external compromise. But as we’ve seen over the last few years, “machine” politics, particularly of the conservative variety, are largely incompatible, except in very unusual circumstances, with any sort of effective government. When ideology drives policy, and partisan unity is made an end in itself, there’s no internal debate, no respect for empirical reality, no interest in genuine persuasion, no flexibility, no room for error, and no feedback mechanism other than the demands of “base” activists and opinion-leaders and the money-lenders who feed the whole beast. And when the ideology in question denies a positive role for government, favors unilateral violence as the sole instrument for American influence in the world, and views half of the U.S. population as complicit in a domestic Holocaust (legalized abortion) and in the destruction of all the norms of western civilization–well, it’s not surprising that you wind up with a record of folly, malicious mendacity, incompetence, corruption and authoritarianism like Bush’s. It’s very important that progressives understand that the results in 2006 were largely dictated by that record, not by strategic or tactical errors in the GOP campaign, or for that matter, by the strategic or tactical brilliance of Democrats. Yes, the expanded playing field and “fighting spirit” adopted by Democrats, and the hard work and enthusiasm evident at the grassroots (and in the netroots) were crucial in exploiting the opportunity created by the GOP “machine,” but when you look at the freshman congressional class of 2006, it’s clear we are still a coalition party, notwithstanding efforts to describe last year’s winners as a new breed of “populists.” All this is immediately relevant in view of the anger and despair (and those words are no exaggeration) of many progressive activists over last week’s Democratic divisions on Iraq funding. Such divisions are inevitably going to happen in a coalition party, and for all its sometimes maddening disadvantages, it’s still better than a party whose unity and ideological rigor can sometimes lead it down the road to perdition, with no road back (viz., a Republican Party still chained to its conservative base and its domestic and international delusions).

Wanted: Dem Senate Candidates in Key States

Chris Bowers MyDD article “Spinning Our Wheels On Senate Recruitment” should come as a wake-up call to Dem leaders looking toward ’08. Bowers does a nice job of outlining the Dems bright prospects for picking up Senate seats next year, noting,

…with twenty-one potential Republican targets, only twelve defenses of our own, and a large and still increasing fundraising advantage, Republican defenses are stretched thin from the get-go. Given the national mood and the structural problems Republicans face, if all goes well, this situation should allow us to pickup between four and seven seats next year, thus returning the Senate to its pre-1994 Democratic majority.

However, Bowers makes a disturbing case that we are seriously behind schedule:

…right now this situation does not seem to be translating into many good pickup opportunities. Off hand, the problem seems to center around recruitment problems. In some states, we are failing to get our top recruits. In other states, our top recruits now seem less promising than they did just a couple months ago. Worst of all, in most states, we don’t have any challengers yet….While the situation could be reversed with improvements just two or three major Senate campaigns, the way things have been going so far, further downgrades seem more likely than further upgrades. We need to start getting our best candidates in every state, or else we could waste this historic electoral opportunity.

Bowers then gets down to specific races, with capsule reports on five key races, and he notes some others that merit more attention. Granted there is still 17 months to go, and we can be confident that Chuck Schumer is on the case. But the Democratic party activists in these states would do well to address Bowers’ concerns.

Wanted: Dem Senate Candidates in Key States

Chris Bowers MyDD article “Spinning Our Wheels On Senate Recruitment” should come as a wake-up call to Dem leaders looking toward ’08. Bowers does a nice job of outlining the Dems bright prospects for picking up Senate seats next year, noting,

…with twenty-one potential Republican targets, only twelve defenses of our own, and a large and still increasing fundraising advantage, Republican defenses are stretched thin from the get-go. Given the national mood and the structural problems Republicans face, if all goes well, this situation should allow us to pickup between four and seven seats next year, thus returning the Senate to its pre-1994 Democratic majority.

However, Bowers makes a disturbing case that we are seriously behind schedule:

…right now this situation does not seem to be translating into many good pickup opportunities. Off hand, the problem seems to center around recruitment problems. In some states, we are failing to get our top recruits. In other states, our top recruits now seem less promising than they did just a couple months ago. Worst of all, in most states, we don’t have any challengers yet….While the situation could be reversed with improvements just two or three major Senate campaigns, the way things have been going so far, further downgrades seem more likely than further upgrades. We need to start getting our best candidates in every state, or else we could waste this historic electoral opportunity.

Bowers then gets down to specific races, with capsule reports on five key races, and he notes some others that merit more attention. Granted there is still 17 months to go, and we can be confident that Chuck Schumer is on the case. But the Democratic party activists in these states would do well to address Bowers’ concerns.

Memorial Day 2007

I’m just old enough to actually remember a time when large elements of the American male population had died or risked death in uniform, and just young enough to have legally avoided military service myself. I was lucky, while many of my Vietnam-era peers weren’t, and part of the emotion properly felt on Memorial Day has to do with the recognition of young men and women who wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and paid the ransom for the good luck the rest of us enjoyed. Life and death in modern war are rarely a simple matter of skill or courage; brave individuals often die with no opportunity to actually face their enemies. That was true in the trench warfare of World War I; the Total War of World War II; the jungle war of Vietnam; and the shadow war in Iraq. And that is why in modern war, the System–the government, the generals, the war plans, and the war aims–are so culpable for unnecessary deaths when they occur.So it is entirely appropriate on Memorial Day to remember not only the sacrifices of Americans who died for their country, but to remember the specific reasons they died, and the leadership, good and bad, that sacrificed them, and is sacrificing them today.

Reframing the Iraq Funding Debate

Apropos of the post below, Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald shreds the myth that Democrats have little choice but to support unrestricted funding for Iraq. As Greenwald explains in his article, challenging Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter’s defense of Democrats’ support for funding without timelines:

…our Iraq war policy was just determined, in large part if not principally, by a complete myth: that de-funding proposals constitute an abandonment or, more ludicrously still, “endangerment” of the troops.
It is difficult to overstate how irrational this theme is, and yet it is equally difficult to overstate what a decisive role it just played in ensuring the continuation of the war. Polls consistently demonstrate that Americans overwhelmingly favor compelled withdrawal of the troops from Iraq. Other than defunding, they overwhelmingly favor every legislative mechanism for achieving that goal — from a straightforward bill setting a mandatory time deadline to a rescission of the resolution authorizing military force to compulsory benchmarks. Yet polls are equally uniform in showing that a solid majority of Americans oppose de-funding.
Yet, rationally speaking, this makes absolutely no sense. De-funding is nothing more than a legislative instrument for ending the war, and is substantively indistinguishable in every way from the other war-ending legislative means which Americans favor.

In other words. Americans want deadlines and timetables attached to Iraq funding legislation, but many are under the false impression that voting against funding bills that have no limitations will leave our troops vulnerable. Republicans know this, and they exploit this myth effectively, so much so that many liberal Democratic leaders supported unlimited funding legislation. Thus, many of the same elected officials who advocate deadlines and timetables on Iraq funding feel compelled to vote for unrestricted funding legislation when it is offered.
Apparently most Americans don’t want to spend a lot of time studying the fine points of all the Iraq funding proposals. And so the parliamentary chess game goes on, and by the time November ’08 rolls around voters will be inundated with charges and countercharges about who did or didn’t support the troops. But Democrats must not allow this simplistic meme to dominate concerns about Iraq policy on election day. They must make sure that the more resonant message voters take to the polls is that the GOP is the party that supports open-ended occupation of Iraq.
In his latest post at the Rockridge Institute web page, George Lakoff and co-author Glen W. Smith explain the framing psychology behind GOP myth-mongering:

Congress allowed the president to take over its job to decide the strategic mission and to put Congress in the role of merely providing funding. This allowed the president to cast Congress in the role of “refusing to fund the troops,” “endangering the safety of our troops,” “playing chicken with the lives of our troops,” “hamstringing our troops,” and so on. It allowed President Bush to portray Congress as responsible for the safety of our troops, whereas the real responsibility lay with him. By allowing the president to reframe the Constitution and take away their powers, Congress made itself fatally vulnerable. Most of the Democrats wound up adopting the president’s framing of them as responsible for the safety of the troops.

But rather than reacting with expressions of disgust and let it go at that, Lakoff and Smith offer a number of interesting ideas for reframing the issue of Iraq funding, including:

Progressives must point out that it is the president, with an enabling Congress, who commenced a foolhardy adventure with no clear exit strategy or way to “win.” That same president has refused to properly prepare or adequately equip soldiers — and now he is blaming Congress. When Congress passed a supplemental spending bill with reasonable timetables attached, he refused it. The betrayer is the president. Say it over and over: The president has betrayed our troops and the nation.

Lakoff and Smith point out that the current funding authorization is only good through September and that there will be other opportunities for Democrats to act. They even outline a course of action for Democratic activists. Their article should be a keeper for party strategists and activists alike.