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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: July 2007

Uniters and Dividers

Driving out of Nashville yesterday, I surfed the radio, looking for something other than bad music or right-wing political commentary, and happened on a syndicated BBC show discussing the death of the great Swedish filmaker Ingmar Bergman (his Winter Light, the tale of a Luthern minister losing his faith, is one of my very favorite movies). Some film critic came on, and suggeseted that Bergman’s period of popularity peaked in the 1960s because his bleak and emotional themes tapped anxieties spurred by the nuclear arms race, the war in Vietnam, and battles over gender and sexual issues.
Hmmm. A disastrous war. Nuclear fears. Culture wars. Sounds like it’s high time for a Bergman revival.
I soon tired of the next BBC story, having to do with horse carts creating traffic congestion in Bogota, and started listening to sports talk stations. Despite the efforts of hosts to get callers talking about the death of–no, not Ingmar Bergman–former pro coaching genius Bill Walsh, most of the gabbing revolved around the perennial sagas of Barry Bonds’ ascent towards the major league home run record, and Michael Vick’s descent towards disgrace and perhaps the slammer (the latter story is on the front pages of the Atlanta newspapers just about every day). As you may know, public reactions to both controversies have largely broken along racial lines, much like the O.J. Simpson case.
On the other hand, it’s worth noting that the longstanding racial disparity in assessments of George W. Bush’s presidency is steadily being healed, with black and white Americans coming together in disdain for the man. In this one sense, and perhaps only in this one sense, he’s redeeming his pledge to be a “uniter, not a divider.”

Concluding Thoughts On the DLC Meeting

The DLC meeting in Nashville didn’t get a lot of press, but Richard Locker of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal did a pretty good general review of the event, and Southern Political Report’s Tom Baxter wrote extensively about President Clinton’s speech.
Speaking of that speech, I happened to be sitting next to Dr. Drew Westen during the Clinton address, and afterwards he noted Clinton’s particular ability to measure any given audience’s interest-level in policy detail. The audience in Nashville had a very high tolerance level for wonkitude. (BTW, I interviewed Westen after the event, and will be posting it here soon).
One of the underlying buzz elements of this conference was the possibiilty that some of the governors speaking in Nashville might be “auditioning” in this and similar forums for the vice-presidential nomination–most notably Governors Sebelius, Schweitzer and Bredesen, who often appear on Veep “lists” along with New Mexico’s Bill Richardson (assuming he’s not at the top of the ticket) and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack.
Bredesen delivered a speech that was put together in a very interesting way. He bagan by talking about Tonnessee’s frontier heritage, segueing to his and his wife’s “twentieth-century pioneers” move to Tennessee from the northeast in the 1970s. He then discussed “barnraising” as part of the frontier legacy, and described the process wherein parts of a barn were built on the ground separately, and then literally “raised” into place. . Suddenly, but very smoothly, he started talking about incremental health care reform using the metaphor, suggesting that piecemeal reforms that addressed costs, improved quality, and covered kids, could be “raised” quickly into a universal system.
Given the complex and sometimes soporific nature of most discussions of incremental health care reform, it struck me as a brave and interesting effort to give the subject some vision and poetry. But you definitely had to hear the whole thing.
On the other hand, Bredesen’s stock was probably not improved by Rep. Jim Cooper’s introductory remarks. Trying to emphasize Bredesen’s popularity in Tennessee, Cooper noted that the Governor won all 95 counties in his re-election bid, “even though he’d just cut 400,000 people from Medicaid coverage.”
To borrow the punch line from a profane old joke about several men in a church who are competing with ever-more-lurid accounts of their pre-salvation depravity: “Don’t b’lieve I’d a told that, brother!”

DCorps Focus Group Targets GOP-Held Districts

The broad-based focus groups that appear on television late in the election cycle rarely offer much in the way of useful insights for political strategy. But focus groups composed of specific ‘swing voter’ demographic groups can shine valuable light on strategy choices for political campaigns.
Toward that end, Democracy Corps has just issued a report sharing the findings of their latest focus group project, targeting likely 2008 voters in two congressional districts held by GOP moderates who won close elections in 2006. All of the focus group participants were political Independents or “weak partisans” who had voted for both Democrats and Republicans over the last two elections. One focus group (conducted July 18), based in Rochester, NY, included two sub-groups, each with annual household income below $50K, older non-college educated men and non-college educated young women. The second group (conducted July 19), based in Arlington Heights, IL, was composed of older, college-educated women and younger, college-educated men, with each group earning a household income above $50K.
The focus group analysis, published as a memo by DCorps’ Karl Agne, tried to find out if GOP moderate incumbents had separated themselves from President Bush and to evaluate whether they could be defeated by Democrats next year. The analysis found a strong trend of deepening voter frustrations, a “poisonous” political environment driven by the Iraq quagmire with rising anger about the loss of life, lack of mission, wasted resources and consequent neglect of America’s domestic problems (topped by health care). Worse still for the GOP, “Positives that we used to hear on strength, commitment to the military, values and fiscal discipline have simply disappeared.”
The cautionary note sounded for Democrats is that “Optimism for the new Congress is quickly waning.” Focus group respondents credited Democrats with good intentions, wanting change and ending Bush’s ‘blank check’ in Congress. But they felt that “things simply haven’t changed under Democratic control.”
The focus group tested some pro-Democratic ads, and the analysis found that the most effective one of the lot by far nailed Bush for his vetoes of: legislation to withdraw troops from Iraq; implement homeland security recommendations; lower student loan rates; expand health coverage for uninsured children; stem cell research; and allow Medicaid to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.
With respect to Iraq, focus group participants support a carefully-calibrated withdrawal, but oppose measures to de-fund the Iraq War. However, they do want congress to overturn Bush’s vetoes. One particular catch-phrase, “Simple choice – ‘stick with Bush or get with the people” resonated with the groups.
The analysis also helped clarify the focus groups’ attitudes toward immigration. The participants generally supported both denying government benefits to non-citizens, while providing “a path to citizenship.” Concerns about “fairness” seemed to provide some common ground for a consensus on immigration reform.
Such focus groups can help discern workable strategies for winning the support of targeted swing constituencies. A lot can happen in 15 months. But, If the DCorps analysis is correct, Dems are in a strong position for a big win next year.

Still the One

Just watched Bill Clinton’s speech at the annual meeting, and as always, was amazed at his ability to combine passion and wonkiness, and at how revered he remains in this and most other Democratic audiences.
Listening to him, I couldn’t help but think: is there any chance that when George W. Bush is seven years past his presidency, much of anyone would want to hear him speak? Hard to imagine.
The speech itself combined a very direct defense of the DLC from its current critics, and then a powerful talk focusing on globalization, energy, and health care. His accustomed rap on the accomplishments of his administration vis a vis that of his successor has been expanded and refined. And in defending the DLC, he basically suggested that the challenges faces the country, and Democrats, right now are not completely dissimilar from those of 1992, when the DLC had a lot to do with formulating his campaign platform and his initial agenda in office. He also did a good job of maintaining his role as ex-president, only referring to his wife in passing on very specific issues.
I’ll have more to say about his speech, and the entire event, a bit later.

Greetings From Nashville

I’m blogging from somewhere inside the massive Opryland complex in Nashville, where I’m attending the Democratic Leadership Council’s annual meeting, styled as the “National Conversation.”
At the moment, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer is delivering a smart and very funny speech on renewable energy. Here a sample. After discussing the long history of our “four billion barrel problem” with oil dependence, he said:

[Last year] George W. Bush looked straight into the teleprompter, and read Karl’s five words: “We are addicted to oil.”
I’ll be damned! Who knew?

Two other governors–Phil Bredesen and Kathleen Sebelius–have already spoken, and Martin O’Malley’s up next.
The meeting actually began yesterday, with twenty separate workshops. The three I participated in–on election reform, “values voter” trends, and new social media, were SRO, and had some unexpected twists. In the first, a farily routine if fact-filled series of presentations of redistricting reform and state-level public financing of campaigns veered into a discussion of out-of-the-box ways to deal with uncompetitive legislative seats and disengaged voters, including cumulative voting, multi-post districts, and Instant Runoff Voting (Oregon, I learned, recently authorized IRV as an option for local governments, and is building a positive precedent for the innovation).
In the “values” discussion (which began with an analysis of some of the recent trends in public opinion on hot-button cultural issues). Tennessee Senator Roy Herron delivered what I can only describe as a sermon on Republican moral perfidy. At one point, he got into rhyming couplets worthy of Jesse Jackson at his best.
And in the social media workshop, which focused on YouTube, MySpace, and FaceBook, I was a bit surprised to discover how hep many state legislators and mayors seem to be about the political and civic implications of these innovations. Some, of course, seem to be relying on their kids as “new media” consultants. I got a good round of applause for suggesting that the era of politics dominated by paid broadcast media may be coming to an end.
Now most of the very limited national coverage of this event has revolved around the non-presence of presidential candidates (though a rather famous husband of one of them is showing up later today). You can read Noam Scheiber’s piece on this that appeared in the New York Times on Saturday, and the DLC’s response, and judge for yourself if presidential cattle calls are an accurate measure of an organization’s political relevance.
But as someone who used to be involved in planning these events, I do know that for at least the last ten years, they’ve been focused on state and local elected officials, no matter who else materializes at the podium, and by that measure, the 350 or so attending is the DLC’s biggest crowd ever.
Last week Markos Moulitsas, who it’s safe to say has some personal issues with the DLC, said this meeting was going to be nothing more than “a cocktail party for Liebercrats.” Well, I have to report that the only person I’ve heard mention the name of the junior senator from Connecticut was a reporter. And most of the rhetoric about Iraq, Bush, and Republicans generally wouldn’t at all sound out of place at YearlyKos. In a lunch break during yesterdays workshops, Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain, spoke, and his presentation of the need for passionate, principled partisanship from Democrats had the crowd cheering.
But you can’t take the politics out of politics, eh?
I’ll do a post later today after President Clinton’s speech.

‘Progressive’ Rebranding a Big Winner for Dems

From his new blog Open Left, Chris Bowers comments on a recent Rasmussen Poll indicating a plurality of Americans “now consider it a positive description to call a candidate politically progressive” and the implications for Democrats. Bowers cites the figures from the poll as 35% favoring ‘progressive’, 32% for ‘conservative’, 29% ‘moderate’ and 20% ‘liberal’.
Bowers calls the poll “a reality check for those ‘serious’ pundits who think they have their finger on the pulse of America,” and says:

Progressivism is winning the day in American politics. That it is more net favorable than the term “conservative” is a major finding about American politics, and a serious blow to the conservative notion that they are a natural plurality. That progressive is even viewed more favorably than “moderate” is utterly stunning…

In a way, it’s a victory for re-framing. For Dems the refusal to let the opposition define the terms of identity has paid off. The Republicans will continue to demonize Democrats as “liberals.” But they are preaching to their shrinking choir. America has moved on, and it appears that a healthy majority — 35 % progressive +20% liberals +some moderates — now embrace social reforms for a better society, placing a higher value on progress than simply being “conservative.”

Dog Days

Via Jason Zengerle at TNR’s The Plank, we learn that Fred Thompson on Fox News last night said he’d decided to delay his announcement as a presidential candidate until September because: “August is kind of a down month, not much going on, so it wouldn’t make sense to do it in August.”
That may be true in Washington, but not so much in, say, Iowa, where August features the State Republican Party’s big Straw Poll (which Thompson apparently won’t contest), not to mention the Iowa State Fair, where presidential candidates will be so thick on the ground that you won’t be able to stir them with a stick. Indeed, Thompson’s “not much going on” dismissal of the opportunity to eat corn dogs and deep-fried twinkies and admire the Butter Cow sculpture is a good sign that he has decided to skip Iowa altogether.
More generally, Thompson’s “what happens in August stays in August” attitude is another example of the strangely retro feel of his campaign. Among most political practitioners these days, it’s become a truism that New Media have largely reshaped the political calendar in ways that have sharply reduced “down time.” That was one of the big lessons learned from the Swift Boat saga of August 2004, which caught the Kerry campaign off guard in part because they assumed no one was paying attention. And you can even go back to 1998, when legal developments in the Lewinsky scandal broke in mid-August, at a time when most Washington bigfoot journalists were vacationing in the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard. (The sudden demand for punditry led me to half-joke at the time that anyone in Washington with a law degree had a chance to go on television and pontificate, during “Open Mike Night At Monica Beach,” the colloquial name for the media stakeout area near the federal court building. When President Clinton himself traveled to Martha’s Vineyard after his grand jury testimony, it looked like a Journalists’ Relief Mission).
Maybe ol’ Fred and his handlers are smarter than they look right now, and his dissing of the Dog Days really just represents his own shrewd timetable. But I dunno. Also at the New Republic site today is an absolutely devastating piece by Jonathan Chait summarizing Thompson’s handling of allegations (soon shown to be true) that he did some lobbying work for a pro-choice outfit back during the first Bush administration. Chait concludes from the general indifference of conservatives to this news that they’ve picked Fred as their savior. We’ll see. But Thompson’s reputation for laziness won’t be improved by his decision to take August off while his rivals dutifully press the flesh and munch pork chops on a stick in Iowa. Maybe like George W. Bush he’s just a late bloomer.

Dem Strength Deepens in Polls

A couple of new polls indicate that the Democrats are sinking deep roots in key constituencies. a Democracy Corp/Greenberg Quinlan Rosen survey “Republicans Collapse Among Young Americans,” conducted 5/29 to 6/19, finds Dems doing very well with young people, ages 18-29 (Survey questionaire and results here). Ann Friedman of The American Prospect‘s Tapped blog sums it up succinctly:

Young people think Democrats can do a better job on youth issues (+39 net margin), the environment (+38), healthcare (+35), Iraq (+33), energy independence (+32), the federal budget (+25), the economy and jobs (+24), the war on terrorism (+21), values (+15), taxes (+13), and guns (+4). No issue polled was thought to be better handled by the GOP.

The bipartisan George Washington University Battleground 2008 Poll of registered voters, conducted July 15 to 18, indicates that Democrats may be headed for an historic victory. According to the Democratic Strategic Analysis of the poll:

Regionally Democrats are winning with solid margins in the West (+17), the Northeast (+14), the Central Plains (+12) and the Midwest (+11). Republicans lead outside the margin of error only in the Mountain states (-7), though their lead there is reduced. The South and South Central regions fo the country are even battlegrounds at this point (-1 and tied, respectively). If this remains the case going into the lections, the consequences for the GOP could be disasterous. Democrats are winning urban areas by 7 points, and losing rural areas by just 4 points.
Currently, Democrats are doing a better job of consolidating their base, winning 89 percent to 4 percent. By comparison, Republicans convert just 81 percent of their party faithful and fully 8 percent are defecting to the Democrats. Among the swing independent bloc, Democrats lead by 10 points, 41 percent to 31 percent, though a substantial number are undecided.

With no end to the the Iraq quagmire in sight, record gas prices and mounting scandals, these numbers could get even worse before the GOP gets any relief.

Impeachment Questions

(Note: This is a cross-post from a piece I did today for TPMCafe.com, in response to Josh Marshall’s suggestion that Bush’s defiance of Congress on the U.S. Attorney Firing Scandal may make impeachment talk a lot more serious, even for people like him who’ve never liked the idea. I guess this is High Controversy Day at TDS, based on this item and the earlier staff post encouraging Court-packing).
Citing the Clinton precedent, M.J. Rosenberg writes:
“[I]mpeachment is no longer the political nuclear bomb it once was, especially if one knows in advance that conviction and removal from office is unlikely to occur. Accordingly, impeachment proceedings are essentially the best means of getting information to the public which is otherwise unavailable.”
I’m glad M.J. is beginning with the premise that actual impeachment and removal of Bush ain’t happening, at least based on the current dynamics. I do not share his optimism about impeachment proceedings serving as a “lever” to bring Bush to heel, given everything we know about the man. Nor do I really understand Josh’s suggestion that initiating a pre-doomed impeachment effort will somehow serve as a legal precedent reducing the impact of Bush’s scofflaw behavior.
So the fundamental question remains whether Democrats want to take up the “I-word” as a political exercise. And other questions quickly follow.
From the Clinton experience, we know that public opinion turned decisively against the impeachment effort once it became obvious the Senate wasn’t going to convict him (which wasn’t entirely obvious at the beginning of the saga), for the simple reason that the whole thing looked like a waste of time. So what will happen to the current, surprisingly strong public support for impeachment if the extreme unlikelihood of a successful outcome is conceded from the get-go?
A second question, which everyone understands, is what to do about Dick Cheney. A dual or sequential impeachment effort is entirely without precedent, and every single problem with a late-term impeachment would get vastly more complicated.
A third question is the scope of impeachment articles. Josh seems to assume that Bush’s defiance of Congress and his quasi-imperial notions of executive privilege are the trigger. But many Democrats would be outraged if the administration’s behavior before and after the invasion of Iraq were not included; others might well argue that the abandonment of New Orleans was an impeachable offense. With a presidency this bad, where do you draw the line?
And a fourth question is how to impose party discipline during an impeachment fight. Like it or not, it’s a certainty that a sizable number of Democrats in both Houses of Congress will be reluctant to “go there,” some simply because of the Clinton experience.
[More after the jump}.

Spanning the Donkey

It’s entirely possible that I’m the only person registered to attend both the DLC’s National Conversation in Nashville this weekend, and the YearlyKos gathering in Chicago next week. I plan to blog from and about both events, and maybe even conduct a couple of interviews.
Since this site is devoted to an ecumenical spirit among all types of Democrats, I will dwell more on the points of unity than on the usual factional differences. And I will be alert to the truly strategic discussions as they emerge amidst the inevitable focus on 2008.