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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: August 2007

Freaky Friday for GOP

Karl Rove’s last day, Tony Snow bails, Gonzales probed, mounting calls for Senator Craig’s resignation and worst of all for the pachyderms, the retirement announcement of Senator John Warner — a likely pick-up for the donkeys, especially if former Virginia Governor Mark Warner decides to run. And for a nice kicker, check out John Judis’s TNR article (well-flagged by Open Left’s Matt Stoller), predicting a Democratic pickup of as many as seven U.S. Senate seats in ’08. Makes for a sweet last weekend of summer.

Dissing the Duopoly

It’s increasingly obvious that proto-candidate for president Fred Thompson is joining Rudy Giuliani in basically writing off the traditional first two states of the nominating contest–IA and NH–and staking his candidacy on a breakthrough later on.
If that’s not the case, then Fred’s campaign is in even worse trouble than we thought. As Marc Ambinder reminds us, Thompson’s initial foray into Iowa, an appearance at the State Fair a couple of weeks ago, got panned by none other than Fox News, which noted that Thompson had offended Iowans by tooling around the fairgrounds in a golf cart (a prerogative reserved for people with disabilities, or for major Fair donors, but not for politicians), wearing Gucci loafers, no less.
And in NH, Thompson was publicly warned the other day by the powerful Manchester Union-Leader that he’d best declare in candidacy in time to participate in the first Republican candidate forum in the state on September 5. His campaign promptly let it be known that he’d finally announce on–you guessed it–September 6.
Over at DailyKos, Adam B usefullly explains that September 6 is the earliest day on which Thompson can announce and still avoid having to file a third-quarter financial report with the FEC (which among other things, might show an embrassingly poor total).
Meanwhile, the Michigan legislature has expressed even greater disrespect for the IA/NH duopoly tradition, overwhelmingly approving a move to a January 15 presidential primary for both parties. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has said she will sign the bill immediately. Democratic state party chairman Mark Brewer has held out the possibility that delegates will be selected at a later caucus, which would avoid DNC sanctions and turn the primary into a non-binding “beauty contest.” But MI Republicans, like their counterparts in FL, seem inclined to go ahead and dare the national party to sanction them.
If the MI decision sticks, then it’s increasingly likely that we’ll be looking at a nominating contest calendar that begins right after the New Year in IA, continues to NH on January 8, MI on January 15, SC on January 19, FL on January 29, and then to a state near you on the February 5 mega-primary (lost in the shuffle has been the DNC-sanctioned Nevada Democratic Caucus on January 19, the same day as SC). For that to happen, IA will have to modify a state law requiring an 8-day window between its Caucuses and NH, but IA Democrats are pledging to do just that to avoid slipping back into December.
In terms of the MI decision’s impact on the contest itself: who knows? On the Republican side, IA/NH front-runner Mitt Romney has long-standing ties to the state due to his father’s tenure as governor. But it’s also likely to be friendlier territory for Rudy Giuliani than IA or NH, giving him a chance to interrupt Romney’s momentum well before the February 5 primaries when Rudy’s expected to make his big push.
On the Democratic side, all of the Big Three candidates (Clinton, Obama and Edwards) have natural strengths in MI. If it does emerge as a legitimate battleground, it’s mainly bad news for the other candidates, given the cost of campaigning there.
Here’s hoping that MI’s gambit will be the last calendar surprise for 2008.

Concerning “Bush Dogs”

[NOTE: this is going to be a very long post. Please do click on “Read More” for the whole thing] If you read blogs a lot, you may be aware of a rapidly-growing campaign over the last week, emanating from the OpenLeft site, to identify and in various ways intimidate Democratic House members dubbed “Bush Dogs.” As explained by OpenLeft’s Matt Stoller in his inaugural post on the campaign, “Bush Dogs” (evidently a play on “Blue Dogs”) are House Democrats who voted for both final passage of the Iraq Supplemental Appropriations conference report in late May, and for the FISA reauthorization bill earlier this month. 37 Members meet this definition, though Stoller adds Brian Baird of WA to the list of “Bush Dogs” out of anger at Baird’s recent remarks supporting the Bush “surge” in Iraq.
The object of the “Bush Dog” campaign (OpenLeft has its own logo for it, along with a link enabling readers to “sign up to fight the Bush Dogs”) is initiallly to solicit “profiles” of errant Members, weigh their relative perfidy, publicize their records, and pressure them to mend their ways. There’s no question the campaign is being timed to anticipate a late-September/early-October vote on the FY 2008 supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, with Bush calling for an additional $197 billion unencumbered by any troop withdrawal mandates.
But there’s pretty clearly a broader agenda for the campaign beyond “whipping” future Iraq votes in Congress, as reflected in Stoller’s many hints that some Bush Dogs should face primary challenges next year. After all, Stoller and Chris Bowers left their old haunts at MyDD and set up OpenLeft in no small part because they were convinced that it was time for netrooters to begin to pivot from a strictly partisan to a more ideological perspective, demanding progressive rigor from Democrats and threatening grass-roots retribution against those impeding a “progressive governing majority,” as they see it. Targeting incumbent Democrats who’ve voted, as Stoller puts it, for “capitulation [to Bush] on Iraq” and to “expand Bush’s wiretapping powers” does indeed seem like a good wedge to convince netroots folk furious about both votes to take the next step beyond the united-front effort of 2006 and towards a more ideological definition of what it means to be a Democrat.
The “wedginess” of the campaign, and perhaps it’s most troubling feature, lies in the monniker “Bush Dogs,” which obviously ramps up the rhetoric a notch from previous epiteths for straying party moderates (“conservatives,” “Republican Lite,” etc.). And the two-vote litmus test OpenLeft offers for “BushDogs” ignores pretty vast differences in party fidelity among the group. According to a CQ article on party unity in the first six months of this Congress (which generally found unusually high Democratic unity in the House and in the Senate, as compared to past caucuses and to the GOP opposition), “Bush Dog” Gene Taylor trailed the entire caucus by voting with fellow Dems only 69% of the time. Freshman Members from districts carried by Bush in 2004, such as Melissa Bean of IL (82% unity score), Zach Space of OH (83%) and Gabby Giffords of AZ (87%), strayed far less. And though I don’t have access to CQ’s full study, it’s safe to assume a significant number of the “Bush Dogs” voted with Democrats well over 90% of the time. Granting, of course, that votes on Iraq and FISA were far more important than many others, is the “Bush Dog” label, suggesting slavish submission to the president and the GOP, really justified for most of these people?
The “Bush Dog” list has some pretty interesting names. There’s Ciro Rodriguez of TX, whose narrow-miss 2006 primary challenge to Rep. Henry Cuellar was a national netroots cause, and something of a tune-up for the Lamont-Lieberman primary (a few months later, Rodriguez won a primary in a different district after a court-ordered change in distict lines). And there’s Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of SD and Ben Chandler of KY, whose names are always the first cited by Markos Moulitsas to show netroots willingness to support mildly heterodox Democrats in red districts. Are they all closer to Bush than to the Democratic Party?
The questionable nature of the epithet, and its power to fuel a serious intraparty fight, is intensified when you look at one of the two votes, the Iraq supplemental bill. You may recall that the vote was preceded by an earlier struggle when nearly all House Dems voted for a bill that included a troop withdrawal timetable (the language was watered down in the Senate, and the conference report was vetoed by Bush). The “capitulation” in the final vote was on the question of whether Dems should go to the mats to deny the Pentagon any new money for Iraq and Afghanistan until such time as Bush accepted a withdrawal plan. Fully 86 House Dems voted to “capitulate,” including the number two, three, and four Members of the House Democratic Leadership (Hoyer, Clyburne and Emanuel) along with Jack Murtha, until quite recently the unquestioned leader of the “confrontation caucus” among House antiwar Democrats. These gents were just a FISA vote away from being labeled “Bush Dogs,” and given the focus of the campaign on the upcoming Iraq vote (and Stoller’s insistence, viz, Brian Baird, that failure to “stop the war” is of itself sufficient for anathemization), could still wind up with the dog collar.

The Katrina Moment Endures

Today marks the second anniversary of Hurricaine Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast, and in New Orleans, retrospectives quickly turn into assessments of how much damage–material and human–remains unaddressed.
George W. Bush is in New Orleans today, and as usual, he is combining an event highlighting conservative policy prescriptions for New Orleans–in this case, school “choice”–with numbing recitations of the amount of money Washington has provided for Katrina relief and recovery.
But the locals aren’t buying it. Today’s New Orleans Times-Picayune features an editorial entitled: “Treat Us Fairly, Mr. President,” which notes the administration’s favoritism towards Republican-governed Mississippi in Katrina recovery funding:

Louisiana had three times more damaged homes and seven times more severely damaged homes than Mississippi. Universities in this state had three times as many students displaced and had four times the losses of Mississippi’s campuses. Louisiana fisheries suffered almost 75 percent of the damage done by Katrina, and our hospitals lost 97 percent of the hospital beds closed by the storm.
Yet in every case, Mississippi ended up with a disproportionate share of aid. Housing grants, for instance: Mississippi got $5.5 billion in Community Development Block Grant money for its 61,000 damaged homes. Louisiana, with 204,000 damaged homes, got $10.4 billion. If the aid were given out proportionately, this state would have gotten twice that much….
All Louisiana wants is to be treated fairly. But that hasn’t happened.

But that’s a mild assessment compared to many others. In last Sunday’s Washington Post, historian Douglas Brinkley, whose book The Great Deluge stands as the most comprehensive account of Katrina, penned an op-ed reporting his discussions with New Orleans volunteers stunned by the devastation of neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth War:

The stalled recovery can’t be blamed on bureaucratic inertia or red tape alone. Many volunteers come to understand what I’ve concluded is the heartless reality: The Bush administration actually wants these neighborhoods below sea level to die on the vine….
Still unfinished is the overhaul of what some call the “Lego levees,” the notoriously flawed 350-mile “flood protection system” that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers starting building in 1965.
The Corps has been busy fixing the three principal holes that opened in August 2005. Its hard work has, in fact, paid a partial dividend. A decent defensive floodwall is now on the east side of the Industrial Canal, attempting to protect the Lower Ninth Ward.
Unfortunately, that is where the upbeat news nosedives. The federal government has refused to shut the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet canal that helped cause the Katrina “funnel effect” flooding two years ago. In addition, entire neglected neighborhoods still have no adequate flood control.

In other words, despite all the promises and all the tardy presidential visits, the Bush administration continues to treat New Orleans as a low priority, and also continues to blame state and local officials for the slow recovery, even as it implicitly endorses a policy of abandonment for neighborhoods in low-lying areas.
Several Democratic presidentials candidates (and even one Republican, Mike Huckabee) have been in New Orleans over the last few days, deploring the administration’s inaction and offering their own plans. There’s a lot of overlap, with some distinctions. Hillary Clinton’s plan forcuses on Cat-5-proof levees. Edwards is proposing a so-called “Brownie’s Law” to require that political appointees in agencies like FEMA demonstrate they are qualified for their jobs. Obama has promised to shut down the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal.
More generally, memories of Katrina’s aftermath and how it was handled by the current administration will continue to operate as a backdrop to the presidential campaign, serving as a reminder of the positive role of domestic government and of the consequences of decades of conservative anti-government rhetoric. It’s a bit of a cliche by now, but still arguably true, that in 2005, events in two cities–New Orleans and Baghdad–permanently damaged George W. Bush’s credibility and paved the way to the Democratic midterm victory of 2006. And it will be a long time before either city’s scars can be hidden or removed.

How Craig Scandal Hurts GOP

After decades of snarky Republican comments besmirching the masculinity of Democratic politicians, Dems can hardly be blamed for a little schadenfreude, watching Republicans squirm when members of their ranks are outed for various transgressions of their much-trumpeted “family values.”
On sober reflection, however, there is probably not much benefit for Dems in the latest GOP scandal involving Senator Craig. For one thing, if Craig resigns, Idaho has a Republican Governor. And, guilty or innocent, Senator Craig will likely be replaced by another Republican, as Stuart Rothenberg reports:

Even though it’s an open seat, Democrats still face a very difficult bid in Idaho. George W. Bush won the state with 67% in 2000 and 68% in 2004, behind only Wyoming and Utah. Idaho hasn’t gone Democratic for President since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 when Barry Goldwater (R) won only a handful of states. The last Democrat to win a U.S. Senate race was legendary Sen. Frank Church (D) in 1974. But he lost reelection six years later.

MSNBC’s national affairs writer Tom Curry speculates that the scandal may even help Republicans — “Perhaps he will opt for retirement and open the way for another Republican to run for his seat.” But Curry also notes:

…Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network said “the direct impact of this is that its going to mean a couple of million dollars early” for [Idaho] Democratic Senate contender Larry LaRocco.
…Among Democratic donors nationwide, Rosenberg said, “There’s an enormous amount of money waiting to be deployed. This race goes to the front of the pack in Democratic Senate fundraising.”

While it may seem unlikely that there will be a Senate seat pick-up for Dems in Idaho, the cumulative piling on of GOP disasters could give LaRocca an unexpected edge. Barring the revelation of conclusive proof that Craig was somehow “framed,” the incident will further tarnish the GOP’s image and brand it as the party of hypocritical intolerance. The more Craig protests, the longer the media speculation about his past continues, and he becomes the GOP’s unwelcome poster boy for “family values.”

A Typology of Politicization

The end of the Gonzales era at the Justice Department has spurred a lot of spin-off stories, most notably about the Bush administration’s systemic habit of politicizing the executive branch of the federal government, with the U.S. Attorney scandal being the most recent example. This is a phenomenon that has been apparent from the very beginning of the Bush presidency, driven from the very top (see Bruce Reed’s amusing and insightful 2004 Washington Monthly piece on the “hack/wonk” imbalance in the Bush White House).
But it’s useful to drill a bit deeper and sort out the various types of political appointments that Bush and his predecessors–and indeed, executives at the state and local government levels–often make, in order to assess their actual impact.
I’d suggest three categories: true hacks; commissars; and ideological transformers.
True hacks are political people (operatives, supporters, even donors, or sometimes their family members) who are given public employment as a reward or as an inter-campaign holding pen, regardless of their qualifications. This is old-fashioned “patronage” of the sort that various waves of civil service reforms dating from the nineteenth century were intended to rein in (leading most often to the creation of even more lavish political jobs at the top of the bureaucratic pyramid). It’s no secret that latter-day Republican administrations in Washington have infested federal agencies with a disproportionate number of true hacks, for a simple reason: if you don’t believe in various agencies’ missions, and don’t have the guts or political capital to abolish them, then it’s tempting to treat them as jobs programs for your friends and supporters.
The Bush administration’s most notable exercises in mass hack hirings were at FEMA during the Michael Brown era, and in Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority occupation regime in Baghdad. It’s probably not an accident that these agencies were responsible for two of the more spectacular failures of the entire Bush presidency.
Commissars are appointees placed in key agency positions to ensure that the political and ideological goals of the administration are pursued regardless of the agency’s formal mission. These are invariably the most hated of political appointees, since they are by definition disloyal to their ostensible superiors, and often spend most of their time keeping tabs on their colleagues. Monica Goodling, the Justice Department White House liaison who’s been in hot water over the U.S. Attorney Scandal, was the perfect example of the Commissar. (Going back a ways, Paul Craig Roberts, now a scourge of the neocons, was installed at Treasury in Ronald Reagan’s first term to ensure fidelity to the supply-side gospel, as noted in David Stockman’s definitive account of the era).
Ideological transformers are appointees, usually at a very high level, whose job is to actively subvert or fundamentally change an agency’s mission, without benefit of legal authorization. If you look at the high subcabinet posts for virtually every agency that regulates corporations in every Republican administration since Reagan’s election, you find a lot of such appointees. Bush 43 has famously made a habit of appointing people to regulatory commissions and science review boards who are foxes-in-the-henhouse, fighting their jobs instead of performing them.
(One of the most bizarre examples of this kind of appointee occurred in 1983, when Reagan named Alfred S. Regnery–of the right-wing publishing family–to head the Office of Juvenile Justice, responsible for anti-child-abuse programs. During Regnery’s confirmation hearings, someone spotted his car at the Capitol sporting a bumper sticker that read: “Have you slugged your kid today?”).
While the current administration hasn’t, to my knowledge, created any new categories of political appointees, there is one unique aspect to its deployment of them. Typically, political appointments soar at the beginning of a presidency, when there are tons of campaign staff to offload; high levels of paranoia about the loyalities of holdover officials; and all sorts of ambitious ideological goals to implement. They tend to tail off later on, though sometimes you see a fair number of true hacks who haven’t gotten rewarded yet get last-minute placeholder jobs. But as the U.S. Attorney scandal itself has illustrated, this administration seems to be engaging in wholesale politicization of the executive branch at an undiminished pace nearly seven years into its tenure. Perhaps the Bushies think the next president will be a Republican who will continue these practices. Or perhaps they simply want to do as much damage to the integrity and competence of the federal government as they possibly can, out of sheer spite and habitual recklessness.

Thompson Slouches Towards Launch

One well-subscribed scenario for the 2008 Republican presidential contest has been that Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson will compete early on for the True Conservative Candidate mantle and an opportunity to take on Rudy Giuliani in the February 5 mega-primary, with Mike Huckabee possibly emerging as a dark-horse alternative.
Romney continues to lead all polls in IA and NH, and Huckabee’s duly made his appearance on Stage Right with a second-place showing at the Iowa Republican Straw Poll earlier this month. But where’s Fred?
There’s a corrosive article by Jonathan Martin up today at the Washington insider publication The Politico suggesting that Thompson’s just too disorganized and dispirited to run a serious presidential campaign.
Back in early summer, one very smart conservative with presidential campaign experience told me that Thompson’s decision about seriously contesting Iowa–one way or another–might well be the biggest turning point in the entire GOP nominating process. Fred’s shown every indication of giving Iowa a pass, instead staking almost everything on breakthrough wins in SC and FL. And the decision might have made sense if he had used the time gained by the delayed announcement of candidacy to create a tight, efficient, well-funded campaign organization.
Instead, says Martin:

Thompson’s plunge into the race, which aides once indicated would happen around the Fourth of July and is now planned for after Labor Day, comes amid increasingly public hand-wringing by supporters over whether he has waited too long to capitalize on the surge of interest that accompanied reports of a potential candidacy more than five months ago.
Beyond the mere anxiety of the waiting game, he has suffered through a summer of stumbles. In a short period of time, Thompson has already been hit with the sort of problems that it takes most campaigns months longer — not to mention a full-blown candidacy — to accrue.

These problems include a whole host of staff departures; infrequent and lackluster candidate appearances; and most of all, money shortages. Even Thompson himself is sending out signals that fundraising isn’t going that well. And potential donors can’t be too happy about writing checks to pay for staff who are likely to hit the bricks after a few weeks of exposure to the proto-campaign.
Still, Fred’s running second in virtually every national poll of Republicans, illustrating the powerful unhappiness of GOPers with the field. And he’s neck and neck with Rudy in SC.
But he’d best get a move on. As an actor, Thompson surely understands that his assigned role in the campaign narrative is as the Establishment Conservative: a safe alternative to his flawed rivals who also has some general-election potential. And that’s why for Fred-Heads, reading articles like Martin’s in a beltway outlet like The Politico must feel like hearing (to borrow a phrase from a very different Thompson, the late Hunter) the Hound of the Baskervilles snuffling and howling on your front porch.

Mining the Latino Vote

Democratic night-owls who saw C-SPAN2’s broadcast late last night of the illuminating panel discussion “Perceptions of Latino Voters” woke up today bleary-eyed, but substantially better-informed about a pivotal demographic in American politics that is experiencing explosive growth. Unfortunately, C-SPAN is not yet making the program available on streaming video, but it can be purchased for $29.95 from C-SPAN. The panel featured several impressive Latino political luminaries, including Sergio Bendixen, Luis Fraga, Lindsay Daniels and Cesar Martinez.
Fortunately, however, some of the information that was discussed on the program is available in a report entitled “The Latino Electorate: Profile and Trends,” by Lindsay Daniels and Clarissa Martinez De Castro for the National Council of La Raza Latino Empowerment and Advocacy Project (free download here). The report features interesting discussions that have a direct bearing on political strategy for those seeking Hispanic votes. A few facts from the study:

’04 Latino Voter Participation rate: 28% (compared to 65.8% for whites and 56.3% for African Americans. The gap shrinks significantly when “citizens of voting age” are compared.)
5 states with highest Latino voter registration as a percent of total in 2004: NM 33.7; TX 22.4; CA 17.3; AZ 14.3; FL 11.2
Hispanic share of ’06 electorate (according to exit polls) 8%
Latino self-identified registered Democrats outnumber their Republican counterparts 2-1.
3.6 million Hispanics were eligible to become citizens in 2004.
The Latino vote split 49-49 for the Democratic and Republican candidates for Florida Governor in ’06. (Bendixen attributes most of the improvement for Democrats to growth of Florida’s non-Cuban Latinos)

The even-better news for Democrats is that big spikes in Latino citizenship applications are being reported, and in last night’s C-SPAN2 panel, Bendixen said that Hispanic disenchantment with the GOP appears to be at an all-trime high. Clearly, Democrats have a strong interest in supporting easing of the “path to citizenship” for Latinos living in the U.S.

Red States Turning Purple?

Markos Moulitsas, who’s apparently on SurveyUSA‘s subscriber list, has posted nine SUSA state general election head-to-head polls testing Hillary Clnton against Giuliani, Thompson and Romney. Six are from states that Bush carried in 2004 (AL, KY, VA, OH, MO, and NM), three from the West Coast blue states (CA, OR, WA).
In the red states, HRC leads Guiliani everywhere but in MO and AL; leads Thompson in all but AL; and leads Romney in all six. The Kentucky numbers (HRC up 5 over Rudy; up 7 over Thompson; up 12 over Romney) are especially amazing, since Bush carried the state by 20%. Less surprisingly, she enjoys double-digit leads over all the GOPers in the three west coast states.
None of the polls are up on SUSA’s web site, and we also don’t know at this point if they tested other Democrats. But since a lot of the primary jostling has been about allegations that this or that candidate is stronger or weaker in red and purple states, it will be most interesting to see some real data on where they stand. The best guess now is that HRC’s strong showings reflect solid Democratic gains since 2004.

After Gonzales

The resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, coming after many months of typically stubborn Bush refusals to consider his removal, is getting puzzled reactions for its timing. But I’d say it’s par for the course for a president who has never minded flip-flopping so long as he didn’t have to admit it.
Reports that Bush is going to nominate Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff as Gonzales’ replacement, however, raise a different kind of timing problem. This week will be full of reminisicences of Hurricaine Katrina, which occurred two years ago. As Douglas Brinkley’s book The Great Deluge recently reminded us, Chertoff played an especially ignominous role in the indifferent and incompetent federal response to that disaster. So I’d guess if Chertoff is the choice, the announcement will be delayed for a week or so.
But even if Bush goes with a less controversial nominee like Larry Thompson, the confirmation hearings will obviously be dominated by all the questions Gonzales has refused to answer about Justice Department political practices and the administration’s Divine Right approach to its legal prerogatives. Perhaps this will serve as a distraction to the impending Iraq debate, or perhaps it will simply intensify an atmosphere characterized by an out-of-control presidency that refuses accountability for any of its works and any of its agents. This is one moment where virtually all Democrats will agree on a full-throttle, no-holds-barred fight.