washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: October 2007

HRC’s Consolation Prize

As my last post noted, last night wasn’t exactly a shining moment for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But today brought news that should cheer her up: an endorsement by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
This is a pretty big deal, given AFSCME’s size and political clout. And it’s a particularly big deal in Iowa, where AFSCME is generally considered the most politically important union. Because it’s a national endorsement, she will also be able to draw on AFSCME heft from other states in the final drive towards the Caucuses.
I’m sure the Edwards campaign was praying for a “no endorsement” vote by AFSCME, but the North Carolinian did get a consolation prize of his own on the labor front: an endorsement from SEIU’s state council in New Hampshire. Since Edwards has already been endorsed by a dozen or so SEIU locals elsewhere (including neighboring Massachusetts), he, too, can draw on out-of-state help from the union in NH, just as he can in IA. But it was apparently a very near thing: according to various stories leaking out today, the executive council of the NH SEIU actually voted last week to endorse Obama, and then reversed the vote on murky procedural grounds, citing a membership straw poll that gave Edwards plurality support. An Obama endorsement would have been a really big deal, giving him a key boost in NH while locking Edwards’ SEIU supporters out of active campaigning in the state.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Last night’s Democratic presidential candidate debate in Philadelphia was peculiar in that the event’s moderators, Tim Russert and Brian Williams, skewed the first half to meet the expectation that this would be a slug-fest with Obama and Edwards taking on HRC. Chris Dodd’s famous Talk Clock showed a time allocation in which the big three plus the moderators soaked up 75 of the 105 minutes of actual debate. But more obviously, an extraordinary number of the questions were about HRC, whose physical position between Edwards and Obama underlined the sense that she was undergoing an inquisition.
That’s certainly how the event struck TNR’s Noam Scheiber:

The real development was the contrast between Obama and Edwards, both of whom were auditioning for the role of Clinton alternative, and who sounded at times like two homicide detectives working over a murder suspect.

Yep. John Edwards played bad cop and Barack Obama played good cop. As in every detective drama, the bad cop got in the best lines. But substance aside, the real question is how viewers felt about the one woman on the stage getting the third degree.
As is often the case, there was a notable disconnect between MSM and blogospheric reaction to the debate, though not in the direction you might expect. MSMers generally interpreted the event as really bad news for Hillary Clinton, and to the extent that they chose a winner, crowned Edwards. (That ultimate journalistic insider, Mark Halperin of Time, gave Edwards an “A” and HRC a “C-minus”). Immediately after the debate on MSNBC, the buzz was all about HRC’s mishandling of the question about drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants (no one, BTW, seemed interested in the fact that Obama and Edwards actually support the highly unpopular idea).
But in most precincts of the progressive blogosphere, there wasn’t much of a sense that there were clear winners or losers. A DailyKos reader poll pretty much broke along candidate-preference lines. Matt Stoller of OpenLeft found the whole thing boring. Dana Goldstein at TAPPED, who admits she was rooting for Obama, thought Clinton was the ultimate winner.
This reaction must have been puzzling to Edwards’ campaign. After all, their candidate channeled the standard netroots attack lines on HRC quite faithfully: he went after her on Iran, but also made her residual troop plan for Iraq a key differentiator, for the very first time. He all but used “Republican Lite” to describe her policy views, and deployed lots of netroots buzz words and phrases, tying HRC to “neocons” and a “corrupt system,” and talking incessantly about “standing up” to Bush/Cheney and corporations. Yet it was Mark Halperin, not any blogger, who thought Edwards hit a home run while HRC struck out.
I don’t know what, if anything, this differential reaction means, other than perhaps reflecting the belief among many progressive bloggers that Edwards is not viable and that HRC has all but wrapped up the nomination, barring a late charge by Obama, whose “good cop” number in Philadelphia belied all the predictions that he might try to take HRC’s head off.

DCorps: Warning on Immigration

The latest Democracy Corps strategic memo from Stan Greenberg, Al Quinlan and James Carville shows an intensification of “wrong track” sentiment and continued Democratic advantages in generic balloting, approval ratings, and key “swing” congressional contests.
But the memo comes with several blunt warnings about the danger that Democrats could wind up alongside Republicans in the crossfire of public anger over certain issues. While Iraq, health care, corruption and economic worries continue to help Democrats, voters are also persistently angry about taxes. And on one issue, immigration, Democrats and independents as well as Republicans are drifting towards positions more associated with Tom Tancredo than with the mainstream of Democratic elected official opinion.

When we tested a comprehensive proposal in a bi-partisan poll for NPR, we got (44)
percent support for a plan to increase enforcement on the borders and work place and deny most
government benefits but recognizing we cannot expel 12 million, creates a path for citizenship
for the law abiding – a big change in status with opportunities for fuller integration into
America. That is likely a presidential issue that could gain further support with public debate.
When we tested a plan earlier without the reassurance on benefits, the plan got only 39 percent,
suggesting how challenging this issue will be for ordinary candidates without the full platform
available at a presidential level. Even with the reassurance on control and benefits, 40 percent
of Democrats and a majority of African Americans favored the tougher Republican alternative
that provided no path to legalization. This is a real wedge issue that Democrats need to get right.

Indeed, the DCorps analysts suggest that immigration may pose the same chaltlenge to Democrats today that welfare reform posed to their predecessors going into the 1992 presidential election. Immigration is now cited as the single top reason for “wrong-track” sentiment by self-identified independents, more important than Iraq or health care. To show how contemporary opinion doesn’t nicely break down on familiar ideological lines, the second-largest concern in this group was about energy independence and global warming.
But a full reading of the DCorps memo indicates that Republicans are far more in danger of sounding out of touch with current trends than are Democrats. Consider all the you-never-had-it-so-good rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates (other than Huckabee and Paul) about the economy:

In the focus groups [of swing voters], we handed people a page of positive facts about the economy – and we nearly had to rescue the moderator from the disbelieving and angry participants. In fact,
before this exercise, we asked people to write down two important things happening with the
economy and none of the 40 participants said anything positive, with their negative notations
centered on the high “cost of living.” It is hard to underestimate the power of a Democratic
message that simply recognizes the economic realities that are very real for these voters.

And it’s hard to underestimate the poitical blindness of Republicans who keep telling these voters to look on the sunny side and stay optimistic. Optimism is not exactly in high supply among Americans this particular moment in history.

Early Obituary

When I did my post yesterday about the extraordinary blogospheric reaction to Barack Obama’s South Carolina “gospel tour,” I hadn’t yet read Chris Bowers’ take at OpenLeft. But typically, Chris offers the definitive explanation of the widespread unhappiness with Obama on the Left, with a 3824 word obituary of his campaign which also concedes the presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton.
Even if you disagree with Chris, it’s well worth reading as another example of the different optics different people bring to common political topics. From the very beginning, Obama’s candidacy was almost universally hailed as offering the prospect of an unusual electoral force. Some thought that his African-American identity, his early opposition to the Iraq War, and his New Politics rhetoric, tied to a repudiation of Bush-era polarization, could produce a Bobby Kennedy-style mindbending coalition appealing to the Left and Center within the Democratic Party and to independents beyond it. As he explains in the current post, Chris Bowers saw the same phenomena quite differently: Obama’s strongest appeal was to a left-bent “creative class” (represented by, though not co-extensive with, the “netroots”)–antiwar, anti-establishment, and secular–which could be combined with African-Americans to produce a mass progressive movement.
To Obama-as-RFK observers, his paens to bipartisanship and his conspicuous outreach to faith communities have been logical if sometimes poorly executed, and could bear fruit in an expanded Democratic base. To Chris and others, they have been daily irritants to Obama’s strongest supporters, compounded by his disengagement from congressional fights that many netroots folk have considered life-or-death matters. The McClurkin incident, in this view, was the final straw. And according to Chris Bowers, at least, this means the one realistic alternative to HRC has imploded.

Barring a miraculous victory in Iowa, I think that Obama is done and Clinton is the nominee. I don’t see how Edwards comes back with only $1.5M to spend on ads in Iowa. Further, Richardson hasn’t made any gains in the state in four months, and everyone else trails Clinton by about 25% in the state right now. Seriously, I think it would take a miracle for it to change. From the start, Obama was the only one with a real chance, but now has just suffered too severe a blow with the white, progressive creative class that he needed to win the state. After five months of losing ground among this group, the vicious, deserved, and nearly blogosphere-wide criticism of Obama today seems like too much to overcome. It is the nail in the coffin for his campaign. He just can’t win the primary without those voters, and I don’t see how he gets them back now.

Not everyone, of course, thinks the “white, progressive, creative class” is the key to victory in Iowa, and moreover, it’s not immediately clear that mass members of this “class” are as tuned into or agitatated by the McClurkin inicident or Obama’s other alleged sins against progressivism and partisanship. Chris ties his analysis of Obama’s stubborn refusal to stand up for that “class” with his gradual decline in national polls against Clinton, which is a plausible but hardly unassailable interpretation. Given recent polling in Iowa, and Obama’s excellent field operation there, a win would hardly represent a “miracle.” And then, just as many voters are beginning to pay closer attention, an Obama-Clinton one-on-one match-up might be a different proposition than it appears to be today. Chris Bowers’ obituary for Obama’s candidacy is definitely too early.
But I can understand the netroots angst he represents, best expressed in these lines:

It is ironic, really. During 2006 and early 2007, I always thought that the netroots would end up being the downfall of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. However, it turns out that losing the netroots has been the downfall of Barack Obama’s campaign, resulting in the rise of Hillary Clinton.

And for some netroots folk, that’s an irony difficult to bear.

Hawkeye Poll: Hold the High Fives

The Politico is re-running a piece from the Daily Iowan by Kelsey Beltramea noting former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s strong showing in the latest Iowa University “Hawkeye” poll, conducted 10/17-24. The poll also shows Senators Obama and Clinton in a statistical tie. But before supporters of Obama and the Huckster start slapping the high fives, they should give Mark Blumenthal’s Pollster.com post on the poll a sober read. Blumenthal notes that the poll uses different methodology and he crunches current registration numbers, Iowa Caucus turnout figures in ’04 and ’88, and concludes:

…this poll is sampling a considerably broader population of Iowa adults than has turned out to attend past caucuses….So interpret these results in that context and with great caution. The trends observed by comparing the August an October Hawkeye polls are meaningful – because they used the same methodology for both polls – but apply only to the very broad population of Iowa adults sampled. It helps that the trends in this poll bear a resemblance to what we have seen lately on other Iowa polls, but we advise huge grains of salt before comparing the support for any particular candidate on this survey to that measured by any other survey.

Doesn’t mean Huckabee and Obama aren’t getting some new traction; it’s just that this particular poll has limited value for charting a real trend.

The Optics of Obama’s Gospel Event

One of the more interesting aspects of contemporary politics is the variable impact of “events” on different media in different places. And you get a full measure of that variability in reading about Barack Obama’s South Carolina “gospel tour,” which hit Columbia last night with “ex-gay” singer Donnie McClurkin in the cleanup spot. McClurkin basically ended the event by denying he was an anti-gay bigot because he’s “suffered the same feelings” as gay folk, and reiterated his belief that God “delivered me from homosexuality.”
To read many progressive bloggers, Obama’s decision to involve McClurkin (introduced to him, reportedly, by Oprah Winfrey) was a cataclysmic mistake. So says Kos, who called it the lowpoint of the “worst [week] I have seen from any candidate in this presidential cycle.” So says Atrios, who described Obama’s explanation of his decision as “incredibly insulting” to, well, just about everybody. So says Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake, who dismisses arguments that Obama just screwed up, and accuses him of “dog-whistle outreach” to gay-bashers.
So how did the brouhaha play down in South Cackalacki itself? Well, the Columbia State, which features massive political coverage every day, didn’t bother to cover Obama’s Columbia event. It did publish an AP story with the title: “McClurkin Wins Cheers At Obama Event Despite Gay Protests,” which gives you an idea how seriously the writer took the cataclysmic-disaster interpretation of Obama’s gospel tour.
These different optics reflect the very different issues Obama’s campaign was dealing with in putting on this kind of event. On the one hand, it deeply offended not only gays and lesbians, but many progressive activists who want to support Obama as an alternative to Clinton, but suspect his commitment to the kind of ideological rigor and partisan zeal they consider essential in a nominee. On the other hand, it might have done him some good in SC, where his candidacy may ultimately rise or fall based on his ability to wrest a sizable majority of African-American votes away from HRC.
I realize I am analyzing this episode from a purely political, not moral, point of view. But so, too, are many of those who are blasting Obama nonstop today. Nobody really believes that Barack Obama is homophobic, and nobody (at least on the Left side of the political spectrum) really doubts the sincerity of his religious faith. There’s no contradiction there, since Obama belongs to a faith community, the United Church of Christ, that proudly ordains gay and lesbian clergy. It’s sad and ironic that he’s wound up sponsoring an event where faith and inclusion have come so sharply into conflict from sharply different optics. And it will be an important test of his claim to be a “transformational” politician to see how he gets himself out of this particular trap moving forward.

Rudy the Authoritarian

The ever-insightful John Judis has a lengthly, fascinating article up on the New Republic site evaluating Rudy Giuliani’s political and governing philosphy based on his upbringing, education, and experience as mayor of New York.
In terms of Giuliani’s early background, Judis basically concludes that while Rudy is a pretty crummy Catholic when it comes to personal conduct, he drank deeply from a Catholic Aristotelian tradition of political philosphy that has been known on occasion to lead from a mild communitarianism to a dangerous authoritarianism (viz, the sad history of European Catholic political thinking in the first half of the twentieth century).
Of more immediate interest is Judis’ fine analysis of the false and frightening analogy that Giuliani often draws between his anti-crime campaign in New York and how he would “police” the world as president:

In a recent essay for Foreign Affairs, [Giuliani] wrote: “I know from personal experience that when security is reliably established in a troubled part of a city, normal life rapidly reestablishes itself: shops open, people move back in, children start playing ball on the sidewalks again, and soon a decent and law-abiding
community returns to life. The same is true in world affairs. Disorder in the world’s bad neighborhoods tends to spread. Tolerating bad behavior breeds more bad behavior.”
This is a foolish analogy. In policing the world, the United States cannot claim to be enforcing its own laws; we lack legitimacy to do so, as we found after invading Iraq. When the NYPD went into poor neighborhoods, it was not an occupying force; when the U.S. military took over Baghdad, it was, and it suffered the consequences. Some of the “neighborhoods” Giuliani wants to clean up, such as Iran, possess their own armies and can call on other “neighborhoods,” such as Russia and China, to deter an attempt to punish them for bad behavior. In short, the world is not New York writ large, and the trade-offs between authority and liberty look very different from the White House than from Gracie Mansion. But these distinctions seem lost on the man who aspires to be the next mayor of the United States.

Judis doesn’t mention the grand irony of the front-running Republican candidate using a law enforcement paradigm for anti-terrorism policy, particularly given Giuliani’s large platoon of neocon advisors. (It’s supposed to be Democrats who don’t understand this is World War III, not gang-busting). But to the extent that Rudy seems to have convinced a lot of voters that his record in reducing violence in New York is the best reason to believe he can reduce violence around the world, Judis has performed an invaluable service in showing how ridiculous a credential that really is, and the danger to both national security and civil liberties that a Giuliani presidency would pose.

Re-Testing the Third Rail

As anyone paying attention to the Democratic presidential contest is probably aware, there is a massive Greek Chorus out there, spanning the blogosphere and the MSM, telling Barack Obama that he needs to get tougher and more specific in outlining his differences with Hillary Clinton (I may be one of the few bloggers who hasn’t climbed on that bandwagon). But on the Left, at least, there probably isn’t much happiness about the precise way in Obama has chosen to take their advice.
Obama’s running an ad in Iowa–where the very latest major poll shows him effectively tied with Clinton–implicitly accusing HRC of putting her “finger to the wind” on key issues, with Social Security solvency being a leading example. Obama’s criticism of Clinton on SocSec has been more explicit in speeches and press events over the last few days.
So what is Obama offering on Social Security that Clinton’s not? The ad and his campaign’s materials say he wants to eliminate the “wealth exemption” for Social Security payroll taxation, which refers to the current $97,500 “cap” on earned income subject to the tax. But it’s not clear at this point if he is proposing to abolish the cap altogether, or, like John Edwards, to expose income above $200,000 to the payroll tax, while leaving marginal earned income between $97,500-$200,000 untaxed (sometimes called the “doughnut hole” approach). As it happens, HRC has expressed a willingness to “consider” monkeying with the payroll tax “cap”–in the context, as everyone always says, of a “comprehensive” approach (code for Republicans accepting a payroll tax increase while Democrats accept some sort of benefit cuts).
What seems to be a bit new about Obama’s line is that he’s discarded all the usual “comprehensive reform” language and is aggressively, not defensively, promoting a payroll tax increase while rejecting significant benefit changes. This makes many Democrats nervous because (a) unlike a rollback in the Bush income tax cuts, this is unmistakably a tax increase, which Republicans will point out every five minutes if Obama is the nominee; (b) abolishing the cap, instead of creating a “doughnut hole,” would represent a tax increase on millions of upper-middle-income earners, often the same people getting hit by the Alternative Minimum Tax; and perhaps most importantly (c) lots of Democratic activists, particularly after the campaign against Bush’s 2005 privatization proposal, really can’t stand any sort of talk about Social Security solvency, considering it either a non-problem or a “conservative meme.”
So why is Obama taking this controversial tack? Much of the aforementioned Greek Chorus, after all, wants Obama to go after HRC from the Left, particularly on national security and/or anti-corporate issues, not from the “entitlement reform” Center (see this post from Josh Marshall, one of the leaders of the successful fight against Bush’s 2005 SocSec initiative, on why he thinks this is a really bad idea).
I don’t have any inside knowledge here, but one reason Obama might want to talk about Social Security stems from the demographics of the Democratic electorate, particularly in Iowa. The University of Iowa poll I linked to above shows Obama with an impressive 41% from likely Caucus-goers under 44 (with 19% for HRC and 16% for Edwards). Among voters between 44 and 60, HRC leads him 31% to 21% (with an impressive 26% for Edwards). And among over-60 voters, HRC has 31%, Obama 24%, and Edwards 16%. Given the vast skewing of the Iowa Caucus turnout towards oldsters, Obama’s path to victory has two obvious elements: boosting turnout among younger voters, and gaining stronger support up the age ladder. His field organization is keyed to the former goal. And it’s beginning to appear his policy message may be keyed to the latter.
Remember that Obama has already proposed exempting $50,000 in income for seniors from income taxation. Perhaps his campaign has decided that biting the bullet for a tax increase to maintain Social Security benefits will give him a crucial boost in the geezer- and near-geezer vote.
In any event, Democrats nervous about candidate talk on Social Security–beyond adamant refusal to consider it a problem–should remember that this will inevitably be a general election issue. And given the stubborn willingness of the Republican presidential field to embrace Bush’s unpopular approach to Social Security, it’s an issue likely to favor Democrats.

Pitfalls of Evaluating Campaign Coverage

New York Times reporter Katherine Q. Seelye has a short article flagging a new study of campaign coverage, conducted 1/1 to 5/31 by the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism and Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The study will likely get a fair amount of buzz, despite the very limited representation of just five websites in the survey (AOL, MSNBC, CNN, Yahoo and Google).
There were no big shockers in the survey, which found that horse race stories accounted for 63 percent of all reports surveyed, up from 55 percent in ’04 and ’00, In terms of coverage, Clinton got the most, Obama got the most favorable and McCain got the most negative coverage. The candidates’ track records received only 1 percent of coverage — I would have guessed maybe a little more. Conservative spinmeisters will undoubtedly make much of the fact the Dems got more coverage than Repubs (49-31 percent of stories), but that will likely even out before long.
To be fair to the survey sponsors, it would be impossible to do a full-scale study of political coverage, particularly on the internet, so vast and diverse is the relevant content. But it is misleading to suggest the findings of five websites, none of which are dedicated to political reporting, is somehow representative of the scope of campaign coverage on the internet. In light of this shortcoming, make what you will of the overview bullet point about the approaches of different media categories:

There were also distinct coverage differences in different media. Newspapers were more positive than other media about Democrats and more citizen-oriented in framing stories. Talk radio was more negative about almost every candidate than any other outlet. Network television was more focused than other media on the personal backgrounds of candidates. For all sectors, however, strategy and horse race were front and center.

Shortcomings notwithstanding, the study has some insights for campaign strategy in dealing with reporters of different media, although most savvy flacks of the candidates will not be too surprised at the survey findings. For an interesting alternative view of media coverage, check out another Pew Research Center study on a related topic “Internet News Audience Highly Critical of News Organizations,” conducted in July.

Old Dominion Death Wish

In Virginia earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, who’s has been carefully planning for years to run to succeed Sen. John Warner, announced with some visible bitterness that he would not run for the Senate now that Warner has finally retired.
The bitterness flows from the immediate cause of his abandonment of that long-cherished dream: a decision by the Virginia Republican Party to hold a convention rather than a primary to choose the candidate to face Democrat Mark Warner next November. A convention, as everyone in the state understands, will be dominated by conservative activists who are almost certain to spurn the relatively moderate Davis in favor of former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who’s already announced for the gubernatorial contest.
Davis, mind you, is a prodigious vote-getter and fundraiser from Northern Virginia, the area where recent Democratic statewide victories have been based, while Gilmore is a failed governor, failed RNC chair, and most recently, a failed presidential candidate, who will not have a prayer against Mark Warner. Moreover, Gilmore represents the hard-core culturally rigid, fanatically anti-tax wing of the state GOP, which has now lost two straight gubernatorial bids and a Senate contest, and whose primary challenges to moderate GOP state senators this year are endangering a GOP majority of that chamber previously thought to be impregnable.
This deliberate decision to hand Gilmore the Senate nomination can only be understood as an act of self-deception, under the bizarre theory that Virginia Republicans have been losing because they are insufficiently conservative, or as the expression of a death wish, reflecting a determination to hold onto intraparty power at the expense of real governing power.
Virginia is only the latest example of this phenomenon, as explained by Ron Brownstein in a column today. What he calls an “ideological inquisition” in the GOP is reflected in other primary challenges of party heretics, and indeed, in the behavior of the GOP presidential field (with the arguable exception of Rudy Giuliani).
The CW on this subject remains that both parties are under the control of their activist “bases,” and that moderates in both parties are being hunted to extinction. But as Kevin Drum accurately suggests in his commentary on Brownstein’s column, this equivalency argument is just wrong:

Every two years the losing party has this exact same conversation: (a) move to the center to appeal more to swing voters, or (b) move left (right) in order to stay true to the party’s liberal (conservative) heritage? My sense is that (b) is almost always the choice after the first loss or two, after which (a) finally wins out.
This year, though, we’re in a historically odd position. The Republican Party is still in stage (b), but to a smaller extent, the Democrats are back there too. The Democratic Party spent so long in stage (a) during the 90s, moving aggressively to the center after years in the wilderness, and the GOP moved so far to the right under Gingrich and Bush, that Democrats have the luxury of being able to move modestly to the left and yet still be moving relatively closer to the center than the Republican Party. On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s like the GOP is moving right from 8 to 9 while the Democratic party is moving left from 4 to 3.5. The lunacy of the conservative base is providing a huge amount of cover for liberals to make some modest progress this year.

And Virginia offers a good illustration of the relative moderation of Democrats, even those on the intense Left. After all, there are plenty of Democrats, in Virginia and elsewhere, who probably think Mark Warner is an unprincipled Clintonian triangulator whose constant talk of bipartisanship makes him a sell-out (viz, Matt Stoller’s description at OpenLeft of Warner’s announcement statement for the Senate as “disgusting” and “Liebermanesque”). But you don’t see anyone trying to deny him the nomination, at the cost of a precious Senate seat.