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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: January 2008

“Most Liberal Senator”

Coming soon to a Republican Talking Point near you:
National Journal has published its 2007 ratings of U.S. Senators, and lo and behold, Barack Obama is dubbed the “Most Liberal Senator.”
This brought back some memories for me, because four years ago I got involved in a complex and heated argument with the NatJo folks (largely offline) about the same designation awarded to Sen. John Kerry, who by a strange coincidence, was also running for president that year.
I discovered that the methodology for these ratings involved some very questionable rules. One involved ignoring missed votes (extremely common among presidential candidates), with the even more questionable exception of eliminating whole categories of votes if the Senator missed an arbitrary percentage of them, making the rating then depending on whatever was left. Another problem was the exceptionally subjective definition of “liberal” and “conservative.” Party-line votes, whatever their substance, were defined as ideological, and in some cases (e.g., votes to resist GOP tax cuts for violating budget rules) votes that united “liberals” with some conservatives were labeled “liberal” entirely.
I haven’t had a chance to look at NatJo’s current methodology–beyond noting they’ve now decided against rating Senators with a large number of total absences, a practice that exempts John McCain (but not Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton) from any rating or label, and which, if it had been employed in 2004, would have made John Kerry “Unrated” instead of “the Most Liberal Senator.”
But fortunately, Steve Benen at Political Animal has leapt onto these ratings like a panther, and made a lot of the points I’ve just made above, with updated examples. Meanwhile, Brian Beutler has the best general description of the NatJo system: “This is philistinism masquerading as social science–it’s the U.S. News College Guide of Washington politics.”
Much of this controversy, of course, could be avoided if National Journal and others who do these ratings would simply use the term that the senators they are describing actually apply to themselves: “progressive.” “Liberal” has of course been contaminated by many years and many billions of dollars of stereotyping abuse by the Right. Moreover, it’s confusing because it means something entirely different in the international context: more like “conservative,” in fact. “Conservatives” would undoubtedly howl if the National Journal decided to provide them with a label they rejected, such as “Reactionary” or “Authoritarian” or “Bushian.” Why the double standard?
Let’s hope these ratings receive the cold shoulder they deserve.

A Cool $32 Million

This morning, on a call with the nation’s political reporters, the Obama campaign said that, once again, the senator had managed to raise a ridiculous sum of money. This time, it was $32 million, every cent of it collected in January — in 30 days besting the campaign’s previous 3-month record.
Just in the year 2008, Obama’s campaign has added 170,000 new donors. Since he began his presidential bid last year, he’s seen 650,000 people give money to his campaign. Even when Howard Dean was breaking fundraising records four years ago, his campaign managed to pull just 250,000 donors. The size of the Obama donor base just dwarfs anything else in history.
It’s also worth pointing out once again that the vast majority of these donations are well below the maximum $2,300 contribution limit. Obama himself likes to tell the story of an envelope from a voter that came with a check for $3.01 and a Bible verse. For the most part, his donors are ordinary people, and their small contributions often mean they can contribute more in the future.
Of course, getting people to buy into the Obama campaign and contribute money has never been his problem. As he did in Iowa and South Carolina — and failed to do in New Hampshire and Nevada — Obama has to both get people to the polls and encourage them to vote for him.
Already, Obama has advertising on the air in all but two of the Feb. 5 states. On the call today, the campaign announced that they would use this new cash to begin showing ads in Louisiana, Washington, Nebraska, Maine, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C — all states with primaries after February 5th.
No matter what happens on Super Tuesday, the strength of this haul will give Barack Obama the resources to keep fighting for delegates. But even if he loses the nomination, his fundraising from small donors (and for that matter, Hillary Clinton’s, which is less dramatic but still enormous by historical standards) will provide a model for Democrats in the general election and beyond.
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist

WWRD? And Other GOP Follies

I don’t know how many of you watched the Republican presidential debate last night. It wasn’t just bad (and it was adjudged as bad by Republicans as well); it was surreal. Perhaps it was the bizarre presence of Air Force One looming over the candidates, hunched as they were over a table at the Ronald Reagan presidential library. Maybe it was the ghostly presence of Reagan himself, which seemed to grip the candidates and questioners alike. Indeed, the theme of the entire debate was “WWRD?”
Amidst all the inane and idolatrous babbling about the 40th president (at one point Mitt Romney said “Ronald Reagan” so many times in rapid succession that he sounded like he had forgotten himself and fallen into a chant or even a prayer), there was something of a debate that nicely illustrated the odd world of the Republican “base.”
The key juncture was the bicker-fest between McCain and Romney over the former’s allegation that the latter had once uttered the accursed word “timetables” in connection with our glorious march towards total victory in Iraq. After fifteen minutes of this stuff, Ron Paul had to jump in and remind them that they were equally out of touch with reality on the larger issue of the war, and shouldn’t waste time fighting over who said what when. Perhaps lost in the crossfire was the fact that both Romney and Huckabee passed up a clear opportunity to express some slight concern over McCain’s infamous “100 years” statement on how long our troops might need to stay in Iraq.
If you are one of those people who worry about insufficient partisan differentiation, take a long look at the Iraq debate on the campaign trail. Among the Democratic candidates, nobody disputes that the Iraq War was a boneheaded disaster that needs to be ended quickly; instead, they argue over their earler positions and what that says about their judgment. Until Bill Richardson got out of the race, they argued some about small residual troop deployments. Among the Republican candidates (except for Paul, of course), the Iraq War was a fully justified response to 9/11 and Islamofascism; we’re winning the war now, thank God and Petraus; but just in case, let’s have permanent bases and keep troops there forever. Can’t repeat that Vietnam “cut and run,” can we?
Since the general public’s a lot more in line with the Democratic than with the Republican perspective on Iraq, I do hope as many of them as possible were watching that debate last night. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something a bit disturbing about the spectacle of an old white man–the probable nominee–baiting another white man for being a wussie about the war as they sit around in a giant aircraft hanger.

Edwards’ Strategic Deficit

I’m with Matt Compton, and with a lot of observers, in praising Sen. John Edwards for the policy heft he brought to the presidential campaign, and encouraged others to emulate.
Edwards’ political strategy, on the other hand, just didn’t work.
I’ve written a brief post on this topic for The New Republic’s blog, The Plank. Check it out.

Edwards Departs

Back in March, John Edwards held a press conference with his wife, Elizabeth, to discuss the reappearance of her cancer. At the time, there was widespread speculation about what Edwards would actually say. Hours before the event, a source told The Politico that the senator would suspend his campaign, then Matt Drudge put up the sirens, and for a moment, it looked like Edwards was done.
Today, Sen. John Edwards is dropping out of the race. After disappointing losses in the early caucuses and primaries, that really doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But it is worth stopping to note that between March and now, Edwards has made a real, tangible impression on this campaign for president.
The mere fact of Edwards’ withdrawal makes the assumption that everyone has made now inevitable—the next Democratic nominee for president will either be the first woman or the first African-American. By quitting the race now, and doing so gracefully, he does his part to ease the country into this historic moment.
Edwards will make his announcement today from New Orleans—the same place he kicked off his campaign for president. Through the course of this election, Edwards, more than anyone, has made poverty an important theme in the race. Following his lead, Obama and Clinton both announced elaborate plans to fight hunger and disease and raise personal income levels. It is now a central part of the agenda for the next Democratic president.
In fact, Edwards is responsible for driving much of the ideas debate in this primary. Before his rivals, he released sweeping, detailed plans to achieve universal health care and to fight global warming. They had little choice but to be just as bold and meticulous in their own policy prescriptions. His health care plan was particularly good example of fundamentally solid public policy. It was innovative and smart, describing specific roles for individuals, corporations, and the government. When Clinton released her plan in the fall, it shared much of the same architecture.
Five years ago, Edwards gave a speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. It was called, “In Defense of Optimism,” and its message became the theme of his first campaign for president. It was immediately hailed as a success, and many pointed to that message of hope as a reason for his surprising second-place-finish in Iowa in 2004. But that wasn’t the theme that Edwards chose to campaign around in this election. He ran as a fighter, a crusader, someone who could take on the big corporations and entrenched interests. But it’s hard to be an angry, hopeful populist. This combative message just did not get voters (liberal or otherwise) to show up for him at the polls. It’s hard to call the Edwards failure a rejection of populism outright, but it does lend some doubt to the idea that this kind of rhetoric can be a successful platform for a president.
Now, the question is what he does next. Most reports indicate that Edwards will not endorse another candidate at his rally this afternoon. We know for a fact that he met privately with Hillary Clinton after the last Democratic debate. On Saturday, Robert Novak reported that the Obama campaign had been talking up the idea of Edwards as Attorney General. There is also some question as to whether the Edwards camp harbors some residual resentment of the decision by his former strategist David Axelrod to support Obama. Personally, I think the opinion that matters most to Edwards is that of his wife, and any endorsement decision matters heavily on how she weighs in.
Edwards’ effect on the candidate competition from this point on is still up in the air. But his impact on the policies for which the ultimate nominee will fight is certain, and hard to overestimate.

The Winnowing Continues

With less than a week to go until Super Tuesday, the presidential field continues to dwindle, and the low odds of some sort of brokered convention on either side have dropped considerably.
Sen. Edwards’ departure from the campaign won’t have a dramatic effect, but since he might have picked up a scattering of delegates next week, it hastens the day when one of the survivors will be able to nail down the nomination. If, however, Edwards chooses to endorse Obama, he could shift the dynamics of the campaign towards a referendum on Hillary Clinton as opposed to an audition of Barack Obama.
Matt Compton, a native North Carolinian, will post some retrospective thoughts about Sen. Edwards’ campaign shortly, and I may add a few notes later on about what we’ve learned from his message and political strategy.
On the Republican side, the McCain win in Florida and its nature, combined with an endorsement from Rudy Giuliani and the consignment of the Huckabee campaign to life support, have brought the Arizonan to the very brink of “inevitability.” The only remaining question is how much energy and money Mitt Romney can bring to a last-ditch effort to beat McCain in enough February 5 states to give anti-McCain conservatives hope they can deny him the nomination.
In that connection, as always, I looked at the National Review site to gauge the temperature of conservative opinion-leaders towards McCain. Are they prepared for a savage insurgency? Is Romney, with his own weaknesses, a suitable vehicle for that task?
Sure enough, the magazine has a symposium up today assessing the damage and weighing next steps. Nobody’s threatening to take a dive in November. Noted McCain-disparager Hugh Hewitt is the most combative, comparing McCain to Nixon (not a compliment, despite Hewitt’s past service as director of the Nixon Library), and demanding that conservatives (among whom, he says, McCain can never be numbered) rally around Romney to the bitter end. Several commentors gamely recommend various panders McCain could offer to reassure them. Mona Charon publicly expresses the private fear of many conservatives that McCain doesn’t think he needs them. And a couple of participants mock McCain’s apparent belief that invoking the name of Ronald Reagan on every available occasion will bring conservatives around.
What I find most surprising about this discussion, and others like it, is that conservatives seem less worried about McCain as a president than McCain as a candidate. They are especially alarmed about a McCain-Obama matchup. This is in sharp contrast to what I am generally hearing from Democrats, many of whom are terrified by McCain’s general election poll standing, and are particularly worried that a McCain-Obama contest would provide an unfavorable comparison of Obama’s short resume with McCain’s unique ability to pose as an experienced insider with outsider credentials.
All of this speculation on both sides will prove academic if HRC wins the nomination; a Clinton-McCain contest would likely become a 2004-style partisan slugfest in which McCain struggles to overcome his party’s low popularity while HRC struggles to overcome her high personal negatives, with turnout probably mattering more than persuasion. And lest we forget, there’s always the possibility that Mitt Romney will mount an ideologically driven comeback that will either deny McCain an easy nomination or force him to say and do things that will reduce his general-election appeal.
We’ll obviously know a lot more in six days.

Obama Mo?

Although Senator Clinton won very close to half of the votes In Florida’s Democratic primary, there were some signs of hope for Senator Obama, according to HuffPo Editor Nico Pitney’s article “Florida Results Show Late Momentum for Obama.” Says Pitney:

The election was mostly meaningless — Florida’s delegates have been stripped and none of the Democratic candidates campaigned there — but Clinton’s “beauty contest” victory rally was covered by all the cable news networks, and she’s sure to receive more positive press heading into the all-important February 5 super-primary.
Yet a closer look at the exit surveys shows some notably positive trends for Clinton’s chief rival, Sen. Barack Obama.
Despite losing the state overall by 17 points, Obama actually won more support than Clinton from voters who made up their minds in the last three days (46 percent to 38 percent), in the last week (39-31) and in the last month (47-40).
Clinton did defeat Obama among Floridians who decided on a candidate on the day of the primary. But overwhelmingly, Clinton’s support came from those who made up their minds over a month ago (63 percent to 27 percent), and from early voters who used absentee ballots (50-31). Floridians began receiving absentee ballots in late December.
According to the exit polls, those early deciders and early voters made up fully 59 percent of Florida’s Democratic electorate.
The results seem to indicate that Obama picked up significant momentum in Florida following his victories in Iowa and South Carolina, as well as his high-profile endorsements (49 percent of Florida voters said Ted Kennedy’s support was important to their decision)…Clinton’s margin of victory among Election Day deciders was the narrowest of all: 34 percent to 30 percent..

Naturally, the Clinton camp sees all of this as tortured analysis. But, with Edwards reportedly ready to quit, and Clinton’s double digit margin in FL notwithstanding, this ball game isn’t over.

Spirit and Letter of the Florida Boycott

For all the focus on the Republican competition in FL today, there’s an interesting story a-brewing on the Democratic side.
As you probably know, the Democratic National Committee stripped MI and FL of their votes at the Democratic Convention in August on grounds that the states violated the ban on pre-February 5 primaries, other than the sanctioned contests in IA, NH, NV and SC. More importantly, the DNC orchestrated a candidate boycott of campaigning in the two states, though HRC appeared alone on the ballot in MI and all the remaining candidates are on the ballot in FL.
Best anyone can tell, Clinton has scrupulously hewed to the letter of the boycott in FL, traveling there only for private fundraising and eschewing any public campaign activity. But she’s certainly violated its spirit, by (1) openly appealing to FL primary voters by pledging to fight for the seating of their delegates, and (2) holding an election night event in FL where she plans to claim victory in the supposed non-event. Obama has not followed her in either of these actions, and continues to maintain that the FL primary is meaningless (not that his campaign would likely ignore an upset win, if that somehow happened against all odds).
But ironically, the Clinton campaign is now claiming (reports TNR’s Noam Scheiber) Obama has violated the letter of the boycott by putting up a national cable TV ad that will be viewed in parts of FL.
If the chattering classes buy this line of attack, it will represent a pretty good exercise in damage control by the Clinton campaign, whose efforts to elevate the FL results over those in SC took a big hit when Obama won by a surprisingly large margin in the Palmetto State.
But all this speculation may miss an issue of considerable importance for the long-range future. Remember that the whole point of the MI/FL boycott was to protect the IA-NH duopoly control of the first phases of the nominating contest. Having crossed the Rubicon by championing the MI/FL scofflaws, Hillary Clinton is unlikely to stand up for IA and NH’s future status if she wins the nomination and then the presidency. Indeed, the competition-driven maneuvering over Florida could wind up inadvertantly changing the nominating process for many years to come, to the consternation of Iowans and New Hampshirites and the delight of their many detractors.
Moreover, to get very speculative about it, the big irony is this: having fought for ages against the argument that they are too racially homogenous to represent the Democratic Party, the duopoly’s increasingly slim hopes of survival may now depend on the nomination and election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama. If that’s right, there may soon be some NH Democrats who regret their intervention in what might have otherwise been an irresistable Obama march to the nomination.
Go figure.

Bush’s Distraction

So how bad was George W. Bush’s final State of the Union Address? And how anxious are Republicans about today’s Florida presidential primary?
Well, last night, long after Bush concluded his speech, I decided to check out National Review‘s site for SOTU reaction. No quick-react articles at all. And at NR’s The Corner blog, most of the talk was about Florida, with only an occasional irritable reference to Democrats being rude to Bush at the SOTU by not applauding this or that (as though congressional Republicans had not made a science of that during the Clinton years). Most of the Corner participants are half-crazed over the Romney Surge in FL, and worried that McCain’s last-minute endorsement by Gov. Charlie Crist may spoil it all.
To be sure, there’s a dutiful, phoned-in-sounding roundtable discussion of the SOTU up at NRO this morning, but it’s nestled amongst even more obsessive talk about Florida. George W. Bush is just a distraction.
Indeed, you get the feeling that if anyone mentioned “Bush” to conservative activists this morning, they’d assume you were talking about Jeb Bush, thought to be the shadowy presence behind Romney’s FL campaign, and locked in a Texas–er, I mean Florida–Death Match with the godless “moderate” Charlie Crist.
BTW, for us Democrats, The New Republic has posted a useful guide to the Bush-Crist rivalry by FL reporter S.V. Date. Ideology aside, they both want to be in the position to make State of the Union Addresses someday.

Grassroots Questions Challenge Dems

The Nation has a trio of insightful articles meriting a read from Democrats interested in political strategy. Matt Stoller’s “Dems Get New Tools, New Talent” in The Nation reviews the latest developments in “field” — new ways to increase person-to-person contact of voters. Stoller describes the new software and technological landscape for field organizers and provides a revealing account of the ’04 Dem presidential campaign’s failure to efficiently deploy the latest tools and techniques of voter contact. Stoller lets political consultant Zack Exley ask a key question for Dems in ’08:

Democrats have enjoyed bumper crops of field organizers for two presidential cycles. The next big question is this: Will the nominee succeed in harvesting these crops and making the very best use of these organizers? Or will she or he put blockages and bureaucracy in the way of these young organizers, as happened in the 2004 general election?

Stoller argues that a competent, state-of-the-art field operation can be worth 3-5 points in a general election. Much depends on Dems meeting this challenge.
In her equally-provocative Nation article, “Grassroots Reseeded: Suites vs. Streets,” Laura Flanders asks a similar question:

Now is when the talk meets the walk. The Deaniacs have come into their own–men and women who were trained in Dean’s 2004 campaign are plotting the strategies of all the Democratic front-runners. Dean of the scream is coaching the state parties, and something like the infectious grassroots glee that Dean’s supporters felt years ago appears to be animating (especially) Barack Obama’s volunteers. Forty years after the coming apart of 1968, could this be the year that Democrats finally permit regular people to play a real role in party politics? Or is a whole new cohort of eager-beaver change-makers signing up for heartbreak?

Flanders notes the success of the Obama campaign’s preference for organizing over canvassing. “Canvassers assess voter preferences. Organizers inspire commitment,” says Marshall Ganz, a Harvard proff/’Camp Obama’ trainer quoted by Flanders.
The last Nation article, John Nichols’s “Progressive Democratic Challengers,” makes the case for ’08 as a very good year to weed out DINO’s and other congressional Dems who have supported the Bush-corporate agenda — and replace them with a new generation of authentic progressive Democrats. Nichols discusses the congressional candidacies of progressive Maryland Democrat Donna Edwards and others, and asks:

But what will Democrats in power do in 2009? Will they be as disappointingly cautious and unfocused as the Democrats of the 2007 Congress, who frustrated not just the party’s base but a broader electorate that gives the Democratic Congress lower ratings than the Republican White House? Or will they develop the progressive agenda and display the strategic sense needed to give meaning to all this year’s talk of “change”?…These local primaries have national importance, as they could answer an essential question: will a Democratic Party that muddled its message after gaining control of Congress in 2006 advance a progressive brief in the post-Bush era?

Nichols is encouraged by the energized candidacies of Edwards and other strong progressives. No doubt, their success will depend on their campaigns’ ability to tap the grass roots strategy, tools and commitment cited by Stoller and Flanders.