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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: March 2008

Prodigal Son

I’ve just read the Meridian, Mississippi speech with which John McCain launched his “biography tour,” and found it more interesting and troubling than I expected.
Most obviously, I can’t recall any major speech by a president or presidential candidate that was devoted so thoroughly to the subject of the speaker’s own family background–not just the immediate family (which, for example, was the background theme in Richard Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, and in Bill Clinton’s “Place Called Hope” speech, and is obviously important to Barack Obama’s “story”), but the Family Heritage. McCain goes into considerable detail to establish himself as the scion of a very old (by American standards) and very distinguished warrior tribe, whose traditions he first spurned and then half-heartedly embraced, before rediscovering them in the crucible of his imprisonment at the Hanoi Hilton.
In so doing, McCain runs afoul of two pretty important American political traditions: ambivalence towards military leaders in politics, and an expectation of modesty about the accomplishments of one’s forebears.
On the first point, yes, five (W.H. Harrison, Jackson, Taylor, Grant and Eisenhower) or perhaps six (if you add the planter-soldier George Washington) American presidents were professional soldiers. Several others were wartime military leaders but not really career military professionals (Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and Teddy Roosevelt). But the list of military leaders who sought and failed to obtain the presidency is equally long, from Winfield Scott and George McClellan to Scott’s namesake W.S. Hancock, to Leonard Wood, to Douglas MacArthur, to Alexander Haig, to Wes Clark. And among those who succeeded, Jackson, Grant and Eisenhower were almost universally revered national heroes of an unparalleled magnitude.
While there’s nothing uncommon or surprising about John McCain’s highlighting of his own military record, his decision to identify himself as primarily the product of the military ethic, by family background as well as by personal experience, is unusual, and perhaps risky in a country that has always honored professional warriors but has also insisted on civilian control of the military. It’s no accident that the last Annapolis graduate to become president, Jimmy Carter, chose to identify himself as a peanut farmer rather than as a nuclear submarine officer.
McCain’s insistence on establishing a distinguished pedigree is counter-intuitive as well. The current president of the United States, after all, went to inordinate lengths to create a public persona remote from his actual aristocratic background as grandson of a U.S. senator and son of a president. Another president who often touted his own military service–John F. Kennedy–did so in no small part to provide a common link to Americans who might otherwise dwell on his father’s wealth and political connections. FDR’s polio, and TR’s cowboy-hunter-soldier machismo, offset their elite backgrounds. And most American presidents and presidential candidates have talked about their ancestors mainly to stress their humble roots, and thus accentuate their own accomplishments. In the Meridian speech and elsewhere, John McCain seems to be visibly struggling, even today, to live up to his family’s martial tradition. It’s all pretty remarkable.
The theme of the callow young man achieving maturity and then complete identification with his patrimony is as old as the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. It’s complicated in McCain’s case by the fact that his callowness, by his own account, appears to have survived the Hanoi Hilton and persisted well into late-middle-age and into his political career (viz. the admitted serial carousing, not to mention the Keating Five).
It’s tempting to speculate that by design or accident, McCain’s self-description is an analogy for his latest political transformation from the “maverick” who flirted (or at a minimum, whose staff flirted) with becoming John Kerry’s running-mate in 2004 to today’s reinvented conservative. He’s rebelled against his heritage, but now, in the crucible of this campaign, McCain is falling back on the fundamentals of family, faith, party, ideology, and yes, maybe even a hereditary strain of military jingoism, and is determined, as prodigals often are, to live up to the heritage to a fault. This must be immensely reassuring to the conservatives who have for so long mistrusted him. And it’s an appeal that is also seductive for the many Americans who constantly struggle to reconcile libertarian impulses with the tug of traditions, even bad traditions.
Maybe this is all emphemeral, and at some point John McCain will abandon the biographical message to focus on policy issues. But Democrats need to understand what he’s trying to do in presenting himself as the embodiment of the Prodigal Son seeking to lead the Prodigal Nation back to its heritage of greatness, and react accordingly. In 1996 Bob Dole offered himself as “the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth… a time of tranquillity, faith, and confidence in action.” Bill Clinton successfully turned that offer into a contrast between nostalgic reaction and progressive action. At present, McCain is advancing a more appealing version of Dole’s political package, gussied up with plenty of Prodigal policy offerings that will make it harder to typecast him as reactionary. Exposing him will not just be a matter of deriding media credulity or hammering his voting record in the Senate. It will require an unwavering spotlight on his basic message and its troubling implications.
In a 1999 review of McCain’s memoir “Faith of My Fathers,” and of Robert Timberg’s hagiographical “John McCain: An American Odyssey,” Nathanial Tripp offered this assessement of both books and of the martial hymn that inspired the title of the first:

The problem with this hymn, and these books, is that they are not about leadership, they are about followership. Admittedly, the hymn’s type of rhetoric seems to have an almost narcotic effect on some voters, but distrust of authority is a salient legacy of Vietnam. Furthermore, civil leadership demands humanity, compassion and the skills of negotiation and compromise, which are often contrary to the military mind. Chimerically, McCain may go from the Keating scandal to campaign reform, from heavy smoking to anti-tobacco legislation, setting a zigzag course toward the White House and defying those who will put him in a box. But there is something hauntingly familiar about his confusion of mission with personal ambition.

This remains an important observation. If John McCain’s main credential for presidential leadership is his “followership” of the military traditions of his forefathers and the ideological traditions of the GOP, then the rest of us should rightly object to the harnessing of our future to his past.

NC Bandwagon for Obama?

I reported this last week as a possibility, but now it seems to be happening: a movement among North Carolina Democratic congressmen to consolidate in support of Barack Obama. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that:

North Carolina’s seven Democratic House members are poised to endorse Sen. Obama as a group — just one has so far — before that state’s May 6 primary.

The entire delegation had been pledged to John Edwards for the greater part of the primary campaign. When he suspended his campaign, all the members received calls from the other camps. As the WSJ says, only Rep. G.K. Butterfield had switched his support to this point.
The mass endorsement is significant beyond its potential effect on the NC primary. All seven congressmen are also superdelegates.
Update — The Raleigh News & Observer has a quote from the Obama campaign which makes it clear that this thing might still be in the works:

“We’re pleased to have the support of Rep. Butterfield and are working to earn the endorsement of his colleagues in the N.C. Congressional delegation,” wrote spokesman Dan Leistikow in an e-mail to Dome. “Despite the Wall Street Journal’s optimism, none of them has (told) our campaign that they are ready to announce their endorsement of Senator Obama, so we’ll keep working on it.”

Dems : Avoid Ageist Attacks vs. McCain

A blogger with the handle ‘Campaign Tactician’ has a worrisome suggestion at TPM Cafe. It goes like this:

It’s time for some aikido. Attacking McCain’s Pop-Truth effectively doesn’t mean trying to change these perceptions. It means using these perceptions against him. It means giving the media a narrative that extends rather than defies their perceptions of him and letting them repeat it enough that it becomes assumed rather than debated.
I think we need to show him to be the Grandpa Simpson of American politics: An ornery, forgetful man flummoxed by modern America. In other words, a man quick to both confusion and anger.
…Start digging through YouTube and coverage of press events, I’m sure we’d find plenty more examples of where his maverick straight-talk can be read as the rantings of a grouchy, poorly informed old man. That goes doubly for the various flip-flops he’s made to gain the nomination. Paint them as “political expediency” and we won’t make any headway. Paint them as “makes stuff up so people will listen to him”, you’ve got Grandpa Simpson.

I like the Aikido metaphor and the notion of using an opponent’s supposed ‘strength’ against him/her. ‘Campaign Tactician’ makes some good points elsewhere in the post about MCain’s free ride in the MSM and leveraging his “poor understanding of world affairs.” But I call it a worrisome suggestion because the ageist language and mindset could piss off a lot of senior citizens, and they tend to vote in impressive percentages. Sherman Yellen puts it well in his HuffPo post:

I write this as a man in the prime of his life, and one who rejects John McCain not because he is a fellow septuagenarian but because he is an arrogant, ignorant, and dangerous politician. I take exception to the view that he is drifting into senility, or soon will, and that he will be a danger to the country because age will wither his brain and leave only a choleric warmonger to press a button that blows us all to smithereens. John McCain would be a danger to this country at 46; no, he would have been a danger at 25. What makes him a threat and a hazard to us all are his lifelong beliefs — militaristic beliefs he held as a young man, and ones he shares with a lesser man, George W. Bush, about how to deal with domestic problems and foreign policy…We must not judge him on his age but on who he is and what he stands for today.
If we demand that people regard Barack Obama as an individual beyond his race — and Hillary Clinton as a leader beyond her sex — then we must give McCain his due and not judge him by his 72 years. Age does not make John McCain a threat to this country’s future. John McCain’s beliefs do.

There’s no net gain to be had in dissing elderly voters, and Dems who want to win shouldn’t even flirt with ageist language. McCain’s judgment problems and character flaws are clear enough — without attacking him because of his age.

The Great Dismal Swamp

The new Pew poll that Ed discussed earlier today has some bad news for Republicans beyond Barack Obama’s success in rebounding from the Wright controversy. Its “right track/wrong track” assessment shows “[j]ust 22% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, the lowest percentage observed in any Pew Research Center survey since the fall of 1993.” We all remember what happened to the party holding the White House in 1994, eh?
Undergirding this latest lurch of public opinion into a great dismal swamp of disatisfaction is a dramatic deterioration of confidence in the economy. The percentage of Americans saying the economy is “poor” has doubled–from 28% to 56%–in just the last two months. Altogether, 11% rate the economy as “excellent” or “good,” and again, that’s almost exactly how Americans felt in August 1993. 55% of Republicans currently say the economy is in recession or depression.
The current upsurge in violence in Iraq may be the least of the incumbent party’s problems come election day.

Obama the Muslim and his Christian Preacher

One of the things you heard a lot from Obama supporters over the last couple of weeks was the rueful observation that the Jeremiah Wright controversy would at least greatly reduce the whisper-campaign-fed perception that he’s a Muslim. Not so, says a new Pew poll.

There is little evidence that the recent news about Obama’s affiliation with the United Church of Christ has dispelled the impression that he is Muslim. While voters who heard “a lot” about Reverend Wright’s controversial sermons are more likely than those who have not to correctly identify Obama as a Christian, they are not substantially less likely to still believe that he is Muslim. Nearly one-in-ten (9%) of those who heard a lot about Wright still believe that Obama is Muslim.

The percentage of Americans believing Obama’s a Muslim ranges from 14% among Republicans, to 10% among Democrats, to 8% among independents. At the risk of repeating one of those misleading triple-loaded poll findings, 23% of white Democrats with an unfavorable opinion of Obama think he’s a Muslim.
Moreover, a third of poll respondents–and a third of Democrats–say they don’t know what religion Barack Obama observes.
Otherwise, the Pew poll has a lot of welcome findings for Obama, showing a positive reaction to his “race speech,” and leads over HRC and McCain roughly the same as they found a month ago. But it’s beginning to become obvious that the “Obama is a Muslim” thing has become one of those ineradicable myths that evidence to the contrary can’t shake.

Friday Linkfest

HuffPo has an excerpt from “FREE RIDE: John McCain and the Media” by David Brock and Paul Waldman — it should be a strong candidate for the short-list of the better books about the ’08 presidential campaign.
The MSM takes another broadside in Paul Farhi’s “Off Target” at the American Journalism Review web page. Farhi documents MSM ineptitude in predicting political trends in the ’08 election — an instructive lesson for pundits who are tempted to prognosticate.
Bruce Drake has an encouraging update at CQ Politics: “Democrats Making Big Inroads In Party Identification,” showing a 3-point gain for Dems since ’04, with the GOP down 6-points — a trend both broad and deep.
Nick Timiraos has a WSJ article “North Carolina Can Change Race Dynamic” continuing the discussion Matt Compton launched in his March 26 post.
Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello and Brendan Smith have an article in The Nation, “How Green Is Your Collar?” that should be of interest to Dems who want to build bridges between the environmental movement and blue collar workers.
David Paul Kuhn’s Politico article “GOP looks to ‘McCain Democrats’” examines the formidable crossover appeal of the GOP’s likely nominee.

Biographical Errors, Part II

Appropos of my suggestion yestereday that John McCain may be repeating John Kerry’s 2004 mistake of placing too much emphasis on his military biography, it’s interesting to note that he is about to begin what his campaign calls a “biography tour.”:

The Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting begins a “biography tour” next week, visiting schools and military installations “that have played a significant role in shaping who I am today,” as McCain put it in a fundraising letter.

One such “tour” probably can’t do McCain much harm. But if his whole campaign becomes a “biography tour,” he could well be in trouble.

Biographical Errors

I did an appearance today on the excellent syndicated public radio show, To the Point, to talk about the latest developments in Iraq and their impact on the presidential contest. Other guests included Peter Beinart of CFR and TNR; Bobby Ghosh of Time; Shawn Brimley of the Center for a New American Security; and GOP pollster John McLaughlin.
I was pretty much paired with McLaughlin, and thought I did reasonably well at swatting down his efforts to change the subject to the latest pseudo-stories about Clinton’s Kosovo experience and Obama’s “radical friends.”
But as often happens, my one real insight occurred to me just as the show ended. Listening to McLaughlin redundantly cite McCain’s military service record as establishing his vast superiority to the Democrats on national security issues, it finally hit me: what did this sound like? Yes, it sounded like John Kerry’s campaign talking points at key junctures of the 2004 race.
McCain may be in the process of making the same big mistake his friend Kerry made in 2004–making his biography the overriding centerpiece of his national security message. Sure, McCain’s war record attests to his character and patriotism, but hardly means he’d be an effective commander-in-chief. If that were the case, we’d only have military leaders as presidents. What McCain has to say about national security issues will, over time, have as great an impact on how he’s perceived by persuadable voters as endless clips of him in uniform or returning from the Hanoi Hilton. The tragedy of the Kerry campaign was that the man did have a pretty powerful grasp of national security challenges and what to do about them, but it never much got a hearing thanks to the back-and-forth about his own “story.”
In contrast, much of what John McCain’s been saying on the substance of national security and foreign policy strikes me as an odd combo of George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 messages: a multilateral, “humble” foreign policy based on the continuation and even expansion of the very single-minded military adventurism that’s made Bush a global pariah and empirical failure. Suggesting that the Democratic nominee isn’t fit to debate him on national security because he or she doesn’t have a war record isn’t going to cut it for John McCain.

Third-Way Criticism of Third-Way Clintons

Matt Yglesias read my quick take on Obama’s economics speech this morning as representing a distinctly “third-wayish” take on the role of government in the economy, and offered this dissent:

What struck me was the digs at the actually existing third way regime of the 1990s, when a certain someone’s husband was president, and when Obama says the powers-that-were betrayed the vision of a mixed market approach in favor of run-amok corporate power.

He goes on to quote a section of the speech that squarely says the financial de-regulation efforts of the late 1990s were excessive and destructive, in no small part because of blandishments from Wall Street lobbyists. He doesn’t note, though I should have, that Obama twice blames “Democratic and Republican administrations” for the current failure of oversight. I don’t think Obama was referring to the Johnson or Carter administrations.
So Matt’s right, though I don’t think that means I was wrong. The overall construction of the speech was indeed “third-wayish,” and in fact implies that the Clinton administration erred in going over the brink into something approaching the conservative laissez-faire ideology. So Obama is able simultaneously (in conventional terms) to attack the Clintons from the left while maintaining a firm position in the center, which on this and other subjects the GOP has long abandoned. Whether Obama’s history of oversight malfeasance is accurate or not, it’s pretty good politics.

Two More Big Speeches

We seem to be entering an intelude in the presidential contest in which candidates are now and then taking a break from frenetic campaigning to deliver themselves of Big Speeches on major topics. Yesterday John McCain gave a Big Foreign Policy Speech in LA apparently designed to establish a “break” with Bush-Cheney policies. The lede in Jonathan Martin’s Politico report on the speech nicely summarizes the fundamental problem with this effort:

Just back from a week of meetings with U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East, John McCain today signaled that he would seek to repair the perception of America abroad. But he wouldn’t back down on a conflict that much of the world has come to despise.
McCain, speaking to an international affairs organization here, sought to explain his unique foreign policy outlook, one that mixes elements of conciliation rejected by the Bush administration with a stay-the-course approach to Iraq and a tough-minded stance toward other potential threats.

There’s lots of talk about talking in McCain’s speech: talking to other countries, listening to their point of view, and being open to persuasion. But when you’ve made an inflexible commitment to war in Iraq–and to the threat of war with Iran–the centerpiece of your national security message, it’s hard to conclude all the talking and listening will amount to much other than Cheneyism With a Human Face. But the immediate issue is whether the new media will credit McCain with a “break” with the administration, and even Martin’s relatively skeptical take seems to suggest this political goal will be at least partially successful.
Meanwhile, this morning in New York, Barack Obama delivered a “major speech” on economics–more specificallly, the financial and housing crisis. It will be most interesting to see how this speech is interpreted. Some will focus on the new policy content (notably a second stimulus package that sounds a lot like the one HRC proposed last week), or the very detailed, wonky analysis of the financial industry the candidate displays. Others will cite Obama’s brief hit on McCain for his cold approach to the housing problem, or his characterization of the Arizonan as determined to “run for Bush’s third term.”
But as a non-economist who can barely tell a hedge-fund from a hedgehog, what struck me most in a quick reading of the speech was Obama’s distinctly “third wayish” thematics on government’s role in regulating the economy. Check out these two graphs:

I do not believe that government should stand in the way of innovation, or turn back the clock to an older era of regulation. But I do believe that government has a role to play in advancing our common prosperity: by providing stable macroeconomic and financial conditions for sustained growth; by demanding transparency; and by ensuring fair competition in the marketplace.
Our history should give us confidence that we don’t have to choose between an oppressive government-run economy and a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism. It tells us we can emerge from great economic upheavals stronger, not weaker. But we can do so only if we restore confidence in our markets. Only if we rebuild trust between investors and lenders. And only if we renew that common interest between Wall Street and Main Street that is the key to our success.

In other sections of the speech, Obama discusses the destructive role of lobbyists–a common theme in his entire campaign–in terms of their distorting impact on competition and the efficient functioning of markets. This isn’t the sort of language that’s going to appeal to the neo-populists out there who want Democrats to attack corporate power as an evil in itself, or demand aggressive regulation as a matter of social justice and democracy, not opportunity and fair competition. But there’s no way you can read this speech and give much credence to the right-wing voices describing Obama as a crypto-socialist.