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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: April 2008

Inquiring Minds Want To Know

At first glance, I thought Karl Rove’s Wall Street Journal op-ed today was going to be interesting: it began with the observation that Rove had learned something about John McCain that was “politically troubling.”
Then I read the whole piece, and it turns out that Rove’s worried that John McCain doesn’t talk enough about his war record:

When it comes to choosing a president, the American people want to know more about a candidate than policy positions. They want to know about character, the values ingrained in his heart. For Mr. McCain, that means they will want to know more about him personally than he has been willing to reveal.

No, Rove’s not talking about McCain’s marriages or finances or religion or temper or relationships with lobbyists. It’s his experiences as a POW in Vietnam.
Keep in mind that McCain’s already done a “biography tour” that’s almost entirely about his and his ancestors’ military records. Most of his ads are about the “values ingrained in his heart” by same. But we’re supposed to believe that policy-saturated Americans want to know a lot more about McCain’s favorite subject “than he has been willing to reveal.”
Put aside, if you can, the irony that Rove was the chief strategist for a primary campaign (Bush 2000) that was implicated in probably the most scurrilous effort to date to to impugn McCain’s character and values.
Eight years later, Rove’s certainly justified in hoping that scrutiny of John McCain will shy away from his policy views. It kind of reminds me of an incident many years ago when a mischievous New York Times book editor recruited William F. Buckley to review a hagiographical book about his political nemesis, New York Mayor John Lindsay. Noting the abundance of photos of the ruggedly handsome mayor, Buckley observed: “If I were commissioned to write a favorable book about John Lindsay, it would consist entirely of pictures.”
And if I were commissioned to write a favorable op-ed column about John McCain, it would consist entirely of references to his military record. That seems to be Karl Rove’s opinion as well.

McCainCare Equals BushCare

In non-Jeremiah-Wright related political news, John McCain has re-released his health care plan, and the bottom line is that if follows George W. Bush’s most recent proposals, which were assessed by most health care experts as representing some point along the spectrum that leads from unserious to dangerous.
Like Bush’s plan, McCain’s focuses on replacing the employer subsidy for health care with tax incentives for the individual purchase of health insurance. Thus it arguably represents an attack on the very idea of group health insurance purchasing, throwing federal resources into subsidies for the expensive and highly discriminatory individual market. This is somehow supposed to hold down costs.
Like Bush’s plan, McCain’s does nothing to restrict pre-existing condition exclusions and other “cherry-picking” practices of health insurance companies, which both restrict coverage and boost costs. Indeed, by creating a national market for health insurance policies, McCain would virtually guarantee that companies will begin to migrate towards states with exceptionally weak regulations governing pre-existing conditions and other discriminatory practices. Indeed, the idea seems to be that “excessive” state mandated coverage is the source of the current price spiral.
McCain does promise to provide what sounds like token money to promote private or state “high-risk pools” for the unfortunates who can’t get health insurance. But this is by far the vaguest part of his proposal, and offers at best a take-it-or-leave it opportunity for crappy policies at prices that may be prohibitive.
Reflecting most conservative health care “thinking” over the last decade or so, McCain’s plan is remarkably retrograde, taking the health care system back decades to one where individuals are essentially on their own without benefit of collective purchasing clout. Politically, the whole point will be to breezily describe the McCain plan as “market-based” (indeed, that’s in the title of the Washington Post article linked to above), while attacking Democratic universal plans as “socialized medicine.”
It’s appropriate that McCain’s big health care speech yesterday was introduced by former Sen. Connie Mack (R-FL), a lobbyist for health insurance companies, which under the McCain plan would enjoy new taxpayer subsidies with virtually no accountability for what they provide.
McCain’s health care plan represents yet another area in which his efforts to claim “distance” from George W. Bush are, well, counter-factual. If he’s the “change” candidate on health care, it’s small change, and for the worse.

Dems Need Stronger Unions

In his WaPo op-ed, Harold Myerson opines on the Democratic Party’s pursuit of the elusive “white whale” (working class). Meyerson notes that union membership has declined from 35 percent of the labor force in the 1950’s to 12 percent today (only 7.5 percent of the private sector). No doubt the figures for white workers are even smaller. Myerson sees unionization as Job One for getting the Democratic Party in position to win an enduring majority of the white working class:

In every election during this period, union members have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate at a rate about a dozen points higher than the general public and about 15 points higher than the non-union sector. In 2004, for instance, Kerry won 61 percent of union members while getting just 45 percent support from nonmembers….White male union members gave Kerry 57 percent of their vote; white male nonmembers, 38 percent — a 19-point gap. Fifty-seven percent of white male union members who didn’t go to college voted for Kerry, while only 34 percent of white male, non-union non-collegians backed him — a 23-point gap. Equivalently gaping differentials are present in exit polling clear back through 1972.

“White working-class voters vote two to one Republican if they are not in unions. They vote two to one Democratic if they are union members,” echoes Robert Borosage in his Campaign for America’s Future post “Bringing the White Working Class Into the Progressive Majority.”
Myerson sees enacting the Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 800, S. 1041) as an essential first step for helping unions regain lost membership. More than 60 million workers would join a union of they could, according to a 2006 study by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and another survey found that private sector companies illegally fire employees for engaging in union activity in more than 25 percent of organizing campaigns. Not surprisingly, McCain, along with all other GOP Senators, has opposed allowing the bill to get a floor vote. Senate Democrats are nine votes short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and get the EFCA and other progressive legislation moving.
In addition to EFCA, Borosage calls for more vigorous support for unions from federal, state and local government:

We have a great stake in turning that around, not simply by passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which is the centerpiece of reviving the right to organize, but by turning government at all levels into an ally of unions. “FDR wants you to join a union,” they used to argue in the 1930s. We have to make that slogan true for governors, mayors, legislators and the next president

Borosage sees women workers as a potential wedge for unions and Democrats seeking a larger portion of the white working class vote. “We should be focusing more and more resources and energy on our secret asset among white workers—women, particularly single women…Single women vote overwhelmingly on economic issues and overwhelmingly for Democrats and progressives.” White women workers have had low rates of voter turnout, Borosage concedes. But he adds that they have been “turning out in large numbers” this year.
Myerson credits the AFL-CIO ‘Working America” program, which mobilizes unorganized workers for political action, with helping to secure “large majorities in recent elections for such Democratic candidates as Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.” With more support from rank and file Democrats, Working America and union GOTV campaigns may make the difference in November.

Obama Strikes Back

One thing everyone in politics should agree with is that if Barack Obama was going to respond to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s recent publicity offensive, he was correct in doing it quickly, and with some atypically emotional heat.
Obama did that today, in a news conference wherein the implicit message was that Wright had betrayed his earlier refusals to repudiate his pastor by converting his temporary and accidental notoriety into a fresh controversy. Indeed, Obama clearly conveyed the sense that Wright, for selfish reasons, was deliberately trying to damage Obama’s candidacy. Here’s the key quote: `The person I saw yesterday was not the person I had come to know over 20 years.”
In other words, Obama is suggesting that Wright’s latest utterances are not simply a validation of the toxic views featured in the selective videos of his sermons that conservatives and Hillary Clinton’s campaign have been battening on for many weeks. They represent a new repudiation not just of Obama, but of Wright’s own legacy.
This is probably the best Obama could do in his situation, so long as he is unwilling either to defend Wright or repudiate his own past association with his pastor. And to the extent that the candidate is expressing outrage that Wright has chosen to re-insert himself into the presidential campaign in a huge way, he will benefit from a universal sense of sympathy from everyone in electoral politics who has suffered from the publicity-seeking efforts of old friends and family to ride the connection to fame and fortune. That probably includes a few superdelegates.

Dueling Endorsements in the Tar Heel State?

This morning, in a move that surprised pretty much everyone who follows NC politics, Gov. Mike Easley endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton. Easley has held statewide office for 16 years, he is a superdelegate, and he remains one of the the most well-known politicians in North Carolina.
But he’s not the most popular state government employee — not by a long shot. That honor belongs to Roy Williams — the men’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina.
And this morning, while Gov. Easley was talking up Sen. Clinton, Ol’ Roy took Barack Obama on a tour of the Dean Dome and then organized a little scrimmage where the Illinois senator got to shoot some hoops with a whole bunch of current and former Tar Heels.
While Obama plays a lot of pick up basketball (and has some actual ties to the game — his brother-in-law is the head coach at Oregon State), the Heels proved to be a stiffer set of competition from what he sees in his normal game. He only took three shots (including one over National Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough) and missed them all. Still, Coach Williams encouraged his team to involve Obama, at one point yelling, “You’ve got the future president of the United States wide open.”
There are, of course, pictures and video and multiple multi-page threads about the scrimmage on the Inside Carolina message boards.
In many outlets Easley’s endorsement is competing with (and in some cases losing to) all this coverage. In North Carolina, I think you have to call today’s media cycle a draw. Because in all the stories and discussion, it seems like just about everyone has highlighted the “future president” sound bite from Roy.
This allows me moment for some basketball history. Though this might sound silly, the Carolina/Duke rivalry is deeply tangled up in politics. Roy William’s legendary mentor, Dean Smith, is a famous champion of Democrats and progressive causes. He integrated the UNC basketball team, and then helped to integrate the city of Chapel Hill. He is an outspoken critic of the death penalty and a contributor to Democratic candidates. His counterpart at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, is a prominent Republican who once got into a spot of trouble for organizing a fund raiser for then-senate candidate Elizabeth Dole on Duke’s campus. Roy has never been a public campaigner in the same way that Smith is, but to many people, the event with Obama this morning sure sounded like an endorsement.
If that’s how most North Carolinians end up taking it, it’ll help Obama in the state.


It’s still too soon to know if actual voters will care about this, but the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s self-exculpatory publicity offensive (encompassing, so far, a PBS intervew with Bill Moyers, a speech to an NAACP gathering, and a National Press Club appearance) is clearly not good news for the campaign of Barack Obama. The Right is in full cry over it. Progressives seem divided over how they and/or Obama should respond, if at all. And Hillary Clinton’s campaign, while officially quiet on the latest Wright controversy, will obviously exploit it under if not over the radar screen in NC and IN.
The timing couldn’t be much worse for Obama; he’s locked into a close race in IN; his lead in NC (where HRC just obtained the endorsement of Gov. Mike Easley, a guy popular with conservative white voters in the state) may be shrinking. Worse still, though it could be an outlier, there’s finally a national general election poll (AP/Ipsos) that provides some evidence for Hillary Clinton’s relentless argument to superdelegates that she’s more electable than Obama (it has her up 9 points over McCain, while Obama’s lead is 2 points).
Perhaps the worst thing for Obama is that the Wright furor appears to be beyond his control at present. He’s already done one “big speech” on the subject. His efforts to make his relationship with the theoretically-retired Wright a thing of the past have been completely blown up by Wright’s highly visible re-emergence. It’s reasonably clear that Wright, who obviously feels he has bigger fish to fry than just some presidential election, may not relinquish the spotlight any time soon. And since the main impact of Wright’s latest remarks–particularly at the Press Club–is to reinforce some of his most controversial past statements, it will be difficult for Obama to act as though something new has happened that requires a different response than his denounce-not-renounce posture in his “big speech.”
Maybe it will blow over in a day or two. Maybe the excitement of the chattering classes over Wright will once again prove to be less than communicable to voters. Maybe Obama will even benefit from some sympathy at his plight, or from a long-overdue media scrutiny of John McCain’s much larger group of nutty clerical supporters. And maybe he’ll follow Todd Gitlin’s advice and take on his pastor as a man who’s crossed the line from prophetic courage to self-Wrighteous narcissism.
None of this brouhaha, BTW, changes the relentless mathematics that makes Obama’s nomination likely no matter what happens next Tuesday in IN and NC.
But at a time when Barack Obama wants voters to focus on his economic views, it’s the wrong time for Wright to crash back onto the national stage.

Another Reason To Fear a McCain Presidency

One of the big cookie-cutter trends in recent Republican governance at the state level has been the imposition of photo ID requirements for voting, rationalized by entirely unsubstantiated “concerns” about voter fraud. Today the U.S. Supreme Court, in a complicated 6-3 decision with multiple opinions, upheld one of the toughest photo ID laws, that of Indiana.
The basic impact of this decision is to place the burden of proof on those potentially affected by photo ID laws to demonstrate discriminatory impact, while relieving the state of any real obligation to demonstrate actual or potential “fraud.” Evidence of partisan intent in enacting such laws isn’t, apparently, relevant.
Rick Hasen of Election Law Blog has a full analysis, which emphasizes that the nature of the decision will encourage future litigation, and also notes the stubborn refusal of the Court to examine the implications of its own intervention in state election laws in Bush v. Gore.
But Hasen also has a comment about Justice Scalia’s concurring opinion in the current case that deserves some attention, particularly from those Democrats and independents who look with equanimity towards a McCain presidency:

Justice Scalia’s opinion (joined by Justices Alito and Thomas) concurring in the judgment is uncharacteristically brief. It reads the applicable constitutional standard differently, one that simply gives carte blanche to most states to pass laws with any kind of neutral justification offered. It is unclear to me…whether Justice Scalia would today uphold a poll tax like that struck down by the Court in Harper. Certainly Justice Scalia seems to think that if a law doesn’t burden most people, it should be upheld unless it imposes a “severe and overall” burden on the right to vote.

In this and many other constitutional areas, Scalia’s radicalism could well become Court doctrine if a Republican president gets to appoint a couple of Justices. For all of John McCain’s alleged “moderation” and “maverick” character, he’s never once departed from conservative orthodoxy on Supreme Court nominations. And here’s what he’s said about his own inclinations as a potential president:

On the issue of appointments to the Supreme Court, McCain mentioned that Sam Brownback would play an advisory role in helping decide who he should nominate for the Supreme Court. As models of who he would select, John McCain pointed to Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia.

More importantly, the “consolidation of the conservative base” that McCain has been undertaking since he nailed down the Republican presidential nomination depends very heavily on implicit and explicit promises to give conservatives an aggressively counter-revolutionary Court–the overriding goal, in particular, of Right To Lifers and other cultural conservatives. Scalia is their ideal Justice, and today’s suggestion that a Court made over in his image might look indifferently towards a reimposition of poll taxes is the kind of thing that pro-McCain Democrats and independents need to be reminded of constantly.

GOP More Divided Than Dems

Despite all the Chicken Little hand-wringing about potential damage resulting from the heated Democratic Presidential campaign in the wake of the Pennsylvania primary, there was some bad news for McCain in the results coming out of PA. Frank Rich explained it well in his Sunday NYT column “How McCain Lost in Pennsylvania“:

…as the doomsday alarm grew shrill, few noticed that on this same day in Pennsylvania, 27 percent of Republican primary voters didn’t just tell pollsters they would defect from their party’s standard-bearer; they went to the polls, gas prices be damned, to vote against Mr. McCain. Though ignored by every channel I surfed, there actually was a G.O.P. primary on Tuesday, open only to registered Republicans. And while it was superfluous in determining that party’s nominee, 220,000 Pennsylvania Republicans (out of their total turnout of 807,000) were moved to cast ballots for Mike Huckabee or, more numerously, Ron Paul. That’s more voters than the margin (215,000) that separated Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama.
Those antiwar Paul voters are all potential defectors to the Democrats in November. Mr. Huckabee’s religious conservatives, who rejected Mr. McCain throughout the primary season, might also bolt or stay home. Given that the Democratic ticket beat Bush-Cheney in Pennsylvania by 205,000 votes in 2000 and 144,000 votes in 2004, these are 220,000 voters the G.O.P. can ill-afford to lose. Especially since there are now a million more registered Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania. (These figures don’t even include independents, who couldn’t vote in either primary on Tuesday and have been migrating toward the Democrats since 2006.)

This would be less surprising if it was soon after McCain clinched a winning number of delegates. But it’s been a while, now. One would expect a large portion of PA GOP voters to sit their primary out, since their votes didn’t count for much. However, when more than a quarter of PA GOP voters cast ballots against their nominee, even after the nomination is decided, McCain and the GOP have some healing of their own to do before they can crow about divisions between Democrats.

Blumenthal on the Bradley-Wilder Effect

Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal does us all an important service today by evaluating and rejecting the idea that the consistent over-estimation of Barack Obama’s vote in early (i.e., unadjusted to reflect actual voting) exit polls is explained by the so-called Bradley-Wilder Effect–the reluctance of interviewees to admit they are going to vote against an African-American candidate.
As Blumental points out, the BWE, if it exists at all, is more likely to occur when voters are actually interviewed, especially “live” and in person. But exit polling is relatively private–voters are handed a questionnaire and allowed to fill it out and deposit it in a box, just like secret-ballot voting itself. So if the BWE is truly a significant factor, a pro-Obama bias would be showing up in pre-election polls as much as or more than in exit polls, and that hasn’t been the case other than in isolated instances (e.g., NH).
This matters because a widespread belief in the BWE might well lead observers to discount Obama’s standing in general election trial heats against John McCain.
But Blumenthal’s alternative explanation of the pro-Obama bias in exit polls is interesting as well: he attributes it to the same exit polling bias in favor of younger voters that was generally accepted as the reason for the pro-Kerry inaccuracy of the initial 2004 general election exit polls. This bias was supposedly addressed and dealt with after those elections, so it’s re-emergence today is certainly annoying if nothing else. Or maybe I’m just reacting as one of those Democrats who saw the early exits in 2004 and spent much of the evening calling friends and family to tell them to ignore the red sea on network election maps, because I “knew” Kerry had actually won.

Monday Morning Reads

For your Monday morning edifiction, four published pieces stand out. Paul Krugman reminds us that George W. Bush once convinced some people that he was a “maverick” (remember “reformer with results” and “compassionate conservative?”).
Robert Novak spits fire at two archbishops who enabled pro-choice politicians to receive communion at papal masses in Washington and New York (lest anyone credit Pope Benedict with tolerance or diplomacy, Novak insists these invitations to Pelosi, Kennedy, Kerry and Giuliani were acts of “disobedience” to the Vatican’s own wishes).
Christopher of Bloomberg.com does a sober assessment of the value of Barack Obama’s “gigantic” database of donor and volunteer information.
And most striking of all, Karl Rove uses his Newsweek column to raise concern-trolling (the disingenuous expression of advice to political enemies) to hitherto unknown levels of hypocrisy, offering Obama tips on how to deal with his “elitism” problem.