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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: July 2008

Can Obama Win ‘Whispering Republicans’ ?

Patrick Healy’s article, “Obama Camp Sees Potential in G.O.P. Discontent” in today’s New York Times has one of the more eloquent plugs for the Democratic Presumptive yet uttered. And it comes from a pedigreed Republican, Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of one of the better GOP presidents.

Obama seems like a leader who can deal with challenges that are highly complex, nuanced and interconnected,” Ms. Eisenhower said, “and he has the language and communication skills and temperament to engage a set of world leaders who are his generation

In brutally-stark contrast to his opponent, I would add. Healy notes also that GOP campaign consultant Mike Murphy expects Obama to get more Republican votes than did Kerry.
Healy goes on to discuss pro-Obama stirrings among “whispering Republicans.” He cites the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll in which Obama got about 9 percent of self-identified Republicans (Kerry got 6 percent at mid-summer, ’04).
Democrats hoping to take a significant bite out of the GOP demographic, however, will not get much encouragement from the historical record. As Emory University political scientist Alan I. Abramowitz pointed out in a recent post at Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball,

…In contrast to the fluidity and unpredictability that has characterized the nomination contests in both parties, the voting patterns in November will be highly predictable and consistent with those seen in other recent general elections — close to 90 percent of all votes will be cast by party identifiers for their own party’s presidential candidate. Whichever party turns out more of its own supporters on Election Day is likely to emerge as the winner.

Still, we can hope that November ’08 breaks the tradition, at least enough to make a difference in one or two swing states. It’s been a long time since a Republican president blundered America into an elective war, and I’m sure there are growing numbers of conservatives out there who are tired of seeing their taxes squandered on the open-ended occupation of Iraq.

Sebelius, Kaine and Their Church

With two Roman Catholic governors, Kathleen Sebelius and Tim Kaine, reportedly on Barack Obama’s short-list for the vice presidential nomination, it was inevitable that comparisons would be made about their relationship with their church. Catholic historian Michael Sean Winters has an article up on the New Republic site that argues Sebelius would have a harder time appealing to her co-religionists than Kaine.
Winters offers two reasons for that judgment: (1) Sebelius has been publicly rebuked and asked to refrain from taking communion by her bishop after she vetoed a bill restricting abortion providers in Kansas, making her an obvious target for a revival of the “wafer war” quasi-excommunications by conservative bishops that dogged John Kerry in 2004; and (2) aside from getting along with his bishop, Kaine, unlike Sebelius, has made his Catholicism a central feature of his political persona.
I’m not an expert on Catholicism, but do know something about John Kerry’s experience and about Catholic opinion. And based on that, I’d say Winters’ second point is more compelling than his first. Kerry’s “religion problem” mainly flowed from his admitted reluctance to talk about his faith and its relevance to his public life. In combination with his conflicts with conservative bishops, his reticence made him seem a nominal Catholic or even a bad Catholic, even though he was actually a lot more religiously observant than George W. Bush. And that in turn probably reduced his appeal to Catholics qua Catholics.
As Winters says, Sebelius could have the same problem. But if, on the other hand, she did find a way to articulate her faith in a convincing way, her conflict with the local hierarchy might actually help make her a champion to the significant majority of Catholics who don’t agree with the church’s position on abortion, and who may soon be itching to rebel against conservative threats to massively expand the “wafer wars” by witholding communion from regular church-goers who think or vote “wrong.”
Conversely, while Kaine’s proud Catholicism (not to mention his missionary service and his Spanish-languge fluency) is undoubtedly a political asset, his lack of friction with the church is partly attributable to views on abortion and LGBT rights that are offensive to some Catholics and many non-Catholics, and moreover, aren’t very consistent with those of Barack Obama.
I’m not “endorsing” either candidate or anyone else (though it should be noted that another apparent short-lister, Joe Biden, is a Catholic with long experience of navigating ecclesiastical shoals). But if Obama’s interested in appealing to Catholics by his choice of running-mate, it’s not just a simple matter of picking the candidate least objectionable to the more conservative ranks of the hierarchy. A clear majority of American Catholics are “objectionable” to these bishops, and that’s important to keep in mind.

Team McCain–All Over the Place

A post from Ed yesterday noted that the recent complaining about Barack Obama’s “presumptuous” transition planning would be better directed to the signs of disorganization and infighting being exhibited by John McCain’s staff and advisors. In the Politico today, Kenneth P. Vogel runs down the list of policy issues on which McCain and his advisors have been at odds, though the story gets a little confusing thanks to McCain’s various flip-flops. Here’s the nut graph:

McCain has staked out an eclectic and occasionally politically inconvenient hodgepodge of policy positions that has bucked the Republican line on some issues, backed it on others and — on still others — gone from bucking it to backing it. Keeping him on message would be a challenge for the most unified chorus of advisers — and Team McCain is hardly that.

Vogel tries to do the “on the other hand” thing by searching for similar divisions in the Obama ranks, without a whole lot of success.
The most intriguing set of conflicts within Team McCain involves “senior advisor” Carly Fiorina, the very former HP exec who has occasionally made lists of potential running-mates for the GOP candidate:

Fiorina also has found herself at ideological odds with McCain on key issues.
McCain stumbled when asked about her suggestion this month that insurance companies should cover birth control prescriptions. In recent years, McCain has voted against requiring such coverage. The campaign subsequently clarified that McCain opposes all insurance mandates and contended that Fiorina’s comments were consistent with that stance.
And Fiorina this month suggested that McCain might be open to new taxes on the wealthy, which conflicts with McCain’s own pledges not to consider any new taxes.
This week, though, McCain signaled he might be willing to consider raising payroll taxes for Social Security. Then on Tuesday, he sternly said, “No,” when asked at a Nevada event if he would raise taxes as president.

All in all, it looks like McCain has definitively distinguished himself from George W. Bush in one respect: the famous discipline of W.’s retinue is nowhere to be found in Team McCain.

A Final, Definitive Obama Veep Analysis

Michael Duffy’s generally solid Time piece on Barack Obama’s “dilemma” in choosing a running-mate used half a blackjack metaphor, suggesting that he had to decide between “doubling-down” and “compensating.” As an occasional blackjack player, I’d say the second option is to “buy insurance”–choose a running-mate who could help reduce a potential McCain “blackjack” hand based on Obama’s lack of experience, especially in foreign policy.
This stylistic quibble aside, Duffy’s got the basic question right:

Does Obama counterbalance his relative inexperience in general, and in foreign policy and defense matters in particular, and go with a trusted old-timer or pick a fresh face, someone who can pose as an agent of change, a relative newcomer just like himself?

Outside the Obama campaign itself, which has (maybe deliberately) dropped a lot of contradictory hints on this question, the choice between reinforcing or complementing Obama’s appeal often breaks down on ideological and generational lines. Netroots folk, in particular, who think of Obama’s candidacy as representing a “crashing of the gates” of both parties’ center-left-to-right “Washington Establishment” naturally think he should “double-down” by choosing another anti-Iraq-War outsider. Lots of Democratic veterans, mostly (but not exclusively) in the ideological “center,” worry endlessly about McCain’s ability to paint Obama as a recent state senator who has no business becoming commander-in-chief, and prefer a “reassuring” running-mate with more experience, particular on national security matters.
There are also arguments within arguments. Some progressive national security wonks agree that Obama has work to do to become credible as a commander-in-chief, but contend that he must do that by convincingly articulating his own foreign policy and national security vision. If he can do that, a “reassuring” running-mate is unnecessary; if he can’t, then putting Sam Nunn or Joe Biden or some general on the ticket won’t do much good, and could do harm on other fronts.
Many double-downers like Markos Moulitsas often cite the mold-breaking example of Bill Clinton’s choice of Al Gore in 1992 as the “reinforce the message” template Obama should follow. The analogy is accurate so far as Gore’s ideological, regional, and generational profile was concerned. But as Big Tent Democrat riposted to Markos, Gore, a congressional veteran with a strong defense background, also “compensated” for Clinton’s lack of Washington or foreign policy experience.
If Gore was actually a “two-fer,” or a compromise between the reinforcing and complenting functions, some see the same qualities, says Duffy, in Evan Bayh, a former two-term governor from a red state who’s also served for a while on the Senate intelligence and armed services committees.
But in case this doesn’t seem complicated enough, cutting across the “double-down” and “buy-insurance” debate are strong objections by Democratic factions to particular candidates with either profile. GLBT and feminist activists have major issues with “reinforcer” Tim Kaine and “complementer” Sam Nunn. Those who believe Obama’s running-mate must share his “right from the start” position on the Iraq War object to “reinforcer” Kaine, “complementer” Biden, and “two-fer” Bayh. And “reinforcer” Kathleen Sebelius would supposedly offend hard-core Hillary Clinton supporters who think it would be an insult to the former candidate if Obama chose a “less-qualified” woman.
In other words, there are no easy choices for Obama, as I argued some time ago in supporting the Unity Ticket concept, since an Obama-Clinton ticket would at least have the logic of healing primary wounds.
At this late date, insofar as Obama-Clinton is by most accounts not an option, there are really two questions that remain. Does Obama feel strongly about the choice between doubling-down and buying insurance? And is he willing to take some untimely intraparty flack for choosing someone who will cause serious heartburn among elements of his progressive base of support?
If the answer to the second question is “no,” then my final handicapping thought is that Sebelius is the “reinforcer,” and Biden the “complementer,” who are most likely to get the nod, with Bayh likely only if Obama insists on a “two-fer.” If Obama doesn’t mind making intraparty waves, then all bets are off, and Nunn, Kaine, and God knows who else, could be on the table.
Does that clear it all up for you, dear reader? No, I didn’t think so.

“Presumptuous” Transition Planning

The latest McCain campaign attack line on Barack Obama, representing one of the few options for mocking the Democrat’s highly successful overseas trip, and building on the older idea that Obama’s some sort of egomaniacal Messiah figure (“The One,” as McCain’s staff calls him), has been that he’s pretending to have already won the presidency. This meme got a boost today from WaPo’s Dana Milbank, who had some irresponsible fun with the idea that Obama’s gone from being the “presumptive” nominee to the “presumptuous” nominee who’s engaging in a “victory tour” and “acting presidential.”
Since a lot of the people mocking Obama’s “presumptuousness” are also predicting that Obama could lose because Americans just can’t envision him as Commander-in-Chief, this is a pretty disingenuous criticism. But the particular complaint that really makes me crazy is this one, as articulated by Milbank:

The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder reported last week that Obama has directed his staff to begin planning for his transition to the White House, causing Republicans to howl about premature drape measuring.

We should all hope that both candidates are putting into motion some planning for a post-victory transition. That’s particularly true of Obama, given the vast personnel and policies changes invariably associated with a change of party administration. Anyone who remembers the chaos and lost time and opportunities associated with Bill Clinton’s transition operation in 1992 wouldn’t want to wish that on any president. And somehow, I doubt that most critics of Obama’s “presumptuousness” had issues with George W. Bush’s open transition planning during the Florida crisis of 2000, which had the cover, of course, of Bush’s claim that he had already won.
The idea that directing staff to begin thinking about the transition represents some sort of “taking the eyes off the ball” mistake by Obama doesn’t make any sense, either. Certainly his policy staff has some spare time; with the candidate’s agenda and platform already in place, their labors will be largely limited to new developments; nuances related to the candidate’s travel (viz. the deployment of his foreign policy advisors during the overseas trip); and later on, debate prep.
What would indeed represent dangerous “drape-measuring” behavior? Staff infighting and jockeying for future position in a “presumptive” administration. As I recall, a fair amount of that went on during the Gore and Kerry campaigns. But if that’s happening in Team Obama, it’s certainly been well-hidden–as opposed to Team McCain, where the candidate’s unfortunate tendency to blur the chain of command and tolerate rivalries among advisors is a bad sign not only for his campaign, but for a McCain administration.

Offshore Drilling, Oil Speculation & More MPG: What the Polls Say

The GOP is betting heavy that Dems’ opposition to drilling for oil in environmentally-sensitive areas is a big winner for Republicans. Chicago Tribune reporter Amanda Erickson quotes Sierra Club spokesman Josh Donner in her article today on Obama’s meeting on energy reform strategy with House of Reps members,

There’s a stalemate with Republicans…They are determined to filibuster anything [that does not involve drilling] … because Republicans think this is the issue they’re going to take to the bank.

As part of the GOP strategy, MN Republican Rep.Michelle Bachmann’s Wall St. Journal op-ed article, “The Democrats’ Energy Charade” vents her disdain for the Democratic-sponsored Drill Responsibly in leased Lands (DRILL) Act, which would increase the allowable leases in the National Petroleum Reserve, with some modest environmental precautions. But DRILL would not allow new exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), which is closer to existing pipeline structure. Nor would it permit additional offshore drilling for oil, which is a cornerstone of McCain’s energy ‘plan,’ along with nuclear power development and a suspension of the federal gas tax. And so it is anathema to Republicans.
In contrast to McCain’s plan, Sen. Obama opposes offshore drilling for oil, supports resolution of safety and storage issues before more nuclear power is expanded and he calls McCain’s ‘gas tax holiday’ a gimmick. Obama would require that oil companies drill in areas they have already leased, pay consumers a rebate and invest $150 billion in renewable energy
Democrats are having a tough time getting enough votes to move legislation like DRILL forward, due to the threat of a fillibuster and some ‘blue dog’ and ‘oil patch ‘ Dems who want drilling regulations eased. Recent opinion polls indicate that Dems do indeed have a very tough sell in their opposition to unrestricted drilling for oil. A June 26 Zogby poll showed 74 percent in support of offshore drilling. Even 58 percent of Dems in the poll favored offshore drilling. And in a recent CNN poll, 73 percent wanted it.
However, a Rasmussen poll taken on Monday night may have identified the weak link in the Republican position. The survey found that when respondents are given the choice between “cracking down on speculators or lifting the ban on offshore drilling,” 45 percent favor the former, while 42 percent favor the latter. The survey concludes that,

At this moment in time, there is support for offshore drilling, regulating speculators, more nuclear power, research for alternative energy sources, and drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

The Rasmussen poll wrap-up also noted that their poll taken last week found,

…52% support building new nuclear plants, but 31% are opposed. This is a slight increase in support. Backing for Obama’s proposal to spend $150 billion on green energy resources dropped slightly to 54%…Forty-four percent (44%) say reducing the price of gas and oil is more important than protecting the environment, but 41% disagree. These numbers track closely with previous findings on this question.

Energy reform is clearly a tricky proposition for both parties. When congress adjourns for the August recess in a few days, there is a strong probability that nothing will have been passed. Then the battle is about spinning the blame for inaction, in which case the Rasmussen report notes,

In the latest survey, 46% oppose the present GOP congressional strategy of blocking other energy legislation until a vote on the offshore ban is allowed, but 28% support it. Even more Republicans (44%) are against their congressional leaders’ strategy than for it (38%)

It would be hard to make a persuasive case that alternative energy development could be a practicable substitute for drilling for more oil in the short term. Opinion polls indicate strong support for developing wind power as a longer-term reform, for example. But mid-west wind farms and the like still seem like a distant dream to many voters. ‘Sure, it sounds great, but we need oil now.’ Never mind that whatever oil we find won’t be in the pipeline for years. Most voters apparently believe also that adequate precautions could be taken to have new offshore drilling that doesn’t damage the environment.
Dems can help their case by fighting harder for limiting oil market speculation, as well as for developing alternative energy. And, Dems have under-used leverage to wield in holding Republicans more accountable for their obstruction of better fuel efficiency standards. Although, there hasn’t been much polling about it recently, a CBS News/New York Times poll taken back in April of last year found that 92 percent of Americans supported “requiring car manufacturers to produce cars that are more energy efficient” — about as close to unanimous as you find in opinion polls.

Gallup Picks Winners 100 Days Out

We’re not all that into mystic prognostication at TDS, but we nonetheless feel compelled to share an interesting fact from a CNNpolitics.com post, “Midsummer polls often provide early glimpse of election results.” You’ve heard it said here, among other places, that early horse-race polls don’t mean much. Turns out that is not always true. In Gallup Polls taken 100 days before the presidential election, the leading candidate has won in November in all but two presidential elections since 1960, Nixon-Kennedy (’60) and Dukakis-Bush (’88). That would be 10 of the last 12 presidential elections. Heck, why not calculate it from ’64 on — that would be 10 of the last 11 presidential elections. (Queue up Twilight Zone music). Gallup presently has Obama up by 8. May their streak continue.

Kaine’s Faith Background

The popular everything-about-religion site Beliefnet has launched a new blogging site today for religious progressives called “Progressive Revival.” The charter participants are a pretty interesting group, ranging from best-selling authors like Marianne Williamson and Michael Lerner, to religious scholars like Randall Balmer and Susannah Heschel. I’m in the small cadre of mainly-political folk, along with Mike McCurry and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
My first Progressive Revival post was a brief item on Tim Kaine’s faith background, reflecting today’s buzz about him as a potential running-mate for Barack Obama:

As Barack Obama gets closer to his choice of a running-mate, speculation today is focusing on Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, whose allies are letting it be known that he’s being fully vetted as a short-lister.
Kaine’s political strengths and weaknesses are pretty well known. He’s a very successful politician in a state that hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, but that may be winnable this year. He’s a civil rights lawyer by profession, but has built on Mark Warner’s efforts to reach beyond party lines for both electoral and legislative support. On the other hand, he’s still in his first term of office (and ineligible to run for re-election in 2009), and has no significant foreign policy experience.
It’s Kaine’s faith background that makes him an interesting option for Obama.
He’s not only a practicing Catholic (an area of relative weakness for Obama during the primaries); he once served as a missionary in Central America. (His Spanish-language fluency is definitely an asset beyond Virginia). And in his 2005 gubernatorial campaign, he provided an interesting example of how faith can provide a defense against wedge-issue attacks.
His Republican opponent, Jerry (No Relation!) Kilgore, launched a barrage of ads attacking Kaine’s opposition to the death penalty, as part of an effort to convince Virginians that the Democrat was well to the left of the popular Warner. Kaine responded by attributing his death-penalty position to Catholic teaching, and then argued that he could be trusted nonetheless to enforce the death penalty after he took the oath of office on a Bible. By most accounts, Kaine won this exchange decisively, without changing his position or acting evasively.
If Obama and his team are fully familiar with this incident, it may add to Kaine’s appeal as a running-mate, given the avalanche of wedge-issue attacks the Democratic ticket is going to undergo in the fall.

As Kaine’s name has bounced around the blogosphere today, there’s definitely a bit of a backlash developing, not only because of the resume-limitations mentioned above, but also because of misgivings about his position on abortion (supporting Roe v. Wade, but also supporting some abortion restrictions–including those on so-called “partial-birth” abortions, with a “health” exception–and strongly favoring demand-side “abortion reduction” strategies).
But if it’s true, as the CW holds today, that Obama’s pretty much down to a choice of Kaine, Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, or Kathleen Sebelius, there’s not a name in that group who wouldn’t displease a significant number of people.

Right-Sizing the Big Tent

As regular readers know, one of the missions of TDS is to promote civil, empirically based discussion of intra-Democratic Party issues, with the aim of fostering principled party unity.
With all the recent, FISA-fueled talk of holding congressional Dems more accountable for their votes and views, Salon published an exchange today between Glenn Greenwald and yours truly about the advisability of threatening or carrying out primary challenges to selected Dems, particularly the Blue Dogs.
Glenn’s piece is here; my response is here. For the record, the thrust of my hold-your-fire argument was that (1) it’s not that easy to divine the views of the “Democratic base” in order to construct the limits of acceptable Democratic opinion; and (2) if Obama wins, we’ll be dealing with an entirely new, post-Bush environment in which today’s intraparty discontents may need to be reviewed, and may be moot.
Much of the reaction on the Salon site followed the Kabuki Theater of “center” versus “left” tendencies on the subject; Glenn and I both got trash-talked an awful lot. For a more nuanced reaction, check out Big Tent Democrat’s take at TalkLeft.

Obama’s Field Presence In Florida

At HuffPo this morning, Sam Stein has a thorough account of the Obama campaign’s impressive deployment of field resources to Florida, putting it “months ahead” of the organizing efforts in the Sunshine State by the Gore and Kerry campaigns.

Already with fully staffed offices in three major cities, the Illinois Democrat is formally opening additional headquarters in five other cities this week and eight others next week, bringing the total amount of Obama for America offices in the state to 16.

And Florida’s not even a state that most observers consider critical to Obama’s chances of winning.
As Stein notes, Obama’s got 15 field office up and running in Wisconsin, and an astonishing 24 in Virginia.
Whatever the Obama campaign ultimately accomplishes, it’s certainly making its mark as representing a much greater commitment to grassroots organizing than we’ve seen in a long, long time.