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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: October 2008

Greenberg Responds to McCain Pollster

TDS Co-Editor Stan Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Democracy Corps has a very interesting response to a memo by McCain’s lead pollster, Bill McInturff, which made a case that McCain is on track for an upset win on Tuesday. Greenberg’s letter follows:
Dear Bill,
I very much enjoyed your spirited note on the state of the race and Barack Obama’s “ballot position.” It reminds me how much I miss our times working together on the bipartisan polls for NPR and for many of our corporate clients. I miss in particular the banter before those meetings when your Republican colleagues fretted over their teenage children going off to Obama rallies.
Using your last four days of tracking polls in your battleground states and your underlying analysis you conclude that “this is a hard election to predict” because of the unprecedented interest and likely turnout, and that “all signs say we are headed to an election that may easily be too close to call by next Tuesday.” You get there by underscoring a number of emerging patterns – “what we know for sure.” First, “The McCain campaign has made impressive strides over the last week of tracking.” Second, that the campaign is “functionally tied across the battleground states.” Third, “the key number in our mind is Senator Obama’s level of support,” which is dropping below 50 percent, with good reason to believe that Obama “gets what he gets in the tracking” – with few prospects of more votes from the undecided, African Americans or turnout patterns. Fourth, that Obama’s margin over McCain is “beginning to approach margin of error with a week left.” Fifth, McCain is achieving breakthroughs with “soft Democrats,” “Wal-Mart women” and an “impressive pop” with independents. And finally, that “Joe the Plumber” has astounding recognition and changed the debate on taxes and the economy.
All of us Greenberg Quinlan Rosner were in awe of the boldness of these assertions, as they, we are sure, honestly reflect the data, show a nuanced use of language and topics, and weave a story that almost gets to the conclusions that this race is opening up, unpredictable, and closing, without formally saying those things. What is interesting is that some of the findings match ours, but with a fuller picture, take us to a different close.
We wanted to take this opportunity to discuss the “things we know for sure”

Democratic Anxiety

Four days out from Election Day, there’s not a lot of drama to the presidential race. The national tracking polls are relatively stable, with maybe a slight drift towards McCain. Only outliers (yesterday, “traditional” Gallup and Zogby, and today, Fox) have the race close to the margin of error. The state polls consistently show Obama with a comfortable electoral vote lead. Among conservative opinion-leaders, the mood is subtly shifting from the desparate search for evidence that McCain’s steadily closing the gap, to self-consolation that he’s kept the race relatively close despite all his disadvantages.
But as Ezra Klein noted yesterday, there’s a feeling of anxiety among many Democratic gabbers and activists right now that something could go terribly wrong next Tuesday. Ezra suggests there’s not much evidence to support such fears, and that even if McCain winds up doing exceptionally well among undecided voters, he’s probably too far behind to close the deal.
I’d argue that aside from congenital and well-earned Democratic pessimism based on past close elections, there may be two factor underlying this anxiety. The first is obvious enough: race. With the McCain campaign heavily relying on submerged and not-so-submerged racial appeals, old fears about the willingness of white Americans to elect an African-American president have bubbled up.
The second factor is more subtle: personal emotional investment in Obama. Some Democrats have long considered Obama a phenomenal, once-in-a-generation leader who can be “transformational;” others have reached this conclusion more recently. Still others simply think it’s imperative, in an unprecedented way, that the GOP lock on the White House is terminated this year, for reasons ranging from Supreme Court appointments to foreign policy.
That hasn’t always been the case. I can say from personal experience that I’ve only had a strong emotional, as opposed to professional or ideological, investment in the outcome of two presidential elections: 1992 and 2004. And those two Election Nights represented the ultimate highs and lows.
In 1992, I had the ineffable joy of sitting in Atlanta’s premier political watering hole, Manuel’s Tavern, surrounded by members of a class I was teaching, as Georgia was called for Bill Clinton about two minutes after the polls closed. In 2004, the bad news came to me in the form of a wee-hours conversation with a friend of mine who was working for John Kerry in Florida, and told me: “We’re done in Florida, and we’re done nationally,” finally dashing the illusions born of faulty exit polls.
Other Democrats have had similar experiences, more negative than positive, usually. Many were more wrenched by the endless and ultimately maddening drama of 2000 than with the near-miss of 2004. But virtually all of us seem transfixed by this year’s election, and what it might portend. That can produce anxiety, which will only be relieved when all the votes are in, and we–that’s how most of us feel about it–have prevailed.

The Drive for 60 Senators

Nate Silver has a useful update today on polling of U.S. Senate races. He counts six Democratic pickups as very likely: VA, NM, CO, NH, OR and AK. Three others–MN, NC and GA–are rated as tossups, though like J.P. Green, he thinks Liddy Dole’s last-minute religious attack ad on Kay Hagan in NC could well backfire. In the case of GA, Nate figures close to even odds for a rare general election runoff.
KY and MS, while still plausible for Democrats, are not looking quite so good lately. But on the other hand, the one Democratic target going into this cycle, Mary Landrieu of LA, seems completely safe.
If all three toss-ups break Democratic, the party would reach the magical 60 votes in the Senate that would theoretically represent a filibuster-proof majority. But that’s only if you count the apostate Joe Lieberman as a Democrat. In reality, of course, a filibuster-proof majority is a vote-by-vote proposition that requires a difficult-to-achieve level of party unity. On the other hand, there are a few Republicans (Snowe, Collins, Specter, and if he survives, perhaps Coleman) who may well be reachable on some key votes.
All in all, it will be a very good election night for Senate Democrats, and we’ll really have to wait until January to see how it all shakes out in terms of the ability to govern.

Dole’s ‘False Witness’ May Give Hagan Senate Seat

It appears that Sen. Liddy Dole (R-NC) has lost either her marbles or control of her campaign. Dole has unleashed a ridiculously bombastic ad that tries to slime her opponent, Kay Hagan as “Godless.” Hagan has put in time as both a Sunday school teacher and church elder in a Greensboro Presbyterian church her family has attended for more than a century.
MyDD‘s Jonathan Singer has a nicely presented pair of video clips that shine light on Dole’s heavy-handed slime.
It’s a huge blunder. No doubt Dole hopes to fire up her evangelical base for the home stretch. But Dole’s absurd allegations are easily rebutted, given Hagan’s clear record of commitment to her Christian faith. It’s hard to see how Dole can get off scott-free from the consequences of such a silly accusation. And not all evangelicals are happy about what Hagan describes as Dole’s ‘false witness.’ The latest NC Senate race poll average at Pollster.com has Hagan ahead by a margin of 46.6 to 43 percent. If the people of North Carolina are as decent as I think, Dole’s ad could cost her the election.
I remember Dole once saying that her husband, Bob Dole’s lagging campaign for the Presidency needed “adult supervision.” It looks like her campaign has the same problem.
Contributions to Hagan’s campaign can be made here.

I’m Not Bush; I’m Tom DeLay!

John McCain’s decision to go right over the brink and start attacking Obama’s tax plan as “welfare” associates him with one of the hoariest of right-wing arguments: the idea that refundable income tax credits for people with payroll tax but not income tax liability amount to welfare payments.
It’s also an argument that none other than George W. Bush famously repudiated back in 1999, when House Republicans tried (for short-term budget purposes) to change earned income tax credit refunds to a monthly rather than annual payment, on the theory (loudly championed by Tom DeLay) that such payments were nothing more than welfare, and should be paid out like welfare. And at about the same time, it was repudiated by, yes, John McCain, who said Congress shouldn’t “tamper with a much-needed tax credit for working Americans.”
It speaks volumes about McCain’s campaign that he’s now flip-flopped on this very fundamental and entirely familiar issue, and embraced the political ghost of Tom DeLay. In combination with his earlier espousal of the ACORN/CRA/Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac conspiracy theory blaming poor and minority people for the housing and financial crisis, his identification with the implicitly racist “voter fraud” canard, and his heavy-handed evocation of the terrible tax burden imposed by shiftless people on Joe the Plumber, there’s no longer any doubt that the oh-so-honorable John McCain in engaged in race-baiting demogoguery of the highest order.

Another Morning in America

Last night’s long-awaited 30 minute Obama video provoked some fairly predictable responses: Democrats loved it, Republicans hated it.
So let’s turn to a professional for an assessment: the Washington Post’s renowned TV critic, Tom Shales:

As political filmmaking, “Barack Obama: American Stories” was an elegant combination of pictures, sounds, voices and music designed not so much to sell America on Barack Obama as to communicate a sensibility. The film conveyed feelings, not facts — specifically, a simulation of how it would feel to live in an America with Barack Obama in the White House. The tone and texture recalled the “morning in America” campaign film made on behalf of Ronald Reagan, a work designed to give the audience a sense of security and satisfaction; things are going to be all right….
It was the easiest thing in the world, watching the skillfully edited hodgepodge put together by his campaign, to picture Obama as president. That’s one thing the film was designed to do, especially for the doubters and those scared, “undecided” voters out there.

And that is indeed a smart message to convey if you’re a front-running candidate for the presidency of an afflicted and jittery nation, and your opponent has gambled everything on convincing voters that your election will be a dangrous leap into the unknown.

“Voter Fraud,” Race, and the Conservative Base

There’s a long article at the Washington Post today about the crossfire in Ohio over allegations of voter fraud by Republicans and of voter suppression by Democrats. It’s mainly interesting because it illustrates the extent to which rank-and-file Republican voters have totally bought their leaders’ bogus rhetoric about a vast conspiracy to steal the election for Barack Obama by herding unqualified voters to the polls.
Here’s a particular pungent passage from the Post story:

“Did I register? Three times,” joked a supervisor of a demolition crew tearing down an old public housing complex on the east side.
“I signed 73 times, got a cigarette every time I put down my name,” said worker Randy Kinney, bringing up one of the much-publicized local voter-registration problems being investigated by the county elections board.

The ugly racial subtext of such “jokes” is pretty clear, and like a lot of conservative election-stretch-drive talk, seems designed to promote the belief that Barack Obama is leading some sort of radical African-American takeover of the United States.
Traditionally, Republican “voter fraud” agitation has been designed to distract attention from, if not actually justify, GOP efforts to intimidate or discourage minority voters. We’ll see next Tuesday what sorts of dirty tricks Republicans have in store this time around, but I suspect the current voter-fraud talk reflects a deeper psychological phenomenon among conservatives, not just some tactical ploy.
Hostility to universal sufferage is one of the oldest traditions in American conservatism. It transcends simple elitism and/or racism mainly in arguments that poor people will naturally try to use government to loot the property holdings of their social and economic superiors. And these arguments are not very far from the surface of the McCain campaign this year, given its preoccupation with attacks on Obama’s tax plan for providing “welfare” to people without federal income tax liability (never mind that refundable tax credits to working families who pay high and regressive payroll taxes was an idea once championed by Republicans such as Ronald Reagan).
It’s not too hard to connect the dots here. Barack Obama is an African-American with avid African-American support. African-Americans are participating heavily in early voting opportunities. His “socialist” tax plan will shower African-Americans with welfare benefits. And African-Americans, or their “elitist” Democratic leaders, will break every rule to make this all happen.
In many parts of the country, racial polarization has been the single most reliable vehicle for driving white working-class voters to the GOP, and driving white turnout up sharply. Whether the McCain-Palin campaign is consciously relying on this kind of nasty appeal in Ohio, the South, or elsewhere, I think it’s beyond any reasonable doubt that they are stoking it, not just with caterwauling about “voter fraud,” but with the entire series of attacks on Barack Obama as a radical who wants to tax Joe the Plumber to provide “welfare” to his supporters.

The Tao of Obama

Stanley Fish has an enjoyable op-ed in today’s New York Times, ruminating on Senator Obama’s remarkably calm temperament in the midst of blazing political conflict at the highest level. Fish likens Obama’s equanimity in absorbing blistering insults to that of the “preternaturally still Jesus” enduring the attacks of Satan as portrayed in John Milton’s Paradise Regained. It makes for a jolly read, especially as a possible response to the religious lunatics who have tried to demonize Obama. It’s an apt metaphor as Fish explains it:

The power Jesus generates is the power of not moving from the still center of his being and refusing to step into an arena of action defined by his opponent. So it is with Obama, who barely exerts himself and absorbs attack after attack, each of which, rather than wounding him, leaves him stronger…
And McCain knows it. Last Wednesday, campaigning in New Hampshire, he spoke sneeringly about Obama’s campaign being “disciplined and careful.” That’s exactly right, and so far the combination of discipline and care — care not to get out too far in front of anything — along with a boatload of money is working just fine. Jesus is usually the political model for Republicans, but this time his brand of passive, patient leadership is being channeled by a Democrat.

Sure, it’s a grandiose comparison, although he makes a good point about Obama’s strategy in dealing with conflict. One could just as easily liken Obama’s temperament to that of the Buddha under the Bo Tree. Even better, Obama’s strategy in addressing conflict has a Taoist aspect: “The water that flows around the rock reaches the destination faster than the water that fights the rock.” Obama doesn’t waste a lot of time whining about personal attacks; he graceful glides around them and moves on to the next obstacle, while McCain is left behind, preaching to the choir or yammering about some non-issue ( Rev. Wright, Ayers, ‘socialism’ etc.) of little interest to most voters.
Obama has an impressive ability to convey both a passionate spirit and a cool temperament at the same time, in the tradition of JFK and FDR. Hard to say how much of it is a gift and how much is studied. But clearly Democratic candidates can learn from it.

The Futility of “Redistribution” Attacks on Obama

Note: this item was originally published on October 28, 2008.
It’s been obvious for a while that attacks on Barack Obama for favoring “redistribution of wealth” and other “socialist” beliefs is the final gambit of the McCain-Palin campaign. They’re reached this essentially ridiculous position for a variety of reasons:
(1) It’s highly congenial to conservative “base” voters, who think virtually all Democrats are “socialists,” and who also view much of the New Deal/Great Society legacy as “socialist.”
(2) It’s also arguably persuasive to some swing voters, who may not like or trust either candidate, and are trying to figure out who represents the greatest risk.
(3) It intersects with the McCain campaign’s heavily tax-and-budget based approach to the economy, which it is intensifying in the absence of anything much to say about what he would do to deal with the actual economic crisis the country faces.
(4) It also intersects with the sleazier aspects of the McCain/GOP/conservative assault on Obama, aimed at painting him as a dangerous radical who “pals around with terrorists” and is secretly close to anti-American, black nationalist, and perhaps even Jihadist Islamic elements.
So anything Obama’s ever said and done that can be twisted into support for “redistribution of wealth” is being avidly promoted by the GOP. The latest example is a 2001 Chicago public radio intereview in which Obama the law professor discusses the reluctance of the judicial branch to engage in “redistributive” efforts.
This is really, really a reach, as Obama legal advisor Cass Sunstein explains at The New Republic. Obama was in fact articulating approvingly a conservative legal theory about the hamhanded nature of direct judicial intervention into social policies that don’t involve fundamental rights:

In answering a caller’s question, he said that the court “is just not very good at” redistribution. Obama added, with approval, that the Constitution “is generally a charter of negative liberties.”
Obama’s principal claim–about the institutional limits of the courts–was made by many conservatives (including Robert Bork) in the 1960s and 1970s: Courts should not attempt to guarantee “positive” rights, or interpret the Constitution to redistribute wealth. Obama is squarely rejecting the claim that was made by many liberal lawyers, professors, and judges at the time–and that is being made by some today.

So this latest attempt to show that Obama’s a “socialist” is almost completely bogus.
But facts aside, there are two other reasons these sort of attacks aren’t getting much traction.
First of all, most Americans generally understand that there are a variety of longstanding and very popular policies in this country that involve “redistribution of wealth” to some extent or other. Certainly Medicare and Medicaid aren’t “pay as you go” programs. Nor is public education. And the basic principle of progressive taxation is inherently redistributive.
Second of all, we are at a point in U.S. history when upper-income and corporate complaints about “redistribution” are going to fall on an awful lot of deaf ears, given the consequences of regressive conservative economic policies over the last eight years. As I noted in an earlier post about progressive taxation, a majority of Americans right now appear to actually support the use of the tax code to redistribute wealth from the rich to lower-and-middle class folk, which is what Obama is unfairly being accused of covertly supporting.
In general, the McCain-Palin campaign’s attack lines on “redistribution” and “socialism” are poorly timed, as were earlier efforts to brand Obama as an “extreme liberal.” This is one election cycle where given the choice between the economic policy status quo and a more liberal approach, “change” is the preferred option regardless of how it is mischaracterized with alarmist terms.

The Path Not Taken: McCain-Jindal

There’s a pretty robust left-right blogospheric debate that’s been underway for the last week–probably in the desperate hope of finding something to talk about other than Obama-McCain polling data–about the 2012 prospects of one Bobby Jindal, Governor of the Gret Stet of Loosiana (phonetic spelling).
It began as something of an intramural debate at The New Republic, wherein Suzy Khimm suggested that Jindal might be a formidable GOP candidate–perhaps even the “Republican Obama”–in 2012, while Chris Orr riposted that the race-baiting fundamentals of the McCain-Palin campaign would poison the well for a Republican as dark-skinned and “foreign” as Bobby.
A variety of conservatives joined the debate, most notably the estimable Ross Douthat, who responded to Orr as follows:

I think this vastly, vastly overestimates the extent to which the attempt to “Otherize” Obama has been about race qua race (and racism qua racism), and vastly underestimates the extent to which it’s been about the way Obama’s name, ancestry and skin color have dovetailed with other aspects of his background – from his liberation-theology church to the academic-lefty and urban-machine milieu in which he spent much of his early political career – that the GOP would have tried to play up against any Democratic candidate (and especially in a year when the party didn’t have much else going for it)

In other words, the GOP ticket’s appeal to racist sentiments is very real, but draws much of its power from a narrative that allows voters to combine racism with other, more ideological, motives.
Count me as on Ross’ side in the Douthat-Orr debate. Conservatives don’t like to think of themselves as racist (many, including most conservative intellectuals, actually aren’t) and that’s why they avidly welcome candidates who may be heterogeneous racially or ethnically, but are homogenous in terms of ideology and cultural identification. Had Colin Powell or Condi Rice proved to be reliable on hot-button issues like abortion, affirmative action, and preemptive war, they’d have been elevated to a national GOP ticket by now.
Daniel Larison at The American Conservative gets at this impulse very directly:

[N]ever underestimate the Republican desire to get on the high horse of anti-racism and egalitarianism, to say nothing of the even greater desire to demonstrate that they are in no way racist….
This is partly opportunistic, but it is also partly very serious. The small cottage industry out there cataloguing the “real racism” of liberals represents a genuine conviction in the modern GOP that they are the only true defenders of color-blind equality. The Republican obsession with Jeremiah Wright cannot be understood apart from this “fight the real racists!” mentality. The enthusiastic reception of Palin and the sudden willingness to label any criticism of her as sexism and elitism reflects a similar impulse to out-egalitarian the egalitarians. This is opportunistic insofar as it is aimed at confusing conventional definitions and throwing the opponent off guard (”we’re the real feminists, so there!”), but it is quite serious in that reflects a widely-held Republican belief that their agenda and their party represent ”empowerment” for women and minorities.

This is pretty much the same impulse that has led Democrats to favor southern white male candidates over the years, though not this year. If you can get someone who personally represents the other party’s base to stand for your own party’s ideological line, that’s great, not just in terms of the direct appeal to voters “like them,” but because it breaks all the stereotypes, and actually enables you to criticize your own candidate’s demographic group on non-demographic grounds.
When it comes to Bobby Jindal, it’s important to understand that he’s not simply acceptable, as Powell and Rice never were, to the “conservative base,” but is wildly popular among movement conservatives. As I noted way back in February, Jindal was the plurality winner of a National Review reader poll for McCain’s running-mate.
And that gets us back to a more immediate question than that of Bobby Jindal’s hypothetical prospects in 2012 or 2016: what if John McCain had chosen Jindal rather than Palin as his running-mate?
Jindal more than Palin figured prominently in early speculation about a “Hail Mary” McCain running-mate. And the main rap on Bobby was that his youth and inexperience would undercut the fundamental McCain effort to contrast his experience with Obama’s. But the Hail Mary was thrown, and compared to Palin, Jindal is a greybeard. It does make you wonder about the Path Not Taken. Jindal would clearly have commanded as strong a level of support from conservative “base” elements as Palin, maybe even more. He would have been more credible than Palin as a “conservative maverick,” and would also have been able to provide a convincing anti-Bush but not anti-conservative take on incidents like Katrina. Without question, he would have had no problem with media interviews like the Katie Couric fiasco for Palin. He would have done at least as well as Palin in the debate with Biden. Nobody on Saturday Night Live would have been able to parody him.
And personally, I think Jindal would have been able to reinforce, not neutralize, quasi-racist and quasi-nativist assaults on Obama. Conservative voters looking at Jindal would have been able to say: See, that’s how those people should behave.
In retrospect, it’s increasingly clear that the Palin selection was all about the illusion that a female Veep candidate acceptable to the Right could attract disgruntled HRC voters. Hasn’t worked out that way, at all.
If Obama waxes McCain next Tuesday, I think conservative efforts to find a non-WASP vehicle for their anti-Obama crusade will only increase. And Bobby Jindal will be very available for that role.