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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: November 2008

A New Slogan for a New Day

For many years, beginning in the Reagan era, the most compelling conservative anti-government slogan was Ronald Reagan’s common-sense statement – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
It was a powerfully compelling statement and one so clear as to be entirely self-evident, both as a practical truth and as a metaphor for all forms of government activity.
Well, the indispensible Paul Krugman has now penned a new and equally compelling slogan and aphorism for all Democrats who recognize the need for sensible regulation.
Writing in The New York Review of Books, he says:

…the basic principle should be clear: anything that has to be rescued during a financial crisis, because it plays an essential role in the financial mechanism, should be regulated when there isn’t a crisis so that it doesn’t take excessive risks.

This is a remarkable expression of economic common sense, one with which the vast majority of the American electorate can effortlessly agree. For the purposes of everyday political debate, however, the concept can actually be made even simpler and more general:

If some firm or institution needs the American taxpayer to bail it out when there is a major crisis, then it needs ongoing financial regulation by the American taxpayer’s representatives when there’s not a major crisis.

These notions are just as compelling, logical and as self evident as Ronald Reagan’s classic remark. Opponents of sensible regulation will mumble frantically about the “invisible hand”, “automatic equilibrium” and “the market as decentralized information processing system,” but Democrats can just calmly repeat these slogans over and over again as utterly obvious, common sense, and basically self-evident truths.
(The slogans are, in fact, quite flexible. You can croak them out sardonically like Poe’s Raven saying “nevermore “or get a group of kids to chant them like team spirit day cheers for the high school football team.)
But do be prepared. When the self-evident nature of these arguments begin to overcome all rational objections, defenders of deregulation will suddenly whip out sheets of graph paper and begin furiously drawing a variety of curved lines while simultaneously reciting incantations of the form “in an ideal free market all consumers receive exactly the goods and services they desire” and “in an ideal free market all producers receive exactly the compensation they deserve”
Linguistically speaking, these incantations most closely resemble the vespers liturgy used in many European monasteries in the late Middle Ages and the drawings appear remarkably similar to the prehistoric Nasca lines on the Pacific coast of Peru. But both, in fact, are actually verbal and graphic representations of mathematical equations whose essential purpose is to deflect all arguments based on common sense.
Fortunately, as this is the Christmas season, there is a very educational game based on these notions that can be played at holiday parties or to entertain precocious children. The game is to go through all the classic conservative economics texts like Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, Jude Wanniski’s The Way the World Works and so on replacing every instance of the phrase “the free market” with the words “Santa Claus”.
The game consists in seeing how many pages, chapters and even entire volumes one can review before finding sentences that do not make exactly as much sense after the alteration as they did before (e.g. “Santa Claus insures that everybody gets exactly what they want.” “Santa Claus insures that everybody receives exactly what they deserve”). Some people have gone through thousands of pages this way without ever encountering any difficulty.
It’s great fun, trust me. It’s rather like playing Mad Libs, only funnier.
And best of all, when you’re done you can take the books you’ve annotated, wrap them in Christmas paper and give them as gifts to any of your acquaintances who still do not accept the need for reasonable regulation of business and the financial sector.
And, hey, don’t forget to add Paul Krugman’s delicious new slogan on your Christmas card.

How Should Obama Confront Terror?

Between the economic meltdown and the uplifting election, Americans have had something of a respite for a few months from dispiriting headlines concerning wars and terrorism. But now the horrific atrocities in Mumbai bring a sobering reminder that the Obama administration will face a continuing, if not growing, threat of global terror, much of it directed against Americans.
As a presidential candidate, Senator Obama had to talk tough about confronting terrorists with military force. He wasn’t just overcompensating because of his opponent’s impressive military record. The cold, hard reality is that we do need enhanced military and intelligence capabilities to deal with the threat of terrorism. But our policy must be a lot smarter, with more precision in targeting military action when it’s really necessary and much stronger on-the-ground intelligence. It will require a major reformulation of our strategic goals at DOD, State, and intelligence agencies.
But the greatest challenge facing the Obama administration in confronting the threat of global terror is creating a more effective strategy for winning the struggle for hearts and minds.

Conservative Paranoia, the South, and the Heartland

The major news story right now continues to be the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and I have no particular value to add on that subject, at least until we know more about what happened and why (though you do have to wonder if the initial “Westerners being targeted” reports have distorted understanding of this atrocity, since the vast majority of victims have in fact been Indians).
Scouring the blogosphere for other topics, I ran across an interesting Digby post speculating that conservative paranoia and self-pity owes a lot to the southern cult of “honor” that treats opposing points of view as personal insults. As a southerner and as a fascinated observer of conservatism, the theory is catnip to me. But I don’t quite buy it.
Digby doesn’t go into a lot of detail, but I can see how a careful examination of southern political rhetoric over the years would justify the connection she suggests between today’s “persecuted” conservatives and yesterday’s “persecuted” southerners. During the Civil Rights era, white southern segregationists did indeed view themselves as a brave, beseiged minority under assault from overwhelmingly powerful forces, not as persecutors using every institution of government and civil society to oppress African-Americans and anyone who might sympathize with them. It took a special kind of hallucinatory vision to see Bull Connor as a freedom fighter rather than as the quintessential thug. I don’t know that the Celtic origins (which Digby does mention) of white southern culture was that definitive an influence, though, since precisely the same mentality and rhetoric characterized the very Anglo-Saxon Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the Afrikaner apartheid state in South Africa then and later.
Going back further, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy certainly owed a lot to a willful exaggeration of the South’s plight in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860. Some southerners did indeed turn reality inside out by viewing potential restrictions on extension of slavery into the territories as both a provocation to southern sensibilities, and as a direct threat to the Peculiar Institution itself. But much of the secession agitation was focused more generally on the fateful emergence of a northern regional political party that had quickly destroyed the power associated with the South’s implicit veto over the policies of both the Democrats and the Whigs during the Second American Party system. And that was a real, not imaginary threat, even though it wasn’t really imminent.
But my main reason for doubting the distinctively southern roots of contemporary conservative paranoia is that there’s a different and much more proximate antecedent: the midwestern- and western-based isolationist demonization of “Eastern elites” that served as the main fault line in the Republican Party during much of the twentieth century. Dating back at the very least to the regional split in the GOP over intervention in World War I (and arguably to the 1912 presidential campaign), Heartland Republicans constantly complained that shadowy but powerful eastern cultural and economic forces undermined their own “natural” majority in the party and in the country.
This paranoid sentiment probably peaked in 1940, when Eastern financial interests and a shrewd propaganda campaign brewed up by Henry Luce of Time Magazine allegedly stampeded the Republican National Convention into nominating internationalist Wendell Willkie over Robert Taft. But it carried over to 1952, when many of the same forces pushed Eisenhower past Taft for the Republican presidential nomination. And though anticommunism and the Civil Rights movement changed some of the underlying ideological issues in the interim, the same dynamic was evident in the vengeful treatment of “Liberal Republicans” by the Goldwater movement of 1964, and its movement-conservative successors right up through 1994.
When you compare the rhetorical flourishes, it’s pretty evident that the intraparty conspiracy theories and cult of victimization that characterized Heartland Conservatives in the past has been largely projected onto the opposition Democrats in the wake of the conservative conquest of the GOP. The prominence of the South in the GOP today may give this paranoid narrative something of a southern accent, but for my money its roots are more in the prairies than the plantations.


Some people take the occasion of Thanksgiving to pen long lists of things, people and developments for which they are thankful. My own would be too long for publication, and in any event, I hope most regular readers are too busy with Thanksgiving festivities to spend time at this or any other site aside from those with really good recipes for brined turkey or homemade stuffing.
To those who do sneak away from the table or the television to check out political websites in the fear of missing something important or interesting, let me say: thank you! Here at The Democratic Strategist, we have relatively little information about our readership, other than knowing that it seems to have roughly doubled in the last year. But we hope you won’t drift away now that the 2008 election season is (more or less) over. In terms of the strategic issues facing the Democratic Party, this next year may be exceptionally momentous, and we do intend to serve as a meeting-place and one-stop-shop for those engaged in these debates.
Thanks again, and please stay tuned.

Relevant and Irrelevant Republicans

As part of the continuing debate here and elsewhere about how to interpret Barack Obama’s pledge to govern in a bipartisan or post-partisan manner, Matt Yglesias offers an important point about the GOP Members of Congress whose votes are really necessary for the Obama administration or Democratic congressional leaders. There aren’t that many:

The House Republicans are, in effect, irrelevant. The House GOP mattered in the 110th Congress because President Bush used his agenda-setting powers to frame a certain number of issues such that Blue Dogs agreed with the Republicans. In the 111th Congress, you’ll have more liberals (making Blue Dog votes less necessary) plus more Blue Dogs (reducing the proportion of the Blue Dog faction you need to get all the Blue Dog votes you need) and a Democratic president who presumably won’t deliberately shift the agenda to terrain that lets the Republicans get the upper hand.
What matters is the Senate. And I would suggest that what matters here is less the number of moderates than the number of people representing states Obama won. Namely — Senators Collins, Snowe, Spectre, Voinovich, Lugar, Grassley, Burr, Martinez, Ensign, and possibly Coleman. Obama will have a strong argument to make that the voters of those states would like to see congress cooperate with the Obama agenda, and he has the organizational tools at his disposal to ensure that voters who feel that way are able to express their feelings to their senators.

I’d go farther and say that one of Obama’s goal is to generate enough public sentiment for his agenda among rank-and-file independents and Republicans that his overall support levels may begin to intimidate congressional Republicans, no matter where they are from. But Matt’s right: it is important to recognize whose votes are significant and whose would represent no more than gravy.

Private Contraction, Public Expansion

For those who never took or don’t remember Economics 101, two headlines from the front page of today’s Washington Post tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the basic quandry facing economic policymakers in Washington right now:
“US Spending Continued Decline in October.”
“Food Stamp Use Nears Record.”
A contracting economy kills jobs and income and reduces public revenues, even as it boosts demand for public services. A rapidly contracting economy like the one we are facing now does so at a dramatic pace. That’s why virtually no one is talking much about “fiscal discipline” right now. But it’s also why state and local governments, who face this same dynamic without the ability to run large budget deficits, and who actually administer and in some cases help finance the big public-sector programs accessed by people suffering from the recession, need to be a central part of the big stimulus package just ahead.

Real South, CAP’s Influence, Labor Miffed…

For one of the more thoughtful takes on the topic yet written, check out ProgressiveSouth’s Daily Kos post “The REAL story about the South and the 2008 elections,” and the dozens of comments that follow.
Michael Scherer’s Time magazine article “Inside Obama’s Idea Factory in Washington” explains why the Center for American Progress is now “the most influential independent organization in Obama’s nascent Washington” and is called Podesta’s “think tank on sterioids.”
Jay Walljasper’s Alternet post “Good Thing Minnesota Has Someone in Charge Who Cares About Counting Every Vote” provides an interesting profile of MN’s Secretary of State, Mark Ritchie as he navigates the vote count for the closest — and one of the most important — state-wide races in MN history.
The Politico‘s Ben Smith reports on organized labor’s disappointment at not being included thus far in President-elect Obama’s economic policy team, after having provided so much money and manpower to elect Obama. Smith also names and discusses some of the presumptive front-runners for the DOL (Gephart, Sebelius, Maxwell, Hindery and Brainard).
Also at Alternet, David Sirota has a critical wrap-up on Obama’s appointments thus far, “Watch out for Obama’s Team Selling Conservative Policies as Progressive Politics,” while Salon‘s Joan Walsh makes the case for “trusting Obama” in her link-rich post “Who’s afraid of Obama’s overreaching?
Atlanta Journal Constitution ‘Political Insider’ Jim Galloway quotes Jim Martin consultant Donna Brazile on whether the Prez-elect should come to GA to help Martin win his Senate race against Saxby Chambliss: “While I know and understand and appreciate the desire to see President-elect Obama down in Georgia, I think strategically, he should focus on the transition.” A vigorous debate follows in the more than 80 comments.

The relationship between Obama and the Progressives – is it a “battle for the President’s soul” or a “natural division of labor?”

The rapidly mushrooming debate about the relationship between the Obama administration and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party suffers from an unnecessary lack of clarity because many of the commentators do not make a clear distinction between two very distinct ways of visualizing the issue.
The first, which might be called “the battle for the President’s soul” perspective, visualizes progressives and centrists or conservatives as engaged in a permanent tug of war to win the President’s support for their agenda. In this perspective, each cabinet appointment and each policy decision the President makes represents one more episode in a perpetual struggle to pull, pressure or cajole the President toward progressive approaches and solutions
For progressive Democrats who entered politics during and after the Clinton administration, this way of thinking about a new administration seems entirely natural and indeed almost completely self-evident. By late 1980’s most progressive movements had become increasingly Washington-focused and political campaign-oriented, in contrast to previous eras of independent progressive grass-roots organizing and mobilization. For many younger progressives, working for political candidates and campaigns was actually their sole form of progressive activity. As such, it made sense for them to feel that a victorious campaign naturally ought to deliver a very clear and explicit ideological “payoff” to progressives after the election, one properly proportionate to the effort they invested during the campaign and the degree of their success.
But during past eras of major progressive social movements – the trade union movement of the 1930’s and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s — there was a very different perspective. It could be called a “natural division of labor” point of view. A Democratic President was basically assumed to be a ruthlessly pragmatic centrist who would make all his moves and choices based on a very cold political calculus of what was necessary for his own success and survival. He might have private sympathy for some progressive point of view but there was generally no expectation among social movement progressives that he would “go out on a limb” for progressives out of a personal moral commitment to some social ideal. As a result, the most fundamental assumption of progressive political strategy was always the need to build a completely independent grass roots social movement, one that was powerful enough to make it politically expedient or simply unavoidable for the political system to accede to the movement’s demands.
In a widely read 1966 essay, “Non-violent Direct Action“, historian and civil-rights activist Howard Zinn clearly expressed this view:

“.What the civil rights movement has revealed is that it is necessary for people concerned with liberty, even if they live in an approximately democratic state, to create a political power which resides outside the regular political establishment. While outside, removed from the enticements of office and close to those sources of human distress which created it, this power can use a thousand different devices to persuade and pressure the official structure into recognizing its needs.”

This same traditional progressive movement view was recently restated in a Nation magazine editorial by Katrina Vanden Heuvel.

…it’s worth remembering another template for governing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to become a bolder and, yes, more progressive President (if progressive means ensuring that the actual conditions of peoples’ lives improve through government acts) as a result of the strategically placed mobilization and pressure of organized movements.
That history makes me think that this is the moment for progressives to avoid falling into either of two extremes –reflexively defensive or reflexively critical. We’d be wiser and more effective if we followed the advice of one of The Nation’s valued editorial board members who shared thoughts with the Board at our meeting last Friday, November 21.
It will take large scale, organized movements to win transformative change. There was no civil rights legislation without the [civil rights] movement, no New Deal without the unions and the unemployed councils, no end to slavery without the abolitionists. In our era, this will need to play out at two levels: district-by-district and state-by-state organizing to get us to the 218 and sixty votes necessary to pass any major legislation; and the movement energy that can create public will, a new narrative and move the elites in DC to shift from orthodoxy. The energy in the country needs to be converted into real organization…
We need to be able to play inside and outside politics at the same time. I think this will be challenging for those of us schooled in the habits of pure opposition and protest. We need to make an effort to engage the new Administration and Congress constructively, even as we push without apology for solutions at a scale necessary.

The choice between this “natural division of labor” social movement perspective and the “battle for the President’s soul” perspective is important because the choice of the conceptual framework one uses has a number of very large consequences.

Gates and Obama’s “Bipartisanship” Problem

While Barack Obama’s appointments so far have produced some unhappiness among progressives, and some second-guessing from various quarters, it’s nothing compared to the criticism that will erupt if he, as is rumored, keeps Defense Secretary Robert Gates in place.
This is obviously a pretty momentous decision. As Chris Bowers points out, aside from questions of war and peace and Iraq and Afghanistan, DoD is far and away the largest federal agency, with vast spending powers. The direction of DoD is also at the heart of the case for “change” that attracted many progressives to Obama in the first place.
Obama could, of course, try to reduce the sting by limiting Gates to a short tenure, giving way in six months or so perhaps to a deputy close to the new administration and its thinking (e.g., Richard Danzig). But making the appointment strictly transitional would also reduce its utility as a symbolic gesture of continuity and bipartisanship. And in any event, Gates is reportedly balking at any deal that would deny him the right to retain his own circle of high-level staff, which definitely includes people antagonistic to significant change in the Pentagon.
Moreover, on a broader front, if Obama demurs on a reappointment of Gates, he’ll need to find another way to redeem his frequent campaign pledge to get beyond partisan gridlock in Washington and govern in a bipartisan, or at least post-partisan, manner.
Some Obama supporters never took this talk seriously, and would just as soon see him forget about including any Republicans in his Cabinet.
One option, borrowed from none other than George W. Bush, would be the Mineta Maneuver (in honor of Bush’s first Secretary of Transportation): choosing a member of the opposition party to oversee some lower-priority department that doesn’t carry a lot of ideological freight. Another, even more purely symbolic, approach would be to tap a nominal Republican who’s already on board Team Obama, like former GOP congressman Jim Leach, or a non-political figure with close Republican connections, such as Jim Jones, who’s reportedly slotted for National Security Advisor.
You can certainly make the argument that Obama’s post-partisan rhetoric cannot be, or should not be, discharged primarily through Cabinet appointments. Again, there’s a recent precedent for this dilemma. Lest we forget, George W. Bush took office claiming to be a “uniter, not a divider,” touting his reputation for working with Democrats in Texas, amidst general expectations that the circumstances of his, er, ah, elevation to the presidency might make him interested in reaching across party lines.
As it happens, I wrote a piece back in January 2001 that sought to cut through all the sloppy talk on the subject and analyze ten distinct approaches to “bipartisanship.” I predicted, accurately, that Bush would pursue “bipartisanship on the cheap” through symbolic gestures and efforts to pick off a few Democrats to support exactly what he wanted.
That approach is fully available to Barack Obama as well, who certainly has an electoral mandate far beyond anything the beneficiary of Gore v. Bush enjoyed. There is, however, one form of “bipartisanship” that Bush never took seriously, and that is very consistent with everything Barack Obama has said on the subject. Back in 2001, I described it as an “ouside-in” coalition:

This variety, typically used by incoming Presidents during their “honeymoon” period, involves the aggressive, direct stimulation of public opinion to push members of the opposing party, especially those from states or districts where the President is popular, to come across the line.

This is essentially bipartisanship (or if you wish, post-partisanship) from the ground up, which reaches out to rank-and-file Republicans and independents to mobilize support for big national initiatives. I contrasted this with the “inside-out” coalition–often known later as High Broderism–which involves deal-cutting in Washington across party lines.
I raise this distinction partly because it’s important in and of itself, and also because it provides the essential context for the decisions Obama makes on appointments. It’s one thing to appoint Republicans to positions as a signal that the new administration is interested in a broader agenda of bipartisan deal-cutting in Washington. It’s another thing altogether to appoint a diverse team of officials who are all pledged to implement a clear progressive agenda.
It would be helpful if the President-elect were to address this issue clearly in the days and weeks ahead, if only to avoid confusion about the relationship of his appointments to his plans for governing the country.
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist

“Obama the Centrist”

The big discussion-point in national politics right now is the effort to ideologically characterize the emerging Obama administration. And the consensus, across ideological and partisan lines, is that this is looking like a Clintonian, “centrist” administration–an opinion very likely to be reinforced by the announcement of Obama’s economic policy team today.
The more self-consciously progressive members of the commentariat are dealing with this apparent reality calmly, if not very happily. Some, like Jerome Armstrong of MyDD and Glenn Greenwald at Salon, are saying “toldja so,” pointing to a variety of signals from Obama dating back to the beginning of his presidential campaign. Others like Chris Bowers of OpenLeft and Chris Hayes at The Nation are a bit antsier, though the “B word”–betrayal–has yet to be unholstered, at least in the mainstream blogosphere.
Aside from noting that it may be a bit early, with Obama’s appointees being only half-announced at most, to make any sweeping generalizations about his “team,” much less his agenda, I have three cautionary notes about the effort to ideologically typecast the Obama administration.
First, I would amplify a point being made implicitly by some of the “toldja so” analysts: Barack Obama never really embraced the critique from the left of Clintonism on policy grounds that, say, John Edwards avidly made. Sure, Obama indicted the Democratic members of the Beltway Establishment for questionable ethics, conventional thinking, detachment from the public, and unproductive partisanship, but never, with the arguable exception of the series of steps that led to the invasion of Iraq, accused Clintonians of pursing policies that proved disastrous under the Bush administration. On the one big domestic policy difference where Obama earlier in his career dissented from Clinton, welfare reform, he largely recanted. On another, trade policy, much of the Democratic Party, including many Clintonians, have had second thoughts. And on the main issue that matters right now, economic policy, Obama, particularly during the general election campaign, made it clear that a return to the broad outlines of Clinton administration policies was what he had in mind.
Second, it’s very important to comprehend the radicalizing effect of the last eight years on those Clinton administration veterans who are entering the Obama administration. Most obviously, the New Democratic confidence that Clinton and his allies had identified a Third Way in both domestic and international policy that would usher in a period of endless peace and prosperity is long gone. Perhaps Hillary Clinton could not bring herself to admit error in supporting the Iraq War resolution, but she was in a definite minority among Democrats who took the same position in 2002. Enthusiasm for deregulation, an aggressive pro-trade agenda, and in general, the proposition that the New Economy had repealed a lot of the old rules, has notably waned. Indeed, some of the “centrist” rethinking in the 2000s has been a mirror image of the “progressive” rethinking in the 1990s of its reflexive hostility to such Clintonian policies as deficit-reduction and welfare reform. Democratic “centrism” just ain’t what it used to be, for better or for worse.
Third, it is impossible to overstate the precedent-obliterating nature of the current economic emergency, which makes a lot of the speculation about the ideological character of Obama and his appointees basically an exercise in predicting that they might have done in a completely different context. “Left” or “center,” we’re all looking for a New Deal now, and while we may hold different, ideologically-driven perspectives on the shape of that New Deal, they are increasingly being subordinated to the common desire for immediate and “reassuring” action. Remember the white-hot anger of some progressives towards the original September “bailout” legislation? Just a few weeks later, there may be some grumbling and muted dissent about additional bailouts, but the general realization that whole economic sectors are in danger of collapse has trumped most arguments, just as many conservative complaints about government intervention in the economy have quickly faded. (Perhaps the dumbest thing about the “center-right country” arguments being made by conservatives seeking to minimize the implications of November 4 is that they don’t take into account the vast swing to the left that was set into motion on September 15).
So wherever you place yourself on the ideological spectrum, counting up Obama’s Clinton administration veterans or typecasting appointees as “centrist” or “progressive” or “liberal” may be misleading. Just as it is apparent that the Democratic Party of the 1990s, and its internal fault lines, has changed, this is a different country than the one Barack Obama sought to lead when he announced his candidacy for president in 2007.