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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: February 2009

Needed: More Discussion About Party-Building

It’s hard to see a downside to having the most charismatic Democratic Party leader since JFK. But there is one, and it’s well-stated in Daniel J. Galvin’s article in The Forum, “Changing Course: Reversing the Organizational Trajectory of the Democratic Party from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama,” written during the ’08 campaign. As Galvin’s opening graphs explain:

In a 2005 New York Times op-ed now considered a “classic essay,” former senator Bill Bradley observed a peculiar trade-off in party politics between charisma and structure. Over the previous 40-plus years, he wrote, each party dealt with this tradeoff differently and met with different degrees of success. Republicans, he argued, gained a competitive advantage over the Democrats by emphasizing structure over charisma. They “consciously, carefully, and single-mindedly” built a “stable pyramid” of money, ideas, organization, and action,where “all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.” Because the structure was stable, the personality of the party’s titular leader was of secondary importance. Charisma was a decidedly second-order concern.
Democrats, meanwhile, were “hypnotized by Jack Kennedy, and the promise of a charismatic leader who can change America by the strength and style of his personality.” While searching for the next JFK, Democrats neglected the less glamorous but ultimately more important work of organization-building. The problem was that “a party based on charisma has no long-term impact,” Bradley wrote. Bill Clinton’s charisma, for example, “didn’t translate into structure,” and while “the president did well,” he wrote, “the party did not.” Now, Democrats found themselves with “no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on” and with a grim outlook for the future

Most of Galvin’s article is optimistic about Obama’s commitment to party-building and the accomplishments of Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy during his tenure at the helm of the DNC (For another positive assessment of Dean’s tenure at the DNC, see Alexander Zaitchick’s recent Alternet post).
However, Democratic gains in November, ’08 can be as credibly attributed to a host of other factors, like Obama’c coattails, the economic meltdown, an edge in internet fund-raising or voters’ general weariness of the GOP, to name a few. Geographic saturation is an important aspect of party-building, but the discussion should be broadened to include concerns like structural reform, the role of a strengthened labor movement (a hallmark of strong progressive political parties in Europe), candidate recruitment and training and how to get rank and file Democratic voters organized into lobbying groups. There is also room for an expanded discussion about party discipline, including the role of pro-Democratic reform initiatives like the Accountability Now PAC.
Galvin’s article was written before Governor Tim Kaine was appointed as Dean’s successor, and it’s too early to evaluate Kaine’s track record thus far. Kaine’s plan for building the Democratic Party will be rolled out in April, according to Zaitchick. Democrats face a different kind of party-building challenge now, with the enormous advantage of the President’s bully pulpit. Much depends on the eventual success of the stimulus and other Obama reforms.
Most of the recent debate about the pros and cons of bipartisanship has centered around it’s effect on the quality of legislation. But there is also a legitimate concern about how it impacts the growth and development of the Democratic Party, as noted in this comment, from a poster named Steve at The Last Chance Democracy Cafe:

I know it isn’t politically correct to say it right now, but the truth is that helping to build a strong Democratic Party — one that can win consistently — is the single biggest contribution Barack Obama can make to achieving positive progressive change in this nation. A single gifted president, even serving for the full eight years, can only do so much to improve this nation. A strong progressively rooted Democratic Party, able to effectively fight the good fight for a generation or more, on the other hand, can change the world.
I think Obama knows this: but, to be honest, he’s starting to scare me a little. He played the GOP masterfully during the stimulus bill debate. But there’s a danger in his incessant talk of bipartisanship. It has the effect of putting the GOP — and its response to Obama’s proposals — into the very center of the story, while at the same time marginalizing other Democrats. Why should anyone care what congressional Democrats have to say about the economy, when the whole storyline has become how the GOP will respond to Obama’s proposals?
…I understand the siren song of bipartisanship sounds loudly in the spirit of our new president. And making a public show of reaching out to the GOP is probably good politics — at least for Obama himself. But building a strong Democratic Party is better politics. And it is also an essential element to building a better and more just America over the long haul.
So two words, Barack: party building. Press them to your chest and put them under your pillow at night. Never forget them and never neglect them. Because when all is said and done, they may just represent the single most important inheritance you can give this nation.

Not that sparingly applied bipartisanship, and party-building are necessarily antithetical. But Steve’s concern about media ‘storyline’ is well-taken as is his challenge to Obama to keep focused on strengthening his party. Same goes for Sen. Bradley’s point about the focus on charisma, which is media-driven.
While there is not much the Democratic Party can do about lazy or shallow msm reporting, the growth of the pro-Democratic blogosphere and the telecommunications revolution hold out the hope that we can make better use of our own media. The explosion of streaming video, for example, means that there is no longer much of an excuse for Democrats not having their own 24-7 television station. As this technology becomes more seamlessly interwoven with television, the possibilities for educating voters will multiply dramatically. Ditto for a Democratic Party 24-7 internet radio station, long overdue.
A lot of interesting questions could be addressed, including: How do we make the party platform more of a unifying force? What is the future role for party-related interest groups, such as Dean’s Democracy for America or perhaps some future green Democrats caucus? What sort of ad campaign would attract young voters to become active in local Democratic groups?
It’s a lot to think about. But a broader, ongoing and inclusive discussion of future directions in party-building would help lay a solid foundation for a new era of progressive reform.

Bobby “Digger” Jindal

I’m among the many folks who didn’t think very highly of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to make a lengthy anecdote about Hurricaine Katrina the centerpiece of his official GOP response to President Obama’s address to Congress the other night. I did suggest it made some sense in terms of the weird conservative belief that even in that emergency government tried to do too much. It was nonetheless an unfortunate choice of topics.
But it gets worse. Turns out the anecdote was, well, sort of made up. Thanks in part to some bulldogging by a Daily Kos diarist and by TPMMuckraker, Jindal’s spokesman is now allowing as how the supposed Harry Lee rant interposing himself and Jindal between heroic rescuers and “bureaucrats” didn’t actually involve Bobby, who overheard Lee a week later recounting his own experience over the phone to somebody else.
I have no idea how somebody as smart and experienced as Bobby Jindal would let these lines get into a featured place in his first nationally televised appearance, before a vast audience pre-assembled by Barack Obama. But it’s not only a gaffe of a high order; it also sears into the popular and media memory Jindal’s blunder in bringing up Katrina in the first place. He’s digging himself quite a hole here.
By coincidence, CNN’s out today with a poll on early Republican preferences for the 2012 presidential nomination. The poll, taken prior to Jindal’s big speech, has him running fourth, at 9%, below Sarah Palin (29%), Mike Huckabee (26%), and Mitt Romney (21%). Bobby’s low standing in part, no doubt, reflects a relatively low level of name ID. That’s now less of a problem for him, but not necessarily in a good way.

Shifting the Focus to 2010

There are certain elections that stick out in the political memory, and lately, the memories have all been good.
For Democrats, 2006 was all about Congress and 2008 was all about Barack Obama and the White House.
The election we will hold in a year will focus in large part on state legislatures, and it could have consequences that stretch far beyond the term of a president or a session of Congress.
In 2010, 46 states will hold legislative elections. Nationwide, 1155 Senate seats and 4598 House seats will be up for grabs.
Once those races are decided, lawmakers in 36 states will come together to determine the layout of new Congressional and legislative districts after the Census.
Across the country, these legislators will draw the maps for 383 of the 435 congressional seats and 5074 of the 7333 partisan legislative seats.
Barring a change election like the one we saw in 2006 – after nearly a decade of Republican scandals – the maps created after 2010 will dictate political realities for the next decade.
In addition to writing for TDS, I’m the communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
We’ve just compiled our first look at the political landscape for 2010 in a memo that’s posted on our website .
We’re counting on support from allies like the readers of The Democratic Strategist to ensure that we have the knowledge and resources we need to win.
You might also want to take a fresh look at the broader 2010 forecast that Ed Kilgore published as a TDS White Paper back in December.

Right-Wing Populist Illusions

In a column on the Rick Santelli rant against “losers” on CNBC and the excited reaction it received in conservative circles, Jon Chait offers this key insight about the instant mythology aroused by both Santelli and Joe the Plumber:

The only thing that separated Santelli’s rant from any other similar outburst that could be found on Fox News or talk radio was that it seemed to represent the vox populi. Santelli was not previously known as a right-wing ideologue–mainly because he was not known for much of anything–so he came across as a fed-up investor, just as Wurzelbacher initially cast himself as an undecided voter skeptical of progressive taxation. And Santelli was surrounded by actual people who dug his message, people he described (absurdly) as a representative sample of American opinion. His rant thus appeared like a genuine expression of popular revolt.

Interesting, then, that Santelli has since described himself as an “Ayn Rander.” Whatever else you think that allegiance represents (Chait notes that it certainly makes opposition to any sort of government relief efforts axiomatic), it ain’t “populism,” unless there’s some hitherto unnoticed popular enthusiasm for the ideas of privatizing the sidewalks or denouncing religion as “the mysticism of the mind.”
There does seem to be an interesting pattern here of self-styled conservative “populists” turning out to be people with some pretty marginal political associations. Joe the Plumber was recently registered to vote as a member of the now-defunct Natural Law Party, best known for its advocacy of transcendental meditation. Sarah Palin had a well-established friendly relationship with the Alaska Independence Party, itself affiliated with the far-right theocratic Constitution Party.
Men and Women In the Street may well harbor some strange views on some issues, but by and large they don’t choose to vote for or support tiny extremist parties or ideological movements, which is why they are tiny. Conventional conservatives should probably look a little more closely at their “populist” champions before designating them as representatives of vast undercurrents of public opinion that somehow aren’t reflected in actual elections.

Ruffini Bashes Joe the Plumber

Joe the Plumber has been a particularly soft punching bag for progressives who want to mock the contemporary conservative movement and its pop culture aspirations. Aside from the various holes in the “story” that made him a media celebrity and McCain-Palin campaign fixture, the guy has always skirted SNL parody territory via his Nixon-Agnewish epitomization of a “silent majority” being encouraged to get loud-and-proud about cultural (if not racial) bigotry and economic selfishness.
So it’s interesting that Patrick Ruffini of Next Right, whose Republican “rebuilding” project has generally eschewed anything that would discomfit the “conservative base,” has done a number on Joe as a party symbol:

If you want to get a sense of how unserious and ungrounded most Americans think the Republican Party is, look no further than how conservatives elevate Joe the Plumber as a spokesman. The movement has become so gimmick-driven that Wurzelbacher will be a conservative hero long after people have forgotten what his legitimate policy beef with Obama was.

It would be nice if Ruffini would give the same treatment to Rick Santelli, who has become sort of an upper-class counterpart to Joe the Plumber in attacking the supposed poor-and-minority looters who are benefitting from Barack Obama’s legislative agenda. I’m afraid that Ruffini considers Santelli, unlike Joe, as “serious.” If so, dumping Joe misses the point, and won’t help Republicans recover from stupidity at all.

Dueling Headlines On Obama Budget

You don’t have to be a media conspriacy buff to note the very different headlines that MSM outlets have assigned to the release of the Obama administration’s first budget. Indeed, some of them contradict media bias stereotypes.
For example, who do you think is headlining its coverage of the budget with the headline: “Deficits Soar in Obama Budget”? Turns out it’s the supposedly liberal MSNBC. This is slightly more inflammatory than the Fox News headline: “Obama: We Must Add to Our Deficits in the Short-Term.”
The Washington Post, which distinguishes itself by being considered liberal by conservatives and conservative by liberals, leads with: “Obama’s Budget Proposal Would Push Deficit To $1.75 Trillion.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times has a different spin, headlining the budget as: “Obama Plans Major Shifts in Spending.” That’s consistent with CNN’s: “Obama Outlines Big Changes in Spending.”
Maybe these initial headlines don’t matter that much, because the debate over the Obama budget will rage on for months, but it’s interesting to see how this very complicated blueprint for spending and taxes is initially presented to the American people.

Jindal Under the Vocano

On reading CNN’s report about the fallout from Bobby Jindal’s put down of “volcano monitoring,” I felt a sense of some sort of deja vu — haven’t we been here before?
Then, aha, I remembered John McCain’s snarky put-down “$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the same knuckle-dragging reactionary wrote Jindal’s speech and McCain’s debate sound bite, so similar is the lame attitude behind them.
In addition to the contempt for science, Jindal’s ‘volcano’ remark is revealing in another way. For one thing, it indicates that the GOP is sorely in need of better speechwriters. The whole rebuttal was pretty thin, even though it does reflect Republican ideology faithfully enough, as Ed notes below. But the volcano remark was going well out of one’s way to step in it. A second-rate speechwriter should be able to understand that such a cheap shot would backfire because of Mount. St. Helens, where 57 people were killed. Certainly they should have been able to come up with something better, considering the broad scope of the stimulus. Crappy speechwriting often comes from lazy research.
A lot of Dem commentators have had fun mocking Jindal’s condescending delivery, here amusingly compared to the oratorical stylings of “Kenneth the Page” on “30 Rock.” Jindal’s rebuttal reminded me more of a comment attributed to Gore Vidal: “Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can’t read them either.” Not to gloat, but happily, we Dems are in the opposite position of having a thoughtful writer, as well as speaker, at the helm of our party. When Obama’s speechwriters slip up, they have a tough editor to get them straightened out in the person of the President. It helps a lot.

Obama’s Health Care Plan Designed For Senate

The Obama administration’s first federal budget is officially going out in an hour, but one central feature is already well-known: the basic outlines of his “down payment on universal health care.” $634 billion over ten years has been reserved for this purpose.
But the more important fact about Obama’s health care proposal is its structure. And as Ezra Klein explained yesterday, it is carefully designed to nicely mesh with existing Senate Democratic proposals–principally legislation sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and a “white paper” issued by Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT)–even at the expense of departing somewhat from what Obama proposed as a candidate for president:

Obama is signaling support for the congressional consensus. The skeletal health plan outlined in tomorrow’s budget has been built to fit the work Congress is already doing on health care reform. As such, it will being with committed allies. It will not lose time defining new concepts to skeptical committee chairs. It will respect and support the existing legislative coalitions It is a strategy aimed at ensuring votes. At passing legislation. At achieving consensus, or as close to it as the Senate can come.

Klein contrasts this approach to that of the Clintons in 1993, who designed a health care reform plan, with a considerable degree of secrecy, that wasn’t really like anything under discussion on Capitol Hill. If for that reason alone, Team Obama begins this health care reform debate with an important leg up on their predecessors.

Vitter’s World of Trouble

While we are on the subject of Louisiana Republican politicians, Politico’s Daniel Libit has an update today on what could be the strangest primary contest of 2010: David Vitter’s effort to get himself re-elected to the U.S. Senate after admitting he’d frequented prostitutes in Washington.
He could face a rather unusual field, to say the least. While nobody really thinks porn star Stormy Daniels would have a chance to win either party’s nomination for the Senate (she hasn’t indicated which primary she would enter, if any), her presence in the campaign would ensure that Louisiana voters don’t forget about Vitter’s hypocritical extracurricular activities for even a moment. And if conservative Republicans do get antsy about Vitter’s problems, another potential candidate, the nationally renowned Christian Right figure, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, could well be there to harvest the backlash.
Vitter’s sought to shore up his support not by choosing the more tolerant horn of the dilemma in which he has placed himself, but by becoming a conservative’s conservative–becoming, for example, one of two Senators casting dissenting votes against Hillary Clinton’s confirmation as Secretary of State, and ranting about supposed ACORN subsidies in the economic stimulus legislation.
One wild card in the 2010 Senate race will involve an upcoming decision by the Louisiana Republican central committee about whether to open up its primary to independent voters (in case you missed it, Louisiana abandoned its famous “jungle primary” for federal–but not state and local–races prior to 2008). A more open GOP primary could tempt other Republicans into the contest, and also force Vitter to do more than simply voting to the right of Jimmy Dean Sausage in the Senate to win his nomination.
In any event, it doesn’t look like Vitter will be allowed to put his “personal problem” behind him any time soon. And in a state that loves its politics down and dirty, the 2010 Senate contest could ultimately rival the “race from Hell”–the infamous 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial runoff between Ed Edwards and David Duke–for sheer weirdness.

Jindal’s Bad National Debut

As J.P. Green noted below, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was picked to do the official Republican response to Barack Obama’s address to Congress last night, and the reviews are not very good. His delivery–which managed to sound both sing-songy and uncoordinated–was that of someone not terribly comfortable with prepared texts (you’d be surprised how many politicians share that problem), and his hand gestures were mechanical and distracting. The speech itself had a dumbed-down quality, or at least seemed that way to anyone who knows how bright Bobby Jindal is in real life. Even at National Review’s The Corner, where Jindal has been a folk hero for years, the reaction was one of disappointment bordering on dismay.
Style aside, the most striking feature of Jindal’s response was the sheer weirdness of the official Republican critique of Obama’s first big speech beginning with a reminder of the federal government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. That’s what left the normally very articulate Rachel Maddow of MSNBC speechless.
But when you really think about it, Jindal’s citation of Katrina made sense (aside from the fact that he’s from Louisiana) in the context of the central theme of his speech, which is that government can’t do anything right other than to tear itself down and thus “empower” citizens. To me, the most remarkable thing in Jindal’s response was his official (if oblique) apology, on behalf of the Republican Party, for George W. Bush’s big-spending liberal ways, which rightly forfeited the trust of the American people. We’ve been hearing that from conservatives regularly since 2006, but it was still sounded odd on national TV in such a formal setting, at a time when the overwhelming majority of Americans who aren’t conservative “base” voters are demanding federal activism.
Most Americans probably think of Katrina as an example of the catastrophic consequences of a federal government that has placed responsibility for emergency response in the hands of incompetent political hacks who didn’t believe in their own mission and didn’t much care about victims who weren’t Republicans and refused to take care of themselves. But it’s clear a lot of conservatives really did think government’s main failure during Katrina was to involve itself–with the bureaucratic rules and regulations that Jindal cited in his lengthy and uncompelling anecdote about himself and Harry Lee–instead of getting out of the way and letting churches and citizens handle it all.
In other words, Bobby Jindal did offer a pretty faithful expression of the Republican Party’s contemporary governing philosophy, such as it is. Instead of complaining about his delivery, Republicans should reflect a bit on Jindal’s core message.
And that’s why the general feeling across the board that Jindal really hurt his national political aspirations last night is a bit ironic. He satisfied the first requirement for any Republican who wants to run for president these days: he echoed the views of the conservative base, just as he did when he joined the small group of Republican governors who pledged to reject some of the stimulus money. But he didn’t do so with a “Reaganesque” ability to perform the sort of rhetorical enchantment that makes core conservative views attractive to the rest of the country. That may prove to be an impossible standard for any potential candidate for president.