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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: June 2009

Governing as Penance

Having presented and then already violated a pledge to avoid further posts about the Governor of South Carolina, I don’t quite know what to do when the man provides irresistible provocation that has nothing to do with his sex life.
Maybe I should emulate the great college football blog, everydayshouldbesaturday, which for obscure reasons insists on references to Illinois (and former Florida) coach Ron Zook as “NAME REDACTED.”
My own political NAME REDACTED sent an email out to his key supporters yesterday that basically said he’s determined to stay in office because governing is the most painful punishment for his sins he can imagine. After mentioning the option of resignation, NAME REDACTED said this:

A long list of close friends have suggested otherwise – that for God to really work in my life I shouldn’t be getting off so lightly. While it would be personally easier to exit stage left, their point has been that my larger sin was the sin of pride.
They contended that in many instances I may well have held the right position on limited government, spending or taxes – but that if my spirit wasn’t right in the presentation of those ideas to people in the General Assembly, or elsewhere, I could elicit the response that I had at many times indeed gotten from other state leaders.

In other words, NAME REDACTED feels that governing is the best penance, and that opposing effective governing–my own gloss on the ideology this man embraces–is how he can best make things up to God and others for his personal failings.
To sum it up: South Carolinians are expected to do penance for NAME REDACTED’s sins. And that ain’t right. Let him do penance with his own business, which needs tending.

Obama’s Third Option In Iran

This item by J.P. Green was first published on June 29, 2009.
Gabriel Schoenfeld’s article in today’s Wall St. Journal, “What If Obama Did Want to Help Iran’s Democrats?” argues that the Obama Administration may be crippling its Iran policy by not recognizing the efficacy of “covert political action.” As Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and a resident scholar at Princeton’s Witherspoon Institute explains Obama’s problem:

In a better world, toppling this vicious regime and altering the tide of history would be a primary objective of U.S. foreign policy. Yet even if President Obama miraculously came to that conclusion, how could he realize such an objective? This is a useful question to ask because it reveals how much the United States has disarmed itself in the vital realm of intelligence.
…Harsh criticism of such operations — beginning in the 1970s when all the CIA’s secrets spilled out — is what prompted the U.S. to dismantle its capabilities in covert political action. Interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, legions of agency critics said, was both immoral and illegal.
As a matter of law, the critics are right. Such covert action is indeed illegal. But legality is beside the point. Espionage is by definition illegal and yet all countries engage in it. This is what the Soviet Union did in Italy, and it is what Iran, by organizing terrorist structures in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere, has been doing intensively for 30 years.

Schoenfeld’s article, subtitled “The CIA is no longer in the business of influencing politics abroad,” credits CIA funding of centrist political parties in Italy during the 1950’s as an effective strategy to counter the rapid growth of Italy’s Communist Party, thereby helping Italy to remain a “stable democracy today.” But Shoenfeld’s characterization of Italy’s Communist Party as undemocratic is unfair, since they did participate in elections.
If covert ops have any legitimacy, they should be narrowly focused on supporting pro-democratic, not exclusively “centrist”, forces in dictatorships and in nations at risk of becomming dictatorships. Using U.S. resources to oppose democratically-elected governments, as we did in Chile, or to influence elections in other nations, is immoral, unwise and can easily backfire.
But if Schoenfeld is right that U.S. support of centrist political parties was the pivotal element in achieving our foreign policy objectives in Italy, however misguided, without expensive military action, then perhaps there is an instructive strategic lesson for our policy toward Iran.
The debate over U.S. policy toward Iran is usually cast in terms of military vs. diplomatic action, with very little discussion about the possibilities of covert political operations, or even expanding our propaganda outreach in Iran. The latter wouldn’t be hard since our current effort is so weak. The current issue of The New Yorker for example, features an eyewitness report on the June 15th protest against the stolen election, in which the author notes,

…the government tries to jam all foreign TV stations—in particular, the BBC’s Persian-language channel. This channel, beaming images and reports sent by normal Iranian citizens back into the country, has been hugely influential in spreading news of the protests to Iranians who would otherwise have relied on state television or the inferior American-based Persian-language channels.

Peruse recent public opinion polls on the topic of U.S. policy toward Iran going back 5 years or more, and you won’t find any mention of enhancing intelligence, propaganda or covert ops as a choice in polling questions. (A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted 9/21-24, 2008 indicates the public favored “diplomacy now” over “military action now” in Iraq by a margin of 61 to 10 percent)
Perhaps the pollsters assume the public has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude regarding covert ops, or they include it conceptually as an intelligence function under the rubric of “diplomacy.” But if the U.S. becomes more vigorously engaged in the struggle to win hearts and minds as a third option, it could prove to be a highly effective use of our resources in achieving foreign policy objectives in trouble spots like Iran. (More on this topic here)
According to Schoenfeld, the U.S. is not getting much credit for our disengagement from Iranian politics:

The great irony in all this is that even as the U.S. seeks to claim the moral high ground by not “meddling” — to use Mr. Obama’s term — we and our allies are getting blamed all the same. “There are riots and attacks in the streets that are orchestrated from the outside in a bid to destabilize the country’s Islamic regime,” says Sheikh Naim Qassem, a ranking figure of Hezbollah, Iran’s obedient instrument in Lebanon.

A fair point, Perhaps some thoughtful “meddling,” if not by the CIA, then by other U.S. agencies concerned with foreign policy could help encourage a stable democracy in Iran. Diplomacy is almost always a better choice than military action. But strengthening our on-the-ground intelligence in Iran and in other Arab nations and using it to promote the spread of democracy, instead of U.S. military dominance, should become a leading strategic objective.

Health Care “Swing Vote”

This Staff post was first published on June 26, 2009.
Democracy Corps is out with a new analysis of public opinion on health care reform, based on extensive polling and focus group work. Much of it reflects the advice that TDS Co-Editor Stan Greenberg has been offering on how to succeed where President Clinton failed in securing universal health coverage.
But the new DCorps memo provides an interesting focus on the “swing vote” for health care reform:

Proponents and opponents of reform will be battling for the 35 percent of the electorate
who are not satisfied with the health insurance system but satisfied with their personal insurance.
Conservatives and some in the media think these voters are not serious about change, but that
misreads them, as we realize from our focus groups last week. They are “satisfied” with their
choice of doctors, that their employer is picking up most of the cost and that they may have
better insurance than others. But, they are not happy about having traded off wages or gotten
locked into a job because of health care or about the fate of a child with a chronic ailment who
may not be able to get insurance in the future. So, they are nervous about change, but they want
it.

The DCorps team goes on to identify five key strategies for appealing to these key voters:
1. Voters need to hear clearly what changes health care reform will bring.
2. Build a narrative around taking power away from the insurance companies and giving it
to people.
3. The president and reform advocates have to explain concretely the changes that will mean
lower costs.
4. Show all voters and seniors that there are benefits for them, including prescription drugs.
5. All of these points should be made with the dominant framework that continuing the status
quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.
This analysis leads to a overarching narrative that DCorps recommends:

Continuing the status quo in health care is not acceptable and not sustainable. Keeping the status quo means the insurance companies are still in charge, jacking up rates and denying coverage. It means more people losing insurance or enslaved to their job, prices skyrocketing for families and businesses and our companies less
competitive. We need change so that people no longer lose coverage or get dropped for a pre-existing condition, and see lower costs.

“Safe change” is always a tricky message to convey, even when people are open to or eager for change. But if DCorps is right, then it will be the key to navigating health care reform through many obstacles.

No Time For Caution

Note: This is a guest post from Michael A. Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of “Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America.” We welcome it as part of a continuing effort to enlist diverse voices in discussions of Democratic strategy. It was first published on June 25, 2009.
Last week Ed highlighted a post over at TNR by William Galston raising a number of red flags about public opinion and growing doubts about the President’s domestic agenda. One of the points Galston made jumped out at me – and has been further crystallized by Mark Sanford’s painful press conference yesterday:

The best thing Democrats have going for them right now is the public’s near-total withdrawal of confidence from the Republican Party, which now “enjoys” its lowest rating ever recorded in the NYT/CBS survey–a finding that Pew confirms.

Yet even with this good news and additionally positive approval ratings for President Obama, Galston offered some rather timid recommendations for Democrats, arguing that they need to focus on “major legislative initiatives . . . that the public can accept” and to make a priority “their ability to persuade the public that something real is being done to rein in spending and debt.”
But I wonder if Bill is making this a bit too complicated and overemphasizing temporary concerns over spending, the deficit and traditional voter suspicion toward government. Right now it seems the most important two factors in public opinion are that the country trusts Barack Obama to do the right thing and they don’t trust Republicans . . . at all.
Right on cue, this week’s new poll from the Washington Post provides compelling evidence of this phenomenon. At the same time that confidence in the President’s stimulus package is softening his approval ratings remains sky high – at 65%. In addition, Obama is far more trusted that his Republican opponents on a host of issues.
Obama maintains leverage because of the continuing weakness of his opposition. The survey found the favorability ratings of congressional Republicans at their lowest point in more than a decade. Obama also has significant advantages over GOP lawmakers in terms of public trust on dealing with the economy, health care, the deficit and the threat of terrorism, despite broad-based Republican criticism of his early actions on these fronts.
The GOP’s approval rating is at 36% with disapproval at 56% and only 22 percent self-identify as Republicans. After watching Mark Sanford yesterday and considering the public spectacle of another prominent Republican publicly confessing private infidelity, it’s hard to imagine that these numbers are going to see much bump in the near future.
Even on the deficit, an issue that both Republicans and Democrats have trumpeted as being of great concern, the President has a twenty-point advantage over the GOP. Recent polls on health care reform show strong support for a so-called public option even though the idea has near unanimous opposition from Republicans. While it can be dangerous to draw too overly broad conclusion from a handful of polls, it’s hard to see any evidence at all that GOP attacks on the President are having much of an impact. In fact, outside their narrow base of supporters, Republicans seem to have almost no credibility, notwithstanding Jim Vandehei and Jonathan Martin’s threadbare effort to find a sliver of hope for the GOP.
The President – even in the face of worsening economic news – has not only enormous credibility, but is widely trusted. Again, according the Post, a majority of voters see the President as someone “”who will be careful with the public’s money” rather than a tax-and-spend Democrat. Quite simply, with strong majorities in the House and Senate, it’s been a long time since the country has seen a political leader with this type of political capital (whatever George Bush might have said in 2005).
So the time has come to use it. Galston’s advice is an argument for playing defense rather than the right course of action for Democrats: going on the offensive. While Obama obviously should not ignore the deficit, he and the Democrats must avoid overreacting to an issue that is generally a stalking horse for a lousy economy. If the economy shows signs of improvement, as it likely will when the stimulus package begins to kick in, I would be willing to make a small wager today that concerns over the deficit will decline. In the end, Democrats will live or die by not only the strength of the economy, but also by the ambition of their policy goals.
As for the notion that Obama should be tied down by perceptions of what he thinks the country “can accept,” frankly this is even worse advice. As Galston notes, voters “have little confidence in government as an effective instrument of public purpose. Trust in government remains near an historic low and has not improved significantly since the beginning of Obama’s presidency.”
But the way to change that perception is not to nibble around the edges, but instead move forward a piece of legislation that changes the entire political equation for Democrats: something like passing a sweeping health care package. The negative perception that voters continue to have toward government is because, as Obama suggested during the campaign, they don’t see it being responsive to their needs.
Forget the polls for just a second. In November 2008, the electorate voted not only for change, but they voted to send someone to Washington who would change the tone, bring new ideas and get things done. Passing comprehensive health care reform is the best way I can think of to not only fulfill the promise of Obama’s campaign, but also expose the rigidity of Republican opposition. If Democrats are dealing with a down economy in 2010 they will likely pay a price at the polls, but the best response to bad economic news is evidence that Congress and the President have worked to fulfill their campaign promises. As I asked a few days ago at Politico: “Would Democrats prefer to go to the voters and say, ‘I shrunk the deficit’ or would they rather say, ‘I passed health care legislation that improves access and care for 50 million people — and, by the way, my opponent voted against it?”
I can already imagine the likely response to my confidence: 1993 and 1994. The political path I’m advocating, of course, bears striking similarities to President Clinton’s ambitious domestic policy agenda. The critical difference, however, is the lack of confidence voters have not only in the Republican Party, but for conservatism in general. In addition, there is simply no question that the electorate trusts Obama far more than it did Clinton. I understand, Galston’s pleas for caution and no one who lived through 1993 and 1994 would ever question the dangers of overreaching. But if ever there were a time for overreaching it would be right now.

Is Affirmative Action a Game-Changer On Sotomayor?

Yesterday I predicted that the Supreme Court’s Ricci decision would quickly move to the center of the Right’s case against the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor. That’s already happening today.
Underlying this tactical decision by conservatives is the belief that affirmative action is an wedge issue whose time has finally come back round at last. Check out George Will’s column today on Ricci, in which the imperious High Tory all but stamps his feet in impatience that anybody could still think affirmative action is appropriate:

The nation shall slog on, litigating through a fog of euphemisms and blurry categories (e.g., “race-conscious” actions that somehow are not racial discrimination because they “remedy” discrimination that no one has intended). This is the predictable price of failing to simply insist that government cannot take cognizance of race.

Moreover, conservatives will brandish recent polls showing apparent public rejection of the kind of affirmative action the city of New Haven seems to have been exercising in the Ricci case, here from CNN and here from Quinnipiac.
So: is the affirmative action “wedge issue” back, and does it pose a serious threat to Sotomayor’s confirmation?
I weighed all the evidence at fivethirtyeight.com earlier today, and concluded: no, almost certainly not.
The polling around the Ricci decision shows the same old public attitude towards affirmative action that’s been prevelant since the last excitement over the issue, in the mid-90s. People don’t like quotas and preferences. But they do favor affirmative action, and stubbornly resist efforts to “end” rather than “mend” it. And Barack Obama is very firmly established on the high ground of this subject.
As for Sotomayor, here’s where I come down:

The bottom line is that Ricci shouldn’t be a big factor in the Sotomayor confirmation fight so long as she insists that she was applying well-established precedents in the interpretation of a statute enacted by Congress–i.e., she was far from exerting any sort of “judicial activism” or racial-ethnic point of view, and was just doing her job. President Obama can and should defend her on this point, and both should benefit from his superior positioning on the issue, and the reluctance (political if not ethical) of at least some potential Sotomayor critics to directly attack the first African-American president and the first Latina Justice on baldly racial grounds.

We’ll soon see, but it looks like conservatives are picking up Ricci as just the most convenient stick to hit her with, and it’s not a big stick in the final analysis.

Not-So-Happy Fiscal New Year’s Eve

For all but four of the 50 states, the 2009 fiscal year ends today. And as P.J. Huffstutter and Nicholas Riccardi explain in the LA Times this morning, 32 of those states didn’t have a budget in place for the new fiscal year as of yesterday:

Although the majority of those are expected to pass eleventh-hour budgets, the fiscal futures of a handful remain uncertain, said Todd Haggerty, a [National Conference of State Legislatures] research analyst.
“It’s a lot of states that are coming down to the wire,” Haggerty said. “It’s far more than we’ve seen in the past, and it’s because of the state of the economy.”
Since 2002, only five states have been forced to shut down their governments. Some of the closures were brief: In 2007, Michigan’s doors were closed for four hours before lawmakers passed emergency measures that bought them time to close a $1.75-billion deficit.
“What’s different now is that the recession has eroded tax revenues across the country,” Haggerty said. Collectively, he said, states are wrestling with budget deficits totaling $121 billion.

The article identifies Arizona, California, Indiana, Mississippi and Pennsylvania as states that appear likely to undergo some sort of shutdown of government services tomorrow.
Most states have already cut services. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities:

At least 39 states already have cut key services that are important to vulnerable residents. Cutbacks have affected health care (21 states); services for the elderly and disabled (23); K-12 schools (24 states); and higher education (32). Some 41 states have made cuts to their workforces, through furloughs, layoffs, cuts in benefits or other steps. These counts exclude still deeper cuts that have been proposed in many of the states still working on their 2010 budgets.

CPBB estimates that total state budget shortfalls through fiscal year 2011 exceed $350 billion–a lot of money by anyone’s standards. And the situation would be a lot worse if the federal economic stimulus package–even with significantly reduced levels of flexible assistance to state and local governments–had not been enacted. “States, on average, are using the money to fill about 40 percent of the gap between available funds and what they need to balance their budgets.”
So there won’t be any party-hats or champagne on tap tonight in state capitols. The fiscal situation for most is bad and getting worse.

Cost Concerns Drive Opinions Favoring Public Option

In his latest ‘Public Opinion Snapshot’ at the Center for American Progress web pages, TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira explains why the “public option” for health care reform is drawing strong support in opinion polls:

…A recent CBS/New York Times poll showed 72 percent favoring “the government offering everyone a government administered health insurance plan—something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older get—that would compete with private health insurance plans,” compared to just 20 percent who were opposed.
Why is support for a public plan running so high? The chief reason is the public’s overriding concern with health care costs. Polls consistently show that people are most dissatisfied about health care costs, both for themselves and for the country as a whole.
This pattern is nicely illustrated by data from a March CNN poll showing 17 percent dissatisfied with the quality of the health care they receive, 26 percent dissatisfied with their health care coverage, 48 percent dissatisfied with their total health care costs, and 77 percent dissatisfied with the country’s total health care costs.

Distrust of private insurers plays a major role in shaping public opinion, as Teixeira notes:

…They have little faith that private insurance companies, left to their own devices, can deal with this problem. In fact, they believe by a wide 59-26 margin that the government—and not private insurance companies—can do a better job holding down health care costs.
…In an April Kaiser Family Foundation survey, the public, by 57-39, said the “better way to encourage health insurance companies to provide the best product for the lowest price” is to have private insurance companies and a public plan compete with one another instead of private insurance companies competing amongst themselves.

In building a health care reform consensus, Dems would do well to base a good part of their pitch on the public option’s advantage in containing costs — which Teixeira terms “both good policy and good politics.”

Securing Health Care Reform Left Dems Can Support

Katrina Vanden Heuvel’s thoughtful ‘Editor’s Cut’ piece “Time to End False Bipartisanship” in The Nation is an important contribution to shaping the debate on health care reform. As America’s most venerable progressive magazine, The Nation is read by many of America’s tough-minded left of center social critics, a vitally-important constituency for securing meaningful health care reform. In her editorial, Vanden Heuval provides what may be the best case yet made for urging left Dems to support a health reform plan anchored in a public option, as a step toward a universal, single-payer system down the road:

…Like 59% of the Americans surveyed in January 2009 by CBS News and the New York Times, I would prefer, as would my colleagues at The Nation, to see Congress respond to this country’s healthcare crisis by scrapping a failed-for-profit system and replacing it with a comprehensive national health insurance program.
But for now, the calculus of political viability has taken single-payer off the table. That doesn’t mean we cease fighting to get it back on –but it probably means we need to balance our short and long-term goals. Let’s assume some compromise in our political system is inevitable. The hard question is whether the compromise opens the door to greater progress or forecloses opportunity. A weak public plan will make it harder to get healthcare expenses under control while extending care to all. A weak plan may discredit healthcare reform for a generation. Real reform will cement strong attachment to the party which has shown it can pass legislation truly improving the condition of people’s lives…

Vanden Heuvel opposes coddling centrist Dems, who are backing away from the public option and warns of the need to get them to “pay more attention to the broad majority favoring a strong public option than to the wads of dough lavished on them by big Pharma and insurance lobbyists.” She is clear also that the acceptable compromise does not include pandering to Republicans who oppose even a public option:

It’s time to part ways with obstructionist Republicans and pass a strong healthcare bill with a majority vote, which is possible if efforts cease to get a handful of Republicans to cross over. Redefining bipartisanship at a time when the GOP has become a male, pale and stale party committed to deficit demagoguery and fearmongering is the common sense and, I’d even argue, pragmatic course. Instead of wasting time on recalcitrant GOP holdouts, do what Drew Westen, author of the terrific book “The Political Brain,” advises to pass meaningful healthcare change: “Focus on principles, tell compelling stories, move people emotionally and send clear messages.”

Many liberal Democrats are still fiercely supportive of single-payer reform as the best possible alternative. But Vanden Heuvel’s editorial is a signal that the broad outlines of health care reform being advocated by the Obama Administration and other progressive Democrats provide a credible stepping stone toward an all-inclusive, single payer system. As she asks “…With a President with high approval ratings and an historically unpopular GOP–if this isn’t a time to pass sweeping reform with a strong public plan, then when is?”

Coming Soon to a Demagogue Near You

Today’s 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Ricci v. DeStefano is going to get cited, distorted and taken out of context massively in the next few weeks, so it’s probably a good idea to make an effort to actually understand it.
As you may know, the case involved a promotion test for firefighers in New Haven, Connecticut in which all the white and one Hispanic) applicants scored better than all the African-Americans. The city tossed out the tests figuring that promotions based on it would fall prey to the “disparate impact” standard for employment discrimination suits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. White firefighters sued on both statutory and constitutional grounds, lost at the trial court level on a motion for summary judgment, which was upheld by Judge Sotomayor’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supremes narrowly reversed this decision on statutory but not constitutional grounds, with the usual conservative coalition of Kennedy, Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thompson in the majority, with the usual Kennedy opinion.
Here’s how Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog characterizes Kennedy’ s treatment of the Second Circuit’s ruling:

I am struck by the extent to which the majority opinion largely treats the court of appeals’ ruling as a non-event. To the contrary, Justice Kennedy almost seemingly goes out of his way not to criticize the decision below, notwithstanding that the Supreme Court takes a dramatically different view of the legal question. The Court indicates that the state of the law before today’s ruling was “a difficult inquiry,” and that its “holding today clarifies how Title VII applies.” It rejects the plaintiffs’ outright attack on the Second Circuit’s decision as “overly simplistic and too restrictive.”

That figures, since Sotomayor and company were applying limited case precedents in a very plausible way–plausible, indeed to the four Supreme Court dissenters from today’s decision, including the Justice Sotomayor has been appointed to replace, David Souter. So it’s no big deal in terms of Sotomayor’s confirmation, right?
Well, you’d think so, but that’s certainly not how conservative activists are going to play it. Michelle Malkin’s headline tells you exactly how they will play it: “Racism rejected: SCOTUS reverses Sotomayor in firefighters case .”
As it happens, new data from ABC/Washington Post on the Sotomayor nomination came out just yesterday, showing solid majority support for her confirmation. You better believe that the groups already determined to mine the confirmation fight for fun and profit will use a cartoon version of today’s decision to try to turn things around.

Obama’s Third Option in Iran

Gabriel Schoenfeld’s article in today’s Wall St. Journal, “What If Obama Did Want to Help Iran’s Democrats?” argues that the Obama Administration may be crippling its Iran policy by not recognizing the efficacy of “covert political action.” As Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and a resident scholar at Princeton’s Witherspoon Institute explains Obama’s problem:

In a better world, toppling this vicious regime and altering the tide of history would be a primary objective of U.S. foreign policy. Yet even if President Obama miraculously came to that conclusion, how could he realize such an objective? This is a useful question to ask because it reveals how much the United States has disarmed itself in the vital realm of intelligence.
…Harsh criticism of such operations — beginning in the 1970s when all the CIA’s secrets spilled out — is what prompted the U.S. to dismantle its capabilities in covert political action. Interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, legions of agency critics said, was both immoral and illegal.
As a matter of law, the critics are right. Such covert action is indeed illegal. But legality is beside the point. Espionage is by definition illegal and yet all countries engage in it. This is what the Soviet Union did in Italy, and it is what Iran, by organizing terrorist structures in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere, has been doing intensively for 30 years.

Schoenfeld’s article, subtitled “The CIA is no longer in the business of influencing politics abroad,” credits CIA funding of centrist political parties in Italy during the 1950’s as an effective strategy to counter the rapid growth of Italy’s Communist Party, thereby helping Italy to remain a “stable democracy today.” But Shoenfeld’s characterization of Italy’s Communist Party as undemocratic is unfair, since they did participate in elections.
If covert ops have any legitimacy, they should be narrowly focused on supporting pro-democratic, not exclusively “centrist”, forces in dictatorships and in nations at risk of becomming dictatorships. Using U.S. resources to oppose democratically-elected governments, as we did in Chile, or to influence elections in other nations, is immoral, unwise and can easily backfire.
But if Schoenfeld is right that U.S. support of centrist political parties was the pivotal element in achieving our foreign policy objectives in Italy, however misguided, without expensive military action, then perhaps there is an instructive strategic lesson for our policy toward Iran.
The debate over U.S. policy toward Iran is usually cast in terms of military vs. diplomatic action, with very little discussion about the possibilities of covert political operations, or even expanding our propaganda outreach in Iran. The latter wouldn’t be hard since our current effort is so weak. The current issue of The New Yorker for example, features an eyewitness report on the June 15th protest against the stolen election, in which the author notes,

…the government tries to jam all foreign TV stations—in particular, the BBC’s Persian-language channel. This channel, beaming images and reports sent by normal Iranian citizens back into the country, has been hugely influential in spreading news of the protests to Iranians who would otherwise have relied on state television or the inferior American-based Persian-language channels.

Peruse recent public opinion polls on the topic of U.S. policy toward Iran going back 5 years or more, and you won’t find any mention of enhancing intelligence, propaganda or covert ops as a choice in polling questions. (A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted 9/21-24, 2008 indicates the public favored “diplomacy now” over “military action now” in Iraq by a margin of 61 to 10 percent)
Perhaps the pollsters assume the public has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude regarding covert ops, or they include it conceptually as an intelligence function under the rubric of “diplomacy.” But if the U.S. becomes more vigorously engaged in the struggle to win hearts and minds as a third option, it could prove to be a highly effective use of our resources in achieving foreign policy objectives in trouble spots like Iran. (More on this topic here)
According to Schoenfeld, the U.S. is not getting much credit for our disengagement from Iranian politics:

The great irony in all this is that even as the U.S. seeks to claim the moral high ground by not “meddling” — to use Mr. Obama’s term — we and our allies are getting blamed all the same. “There are riots and attacks in the streets that are orchestrated from the outside in a bid to destabilize the country’s Islamic regime,” says Sheikh Naim Qassem, a ranking figure of Hezbollah, Iran’s obedient instrument in Lebanon.

A fair point, Perhaps some thoughtful “meddling,” if not by the CIA, then by other U.S. agencies concerned with foreign policy could help encourage a stable democracy in Iran. Diplomacy is almost always a better choice than military action. But strengthening our on-the-ground intelligence in Iran and in other Arab nations and using it to promote the spread of democracy, instead of U.S. military dominance, should become a leading strategic objective.