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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: October 2009


Say one thing about the Republican minority — they’ve shown readiness to embrace new technology in an effort to claw their way back to power that is occasionally something to envy.
Their newest effort is WhipCast — a BlackBerry application that, once downloaded, offers GOP staffers and activists the ability to pull up talking points, track votes, coordinate action on the floors of Congress, and follow the latest gossip and rumors.
This is actually a neat idea. Both parties need more tools for sharing information, and an application that can be accessed offline on mobile devices has the potential to be a winner. If I were a Republican, I could think of a lot of ways where this might be tactically useful.
The problem is, as a Democrat, I’ve got the same idea.
The POLITICO reports:

Starting Thursday, the GOP is making WhipCast available to the public for free as a way to show that the party is regaining the technical edge that has been lost to Democrats in recent years.

How valuable can the information on the application be if the GOP isn’t regulating who has the ability to access it?
If any Democratic hack can read, in real time, the Republican plan for coordinating action on a vote, then no matter how impressive a technical achievement WhipCast is, it fails in terms of usefulness.
If the information shared on WhipCast is watered down for the general public, then it fails in terms of usefulness.
If, in fact, the motivation behind WhipCast is, as POLITICO reports, to make the application available, “as a way to show that the party is regaining the technical edge that has been lost to Democrats,” then the ambition is wholly misguided.
Innovation should have a point, and in the business of politics, no one should care about a new piece of technology if it doesn’t do anything.
It’s a waste of resources to build a tool simply to prove you can.

Health Reform Differences Narrow

At the end of this important week on the health care front, one thing clear is that the differences between what the House and Senate are likely to vote on are not as large as everyone expected a few weeks ago. Harry Reid’s advancing a public option bill with (it appears) a state opt-out, and the House is going with a public option that will negotiate rates instead of pegging payments to Medicare. Had the Senate gone with a weak trigger or something like co-ops, or the House had insisted on the Medicare peg, it could have caused some very serious problems down the road.
However you happen to feel about the substance of these nuances, anything that steadily narrows the gaps between Senate and House Democrats is a step towards enactment of health reform this year. Or at least that’s how it looks to me from an internet cafe a very long way from Washington.

‘Progressive Legislative Exchanges’ Needed to Tap Dem Ideas

Veteran congressional staffer Bill Goold is doing some creative strategic thinking over at the HuffPo, where today he shares “Building Progressive Staying Power,” proposing the establishment of “a progressive legislative exchange” for shaping and refining ideas into legislative reforms. As Goold rolls it out:

The resurgent progressive movement needs to think more long-term, come together quickly, and systematically build a Progressive Legislative Exchange to share and hone a steady, perpetual stream of the best, actionable ideas that progressives and liberals, near and far, have to offer for public and private sector problem-solving. This is a very egalitarian, 21st century idea whose time has come and is all the more attainable because of the Internet and other far-flung communication capabilities. Progressive leaders and activists have it within our grasp to organize and create a permanent incubator and clearinghouse for conceptualizing and refining progressive legislation to serve the public interest and address myriad problems confronting our nation and our world that will connect and empower imaginative thinkers inside and outside of Congress as never before.
…Imagine an organized intersection on-line and otherwise through which progressives can exchange, funnel, and refine ideas and proposals for possible legislation that interested Members of Congress and their dedicated hard-working, over-stretched staff can easily survey and pick and choose for possible further development, introduction, and advancement in the House and Senate. Conversely, this Progressive Legislative Exchange could also make it possible for Members of Congress and their staff to efficiently post or otherwise make available any pieces of legislation they have conceived and want to further refine before the bill(s) and/or amendment(s) are formally introduced, subjected to hearings, and voted upon.

Among Goold’s interesting examples of ideas that can be shaped into legislation:

Provide a tax credit and other financial incentives to enable all taxpayers to invest more reliably in socially and environmentally responsible companies that employ Americans;


Establish enforceable worker rights (e.g. freedom of association, prohibition against job discrimination) and environmental safeguards as cornerstones for all future U.S. trade agreements;

Goold cites a compelling need to “capitalize more fully upon this rare window of opportunity when lasting, historic change is attainable because of last year’s elections.” He see’s the exchanges as a unique way Dems can leverage “our existing comparative strengths,” including “a stronger hand in the free-wheeling intellectual marketplace of ideas” and faith in government, in glaring contrast to “the pinched, narrower marketplace of commercial ideas and self-interested, short-term profit-making” of the GOP.

A Moment of Truth for Centrist Dems

Please, all moderate, centrist and conservative Democrats, take a few minutes to read Paul Krugman’s op-ed. “The Defining Moment ” in The New York Times, and then take a few more minutes for honest self-reflection. History is calling, and there may not be another chance to do so much to help so many people, whose very lives are at stake for a long long time. As Krugman explains:

…Everyone in the political class — by which I mean politicians, people in the news media, and so on, basically whoever is in a position to influence the final stage of this legislative marathon — now has to make a choice. The seemingly impossible dream of fundamental health reform is just a few steps away from becoming reality, and each player has to decide whether he or she is going to help it across the finish line or stand in its way.
…The people who really have to make up their minds, then, are those in between, the self-proclaimed centrists….Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut says, “I want to be able to vote for a health bill, but my top concern is the deficit.” That would be a serious objection to the proposals currently on the table if they would, in fact, increase the deficit. But they wouldn’t, at least according to the Congressional Budget Office, which estimates that the House bill, in particular, would actually reduce the deficit by $100 billion over the next decade.
…I won’t try to psychoanalyze the “naysayers,”…I’d just urge them to take a good hard look in the mirror. If they really want to align themselves with the hard-line conservatives, if they just want to kill health reform, so be it. But they shouldn’t hide behind claims that they really, truly would support health care reform if only it were better designed.
For this is the moment of truth. The political environment is as favorable for reform as it’s likely to get. The legislation on the table isn’t perfect, but it’s as good as anyone could reasonably have expected. History is about to be made — and everyone has to decide which side they’re on.

Health care reform legislation, because of its complexity, will never be perfect for anyone. But nothing will pass if moderates insist on having their way about every single aspect of health reform. Legislation to improve on the consensus bill can be passed later on, when problems become evident. It’s a work in progress. History is calling. Who will answer the call?

TDS Co-Editor Bill Galston: Warning Flags for ‘Bold Action’

TDS Co-Editor William Galston has a post up at The New Republic, “Is the Public Ready for Bold Action?,” which makes an opinion data-based case that President Obama doesn’t have a lot of leeway remaining for audacious reforms regarding health care and other progressive initiatives. As Galston explains:

…Trust in government now stands at 23 percent—the lowest level in at least twelve years. A stunning 76 percent of Americans believe that the government in Washington will do the right thing only some of the time, or never. These statistics confirm the findings from a recent CBS/New York Times poll, and they suggest that proponents of government action must overcome deep skepticism….fully 53 percent of the respondents expressed the fear that if government gets more heavily involved in health care, it will just make matters worse. Similarly, the NBC/WSJ survey found 51 percent more concerned that government will end up “going too far and making the health care system worse than it now is in terms of quality of care and choice of doctor” versus only 44 percent concerned that the government will not do enough to lower costs and cover the uninsured.

Galston continues, limning the statistical decline in public confidence in the leadership of the President, congress and the political parties. He concludes “This bad news does not warrant the conclusion that the president’s program has been misguided. It does suggest, however, that the bold actions he has undertaken have taken a toll in public confidence and support.”

Military Strategy for Democrats: The key issue in Afghanistan isn’t the number of troops we send, it’s the mission that they’re given – and that’s why the military doctrine and strategy of “counterinsurgency” is totally inadequate as a guide

em>(this is the first of a two part analysis. A print (PDF) version of the entire memo is available here)
The real decision America must face in regard to Afghanistan is not the precise number of troops that should be sent but rather the mission they are given to perform.
Last January, when Obama took office, there was a broad national consensus on this subject. On the one hand, there was universal agreement that US forces should prevent Al Qaeda from ever again using Afghanistan as a base for training camps or other terrorist facilities. Quite the contrary, there was wide approval of the goal of completely dismantling and destroying Al Qaeda as an organization.
Although it was not always explicitly stated, it was quite obvious that this would require preventing the Taliban from taking control of (1) the capital city of Kabul and several other major urban areas and (2) a number of key infrastructure installations like major airports, electric power stations and national highways. The commitment to destroy Al Qaeda also clearly implied the need to establish and maintain a certain number of observation posts, forward operating bases and other “in country” forces adequate to provide intelligence about terrorist activity in various regions of the country. Most Americans were entirely in agreement with this approach.
On the other hand, there was absolutely no support for the ambitious “nation building” and cultural reprogramming of the kind the Bush-Cheney administration tried in Iraq– a vast investment of soldiers, funds and resources aimed at transforming Iraq into a pro-American, free market utopia. Most Americans were not willing to sacrifice more American lives or resources in this ideological neo-conservative crusade.
Public opinion on these issues has not changed greatly since January and behind all the complex maneuvering of the last several weeks the view described above still appears to be Obama’s view as well. There are difficult practical decisions about the proper number of troops that are needed to execute this strategy but the issue has become additionally and deeply confused in recent weeks because the influential military doctrine called “counterinsurgency” suggests a fundamentally different mission and strategy from the one described above. The current version of this doctrine is embodied in FM-3-24 – the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
The term “Counterinsurgency” – often abbreviated as COIN — has had phenomenally good press in recent years. On the one hand, it is frequently credited as being the strategy behind the success of the surge in Iraq. Yet, at the same time, it is also described in a way that makes it sound rather appealing to liberals. The most common one-sentence description of the doctrine is that it is focused on “protecting the local population rather than killing the maximum number of enemies” which makes it sound relatively cautious and even rather humane. Because it is usually presented in this appealing way, the approach has received remarkably little critical scrutiny.
(In fact, the general lack of clarity about what the doctrine actually entails was the major source of the confusion that emerged during the last few weeks. Last March, in the six-page “White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group” that defined US policy toward the Af-Pac region, there was actually only a single paragraph specifically devoted to the role of counterinsurgency in protecting the Afghan population. It read as follows: “Our counter-insurgency strategy must integrate population security with building effective local governance and economic development. We will establish the security needed to provide space and time for stabilization and reconstruction activities.”
To people unfamiliar with FM-3-24 these words sounded comfortably vague and relatively benign. But based on standard formulas for estimating the appropriate size of forces in COIN operations a literal interpretation of the paragraph above could be argued to require the deployment of as many as 600,000 troops to Afghanistan. The COIN specialists in the Interagency Policy Group all understood this potential interpretation of the paragraph when it was included in the draft and now point to these two sentences as having represented a binding presidential commitment to a vast expansion of the US forces and mission. As a recent Washington Post article has outlined, however, a number of the non-COIN participants in the drafting of the White Paper absolutely did not intend these few words to represent a binding, open-ended commitment on Obama’s part for a massive increase in US forces)
More important than this confusion, however, is the fact that Counterinsurgency doctrine has two fundamental weaknesses.

Military Strategy for Democrats Part 2: The key issue in Afghanistan isn’t the number of troops, it’s the mission that they’re given – and that’s why the military doctrine and strategy of “counterinsurgency” is totally inadequate as a guide

This is the second part of a two-part analysis. A print (PDF) version of the memo is available here
The two basic weaknesses of counterinsurgency theory – the doctrines’ wildly ambitious social objectives and its myopically narrow conception of “victory” — are directly reflected in General Stanley McChrystal’s August “Commander’s Assessment” of the situation in Afghanistan.
A. McChrystal’s strategic approach will ultimately require huge numbers of soldiers and resources – far more than are now being discussed.
The Commander’s Assessment defines dramatically ambitious goals for a counterinsurgency campaign: The campaign must:

“…earn the support of the Afghan people and provide them with a secure environment.”
…focus on operations that bring stability while shielding [the the civilian population] from insurgent violence corruption and coercion.
…protecting the people means shielding them from all threats….
…protecting the population is more than preventing insurgent violence and intimidation. It also means that [coalition forces] can no longer ignore or tacitly accept abuse of power, corruption or marginalization.

This is a completely different objective than the goal of neutralizing Al Qaeda and will demand resources far beyond anything that has been publically proposed. John Nagl — one of the three authors of FM-3-24 — has repeatedly warned that actually doing the “armed social work” envisioned in FM-3-24 will require far more troops than anyone is currently discussing. This is how Michael Crowley summarized Nagl’s view in the January, 2009 New Republic:

Nagl’s rule of thumb, the one found in the counterinsurgency manual, calls for at least a 1-to-50 ratio of security forces to civilians in contested areas. Applied to Afghanistan, which has both a bigger population (32 million) and a larger land mass (647,500 square miles) than Iraq, that gets you to some large numbers fast. Right now, the United States and its allies have some 65,000 troops in Afghanistan, as compared to about 140,000 in Iraq. By Nagl’s ratio, Afghanistan’s population calls for more than 600,000 security forces. Even adjusting for the relative stability of large swaths of the country, the ideal number could still total around 300,000–more than a quadrupling of current troop levels.

Moreover, from a purely military point of view, if we are eventually going to end up sending 300,000 troops, it is vastly preferable to “bite the bullet” sending the bulk rapidly to dramatically alter the tactical situation rather than in small driblets over a period of several years.
Nagl also notes that in the longer term, maintaining such large numbers of soldiers in Afghanistan will create nearly irresistible pressure to reinstate the draft and will require a massive increase in the military budget – one that will eventually necessitate new taxes.
For Nagl and many other conservatives, these are sacrifices that all Americans should be gladly willing to make. They point to the example of the stalwart working class and middle class British families who sent generation after generation of their sons to fight in India, Asia, Africa and the Middle East during the era of the British Empire. Most ordinary British citizens at that time fully accepted the need for large garrisons of British troops doing “armed social work” in British colonies around the globe on an essentially permanent basis. By the 1920’s many British families had proudly sent three or four successive generations of their young men to fight “For the Empire” as their noble patriotic duty.
It is dubious, however, that a majority of Americans share this perspective and are willing to make the same kind of commitment today. The current arguments over sending 40,000 or 50,000 more troops are therefore really just preliminary skirmishes in a much larger battle to convince the American people to support a full-scale, 300,000 soldier counterinsurgency campaign that may last for decades.

Out of sight, out of mind

Ezra Klein makes an important point.
Under the way the Senate bill is currently structured, the opt-out debate will be pushed back until 2014, when many of the health care reforms would take effect.
By then, he believes, the public option won’t be controversial:

By 2014, we’ll be arguing over all manner of things, but a public insurance option for the small sliver of the population with access to the health insurance exchanges will be one of those things. In that scenario, where there’s very little controversy over the public option, I don’t believe that state legislatures and governors are going to go to the trouble of rejecting it, and I don’t believe that anyone will manage to reinvigorate the controversy around it. The controversy around the public option is an expression of the controversy around Barack Obama’s presidency in general, and health-care reform in particular. Once those issues are essentially settled, the underlying policy isn’t going to hold people’s attention.

Another reason why Republicans in Utah probably ought to hold off on introducing their opt-out bill in January.

Juan Cole gives Obama high marks on policy on Iraq, Iran and Pakistan

Here’s what leading mid-east expert Cole says”

When Obama came into office in January, 142,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq, conducting regular patrols of the major cities. His Republican rivals were dead set against U.S. withdrawal on a strict timetable. He faced something close to an insurrection from some of his commanders in the field, such as Gen. Ray Odierno, who opposed a quick departure from Iraq. Moreover, Obama assumed the presidency at a time when Iran and the U.S. were virtually on a war footing and there had been no direct talks between the two countries on most of the major issues dividing them. In February, the government of Pakistan virtually ceded the Swat Valley and the Malakand Division to the Pakistani Taliban of Maulvi Fazlullah, allowing the imposition of the latter’s fundamentalist version of Islamic law on residents, and Islamabad had no stomach for taking on the increasingly bold extremists.
Eight months later, it is a different world. While it is still early in his presidency, and there is too much work unfinished to give him an overall grade, it’s already apparent he’s outperforming his predecessor.

Read the rest here

Is Obama’s Activist Network Hobbled by the DNC?

In her article, “Disorganized: What Happened to Obama’s Massive Network of Grassroots Activists?” at The New Republic, Lydia DePillis reveals one of the key reasons for the post-election floundering of the activist coalition that was instrumental in electing America’s first African American President. In a nut graph, Depillis explains:

…The biggest problem was built into OFA’s very structure–the structure that Plouffe had wanted and Hildebrand had warned against. Obama’s people had created something both entirely new and entirely old: an Internet version of the top-down political machines built by Richard Daley in Chicago or Boss Tweed in New York. The difference (other than technology) was that this new machine would rely on ideological loyalty, not patronage. And that was a big difference. The old machines survived as top-down organizations because they gave people on the bottom something tangible in return for their participation. By contrast, successful organizations built mainly on shared philosophy tend to be driven by their memberships. Marshall Ganz, the legendary United Farm Workers organizer-turned-Harvard-professor and godfather of the Obama field strategy–he helped orchestrate Camp Obama, a grassroots training program for staff and volunteers–sees the command-and-control nature of OFA as a crucial flaw. “It’s much more an instrument of mobilizing the bottom to serve the top than organizing the bottom to participate in shaping the direction of the top,” he told me.

DePillis adds “…Being part of the DNC has neutered Organizing for America when it comes to pressuring moderate Democrats.” With regard to the battle for health care reform in particular, she cites the examples of ‘outside groups,’ including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, MoveOn, and Health Care for America Now, which are “running hard-hitting ads that target foot-dragging congressmen,” while OFA’s ads “were gauzy and positive, mentioning no one by name.” As DePillis explains, “The White House couldn’t deal with Max Baucus in good faith if its ground operation was hammering him in Montana.”
DePillis is undoubtedly correct that there are built-in limitations that come with OFA operating as a DNC entity, particularly with an issue that has many complex facets, like health care reform. Activist networks work best with a simple idea, such as electing a particular candidate, or legislation that does one major thing. Perhaps the best test for OFA’s effectiveness will come when all of the Democratic reforms are reconciled into a single bill.
Multi-faceted legislation like the current health care reform packages being proposed, are more likely to experience fragmentation of activist energy. It’s easier to mobilize citizen lobbying around a simple idea, like no disqualifying coverage for prior conditions, than it is to get activists excited about a complex package that includes numerous provisions. It doesn’t mean that big package strategy for health care reform is wrong; It may be the right way to go at this political moment. But it’s reasonable to expect some dilution of grass-roots energy as the complexity of a reform increases.