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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: November 2009

Follow the Leaderless: Palin and McCarthy

As I noted earlier, a new Washington Post poll of Republicans recorded the remarkable extent to which today’s rank-and-file GOPers can’t identify much in the way of any clear-cut Republican leaders. Having just read Sam Tanenhaus’ meditation on Sarah Palin in the New Yorker, I’m beginning to wonder whether the leaderless nature of the GOP represents a temporary vacuum or something a little more profound.
Here’s Tanenhaus’ kicker:

To judge from [Palin’s] book, the most exciting time in her life was the election of 2008, when she was embraced by the army of “everyday, hardworking Americans,” the “everyday folks,” and “thousands of regular Americans coming out with their signs” who mobbed her tumultuous rallies, thrilling to her odes to the “true America.” She gave them a “magnifying mirror.” They reflected her own image back to her. This adoration is kept alive today by the excited autograph-seekers in Grand Rapids and Fort Wayne, in the audience that gave Oprah Winfrey her best ratings in two years, and in the various advocacy groups that have sprung up to promote Palin for the Presidency: Conservatives 4 Palin, Team Sarah, Vets 4 Sarah, 2012 Draft Sarah Committee, Sarah Palin Radio, SarahPAC. The true meaning of Palinism is Sarah Palin—nothing more and nothing less. She is a party unto herself.

Now it’s hardly novel to observe that the excitement Palin has aroused among (particularly) cultural conservative activists reflects how closely she resembles them, or that her fans celebrate her lack of conventional credentials or policy knowledge as a badge of honor. But it may also reflect a genuine leadership crisis in the conservative movement and the GOP, wherein no one who is not a Palin-style “mirror” of grassroots qualities can be trusted.
It’s not enough to call this sentiment “populist.” Historically, most “populist” leaders have represented a preexisting ideological set of beliefs in one or both major political parties, and a relatively specific set of policy goals. Yes, populists like Tom Watson (with his dirt-farmer persona) and William Jennings Bryan (with an idiom derived largely from the Bible) derived some of their appeal from personal identification with the lives and values of people who felt disenfranchised. But they were also genuine leaders who pulled their followers along to positions on policy matters and political loyalties they might not have embraced on their own.
The history of “right-wing populism” in this country is murkier and more controversial. But by and large, the conservative populist impulse has been one that relatively conventional Republican politicians (notably Nixon and Reagan) or regional reactionaries (George Wallace) have exploited in the pursuit of conventionally conservative ends.
Palin strikes me as more like another famous conservative “populist,” Joseph R. McCarthy. And I don’t say that in order to invoke an invidious identification of the overall political dangers represented by St. Joan of the Tundra and the famously irresponsible red-hunter. What strikes me as similar is the extent to which both politicians were relatively ordinary people who were suddenly swept into vast celebrity by an almost accidental association with grievances poorly advocated by conventional political leaders.
McCarthy stumbled upon the power of many years of accumulated unhappiness–mostly among heartland conservatives, but elsewhere as well–with a bipartisan foreign policy led by northeastern elites that aligned the United States with what many considered historic national enemies–not just the Soviet Union, but “Europe” generally, and for many Irish-Americans, the United Kingdom. It’s sometimes forgotten that many of McCarthy’s red-hunting conservative allies fulminated against the “loss” of China and the “betrayal” of Korea because they deeply resented a Euro-centric foreign policy, as reflected in their general opposition to the establishment of NATO. At a deeper level, many of McCarthy’s supporters (particularly in the midwest) were the very people who were initially opposed to war with Nazi Germany, on the theory that Hitler represented a Western bulwark against Bolshevism; even those who didn’t feel we backed the wrong side in Europe often thought we should have negotiated an armistice with Germany that would have avoided the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe (an argument still advanced by Pat Buchanan). The eventual consolidation of conservatives in favor of an aggressively internationalist anti-communism was a later development, but it’s obscured the isolationist roots of the McCarthy uprising.
McCarthy eventually came to grief, of course, in part because of his sloppy and reckless tactics, but more immediately because he extended his attacks on Democratic foreign policy “betrayals” to attacks on the Eisenhower administration and even the Army. And thus the leadership class of the Republican Party came together to crush the fiery Wisconsinite, even as they sought to coopt his appeal by their own anticommunist fervor.
Like McCarthy, Palin is appealing to a variety of unredeemed cultural and political discontents, and like McCarthy, she’s gradually extended her liberal-baiting into attacks on conventional Republican pols, most notably the people surrounding the very presidential campaign that made her a celebrity. Unlike McCarthy, however, she’s not taking on a highly popular and newly elected Republican president, but a defeated GOP establishment that millions of conservative activists believe betrayed them through “big government” initiatives, excessive bipartisanship, and the failure to successfully execute a counter-revolution against legalized abortion, legitimized homosexuality, and other forms of cultural pluralism and diversity (or as they would say, “relativism.”). Moreover, said establishment has also been terribly weakened by its association with economic calamity, caused, so thinks the conservative “base,” by the reward-the-crooks-and-welfare-loafers “big government” betrayals of the autumn of 2008.
This doesn’t mean that Palin is destined to fill the leadership vacuum in the Republican Party. Like Joe McCarthy, she’s more suited to act as a vehicle for discontent than as the agent for its vindication. But make no mistake, the contemporary dynamics of the Republican Party and the conservative movement make it very unlikely that anyone from that quarter will curb her as Ike and his allies curbed and then broke McCarthy. If and when Palin succeeds again in creating a national public policy furor via a casual Facebook post, as she did with the famous “death panel” screed (arguably as irresponsible as anything Joe McCarthy said), it’s more likely that Republicans will coopt her than repudiate her. So while Sarah Palin probably won’t become the leader of the GOP, she may well play a major role in setting the terms on which anyone else can command the leaderless masses she represents.
UPDATE: Just discovered that the great historian of populism, Michael Kazin, penned a piece for the Washington Independent right after Palin’s selection as McCain’s running-mate, comparing her to Joe McCarthy. But I’ve made a quite different argument about her–and McCarthy’s–relationship with “elites” in the GOP.

Moving To the Right, Without Direction

Today’s Washington Post features a big new poll of self-identified Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Unsurprisingly, these voters don’t like Barack Obama, don’t like the general direction of the country, and don’t want their leaders to help enact health care reform legislation (not that they are in any danger of doing so).
The two findings most worth paying attention to are (1) yet another confirmation that Republicans are undergoing a rightward shift; and (2) the complete lack of a consensus about Republican leadership.
On the ideological front, there’s been a modest but revealing shift in the composition of the Republican rank-and-file since the last time the Post polled them, in 2007. Asked if they regard themselves as liberal, moderate, conservative, or very conservative, GOPers chose this last category, the most extreme available, more than ever. In June of 2007, self-identified liberals (11% of the total) and moderates (24%) together outnumbered those insisting on calling themselves “very conservative” (30%) by five percentage points. Now the “very conservative” are up to 32%, while “moderates” have declined to 22% and “liberals” have been nearly halved, to 6%. Overall, “conservative” GOPers currently overwhelm “moderate” GOPers by nearly a three-to-one margin. This is in sharp contrast to the ideological profile of the Democratic Party, in which the number of “moderates” equals and usually exceeds self-identified “liberals.” The overwhelming ideological impetus in the Republican Party is centrifugal, not centripetal.
The second finding of note is that today’s GOPers have no agreement whatsoever about where to look for leadership. Offered an open-ended question about “the one person [who] best reflects the core values of the Republican Party,” nobody receives over 18%, and 8% insist “there is no leader.” The last presidential nominee, John McCain, does respectfully well at 13%, though nobody really thinks of him as the future of the GOP, and his running-mate, Sarah Palin, runs first at 18%, out of a combination of celebrity and her special appeal to social issue extremists. After that, no one scores in double digits. The congressional leaders, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, each weigh in at a booming one percent.
All this adds up to a situation where the increasingly conservative rank-and-file “base” of the Republican Party is pulling its putative leaders to the right rather than following their direction. Given the traditionally hierarchical nature of the GOP, that may be a refreshing change for its members, but it’s not exactly designed to produce a message or candidates that appeal to the rest of the electorate.

Zero For Thirty-One: Lessons From the Loss in Maine

Editor’s Note: This item, originally published on November 24, 1009, is a special guest post by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a student at Harvard Divinity School and the director of The Progressive Project, a national organization that works in communities across the country to elect progressive candidates and promote LGBT civil rights. This article is based upon TPP’s work on the “No on 1” campaign in Maine, and on other campaigns to defeat similar ballot measures. Several interviewees quoted in the piece are not identified by name at their own request. Jasmine has written for The Democratic Strategist in the past, and her writing has appeared in The Advocate, Alternet.org, American Short Fiction and other publications.
Back in late September, I traveled with two friends to Biddeford, Maine, to volunteer with the “No on 1” campaign, which was working to defeat Question 1, a proposal to strike down a law legalizing same-sex marriage in that state. It rained all day, the kind of weather that oscillates between mist and downpour and that, on a mild day, makes you laugh at its sheer excess. Our task was straightforward: go door to door, ask people how they planned to vote, rate them on a scale of one to five, and move on. The campaign was in the final stretch of the persuasion stage and this would be one of the last times they had face-to-face contact with swing voters. We were assigned to a middle-class neighborhood in which single-family homes dotted either side of a busy two-lane road. There were no sidewalks, and passing cars gave me a wide berth as I mucked along on the shoulder of the road, as obtrusive as a safety-conscious hunter in my orange raincoat.
Since 2004, the LGBT movement has lost thirty such campaigns across the nation and a lot was at stake in Maine. All of those losses had been explained by factors like inadequate funding, or in the case of the California “No on 8” campaign, an anemic field operation. The “No on 1” campaign was determined to do things better, and by all standard metrics they did.
At that point in the campaign season, the polls were dead even, which in these kind of ballot measures usually means we are actually down by a few points. But the “No on 1” campaign had already raised over $2 million, twice as much as the other side. Volunteers had been canvassing since early summer, and there were paid organizers on the ground across the state. A national network of donors and field volunteers was also bolstering our efforts. Perhaps most significantly, the campaign had already identified the number of supporters they needed to win. Campaign lore holds that if you have these names on paper by early October and run a tight turnout operation, you will win in November.
I was almost done with my shift when I approached a brick ranch house with an open garage. A man in his sixties was wiping off an Allen wrench. Next to him was a motorcycle with long, athletic lines and a gleaming turquoise body. He was friendly as we talked about his bike and the weather. If he raised his eyebrows when I explained why I was there, the conversation didn’t abruptly stop in its tracks, as sometimes happens. “I’ll be voting yes,” he said evenly.
“Can I ask why?”
“The Bible says one man, one woman.”
I nodded. In literal terms, he was right. In moments like this, I’ve often responded by coming right back about what else the Bible says. But this has never led anywhere except a quick dead end. So instead, I asked if I could talk with his wife.
She joined us in the garage, and it was then that I noticed the scooter propped next to the motorcycle, its body a turquoise that perfectly matched the bigger bike’s.
“Do you ride together?” I asked.
They laughed. “I let her get ahead,” the man said, “and then I catch her.”
She explained that she also opposed gay marriage. “As a married gay person, I can tell you that not much changes for anyone but the couple,” I said. “It mostly comes up when you’re talking about things like hospital visits, times when you really need your rights.”
“Our grandson is gay,” the woman said. “We raised him.” She went on to explain that their grandson was having a difficult time. From the time he was a child, she said, she’d known he was gay.
“I never picked up on it. She had to tell me,” her husband chimed in and they laughed again.
“Is it hard for you that he’s gay?” I asked the man.
He seemed surprised by this question and this in itself was telling. It became clear that their grandson was part of their life and much loved, if not fully understood. The conversation continued and then a bit suddenly, the man choked up and wiped his eyes. “I knew a guy growing up who was that way and he got picked on a lot. I used to stand up for him.” His wife put her arm around him. “He can’t stand when people get picked on,” she said.
For a moment, it was silent in the garage.
“Making same-sex marriage illegal sends a message that we’re second class citizens. It opens the doors for people to get picked on, and worse,” I said. They listened, but weren’t terribly persuaded. The conversation circled back to The Bible. I told them I was Christian and brought up an example of scripture that we don’t tend to follow literally – the mandate to give away all your material possessions. We spent a few minutes on this. But again, not terribly persuasive.
“Should I put you both down as planning to vote yes?” I asked.
“You know, I’m still making up my mind,” the woman said. “I just don’t know.”
The conversation ended a few minutes later when their dog – small, blind and adventurous – raced out of the garage and toward the road. The woman went to rescue him. I asked them to keep thinking about the issue and thanked them for the conversation, one of the longest I’ve ever had canvassing. It was also one of the most moving. I have thought of it countless times since then.
Walking away, I rated her as a “three,” or swing voter, and him as a “four,” or likely to vote yes. According to a literal interpretation of the campaign playbook, this conversation had actually been a waste of time in every regard except one: the campaign now knew not to spend time and resources doing further outreach to this couple. At this point in the campaign cycle, an exacting calculus kicks in and attention shifts to turning out identified supporters, “one’s” and “two’s” on the scale. All other voters are lumped together and categorized as unwinnable. For the next five weeks, this couple and voters like them would not hear directly from the campaign, except in TV ads. This is considered smart organizing, and typically it is.
So what went wrong when, five weeks later, the voters of Maine passed Question 1 by a margin of 53 – 47%, making gay marriage illegal? There has been virtual consensus that the “No on 1” campaign was well-run. The leadership of national organizations blamed the loss on the slow tides of history and the bigoted tactics of our opponents. Some grassroots activists said that after thirty-one losses, we should accept that these campaigns are unwinnable and start focusing our efforts elsewhere. Pundits also weighed in, with Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com observing that, “this may not be an issue where the campaign itself matters very much; people have pretty strong feelings about the gay marriage issue and are not typically open to persuasion.”
Here’s where I disagree. This loss confirmed a lesson that the thirty preceding it only suggested: we cannot win the support of swing voters by adhering to the traditional campaign playbook. To do so, we must tear out a few pages and write new plays.

Democrats – Don’t be misled. The media is going to call Obama’s new Afghan strategy a “betrayal” of the Democratic base – but it’s not. It’s actually a decisive rejection of the Republican/Neo-Conservative strategy of the “Long War”

This item by James Vega was originally published on November 17, 2009.
Print Version
When Obama presents his new strategy for Afghanistan in the next few days it is inevitable that many in the press will describe it as a profound betrayal of the Democratic “base”. Obama will face fierce criticism from many progressive and anti-war Democrats who will consider his decision to significantly increase the number of troops as representing a complete capitulation to the military and Republican neoconservatives.
This reaction is understandable, but it is actually profoundly wrong. At the same time that Obama’s plan will authorize additional troops, his new strategy already represents a powerful repudiation of the fundamental Bush/neoconservative strategy and a historic reassertion of civilian control over the military after 9/11.
For many Democrats – those who do not carefully follow the cloistered and jargon-filled “inside the beltway” debates over counter-terrorism and military strategy — this assertion will seem utterly and patently absurd — how can a decision that significantly increases troop levels in Afghanistan possibly also represent a challenge to a militaristic strategy?
In order to understand why this apparent paradox actually makes sense it is necessary to view the specific issue of Afghanistan in two larger contexts — the overall strategic debate about how to conduct the long-term “war on terror” and the proper relationship between the President and the military. The fundamental conflict that has been going on between, on the one hand, the Obama administration and the Republican/neoconservatives and the military on the other has actually been over these two larger strategic questions and not over the precise number of troops to send to Afghanistan. The size of the proposed troop increase in Afghanistan is only a single sub-issue within a much larger debate over what American military strategy and policy should be for the next ten, twenty and even fifty years.
On one side is the perspective that is variously called the Global War on Terror, World War IV or simply The Long War”. It is widely shared among Republicans and neoconservatives and is supported by a major sector of the military establishment.
This view was codified in the period immediately after 9/11. Its central premise is that military operations aimed at hunting down individual terrorists and dismantling specific terrorist organizations are totally inadequate – indeed almost worthless — in dealing with the threat of global terrorism. It is only by fundamentally transforming the societies of the Muslim world – by introducing U.S. style political institutions and orienting their societies and economies toward the west and the global economy – that the roots of Islamic terrorism can be undermined.

Best First Year Since FDR

The knee-jerk cynics, Obamaphobes and comedians have gotten lots of play lately, dissing the President for what they see as his lack of accomplishments during his first year. But over at SLATE.com, Jacob Weisberg takes a more thoughtful look at Obama’s first year and sees something very different:

This conventional wisdom about Obama’s first year isn’t just premature—it’s sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn’t an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It’s a neutral assessment of his emerging record—how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.

Regarding health care reform in particular:

…Democrats have been trying to pass national health insurance for 60 years. Past presidents who tried to make it happen and failed include Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. Through the summer, Obama caught flak for letting Congress lead the process, as opposed to setting out his own proposal. Now his political strategy is being vindicated. The bill he signs may be flawed in any number of ways—weak on cost control, too tied to the employer-based system, and inadequate in terms of consumer choice. But given the vastness of the enterprise and the political obstacles, passing an imperfect behemoth and improving it later is probably the only way to succeed where his predecessors failed.
We are so submerged in the details of this debate—whether the bill will include a “public option,” limit coverage for abortion, or tax Botox—that it’s easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the impending change. For the federal government to take responsibility for health coverage will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government’s role since the New Deal. If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ. He will also undermine the view that Ronald Reagan permanently reversed a 50-year tide of American liberalism.

Not too shabby for openers. Further:

…There’s mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—combined with the bank bailout package—prevented an economic depression…Pundits and policymakers will argue…for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama’s decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter…

Then there is Obama’s course-altering leadership in foreign affairs:

…He has put America on a new footing with the rest of the world. In a series of foreign trips and speeches, which critics deride as trips and speeches, he replaced George W. Bush’s unilateral, moralistic militarism with an approach that is multilateral, pragmatic, and conciliatory. Obama has already significantly reoriented policy toward Iran, China, Russia, Iraq, Israel, and the Islamic world. Next week, after a much-disparaged period of review, he will announce a new strategy in Afghanistan. No, the results do not yet merit his Nobel Peace Prize. But not since Reagan has a new president so swiftly and determinedly remodeled America’s global role.

Weisberg concedes that President Obama has “wisely deferred some smaller, politically hazardous battles,” including the closing of Guantanamo, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and Israel’s West Bank settlements, focusing instead on “his most urgent priorities—preventing a depression, remaking America’s global image, and winning universal health insurance.” As Weisberg concludes, what President since FDR has accomplished more in year one?

Benefit of the Doubt

This item is cross-posted from The New Republic.
It’s hardly a secret or an accident that much of politics revolves around the elimination of doubt among voters on public policy issues. Base-mobilization strategies for elections typically involve convincing people with clear preferences but weak civic engagement (or doubts about their own “team”) that any given trip to the ballot box is of epochal importance. Swing-voter persuasion strategies also tend to focus on efforts to convince the undecided that one’s party or candidate will make the country a much happier place. And while doubt’s evil twin, fear, most definitely has a place in both base and swing strategies, it’s still aimed at convincing voters there is a clear and unambiguous, if largely negative, difference between the consequences of voting this way or that.
I mention the dubious political status of doubt in the context of a long and fascinating piece we just published at The Democratic Strategist by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, director of The Progressive Project, entitled “Zero For Thirty-One: Lessons From the Loss in Maine.” A veteran of the struggle for LGBT rights and marriage equality, Beach-Ferrara concludes that ballot measures to stop gay marriage keep winning in no small part because equality advocates don’t talk much to conflicted voters, particularly those for whom religious dogma pulls them away from their own personal sense of fairness–i.e., non-bigots who are lumped in with bigots in most LGBT-rights strategies.
Based on her first-hand interviews with torn voters, Beach-Ferrara contends that marriage equality activists would do well to spend some time convincing such voters to reflect their true convictions by conscientiously passing up the opportunity to make a choice they aren’t prepared to make. In other words, rather than pushing people to come down on one side or the other, activists should have looked at doubt as a political asset.
Beach-Ferrara’s provocative article immediately reminded me of the only politician I’ve ever heard talk about doubt as a religious value: Barack Obama. In his famously controversial but ultimately effective commencement speech at Notre Dame in May, Obama addressed the faithful in terms that Beach-Ferrara (herself a divinity student) would find congenial:

[T]he ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.
This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame..

Given the usual tendency of progressives to deal with conservatively inclined religious people by pandering to them, steering clear of the subject, or offering the faith-based counterdogmas of the Christian Left, Obama was indeed offering something new: pluralism based on conscientious doubt, or as it was once called, the fear of God.
But doubt can obviously become a political asset beyond the ranks of the religious. We normally think of doubt on political or policy questions as an inherently conservative force, leading to a preference for the devil you know. At a time like the present, however, when “wrong-track” sentiments are exceptionally strong and most major public and private institutions are held in low repute, doubt can lead in very different directions depending on how that emotion is deployed.
That’s one important reason why health care reform has been so difficult a topic for progressives. Democrats have been focusing much of their efforts reassuring people with health insurance that reform won’t degrade their coverage. But this message has come at the expense of accurately describing the terrible unfairness and inefficiency and unsustainable trajectory of the current system. Reassured voters have no real stake in reform. Doubters may, but only if they are convinced the status quo represents as much or more of a risk than a new system.
The bottom line is that doubt is going to be an important popular sentiment on complex topics like health care, climate change, globalization, or the long-term fiscal challenge. It can work for progressives, or against them, but the prevailing unhappiness about current conditions in the country ought to make doubt-based decisions—or in the case of gay marriage, decisions not to make decisions—friendlier to real change. So long as we treat certainty as the object of every political communication, and write off the doubtful as stupid, cognitively challenged, or unmotivated, we miss that opportunity.

Thanksgiving Day

Like most everyone else who is not in the food or other essential services industries, we’re taking a break from work today. And we’re very thankful for not having lost a job, a loved one, or our minds, during the last year.
A happy Thanksgiving Day to all, and we’ll be back tomorrow.

How to Demolish GOP Propaganda 101

Jonathan Chait’s post “Popularity Contest” at The New Republic gives GOP myth-mongers (especially Krauthammer) a proper shredding, and provides progressive bloggers with an excellent template for doing the same in the bargain.
Chait riffs on an ad placed in TNR by conservative American Future Fund (AFF) urging moderate Democrats to ditch health care reform, with the headline “THE LOSERS OF 1994 … THANKS TO HEALTH CARE!” and featuring photos of Dems who lost their seats in that year. Says Chait, who deliciously bites the advertising hand that feeds him:

I hesitate to impugn the intellectual integrity of any of the good folks who purchase space in this magazine in order to share their concerns about public policy. Yet I cannot help but wonder if AFF has truly proffered this advice in good faith…Democrats did not lose their seats in 1994 because they enacted health care reform. They failed to enact, or even vote on, health care reform. So it’s hard to see why…letting health care reform die an ignominious death is an attractive strategy for the majority party.

Chait concedes that “narrow, but stable majorities disapprove” of President Obama’s health care plan, but “The problem with this gauge is that it lumps together Obama’s critics from the right with those from the left” and health care reform in general “actually remains quite popular.” Further, says Chait:

…One recent poll asks whether the Democratic plans create too much government involvement, the right amount, or not enough. Too much gets 42 percent, the right amount 34 percent, and not enough 21 percent. Another question shows that only 28 percent of Americans think the bill goes too far in expanding coverage to the uninsured, 33 percent say it expands coverage the right amount, and 35 percent say it does not go far enough. In both cases, majorities of the public either support Obama’s approach or wish it went further.
Moreover, a clear majority of Americans say that they want the Democrats to pass a health care bill with a public option, even if this means it would get no GOP votes–a striking result, given the misty-eyed sentiment Americans generally display toward bipartisanship in all its forms.

“Vulnerable congressional Democrats may have individual interests in establishing their moderate bona fides by challenging their party leadership,” argues Chait. “But they have a far stronger collective interest in passing a bill.”
Chait quotes a Wall St. Journal editorial, which says “Democrats know this legislation is … possible only because of temporary liberal majorities,” then counters “…Obama out-polled his opponent by eight-and-a-half million votes, a margin that exceeded Bush’s 2000 popular-vote edge by, oh, roughly nine million votes.”
Chait then asks, “Shouldn’t Obama’s actual election count for more than two low-turnout gubernatorial races? Oh no. The off-year elections prove Obama’s presidency is a fluke.” Chait also quotes WaPo columnist Charles Krauthammer:

2008 was a historical anomaly. A uniquely charismatic candidate was running at a time of deep war weariness, with an intensely unpopular Republican president, against a politically incompetent opponent, amid the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression.,,The return to the norm is happening now.

Chait responds,

Got that? The normal state of affairs is an odd-year, low-turnout election occurring in just two states, which have voted against the incumbent party for the past 20 years, with no national candidates on the ballot, and with double-digit unemployment. That’s a perfectly calibrated measure of public preference on national issues. But Obama’s election was an accident.
…But, if Americans were recoiling at Obama’s liberalism, rather than lashing out at the poor economy, you’d expect to see the Democratic Party losing favor and the GOP regaining it. In fact, the opposite remains true. (A recent poll had the Dems’ favorable rating at 53-41, and the Republicans’ at 36-54.) Given the circumstances, the striking fact about the political landscape is how little has changed since November 2008.
..But 2009 isn’t a debacle, and it won’t be unless Democrats get bluffed into making it one.

All of which adds up to a gratifying example of a conservative organization purchasing space for a propaganda screed in a magazine, which elicits a response in the same magazine that leaves their pitch more discredited than before.

St. Joan of the Tundra Displays Her Wounds

I haven’t read Sarah Palin’s instabook, Going Rogue, just yet, since I don’t want to pay actual money for it and am just now where I can request a review copy from the publisher. I’m not that impressed by its sales numbers, since Ann Coulter is perpetually on the best-seller lists with her latest phoned-in screed. But I will confine my comments about the latest excrusion of Palinmania to what she has been quoted as saying, and what book reviewers of all ideological stripes seem to agree upon.
It seems pretty clear that one purpose of Palin’s book was to settle some scores with the McCain campaign staff, particularly Steve Schmidt, whom she resented for treating her with something less than respect. With few exceptions, of course, Veep candidates, particularly those with no prior relationship with the Top Dog, are typically treated as props and rally-the-base agitators, not real partners in the campaign enterprise, but that probably doesn’t make it feel any better for the candidate herself. More to the point, Palin’s grudge against Schmidt is a bit ungrateful, since most accounts of her surprise selection indicate that he was her primary advocate within the campaign. Without Schmidt, Palin would almost certainly be an obscure lame-duck governor notable mainly as a B-list speaker at right-to-life fundraisers, instead of someone likely to be a national celebrity for many years. But gratitude is a rare quality in politics, particularly for people who may glimpse the Next President of the United States in their bathroom mirror each morning.
Much has been made by Palin fans of her admission that she made mistakes during the last campaign, particularly in the disastrous Couric interview. But what she really confesses is that she lost her cool when Couric hit her with “gotcha” questions. Let’s think about that: the really bad moments for Palin were her inability to answer the questions about her daily reading habits, and about Supreme Court decisions other than Roe v. Wade that she didn’t agree with. The first question was, by any reasonable standard, a softball, not a “gotcha.” It’s not as though Couric asked her to name the president of some central Asian former Soviet Republic; it was instead about a subject on which Sarah Palin is the primary expert. That doesn’t necessarily make Palin an idiot; Ted Kennedy famously waxed incoherent on an equally anodyne question (“Why do you want to be president?”) in an interview with Roger Mudd back in 1979. But she has no grounds for whining or for implying that her only mistake was not to march out of the studio in protest about this terribly unfair question on where she got her news.
Palin’s flubbing of the second so-called “gotcha” question from Couric is in some respects more surprising. She was, after all, the national poster pol of the right-to-life movement, which generally holds that the U.S. Supreme Court has been engaged in a monstrous conspiracy over many years to enable genocide. You’d think the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, which established the current “undue burden” standard for state regulation of abortions, might have come to mind, or maybe the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision (the object of endless mockery by generations of conservatives), which first established a constitutional right to privacy and thus paved the way for Roe. I’m sure some of Palin’s anti-abortion activist fans were shocked at her failure to tick off these cases, which they regard as among the central events of American history.
So Palin’s mea culpa for the Couric interview isn’t all that honest or impressive. And what most stands out about her, from Election Day 2008 to her present book tour, is her penchant for that vice that conservatives used to attribute to liberals: posing as a victim. That’s certainly the quality her most avid supporters identify with. Check out an excerpt of a post from The American Thinker by self-proclaimed “recovering liberal” calling herself Robin of Berkeley, entitled “The Wilding of Sarah Palin,” which treats Palin as a symbolic rape victim. After arguing at inordinate length that “liberal men” are all a pack of vicious misogynists, the writer really goes to town:

Then along came Sarah, and the attacks became particularly heinous. And I realized something even more chilling about the Left. Leftists not only sacrifice and disrespect women, but it’s far worse: many are perpetuators.
The Left’s behavior towards Palin is not politics as usual. By their laser-focus on her body and her sexuality, leftists are defiling her.
They are wilding her. And they do this with the full knowledge and complicity of the White House.
The Left has declared war on Palin because she threatens their existence. Liberals need women dependent and scared so that women, like blacks, will vote Democrat.

Now Robin of Berkeley is a pretty extreme example of the Palin-as-Martyr syndrome, but there’s little doubt that’s the beating heart of her appeal to a large segment of the conservative “base:” the sense that she’s suffering mockery on their behalf from the sneering denizens of Hollywood and the punditocracy, and will (they hope) provide them with their own vengeful vindication. Palin is the ultimate heroine to the kind of conservative who really does believe there’s a “War on Xmas,” that Christians are banned from judicial appointments, that public schools are atheist indoctrination centers, and that pro-choice Americans are consciously, gleefully, genocidal maniacs. It’s interesting that there’s no one remotely like her on the left side of the ideological spectrum, and by that I’m not referring to her casual attitude towards facts and her pretzel logic (there are plenty of inarticulate, semi-educated folk of every persuasion, some in high public office), but rather her constant appeals to the wounded sensibilities of her followers.
It’s become common among Democrats to observe that attacks on Palin simply feed her cult with fresh grievances, and that may be true, but as Robin of Berkeley demonstrates, we’re probably at a point where anything negative that’s left unsaid about Palin will simply be inferred or invented by her fans. This is a fire that will rage on without additional fuel for quite some time, so there’s no real point in ignoring it.
The thing about Palinmaniacs that most amazes me is their conviction that “liberals” are terrified of her, like sinners called to account by a vision of Final Judgment. I’m one “liberal” who wishes her godspeed in her political aspirations and hopes she will run for president in 2012. Her nomination is very unlikely, but if it occurred, it would represent the final descent of the conservative movement into angry and self-pitying delusion, aimed not at capturing political power but simply at smiting its real and imaginary enemies.
As a presidential candidate, she would torment poor, sunny Mike Huckabee, whose political and religious views are as extreme as Palin’s, but who doesn’t offer the requisite spirit of angry vengefulness and almost never engages in collective whines against the terrible mistreatment of upright Americans by their own benighted country. Mitt Romney’s CEO gravitas can’t possibly compete with the multifaceted emotional pull of Palin, the personification of the grassroots conservative activist who views every public policy issue in life or death, us or them, terms. Tim Pawlenty’s plodding and calculated stands for lower taxes or Medical Savings Accounts are thin gruel as opposed to a rival who can display the stigmata of her persecution by the Left. She’s political dynamite within a Republican Party that’s already volatile with anger at the opposition, and at its own leaders’ unwillingness or inability reimpose their traditionalist values and promote via arms their America-only worldview. She’s a threat not so much to Democrats as to Republicans who want political victories more than holy war. And as we are seeing right now, she is not going away.

The Final Four…or Six to Decide Fate of Public Option

Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo has a short, but informative post “The Final Four: Who’s Standing In Reid’s Way, And Can They Be Won Over?” discussing the motives of four senators now stalling enactment of a decent health care reform bill. Beutler dishes on what’s driving Sens. Lieberman, Lincoln, Nelson and Landrieu.
Lieberman, he says is most likely driven by the insurance industry’s formidable clout in his home state, and Beutler also wonders if Lieberman is consciously giving some “cover to his centrist friends,” who would like a more bipartisan final vote to end debate. This last notion seems a little calculated, but it may be part of his gambit. However, there’s no denying the influence of the insurance industry in CT.
Beutler cites Sen. Lincoln’s waffling on the public option — her website and recently-stated postions re the public option are at odds — as symptomatic of her tough re-election campaign. Lincoln, says Beutler, “would like to present her conservative constituents with a scalp to prove she didn’t roll over for the liberals in her party.” Sounds about right. She may also be enjoying the unprecedented media attention, if not the heat.
Sen. Nelson “always prefers the option that liberals in the party don’t…” He feels his cred with constituents depends on his being the maverick Dem on most issues. He wants to show them that his leadership made the reform bill more responsiblle in terms of cost-containment.
Beutler puzzles a bit over Landrieu, who isn’t up for re-election until ’14. She is dealing with a trickier constituency, since the flight of too many Dems from Louisiana since Katrina. I’m thinking she is leveraging her position to get more much-needed aid for her state, as she did on the vote-to-debate. Pretty clever, actually.
Beutler makes mention of Sens. Carper and Snowe, both advocates of a ‘trigger mechanism,’ but he doesn’t say much about exactly what can be done to win the support of any of the six senators in question. Poor Harry Reid is playing a very difficult game of three-dimensional chess, in which concessions to any of the six have to be precisely measured, then weighed against worst and best-case scenarios.
Since Lieberman is out of the picture for any kind of public option, the logic of the political moment points to some kind of trigger-like amendment, or perhaps a private/public hybrid. As a Baltimore Sun editorial puts it, “If the public option survives, it will be watered down like a discount cocktail at a low-rent nightclub.”
If progressive Dems have to eat a weak public option, a much more substantial broadening of eligibility for access to the ‘insurance exchanges,’ as Sen. Wyden has been advocating could sweeten the bitter pill. What is unacceptable is that four, or even six senators be allowed to gut the public option supported by a majority of both houses of congress, with no quid pro quo reflected in the final bill.