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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: December 2009

The Y2K Decade

I’m surely not alone in thinking today about New Year’s Eve, 1999, when everyone had at least a small nagging fear, and many people were in abject terror, about the possibility of a technological or even economic meltdown associated with the advent of the third millenium.
In a very real way, the Y2K experience was emblematic of the decade that ensued in the United States, characterized by fear, mistrust, disinformation and a growing awareness of the downside of technology-driven globalization. The word “catastrophe” reintered the vocabulary in a big way, whether the subject was the threat of a “dirty bomb,” climate change, or global economic collapse. The upbeat, almost-triumphalist spirit that sometimes accompanied public life in the late 1990s died a slow, noisy death, and pre-existing discontents with the entire Clintonian “New Democrat” mindset on the progressive Left solidified into demands for a very different party structure and message.
Among progressives, at least, the upbeat spirit re-emerged temporarily in 2008, with momentary hopes that a new and enduring political coalition was finally arriving on the scene. While the demographic trends that nourished these hopes were very real, and aren’t going away, the short-term political landscape is obviously more difficult than many expected.
Conservatives, meanwhile, had a very strange and psychologically volatile, decade in almost every respect. They began it with the failed and folly-filled effort to impeach Bill Clinton and got deviously lucky with the sort-of election of George W. Bush. What ensued was a sustained effort to turn back the clock to the economic and social policies of the 1980s (or earlier), accompanied, of course, by a new Cold War frenzy aimed at a new global enemy. The reigning political strategy of the Republican Party in the ‘aughts was Karl Rove’s base-plus gambit that used aggressive polarization to keep his party’s conservative base happy and energized, along with highly targeted swing voter appeals to married white women, Hispanics and seniors. When this strategy failed decisively prior to the 2006 elections, the GOP took a counter-intuitive but very powerful turn to the right, which accelerated notably during and after the 2009 elections, partly as an effort to disassociate conservatism from the record of the Bush administration.
So here we all are, ten years after the night of Y2K, still in fear and uncertainty about the future and even about the facts of our present existence, and still maintaining a deeply ambivalent attitude towards technology and globalization in their many forms. I sincerely hope it’s the end, not a continuation, of an era.

Reshaping 2016

On a day when it’s customary for the chattering classes to look back over years and decades and discern, or impose, Big Themes, there’s a bit of news that relates to the not-so-immediate future. As Politico reports, a commission set up at the 2008 Democratic National Convention to review the presidential nominating process has decided to recommend that convention “superdelegates” lose their independent voting powers. In other words, they’d still have a ticket to the convention and would still vote, but those votes would be bound by primary and caucus results, just like those of un-superdelegates.
In other words, the Democratic Party’s near-brush with the atavistic specter of a deliberative or “brokered” convention won’t recur barring an actual tie in pledged delegate totals. For those looking forward eagerly to the 2016 presidential cycle, this is an important development.
UDATE: The Change Commission did not really take on the state-controlled nominating system in any serious way. It ratified the two-stage process used in 2008, with IA, NH, NV and SC having the right to go before March 1 (beginning with a “window” on February 1). It also encouraged states to cooperate towards creating regional primaries, while discouraging them from another “super Tuesday.” There’s a decent news story on the recommendations here, from, naturally, Iowa, where the recommendations are being interpreted as a fresh mandate for the state’s first-in-the-nation status.

Should Obama Golf?

Michelle Cottle has a nice holiday diversion post over at The New Republic suggesting that President Obama is embracing the wrong hobby in spending time golfing.
I have to admit I was surprised by the statistics she cited about the decline of interest in golf among Americans over the last decade. With (at least up until the latest bout of local government fiscal crises) public courses now fairly common, and with anecdotal evidence that a significant number of professional women are taking up the game for networking purposes, it’s not clear why the numbers are going down sharply. And while golf remains largely a white folks’ past-time, it’s hardly the preserve of the upper classes anymore (as the pursuit of the game by many of my non-college-educated relatives attests).
As it happens, I personally share Cottle’s old-school populist aversion to golf culture and fashion. I once told an upper-crust acquaintance who asked about my own golf and tennis habits: “I don’t play any of those Republican sports; I bowl.” But then again, I grew up at a time and place where country club membership was largely a prerequisite for hitting golf or tennis balls.
The incongruous thing about this sudden interest in the President’s golf addiction is that it’s happening right in the middle of, well, you know, a certain scandal involving a certain golfer. Maybe America really needs a new half-African-American golfer they can believe in, even if he’s just a duffer.

Abramowitz: Terrorism Incident Has No Effect on Obama Approval Ratings

This item is by TDS Board of Advisors member and contributor Alan Abramowitz, who is Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University.
Five days after the terrorist incident in Detroit, and following five days of conservative efforts to blame the Obama administration for a breach of security, Gallup’s daily tracking poll of the president’s approval rating shows no negative impact at all. Obama’s approval is actually slightly higher than before the incident. That could very well just be random noise but there’s certainly no sign of any public backlash against him so far. My hunch is that all of the speculation about potential damage to Obama and Democrats over this incident will turn out to be erroneous. The reaction of the punditocracy to this situation reminds me a great deal of the reaction to the Jeremiah Wright controversy during the campaign–vastly overblown.

Cheney At War

The last person we needed to hear from concerning the terrorist incident over Detroit was Conservative of the Year Dick Cheney. But naturally, he’s out now with the most obnoxious statement imaginable about the president’s own reaction:

As I’ve watched the events of the last few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if we bring the mastermind of Sept. 11 to New York, give him a lawyer and trial in civilian court, we won’t be at war.
He seems to think if he closes Guantanamo and releases the hard-core Al Qaeda-trained terrorists still there, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if he gets rid of the words, ‘war on terror,’ we won’t be at war. But we are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren’t, it makes us less safe. Why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war? It doesn’t fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn’t fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency — social transformation — the restructuring of American society. President Obama’s first object and his highest responsibility must be to defend us against an enemy that knows we are at war.

Forget for a moment the stupid little slur at the end about “social transformation,” an obligatory nod to the conservative movement’s bizarre suggestion that Barack Obama is in the process of creating a Soviet America of some sort. What’s amazing about Cheney’s statement is his extraordinary assertion, in the absence of any real evidence on the subject at present, that the attempted bombing was some sort of major act of war like 9/11 warranting a major reaction by the nation and its chief executive.
Has it crossed Cheney’s mind, even once, over the last nine years that routine overreaction by U.S. leaders is one of the most cherished goals of al Qaeda and its alllies? Does Cheney understand that conceding the ability of a scattered band of terrorists to completely control the foreign policy of the world’s great superpower, to dominate its news, to panic it into abandoning its own values and legal system, “emboldens” terrorists more than anything else we could do?
Just wondering.

Distinguishing Judicial and Legislative Filibusters

This item is crossposted from The New Republic.
In response to Ezra Klein’s high-profile campaign to encourage an assault on the filibuster, and the invidious development of a de facto 60-vote requirement for passage of legislation in the Senate, the estimable conservative reporter Byron York comes up with a clever but wrong-headed rationalization for past GOP efforts to kill Democratic filibusters against the Bush administration’s judicial nominees. Republicans were not, claims York, endorsing a general end to the right of a minority to obstruct legislation via filibusters:

The argument was that the judicial filibuster undermined the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to give advice and consent on the president’s judicial nominations. When legislation is filibustered, it’s possible for a bill’s sponsors to make changes that will satisfy opponents. But what happens when a nominee is filibustered? No advice and consent. The Constitution does not require the Senate to pass a national health care bill, but it does require it to confirm or deny the president’s appointees.

This is sophistry. For one thing, Democrats blocking judicial nominations were indeed looking for a “deal” that would have changed procedures for selection, appointment and confirmation of federal judges, not just seeking to block action on particular nominees. For another, it’s hardly evident that today’s GOP wielders of the filibuster weapon are looking for “changes that will satisfy opponents;” simple obstruction is the explicit goal of most conservatives fighting health care reform. And beyond that, Republicans are certainly not eschewing procedural roadblocks to Obama’s presidential appointments.
But the biggest problem with York’s analysis of the “judicial filibuster” issue is that he’s forgets we are talking about lifetime appointments to the higher regions of the federal bench. Legislation can be repealed, as Republicans so avidly say they intend to do with health care reform (if it is enacted) at the earliest opportunity. Barring the exceptionally rare resort to impeachment, federal judges are there as long as they wish.
Personally, I dislike judicial filibusters as much as any others, and would happily abolish the filibuster entirely. And there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around when it comes to the “right” of a Senate minority to destroy the ability of the majority to govern. But if anything, the case for the GOP’s social-conservative-driven (and unsuccessful) assault on the judicial filibuster was weaker than the case for killing legislative filibusters today.

Shape of the Real Deal on Health Care Reform

If you’re interested in the broad outlines of what House and Senate conferees will be grappling with in reconciling their health care reform bills, take a look at Paul Waldman’s American Prospect piece on the top ten conference issues.
What’s most interesting about the less-visible but important issues at stake is that several have big implications for the future shape of health care in this country. One is pretty much settled: the bill if enacted will almost definitely put a final stake in the heart of Medicaid’s vast inequalities between states in eligibility (unless, of course, some sort of general state opt-out is authorized). Another is the collateral attack on the employer-based system of private health insurance via the Senate’s excise tax on high-cost plans, and its small opening to Sen. Ron Wyden’s proposal to let some employees covered by particularly bad employer plans to join the new health insurance exchanges. And still another is the principle, all but gutted in the Senate bill but still maintained by the House, that the health care system, beginning with Medicare, should finally begin separating the sheep from the goats in terms of effective and ineffective treatments.
It’s very likely that media coverage and public controversy over the conference will continue to focus on total public costs, new taxes, subsidy levels, the individual mandate, and the ghost of the public option. But in the long run, other deals may represent the real deal on health care reform.

Party-Switching Not That Good For Political Health

In the wake of the recent party-switch by Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama, it’s been sort of assumed that “opportunistic” party-switchers are obviously doing the right thing for their own political futures, if not for their constituents or any conception of duty and honor.
Wondering about that, LaGrange College’s John Tures, writing in Southern Political Report, does a compliation of every party-switch since 1980 by a serving member of Congress. Turns out that of 19 cases, seven lost the very next time they faced voters, sometimes in primaries, sometimes in general elections. Only eight went on to enjoy reasonably successful political careers.
But what struck me most about Tures’ article is how relatively small the number of congressional party-switchers turned out to be over a turbulent thirty year period, even in the South (12 of the 19 party switches), where very large blocs of voters were on the move off and on throughout this era. Perhaps I was misled over the years by the inveterate habit of Republicans in trumpeting every party-switch by some dogcatcher as “Taps” for southern Democrats, but I would have expected the number of Parker Griffiths to be higher. Maybe turning one’s coat isn’t quite the “opportunity” it sometimes seems to be.

Democrats Do Not Need To Become More “Moderate” To Win in 2010: Four Rules For Victory in November

This item by TDS contributor Robert Creamer is crossposted from the Huffington Post. Creamer is a political organizer and strategist, and author of Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win
There is little doubt that over the last several months President Obama’s poll numbers — and those of Democrats generally — have taken a swing for the worse. The president’s job approval numbers have drifted below 50 percent. The popularity of some of his signature initiatives has dropped. Last week, Democratic Congressman Parker Griffith of Alabama announced he was switching parties — presumably in order to enhance his odds of political survival next fall.
These events have given rise to calls that the Democratic agenda needs to become more “moderate” or “centrist” and that this would somehow be more attractive to Independent voters.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
“Moderating” our goals is not a recipe for victory. It is a recipe for failure. Last fall, voters overwhelming voted for change, and they knew then — and still know now — the kind of change they wanted.
They wanted to end the stranglehold of the private insurance companies that continues to put every American a single illness — or one layoff — away from financial catastrophe. They want to take bold, clear action to assure that America is in the forefront of creating the clean energy jobs of the future — and leave a thriving healthy planet to our children. They wanted to fundamentally change the bull-in-the-china shop foreign policy of the Bush years and re-establish American leadership in the world. Most importantly, they rejected the failed economic policies that allowed the recklessness of huge Wall Street banks to plunge the economy into free fall — and cost millions their livelihoods. They desperately want leadership that will lay the foundation for long term, bottom-up, widely shared prosperity.
In other words they wanted… and still want… fundamental change.
No one should be surprised that fundamental change does not come easily. The massive array of forces with vested interests in the status quo will bite, kick, poke out eyes, lie, threaten, bully and do pretty much everything else within their power to stop fundamental change. Frederick Douglass was right: “Power surrenders nothing without a struggle, it never has, it never will.”
That means we might not win everything we want every time we enter the arena of battle. But to be successful in next fall’s elections and increase our odds of long-term victory we must do four things:

The Next Cookie On the Plate

Even before Congress negotiates the still-difficult straits of final action on health care reform, a debate is heating up, not least among Democrats, about whether or not to move on to climate change legislation.
Said legislation has already very narrowly passed the House, albeit in a form that disappointed many progressives to the point of near-disgust. But it’s important to note that there are two very different perspectives among those Democrats urging the administration and the congressional leadership to defer Senate action on climate change to later in 2010, or beyondf.
The first perspective is indeed ideological, but doesn’t neatly follow the moderate/progressive battlelines of the health care debate, despite Politico‘s claim today that “Senate moderates’ are the ones objecting to immediate action on climate change. As is always the case with energy and environmental issues, this is one matter where regional and home-state politics can still trump general ideology or partisanship. It’s no accident that “moderate” Mary Landrieu from the energy-producing state of Louisiana is in the front ranks of those calling for a delay in climate change legislation, or that “moderate” Joe Lieberman from the energy-consuming state of Connecticut, and no friend of the Obama administration or the Democratic Party, is heavily involved in efforts to move a bill. On the positive side of the ledger, this is the rare issue where some Republican votes are potentially gettable, which has been the focus of Sen. John Kerry’s efforts to work with Sen. Lindsey Graham of SC on a nukes-for-climate-change deal.
So a good understanding of each senator’s energy-industry links, or the lack thereof, is as important as ideological lables in predicting his or her behavior on climate change.
But the second go-slow or no-go perspective on climate change has little to do with ideology, and everything to do with political calculations. Like TDS Co-Editor William Galston, some Democrats think it is absolutely essential that the administration be seen in 2010 as obsessively focused on jobs. Yes, it’s possible to sell climate change legislation as a “green jobs” initiative that’s actually essential to long-term economic growth, but so long as we are dealing with double-digit unemployment rates, anything that can be caricatured as elevating the “green” over the “jobs” could be politically very hazardous.
One of the most commonly heard counter-arguments to the political case for putting climate change legislation on the back burner is the observation that this is the sort of initiative that progressives are elected to office to promote, and if they can’t get it done with a Democratic White House and 60 Democratic senators, when will it ever happen?
But in any event, it’s helpful to sort out the various substantive and political arguments on this subject, instead of imposing a cookie cutter based on the fault lines of the health care reform debate.