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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: January 2010

Obama in the Lion’s Den

The President made an appearance at the House Republican Retreat in Baltimore today, and it was quite a show, particularly as he answered pointed questions from several conservative luminaries like House Study Committee chairman Mike Pence, House Budget Committee ranking member Paul Ryan, and House GOP leadership member Marsha Blackburn.
The transcript is here, and a summary from Talking Points Memo along with the video is here.
Much of the exchange involved Obama’s argument that he’s frequently incorporated Republican ideas in the policy proposals that congressional Republicans have uniformly rejected, and House GOP complaints that the president doesn’t take seriously their larger proposals on health care or the economy. On several occasions, Obama gently reminded the audience that he can only take policies seriously if actual experts do, and if they are even theoretically workable. But this didn’t keep House GOPers from brandishing copies of their “plans” as though heft guaranteed substance.
Since Obama and House Republicans are operating from different perceptions of basic reality, and different “facts,” along with different points of view, there was never any likelihood that today’s gabfest would create some new bipartisan breakthrough, even on minor issues. But perhaps it will inhibit Republican elected officials a bit from indulging their base voters and activists in some of their more lurid expressions of hatred and calumny towards the president. And in the meantime, it offered Democrats some nice video clips of Obama more or less running circles around his would-be tormenters with relative ease.

Tea Party Convention Shrinks Some More

The National Tea Party Convention scheduled to rev up next week at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville took another major hit yesterday, as two of the three big headline speakers, Reps. Michele Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn, canceled their appearances, citing possible House Ethics Committee problems with the financing of the event by the for-profit group Tea Party Nation. This development compounds the widespread criticism of the convention by many tea party activists, and the withdrawal of several major sponsors, with most critics condemning the high registration cost to participants and/or the uncertain disposition of convention proceeds.
At present, the Tea Party Convention’s grip on credibility is pretty much down to one finger-hold: keynote speaker Sarah Palin, who, as of yesterday, said she was still planning to join the hoedown in Nashville. Dave Weigel of the Washington Independent posted this excerpt from an interview Palin did with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren:

Oh, you betcha I’m going to be there. I’m going to speak there because there are people traveling from many miles away to hear what that tea party movement is all about and what that message is that should be received by our politicians in Washington. I’m honored to get to be there.
I won’t personally gain from being there. The speaker’s fee will go right back into the cause. I’ll be able to donate it to people and to events, those things that I believe in that will help perpetuate the message, the message being, Government, you have constitutional limits. You better start abiding by them.

Aside from Palin’s presence, the Tea Party Convention still enjoys sponsorship from some pretty heavy right-wing hitters, including Judicial Watch, the American Taxpayers Union, Eagle Forum and Vision America. One Christian Right warhorse, Judge Roy Moore, is still scheduled to speak, though it’s unclear whether another, Rick Scarborough, will show. It will be fascinating to see how conservative media, most notably Tea Party loudspeaker Fox News, covers the event.
The Greater Meaning of the convention’s gradual unraveling is as hard to deduce as its original significance. Some originally pointed to it as the beginning of a third party effort, while others charged it with representing the takeover of the Tea Party Movement by the GOP. Since it can’t be both, it’s obvious that experts differ on this score. It’s entirely possible that the event’s questionable financial structure and high registration fees really are the only beef. From my own past dealings with events involving Members of Congress, I’m sure that Bachmann’s and Blackburn’s Ethics Committee concerns are perfectly legitimate, whatever else may be going on.
The whole thing is becoming a source of embarrassment for both Tea Party activists and their Republican allies, at a time when they supposedly are marching arm in arm towards Washington to rout the godless Socialists and Terrorist Lovers who currently occupy the seats of power.

A Close Look At Those Republican Health Care “Ideas”

So lots of Americans, we are told, really wish the president would reach out to the Republican Party and come up with bipartisan solutions for our nation’s problems. This very day, the president is in fact trudging up to Baltimore to attend a retreat of the House Republican Caucus, an organization devoted to his complete political destruction.
But before anyone gets agitated about “bipartisan solutions” or the failure to achieve them, it’s important to take a look at where Republicans actually are on big controversial issues–like, just to pull one example out of the air, health care policy.
At the New Republic today, Washington & Lee University law professor Timothy Jost gives us a refresher course on GOP health care policy, from AHiPs to interstate insurance sales. He concludes their proposals wouldn’t do a whole lot for the uninsured, the insured, or health care costs and federal spending. But the most important conclusion he reaches is that there simply isn’t a lot of “common ground” on which to build any sort of bipartisan compromise.
The two parties presently come at the issue in fundamentally different ways, with Republicans, in particular, being transfixed by the desire to encourage the purchase of individual health insurance policies, if not individual purchases of health care without insurance.
Maybe the president and House Republicans can find plenty to talk about in Baltimore today. But comparing notes on health reform is probably a waste of time.

Sally Quinn’s History of the Modern Presidency

I finally got around to reading a much-derided Sally Quinn column that appeared in the Washington Post yesterday, and I have to say, you really have to read it to believe it. Indeed, it took me three readings before I was entirely sure it wasn’t some sort of elaborate put-on.
Alas, it’s not. Quinn, a Washington social maven with a spotty journalistic career and a marriage to former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, suggests that the best thing Barack Obama can do for his presidency is to spend more time (along with his family and his top staff) on the Washington social circuit.
To strengthen her argument, she conducts an amazing reinterpretation of the modern presidency to show that presidents who spurned the dinner-and-cocktail-party rituals of the Emerald City have gotten themselves into worlds of trouble. She suggests that Nixon’s and Clinton’s impeachments, Carter’s failure to get re-elected, and George W. Bush’s ultimate political decline all were significantly caused by the disdain they instilled amongst the local social lions (presumably like herself). This self-referential hallucination is bad enough as revisionist history. But that she would claim, and the very serious Post would publish, that at this particular moment in history Barack Obama isn’t spending enough time sucking up to the poohbahs of the hated capital city is bizarre beyond all reality.
The sad thing is that Quinn isn’t completely alone in her weird bubble. Mark Halperin of TIME, co-author of the endlessly discussed 2008 campaign book Game Change, recently wrote that one of Obama’s five biggest mistakes during his first year in office was insufficiently “wooing official Washington:”

[T]he First Couple and their top aides have shown no hankering for the Establishment seal of approval, nor have they accepted the glut of invitations to embassy parties and other tribal rituals of the political class. In the sphere of Washington glitter, the Clintons were clumsy and the Bush team indifferent, but the Obama Administration has turned a cold shoulder, disappointing Beltway salons and newsrooms whose denizens hoped the über-cool newbies would play.

Lord have mercy. Can’t disappoint those “Beltway salons and newsrooms,” can we?
I’ve never cared for the lefty blogospheric habit of referring to the chattering classes of Washington as “the Village,” implying as it does personal knowledge of the motives and characters of a very large and diverse bunch of total strangers. But if there is a Village, Sally Quinn is the mayor, and Halperin is one of her spokesmen.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: WWRD: What Would Reagan Do?

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic. It appeared before the president delivered his State of the Union address.
“The problems we inherited were far worse than most inside and out of government had expected; the recession was deeper that most inside and out of government had predicted. Curing these problems has taken more time and a higher toll than any of us wanted. Unemployment is far too high. Projected federal spending—if government refuses to tighten its own belt—will also be far too high and could weaken and shorten the economic recovery now underway.
“We’re witnessing an upsurge of productivity and impressive evidence that American industry will once again become competitive in markets at home and abroad, ensuring more jobs and better incomes for the nation’s work force. But our confidence must also be tempered by realism and patience. Quick fixes and artificial stimulants repeatedly applied over decades are what brought us the … disorders that we’ve now paid such a heavy price to cure.
“The permanent recovery in employment, production, and investment we seek won’t come in a sharp, short spurt. It’ll build carefully and steadily in the months and years ahead. In the meantime, the challenge of government is to identify the things that we can do now to ease the massive economic transition for the American people.”
A sneak preview of Barack Obama’s forthcoming State of the Union address? Nope. It’s part of the address Ronald Reagan delivered in January 1983, when unemployment stood at 10.8 percent. If today’s Republicans heard these very words coming out of Obama’s mouth, would they applaud him or denounce him? And what if the president were to recommend a comprehensive deficit reduction strategy that included a standby tax increase, contingent on spending cuts? That’s what Reagan, who had already signed a significant tax increase in August 1982, proposed in his address. Was he a RINO?
Yes, Obama needs to focus and clarify his agenda. But Republicans have a responsibility as well—to reconsider their anti-tax theology, to reengage with the governance process, to address the country’s real problems, not just the politics of those problems. If they don’t, they may make some tactical gains this November, but they won’t be selling any durable goods the American people will want to buy. Right now the Republicans are thinking too much about 1994 and not nearly enough about 1996.

Obama Doubles Down

This item is cross-posted from ProgressiveFix.
Many conservatives hoped last night’s State of the Union Address would represent something of a white flag from President Obama. Some progressives hoped for a fiery, “populist” attack on malefactors of great wealth. Others yearned for rhetorical enchantment, a speech that would redefine messy contemporary debates according to some previously unarticulated transcendent logic.
The president did none of those things. He essentially doubled down on the policy course he had already charted, made a serious effort to re-connect it to the original themes of his presidential campaign, and sought to brush back his critics a bit. In purely political terms, the speech seemed designed to halt the panic and infighting in Democratic ranks, kick some sand in the faces of increasingly smug and scornful Republicans, and obtain a fresh hearing from the public for decisions he made at the beginning of last year if not earlier. It was, as virtually every one I spoke to last night spontaneously observed, a very “Clintonian” effort, and not just because it was long and comprehensive. It strongly resembled a couple of those late 1990s Clinton SOTUs organized on the theme of “progress not partisanship,” loaded with data points supporting the sheer reasonableness of the administration agenda and the pettiness of (unnamed) conservative foes.
Substantively, the speech broke little new ground. But while such “concessions” to “conservative ideas” as highlighting business tax cuts in the jobs bill, or making nuclear energy development part of a “clean energy” strategy, were decided on some time ago, they were probably news to many non-beltway listeners.
All in all, Obama used the SOTU as a “teachable moment” to refresh some old but important arguments. And he did that well: his reminder of Bush’s responsibility for most of the budget problems facing the country was deftly done, in the context of accepting responsibility for what’s happened fiscally on his own watch. He rearticulated once again the economic rationale for his health care and climate change initiatives, a connection that was reinforced by the subordinate placement of these subjects in the speech. And he conducted something of a mini-tutorial on the budget, and cleared up most of the misunderstandings created by his staff’s use of the word “freeze” to describe a spending cap.
Perhaps the most surprising thing in the speech was his frontal attack on the five Supreme Court justices sitting a few yards from his podium, about the possible impact of last week’s Citizens United decision liberating corporate political spending. I only wish he could have amplified this section by quoting from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s many hymns of praise for this disturbing opinion as a giant blow for free speech.
And that gets to my only real criticism of this well-planned SOTU: a lot of it was in code. A number of the digs at Republicans were clear to people who watch Washington closely, but not so much to people who don’t. For example, the president was clearly taunting congressional Republicans when he said he’d be glad to consider any ideas they had that met his list of criteria for health care reform. To someone watching who didn’t know how ridiculous contemporary conservative “thinking” on health care has become, this may have sounded less like a criticism than like a decision to reopen the whole issue to many more months of wrangling in Congress, even as he tried to urge congressional Democrats to get the job done and not “run for the hills.”
Yes, the president has to walk a fine line in dealing with public and media perceptions that both parties are equally responsible for “partisanship” and gridlock. But at some point between now and November, he needs to better connect the dots, and explain exactly whose “partisanship” is an obstacle to “progress.”
UPDATE: Nate Silver did an analysis of “buzzwords” in Obama’s speech, comparing it to those of previous presidents at similar junctures in their administrations. Unsurprisingly, Obama’s most resembled those of Bill Clinton.

SOTU Roadmap Includes Health Reform

In her HuffPo post on President Obama’s SOTU, health policy analyst Linda Bergthold explains the President’s health reform strategy going forward, and concludes that he is holding well enough. Bergthold also does a particularly good job of putting reform in context of current public opinion:

…A majority of Americans do want reform. They just don’t know what comprehensive reform means, do not understand what is actually in the bills that passed the Senate and the House, and have been led to believe a number of distortions of the proposed reforms.
A recent Kaiser Tracking Poll, conducted after the Massachusetts special election, revealed that when asked if they supported the current reforms, the public was split on the general question: 41 percent said they did not and 42 percent said they did. However, when asked about specific elements of reform and whether or not if these elements were included in the reform packages they would be more likely to support reform, the public had a very different answer. About two-thirds supported 18 of the key elements in the reform legislation that has already passed the House or the Senate (see 8 of those elements below). So, when details were pointed out about what was actually in the reform legislation, more people supported reform than when they were simply asked a general question about support or opposition.
In another analysis of support for reform vs. awareness of it, only a little over half of the respondents could estimate correctly if the element they liked was actually in the reform plans…And a NBC poll in August, in the heat of the summer Town Halls, found that approval for health reform went up significantly when people learned more about what was actually in the reform packages.

Bergthold presents a revealing chart from the Kaiser poll, indicating some of the most popular specific reform measures, including:

Tax credits to small businesses – 73%
Health insurance exchange – 67%
Won’t change most people’s existing arrangements – 66 %
Guaranteed issue – 63%
Medicaid expansion – 62%
Extend dependent coverage through age 25 – 60%
Help close the Medicare doughnut hole – 60%
Public option – 53%

Bergthold credits the President with listening to “more than the “top lines” and having considered “what those responses really mean in terms of specifics.” Bergthold concludes:

If you believed that Americans had really done their homework, studied the bills in detail and come to the conclusion that they opposed the whole package, then there would be reason to listen to doom and gloom predictions. But so few members of the public have done that homework on their own, as evidenced by the Kaiser poll, that the results of the polls seem misleading if not completely wrong.

Although some believe the President back-burnered health reform by not getting into it until a half hour into his speech, he did put the challenge clearly: “Here’s what I ask of Congress, though: Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.”
President Obama is well-aware, however, that the Republican policy on health reform is “No.,” and his real challenge is unifying the Democratic Party and winning support from swing voters. But he offered no clues as to whether he thought the bill should be repackaged, or if part of it should be passed through budget reconciliation.
The President is the pitchman-in-chief when it comes to passing needed social reforms. He has admitted his failure to fully execute that responsibility and affirmed his commitment to do better. Although his comments about health reform were generally low-key in comparison to other issues, he was right in saying that congress also has to meet the challenge. In addition, somehow, progressive Democrats need to find a way of better educating swing voters about provisions of the health care package.

Could Bungling Wingnut Buggers Steal Show?

Almost slapped myself this morning for an over-long schadenfreude wallow about the wingnut stooges being popped for what appears to be a botched attempt to bug Senator Mary Landrieu’s office. They looked so deliciously stupid standing there in front of the TV cameras, smart asses hoisted by their own petards.
Darksyde reports at Daily Kos that O’Keefe was invited to keynote a fund-raiser for the Salt Lake City GOP on Feb 4, but now GOP Chairman Thomas Wright has told the Salt Lake Tribune: “We’ll be announcing a new speaker shortly.” Even better 31 Republican congressmen had signed on to a resolution honoring O’Keefe for his pimp portrayal in his scam to embarrass ACORN.
As you might expect, Talking Points Memo has the most thorough coverage of the scandal, and if there is more substantial GOP involvement in the bugging attempt, Marshall and company will surely root it out. The shadowy wingnut front groups involvement is being nicely untangled by TPM as you read. I’m sure you’ll be shocked, shocked that Beck, Hannity and O’Reilly, who lavished praise on O’Keefe’s ACORN theatrics, aren’t giving much play to his bust.
Hey, could this be a wingnut plot to deflect coverage from the President’s speech tonight? Nahhh. Nobody could fake that level of incompetence.

Obama’s SOTU Challenge

It’s a big ritual in politics for everyone with access to a camera, microphone or keyboard to “advise” the president on what he should say in each State of the Union address, and then more or less grade him the next day on how well he took said advice.
Since I doubt he’s actually surfing the web looking for speech ideas at this point, I won’t give him advice, but it is worth noting that he’s once again in a spot when a Great Speech would do him a world of good. At TNR, Jonathan Cohn suggests this is Obama’s biggest oratorical challenge since the famous “race speech” of 2008, when his candidacy for president looked to be seriously endangered by the appearance of toxic video snippets from sermons by his long-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Cohn goes on to outline the president’s unhappy situation:

Obama has to deal with impulses that are clearly at odds with one another–like the fact that the voters want more jobs but oppose deficit spending, which just happens to be the most effective way of reducing unemployment. When it comes to talking about the political process, Obama must somehow address the public’s frustration with gridlock and yearning for bipartisan outreach, even though Republican obstructionism has rendered Obama’s efforts at bipartisanship futile.

More immediately, the president has to deal with the likely reaction to whatever he says from conservatives who smell blood and think they have him, at long last, on the ropes, and progressives who are already bristling at his gestures on budget deficits, and/or angry at what they consider his lack of leadership, past and potentially present, on health reform.
Most observers are looking for signs of whether Obama will give short shrift to issues like health reform and climate change, and instead fully “pivot” to an economic message, populist, deficit-hawky, or some of both. Another possibility is that he will make a supreme and long-overdue effort to explain why, in fact, health reform and action on climate change, along with the bank regulations Republicans are sure to oppose, are critical to economic recovery. Maybe he’s already “lost” the public on that proposition, but there’s certainly no venue like the SOTU to make big and relatively complex arguments with a guarantee that he will be watched by many millions.
Cohn points out that in the “race” speech Obama confounded expectations by lifting the discussion from Wright’s comments to a general review of the complexities of racial discord in America. Taking a “higher path” and changing the terms of debate, if he can do that, would represent a significant presidential accomplishment tonight.
The one absolutely essential thing he must do, however much he continues to invite the violently oppositional GOP to cooperate with him, is to make it clear that conservatives do not now represent the “change” Americans voted for in 2008. Even if you think their resistance to Obama’s agenda is righteous, the prescriptions that pass for policy “alternatives” in GOP-land these days tend to fall into two baskets: the unserious and the ludicrous, with very few of them actually having the potential to be popular. You need not tie the GOP to George W. Bush to expose that fact: his Republican successors are rapidly making Bush look like a paragon of reasonableness.
It should be clear by now that an ideal SOTU would not only show some resolution and clarity in the administration’s course of action–along with some measured humility–thus reversing the current semi-panic in Democratic ranks, but would also begin to set the stage for the November elections by reminding Americans that they actually can’t magically wish away the country’s problems, and must instead choose between distinct alternatives. The more he casts light on those alternatives–not looking to the past to “blame Bush,” but to the future where real decisions must be made on a host of big challenges–the better his presidency, however halting its steps and difficult its path, will look. Since a clear majority of Americans still seem to admire this calm and intelligent man, they will give him their careful attention tonight, and perhaps he will again move them.

Straining Tea

As a follow-up to J.P. Green’s post this morning suggesting that the DSCC is trying to split the right from the far right, it’s kind of important to understand that the far right is really feeling its oats these days, particularly in the Tea Party Movement.
But anyone trying to understand the Tea Party phenomenon is constantly injured not to stereotype its participants politically or ideologically. It’s a grassroots movement, we are told, so no one in particular speaks for them. They hate both parties equally, it is said, so you can’t confuse them with conservative Republicans. There are former Obama voters in their ranks, we are told breathlessly.
Well, okay, after reading a long, impressionistic, nonjudgmental “life among the tea party activists” piece in The New Yorker by Ben McGrath, I won’t assume the author (after all, he’s writing for The New Yorker, at the very center of Wall Street/Liberal Enemy Camp, for God’s sake) gets the views of tea party activists accurately or fairly depicted. But it’s pretty clear that there are an awful lot of these folks who can only be described as harboring views considered, until just last year, about 90 degrees to the right of the right wing of the Republican Party. They are independent of the Republican Party only to the extent that they won’t support it fully until it moves further to the right another 90 degrees (which seems to be happening at a brisk pace).
Sure, there are probably all sorts of people in the mix, but here’s my question for them: please read the following passage from McGrath’s piece and tell me how much of this scenario sounds plausible to you:

An online video game, designed recently by libertarians in Brooklyn, called “2011: Obama’s Coup Fails” imagines a scenario in which the Democrats lose seventeen of nineteen seats in the Senate and a hundred and seventy-eight in the House during the midterm elections, prompting the President to dissolve the Constitution and implement an emergency North American People’s Union, with help from Mexico’s Felipe Calderón, Canada’s Stephen Harper, and various civilian defense troops with names like the Black Tigers, the International Service Union Empire, and CORNY, or the Congress of Rejected and Neglected Youth. Lou Dobbs has gone missing, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh turn up dead at a FEMA concentration camp, and you, a lone militiaman in a police state where private gun ownership has been outlawed, are charged with defeating the enemies of patriotism, one county at a time.

If you find yourself nodding your head at much of this stuff, then you are indeed living in a different conceptual world than I am, and I’m afraid I’ll have to stereotype you as a dangerous wingnut. Maybe a nice, patriotic, well-meaning wingnut, but a wingnut nonetheless.