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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: April 2010

Freedom, Politics and Government: A Summary of the “Freedom Forum” So Far

For those who have been following the Demos/TDS forum on “Progressive Politics and the Meaning of American Freedom,” and for those just tuning in, I’d like to offer some observations about the discussion as it is unfolding, and about points of convergence and disagreement among our distinguished group of essayists.
John Schwarz’s introductory essay was based on two core convictions: that “freedom” is a very powerful concept in American politics which conservatives have come to “own” and identify with their own “negative liberty” ideology; and that a positive progressive vision of freedom can and must be aggressively articulated just as the Founders, Lincoln, FDR, and–until recently–Barack Obama did.
There’s some disagreement among our essayists about the first argument: that, as Lew Daly puts it, “the meaning of American freedom is being hijacked by the right.” Matt Yglesias argues that the right’s freedom-rhetoric is transparently empty and hypocritical, and is not terribly important to contemporary political battles. The erosion in the faith in government that’s become so prevalent of late is, Yglesias suggests, mainly attributable to the country’s economic problems, and is likely to abate if and when the economy revives. The immediate challege for progressives is to expose the agenda of conservatism “in all its splendor and horror,” and arguments over the true nature of freedom do not necessarily contribute to that task.
Mark Schmitt also doubts debates over “freedom” will have immediate political resonance, but thinks it’s worth talking about for a more fundamental reason:

[E]ven if a liberal claim on the word won’t suddenly make the right shut up and go home, it’s worth thinking about whether a richer language of freedom would give a stronger sense of purpose to liberalism, not just for political reasons, but because we actually care about it.

John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira come at Schwarz’ hypothesis from a different angle: they contend, based on their own research, that robust majorities of Americans actually do embrace a progressive definition of “freedom,” but deeply mistrust government as an effective instrument for pursuing it. It’s this mistrust that progressives need to do something about most urgently:

They must take far more aggressive and sustained steps to defend government itself, despite its currently unpopularity, and make clear to people exactly how government enables individual freedom and the common good.

Will Marshall accepts the political salience of freedom, but argues that to be credible progressives must admit that their goals do involve the balancing of freedom with other values of equal importance to Americans. Instead of “rebranding” freedom in congruence with progressive policy aims, he suggests a pragmatic approach that acknowledges the validity of public concerns about overreaching government and focuses on “expanding opportunity rather than government.”
Hilary Bok weighs in on the side of those who think it’s important and achievable to contest conservative freedom-rhetoric:

[W]hile people’s views of political parties don’t change as quickly as I’d like, they do change eventually. Republicans have already forfeited their reputation for competence and fiscal discipline. I suspect that they are in the process of losing much of the credibility they once had with the military, though I expect this to take a while. If there is any justice in the world, their claim to support liberty will eventually become as obviously risible as their claim to be responsible stewards of the economy. Since I care about liberty, I want to do whatever I can to help this process along.

She also argues that the distinction between “positive” and “negative” concepts of freedom can be misleading, since government action is sometimes essential to enhance freedom generally, even in such simple forms as traffic laws. Beyond that:

[M]any programs that liberals support arguably increase our liberty – our freedom to decide what kind of life we should lead from among a reasonable set of alternatives, and to have a good shot at living a decent life if we are willing to work hard and play by the rules.

Schwarz’ second main theme, which lays out a distinctive progressive vision of freedom, has also attracted some commentary. Yglesias, Marshall and Schmitt all emphasize the importance of certain “negative” freedoms that progressives are far more likely to defend than do conservatives.
Mark Schmitt offers a broader definition of the freedom progressives should fight for, particularly as it relates to issues that go beyond the pocket-book, and argues for “an optimistic, bright vision of human possibility and fulfillment in all dimensions of life–material and non-material,” as opposed to the “narrow, dark vision of freedom from an oppressive government” that conservative so often present.
Will Marshall is more skeptical than other essayists about the political salience of a “positive freedom” agenda that involves expansion of government, and also argues that progressives should reclaim their own legacy of promoting freedom internationally.
All seven essays offer distinctive perspectives from a common starting-point, and provide serious food for thought, not just by professional “thinkers” but by people engaged in practical politics and government who must deal with the consequences of both progressive and conservative freedom-rhetoric.
We anticipate new essays next week from Paul Starr and Orlando Patterson and perhaps others, and will then work towards distilling the discussion to draw out points of consensus.

Beck Says Being Rich Means Being Right

This is probably an indictment of my courage and psychic endurance, but I don’t much watch Fox News, and never watch Glenn Beck when I can help it. But I do understand that the zany dude is a major force in American politics, and do watch videos of his act when it seems necessary and appropriate.
Last night he went even further over the edge than is usual, with a rant about University of Wisconsin academic Joel Rogers (co-author, with TDS co-editor Ruy Teixeira of a 2000 book about the white working class). Rogers, it seems, is Beck’s latest nominee for the evil socialist geninus behind Barack Obama.
But crazy as that seems, the more interesting thing said by Beck had to do with the rather pertinent question of why anyone should believe his utterances in the first place. Here was his response to that self-posed question:

Who owns the network? Rupert Murdoch. Do you know how much money Rupert Murdoch is — you know, he’s got all these things going on. Do you think he will let a guy at 5 o’clock say a bunch of stuff, put this together, that is completely wrong and stay on the network? Do you think he become a billionaire because he’s stupid? No, so that’s not it. Because Fox couldn’t allow me to say things that were wrong.

So, it appears, Glenn Beck is worth trusting because a billionaire like Murdoch is paying him to say what he says, and somebody that successful couldn’t possibly subsidize falsehoods.
This gets right to the heart of Beck’s whole underlying message: rich people have won the genetic and market lottery of life, and shouldn’t be questioned about their views. Glenn Beck is their trusty hired hand, and he will search high and low for the socialist “conspirators” who are trying to undermine this natural state of things.
Don’t know about you, but I intend to draw attention to Beck’s remarkable statement about the infallibility of Rupert Murdoch every time he pops up.

Chickens-For-Checkups and Conservative Hostility to Health Insurance

I suspect lots of you who have never heard of Nevada senatorial candidate Sue Lowden have heard of the “Chickens For Checkups” brouhaha, which has already swept through the late-night comedy circuit and is now endangering Lowden’s front-running campaign to beat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Long story somewhat shorter: at a candidate forum Lowden got to talking about individual negotiations between patients and health care providers as a tool to hold down health costs, and suggested that people without insurance barter with their doctors.
Asked about it on a Nevada TV station, Lowden defended the validity and relevance of bartering for health services, and mentioned the “olden days” when people would pay their doctors with chickens. And then, for reasons that defy imagination, she kept defending her gaffe, and getting other Republicans to defend her gaffe, turning what should have been a one-day story into a major political disaster.
Worse yet, her main rival for the Republican nomination, Danny Tarkanian, is now using her clueless handling of the controversy as a good reason to vote against her. Tark’s campaign is encouraging people to watch a video of Lowden’s latest interview on the subject, which is pretty devastating. She has finally stopped defending poultry-bartering as a good idea, but instead engages in a stammering effort to change the subject while accusing Harry Reid of “trying to change the subject.”
It’s unclear exactly how much damage Lowden has done to herself (a DKos/R2k poll released just yesterday showed her remaining well ahead of Tarkanian and maintaining a small lead over Reid) , but it is clear the gaffe-aganza will haunt her campaign til the primary, and, if she survives it, all the way to November.
Sue Lowden is a casino owner and a former state party chair; she wasn’t born yesterday. It’s entirely possible that some of the hilarity at her expense is based on sexist gender stereotypes, particularly since she is, after all, a former Miss New Jersey and a self-proclaimed advocate for the Miss America Pageant. But in any event, I suspect something else is going on here that has largely escaped notice: poultry metaphors aside, Lowden believes what she says about bartering, reflecting the bedrock conservative conviction that reliance on health insurance, private or public, is what’s driving up health care costs. According to this theory, when people in the “olden days” had to pay for health services out-of-pocket, they were more responsible for taking care of themselves and had a strong incentive to obtain the lowest possible prices. With “third parties” (i.e. insurance providers) handling health care provider payments, these incentives have largely disappeared.
This implicit hostility to the very idea of insurance and risk-spreading is what accounts for the perpetual Republican support for Health Savings Accounts, which provide tax incentives for purchasing health services with saved cash, theoretically limiting the need for insurance to catastrophic ailments. (Indeed, Lowden talked up HSAs in her original “bartering” comments). And it’s also why virtually every major GOP health “reform” proposal (notably those advanced by George W. Bush and John McCain) in recent years has focused on driving people into the individual market for both insurance and health services. They never come out and say it like Lowden did, but the idea is to go back to the “olden days” of the 1950s or earlier when Americans were basically left to their own resources to deal with health problems.
So give Sue Lowden some credit for candor, and more importantly, be prepared to hang the “Chickens-For-Checkups” label on any Republican who talks vaguely about the need for greater “individual responsibility” in health care.

Midterms: Playing the (Middle) Age Card

This item by J.P. Green was first published on April 27, 2010.
WaPo columnist Chris Cillizza’s “Democrats’ young voter problem” in today’s edition of The Fix addresses a challenge facing Democrats regarding an important constituency. Drawing from a Gallup tracking poll, conducted 4/1-25, Cillizza explains:

Less than one in four voters aged 18-29 described themselves as “very enthusiastic” about the 2010 midterm election. Those numbers compare unfavorably to voters between 50 and 64 (44 percent “very enthusiastic”), 65 and older (41 percent “very enthusiastic”) and 30 to 49 (32 percent “very enthusiastic”).

Cillizza argues plausibly enough that this youth “enthusiasm” gap, especially in context of current events, makes it very difficult to recreate the pro-Democratic coalition that elected Obama for the mid-term elections. The concern is that low enthusiasm will translate into low turnout, which is especially worrisome because young voters are tilting Democratic, as the Gallup data indicates:

The Gallup data affirms the clear Democratic tilt of young voters. On a generic congressional ballot test, 51 percent of 18-29 year old vote opted for the Democratic candidate while 39 percent chose the Republican. In every other age group, the generic was either statistically tied or the GOP candidate led. (Republicans’ best age group was voters 65 and older who chose a GOP candidate by a 50 percent to 41 percent margin over a generic Democrat.)

Of course, Democrats would like a strong youth turnout in November. But how important is the youth turnout, compared to other age groups? Here’s an age breakdown of the last (2006) mid-term turnout, according to CNN exit polling:

18-29 12%
30-44 24%
45-59 34%
60+ 29%

Assuming age demographics in 2010 are not terribly different from ’06, it appears that the youth vote will be a relatively small segment, compared to older age groups. Perhaps youth turnout can be increased slightly with a targeted GOTV campaign. But it seems prudent to ask if putting more resources into targeting the 45-59 cohort — almost triple the percentage of young voters in ’06 — might be more cost-effective.
Of course it’s not so easy to craft appeals to arbitrary age groups. But one experience being shared by many in the 45-59 cohort is financing their kids’ college education, as tuition costs continue to rise dramatically. A brand new, well-publicized Democratic plan to provide tuition assistance through beefed up scholarships and tuition tax breaks might do very well with this high mid-term turnout group. And, as a collateral benefit, it could also help with young people who would like to go to college but can’t afford it.
There is nothing parents want more than for their kids to do well, and they know that a good education is the surest ticket to fulfilling that goal. The party that strives to help fulfill this dream will not go unrewarded by middle-aged voters.

The New Prop 187?

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on April 26, 2010.
It’s increasingly clear that Arizona’s new immigration law, signed by Republican governor Jan Brewer last Friday, is going to be a galvinizing force in national, not just state, politics. This will be true whether or not Congress gets serious on comprehensive immigration reform legislation, this year or next.
While conservatives will predictably object that support for draconian measures to reduce illegal immigration–and I’d say instructing police officers to regularly roust anyone deemed “suspicious” for proof of citizenship is pretty draconian–does not indicate hostility to legal immigrants, it is not seem that way by most Hispanic citizens. And you’d think Republicans might have learned their lesson in 1994, when California’s Prop 187–which like Arizona’s bill, purported to affect no one other than undocumented workers–triggered a major backlash against the GOP among Hispanic voters, especially but not just in the Golden State.
The timing of the Arizona action seems almost providential for Democrats, who can now benefit from a similar backlash without taking the lead on controversial national legislation (though they may choose to promote such legislation anyway). And the more Republicans continue to dutifully obey the Almighty Conservative Base on this subject, the more the prospect of a Republican-controlled Congress will begin to seem dangerous to Hispanic voters. Indeed, armed round-ups of brown-skinned Arizonans, to the cheers of Tea Party activists, could be a more potent GOTV force than anything Democrats could themselves devise.

The Florida Circus

This item by Ed Kilgore is crossposted from The New Republic, where it was first published on April 23, 2010.
The first thing you need to understand about Florida’s political climate is that its seemingly endless summer of Boom Times seems to be coming to a close. The vast migration to the state that caused its population to increase over 16 percent since the 2000 census seems to be winding down, and last year, shockingly enough, it actually lost population. The state’s economy is suffering from problems that are deeper than any business cycle: Its 2.7 percent drop in per capita personal income has pushed the state near the bottom of rankings by percent change of personal income data. State government and politics have followed suit, inaugurating a period of unhappy partisan and ideological wrangling with no clear outcome in sight.
Many of the troubles resemble the problems of Florida’s distant political cousins, Arizona and Nevada, both Sunbelt areas with significant retiree populations that have also been hit by an economic triple-whammy of rapidly declining housing values, reduced tourism, and eroded retirement savings. Not surprisingly, all three have developed volatile, toxic political climates this election cycle. (In Nevada, the only politician who is perhaps less popular than the Harry Reid is the Republican governor, Jim Gibbons. In Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, whom you’d expect to be riding high along with the GOP’s national renaissance, is scrambling to the right to survive a primary challenge by a defeated former congressman and radio talk show host, J.D. Hayworth.)
In addition, Florida has certainly suffered from the global economic slump because it is a major magnet for foreign investment. It also shares some of the structural problems of its otherwise very different Southern neighbors, particularly chronic underinvestment in public education. And when it comes to the fiscal and political consequences of a bad economy, Florida is one of just a handful of states with no personal income tax, which has made property-tax rates on steadily decreasing real estate values a red-hot issue (a billion-dollar deal that allowed the Seminole Indian tribe to expand its gambling operations was one of the only things that allowed legislators to balance the latest state budget).
So the question is, what does this mean for Charlie Crist, the erratic and heavily-tanned governor who is throwing the calculations of both major political parties into chaos? And what does it mean for Democrats, whose electoral future continues to depend, in part, on the whims of Florida’s diverse and fickle voters?
One thing is obvious: The situation certainly isn’t helping Charlie Crist win the Republican nomination. Not long ago, the all-around GOP overachiever was on John McCain’s short list for the 2008 vice presidential nomination. (Crist handed the Maverick a crucial endorsement that won him the Florida primary, which clinched the GOP nomination.) At the time, it seemed like relative moderates, such as McCain and Crist, might be the Republican Party’s entree back into the public’s good graces, post-W. Then came Palin, and the Crash, and the Tea Party movement angry about stimulus, bailouts, and (indirectly) unemployment. Crist, whose original sin was to appear with President Barack Obama in February 2009 and say very nice things about the administration’s economic stimulus proposal, looked ever more like the epitome of the Republican In Name Only. (He later claimed that he never “endorsed” the stimulus bill, which convinced just about nobody.)
Still, Crist was enough of a big deal in Republican circles that when he decided to run for Senate, the National Republican Senatorial Committee endorsed him, and few were willing to bet that conservative rival Marco Rubio had much of a chance to beat him. It’s pretty safe to say that Crist has lost ground consistently since he announced his run, as conservatives across Florida and the country have flocked to support Rubio, a Tea Party favorite who’s also something of a protégé of former Governor Jeb Bush.
Crist plotted a deep-pocketed comeback, hoping to drive up Rubio’s negatives by drawing attention to the former Florida House speaker’s involvement in a burgeoning scandal, which revolved around the state Republican Party giving its legislative poohbahs credit cards that they used for lavish non-party-related expenses. But despite hurting Rubio, nothing seemed to boost Crist himself, and rumors began to circulate that he might pull out of the primary and refile as an independent candidate in the general election (which he could still do as late as April 30).
In a deep and growing hole according to every poll of the Senate primary, Crist pretty much blew up his Republican political career by vetoing, on April 15, a bill to institute a controversial “merit pay” system for teachers. (The bill would have phased out teacher tenure and made half the value of annual teacher evaluations strictly dependent on the students’ standardized test scores, an approach that goes far beyond most “pay-for-performance” proposals in other states.) Recently, support for the bill had become something of a Republican litmus test—as well as the source of a holy war between conservatives and teachers’ unions—and the proposal was particularly close to the heart of one Jeb Bush. Crist’s campaign chairman, former Senator Connie Mack, promptly resigned.
Crist probably took the popular position on “merit pay,” which had provoked protests and marches by teachers, students, and parents all over the state. And, as it happened, a new Quinnipiac poll came out the very day of the veto showing Crist running first in a hypothetical three-way race against Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek. So, even as Crist left Floridians hanging right up until the very end on his intentions toward the “merit pay” bill, he may now keep them guessing until April 30 about his current party affiliation.

Enhancing Freedom By Government Action

This item, the seventh in the Demos/TDS forum on “Progressive Politics and the Meaning of American Freedom,” is by Hilary Bok, Luce Professor in Bioethics and Moral and Political Theory at Johns Hopkins University, and author of Freedom and Responsibility.
I agree with Matt Yglesias that it’s a mistake to try to locate a coherent conception of liberty with which the Republican Party is genuinely concerned. We are, after all, talking about a party whose most recent president claimed the right to detain American citizens indefinitely without charges or trial and to disregard duly enacted laws at will; a party which applauds Arizona’s new law allowing the police to ask people to prove their citizenship or face arrest; which tries to use coercive state power to prevent the terminally ill from choosing the manner of their death; which seeks to prevent members of the LGBT community from marrying the people they love; and which regularly courts the votes of people who look back fondly on the days when blacks were second class citizens. No party with this record can be described as supporting liberty.
That said, I differ with Matt on the utility of challenging Republicans’ claims to champion liberty. For one thing, even if this does not in fact change many minds, I’d rather not give up on the possibility that it might change some. For another, while people’s views of political parties don’t change as quickly as I’d like, they do change eventually. Republicans have already forfeited their reputation for competence and fiscal discipline. I suspect that they are in the process of losing much of the credibility they once had with the military, though I expect this to take a while. If there is any justice in the world, their claim to support liberty will eventually become as obviously risible as their claim to be responsible stewards of the economy. Since I care about liberty, I want to do whatever I can to help this process along.
In his introductory essay, John Schwarz suggests that Democrats embrace an ideal of freedom that has less to do with government inaction than with independence and opportunity: with “the right of every person to be able to provide for himself decently by means that are under the individual’s own control.” People are not free just because the government does not directly interfere with their choices. They need to have a decent set of alternatives available to them so that, in Bill Clinton’s words, “if you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to have a decent life and a chance for your children to have a better one.”
If freedom involves having a decent set of alternatives available to us, then government action can enhance our freedom even if it involves restraints on conduct that would not otherwise violate anyone’s rights. Consider traffic laws. Those of us who drive are constantly subjected to government dictates telling us what we can and cannot do. We can only drive on one side of the street. We have to stop at red lights and stop signs even when no one else is around. If freedom means only that government should not tell us what to do, then the traffic laws are a massive intrusion on our liberty.
I suspect that most people don’t see things that way, though. They probably agree with Elizabeth Anderson, from whom I have taken this example:

To be sure, in a state of gridlock, one has the formal freedom to choose any movement in one’s opportunity set — which amounts to being able to rock forward and back a couple of inches from bumper to bumper, getting nowhere. Some freedom!

Normally, the point of driving is to get somewhere. The traffic laws enable us to get where we are going much more quickly and safely than we would if each of us had to decide for him- or herself which side of the street to drive on. The traffic laws do not tell us where to go. They leave the choice of destination, and for that matter the decision whether to drive at all, entirely up to us. They simply tell us which side of the road to drive on, that we should stop at various points, and so forth. By taking away our freedom to drive on the left, or to blast through busy intersections, they grant us much more freedom in the form of a greatly enhanced ability to get wherever we want to go quickly and safely.
Anyone who thinks that the traffic laws enhance our freedom should acknowledge that in some cases, including this one, government action can enhance our freedom, even if that action takes the form of restrictions on what we can and cannot do. An enormous number of questions about which (other) forms of government action might enhance our freedom would remain to be answered, but the fact that some government policy involves either a more active government or new restrictions on our action would not, by itself, imply that it diminishes our freedom.
Will Marshall thinks that such an account of freedom isn’t really freedom at all; that in cases like this, I give up liberty in order to obtain not more liberty, but something else altogether. He quotes Isaiah Berlin:

To avoid glaring inequality or widespread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all, of my freedom: I may do so willingly and freely; but it is freedom that I am giving up for the sake of justice or equality or the love of my fellow men. I should be guilt-stricken, and rightly so, if I were not in some circumstances, ready to make this sacrifice. But a sacrifice is not an increase in what is being sacrificed, namely freedom, however great the moral need or the compensation for it.

If I sacrifice my liberty in order to avoid ‘glaring inequality or widespread misery’, then I am indeed giving up freedom for the sake of something other than liberty itself. But this does not show that there are no cases in which we might sacrifice some liberty in order to achieve more. Note that ‘glaring inequality or widespread misery’ are not states that one would normally be tempted to describe as necessarily involving a loss of freedom at all (assuming that the inequality in question is inequality of wealth or income, and that it does not, for instance, translate into a loss of equal political representation for some.) They involve bad outcomes, not an absence of opportunity. In this respect they differ from the kinds of cases I am interested in. Traffic laws, for instance, leave me free not only to decide whether to travel at all, and if so where to go, but to make stupid choices that prevent me from taking advantage of the opportunity to travel quickly and safely. I can, for instance, decide to ignore the warning lights on the dashboard, or forget to fill up my gas tank; if I do so, the traffic laws will not step in and fix my mistake. They remove impediments to my getting where I want to go in a reasonable period of time, thereby increasing my freedom of action, but they do not compensate for my stupidity.
Similarly, many programs that liberals support arguably increase our liberty – our freedom to decide what kind of life we should lead from among a reasonable set of alternatives, and to have a good shot at living a decent life if we are willing to work hard and play by the rules. Providing all children with a decent education and good health care obviously enhances their freedom, as do lead paint abatement programs. Adopting macroeconomic policies that foster the creation of good jobs enhances the opportunities available to adults. Providing good health insurance for everyone will not prevent us from getting sick, but preventive care might allow us to avoid some illnesses, and might lessen the severity of others by enabling people who become ill to seek treatment promptly without having to ask whether or not they can afford treatment. This would blunt, to some extent, the assault on our freedom that serious illness often involves. And insofar as our ability to make a decent life for ourselves if we are willing to work hard and play by the rules is diminished if we are vulnerable to unforeseen and undeserved catastrophe, the fact that having health insurance means that illness will not bankrupt us enhances our freedom.
Actually justifying these programs by appeal to such a conception of liberty would, of course, involve showing that they do, in fact, have the consequences I have claimed for them, and that whatever costs to liberty they might involve are outweighed by their benefits. But there is no reason to think that no such justification could possibly be offered, or that it could not be based on an appeal to liberty.
Postscript: I agree with John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira that even if we appeal to this conception of freedom, and even if most of the electorate accepts it, Democrats will be unable to translate this into popular support for any actual government program so long as people distrust government. People might be willing to support all sorts of Democratic goals, but so long as they believe that government programs in general are ineffective or corrupt, they will not believe that any actual program will achieve those goals. They might, for instance, agree in principle that it would be better if everyone had decent health insurance, and even that they would be willing to pay for it, but also believe that any health insurance program implemented by our government will involve higher taxes, bloated bureaucracies, and burdensome regulation, but will not actually provide better health insurance for anyone. So long as they believe that, their lack of support for any concrete health care plan should not surprise us.


This item is cross-posted from The New Republic.
Where is it most painful to be a highly visible incumbent politician at this particular moment in U.S. history? Perhaps it’s California, where current economic and budgetary discontents are compounding a growing public fury over chronically dysfunctional state government and an imprisoning constitution. Maybe it’s Florida, that fading Sunbelt powerhouse full of simmering regional and ethnic rivalries, whose perma-tanned governor has struggled to make up his mind which political party he belongs to.
But you couldn’t go far wrong by selecting Nevada, a state that shares Florida’s disastrous economic dependence on real-estate speculation and tourism—Nevada currently sports the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation, 13.4 percent, trailing only Michigan—and the special disappointment of being, for many residents, a Paradise Lost. The state’s own demographic and ideological diversity also rivals Florida’s, home as it is to a rapidly growing Latino population (which made up 15 percent of the electorate in 2008), plenty of extremely conservative Mormons, powerful and politically active labor unions, a libertarian heritage of legalized vice, and a Republican Party moving so quickly to the right that you can barely keep up with it.
Moreover, Nevada’s three top elected officials are currently Harry Reid, John Ensign, and Jim Gibbons. Reid, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate and never terribly popular back home, has looked like a sitting duck for over a year. Ensign, once considered a rising conservative star, has been exposed as a sanctimonious hypocrite over the course of a particularly sordid adultery-and-cronyism scandal, in which a group of mysterious evangelical allies operating out of a compound on C Street in Washington, known variously as The Family or The Fellowship, were caught unsuccessfully trying to clean up his act or cover it up. Gibbons has had his own, somewhat more cartoonish series of sex scandals—although maybe they were just “relationship scandals,” if you buy his claim that he hasn’t had sex since the mid-’90s.
Luckily for him, Ensign is not up for reelection until 2012. Unluckily enough, Harry Reid is up for reelection in 2010, and, seeing as his son, Clark County (Las Vegas) Commission Chairman Rory Reid, is the frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, you’d think that Nevada Republicans would have a straight, clean shot at a sweep that dethrones the Reid dynasty. But it’s hardly that simple, thanks to Byzantine and fractious Republican primaries for both the Senate and the governorship (where Jim Gibbons is still a formidable candidate), the existence of an independent Tea Party ballot line, and the always-important factors of money and organization, where Democrats have a distinct advantage. Just six weeks before Primary Day, you’d have to say that handicapping Nevada’s political races is something of a crapshoot.
Dating all the way back to November 2008, Harry Reid’s “favorable” rating in Nevada polls has been wallowing monotonously in the high 30s and low 40s, deadly territory for an extremely well-known incumbent, and particularly for a national party leader who claims to be able to represent his state’s values and bring home the bacon as well. The difficulty that Republicans have experienced in recruiting a top-tier Senate candidate has newspapers hesitating to dust off obituaries to Reid’s Senate career. But in head-to-head polls with his most likely GOP opponents, Reid has persistently trailed all of them, sometimes by double digits, and almost never gaining much more than 40 percent of the vote.
After striking out in its attempts to recruit a strong candidate such as former Congressman Jon Porter, Republicans have on hand a field of three major candidates: casino owner, former state senator, party chairwoman, and ex-beauty queen Sue Lowden; realtor and famous-basketball-playing-son-of-famous-basketball-coach Danny Tarkanian; and right-wing grassroots favorite Sharron Angle. Until very lately, Lowden looked to be consolidating a strong lead for the nomination. Despite a somewhat moderate image (particularly on social issues), she won endorsements from national conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and benefited from the general impression that she was far and away the most electable of available Republicans.
But then, at a local candidate forum in early April, Lowden touted the idea that individuals should barter for health services as an alternative to Obamacare, making the particular mistake of mentioning the “olden days” practice of trading chickens for doctor visits. After Jay Leno and others started bagging on her for promoting “chickens for checkups,” Lowden made the puzzling decision to defend her statement—repeatedly—instead of brushing it off and moving on. Now the whole meme has gone very viral. There hasn’t been a Senate primary poll since this all happened, but Tarkanian and Angle—and for that matter, Harry Reid—have to be encouraged by all the laughter at Lowden.
Meanwhile, in the governor’s race, the Republicans’ frontrunner, former Attorney General Brian Sandoval, is struggling nearly as much as Lowden. The perpetually unpopular incumbent, Jim Gibbons, is playing every ideological angle to win re-nomination. Falling back on his traditional popularity among hard-core conservatives, Gibbons has boosted his anemic approval ratings by championing legal challenges to the new federal health reform legislation, and is accusing Sandoval—who has taken the supreme risk of refusing demands to take Grover Norquist’s no-tax-increase pledge—of being a moderate squish. Democrats, figuring that Gibbons is a much easier mark, have been running attack ads on Sandoval that echo conservative criticisms.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Should the Democrats Pursue Immigration or Climate Change?

This item, by TDS Co-Editor William Galston, is cross-posted from The New Republic.
Democrats are on the verge of a fateful choice about their agenda between now and the end of the 111th Congress. Whatever its substantive merits, and regardless of how it will be judged once it goes into effect, the health care bill has not gained popular support since its passage, and the Democratic Party has continued to slip in the polls. The key reason, I’d suspect, is that people came to see the health care debate as a long diversion from their central concern—namely, jobs and the economy.
Elementary prudence would seem to dictate that the leadership would quickly pivot to the economy and would sustain that focus through the spring and summer. The small-bore jobs bill was a start, and the far more significant financial reforms will advance the case. But now, the leadership is moving toward, or backing into, months dominated by some combination of immigration and climate change—and of course there will also be a Supreme Court confirmation battle to fight. It is hard to believe that the people will respond favorably.
No doubt strategists on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will point out that intensity is the key to midterm elections and that right now the intensity gap strongly favors the Republicans. The only way to counter-mobilize a somewhat demoralized Democratic base is to target the issues its components care about the most—immigration for Hispanics, climate change for young people—or so the argument runs.
That sounds too clever by half. In the first place, it’s very unlikely that either immigration or climate change legislation will succeed in this congress. If passing health care did not increase public support for Democrats, why will failing to pass immigration reform or climate change legislation work any better?
Second, Democrats seem to assume that they have nothing left to lose—that all the people who will vote against them this November have already made up their minds—so that focusing on non-economic issues dear to the base will be all gain and no pain. Again, I wonder. Might it not reinforce the message that Democrats are out of touch and unwilling to heed the people’s concerns? Over the past nine months, many independents who supported Democrats in 2006 and 2008 have moved away from the party. More could follow.
No doubt Democrats will try to blunt this reaction by emphasizing the connection between jobs and the economy, on the one hand, and immigration and climate change on the other. Substantive as that argument may be, I still don’t think it will work. In times of deep economic concern, average Americans are more likely to see threats than opportunities. Immigration reform and climate change legislation will always be tough, but they’ll be easier to accomplish when the middle class is feeling less anxious.
Granted, in the long term, the politics of immigration will certainly work in favor of the Democrats. Look at California: Republicans have never recovered from the legislation and rhetoric of Pete Wilson’s governorship. In the short term, however, the issue could push in the opposite direction. While the immigration debate of 2006-2007 divided Republicans, it also divided Democrats, and this year the issue will most hurt endangered Democrats in tough districts.
My skepticism about the Democrats’ emerging strategy has nothing to do with the substance of these issues. What’s been made public so far about the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill sounds sensible, and I served as co-convenor of a bipartisan task force that agreed on recommendations for comprehensive immigration reform. I disagree, rather, with the political calculation that seems to be driving this strategy.
Here’s why: 90 percent of the electorate is not Hispanic, and 85 percent is not young. Relatively modest shifts in voter sentiment outside these two groups could easily swamp increased turnout within them and turn all-but-certain Democratic losses into a rout of historic proportions. While the temptation to adopt a strategy of targeted micro-politics is understandable, Democrats should instead espouse a strategy of macro-politics focused on broad-based public concerns. If that means that Senate Democrats will have to choose a new majority leader next January, so be it. At least they’ll still have a majority.

Freedom Is More Than a Frame

This item, the sixth in the Demos/TDS forum on “Progressive Politics and the Meaning of American Freedom,” is by Mark Schmitt, executive editor of The American Prospect.
While I’m often impatient with a progressive conversation about “values,” abstracted from practice (I’ve sat through enough meetings where half the time gets spent filling a whiteboard with lists of our shared values and nothing of actual value gets done) in this case this forum’s long opening essay by John Schwarz gets well beyond the vacuousness common to such exercises, and it will provoke an important conversation with its claim that “mention of freedom has nearly disappeared from the speeches of most Democrats, except when the issue is civil liberties.”
Matthew Yglesias, in the first substantive response in the forum, points out that attempting to reclaim the word “freedom” from the right wouldn’t necessarily have any value in electoral politics, because the right’s use of the word was never meant to be taken literally – it has about as much meaning as “the American Way.” And of course, there is a deep strain of authoritarianism in the Tea Party right – it’s the freedom of states to deny health coverage or welfare, or of parents to spank their kids, that they would protect. But even if a liberal claim on the word won’t suddenly make the right shut up and go home, it’s worth thinking about whether a richer language of freedom would give a stronger sense of purpose to liberalism, not just for political reasons, but because we actually care about it.
Schwarz’s main argument, bolstered by a thorough reading of American political rhetoric with a particular emphasis on Lincoln, is a classic defense of “positive liberty” – the familiar concept that real liberty requires not just the absence of state interference, but a minimum set of goods that get one to the starting line of life – basic sustenance, shelter, education, and, in Schwarz’s proposal, job retraining – to ensure “that satisfactory economic opportunity will be available to every person who is willing to work and act responsibly.” Schwarz calls it “a community of equal liberty,” which he contrasts with “individualistic liberty.” In this sense, the document is of a piece with “communitarian” critiques of rights-based liberalism, such as Michael Sandel’s, which were valuable correctives in the 1990s.
As a political strategy, what this amounts to, then, is mostly reframing by renaming – make basic minimal egalitarianism more politically acceptable by calling it freedom, rather than letting the right call it socialism. That’s accurate, of course, just as the principles and metaphors that stem from it – such as that government should guarantee equality of opportunity but not of result, or the image of an even starting line – are generally agreeable, comfortable aspects of both conservative and liberal rhetoric. But they don’t make political problems or conflicts go away – there’s rarely agreement about where “opportunity” ends and “results” begin, or where in life the “starting line” is found.
It’s also a surprisingly thin vision of freedom, casually setting aside much “individualized freedom” in favor of “mutual obligation and shared sacrifice” and minimal economic equality. Schwarz says that liberals don’t talk about freedom “except when the subject is civil liberties,” but how much falls into that poignant “except”? Freedom of expression, freedom to love who you want to love, freedom from unjust imprisonment, privacy rights, the right to leave an oppressive marriage, the right to worship as you please or not at all– these are “individualistic” forms of freedom, to be sure. (They are also “negative freedoms,” in that they are infinite – everyone can possess them without choices about allocating resources.) But they are absolutely central to any progressive vision of freedom, just as they are to a political party that has built its coalition on individuals whose first claim was to freedom, on waves of immigrants who came to the U.S. seeking freedom and often had to fight for it, and on women’s rights. A robust vision of “freedom” has to build on those individual rights, and show a passion for them, in the manner of the Four Freedoms, not just dismiss them and replace them with a common economic vision.
The real opportunity to take the language of freedom back from the far right is to recognize the distinction between an optimistic, bright vision of human possibility and fulfillment in all dimensions of life – material and non-material – versus the narrow, dark vision of freedom from an oppressive government. The right’s language of “freedom,” in their fight against the modest Obama agenda, is all the dark side – “freedom from” government rather than the Reaganite vision of vast human possibility. The progressive alternative, then, is not a comparable small vision of freedom from economic scarcity and desperation, but a bigger, optimistic vision of what people can achieve – individually and together – when their rights and dignity are protected, and with a base of security that allows them to take risks. (As a text for this vision, consider John Maynard Keynes’ lovely and eccentric 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” which is really not about economic possibilities at all, but the possibility that a future generation might have enough abundance to get beyond the problem of scarcity and “to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
As recently as a few years ago, conservatives tried to draw a contrast with liberalism in which they stood for opportunity while liberalism stood only for security — liberalism was for society’s losers, the people who needed protection, while conservatism was for winners, who took chances and dreamed big. Social Security privatization was their most aggressive bet at putting this contrast into political practice, but it’s failure in 2005 showed that voters were smart enough to understand that a certain measure of security was essential to creating opportunity.
Now the right has fallen back on a cramped, fear-based vision of freedom in which takes refuge in the security of the status quo. However much we dislike what we have, this rationale goes, whatever government offers can only be worse. This fear-based vision of freedom creates an opening for liberals to reclaim a vision of freedom that is not based on blind optimism – hard to sustain at this moment anyway – but a clear vision of economic growth and opportunity for individuals to make the most of their talents and dreams, protected both by rights and by public goods that help everyone, not just the very poor.
Real positive liberty isn’t just a guarantee of a safety net for the poor. My old boss, Senator Bill Bradley, used to quote in almost every speech a line from D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature: “It is never freedom until you find something you positively want to be” – a vision of freedom that’s not just about minimal economic well-being, but about aspiration and purpose. Lawrence may have been as eccentric as Keynes, and neither one is as American as Lincoln, but theirs is the appropriate language for the left in American politics, not just because freedom is a political winner, but because we actually care about it.