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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: June 2010

‘Accountability Project’: New Weapon for Pro-Active Dems

I’m liking the DNC’s just-launched ‘Accountability Project.’ It’s a gutsy idea, creating a video bank of Republican gaffes, which can be tapped for mash-ups by gonzo vj’s. This is another good sign that the Democratic party is shifting gears into more of an attack mode. The idea is not only to capture GOP gaffes, but also to encourage and support the making of political ads/video clips attacking Republicans by anyone who wants to try. Here’s how the Accountability Project explains it’s purpose on its new web page, which already has a few great clips:

For too long, our politics has been poisoned with misinformation, lies and double-speak. The most powerful way to combat these tactics is to drag them into the light of public scrutiny.
The Accountability Project is a volunteer platform to document Republican candidates and their public statements at local events, as well as their campaign tactics. The Accountability Project allows you to submit videos, recordings, and other items for publication online, so that candidates see that there’s a cost to their dishonesty.

Christina Bellantoni of Talking Points Memo explains it this way:

The Democratic National Committee today is launching a new effort to allow citizens on their side “keep track” of Republican candidates on every ballot nationwide, in hopes of a voter capturing a so-called “macaca moment.” The DNC’s latest effort to influence the midterm elections, called the Accountability Project, will act as a database of campaign events and, Democrats hope, every gaffe, goof and outlandish policy position.
The task: take a camera to a political event and “hold Republicans accountable for misleading claims, lies, and unseemly behavior,” the DNC says. The site will allow for uploads but also provide clips for download so voters can make their own mashups or ads.

Up till now, Dems have been a little too casual about documenting and using myriad GOP gaffes and their lamer policy statements — we use stuff that the MSM happened to tape and share, allowing them to be our first line editor. No more. From now on, Dems will more pro-actively seek out Republicans talking and otherwise behaving badly and make them answer for it.
More squeamish Dems may wince at the inevitable comparison to ‘gotcha’ journalism. But we are not talking entrapment set-ups here, of the sort that Republicans roundly applauded when the pimped-out young Republican toppled ACORN with his phony scam and was hailed as a GOP hero. Instead, the Accountability Project will film Republicans in their natural habitat, doing what they do best — paranoid bellowing at tea party demos, groveling at the feet of oil barons, snarling about immigrant workers hired by their contributors etc. Think Trent Lott, George Allen, Rand Paul, Joe Barton and the like tracked by progressive VJ’s. The possibilities are limitless.
Let a thousand YouTubes bloom.

The Ever-Shifting RINO Line

One of the more interesting byproducts of the Tea Party Movement and the ideological battles going on within the Republican Party is that the tolerance of “movement conservatives” for dissent is really reaching a low level. This was made most painfully evident during the recent Utah Senate Primary, when Tim Bridgewater, whose issue positions would have placed him on the far right fringe of the GOP as recently as a couple of years ago, was regularly denounced by supporters of Mike Lee as a RINO, mainly for supporting in the past Republican initiatives that a majority of Republican officeholders also supported.
Now the litmus-testers seem to be training their sights on the GOP’s leadership in the House. Check out the language of this post today from right-wing opinion-leader Erick Erickson of RedState:

Eric Cantor and John Boehner — particularly Eric Cantor — have decided they don’t need or want conservatives and, more troubling, do not have any intention of trying to win at the polls by forcing Democrat hands on Obamacare….
Last week and on Monday I mentioned Rep. Steve King’s effort to repeal Obamacare and start over. He’s filed a discharge petition. If he gets 218 signatures, Nancy Pelosi must hold a vote.
At the time, I was hearing that Eric Cantor was desperate to undermine Steve King’s efforts and, sure enough, he’s trying. Worse, he has John Boehner helping him….
Today, Eric Cantor and John Boehner are announcing that they’ll sign King’s discharge petition, but they’re also going to go with one by Congressman Wally Herger that would repeal Obamacare and replace it with a Republican alternative….
Tea Party activists and others should pay attention here: Eric Cantor and John Boehner are implementing a strategy that makes it look like they are on your side, but are in fact stabbing you in the back.
Cantor and Boehner are spinning this as a good thing. But it is not. It muddies the water and gives Democrats an escape from being forced to take action.
Any Republican who signs on to the Herger discharge petition should be driven from office for betraying the “repeal” cause. This does nothing but provide cover to people who don’t really want to repeal Obamacare, just nibble at the edges.
And should the GOP take back Congress in November, we should remember this betrayal and the lies that go with it.

So a strategic difference of opinion in which Boehner and Cantor, who are slavishly deferential to the conservative movement, chose not to go along with the routinely demented Steve King, becomes a “betrayal” rationalized by “lies” that reveal the two top House GOP leaders as secret allies of the satanic socialists.
Granted, Erickson likes to play the bully-boy and go rhetorically over the top as an intimidation tactic, but this is still pretty amazing stuff. Looks like by November the RINO line will have shifted so far that even Steve King will need to watch his back.

Exploding JournoList Conspiracy Theories

Many people have already made pertinent comments on the insider brouhaha over the resignation of Dave Weigel from the Washington Post for off-the-record comments at a left/center-left listserve called the JournoList. But they mainly focused (see Nate Silver’s post on the subject) on the implications of the incident for prevailing definitions of journalistic (or blogger-journalistic) objectivity. All I’d add on that topic is an objection to the premise that one must be a member of a political community to report fairly and competently on that community, which is an insult to, among others, the long line of conservatives (does anyone remember William F. Buckley?) who have made acute observations about the Left over the years. Personally, I got in the habit of reading Dave Weigel because he was one of the few people writing on the Tea Party phenomenon, particularly in its early days, who didn’t have a tendency to either celebrate it or dismiss it. I didn’t really know or care what his personal ideology happened to be.
But there’s another aspect of the JournoList controversy that needs to be addressed: the prevalent assumption in some conservative circles that it existed in order to coordinate or enforce some sort of ideological or party line among its participants. This premise is the basis of Andew Breitbart’s bizarre offer of a $100,000 bounty to anyone who can turn over the entire archive of the listserve so that he can publish tidbits from it:

Dave Weigel is a portal into the dark world of hardcore liberal bias in the media. This opening gives us a deeper insight into the insidious relationship between liberal think tanks, academics and their mouthpieces in the media.
As we already uncovered in our expose on the “Cry Wolf” project, members of academia and think tanks are actively working to form the narrative used by the press to thwart conservative messages. Like a ventriloquist’s dummy, the reporters on the listserv mimicked the talking points invented and agreed upon by the intellectuals who were invited to the virtual cocktail party that was Klein’s “JournoList.”

As a reasonably active, and not always orthodox liberal, member of the group, I have to say that this whole coordination conspiracy theory about JournoList is dead wrong.
I say “dead wrong” for two reasons: first, anyone looking for a party line does not need to belong to some off-the-record listserve to find it; it’s a whole lot easier to select a reliable opinion-leader for one’s “team” and simply follow it. And second, speaking for myself (and doubtless many others), I consulted JournoList more often than not to make sure I wasn’t being redundant in my own writing. If someone else had said what needed to be said on a given topic, I would generally leave it alone, or at most link to it in passing if I thought it was particularly well-stated. And I think this was true for most JournoList participants, few of whom were, in any event, in the business of distributing talking points to “the troops.”
In any event, JournoList fostered too much disagreement to serve as any sort of “echo chamber,” much less a commissariat, as has been attested by one of its least orthodox members, former TDS managing editor Scott Winship. I can only hope that conservatives (who I gather have a lot more off-the-record listserves than do liberals) have as much diversity in their own private discussions.
So what was the purpose of this “secretive” listserve, if not to influence the ideological direction of journalism and blogging and journo-blogging? I always thought of it as a virtual water-cooler of particular value to people like me who have escaped from Washington but are still trying to make a living writing about politics (a point Matt Yglesias has made). But it worked both ways: I’d like to think that those of us who don’t live in a place where today’s mark-up in Senate Finance is a common lunch-table topic had a salutory effect on residents of the Emerald City who participated in JournoList.
And it’s precisely that horizon-broadening effect that seemed to be Ezra Klein’s main focus in starting the thing to begin with; not so much in terms of geography, but as a way to bring together political writers with subject-matter experts, including social scientists, policy wonks, and also folks with a political speciality. For example, as a confirmed Cracker I was often consulted on southern political topics. And I also had more than one occasion to set the record straight on the history and influence of the Democratic Leadership Council/New Democrat tendency in recent political history, since I spent a long time working for the DLC. Since most political writers have some sort of specialty, everyone’s work benefitted from the opportunity to avoid, or at least reduce, uninformed bloviation.
By definition, it’s impossible to prove conspiracies don’t exist, and it’s understandable that people excluded from a private listserve tend to assume the worst about its membership and purpose. But if it has any impact at all, the demise of JournoList will probably make the DC-based center-left a bit more insular, a lot more paranoid about private communications, and in small but tangible ways, less informed and interesting. Sadly, Ezra’s hope of creating a bipartisan and trans-ideological version of JournoList will likely expire as well, since leaks would be virtually guaranteed. Anyone who thinks “there’s no such thing as off-the-record!” will be pleased. But until such time as we have 24/7 surveillance and brain monitoring of everyone who writes about politics, there will be private opinions and private communications, just in a smaller and truly secretive circle.

How can Democrats combat the “Enthusiasm Gap” that threatens to cause severe Democratic losses this fall? The first step is to ask the right question — why is Republican enthusiasm so high this year rather than why is Democratic enthusiasm so low

This item by James Vega was first published on June 27, 2010.
Almost all the discussions of the “enthusiasm gap” in recent weeks have tended to define the problem as the low level of enthusiasm among Democrats – a perspective that tends to suggest that “disappointment” with Obama is probably the major cause. From this perspective the most direct response would appear to be for Democratic strategists to try to challenge and refute this perception – to argue, in effect, that “Obama is really better than many Democrats seem to think he is”.
But, in fact, Democratic enthusiasm only appears as dramatically low as it does in this non-presidential election year (when turnout is far below election years in any case) because it is being compared with the unusually high level of Republican enthusiasm. This alternate way of viewing the issue leads to a very different set of conclusions about the strategy Democrats should use to combat the problem.
The key fact is that Republicans and conservatives do not see this race as anything like a normal off-year election. Instead, it is for them a decisive battle in a life-or-death existential struggle — a no-holds-barred campaign to bring down Obama and reverse the 2008 election. It is a vision of politics as a bitter ideological and social war and conservatives as an army on the march with a vast overarching objective — to “take back our country” from the forces that have literally stolen it from its rightful owners.
At the heart of the current conservative/Republican coalition is a powerfully energized conservative social movement – one with very strong and widely shared military and paramilitary overtones. This generates a high level of what in military terms is called “morale” – a powerful mixture of passion, commitment, élan, fighting spirit, camaraderie and group cohesion.
Among the core conservative activists themselves this high level of morale has developed in the course of work and collaboration. During the last year and a half friendships were formed, afternoons and weekends were spent working together on projects, successes and failures were shared, all of which built team spirit, optimism and a shared vision of heroic struggle against a uniquely evil, dedicated foe. This energy and enthusiasm was then propagated out into the comment threads of conservative blogs, the discussion groups on Tea Party websites and through e-mail chain letters passed virally among families and social circles. This process has established and disseminated an essentially warlike and combative tone to the 2010 Republican campaign that easily meshes with the similarly combative programming of Fox news and talk radio. The resulting mixture has then been transmitted again and again to a large portion of the Republican electorate.
There is simply nothing comparable to this psychology on the Democratic side. Large numbers of the voters who comprised the Obama coalition in 2008 simply do not see the 2010 elections as a vast do-or-die battle between two contending political armies struggling for control of the country and the future of America. They see it as a conventional off-year election where a patchwork variety of opposing candidates with different philosophies compete for office. As a result they simply do not have the high morale and fighting spirit of conservatives and Republicans. The broad and unifying “yes we can” spirit that was created during the 2008 campaign dissipated soon after the election. The massive Obama for America online organization sharply narrowed its focus to building support for specific elements of Obama’s agenda while other progressives redirected their efforts to promoting specific progressive issues and causes – a focus that frequently brought them into conflict with the administration. Both of these trends substantially diluted and dampened the broad “yes we can” unity and enthusiasm of the 2008 campaign.
The inevitable result was lowered morale, a literal demoralization of the Democratic base that is expressed in three distinct narratives

• That Obama has been a disappointment to his supporters and that not bothering to vote is therefore a logical reaction.
• That the Democratic candidate in a particular district is insufficiently progressive or otherwise unappealing and that not voting for him or her is therefore a reasonable reaction.
• That Washington politics is hopeless and that there is consequently no reason to participate in a useless exercise.

All of these reactions reflect a shared mental model of 2010 as a typical election and not a major and coordinated conservative assault on Democrats in a bitter ideological war. It is this notion of “2010 as just a normal election” that Democratic strategy must first and foremost challenge.

Looking Past Kagan–Way Past

Back in April we published a Strategy Memo suggesting that any Obama Supreme Court appointment would inevitably expose conservative radicalism on constitutional issues. And despite the ho-hum tone of media coverage of the beginning of confirmation hearings on Elena Kagan, that’s exactly what’s happening.
As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reports, the first day of the hearings revealed a strange Republican preoccupation with Kagan’s mentor, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall:

As confirmation hearings opened Monday afternoon, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee took the unusual approach of attacking Kagan because she admired the late justice Thurgood Marshall, for whom she clerked more than two decades ago.
“Justice Marshall’s judicial philosophy,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, “is not what I would consider to be mainstream.” Kyl — the lone member of the panel in shirtsleeves for the big event — was ready for a scrap. Marshall “might be the epitome of a results-oriented judge,” he said.
It was, to say the least, a curious strategy to go after Marshall, the iconic civil rights lawyer who successfully argued Brown vs. Board of Education. Did Republicans think it would help their cause to criticize the first African American on the Supreme Court, a revered figure who has been celebrated with an airport, a postage stamp and a Broadway show? The guy is a saint — literally. Marshall this spring was added to the Episcopal Church’s list of “Holy Women and Holy Men,” which the Episcopal Diocese of New York says “is akin to being granted sainthood.”
With Kagan’s confirmation hearings expected to last most of the week, Republicans may still have time to make cases against Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Gandhi.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the panel, branded Marshall a “well-known activist.” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Marshall’s legal view “does not comport with the proper role of a judge or judicial method.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) pronounced Marshall “a judicial activist” with a “judicial philosophy that concerns me.”
As the Republicans marshaled their anti-Marshall forces, staffers circulated to reporters details of the late justice’s offenses: “Justice Marshall endorsed ‘judicial activism,’ supported abortion rights, and believed the death penalty was unconstitutional.”
The problem with this line of attack is that Marshall was already confirmed by the Senate — in 1967.

Milbank clearly thinks Republicans are just being goofy here, going after Marshall because they have no ammunition against Kagan.
But it’s likely something else is going on: Republicans are blowing major dog whistles to conservatives whose objections to Elena Kagan are actually objections to much of the Supreme Court’s constitutional interpretations since the early New Deal. From that radical point of view, the sainted Thurgood Marshall was one of many villains on the generally villainous Warren Court. Kagan’s connection to him is sufficient evidence to reject her if you happen to think the Constitution should be interpreted literally according to an anti-government “originalist” perspective.
Dana Milbank and others should get over their bored amusement with GOP hijinks and consider the possibility that conservatives are deadly serious in deploring the memory of Thurgood Marshall. It may not matter in terms of Kagan’s confirmation, but could matter a lot if Republicans get a lot stronger in the Senate or retake the White House.

It’s the Frames, Stupid

Michael Tomasky reiterates a painful, but necessary point in his blog at guardian.co.uk. Tomasky quotes from and references tough statements by Theda Skocpol and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, vigorously blasting the Republicans for obstructing economic reforms, in stark contrast to what Tomasky sees as wimpier Democratic statements concerning the need for economic reforms. Then this:

…Democrats in general still tend to think that you win political fights by having superior arguments. This of course is manifestly not true. You win political arguments by framing the question the media decide to take up. That means being aggressive in your framing, creating conflict (which the media love), and making sure that reporters will go to the other side and ask them well, how do you respond to this?
Some significant number of Americans who don’t hate Barack Obama nevertheless think he wants socialism simply because conservatives have spent 18 months saying that Obama (and the Democrats generally) want socialism. They do that, and quite naturally the media write a bunch of stories in which Republicans allege that Democrats want socialism and Democrats say no we don’t. It doesn’t matter how the article reads. The Republicans have already won in the framing.
And this is the particular political skill the Democrats lack completely. By merely saying the Republicans want to wreck the economy so they can benefit at the polls, if they said it enough, would show them winning in the framing. And as I’ve written a couple of times now, the basic question of this election, still not established, is going to be framed in July and August. Time’s a wastin’.

There’s no denying that, with a few exceptions, the Republicans have generally played the MSM more effectively with well-rooted frames. They don’t do it with magic, smoke & mirrors. They do it with message discipline and repetition, techniques available to Democrats who like the taste of victory.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: I’ve Never Seen Israel Like This

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
I visit Israel at least once a year, so I have an opportunity to observe changes in the country’s concerns. Never before have I sensed such a mood of foreboding, which has been triggered by two issues above all–the looming impasse in relations with the United States and a possible military confrontation with Iran.
In response to American pressure that began shortly after President Obama took office, the Netanyahu government agree last November to a temporary and partial freeze on construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which averted an immediate crisis. The freeze expires in September, however, and it will not be renewed. As I write, the central committee of the Likud Party is meeting to consider a resolution supporting renewed construction in all parts of the country. Netanyahu has signaled that he will not oppose the resolution, which its proponents describe as a way of pinning him down and removing all ambiguity about Israel’s future course. The Prime Minister is scheduled to visit the United States in early July and to meet with President Obama. In the face of an Israeli stance that will torpedo the current proximity talks in the fall, what will the president say to him? If Netanyahu leaves Washington without a clear sense of the U.S. stance, he and everyone else will interpret it as a signal that he can stay the course at minimal price.
There are persistent rumors here that the Obama administration hopes to bring down the current Israeli government and replace it with a more tractable coalition. Don’t hold your breath. The potential new coalition member–the Kadima Party headed by Tsipi Livni–will not join unless Netanyahu fundamentally alters his stance in the negotiations with the Palestinian. Headed by Avigdor Lieberman, the hardline forces in the current coalition will not accept Kadima unless it accepts a tough government platform including the transfer of Israeli Arab villages to a new Palestinian state in return for the incorporation of major West Bank settlements into Israel. Netanyahu’s stated position is that he will accept Kadima as an addition to the coalition but not as a replacement for Lieberman and Company. To bring about a new coalition without the hardliners, the Obama administration would have to threaten Israel with measures at least as tough as the ones George H. W. Bush and James Baker implemented two decades ago against the Shamir government, risking a huge domestic political backlash.
Looking farther east, most Israelis–including many who are very dovish vis-a-vis the Palestinians–believe that only military force can prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power in the near future, and they cannot understand why the United States resists this conclusion. According to Ha’aretz, eyewitnesses on the ground support a recent report from the Times of London that Saudi Arabia has agreed to open its airspace to Israeli aircraft “as part of preparations for a possible attack on Iran.” (Israel refused to comment on this report, which the Saudis of course have denied.)
A few months ago I participated in a day-long exercise, organized by the Brookings Institution, simulating the aftermath of a surprise Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The outcome wasn’t pretty–a forceful Iranian attack on American allies throughout the region and a serious rift in relations between Israel and the United States. The Israeli team hoped that the United States would back them with military measures against Iran that the American team refused to initiate.
In both these areas, the Obama administration has been playing for time. But the sand in the hourglass is running down quickly. Some time this fall, an administration headed toward a midterm election with a faltering economy and negative developments in two war zones may confront a genuine Middle East crisis. We can only hope that its contingency plans are in place and that they’re better than BP’s.

Class Conflict Emerges in CA Gov Race Ad War

They’re talking class warfare out in the Golden State, or at least Anthony York is, in his ‘PolitiCal’ blog at the L.A. Times. York spotlights a new ad (see below) from California Working Families entitled “Whitman’s World, which portrays the Republican gubernatorial nominee, not without reason, as a fat-cat jet-setter, who stashes her wealth in an off-shore tax haven. Here’s York’s take:

In the third ad released by California Working Families 2010, the group tries to make the connection between Whitman’s personal penchant for private jets and her economic policies for the state. The ad derisively describes “Whitman’s world,” — a place with “tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, but nothing for the middle class.”

Whitman has net worth in the ballpark of $1.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine. She is said the be the 4th richest woman in CA, coming from a background of “multiple lines of great wealth & great connections,” according to Hannah Bell of Democratic Underground. Here’s the ad:

Guns On Kagan

As Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings begin in the Senate, Republican lawmakers–and even conservative interest groups–are under a lot of pressure to make this relatively non-controversial appointment a right-wing jihad.
The hook, ironically, has been a ruling by the existing Court striking down Chicago’s handgun restriction ordinances on grounds that they violate the Second Amendment.
Here is Lyle Denniston’s bottom-line analysis of the significance of this decision:

Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., in the Court’s main opinion, did make one thing unmistakably clear to lower court judges: the right to have a gun for self-defense in the home is a “fundamental” constitutional right. That one-word label carries enormous import. Ordinarily, if a right is deemed to be fundamental, any law that seeks to limit it will be judged by the stiffest constitutional test there is: it must satisfy “strict scrutiny,” meaning that it will be struck down if the government’s need for it is not “compelling” and if the approach it takes is not the narrowest possible way to get at the problem. Some laws can survive “strict scrutiny,” but not a great many do.

Because the decision makes gun regulation essentially a matter of judicial fiat rather than legislative or executive policy, it has ratcheted up ideological demands that conservatives, and most especially the gun lobby, make judicial appointments, including the Kagan nomination, a litmus test issue. And believe it or not, the NRA is being attacked from the Right for failing to unleash its hounds on Kagan, and earlier, on Sonia Sotomayor. The claim is that the NRA agreed to tame its activists in exchange for an exemption of the organization from the requirements of the proposed “DISCLOSE Act” requiring public information on on campaign finance activities, which conservative firebreathers violently oppose.
What the NRA has to do to rebuild trust with the Right, we are told, is to go medieval on Kagan.
Don’t be surprised if that’s exactly what happens.

RIP Robert Byrd

It’s been a tough year for the Democratic tradition in the U.S. Senate, with the loss of Edward Kennedy and the solidification of the Almighty Filibuster as the real power in the institution. But the death of Sen. Robert Byrd of WV really does turn a lot of pages, while denying the Senate its unrivalled historian and parliamentarian.
Byrd’s tenure alone makes him one of the titans of Senate history: more than a half-century, spanning the administrations of eleven presidents. He was, however, the junior senator from West Virginia until he was 68, and in another reflection of the Senate’s slow pace of change, his career overlapped with only five Democratic leaders–not counting Byrd himself.
When Byrd was first elected to the Senate in 1958, Democrats from his corner of the world were typically hard-core segregations and equally hard-core New Deal economic progressives. He abandoned and apologized for the former habit, but never the latter. The persistent poverty of West Virginia–for much of his career it included some of the very poorest areas of the country–made it one place where politicians never shrank from the full exercise of power on behalf of the home folks, or from celebration of the seniority system that gave Byrd and so many others the clout to serve as equalizers. Byrd became the embodiment of Senate traditions for good reason: they served his constituents well.
He survived wave after wave of efforts in both parties to change the Senate and make it more responsive to national political trends, and might well have survived one or two more had he been born ten years later. He also survived wave after wave of efforts to bend Congress to the will of presidents of both parties, and in that respect was more consistent than most of his colleagues in both parties.
In this era of political turbulence and simmering resentment of professional politicians, it’s unlikely America will ever see another Senator like him. And so in a very real sense a big part of national history will go to the grave with him. His distinctive and authoritative voice will be missed, and may he rest in peace.