washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: July 2010


From the American Journal of Political Science

Constituents’ Responses to Congressional Roll-Call Voting

Stephen Ansolabehere and Philip Edward Jones

July 2010


Do citizens hold their representatives accountable for policy decisions, as commonly assumed in theories of legislative politics? Previous research has failed to yield clear evidence on this question for two reasons: measurement error arising from noncomparable indicators of legislators’ and constituents’ preferences and potential simultaneity between constituents’ beliefs about and approval of their representatives. Two new national surveys address the measurement problem directly by asking respondents how they would vote and how they think their representatives voted on key roll-call votes. Using the actual votes, we can, in turn, construct instrumental variables that correct for simultaneity. We find that the American electorate responds strongly to substantive representation. (1) Nearly all respondents have preferences over important bills before Congress. (2) Most constituents hold beliefs about their legislators’ roll-call votes that reflect both the legislators’ actual behavior and the parties’ policy reputations. (3) Constituents use those beliefs to hold their legislators accountable.

The Electoral Costs of Party Loyalty in Congress

Jamie L. Carson, Gregory Koger, Matthew J. Lebo and Everett Young

July 2010


To what extent is party loyalty a liability for incumbent legislators? Past research on legislative voting and elections suggests that voters punish members who are ideologically “out of step” with their districts. In seeking to move beyond the emphasis in the literature on the effects of ideological extremity on legislative vote share, we examine how partisan loyalty can adversely affect legislators’ electoral fortunes. Specifically, we estimate the effects of each legislator’s party unity–the tendency of a member to vote with his or her party on salient issues that divide the two major parties–on vote margin when running for reelection. Our results suggest that party loyalty on divisive votes can indeed be a liability for incumbent House members. In fact, we find that voters are not punishing elected representatives for being too ideological; they are punishing them for being too partisan.

Party Identification, Issue Attitudes, and the Dynamics of Political Debate

Logan Dancey  and Paul Goren

July 2010


This article investigates whether media coverage of elite debate surrounding an issue moderates the relationship between individual-level partisan identities and issue preferences. We posit that when the news media cover debate among partisan elites on a given issue, citizens update their party identities and issue attitudes. We test this proposition for a quartet of prominent issues debated during the first Clinton term: health care reform, welfare reform, gay rights, and affirmative action. Drawing on data from the Vanderbilt Television News Archives and the 1992-93-94-96 NES panel, we demonstrate that when partisan debate on an important issue receives extensive media coverage, partisanship systematically affects–and is affected by–issue attitudes. When the issue is not being contested, dynamic updating between party ties and issue attitudes ceases.


Public Opinion Polls, Voter Turnout, and Welfare: An Experimental Study

Jens Großer  and Arthur Schram

July 2010


We experimentally study the impact of public opinion poll releases on voter turnout and welfare in a participation game. We find higher overall turnout rates when polls inform the electorate about the levels of support for the candidates than when polls are prohibited. Distinguishing between allied and floating voters, our data show that this increase in turnout is entirely due to floating voters. When polls indicate equal levels of support for the candidates, turnout is high and welfare is low (compared to the situation without polls). In contrast, when polls reveal more unequal levels of support, turnout is lower with than without this information, while the effect of polls on welfare is nonnegative. Finally, many of our results are well predicted by quantal response (logit) equilibrium.


From The British Journal of Political Science

The Political Conditionality of Mass Media Influence: When Do Parties Follow Mass Media Attention?

Christoffer Green-Pedersen and Rune Stubager

July 2010


Claims regarding the power of the mass media in contemporary politics are much more frequent than research actually analysing the influence of mass media on politics. Building upon the notion of issue ownership, this article argues that the capacity of the mass media to influence the respective agendas of political parties is conditioned upon the interests of the political parties. Media attention to an issue generates attention from political parties when the issue is one that political parties have an interest in politicizing in the first place. The argument of the article is supported in a time-series study of mass media influence on the opposition parties’ agenda in Denmark over a twenty-year period.

From The Journal of Politics

Are Governors Responsible for the State Economy? Partisanship, Blame, and Divided Federalism

Adam R. Brown

July 2010


In the United States, voters directly elect dozens of politicians: presidents, governors, legislators, mayors, and so on. How do voters decide which politician to blame for which policy outcomes? Previous research on gubernatorial approval has suggested that voters divide policy blame between governors and the president based on each office’s “functional responsibilities”–requiring that responsibilities are clear cut, which is seldom true. Using data from four surveys, I show that voters actually divide responsibility for economic conditions in a partisan manner, preferring to blame officials from the opposing party when problems arise.


Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Partisanship, Approval, and the Duration of Major Power Democratic Military Interventions

Michael T. Koch and Patricia Sullivan

July 2010


How does the domestic political climate within democratic states affect the duration of their foreign military engagements? To answer this question we combine a rationalist model of war termination with a theory about how partisan politics affects the policy preferences of national leaders to predict the duration of democratic military interventions. Specifically, we examine how changes in a chief executive’s public approval ratings interact with partisanship to affect decisions about the timing of conflict termination. We test our expectations on a set of 47 British, French, and American cases from a new dataset of military interventions by powerful states. Our results suggest that partisanship mediates the effect of public approval on the duration of military operations initiated by powerful democratic countries. As executive approval declines, governments on the right of the political spectrum are inclined to continue to fight, while left-leaning executives become more likely to bring the troops home.

Political Parties, Motivated Reasoning, and Issue Framing Effects

Rune Slothuus and Claes H. de Vreese

July 2010


Issue framing is one of the most important means of elite influence on public opinion. However, we know almost nothing about how citizens respond to frames in what is possibly the most common situation in politics: when frames are sponsored by political parties. Linking theory on motivated reasoning with framing research, we argue not only that citizens should be more likely to follow a frame if it is promoted by “their” party; we expect such biases to be more pronounced on issues at the center of party conflicts and among the more politically aware. Two experiments embedded in a nationally representative survey support these arguments. Our findings revise current knowledge on framing, parties, and public opinion.

Balancing, Generic Polls and Midterm Congressional Elections

Joseph Bafumi, Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien

July 2010


One mystery of U.S. politics is why the president’s party regularly loses congressional seats at midterm. Although presidential coattails and their withdrawal provide a partial explanation, coattails cannot account for the fact that the presidential party typically performs worse than normal at midterm. This paper addresses the midterm vote separate from the presidential year vote, with evidence from generic congressional polls conducted during midterm election years. Polls early in the midterm year project a normal vote result in November. But as the campaign progresses, vote preferences almost always move toward the out party. This shift is not a negative referendum on the president, as midterms do not show a pattern of declining presidential popularity or increasing salience of presidential performance. The shift accords with “balance” theory, where the midterm campaign motivates some to vote against the party of the president in order to achieve policy moderation.


You’ve Either Got It or You Don’t? The Stability of Political Interest over the Life Cycle

Markus Prior

July 2010


Some people are more politically interested than others, but political scientists do not know how stable these differences are and why they occur. This paper examines stability in political interest. Eleven different panel surveys taken in four different countries over 40 years are used to measure stability. Several studies include a much larger number of interview waves–up to 23–than commonly used panels. The analysis empirically characterizes the stability of interest over time using a model that accounts for measurement error and a dynamic panel model. The large number of panel waves makes it possible to relax many restrictive assumptions to ensure robustness. With one exception (Germany reunification), political interest is exceptionally stable in the short run and over long periods of time. Hence, this study provides strong justification for efforts to understand how political interest forms among young people.


Public Opinion and Senate Confirmation of Supreme Court Nominees

Jonathan P. Kastelleca1, Jeffrey R. Laxa2 and Justin H. Phillip

July 2010


Does public opinion influence Supreme Court confirmation politics? We present the first direct evidence that state-level public opinion on whether a particular Supreme Court nominee should be confirmed affects the roll-call votes of senators. Using national polls and applying recent advances in opinion estimation, we produce state-of-the-art estimates of public support for the confirmation of 10 recent Supreme Court nominees in all 50 states. We find that greater home-state public support does significantly and strikingly increase the probability that a senator will vote to approve a nominee, even controlling for other predictors of roll-call voting. These results establish a systematic and powerful link between constituency opinion and voting on Supreme Court nominees. We connect this finding to larger debates on the role of majoritarianism and representation.


Short-Term Communication Effects or Longstanding Dispositions? The Public’s Response to the Financial Crisis of 2008

Neil Malhotra and Yotam Margalit

July 2010


Economic interests and party identification are two key, long-standing factors that shape people’s attitudes on government policy. Recent research has increasingly focused on how short-term communication effects (e.g., issue framing, media priming) also influence public opinion. Rather than posit that political attitudes reflect one source of considerations more than another, we argue that the two interact in a significant and theoretically predictable manner. To explore this claim, we examine the American public’s attitudes towards the government’s response to the financial crisis of 2008. We designed three survey experiments conducted on a large national sample, in which we examine the influence of (1) group-serving biases, (2) goal framing, and (3) threshold sensitivity. We find that economic standing and partisanship moderate the impact of communication effects as a function of their content. Our results demonstrate how people’s sensitivity to peripheral presentational features interacts with more fundamental dispositions in shaping attitudes on complex policy issues.


From Political Science and Politics

U.S. Public Opinion on Torture, 2001-2009

Paul Gronke, Darius Rejali, Dustin Drenguis, James Hicks, Peter Miller and Bryan Nakayama

July 2010


Many journalists and politicians believe that during the Bush administration, a majority of Americans supported torture if they were assured that it would prevent a terrorist attack. As Mark Danner wrote in the April 2009 New York Review of Books, “Polls tend to show that a majority of Americans are willing to support torture only when they are assured that it will ‘thwart a terrorist attack.'” This view was repeated frequently in both left- and right-leaning articles and blogs, as well as in European papers (Sharrock 2008; Judd 2008; Koppelman 2009; Liberation 2008). There was a consensus, in other words, that throughout the years of the Bush administration, public opinion surveys tended to show a pro-torture American majority.


Does an EMILY’s List Endorsement Predict Electoral Success, or Does EMILY Pick the Winners?

Rebecca J. Hannagan, Jamie P. Pimlott and Levente Littvay

July 2010


Women’s political action committees (PACs)–those committees founded by women to raise money for women candidates–have been and will likely continue to be an important part of American electoral politics. In this article, we investigate the impact of EMILY’s List, because it is the standard bearer of women’s PACs and is commonly cited as crucial to women’s electoral success. Empirical studies of EMILY’s List impact to date have largely assumed causal inference by using traditional linear models. We use a propensity score-matching model to leverage on causality and find that an EMILY endorsement helps some candidates and hurts others. Our findings set the stage for further and more nuanced investigations of when, where, and how EMILY’s List can enhance the likelihood of electoral success for women.

Much Ado About Doing Nothing

Anyone interested in making the 2010 (and for that matter, 2012) elections revolve around a comparison of Democratic and Republican plans for dealing with the country’s big challenges should read Ezra Klein’s intereview with Rep. Paul Ryan, published in the Washington Post yesterday.
Ryan, as you may recall, is the principal author of the so-called “Republican Road-Map” document that is an extremely rare GOP outline of an agenda that would be implemented through the federal budget process. That agenda, of course, is focused on tax cuts and spending cuts.
But what makes the interview fascinating is Klein’s eventually successful effort to get Ryan to admit that nothing in his or other Republicans’ plans would involve much of anything designed to deal with the immediate jobs crisis and overall economic slump:

Where I come from, I think certainty and long-term solutions are better. Temporary stuff doesn’t work. These short-term stimulative things like rebates don’t work. They’ll pump up some money in the quarter where they occur. You go right back where you were. These short-term stimuli, which Bush and Obama did, don’t change aggregate demand. And that’s why I think we need more of an investment-led recovery. At this point, given the borrowing costs, stimulus is counterproductive.

Ryan’s ideas for an “investment-led recovery” focus on high-end tax cuts, of course, along with an extraordinary faith in the proposition that a shift to smaller-government policies would provide “certainty” to the private sector and “unlock” capital. If that faith turns out to be misplaced, or takes many years to play out, well, too bad; the really important thing is repealing ObamaCare and the just-enacted financial regulatory package.
Now it’s hardly news when a Republican thinks tax cuts are the answer to every conceivable economic question. But it’s the combination of that dogma with the suddenly-critical demand to reduce federal budget deficits that makes it very difficult for Ryan to pretend Americans can expect anything other than continued high unemployment and sluggish growth under GOP policies. When specifically asked by Klein about the recessionary impact of public-sector layoffs, which directly increase unemployment, Ryan retreated into an argument about the need for state and local governments to deal with “structural deficit” issues. In other words, hundreds of thousands of people need to thrown out of work in order to accomplish a long-range shrinkage of the public sector, which is an end in itself with no relationship to any economic recovery. Ryan also calls for an increase in interest rates, which would impose still more short-term pain.
Now this is especially noteworthy because Ryan is at least willing to essay an intellectually defensible position and connect it to a specific agenda. Many Republicans (including would-be House Speaker John Boehner) have backed away from Ryan’s “Road Map” because they understand it includes politically toxic proposals like another run at partial-privatization of Social Security, and a “voucherization” of Medicare. So your standard-brand conservative fulminating for tax cuts and an immediate balancing of the federal budget relies far more than Ryan on vague and magical thinking about the impact on the economy of Republican rule, and offers even less in the way of steps to deal with the economic problems Americans face right now.
So Ryan’s “thinking” is about as good as it gets in the GOP ranks. Democrats definitely need to make voters impatient for strong action on the jobs crisis abundantly aware that Republicans don’t intend to move a muscle, even as they rush to shower tax benefits on the few Americans who are feeling no pain.

Watch out Democrats: the exposure of the dishonest manipulation of videos shown on Andrew Breitbart’s websites will not moderate conservative attacks. On the contrary, it will intensify the search for new and even more aggressive tactics to employ.

This item by James Vega was originally published on July 28, 2010.
The exposure of the dishonest manipulation of videos first released on Andrew Breitbart’s websites has been widely and properly applauded as a major setback for the hard-right. In the future it is extremely unlikely that the mainstream media will again blindly publicize heavily edited video clips without demanding to see the complete video behind them. Even conservative commentators – who were deeply humiliated by having to publically apologize for having committed legally actionable defamation of character on national TV – will hesitate before trusting Breitbart’s propaganda materials again.
But Democrats should have absolutely no illusions that this setback will lead to any overall moderation of the fierce and bitter attacks that have been directed at Obama and the Democratic Party since last spring. Quite the contrary, Dems should seriously prepare for the possibility that even more intense and dangerous tactics will now be employed.
The reason is that the deliberate editing of video to create a false impression is actually just one specific tactic in a larger arsenal of methods that political extremists believe to be entirely justified. As an April, 2009 TDS strategy memo noted, the defining feature of modern political extremism is the vision of politics as literally a form of “warfare” and political opponents as actual “enemies” who must be crushed. Although many political commentators routinely use these terms as metaphors in writing about political affairs, for political extremists they are seen as entirely literal statements of fact.
From this point of view many tactics that most Americans consider utterly unacceptable and indeed essentially criminal come to be seen as entirely logical measures that are required by the urgent demands of the bitter political “war”. The exposure of any one particular tactic does not challenge this underlying perspective. On the contrary it simply increases the urgency for developing alternative tactics that the evil “enemy” does not yet anticipate.
As a result, Democrats should be seriously prepared for the possibility that they will soon encounter tactics such as the following:
1. Staged events — there is a disturbingly thin line that separates wildly exaggerating the influence of tiny fringe groups like the New Black Panthers – as the conservative media has done in recent weeks – and directly encouraging or financially rewarding fringe groups to engage in offensive or illegal acts that can then be filmed and presented as spontaneous. Covert subsidies to radical fringe groups were employed in the 1960’s to disrupt and discredit Civil Rights demonstrations and in the 1930’s specialized anti-union firms commonly employed undercover agents to masquerade as union supporters and then create violence during strikes in order to provide the justification for sending in state troopers or the National Guard. A chilling echo of this tactic was recently hinted by a professional conservative activist in a Playboy magazine article when he noted that “creating mayhem is not limited to dealing with the press. We’ve quietly acquired Service Employees International Union shirts to wear at tea party rallies…” The potential threat is obvious.
2. Burglary or criminal trespass to obtain documents or other information –this tactic also has a long history, including the famous 1972 Watergate burglary of Democratic Party headquarters by Nixon’s “dirty tricks” squad and the recent abortive attempt of Breitbart’s protégé James McKeefe to install wiretapping devices in the office of La. Sen. Mary Landrieu. Most major foundations and non-profit organizations as well as political candidates and organizations have substantial amounts of information whose privacy they are legally and morally obligated to protect and whose disclosure can substantially cripple their operations. Any such information presents an extremely tempting target.
3. The sabotage, destruction, misuse or theft of valuable political files such as voter contact lists and contributor lists — there are actually three different varieties of this tactic (1) the complete destruction of files (2) the misuse of files (for example, by mailing false messages that provoke discord between political allies) and (3) the subtle corruption of files to render them useless or largely ineffective.
4. Physical intimidation – there is an important distinction between protests that use civil disobedience based on the principles of non-violence and actions that are aimed at physically threatening and intimidating political opponents. In the 1980’s, for example, many anti-abortion protests carefully confined themselves to non-violent methods while other groups clearly planned their protests to physically threaten and terrify both clients and health care workers in the clinics they targeted.

Obama the All-Powerful?

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on July 24, 2010.
One of the more notable examples of the gulf in perceived reality between Left and Right these days is the very different perceptions of the power of Barack Obama. Most Democrats think the president has been hemmed in by the economic and fiscal conditions he inherited and by an opposition party with the will and the means to obstruct his every effort. Some Democrats also think he’s been hemmed in by his own timidity, and/or by the views and interests of his advisors, but nobody much thinks he’s kicking ass and taking names.
Meanwhile, on the Right, while the dominant attitude towards the president remains one of exultant mockery, in anticipation of a big 2010 Republican victory, it seems important to some pols and gabbers to maintain the impression that the president represents an ever-growing threat to American liberties.
This “Fear Factor” is especially present in the bizarre op-ed penned in the Washington Times by former congressman, and perhaps future candidate for Colorado governor, Tom Tancredo, calling for the president’s impeachment.
Now there’s nothing particularly newsworthy about Tancredo seizing the limelight with crazy talk, or even his contention that Obama’s violated his constitutional oath by refusing to immediately launch a nationwide manhunt to identify and deport illegal immigrants by the millions as the openly xenophobic Coloradan would do.
But it’s the paranoid fear of Obama’s totalitarian designs on the nation that stands out in the piece:

Barack Obama is one of the most powerful presidents this nation has seen in generations. He is powerful because he is supported by large majorities in Congress, but, more importantly, because he does not feel constrained by the rule of law….
Mr. Obama’s paramount goal, as he so memorably put it during his campaign in 2008, is to “fundamentally transform America.” He has not proposed improving America – he is intent on changing its most essential character. The words he has chosen to describe his goals are neither the words nor the motivation of just any liberal Democratic politician. This is the utopian, or rather dystopian, reverie of a dedicated Marxist – a dedicated Marxist who lives in the White House.

Aside from illustrating that Tom Tancredo knows absolutely nothing about Marxism, this passage makes you wonder why Tancredo thinks a future Republican Congress could get away with impeachment. Wouldn’t Obama simply suspend the Constitution, round up Republican Members, and then maybe ship them to one of those secret camps that FEMA–or is it AmeriCorps?–is supposedly building?
This is a perpetual problem for hard-core conservatives today, isn’t it? It’s hard to simultaneously maintain that Barack Obama is well on his way to becoming Benito Mussolini, and also that an aroused American people are on the brink of chasing him from office.
A similar contradiction seems to afflict the thinking of another conservative Republican who spoke out this week, Tennessee congressman and gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp, as explained by Hotline‘s Dan Roem:

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-03) suggested TN and other states may have to consider seceding from the union if the federal government does not change its ways regarding mandates.
“I hope that the American people will go to the ballot box in 2010 and 2012 so that states are not forced to consider separation from this government,” said Wamp during an interview with Hotline OnCall.
He lauded Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), who first floated the idea of secession in April ’09, for leading the push-back against health care reform, adding that he hopes the American people “will send people to Washington that will, in 2010 and 2012, strictly adhere” to the constitution’s defined role for the federal government.
“Patriots like Rick Perry have talked about these issues because the federal government is putting us in an untenable position at the state level,” said Wamp, who is competing with Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam (R) and LG Ron Ramsey (R) for the GOP nod in the race to replace TN Gov. Phil Bredesen (D).

In his case, Wamp is floating an extra-constitutional remedy for what he claims to be an extra-constitutional action by the Congress and the Executive Branch. This did not work out too well when Tennessee and other states tried it in 1861, you may recall. But more immediately, what, specifically, is Obama doing that has led Wamp to propose so radical a step? Is he threatening to bombard military facilities in Chattanooga? Is an alleged “unfunded mandate” on the states really equivalent to Kristallnacht or the March on Rome?
Rhetorical excess is one thing; extreme partisanship is still another; but projecting totalitarian powers onto Barack Obama while one is in the very process of seeking to drive him and his party from office is, well, just delusional.

“Big Government’s” Two Problems

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on July 23, 2010.
It’s certainly old news that anti-government sentiments are on the rise these days, and that anti-government rhetoric is at the heart of the Republican Party’s hopes for regaining control of government in November and in 2012.
But as Ron Brownstein explains painstakingly in his latest column, it’s important to unravel these sentiments into their component parts. Trust in government has been fragile even if the best of recent times, and mistrust of government sometimes has to do with perceptions of incompetence, and sometimes with perceptions of its unworthy beneficiaries:

Polls suggest that an energized core of voters — possibly around 40 percent — has ideologically recoiled from Obama’s direction. That threatens Democrats, but their greater problem is that voters open to an activist government in principle are not convinced that it’s producing enough benefits in practice.
Partly, that verdict rests on concerns about effectiveness. Many economists may agree that Washington’s economic initiatives prevented a deeper downturn. But with the economy still sluggish, surveys show that most Americans believe that the medicine simply didn’t work well enough. That judgment compounds doubts about federal competence fed by failures stretching back from the Gulf oil spill to the New Orleans flood. One senior Democrat calls this the “echo of Katrina” problem.
The second worry revolves around government’s priorities. Most voters think that the principal beneficiaries of everything government has done to fix the economy since 2009 have been the same interests that broke it: big banks, Wall Street, the wealthy.

In other words, anti-government sentiments are an amalgam of feelings that can’t be simply attributed to a Tea Party-ish fear of government trampling liberties. More common is the feeling that “big government” might be acceptable if it did a good job, or if it worked on behalf of the interests of a majority of Americans.
The first problem shows that the 1990s-era progressive emphasis on “reinventing government” to focus on tangible results needs to be revived. And the second problem shows that Bill Clinton’s identification with “the forgotten middle class” is another golden oldie we should listen to again.

Phil A. Buster and Democratic Regrets

In an interesting argument over at OpenLeft about the biggest mistake recently made by Democrats, Chris Bowers suggests that fighting Republican efforts to gut the right to filibuster back during the “nuclear option” debate of 2005 had truly fateful consequences:

[N]ot allowing Republicans to destroy the filibuster back in 2005 is the biggest mistake made by not only President Obama, but by the Democratic trifecta as a whole (and, I admit, my biggest mistake too). This would have resulted in a wide swatch of changes, including a larger stimulus, the Employee Free Choice Act, a better health bill (in all likelihood, one with a public option, and completed in December), an actual climate / energy bill, a second stimulus, and more. If Democrats had tacked on other changes to Senate rules that sped up the process, such as doing away with unanimous consent, ending debating time after cloture is achieved on nominations, eliminating the two days between filing for cloture and voting on cloture, and restricting quorum calls, then virtually every judicial and administration vacancy would already be filled, as well.

I agree with the general argument that Democrats who got all nostalgic about Senate traditions in 2005 when Republicans were threatening to eliminate filibusters against judicial nominations were not thinking strategically. In particular, those who cheered the Schoolhouse Rock-inspired “Phil A. Buster” ads run by the progressive Alliance for Justice would now probably cringe at the memory.
But for the record, it’s important to remember what was actually going on in 2005, in the Republican effort to force Senate floor votes on Bush judicial nominations. The GOP argument was not against filibusters tout court, but against judicial filibusters. And their argument was that such filibusters were unconstitutional on grounds that they violated the provisions requiring Senate advice and consent for judicial nominations. Indeed, the “nuclear option” they threatened was simply a ruling by the vice president, as presiding officer of the Senate, that Rule XXII governing the terms for ending debate was unconstitutional with respect to judicial nominations. Ending filibusters altogether was never on the table, barring some see-you-and-raise-you Democratic tactic of offering Bush his judges in exchange for a more radical step towards majority rule in the Senate, which was never seriously contemplated.
Sure, Republicans have had some fun over the last couple of years quoting Democrats who made pro-filibuster comments in 2005, and it’s true that some Democrats didn’t try very hard back then to make the specific case for judicial filibusters (a case that could have been made on grounds that lifetime appointments to the federal bench require greater Senate scrutiny than the routine legislation that Republicans now routinely block, creating a virtual 60-vote requirement for Senate action). But Democrats need not spend too much time regretting the failure to take advantage of an opportunity that never really existed in 2005.

Time for a Day of Message Discipline?

Greg Sargent’s ‘Plum Line’ post, “GOP blocks small business bill. Who will get the blame?” at the WaPo should be required reading for all Dem elected officials, their staffers and campaign workers. Here’s what Sargent has to say about how important legislative votes are too often reported and received:

…No matter how many times Dems scream about GOP obstructionism, the jury is out on whether Republicans will take any of the blame for its consequences. Dems run the place, and the public may tune out any argument over Senate procedure as so much Beltway white noise.
The latest: In the Senate today, Republicans blocked a bill to create a $30 billion fund to enable community banks to boost lending to small businesses. Republicans decried the move as another bailout, and it’s now unlikely that it will pass before Congress goes home for vacation in August, with little in the way of jobs bills under its belt.
So how will this story play?…

I won’t quote the graph from the AP story Sargent provides as exhibit “A.” You’ve seen it before in many previous incarnations. The general gist is that ‘gee wiz, those ineffectual Democrats failed to pass something again,’ giving the Republicans a largely free ride. The rest of the AP story Sargent didn’t quote prattles on in similar vein, at one point attempting to make Mitch McConnell sound like the voice of reason and humanitarian concern. Yet another classic example of lazy, gullible or GOP-biased reportage. As Sargent asks,

…Is this how the story will be understood by the American people? Very possible…Republicans claimed Dems blocked votes on the amendments they wanted. Dems countered that they agreed to votes on the GOP amendments, only to have the GOP demand more votes. Get what’s happening here? The larger story is all getting subsumed in a bunch of Beltway white noise.

Call it the ‘White Noise Strategy.” The GOP has been deploying it with impressive results for decades. Sargent quotes a statement from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, the usual complaint about the Republicans playing politics and how the President will not be distracted — all well and good.
But what’s really needed here is a day of Democratic outrage, making the Republicans eat their numerous statements about small business being ‘the engine of job-creation.’ It should be a day when all Democratic elected officials, from city council members to Obama, get loud on one single message and refuse to talk about anything else. And that message should be fiercely-stated outrage, including displays of raw anger in press conferences, interviews, talk shows and statements, at denying small businesses the help they need to start hiring again. That would be a day that resonates with millions of small business women and men, as well as the unemployed and everyone who has the brains to understand that this is the kind of stimulus that makes sense. Then when October rolls around, remind them again and again about the day of outrage in political ads and a YouTube email campaign.
Small business job-creation is a hugely-important priority for economic recovery. The Republicans have squashed it for now. But there is a choice: Let the white noise prevail again — or get fierce.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: How Americans’ Shifting Political Ideologies Threaten the Democrats

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galson is cross-posted from The New Republic.
In a recent post, Jonathan Chait rightly calls our attention to the Pew survey released July 16 that showed how voters rate political parties’ ideologies. While I agree with Chait’s interpretation of the data he cites, I want to underscore the significance of some other information in the survey–namely, where voters identify themselves in relation to the parties.
On the whole, 58 percent of voters see Democrats as liberal or very liberal, while 56 percent see Republicans as conservative or very conservative; no surprise there. But voters now place themselves much closer to the Republican Party than to the Democratic Party on this left-right continuum. Indeed, the ideological gap between the Democratic Party and the mean voter is about three times as large as the separation between that voter and the Republican Party. And, startlingly, the electorate places itself a bit closer to the Tea Party movement (which is well to the right of the Republican Party) than to the Democratic Party. All this represents a major shift from five years ago, when mean voters placed themselves exactly halfway between their ideological perceptions of the Democratic and Republican parties.
The Pew survey also shows that Democrats are far more ideologically diverse than Republicans. Twenty-four percent of Democrats describe themselves as conservative or very conservative, while only 5 percent of Republicans call themselves liberal or very liberal. Conversely, 65 percent of Republicans think of themselves as conservative or very conservative, while only 42 percent of Democrats self-identify as liberal or very liberal. This helps explain why 83 percent of Republicans see the Democratic Party as more liberal than they themselves are–while only 60 percent of Democrats place the Republican Party to the right of where they place themselves.
Shifts among Independents are especially notable. A Pew survey in June 2005 found that Independents considered the Republican Party to be twice as distant from them ideologically as the Democratic Party. Today, Independents see the Democratic Party as three times farther away than the Republican Party. In 2005, 51 percent of Independents thought that the Republican Party was more conservative than they themselves were, versus only 36 percent who thought that the Democratic Party was more liberal. Today, 56 percent of Independents see the Democratic Party as more liberal than they themselves are, compared to only 39 percent who see the Republican Party as more conservative.
In May 2009, after Obama had taken office and the broad political debate had shifted away from social issues and national security toward the economy and federal regulation, Pew found that Independents had begun to move toward the Republican Party. This month’s survey suggests a continuation of this trend in Obama’s second year.
Three politically relevant conclusions follow from these data. First, Democrats’ greater diversity means that party leaders are bound to have more trouble managing their coalition than the Republicans will theirs. Second, the Independents who helped Democrats score a notable success in the 2006 midterm elections may well do the same for Republicans in 2010.
The third conclusion to be drawn from the poll is that, whether Democrats lose control of the Congress or remain in power with much narrower majorities, Obama’s challenge will resemble the one Bill Clinton faced after 1994–namely, reestablishing his standing among those voters outside of the Democratic base whose support spells the difference between retaining and losing a national majority. I’m not necessarily suggesting that Obama should do that the way Clinton did, by championing small-bore issues–such as school uniforms–designed to send reassuring messages to the electorate. But I am suggesting that he should bring comparable focus and clarity to the task of broadening his appeal beyond his core supporters… and organize his White House to maximize the chances that he can accomplish that task.

Keeping the Record Straight on the Midterm Landscape

At CQ today, Roll Call columnist and election handicapper Stu Rothenberg has a piece today complaining about Democrats who are arguing that it was inevitable all along that they’d have a bad midterm outcome, regardless of the economy or other objective developments.
I’m not sure which “Democrats” Rothenberg’s talking about, since the only person he cites who believes the economy is irrelevant to the midterms is Joe Scarborough.
But while I don’t personally know anyone who thinks the economy isn’t going to be a drag on Democratic performance, in burning down this straw man, Rothenberg goes too far in dismissing structural factors that were going to make 2010 far more difficult for Democrats than 2008 no matter what Barack Obama did or didn’t do.
Since Rothenberg’s entire argument is framed in terms of House seats Democrats are likely to lose, the obvious structural factor to keep in mind is the historic tendency of the party controlling the White House to lose House seats in midterms. Stu acknowledges that, but points out that the level of losses varies (of course it does) and also points to 1998 and 2002 as years the ancient rule of midterm losses didn’t apply. That’s fine, though anyone citing those two years as relevant should probably note that the former year came in the midst of the first impeachment of a president since 1867, while the latter year came after the first attack on the continental United States since 1814. At any rate, while most Democrats early in the Obama presidency hoped the party would overcome the heavy weight of history, few predicted it as likely.
But the second structural factor is one that Rothenberg does not mention at all: the very different demographic composition of midterm versus presidential electorates, which is especially important this year given the high correlation of the 2008 vote with age (at least among white voters), and the heavy shift towards older voters in midterms. As I like to say, this means that Democrats were in trouble for the midterms the very day after the 2008 elections. That doesn’t mean everything that happened since doesn’t matter, by any means, but it does suggest pessimism about 2010 and a corresponding optimism about 2012, when the 2008 turnout patterns are likely to reemerge or even intensify.
Finally, in this kind of discussion of House “gains” and “losses,” it’s important to remember that the entire U.S. House of Representatives is up for reelection every two years. So the position of the two parties nationally is reflected by the absolute results, not which party “gains” or “loses” seats from the prior election. If Democrats hang onto control of the House, it’s a Democratic victory (albeit a much smaller one than in 2008) because they will have won a majority of seats (and presumably a majority of votes for the House nationally), and it’s not a Republican victory but instead a smaller defeat. House gains or losses are relevant to trends, of course, but shouldn’t dictate characterization of specific election results.
In other words, Rothenberg’s effort to anticipate and preempt Democratic spin about the November elections is all well and good, but there a lot of questionable assumptions about this election that need to be examined–most definitely the idea that any significant Republican gains mean the country has fundamentally changed its mind since 2008. That’s a “spin” that Republicans are already avidly promoting every day.

Celebrating Unemployment

It’s hardly news that state and local governments around the country are laying off workers and reducing services in the current economic and fiscal climate. But putting aside services for a moment, the sheer impact of public-sector job layoffs is becoming pretty alarming:

Cash-strapped cities and counties have been cutting jobs to cope with massive budget shortfalls — and that tally could edge up to nearly 500,000 if Congress doesn’t step up to help.
Local governments are looking to eliminate 8.6% of their total full-time equivalent positions by 2012, according to a new survey released Tuesday by the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and United States Conference of Mayors.
“Local governments across the country are now facing the combined impact of decreased tax revenues, a falloff in state and federal aid and increased demand for social services,” the report said. “In this current climate of fiscal distress, local governments are forced to eliminate both jobs and services.”

That’s just local governments, mind you, not the states who are themselves facing major layoffs.
Now many conservatives would celebrate this news on grounds that eliminating some of the parasites who work for government will somehow, someway, free up resources for the private sector. I’ve never understood exactly how that’s supposed to work, but as Matt Yglesias points out, it’s a really bad time to experiment with efforts to counter-act a recession by increasing unemployment:

Conservatives have largely convinced themselves that public servants are such vile and overpaid monsters that anything that forces layoffs is a good thing and the moderates in Congress seem scared of their own shadows so nothing will be done. But economically speaking, the time for local governments to try to trim the fat is when unemployment is low and your laid-off librarian, ambulance driver, or guy who keeps the park clean can get a new job where his or her skills will plausibly be more optimally allocated. But guess what produces less social welfare than driving a bus? Sitting at home being unemployed. And so it goes down the line. Dumping people into a depressed labor market all-but-guarantees an increase in idleness along with a drop in revenue for local retailers that will lead to more idleness and waste.

Higher unemployment is simply bad. Deliberately promoting it is worse.