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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: August 2010

Bush Nostalgia

When President Obama speaks from the Oval Office tonight about the final withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, you’d think most Republicans would remain silent, or if not, focus on Afghanistan or even Iran as the locus for a renewed militant U.S. posture.
But no: the general conservative take is that George W. Bush needs praise as the man who made it possible to withdraw more combat troops to Iraq by sending more of them in the first place.
We’ll soon see whether this bizarre the-more-troops-we-send-the-more-we-can-withdraw narrative works.

Westen’s RX for Dem Strategy Course Correction

Drew Westen’s ideas about Democratic strategy are always worth consideration, as are his thoughts from his latest post at HuffPo, “What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November.” Westen provides an extensive and, in places, painful diagnosis of the Dems’ current political predicament, which is worth a read, if only so we don’t repeat some of the more costly miscalculations. Then Dr. Westen offers this prescription:

…Having recently tested messages on economics and jobs, including how to talk about deficits and taxes — widely assumed to be Democrats’ Achilles Heel, particularly now — there is little question that if Democrats and progressives from center to left simply say what they believe in ways that are evocative, values-driven, and speak to people’s worries and anger, many stand a good chance of surviving November, particularly when their opponents have nothing to say other than warmed-over rhetoric about cutting taxes to millionaires and multinationals and fiscal restraint except where it cuts into profits of their campaign contributors. Even the most evocative boilerplate conservative messages fall flat against honest messages that speak to the need to get Americans working again. And on issue after issue, no message is more resonant right now than one that sides with working and middle class Americans and small business owners against special interests, big business, and their lobbyists.

As for specifics, Westen advises:

…It may be too late for the kind of jobs bill we should have seen a year and a half ago, but it isn’t too late for Democrats to go on the offensive against the Republicans — virtually all of them — who opposed extending unemployment insurance to millions of Americans who were thrown out of work by the Republicans’ corporate sponsors. It isn’t too late for Democrats to contrast their support for the highly popular aid to state and local governments that just saved the jobs of hundreds of thousands of teachers, firefighters, and police all over the country with Republicans’ desire to throw them out onto the street. It isn’t too late to make a voting issue out of the bill the Republicans are stalling that would give small businesses a fighting chance in an economy stacked against them, and to make clear that one party stands for small businesses, which create 75 percent of the new jobs in this country, and the other party stands for big businesses that outsource American jobs and offshore their profits to avoid paying their fair share of American taxes. It’s not too late to pass a bill that would limit credit card interest rates to a reasonable percent above the rate at which credit is made available to credit card companies. It’s not too late to pass the first badly need “fix” to the health care reform act to demonstrate to Americans that Democrats mean it when they say this was just the first step, namely a law that stops insurance companies from increasing their premiums by 40 percent while cutting the size of their networks by 50-75 percent, which violates the principles of affordability and choice that were so essential to efforts to sell health care reform to the public. It’s not too late to vow to change the rules of the Senate to prevent the use of the filibuster to give every special interest veto power over every important piece of legislation. It’s not too late to introduce legislation that’s been on hold in both the House and Senate to guarantee fair elections, so that the voice of everyday Americans is heard over the voice of the special interests that finance political campaigns.
On every one of these issues, a strong populist message trounces anything the other side can say. But Democrats need to play offense. They need to take up-or-down votes on bill after bill, including those they expect the other side to block, knowing that every one of those votes has the leverage of a campaign ad behind it. They need to change the narrative from what sounds to the average American like a whiny and impotent one — “the Republicans won’t let us do it” — to a narrative of strength in numbers shared with their constituents. And they need to make every election a choice between two well-articulated approaches to governance — and to offer their articulation of both sides’ positions and values.

Westen’s point about the kind of tone Dems should project resonates especially well at this political moment. Then he gets down to particulars:

…What Democrats have needed to offer the American people is a clear narrative about what and who led our country to the mess in which we find ourselves today and a clear vision of what and who will lead us out…That narrative might have included — and should include today — some key elements: that if the economy is tumbling, it’s the role of leadership and government to stop the free-fall; that if Wall Street is gambling with our financial security, our homes, and our jobs, true leaders do not sit back helplessly and wax eloquent about the free market, they take away the dice; that if the private sector can’t create jobs for people who want to work, then we’ll put Americans back to work rebuilding our roads, bridges, and schools; that if Big Oil is preventing us from competing with China’s wind and solar energy programs, then we’ll eliminate the tax breaks that lead to dysfunctional investments in 19th century fuels and have a public-private partnership with companies that will create the clean, safe fuels of the 21st century and the millions of good American jobs that will follow.
That’s what Democrats stand for. It’s time they said it.

Westen’s challenge may seem ambitious this late in the midterm game, and a couple of readers’ responses after his article argue that he has overstated the Democratic reluctance to attack. There is no question in my mind, however, that our attack could be stronger and more focused along the lines Westen advocates. There is still time to implement some of Westen’s suggestions to good effect — not only for the midterms, but for 2012 and the long haul.

The Ever-Shifting Senate Chessboard

It’s now pretty much established that Republicans have a real chance, albeit still a long shot, of winning control of the U.S. Senate in November. This would require a net gain of ten seats, meaning that (to cite the most common scenario) they’d have to hold all their own seats and then win Democratic seats in PA, DE, AR, IN, IL, WI, CO, NV, CA, and WA. A slightly alternative scenario would give the Republicans 49 or 50 seats, plussed-up by a party-switch from Joe Lieberman and/or Ben Nelson (a complicating variable is the possible election of Charlie Crist in FL as an indie, which could theoretically create some sort of centrist “bloc” that would bargain with both parties for control).
But as the primary season continues, it’s increasingly clear that Republican infighting and upsets could change the chessboard significantly, and risk Republican Senate wins long thought to be certain. It’s already happened in KY, where Rand Paul’s primary victory has made the GOP’s hold on Jim Bunning’s seat tenuous, and in NV, where Sharron Angle’s nomination did wonders for Harry Reid’s previously toasty political standing. The Republican mess in FL is also illustrative; either Rubio or Crist would be heavily favored in a two-way race against Kendrick Meek.
And now all sorts of additional havoc in “safe” GOP states seems possible. In Alaska, election officials today are beginning to count absentee and provisional ballots affecting the extremely close Senate primary battle between incumbent Lisa Murkowski and insurgent Joe Miller, amidst an increasingly bitter atmosphere. Suddenly Democratic nominee Scott McAdams is getting a second look as a potentially viable candidate. His prospects did take a blow when the Libertarian Party decided against offering Murkowski a ballot line if she loses the GOP nomination, but still, the intra-GOP hatefest could make this seat vulnerable.
Elsewhere, the main financier of Miller’s campaign, the Tea Party Express, has decided to go all in to support an equally unlikely candidate, Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who is challenging moderate Mike Castle for the Senate nomination to face Democrat Chris Coons, who’s running an unexpectedly strong race for Joe Biden’s old seat. If, say, Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund decides to back O’Donnell, all bets could be off.
In one of those Republican Senate seats assumed to be in the bag, in NH, Republican establishment candidate Kelly Ayotte may soon be in a dogfight with self-styled “true conservative” Ovide Lamontagne, whose endorsement by the New Hampshire Union-Leader has revived his campaign. Lamontagne is the one Republican candidate in NH who has been trailing Democrat Paul Hodes in general election polls.
Now perhaps Alaska Republicans will more-or-less unite around their ultimate primary winner, and Ayotte and Castle will win their primaries, and Crist will collapse in FL, and then Republicans will sweep all the close Senate races, as occured in “wave” elections like 1980, 1994, 2006 and 2008 (the latter two benefitting Democrats). But the bottom line is that the GOP’s path to control of the Senate is getting more, not less, complicated. Breezy predictions of total victory are colliding with the messy reality that the unprecedented ideological conformity of the Republican Party just isn’t enough for conservatives, and the equally messy reality that actual voters have to choose between actual candidates in individual states.

The Prophet Glenn

Having read in various places that Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” event in Washington turned out to be an apolitical nothing-burger–albeit a bizarre attempt to appropriate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.–I resolved to watch a video of Beck’s entire 56-minute speech.
It was, without a doubt, one of the more vacuous and cliche-ridden speeches I have ever heard, with vague injunctions to the crowd to look to the future, take responsibility, love their children, get right with God, and stand up for their values. It even ended with that most cliched secular popularization of a fine old hymn, the bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace.” If it was, as so many observers suggested, a primarily religious address, it’s likely that the attendees could have heard a better-crafted and more instructive sermon in virtually any of Washington’s houses of worship.
So was it all just a Beck-a-ganza aimed at marketing his “brand” at the expense of any real purpose?
I might have thought so, until the final portion of his speech, when he started talking about “black-robed regiments” of clergy who, in Beck’s typically distorted reading of history, were the vanguard of the American revolution against godless Britain, and now, after more than two centuries of national infidelity, were being remustered by Beck himself as embodied by the clergy sharing his rostrum. They represented, Beck asserted, 180 million Americans, and they were determined to put God back in charge of the country. As Peter Montgomery of AlterNet (via Digby) has shown, the regiments were led by such theocratic warhorses as David Barton, the “Christian Nation” historian who has devoted his career to the destruction of church-state separation.
Beck’s rather frank appeal to theocracy–a non-sectarian theocracy, to be sure, but one that enshrined a “firm reliance on Divine Providence” as involving very clear rules of individual and national behavior–was the real thrust of his address. And in fact, the bland nature of most of his speech ironically reinforced its radical intent. Anyone who shared any sort of commitment to basic moral values, religious piety, or patriotism ought to go along with what people like Glenn Beck and his allies consider the obvious implications of such commitments in politics: a hard-core conservatism recast as a restoration of faith and national honor. Thus his core audience, the true believers who traveled to Washington to participate in this event, and those who watched it live on Fox, were comforted to know that their political preferences were a faithful reflection of the views of Moses, Jesus Christ, the Founders, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
Most readers will probably discern in Beck’s appeal the familiar M.O. of the Christian Right: an effort to divinize a secular political agenda–much of it revolving around the golden calf of absolute private property rights–while anathamizing any opposition as hostile to religion. And that’s why Beck’s game was best revealed not on Saturday, but on Sunday, when he attacked President Obama’s religion as a “perversion:”

During an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” which was filmed after Saturday’s rally, Beck claimed that Obama “is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor-and-victim.”
“People aren’t recognizing his version of Christianity,” Beck added….
“You see, it’s all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation. I don’t know what that is, other than it’s not Muslim, it’s not Christian. It’s a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it,” Beck said.

But Beck is really attacking the idea that anyone can be godly who doesn’t believe God’s Will on this Earth happens to coincide pretty much precisely with the agenda of the right wing of the Republican Party of the United States, circa 2010. All the banalities of his “Restoring Honor” speech depend on identifying piety with his brand of conservatism. And in the effort to set himself up as prophet and pope, he’s in dire danger of setting himself up for a truly biblical fall.
As was illustrated by the strong reaction back in March to his injunctions to Catholics to fight the very idea of “social justice,” Beck is not in the best position to define orthodoxy and heterodoxy in Christian theology. As a Mormon, his own theology is often demonized by conservative evangelical Protestants as a perversion or worse. And in fact, you’d think that anyone associated with an often-persecuted religious minority would be afraid of the power of “black-robed regiments,” and more sympathetic to Barack Obama’s view that doubt about God’s Will on Earth is a distinctively Christian perspective on church and state.
But Beck’s made his choice, seeking to make his radical politics both more acceptable and more militant via identification with the very impulse of religiosity. In adopting the prophetic stance, Glenn Beck is perhaps making a bid to reconcile the Tea Party Movement with the Christian Right (not that they are necessarily two different groups of people), under his leadership. If that’s not what he’s up to, then maybe the “Restoring Honor” rally truly was a nothing-burger, and Beck himself is destined to spend his declining years not as a prophet, but as a late-night infomercial figure promoting motivational materials available at an affordable cost.

TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira: Public Wants More Regulation of Banks and Business

In his latest ‘Public Opinion Snapshot’ at the Center for American Progress website, TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira presents some numbers deregulation-loving conservatives are not going to like. Says Teixeira:

Conservatives love to interpret the current sour public mood as rejection of the government’s role in the economy. In reality, that public sentiment is primarily traceable to the poor economy and has little to do with an embrace of conservative ideological views on government.
…A recent CNN poll asked the public whether it supported or opposed the new financial regulation reform bill, which it explicitly described as increasing “federal regulation over banks, Wall Street investors, and other financial institutions.” The public said it supported the new bill by a strong 58-39 margin.

Asked if they approve or disapprove of government regulation of business in the same poll, respondents said they approved of government regulation of business by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, adds Teixeira.
So much for the myth that a majority of Americans support Republican policies about government regulation of banks and business. As Teixeira puts it, “Conservative claims that the public is embracing their antigovernment ideology should be taken with a grain of salt — in fact, a whole cellar full.”

Crist Caucuses With Himself

Would-be U.S. Senator Charlie Crist of Florida is going to have a very long nine weeks until election day. As the probability of Republican control of the Senate increases from “remote” to “long-shot,” interest in Crist’s partisan alignment is naturally increasing as well, and it’s already clear he can’t just kick the can down the road until November 3, much as he likes to say that he intends to “caucus with the people of Florida.”
During a CNN interview yesterday, the permatanned exile from the Florida GOP was extraordinarily frank in making not only his future party affiliation in the Senate but his views on the issues of the day strictly contingent on determining what it takes to get elected:

“No. 1, this is a moot question unless I win, so I’ve got to work very hard to make sure I achieve the trust and support of my fellow Floridians to continue to be a public servant for them,” Crist said. “I think they know the way I’m going to go: I’m going to go the way that’s best for them, and I sincerely mean that — and that’s very important. I don’t have to say whether I’m going to caucus with the Democrats or Republicans.”

By way of illustration of what he means by “caucusing with the people of Florida,” Crist indicated he opposed the Senate’s health care reform legislation, but would work to “fix it.” I’d bet the farm, if I had one, that Crist’s “independent” stand on this subject can be boiled down to support for the popular elements of health reform (e.g., bans on preexisting condition exclusions), and opposition to the unpopular parts (e.g., cost controls and coverage mandates). To “fix” health reform by deleting the unpopular measures would, of course, create an incoherent mess of a non-system in which health care costs would truly skyrocket for everybody, including the federal government.
In any event, the Florida (and perhaps DC) Democrats who are keeping Crist’s candidacy afloat need to understand that today’s GOP is simply not going to tolerate a Senate Caucus member of truly independent views on anything of major national importance. Perhaps Crist could shake down Mitch McConnell for some personal perks and privileges in exchanging for making him Majority Leader of the Senate, but anyone who remembers the joy with which conservatives greeted the 2009 party switch by Arlen Specter should realize that significant ideological diversity is no longer on the table for Republican senators. If Crist wants to set himself up as some sort of weathervane for public opinion in Florida, or secure significant public spending commitments for his state, his only avenue is to caucus with the far more tolerant Democrats. He might as well be forced to admit that right now, or instead admit that his “independent” status is no more than a ruse to get a second conservative Republican candidate on the ballot this November.

Glen Beck wants to “reclaim” the message of Martin Luther King — mainly from Martin Luther King himself. The attempt would be merely pathetic if it were not also vile. Here’s how to respond.

It is difficult not to contemptuously dismiss Glen Beck’s attempt to co-opt Martin Luther King into a supporter of right-wing conservatism as just one more piece of evidence for his lurid concoction of delusional megalomania, clinical paranoia and boundless self-pity. But, unfortunately, many Americans too young to remember the 60’s only know three or four sentences from King’s “I have a dream” speech and can therefore easily be cynically manipulated into believing virtually any nonsense imaginable about King’s outlook and philosophy.
But what did King actually think about the right-wing conservatives like Glen Beck of his own era? Well, for a start, here, taken from chapter 23 of his autobiography is what Martin Luther King said about Barry Goldwater during the 1964 election:

It was both unfortunate and disastrous that the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater as its candidate for President of the United States.
In foreign policy Mr. Goldwater advocated a narrow nationalism, a crippling isolationism, and a trigger-happy attitude that could plunge the whole world into the dark abyss of annihilation.
On social and economic issues, Mr. Goldwater represented an unrealistic conservatism that was totally out of touch with the realities of the twentieth century. The issue of poverty compelled the attention of all citizens of our country. Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated.
On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand.
In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.
While I had followed a policy of not endorsing political candidates, I felt that the prospect of Senator Goldwater being President of the United States so threatened the health, morality, and survival of our nation, that I could not in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represented.

If there was ever a fine opportunity for progressives to make Glen Beck’s followers stop and think for a moment, it would be to upload this quote to every Tea Party discussion site in the U.S. and watch them try to figure out a way to reconcile the absurd mass of contradictions into which Beck’s cynical distortion of history has plunged them.
Martin Luther King’s philosophy — easily available in his five books and dozens of collections — is the most powerful and majestic refutation of right-wing conservatism penned in 20th century America. If only — if only — conservatives would really stop and read what that great man actually said. That, indeed would be a magnificent “Dream” for today.

A brief note on crowd estimates

Just in case you missed it, CBS hired an aerial photography company to take aerial pictures of the Beckapalloza and then give the photos to three different photo analysts to do independent crowd estimates.

The firm came up with a consensus estimate of around 80-90,000 people which is a great deal less than a simple glance at the Washington Post crowd photos would suggest. The difference may be accounted for by the fact that a substantial number of the people at the event were sitting in lounge chairs or otherwise picnicking, which would create a much more spread out crowd along the sides of the mall than a packed in, everybody standing event. This would not be easily detected in standard long-distance crowd photos but would be visible in large scale blow-ups with magnifying glasses and grid lines.

In any event, the organizers only pulled a permit for 300,000 people which suggests that they knew from the number of busses Freedomworks had chartered and other sources that the attendance would be unlikely to actually come close to that number — not to mention the 500,000 to a million numbers conservative boosters are now bouncing around (in fact, if the number of chartered busses and parked cars yesterday indicated that three to four hundred thousand people had been wandering around D.C., you can bet your bananas we would have heard about it by now)  

The significant fact is that CBS estimated attendance of slightly less than 100,000 is not substantially different than the number that it was estimated showed up last September for the 9/12 rally. It suggests that while the Freedomworks/Fox machine has clearly succeeded in creating a reliable, rotating cadre of demonstrators it can pull out for events, it has not been able to generate a steadily growing army.

The people who came to yesterday’s rather peculiar revival meeting/pep rally are likely to be a somewhat different group than those who would have come to another raw-meat anti-Obama- fest like last Septembers’ protest. But it’s beginning to appear that that with both kinds of conservative audiences, Freedomworks/FOX may have reached a plateau in the numbers it can currently pull for either kind of hootenanny.

There are two more big conservative events scheduled for later this fall. The attendance at those events will help to clarify the picture.

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Islamophobia Isolated

In the welter of confusion and misinformation that has characterized the “ground zero mosque” brouhaha, it’s kind of important to isolate the extent to which Americans actually seem to hate Muslims.
That’s what Ron Brownstein’s done in his latest column, and it’s pretty clear there’s a partisan and ideological split at play here:

In a national Time magazine poll released last week, just under half of all Americans agreed that Islam is more likely than other faiths to promote violence against nonbelievers. But that number rose to 70 percent among Republicans and nearly three-fourths among conservatives. Fully 55 percent of all Americans said they believed that most U.S. Muslims are patriotic; but only 42 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of conservatives agreed. Perhaps most strikingly, 43 percent of conservatives and a 48 percent plurality of Republicans said Muslims should not be allowed to run for president. Only about one-fourth of Democrats and independents agreed.

Muslims should not be allowed to run for president?
Then again, this is the same Time poll in which a plurality of Republicans said Barack Obama is a Muslim. So I guess in their view you can’t have the First Amendment interfering with the God-given constitutional right to conservative rule.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: There Is Only One Way Out of the Recession

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
Average Americans are noticing what wise economists have been arguing for quite some time: Bubble-driven economic downturns differ qualitatively from standard business-cycle recessions. Not only do they go deeper; GDP takes longer to rebound, and job creation proceeds more slowly.
The mechanism is straightforward. As the value of assets used as collateral collapses, so does borrowing. This depresses consumption, and the real economy dips, making it much harder for businesses and households to service the debts incurred during boom times. Household consumption remains sluggish until debt is reduced to a level that can comfortably be serviced out of current income, a process that cannot proceed without an increase in the household savings rate. The larger the debt overhang, the longer it will take to work off the excess.
As recent as the late 1990s, total household debt stood under $5 trillion, roughly 90 percent of disposable income. After a decade-long borrowing binge, debt peaked in late 2007 at about $12.5 trillion–a stunning 133 percent of disposable income. According to the latest report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the total had declined to $11.7 trillion by the first quarter of 2010, a reduction of $812 billion (6.5 percent) from the peak. During the same period, not surprisingly, the household savings rate rose from 2 percent to more than 6 percent.
While these are sizeable changes, there is good reason to believe that the process of household debt reduction is still in an early stage. Writing for the Center for American Progress, Christian Weller points out that total debt now stands at 121.7 percent of disposable income, still higher than at any point before the second quarter of 2005. In an analysis published in May of 2009, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco suggested that the household debt/disposable income ratio might well have to fall much farther, to around 100 percent, a process that could take much of the decade, even if the household savings rate were to rise to 10 percent.
This extended deleveraging would have a substantial effect on the economy. The FRBSF estimates that it would reduce annual consumption growth by three-fourths of a percentage point from the stable-savings baseline, which would “act as a near-term drag on overall economic activity, slowing the pace of recovery from recession.”
This is exactly what we’re now seeing. In a superb piece, the Washington Post’s Neil Irwin gets outside the Beltway and beyond its stale arguments to probe the real reasons companies aren’t hiring. His conclusion is worthy of extended quotation:

Many Democrats say the economy needs more stimulus. Business lobbyists and their Republican allies say it needs less regulation and lower taxes.
But here in the heartland of America, senior executives say neither side’s assessment fits.
They blame their profound caution on their view that U.S. consumers are destined to disappoint for many years. As a result, they say, the economy is unlikely to see the kind
of unbroken prosperity of the quarter-century that preceded the financial crisis. . . .
They see Americans for years ahead paying down debts incurred during the now-ended credit boom and adjusting spending to match their often-reduced income.
“It’s a different era,” says Daryl Dulaney, chief executive of Siemens Industry, which has 30,000 U.S. employees who make lighting systems for buildings and a wide rnage of other products. “Our hiring and investment decisions have to be prudent and reflect that.”

A different era … How long will it take our policy makers and political parties to absorb the implications of that stark, undeniable phrase? When they do, they will realize that we have only two strategic options: Either we accept years of sluggish growth and high unemployment, or we shift to a new model that mobilizes the record level of private capital now sitting on the sidelines for public investments that will boost economic activity and employment in the short term, and economic productivity and growth in the long term, while generating rates of return sufficient to interest investors.
This is why we need a national infrastructure bank as the linchpin of a public investment strategy driven by economic analysis rather than congressional politics. Rather than bridges to nowhere, we need a bridge to the future. It’s time for hide-bound appropriators to get out of the way.