washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: November 2010

Beyond “sabotage” – the central issue about the growing political extremism of the Republican Party is that it’s undermining fundamental American standards of ethical political conduct and behavior. It’s time for Americans to say “That’s enough”.

An important TDS Strategy Memo by Ed Kilgore, James Vega and J.P. Green
In a recent Washington Monthly commentary titled “None Dare Call it Sabotage,” Steve Benen gave voice to a growing and profoundly disturbing concern among Democrats – that Republicans may actually plan to embrace policies designed to deny Obama not only political victories but also the maximum possible economic growth during his term in order weaken Democratic prospects in the 2012 elections.
The debate quickly devolved into an argument over the inflammatory word “sabotage” and the extent to which the clearly and passionately expressed Republican desire to see Obama “fail” will actually lead them to deliberately choose economic and other policies that are most conducive to achieving that result.
But, among Democrats themselves, this particular question is actually just one particular component of a much broader and deeper concern — a very real and authentic sense of alarm that there is something both genuinely unprecedented and also profoundly dangerous in the intense “take no prisoners” political extremism of the current Republican Party. There is a deep apprehension that fundamental American standards of proper political conduct and ethical political behavior are increasingly being violated.
The key feature that distinguishes the increasingly extremist perspective of today’s Republican Party from the standards of political behavior we have traditionally considered proper in America is the view that politics is — quite literally, and not metaphorically – a kind of warfare and political opponents are literally “enemies”
This “politics as warfare” perspective has historically been the hallmark of many extremist political parties of both the ideological left and ideological right – parties ranging from the American Communist Party to the French National Front.
Historically, these political parties display a series of common features – features that follow logically and inescapably from the basic premise of politics as warfare:
I. Strategy:

• In the politics as warfare perspective the political party’s objective is defined as the conquest and seizure of power and not sincere participation in democratic governance. The party is viewed as a combat organization whose goal is to defeat an enemy, not an organization whose job is to faithfully represent the people who voted for it.
• In the politics as warfare perspective extralegal measures, up to and including violence, are tacitly endorsed as a legitimate means to achieve a party’s political aims if democratic means are insufficient to obtain its objectives. To obscure the profoundly undemocratic nature of this view, the “enemy” government–even when it is freely elected — is described as actually being illegitimate and dictatorial, thus justifying the use of violence as a necessary response to “tyranny”.
• In the politics as warfare perspective all major social problems are caused by the deliberate, malevolent acts of powerful elites with nefarious motives. An evil “them” is the cause of all society’s ills.
• In the politics as warfare perspective the political party’s philosophy and basic strategy is inerrant – it cannot be wrong. The result is the creation of a closed system of ideologically controlled “news” that creates an alternative reality.

II. Tactics:

• In the politics as warfare perspective standard norms of honesty are irrelevant. Lying and the use of false propaganda are considered necessary and acceptable. The “truth” is what serves to advance the party’s objectives.
• In the politics as warfare perspective the political party accepts no responsibility for stability – engineering the fall of the existing government is absolutely paramount and any negative consequences that may occur in the process represent a kind of “collateral damage” that is inevitable in warfare
• In the politics as warfare perspective the creation of contrived “incidents” or deliberate provocations are acceptable. Because the adherent of this view “knows” that his or her opponents are fundamentally evil, even concocted or staged incidents are still morally and ethically “true.” The distinction between facts and distortions disappears.
• In the politics as warfare perspective compromise represents both betrayal and capitulation. Destruction of the enemy is the only acceptable objective. People who advocate compromise are themselves enemies.

These various components all form part of an integrated whole. Seen as a coherent package they make it clear that politics as warfare is simply not an acceptable philosophy for an American political party. It is profoundly and unambiguously wrong.
It is easy to see examples of the various politics as warfare– based views and tactics listed above directly reflected in the statements and actions of the extreme wing of Republican coalition – they range from Michelle Bachmann and Sharon Angle’s winking at violence with references to “second amendment remedies” to Andrew Breitbart’s deliberate editing of a video to smear Shirley Sherrod, Glen Beck’s suggesting that George Soros was a Nazi collaborator, Fox News’ tolerating attacks on Obama as equivalent to Hitler and airing repeated suggestions that the miniscule New Black Panthers present a real and genuine national threat of stolen elections and Grover Norquist’s endorsement of a government shutdown over extending the debt limit, despite the genuine dangers this poses to international financial stability.
The list can be continued with many other examples from Eric Erickson’s RedState, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and organizations like Freedomworks. An entire book has been written containing nothing but examples of recognized right-wing spokesmen subtly and not so subtly endorsing and encouraging the use of violence against liberals and Democrats.
And this politics as warfare perspective is not confined to the “fringes” of the Republican Party.

New DCorps Memo Charts Dem Course

Democracy Corps has a new research and strategy memo, “What Next for President Obama and Democrats?,” which delineates a clear path to victory in coming elections. The DCorps analysis, based on three post-election national surveys by by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, Resurgent Republic, Campaign for America’s Future, and Women’s Voices. Women Vote, finds that,

2010 was a voter revolt against Democratic governance during an economic and jobs crisis. Above all, voters were frustrated with the lack of progress on unemployment, the seeming ineffectiveness of the president’s policies, a shortage of sustained focus on economic issues, and the absence of a vision or message showing voters where the president and the Democrats wanted to take the country. They were angry about the bailouts, spending, and deficits that seemed only to put the country at more risk. Despite hopes for change, they could not see anybody battling for the middle class and American jobs during this crisis, yet politics as usual carried on – Wall Street and lobbyists continued to win out and the parties continued to bicker.
Health care reform was symptomatic of Washington not focusing on jobs and the president being inattentive. The new law was attacked as out-of-control spending. And a lot of seniors came to the polls to prevent the so-called Medicare cuts.

However, the analysis also notes,

For all that, there is no evidence that this was an affirmative vote for Republicans. Their standing is no higher in this year’s post-election polls than it was in 2008 and 2006. There is a lot of evidence that voters do not share Republicans’ priorities, particularly on Social Security and Medicare, and voters did not mandate a consuming focus on spending cuts and deficit reduction. That voters decided to hammer Democrats for spending does not translate into a mandate for Republicans to slash spending and squander the next two years trying to repeal health care…
Voters also do not share the Republicans’ determination to limit President Obama to one term and stop his agenda. A large majority remains hopeful that President Obama can succeed, and above all, they want the president and the leaders of both parties to work together to get things done. Voters are hungry for a different tone during this crisis and are looking for evidence that they have been heard.

The memo adds:

There is opportunity for the president to reach out on budget reform, energy, comprehensive immigration reform, and job creation – such as an infrastructure bank leveraging private capital…The more the president reaches out on these issues, the more opportunity he has to draw firm lines on central aspects of his agenda, including letting the top-end Bush tax cuts expire, pressing for infrastructure and energy investments, and protecting health care reform. Even in this difficult post-election environment, we battle to a draw on the toughest issues and prevail as the agenda shifts to growth.
Voters want leaders to focus on both growth and deficit reduction; indeed, they are looking for leaders to offer a vision for a successful America with a rising middle class.

The DCorps memo concedes that moderate economic growth and the likelihood of only small declines in unemployment make the Democratic path to recovery a rocky road. Rather than focus on the political center and Independents, DCorps urges Dems to put more effort in engaging minorities and young voters, both of which are essential for good results in 2012. More specifically,

The starting point is the new Democratic base and the areas where Democrats have been making steady gains since 2000. This is not a narrow slice of the electorate or an ideologically straightforward target. It includes the rising proportion of young people (up to one-fifth of the presidential electorate in 2012); the growing Latino bloc (at least 10 percent) that joins African-Americans and other racial minorities (to form at least a quarter); single women (more than one-fifth) who have emerged central to the new progressive base; and union households (more than 15 percent of the electorate). They have been joined by the more diverse, professional, and affluent suburbs – identified by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis[2] – that have moved steadily Democratic over more than a decade, account for the Democrats’ congressional gains over that period and gave Obama big victories.
The reason why Democrats won the Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008 is that their base is a majority of the country.

The DCorps memo provides much more detail concerning performance and prospects regarding key demographic groups, including single women, young people, union households and the suburbs. It includes recommendation for targeting swing voter demographics, including white non-college, white non-south rural and industrial midwest voters.
The “getting-the-car-out-of-the-ditch” metaphor ended up resonating poorly with pivotal constituencies, according to DCorps data. Rather, the message that 2010 voters wholeheartedly endorsed in the DCorps study, was:

…America has been falling behind, while countries like China have a vision to succeed. We need our own vision for American success. Our economic problems have been building for years — with good jobs outsourced and wages and benefits falling behind rising costs. Schools, sewers, and roads are in disrepair. We need a clear strategy to make things in America, make our economy competitive, and revive America’s middle class.

Further, DCorps found that the GOP’s most treasured priority “to focus above all on cutting spending, reducing deficits and keeping taxes low” performed poorly, and warns “…Do not assume that the clubs used to punish Democrats this year translate into the preferred policies for the future.” The Republicans’ mono-maniacal obsession with defeating Obama did not resonate well either, especially among swing voters who want to see an end to partisan bickering and some effort towards bipartisan cooperation.
Dems can benefit by hanging tough with protecting Social Security and Medicare from GOP cuts, while not waivering from calling for letting tax cuts for top earners expire. The analysis concludes by noting a two-thirds favorable response to President Obama’s following statement:

The economy isn’t creating enough jobs but we can’t go back to rising debt and dangerous bubbles. My commitment is to build a new foundation for jobs and growth that begins with making things in America again. Yes, we have to reduce our deficits, but it is not enough. We have to make investments in education, in research and innovation, in a competitive 21st century infrastructure. We have to lead in the new energy, Green industrial revolution sweeping the world. This has to be affordable, but my priority is working together to rebuild a successful America with a rising middle class.

This is the vision that Dems can carry forward for optimal results in 2012 and beyond.

Southern Dems Down, But Not Out

If we’re going to be good sports like the President and admit Dems got ‘shellacked’ in the midterms, then it’s fair to say we got pulverized in the south. On that topic, Jonathan Martin is getting buzz with his Politico article “Democratic South Finally Falls.
Martin’s title seems a little melodramatic, considering most of the south has been red territory for a few cycles. But Martin makes a persuasive case, mining a couple of angles:

After suffering a historic rout — in which nearly every white Deep South Democrat in the U.S. House was defeated and Republicans took over or gained seats in legislatures across the region — the party’s ranks in Dixie have thinned even further.
…this year’s elections, and the subsequent party switching, have made unambiguously clear is that the last ramparts have fallen and political realignment has finally taken hold in one of the South’s last citadels of Democratic strength: the statehouses.
…Democrats lost both chambers of the legislature this year in North Carolina and Alabama, meaning that they now control both houses of the capitol in just two Southern states, Arkansas and Mississippi, the latter of which could flip to the GOP in the next election…The losses and party switching, one former Southern Democratic governor noted, “leave us with little bench for upcoming and future elections.”

And according to the Associated Press,

In Alabama, four Democrats announced last week they were joining the GOP, giving Republicans a supermajority in the House that allows them to pass legislation without any support from the other party. The party switch of a Democratic lawmaker from New Orleans handed control of Louisiana’s House to Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction.
In Georgia, six rural Democratic state legislators — five from the House and one in the Senate — have switched allegiance to the GOP since Nov. 2…In Georgia, the GOP swept every statewide office this year and brought, in the words of state Rep. Alan Powell, “an effective end, at least for the foreseeable future, to the two-party system in state government.”

Martin says ten Democrats in southern state legislatures are switching party affiliation to the GOP, and yes, there will undoubtedly be more. But I’m not too worried about the “bench” factor. Most southern cities have Democratic mayors, and some of them are going to run impressive statewide campaigns in future cycles when the economy is not so sour. Grim as it seems now, we will see southern Democratic governors and U.S. Senators being sworn in down the road. As Martin acknowledges:

For all the bad tidings, there is one important development that could bode well for Democrats in some Southern states. While they may never get back the rural areas that once served as their bulwark, Southern Democrats are now competitive in some fast-growing suburbs in states that have a significant number of transplants. There was a reason why Obama won Virginia and North Carolina in 2008 — both are filled with newcomers who are open to supporting either party.
“The more metropolitan a state has become, the more resilience that gives Democrats,” said Ferrel Guillory, an expert on Southern politics at the University of North Carolina.
So even as Democrats lose long-held seats in places like rural eastern North Carolina, they can potentially make up the difference by capturing districts around Charlotte and the Research Triangle. “As those metro areas continue to grow, Democrats can find a new base of support,” Guillory said.

The main flaw in Martin’s article is that he doesn’t put the pro-Republican trend in the southeast in economic context. According to the most recent BLS data, two-thirds of southeastern states have higher unemployment rates than the national average (9.6 percent in October). The anger about the economy is at least as palpable and politically-consequential in the southeast as it is in the rust belt and elsewhere. If the economy rebounds during the next two years, the GOP will lose some of its edge in the south.
Large African American populations in southern states, particularly MS (37.1 percent), LA (31.5), GA (29.7), SC (28.3) and AL (26.2), will eventually serve as a solid base for Democratic candidates who only have to win the support of a third or so of white voters to get elected. NC (21.2 percent black pop.) and VA (19.5) have the additional demographic factor of rapid in-migration from residents of less conservative states.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latino voters are still a small segment of southern voters, with the exception of Florida, where they were 14.5 percent of eligible voters in 2008, followed by VA, where Latinos comprised just 3.3 percent of eligible voters. While Florida’s Cuban-Americans have tended to vote Republican, they are today less than a third of FL Latinos. Meanwhile, Hispanics as a demographic group are growing rapidly in NC and GA.
Despite the daunting situation facing Democrats in the south in the wake of the midterms, there is cause for optimism about the future — particularly if Dems invest needed resources in party-building and leadership development in the region. If we are going to be a healthy political party with strong roots and a promising future, we have to work at being competitive everywhere.

Fallows on False Equivalence

In a fine riposte to Ross Douthat, who claimed that just about everyone in politics has flip-flopped on privacy and civil liberties issues based on the partisan identity of the administration, James Fallows of The Atlantic shows otherwise:

The anti-security theater alliance has always included right-wing and left-wing libertarians (both exist), ACLU-style liberals, limited-government-style conservatives, and however you would choose to classify the likes of Bruce Schneier or Jeffrey Goldberg (or me). I know of Republicans who, seemingly for partisan reasons like those Douthat lays out, have joined the anti-security theater chorus. For instance, former Sen. Rick Santorum. I don’t know of a single Democrat or liberal who has peeled off and moved the opposite way just because Obama is in charge.
A harder case is Guantanamo, use of drones, and related martial-state issues. Yes, it’s true that some liberals who were vociferous in denouncing such practices under Bush have piped down. But not all (cf Glenn Greenwald etc). And I don’t know of any cases of Democrats who complained about these abuses before and now positively defend them as good parts of Obama’s policy — as opposed to inherited disasters he has not gone far enough to undo and eliminate.

Douthat, of course, is engaging in the everybody’s-doing-it argument that the disingenuous habits of Republicans these days are just a subset of a generalized plague of partisanship in which they are no more guilty than their enemies. But saying it’s so doesn’t make it so, and in fact operates as a way of excusing bad behavior and misunderstanding real-life events. And Fallows calls out Douthat and others who depend on false equivalence exercises as a substitute for actual judgment:

So: it’s nice and fair-sounding to say that the party-first principle applies to all sides in today’s political debate. Like it would be nice and fair-sounding to say that Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress are contributing to obstructionism and party-bloc voting. Or that Fox News and NPR have equal-and-offsetting political agendas in covering the news. But it looks to me as if we’re mostly talking about the way one side operates. Recognizing that is part of facing the reality of today’s politics.

To put it another way, false-equivalence arguments are pernicious not only because they distort reality and misallocate responsibility for misdeeds, but because they reward perpetrators by perversely blaming their victims. The “everybody’s-doing-it” impulse can be as damaging as the conduct it rationalizes.

The Political Usages of “Secret” Information

The brouhaha over the latest (and impending) WikiLeaks disclosure of U.S. diplomatic cables and other classified data will play out over a long time and will involve many tangled issues of national security, official secrets, and misinformation.
But one topic of immediate interest will be the political use of some of the WikiLeaks content to grind particular axes, most notably the conservative claim that the entire Middle East is privately clamoring for Israeli or U.S. military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. In that connection, Matt Yglesias makes a very important distinction about the credibility of “secrets:”

There’s often a conceit in both the world of intelligence and the world of journalism that “secret” truths are somehow better than ordinary ones. That the truth is necessarily hidden, and that hidden facts therefore are especially important to know.
But what do we really know about the leaders of the Gulf states? I mean, suppose you were an envoy from Qatar Ministry of Defense and you’re in a meeting with someone from the Defense Department and your private view is that Israel should be pushed into the sea and the United States is the “great satan.” Well, you’re certainly not going to say that in a meeting! So what will you say? You’ll tell your interlocutors something you think they want to hear, and you’ll try to get then to give you advanced military equipment. So there you are, “privately” very concerned about Iran.
Which isn’t to say Gulf officials are in fact lying when they privately say they’re very worried about Iran. If you look at the objective situation, it’s reasonable for the Gulf states to be worried about Iran. So it’s reasonable for us to assume that the Gulf states are in fact worried about Iran. But this is a surmise we can reach based entirely on publicly available information. Their private statements are just private statements. They could be true or they could be lies. Our best guide to their accuracy is what we know about the objective situation.

And what we know about the objective situation vis a vis Arab states and Iran really isn’t changed by WikiLeaks, so far at least.

Bullseye on Lugar

Just weeks after the midterm elections, conservative activists are already focused on future purges of the Republican ranks to get rid of discordant elements. And as a profile by Jennifer Steinhauer of The New York Times explains, a big bullseye is being painted on the back of veteran Sen. Dick Lugar.

Mr. Lugar’s recent breaks with his party have stirred the attention of Indiana Tea Party groups, who have him in their sights. “Senator Lugar has been an upstanding citizen representing us in D. C.,” said Diane Hubbard, a spokeswoman for the Indianapolis Tea Party. “But over the years, he has become more moderate in his voting.”
Removing him “will be a difficult challenge,” Ms. Hubbard conceded. “But we do believe it’s doable, and we think the climate is right for it and we believe it is a must.”

It’s a “must,” it appears, mainly because of Lugar’s prominent position on foreign policy matters, and his obdurate belief that some “liberal” initiatives like nuclear nonproliferation treaties should be supported by conservatives. Here’s Lugar blunt message to Republican senators on the START treaty:

Please do your duty for your country. We do not have verification of the Russian nuclear posture right now. We’re not going to have it until we sign the START treaty. We’re not going to be able to get rid of further missiles and warheads aimed at us. I state it candidly to my colleagues, one of those warheads…could demolish my city of Indianapolis — obliterate it! Now Americans may have forgotten that. I’ve not forgotten it and I think that most people who are concentrating on the START treaty want to move ahead to move down the ladder of the number of weapons aimed at us.

It’s probably the idea that patriotism sometimes involves supporting Democratic initiaties that makes Lugar particulary offensive to some conservatives. It will be interesting to see if they can tame him or just decide to take him out.

Sabotage, Who Us?

Two excellent posts provide a devastating take-down of WaPo columnist and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson’s dismissal of the notion that Republicans would sabotage needed economic reforms to gain political advantage. Political Animal Steve Benen, who launched the controversy with his post on GOP sabotage, responds to Gerson’s critique with a couple of compelling observations, which may make Gerson sorry he brought it up:

He suggests at the outset that my argument is somehow an attempt to avoid dealing with the “inadequacies” and “failure” of “liberalism.” It’s an odd line of reasoning — Gerson’s former boss bequeathed an economic catastrophe, a jobs crisis, a massive deficit, and a housing crisis, among other calamities. Democratic policymakers, scrambling to address the catastrophic failures of Bush-brand conservatism, have managed to create an economy that’s growing, creating jobs, and generating private-sector profits, while stabilizing a financial system that teetered on collapse. (What’s more, if Gerson believes the size and scope of the Obama administration’s economic agenda are consistent with what “liberalism” has in mind, he knows far less about the ideology than he should.)
…It’s also worth emphasizing that my point about “uncertainty” was meant as a form of mockery. The right is obsessed with the debunked notion that “economic uncertainty” is responsible for the lack of robust growth, so in raising my observation, I noted that it’s the Republican agenda that seems focused on adding to this uncertainty — vowing to gut the national health care system, promising to re-write the rules overseeing the financial industry, vowing to re-write business regulations in general, considering a government shutdown, and even weighing the possibility of sending the United States into default.
What’s more, I’m fascinated by the notion that I’m describing a “conspiracy” — a word Gerson uses four times in his column. I made no such argument. There’s no need for secret meetings in smoke-filled rooms; there’s no reason to imagine a powerful cabal pulling strings behind the scenes. The proposition need not be fanciful at all — a stronger economy would improve President Obama’s re-election chances, so Republicans are resisting policies and ideas that would lead to this result.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wasn’t especially cagey about his intentions: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president…. Our single biggest political goal is to give [the Republican] nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful.”
Given this, is it really that extraordinary to wonder if this might include rejecting proposals that would make President Obama look more successful on economic policy — especially given the fact that McConnell’s approach to the economy appears to be carefully crafted to do the opposite of what’s needed? After Gerson’s West Wing colleagues effectively accused Democrats of treason in 2005, is it beyond the pale to have a conversation about Republicans’ inexplicable motivations?

In his Plum Line column, Greg Sargent acknowledges that the “charge that Republicans are planning to actively sabotage the economy” may be overstated/unproductive, but notes, in addition to the McConnell quote cited by Benen, Sen Jim Demint’s call to arms: “If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.” Sargent continues:

…There’s no denying that some Republicans did, in fact, make the clear calculation that denying Obama successes at all costs, regardless of the substance of specific initiatives or any willingness on his part to make concessions, was the best way to accomplish this overarching political goal. They said so themselves! It would be interesting to hear Gerson directly engage these McConnell and DeMint quotes and explain why they don’t directly support this general interpretation of what happened in the last two years.

We’ll file that one under “not gonna happen.”

DeLay and de Law

It being Thanksgiving and all, it’s hard to resist a quick ‘thumbs up’ response to the verdict convicting Tom DeLay for money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering in 2002, ostensibly in order to funnel corporate contributions to Texas GOP legislative candidates.
As Robert Barnes and R. Jeffrey Smith explain it in their WaPo report, prosecutors argued that,

…a political action committee that DeLay started in Texas solicited $190,000 from corporate interests and sent it to an arm of the Republican National Committee. They said that group then distributed the money to seven legislative candidates in an effort to skirt Texas law, which forbids corporate contributions to political campaigns.
Prosecutors said that the money helped the GOP win control of the Texas House and that the majority then pushed through a DeLay-organized congressional redistricting plan that sent more Republicans to Congress.
…Punishment for the first ranges from five years to life in prison, but the former congressman from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land could receive probation…The conviction follows years of investigation of DeLay, 63, who came to symbolize the intersection of money and politics in Washington. He made a mission of solidifying the Republican majority in Congress, and his ability to raise campaign cash was part of his power and eventual downfall.
For a time, DeLay was the Republicans’ chief vote counter and patronage dispenser, and he earned his nickname, “The Hammer,” for the dictatorial style with which he commanded House Republicans – and tormented President Bill Clinton and Democrats.

DeLay may win his appeal or walk after a wrist-slapping. Mine is not to gloat here, as do some, tempting though it is, given DeLay’s snarling arrogance and oft-stated contempt for all things Democratic. But it’s not about DeLay. He’s been over for a while.
This verdict is worth a thumbs up for a practical reason — it will discourage saner Republicans from skirting campaign finance laws willy-nilly, at least for a while. In the post ‘Citizens United’ era, that could be significant, coming after the GOP’s midterm takeovers of state legislatures and governorships and consequent redistricting leverage.
So spare a holiday toast for the good jurors of Travis County, Texas, who refused to be hustled by DeLay’s pricey lawyers. Justice lives in the Lone Star state, and somewhere, Molly Ivins is smiling proudly.

Reining In the Rogue

Now that we are not coping with the phenomenon of a national debate over a Bristol Palin victory in Dancing With the Stars, Palin-mania can focus on more Sarahcentric topics, like the former governor’s own TV reality show, or her new book, or the possibility that she’s getting serious about running for president of the United States.
The conjunction of all these phenomena seems to have Republican insiders very worried. There were already reports prior to the midterm elections that the Great Big Grownups of the GOP were talking to each other about how to prevent a Palin nomination in 2012, considered a potential disaster by those who look at general election trial heats.
But the latest shot across Palin’s bow came from an unusual source: the Weekly Standard, edited by one of her earliest and staunchest conservative allies, Bill Kristol. The Standard’s resident semi-satirist, Matt Labash, penned a reasonably nasty review of Sarah Palin’s Alaska that concluded with the assertion that even her Tea Party fans don’t really want her to make a 2012 run.
GOP heretic David Frum sees this as the shape of things to come:

There really is a GOP party establishment. That establishment took up Palin as a useful tool in 2008, deployed Palin as an edged anti-Obama weapon in 2009 – and is now horrified to see that they may have set in motion a force possibly too powerful to halt when its time has ended. The story of the behind-the-scenes struggle to squelch Palin – and her ferocious determination not to be squelched – will be the big GOP-side story of the coming year.

Could this effort actually work, or will it just feed Palin’s power to act as the voice of grassroots conservatives who are tired of being told to keep licking envelopes and let the Great Big Grownups figure out how to seize power? Steve Kornacki of Salon thinks criticism of Palin by conservatives might actually be effective by placing her in some perspective other than as the victim of elitist liberals–but only if it’s systematic and high-profile:

Palin’s poll numbers with the GOP base will only ebb if base voters are exposed, more than once and from more than one voice, to criticisms of her. They don’t have to be harsh, Frank Rich-esque denunciations; just gentle but insistent reminders that maybe she’s not suited to represent the party on its national ticket again.
This is a delicate task, obviously. As I’ve written, the GOP base has rarely been more eager to defy the party establishment than it is today. There is a strong temptation among conservative voters to label inconvenient information the product of the liberal media, or of RINOs. A negative review of Palin’s show from one Weekly Standard writer is noteworthy, but by itself won’t do much. Will Rush Limbaugh ever weigh in and say, “I love Sarah Palin and I hate what the liberals have done to her, but I’m just not seeing her as the nominee”? Will hosts on Fox News, her current employer, start conveying this message? Will Fox’s “straight” newscasts begin touting stories that play up her general election vulnerabilities?

The other factor, of course, is how Palin reacts to conservative criticism. Perhaps she’ll get off reality TV and do some mildly gravitas-building exercises; it’s not like she has a particularly high bar to overcome in raising her game. But ultimately, her fate is closely bound up in the question of how the GOP deals with the contradictory passions it has aroused. If its leaders get serious about taking one path or another out of the incoherent policy agenda they’ve set for themselves, then some elements of the party base are sure to be disappointed. And if those elements include the vengeful grassroots activists who think their day in the sun has finally come, then Palin or someone much like her will always have a political base that no amount of mockery from the Grownups will be able to tame.

Two Electorates, Different Trends: A Reply To Jay Cost

I recently did a post on the proposition of a rightward trend in American public opinion, based in part on some new analysis by TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira of the apparent upsurge in self-identifed conservatives in the midterms. This piece drew a spirited response from The Weekly Standard‘s Jay Cost which made some good points but unfortunately missed the main context of what we were saying and took issue with arguments we did not make.
To begin with the “arguments we did not make,” Jay appears to think my denial of any “natural Republican majority” in the electorate means I think Republicans won’t win majorities in the 2012 congressional elections. None of us obviously knows what will happen, but actually, I think the GOP is in a good position in congressional elections going into 2012 because of its big redistricting advantage and the surplus of Democratic Senate seats up next cycle, which means they could hang onto control of the House and make Senate gains even if they lose the presidential election and lose a majority of the national House popular vote. But those advantages may not persist over time; future Senate cycles are less skewed, and let’s remember that in 2002 it was universally assumed that the last round of redistricting had given Republicans a “lock” on the House for decade–a lock that lasted exactly two cycles. Real live events matter, and districts change after they are drawn.
But the main reason for doubting a “natural Repubican majority” is the factor that we have been writing about TDS for months, and wrote about again in this piece: the very different turnout patterns that always prevail in midterm and presidential years.
To be very clear, we have two electorates in this country, which in the past has often only had a marginal effect on partisan outcomes, but now is exceptionally important because the composition of the two party’s voters has become, in 2008 and in 2010, highly correlated with groups that display high (older, whiter, wealthier voters) and low (younger voters and minorities, particularly Hispanics) turnout tendencies in midterms. Jay doesn’t deal with this fundamental argument about “the electorate,” and instead takes issue with Ruy’s analysis of under-the-surface changes in public opinion, best reachable by looking at a more stable sample of Americans, registered voters.
Jay implies that Ruy used Pew rather than Gallup data to look at changes in the ideological composition of voters over time because the former supported his position while the latter did not. I asked Ruy about this, and here was his reply:

First, Pew only provided registered voter data, not all adults data, on their ideological time trend, so I couldn’t have used all adults data even if I’d wanted to. Second, I used Pew data because they provided time trends on ideology for Republicans, Democrats and the three flavors of independents: Democratic-leaning independents, pure independents and Republican-leaning independents. This was central to my analysis.
But let’s look at those Gallup data. Gallup shows a conservative shift of 5 points (2006-2010) among all adults as opposed ot Pew’s 3 point shift among RVs over same time period. However, two other public polls that provide time series ideology data for all adults are actually closer to Pew’s 3 points than Gallup’s 5 points: WaPo/ABC has 3.3 over the time period, CBS/NYT has 3.6 over the period.
Moreover, it’s kind of a strange time to be appealing to the authority of Gallup after its way-off, outlier final generic ballot poll showing a 15 point Republican lead. Gallup was also reporting super-high levels of conservatives among LVs (54 percent in a one mid-October poll). Pew on the other hand nailed the result exactly. So no apologies for the data I selected.
But even if you accepted a 5 point swing among the public, a 10 point jump in conservative representation between ’06 and ’10 still far outstrips that swing. Bottom line: you can’t account for the election results, including the high proportion of conservatives among voters, on the basis of a sharp ideological swing toward the right among registered voters or among the general public. Conservative mobilization clearly had something to do with it.

And both phenomena owed a lot to a shift in identification of Republican voters (including Republican-leaning independents) from “moderate” to “conservative,” which was the main point of his analysis, and is a conclusion shared today by ProgressiveFix’s Lee Drutman in a careful evaluation of the Cost/TDS exchange.
Perhaps a semantic problem clouds this issue for Jay Cost and for other readers: yes, an “electorate” in which some members are moving “to the right” while others stay where they are can be said to be “moving to the right” in an arithmetical sense, but if its main effect is simply to move the party of conservatives a bit farther away from everyone else, that’s hardly an unmixed blessing.
I’ll deal with one other aspect of Jay’s argument: his characterization of our point-of-view as follows:

The electorate has not moved in any significant fashion, and what we saw this November is nothing for liberals to worry about.

I should hope I’ve dealt with the issues involved in the word “electorate;” yes, the midterm electorate moved, but partly because of the turnout patterns already discussed, and partly because of factors (ahem, the economy) which don’t have much to do with ideology or much predictive value for the future. But the planted axiom that Ruy and I don’t think Democrats have anything to worry about is simply wrong. Frankly, I think both parties have a lot to worry about economically, and from a structural point of view, have much to worry about if the current “two electorates” pattern persists, which is hardly conducive to stable policymaking.
Yes, Ruy and I think 2012 will likely be a better year for Democrats overall for reasons ranging from the more positive nature of the presidential electorate, to the close House districts Republicans will now have to defend, to the likely improvement in the economy, to the arguably weak GOP presidential field, to the many dilemmas Republicans face as a party that is simultaneously demanding deficit reduction, new high-end and corporate tax cuts, restoration of Medicare “cuts,” and (among many GOPers) more defense spending and perhaps a new war with Iran. We also think long-range demographic trends favoring Democrats haven’t suddenly gone away.
But if I were a Republican, I’d be less worried about Democratic confidence levels and be a lot more focused on restraining the exceptional triumphalism of my colleagues, many of whom seem to think that every lesson learned in past elections, including the longstanding lack of support of sizable majorities of Americans for key conservative policy positions, can now be forgotten based on one very good midterm cycle. As Democrats just learned, trends can change quickly, and so can “the electorate.”