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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: June 2011

The Real Problem With Mark Halperin

As you’ve probably heard by now, MSNBC pundit and Time Magazine columnist Mark Halperin got himself suspended by the cable network for saying on Morning Joe that the president had acted like “a dick” at his press conference yesterday. And as you probably know, Halperin thought his sophomoric little quip would be deleted by tape-delay before anyone other than his studio colleagues heard it.
With respect to Halperin’s incivility towards the president, I would surely be more tolerant of it coming from anyone other than a guy whose ultra-insider reporting over the years (as readers of The Note in its heyday will probably remember) was built on a foundation of endless flattery of politicians, campaign flacks, and other reporters. You’d figure someone who appears to genuinely like Karl Rove could avoid insults aimed at Barack Obama.
But in any event, what annoyed me most about Halperin’s “gaffe” isn’t the term he used so much as the underlying “analysis” of the president’s press conference appearance, in which he took the very rare occasion to fire back at Republicans who have been savaging him for refusing to surrender to their agenda from practically the moment of his inauguration.
You need to understand, though, that Halperin comes from a journalistic point of view wherein “objectivity” is defined as keeping an equal distance from both parties. If one party chooses to move the goal posts, then the fifty-yard-line, where the “objective journalist” lives, has to move, too. So of course Obama was being unreasonable by trying to implement his 2008 campaign promises once Republicans decided to oppose them all, and of course, today, he’s being unreasonable by refusing to offer at least half of the spending cuts Republicans are proposing with no enhanced revenues whatsoever. Obama talked about restoring bipartisanship during his presidential campaign, so if bipartisanship has failed, he’s at least half–or maybe more than half–to blame.
The good news is that Halperin is vastly less influential than he used to be. Back in the day, before the development of much of the blogosphere, much less the huge aggregation and one-stop-political-shopping sites so prevalent today, The Note was a really big deal, consumed (with all its annoying stylistic trimmings) by political junkies everywhere. Nowadays, Halperin has become the symbol–almost a parody, really–of what some folk call “The Village,” an insulated coterie of Beltway cognoscenti with a fetish for “bipartisan” issues like deficit reduction, and a conviction that the unwashed masses need their enlightened leadership. They seem to mainly talk to each other, and to that extent, their impact is limited.
But all in all, Halperin still has a pretty choice perch in American political journalism. And his continued prominence is problematic from a perspective than transcends party and ideology.
After all, he’s a “reporter,” adept at getting quotes and interviews and with a rolodex full of insider “sources.” And this appeals to the prejudices of many progressive journalists who don’t have much use for him personally or professionally, but still find an affinity with him as a “pro,” as opposed to us “opinion journalists” or “bloggers” who don’t know how to dress up our own opinions with well-selected quotes or describe real-life events with the appropriate degree of color.
Still, Halperin may serve as an example of a journalist whose analytical blindness overwhelms whatever value his “reporting” can supply. Who cares if you can get “insiders” to give you rich quotes about the events of the day if you haven’t a clue of what any of it actually means? And why is there still so lucrative a market (if smaller than it used to be) for this kind of “reporting” at a time when smart journalists all over the country are leaving the profession or living on food stamps?
Beats me.

‘We Are Ohio’ Forces Referendum on GOP Union-Busting

John Nichols’ post, “Democracy is Coming to Ohio: 1.3 Million Voters Force Referendum to Restore Labor Rights” in The Nation does a solid job of updating the popular uprising against GOP union-bashing.
Nichol’s focuses on Ohio, where Republican Governor John Kasich is undoubtedly grateful that his state does not have a recall provision, which would have put his tenure at serious risk. But he can’t be too happy that Ohio voters can repeal legislation he sponsored to eradicate collective bargaining rights for state employees. As Nichols writes:

Opponents of Ohio Governor John Kasich’s push to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights–as part of a national push by newly elected Republican governors to silence opposition to their cuts in funding for public education and services — needed to collect 231,000 valid signatures to force a referendum that would override anti-labor legislation enacted by Kasich and his allies.
That was a tall order. But the labor and community groups that have come together to defend public employees, teachers, schools and services have exceeded it –by more than one million signatures.
With petitions carrying 1,298,301 signatures packed in 1,500 boxes carried by a semi-truck, organizers of the We Are Ohio campaign and thousands of their allies marched to the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office in Columbus Wednesday–one day before the deadline–to file the paperwork necessary to force a November vote on overturning Ohio Senate Bill 5 and Kasich’s attack on labor rights.

The Ohio GOP also has cause for concern:

Wednesday’s festive Million Signature March–complete with bagpipes, drum lines and antique fire truck blaring their sirens offered a taste of what is to come in a referendum campaign that labor leaders say will be the most energetic the state has seen in decades–perhaps since the famous 1958 referendum in which historically Republican Ohio rejected an anti-labor “right-to-work” law and swept Democrats into the governorship and other state posts.

Putting the GOP’s nation-wide union-bashing campaign in perspective, Nichols explains:

But the anti-labor push met with fierce opposition, first in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker’s proposed legislation drew mass demonstrations of as many as 150,000 people outside the state capitol in Madison. The demonstrations in Lansing, Indianapolis, Columbus and other capital cities quickly grew in size. But so, too, did the recognition that electoral strategies would need to be coupled with the protests.
In Wisconsin, tens of thousands of signatures were gathered in petition drives that have forced recall elections against six Republican senators who backed Walker’s agenda. Primary elections associated with those recalls will begin July 12, with the runoff elections in August. If three GOP senators are removed (and if three Democratic senators who have been targeted by Republicans retain their seats), control of the state Senate will flip to the Democrats and Walker will no longer have complete control of the governing process.

And putting the ‘We Are Ohio’ campaign in historic perspective, Nichols adds “The Ohio petition drive, which began a statewide phenomenon, has yielded the largest number of signatures ever gathered in the state’s history. In fact, the almost 1.3 million signatures filed Wednesday represents one of the most remarkable examples of petitioning for the redress of grievances–and of popular democracy–in American history.”

Rick Perry’s Texas Problem

At TNR yesterday, the ever-estimable Jonathan Bernstein published a spirited challenge to an earlier TNR piece by Abby Rapoport (and more indirectly, to one of my columns) suggesting that Rick Perry’s record in Texas could become a problem for him in a presidential run. Here’s his basic argument:

There’s nothing Rapoport or Kilgore mention that should slow Perrymentum in the nomination process. But let me make the argument broader: It’s not at all clear to me that prior accomplishments in office are particularly important for any candidate seeking the presidential nomination.

Jonathan goes on to make a persuasive case that the governing records of presidential nomination candidates matter in setting down ideological markers for important interest groups, but their actual success or failure doesn’t matter much at all. In Perry’s case, some of his more dubious policies checked the right boxes for conservative elites and activists, so who cares if they didn’t actually work or displeased many Texans?

[N]either Rapoport nor Kilgore has, at least as far I can see, unearthed any issues with Perry’s record that will cause any trouble with important organized groups within the GOP.

Fair enough. But now comes some evidence for the relevance of Perry’s record that’s not so easy to brush off: a new PPP poll showing that Perry would currently lose to Barack Obama (by a 47-45 margin) in Texas. The same poll shows Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann leading Obama in Texas, and Herman Cain tied with the president. By a robust 59-33 margin, Texans say Perry should not even run.
Keep in mind that Perry has been governor of Texas since 2001. It’s not like he suffers from low name recognition. And this is a state that no winning Republican presidential candidate can afford to lose or even run closely in, given its history and partisan complexion, much less a favorite (or in this case, not-so-favorite) son.
Now I’m the first to argue that “electability” is an overrated factor in presidential nomination contests, and that could be particularly true in 2012, with most conservatives convinced that Barack Obama is the most self-evidently bad president since James Buchanan. But it’s a factor nonetheless. And if you are Rick Perry, contemplating a late entry into the contest as the party savior against a weak field, looking exceptionally weak in your own conservative state could be a real problem. I also think Jonathan may underestimate the extent to which Perry’s alleged “economic miracle” in Texas, which was the main subject of Rapoport’s piece, is a significant part of his appeal to GOP elites looking for the perfect contrast to Obama. That the alleged beneficiaries of Perry’s stewardship of Texas’ economy aren’t that jazzed about him could call that narrative into question in a serious way.
It’s always possible the PPP poll is an outlier, or that Texans will warm to their governor’s presidential aspirations if he runs, but it’s hardly good news for Perry as he gets ready to decide whether to take the plunge. If nothing else, the home folks are stubbornly refusing to polish his halo.

The Evidence-Free Hypothesis of Jews Abandoning Obama

One of those memes that pops up regularly in American political journalism is the suggestion that Jewish voters, who have been extraordinarily loyal to the Democratic Party over the years, are about to defect to the GOP in significant numbers. Here it is again, in a Politico piece by Ben Smith, mostly based on interviews of unnamed Jewish donors and opinion-leaders who are reportedly upset by the president’s tense relationship with Bibi Netanyahu.
I don’t doubt the integrity of Smith’s reporting, and the nervousness of some Jews about U.S. relations with Israel is unsurprising, since it’s been a regular feature of political life for decades, no matter who happened to be president. But that’s sort of the point: the case that this particular president’s Middle East policies are going to override the heavy preference of American Jews for the more progressive of the two major parties is noticeably short on non-anecdotal evidence. Here’s how Paul Waldman assesses the claim at TAPPED:

We’ve been hearing this ever since Obama became the Democratic nominee in 2008. Jews don’t trust him! He had Palestinian friends! There’s that Reverend Wright! Here’s an article from May 2008: “As Obama Heads to Florida, Many of Its Jews Have Doubts.” And guess what: Obama won 78 percent of Jewish votes anyway. John Kerry got 74 percent in 2004, and Al Gore got 79 percent in 2000. In other words, Obama did pretty much exactly as well as other Democrats.
It’s never hard to write this article. Just ask around, and you can find Jews to grumble about this or that. You don’t exactly have to be Nellie Bly to get Jews to complain. It’s kind of what we do.

Moreover, the long history of erroneous predictions that a sizeable percentage of Jewish voters are about to defect to the GOP does not inspire confidence in those making similar predictions today. The National Jewish Democratic Council has released an amusing and enlightening summary of such false prophecies, made metronomically every election cycle since the early 1990s. And that only scratches the surface: for all his anti-antisemitic impulses, Richard Nixon was very interested in “wedging” Jewish votes for his 1972 re-election campaign, alongside his other coalition-building projects.
Perhaps one reason for the renewal of this meme is that Republican candidates for president seem to be spending a lot of time attacking Obama for failing to become Bibi’s best friend (most recently T-Paw, who made it a major theme of his Great Big Foreign Policy Speech last week). But these candidates obviously have much bigger fish to fry than any appeal to Jewish voters. Does anyone fail to understand that maximum solidarity with hard-line Israeli policies is of great interest to conservative evangelical activists, who have a somewhat more important presence than Jews in the Republican presidential nominating contest?
Ultimately, there are a host of factors that inhibit Jews from entertaining the idea of a vote for today’s GOP. As Waldman tartly concludes:

[I]n the end, Obama will have no trouble raising money, and getting votes, from Jews. It’s mostly ideological (most Jews are very progressive), but perhaps just as important, it’s cultural. All the time Republicans spend talking about who’s “one of us” resonates strongly with Jews. When they talk about how small towns are superior to cities, and the “heartland” is the “real” America while the coasts are fake, and how book learnin’ is for elitists, and how important it is that politicians be religious (read: Christian), Jews hear it loud and clear. That message of cultural affinity with a certain kind of person sends a simultaneous message to Jews: This party is not for you and your kind. Sarah Palin can put on a Star of David necklace, but that’s never going to convince Jews that they’re part of the Republican family. GOP candidates can talk about their love of Israel all they want, but it won’t be enough.

Until real evidence to the contrary emerges, that strikes me as the final word on the subject.

Counter-Punching On Taxes

For those of you who, like me, have been watching the endless fiscal saga in California with a growing sense that it could foreshadow the kind of gricklocked insanity we may soon see in Washington, I have some potentially promising news. By that I do not refer to the fact that Democratic legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown have managed to enact a budget without any help from Republicans. Underneath the surface, there’s a growing possibility that progressive forces in the state may have found a will and a way to convince Californians that their cherished Proposition 13 property-tax limitation law has been playing them for suckers, and needs to be changed by ballot initiative.
Brown himself alluded to this possibility in his public pleas to Republicans to go along with his efforts to put revenue extenders on the ballot.
The underlying issue, as examined in a major 2010 study of the state’s tax structure, is that loopholes in Prop 13 have produced a steady shift in the tax burden from nonresidential to residential properties over the years. That’s partly because corporations–and notably banks–have found ways to buy and sell property without triggering the reassessments that are supposed to occur upon changes of ownership.
So despite the iconography surrounding Prop 13, there’s actually a good political case to be made for a ballot initiative focused on redressing a tax-shift from corporations to the middle class, as noted by Calbuzz:

It’s a safe bet that most voters don’t truly understand, or even know about, the full extent to which corporations and other commercial property owners for three decades have systematically shifted California’s property tax burden onto residential homeowners – and away from themselves.
What regular folks do know, however, is that they don’t like the idea when they learn a little about it: while 55 percent of Californians still say Prop. 13 is a good thing, 58 percent in a 2009 PPIC poll said they would favor taxing commercial property at current market rate by using a split roll assessment system.
Just think what they’d say if they knew how outrageous the current scheme actually is.

The broader implications are that Republican anti-tax rhetoric often disguises similar tax shifts from the middle class to corporations and the wealthy. Sometimes the diguise is thin, as evidenced by the enthusiasm of many conservatives for tax systems aimed at consumption rather than wealth. Sometimes it involves a shell game, as tax cuts for corporations and high-income individuals inevitably push up public costs borne by everyone else.
In any event, in California and nationally, Democrats need not run in terror whenever taxes are discussed. Big majorities of Americans consistently support progressive taxation, and will vote for it when it can be shown that “anti-tax” initiatives are really aimed at shifting the tax burden to those who can least afford it.

Tweaking Obama’s Message Strategy for ’12

Writing in Time magazine’s ‘Swampland’ blog, Michael Scherer takes an insightful look at President Obama’s messaging options, going forward into the 2012 elections. Schere quotes TDS Co-Editor Stanley Greenberg, pollster for President Bill Clinton, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Israel’s Ehud Barak, explaining that leaders have an instinct “to prove that their economic policies have worked.” But it’s only a good strategy when the economy is booming. Scherer adds,

In times of plenty, that gut feeling is right. The nation cheered the gangbusters growth under Ronald Reagan in 1984, and the mid-1990s Clinton economic boom. But when the economy is sour, politicians who litigate the past risk sounding tone-deaf to the troubles of the present. This is why Greenberg is now speaking up. He fears President Obama may make a huge mistake by trying to convince voters he saved the economy from a much worse fate. “No one is going to give you much credit for what you have done for this recovery,” says Greenberg, who has been testing messages in focus groups and polls for Democrats to use in the coming election. “Saying the economy is starting to make progress is bad.”

Scherer adds that recent projections of low economic growth (under 3%) and 8.5+% joblessness, with 4 out of 5 Americans rating the economy as “poor” pretty much end Obama’s hopes for running as an economic savior. Still, Scherer feels the president has a “backward-looking message” bragging about job-creation, which Greenberg also believes it is the wrong message at this juncture, as was the “car in the ditch” metaphor of last year.
Obama Advisor David Axelrod, on the other hand, argues that the president has to put the economy in historic context: He has to emphasize his economic accomplishments, as well as GOP responsibility for for the economic disaster he inherited and the current gridlock as part of the president’s message strategy.
According to Scherer, Greenberg’s polling indicates that economic discontent among voters goes back a decade and now they don’t want to hear assertions that the recovery is underway. Scherer reports that polling now indicates that they are more interested in “long-term fixes, like rebuilding the middle class and taking on China, or moving beyond the politics of blame.” He adds that “Obama has shifted to a message of ‘winning the future,’ pushing an ‘innovation’ agenda.”
The goal now for Obama strategists, says Scherer, is to avoid making the 2012 election “a referendum on the last three years” and get voters focused on which candidate is more qualified to lead America into the future. The Republicans are hoping to sell the meme that President Obama has failed to create jobs. As Stan Greenberg explains the challenge ahead, “If they make the election about ‘Did we get the stimulus right?,’ and we make the election about how to create jobs, we win that. That could be a trap for them.”

How Dems Can Leverage Social Media for Electoral Gains

Darrell M. West, Vice President and Director, Governance Studies of The Brookings Institution, has a post that should be of interest to Dem candidates and campaigns: “Ten Ways Social Media Can Improve Campaign Engagement and Reinvigorate American Democracy.”
West explains:

…Using social networking outreach tools such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter, a number of Democratic and Republican candidates raised money, identified supporters, built electoral coalitions, and brought people in closer touch with the electoral process. Despite social networking’s track record for generating democratic engagement, though, it has proven difficult to sustain political interest and activism online over time and move electronic engagement from campaigns to governance…

Brookings convened a panel of experts on using digital resources in politics to address reviving political engagement among citizens. It would be good if Dems considered the panel’s ten suggestions for using social media, which include, according to West’s report:

Future Political Effectiveness Is Going to Be Based on Social Networks Because that is Where “Trust Filters” Operate. In a world of information over-flow, it is hard for people to evaluate competing claims. Politicians often disagree not just on interpretations, but on the facts. Increasingly, people are using their personal networks to fact-check claims, evaluate the quality of information, and alert them to what is important in the world. As pointed out by Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, these developments allow individuals and their networks to “act like broadcasters and publishers” and therefore transform the nature of political communications. Those seeking to engage citizens and get them involved in the political process must win the trust of social networks to be influential during the contemporary period. Future political influence is going to be network-based because those are the filters used to access and evaluate political information. Unless you can get past those trust filters, you will not be able to engage the public and influence the course of electoral events.

New Tools for Old School

After the online political explosion of 2008, it’s natural to assume the 2012 presidential cycle will be strongly affected by use of social media like Facebook and Twitter.
But as Ken Thomas of AP explains in an early analysis of 2012 campaign technology usages, it may be new and functionally useful apps rather than social media that will make the key difference:

While social media may generate new interest in 2012, technology could play an important role in the more mundane, shoe-leather work of registering new voters and turning them out.
In 2008, campaign supporters who knocked on doors of potential voters largely used paper “walk sheets” that were printed out at local headquarters. The results of the door-to-door meetings were keyed into databases to guide the campaign’s work to persuade voters on Obama’s behalf.
This time, the campaign is exploring ways of streamlining the process, from bringing more uniformity to how the information is taken down and entered into a database to using mobile devices, tablet computers or improvements to the website to help volunteers find key households or input data gathered at doorsteps. The approach could save time and help the campaign be more strategic about the households it targets.
The Democratic National Committee, for example, experimented with an app in 2010 that used global positioning systems to help canvassers find targeted households in certain neighborhoods, something that could be used more broadly in the presidential campaign.

New tools for old school tasks may be the wave of the immediate future.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Jonathan Pollard–What Precepts of Decency Does our State Owe its Prisoners?

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
A man sits in prison, serving a life sentence after committing grave crimes against his country. Meanwhile, his aged father lies dying. The prisoner asks to be released for one day to say goodbye at his father’s bedside. The authorities say no; by some accounts, they do not even reply to his request. His father dies, and he asks to be released for one day to attend the funeral. Again, he is turned down, reportedly after high-level diplomatic consultations.
This is, of course, Jonathan Pollard’s story. But I presented it anonymously because it shouldn’t matter whose story it is. Pollard is a prisoner, but he is still a human being. Honoring our parents by burying them appropriately is one of the defining duties of our humanity. Preventing a human being from discharging that duty is an elemental wrong.
Governments typically deal in aggregates and make decisions affecting millions. Sometimes, however, it comes down to an encounter between state power and a single individual. I do not claim that the moral principles that shape relations among individuals transfer neatly to the acts of public authorities. There is a difference, even if we argue about the specifics of the distinction. Still, basic precepts of decency and mercy do not lose all force when one moves from private to public status.
The Secretary of State and the Attorney-General owe us an explanation. In fact, the President of the United States owes us an explanation. My question is simple: What considerations of public safety, or national security, or international relations were so weighty as to override the dictates of simple humanity?
I do not know whether it is standard practice in the U.S. penal system to allow prisoners to attend their parents’ funeral. If it isn’t, it should be. Nor do I know whether the Israeli government prevents some Palestinian prisoners from attending funerals, as Palestinian spokesmen have recently charged. If that is the case, the Israelis should reexamine their policy and ask themselves whether national security truly requires it.
These are legitimate questions, but they do not touch the core of the point I’m making: There are times when you don’t need an elaborate moral argument to identify a straightforward wrong. If I’m right, the U.S. government’s treatment of Pollard’s request is one of the times. For high officials to persist in their obstinate silence only deepens the wrong.

Cut, Cap, Balance: Zero To Do With Deficits

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on June 22, 2011.
So in addition to the ancient no-tax-increase pledge administered to legions of Republicans by Grover Norquist, and the new anti-choice pledge being pushed by the Susan B. Anthony List, there’s yet another, more immediately significant pledge out there that would guarantee the debt limit confrontation on tap soon would go nuclear. It’s the “cut, cap, balance” pledge endorsed by a fairly wide array of conservative groups, and it goes like this:

I pledge to urge my Senators and Member of the House of Representatives to oppose any debt limit increase unless all three of the following conditions have been met:
Cut – Substantial cuts in spending that will reduce the deficit next year and thereafter.
Cap – Enforceable spending caps that will put federal spending on a path to a balanced budget.
Balance – Congressional passage of a Balancoed Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — but only if it includes both a spending limitation and a super-majority for raising taxes, in addition to balancing revenues and expenses.

What’s interesting about this “pledge” is that action to reduce budget deficits is strictly subordinated to the most central task of permanently limiting government in a way that would virtually require destruction of the New Deal and Great Society legacy. The “enforceable spending caps,” as explained in a Wall Street Journal column penned by the leaders of three of the groups endorsing this “pledge,” don’t involve any sort of “freeze” or “slowdown,” but instead a absolute limitation based on a percentage of GDP that has only been achieved at the peak of big economic booms (e.g., the end of the Clinton administration) or prior to the enactment of the modern social safety net (the 1950s and 1960s). The version of the balanced budget amendment that represent the “balance” portion of the pledge would also include a GDP limit, along with a super-majority requirement for tax increases that makes it clear deficit reduction is not the object of this exercise.
All of this serves to demonstrate, if the thundering support of conservatives for the Ryan budget wasn’t sufficient evidence, that the primary objective of the conservative movement on the fiscal front is the destruction of safety net programs that are too popular to assault frontally. Combined with their invariable, unchanging agenda of still more high-end tax cuts, the drive for spending limitations linked to GDP is a formula for perpetual budget deficits to be perpetually used to drive down government involvement in national life to levels not seen since the 1920s. And that, folks, is the whole idea.