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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: January 2013

Political Strategy Notes

In his New York Times column, Thomas B. Edsall has a data-rich take-down of the Republican myth “that life for the poor and the middle class is better than it seems.”
Despite good reasons for optimism about prospects for immigration reform, Dems should make themselves aware of the opposition’s strategy. Benjy Sarlin’s Talking Points Memo post, “Meet The Conservatives Trying To Stop Immigration Reform” is a good place to begin.
The Times has an editorial, “Political Power Needs to Be Used,” arguing that Democrats have been unnecessarily fear-driven in recent years: “If ever there were a moment for Democrats to press their political advantage, this is it. Their message on many of the biggest national issues — taxes, guns, education spending, financial regulation — has widespread support, and they have increased their numbers in both houses of Congress. But after years of being out-yelled by strident right-wing ideologues, too many in the Democratic Party still have a case of nerves, afraid of bold action and forthright principles.”
Commenting on the Obama-Clinton 60 Minutes interview, Michael Tomasky sees a transition benefiting Dems: “We have thus passed an important portal in American politics: Democrats are now the regular guys. Conservatives are the weirdos.”
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky sinks the Republican meme that the American middle class is prospering, which is often used to justify cuts in social spending.
Opposition to the Affordable Care Act seems to have leveled off and begun to decline, in part because major benefits are starting to kick in. H.E.W. Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has a HuffPo update: “We’re starting an important countdown, first to October 1, 2013, when many of you will be able to begin to shop for health insurance that meets your needs at the new Health Insurance Marketplace at HealthCare.gov. The countdown continues on to January 1, 2014, the start of new health insurance coverage for millions of Americans…This is an historic time for those Americans who never had health insurance, who had to go without insurance after losing a job or becoming sick, or who had been turned down because of a pre-existing condition. Because of these new marketplaces established under the Affordable Care Act, millions of Americans will have new access to affordable health insurance coverage.”
A lot is riding on how user-friendly the aforementioned website will prove to be as a cornerstone of Obamacare. At WaPo’s Wonkblog Sarah Kliff’s “Buying health coverage is insanely confusing. Can Obamacare fix that?” explores some of the challenges consumers face in sorting out all of the data associated with evaluating and selecting health insurers.
Demos President Miles Rapaport does a good job of criticizing right-to-work laws and explaining the importance of unions for creating a healthy economy on this union-hostile Fox program.
In her Daily Beast post, “How Obama and the Democrats Could Win on Gun Control–by Losing” Eleanor Clift quotes TDS co-founding editor William Galston: “I confidently predict that a lot of red-state Democrats [in the Senate] will vote in favor of expanded background checks and against an assault weapons ban. That’s the political sweet spot, and that’s where they’ll be–and they don’t think that will hurt them,” says Galston. Testifying before the Senate committee Wednesday, NRA head Wayne LaPierre said his organization would oppose universal background checks. “That’s an insane move,” says Galston, calling the NRA “a front organization for the gun manufacturers.”
Michael Grunwald’s “What’s Wrong With the Republican Party?” at Time Swampland sums it up well: “I’ve often banged my spoon on my high chair about the reality-defying extremism and chronic obstructionism and borderline surrealism of the modern Republican Party. Its journey to wackadoodleland is, in my view, the most important political story of the last two decades…”
Dems who have been wondering if Clare McCaskill’s successful re-election strategy of getting involved in the GOP state primary could be replicated with positive results elsewhere should read Nate Silver’s “High-Risk Primaries Could Cost Republicans in 2014.”

Obama Campaign Spin-off Set to Lead ‘Standing Grassroots Army’

In her post, “Obama’s Permanent Campaign: Can He Use His Reelection Playbook to Change Washington?” at The Atlantic, Molly Ball addresses a question on the minds of many Democrats who are concerned about party-building. Ball’s post explains the new strategy, which is anchored on the creation of a new group ‘Organizing for Action’:

…Organizing for Action could be the key to enacting the president’s agenda. Obama’s best hope for his aggressive program may lie in the same innovative campaign techniques of grassroots mobilization and data-based field organizing that got him reelected in November. And if he pulls it off, he could revolutionize lawmaking the way he’s already revolutionized campaigns.
Politicians talk about an outside game, but no president has ever commanded a standing army of organized supporters who could be summoned at a moment’s notice to put pressure on Washington at his command. That is what Obama is proposing to do, said Addisu Demissie, who served as political director of Organizing for America, the heir to Obama’s 2008 campaign organization.
“A lot of the things the president has proposed are popular — pieces of gun safety, immigration, and so on,” Demissie said. “The people are with him. But those people have to be heard, to step up and be counted, particularly in Republican congressional districts.”
To be sure, there’s a network of progressive advocacy organizations who are active on a wide range of issues. “But none of them have the sole job of mobilizing on behalf of the president’s agenda,” Demissie said. Obama’s grassroots supporters “have been trained now, through two presidential election cycles, to work and organize and do the hard work of politics. Now, Obama can really use that power and those skills…Having a grassroots army could be the whole ballgame.”

It’s been a tough slog for the new organization, as Ball explains,

Insiders are calling Organizing for Action “OFA 4.0” — the fourth iteration of the acronym. OFA 1.0 was the first presidential campaign; 2.0 was its successor, Organizing for America, which became an arm of the Democratic National Committee in 2009; 3.0 was the reelection campaign.
OFA 2.0 is the most direct precedent for the current effort — and a cautionary tale. Organizing for America was largely blamed for having squandered the momentum of Obama’s first victory, allowing the president to get mired in D.C. deal-making and leaving his rank-and-file supporters out in the cold.
Veterans of the group bristle a bit at this characterization, but most acknowledge that Organizing for America took too long to get started, lacked a focused mission, didn’t play well with other actors (such as local Democratic parties) and, because of its affiliation with the DNC, suffered from conflicting imperatives. Was its job to push Obama’s plans, or was it to get more Democrats elected.

Despite the obstacles, however, the group has had some impressive success, and claims a measure of credit for helping to enact the Affordable Care Act. “…by the end of August, we were showing up at events and outnumbering the Tea Party folks 3 to 1 or 5 to 1 or 10 to 1 depending on the area.,” noted Evan Sutton an OFA field director in Nevada.
Ball concludes her post with a quote from former DNC chair Howard Dean: “Lots of presidents have tried to rally the public on an ad hoc basis…But I don’t believe any president has ever maintained a standing grassroots army …. Obama built the best grassroots campaign I’ve ever seen by a mile. Nobody has done this successfully before, but if anyone can do it, he can.”

Nichols: How to Fight the Rigging of the Electoral College

While many commentators have written about the Republican campaign to rig the electoral college vote in key states, The Nation’s John Nichols has come up with a credible strategy for preventing it. if you are a Democrat in one of these states under Republican siege, print, clip and stick Nichols’ post, “Three Strategies to Block the Gerrymandering of the Electoral College” on the fridge. It will likely come in handy on the road to 2016.
The three strategies Nichols suggests include:


As regards point #1, many would say “But they have no shame.” It’s not hard to cite numerous instances of Republican shamelessness on a broad range of topics. Nonetheless, there are memes they don’t want to get stuck with. As Nichols explains:

When The Nation began writing several weeks ago about the Priebus plan, and specific efforts in swing states, the stories went viral. Social media matters in this struggle. So, too, does the attention coming from television and radio hosts such as MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman and Thom Hartmann.
The attention “names and shames” Republicans who are implementing the Priebus plan in states such as Virginia. But it also puts pressure on Republicans who are considering doing so. Significantly, when Florida legislative leaders were asked by The Miami Herald about the proposal, the biggest swing state’s most powerful Republicans scrambled to distance themselves from the anti-democratic initiative. Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said, “To me, that’s like saying in a football game, ‘We should have only three quarters, because we were winning after three quarters and the beat us in the fourth. I don’t think we need to change the rules of the game, I think we need to get better.”

Progressives often flunk when it comes to “naming and shaming.” The progressive blogosphere generally does its part creating national buzz calling attention to injustices. But this doesn’t help enough to generate local coverage confronting electoral vote-suppressing perps on camera. It’s also about local protestors confronting these Republicans wherever they appear, again and again, until they renounce the project. That’s the job of Democratic activists. Nichols adds that an important part of “shaming” is to ferret out Republicans who have a conscience and who are willing to publicly denounce electoral vote suppression as morally repulsive.
With respect to Nichols’ second strategy, he elaborates:

…The right response is to highlight the anti-democratic character of the Electoral College and to push for a national popular vote. This will require a constitutional amendment. That takes work. But the process is in play. States across the country have endorsed plans to respect the popular vote that are advanced by FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy.
“The very fact that a scenario [in which a rigged Electoral College allows a popular-vote loser to become president] is even legally possible should give us all pause,” argues FairVote’s Rob Richie. “Election of the president should be a fair process where all American voters should have an equal ability to hold their president accountable. It’s time for the nation to embrace one-person, one-vote elections and the ‘fair fight’ represented by a national popular vote. Let’s forever dismiss the potential of such electoral hooliganism and finally do what the overwhelming majorities of Americans have consistently preferred: make every vote equal with a national popular vote for president.”
Understanding, talking about and promoting the National Popular Vote campaign is an essential response to every proposal to rig the Electoral College. It pulls the debate out of the weeds of partisanship and appeals to a sense of fairness in Democrats, independents and responsible Republicans.

In other words, make Republican advocates of electoral college gerrymandering explain on camera why they won’t support direct popular election of The President — a reform which has broad popular support. Asked “Would you vote for or against a law that would do away with the Electoral College and base the election of the president on the total vote cast throughout the nation?,” 63 percent said yes in a Gallup poll taken Jan. 8-9, with 29 percent opposed.
Nichols’ third strategy, “make gerrymandering an issue,” is a little tricky because it relies on the integrity of the courts. But his reasoning makes sense, and it would be political neglect not to try it:

…When gerrymandering threatens the integrity of national elections and the governing of the country, this opens a new avenue for challenging what remains the most common tool for rigging elections.
It is time for state attorneys general who have track records of supporting democracy initiatives, such as New York’s Eric Schneiderman, and state elections officials, such as Minnesota’s Mark Ritchie, to start looking at legal strategies to challenging the Priebus plan in particular and gerrymandering as it influences national elections. This really is an assault on the one-person, one-vote premise of the American experiment. And retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, among others, is advocating for a renewed push on behalf of fair elections.
“[It] goes back to the fundamental equal protection principle that government has the duty to be impartial. When it’s engaged in districting it should be impartial,” Stevens explained in a recent interview. “Nowadays, the political parties acknowledge that they are deliberately trying to gerrymander the districts in a way that will help the majority.”
This, argues Stevens, is “outrageously unconstitutional in my judgment. The government cannot gerrymander for the purpose of helping the majority party; the government should be redistricting for the purpose of creating appropriate legislative districts. And the government ought to start with the notion that districts should be compact and contiguous as statutes used to require.”
Stevens says the courts, which often intervene on voting rights cases involving minority representation, and in cases where states with divided government cannot settle on new district lines, should engage with the purpose of countering gerrymandering…”If the Court followed neutral principles in whatever rules they adopted, the rules would apply equally to the Republicans and Democrats,” says the retired Justice, a key player on voting and democracy issues during his thirty-five-year tenure on the High Court. “I think that line of cases would generate a body of law such as the one-person, one-vote cases that would be administered in a neutral way. This is one of my major disappointments in my entire career: that I was so totally unsuccessful in persuading the Court on something so obviously correct. Indeed, I think that the Court’s failure to act in this area is one of the things that has contributed to the much greater partisanship in legislative bodies…”
Justice Stevens is right. That partisanship has moved from gerrymandering the state lines and US House lines to gerrymandering the presidential vote. The moment is ripe for a constitutional intervention.

Nichols’ call to arms is right on time at this early stage. Democrats must understand that once battleground state electoral college votes have been rigged to elect Republicans, it will be awfully hard, if not impossible, to undo the travesty. The time to beat back this threat is now.

Abramowitz: GOP’s ‘cynical attempt to rig the electoral system’ harms U.S. democracy

At Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Alan I. Abramowitz’s “Republican Electoral College Plan Would Undermine Democracy” provides a revealing overview of the latest GOP effort to dominate politics through morally-corrupt ‘reforms’. In an introduction to Abramowitz’s post, editor Sabato, who writes from a nonpartisan perspective, has this to say about the revelations in the post:

We have asked Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, to examine the proposal and outline its likely effects. As we suspected, it would permit a GOP nominee to capture the White House even while losing the popular vote by many millions. This is not a relatively small Electoral College “misfire” on the order of 1888 or 2000. Instead, it is a corrupt and cynical maneuver to frustrate popular will and put a heavy thumb — the whole hand, in fact — on the scale for future Republican candidates… A party in decline is Nixonian and fears the future; it sees enemies everywhere, feels overwhelmed by electoral trends, and thinks it can win only by cheating, by subverting the system and stacking the deck in its favor.

And reading Abramowitz’s insightful commentary confirms the worst —that the current Republican Party has wholeheartedly embraced a power-grabbing philosophy, which one usually finds in the worst tyrants and which threatens to make a mockery of our democratic traditions. As Sabato explains:

As the electorate continues to become less white and more liberal in its outlook on social issues, Republicans have two choices about how to improve their party’s prospects in future presidential elections. One approach would be to adopt more moderate positions on issues such as immigration, abortion, gay rights and health care in order to make their party more appealing to young people, women and nonwhites. But that strategy would risk alienating a large portion of the GOP’s current base, especially those aligned with the Tea Party movement. So rather than adopting that risky strategy, some Republican leaders appear to be opting for a different approach — changing the electoral rules to make it easier for a Republican candidate to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote.
Several Republican governors and state legislative leaders in key battleground states have recently expressed support for a plan to change the method of awarding their state’s electoral votes from the current winner-take-all system to one in which one vote would be awarded to the winner of each congressional district in the state and two votes would be awarded to the statewide winner. In the aftermath of the GOP’s 2012 defeat, this plan appears to be gaining momentum and was recently endorsed by the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus…
…There is a serious problem with this approach. Despite a superficial appearance of fairness, the congressional district plan would be profoundly undemocratic — skewing the results in favor of the party drawing the congressional district lines in a state and greatly increasing the chances of an Electoral College misfire (a victory by the candidate losing the national popular vote)…Despite Obama’s comfortable margin in the national popular vote, a system that awarded one electoral vote for each House district plus two votes for the statewide winner would have resulted in a Romney victory by 276 electoral votes to 262 electoral votes.

And it gets a lot worse if Republicans are able to force proportional allocation on key ‘battleground’ states they have targeted. As Abramowitz notes,

…There is a chance that this system could be adopted by six battleground states that were carried by Obama in both 2008 and 2012 but where Republicans currently control the governorship and both houses of the legislature: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin…If these six battleground states were to adopt the congressional district method of awarding electoral votes, it would not guarantee a Republican victory in the 2016 presidential election but it would make such a victory much more likely. That’s because the congressional district lines in these states were gerrymandered by Republican legislatures following the 2010 census to give their party a huge advantage. As a result, even though Obama carried all six states in 2012, it appears that Romney carried 61 House districts in these states to only 33 for Obama. Romney appears to have carried 16 of 27 House districts in Florida, 9 of 14 House districts in Michigan, 12 of 16 House districts in Ohio, 12 of 18 House districts in Pennsylvania, 7 of 11 House districts in Virginia and 5 of 8 House districts in Wisconsin.
If the congressional district system had been used in these six states in 2012, instead of Obama winning all of their 106 electoral votes, it appears that Romney would have won 61 electoral votes to only 45 for Obama. As a result, Obama’s margin in the national electoral vote would have been reduced from 332-206 to only 271-267.

The result would not just be disastrous for the Democratic Party; It could also do profound damage to democracy in the U.S., as Abramowitz concludes:

Under current circumstances, the congressional district system could well result in a Republican victory even if the Democratic candidate were to win the popular vote by a substantial margin. Such a situation would undoubtedly lead to widespread questioning of the legitimacy of the election and, potentially, a public backlash against the victorious Republican candidate and the GOP itself. Before engaging in a cynical attempt to rig the electoral system, Republican leaders and strategists should consider the potential harm that their actions could do to our democratic form of government and to their own party.

It is a sad day when one of America’s two most venerable parties decides it can only win by thwarting the will of the people. As Sabato suggests, the GOP’s devolution to “Nixonian” manipulation leaves our system with only one party that practices fair politics and ernestly seeks majority support.

Silver: Data Shows Public Supports Agenda in Obama’s Speech

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on January 23, 2013.
Now that all the pundits have had their say about President Obama’s second inaugural address, Nate Silver brings the data to show what really matters: The public supports the president’s agenda. On climate change:

The PollingReport.com database includes two polls on global warming conducted after the Nov. 6 presidential election. An Associated Press-GfK poll in the field from Nov. 29 to Dec. 3 found that 78 percent of respondents said they believed the planet had warmed over the past 100 years, and 49 percent said they thought global warming would be a “very serious” problem for the United States if left unaddressed (31 percent said they thought it would be “somewhat serious”).
Fifty-seven percent of the 1,002 adults surveyed said the United States government should do “a great deal” or “quite a bit” on global warming…A United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll conducted Nov. 8 to 11 found that 57 percent of adults said they thought global warming was increasing the likelihood of storms like Hurricane Sandy.

On same-sex marriage:

The percentage of adults who favor same-sex marriage has been rising steadily for some time…Five polls on same-sex marriage have been conducted since the election and are included in the PollingReport.com database. Each poll uses slightly different question wording, but an average of 51 percent of respondents favored same-sex marriage and 44 percent opposed it.

On Immigration reform, Silver cites four recent polls, two showing strong majorities favoring a path to citizenship similar to what the president supports and two showing healthy pluralities supporting the president’s proposals.
On gun violence, different polls on various reforms bring a mixed message, but more favorable to Obama’s proposals than not:

…a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 54 percent of respondents favored tighter gun laws, up from 39 percent in a CBS News poll last April…A Jan. 17 Gallup poll found 53 percent of adults said they would want their representative to vote for the package of gun law reforms that Mr. Obama proposed. Forty-one percent said they would want their representative to oppose the laws.
…The most recent Fox News poll found that 51 percent of respondents said that “protecting the constitutional right of citizens to own guns” was more important than “protecting citizens from gun violence.” Forty percent of those surveyed said protecting citizens was more important…In the same Fox News poll, laws requiring criminal background checks and mental health checks on all gun buyers were both favored by more than 80 percent of respondents. (That’s in line with virtually every recent poll on guns. The Times/CBS News poll found that 92 percent of respondents favored background checks on all potential gun buyers.)
…Recent polls have found that support for a ban on assault rifles and semiautomatic weapons as well as a ban on high-capacity magazines usually falls in the low 50s to low 60s.

In his speech the president said, “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” Silver cites “a solid majority favoring such laws.” Silver did not discuss restrictions on early voting opposed by Democrats in general. But heavy participation rates indicate that it is overwhelmingly popular with voters.
Republican commentators are still parroting their message du jour that the president’s speech was somehow polarizing. Not really. Their knee-jerk response is to oppose everything he proposes. But the public clearly supports the president’s speech agenda in almost every instance — often by overwhelming margins.

Lessons of 2012, Part II: Obama’s Grand Strategy Worked, Romney’s Didn’t

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on January 8, 2013.
Many accounts of Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign strategy begin with his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in December of 2011. Then, it is said, after nearly three years of projecting a unilateral commitment to bipartisanship, the president finally went after the Republican Party and its policies with hammer and tong, and began the process of reinvigorating a dispirited Democratic “base,” rebutting GOP efforts to evade responsibility for its extremism and obstructionism, and presenting a clear choice to persuadable voters.
In other words, Obama’s campaign strategy repudiated his political strategy as president–and perhaps the strategy he has resumed in dealing with Republicans now that the election is over, some progressives fear.
That’s an understandable judgment. But from what we know of the internal thinking of the White House, it was long-planned and represented a scheduled “pivot” in messaging rather than any sort of reversal. To put it simply, whatever it meant in terms of his legislative agenda, Obama’s long-suffering “bipartisanship” rhetoric set the stage for his increasingly edgy partisan differentiation later in the cycle by consistently depicting him as a reasonable leader dealing with a Republican Party that refused ever to reciprocate. Given the strong tendency of persuadable (and often “low-information”) voters, reinforced by the false equivalency habits of the mainstream media, to treat both parties in Washington as equally right and wrong in the various conflicts of Obama’s first term, his ever-patient efforts to “reach out” to an unreachable GOP may well have been more effective than direct partisan differentiation in keeping his personal favorability (a key asset moving into 2012, and consistently exceeding his job approval ratings) higher than his opponents,’ including the Republican presidential candidate filed.
Soon after Obama’s “pivot,” as a fractious Republican primary season unfolded, the White House focused on keeping him “presidential,” creating an implicit contrast with the squabbling and pandering GOPers. Once Mitt Romney emerged as the nominee, the Obama campaign skillfully deployed a two-phased attack on his claims to represent a moderate technocrat perfectly equipped to “fix” the economy without association with his party’s past incompetence or present extremism. The first phase constantly reminded voters of Romney’s personal background–at Bain Capital particularly–and many statements (sometimes gaffes) reflecting an exclusive identification with financial elites and the very wealthy generally. And the second phase focused on Romney’s policies as reflecting the same skewed orientation and the same extremist reduplication of the worst of Republican mistakes of the recent past.
The election-year strategy, which also relied on a general improvement in economic conditions and a relatively stable international environment, served the more fundamental missions of convincing swing voters the election was a choice of two very different directions for the country (the constant theme of Obama’s messaging during the stretch run), and convincing “base” voters they could enthusiastically support the President while avoiding the despoilation of cherished progressive priorities by the GOP. It succeed on all counts. It is an open question as to whether “accelerating” the process of sharp partisan differentiation earlier into Obama’s presidency would have worked as well, since it would have become part of the despised Washington background noise long before ballots were cast.
Romney, obviously, had a more restricted landscape on which to deploy his own grand strategy. By the time the general election campaign was fully underway he had spent most of the previous five years trying to establish his conservative bona fides, in ever more glaring contrast to his past record as a candidate and governor in Massachusetts. In the 2012 cycle, his own health care plan as governor became not only a primary-season albatross, but undercut many of his options in the general election. Thus, when he began his “pivot” to the general election, the aspects of his record he couldn’t talk about and the GOP agenda items he had more recently embraced that polled poorly left him with little to tout other than his business experience. And that, of course, left him open to exactly the Obama campaign attack on him that pulled down his favorable ratings and set up the latter assault on his and his party’s policy agenda.
Romney did successfully count on a post-primary consolidation of support from self-identified Republicans, though his choice of Paul Ryan as a running-mate indicated some nervousness about base support. His various efforts to “wedge” Democratic or swing vote constituencies–e.g., the “war on religion” campaign in the late spring, and repeated claims that Obama was insufficiently committed to Israel (which carried the bonus of appealing to conservative evangelical “base” voters)–mostly fell flat or backfired. His audacious stretch-run effort to exploit hazy perceptions of his policy agenda by suddenly posing as a “moderate” were too little and too late, and were obviously undercut by past and present expressions of fidelity to right-wing memes (most famously the “47%” remarks, which did not create but certainly reinforced the Obama campaign’s relentless description of him as an out-of-touch economic royalist).
If there was a distinct moment where the Obama campaign successfully demolished one of the strategic underpinnings of the Romney campaign, it was probably the president’s unveiling of a “Dream Act Lite” initiative in June that he promulgated by executive order. This preempted an apparent Romney plan to reverse some of the damage to his standing among Latino voters that his primary-phase rhetoric on immigration inflicted. Marco Rubio was in the process of developing for Romney a GOP version of “Dream Act Lite,” but the negative conservative reaction to Obama’s gambit left Romney high, dry and more unpopular than ever with this crucial demographic–while considerably boosting Latino enthusiasm for the incumbent, which had been lagging dangerously.
But like many aspects of the Obama Grand Strategy in action, this moment reflected a more general belief by Team Obama that the president’s high personal standing among elements of his 2008 coalition, gradually improving economic conditions, and most of all Romney’s inability to escape the taint of his party’s extremism, would bring that coalition back to life. Add in Obama’s exceptional GOTV operation, and successful efforts (aided by the courts) to blunt Republican voter-suppression tactics, and you have the ingredients of a smart strategy executed very well.

Lux: Tough Choices Ahead for Dems on ‘Grand Bargain’

This item by Democratic strategist Mike Lux, author of The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, is cross-posted from HuffPost:, where it was originally published on January 14, 2013.
It is a well-known fact that President Obama wants a “grand bargain” with the Republicans, a deal that would reduce future deficits both by raising tax revenues and cutting spending, including on the so-called “entitlement programs.” He has offered this idea up repeatedly to Speaker Boehner and other Republican leaders in the 2011 debt ceiling talks and in the 2012 fiscal cliff debate, and media reports suggest that he is discussing the idea again with Republicans in the lead-up to the next perils of a budget crisis that is only a few weeks off.
Democrats in the progressive wing of the party (of which, full disclosure, I am a card carrying member) think the idea of cutting Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid benefits is terrible public policy because senior citizens who can least afford it will be badly hurt, and we have been working hard to convince the president to back away from this offer. This may be difficult to do, though, as the president has some strong (wrong, in my judgment, but compelling to the president’s political and legislative team) political reasons for wanting to do this grand bargain. But the politics of this deal are very different for the rest of the party, and it may well be that progressives can win over a lot more of those Democrats than conventional wisdom currently expects.
The Obama team’s logic is that they are sick and tired, understandably, of Republicans wanting to make every single issue, every policy debate, about the deficit issue, and they don’t want our country to keep lurching from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis as Republicans continue to look for “leverage” to force more cuts. And the White House, to their credit, is eager to move on to other issues that will move the country forward, such as immigration reform and gun safety issues. They believe that if they can finally close the deal and get the grand bargain they have been searching for that they will be on strong political ground to be able to say regarding the deficit, “Hey, we’ve already done something big on that, it’s time to move on.”
Now I happen to believe their logic is wrong on the politics of the issue, as Republicans’ strongest political issue by far is the deficit, and they will never give it up — no matter what happens, they will keep demanding more and more cuts, and the deficit hawks in the media and well-funded groups like Fix The Debt will back them up. But even if you were to grant that the White House was right on the politics of this issue for them, for Democratic members of Congress the politics on this issue are completely different.
For starters, members of Congress are far more affected by what I call the intensity factor. Remember about 25 years ago when senior citizens surrounded Con. Rostenkowski’s car and started rocking it back and forth because of a bill they didn’t like on catastrophic health care? Think what seniors today might do if their Social Security benefits were cut. That kind of intensity drives bad media coverage back home, primary challenges, contributions to opponents — and it kills your contributors’ and volunteers’ and base voters’ enthusiasm levels.
The threat of a primary is not as great on the Democratic side as on the Republican, as the progressive movement has less money and capacity in general to mount many successful primary challenges. In the last several cycles, there has usually been one major primary challenge (some successful, some not) to an incumbent from the left, and that isn’t enough to strike fear into most Democrats’ hearts. The intensity factor, though, might change the dynamics on this, adding new money and volunteers to primary fights. Add to that the combination of progressive forces with older voters who have just had their Social Security cut, and incumbent Democrats might have something to worry about, especially in states like PA, OH, MI, WI and IA with both large numbers of seniors and large numbers of union members.
Beyond the primaries, though, the politics of cutting benefits is far worse for Democratic incumbents in an off year general election. Think about the demographics alone: in the past two presidential elections, the percent of the electorate that came from voters 65 and over was 16 percent, whereas in the 2010 off-year election it jumped to 21 percent. And seniors have been one of the most volatile demographic groups in the electorate in recent years, and one not inclined to like Democrats very well: Democrats lost them by 8 percent in 2008, by a whopping 21 percent in 2010, and by 12 percent in 2012.
But seniors are far from the only worry with a bad vote on Social Security or Medicare. The voters that Democrats have to turn out in big numbers in an off-year are base voters. Base voters hate the idea of cutting Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, and a Democrat who had to defend that vote would be looking square in the face at a base voter constituency that was likely to be very depressed. I’ve lived through two off-year elections where Democratic base voters were unexcited about voting — 1994 and 2010 — and I don’t relish living through that again.
What will be especially brutal in the off-year election for Democrats who believe they have cut a responsible bipartisan deal that will protect them from Republican attacks is that the unaccountable outside groups with their millions of dollars in attack ads won’t hesitate to do brutal ads on them for cutting Social Security and Medicare, just as they did the last two elections attacking them for “cutting” Medicare. It won’t matter that the Republicans wanted to cut even more, or that the money for the ads comes from millionaires who would love to see these programs privatized: the attack dogs will not hesitate to make political hay off such a vote.
Beyond rank and file members of Congress, there is another major force in the Democratic party for whom a grand bargain is potentially deadly, and that is potential presidential candidates. Try explaining your vote cutting Social Security to the heavily senior citizen and base activist dominated Iowa caucuses. Having been involved in 5 different presidential campaigns, I feel pretty confident saying that it would be extremely tough to win a Democratic presidential primary having supported cutting Social Security benefits.
Even if you grant that the politics of the grand bargain idea are good for President Obama, they are poison for Democrats in Congress who have to run again in 2014 and 2016. The president, who will never run for office again, may feel like his best political alternative is to ignore the wishes of both his base and the seniors, who have never voted for him anyway on an issue like Social Security cuts. For the rest of the party, they had better take a close look at how this will affect their own political well-being.

Don’t forget the election’s unbelievably clear mandate on Medicare and Social Security

Don’t forget the election’s unbelievably clear mandate on Medicare and Social Security