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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Another Cross to Bear for Santorum

Even as he struggles to convince his fellow conservatives that his PA colleague, Arlen Specter, is, so to speak, kosher as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman at a time when the Right is eagerly looking forward to a raft of lifetime appointment to the federal bench for True Believers, Sen. Rick Santorum is in a bit of trouble on the home front.
As AP reporter Jennifer Yates explains, the Penn Hills school district in suburban Pittsburgh is investigating complaints that taxpayers have spent about $100,000 providing Santorum’s children with internet-based educational services even though the family actually lives in Virginia.
The Santorum kids are benefitting from a “cyber-charter” law in PA that allows frequently travelling famlies to avail themsleves of distance learning opportunities at public expense. But the question is whether the Santorums are “residents” of Penn Hills in any meaningful way. They own a modest house in the school district, but don’t appear to have lived there, preferring a much posher residence in tony, horsy Leesburg, VA.
I do not believe in visiting the sins of the father on his children, and wouldn’t for a moment try to interpose political objections at the expense of the education of the Santorum clan; maybe the kids will become Democrats with enough schooling. But the junior Senator from Pennsylvania really does need to figure out, like every other Member of Congress, where he lives. I know it’s vitally important to him to become a Big-Time Washington Player, and he is said to look in the mirror and see a future President of the United States. But for this apostle of “family values,” family values ought to trump ambition. If he cannot bring himself to live in Pennsylvania (some Members of Congress actually sleep in their offices Tuesday through Thursday, and spend most of their time back home), then he should make it clear he lives elsewhere and act accordingly. The public schools in Leesburg are pretty good, and there are a variety of fine private and parochial schools in the vicinity as well.
And moreover, as a fervent supporter of charter public schools, it honks me off that Santorum is doing his own part to undermine the credibility of his own state’s charter laws. Charter public schools are primarily intended to offer new choices and a better guarantee of achievement for disadvantaged kids being failed by traditional schools. Their purpose is not to give United States Senators the opportunity to pretend to live in their home states, and to educate their children in the wealthiest exurbs of The Imperial City, with the taxpayers of their abandoned domiciles footing the bill.


More About The Late Electoral Unpleasantness

While waiting breathlessly for the smoke from the Senate chimney signalling the outcome of Arlen Specter’s baptism of fire today, I caught up on some web reading, and ran across Noam Scheiber’s “&c” post about the comments that Ruy Teixeira and yours truly had made on Democracy Corps’ analysis of late-breaking voters.
Noam suggested that national security, not “culture issues” per se, were the key to Bush’s surprising success with late-deciding voters, but also argued (and I agree completely) that security and cultural concerns tend to merge. Indeed, I would submit that all the issues that hurt Kerry and that have so persistently hurt Democrats–security, “culture,” and the role of government–are “trust” issues on which our candidates have too often failed the credibility test and exposed themselves to GOP attacks on “elitist, soft-on-defense, big-government liberals.”
But let’s dig a little deeper here. DCorps suggested that seniors were especially disappointing for Democrats on November 2. And there’s no disputing the numbers: Kerry lost over-60 voters by 8 points, a 12-point negative swing from both Gore’s performance in 2000 and Clinton’s in 1996. That’s amazing, when you think about what the Kerry campaign was about during the last phase of the campaign: Iraq, Rx drugs, and Don’t Touch Social Security.
Seniors were famously the age cohort least likely to support the invasion of Iraq, from the very beginning. They were also unhappy with the administration-supported Rx drug benefit. And they are supposed to vibrate like tuning forks at any suggestion of changes in Social Security.
Maybe the results indicate that cultural issues were more important to seniors than Noam thinks. Maybe it means that they thought that trusting Bush on the war on terror trumped their concerns about his Iraq policies. But it almost certainly means that years and years of Democratic efforts to target seniors with a negative message about evil GOP designs on Medicare and Social Security aren’t getting us anywhere. Hell, that’s just about all Democratic congressional candidates in 2002 ever talked about. And whether or not you agree with DCorps’ apparent belief that Kerry didn’t focus enough on domestic issues in the home stretch, he sure focused on those domestic issues thought to work magic with seniors.
I know this is a radical thought, but maybe Democrats should focus on developing a broad, national message for change on all the challenges facing the country, since our “targeted” messages, some of which violently oppose “change,” don’t seem to be succeeding very well. I know for an absolute fact that John Kerry’s campaign considered that option, but his pollsters and consultants hooted it down. This is not a “recrimination,” but simply an observation about a long-standing way of thinking among Democrats that is not standing up well to the test of time after time.


What Must Specter Do?

Tomorrow’s apparently the big day when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) must “make his case” to his GOP colleagues about why they should allow him to ascend to the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, as dictated by the seniority system. Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist laid out a pretty high hurdle for the prickly Pennsylvanian: to preside in a way that reflects “the feelings, the beliefs, the values, the procedures that are held by the majority of that committee.” In other words, Specter must have the courage of other people’s convictions.
It’s hard to imagine what sort of servile gesture would suffice for Specter at this point. Agree to weild a papier-mache gavel? Get himself wired up with one of those instructional devices that George W. Bush was suspected to have worn during the first presidential debates? Recuse himself when any actual business comes before the Judiciary Committee?
About the only thing I can think of that would do the trick is for Specter to dramatically announce a conversion: no, not just to Movement Conservatism, or to the views of the Right to Life Committee, but to Christianity. Imagine the cries of joy that would ensue in Virginia Beach and Colorado Springs and other precincts of the theocratic Right! It would be like that scene in The Apostle when Billy Bob Thornton succumbed to the Call just as he was preparing to bulldoze Robert Duvall’s church! Victory is mine! Victory is mine!

Like the president himself, Specter would be forgiven his decades of “youthful indiscretions,” such as his career-long support for abortion rights.
But such are Specter’s sins that I would not recommend a mere recitation of creeds or a high-church “sprinkling.” Nothing short of a Full Immersion will likely convince his critics. Imagine the scene: the Senate Republican Caucus gathers on the banks of the Anacostia River, and robed in white, the senior Senator from Pennsylvania, accompanied by Brother Frist and Brother Coburn and Brother Santorum and Brother Novak, wades into the greasy waters….
If, as France’s Henry IV was reported to have said upon agreeing to convert to Catholicism to become King, “Paris is worth a mass,” then perhaps Arlen Specter must decide whether “Judiciary is worth a swim.”
NOTE TO THE CREDULOUS: THIS IS A JOKE!


The Dobson Difference

Josh Marshall among others has taken special note of the unusually abrasive comments made during and after the election by James Dobson, patriarch of the huge, Colorado-based Focus on the Family radio ministry. There is unmistakably a totalitarian tone to Dobson’s lurid arguments that gay people not only threaten the institution of marriage, but the survival of Planet Earth, along with his description of Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) as a “God’s people hater.”
This is nothing new for Dobson. I wrote a piece six years ago for The New Democrat magazine (the predecessor to the DLC’s Blueprint) noting that Dobson represented a new and dangerous strain of the Christian Right, based on the frequent parallels he drew between (Clintonian) America and Nazi Germany, and his corresponding claims that Christian conservatives were, like the Confessing Church of Nazi Germany, a rare beacon of conscience in a satanic society that was determined to wipe them out. I know that for many secular or Catholic or Jewish or “mainstream” protestant people all the Christian Right leaders pretty much sound alike, but Dobson is different: in the kulturkampf, he’s the apostle of Total War.
Dobson first came to my attention in 1996, for his part in a famous public controversy launched by Richard John Neuhaus’ First Things magazine, entitled “The End of Democracy?” Neuhaus posed the question whether legalized abortion and gay rights and other affronts to traditional culture justified civil disobedience and other extra-legal forms of resistance. In a subsequent issue of First Things, Dobson was by far the most emphatic in rejecting the “legitimacy” of “the current regime,” and of constitutional democracy as well, so long as the courts continued to defy “divine law.”
One of the enduring ironies of this controversy was that it created a serious split between hard-line Christian conservatives and the largely-Jewish neoconservatives who expressed horror at the theocratic views of Neuhaus, Dobson, and their allies. Yet little more than seven years later, Dobson and at least the most prominent neocons are yoked together to the political fortunes of George W. Bush’s Republican Party.
It’s a truism–and like all truisms, partially true–that the GOP is an ideological party, while Democrats represent a coalition party. But underneath the surface of Republican harmony, there are serious differences that cannot be perpetually suppressed. I will defer to my colleague The Moose in analyzing the fault lines of contemporary conservatism. But I can’t help but wonder what doubts privately afflict Bush’s neocons. They have succeeded in convincing the president to rhetorically embrace their vision of America as a militant advocate of secular democracy and liberty in the Islamic world. But when they look down the party line, they cannot help but see their ally James Dobson, who so fervently believes that democracy and liberty are mere disposable tactics for the imposition of “divine law.”


Dean and the Long Green

There’s a buzz around Washington that former Gov. Howard Dean has decided to make a run for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. And out in the blogosphere, former Deaniacs are getting excited about this possibility as a way to resume their Long March to control of the party and eventually the country, which was so rudely interrupted by the caucus-goers of Iowa last January.
No, dear readers, I’m not going to break my self-imposed cease-fire by saying anything nasty about Dean or his supporters, though they are hardly reciprocating this spirit of comity. But I would like to suggest that maybe the Doctor is in danger of making a mistake, in terms of his own stated principles and objectives.
Some Deaniacs may imagine that conquering the DNC would represent an “outsider” assault on the ramparts of The Party Establishment and the Washington Cabal of corporate interests and Clintonites who keep dragging Democrats into (sic!) cooperation with Republicans. But let’s remember what the DNC is: a fundraising operation. It has little or no involvement in policy or ideas, and its role in electioneering is strictly at the sufferance and the direction of presidential nominees and congressional campaign committees.
For that very reason, the Deaniacs may be bringing up the battering rams to attack a half-open door. As DailyKos noted today, 100 DNC members formally endorsed Dean for president last year. Aside from the bandwagon effect of early Dean success in the opinion polls, the enthusiasm of these fundraisers for the Doctor was pretty clearly attributable to his remarkable ability to–surprise!–raise money.
And today, I strongly suspect that DNC interest in Dean is not about his ideas, or his reformist credentials, or even his grassroots support. I doubt they look at this born-again liberal from the bluest of blue states and see the face that will launch an assault on the Red State Fortress the Republicans have been building. I betcha money they look at Howard Dean and see Green, as in Long Green.
Now I doubt that’s the legacy, or the mission, that the Governor wants to identify his movement with going forward. And even more generally, I can’t imagine a less suitable vehicle for genuine reform than the DNC, at least as it’s currently constituted.
Since so many Deaniacs self-consciously identify with the efforts of the conservative movement to take over the other party, I’ll remind them of an acute comment made by Theodore White about the bitter disappointment of Goldwater activists when their leader, Cliff White, was passed over for the chairmanship of the RNC in 1964:
“Party chairmanships are the fool’s gold of American politics.”
That’s one thing that hasn’t really changed in the last 40 years.


Window of Opportunity in the Middle East

Yasir Arafat’s death may create a brief moment of opportunity in the Middle East, so long as Europeans, Israelis, and most of all Palestinians wake up from the illusions Arafat embodied and enabled for so many years. Read all about it in today’s New Dem Daily.


Witness

If I sometimes seem obsessed with the cultural dimensions of contemporary politics, it’s because I am in a continuing rage over two dumb ideas that far too many Democrats are determined to embrace, losing election after losing election: (1) economic issues, if you scream about them loudly and abrasively and “populistically” enough, will trump cultural issues, which are essentially phony, and (2) there’s no way to deal with voters’ cultural anxieties without abandoning Democratic principles, since cultural issues are all about banning abortion and gay marriage and so forth.
The first idea is palpably, demonstrably wrong, as established by frequent trial and constant error. And the second idea misses the whole point of cultural anxiety, which has far less to do with abortion or gays than with a widespread sense that a whole host of traditional values are being threatened and perhaps extinguished by cultural forces ranging from globalization and commercialization to sex-and-violence saturated entertainment products and the moral flatulance of the celebrities whose “lifestyles” and views assault us from every direction.
But when it comes to the political impact of cultural angst, hey, don’t listen to me, listen to a real witness who has just personally experienced the kulturkampf. Listen to U.S. Rep. Brad Carson, who lost to conservative wild-man Tom Coburn in a Senate race in Oklahoma last week, and who has penned a remarkable article for The New Republic on the subject. Please read it all, but here’s a pertinent passage:
For the vast majority of Oklahomans–and, I would suspect, voters in other red states–these transcendent cultural concerns are more important than universal health care or raising the minimum wage or preserving farm subsidies. Pace Thomas Frank, the voters aren’t deluded or uneducated. They simply reject the notion that material concerns are more real than spiritual or cultural ones. The political left has always had a hard time understanding this, preferring to believe that the masses are enthralled by a “false consciousness” or Fox News or whatever today’s excuse might be. But the truth is quite simple: Most voters in a state like Oklahoma–and I venture to say most other Southern and Midwestern states–reject the general direction of American culture and celebrate the political party that promises to reform or revise it.

We’re the “wrong track” party when it comes to the cultural direction of the country, and we have to decide whether to bravely swim upstream out of loyalty to hip-hop and Michael Moore and Grand Theft Auto IV and Hollywood campaign contributions, or do something else, like at least expressing a little ambivalence about it all. Changing the subject is cowardly and insulting no matter how you look at it.


Late Break to Bush

I know that you, like me, are probably tired of reading post-election analysis, but there’s one more you should check out: Democracy Corps’ final interpretive memo. What’s most interesting about this piece is that it documents from its own polling data how late-breaking voters actually broke.
Like just about everybody else in politics, I thought late-breakers would move to Kerry, because (1) they generally do break against incumbents, and (2) all year long, undecided and shaky decided voters were showing very high “wrong track” numbers, which normally indicates they are likely to move away from the incumbent if they move at all.
Yet DCorps says a surprising array of voters moved towards Bush in the last 10 days, including white rural voters, older non-college-educated white voters, and white senior voters. As the memo’s subtitle–“Why Americans Wanted Change But Voted for Continuity”–indicates, those “wrong track” numbers did not translate into votes to change the track by firing Bush.
The memo strongly suggests these voters got focused on cultural issues down the stretch. As Ruy Teixeira notes: “Lacking, however, is much of an explanation for why this cultural surge at the end of the campaign took place and what, if anything, Democrats could have done to forestall it.”
Democrats will undoubtedly disagree about that, with some saying Kerry should have re-distracted these voters towards their pocket-books by relentlessly pounding Bush on the economy, and others (like me) saying you have to meet the cultural issues head-on instead of perpetually and insultingly trying to change the subject. But it’s increasingly clear that the weight of informed opinion, despite many efforts to claim otherwise, is that Democrats can no longer rationalize away cultural issues as a big part of the systemic political problem we now face. Unless we prove otherwise, no matter who runs Washington, we are part of the “wrong track” when it comes to cultural concerns.


Nominating Process Reform?

As attentive readers know, the DLC is spending a lot of time right now arguing for a “reform insurgency” agenda for Democrats, including a specific agenda for political reform. One thing we haven’t gotten into yet is the possibility of reforming the nominating process for president, which is, by any measure, strange if long-settled.
But now comes DailyKos with a welcome argument for opening this question as well. I find it particularly interesting that Kos likes the idea of rotating regional primaries, which I’ve personally supported for about a quarter of a century.
This is the sort of topic we ought to be discussing now, because, like election procedure reform, it is an issue that people tend to forget about between cycles, and an issue that gets caught up in machiavellian calculations about which candidate would benefit or suffer from reform as we get closer to the next cycle. And unlike election procecure reform, Democrats can, if they choose, change their system for nominating presidential candidates without much cooperation from the GOP.
The legendary Iowa Caucuses, of course, would be the first “casualty” of any change in the nominating process, and I have a lot of political friends there myself who probably wish I would never mention the subject. But in their hearts, even Iowans and New Hampshirites know our current nominating system is the last thing anyone would come up with if he or she were designing a rational, fair system. And Iowans in particular should understand this, since they hail from the one state that has designed a rational system for congressional redistricting aimed at ensuring fair, competitive races at a time when in most of the country House members and many state legislators are totally insulated from competition or the popular will.
I applaud Kos for raising this subject, and after watching him agonize throughout the 2004 cycle about the difficulty of overcoming entrenched Republican control of the U.S. House, I hope he’ll get on the bandwagon for redistricting reform as well.


Vets

It’s Veterans Day, and I hope one thing that survives the defeat of John Kerry is the widespread appreciation of vets–if not SwiftBoatVetsFor”Truth”– among Democrats.
Personally, I’m one of those baby boomers who, like Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney and a lot of other truculant civilians, never had to go into harm’s way. Unlike the president, my family connections had nothing to do with my safety; it was pure luck, as in drawing Draft Lottery Number 265.
I have no idea how many veterans read this blog, but to any of you out there, thanks. Sacrificing oneself for the ease and prosperity of others is the essence not only of patriotism, but of virtually every major religious tradition. And in this country, as in others, as is evidenced by the ongoing sacrifices of our troops in Iraq, those who serve rarely have the civilian leadership they need and deserve. In addition to remembering and honoring veterans, the best thing the rest of us can do is to change that.