washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

The Dean Shadow Box

Today former Gov. Howard Dean gave his big speech in Washington on the future of the Democratic Party, presumably as the first public shot in his campaign to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
He said Democrats should compete in all 50 states. That’s right.
He said Democrats should proudly proclaim their values. That’s right, too.
He said grassroots organizing and small-donor fundraising will help Democrats win. Yep, no doubt about it.
He said Democrats should stand for universal access to health care, fiscal responsibility, strong public schools, retirement security, a strong national defense, and above all, an agenda of reform, reform, reform. I couldn’t agree more.
But before he said all those things I agree with, he did an odd bit of shadow-boxing:
“Here in Washington, it seems that after every losing election, there’s a consensus reached among decision-makers that the way to win is to be more like Republicans…. if we accept that philosophy this time around, another Democrat will be standing here in four years giving this same speech. We cannot win by being ‘Republican-lite.’ We’ve tried it; it doesn’t work.”
Maybe I’ve spent too much time travelling around those states Governor Dean says we’re going to take back, but I haven’t heard anybody arguing that we should “be more like Republicans.” Who is Dean talking about? Zell Miller?
And who, exactly, tried “Republican-lite” and lost a presidential election? Is he talking about his friend Al Gore, who endorsed his candidacy in 2004? Is that his take on John Kerry’s campaign? On one occasion during the nomination contest, and more notably in his recent book, Dean pretty much accused Bill Clinton of the “Republican-lite” heresy. But even if you buy that notion, which would offend most rank-and-file Democrats coast-to-coast, Clinton kinda won, didn’t he? Twice.
I understand why the Doctor needed an intra-party dust-up for his primary campaign, but it might be time for him to throw out that stock speech and focus on the future. If there are specific matters of principle, strategy or policy we need to fight about, let’s get specific about it. But if we don’t need to fight, let’s unite.


Bush Hatred, Redux

Boy, the New Republic is having an interesting week. Having stirred up a big controversy among Democrats on foreign policy in Peter Beinart’s cover feature in the latest issue, TNR Online also offers a colloquoy between Jonathan Chait and Jeffrey Rosen about a favorite intra-Democratic topic of discussion: is it appropriate, morally and politically, to hate George W. Bush and the Republican Party?
It’s probably a good time to raise the subject, now that the election’s over and we must all search for some semblence of equilibrium in how we will view politics between now and the next cycle. I will cheerfully admit that my own partisan fever exceeded its prior career high in late 2003, and kept going up right through election day. And for the first time in my life, I had a hard time understanding how friends and family members–people with whom I thought I shared a lot–could bring themselves to vote for the other guy. To put it bluntly, I didn’t see any honest case for giving Bush a second term, and was angered by the dishonest case–he’s done a brilliant job of fighting terrorists, he’s a tower of wisdom and resolve, he’s going to control big government, he’s going to protect traditional values, he’s got a second-term agenda to create an “ownership society”–advanced by his campaign.
Moreover, I came to believe strongly that the real agenda of the people closest to Bush–including his political advisors and much of the Republican congressional leadership–was not only dishonest, but deeply cynical and irresponsible: a drive to simultaneously wreck the federal government and to perpetuate their control over the wreckage as long as possible through the exercise of the rawest sort of institutional power and corruption. And moreover, this belief made me angry at even those Republicans who did not share that agenda, because they were helping to promote it against their own best instincts.
But do these feelings extend to Bush personally? Yes and no. On the one hand, many of his (perhaps contrived) red-state personality traits don’t bother me, a red-state native, at all: the swagger, the nicknames, the scriptural references in his speeches, even the anti-intellectualism. Both Chait and Rosen say Bush reminds them of certain children of extreme privilege they knew in high school. I didn’t know anybody who went to prep schools or had Ivy League–much less Top Ruling Class–aspirations when I was in high school, so Bush doesn’t bring back those kind of memories. What I most dislike about Bush personally is his happy complicity in the GOP myth-making machine that treats him not as a rich kid who found a new spiritual home in Texas, but as the opposite: a salt-of-the-earth character who’s achieved world-historical greatness as the Winston Churchill of his time. That’s a double lie, and he lives it every day.
And maybe that’s the bottom line. I think today’s Republican Party, and its leader, are built on a foundation of fundamental dishonesty about who they are, what they want, and where they are taking the country. As a Christian, I will endeavor not to hate them for that. As an American, I will endeavor to respect those who voted for Bush, because after all, they have as much right to the franchise as I do. But until they demonstrate the ability to walk, or perhaps I should say swagger, in a straight line, I will continue to hold the president, his advisors, and his allies in Congress in minimum high regard. That did not change on November 3.


Beinart’s Challenge

The current issue of The New Republic features an article by its Editor, Peter Beinart, that’s creating a continuing and widening stir in Democratic circles. His argument, to boil it down to its essentials, is that today’s Democrats need to do what their predecessors did at the beginning of the Cold War: unambiguously make a commitment to warfare against totalitarianism (in this case, the illiberal ideology of jihadist Islam) central to the party’s message, and disassociate themselves from those who won’t make that commitment. The article is fascinating, in part because it serves as a reminder that Democrats actually did have an internal struggle, resolved by Harry Truman’s 1948 re-election, during which anti-anti-communists, emblemized by Henry Wallace, were a serious force in the party and in the labor movement.
Two comments on Beinart’s piece–both by Democrats who share his basic belief in a tough foreign policy message–illustrate the most debatable points of his argument. Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly’s Political Animal contests the analogy Beinart draws between Stalinist communism and Islamofascism, not in terms of their similarly toxic ideological content, but in terms of the tangible threat they pose to life and limb (in a follow-up post, Drum makes it clear he’s not denying the analogy, but is simply arguing that it needs to be demonstrated, and offers several useful distinctions in making that case). Beinart’s TNR colleague Noam Scheiber comes at the argument from a very different direction, arguing that the pragmatism of today’s anti-war Left gives Democratic leaders plenty of room to adopt the kind of message Beinart is promoting, which means that a loud intra-party fight or “purge” is unnecessary. Indeed, Scheiber says John Kerry erred crucially by failing to understand how far anti-war Democrats would let him go in establishing his anti-terrorist bona fides, and suggests future presidential candidates learn from his lesson.
As one who shares Scheiber’s belief that Kerry could have decisively changed the dynamics of the presidential race by arguing for a “win or leave” position on Iraq, I’m symphathetic to his argument. But I think Beinart’s right in suggesting that Democrats suffer significant political damage from association with highly visible public figures who basically share the European view that the U.S. has gotten unnecessarily hysterical about terrorism, perhaps for lurid reasons involving oil or Israel. Sure, Michael Moore endorsed Wes Clark, and then John Kerry, who do not agree with his apparent conviction that Bush is a greater threat to world peace than Osama bin Laden, or that Iraq was an innocent victim of U.S. aggression. But let’s don’t forget that Clark’s implosion in the primaries was significantly fed by his identification with Moore (remember that moment when Big Mike called Bush a “deserter” while standing next to Clark on a platform?), or how useful a figure Moore became in the demonology of the Bush campaign’s attacks on Kerry. Now, much more than in 1948, a candidate’s message can be muddled or distorted by the company he or she keeps.
That does not mean Democrats need to “purge” anybody. We are a coalition party, and none of us have the moral standing to apply litmus tests to any other Democrat. (Personally, I respect outright pacifists a great deal, even though I wouldn’t be happy with entrusting them with high elected office.) And moreover, as the public debate over national security focuses more on the future than on the past (i.e., the decision to invade Iraq, which divided Democrats but not Republicans), Democratic divisions are likely to abate to some extent.
What it does mean is that Democratic candidates have to make their own position on matters of war and peace as clear as possible, and to have the courage not only to stand up to a Republican president, but to discomfit fellow Democrats whose views of America’s role in the world are morally hazardous and politically disastrous. The war on terror simply is not a topic on which Democrats have the liberty to hedge or fudge or change the subject; for the foreseeable future, it will be a continuing threshold credibility test for the party and its candidates. On that fundamental premise, I’m pretty sure Beinart, Drum and Scheiber would agree. And as my colleague The Moose says, this is a “heated and much needed debate in the Democratic Party.”


Western Swing

I promised last week to offer some observations comparing and contrasting the situation facing Democrats in the red-state South and West. But first it’s useful to take a closer look at two western states where down-ballot Democrats did especially well on November 2, despite a losing performance by the presidential ticket.
I did a short post about Colorado a few days ago, noting that Democrats won a Senate seat, and a House seat, and captured both chambers of the state legislature even though Bush won by eight points. Most Dems in Washington know about the successful Senate candidate, attorney general Ken Salazar, because, after all, he was the only Democrat to win in the nine Senate contests considered toss-ups in October. And it’s Salazar’s brother, John, who picked up that House seat in a relatively conservative area of the state. Both Salazars ran well ahead of the Kerry-Edwards ticket in the rural communities that have been trending so sharply Republican all over the country, and both found ways to neutralize cultural issues.
But the state legislative gains made in Colorado by Democrats cannot be attributed to the Salazar name and appeal. Anyone interested in the future of Democrats in the West should check out this article by Colorado DLC chief Jim Gibson that covers the full story.
Meanwhile, up the Rockies in Montana, Democrats pulled off a similar triumph despite an even heavier Bush landslide. There’s been some national buzz about winning gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer. But as in Colorado, Democratic gains went far down the ballot, as Democrats won all but one statewide race, and while taking back control of one chamber of the legislature while achieving a tie in the other.
The Montana swing was partly made possible by the fact that the statewide election cycle coincided with the presidential cycle, which gave Democrats the opportunity to gain more attention for state-level issues than would otherwise be the case, at a time when long-dominant Montana Republicans were screwing up on a host of issues. But as the Schweitzer article I linked to above points out, Democrats there did a very shrewd thing: identifying GOP public lands management in Helena and Washington with policies that offend not only environmental activists, but also the state’s massive numbers of hunters and anglers. This is an approach that might work in other parts of the West, where public lands management is an issue of continuing and overriding importance to an extent hard to comprehend back East.
As in Colorado, Democrats in Montana aggressively and effectively neutralized GOP cultural wedge issues by linking their policy agendas to a clear values message, and by appealing directly to culturally traditionalist voters. Long-time DLC activists have probably heard Montana’s State Auditor, John Morrison, speak on this subject at one event or another. At the DLC training event in Colorado I attended last week, I heard Morrison make another valuable observation about the intersection of values and policy in the West. Noting that there is relatively little fear in Montana about the possibility of a terrorist attack, he said Montanans’ strong support for the war on terror is based on the feeling that “America should kick butt where there are butts that need kicking.” Given the fondness of Westerners for very large motor vehicles, that’s a line that would probably fit on a bumper sticker througout most of the Rocky Mountain region.


Back Among the Chattering Classes

After two weeks of non-stop travel, I’m finally back among the chattering classes of Washington. So I guess it’s appropriate to do an immediate post about a particular DC gabfest on the future of the Democratic Party that I participated in a few weeks ago over at The Washington Monthly. The quality of the session was quite high, including as it did E.J. Dionne, Mike Tomasky, Walter Shapiro, Jim Pinkerton, and the Monthly’s own Paul Glastris and Amy Sullivan. A mini-jumbo version of the transcript is in the latest issue of the Monthly, and is available on its web site. Check it out.


Billions for Marketing, But What About the Product?

Today’s big political story is the preliminary FEC report on spending in the 2004 presidential elections. And the numbers are just stunning, in two respects: (1) the total spent on behalf of the two major-party candidates was a staggering $1.7 billion, up from an estimated billion four years ago; and (2) Democrats, for the first time in living memory, outspent Republicans.
According to the FEC, $925 million was spent on behalf of John Kerry from all sources, while the total for Bush was a mere $822 million. The latter number, of course, doesn’t even begin to match the free publicity available to Bush as Chief Executive, but still, Democratic fundraising, particularly given the party-wide panic about the likely impact of Feingold-McCain, was amazing. The WaPo report on the FEC numbers doesn’t get into the breakdown of donor categories, so it might be a little early to endorse the widespread assumption that small donations, including those over the Internet, were the major source of all this new Democratic money. And I’d be willing to bet that Republicans still retained their traditional advantage in small-donor dollars, though by a narrowed margin.
But amidst all the well-justified self-congratulations we’ll soon hear about Democratic fundraising in 2004, there’s an important point that should never be forgotten, and no, it’s not just that we lost despite all that money. It’s how that money was spent: basically, in ads and in voter registration and GOTV efforts–in other words, in marketing. But despite all that marketing, in the end, about 40% of voters couldn’t tell you what John Kerry and John Edwards wanted to do if elected.
It may be time for Democrats to make a collective decision to spend a few sheckels on the product development side of the political biz along with all the hundreds of millions they spend on marketing. That’s even more important given the fact that Democrats have for too long lived off the ideas and messages developed during the Clinton administration–many of them still relevant, but now beginning to recede a bit in the rear-view mirror. Without control of the White House or either branch of Congress, where, specifically, is the Democratic institutional capacity for creating, refining, and messaging good and politically salient policy ideas? Academics? MeetUps? The new breed of talking-points distribution organizations that sprang up in 2004? Yeah, all of these can be sources of something to say, but in a party capable of raising a spending close to a billion dollars, there ought to be a little spare change under the sofa for real-live think tanks like those who have served the GOP so well over the years. We’ve got a few good ones, including our own Progressive Policy Institute, which gave the Clinton administration many of its best ideas, but they are pretty small operations compared not only to their conservative rivals, but to the vast array of Democratic groups focused on everything other than policy content.
So: whether you’re someone who squeezed $100 out of the family budget this year to try to beat George Bush, or someone with serious jack to burn, give a thought going forward to making at least a small investment in the intellectual side of progressive politics, before the well runs dry and all we are marketing is that we are not Republicans.


Cross-Country

A thousand apologies, dear readers, for the absence of posts over the last two days, but I’ve spent most of them on planes travelling indirectly from Birmingham, Alabama to Aspen, Colorado, for two different DLC training events. And as you can imagine, the transition from The Heart of Dixie to Ski Country has been pretty jolting from a cultural as well as geographical point of view.
Not being a skier (where I grew up, you pretty much had to be a Republican to indulge in skiing, golf or tennis–bowling was the Democratic participatory sport of choice and financial necessity), most of what I knew about Aspen before arriving here was derived from the various accounts of Hunter Thompson’s Freak Power campaigns in 1969 and 1970, which culminated in the Gonzo Journalist’s near-election as sheriff of Aspen County. The most memorable plank of the Freak Power platform was to change the name of the community to “Fat City,” theoretically forcing private enterprises using the name “Aspen” to adopt the new monniker, a very early example of negative branding, I suppose.
I haven’t been into the town proper yet, and thus don’t know if Thompson’s prophecies of a natural wonder consumed by “greedhead” development have been fulfilled over the last three decades, though I’m reasonably sure The Doctor did not anticipate the Latte Town phenomenon of private capital being harnessed to a cultural outlook not unlike his own. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Thompson’s own name and likeness emblazoned across the gates of trendy local businesses, just as his Rolling Stone co-conspirator Ralph Steadman has lent his unsettling art to Colorado microbrew bottles and ads.
Politically, if Colorado wasn’t exactly being swept by Freak Power in the 1970s, it was trending sharply Democratic, as reflected most notably by the Senate victory of Thompson’s ol’ buddy Gary Hart in 1974. And thirty years later, even though George W. Bush won the state handily, the down-ballot races here were a notable Democratic success story, with Dems picking up a Senate seat, a House seat, and regaining control of both Houses of the state legislature. This performance, moreover, gives local Democrats high hopes of toppling Gov. Bill Owens (if he runs for another term) in 2006; Owens is perhaps the national Right’s true favorite for the 2008 presidential nomination.
After a couple of days of conversations here, I hope to be able to offer some comparative observations on Red State Democrats in the South and the West. I won’t be spending any time on the slopes, and if there’s a bowling alley in these parts, it’s well-hidden.
CORRECTION: Bill Owens is actually term-limited, and cannot run for another term in 2006. And his “availability” as the national Right’s presidential champion in 2008 is currently being clouded by rumored problems with his marriage.


Alabama Song

I mentioned yesterday that I was going to spend some time in Alabama at a training event for state legislators, and aside from the practical work these solons did in pursuing the DLC’s values-based messaging and agenda-setting methodology, they reminded me why I’m proud to be a red-state, southern Democrat.
You have to appreciate how embattled Alabama Democrats feel right now. Yes, they still control both Houses in the state legislature, and yes, in Lieutenant Governor Lucy Baxley, they have a potentially successful 2006 gubernatorial candidate. But aside from John Kerry’s dismal performance this year, Democrats got clobbered in statewide contests on November 2, and Republicans have generally dominated the issue landscape in the state in recent years, as reflected by the popular obsession with former Judge Roy Moore’s campaign to defy the U.S. Constitution by displaying the Ten Commandments on public property, and by the vociferous anti-tax, anti-government views of a majority of Alabama voters. According to exit polls, nearly half of this state’s electorate self-identifies as conservative.
But precisely because Alabama Republicans have made cultural issues and low- or no-government themes central to their political message, Democrats here have the painful but honorable burden of being the only people who actually talk about the challenges facing their state. Alabama remains a relatively poor state, with a regressive tax system, struggling public schools, and an corporate-welfare-based economic development strategy straight out of the 1950s. And every political issue in Alabama remains colored by the legacy of slavery and segregation; Republicans continue to indirectly but unmistakably tell white voters that decent public services are a “black thing” that they should not understand or support.
And that’s the ultimate handicap and opportunity that Alabama Democrats, like their counterparts all over the South, live with: their status as a biracial coalition in a biracial society.
Southern Democrats stand alone in their willingness to project a message and agenda that unites their people, as my experience in Birmingham confirmed. Even the most conservative Alabama Democrats are extraordinarily proud of their party’s civil rights and equal opportunity heritage. And African-Americans in this state are extraordinarily pragmatic about the need for a broad party message that appeals to white moderate and moderately conservative voters. They also tend to share the culturally conservative views that seem so alien to a blue-state-dominated national party.
What you really learn by spending time with southern Democrats is the importance of projecting a party message that unites people across racial, class, and cultural lines, instead of competing with Republicans in an effort to build a coalition of selfish interest and identity groups. The more the GOP abandons its heritage as a party of national unity, the more this common ground is open to Democrats.
Alabama Democrats understand this implicitly, and that’s why this year’s, and this decade’s, political misfortunes down here are not some demographically determined permanent realignment, but a new challenge to a party that has consistently found ways to build new broad coalitions based on ideas that unite people rather than dividing them.
Ultimately, the theme song for Southern Democrats is the familiar and optimistic refrain:
Black and white together
We shall overcome some day.
Deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day.


Old Times There Are Not Forgotten

So, you think it’s tough to be a Democrat in your red state, huh? Consider Alabama, where political life in recent years has gone into a toxic downward spiral characterized by a deep and self-fulfilling mistrust of government and a preoccupation with such pressing contemporary issues as the public posting of The Ten Commandments.
Alabama’s latest agony involves the apparent failure (an automatic recount of the November 2 results will be conducted this week) of a constitutional amendment, sponsored by my friend Ken Guin, the Democratic Leader in the Alabama House, that would have removed Jim Crow language about segregated schools from the state constitution. The amendment was opposed by the Christian Coalition and other conservative Republicans because it would have also removed a Jim Crow clause denying Alabama children the right to public education, reflecting the temporary 1950s segregationist strategy of shutting down public schools altogether. Much of the Christian Right, of course, is as committed to the destruction of public schools as their seggie predecessors, if for ostensibly different reasons. The public argument against the amendment was rather different, based on a conspiracy theory that “activist judges” would somehow use the constitutional right to a public education to require tax increases.
The irony in all this is that Alabama conservatives are deeply devoted to the idea that the state’s economic future strictly depends on doing everything imaginable to attract business investment. But a lot of businesses aren’t terribly crazy about committing themselves to a community that can’t quite bring itself out of the 1950s. So the defeat of Guin’s amendment was really an atavistic two-fer: establishing a lack of interest in quality public education at a time when employers care more about a skilled workforce than ever before, and reminding the whole country of Alabama’s unsavory history of race relations.
I’ll be in Alabama later today for a training event, and intend to spend some time helping my Democratic friends plot righteous retribution for the damage the GOP is doing to their state.


Hastert Bans Bipartisanship

Sorry for the lack of posts, but I’ve been celebrating Thanksgiving with my extended family, and hope you’ve had the chance to do the same.
Getting back to the newspapers today was like a slap in the face. There’s a Charles Babington article in the Post today that makes it clear that House Speaker Dennis Hastert put the kibosh on the 9/11 commission bill because he’s applying a general principle that he won’t bring anything to the floor unless a majority of House Republicans support it.
Like a lot of Democrats, I tend to view Hastert as a mild-mannered, inarticulate high school wrestling coach who’s sort of a figurehead for the real power in the House, Tom DeLay. But Hastert has gone considerably out of his way to put his personal stamp on this Republicans-only policy, and to make it clear he’s doing this to protect his own position in the House. Whether he’s the organ-grinder or the monkey on this decision, it shows exactly how far today’s GOP is willing to go to make narrow partisanship a higher priority than good government, loyalty to the alleged views of the president, or even patriotism. To put it another way, unless things change, the wingnuts in the House GOP caucus now have a virtual stranglehold on the government of the United States of America. And that gives me far more heartburn than yesterday’s Thanksgiving leftovers.