washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Upper-Class Warfare

There’s a bit of a buzz in the blogosphere about a New Republic Online article by Hamilton College professor Phillip Klinckner arguing that rich folks provided George W. Bush with his real margin of victory on November 2. Using the usual 2000 baseline, he shows that most of the religiously-motivated voters who went for Bush this time did so last time, while the GOP significantly improved its performance among top earners.
It’s not terribly surprising, of course, that after throwing money at top earners for four straight years, Bush pried some of them away from Democrats. But there’s actually a double-whammy going on here: Gore’s strong performance among the same category of voters owed a lot to the fact that wealthy people, like everybody else–and despite the “confiscatory” tax rates of that time–did pretty damn well during the Clinton administration. It isn’t terribly surprising that John Kerry did not benefit from that particular “right track” vote. As an editorial in Blueprint magazine pointed out way back in July of 2001:
“There’s no doubt at all that Democrats in 2004 will suffer from the absence of the remarkable Clinton record of economic, social, and fiscal accomplishment — the 900-pound gorilla at the kitchen table during the 2000 campaign. Without the ability to run as incumbents on that record — whose power nearly lifted Al Gore to the presidency — Democrats must aggressively and consistently promote a pro-growth, pro-opportunity agenda that unites the party base with swing voters. Or they must risk debilitating losses among the growing ranks of well-educated suburban voters who were trending heavily toward Democrats in the 1990s.”
The evidence is mixed about John Kerry’s success in advancing that kind of “pro-growth, pro-opportunity” message; he often did, but the campaign’s obsession with job loss numbers and outsourcing may have narrowed it a bit too much for parts of the country (e.g., Florida and the Southwest, and even some parts of Ohio) that were doing relatively well. But in any event, the predictable losses among high earners make it that much more important that Democrats come to grips with the cultural and security issues–the non-economic “populist” issues, if you will–which kept so many downscale voters from supporting Democrats in both 2000 and 2004.

Did Rove Win for the Wrong Reasons?

Dr. Donkey himself, Ruy Teixeira, is putting the gradually-refined-towards-truth exit polls under the surgeon’s knife in recent posts, and is coming up with some important findings, though none of them are that surprising.
You should read all his stuff, but the bottom line is that Bush’s biggest improvements over his 2000 performance were among women, especially married women, and especially white working class women, and senior women. And although there remains some methodology-based arguments about the Hispanic vote, it’s pretty clear Bush made gains there, too, despite a variety of pre-election polls showing Kerry running about as well as Gore.
Hmmmm. Married women, seniors, Hispanics–geez, weren’t these precisely the three categories that Karl Rove’s original 2004 “swing voter” strategy focused on?
I mention this because I am one of the Democrats who heaped scorn on this strategy during most of the last year. I suggested that because No Child Left Behind (aimed at married women), an Rx Drug Benefit (Bush’s candy for seniors) and a guest worker proposal (supposedly magic among Hispanics) all seemed to have failed as popular initiatives, Rove had to shift to a different strategy of revving up his conservative base and demonizing Kerry.
Post-election, Rove and other conservatives are explaining Bush’s success as attributable to cultural and national security issues. So it makes you wonder: was this Rove’s intention all along? Did he simply adopt a different strategy aimed at the same targets? Or did he just get lucky? And in any event, does this mean that in the future Rove will stop manipulating administration policy in the pursuit of voter categories and just rely on cultural issues and pure viciousness in promoting the GOP’s political fortunes?
I guess we’ll soon see.

Attention CSPAN Junkies!

The DLC held its official post-election event today, entitled “The Road Back,” with Ron Brownstein, Donna Brazile, Doug Sosnik, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, and our own Al From and Will Marshall, with Bruce Reed as toastmaster and moderator. It will be aired on CSPAN tonight at 9:15 EST.
If you are so inclined, you can stay tuned to CSPAN for a replay of this morning’s Washington Journal, where the entertaining but fundamentally misguided Thomas Frank argues that Democrats can trump cultural issues by coming out for public ownership of grain elevators and free coinage of silver at a 16-1 ratio. (Yes, that’s a parody of Frank’s argument, but so, too are all the insults he’s hurled at New Democrats lately). And for reviews of the entertaining but fundamentally misguided Frank book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which has vaulted him into the ranks of Washington Punditry, you can go here and here.


It’s been a busy day around the ol’ DLC Corral, so I haven’t been in posting distance until now. You might enjoy today’s New Dem Daily about the greater meaning of the frantic conservative effort to purge Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) from his seniority-destined chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. It’s a must-read for those who get a kick out of watching Rick Santorum experience an acute case of political indigestion.

Is the South Hopeless for Democrats?

While some Democrats continue to wax sanguine about the 2004 election results, arguing that a nip here and a tuck there and a little better performance among Hispanics everywhere could elect a Democratic president in 2008, I think it’s safe to say that all of us are more than a little nervous about the skewing of the electoral battlefield in favor of the GOP. As Ron Brownstein persuasively argues today, Democrats start every presidential election at a serious disadvantage if they are simply playing defense in a host of “blue states” while trying to pick off one or two key “red states.” And the perils of the electoral status quo are even more evident down-ballot, where it will be very difficult for Democrats to make gains in Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative races if they begin each cycle by conceding 30 states.
But where to go in expanding the battlefield? The most pressing question involves the South, where we’ve gotten skunked in two straight presidential elections, while losing a majority of statewide races from 2000 through 2004.
There is a legitimate argument that can be made that the whole region, with the exception of the quasi-southern state of Florida, has just gotten impossible, at least for the national party, and/or that the kind of issue positions necessary for success in the South would involve a sacrifice of party principle.
But I would remind Democrats that we’ve been here before, and that predictions of the Democratic Party’s demise in the states of the Former Confederacy have been notoriously premature for four decades.
In presidential elections, the Democratic share of the popular vote dropped precipitously from 1960 to 1972. It rebounded dramatically in 1976, and then declined steadily through 1988, rebounding yet again in 1992 and declining steadily through 2004.
Down-ballot, the ebbs and flows of Democratic strength have been even more regular. As early as 1966, it looked like the party was toast throughout much of the region, but by 1970, Dems were winning most Senate and gubernatorial elections. 1980 was another year when obituaries were read for statewide Democratic candidates, who rebounded nicely in 1986. 1994 was a disaster; 1996 and 1998 showed a partial rebound.
The constant element in this drama has been the relative ability or inability of Democrats to build and rebuild biracial coalitions that drew on the loyal support of African-Americans, who make up about a fifth of Southern voters, combined with varying combinations that added up to roughly 40 percent of white voters. In the 1970s and the 1980s, Democrats managed to hold onto a significant share of rural white voters. In the 1990s, they improved their performance in the suburbs. The point is: so long as Democrats continue to earn the support of African-Americans (and part of that equation is to support African-American candidates in the South), it’s not that big a stretch to get to 50 percent, and in the long run, certainly no harder than winning nearly half of white voters in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire with limited numbers of minority voters.
One example of why Democrats shouldn’t give up on the South is this: in Georgia, in 2002, a now-legendary Republican blowout that defeated Sen. Max Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes, two African-American centrist statewide candidates (Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Labor Commissioner Mike Thurmond), and two white centrist statewide candidates (Lt. Governor Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox), all won.
And this year, Southern Democrats did not exactly get destroyed in Senate races: with the exception of Oklahoma and a lopsided race in Georgia, Dems lost pretty narrowly in a tough year on tough terrain.
There’s also reason to believe that time is on our side in the South, for several reasons:
1) The more the Republicans become the majority, governing party, the more they will have to defend their records in office (viz., a whole series of failed Republican governors in the region dating back to the 1960s).
2) There are a variety of slow but sure demographic and economic changes, including the growth of “knowledge industry” jobs, the rapid expansion of the Hispanic population, and a reversal of African-American outmigration, that favor Democrats in the region, as explained by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in their 2000 book, the Emerging Democratic Majority.
3) The current Republican boom in southern exurbs will almost certainly be moderated by time; new suburbs are always heavily Republican, but invariably are influenced by fears about over-development; intra-GOP factional fights; and the gradual aging and diversification of population.
I am not arguing that national Democrats need to obsessively focus on the South, and I do not believe we have to nominate a southernor for president to become competitive there, though it clearly helps. But at a time when Democrats are rightly looking at the whole map and wondering where they can reverse the Red Tide, it’s no time to “look away” from the South without considerable reflection.

Brain Food

This is another one of those occasional Sundays when it’s worth the effort to heft those fat newspapers through the front door and read them. At some point I’ll find time to check out some regional papers online, but there’s plenty of brain food in the Papers of Record, WaPo and The New York Times.
In the Post, The DLC’s Bruce Reed assesses where Democrats need to go in an Outlook column, and as usual, he says more in fewer words than about anybody in the business. His money quote about the basic lesson of the election for Democrats is typically concise: “We ran a good campaign against a bad president and still got beat.” Sad but true. Opposite Bruce’s article is one by National Review’s Kate O’Beirne, that argues rather unconvincingly that the GOP is not an ideological party, but a coalition party, in which “social liberals” like Ah-nold and Rudy have a real home. We’ll see about that in the immediate future.
Elsewhere in WaPo, there’s a front-page piece about Karl Rove that was painful to read. Written by the excellent Dan Balz and Mike Allen, it’s relatively free of puffery, but does let Rove and his friends express a DeLay-ish rejection of Democratic “demonization” of the Boy Genius, while not exactly providing a whole lot of evidence that Dems are wrong about his basic character. Sure, there’s some anecdotes about Rove’s “goofiness,” along with a photo of Rove dressing up like a hunter to mock Kerry’s goose-bagging incident in Ohio, but “goofiness” in the pursuit of the destruction of one’s political enemies is in my opinion no particular virtue. Caligula had his “goofy” and fun-loving moments as well.
Here’s the passage in the article that most disturbs me: “Those around him expect he will stay at Bush’s side for the foreseeable future. They note that his interest in policy is as deep as his interest in politics. ‘Karl sits at the intersection of politics and policy, and that’s where real power is exercised in a White House,’ said a Republican official who works closely with him.”
The one thing we know for sure about Rove is that he views policy as little more than a lever for producing political advantages. That he will remain “at the intersection of politics and policy” is a very bad if unsurprising sign about where the Bush administration is likely to go.
Over at The New York Times, Adam Nagourney provides a clear assessment of Democratic thinking about the election and its implications. The quotes from Democratic governors Janet Napolitano, Mark Warner and Jennifer Granholm are especially blunt and instructive.
In the top Times editorial, the Grey Lady usefully lays out an agenda for making voting procedures more uniform, in the accurate anticipation that interest in this subject tends to fade after each screwed-up election, until the next election, when it’s generally too late to do anything about it. The conservative warhorse Lyn Nofziger implicitly responds to O’Beirne’s WaPo piece by arguing that Bush will not be able to accomplish much of anything unless he suppresses the socially liberal and fiscally conservative views of his “coalition partners” of the GOP center, especially in Congress. And there’s lots of interesting micro-political analysis as well, especially the piece on Florida which shows that Bush won that key state by boosting both turnout and the GOP share of the vote in in exactly the places you’d expect it to happen: the panhandle and the I-4 corridor.
There’s a lot more in both papers, including Dana Milbank’s sober assessment of the chiliastic tendencies that have led Christian conservatives into such a passionate alliance with Bush, and buried in the Post book section, a review of the latest Tom Wolfe novel that shows you don’t have to be a Bible-thumper to be worried about the moral and cultural condition of American adoloscents.
All of us Donkeys are still partially in recovery, partially unwilling to think about what happened on November 2, and partially hostile to any intepretation of events that strays from the comforting line that the bad people beat the good people through evil and cynical tactics and strategy. It’s good that Dems aren’t melting down, freaking out, or going after each other with knives. But it is time to read and think.

Bush and Bipartisanship

Predictably, perhaps, George W. Bush is making noises about reaching out to Democrats, and healing partisan divisions and serving as “president of all the people.” And there’s a debate among Democrats in Washington, at least, about how they respond these suspect overtures.
We’ve been here before, folks. Bush said similar things upon becoming president in 2001, and, with the exception of the No Child Left Behind law (which he betrayed after the fact), his primary strategy for bipartisanship was to pick off handfuls of Democrats in the U.S. Senate who were willing to pocket small concessions while giving Bush most of what he wanted. Bush’s party then proceeded to demonize those very “bipartisan” Democrats as obstructionists whenever they came up for re-election.
But what is bipartisanship? Back at the beginning of the Bush presidency, the DLC published an analysis of the ten very different meanings of that term, and a pessimistic evaluation of Bush’s intentions, that’s held up pretty well over time. It makes for good and relevant reading today.
The most important question for Democrats in Congress today is not their attitude towards Bush or his party, but their willingness to become an insurgent, outsider party devoted to genuine reform of Washington, and focused on communicating a positive, alternative agenda to the American people. Yesterday’s New Dem Daily outlines the kind of reform agenda Democrats ought to embrace, even if–perhaps especially if–they are forced to fight Bush and the GOP like wolverines.

The Culture Gap, Continued

There’s a reasonably strong consensus now that an inability to address cultural concerns is one–not the only, but one–of the reasons Democrats are struggling to build an electoral majority despite the extremism and failed policies of the Republicans who run Washington these days.
But the debate over the “culture gap” among Democrats remains mired in imprecise thinking about what we are talking about, and who we are talking about.
Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman, who, along with The Washington Monthly’s Amy Sullivan, remains the best advisor for Democrats on culture and religion, has penned an excellent Slate piece that slices and dices the problem with real precision. Democrats cannot and should not try, says Waldman, to win the votes of self-consciously Christian Right voters who think abortion is murder, feminism is disobedience to God’s will, and homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. Yet there are millions of voters, including Catholics and “freestyle evangelicals” who don’t share the views of the American Taliban, but who simply want to know that Democrats have some sense of moral resolution about good and bad behavior, and not just for the executives of Enron and Halliburton. Waldman cites Bill Clinton’s success in making personal responsibility (at least prior to the moment when his own failures of personal responsibility became manifest) a key theme for Democrats as a model for the future.
In a separate article for Beliefnet, Waldman usefully warns Democrats that just dressing up liberal policy nostrums in “God Talk” is not going to solve the party’s problems, and could actually make them worse.
Some of you may recall that a couple of weeks before the election, I did a post quoting from John Kerry’s campaign book A Call to Service that discussed the meaning of his Catholicism. It focused on the two “Great Commandments” laid down by Jesus–love God and love your brother as yourself–and interpreted the first as an injunction to seek out right from wrong, and the second as an injunction to make love and justice the most important truth.
When Kerry discussed his faith during the campaign, the second “Great Commandment” came through clearly, but the first was ignored or muted. It was all Gospel, no Law; all New Testament, no Old Testament; all Christmas and Easter, no Advent and Lent; all love and justice, no moral clarity. That was the missing signal to culturally-oriented religious voters that Waldman is talking about. And it’s not a problem that’s attributable to Kerry personally; it’s a systemic problem Democrats have in talking about the political implications of faith.
To those of you who aren’t religious at all, I’m sure this sounds like superstitious gobbledygook, but trust me on this, it matters to a lot of people who wouldn’t give Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson the time of day. Democrats can reduce the “culture gap” without compromising their principles–indeed, maintaining our principles is the only way we can speak and talk authentically about values–but it must begin with an understanding of how the people we are talking to actually think and believe.

The Anti-Recrimination Tide

I was glad to see that Paul Glastris of The Washington Monthly and Garance Franke-Ruta of The American Prospect took note of the DLC’s no-circular-firing-squad advice to Democrats, and echoed it. Garance made an interesting comment after quoting NewDonkey on the subject:
“The DLC and the Prospect, which have historically been at odds over the direction of the Democratic Party, formally buried the hatchet earlier in the year. Leading liberals and centrists may have ongoing disagreements on specific policy prescriptions, but the younger generation of thinkers, writers, and consultants, regardless of where they hang their hats, seems to me to have experienced a kind of convergence of thought that greatly diminishes the likelihood of future intraparty conflicts like those that ripped through the party in the 1980s and 1990s.”
That “bury the hatchet” moment–the product of a series of quiet center-left discussions that began at the beginning of this year–didn’t get much attention at the time, but it showed the center-left convergence that Franke-Ruta is talking about was not just a battlefield compact in the heat of the general election campaign.
Of course, I’m also amused to discover myself among the ranks of “the younger generation of thinkers, writers and consultants.” Maybe 50 is indeed the “new 30.”

Please, No Phony Debates

I guess I should have expected this, but there have already been two major published articles preemptively criticizing the DLC for arguing that Democrats need to “move to the right” in response to this year’s losses. First came the normally reasonable Tim Noah of Slate, who simply assumed that’s what the DLC would say and then devoted several graphs to why is was a dumb idea. And today, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman interpreted Al From’s rather obvious suggestion that Democrats need to close the “cultural gap” with Republicans as a call for “Democrats to blur the differences between themselves and Republicans” and then, like Noah, Krugman was off to the races with a long diatribte about how dishonorable and politcally useless this would be.
People, people, we’ve got enough to argue about without making up positions and then knocking them down. I work at the DLC every single day, and I’ve never heard a soul say anything about “moving to the right,” and pace Krugman, we’ve gone way out of our way on many occasions to say that dealing with our culture problem is not a matter of “moving to the right” on abortion or guns or gay marriage or anything else. And if by “blurring the differences” between Democrats and Republicans on cultural issues means challenging the perception that they care about cultural stresses on the American family and we don’t, then hell, yes, we need to blur that difference, but it has nothing to do with aping conservative positions on hot-button issues. What it means is taking seriously the belief of millions of people, not just religious fundamentalists, that they are competing with a toxic and increasingly amoral culture for the character of their children. What it means is addressing those concerns in a progressive way, instead of conveying the sense that we believe they should put aside all their silly superstitions about the moral order of the universe and chow down on a prescription drug benefit.
To those of you who don’t see anyway to express solidarity with culturally stressed voters other than “moving right,” think about this: we always tell middle-class families we want to “fight for them” against powerful interests, especially corporations who place profits ahead of people. We rightly say HMOs and tobacco companies should be accountable for the pain they inflict on consumers. What about the giant, profit-seeking corporations of the entertainment industry? Does our willingness to stand up to corporate America stop at the borders of Hollywood? And if so, is it because we want their campaign contributions? Now that’s a “blurring of the differences” between D’s and R’s sho nuff!
So long as Democrats continue to think the world of public policy is divided into “our issues” and “their issues,” and can’t come up with a progressive way, consistent with our values, to deal with every issue, then we’re going to lose when voters decide we really don’t just give a damn about the issues they care about.