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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Clouseau for Homeland Security

As the unanswered questions about now-abandoned Homeland Security Secretary nominee Bernard Kerik continue to mount, I’ve stopped thinking about Kerik and started thinking about the rich irony of an administration that can’t seem to conduct a competent background check trying to appoint this guy as head of the department whose ability to conduct competent background checks is kind of important to the task of keeping the rest of us alive.
I mean, I don’t know the ultimate truth about Kerik, and I gather he was a pretty good Top Cop, but Lord-a-mighty: forget the nanny stuff, which by now should be a basic part of the vetting process. You’ve got allegations of mob links, financial improprities, violations of ethics rules, threats against a former romantic interest, cronyism, and who knows what’s next? And nobody was able to ferret out any of this damaging material, unless Kerik brought it forth himself?
Makes you wonder if the sleuthing model of this admninistration is Inspector Clouseau.

Jerry Whatshisname

Opening up the WaPo op-ed pages today gave me a nasty jolt. “Mr. Kilgore’s False Start” was the title of the lead editorial, which rapped the Republican Attorney General of Virginia for a typically demagogic comment pointing out that Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine, his probable opponent for the governorship next year, once defended death row inmates.
I’ve been dreading this for a while. Certainly people who happened to be named Bush or Nixon or Reagan have gone through this in the past, but my own name is rare enough outside Georgia, Alabama and Texas that people just naturally assume I’m related to ol’ Jerry, especially since I live in Virginia. Already I’ve gotten used to introducing myself to Virginia Democratic folk with the immediate disclaimer: “No relation, biologically or ideologically.”
There’s certainly nothing about the name that would naturally connote the infinitely snooty Virginia Republican pedigree. “Kilgore” is a classic Scotch-Irish Appalachian name, redolent of red clay hills, pioneer rambling, and a taste for 100 proof Calvinism and moonshine, often at the same time. The name itself means “tender of goats,” or perhaps “church by the goat stream,” with “goats” being the unmistakable root.
But to my sorrow, this honorable cracker name will be associated for at least the next year with the agenda of the Virginia GOP. I’ve thought of avoiding the problem by temporarily adopting a hip-hop name like “Special K” or something. But why should I? I’m older than Jerry, and am putting our common name to a better use.
It kinda reminds me of an incident back in the McCarthy era, when some Republican Congressman arose on the House floor to demand that the Cincinnati Reds baseball team change its name to avoid association with Godless Communism. One of the Reds’ players (doubtless with a jaw full of Red Man to clinch the point) quickly responded: “Let the Communists change their name. We had it first.”

Don’t Let Them Fricassee Misty & Eeyore

Boy, the stuff that keeps trickling out about the Big Fat Omnibus Appropriations Bill that the GOP Masters of Washington put together is just amazing. You’ve got the language that allowed congressional appropriations staffers to peer into every federal tax return in America. You’ve got the grimy little gotcha that transportation cardinal Ernest Istook pulled on northeastern and midwestern Republicans who had the temerity to call for more AMTRAK money.
And now, you’ve got the rider nestled into the bill by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) that would overturn three decades of federal law and policy to authorize the sale of wild horses and burros on federal lands to foreign-run slaughterhouses for consumption at upscale eateries in France, Belgium and Japan.
For a calm, reasoned analysis of the Burns howler, check out today’s New Dem Daily.
But I can’t help but wonder what Democrats could do with this development if we were as nasty and dishonest as Republicans.
You know what we’d do? We’d print up millions of flyers with four images: one of Burns, one of Misty of Chincoteague, one of Eeyore, and one of an obese Frenchman with a huge napkin tucked into his shirt, eying a big platter of mystery meat.
And we’d distribute the flyers outside every elementary school in America.

Toxic Thermidor

The Moose and I have been hinting for a while that the slowly unfolding scandal involving conservative godfather Jack Abramoff, former Tom DeLay staffer Michael Scanlon, and a series of incredibly cynical shakedowns of Louisiana and Texas Indian Tribes, could be The Big One in taking down a generation of Republican hucksters while exposing the internal rot and corruption of the Conservative Establishment in Washington. This scandal, which a variety of federal law enforcement agencies, and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee (now under the chairmanship of Establishment Right bete noir John McCain) are investigating, has already implicated Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and Rep. Bob Ney of OH, and more importantly, could shine a big spotlight on the extent to which Mammon is the true God of today’s self-righteous conservatives.
But there’s more: in the latest Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson interprets the scandal as signalling the death throes of the Republican Revolution of 1994, the event that brought so many of the players in the Abramoff affair into proximity to power, despite all their talk about cleaning up the Augean Stables of Washington.
This is a pretty big deal, if you recall that The Standard was essentially created to serve as the voice of that Revolution. And Kristol’s magazine is not the only source of charges that the Revolution is expiring in a toxic Thermidor of corruption and power-mania: no less a figure than Newt Gingrich has expressed disgust with House Republicans’ hubristic decision to publicly and preemtively protect Tom DeLay’s power against the possibility that he will be indicted for a major felony.
Aside from its symbolic importance, the Ferguson piece is a useful connect-the-dots account of the scandal, and of the personal relationships in the conservative movement that helped Abramoff set himself up as the Big Dog on K Street. My favorite quote in the piece is what Grover Norquist said back in 1995 when Abramoff first set himself up as a lobbyist: “What the Republicans need is 50 Jack Abramoffs. Then this becomes a different town.”
Not much question about that.

Reform Democrats

There is, praise Jehovah, a growing consensus among Democrats that we have to become a “reform” party in order to properly critique the ever-growing pig-sty in Washington that the GOP is wallowing in, and also in order to build trust with an electorate that still views the Democratic Party as representing government to voters rather than the other way around.
True, many Democrats who are sharing the reform pew don’t trust each other to sing from the same hymnal. Dean/MoveOn types think of Clintonian New Democrats as The Corporate Establishment, no matter how often we shriek (as we’ve done for more than a decade) about ending corporate welfare and opposing corporate cronyism. And we Clintonian New Democrat types aren’t sure Dean/MoveOn insurgents understand that the Washington status quo includes the leaders of many of the Democratic interest-and-constituency groups they think of as the party’s base. And all of us fear that Congressional Democrats will be tempted to view themslves as the once-and-future barons of important committees and subcommittees rather than as a besieged minority fighting for survival.
But a common acceptance of the imperative of being a reform party is a good start. And we ought to be able to agree on a few basic reform agenda items. The DLC has suggested election reform, political reform, budget reform, and tax reform as a start, and there’s no particular reason I can think of that any Democrat, regardless of ideological background, should object to that agenda.
Our current plight reminds me of an anecdote about two southern legislators who went out on the town with the state prison warden. Fifteen drinks later, the solons were a little out of control, and the warden, having no better idea, took them back to the prison and put them in a cell to sleep it off. Next morning one of the legislators woke up, ran to the barred window, looked out on the exercise yard, saw the guard towers, and ran over to his colleague and yelled: “We’re in the penitentiary. Do you remember them putting us in here?” And the other legislator, head in hands, replied: “Hell, I don’t even remember the trial.”
We need to forget the arguments about how we got into our current political trap, and concentrate on getting out, and that means some serious jail-breaking, hell-raising ideas for reform.

Green Day

Have you given up entirely on Congress or the administration doing anything constructive on the environment? Couldn’t really blame you, given the recent record, and the general attitude of Washington’s current management that environmental initiatives reflect either (a) the ravings of pagan eco-terrorists who want snail darters to take over every middle-manager’s back-yard swimming pool, or (b) the secret comeback strategy of socialist central planners to control the commanding hights of the economy.
But a lot of people have forgotten that the first big round of environmental initiatives in the early 1970s began not in Washington but in the states, and that most recent progress on the environment has involved place-based local coalitions like the one that helped avoid an eco-catastrophe in the Chesapeake Bay.
Maybe it’s time to look around the country to find ways to regain national momentum towards a better environment. Check out a new report from the Progressive Policy Institute that outlines four “green strategies” that federal policymakers should be urged to emulate, before it’s too late.

From Montpelier, With Love

Since my last post, I continued my travels from Colorado to Vermont and back home to Virginia.
In Vermont, I helped facilitate a DLC “values-based agenda-setting” training session for a large group of Democratic elected officials, most of them part of the party’s new majority in the state legislature. As has been the case in many of the sixteen or seventeen similar trainings I’ve co-facilitated over the last seven years (all in all, nearly 500 state and local elected officials have gone through this program), some of the participants came in with pre-conceived, and often mixed or negative impressions of the DLC. This was particularly true in Montpelier where, as you can imagine, a lot of Democrats are big fans of their former Governor, Howard Dean. But I’m reasonably sure just about everyone left the training happy, and with a very different view of the DLC, since the whole purpose of the training is to help Democrats wherever we go better articulate their own values, and develop policy goals and ideas tailored to the particular needs of their states. There’s no “left, right or center” in these sessions, and nobody postures as the only “real Democrats;” we treat each other with equal respect.
Why do I mention this? Because the blogosphere is beginning to crowd up again with some intra-party venom, much of it related to the DNC chairmanship competition, and a fair amount aimed at the DLC as a favorite whipping boy. But I saw none of that in Vermont, in Colorado, and in Alabama, the three wildly different places where I’ve work with diverse groups of Democrats over the last two weeks.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not for party unity as an end in itself, and if there are real matters of principle, strategy or policy we need to fight about, then let’s choose up sides and have at it.
But I am tired beyond belief of fights among Democrats based on nothing more than labels, stereotypes, conspiracy theories and name calling. I didn’t see that in traveling round the country, but it’s never more than a click away online, and in Washington.
So I’m glad to be home, but after many fine days of working with elected Democrats of every stripe who are rediscovering their common values, I’m sad to be back in the land where my immediate challenge is whether to dignify the likes of David Sirota with a response to his latest round of baseless ad hominem attacks on me and my colleagues as evil corporate agents selling out working people to the Bavarian Illuminati, blah blah, bark bark woof woof. This sort of “dialog” is a lose-lose proposition, and it makes me want to go back out where Democrats are more interested in win-win discussions.

Code Red

Yesterday I got via the email transom an article, slated for publication in The American Prospect, entitled “The Democrats’ Da Vinci Code.” The author, one David Sirota, sent along his piece with a missive saying, in part, that “various ‘red state’ and ‘red region’ Democrats are already showing the party how to win in conservative areas. The key is to fundamentally reject the corporate/DLC argument–and follow those who continue to win with a progressive populist message.” (emphasis in original).
That let me know right away that Sirota is one of those guys whose knowledge of the DLC is unencumbered by any actual information on what we believe, write, say and do, other than what he’s picked up on the Democratic Underground site, or in the Collected Works of Bob Borosage.
It turns out the whole piece pretty much lives down to my initial expectations.
I hate to sound like a pointy-head here, but the argument Sirota’s making–that economic ‘populism’ of the most atavistic sort trumps cultural conservatism–has been around for a long time, dating back at least to the early ’70s. Yet Sirota seems to think he’s the first to discover it; hence the “Da Vinci Code” title, and article’s breathless claim, repeated often with the tone of revelation, that beating back the Cultural Right is real easy if you just keep appealing to the ol’ pocketbook.
But it’s the specific examples cited by Sirota for his post-election satori that are especially weird.
He was involved with Brian Schweitzer’s campaign in Montana, so unsurprisingly the Governor-Elect of that state is his Exhibit 1. And he usefully explains how Schweitzer blasted Montana Republicans for corporate subsidies, government inefficiency, and poor public lands management to win–without, of course, realizing that these are strategies the DLC has strongly and repeatedly endorsed. But you wouldn’t know from Sirota that Schweitzer also (a) chose a Republican as running-mate, (b) endorsed a ban on gay marriage, or (c) vehemently opposed gun control in any form. I’m not approving or disapproving of these actions, but it’s pretty clear Schweitzer himself didn’t think populism made it unecessary to deal with cultural issues on their own terms.
Sirota goes on to list a lot of other red-state Democrats who have succeeded by defying the “corporate/DLC argument,” and most of them are actually politicians with long-standing close connections with the DLC: Ken and John Salazar of CO, Janet Napolitano of AZ, John Spratt of SC, Eliot Spitzer of NY, and Stephanie Herseth of SD.
But the bizarre nature of Sirota’s definition of a “progressive populist” is illustrated by his constant references to two House Members: the Socialist independent from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, and the Blue Dog from Mississippi, Gene Taylor.
You don’t have to be a political whiz to know that Sanders is the at-large Congressman from Vermont, a state that gave John Kerry a 20-point win over George Bush. That state’s relevance to a discussion of “red-state and red region” Democrats is mystifying, to say the least.
As for Taylor, this “progressive populist” is a guy who (a) voted to impeach Bill Clinton, (b) voted for Bush tax cuts, and (c) has supported virtually every socially conservative piece of legislation that’s ever come to the House floor.
The only way to shoehorn Sanders and Taylor as fellow “populist progressives” is to make opposition to trade agreements the sole definition of both “populist” and “progressive,” and sometimes that seems to be the thrust of Sirota’s argument. But if that’s the case, perhaps the roughly one-third of House Republicans who routinely vote against trade agreements deserve another long look from “progressives.” And perhaps that great opponent of “corporate free trade,” Karl Rove’s idol William McKinley, was the real “populist” in his two presidential campaigns against free trader William Jennings Bryan.
In any event, if you feel compelled to read an argument for the “populism trumps culture” totem, give Sirota a pass and read Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas.” At least he’s readable and very funny.

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.