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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

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.


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.


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.

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.