washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

No Easy Road, No Easy Code

Okay, sports fans, my official, substantive response to David “Sirota’s Democrats’ DaVinci Code” is now up on the American Prospect site for your reading pleasure. The bottom line is (a) there’s no silver bullet for winning in “red states,” and if there was, it probably wouldn’t be “economic populism”; (b) “populist” means a whole lot of different things, mostly good, sometimes not so good, that cannot be conveyed simply by intoning the word; (c) demonizing “trade” without an alternative strategy for dealing with globalization is bad policy and questionable politics; and (d) abandoning Clinton’s political tradition is perilous if you want to win red states, since he did and his successors didn’t.


Posh Offices, “DLC Suits,” and Best Wishes

Since Matt Yglesias discharged the task of defending the DLC’s honor against the multiple calumnies hurled at us by David Sirota in recent weeks, I was able to send off on Friday a response to the substance, such as it is, of the “Democrats’ Da Vinci Code” article in The American Prospect that launched this silly food fight.
But there are two personal details that neither I nor Matt got around to mentioning, which require a response for the record.
The first is Mr. Sirota’s lead sentence in his piece in The Nation, which refers to Al From “looking out over Washington” from his “posh office.”
Actually, Al’s office looks out over a parking lot. And The Moose, who has worked for a wide variety of Washington organizations, including a couple of labor unions, assures me that Al From’s office is the least posh he has seen for any chief executive.
As a prominent member of the DLC’s corporate-funded Power Elite, I should mention that my own office is a rabbit warren constantly threatened with condemnation for Toxic Chaos, and for the loud, eccentric, and entirely non-corporate music I play after-hours.
And I take particular umbrage at the assertion Sirota made in his response to the NewDonkey post about his Prospect article, to the effect that I am a “DLC suit who’s never been outside the beltway.”
Excuse me. I have spent most of my life outside the beltway; spend every weekend outside the beltway; travel constantly outside the beltway; work for an organization whose main focus is outside the beltway; would never be described by my associates as “well-heeled,” or, on most days, as a “suit.”
People don’t always, or even often, match the stereotypes of people who don’t actually know them.
I learned that myself when I got down here to the country, and after feeding the livestock, got the internet access puffing and wheezing into life. I found a new email from David Sirota that informed us that he was off to get married, and thanked us for a “good debate.”
In my religion, the Sign of Peace trumps every dispute, because it’s the only way we can approach God together as people divided, but united in our common need.
I wish David Sirota and his spouse a blessed event and a wonderful honeymoon, and will include them in my prayers. And let’s all get a fresh start in the New Year, and argue, if we must, over things of real substance.


The Over-Reaction to the Over-Reaction

One of the things that makes me crazy about the chattering classes of Washington is the dialectical interaction that invariably takes place after every major election. Somebody writes a column that focuses on a particular interpretive factor. Seven other people write columns pointing bright red arrows to this analysis, and hailing it as The Final Word. Then still seven more people write columns “debunking” the Final Word, and before long, the Final Word is not only inaccurate, but totally, absolutely wrong, and worthy of deep contempt.
A case in point is the question of the impact of “moral values” on the 2004 elections, and the broader issue of the cultural divide between “red” and “blue” America.
No doubt about it, some analysts over-emphasized the “moral values” question on the Edison exit polls as an interpretation of the presidential outcome, but only to the extent that they claimed it was a bigger factor than in 2000. It was, however, a very big factor in 2000. And those who denigrated the impact of “moral values” in order to stress the importance of the national security issue undoubtedly ignored the extent to which security itself is a moral, cultural issue to many voters.
All this back and forth is probably useful, but at this particular moment, the over-reaction to the over-reaction to “moral values” is getting a little out of hand.
While home this weekend in Amherst County, Virginia, I was driving down to the local dump with a big load of flotsam and jetsam when I heard through the mountain static snatches of an NPR show in which host and guest were hurling brickbats at anybody who thought there was such a thing as a cultural divide in this country. The whole “red state, blue state” thing was an hysterical construct by East Coast naifs who had never really visited “flyover” country, they avidly agreed. I got the sense the idea these guys had of “red America” was from visiting places like, say, Big Sky ski resort or Austin, Texas, but the real irony is that they were replacing one hysterical East Coast oversimplification with another.
Splitting my time as I do between DC and Central Virginia, supplementing a resolutely red-state background of four decades in and around Georgia, I think anybody who denies the cultural divides that undergird contemporary politics is nuts.
Amherst County is a poor, nonindustrial, and in many ways feudal community, where most po’ white folks vote Republican. And the big conflicts here are not between rich and poor, or black or white, but between “been heres” and “come heres.” There’s a local guy we’ve hired to do some odd jobs that my wife and I are not around to do; he likes us, and is happy for the work, and he and I share a beer now and then and talk about most everything. But he knows we are Democrats, and made a big point of telling us that he and his wife had gotten up with the roosters to go vote for George Bush and cancel our votes. That theirs was a “cultural” vote, in part in friendly but proud opposition to “come heres” like us, is pretty clear.
This is hardly a unusual situation. Back in Georgia twenty years ago, I used to do community development work up in the mountains of North Georgia, and just about everything revolved around conflicts between the locals and the “Florida People,” the term for second-stage retirees who had moved there in pursuit of high vistas and low taxes.
And as I often remind those “economic populists” who are horrified at cultural conservatism as representing some sort of repressed class conflict that leads to the “false consciousness” of Republican voting behavior: culture, region, ethnicity, religion, and group reaction to big traumatic events like the Civil War have always had a bigger impact on partisan identification in this country than economic class. It didn’t first appear in 2000, and whether or not it increased or decreased in 2004, it’s there, and it cannot be wished away.


St. Matthew

In the midst of an insane week here at the Day Job, I’ve been laboring away at a response (which Prospect Executive Editor Mike Tomasky asked me to do) to David Sirota’s American Prospect piece, “The Democrats’ Da Vinci Code,” which among other things demonizes the DLC and the “pro-corporate” tendencies of Bill Clinton that the author feels have inhibited Democrats from the winning red-state message of 100% pure economic “populism.” I’ve been laboring at this, because the industrious Mr. Sirota has the rare ability to knock out, oh, about 10 questionable assertions (and in the case of the DLC, outright distortions) per paragraph, so it’s tough to cover it all without sounding defensive or quarrelsome.
So: after returning from a long but useful session on the future of the Democratic Party in the South sponsored by Ruy Teixeira and Todd Lindberg’s “Left-Right” discussion group, I fired up the email and literally groaned when I saw yet another message from Mr. Sirota (this one, usefully, did not include any supplementary insults) advertising yet another DLC-bashing piece he’s written for The Nation. Other than observing that Sirota had finally found an appropriate venue for his venom, my main reaction was to think: “Jesus, man, how can you make a career out of demonizing us if you don’t give the devil his due opportunity to respond?”
Fortunately, the Prospect’s Matt Yglesias intervened (on his personal web page) and quickly “debunked” Sirota’s “Debunking Centrism” piece, through the simple expedient of showing that Sirota’s characterizations of the DLC are entirely at odds with what the organization actually says, does, and stands for.
As Matt notes, he’s no syncophant or regular supporter of the DLC; nor has he been the beneficiary of any of that satanic corporate money that Sirota thinks we keep in big sacks around the office. So far as I know, Matt has never even had the opportunity to chow down on any corporate-funded sandwiches at our frequent policy forums. But he does think, as I do, that intra-party disputes, and especially those as unprovoked as Sirota’s, ought to be based on actual disagreements rather than straw-man charicatures or ad hominem attacks, and for that, I offer Matt a very hearty thanks.


Do Corporate Subsidies Violate the Constitution?

Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris laid down an interesting challenge the other day on the Political Animal site. Noting a Court of Appeals ruling in Ohio that declared state and local tax subsidies to corporations re-locating within the U.S. a violation of the Commerce Clause, Glastris suggested that progressives might be able to unite behind this idea as a way to dramatize our opposition to corporate welfare.
Unlike Glastris, I do have a law degree, but my Commerce Clause training is a couple of decades old, and I’m skeptical that this holding would survive Supreme Court review.
I have always, however, believed that the economic development philosophy that underlies most corporate subsidies is deeply flawed, and should in fact become a point of attack for Democrats nationally and in the states. The Progressive Policy Institute’s Rob Atkinson has been a consistent critic of development strategies based on individual corporate subsidies and on the theory that lowering business costs (as opposed to improving the overall business climate, which includes a good environment, first-class public education, strong research institutions, and a highly trained workforce) is the right way to attract private investment and good jobs. The DLC has also promoted this advice to state policymakers near and far, noting that if low business costs were the true measure of economic development potential, then Mississippi would be the economic dynamo of the nation and the world.
Reading through the comments to Glastris’ post, I was surprised at their general tenor: sure, most respondents said, it would be nice if we could curb smoke-stack chasing through corporate subsidies, but it would also be political suicide. I don’t know about that. In my own home region, the South, there has been a raging debate in economic development and political circles for years on this subject. Way back in the late 1970s, then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas began shifting his state away from this approach, arguing instead for home-grown industries and a higher quality of life. For the most part, Georgia has avoided incentives-based competition for companies, particularly the high-stakes bidding wars over big auto plants. Mark Warner has focused Virginia’s economic development strategy on better education, stronger work-force development, and deployment of new technologies, especially in rural areas. And with the possible exception of Alabama, I don’t think there’s any southern state exclusively committed to the old approach, though recent Republican gains in the region may well turn the clock back significantly.
Where I may differ from Glastris is that I don’t think this is the sort of subject where Democrats should simply rely on the courts, much less champion court intervention. States and localities should give up on the corporate-subsidy, low-road, market-our-weaknesses approach because it’s simply not the right path to long-term, high-wage, high-quality-of-life development, not because they are told to by the courts. Moreover, if I understand the court of appeals ruling (which I, too, have not yet read), it sounds a little too sweeping. There’s nothing wrong with offering industry-wide (as opposed to company-specific) inducements to private capital that don’t begger public services or compromise local workers or communities. Customized training, industry-labor-educational institution partnerships, or highly targeted and enforced job tax credits may sometimes make sense, and may reinforce a community’s overall strengths without creating a race-to-the-bottom competition with other communities. (Here’s a link to a good resource for separating the sheep from the goats in providing business development incentives.)
But I’m really glad Glastris brought this up, because the general habit of recruiting capital through corporate subsidies is not only hard to shake, but is a perfect reflection of the kind of economic growth strategy the Bush administration is trying to impose on the whole damn country.


Gersh Does the Numbers

For those of you with an unslaked thirst for post-election analysis, Mark Gersh, probably Washington’s most respected Democratic number-cruncher, offers a detailed look at the late presidential election in the new edition of Blueprint Magazine. After drawing a few general conclusions, he gets down into the nitty-gritty of the results in three key battleground states: Pennylvania, Ohio and Florida. Gersh’s main point is that the Kerry-Edwards campaign actually did as good a job as can be expected in turning out the Democratic base vote. But it wasn’t enough in Ohio and Florida, and was barely enough in PA, because the Democratic percentage of the electorate is shrinking. We need a persuasion as well as a mobilization strategy in the future, and we need to expand the base, not simply motivate it to turn out.
The full article is available online through the link above, but if you want to see the cool, multi-colored, county-by-county charts Gersh produced, you’ll have to get the hard copy.


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.
“SAVE OUR FRIENDS!” the text would scream. “CALL MR. BURNS IN WASHINGTON AND TELL HIM TO STOP THE KILLING NOW!”
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.