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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Kerry Cleared of Heresy Charge–But What About Bush?

As you may know, this presidential election has been roiled by claims from certain conservative Catholics–including a noisy minority of Bishops–that Catholics emperil their souls by voting for John Kerry, whose views on abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research allegedly divide him fatally from Church teachings, making him a self-excommunicated heretic.
Yesterday, according to the Catholic News Service, an unnamed Vatican official representing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed this argument by saying: “No, Kerry is not a heretic.”
Now that we’ve cleared that up, Catholics might want to apply a similar test to President Bush, whose campaign has made a mighty effort to convince Catholic voters they have a religious duty to vote Republican this year.
I don’t want to prejudge any official proceedings here, but a quick examination of the president’s professed beliefs create a strong suspicion that he is guilty of a number of heresies condemned by ecumenical councils and leading Catholic theologians over the last two millenia.
Although he does not appear to belong to any specific religious congregation, Mr. Bush has publicly identified himself as a “born-again Christian” of the Methodist denomination. He is thus presumptively an adherent of the Protestant Heresy, condemned most notably and definitively by the sixteenth-century Council of Trent. If so, Bush has implicitly embraced an array of subordinate heresies, including:
* Denial of the teaching authority of the Church (the basis, BTW, for questions about Mr. Kerry’s views on abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research).
* Bibliolatry (rejection of Church tradition as amplifying and interpreting scriptural authority)
* Symbolism (rejection of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist)
* Sacrilege (rejection of marriage, holy orders, penance, confirmation and extreme unction as valid Sacraments of the Church)
* Dishonoring the Mother of God (rejection of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception, Assumption and Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
* Schism (rejection of papal authority and establishment of a separate ecclesiastical structure)
In addition, as a Methodist, Bush must be suspected of additional grave errors associated with the heresiarch and patron saint of that denomination, John Wesley.
* Pelagianism (belief in the perfectibility of human nature, suppressed in the 4th century by the Emperor Honarius, following the teaching of St. Augustine).
* Abandonment of the Apostolic Succession of Bishops (achieved when Methodists seceded from the Church of England)
Moreover, as Msgr. Ronald Knox argued in his influential 1950 book, Enthusiasm, Wesleyans reflect a persistant heretical tendency towards elevation of subjective experience in the pursuit of religious truth that links them to such widely varying heresies at Donatism, Hussism and Jansenism.
Finally, the President’s persistant “unilateralist” demand that the United States must enjoy a privileged and unique status with respect to the use of force specifically and international law generally raises some concern that he is guilty of the Americanist Heresy (the belief that this country’s special conditions require deviations from universal laws of faith and morals), condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1899.
If fidelity to the totality of Church teachings is supposed to be the sole test for voting behavior by Catholics, then perhaps the examination of conscience that some conservatives have urged on Catholics prior to entering the voting booth should extend to the highly suspect belief and value system of the incumbent.


Profiles in Chutzpah

Of all the deceptive claims being made by BC04 this year, the most shameless has to be Dick Cheney’s habit of darkly suggesting that a Kerry administration wouldn’t do anything to prevent nuclear terrorism.
The Bush administration’s record on securing nuclear materials to keep them out of the hands of terrorists is by any standard disgraceful. Prior to 9/11, the administration repeatedly tried to gut the Nunn-Lugar initiative, and succeeded partially, to the point that Sam Nunn had to go to Ted Turner and secure private funding for his efforts to deal with loose nukes in the former Soviet Union. After 9/11, the administration grudgingly allowed Nunn-Lugar to continue, but without additonal funding; meanwhile, there’s no evidence that Bush has even mentioned the subject in his various meetings with his buddy Vladimir Putin. To top it all off, the administration managed to invade the one rogue state that didn’t have a WMD program.
This is one subject where Kerry has been absolutely far-sighted and consistent for many years. He has gone into excrutiating detail in this campaign in outlining exactly what he’d do to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and materials, and exactly what the administration has failed to do.
So: where are all the media fact-checkers when Cheney calls a nuclear 9/11 the most important threat to our security, and says (as he did yesterday in Ohio) John Kerry can’t be trusted to even understand the threat, much less deal with it?
Of course, the media might be awakened from their sluggishness on this issue if the Kerry campaign responded by pointing out the two candidates’ records, instead of simply hitting the replay button and citing Kerry’s Vietnam service as proof of his toughness.
Today’s New Dem Daily makes the case that KE04 should start making if Cheney keeps up his Cassandra routine.


Swingin’ Peripherals

Anyone who’s paid any attention to this presidential election has heard repeated debates about whether the candidates should pursue “swing voter” strategies focused on persuasion, or “turnout” strategies focused on “mobilizing” or “energizing” the “base.”
There’s a rarely examined assumption behind this debate: that “peripheral” voters–those who might or might not turn out–are “base” voters. This assumption is, I suspect, intimately related to the age-old belief of liberal and conservative activists that non-voters don’t vote because they think there’s not enough difference between the parties. And this belief, in turn, stems from what I can only describe as a total myth: that there’s a “hidden majority” out there among non-voters for a more partisan and ideological candidate.
Today the DLC released an analysis of “peripheral” voters over the last three presidential cycles that shows pretty convincingly that they are (1) not that different from regular voters, (2) they are in fact closer as a group to classic, independent, swing voters, than to committed partisan voters, (3) they are less, not more, partisan and ideologically polarized than the electorate as a whole, and (4) they have to be persuaded, not simply “energized” or “mobilized” to vote.
The good news for Democrats is that peripheral voters tend to lean Democratic, and are in particular not attracted to culturally conservative wedge issues (that’s one reason the conservative myth of millions of Christian conservatives will flood the polls this year is just that –a myth). The cautionary news is that peripheral voters, who are relatively estranged from civic as well as political involvement, don’t particularly trust government. That’s yet another reason that Kerry and other Democrats need to counter the incessant GOP propaganda that they are “big government, tax and spend liberals.”
Since Kerry seems to be taking persuasion of swing voters more seriously than Bush, this analysis suggests the Democrat may have an extra edge on November 2 among peripheral voters in what is shaping up as a high-turnout election.


Thaw Out the Crow

Two big new polls out, and here’s the really bizarre disparity in a year of bizarre polling disparities.
The latest New York Times/CBS poll has Bush’s approval rating at 44.
The latest WaPo/ABC poll has Bush’s approval rating at 54.
The first suggests that Bush is in the toaster, if not already toast.
The second suggests he’s in better shape than he’s been in months.
They cannot both be right.
If this sort of thing continues right up until Election Day, there’s gonna be a whole lotta crow on the menu of some pollsters the day after.


No Gallup Towards Bush

Perpetually panicky Democrats have panicked anew at the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey that show Bush up 8 points among likely voters. The same survey, of course, has Bush up just three–and under 50–among registered voters, which has generated another jeremiad by Ruy Teixeira about the weird LV assumptions in the Gallup methodology.
But here’s what nervous donkeys really need to hear: four years ago today, Gallup had Bush up 13 percent among likely voters. It did not exactly turn out that way, right?


Two, Three, Many Floridas

It’s statistically improbable that we could have another post-election presidential selection for, oh, another century or so. The prospect of two in a row is one of those things–like a plague of frogs–that can drive you into an obsessive reading of the Book of Revelations.
But if, on November 3, the outcome in the electoral college is again in doubt in one, two, or three key states, you can expect a raft of litigation that could make what happened in Florida last time look like a moot court tournament.
So says The New York Times, in a front-page piece today that’s as interesting as it is depressing. “The legal preparations,” says James Dao, “are very real–and very large. With more than two weeks to go before polls open, lawyers recruited by the two parties and independent groups have begun flooding into Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and other swing states. Already, those lawyers are preparing strategies to challenge new voters at the polls, to keep polling stations open late if lines are long and to demand recounts if victory margins are razor-thin.”
Some of this activity simply reflects the ancient desire of Democrats to maximize opportunities to vote and have votes counted, and the equally ancient Republican desire to minimize such opportunities, which the GOP likes to think of as conducive to “voter fraud.” Few Republicans, of course, make a credible case that there’s much of a prospect for multiple voting or ballot-box stuffing; most of their “anti-fraud” efforts really boil down to a determination to entrap perfectly eligible voters in technical violations of questionable laws, or involuntary mistakes made in marking confusing ballots. Right beneath the surface of all the “anti-fraud” rhetoric is the unsavory belief that voters who cannot negotiate weird and inefficient election laws and ballots don’t deserve to vote, anyway–a belief that is starkly contrary to more than a century’s worth of constitutional progress towards elimination of any “ballot tests” other than citizenship and adulthood.
So I’m perfectly happy to see flotillas of lawyers deployed to make sure Americans have every chance to vote, if only to offset the flotillas of lawyers eager to deny them that right.
But hey, didn’t Congress pass legislation a couple of years ago designed to stop the madness and reinforce some uniformity of election laws and procedures? Sure enough: legislation optimistically entitled the Help America Vote Act did indeed get signed into law in 2002, but it’s created almost as much confusion as it’s resolved, because: (a) it has to be implemented by state and local election officials, including Republican secretaries of state in Ohio and Florida who sure as hell don’t seem very interested in Helping America Vote unless it votes the “right” way; (b) it introduced the idea of “provisional” voting for people who aren’t on precinct registration lists, but didn’t make it clear how such ballots would be challenged and judged; and (c) it encouraged, but did not require or really regulate, new technologies for casting and counting ballots, creating even more inconsistency and confusion than existed four years ago.
But aside from the inadequacies of HAVA, the other looming menace this year is the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. As Jeffrey Rosen recently explained in The New Republic, the Supremes didn’t just decide one presidential election: they created an “equal protection” argument that could enable partisan lawyers to get a wing-tipped foot through the door of federal court on a whole host of electoral claims. So: we have a system where state and local officials make all the calls on Election Day, and a potentially unlimited climate for state and federal litigation to question any of these decisions if they arguably affect the results in any state. We could wind up with two, three, many Floridas.
If that happens, folks, it’s going to be time to create a large, loud, abrasive grass-roots campaign to standardize voting rights and procedures in this country once and for all. Look, I’ve spent a majority of my own career in state government, and I respect the role of the states as “laboratories of democracy.” But when it comes to the right to participate in democracy’s most fundamental ritual–namely, elections–we cannot let a few partisan state officials and their black-robed cheerleaders in a politicized judiciary turn the states into the laboratories of Dr. Frankenstein.


The Other L-Word

It’s bizarre, to say the least: at precisely the moment when the Bush-Cheney campaign has fully committed itself to an 18-day drive to demonize John Kerry as a Massachusetts Liberal, BC04 and its conservative media echo chamber are suddenly focused on a different L-word: Lesbian, as in the sexual orientation of Mary Cheney.
Kerry’s reference to the veep’s daughter, in response to a debate question about each candidate’s views on the nature or nurture origins of homosexuality, is now the obsessive preoccupation of the entire pro-Bush talking points network.
Their motivation is not 100% clear. In part, Bush partisans are simply trying to find something in the last debate that will change the public perception that Kerry won that one, and the whole three-game series. In part, Bushies want to dent the more positive impressions of Kerry’s character by suggesting he’s playing dirty politics. And finally, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that BC04 is simply freaking out at Kerry’s exposure, deliberate or inadvertant, of a vulnerability in their base-first strategy, which depends heavily on piggy-backing battleground state referenda on gay marriage. Mary Cheney’s father, after all, has conspicuously declined to support his boss in demanding a constitutional amendment to defend the “sanctity of marriage” against the alleged assault from those demanding gay marriage rights. This is not something conservatives want to be reminded of.
The unfortunate thing about this dispute is that Kerry was trying to make a legitimate–perhaps even a profound–point in answer to the question about the nature of homosexuality. Instead of citing the ever-increasing scientific evidence that being gay or lesbian is a basic orientation, not a “lifestyle choice,” Kerry cited the experience of American families, whose attitudes towards homosexuality are heavily affected by the extent to which they actually know gays and lesbians as family members, friends, or work associates. Bush, who is politically dependent on those who believe homosexuality is a form of voluntary “sinful behavior” that can be “cured,” dodged the question entirely. And lest we forget, it’s the incumbent, not the challenger, who has chosen to make this an issue in the presidential campaign to begin with.
I personally wish Kerry had made his point more clearly, and without mentioning the vice president’s daughter. But it’s not clear to me how, exactly, BC04 is going to turn this second “L-word” into a campaign issue that turns voters. After all, Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation is mainly an issue for those who have already decided to vote for the president. For everyone else, this is an unwelcome diversion that has little or nothing to do with the choices Americans face on Election Day–except as a reminder that Republicans don’t like anybody who’s any kind of “L.”


It’s “All About” Everything

We’re at that dangerous stage of the presidential campaign in which all the pundits–and quite possibly, the campaigns themselves–try to boil down the complex dynamics of the election into something really simple. It’s “all about” this or that state, or this or that segment of the electorate, or this or that tactic, we will be told again and again.
To be sure, our electoral college system does mean that the contest is “all about” winnable “battleground” states, and inevitably, their number is shrinking as we get closer to Election Day. But it’s important to avoid quick judgments, based on current polling or recent history, about which battleground states matter most to either campaign. Sure, Ohio and Florida are especially crucial because of their size, and it’s hard, though not impossible, to construct scenarios where a candidate loses both of these states and still wins 270 EVs (those of you who are spending your lunch hours playing with one of those cool interactive electoral vote maps already know this).
But in the end, it’s “all about” reaching 270 one way or another, not just one way. Remember the decision made by the Gore campaign at about this point four years ago: it was “all about” Florida. In retrospect, it’s clear this judgment led to the infinitely regrettable decision not to bother running any Gore-Lieberman ads in the Boston media market down the stretch. Had those ads run, Gore would have almost certainly won New Hampshire (which Bill Clinton won by 10 points in 1996), and the whole Florida saga would not have mattered. You can also make the case that Ohio was there for the taking by Gore; yet he did not even contest the state in any serious way.
The danger of tunnel-vision at this point is even more apparent when you look inside the battleground states. Already, the pundits are telling us that victory in Ohio (to cite one example) is “all about” the relative success of BC04 in turning out culturally conservative rural and exurban voters, as compared to KE04’s drive to maximize turnout in minority neighborhoods in Ohio’s largest cities. Don’t get me wrong: it’s smart and essential for both campaigns to do everything possible to boost turnout in reliably partisan precincts. But in the end, a vote’s a vote, and holding down Bush’s margins in rural Ohio is just as important to Kerry as boosting his vote totals in the cities. Moreover, even if you believe there are relatively few undecided voters in play this year, every one of them a candidate captures represents two votes: one for himself, and one denied to the opposition.
So: next time you hear someone say it’s “all about” the I-4 corridor in Florida, or Lackawanna County in Pennsylvania, or the Nader vote in Dane County, Wisconsin, your reflex should be to respond: a vote’s a vote, and it’s “all about” every one of them.


Is Kerry Crossing a Threshold?

I didn’t say this in last night’s post, but I was a little surprised at Kerry’s big margin in the snap polls about debate performance. They keep rolling in, and if the last two debates are a precedent, the “Kerry won” perception may grow even stronger in a day or two.
There are three possible explanations for this apparent gap between my perceptions of the debate and those of voters.
First, I may have just been wrong in thinking the debate was pretty much a tie, probably because I spent more time shouting cool lines I thought Kerry should use at the screen than in really paying attention to how the debate was going.
Second, voters may be making a cumulative judgment about the relative performance of the candidates in all three debates, a measurement that Kerry would definitely win among everybody other than Bush partisans.
Or third, something more fundamental may be going on: Kerry may be crossing the magic threshold of credibility that enables challengers to beat incumbent presidents. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened as a result of televised debates: as all you political junkies know, it happened in 1980 when the one televised debate pivoted the whole election in the direction of Ronald Reagan, who just didn’t come across as the shallow right-winger depicted by Jimmy Carter’s campaign.
Even if this third hypothesis has merit, I’m certainly not suggesting that John Kerry’s about to blow the race open and win by a landslide. The political dynamics of the country are far too polarized for either candidate to win over that many votes. There’s plenty of time before election day–time BC04 will use relentlessly to re-smear Kerry and drive up his negatives (though it sure didn’t work in 1980 for Carter whose late-campaign negative tactics were described at the time as “Mean Jimmy”). And again, this whole idea may be wrong.
But I for one am going to pay special attention to Kerry’s “internals” in the next couple of big nonpartisan national polls. Democracy Corps already has a post-debate poll out, and it shows a sizeable shift in positive voter perspections of Kerry as a leader. If others show the same trend, then we may rightly conclude that Kerry’s begun to close the deal with those undecided voters who (if their “wrong track” numbers are any indication) are itching for a reason to vote against Bush.
We’ll know soon enough.


Third Debate: Bush’s Lost Chance

Just saw CNN’s snap (who won?) poll of the last presidential debate: Kerry 52%, Bush 39%.
What’s fascinating about this reaction is that (1) it cannot be attributed to Bush’s demeanor, which was better in this debate than in either of the first two; (2) it doesn’t reflect some slam-dunk, soundbite Kerry line that affected the immediate reaction, though the “Sopranos” line was pretty good; and (3) it indicated that Bush’s “base-first” strategy isn’t working.
I personally expected Bush to go much more negative on Kerry that he ultimately did, though the structure and sequence of Schieffer’s questions made that pretty hard. And when the light want off in his head, Bush did everything he could to label Kerry as a godless liberal.
The bottom line is that it’s difficult, as an incumbent president, to shift the attention totally away from one’s own record. That’s the bar that Gerald Ford failed to surmount in 1976, as did Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the president’s father in 1992.
If, as seems likely in the immediate reaction, Kerry has gone 3-0 in the presidential debates, the case for George W. Bush’s re-election has gone from implausble to improbable, at the worst possible time for a vulnerable incumbent.