washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Two Cents

Since everybody and their dog is offering advice to John Kerry about rapier thrusts he can make in tomorrow’s debates that will leave George W. Bush weeping on his knees: here’s mine.
1. I know a lot of Americans are puzzled by the way the president has chosen to fight the war on terror, but they think, hey, he must be doing something right, because we haven’t been attacked here since 9/11. The truth is, none of us know exactly why they haven’t struck again, but it’s not because they are afraid of George W. Bush, and it’s not because we invaded Iraq. There are four things we can do that will definitely make us safer: hardening the targets here at home, finishing the job of destroying al Qaeda in Afghanistan, reforming our intelligence agencies, and doing everything possible to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. The president hasn’t made any of these things his top priorities in the war on terror; I will; and that’s why I’ll make America safer.
2. The president likes to call me a flip-flopper, and says every American knows where he stands. But let’s look at the record. He opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security before he supported it; he opposed making the case against Saddam Hussein at the U.N. before he decided to do it; he opposed looking into intelligence failures prior to 9/11 before he went along with it; and he opposed creating a national director of intelligence before he woke up one day and decided it was his idea. I didn’t change my position on any of these urgent matters. I’m glad the president flip-flopped on all four issues, because otherwise he would have just flopped.

3. The president claims his commitment to unilateral, preemptive action against terrorist threats to America’s security has kept us safe. I wish he had that same attitude towards other threats to our interests. Why won’t he launch a unilateral attack on his allies in Congress who are holding up intelligence reform? We won’t he act preemptively to deal with the spread of nuclear materials, which every days raises the risk of a nuclear 9/11? Why won’t he hunt down the financiers of terrorist operations and strike them where they live, in places like Saudi Arabia? And why won’t he show courage and resolve in standing up to his friends in the energy lobby and free us from dependence on Middle Eastern oil? Those are missions worth accomplishing.
My dog likes these lines as well.


Those Amazin’ Red State Dems

With all the attention being paid to the presidential race, something remarkable is happening down-ballot that should cheer Democrats.
There are, according to all the experts, eight highly competitive Senate races underway.
Every single one is in a state (AK, CO, SD, OK, LA, FL, SC and NC) that cast its electoral votes for George W. Bush in 2000. Several are in states Bush carried by landslides.
Yet Democratic candidates are currently ahead or statistically tied in every damn one of them (In LA, nobody knows who’s ahead until the December runoff begins). And a grand total of one of those candidates (Tom Daschle of SD) is an incumbent.
In an off-year for gubernatorial races, Dems are heavily favored to win in WV and NC; favored in MT; and even bets in NH, IN, MO and UT.
Even if the presidential election map winds up looking a lot like 2000, Democrats are showing they can remain competitive in tough territory, with the right candidates and message. This should give pause to those who believe Democrats should give up on such territory and simply become the loud ‘n’ proud Blue State party. So long as we have fifty governors and state legislators (who in turn control U.S. House redistricting), and each state has two senators, such a strategy will consign Democrats to minority status for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, nearly all of the Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates we’re talking about –along with most of the Democrats running in competitive House districts–are by any measure centrist, New Demish candidates. This should give pause to those who believe that the party can or should turn hard left to build a majority.
The Democratic Party is and will probably continue to be a broad progressive coalition, not a narrow ideological cult like the GOP is becoming (despite the illusion of inclusiveness it cultivates at its national conventions). But winning a majority will always require a serious effort to compete everywhere, and a determination to command the high, center ground of American politics.


More Dust From the Ground Game

It’s not as precise as the Sunday NYT piece, but there’s another straw in the wind suggesting that this may be a high turnout election where Democrats are doing a better job at the “ground game” of signing up new voters and getting them to the polls.
Check out this AP story that reports big increases in new voter registrations, and seems to suggest it’s happening most in pro-Democratic areas. Examples of both include a 65% increase (through mid-September) in new registrations in Miami-Dade County, Florida, as compared with 2000, and a 150% increase in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Ohio.
The official Bush campaign spin on this phenomenon, interestingly enough, confirms my theory that the only places offering Republicans a ripe GOTV harvest are fast-growing exurbs. “It’s the high-growth areas, the suburban and exurban areas in those battleground states… there are opportunities there because there are so many new residents to register,” sez BC04’s Scott Stanzel. Yeah, but (1) the states with big and fast-growing exurbs have other pro-Democratic trends underway that are equally important, and (2) they just aren’t a factor in much of the midwest.
The Bushies better have a pretty good lead down the stretch if they want to win.


Blogger Envy

There were not one, but two, major newspaper takes on political blogs yesterday. One graced the cover of The New York Times magazine. The other was on the op-ed pages of the LA Times. The first was by a journalist who suspects many bloggers would like to graduate to more traditional outlets for political commentary. The second was by a former blogger who fears the same thing.
Both pieces take very seriously the belief of many bloggers that they represent something truly revolutionary in political discourse, and even in politics itself. And both pieces suggest that celebrity, commercial success, and mainstream respectablility may be producing a Thermidor in that revolution wherein its leaders are being coopted by the hated establishment.
The Times’ Matthew Klam focuses on three bloggers who have already crossed the line into celebrity: TalkingPointsMemo’s Josh Marshall, Wonkette‘s Anna Marie Cox, and DailyKos‘ Markos (Kos) Molitsas, and suggests all three are at a crossroads where they must choose between street cred and fame and fortune. But I think he confuses his story by conflating two very different rationales for political blogs. Some bloggers want to do political journalism. Some view their role as movement-building and agitprop.
While Marshall is quite partisan (who isn’t this year?), he’s still basically a journalist. And his segment of the blogosphere was made possible by the conjunction of a market failure in traditional political journalism with the emergence of a new technology that provided a way around that market failure.
It’s no secret that political print journalism has been a steadily declining segment of a steadily declining industry for decades now. Radically reduced readership; competition from electronic media; ownership conglomeration; cost-driven downsizing; the collapse of commercially viable niche markets; rampant editorial cronyism: all these factors have dried up opportunities for would-be political journalists, while ossifying the profession into a self-referential universe of carreerist status and specialization, much like academia.
Josh Marshall had the choice of spending two decades struggling through old-boy networks and ownership crises to land an insecure perch in a paper or magazine, or taking advantage of a new technology to practice political journalism right now. And that’s what he does: chasing down stories, digging beneath the surface, sticking to them when other reporters lose interest. He may feel that he’s contributing to a political movement, but he’s still a journalist, and there’s nothing dishonorable about that. The fact that he’s figured out a way to support himself without sucking up to editors or attending Washington cocktail parties is an example of successful entrepreneurship, not betrayal of some blogospheric ethic.
Ms. Cox is another example of journalistic enterprise, but of a very different sort. Unlike print poltitical journalism, electronic political commentary has been expanding in recent years, but only by embracing the entertainment paradigm of television and radio media generally. Like thousands of other, less successful, bloggers, Wonkette probably watched 1,000 hours of scandal-dishers and partisan “pundits” trading insults, and thought, Hell, I can do that. Klam’s discovery that she’s now ready to graduate to television or even movies is hardly shocking. Like Marshall, she’s already doing political journalism–but it’s a kind of journalism that commands little respect and adds even less to the common weal. To put it another way, Marshall’s type of journalism carries a moral hazard of celebrity; Wonkette’s is basically about celebrity.
Kos, of course, is a blogger who’s more into movement-building and agitprop than journalism. His temptation is not to go onto the masthead of The Nation; it’s to gain real influence over real-life political institutions. Klam’s most interesting Kos anecdote involves a near-physical altercation between the fiery blogger and the executive director of the DCCC, involving the latter’s allocation of campaign dollars in House elections. If Kos were inclined to think this way, he might say his and similar blogs address a market failure in the political world itself, where the inbred clan of Democratic fundraisers and political consultants are more concerned with protecting their turf than winning elections.
To sum it all up, Josh Marshall and Kos are blogging with a purpose, and thus their efforts can and will be judged in terms of their success in meeting their purposes. And that seems to be the main complaint of retiring blogger Billman in the LA Times. For him, blogging is essentially about itself: a revolutionary culture of dissent, of “speaking truth to power,” that “made blogging such a potent alternative to the corporate-owned media.” By this measurement, actually gaining influence and power is ipso facto a betrayal of the blogosphere.
I guess you know where I come down on this. Blogging is a means, not an end. It’s open to everybody, whether or not you pass the test of subversiveness some would impose. Nobody’s forced to read anybody’s blog, and it’s not like there are limited options. And if bloggers put their work to good purpose, then good for them.


Three Votes and a Cloud of Dust

Throughout this election cycle, spinmeisters from both parties have regularly boasted “their team” was going to have a big advantage in the “ground game” of turning out voters on Election Day (or even before that, in the case of absentee ballot voters). For the most part, media types have blandly reported both sides’ claims, creating the impression that Democratic and Republican GOTV efforts would cancel each other out.
Finally, somebody went out and checked.
On the front page of the Sunday NYT, Ford Fessenden reports on a Times study of registration numbers in the two most crucial battleground states, Ohio and Florida. And it confirms two things I’ve felt strongly about, but had little more than anecdotal evidence to support: (1) this is going to be a high-turnout election (which in itself is helpful to Democrats), and (2) Democrats are way, way ahead in the ground game.
I won’t go through the numbers; you should read the whole story yourself. But they are overwhelming in Ohio. In Florida, the Democratic advantage is equally striking, but the actual number of new voters being registered is much lower, for a very obvious reason: stormy weather. And that, too, is a special problem for the GOP, since Republican-leaning areas of the state have been hardest-hit. It’s kinda hard to run phone banks or send emails (much less run television ads) in places with no electricity or phone service. Parts of the Florida panhandle will be literally dark for weeks, even if the horrific wave of hurricanes finally ends. The same problems, of course, make accurate polling difficult, so we should all take any Florida polls with a large shaker of salt over the next couple of weeks.
Even the Times report slips over the line from empirical data to partisan mythology in citing Republican ground-game success in 2002 as an indication that the GOP may do better than the Ohio and Florida registration figures suggest. As always, the example used is Georgia, where Ralph Reed got a chance to test-drive the GOP’s state-of-the-art “72 Hours of Hell” (or whatever it’s called) GOTV effort, producing upset wins in Senate and gubernatorial races.
I know a little bit about Georgia, and it’s clear to me that the 2002 Republican GOTV effort in that state is not generally replicable in battleground states across the country.
What happened in Georgia is that the massive growth of Atlanta’s exurban communities gave Republicans something they’ve rarely had in the past and still don’t have in most parts of the country: heavy geographical concentrations of conservative voters where a big uptick on total turnout guarantees a large partisan harvest, just like the minority neighborhoods that have long given Democrats a better reason to invest in GOTV.
Georgia Republicans figured that out, flooded the exurbs with every dollar and every knock-and-drag technique imaginable, and won.
Republicans may be able to use the same techniques to boost their turnout in states like Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Florida, though there are pro-Democratic demographic trends in all four states that may be equally or even more significant.
But states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin, simply don’t have the kind of massive exurban growth that makes Republican GOTV investments pay off so handsomely. And even in states like Minnesota that do have rapid exurban growth, it’s worth noting that non-sunbelt exurbs are not as culturally conservative, or as overwhelmingly Republican, as those in the South and parts of the West.
I think it’s increasingly clear that if Kerry (and other Democrats in battleground states) are two or three points behind on November 1, they might still win. Getting to the point where the “ground game” can be decisive, however, means succeeding in the “air war” of convincing persuadable voters to smile upon the donkey.


Don’t Go There

The GOP strategy for responding to John Kerry’s sharp and forceful critique of administration policy in Iraq is pretty clear by now: (1) it’s another Kerry flip-flop; he’s now decided to condemn the train of events that inevitably flowed from his vote for a use-of-force resolution back in 2002; and (2) Kerry has now joined the anti-war forces that opposed any action against Saddam Hussein, and cannot be trusted to use military force in future threats to our security. In other words, their argument is that John Kerry has morphed into Howard Dean, if not Michael Moore.
This argument is hardly surprising, given BC04’s determination to wrap Iraq into the war on terror, and everything that’s happened in Iraq into the response to 9/11. It’s a simple and seductive pitch, given all the confusing events of the last three years: you’re either with Bush in resolutely using force against all these crazy Arabs, or you’re not.
Unfortunately, this dynamic creates a strong temptation for anti-war Democrats to help make that very case. The best example is today’s column by NYT’s Maureen Dowd, who complains that Kerry’s still talking about how Bush dealt with Saddam, instead of simply condemning the very idea of the war. “When Mr. Kerry says it was the way the president went about challenging Saddam that was wrong, rather than the fact that he challenged Saddam, he’s sidestepping the central moral issue…. It wasn’t the way W. did it. It was what he did. ”
In effect, speaking for those Democrats who were “right from the beginning” on Iraq, Dowd’s demanding that Kerry bend the knee and explicitly say: “I was wrong. You were right.”
Most anti-war Democrats aren’t, so far as I can tell, following Dowd’s lead, though some probably hope Kerry will explicitly concede their case. If so, they would be well advised to keep that thought to themselves, for four very good reasons:
(1) A retroactive debate on the use-of-force resolution is inevitably an exercise in extremely hypothetical speculation. Kerry’s said throughout the campaign he would have done everything differently with respect to Iraq. And that’s undoubtedly true. But there’s no way to know what, exactly, an administration less blinded by ideology, less arrogant in its ignorance, less hostile to traditional alliances and international institutions, and less hell-bent on war might have ultimately done about Saddam. Perhaps a Kerry (or Gore) administration would have found a way to rally the U.N. into a determination to enforce its own long series of resolutions demanding Iraqi compliance with the conditions imposed on it after the Gulf War, and convinced Saddam Hussein to abandon his insane effort to avoid verification of his non-existent WMD program. Perhaps a different president would have ultimately used force, but with far more international support and less “collateral damage” in Iraq, and across the Muslim world. We don’t, and can’t know. That’s why we don’t, and can’t know whether there was any viable option to the authoriztion of force in 2002.
(2) The case against Bush’s Iraq policies in no way depends on accepting the premise that the whole idea of confronting Saddam was a mistake. There are plenty of Democrats, independents, and even Republicans who supported the decision to confront and attack Saddam who think the administration’s policies since then are a rolling ball of madness. Nothing in Michael Moore’s multimedia assault on Bush’s Iraq policies can compare in vivid argument and righteous indignation with the latest editorial of the strongly pro-war New Republic. Lord knows the DLC has heaped abuse on Bush for the same reasons. And the recent statements by Republican senators–all of them strong supporters of the decision to topple Saddam–about the fantasy land of administration claims of steady progress on Iraq are the most compelling arguments of all. Must all of these Bush critics–including Kerry’s running mate, his top foreign policy advisors, the embattled Senate Democratic leader, and most Democratic candidates in competitive races all over the country–be forced to say there were actually no circumstances in which the use of force against Saddam might be justified? The question answers itself.
(3) The public consistently rejects an all-or-nothing choice about Iraq. As documented in another lucid post by John Belisarius on Ruy Teixeira’s Donkey Rising blog, a consistent majority of Americans support the decision to invade Iraq as “the right decision,” and also deplore the results as “a mistake.” Sounds like the high ground is one that deplores the mistaken results, while at least being open to the belief that the decision to invade was if not “right,” then defensible.
(4) Democrats simply don’t get cut much slack on national security. As Al From often says, the question voters have about Republican candidates is: “Do they have the compassion to care?” The question voters have about Democratic candidates is: “Do they have the toughness to govern?” After 9/11, the second question is crucial. There is absolutely nothing about John Kerry’s biography, record, or agenda that suggests he’s not tough enough to govern, or tough enough to defend his country, though the GOP has tried mightily to distort his biography, record and agenda to suggest otherwise. The one thing that would clinch the argument for BC04 is pressure from Democrats to undermine Kerry’s repeated pledge that he will never hesitate to use military force to defend his country and its interests.
So: anti-war Democrats would be wise to let Kerry be Kerry, and not demand that he become somebody else. Democrats can and will disagree about who was right and who was wrong in the use-of-force resolution two years ago. But they agree about where we are now, where Bush’s policies have taken us, and where each candidate is likely to go in the next four years. They should stay focused on the here and now, and softly chant to themselves, don’t go there, when the incumbent tries to return the debate to decisions made before his incompetent stewardship of both Iraq and the war on terror became obvious.


Ends and Means, Part II

What a buzzkill for the House GOP. Just when they were getting ready to pop the balloons and cut the cake in celebration of the ten-year anniversary of the Contract With America, word came in that a Texas Grand Jury had indicted three of Tom DeLay’s closest political associates for a variety of campaign law violations.
I don’t have any specific dirt on The Hammer, but the indictments strike pretty close to DeLay’s big homestate project back in 2002: getting enough Republicans elected to the Texas legislature to give the GOP control, thus paving the way for the Great Texas Power Grab of 2003. In case you missed it, that was the DeLay-driven re-redistricting of Texas Congressional seats aimed at ginning up as many as six new Republican House members in 2004. It took a lot of cash, a lot of long-distance phone calls from Washington to Austin, a lot of scrambling around by Texas Rangers to track down Democratic legislators seeking to block the Grab by deyning a quorum. But by God, the Hammer got his new Congressional map. And it turns out some of his buddies may have gotten too zealous in shaking down Texas business people to put the plot into motion.
Now, of course, DeLay and his House colleagues are denouncing the indictments as a Democratic conspiracy, even as they deny he had any idea what his friends were up to. I know it’s hard to believe that a guy like DeLay is a detail hound or a control freak when it comes to achieving his most cherished political goals. I know he’s never raised any suspicions that he expects business groups to join “our team” and pony up dough if they want to play ball. And clearly, the Texas investigation is a lot more blatantly trumped up and partisan than, say, a vast multi-year hunt, employing hundreds of federal agents and costing tens of millions in taxpayer dollars, to find something illegal about an old Arkansas land deal.
But hypocrisy is not an indictable offense. If DeLay’s really clean on this one, he should stick to that story and lay off the demonization of anybody who dares suggest he might have gone over the line. And Republicans should not be so hasty to accept that anyone who serves the holy cause of controlling Congress forever is by definition righteous, while his critics are by definition corrupt.
In their recent tendency to confuse ends and means, today’s Republicans call to mind a Georgia governor of my early youth in the Jim Crow south, Marvin Griffin, who invariably attacked anyone questioning his frequent ethical lapses as a secret agent of the NAACP. Charlie Pou, who was then political editor of the Atlanta Journal, referred to Griffin’s argument as: “If you ain’t for stealing, you ain’t for segregation.” Just goes to show that dubious means are most often found in the service of dubious ends.


Is It OK To Stop Panicking Yet?

The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Bush up 3 among RVs, up 4 among LVs, pretty much where they had the thing a month ago. A new Democracy Corps poll has the race tied. A new poll sponsored by The Economist has Kerry up 1. The latest poll from Investors’ Business Daily and the Christian Science Monitor has Kerry up 1. A new batch of state polls from ARG has Kerry up in states with a majority of the electoral votes.
I’m just wondering: is it okay to conclude that the race is pretty much even, which is where it’s been on average most of this year, and where just about everybody figured it would wind up? Or do we have to wait for the next CNN/USAToday/Gallup poll to finally concur with everyone else?
Look, I have plenty of respect for The Gallup Organization, but it’s been showing Bush doing better than other polls for months, and its most recent polls have been extreme outliers in suggesting a huge Bush lead. The reason is very clear: Gallup is showing that Republicans will make up a larger percentage of the electorate than they have in any recent cycle. I don’t buy it, and neither, apparently, does any other polling outfit.


Gender Bending

The “gender gap” is such an enduring factor in American politics that for a long time it became one of those things people don’t even bother to think about. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus; Men care about money and guns; women care about health care and education; Republicans are the Daddy Party, Democrats are the Mommy Party, bark bark woof woof.
That started to change after the 2002 elections, when analysts noted the gender gap had dramatically shrunk, with Democrats winning women by a slender 2 percent. Thence was born the legend of “security moms”–married women with kids whose voting priorities were profoundly altered by the trauma of 9/11.
After the 9/11-haunted and security-saturated Republican National Convention gave George W. Bush a much-improved showing among women in several polls, “security moms” quickly pulled ahead of “NASCAR dads” in the Winston Cup standings for the dominant political cliche of the 2004 electoral cycle.
The New York Times’ Katharine Seelye summarized the current Democratic anxiety about “security moms,” but may have missed a crucial distinction about the kinds of security issues that are driving these women back and forth between the candidates and the parties.
The best analysis of what makes “security moms” tick remains Garance Franke-Ruta’s April 2003 Washington Monthly essay, “Homeland Security Is For Girls.” In a masterpiece of the-personal-is-the-political analysis, Franke-Ruta began by observing that the duct-tape shoppers that surrounded her in the crowded Home Depot checkout lines during the first big Code Orange terrorism scare were overwhelmingly women. She went on to suggest that protection of the home against potential terrorist attacks–homeland security in the literal sense–is not a distraction from the traditional priorities of women, but an extension of them at a time when when war has become a domestic issue.
Franke-Ruta digressed a bit to take a few choice shots at the men who delegated Code Orange responsibilities to “the little woman at home,” while staying glued to SportsCenter. But her analysis still makes intuitive sense, and also helps explain some of the high-stakes partisan maneuvering this year to frame this or that issue as part of or separate from the war begun on 9/11.
Viewed from a gender perspective, the Kerry-Edwards “A Stronger America Begins At Home” slogan suggests that “security moms” don’t really have to choose between health care, jobs and personal safety. The Bush-Cheney effort to re-brand the Iraq war as an integral part of the immediate response to 9/11, rather than as a “war of choice” aimed at deposing a tyrant, was clearly targeted to voters, and especially women, who otherwise might be nearly as alarmed at the vision of Americans dying in Iraq as the memory of Americans dying in New York or at the Pentagon. And Kerry’s latest decision to focus on a critique of conditions in Iraq is arguably an effort to isolate “Bush’s war” from the war on terrorism, and perhaps even label it as a contributor to the terrorist risk.
My personal recommendation to Kerry’s wizards is that there is a rich lode to mine in Bush’s overall stewardship of national security, including the war on terror itself, and his incompetent management of the chaos in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, shredding the president’s claim that we’re safe and secure–not to mention prosperous and united–is his hands is the trump card, for “security moms,” and for everyone else.


Split Decision

With growing signs that the presidential race is beginning to tighten up again, you can expect the punditocracy to get back into the ol’ 2000 mindframe of looking at small factors in individual states that might be decisive in a nailbiter, instead of all the Big Trends that have dominated the news over the last few weeks. One of the more fascinating small factors is the ballot initiative in Colorado that would split the state’s nine electoral votes proportionately according to the popular vote.
On the assumption that Bush is likely to win Colorado (not an unreasonable assumption since Democrats have carried the state just once since 1964), the reaction to the initiative has generally broken down along party lines, with Republicans screeching against it as a nefarious plot to steal 4 EVs for Kerry. Indeed, CO Republican governor Bill Owens has been leading the charge against the initiative.
But so far Colorado voters seem to be evaluating the initiative on its merits rather than its potential impact this year. A poll released today by the Pueblo Chieftain showed the initiative ahead among likely voters by a 51-31 margin. If that’s the baseline, GOPers are going to have to decide exactly how much time and money they want to spend explaining and attacking an eminently reasonable-sounding initiative at a time when their presidential, Senate, and House candidates in the state are not exactly kicking ass.
Their fallback position is a legal challenge to the initiative on grounds that it would “retroactively” apply to an election held the same day. But as we were all reminded in 2000, electoral votes are not actually cast until December. Stay tuned.