washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Barry’s Back Yet Again

If you, dear reader, are a resident of the Washington, DC, metro area, you probably don’t need me to get a fix on the news that former mayor Marion Barry has made yet another comeback by winning a seat on the DC Council. But for those of you who live elsewhere, and may have thought Barry’s show, and its various reruns, were canceled long ago, here’s an explanation:
1) Barry’s Ward: Barry won a surprisingly decisive, better-than-two-to-one victory over Ward 8 Council incumbent Sandy Allen, once his protege. But Ward 8, in southeast Washington, has long been Barry Country, and it probably will be as long as he lives. It’s the poorest part of the District, the most heavily African-American part of the District, and the Ward that has probably benefitted least from the economic development and real estate boom that has accompanied Anthony Williams’ tenure as mayor.
2) Class Warfare: The Ward 8 backlash against the DC status quo was echoed in Ward 7, also in southeast Washington, where another Council incumbent, Kevin Chavous, was soundly beaten. And because these were the only two Wards with competitive Council races, turnout patterns also doomed at-large Council incumbent Harold Brazil, another pro-Williams candidate. The basic argument of the challengers was that Williams and his allies have promoted downtown development at the expense of poorer neighborhoods, and more generally, that the large-scale gentrification of the city has done little for po’ folks other than raise their rents. This, of course, is a common political conflict in reviving urban cores all across the country, but it’s especially tense in DC, which has the largest income stratification of any major city.
3) The Demise of Chocolate City: There is also, of course, a racial element to the economic politics of DC. The white percentage of the District population has been steadily rising in recent years, partly the result of gentrification, and partly because of a major exodus of black middle-class families, mostly into the Maryland suburbs east of the city. A majority of the DC Council members are now white (all the losing incumbents and winning challengers in yesterday’s primary were African-Americans). One of the most enduring myths of DC folklore, going back for decades, has been “The Plan”–the idea, often alluded to publicly by Barry, that shadowy White Power Structure types were maneuvering to restore white leadership of DC government. Some local activists aren’t bashful at all about claiming that Anthony Williams’ tenure as mayor is the penultimate step towards fulfillment of The Plan.
4) What’s Next: The most immediate impact of yesterday’s DC primary could be, oddly enough, on baseball. Williams’ plan for public financing of a District stadium to lure relocation of the Montreal Expos–reportedly the strongest option available to major league baseball–was supported by all the losing incumbents, and opposed by all the winning challengers. Williams may still have the votes for his plan, but the bigger problem is that baseball is getting ensnared in the broader economic and racial politics of the District.
In the longer run, there’s now lots of speculation that Barry will inevitably challenge Williams in 2006, assuming he stays healthy enough and avoids the “personal problems” that have plagued his career, most notably the smoking-crack-with-a-hooker incident that sent him to the hoosegow for a while.
But don’t bet on the Final Barry Comeback. For all the economic and racial conflicts mentioned earlier, the single largest beef of low-to-middle-income Washingtonians of all races remains poor public services, and especially poor public schools (it’s noteworthy that losing incumbent Chavous was the long-time chairman of the Council education committee) . Williams, who’s managed to clean the Augean Stables of several DC government departments in the past, appears vastly more willing and able to do something about public services than any of his critics, especially Barry. After all, Williams tried to wrest control of DC schools from the perpetually feckless elected school board, only to be rebuffed by the Council. And while Barry is best known nationally for his “personal problems,” his enduring political legacy is the proposition that municipal government should function primarily as a jobs program, not as a provider of public services.

A Light in the Fog

Confused about all the polling data out there? Hey, who isn’t? Fortuntately, Ruy Teixeira has posted a handy-dandy guide to the methodological issues that separate the sheep from the goats in all the recent polls, and his conclusions suggest a much, much closer presidential race than many of the headlines we’ve all been reading.

Stopping the Big One

During Dick Cheney’s convention speech in New York, the one line that sorta surprised me was the veep’s acknowledgement that terrorists getting access to nuclear weapons is “the ultimate threat we face today.” There’s no question that’s right, but nuclear non-proliferation has not exactly been a high priority for the administration, and moreover, Cheney’s admission seemed to undercut the general convention theme that George W. Bush has terrorists so frightened that it doesn’t much matter what they want to do or what weapons they have.
The American Prospect web page has posted a very useful Matt Yglesias piece reviewing the ragged and incompetent Bush-Cheney record on loose nukes, and the administration’s bogus claims to have made progress on this front.
Matt doesn’t go into the Democratic candidate’s record on the subject, but this is one national security issue where it’s impossible to deny that Kerry has been strong, consistent and far-sighted. It’s also a subject he’s addressed in extraordinary detail on the campaign trail.
It would be helpful–not just to Kerry, but to public understanding of the war on terrorism–if it comes up early and often in the debates. It would be fun to watch Bush defend a whole series of flip-flops on the issue his running mate calls “the ultimate threat we face today.”

I’ve Got It! We’ll Lie!

After reading some of the Bush-Cheney campaign’s coordinated attacks on the Kerry health plan this morning, I was reminded of a galvanizing moment many years ago when I worked for a state agency that handed out grants according to a complex mathematical formula. Word had come down that Higher Authorities would appreciate a thumb on the scale for a particular community, and we spent many hours pouring over charts in an effort to lawfully harmonize the grant procedures with the desired outcome. Late that night, one of my colleagues suddenly had a conceptual breakthrough, and shouted: “I’ve got it! We’ll lie!”
Fortunately, she was joking, but BC04’s conceptual breakthrough about how to cast Kerry’s proposals in the worst possible light is no joking matter at all. Systematic dishonesty is the key to the much-admired simplicity and message discipline of the incumbent’s campaign. Read all about it in today’s New Dem Daily.

“Fight the War, Or Bring the Troops Home”

Time columnist Joe Klein has a simple suggestion for what John Kerry ought to be saying about Iraq: blast Bush for fighting an incompetent, no-win war, and challenge him to get serious about ending the Sunni insurgency or admit the whole thing’s been a failure. Klein even scripts a debate line for JK: “Fight the war, Mr. President, or bring the troops home.”
Though Klein framed this advice as a retroactive critique of what Kerry’s actually been saying on Iraq, TNR’s Noam Scheiber endorses the approach as an avenue the candidate can still pursue. And I would add to his comments that it’s (a) consistent with Kerry’s sharp critique of administration war leadership in Afghanistan, past and present, and (b) consistent both with Kerry’s earlier proposal for a larger troop deployment in Iraq, and his more recent argument that we need an end-game for the Iraq engagement. Sure, the Bushies would call it a “flip-flop,” but they’re going to do that with anything Kerry says on any subject.
I’m sure the CW will be that Kerry dare not try to out-tough Bush on Iraq for fear that it will “de-energize” all those anti-war Deaniacs he’s counting on in November. But as I recall, the Good Doctor himself often said that stabilizing post-war Iraq was a mission in which the United States could not afford to fail.

Election Day Has Already Started

Today’s New York Times has a useful front-page piece on early voting and the uses and abuses thereof. But it’s written from a strange goo-goo perspective that emphasizes the potential for voter fraud inherent in unsupervised absentee balloting rather than the much bigger story that early voting is slowly changing the very definition of “election day.” The piece also doesn’t hint at the partisan implications of loose absentee balloting laws. I can think of at least one state where Democrats won big in the 1990s by investing heavily in absentee ballot distribution, and another where Republicans did so. But by now, it’s pretty safe to say that both parties understand the laws and are exploiting them to the fullest extent.
Early-voter targeting, like traditional election-day GOTV, focuses on heavily partisan segments of the electorate, so it’s unlikely that the overall dynamics of the race will have much impact on who “wins” or “loses” in this shadowy competition. But conversely, early-voter targeting could greatly affect the outcome in a very close race.

How To Deal With a Smear

I highly recommend guest blogger John Belisarius’ analysis in Donkey Rising of the public opinion evidence about the Swift Boat Veterans’ smear and the lessons learned for the future. It should give pause to all those “eye-for-an-eye” Democrats who believe high-pitch shrieking is the only proper response to negative attacks on a candidate.

Telling It Like It Ain’t

Every now and then, even the most inveterate political junkie just has to take a break, and that’s what I did this weekend. Instead of obsessively surfing the internet to make sure I didn’t miss a single assessment of the Mood of Ohio. I spent Saturday in a redneck bar watching college football. And the only partisan conflict I encountered was a brief but tense discussion with a bartender who threatened to switch all nine televisions to a NASCAR race (thank God I wasn’t trying to watch a French soccer game).
Properly refreshed, I returned to Washington this morning and made the mistake of reading the Wall Street Journal, which featured an op-ed by Zell Miller. It was like an electric cattle-prod plunged into my morning bathwater.
The guy gets more unbelievable every day. He delivers the most over-the-top convention speech in decades, for the opposition party. He becomes the Maximum Hero of the Republican Right. He’s spent the last week strutting around the country with George W. Bush. Yet he now feels compelled to publish a whiny, defensive op-ed in America’s most renowned right-wing editorial page complaining about “my critics in the national media” and responding to their criticims of his smear-job on John Kerry’s national security record.
I can’t link to this screed because I won’t pay WSJ for access to their online edition, and neither will you. But suffice it to say that Miller does as much violence to the Laws of Logic as he does to John Kerry’s record.
Citing his “critics'” accurate observance that Dick Cheney opposed many of the same weapons systems that Miller scored Kerry for opposing (or more accurately, for scaling back), he claims Kerry opposed them “at the height of the Cold War” while Cheney “waited until after we won the Cold War.” Wrong-o, Zell. Read that oppo research memo more carefully. They opposed them at exactly the same time, in 1990 and 1991 (there’s one other Kerry vote to scale back certain types of weapons in 1995, but if I’m not mistaken, the Cold War was over then, too). Moreover, Miller’s argument in New York was that Kerry was trying to zap the very weapons systems that proved useful in Iraq. So who cares whether Cheney tried to scrap them before or after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
But Miller’s most egregious rebuttal is this one:

My critics love to point out that I had nice things to say about John Kerry when I introduced him to a Georgia Democratic dinner in 2001. That’s true and I meant it. But again, timing is everything. I made that introduction in March 2001–six months before terrorists attacked this country on Sept. 11. As I have said time and time again, 9/11 changed everything.

If that’s the case, then what’s the relevance of John Kerry’s votes on weapons systems in the early to mid-90s? Has Miller cited a single example of any weapons system votes by Kerry after 9/11, which “changed everything”?
There are three or four other howlers in Zell’s brief op-ed, but you get the idea. The WSJ entitled the piece “Telling It Like It Is.” A better title would have been “The Man Who Can’t Smear Straight.”

About Ralph

As we all navigate through the fog of the polls that are rolling in almost hourly this week, one factor in the presidential race is especially confusing: what about Nader? Will he pick off anti-Bush votes in battleground states and throw the election to the incumbent? Will his support melt away in a close, high-stakes contest? What if anything can Kerry and his allies do to minimize his vote?
The threshold question here is how many Americans will have a chance to waste a vote on the wiggy former Green. And the answer is very unclear at present. According to a very comprehensive AP story published today, Nader’s currently on the ballot in eight of the 18 battleground states (AR, IA, ME, MI, NV, WA, WV, and CO), and is likely to get certified in three others (MN, NH, and WI). He’s definitely off the ballot in MO, and probably won’t make the grade in OR and PA. The situation in AZ, FL, OH–all states where Nader’s ballot status is in legal limbo–is hard to assess, and LA is just now looking at the petitions.
There’s rich irony in all the kvetching we’ve heard from Ralph about the flotillas of lawyers Democrats have unleashed on his ballot petitions and on the dubious credentials of the Reform Party (last seen as Pat Buchanan’s vehicle) that is sponsoring him in several states. After all, Nader is a lifelong ally of the Maximum Litigation wing of the trial bar; if given the option, he’d probably prefer to make his case against the Corporate Conspiracy To Sell Out America via a vast class-action suit than by running for president. And it’s hard to symphathize with his apparent belief that he’s a national icon with the inherent right to hop from party to party like a political cowbird, gaining ballot access on the prior efforts of others.
So Democrats have every right within the law to challenge Nader’s ballot access. And I can’t see how even Ralph can complain about the very public efforts of former supporters like Michael Moore, Jim Hightower, and half the editorial board of The Nation to deride his candidacy.
But Democrats should not get hysterical about Nader’s 2-4% standing in national polls. Even in 2000, when the dishonest “compassionate conservative” candidacy of George W. Bush and the eccentric “I’m not Clinton” candidacy of Al Gore convinced millions of voters that the stakes in the election were low, Nader’s support dropped 50% between the pre-election polls and the actual results. Sure, Nader’s Florida vote exceeded that of Bush’s dubious margin in the state, but so too did the vote of the Trotskyist and Natural Law candidates. In a tie election, everything matters, and all the dirty tricks and screwups in Florida election procedures undoubtedly had a greater impact than Ralph.
In the end, Democrats should recognize that there is an irreducible minimum of roughly one percent of American voters who, basically, are crazy people. They’ve always been there, and God bless ’em, they always will be there. They have every right to their opinions. Some of them will vote for overtly crazy-people candidates, and some will vote for Ralph, who’s staked out a position near the gates of delirium. Some won’t vote at all, and nobody knows what they’ll do if they show up at the polls and don’t see a valid crazy-people option.
The Kerry campaign should obviously make every effort to convince voters that this is a high-stakes election with stark differences between the two candidates, in which every vote counts in the actual, two-party choice. But beyond that, Democrats should leave the fringe votes that Nader and others may receive in the hands of the Lord, or whatever other voices fringe voters happen to hear.

The Man Can’t Play Baseball

One way of looking at the dynamics of the presidential race is this: Will BC04 succeed in making the election about the incumbent’s character? Or will KE04 succeed in making the election about the incumbent’s record?
The character/competence choice is hardly a new development in presidential politics, but I certainly can’t remember an election where an incumbent struggled so hard to avoid any discussion of the actual impact of his actual policies on the actual condition of the country. For that reason, it’s pretty important that the challenger continue to draw attention to Bush’s actual performance in office.
On the issue of the relative importance of character and competence–not in politics, but in George W. Bush’s real lifelong passion, baseball–the best lines I’ve ever read were written back in 1983 by the Kansas Sage Bill James. In a tirade aimed at then-Detroit manager Sparky Anderson for his frequent praise of Tiger first baseman Enos Cabell as a “we ballplayer” whose character justified his position in the lineup, James said:

I mean, I would never say that it was not important to have a team with a good attitude, but Christ, Sparky, there are millions of people in this country who have good attitudes, but there are only about 200 who can play a major-league brand of baseball, so which are you going to take? Sparky is so focused on all that attitude stuff that he looks at an Enos Cabell and he doesn’t even see that the man can’t play baseball. This “we” ballplayer, Sparky, can’t play first, can’t play third, can’t hit, can’t run and can’t throw. So who cares what his attitude is?

No, I am not endorsing Bill James’ views about Sparky Anderson or Enos Cabell, but the underlying point is not only accurate, but is applicable to government as well as baseball: performance matters. If we are going to choose a president strictly in terms of admiring someone who is resolute, self-confident in his judgments, and ill-disposed to pay attention to contrary developments or the opinions of others, then there are probably millions of Americans who match or exceed George W. Bush in possessing these qualities. Hell, I know ten or twenty people like that. But I don’t think they’re qualified to serve as President of the United States.
You can certainly argue that the president has some character flaws with serious implications for the country, but in the end, the most compelling critique of the incumbent comes down to his performance in office. And if that record of performance is terrible, then: The man can’t play baseball. So who cares what his attitude is?