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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Brooks Whistles In the Dark

It’s become a truism that David Brooks, the most entertaining sort-of-conservative commentator of the last decade, has lost his edge since becoming a regular columnist for the New York Times. Part of his problem has been the discipline of a 1000-word column, which prohibits the leisurely tours of American political sociology that have been his signature.
But he has no such excuse today. The New York Times Magazine gave Brooks plenty of space, and cover billing, to analyze the future direction of Brooks’ political party, on the eve of its convention in The Big Apple. And Brooks responds by demonstrating exactly how out of touch he is with the GOP, and how out of touch the GOP is with any sort of mainstream political point of view.
Check it out yourself. Brooks offers a devastating if mildly worded critique of today’s Republican Party as an ideologically bankrupt enterprise. But in the search for a “new, progressive conservatism,” he goes back to the “national purpose” ideology that Brooks and Bill Kristol famously proposed as the centerpiece of John McCain’s failed presidential campaign of 2000.
Harkening back yet again to the long-lost activist Republican tradition of Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, Brooks now seems to suggest that the barrenness of George W. Bush’s GOP means that by 2008 something like a “progressive” ideology will have to re-emerge.
But when it comes to specifics, Brooks proposes that Republicans embrace ideas that have long been identified with New Democrats, and that the Kerry-Edwards campaign has largely appropriated. They range from waging a wider, non-military war against Islamic extremism and rebuilding multilateral institutions and alliances, to advocating a stronger national role in education reform, energy and environmental policy; reforming entitlement programs; attacking corporate subsidies; lifting working families above the poverty line; and expanding national service opportunities.
If Brooks were simply proposing a reconstruction of the Republican Party after a Bush defeat, his agenda would be constructive, if not practical. But he pretends, against all evidence, the Bush himself can become the sponsor of a “progressive conservative” revival. And after four years of identifying himself with the failed traditional conservatism that Brooks denounces in this piece, there’s no reason to believe that George W. Bush can or will do anything else.


But In Other Polls….

There’s another major presidential poll that was released today: the highly regarded “Battleground” poll jointly conducted by the Democratic firm of Lake Snell Perry, and the Republican firm The Tarrance Group, sponsored by George Washington University. The data’s a little over a week old.
Among LVs, the poll shows Kerry up 44-43, with Nader at 1 and 12 percent undecided. But after quizzing respondents about the candidates and then including leaners, their “aided ballot” shows Kerry up 49-47 without Nader in the mix, and 48-47-3 with Nader in.
Interestingly enough, the poll has Bush winning a big 5 percent of Democrats, as opposed to the 15 percent reported by the LA Times poll. It also shows Kerry up by 5 among households with veterans, and only down 3 among vets themselves.
One of the fun things about the Battleground polls is you get to read “strategic analysis” memos from both Celinda Lake and Ed Goas: in other words, Democratic and Republican spin on the same data. And it’s about what you’d expect, with Celinda emphasizing Bush’s failure to get majority support after four years and Ed suggesting that Kerry’s missed an opportunity to seal the deal. With the particular relish of so many partisans, both predict a result determined mainly by turnout patterns. It’s so much neater than the messy process of actually persuading voters rationally, doncha know.
At any rate, this poll may offset some of the insider buzz about the LA Times survey. In the past, Battleground polls have been known for an unusually tight “screen” for likelihood to vote, and have often shown results more favorable to the GOP than other major surveys.
And finally, it should be noted that Zogby Interactive released a big batch of polls of 16 battleground states the other day, all conducted from August 16-21. They show Kerry leading in 14 of these states. But Zogby’s erratic rep in state polling makes that scorecard questionable, and the specific results don’t exactly inspire confidence. He’s got Kerry up by 2 in Tennessee, and Bush up by more than 5 in Ohio, and by nearly 8 in West Virginia.
In general, state polling in a presidential race is a very tricky thing, with small samples and widely varying methodologies complicating the picture. Much as I appreciate RealClearPolitics‘ effort to provide all the polling, their effort to summarize the race each day by averaging poll results is definitely misleading, especially when they include blatantly partisan polls by outfits like the GOP firm Strategic Visions.
Maybe we’ll be better able to separate the sheep from the goats among state polls when we get a little closer to November 2.


LA Times Poll: Bush Up In Horse Race, Still Down in Internals

Expect to hear lots of crowing among GOPers going into their convention about a new LA Times poll showing Bush moving ahead of Kerry by 3 among RVs. The last Times poll, held just before the Democratic Convention, had Kerry up by 2, so it’s not a seismic shift, and both leads are within the poll’s MoE.
Moreover, the poll’s extensive questioning on the Swift Boat Veterans ads smearing Kerry’s war service (the poll was conducted in the midst of the ads, and before the current backlash began to develop) does not provide much evidence that this is a significant factor in Bush’s slight boost.
As Ron Brownstein’s analysis of the poll suggests, Kerry’s major problem is that he’s not yet securing the votes of people who are unhappy with Bush’s policies or the direction of the country. “Nearly 1 in 5 voters who say the country needs to change policy direction is not supporting Kerry, according to the poll.” And with a remarkable number of respondents (39 percent) saying they don’t know much about Kerry’s proposed policy agenda, that gives the challenger an opportunity down the stretch. After all, he’s got a 263-page book detailing his policy proposals, while the incumbent has an unpopular record and no second-term agenda so far other than sound bites.
Perhaps the most interesting finding in the poll involves self-identified independents, who split right down the middle (45 percent for each candidate, with 10 percent undecided). Indies think the country is on the wrong track by a 57-31 margin. They favor a “new direction” as opposed to continuing Bush’s policies by a 59-34 margin. They are more likely than voters as a whole to oppose the incumbent’s handling of Iraq and of the economy, and reject, by better than a 5-1 margin, the suggestion that Kerry didn’t really earn his Vietnam war medals.
There are several frustrating gaps between Brownstein’s analysis of the poll and the data made available by the Times. Most notably, Ron reports that Bush is drawing 20 percent of Democrats who call themselves moderates or conservatives. It would be nice to know how they respond to a variety of questions about the two candidates. Brownstein does say Kerry is “suffering his greatest defections among Democrats without college degrees, those who own guns, and those who call themselves conservatives, live in rural areas or are married.” Looks like Kerry’s efforts to reassure voters that he’s no quiche-eater could use a little more work.
The Times also didn’t publish data on undecided voters. But Brownstein says they are “overwhelmingly negative on the direction of the country, the impact of Bush’s policies and the decision to invade Iraq.” In other words, Bush better hold a lead going into October; undecideds are very unlikely to break in his direction.
The bottom line is that this remains a very close race in which the challenger has the greatest potential for gains. The Times poll suggests Kerry can do that if he clarifies his message and agenda, deals with lingering doubts about his party’s values, and crosses the invisible threshold that makes him acceptable to the majority of voters unhappy with the incumbent.


Fencing the Altar

Here among the chattering classes of Washington, you hear a lot of talk, most of it off-the-record, about developments that could change the dynamics of the presidential contest. This talk mostly involves the war on terrorism: What would happen if there’s another major attack on the U.S. between now and November 2? What would happen if Osama bin Laden is captured or killed?
But every time I talk to serious conservatives (yes, I do), another topic usually comes up: the lurid possibility that a bishop or priest will deny the first Catholic presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy access to Holy Communion on grounds that his pro-choice views decisively separate him from Church teachings.
It could happen. Kerry regularly attends Mass and generally takes Communion; indeed, as Amy Sullivan has often pointed out, the Democratic nominee seems to participate in organized worship services a lot more often than the famously religious incumbent. And while I’m sure the Kerry campaign is acutely aware of those dioceses where bishops have publicly said pro-choice politicians should be denied Communion, there’s no way they can keep up with the views on this subject of every single priest.
But if it does happen, it’s not at all clear that Kerry would suffer politically from this sort of confrontation. A new Pew Research Center poll on politics and religion finds that Catholics, including the very observant Catholics who have been the special objects of the President’s political ministrations over the last few years, take a dim view of the idea of fencing off the altar from politicians who disagree with the Church on abortion.
U.S. Catholics as a whole dislike the idea of a “pro-life” test for politicians seeking Communion by a margin of 72-23. Those attending Mass weekly oppose it 63-29. And even self-identified Republican Catholics say “no” to the idea by more than two-to-one (65-31).
I suspect that even those bishops who support a litmus test for Communion are aware of this sentiment, and will be wary of defying it.


Bad Day for the Base

Boy, if the President’s re-election really does depend on an excited conservative base, today’s news is not very helpful to The Cause. You got Dick Cheney dissing Bush’s position on a gay marriage amendment, at considerable length, perhaps subtly undermining the Right’s claim that Western Civilization hangs in the balance. You got Bill Frist, once on the conservative short list for the succession to Bush, co-authoring an op-ed on health care with Hillary Rodham Clinton. And you got conservative pundit and author of Bush’s famous “Axis of Evil” sound-bite, David Frum, advising pro-choice, pro-gay-rights Mayor Rudy Guiliani on how to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2008 (sorry, no link here; it’s in the subscription-only Wall Street Journal).
The Cheney statement appears to have taken culture-warriors by surprise. The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins (no relation to the star of “Psycho”) was reduced to whining about the Vice President’s lack of message discipline, which is rather disturbing given Cheney’s stature as the administration’s Great Big Grownup. And the Veep sure stepped all over the Republican Platform Committee’s decision to enthusiastically endorse the idea, if not the ontological necessity, of a constitutional gay marriage ban.
I decided not to include today’s other big story–the blue-ribbon panel report drawing a direct link between the Pentagon’s poor post-war planning and the prisoner abuses at Al Ghraib–in the litany of base-deflating developments. That’s because my unscientific sampling of rank-and-file conservative opinion, particularly in my own extended family, has convinced me that a fair number of people on the Right think torturing and humiliating prisoners is on balance not that bad an idea, so long as we don’t let the womenfolk get involved.


No Plan B

Noam Scheiber, author of The New Republic’s “&c” blog, took notice of the same Ron Browstein piece on Bush’s base-o-centric strategy that I highlighted yesterday. But while I cast cold water on the idea that BC04 could make up for its weakness among undecided voters by winning the turnout wars, Noam’s take is that the GOPs attention to the base is defensive, aimed at dealing with conservative disgruntlement over administration policies. Either way, it’s not a good sign for Bush.
But Scheiber also suggests that Brownstein is buying into some sort of devious GOP spin by taking seriously their talk of writing off swing voters. If that’s the case, he says, “Then why’d the White House even bother with things like prescription drugs, immigration reform, and the Mars mission–things they knew had a high probability of pissing off conservatives?”
Well, Noam, the answer’s simple: Karl Rove did have a swing voter strategy, but it has failed.
It had four prongs:
(1) Winning over married women with kids through the No Child Left Behind education reform initiative. Thanks to its poor implementation of NCLB, the White House has managed to anger anti-testing zealots on the left and local-control freaks on the right, without getting much credit from those who like the basic idea but think it’s been bungled.
(2) Buying the votes of seniors with a Rx drug benefit. That’s been an even bigger woofer. Seniors hate the new initiative, and won’t even sign up for the least controversial part, the drug discount cards.
(3) Making gains with Latinos through a “guest worker” proposal. Best I can tell, the proposal hasn’t moved a single Latino voter in the President’s direction, though it did royally honk off the ever-present if quiescent xenophobic wing of the Republican Right. That’s probably why you haven’t heard anything about it lately.
(4) Cutting into the Democratic margin among Jews by conspicuously identifying the administration with the embattled Israeli government of Ariel Sharon. According to the one relevant poll of American Jews, released just last week, Bush is running no better with this constituency than he did in 2000–which is to say, horribly.
In other words, the Bushies may be resorting to a “conservative turnout” strategy because they don’t have any other choice at this late date. Karl Rove, whom the President reportedly likes to call “the man with the plan,” had a plan for swing voters, but it hasn’t worked, and there’s no Plan B.


Nasty As They Wanna Be

In case you’re wondering why the Bush-Cheney campaign has gotten so down-and-dirty, consider their options.
They can’t crow too much about the administration’s accomplishments, other than the absence, so far, of any further terrorist attacks on the U.S.
They don’t want the President to be measured by the promises he made in 2000, such as “changing the tone in Washington,” extending prosperity to the forgotten corners of America, or introducing humility into our foreign policy.
They sure as hell can’t suggest that voters ask themselves if they are better off than they were four years ago.
And having staked his re-election campaign to an effort to get conservatives all whipped up into a hate frenzy, they can’t abandon their habit of pandering to the Right by repositioning their guy towards the political center.
So: they’re pretty much stuck with the strategy of pushing John Kerry out of the center by (1) claiming he’s even more of an extremist than the incumbent, and (2) raising every conceivable doubt about Kerry’s character and credibility. And that’s the strategy they’ve very consistently pursued now for months.
There is, of course, a bit of an internal logical problem in claiming that Kerry is a godless, flag-hating, tofu-munching lefty who has no principles. But it’s no more of a stretch than the standard Republican claim that the way to achieve fiscal responsibility is to run the largest possible budget deficits.
The Republican Convention will offer interesting evidence about exactly how negative the Bush-Cheney campaign intends to get, and the precise extent to which the GOP is willing to identify the President and Vice President of the United States with the defamation of John Kerry, as opposed to letting semi-anonymous thugs like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth carry their dirty water. Four years ago in Philadelphia, puzzled delegates spent two full days listening to happy talk from every black, brown, and/or moderate figure the GOP could find to drag to the podium, before Dick Cheney finally gave the protein-starved assemblage their first taste of Clinton-hating red meat. They may let slip the dogs of war a bit earlier in New York.


Pulling a Swift One

Today’s WaPo has wall-to-wall coverage of the Swift Boat Veterans smear of Kerry, and Bush’s evasions on the subject. The two main arguments Bush partisans are offering in defense of the smear essentially boil down to: “So’s your old man,” and “You asked for it.” The first, in a classic of bogus moral equivalency and apes-on-the-treadmill reasoning, claims that Democratic 527 ads criticizing Bush justify whatever lies Republicans choose to tell about Kerry. And the second, even worse, suggests that JK’s focus on his Vietnam service during the Democratic Convention makes whatever lies Republicans choose to tell about Kerry relevant to the campaign.
Josh Marshall offers the best analysis of the whole controversy, in a long series of posts dating back to last week. Josh is one of the calmest, most reasonable voices in the blogosphere, but his anger at the Bushies and their friends for resorting to this kind of tactic is incandescent.


Off Base

The headline of Ron Brownstein’s state-of-the-race piece in yesterday’s LA Times tells you everything you need to know about the parlous condition of the Bush-Cheney campaign a week before the GOP confab in New York: “Bush Aims to Solidify His Base.” If Bush, like Al Gore at this stage in 2000, were struggling to shore up support from his party’s rank-and-file, this focus on the conservative base might make sense. But no, Bush is already pulling well over 90% of self-identified Republicans.
As Brownstein explains, GOPers have convinced themselves they are going to win by boosting conservative turnout. “The Bush campaign believes that there are functionally no swing voters, that campaigns are about the mobilization of your base and expanding the turnout of your base,” a “veteran GOP operative” told Ron. And this kind of talk is not a new thing for the Bushies, who have apparently been reading old BlogForAmerica posts by Joe Trippi, avatar of “screw the swing” thinking among Democrats earlier in this cycle.
There are three big problems with this strategy:
(1) Undecided voters actually do exist, according to every survey, and even if you accept the lowest possible estimate of their numbers (say, 5% of the electorate), they will be decisive in a close election. Remember the basic rule of electoral math: if you “energize” someone to turn out whose vote is certain, you pick up a maximum of one vote, and if your “mobilization” strategy isn’t pretty damn quiet, you’re going to help the other guy “energize” marginal voters as well. If you turn an undecided voter, you get two votes by winning one and denying your opponent one as well.
(2) On the whole, marginal voters are more like swing voters than base voters. They are less partisan, less ideological, harder to reach and motivate, and more cynical about electioneering than voters. And this year, marginal voters as a whole, who are younger, more moderate, more independent, and more downscale than voters, are leaning towards Kerry. A general increase in turnout, which every measurement of voter interest is presently indicating, will help Kerry, not Bush. That’s not a guess; it’s an informed conviction.
(3) Selectively motivating marginal voters is not as easy as it sounds. They are by definition relatively disengaged from political and civic life, and unlikely to respond to campaign ads or the exhortations of opinion-leaders. Targeted GOTV works best when you focus on high geographical concentrations of marginal voters likely to go your way, and then literally go door-to-door to boost overall turnout in these areas (yes, phone banks and emails are helpful, too, but there’s still no more reliable method than the ol’ “knock and drag.”) While the advent of sunbelt exurban communities has given Republicans a ripe target for intensive GOTV efforts, Democratic marginal voters are still much more concentrated, especially in the midwestern battleground states. Moreover, all the anecdotal evidence suggests that Democrats and their allies in the new 527s are significantly outgunning the GOP in GOTV preparations.
In a dead-even election, of course, every vote matters. But the odds that Bush is going to prevail by ignoring undecided voters and winning the turnout wars fall somewhere on the scale that leads from slim to none. If the President’s wizards really believe the crap they’re saying on the subject, it’s a sure sign of a campaign in deep denial, and deep trouble.


What is NewDonkey.com?

It’s an unofficial weblog sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council, written by yours truly, Ed Kilgore, a veteran operative with one foot in the world of ideas and another in the world of practical politics — in other words, a two-legged New Democrat, or new donkey. The word “unofficial” should be noted here. Yes, the news and views expressed here reflect the DLC’s New Democratic philosophy and outlook, and yes, if felonies are committed, the DLC will have no choice but to accept legal responsibility prior to firing my ass. But on the other hand, if what I write here annoys or offends you, don’t blame Al From or Bruce Reed. Give these men the courtesy of letting them annoy or offend you in their own words. True New Dem aficionados may wonder whether this blog overlaps with the DLC’s commentary, idea and message post (and email), the New Dem Dispatch. So here’s the deal: New Dem Dispatch — think authoritative, institutional voice, magisterially surveying the political and policy landscape and delivering op-ed length gems of wisdom; NewDonkey — think pithier, and more irregular posts, often simply linking to material of interest, varied by the occasional smart-ass riposte or high-dudgeon tirade. While NewDonkey is a mainly a political and policy blog, I reserve the right, which I regularly abuse, to delve into matters like religion and college football from time to time. While the blog will endeavor never to be “magisterial,” I have an Old School attachment to complete sentences and coherent thoughts. I know this is a violation of the months-old canons of the blogosphere, but you’ll get used to it. There’s one other thing you should know about the boundaries of this blog, which the success of sites like Wonkette makes necessary. You won’t find much gossip, and nothing at all about my, or my colleagues’ sex lives, such as they are. This is newdonkey.com, not nudehonky.com. And that reminds me of one more internal rule: no more than one bad pun per post. The bottom line is that I’m doing this blog because it’s fun, and because it may provide some useful information and entertainment to many of you. If it stops being fun for me, or informative and entertaining to you (as measured by the scientific method of weighing hearsay and buzz), I’ll shut it down faster than a Meetup when the bar closes. So please give it a regular look.Ed KilgoreP.S. — It’s come to my attention that some people frequent this site not because of anything I write, but in order to gaze at the very cool logo at the top. Credit that to DLC Art Director Tyler Stone, who’s considering a NewDonkey fashion line.