washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

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?

Waffle House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The president doesn’t just flip-flop on issues other than tax cuts; sometimes he waffles and plays possum. Remember campaign finance reform, the prescription drug benefit, the highway bill, and for all while, even the gay marriage amendment? These were all issues where Bush tried to have it both ways. Well, there’s another great example today, where supporters of an extension of the assault weapons ban on Capitol Hill officially threw in the towel, while the White House pretended there was just nothing poor George W. Bush could do about those mean Republicans in Congress. Check out the story in today’s New Dem Daily.

Another Bush Flip-Flop

Having opposed a 9/11 commission, and then accepted it; opposed cooperation with the commission and then agreed to it; opposed a National Director of Intelligence, and then pretended to propose it; and then opposed giving that director real power over intelligence agencies: the president has now suddenly flip-flopped on this last issue as well.
Republicans like to say you always know where George Bush stands. But on just about everything other than tax cuts, he rarely stands in the same place for very long if it’s not to his political advantage.

The $4.4 Trillion Hole in the Bucket

Yesterday’s CBO update on the federal budget–which projected $4.4 trillion in deficits over the next ten years, if Bush’s own proposals are implemented–is being spun by BC04 as just wonderful, wonderful news. These guys really are shameless.
Today’s New Dem Daily looks at the facts and the spin, and says everything worth saying on the subject, so I won’t comment here.

Gaze In Awe

You might think that having savaged John Kerry for four days on national television, the Bush-Cheney campaign would give it a rest for a week or so. But no. Dick Cheney’s remarks yesterday in Iowa said it all about the tone we can expect from BC04 in the runup to Election Day: “It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again–that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States and that we’ll fall back into the pre-9/11 mindset, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts and that we are not really at war.”
In response to these pithy remarks, John Edwards accused Cheney of trying to “scare voters,” which Cheney’s flack called an “overreaction.” “Whoever is elected in November faces the prospect of another terrorist attack,” said Anne Womack. “The question is whether or not the right policies are in place to best protect the country. That’s what the vice president is saying.”
Nice try, Anne, but that’s not what the vice president is saying. Look at the words. He’s directly saying that John Kerry doesn’t believe we’re fighting a war with terrorists, and that terrorists will immediately take advantage of that and hit America again.
It would be nice if the news media would follow up by asking Cheney exactly how Kerry would differ from Bush in fighting the war on terrorism. Unless I’m missing something, Kerry would do five things differently: (1) beef up homeland security, in part by making this a core mission of the National Guard; (2) refocus on Afghanistan, where the Taliban appears to be making a comeback; (3) get serious about finding and securing nuclear materials that may wind up in the hands of terrorists; (4) provide some international support and clear direction to our troops in Iraq, resolving the mess that’s currently the number one recruiting tool for al Qaeda; and (5) rebuild our alliances and international institutions to make the war on terrorism a collective security mission instead of a unilateral U.S. effort.
Now Cheney is perfectly free to disagree with any of all of these suggestions, but the idea that Kerry is less worried about terrorism than the incumbent, or less committed to waging an aggressive war to defeat terrorists, is a conscious lie.
But it points to an even bigger act of deception that was at the center of the GOP convention: the not-so-subtle claim that the only reason terrorists haven’t struck the United States since 9/11 is that they are terrified of what George W. Bush would do to them.
Nobody knows why there hasn’t been another attack. Maybe al Qaeda’s going after softer targets elsewhere. Maybe our military and intelligence operatives have disrupted their leadership (though not because of any distinctive Bush administration policies). Maybe they’re planning an operation right now. But the idea that George W. Bush’s steely Texas character has intimidated them into inaction defies everything we know about al Qaeda and about jihadist terrorism generally.
But expect to hear this line of “reasoning” often from the GOP. The implicit claim that Bush has somehow already defeated al Qaeda may be audacious demagoguery at its worst, but it’s the one claim they can make about Bush’s record that cannot be refuted by the evidence before our eyes.

Anti-Labor Day

As Dana Milbank and Spenser Hsu noted in today’s WaPo, George W. Bush spoke to union audiences on the last three Labor Days, but instead spent yesterday regaling a partisan crowd in rural Missouri with his stump speech.
Now perhaps BC04 simply couldn’t find a friendly union audience this time around. And there’s no question Rove and company wanted to keep the campaign focused on the GOP convention message that all this economy and deficit and health care and energy stuff should be subordinate to the argument that Bush is the embodiment of America’s war on terrorism.
But the attitude of this president towards labor is worth thinking about in some depth.
And I’m not just talking about the labor movement. Yeah, this administration seems to hate unions like sin, and appears perfectly happy to appeal to union members not in terms of their economic interests, but through a combination of national security fear tactics and the usual cultural slurs against the opposition.
On a more fundamental level, however, Bush’s policies represent the most profound disrespecting of the value of labor and the contributions of working families to our economy in a long, long time.
The most obvious example of this attitude is the administration’s tax strategy, which is clearly aimed at shifting the burden of government from wealth to work. Bush has already succeeded at least provisionally in eliminating federal taxation of inherited wealth. He has also succeeded in “flattening” personal income tax rates, and is reportedly flirting with a full-fledged “flat tax” assault on the principle of progressive taxation. His goal in the aborted 2003 tax offensive was to all but eliminate federal taxation of investment income. His friends in Congress are beavering away at the task of undermining federal taxation of corporations, through an assortment of new loopholes and concessions. Everywhere you look, the federal tax base is getting narrower, and where it’s broadest is in the taxation of work.
Worse yet, Bush’s borrowing binge means that this narrow tax base will have to sustain an even-larger share of today’s spending and tomorrow’s interest costs. Add in the strong possibility that the GOP’s raids on the Social Security trust fund will likely mean either (a) cuts in benefits or (b) increases in the most regressive tax on labor, the payroll tax, and you’ve got one of the most profound tax shifts from wealth to work in history. And that’s without even considering the reverse-Robin-Hood tilt of Bush’s spending policies….
But it gets worse. Bush’s economic strategy, such as it is, increasingly focuses on the atavistic premise that lowering the cost of doing business is the sole key to economic growth.
Why is this atavistic? Let me explain.
As regular readers of this blog have probably figured out, I’m from the South. And I’m just old enough to have experienced the tail end of the century of grinding poverty the South experienced following the Civil War–not just for African-Americans, but for most of the population.
If you had to identify one simple reason for this grinding poverty, beyond the legacy of racism, it was the perpetual delusion of southern political and business leaders that the region had to stay poor and dumb in order to attract the capital necessary to eventually climb out of the ditch. Like some of today’s third world countries, the South, right up to the 1970s, was paralyzed by the idea that decent wages, unionization, protection of natural resources, business regulation, progressive taxes, and quality education were all impossible because they would “price” the region out of opportunities for economic development. All of the South’s social and economic weaknesses were perceived as essential to maintaining a “good business climate.” And that benighted belief also helped perpetuate Jim Crow, since the ability to keep roughly a third of the region’s population in semi-serfdom gave the South a cost advantage no other part of the country could ever meet.
Gradually, by the 1970s and 1980s, southern political leaders, and even many business leaders, woke up to the fact that deliberately maintaining a low standard of living wasn’t worth the paltry payoff in low-wage textile jobs. And slowly but surely, a consensus developed that decent education and adequate public services were positive, not negative, factors in long-term economic development. The states that pursued this “high road” strategy–especially North Carolina and Georgia–tended to prosper. The states that stayed on the low road–especially Mississippi and Alabama–didn’t.
That’s why it is so profoundly depressing to see the theory of economic development that my home region finally began to abandon over the last few decades now being embraced by the national government as the way for America to successfully compete in a global economy.
That’s sure what it looks like to me. And it’s the best measurement imaginable of how far off track Bush has taken our economic policies over the last four years. Bill Clinton endlessly proclaimed the key to U.S. leadership in an information-age economy was to promote innovation, encourage small entrepreneurs, value work, and invest in the knowledge and skills of our workforce. Implicitly and sometimes explicitly, today’s Republican party argues that the key to economic success is to reduce taxes, end regulation, insulate businesses from the costs of malfeasance, slow down environmental protection, subsidize corporate operations, gut collective bargaining, and shift as many public services, including public education, into the private sector.
If that approach made any sense, then Mississippi would be the economic dynamo of the nation, and of the world. But that’s the road this administration and its party appears to be paving for us all.
So when you hear Kerry or Edwards talk about Bush’s tendency to value “wealth, not work,” this isn’t just a clever campaign line. It’s an accurate description of the GOP’s basic world-view of the economy, and it’s worth shouting about.

Back to Reality

Dismayed that about half my posts on this blog have been about polls, I’m not going to delve into the new CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey that shows a much smaller Bush convention bounce than the Time and Newsweek polls that freaked out so many Democrats over the weekend. Check out Ruy Teixeira’s analysis, and if that’s not enough, look at Gallup’s own take, which pours gallons of cold water on the idea that the GOP Convention was a brilliant success (Gallup also provides a peak behind the curtain about the assumptions behind its “likely voter” definition: it’s based on the theory that turnout on November 2 will be 55%).
Frankly, I’m less worried about polls right now than about the bad advice some Democrats are offering Kerry in panicked reaction to the polls, and to the GOP Convention: Stop talking about national security, they say. That’s Bush’s issue. Talk about Medicare and jobs.
Sure, after a Republican confab where domestic issues were at most an afterthought, the Kerry campaign needs to remind Americans about those issues, and how poorly the administration has handled them. More generally, he needs to hammer away on Bush’s entire record. But that doesn’t mean conceding national security to the GOP. That’s the Mother Of All Democratic Delusions, dating back for decades. And if “decades” is too much to think about, then consider 2002, when most Democratic congressional candidates either ignored national security and then talked about Social Security and prescription drugs, or agreed with Bush on national security and then talked about Social Security and prescription drugs. It didn’t work then, and there’s no reason to think it will work now.
The truth is that Bush is as vulnerable on national security as he is on domestic policy. He’s squandered the pricesless strategic asset of the good will America enjoyed around the world after 9/11. He let Osama get away at Tora Bora. He made no real effort to get international support for the invasion of Iraq, and then, in a dumb and ideologically driven decision, gave the “go” signal without any post-war planning, and without committing enough U.S. troops to secure the country. He was dragged kicking and screaming into a half-assed commitment to homeland security, and now he’s being dragged kicking and screaming into a half-assed commitment to intelligence reform. At some point, if we’re lucky, he’ll be dragged kicking and screaming into a half-assed commitment to do something about the unsecured nuclear materials floating around a dangerously unstable former Soviet Union.
John Kerry is the right candidate to raise all these points and score on them, not because he won medals in Vietnam, but because he’s never, ever been willing to concede national security issues to the GOP. And I doubt he’s going to start now.
Kerry’s immediate strategy should be to expose the bizarre parallel universe constructed by the Republicans in New York; remind Americans of Bush’s bad record on almost every issue; and challenge Bush’s arrogant refusal to lay out a credible second-term agenda.
If you had to sum up Al Gore’s most important mistake in 2000 (yes, I know, he won the popular vote and got jobbed in Florida), it was his campaign’s inability to make Objective Reality its friend, at a time when a big majority of Americans thought the country was on the right track and that his administration’s policies were working. Now KE04 needs to identify the incumbent with a very different, and far less positive, state of affairs, and then let reality set in.

A Calm Look At the Polls

As all you political junkies out there know, Time and Newsweek released polls earlier this weekend showing Bush opening up an 11-point lead over Kerry during the GOP Convention. (The Newseek poll was of RVs; the Time poll was of LVs; Time had Bush up 8 among RVs in a two-way race, up 9 among RVs in a three-way race). The Newsweek internals had Bush doing a bit better across the board, and Kerry doing a lot worse across the board. The most interesting internal was that 45 percent of voters think Kerry is too liberal, while only 32 percent think Bush is too conservative. In other words, the Bush tactic of seizing the center by claiming Kerry’s more out of the mainstream that he is has worked to some extent. But that gives Kerry the opportunity to push back.
I stand by my contention that there’s no reason for Democratic panic, or for over-reaction by KE04 (yeah, they need to get it in gear, but purposefully, not frantically). For one thing, we haven’t seen enough polling data yet to judge whether the news weeklies, who’ve had a pretty erratic polling record this year, have it right. Zogby‘s got a poll covering the same period that shows Bush’s lead at 2. And while Zogby’s record in state polling has been suspect in recent years, his national surveys have been fairly accurate.
Josh Marshall reports that both campaigns’ internal polls show Bush up about 4 right after the convention.
More importantly, it’s unclear whether the Bush bounce represents a fundamental shift in the race, or merely a gut reaction to (a) obsessive media coverage of the Swift Boat smear, merging into (b) a big assault on the Democrat in New York, and (c) a convention that framed the election, and media treatment of the election, in the most positive possible light for the incumbent.
Interestingly, the only poll out after the Time and Newsweek surveys shows a quick drop in Bush’s margin. Rasmussen’s three-day tracking poll through Saturday shows Bush’s lead dropping from 4.4 percent on September 3 to 1.2 percent on September 4 (no info on daily numbers, unfortunately). Yeah, I know, this is Rasmussen we’re talking about, but sometimes even the shakiest tracking polls do pick up trends.
Then there’s the Objective Reality factor. Hurricanes and college football aside, there have been three big news stories since the balloon drop in New York that might influence the race.
(1) The July jobs report (jobs up 144k, unemployment slightly down) was marginally helpful to Bush, though the bad news is that it virtually guarantees a September interest rate hike.
(2) The announcement that Medicare Part B premiums will jump a record 17 percent next year is terrible news for Bush. He probably made a mistake in his acceptance speech identifying himself with the new Rx drug benefit, which seniors generally dislike; discovering that they’ll pay more next year for Medicare without obtaining anything new that they value won’t help their mood. Kerry’s already yelling about this, as he should.
(3) The impact of the growing nightmare in Russia–sort of a slow-motion 9/11–is harder to assess. The CW is that anything reminding voters of the war on terror helps Bush. The minority view, which I share, is that Bush’s strength is the perception that he’s made America, and the world, a safer place, and it’s unclear how voters will react to signs that Islamic terrorism is actually on the rise, even if it’s in another country.

True Lies

There was a disturbing little passage in John Harris’ WaPo piece today about the impact of Zell Miller’s Wednesday night rant from New York. After examining the evidence that many of Zell’s new GOP friends weren’t exactly happy with his Angry Werewolf routine, Harris reported this:
“A focus group conducted with 17 independent voters in Ohio by GOP pollster Frank Luntz for MSNBC drew a mostly positive response. These voters, Luntz said, did not care for Miller’s attacks on the Democratic Party because they were too ‘broad-brush,’ but the attacks on Kerry resonated because Miller anchored his criticism in specific arguments about Kerry’s record.
“‘They liked facts,’ Luntz said. ‘They’re not responding to style. They’re asking for a level of detail.'”
There’s a lesson here for all you young aspiring political consultants. When you get ready to smear an opponent, be sure to get real specific about it. Season your character assassination with a few facts and figures. Avoid “broad-bush” attacks. “Senator Bilbo Sells Out America” is far less effective than “Senator Bilbo Sells Out America For Thirty Pieces of Silver.”
It’s all about credibility.