washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

Learning from Nader

Ralph Nader’s announcement of his presidential candidacy on ‘Meet the Press’ yesterday included an insightful critique of the Democratic Party, but clouded by a kind of big-picture myopia Nader-watchers may find familiar. There were several Nader nuggets worth quoting in the MTP interview. Asked by Tim Russert how he would feel if his candidacy handed the presidency to the GOP this year, Nader responded:

Not a chance. If the Democrats can’t landslide the Republicans this year, they ought to just wrap up, close down, emerge in a different form. You think the American people are going to vote for a pro-war John McCain who almost gives an indication that he’s the candidate of perpetual war, perpetual intervention overseas? You think they’re going to vote for a Republican like McCain, who allies himself with the criminal, recidivistic regime of George Bush and Dick Cheney, the most multipliable impeachable presidency in American history? Many leading members of the bar, including the former head of the American Bar Association, Michael Greco, absolutely dismayed over the violations of the Constitution, our federal laws, the criminal, illegal war in Iraq and the occupation? There’s no way. That’s why we have to take this opportunity to have a much broader debate on the issues that relate to the American people…

I doubt Nader will make a difference in the ’08 outcome this year, given the ’04 vote. What I find exasperating is that he could have made a difference for the better as a presidential candidate — if he would have campaigned within the Democratic Party. Certainly he would have gotten more media coverage for the causes he cares about. But it will never happen, since Nader harbors an almost splenetic contempt for the Democratic Party and the two-party duopoly in general. Also, he may figure that if Edwards and Kucinich couldn’t get much traction with an anti-corporate message as Dems, he wouldn’t either. Still, Nader’s speechmaking and debating skills are a match for any Democratic candidate and are instructive for our future candidates. For better or worse, he could do more to push the party leftward from the inside.
There’s a lot more Dems can learn from Nader, including the paramount importance of doing the homework and the way he marshalls his arguments and commands facts. There’s also his integrity, energy — still remarkable at age 74 — and his work ethic that sparked critical reforms like OSHA, EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.. Few Dems can match his record as a reformer. Yet today he choses to be a fringe figure, rather than an influential force in defining the national debate in one of the leading parties.
Ralph Nader has earned respect and admiration for his numerous accomplishments as a ‘public citizen.’ But he hasn’t made the case that a large number of votes for him wouldn’t help the Republicans. He ignores the fact that the aforementioned reforms were enacted by Democratic leadership. Given the choice of voting for a candidate for President who can actually win and provide some real world change, I think I’ll hang with the donkeys.


The Big Orange

Do read AFL-CIO Director of Organizing Stewart Acuff’s remembrance of Reverend James Orange at Campaign for America’s Future ‘Blog for Our Future.” James Orange was MLK’s street guy, the one he called on to get young people and even gang members involved in King’s historic campaigns against racial injustice, and he also served as MLK’s March mobilizer and was with King when he was assassinated. Acuff recalls:

During the 1960s and 1970s, Rev. Orange was a key field organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. More than that, he was a member of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inner circle. He joined Dr. King during the Birmingham movement where he organized the demonstrations of school children who were firehosed and attacked by police dogs. Those images broadcast across the nation helped turn public opinion to support the civil rights movement.
Rev. Orange also played key roles in civil rights actions in Selma, Memphis and Chicago—and in Dr. King’s last campaign, the Poor People’s Movement. In both Memphis and Chicago Rev. Orange was assigned to deal with the street gangs attracted to the movement but not committed to King’s nonviolent civil disobedience. He never stopped teaching activists and organizers the principles and basic tactics and strategies of nonviolent civil disobedience.
In 1977 Rev. Orange became a union organizer. He personified the link between the civil rights movement and the union movement. He understood at his core what Dr. King taught – that civil rights without economic rights or justice was insufficient.
Reverend and I began working together in 1985 when I went to Atlanta as an organizer for SEIU to start the Georgia State Employees Union (GSEU/SEIU Local 1985). Reverend knew activists and political leaders all over Georgia and he opened doors for me and our staff wherever we went. He marched with us in Milledgeville and Savannah, helped with a 72 hour, round the clock, vigil and picket line in Augusta, and when budget cuts threatened staffing levels at state hospitals and prisons, Reverend Orange helped us take over state department heads’ offices and went to jail with us.

Acuff has more to say about Orange’s amazing spirit and uncompromising integrity, which I also witnessed when I worked with Orange on a number of projects. He was the best of a great generation of young men and women who answered the call of history and never lost faith or courage, even after MLK was assassinated. Orange continued the fight for social justice until his last breath.
Orange was a gifted labor organizer and after King was assassinated, he led some 300 union organizing campaigns across the southeast. He was once well-described in Southern Exposure magazine as a “big black mountain of a man,” standing about 6’3″ and hitting the scales just south of 300 lbs. Other writers knick-named him “the gentle giant,” partly in tribute to the open-hearted way he embraced ostracized minorities in organizing the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. March in Atlanta. Orange was sort of a ‘pied piper’ as well, commanding an army of political activists who conducted voter registration drives for every Atlanta election and organizing a group called “the blue crew” that turned out the black vote to elect Atlanta’s Black mayors and African American members of congress. He and his activist wife, Cleo raised a house full of great kids, who also became activists.
James Orange was the most widely-loved of King’s lieutenants, and his memorial service at Morehouse College’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapel on Saturday will be SRO. Both Senators Obama and Clinton sent messages of tribute praising Orange’s contributions. Indeed, neither candidate would be contending for the Democratic nomination without the groundwork laid by James Orange and his followers.


The Conservative Delusion

Fareen Zakaria’s Newsweek article “The End of Conservatism” makes the short case that GOP leaders are marinating in self-delusion by arguing that their party’s shrinking support is a result of abandonment of conservative principles. Zakaria counters that a combination of events, demographic change and the transformation of public opinion have rendered Reagan-Thatcher hard-line conservatism obsolete, creating a world in which “conservative slogans sound weirdly anachronistic.” Zakaria’s read on the Democrats’ prospects is also on target, and he quotes TDS co-editor Ruy Teixeira and his co-author John Judis:

“The Emerging Democratic Majority,” written in 2002, makes the case that perhaps for these broad reasons, the conservative tilt in U.S. politics is fast diminishing. It gained a brief respite after 9/11, when raised fears and heightened nationalism played to Republican advantages. But the trends are clear. Authors John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira note that several large groups have begun to vote Democratic consistently—women, college-educated professionals, youth and minorities. With the recent furor over immigration, the battle for Latinos and Asian-Americans is probably lost for the Republicans. Both groups voted solidly Democratic in 2006.

While many hard line conservatives have problems with John McCain’s policies on issues like torture and immigration reform, Zakaria is overstating the case in saying of McCain that “He seems to understand that a new world requires new thinking.” McCain’s advocacy of open-ended occupation of Iraq and his support of escalating US military presence in Iraq is anything but new thinking. Ditto for a broad range of McCain’s polices on such issues as the environment, women’s rights, health care and education. Republican voters who want some leaders capable of ‘new thinking’ can best send their party the message by voting Democratic in November, as many have already done in the primaries.


Super Delegates: How Elitist?

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the ‘superdelegates,’ who will cast more than 19 percent of the votes for President at the Democratic National Convention this summer, is that nearly all of them have been elected to something at some point. The general categories include: 28 Democratic governors; Every Democratic member of congress; 23 Democratic Party ‘elders’ (former Presidents, vice presidents, speakers of the House etc.); 411 DNC members elected by Party activists in the 50 states. After that the case for having superdelgates in the next convention gets very weak.
In his Sunday L.A. Times article “Who Are These Superdelegates?,” Peter Nichols quotes Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen:

This is a device to try to reduce the influence of one-person, one-vote…It’s anti-democratic. It’s specifically designed for the purpose of having the insiders . . . have some sort of final decision over who the nominee is going to be, regardless of what the voters want.

And Chris Bowers, who has launched a ‘Superdelgates Transparency Project,‘ has this to say about the danger of the superdelegate system in his Sunday Open Left post:

The Democratic Party is a living institution that changes through time, and it must change to adapt to the changing nature of its membership. This is a progressive era of mass engagement in politics, and for superdelegates to defy the popular will would deal a generational body blow to huge sections of its new activist corps, not to mention give it a black eye nationally for years, and would also simply violate progressive principles of democracy.

The demographic profile of the superdelegates is not impressive. In Josephine Hearne’s Politico article “White men hold superdelegate power balance,” for example, the author notes:

The exact percentage of white males varies slightly depending on whether the penalized Michigan and Florida delegation superdelegates are counted, but the overall percentage is at least 46 percent. Overall, men of all races represent 64 percent of the party’s superdelegates…The percentage of white male superdelegates is disproportionate to the share of white males who make up the overall Democratic electorate. According to a January 2008 national poll by Zogby International, 28 percent of Democratic voters are white men. Women account for 55 percent of Democratic voters.
…Among the superdelegates, including Michigan’s and Florida’s, there are 28 governors (21 white men), 49 senators (33 white men) and 228 representatives (137 white men). Members of the Democratic National Committee are also superdelegates, and among this group, there is more diversity.

One group. 2008 Democratic Convention Watch, keeps a running tally of the superdelgates who are committed and uncommitted. For their list of names of some 439+/- superdelegates who have endorsed a presidential candidate, click here. For their list of the 356+/- superdelegates who have not endorsed a candidate, click here. As of this writing 76 have yet to be chosen by their state conventions.
As Ed’s post below pointed out, the Clinton-Obama latest snapshot breakdown estimates vary somewhat, with a range of 210-242 for Clinton to 142-163 for Obama.


Managing Political Photo-Ops

This little item at WaPo by Al Kamen got me thinking about political photo-ops, and more particularly the value of composing them carefully when possible. Political ad agencies test images for campaign lit and videos regularly, but I know of no studies that provide statistical verification of the relative importance of photo-ops in a campaign. Nonetheless, visual images have consequences in politics, one of the most oft-cited cases being Nixon’s beard stubble in his televised debate with JFK, which many believe was a significant factor in Kennedy’s 1960 victory.
The appearance of candidates gets a lot of attention, as Edwards’s famous haircut indicates. But I wonder how much attention campaigns are paying to the background in photo-ops, debates and candidate appearances. No doubt the sheer chaos of campaigns limits opportunities for composing photo-op backgrounds. But there are some occasions, such as debates when it becomes possible and potentially important.
In the July 23rd “YouTube” Democratic debate, Senator Clinton was centrally positioned among the podiums, wearing a bright peach-hued jacket among the dark suits (photo here). CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin cracked that the field looks “like Gladys Knight and the Pips.’ She also brought her ‘A game’, which added to the effect of making the others look like also-rans, in stark contrast to her Iowa concession speech, when she was flanked by Clinton Administration elders, a drab tableau, to put it charitably. I gather that her positioning at the YouTube debate was random, but it showed that a favorable set-up can have a beneficial effect.
I remember also watching a televised debate between Senator Max Cleland and GOP challenger Rep. Saxby Chambliss in ’02, and being struck by how downright “senatorial” Chambliss looked — straight out of central casting. He was all gussied up in an elegantly-tailored dark suit and crowned by a shock of perfectly-coiffed white hair (I think they pretty much all shell out big bucks for their doos, not just Edwards). But more interesting, Chambliss was positioned in such a way that the American flag was behind him, not the incumbent Cleland, who was a little off his game that day and looked tired. I’d like to think that Georgians would not be swayed by such superficial considerations as candidate appearance or a flag in the background, but Chambliss did win, so who knows? I strongly suspect, however, that somebody in the Chambliss campaign paid a lot of attention to the setting for that debate, and Cleland’s campaign probably didn’t give it enough thought. The same guy who managed the Chambliss upset is now running McCain’s campaign, as noted yesterday. So don’t be surprised by American flags in the backdrop becoming a staple of McCain image management going forward.
I’m sure it’s possible to over-do it, and photo-ops can look too ‘stagey.’ The Colbert Report certainly gooses a lot of grins out of the set’s flags and eagles slo-mo background, a goof on the networks. Flags or otherwise, it might be a good idea for Democratic campaigns to try and get some more inspiring backdrops for candidate photo-ops than their fading stars of yesteryear.


Unmasking McCain, Deuce

MyDD‘s Jonathan Singer flags Laura Vozzella’s Baltimore Sun article about John McCain’s recent visit to Baltimore. Vozzella’s piece included this nugget shedding new light on McCain’s much-noted ‘character.’:

McCain’s visit brought Bo Harmon back to town. Ehrlich’s former campaign manager is McCain’s national political director.
Ehrlich created a bit of a stir by hiring Harmon, who in 2002 had run Saxby Chambliss’ upset campaign against then-Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia. The Chambliss campaign ran a TV ad questioning the courage of the Vietnam vet and triple amputee.
Among those who objected to the ad: a certain senator from Arizona. “Worse than disgraceful,” McCain called it.

Singer adds:

The evidence of this unscrupulous side of McCain does not begin with his hiring of someone whose pièce de résistance he previously called “worse than disgraceful.” From the beginning of his career through today, McCain has shown that he stands for little other than advancing his own career for ambition’s sake. For instance, in 2001 McCain was apparently nearly willing to give up on everything he ever believed in, including his vaunted Ronald Reagan, in order to switch parties to give the Democrats control over the United States Senate. Three years later, McCain’s campaign approached John Kerry about forming a bipartisan ticket, which would have thoroughly undermined everything he had purported to fight for over the course of his career in Washington. Just in the last few months McCain has given up on his long-standing position on immigration. The list goes on.

It will be interesting to see if any other msm reporters call on McCain to account for his record in the months ahead.


Unmasking the Bogus Maverick

I know we’re all juiced about the Clinton-Obama race. But whoever wins the Dem nod, McCain’s nom is a done deal, and there is a need for some serious oppo-focus if Dems want to shut him down. Toward that end, Arianna gets things off to a good start with her perceptive HuffPo via Alternet post on the McCain of today vs. his saner persona of a few years back. Here’s a taste, with a richly-deserved b-slap for the msm:

So, please, stop pretending that McCain is still the dashing rebel that made knees buckle back in the day — and stop referring to him, as the New York Times did this weekend, as “moderate” and a “centrist.”
What is it going to take for you guys to face reality? McCain verbally stroking Rove should be the equivalent of that great scene at the end of The Godfather where Diane Keaton’s Kay watches in horror as Al Pacino transforms, in the kiss of a ring, from her loving husband Michael into the next Don Corleone. This ain’t the same man you married.
…The Thousand Year War Express is careening along the road to the White House, and the new John McCain is gunning the engine. And he has to be stopped.

Now take it on over to The Nation, where David Roberts picks up on one of Arianna’s themes in “John McCain and Climate Change.” As Roberts explains:

The media touts McCain’s stance on climate as evidence of his straight talkin’ maverickosity. Conservative stalwarts assail McCain for his heresy (Romney attacked McCain’s climate bill in Michigan and Florida). The public hails him for reaching across the aisle. Even Democrats and greens seem inclined to give him a grade of Good Enough on climate.
This is a classic case of what our president calls the soft bigotry of low expectations. Judged against his fellow Republicans, McCain is a paragon of atmospheric wisdom. Judged against the climate and energy legislation afoot in Congress, he falls short. Judged against the two leading Democratic presidential candidates, he is a pale shadow. Judged against the imperatives of climate science — that is to say, judged against brute physical reality — he isn’t even in the ballpark.
It’s time to stop grading McCain on a curve.

Roberts has plenty more, enough to put a permanent end to the oft-cited McCain-as-green-gipper myth. But Paul Waldman’s American Prospect article “The Maverick Myth” is the capper for today.

A Lexis-Nexis search reveals that in the month of January alone, McCain was referred to in the media as a “maverick” more than 800 times. Pick up today’s newspaper or turn on cable news, and you won’t have to wait long before a reporter or pundit calls McCain a maverick.
According to Congressional Quarterly’s party unity scores, which track how often members of Congress side with their party on key votes, over the course of his career McCain has voted with his party 84 percent of the time—not the highest score in the Senate but hardly evidence of a great deal of independence. Similarly, the American Conservative Union gives McCain a lifetime rating of 82.3, making him a solid friend of the right’s. And according to the widely respected Poole-Rosenthal rankings, McCain was the eighth-most conservative senator in the 110th Senate.
…Reporters decided long ago that John McCain’s character is of a higher order than ordinary mortals. In their telling, his motives are pure, his every word and deed speaks of unrivaled courage, and his fierce independence makes him a “maverick.” Everything McCain does is either highlighted or ignored based on whether it fits this pre-existing portrait. So when McCain lards his campaign with lobbyists and GOP insiders, as he did in its initial formation, or when he genuflects before religious radicals like Jerry Falwell and John Hagee, reporters dismiss it as a momentary aberration not representing the real John McCain.

No matter who wins the Democratic nomination, a prerequisite for winning in November is putting an end to McCain’s free ride with the media, and the progressive blogosphere will have to lead the charge. The aformentioned articles are a good beginning for unmasking McCain as the GOP’s flip-flopping, pseudo-maverick errand boy for the fat cats.


Friday Fact Fest

Scout Finch reports at Daily Kos that Clinton raised an impressive $5 million in 48 hours, Obama raised $7.2 million in the same period, a little more than McCain raised — during all of January.
The title of Monica Davey’s New York Times article on the Great Bellweather State’s phat Tuesday vote,”Razor-Thin Margins in Missouri Reflect Nationwide Split,” somewhat contradicts it’s most interesting statistic: Dems 823,754; Reps 589,173.
Also at The Grey Lady, David Brook’s op-ed has some interesting stats amid the faux interview snarkage: “The next states on the primary calendar have tons of college-educated Obamaphile voters. Maryland is 5th among the 50 states, Virginia is 6th. But later on, we get the Hillary-friendly states. Ohio is 40th in college education. Pennsylvania is 32nd.”
Chris Kromm notes a disturbing pair of Tsunami Tuesday exit poll figures in his Facing South post, that 9.5 percent of Democratic voters admit that race was a factor in voting against Obama, while 8 percent of Dem voters said gender was a factor in voting against Clinton. Imagine what the numbers would be on the GOP side.
Elections bird-dog Steven Rosenfeld reports at Alternet.org that 13 percent of New Mexico voters found they were not on precinct voter rolls when they showed up at the polls on 2/5. Some 17 thousand provisional ballots may determine the ultimate outcome.
In his “Digesting the Numbers” post at NDNblog, Andres Ramirez has a statistic that should get Democratic strategists thinking: The number of Latino primary voters increased by nearly a million from ’04 to ’08 in four states alone: NY; CA; AZ; and FL.
In CA also, the Latino turnout exceeded expectations, according to Josh Patashnik’s post at TNR’s The Plank — 29 percent of the CA vote, in stark contrast to the Field Poll’s prediction of 20 percent. Patashnick reports that Field also predicted an Obama win and a 12 percent (of the total vote) Af-Am turnout, compared to the 6 percent who actually voted.


Clinton-Obama Ad Wars Heat Up in 22 States

With Clinton and Obama together budgeting $19 million for Tsunami Tuesday-focused spots, American politics hits a new milestone — “the most ambitious and geographically expansive television effort in a presidential primary,” according to New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney.
As Nagourney notes, the ads are mostly positive, avoiding attacks on the opponent. He cites the example of Obama’s ads in Minneapolis and Albuquerque, where anti-war sentiment runs high, emphasizing his early opposition to the Iraq War. In Hartford and Fargo his ads focus on economic fears. Senator Clinton’s California ads address environmental concerns, energy and foreign oil dependence and she is running ads stressing “economic anxiety” across the nation.
Chris Bowers has an Obama-Clinton poll averaging chart that ad-buyers will find of interest. Clinton supporters will be encouraged by Bowers’ chart, which shows Obama leading in 3 of 22 states. But the chart averages snapshot polls, and some recent polls show Obama gaining rapidly. In another recent Open Left post, “Super Tuesday Ad Buys,” Bowers riffs on Nagourney’s article and notes that Clinton has apparently decided not to advertise in three states, Illinois, Kansas and Georgia.
The larger ad agencies are reaping most of the benefit of the Obama-Clinton ad blitz. But one of the most powerful ads being deployed — via internet — the pro-Obama “Yes We Can” spot, was produced by Will.I.Am, a member of the uber-hip “Black Eyed Peas” and directed by Bob Dylan’s oldest son, Jesse Dylan. The ad is a dazzler, featuring inter-cut shots of an attractive cast of young celebrities singing the words of Obama’s inspiring “Yes We Can” speech. No doubt it will be emulated in many future political ads. Both opponents and supporters of Obama will find it instructive regarding the art of political ad-making on the internet. The Clinton campaign has a bank of three dozen ads, including endorsements from RFK, Jr. and the grandson of Cesar Chavez, at this gateway link.


Grassroots Questions Challenge Dems

The Nation has a trio of insightful articles meriting a read from Democrats interested in political strategy. Matt Stoller’s “Dems Get New Tools, New Talent” in The Nation reviews the latest developments in “field” — new ways to increase person-to-person contact of voters. Stoller describes the new software and technological landscape for field organizers and provides a revealing account of the ’04 Dem presidential campaign’s failure to efficiently deploy the latest tools and techniques of voter contact. Stoller lets political consultant Zack Exley ask a key question for Dems in ’08:

Democrats have enjoyed bumper crops of field organizers for two presidential cycles. The next big question is this: Will the nominee succeed in harvesting these crops and making the very best use of these organizers? Or will she or he put blockages and bureaucracy in the way of these young organizers, as happened in the 2004 general election?

Stoller argues that a competent, state-of-the-art field operation can be worth 3-5 points in a general election. Much depends on Dems meeting this challenge.
In her equally-provocative Nation article, “Grassroots Reseeded: Suites vs. Streets,” Laura Flanders asks a similar question:

Now is when the talk meets the walk. The Deaniacs have come into their own–men and women who were trained in Dean’s 2004 campaign are plotting the strategies of all the Democratic front-runners. Dean of the scream is coaching the state parties, and something like the infectious grassroots glee that Dean’s supporters felt years ago appears to be animating (especially) Barack Obama’s volunteers. Forty years after the coming apart of 1968, could this be the year that Democrats finally permit regular people to play a real role in party politics? Or is a whole new cohort of eager-beaver change-makers signing up for heartbreak?

Flanders notes the success of the Obama campaign’s preference for organizing over canvassing. “Canvassers assess voter preferences. Organizers inspire commitment,” says Marshall Ganz, a Harvard proff/’Camp Obama’ trainer quoted by Flanders.
The last Nation article, John Nichols’s “Progressive Democratic Challengers,” makes the case for ’08 as a very good year to weed out DINO’s and other congressional Dems who have supported the Bush-corporate agenda — and replace them with a new generation of authentic progressive Democrats. Nichols discusses the congressional candidacies of progressive Maryland Democrat Donna Edwards and others, and asks:

But what will Democrats in power do in 2009? Will they be as disappointingly cautious and unfocused as the Democrats of the 2007 Congress, who frustrated not just the party’s base but a broader electorate that gives the Democratic Congress lower ratings than the Republican White House? Or will they develop the progressive agenda and display the strategic sense needed to give meaning to all this year’s talk of “change”?…These local primaries have national importance, as they could answer an essential question: will a Democratic Party that muddled its message after gaining control of Congress in 2006 advance a progressive brief in the post-Bush era?

Nichols is encouraged by the energized candidacies of Edwards and other strong progressives. No doubt, their success will depend on their campaigns’ ability to tap the grass roots strategy, tools and commitment cited by Stoller and Flanders.