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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


Scandal and the 2006 Election

By Andrew Claster
The Foley scandal may be only the latest in a series afflicting the Republicans, but it could have a greater impact on the 2006 election than the Abramoff, Plame and DeLay scandals that had already wounded the GOP.
Even pre-Foley, voters were angry and ready for change. Net Congressional approval (approval minus disapproval) has been negative 30 or worse in most major polls since March, and now stands at negative 42 in the latest AP/Ipsos poll.
President Bush’s approval, having recovered briefly to over 40% in September, is now back in the 30s. The primary reasons for the latest drop appear to be the National Intelligence Estimate noting that the Iraq war has made the US less safe, together with the Administration’s support for Dennis Hastert in light of the Foley scandal.
Meanwhile, the Democrats’ double-digit lead in the generic Congressional ballot is holding steady in October for the first time in several disappointing cycles. Crucially, the Democrats lead by double digits even in polls that survey only likely voters, as opposed to all registered voters.
2006 is the Democrats’ best opportunity to retake control of Congress since the Republicans put them out of power in 1994.
The nature of the Foley scandal makes it particularly difficult for the Republicans to resort to their traditional pre-election attacks on moral values to turn swing voters and mobilize their base. Congressional Republicans are seen as having placed partisan politics ahead of the welfare of the adolescents in their care.
As a result, the support of married parents, a key Republican constituency in recent elections, is now in jeopardy. And efforts to turn out Christian conservatives for the Republicans will likely be less successful in this environment.
Worse for the GOP, the timing of this scandal, on top of all the others, gives them little time to address the matter and move on to other subjects, particularly if there are new revelations between now and November 7.
Informed months ago of Foley’s inappropriate communications with an underage page, the GOP leadership chose not to open a full investigation. Apparently, based on a conversation with the boy’s parents, House leaders calculated the matter should and could be kept quiet.
They ignored the possibility, even the likelihood, that Foley presented a threat to other pages, that he might have had inappropriate communications or contact with other pages, or that this evidence might find its way into the hands of the media, which takes its duty to educate the public particularly seriously when sex is involved.
In this role, the media have not disappointed: 78% of voters are aware of the Foley scandal in the latest TIME poll. By contrast, only 57% were aware of the Abramoff scandal in a January Fox poll.
As a result, the Democrats now lead the Republicans by 6 points on moral values in the latest Newsweek poll, a remarkable reversal from the previous month, when Republicans led Democrats by 13 points on this question.
And because Republican voters are more likely to say they care most about “moral values” when casting their votes, a sex scandal involving a minor can be particularly devastating for GOP turnout. In the latest CBS/New York Times poll, 42% of Republicans said they are less enthusiastic about voting this year than usual -– up from 33% in September.
In addition to helping Democrats and hurting Republicans nationally, there are several specific races where ethics issues could affect the result, and therefore, potentially, control of Congress.
Florida 16 – Republican Mark Foley’s late resignation means that his name remains on the ballot. Foley’s votes will be awarded to his replacement, state Representative Joe Negron, but Democrat Tim Mahoney seems likely to win a seat that Democrats had little hope for just a couple weeks ago.
New York 26 – Republican Tom Reynolds’ involvement in the Foley scandal may cost him his seat in Congress. The race was already a tough one for him – he’s running against Jack Davis, a self-funded millionaire who won 44% of the vote two years ago. The remarkable weakness of this year’s statewide GOP ticket in New York could compound Reynolds’ troubles by depressing Republican turnout even further.
Texas 22 – In the seat Tom DeLay was forced to give up, Democrat Nick Lampson has a strong lead. The GOP isn’t helped by the fact that DeLay’s name is still on the ballot, forcing supporters of Republican Shelley Sekula-Gibbs to write in her name.
Montana Senate – Republican Conrad Burns’ connection to the Abramoff scandal has made this seat, in which Burns won re-election with only 51% six years ago, a top Democratic target. Democrat Jon Tester maintains a narrow but consistent lead.
When it comes to corruption, the Ohio GOP is in a class of its own. Not only did Governor Taft’s approval rating drop into single digits last year after a scandal involving investment of public funds in rare coins, but Bob Ney’s guilty plea to Abramoff-related charges has further tarnished the party’s image statewide, affecting even those Republicans who have not been directly implicated in either scandal.
Ohio 18 – Bob Ney’s involvement in the Abramoff scandal has given a leg up to Zack Space, the Democrat taking on Ney’s replacement on the ballot, state Senator Joy Padgett.
Ohio Senate – Republican incumbent Mike DeWine is doing his best to distance himself from the Bush Administration, GOP House leaders and the Ohio Republican Party, but it may not be enough. Sherrod Brown retains a narrow lead.
Ohio Governor – Democrat Ted Strickland has a double-digit lead over Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. Many voters still harbor hard feelings towards Blackwell over his 2004 decision not to provide more polling stations in a presidential election where Ohio was crucial and high turnout was anticipated. Many blamed Blackwell’s negligence–as the most charitable might put it–for the long waiting lines, especially in urban neighborhoods dominated by minority voters.
In the current political environment, Democrats who have been touched by scandal seem likely to hold on to their seats, in part because they were easier to defend in the first place.
Louisiana 02 – William Jefferson is likely to hold this seat, even in the face of a bribery scandal. In his latest FEC filing, Jefferson reported more than $300,000 cash on hand. No word on how much of this is being stored in his freezer.
West Virginia 01 – Alan Mollohan has given up his seat on the House Ethics Committee, but seems likely to win re-election in spite of a federal investigation into allegations that he funneled money to non-profit organizations to which he was connected and thereby managed to enrich himself by several million dollars.
Voters’ appetite for change in Congress has not been this strong since 1994 when the Republicans won control of both houses and gained 52 seats in the House of Representatives alone.
This year, both houses are again in play, and Democrats stand to make major gains. But a 52-seat swing is unlikely this time. First, current district lines reflect more sophisticated and effective gerrymandering techniques than in 1994. Second, in 1994, Democrats were defending many Southern seats through incumbency advantage that had been trending Republican for decades. The 1994 election dislodged many Southern Democrats from seats that quickly became solid Republican seats. No such mismatch between districts’ partisan leaning and the party of the incumbent representative affects a large number of seats in 2006.
This time, Democrats need to win 15 seats to take control of the House and 6 seats to win control of the Senate.
If Democrats do win a majority, they will do so with a mandate from voters to address corruption. We can expect a full investigation of the Foley affair, new efforts to curb lobbyist influence, and new investigations of the relationship between lobbyist influence and some of the Bush Administration’s questionable decisions on energy, environmental protection and military procurement.
In Congressional races, ethics and corruption often have little impact beyond the affected incumbents’ races. But this cycle is different. First, because of the number of scandals and their varied nature — from sex, child endangerment and a possible cover-up to influence-peddling affecting the highest reaches of the majority party’s Congressional leadership. This suggests an endemic problem — not one which can be easily blamed on a couple of bad apples. Second, these scandals have greater impact because they come at a time of exceptionally low approval for the Administration’s policies.
In almost every cycle since 1994, Democrats have had good reason to think the next election would be the one in which they retook control of Congress. But 2006 is the first time that the numbers have looked this promising as late as mid-October. A lot can happen in just three weeks, but if current numbers hold until November 7, the Democrats will take control of Congress for the first time in a dozen years.

Andrew Claster is a Vice President with Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates working on Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s re-election campaign. Prior to joining PSB, Andrew worked for the World Bank. Andrew has a Master’s degree in Economics from the London School of Economics and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Yale University. He studied European economic and political integration at the University of Barcelona, Spain.

A Progressive Narrative or a Hegemonic National Greatness Narrative?

By David Rieff
It is a measure of just how far to the right the country has swung that the authors of the “Progressive Battle Plan for National Security” can on the one hand insist that “we are Democrats because we are inspired by the values of the left” and on the other name their group after President Truman–a man who can be described as a leftist only if graded on a curve of mainstream American politicians of the Cold War era. Yes, President Truman was to Richard Nixon’s left, but what of it? It reminds me of the old English comedy routine in which three Englishman try to explain American politics to a fourth who is about to travel there. “You have the Republican Party,” one of them says, “which is the equivalent of our Conservative Party, and you have the Democratic Party…which is the equivalent of our Conservative Party.”
I am certainly not competent to judge what the most effective durable strategy is for Democratic Party victories, and I defer to the Truman Project writers on the matter. But what I do know is that calling Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and, of course, Harry Truman men of the left is to perpetrate a falsehood. Roosevelt, at least, instituted at least some programs that could be described as left of center (though certainly not leftist), even if at least arguably his motivation was at least in part to stave off the demands of the actual American left. In the case of Truman and Kennedy, however, the historical record is one of ‘national greatness’ Cold War Democrats whose bedrock assumptions were that the world was best served when ‘led’ by the United States of America. John Kennedy, as John Judis reminds us in his post, ran to the right of Richard Nixon on national security issues. As for President Truman, well, here I have a question: does the name Nagasaki ring a bell?
To me, it is extraordinary (well, grotesque if I am being honest) that one could name a foreign policy group after the only political leader ever to authorize the use of the atomic bomb. And the inappropriateness and moral deafness inherent in such a decision is compounded by the authors’ reference to an Iran that threatens “to destroy millions of lives in a war or a nuclear accident” should it acquire atomic bombs. All the warranted denunciations of the barbarity of the Iranian regime cannot change the fact that we are in fact the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons.
My suspicion is that these remarks will make little sense to the authors of the paper. A world in which a group of like-minded Democratic Party foreign policy experts can call their blog ‘Democracy Arsenal’ in the apparent belief this only has echoes of FDR’s famous speech and not, precisely, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of the overthrow of Mossadegh and Arbenz, and the war in Vietnam that the Republican Eisenhower warned against and the (leftist?!) Kennedy embroiled us in, is one in which the sensibilities, historical memories, and opinions of much of the rest of the world–one might even say, the decent opinion of mankind–apparently count for very little.
In all candor, I cannot see what differentiates the justifications for the so-called Global War on Terrorism put forward by the authors of this ‘progressive’ [sic] battle plan from that regularly advanced by the Bush Administration. The President has himself repeatedly emphasized all the issues that supposedly would distinguish a Democratic Party approach to fighting the jihadis from the insistence that the struggle is one for hearts and minds within Islam, to the moral obligation to combat the oppression of women, to the need to champion values of “freedom, tolerance, and respect for others.” It is one thing to claim that the Bush Administration has acted incompetently; that can be justified. But it is simply false to claim that the Administration has not, from the invasion of Afghanistan forward, emphasized all these points. Again, I am not competent to speak as a political strategist, but it seems to me that commonsense would suggest that the anxieties the American public apparently feels over the Democratic Party’s national security bona fides will not be assuaged by repeating the White House’s talking points of the past six years.
Rather than accept the authors’ contention that the problem “is that Republicans have controlled the national security narrative,” surely a strong case can be made that in the American mainstream there is only one national security narrative–the national greatness narrative. To me the authors’ paper buttresses such a contention rather than dispelling it. And indeed, an objective reading of the Cold War suggests that, apart from a diminishing isolationist rump within the Republican Party, the narrative of Harry Truman was not that different from that of Dwight Eisenhower, just as the narrative of John
Kennedy was not that different from that of Richard Nixon. Were this not the case, why has it been a cliché for decades that, during the Cold War at least, partisan politics stopped at the water’s edge?
In my view, what has really happened is that the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan, and, even more successfully, under George W. Bush succeeded in writing the Democratic Party out of this bipartisan narrative–not least by appealing, just as the authors of the paper do, to Harry Truman. Republican support for Senator Lieberman is another emblem of this narrative in which Democrats have strayed from this consensus and no longer know how to protect the country.
In all candor, I do not really see all that much light between the Republican position and the position the Truman Project advocates here. That does not make the authors wrong, but it does call into question their contention that their ‘Stand Principled’ position can be the silver bullet Democrats have been searching for. An equally important practical difficulty with the paper is its persistent implication that Democrats have principles and Republicans don’t. The Islamists, the authors write, “refuse to tolerate the very diversity of opinion that makes us Democrats and Americans.” I hold no brief for the Republican Party but this is pure demagoguery. And it will convince no one, reassure no one, and do nothing to usher in a new period of Democratic Party success.

David Rieff is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of seven books including, most recently, At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention..

What to Say versus What to Do

By John B. Judis
Let me make some brief comments on this paper from the Truman National Security Project:
1. I think the authors are absolutely right in defining the political question about foreign policy. Foreign policy only becomes an issue in national politics when Americans either feel their security threatened or when they think the government is wasting resources or lives on issues that don’t threaten our security. But to say this is implicitly to acknowledge two less pleasant facts about foreign policy and politics: first, that American voters decide foreign policy questions on what are sometimes narrow and unenlightened grounds, and second, that these choices don’t necessarily reflect what is best for them and the country. Good politics don’t always make good policy. There are two obvious examples, both from Democrats. In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt was forced by popular will to accede to isolationist sentiments that would hamper the American response to the war in Europe. In 1960, John F. Kennedy successfully ran to the right of Richard Nixon by decrying a non-existent missile gap and promising sterner action on Cuba. Kennedy’s positions in that election, while popular, would later get him and the country in a lot of trouble, and it would take him until his American University speech in 1963 to reverse course rhetorically from the framework of discourse that he established during the 1960 campaign.
2. Democrats face two different questions about foreign policy this year and in the future: first, what to do; and second, what to say we should do. They are not the same (see above). But one should have some relation to the other. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson had already pretty much decided to escalate the Vietnam War when he was telling voters he would not. That contradiction laid the basis for public disillusionment with government and hatred of Johnson himself by many voters who supported him because they thought that he (unlike Goldwater) would find a way to get the U.S. out of Vietnam.
What bothers me about this Truman statement is the absence of any discussion of what should be done. Should one assume that Democrats know what to do about Iran, or about extricating the US from Iraq, but simply face a problem of how to sell these policies to the American people? I don’t think that’s the case. If one reads, say, the Truman people’s statement about Iran in this light, it sounds particularly hollow. When candidate X is at the debate and is asked, “Well, it is clear you don’t like Iran having nuclear weapons, but what should the US actually do to prevent it?” the authors “stand principled” alternative doesn’t suggest any answer at all. Perhaps this is too harsh, but my feeling is that this is too much one of those Lakoffian exercises that reflect the policy elite’s preoccupation with marketing ideas that they don’t yet have.
3. My own feeling, too, about foreign policy questions is that Americans, and Democrats in particular, have to be careful at times not to subordinate their convictions of what the country should do to their wishes to be re-elected, be elected, or gain control of Congress. The 2002 election was a perfect example. There were a group of former Clintonites who were convinced that the nation should go to war against Iraq, but many Democrats on Capitol Hill, while thinking otherwise, hoped that the issue would go away. I was at one Democratic retreat in 2002 where I had to broach the issue myself, because the participants were utterly convinced that the election could be fought entirely on grounds of Enron and unemployment. I think in retrospect most Democrats would agree that it would have been better to go down fighting in 2002 (many lost anyway) than to have allowed the looming disaster in Iraq to be ignored. But we can’t know whether we have to make that kind of sacrificial choice until we know what we think should actually be done. I think that’s the prior question that needs to be addressed before we try to figure out how to sell our policies.

John B. Judis is a Senior Editor at The New Republic, a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.