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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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Meyerson: Bring White Working Class Back Home

In the current issue of Dissent, Harold Meyerson has a must-read article for Dems, “Beyond the Consensus: Democrats Agree on How to Play Defense, But What Are They Fighting For?” Meyerson offers a lucid assessment of the current state of the Democratic Party, its propects and what can be done to create a majority anchored in Democratic principles:

One point on which all Democrats agree is that the party needs a red-state strategy. In olden days, the DLC might have made this argument, to the strenuous opposition of social liberals. These days, labor has embraced a proposal from the Teamsters that the movement should focus its organizing in battleground and red states….
Consensus reigns. We are all Democrats; we are all cultural moderates…Though the killer issue in last November’s election, we know, wasn’t really moral values; it was national security. And we need to be for that, too.
Will that get us back into the majority? For the really disquieting thing about the exit polling was that it showed that the number of self-identified Republicans equaled the number of self-identified Democrats. It’s particularly instructive, and depressing, to look at the turnout figures in the non-battleground states, where neither party was buying the airwaves or flooding the mailboxes or walking the precincts to get out their vote. In battleground states, Kerry pulled down 3.6 percent more votes than Al Gore had four years before, and Bush exceeded his 2000 totals by 4.4 percent. But in non-battleground states, where voters were left to their own devices, Kerry increased his total over Gore by just 1.5 percent, while Bush boosted his total by 3.9 percent. In Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee, where no major offices were on the ballot, turnout hit an all-time high. That’s the white working class, flocking to George Bush.
And did they ever flock! Kerry lost white, working-class voters-a group that constituted roughly half of the 2004 electorate-by 23 percent, six points worse than Gore had done in 2000. The shift away from the Democrats came chiefly among white, working-class women, who voted nine points more for Bush this time than they had four years ago. To a considerable degree, that’s a function of their trust in Bush on matters of national security: 66 percent of white, working-class voters said they trusted Bush to handle terrorism, compared to just 39 percent who trusted Kerry. (These numbers come from Democratic poll analyst Ruy Teixeira, who has been rummaging around in the raw data from the exit polling.)
But it’s a secondary result that should really give the Democrats pause: 55 percent of these voters trusted Bush to handle the economy, compared to just 39 percent who trusted Kerry. The economy? Bush? They trust the man on whose watch the nation lost three million manufacturing jobs in four years, whose recovery has seen the lowest increases in wages and salaries of any recovery since before the Great Depression? That Bush? And among precisely the voters-the white working class-who’ve lost the most economically during his presidency.
Perhaps this collapse of confidence in Democratic economics isn’t as bad as it seems. After all, once Kerry lost these working-class voters’ trust on national security, his trustworthiness on other topics likely plummeted as well. In addition, the Bush people were certainly more successful depicting Kerry as a cultural plutocrat (not that hard a job, really) than Kerry was in depicting Bush as the economic plutocrat’s favorite president. Kerry was always more comfortable talking about America’s proper role in the world than he was discussing America’s economy, and Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg faults Kerry’s campaign for failing to focus on the economy during the homestretch….
Politically, the declining strength of unions has hurt the Democrats most within the white working class. Over the past forty years, white union members have tended to vote Democratic at a rate roughly 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts. But with the rate of private-sector union membership now down to an abysmal 7.9 percent, the voting habits of working-class whites have shifted markedly rightward.

In addition to his sobering observations, Meyerson asks some tough questions and has a lot more to say about how Democrats can challenge corporate abuse of working people. Highly reccommended for Dems interested in building a stronger party.


GOP ‘Big Tent’ Collapsing?

With Republicans controlling the three branches of government and recently winning key votes in congress on the bankruptcy bill and ANWR oil exploration, it would seem there is not a lot for Democrats to be optimistic about. But some previously dim pricks of light are starting to flicker more brightly at the end of the tunnel. As yesterday’s post below indicates, recent polls show President Bush’s approval numbers tanking significantly and the public is clearly unimpressed with the Administration’s ‘leadership’ on issues, including Social Security, economic policy and GOP meddling in the Terry Schiavo tragedy. In addition, it appears that some serious rifts are appearing among the GOP rank and file. Adam Nagourney provides an interesting wrap-up of the Republicans’ internal troubles in his Sunday New York Times article “Squabbles Under the Big Tent”:

Conservative commentators and blogs are even warning that Republican divisions could turn into turmoil once President Bush begins his fade from power. “The American right is splintering,” the sometimes-conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote in a column for The Sunday Times of London headlined, “Bush’s Triumph Conceals the Great Conservative Crack-Up.”

Nagourney also provides a typology of GOP subgroups, which Democratic strategists may find of use as a guide for peeling off potential Republican voters:

Gone are the days when the Republican Party could easily (if simplistically) be divided into social conservatives versus fiscal conservatives. There are libertarian Republicans, Christian conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans, Wall Street Republicans, balanced-budget Republicans, tax-cutting Republicans, cut-the-size-of-government Republicans, neoconservative Republicans supporting global intervention and isolationist Republicans who would like to stay at home.

Dems can also find some encouragement about GOP splintering in “Earthly Evangelist,” Deborah Solomon’s New York Times Magazine interview with Richard Cizik, head of the 30 million member National Association of Evangelists. Asked about his group’s influence on the future of GOP environmental policy, Cizik responded,

Look, the big corporate interests have an undue say in party policy. And into this reality come the evangelical Christians. And when confronted with making a choice, this administration will compromise. Because about 40 percent of the Republican Party is represented by evangelicals. They wouldn’t want the two major constituencies of the Republican Party at war with each other

Widening rifts in the GOP (see also March 30 post below) may well provide a margin of victory for Democrats in next year’s congressional elections and beyond, especially for Democratic candidates who make a clear and measured pitch for the votes of Republicans moderates and supporters of environmental reforms.


Targeting the GOP’s Achilles’ Heel

In the Sunday New York Times, columnist Thomas L. Friedman blasts the Bush Administration for its lack of a coherent energy policy, other than drilling for oil. For Democrats paying attention, Friedman’s broadsides reveal another Achilles heel Dems can target leading up to the ’06 and ’08 elections. Friedman’s column “Geo-Greening By Example” lays bare the GOP’s “who needs an energy policy?” attitude and the mounting dangers it entails for our security, our economy and the environment.

By doing nothing to lower U.S. oil consumption, we are financing both sides in the war on terrorism and strengthening the worst governments in the world…we are financing the jihadists – and the Saudi, Sudanese and Iranian mosques and charities that support them – through our gasoline purchases…By doing nothing to reduce U.S. oil consumption we are also setting up a global competition with China for energy resources, including right on our doorstep in Canada and Venezuela…Finally, by doing nothing to reduce U.S. oil consumption we are only hastening the climate change crisis, and the Bush officials who scoff at the science around this should hang their heads in shame. And it is only going to get worse the longer we do nothing.

Some of Friedman’s remedies are debatable, such as a huge hike in the gas tax, building nuclear power plants and having the President use an armor-plated Ford Escape hybrid as his “limo.” (armor plating would likely obliterate the hybrid’s mpg advantage). He supports some better ideas long-advocated by Democrats, including tax incentives for development of wind, solar and hydro power, but omits mention of the need for accelerating development of mass rail transit within and between cities.
In an earlier (January 30th) article, “The Geo-Green Alternative,” Friedman made a persuasive appeal for energy independence as the most powerful — and cost-effective — leverage we have for promoting democracy in the Middle East. John Kerry and John Edwards touched lightly on the advantages of a comprehensive energy policy during the ’04 campaign, but their efforts were not well-covered in the media or adequately promoted. Because the Republicans are wedded to the interests of the oil companies, it is highly unlikely that they will meet Friedman’s challenge to develop a credible energy policy.
With rising gas prices now identified as the number one economic problem (see March 25 post) and with 61 percent of respondents expressing support for more conservation measures in a recent Harris Poll (see March 22 post below), Friedman’s critique merits serious consideration. As the energy and environmental crises worsen, Democrats have much to gain by uniting behind a comprehensive strategy for energy independence.


Concern About Runaway Gas Prices Soars

Until very recently, the American people have been remarkably unflappable about soaring gas prices. No more, according to the latest Gallup poll, conducted 3/21-23. Asked “What is the most important economic problem facing the country today?,” 17 percent of respondents put “fuel/oil prices” at the top of the list, ahead of such factors as unemployment, health care costs and social security and more than triple the percentage polled a month ago, when 5 percent chose gas prices as top priority.


Ideologues Dis Majority On End-of-Life Issues

In today’s New York Times, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, sheds some welcome light on the Terri Schiavo case and the GOP’s penchant for interfering in the most sensitive and difficult decisions facing American families. Kohut’s article, “A Political Victory That Wasn’t,” makes a persuasive case that the Republicans’ meddling in the Schiavo family’s affairs demonstrates a blatant disregard for the beliefs of the American people and also shows that the Christian conservative movement may be becomming the most potent driving force of GOP political strategy. Kohut cites an ABC News Poll showing how the American people feel about the GOP-lead congressional vote allowing Terri Schiavo’s parents to take the case to federal court:

…the public, by a margin of 70 percent to 27 percent, opposes Congressional involvement in the case. Fully 67 percent of the poll’s participants thought members of Congress were more focused on using the Schiavo case for political advantage than on the principles involved.

What makes the poll’s findings even more striking, as Kohut notes, is that more than half of the poll’s respondents had been involved in making a decision concerning the termination of life support for a friend or family member. While conceding that some of the members of congress who supported the measure were acting out of conscience, he warns that the vote may signal a dangerous new trend in American politics:

…the Christian conservative movement now has the clout on life-and-death issues to do what the National Rifle Association has done for years on gun control. Strengthened by the results of the November elections, the movement can convey to legislators that the intensity of their constituents’ beliefs is more important than the balance of national public opinion.

Kohut sees the vote in congress as a test run for Christian conservatives, to see “whether they have enough standing to run against public opinion.” But Democrats can take some comfort and hope in the enduring pragmatism of American voters who may be “wary of political constraints on the tough choices their families may face…Like Social Security, end-of-life issues hit close to home, where ideology and partisanship play much less of a role than all-too-human self-interest.”


Newsweek Poll: Majority Oppose GOP ‘Nuclear Option’

The latest GOP ploy to suppress free speech and subvert checks and balances has run into a major roadblock. As a showdown approaches over the so-called “nuclear option,” which would change Senate rules to require 51 votes to cut off debate on judicial nominees, instead of 60, a new Newsweek Poll reports that 57 percent of Americans oppose the idea, with 32 percent supporting it. The poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International 3/17-18, found an even greater margin of disapproval among self-identified Independents, 60-31 percent.


GOP Spin Doctor Defends Euphemisms

Connoisseurs of political spin are directed to “The Lexicon of Political Clout” by conservative consultant and GOP sound bite guru Frank Luntz in in todays’ LA Times. Luntz, author of the GOP Playbook (see Feb 24 and March 2 posts below) defends his “A New American Lexicon,” in which he advises his conservative clients to use specific phrases and avoid others in describing their policies. Luntz decries the “Orwellian” label liberal commentators have used to describe his terminology. But at the very least, he displays a flair for euphemisms that torture reason and language. For example:

I would assert that “responsible exploration for energy,” which includes the search for incredibly clean natural gas, is a far different activity than plunking down a well haphazardly and just “drilling for oil.”

Or:

Similarly, I’m for calling the money paid to help parents choose their kids’ school a “scholarship” because “voucher” trivializes the powerful opportunity the transaction confers on poor families. I’d argue that it’s more accurate to call “school choice” “parental choice in education.” Considering how such a program equalizes education for rich and poor, the most accurate phrase would be “equal opportunity in education.”

What Democratic strategists can learn from Luntz is to pay closer attention to crafting the language of political discourse, a pivotal factor in GOP victories of recent years. If we keep our language clear and straight, the GOP will be regarded as the party of equivocation.


Dems Must Fight for Economic Reforms

With the exception of the battle over Social Security privatization, the Republicans are finding weak resistance to their greed-driven legislative agenda, the disastrous bankruptcy bill being the most recent example. Yet, opinion polls indicate a solid majority of Americans want strong leadership for economic reforms that benefit working people. Writing in the Boston Globe, columnist Robert Kuttner, also co-editor of The American Prospect, notes that 63 percent of respondents in a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week felt that President Bush “had different economic priorities than those of most Americans.”
Kuttner explains that some Democrats’ timidity in challenging the white house economic agenda derives from five factors — corporate contributions, fear of being labled ‘populists,’ lapdog media eating out of Bush’s hand, cultural conservatism and the war in Iraq. But he argues that the hefty majority for economic reforms reflected in recent polls offers Dems an opportunity to reverse the GOP’s recent string of victories without alienating the Democratic base — if they can find the courage:

Democrats need to challenge Bush on the best strategies to keep Americans safe, but they are not maximizing their advantage on the pocketbook issues where they should be eating Bush’s lunch. The one happy exception is Social Security, where Democrats have managed more unity than usual, and they may prevail. There’s surely a lesson here.

As Kuttner says, “Bush’s economic program harms ordinary people. And a majority of voters notice.” And when Democrats stand up and fight for economic justice, they win needed reforms for their constituents and electoral victories for themselves.


Bankruptcy Bill Draws Line In Sand for Dems

Judging by the mainsteam media coverage, you wouldn’t think the votes to pass the Bankruptcy bill (S. 256) in the U.S. Senate were all that important. NBC’s Meet the Press and ABC’s This Week, for example, lavished substantial air time on the steroids in baseball issue, but zilch on the Bankruptcy bill, which will affect the economic well-being of millions of working people. The mainstream print media, with a few notable exceptions (liberal columnists Molly Ivins, Paul Krugman and David Broder), was only marginally better.
The Bankruptcy Bill ranks high on any list of the 10 most odious pieces of legislation considered in recent years, “a nightmare for the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak,” in the words of Senator Edward Kennedy. Kennedy also noted:

It favors the credit card companies, the giant banks and the big car loan companies at every turn. It favors the worst of the credit industry — the interest rate gougers, the payday lenders, and the abusive collection agencies. It hurts real people who lose their savings because of a medical crisis, or lose their jobs because of outsourcing, or suffer major loss of income because they were called up for duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. It protects corporate interests at the expense of the needs of real people.
It does absolutely nothing about the glaring abuses of the bankruptcy system by the executives of giant companies like Enron and Worldcom and Polaroid, who lined their own pockets, but left thousands of employees and retirees out in the cold.
It favors companies like MBNA, a top credit card issuer, with over $80 billion in loans, and which has contributed $7 million to federal candidates – half a million dollars to President Bush alone, and spent over $20 million in lobbying, since 1997, when their lobbyists wrote this bill.

Despite the comparative indifference of the traditional media, the liberal blogs and political websites were smoldering last week with heated coverage of the Bankruptcy Bill votes, (See Salon’s Warroom, Gadflyer, Democrats.com and liberaloasis, for example)– and rightly so because few bills now before Congress do more to violate the “first principles” of the Democratic Party. Certainly opposing multi-billion dollar transfers of wealth from poor and working people to corporations and the rich ought to be a “first principle” strongly reflected in Democratic political strategy.
Regrettably, however, 18 Democrats voted with the Republicans for cloture and/or final passage, including Senators Lieberman, Bayh and Biden, who are frequently mentioned as possible Presidential candidates in ’08. No Republicans voted against cloture or the bill. As Kennedy said, “This bankruptcy bill is mean-spirited and unfair. In anything like its present form, it should and will be an embarrassment to anyone who votes for it.” House of Reps Dems, Take note.


GOP Senators Kill Minimum Wage Hike, Despite Majority Support

According to a January report by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of Americans supported an increase in the federal minimum wage as an important priority, with only 6 percent opposed. Yet, the U.S. Senate voted 49-46 to defeat a bill that would have provided three increases of 70 cents in the federal minimum wage, from $5.15 to $7.25 over the next 26 months. All 49 of the Senators voting against the bill were Republicans. Earlier polls have shown strong support for even higher increases.
The Republicans did offer a substitute bill providing a $1.15 increase in the minimum wage, but it was tied to provisions that would have eliminated long-standing wage and overtime protection for millions of workers. Of course the GOP knew their bill was doomed and it would kill any chance of a minimum wage increase. The GOP point man for the ‘alternative’ bill, Sen. Rick Santorum, has voted against minimum wage increases 17 times in 10 years, according to Sen. Edward Kennedy, despite the fact that the inflation-adjusted value of the federal minimum wage has decreased alarmingly in recent decades. The 1968 minimum wage, for example, would be worth $8.88 in today’s dollars.
The GOP opposition may have handed Democrats a potent weapon for mobilizing low-wage workers in the upcomming elections, and the campaign against Sen. Santorum will likely be the marquee contest of 2006.