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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


OH-02 Vote Bodes Well for Dems in ’06

The results of the OH-02 congressional race are in, and Paul Hackett’s showing, while 2+ points short of an upset victory, strengthens Dem hopes for ’06. As Charlie Cook noted before the vote:

If Schmidt’s victory margin is in double digits, this tells us that there is not much of an anti-GOP wind in Ohio right now. If the margin is say six to nine points for Schmidt, then there is a wind, but certainly no hurricane. A Schmidt win of less than five points should be a very serious warning sign for Ohio Republicans that something is very, very wrong, while a Hackett victory would be a devastating blow to the Ohio GOP.

Kos does a nice job of putting the vote in perspective:

this is probably the only district in Ohio in which Paul would’ve lost…So the state GOP avoids a “devastating blow”, but only by the hair on their chinny chin chin. OH-02 saw the resurgance of the Democratic Party, the GOP had to spend $500K they hadn’t otherwise planned on spending, and a Democratic star is born (next stop for Hackett — statewide elected office). So much for “burying” Hackett…It’s a new day for the Democratic Party, one in which no Republican district is safe.

And DavidNYC adds this at the same Kos link:

tonight’s results represent a tidal wave in Ohio (and perhaps national) politics. In 2004, the Democrat running in OH-02 lost by 44 points. Tonight, the Democrat, Paul Hackett, lost by a mere 4 points – just 4,000 votes out of over 114,000 cast. That’s one-eleventh the prior margin, and that’s fighting against one of the most corrupt state Republican parties in the land.

Dems should take note that Hackett is a fiercely outspoken critic of the President’s leadership of the War in Iraq. As CNN reports:

Hackett, a lawyer and Marine reservist who recently completed a seven-month tour in Iraq, drew national attention to the race with his flame-throwing assaults on Bush. He was especially harsh of the president for his July 2003 “bring ’em on” comment about Iraqi insurgents, saying such talk merely “cheered on the enemy.”
“That’s the most incredibly stupid comment I’ve ever heard a president of the United States make,” Hackett told USA Today.

There’s more at Kos, and there are other interesting posts about the OH-02 results at the Swing State Project, MyDD, The Left Coaster and Whiskey Bar.

Does the Big Tent Have a Weak Foundation?

In the wake of the caving of the Dems’ CAFTA defectors, David Sirota has cranked up the case for stronger Democratic Party discipline. In his Working Assets post “Why Dems Should Value — not Shun — Accountability,” Sirota argues that it is a major blunder not to invoke some punishment on Dems who caved on CAFTA, the bankruptsy bill and other defining issues. Says Sirota:

…it never ceases to amaze me how Washington, D.C. Democrats – unlike Republicans – have no understanding of why accountability will actually help them get back into the majority.
You’ve heard it before: Democrats don’t like to talk about who is loyal to the party and who isn’t. They would prefer that everyone just be quiet about divisions, even if those divisions undermine the party’s ability to deliver a serious message. It’s the big tent for big tent’s sake – even if it means losing into perpetuity.
…Whining Democrats, I ask you: do you think Newt Gingrich was nice to people within his party who undermined him in his quest to take back the majority? Do you think the current Republican leadership dislikes Grover Norquist’s efforts to keep GOPers in line today? Do you think Karl Rove keeps winning elections by letting turncoats within his own party undermine the GOP?
…Republicans understand the value of having an infrastructure that helps keep their troops in line – an infrastructure that makes it clear there are actual consequences for selling out. To most people in the real world, this kind of thing is really very elementary…consequences are the only thing that makes sure someone who has undermine the team doesn’t undermine the team again in the future.
…the majority of Democrats in Congress are courageous and honest people. The problem is, they are being undermined on a daily basis. It is the loyal foot soldiers that a strengthened accountability infrastructure will help, because without consequences for turncoats, the party will be undermined forever.
This is the way back to the majority for the Democratic Party – not rolling over and dying when turncoats within the party’s ranks repeatedly undermine the party’s effectiveness. Helping create accountability for those who sell out is not disloyal. On the contrary, it is the ultimate act of loyalty if you are seriously interested in seeing Democrats regain the majority. The people who are disloyal are those Democrats who pay lip service to the goal of winning back Congress, but in reality have become so comfortable in the minority they’d rather just sweep even the most self-destructive problems under the rug.

Ouch, but well-said. And in his Sirotablog article “Grover Norquist, Turncoats & the Embrace of Movement Politics,” he argues further that invoking discipline on wayward Republicans is the ultimate source of Norquist’s increasing influence. Of course, the Big Tent Dems would hasten to point out that heavy-handed discipline caused the GOP to lose their Senate majority when Jim Jeffords quit the Republicans. Yet it does seem crazy to just shrugg off betrayals of Democratic principles for the sake of an ineffectual party ‘unity.’ This issue is important for the future of the Democratic Party, and Sirota’s post deserves serious consideration.

How Labor’s Split Could Affect Dems’ Future

Democratic strategists and campaigners should take note of Jeanne Cummings’ article “Unions Recast Their Political Role: Fracturing of AFL-CIO Could Boost Labor’s Influence Over Election Campaigns in Long Run” in today’s Wall St. Journal. Cummings discusses some of the ramifications of the widening divisions within organized labor on the Democratic Party. As Cummings points out:

The departure from the AFL-CIO of Mr. Stern’s Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters raises the likelihood of more split union loyalties in primary contests. It might even open a crack for some labor-friendly Republicans.
…To be sure, intralabor competition could end up wasting resources through duplication…they could dilute resources in a way that results in fewer victories.
One Democratic Party segment that may need to brace for fallout is moderate elected officials, many of whom joined President Clinton in the 1990s in backing free-trade deals. The Change to Win Coalition — which, like other labor officials, lambastes those deals as harmful to workers — pledges to take a tougher line toward defectors.
Just yesterday, labor presidents issued a warning to Democrats that supporting the Central American Free Trade Agreement now pending on Capitol Hill could cost them at re-election time.

Cummings also quotes labor insiders who believe the split could lead to an increase in union investments in political campaigns. The Democrats’ share of labor PAC contributions decreased slightly from 2000 to 2004, while the Dems’ share of the union vote remained constant, according to charts featured in her article. The voter turnout of union workers has increased in percentage terms in recent years, even as the number of union members has fallen.
Cummings and her sources agree that unions will continue to play a significant role in Democratic Party politics. But if the split in the ranks of organized labor produces an energized workers’ movement over the longer haul, unions will have enhanced influence in electing Democrats.

Dems Should Focus More on Congressional Campaigns

WaPo‘s Colbert I. King has an article Dems need to think about, if we want to create a party that can actually play offense, instead of limp defense. King’s “Democrats Are on the Wrong Battlefield” (July 23 edition) brings a needed reminder that tunnel vision focused on Presidential campaigns has not served Dems well. King says Dems invest too much energy and resources in the race for the white house to the detriment of other important elections:

Self-designated as a government in exile, Democratic Party activists have spent recent election cycles working their fannies off for that glorious day in January when they, as victors, could show the door to a vanquished Republican administration. For members of Washington’s Democratic administration-in-waiting, winning the White House has been the only game in town. The presidency, in their view, is the instrument to make the way straight and easy for all who wage war against the heathen right.
So, lo these many years, they have been spending millions of dollars and consuming time and energy treading the primary roads that they hoped would take them to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Meanwhile, far beyond the presidential trails, Republicans have been picking off Democrats on the Hill one by one, making it possible for George W. Bush to fulfill his upfront pledge to govern America from the right, where tax cuts, changing the face of the federal judiciary and making liberals perfectly miserable every waking moment remain the order of the day.

King says neglect of important congressional races has made it easy for Republicans to dominate, not only legislative struggles, but judiciary confirmation battles, such as the filibuster “compromise.” And, if you doubt King’s point about presidential campaign tunnel vision, ask a Democratic friend to please name five key Senate races slated for next year. If King is right, re-routing more energy and resources into congressional, state and local campaigns, leadership development and training could prove to be a worthy investment in a Democratic future.

Sorting Out Opinion on Abortion Issues

As reported below, opinion polls indicate healthy majorities oppose overturning Roe vs. Wade and want Supreme Court nominees who will honor majority opinion on this issue. Beyond that, polls reveal confusion and misinformation among many Americans regarding abortion-related issues, as Matthew Yglesias points out in his TPM Cafe post “Abortion and Public Opinion“:

Strongly anti-choice claims like “abortion is murder” have quite strong public support. At the same time, strongly pro-choice claims like “the choice should be left up to the woman and her doctor” have even stronger support…Taking a more fine-grained look, people say they support Roe v. Wade but then also say they support all kinds of restrictions on abortion’s availability that would go against the current understanding of the Roe precedent.

Yglesias gets his conclusion from Karlyn Bowman’s in depth American Enterprise Institute study “Attitudes About Abortion,” which explores public opinion concerning broad range of abortion-related issues over the last 33 years. Bowman’s study, which afffirms overwhelming support for the Roe decision, should be required reading for all Scotus justices and nominees, as well as candidates for office and policy wonks.

Despite Scotus Nominee, Recent Polls Say Keep Roe v. Wade

If Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts is confirmed, it is quite possible that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned, given the current balance on the court and his track record on the issue. (His wife, Jane Roberts’ involvement in “Feminists for Life of America,” a strongly anti-abortion group is another factor). But Democrats who are willing to give Roberts an easy pass should take a look, at least, at the most recent opinion polls, which show overwhelming support for keeping Roe vs. Wade and strong opposition to criminalising abortion in most cases.
A CBS News poll, conducted 7/13-14, for example found that only 3 percent of respondents believe abortion should “never” be legal, and 59 percent agreed that Roe vs. Wade was a “good thing,” compared to 32 percent who said it was a “bad thing.” A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted 6/24-26 found that 24 percent of respondents believe abortion should be “always legal,” 55 percent said “sometimes legal” and 20 percent said it should be “always illegal.” The poll also found that 65 percent of respondents wanted a new Supreme Court justice to “vote to uphold” Roe vs. Wade, with 29 percent wanting a new justice to “vote to overturn” the decision. A Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey conducted 6/8-12 found that 63 percent of Americans did not want Roe overturned, while 30 percent did.
Abortion will remain a difficult issue for Democrats, and the Roberts nomination will likely heighten debate within the Party over the issue. While keeping an eye on public opinion, Democratic leaders should continue exploring potential common ground to build a broader consensus between constituencies who disagree on abortion rights.

Does ‘Re-Framing’ Give Dems Political Leverage?

The debate over the importance of “framing” gets re-energized in Matt Bai’s “The Framing Wars” in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Bai argues, among other points, that the Democrats used creative framing to stop the GOP ‘nuclear option’ and he tells an interesting story:

In January, Geoff Garin conducted a confidential poll on judicial nominations, paid for by a coalition of liberal advocacy groups. He was looking for a story — a frame — for the filibuster that would persuade voters that it should be preserved, and he tested four possible narratives. Democratic politicians assumed that voters saw the filibuster fight primarily as a campaign to stop radically conservative judges, as they themselves did. But to their surprise, Garin found that making the case on ideological grounds — that is, that the filibuster prevented the appointment of judges who would roll back civil rights — was the least effective approach. When, however, you told voters that the filibuster had been around for over 200 years, that Republicans were ”changing rules in the middle of the game” and dismantling the ”checks and balances” that protected us against one-party rule, almost half the voters strongly agreed, and 7 out of 10 were basically persuaded. It became, for them, an issue of fairness.
Garin then convened focus groups and listened for clues about how to make this case. He heard voters call the majority party ”arrogant.” They said they feared ”abuse of power.” This phrase struck Garin. He realized many people had already developed deep suspicions about Republicans in Washington. Garin shared his polling with a group of Democratic senators that included Harry Reid, the minority leader. Reid, in turn, assigned Stephanie Cutter, who was Kerry’s spokeswoman last year, to put together a campaign-style ”war room” on the filibuster. Cutter set up a strategy group, which included senior Senate aides, Garin, the pollster Mark Mellman and Jim Margolis, one of the party’s top ad makers. She used Garin’s research to create a series of talking points intended to cast the filibuster as an American birthright every bit as central to the Republic as Fourth of July fireworks. The talking points began like this: ”Republicans are waging an unprecedented power grab. They are changing the rules in the middle of the game and attacking our historic system of checks and balances.” They concluded, ”Democrats are committed to fighting this abuse of power.”

Bai notes that not everyone considers the filibuster compromise much of a victory for Democrats. But he makes a persuasive argument that a conscious strategy of re-framing the debate did give the Dems some leverage.
Bai provides a broad summary of the theories and still-rising popularity of framing guru George Lakoff, who now has a new DVD “How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Solutions From George Lakoff.” Bai also runs the 2004 Presidential race through a Lakoffian filter:

From Day 1, Republicans tagged Kerry with a larger metaphor: he was a flip-flopper, a Ted Kennedy-style liberal who tried to seem centrist, forever bouncing erratically from one position to the other. They made sure that virtually every comment they uttered about Kerry during the campaign reminded voters, subtly or not, of this one central theme. (The smartest ad of the campaign may have been the one that showed Kerry windsurfing, expertly gliding back and forth, back and forth.) Democrats, on the other hand, presented a litany of different complaints about Bush, depending on the day and the backdrop; he was a liar, a corporate stooge, a spoiled rich kid, a reckless warmonger. But they never managed to tie them all into a single, unifying image that voters could associate with the president. As a result, none of them stuck. Bush was attacked. Kerry was framed.

To show that Dems have been equally ineffectual in projecting their agenda, Bai quotes Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and a strong proponent of framing:

I can describe, and I’ve always been able to describe, what Republicans stand for in eight words, and the eight words are lower taxes, less government, strong defense and family values…We Democrats, if you ask us about one piece of that, we can meander for 5 or 10 minutes in order to describe who we are and what we stand for. And frankly, it just doesn’t compete very well. I’m not talking about the policies. I’m talking about the language.

Bai’s article includes blistering quotes from Lakoff’s critics, but concedes that Lakoff’s theories have been oversimplified by many of them — “the cartoon version of Lakoff,” according to Peter Teague of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Meanwhile, Katha Pollitt’s article “If the Frame Fits…” in July 11 edition of The Nation, offers a different take on Lakoff missed by Bai and other Lakoff critics:

I keep thinking that reframing misses the point, which is to speak clearly from a moral center–precisely not to mince words and change the subject and turn the tables. I keep thinking that people are so disgusted by politics that the field is open for progressives who use plain language and stick to their guns and convey that they are real people, at home in their skin, and not a collection of blow-dried focus-grouped holograms.

Bai concludes his article more on the side of Lakoff’s critics than not and he gives the Republicans too much credit for substance in their message. Still, his article has some usefull insights on ‘frames’ and the importance of a clear and unified message for Dems.

Public Opposes ‘In-Your-Face” Scotus Nominee

It’s hard to tell if President Bush was much impressed by the boomerang effect of his nomination of John Bolton to be our next U.N Ambassador. But in light of Bush’s tanking approval ratings, Democratic strategists should take note of the findings of a new Wall St. Journal/NBC News poll conducted 7/8-11, in defining their stance on the next Supreme Court nominee. In his WSJ wrap-up, John Harwood notes:

Mr. Bush faces a Rubik’s Cube of shifting opinion as he copes with pressure from all sides on replacing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor…Fully 63% of Americans say it would be a move in “the right direction” to pick a justice who backs displaying the Ten Commandments on government property, a popular stance with the Republican Party’s conservative base.
Yet 55% of Americans also applaud the idea of a justice who would uphold affirmative action, a key demand of liberals. More problematic for the right, which for three decades has blasted the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, a robust 65% of Americans say the court shouldn’t overturn Roe.
Perhaps most hazardous for Mr. Bush’s other priorities is the prospect of protracted partisan warfare over Senate confirmation of a high court nominee. The recent fights over judges, Social Security and John Bolton’s nomination as United Nations ambassador have taken a toll on the public mood.

The poll also found that 55% of the respondents “disapprove of how Congress is doing its job” and 45% prefer that the 2006 elections produce a Democratic-controlled Congress, compared to 38% prefering Republican control. “This is a very difficult climate to begin that conversation” over a court vacancy, concludes Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “What the public perceives might only reinforce the notions of partisan fighting and lack of action.”
If Bush nominates a moderate conservative, Democrats have some tricky decisions to make in crafting their response. But, given the enormous stakes, if the President choses another in-your-face nominee, it’s clear Dems have little to lose in declaring their all-out opposition.

Americans Want Action on Global Warming

As was widely predicted, President Bush failed to provide leadership for significant action against global warming at the G-8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. This despite a new new PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll conducted 6/22-26 revealing that his policies on global warming lag way behind the wishes of the American people.
The poll found that 73 percent of Americans wanted the U.S. to participate the Bush-opposed Kyoto Agreement and 56 percent now agree that the U.S. should take steps “to reduce greenhouse gasses, even if it involves significant costs.” The poll also found that 83 percent of respondents favored legislation requiring large companies to reduce greenhouse gasses. 50 percent of respondents wanted the U.S. government to do “as much as other countries” to reduce greenhouse gasses, and another 44 percent wanted the U.S. to do “more than other countries.”
The poll indicated that overwhelming majorities supported GOP-blocked reforms such as tax incentives for companies to provide clean energy, requiring car companies to make hybrid autos half of production by 2010 and setting higher fuel efficiency standards, even if it makes cars more expensive. The poll revealed that awareness of the global warming problem increased modestly (9 percent over 2004), but 43 percent mistakenly believe that President Bush supports the Kyoto agreement.

Democracy Corps: Support for Bush, GOP Sink, But Dems Must Step Up

Democracy Corps new report, “The Democrats’ Moment to Engage,” brings more dismal news for the GOP — and reason for Democrats to be cautiously optimistic. The Report, which includes results of a survey conducted 6/20-26, indicates that 56 percent of Americans think the country is “on the wrong track,” the same percentage agreeing that the war in Iraq is “not worth it” and 55 percent of respondents want the country to go in “a different direction” than Bush’s leadership is taking it. These percentages have been holding steady for Democracy Corps’ last three surveys, and report authors Stan Greenberg and James Carville conclude “This is a country almost settled on the need for change.”
The report also found that Democrats lead by 5 percent in a “hypothetical congressional contest” during the last three surveys. But the authors warn against overconfidence, because the GOP free fall is accompanied by “no rise in positive sentiment about the Democrats” and Democrats’ positive ratings still lag 5 percent behind the Republicans.
Carville and Greenberg urge Dems to make “sharp choices to diferentiate” themselves from the Republicans. Democrats must become “the party of change” and “empower the middle class over the big corporate interests in Washington.”
This and a host of other recent surveys (see below) strongly indicate that Americans want a clear change of direction. Job one for Dems is to show they can lead the way.