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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey

Stranger Than Fiction

So you’re Mitt Romney, and you want to be President of the United States, but you’ve got this problem: a significant number of Americans think your religion is a weird cult that used to sanction polygamy. A reporter asks you one of those dumb but utterly predictable questions candidates get asked: What’s your favorite book? You suppress the impulse to say “The Book of Mormon,” but instead tout Battlefield Earth, the mammoth and virtually unreadable sci-fi novel penned by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.This is hardly a big moment in the presidential campaign, but you’ve got to wonder what was going through the Mittster’s mind when he pulled this particularly ugly rabbit out of his hat. He might as well make the best of it, and fire off fundraising letters to Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Three Perspectives On Globalization

Over at The Democratic Strategist, Will Marshall and Ed Gresser of the Progressive Policy Institute have published a provocative take on the taxonomy of progressive attitudes towards globalization. Two of their categories are well-known: the “neo-populists” who largely view globalization in its current form as a malevolent, corporate-driven phenomenon that must be resisted if not somehow overthrown; and “progressive modernizers” of the Clinton tradition who are unambiguously pro-trade but favor a stronger safety net for affected workers and communities.One of the most interesting things about the Marshall-Gresser essay is its treatment of a third perspective: “social democrats” who point to European models for policies and politics that might reconcile economic growth, a high standard of income and security for workers, and globalization itself. They conclude the “social democrats” have a lot more in common with “progressive modernizers” than with “neo-populists,” which is not how this fault lines are usually drawn.Check it out.

Damage Control For Richardson

It took a few days, but now there are signs that Gov. Bill Richardson’s hard-won status as a preferred or back-up presidential candidate for leading elements of the left blogosphere and/or netroots has been seriously endangered by his performance in last week’s SC debates.Before wading into this subject, let me emphasize that I like Richardson, and that I have been and intend to remain studiously neutral in the presidential nominating contest, not that it much matters to anybody, other than those who think every blogger has a secret candidate-driven agenda. But the Richardson phenomenon does raise interesting questions about the instability of candidate preferences in the New Media age.Check out this post by Trapper John at DailyKos–previously a largely pro-Richardson site–for the case against Big Bill, which includes several things Richardson said just yesterday at the California Democratic Convention (more about all that later).To back up a bit, the netroots’ special interest in Richardson is two-fold. First are those facets of his biography that attract people from all over the party: his golden resume which combines international and domestic credentials; his electoral record; his Latino ethnicity; his laid-back personality and communications style; and his lack of identification with any controversial faction in the party (though he was very much a Clintonian for much of his career, and has been quite friendly to the DLC).Second are things about Richardson that especially attract netroots support. These include his current status, unique in the field, as a governor and thus (despite his long prior federal service) non-Washingtonian; his Western background (attractive to many bloggers for a variety of personal, ideological and empirico-political reasons); his active engagement of the netroots; and recently, at least, his adoption of a fairly hard line on withdrawal from Iraq. One leading blogger–Markos of DailyKos–even likes Richardson’s NRA-friendly record on guns as conducive to a “libertarian Democrat” movement that might expand the party base, especially in the West.And like all political junkies, netroots observers have largely concluded that past rumors about Richardson’s behavior towards women must be mostly hot air, since the hordes of oppo researchers and journalists lusting for documentation of such rumors do not appear to have turned up anything of note.That was all before last Thursday. To begin with, Richardson drew two questions that underlined his affinity with the NRA, and his occasional strong words about the Democratic habit of supporting tax increases (the latter came directly after Edwards was challenged to defend his support of a tax increase, or more accurately a rollback of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, to pay for his health care plan).And then came Richardson’s immediate and startling citation of Byron “Whizzer” White as a model for the kind of person he’d like to name to the Supreme Court. It didn’t take more than a few minutes for posts to pop up noting that White was not only one of the dissenters in the original abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade (abortion being the context of the SCOTUS question), but also the author of Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 decision upholding the constitutionality of state sodomy laws. In one fell swoop, and for no apparent reason, Richardson managed to offend at least some abortion rights and gay rights activists.Over the weekend, at the California event, Richardson happened to follow Edwards at the podium, and repeated his I’m-not-a-tax-raising-Democrat line. Trapper John took that as a direct shot at Edwards (who is the number one favorite candidate on sites like Daily Kos), and worse yet, as one of the progressive blogosphere’s biggest no-noes: reinforcing Republican attack lines on Democrats generally while attacking another Democrat.Moreoever, while in California Richardson got asked to clarify his Whizzer White endorsement. There’s a quote flying around the blogosphere (here and here, in addition to Trapper John’s post), for which I have yet to see a primary source, wherein Big Bill allegedly responded: “White was in the 60s. Wasn’t Roe v. Wade in the 80s?” Way wrong, of course, on both counts (White was on the Court until 1993, and Roe was decided in 1973.In other words, the growing progressive blogospheric grievance with Richardson is growing, not going away.The irony is that there are reasonably easy ways for him to put the dispute to sleep, if not to rest. Richardson ought to say now what he might have said last week before even addressing the SCOTUS question: “You know, unlike the other candidates, I’m not a lawyer.” He could add: “I’ll spot them at least one factual error on diplomatic issues to even things up,” and then close off the subject by swearing his fealty to a constitutional right to privacy and non-discrimination in all matters involving abortion and gay rights.The tax issue should be even easier to clear up, assuming that Richardson agrees with virtually all Democrats that Bush tax cuts for the wealthy (the usual cutoff being individual taxpayers with over $200,000 in income) should be repealed. Interestingly enough, there’s nothing specific on that topic at the Richardson campaign web page, though a recent New York Times roundup on tax policy listed Richardson as in accord with all the other candidates–including Edwards–as favoring preservation of tax cuts for those earning less than $200,000). Every single Democratic candidate in 2004 favored this sort of rollback, with the only argument being over total repeal of the Bush tax cuts, supported by Dean on general principles and by Gephardt to pay for his health plan. Assuming Richardson isn’t staking out a truly unusual position on the subject, his only argument with Edwards might be over what to do with the proceeds of a rollback. He ought to just say so, and then go on to tout his record in New Mexico for cutting taxes there.I don’t know where if anywhere this “story” is going next, but it is a good indicator of how the development of blogs and other new media have made gaffes much easier to make and more essential to correct than in the past.

South Cackalacki Debate

Don’t know if you watched the Democratic presidential debate from South Carolina, but I did, and I’ll get kicked out of the blogger union if I don’t pass on some impressions.The format was unusual, with lots of questions demanding (unsuccessfully) short answers, with lots of jumping around on topics, and virtually no candidate interaction, other than that randomly forced by the questions. The two candidates that got occasionally annoying in defying the rules and talking too long were Bill Richardson and (this year’s ultimate protest candidate) Mike Gravel.And speaking of questions, they were occasionally framed and followed-up in ways that betrayed even the “gotcha” instincts of debate moderators. Joe Biden got a question on the Supreme Court’s decision on the congressional “Partial-Birth Abortion” ban that didn’t mention he voted for the ban in the Senate. Bill Richardson offered Whizzer White as a model for the nominees he’d put on the Supreme Court, and nobody noted that (aside from White’s status as something less than a constitutional giant) the Whizzer was a dissenter in the original abortion rights decision, Roe v. Wade. And John Edwards was asked about his attitude towards hedge funds (a subject that most viewers probably knew little or nothing about) without any reference to his own employment by a hedge fund between his presidential runs.The post-debate punditry on the sponsoring network, MSNBC, seemed to endorse the obvious impression that nobody really won or lost, but also suggested that Hillary Clinton did the best job of meeting her goals. She was calm, reasonable, relatively responsive, and occasionally self-deprecating. And on a question that will probably be replayed a lot tomorrow, involving how they’d react to a second 9/11 where al Qaeda’s responsibility was clear, she used the muscle verbs “retaliate” and “destroy,” satisfying those who somehow think female candidates aren’t credible on the use of force (Richardson actually preceded her in immediately mentioning the use of force as a response, while Obama conspicuously omitted it).Obama had some of the most interesting moments. He initially flubbed a “gotcha” question about America’s “three top allies,” and didn’t mention Israel, but nicely handled the follow-up. He was more specific about health care than in past debates. And he did a solid job of answering questions about his position on Iraq.Edwards was subdued and wonky (I personally consider the latter a compliment). He gamely dealt with the inevitable and impossible questions about his expensive haircut. Casual watchers might have been struck by his answer to the question on Iraq, and his implicit challenge to Hillary, but he used almost exactly the same language as in past debates, so pundits and activists probably weren’t impressed.Biden had his classic sound-bite moment, answering a question about his ability to exercise verbal discipline with one word, “Yes.” Dodd went with his counter-intuitive but what-the-hell pitch about his experience. And Dennis Kucinich, partly thanks to losing his protest role to Mike Gravel, was more relaxed and reasonable sounding than I’ve ever heard him, both in the debate and in the post-debate interview.A quick review of the reaction in the progressive blogosphere shows a subdued take on the event. At DailyKos, a reader poll about “who won” shows (as of this moment) Edwards at 20%, Obama at 17%, Clinton at 11%, Gravel at 9%, Richardson at 6%, and the rest scattered, with 11% saying “nobody.” The main outliers here are HRC’s double-digit showing (she inevitably finishes at around 3%, well below Denny the K., in assessments of actual support), and Richardson’s pallid performance. I suspect the latter may have reflected the pub the debate gave to Richardson’s NRA support, and his reluctance to call for Alberto Gonzales’ resignation.So the debate probably moved few votes, but may slightly shift the future landscape. And I hope the formatters of future debates noticed what didn’t work tonight, and try to elicit longer, more substantive, and more interactive answers next time the donkeys gather.UPDATE 1: Richardson’s shout-out to the ghost of Byron White got noticed elsewhere. Scott Lemieux at TAPPED jumped on it before I did. And my buddy Armando at Talk Left went right out and said it disqualified Big Bill from the nomination. If this sort of buzz escalates, we’ll probably see some statement from Richardson’s campaign explaining where their candidate was going with that, before Brian Williamson told him to name someone actually still living. Maybe it was a Western Thing, since the Whizzer was from Colorado. But then William O. Douglas, a much safer liberal role model, was from Washington State. UPDATE 2: Matt Yglesias picked up on my reference to the question Obama got about our “three most important allies.” So naturally, I got kicked around some in Matt’s comment thread, based on the apparent belief that I was lecturing Obama about Israel’s value to the U.S. Actually, all I was doing was pointing to the silly “gotcha” by Williamson, who was clearly hoping Obama would forget to mention Israel (a bad idea in Democratic politics), as evidenced by his immediate follow-up with an Obama quote about the suffering of the Palestinians. Obama turned that around by replying that he was talking about the folly of the Palestinian leadership, and then said the appropriate things about Israel as a U.S. ally. For the record, like Matt, I think this was a ridiculous question. Ranking allies–or, as reflected in yet another dumb question posed to Biden–enemies, is not something any potential president ought to be doing in public.

Life in the Green Zone

This last weekend I finally got around to reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life In the Emerald City, a remarkable eyewitness account by a Washington Post reporter of the disastrous history of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ruled Iraq from shortly after the U.S. invasion until the establishment of an interim Iraqi government in June of 2004.The book (published last fall) is a rich lode of infuriating but at times amusing (in a Keystone Kops kind of way) anecdotes about the CPA’s self-doomed efforts to fulfill the Bush administration’s fantasies of rebuilding post-invasion Iraq into an economically viable and stable secular democracy–without, unfortunately, much input from the Iraqis themselves, or any significant expertise. Like George Packer’s Assassin’s Gate and Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory, it examines the huge consequences of letting the country fall apart after the invasion, and then undertaking an occupation staffed by well-meaning but largely unqualified people without the time or resources they needed to get much of anything right. But Chandrasekaran does a superior job capturing particular moments that epitomized the whole mess, such as the appointment of a 24-year-old with no serious financial background to run the Baghdad Stock Exchange; a large grant made to set up partnerships between U.S. and and Iraqi universities, at a time when the Iraqis schools couldn’t get funds for basic lab equipment, computers, or even electrical wiring; and on the very eve of the end of the occupation, a sudden transfer of nearly two billion dollars in Iraqi oil revenues to Halliburton to transport oil into the country from Kuwait. And as the title indicates, there’s lots about the deeply isolated and somewhat surreal life the CPA built for itself within the Green Zone, barracaded inside one of Saddam’s palaces, mostly knowing little about the country they ruled, unable to speak the language, and engaging in behaviors like the heavy and conspicuous consumption of pork and beer that were guaranteed to alienate Iraqis. Like other authors, Chandrasekaran traces the origins of the CPA fiasco to a series of huge mistakes (aside from the decision to invade Iraq in the first place), aggravated by the Bush administration’s general, underlying arrogance, and extensive bureaucratic infighting. The oddest remains the abrupt reversal of the original administration decision to quickly hand over the keys to Iraq to its pet assortment of exile politicians, which suddenly made a completely unplanned and inherently counter-productive occupation necessary. This about-face placed Paul Bremer, supported by a hastily assembled and untrained staff heavily composed of ideologues and political hacks, in a position to make a variety of other mistakes, ranging from the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the denuding of the Iraqi government, to the pursuit of conservative hobbyhorses such as privatization while the country ground to a halt and Iraqis turned anti-American. We’ll never know if Iraq would be in any better shape today if the administration had stuck to the original scheme and handed off power to the first Iraqi exile who arrived in Baghdad with an autographed photo of Dick Cheney, or just asked Grand Ayatollah Sistani to pick a transitional government. But it’s unlikely it could have turned out much worse.

The Incredible Iraq Pushback

This week’s frantic administration pushback against congressional efforts to rein in Bush on Iraq has certainly had its weird features.For one thing, whose brilliant idea was it to once again deploy Dick Cheney to make the case for the administration? Harry Reid nicely captured the question with this obsevation after Cheney went after him very personally: “I’m not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating.”Indeed.Now I can understand why the White House doesn’t want to rely for its defense on one of those congressional bitter-enders like Sam Johnson, whose argument for staying perpetually in Iraq rests on his own belief that the U.S. should have stayed perpetually in Vietnam during the 1970s. But Cheney’s threadbare Iraq-Is-The-War-On-Terror number isn’t a lot more convincing. So it appears the administration is once again simply trying to bump up support from the GOP’s conservative base, where Cheney, while not wildly popular, is at least not viewed as an ogre.That interpretation, however, is at odds with a startling new line of “reasoning” adopted by Bush himself this week (via Greg Sargent at TPMCafe) in a press availability:

Last November the American people said they were frustrated and wanted change in our strategy in Iraq. I listened. Today General David Petraeus is carrying out a strategy that is dramatically different from our previous course. But the American people did not vote for failure, and that is precisely what the Democratic leadership’s bill would guarantee.

Up until now, Bush’s line has been that he and he alone is in charge of Iraq policy, and elections and polls be damned, he’s sticking to his guns until the day he’s finally dragged out of the Oval Office. That tack did help with with his “base,” still sullenly angry about the election results. But now Bush claims he did bend to the results, which leaves two possibilities: (1) he’s engaged in a particularly cruel and dark attempt at humor here–you want some change, eh? Okay, I’ll give you change, hahahahaha–or (2) he thinks he can actually convince people that voters in November thought an escalation of the war was as good an option as a de-escalation.None of this adds up to a coherent public relations strategy, which leads me to the strong possibility that the Bushies are just flailing around hoping their attacks on Democrats either stick or produce some over-reaction they can exploit.

SCOTUS’ Abortion Decision

After reading yesterday’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of Congress’ so-called “partial-birth abortion” ban, I did a post over at TPMCafe suggesting, among other things, that the majority’s excrutiating effort to reconcile the decision with SCOTUS precendents on abortion might slow down the inevitable conservative drive to overturn those precedents and eliminate any constitutional right to choose.Unsurprisingly, most published reactions to the decision have avoided such nuances, and treat it as an unambiguous victory for the effort to definitively roll back abortion rights. Both sides in the abortion wars have perfectly legitimate reasons (the sub rosa criticism of basic abortion rights in the majority opinion) and less legitimate but understandable reasons (the desire to view any SCOTUS abortion decision as potentially apocalyptic) for taking this position. But they should all at least read the opinions and consider the future possibilities.Of all the criticisms I got for suggesting a less than clear victory for anti-abortionists, the most interesting was from National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru (one of my few remaining conservative friends these days), who said this at The Corner:

He [Kilgore] argues that “the failure of Alito and Roberts to join the concurring opinion by Thomas and Scalia calling for a reversal of all these precedents [Stenberg, Casey, and Roe] means that a further change in the Court will probably be necessary to produce a more fundamental shift in the constitutional law of abortion rights.” Well of course a further change in the Court is necessary, since Justice Kennedy has given no indication that he has rethought Roe or Casey. Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas do not a majority make. But are we warranted in concluding that Alito and Roberts aren’t for reversing those cases when a case that presents the issue comes up? I don’t see why we would conclude that. And whatever their reasons for not making a judgment of the issue now, their silence actually makes it easier to confirm another conservative justice in the future.

Ramesh clearly thinks the status-quo structure of the majority opinion is just a function of Justice Kennedy’s position, and that Roberts’ and Alito’s “silence” on the underlying issues represents a neutrality on Roe that they will abandon once a fifth vote materializes to overturn it. This is an impressively honest assertion of the dishonesty of the two Bush Justices’ current attitude towards this most important constitutional issue–a dishonesty that many abortion rights advocates also assert.I continue to think that the more Kennedy, Alito and Roberts say in published opinions that they respect Roe and its successor decisions, the harder it will be for them to overturn these precedents. But I’m clearly in a minority on that, at least now.

Tax Simplification

Were you exposed to any of the annual Tax Day shriekathon by conservatives about the horrendous tax burden of wealthy Americans? Jared Bernstein has a post up at TPMCafe that nicely simplifies the games played by those who try to make this case:

[I]f you want to make our tax system sound unfair, you do two things. First, you talk only about income taxes, ignoring payroll and other sources, and second, you talk about the share of taxes paid by each income class.

The first gambit excludes the highly regressive Social Security and Medicare taxes, largely paid by the middle class. And the second avoids all sorts of alternative and better measurements of the tax burden, most especially effective tax rates and after-tax income. The one good thing that’s come out of the Bush tax agenda is that progressives, who used to avoid saying much of anything on Tax Day, now have lots to say.

Money and Morality

Some of you may have been offended or amused by GOP presidential candidate Tommy Thompson’s gaffe before a Jewish audience the other day, wherein he allowed as how:”I’m in the private sector and for the first time in my life I’m earning money. You know that’s sort of part of the Jewish tradition.”Thompson’s hilariously counterproductive efforts to dig himself out of his use of Jewish stereotypes are one thing. As Mark Schmitt usefully noted over at TAPPED, his remarks were also offensive insofar as they implied he wasn’t actually earning his pay during his many years of public service, as compared to his recent “private sector” gigs at places like Akin, Gump, where he is presumably pulling down big bucks to show the company flag while actually running for president.But let’s take this up another notch. The other planted axiom in Thompson’s riff is an even more invidious and important one: the idea that the ability to pull down large sums of money constitutes “earning”–in the moral, not the mechanical sense–that income, implying an identity between wealth and virtue.This is indeed an attitude that’s deeply engrained in the American psyche, and that does help explain our relatively high tolerance for economic inequality. But it doesn’t survive much genuine reflection.Since we have created the largest upper class in human history, is one to deduce that the current generation of wealthy Americans is the most moral, the hardest working, the most responsible group of people to grace the planet? Does anyone really think that, say, the millions of unfortunate people who couldn’t find jobs during the Great Depression were morally inferior to, or lazier than, today’s millionaires? Probably not, yet the self-congratulation that so often accompanies such wealth accumulation, particularly when accompanied by the belief that taxation is virtually theft, seems to reflect that point of view.There’s no question that any capitalist economy is going to reward some skills and assets more than others, and create some level of inequality, and much of the western world’s economic policy debates over the last couple of centuries have revolved around prudential questions about the degree to which such inequality is necessary or incidental to the efficiency of markets.But that’s economics, not ethics, and it’s more than a little important to keep them straight. The kind of inequality this country has today may or may not be a byproduct of economic forces that we must at least respect, even if we decide to override them in the interests of a more decent society, or in the pursuit of a more stable and long-term prosperity. But there’s nothing “natural” or “moral” about vast inequality, and its tribunes must be challenged every time they try to pretend otherwise, even through the sloppy use of words like “earned.”

Tragedy and “Breaking News”

I wound up watching hours of the television coverage of the Blacksburg massacre yesterday, probably because I know a whole lot more about Virginia Tech than about the sites of similiar tragedies in the past. And two aspects of the “story” jumped out, particularly during and immediately after the university’s evening press conference.First was the firm stonewalling by university spokesmen on the salient facts of the tragedy, to the point of telling reporters they knew “facts” that they were unwilling to disclose for unspecified reasons. It was painfully obvious that no one before the cameras in Blacksburg had any training in crisis communications; they appeared uniformly defensive and, well, uncommunicative. I obviously don’t know what university officials were telling thousands of anxious parents at this point, but if it was no more than what they were putting out publicly, it probably wasn’t very helpful or comforting.Second, and closely related to the first, was the speed with which the media shifted the “story” from the massacre itself to suspicions that Virginia Tech horribly mishandled the situation after the initial shootings, quite possibly missing a chance to prevent or at least mitigate the subsequent shootings. This storyline clearly fed and fed on the school’s refusal to talk. And the media also jumped quickly on state officials, implicitly suggesting they should have instantly materialized in Blacksburg to take charge of the situation. (One of the realities of public higher education in this country is the carefully constructed absence of direct, hierarchical lines of authority between state officials and university operations, compounded in cases like this by fuzzy and often informal relationships among state, local and university law enforcement personnel). None of this much matters in the long run, or is of any significance as compared with the underlying tragedy. But the interactive dance of defensive, stonewalling public officials and aggressive, competition-obsessed reporters has become a depressingly regular feature of “breaking news.”