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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey

Origins and Consequences of Polarization

There’s another interesting debate underway at the New Republic site between Boston College’s Alan Wolfe and George Mason’s Peter Berkowitz, continued from earlier essays by Wolfe at TNR and Berkowitz at The Weekly Standard. Its ostensible subject is whether Wolfe was engaging in Dinesh D’Souza-style tactics a few years back when he wrote about the tendency of some contemporary U.S. conservatives to echo the “friends and enemies” interpretation of politics by the German thinker Carl Schmitt (a charge made by Berkowitz in response to Wolfe’s recent attack on D’Souza in The New York Times Book Review). Its more immediate significance is the light it casts on the origins of the current climate of polarization in American politics, and what those who deplore it can do about it.This is an important topic to Alan Wolfe (and to myself), as someone who has found himself, “in the last six years, shifting to the left” in response to the extremism and take-no-prisoners politics and policies of the reigning conservative GOP. Is the act of pointing out the dangerous recent tendencies of “the other side” in terms of their extraordinary violation of U.S. political traditions in any way morally equivalent to the violation itself? And if, as Wolfe does, you become convinced that alarmingly large segments of “the other side” have lost any interest whatsoever in rational discourse or fair competition, and are simply interested in power by any means, do you have any obligation to keep trying to engage them rationally?In his TNR essay, Wolfe responds to Berkowitz’s lecture about improper attribution of illiberal (in the civic sense) habits to conservatives in words that many of us frustrated “centrists” would echo:

[Berkowitz] finds no reason to believe that Bush v. Gore was settled in a partisan manner, merely noting that it was a “hard case.” He claims that the left “shamelessly misrepresented” Bush’s national security policies without even mentioning the fact that the Bush administration misrepresented its reasons for going to war in Iraq. He views Bush as a moderate and judicious politician, ignoring the president’s efforts–so discomforting to more principled conservatives–to concentrate unchecked power in the Oval Office. In the world according to Peter Berkowitz, there are no right-wing bloggers calling the president’s critics traitors, no Swift-boating of Democratic candidates, no violations of civil liberty associated with our Republican president, no authorized leaks of the names of CIA agents, no dramatic increase in the use of presidential signing statements, no use of torture, no suspension of habeas corpus, no breaks with our historic allies over such methods, no biased editorial pages and networks, no Rush Limbaughs, no vigilantes patrolling our borders, no invented quotations from Abraham Lincoln, no manipulations of intelligence, no appeals to racial and religious bigotry. Instead there is just ugly venom manifested by, of all people, me.

Wolfe could just have easily been addressing the “plague-on-both-houses” journalists who view polarization as a joint project of left and right, and fail to assign any particular responsibility for it to anyone in particular. And he could just have easily gone back well beyond 2000 to the Cultural Right’s accusations that “liberals” were destroying the family, murdering children by the millions, plotting the replacement of Christianity by paganism, and seeking the extinction of U.S. sovereignty; to the mammoth Clinton-hating industry of the 1990s; and to the impeachment effort against Clinton himself. And when it comes for culpability for the Center-Left’s abandonment of the pacific rhetoric and habits of the past, Wolfe could also have mentioned the unmistakable determination of the Rove-DeLay leadership of the GOP to destroy “moderate” progressivism as a political option, as the only way for a base-conservative Republican party to win elections. There is, of course, a real underlying disagreement on the Left about how to deal with the “other side’s” polarizing strategy and the delegitimization of rational discourse that has flowed from it. Some progressives no doubt love the current climate, think it’s the natural, and indeed, the only “principled” way to conduct politics, tend to admire their conservative enemies far more than their own “centrist” allies, and would go henceforth from base-mobilizing election to base-mobilizing election, world without end. Some think the electorate will reward the Center-Left with a default victory so long as it does not counter-polarize. And still others (a group in which I count myself, and probably Alan Wolfe) think we have to get the current toxic brand of conservatives completely out of power and in a marginalized position in the GOP before we can return to a different and more rational brand of politics in which elections are largely won and lost on the basis of competing policies and their real-life consequences. For all the talk of the “Bush-hating Left” in the Democratic Party, it’s us “centrists” who really have reason to loathe the Bush-Cheney administration and its conservative allies with a special intensity. They’ve ruined everything they’ve touched, including some previously “liberal” causes like democracy-promotion, open trade, education reform, and market-based approaches to solving public problems. They’ve made the very concept of bipartisanship suspect. And they’ve deliberately, aggressively, consciously poisoned the ground of the political center. Until the Right and the GOP pay a big price for that, they have no standing whatsoever to act aggrieved when someone like Alan Wolfe examines the roots of their betrayal of the politics of reason and civility.

Tales of Dick and Spiggy

Last week I ran across a discarded advance “review” copy of an uncoming book by Jules Whitcover entitled Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. I couldn’t resist a stroll down a distant memory lane to a period of scandal, official mendacity, polarization and an unpopular war not entirely unlike our own. I was particularly entranced by Whitcover’s tick-tock account of Agnew’s forced resignation as vice president, likely drawn from the 1974 book he wrote with Richard Cohen (now out of print) about that particular incident.Unlike Nixon’s undoing by Watergate, which rolled out slowly over many months, Agnew’s resignation, at the time at least, seemed like a bolt from the blue. But its genesis was in a state contractor kickback scheme in Baltimore County, Maryland, which probably predated Agnew’s tenure as County Executive and certainly continued afterwards. Indeed, federal prosecutors were targeting Agnew’s Democratic successor as County Executive when one of their key witnesses alleged he had continued to pay off Agnew during his two-year governorship, and briefly, during his vice-presidency, with the final payment being ten large in cash stuffed into a brown paper bag, delivered personally to the Veep in his White House office. After repeated and futile efforts to get Nixon to quash the investigation, Agnew negotiated a deal in which he admitted to a single tax evasion charge and resigned his office, while obtaining assurances he would not go to the hoosegow. The deal enabled Agnew to spend the rest of his life claiming he did nothing wrong beyond accepting campaign contributions from the contractors. He was, he said often, the victim of a dual conspiracy between those who wanted to remove him from the presidential succession in order to make Nixon’s removal politically possible, and Nixon himself, who mistakenly thought throwing his Veep to the wolves might save his own hide. But as Whitcover (all too summarily) explains, the real smoking gun in the Agnew case was an IRS investigation of his finances that resulted in a State of Maryland demand for two hundred thousand bucks in back taxes on his illegal income–a demand Agnew satisfied via loans from his maximum buddy, Frank Sinatra. I don’t know why the Agnew saga hasn’t been the subject of a big movie. It certainly has all the drama you’d ever want: the unlikely rise of an obscure local Baltimore pol who gets elected county executive and then governor thanks to Democratic splits; his selection by Nixon as a compromise Veep choice mainly because of his combined “moderate” record and his late-career race-baiting; his startling emergence as a right-wing superstar, thanks in part to the skills of Nixon speechwriters Bill Safire and Pat Buchanan; Nixon’s constant, never-consummated efforts to replace him with Democratic apostate John Connally; his gradual development into a complete loose cannon isolated from Nixon but becoming his likely successor; his Vegas-based celebrity posse, including Sinatra; and then the whole disaster of his ouster, ultimately derived from his hunger for a degree of wealth he saw all around him but never enjoyed. There’s even a love interest, in the form of allegations (oddly echoed in Agnew’s own novel about a disgraced Veep, The Canfield Decision) that he was carrying on an expensive affair with someone in the administration. At some point, you’d expect that the parlor game of judging whether George W. Bush or Richard Nixon is the Worst President Ever would extend to a comparison of Dick Cheney and Spiro Agnew as contenders for the title of Worst Vice President Ever. Maybe then Spiggy will get his posthumous Hollywood tribute.

Has Coulter Finally Gone Too Far?

In case you somehow missed it, the execreble Ann Coulter really outdid herself over the weekend at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference in Washington, essentially calling John Edwards a “faggot.” She was duly denounced by (s0 far) three Republican presidential campaigns, though the audience that was actually listening to her apparently gave her a big round of applause. With almost anyone else, I’d assume this was an amazingly stupid and revealing slip of the tongue, but with Coulter, you have to consider the strong possibility that she was deliberately increasing her buzz factor, or even setting herself up to pose as some sort of victim of political correctness. Looks like she may have finally crossed whatever ultimate line of decency or propriety which still exists on the Right these days when it comes to homophobia and/or insults to “liberals.”. But I dunno: if you look at some of the crap she’s said in the past, before going on to sell more books and get more air time on Fox, it’s not clear just yet that she’s finally self-destructed.

The Right’s Second Look At McCain

With his non-announcement announcement of candidacy on Letterman Wednesday night, John McCain’s getting some fresh media attention today, most notably Peggy Noonan’s typically frothy take in the (subscription-only) Wall Street Journal. But a far more significant example of the Right’s reevaluation of the McCain candidacy will soon appear in a National Review cover story penned by Ramesh Ponnuru (I got it via email, so I can’t link to this one, either).His bottom line is that McCain’s doing a lot better in his nomination candidacy than the polls indicate, because the big news is that Mitt Romney has failed to become the “true conservative” candidate, leaving McCain to duke it out with Giuliani, whose standing is bound to take a dive when conservatives really focus on his views:

McCain’s apostasies from conservatism, unlike Giuliani’s, are well known. The mayor’s polls form a ceiling. McCain’s could be a floor, if conservatives are willing to reconsider their view of him. If they do, then the current Giuliani moment will be succeeded by a McCain moment. I think conservatives will give him a second look–as they should.

After briskly noting Rudy’s “apostasies” on abortion, immigration and guns (you could add gay rights to the list), and summarily rejecting Romney as unelectable because of his Mormonism, Ponnuru then engages in a systematic “second look” at McCain, issue by issue.Did he oppose Bush’s tax cuts? Yeah, but now that they are in place, he’s willing to take the pledge against any tax increases. Has he engaged in a little corporate-exec bashing? Sure, but that’s yesterday’s issue. Campaign finance reform? Yes, McCain was definitely a villain on an issue that resonates as intensely with conservative activists as net neutrality does with progressive bloggers, but hey, he’s said he won’t promote any new reforms. Global warming? Well, at least he’s now hyping nuclear power, and perhaps (in an interesting admission by Ponnuru) McCain “was more prescient than most conservatives” on this issue. The McCain-Kennedy immigration bill? Bad politically, no doubt, but McCain seems “open to the concept” of concessions to the fence-builders and deporters. Gay marriage? Don’t forget McCain has said he’d support a constitutional amendment if federal courts tried to impose gay marriage on the states.In the end, it’s clear Ponnuru thinks McCain’s “rock-solid” record opposing legalized abortion–marred by “one foolish remark” in 1999 about the political inadvisability of overturning Roe v. Wade, could be the real clincher for conservatives, along with the Arizonan’s support for the Iraq War and his strident advocacy of an escalation of the war up to and beyond what Bush is attempting. But even though Ponnuru rather defensively rejects the idea that GOPers are suffering from a weak presidential field, the tone and structure of his case for McCain strongly suggests a defense attorney negotiating a plea bargain.I’m not one to place as much stock in “energy” and “activism” and other psychological factors in politics as many in the progressive blogosphere, since in the end, it’s all about votes. Nobody gets more than one vote, and unless the “energy” is communicable, its power is limited to what it produces in the way of money and shoe-leather. These are important assets, but not the ball game. Still, it’s not a good sign for Republicans that their “movement conservative” activist wing is so clearly unenthused about its most viable presidential candidates, including Giuliani, Romney and McCain.At the very end of his piece, Ponnuru offers one particularly interesting hint at why conservatives may wind up deciding on McCain as the best of an unexciting batch:

Conservatives may need to reach some understandings with McCain before throwing their support to him: on the vice presidential nominee, on immigration, maybe even on the number of terms McCain will serve as president. (He is 70).

Maybe that’s McCain’s secret weapon with the activist Right: he’d probably be done after one term of keeping the White House in Republican hands and keeping key conservative policies and appointees in place, yielding the helm in 2012 to a “real conservative.” Perhaps that would be Vice President Brownback or Vice President Huckabee, or even a guy named Jeb Bush.

Card Check Clears House

It’s a small step towards a modest goal, but nonetheless important: the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Employee Free Choice Act by a margin of 241-185 today, with 13 Republicans joining all but two Democrats to pass the measure. The bill will probably get filibustered to death in the Senate, and Bush has promised to veto it, but still, House passage represents an opportunity to start reversing decades of never-accurate and certainly-anachronistic conservative propaganda about the right to organize unions. Usually referred to as “Card Check,” what the bill provides is that when a majority of workers sign verifiable “cards” indicating a desire to organize a union, employers must recognizing that union, without going through the vastly expensive, complicated, and employer-tilted process for an official National Labor Relations Board election. It essentially restores the “majority-rules” principle for collective bargaining that has been eroded so dramatically in recent years. I’m proud that virtually all Democrats, including, BTW, the DLC, have supported this legislation, and its passage and short-term demise will help illustrate the need for continued Democratic control of Congress, and a Democratic president in 2008. This type of legislation is particularly significant for those Democrats who haven’t completely succumbed to despair over economic globalization. Vibrant, growing unions are essential to the progressive goal of a national economic policy aimed at shaping economic change in the common, national interest. Making the EFCA the law of the land is a minimal first step in that direction.

New Republic?

One of the odd but revealing bits of intra-Left agitprop in recent years has been the lefty blogger campaign against The New Republic, the venerable liberal magazine. Despite its very diverse product (including anti-Iraq War writers like Spencer Ackerman, and seriously lefty writers like John Judis and Rick Perlstein), TNR has often been demonized on the Left, and lumped into the Evil D.C. Democratic Establishment. Markos Moulitsas regularly refers to TNR as “dying,” and when former TNR editor Peter Beinhart admitted he was wrong about the originial decision to invade Iraq, he was generally savaged in the blogosphere for having the temerity to do anything other than retreat, in sackloth and ashes, into perpetual silence.Last year Beinart was replaced as TNR editor by Franklin Foer, who immediately penned editorials supporting single-payer health coverage, and retracting any suggestion that TNR supported Bush’s Iraq policies. And now the magazine has been bought by a Canadian media firm that presumably cannot be accused of neo-conservative views.It will be interesting to see if TNR’s detractors give the magazine a break, or instead continue to attack it for allowing, not highlighting, unorthodox center-left arguments on Iraq and other issues. After all, there is a point of view in the progressive blogosphere that any dissent from the party line, as defined by themselves, reinforces “conservative memes” and cannot, cannot be tolerated. Free speech is limited to those who support the broader Cause, doncha know.When it comes to TNR specifically, one irritant to progressive blogospheric opinion is definitely going to be the continuing role of Marty Peretz as editor-in-chief. The big irony is that Marty’s fantasy is an Al Gore candidacy in 2008, which also happens to be the fantasy of Markos and other netroots detractors of The New Republic. In the unlikely event that Gore decides to run, it will be fascinating to watch lefty bloggers make common cause with Peretz, as against the ostensibly more liberal cynics at TNR and elsewhere.UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey

The Roots of Hillary-Phobia

Another fine post at TNR Online today was Jonathan Chait’s LA Times piece about the “Clinton Machine” in the imagination of the political Right. Chait goes through several aspects of the Right’s vast investment in Hillary Clinton’s inevitability as the Democratic nominee in 2008, and then nails it in terms of conservative fascination with the Clintons:

The bigger factor, I think, is that conservatives are spooked by the Clintons. They had Bill Clinton on the ropes when they took control of Congress after the 1994 elections. He beat back their revolution. They had him again a few years later when they caught him with his pants down and made his misbehavior a theme of the 1998 midterm elections. Instead, Democrats won seats.In the Republican mind, there must have been some sort of Clinton voodoo at work. The public was on their side, they believe, yet through some sort of nefarious dark political art, he turned the tables on them.The conservative hatred of the Clintons has always had around the edges a certain fear of the supernatural. A famous 1993 American Spectator cover story depicted Hillary Clinton as a witch. A witch is an object of hatred, of course, but also a creature with dark and frightening powers.

That’s undeniably correct. Bill and Hill represent a political phenomenon with which conservatives have never been able to come to grips. They can’t get at Bill anymore, so Hill is the last, best chance to redeem the lost Republican Revolution of 1994. The fact that many on the Left have the same, if more submerged, demons about Bill Clinton, which they are also taking out on his wife, makes her presidential candidacy a fascinating referendum on the 1990s, as well as the next four years.

Rudy and Abortion

This is likely to be New Republic Day here at NewDonkey, given some interesting new stuff up on its site, along with the news that the venerable mag has been bought by a Canadian media firm that is presumably disconnected from its previous owners’ ideological shibboleths. More about all that later.But first up, I wanted to draw attention to a TNR Online debate over Rudy Giuliani’s viability as a candidate and as a potential president, involving two friends of mine: former American Prospect editor Mike Tomasky, and the New York polymath Fred Siegel, who wrote an admiring but not uncritical book about Rudy a few years ago. Up first, Tomasky focuses his Rudy-skeptic case (which I share) on Giuliani’s position on abortion, which is formally pro-choice but with lots of winks and nods indicating that he would make Supreme Court appointments guaranteed to doom Roe v. Wade.In passing, Tomasky says that Republicans have not “nominated a pro-choice candidate since Gerry Ford in 1976.”That raises a very interesting and pertinent question: among Republicans, what passes for a “pro-choice” position, and what doesn’t? Ford actually supported a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade, and return abortion policy to the states. He did not, however (unlike his primary challenger Ronald Reagan) support the Human Life Amendment, which would have leapfrogged both the Supreme Court and the 50 states to endow human embryos, from the moment of conception, with “personhood” under the 14th Amendment.More than thirty years later, while support for a Human Life Amendment remains formally the position of virtually all anti-abortion groups, and of the Republican Party as expressed in its national platforms, nobody’s really serious about it. When Bob Dole said he didn’t feel bound by that platform plank in 1996, it created a lot of controversy on the Right. When George W. Bush said much the same thing in 2000 and 2004, it was regarded as something of a truism. Aside from the political and practical impossibility of the HLA, what changed, of course, was a significant enhancement of a non-constitutional, non-legislative strategy for overturning Roe: simply stacking the Supreme Court with “strict constructionists” who would perform a constitutional counter-revolution.Thanks to Bush’s SCOTUS appointments, right-to-lifers and their opponents think they may be one or two High Court appointments away from that fateful day. The big question now is whether the Bush message to social conservatives–I’m with you, but not vocally; and I’ll get it done indirectly through Court appointments–can be successfully replaced by the Giuliani message–I’m not with you, but not vocally; and I’ll also get it done indirectly through Court appointments.So for Rudy and his handlers, the big gamble is the hope that social conservatives have “matured” enough to accept a Republican nominee who will not even pay their formal positions the kind of lip-service they’ve grown to expect, in exchange for another GOP president who might give them what they actually, realistically want. And the X-factor here is that Rudy’s rather spotted ideological history (at least from the point of view of the Right) may require more explicit assurances to social conservatives that will make this whole double game unsustainable in a general election campaign.I hope this particular issue–a critical subset of Giuliani’s entire political case for nomination and election as president–continues to get serious attention in the Mike-versus-Fred debate as it rolls out.

The First Ex-Catholic President?

Speaking of Catholic discipline, and in light of a new national Q-poll showing Rudy Giuliani with a large lead over the rest of the GOP presidential field, I’ve gotten fascinated with a question that nobody seems able to answer: is Rudy, who is often described as a strong possibility to become the first Catholic Republican nominee for the presidency, actually still a Catholic?After all, the man has been married three times. His first marriage of fourteen years was annulled on grounds of a rather tardy discovery that he was married to his second cousin. I’m assuming this annullment was blessed by the Church. So his second marriage was technically his first. But what about his third? Did he somehow get a second annullment? Or was either his second or third (performed by none other than Mayor Bloomberg) marriage just a civil ceremony unblessed by the Church, which means Rudy was self-excommunicated by openly living in sin and/or pretending to be remarried?After reading Kate O’Beirne’s New York Daily News piece discussing Rudy’s unsettled but crucial relationship with Catholic voters, I sent a couple of emails around to conservative Catholic acquaintances, some of them not at all unfriendly to Giuliani, and found out nobody seems to know about Rudy’s formal relationship with the Church, beyond his own assertion that he is Catholic.I’m not interested in personally throwing stones at Giuliani about his marriages or his Catholic status. I couldn’t care less; politicians are not generally, much as we might wish otherwise, exactly moral, marital or religious role models. But given the suggestions of people like Bill Donohue in 2004 that John Kerry should be denied access to communion because he was pro-choice, it’s obviously worth asking if a conservative politician who’s not only pro-choice (despite his crab-like efforts to suggest otherwise) and perhaps, in the eyes of the Church, polygamous, can properly be described as “Catholic.” Or is the GOP, or for that matter, America, ready for the first ex-Catholic presidential candidate?

The Decline of Catholic Discipline

There’s a fascinating article that appeared yesterday in the Washington Post about the Catholic Church’s local efforts, via bus billboards and radio ads, among other public relations media, to get believers to go to confession. Timed to coincide with Lent, the Church’s traditional period for penance, the campaign is fighting a vast dropoff in the number of Catholics going into the booth on Saturday afternoons, or any other time.Michelle Boorstein’s piece on this subject tends to make it all about how Catholics seek psychological self-relief and self-fulfillment in and out of the confessional, but she doesn’t get into the sticks, as opposed to the carrots, that the Church used to deploy to get people to go to confession. The Big Stick was the tenet that taking communion while in a state of mortal sin–which included a fairly broad array of sins, including defiance of church teachings and just about any sexual transgression–was truly horrendous, perhaps even representing the scriptural “sin against the Holy Spirit” that could not be forgiven. Indeed, this holy terror of communion without confession helped produce a long period of rank-and-file Catholic reluctance to take communion, which endured from the Fourth Century A.D. until very recent times.The failure of the Big Stick of discouraging communion for those not immediately fresh from the confessional led to an big post-Vatican-II effort to get Catholics to take communion as a basic obligation of the faith. But this healthy eucharistic revival wasn’t accompanied by any enduring return to regular confession. And there’s not much doubt that this particular aspect of “cafeteria Catholicism,” in the U.S. at least, owed a lot to popular dissent against the Church’s moral theology, especially in matters of sex. Aside from the widespread practice of contraception among U.S. Catholics, there has been an even more widespread defiance of the Church’s ban on any sort of premarital sexual activity. Asked to choose between the injunction to take communion regularly and the warning to do so in a state of reconciliation with the Church, Catholics have largely taken the former route.It’s interesting that in the Archdiocese of Washington, at least, the Church has chosen to accentuate the positive aspects of confession. But in the long run, the disconnect between Church teachings and Catholic practice cannot help but undermine Catholic discipline, and keep the lines outside the confessional short.