washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ruy Teixeira’s Donkey Rising

Public Opinion on Gun Laws Tracks Crime Rates

Is it OK that a student whose professors and fellow students believed was potentially violent can walk into a store and walk out with a semi-automatic handgun after only a few minutes? Is this right really what “The Framers” meant to protect in the 2nd amendment? Should Dems try to do anything about it? Could any gun control law have stopped the massacre in Blacksburg? These and other tough question surrounding the tragedy at Virginia Tech are being addressed on editorial pages all across the nation.
It’s not hard to name presidential candidates of both parties who have staged silly photo-ops to portray themselves as The Great American Hunter. And there is no question that most national and statewide Democratic candidates have dodged the issue in recent years or just rolled over for the NRA. Rep. Jane Harman(D-CA) is not one of those politicians, as she makes clear in her post at TPM Cafe, supporting passage of the the Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act (HR 1022), which would re-enact the ban that Congress allowed to expire in 2004.
Up until this latest tragedy, public opinion had turned very slightly against gun control. This CNN post features a video link, “Watch how crime rates affect public support for gun laws” which graphically demonstrates a strong relationship between crime rates and public opinion on gun control. It will be interesting to see where public opinion goes from here — and how Dems respond.

Tax Reform Can Add Leverage to Dem Agenda

For your tax day reading pleasure, Alternet features a trio of articles illuminating the partisan and gender bias that undergirds the tax game and the political spin that keeps it afloat. Start with Lucy Komisar’s “How Tax Cheats Are Using Your Money to Fund Republicans,” which spotlights the shenanigans of one of the ’04 swift boaters and includes such nuggets as:

Every major private banking department offers a product called the “private placement offshore of variable annuities.”…According to the IRS, business executives have used such shelters to evade taxes on $8 billion in income. Assume that means “at least.” And that’s just one swindle in the panoply of tax cheating which the IRS says contributes to the loss of $40 billion to $70 billion a year from individual use and $30 billion from corporate use of tax havens….16.2 percent of the private wealth of North Americans, $1.6 trillion, is held offshore. The overwhelming reason for that is tax evasion.

Komisar also discusses a promising tax reform proposal, Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act (S-681). Moving along, check out Martha Burk’s “How the Income Tax System Shortchanges Women,” reprinted from MS Magazine. There may be an angle here for Dems looking for ways to mine the gender gap. As Burk explains:

Taxes are something women and men face with unequal pain, let alone gain…For example, a married couple faces a “marriage penalty” if their two incomes are similar and they file a joint return, since the second income (usually the wife’s) is taxed at a significantly higher marginal rate than if she filed as an individual. But if a couple forgoes the wife’s second income (or if one person’s income is appreciably lower), they may pay less as joint filers than they would have as singles (the marriage “bonus”). Both situations can reduce the incentive for a married woman to work outside the home.

Interesting take, and Burk offers five corrective reforms that merit consideration. It takes a lot of spin to to keep an unfair system afloat and it’s going to take a lot of reframing to get it fixed. Who better to lay it out than George Lakoff and Bruce Budner, whose “Progressive Taxation: Some Hidden Truths” makes this distinction:

America’s government has at least two fundamental functions, protection and empowerment. Protection includes the police, firefighters, emergency services, public health, the military, and so on. Empowerment includes the infrastructure needed for business and everyday life: roads, communications systems, water supplies, public education, the banking system for loans and economic stability, the SEC for the stock market, the courts for enforcing contracts, air traffic control, support for basic science, our national parks and public buildings, and more. We are usually aware of protection. But the empowerment infrastructure, provided by taxes, is usually taken for granted, hidden, or ignored. Yet it is absolutely crucial, a fundamental truth about America and why America provides opportunity…This is a basic truth. That is what framing should be about: revealing truths and allowing us to reason using them.

A little wonky, but interesting nonetheless. Lakoff and Budner bring it home nicely:

Taxes provide and maintain the protecting and empowering infrastructure that makes our income possible.
Our tax forms hide this truth. They do not indicate the extent to which taxes have created and sustained the common wealth so you could earn what you have. They make it look like the empowering infrastructure was just put there by magic and that the government is taking money out of your pocket. The most likely truth is that, through the common wealth, America put more money in your pocket than it took out — by far.
But this situation is threatened by conservative tax policy. Through unfair cuts in taxes paid by the wealthy, through payment for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and through borrowing abroad to pay for the tax cuts and Iraq, the common wealth is being drained and the infrastructure allowed to fall apart. We need to return to a fair tax policy that recognizes financial responsibility incurred by the compound use of America’s empowering infrastructure.

We’ll leave it to the politicians to boil it all down to manageable sound-bites and catchy slogans. Now, better get to the post office.

Responding to GOP Diss of Dems As ‘Elitist’

Bill Maher has a Salon post on the Administration’s mediocrity/incompetence fetish that provides more belly laughs per column inch than anything you’re likely to find on the internet today. A sample (excerpted for brevity) from Maher’s riff on Monica Goodling’s educational qualifications for her post overseeing the job performance of 95 U.S. attorneys:

I’m not kidding, Pat Robertson, the man who said gay people at DisneyWorld would cause “earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor,” has a law school. It’s called Regent…U.S. News and World Report, which does the definitive ranking of colleges, lists Regent as a tier-four school, which is the lowest score it gives. It’s not a hard school to get into. You have to renounce Satan and draw a pirate on a matchbook.

Maher’s larger point is that the GOP is forever blasting Democrats for being ‘elitists,’ while they staff high-level government posts with empty suits. “The problem here in America,” notes Maher “isn’t that the country is being run by elites. It’s that it’s being run by a bunch of hayseeds.” Not a bad one-liner retort for progressives, when slimed with the GOP’s “elitist” critique in political debates, although it might be better to substitute “dimwits” for hayseeds, since these numbskulls come from everywhere. More chuckles await readers at Maher’s post. Go there and grin.

Suburban Poverty Growth May Alter Dem Strategy

Eyal Press has an article in The Nation, “The New Suburban Poverty,” noting a demographic milestone that should elicit the attention of Democratic campaign strategists:

For the first time ever, more poor Americans live in the suburbs than in all our cities combined.

The implications for political strategy in federal, state and local elections are substantial. In terms of policy, it means elected officials and political aspirants will have to rethink the delivery of needed social services to less dense areas. Funding those services adequately will be an increasing concern in the years ahead, especially for the growing number of middle class families who have fled the cities, expecting lower property taxes.
In terms of election strategy, Party leaders and candidates will have to rethink everthing from redistricting to GOTV logistics. It also requires some mental housecleaning regarding existing stereotypes of suburban life, as Press notes:

Stories of downward mobility in America’s suburbs have not exactly cluttered the headlines over the past decade. Gated communities of dream homes, mansions ringed by man-made lakes and glass-cube office parks: These are the images typically evoked by the posh, supersized subdivisions built during the 1990s technology boom. Low-wage jobs, houses under foreclosure, families unable to afford food and medical care are not. But venture beyond the city limits of any major metropolitan area today, and you will encounter these things, in forms less concentrated–and therefore less visible–than in the more blighted pockets of our cities perhaps, but with growing frequency all the same.

And it’s not just the inner ‘burbs, as Press explains:

Last December the Brookings Institution published a report showing that from Las Vegas to Boise to Houston, suburban poverty has been growing over the past seven years, in some places slowly, in others by as much as 33 percent. “The enduring social and fiscal challenges for cities that stem from high poverty are increasingly shared by their suburbs,” the report concludes. It’s a problem some may assume is confined to the ragged fringes of so-called “inner ring” suburbs that directly border cities, places where the housing stock is older and from which many wealthier residents long ago departed. But this isn’t the case. “Overall…first suburbs did not bear the brunt of increasing suburban poverty in the early 2000s,” notes the Brookings report, which found that economic distress has spread to “second-tier suburbs and ‘exurbs'” as well.

Savvy demographic and polical analysts have seen this trend coming for a while. Still, the milestone should ring a few bells in the war rooms of Democratic political campaigns. We’ll resist the temptation to quote more of Press’s excelent article — a must-read for those who want a more realistic vision of America’s political geography.

Dems Gain on ’08 Congress Vote, Security Image

Republicans hoping that their long slide into public disfavor had hit rock bottom have been sorely disappointed by a DCorps survey of LV’s conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner 3/20-25. The DCorps poll found that Dems now enjoy a 14 point advantage among LV’s asked to state their preference “if the election were held today” for a named Dem congressional candidate vs. a generic GOP opponent. This is the highest margin recorded since November and double the margin reported in 2006. And, in districts that switched parties in ’06, the margin favoring Dems was an astounding 35 percent.
The GOP’s image as the best party for “keeping people safe” is looking a little ragged as well. Asked which party “you associate more” with “security and keeping people safe,” respondents chose the GOP by a margin of 6 percent — down from 17 percent.
The DCorps survey, which was conducted between the House of Reps passage of the Iraq Supplemental Spending Bill and the Senate’s version, also found strong support for troop reductions. But respondents were “fairly divided” on the pace of withdrawall, with 49 percent concerned that Republicans will “wait too long” and 45 percent worried that “Democrats will leave Iraq too quickly.”

Will ‘Identity Voters’ Decide ’08 Outcome?

Jeffrey Feldman’s post “Frameshop: The Identity Voter” at his website frameshopisopen.com sheds light on an elusive group Democratic campaigns may need to consider in developing strategy. Feldman defines the identity voter thusly:

A person who chooses to support a political candidate primarily for the social and cultural aspects of the person (e.g., gender, race, geography, class, etc.), and only secondarily if at all for the policies of the politician.

It would be difficult to come up with a meaningful estimate of how many identity voters there are in the U.S., since many would not like to admit that issues and policy are not their top priorities. Yet we probably all know a few identity voters.
It’s not as simple as supporting candidates who have the voter’s background, as Feldman explains:

Being an identity voter does not mean, of course, voting for a candidate who is the same identity as oneself. Blacks vote for blacks, women for women, whites for whites–this would be more a form of mechanistic political tribalism than identity voting.
…There are, in other words, plenty of white identity voters, for example, who will support Barack Obama “because he is African-America” and plenty of male identity voters who will support Hillary Clinton “because she is a woman.”

Feldman could have added middle class liberals who support Edwards because they like his working class background, or WASPs who like Richards because they want to see more Hispanic leadership. Feldman sees both good and bad sides to identity voting — good that more Democratic voters are open to greater diversity of candidates, but bad that issues and policy are subordinate or worse, distant priorities.
Because of the diversity of the field of Democratic presidential candidates, Feldman believes that identity voters may play an unprecedented role in determining the ’08 outcome. If he’s right, the Democratic ticket will be challenged to craft an appeal to identity voters that doesn’t alienate those who vote for different reasons — not an easy task. (The first chapter of Feldman’s new book “Framing the Debate,” appears in today’s New York Times Sunday Book Review and a review of the book appears here.)
Meanwhile, Dems should vigorously deploy a grand strategy directed at all voters. In his book “Being Right Is Not Enough,” Democratic strategist Paul Waldman argues, for example, that Dem candidates must above all communicate character and values to voters, with policy and “framing” serving as tools to support this greater goal. Candidates who master this challenge will likely win the support of most identity voters, since good character and values are respected in all cultures.

Republican Leader Shows Integrity

Knew that headline would get your attention. We speak here of Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who last Thursday approved a measure to restore voting rights to an estimated 950,000 Floridian ex-felons, about 9 percent of the voting-age population of the Sunshine State. Crist’s initiative has political observers scratching their heads. How much of a political impact could it have? Salon‘s Farhad Manjoo puts it this way:

The ex-cons belong to traditionally Democratic demographics — many are African-American, and many are poor. If they’re allowed to vote, they’ll likely go to the polls at lower rates than everyone else; Uggen and Manza’s work suggests felons turn out to vote at about the half the general turnout rate in any given election. But in a state as closely divided politically as Florida, that could still make all the difference. In the past several decades, say Uggen and Manza, at least two Senate races in Florida would have gone to Democrats instead of Republicans had felons had the right to vote. Buddy McKay would have beaten Connie Mack in 1988, and Betty Castor would have beaten Mel Martinez in 2004. And, of course, the 2000 presidential election would have gone to Al Gore. Uggen and Manza’s research suggests Gore might have picked up 60,000 votes from felons……if the state’s ex-cons had been allowed to vote in 2000, George W. Bush would now be the commissioner of baseball.

Also check out Nancy Scola’s take on the topic at MyDD, “Felon Enfranchisement: Florida Vs. Rhode Island,” which puts the movement to restore voting rights to America’s ex felons in perspective.

Dem Strength Shows in Generic Poll

Horse-race polls will get more interesting in September when voters pay increased attention. In evaluating the Party’s preparedness for a full-scale campaign, the Dems overall political image looks very good. Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal reports, for example, that a new Diageo-Hotline survey shows a generic Dem candidate leads a generic GOP candidate 47%-29% in a white house ’08 matchup.
Blumenthal’s link-rich article also provides some instructive insights about how generic candidate polls work, along with this thoughtful appraisal of their limitations:

…This far out, I believe that a generic vote question tells us mostly about the way voters perceive the national political parties. While those images apparently give the Democrats a huge early advantage – a finding that is certainly informative about the voters’ current attitudes – the ultimate nominees of each party and their campaign messages will likely reshape those images. So, for my money, the generic vote remains something of questionable value in tracking where the race will be in 18 months.

Very true about the limited predictive value, and same goes for candidate horse-race polls this far out. But any poll that gives Dems an 18 percent advantage with voters is welcome news in assessing the Party’s image, which needs to be strong if Dems want an ’08 sweep. Now it would be interesting to see polls showing which themes are resonating with those who prefer a generic Democrat and which motivate those favoring Republicans.

Medical Marijuana Reforms Gaining Ground With Dems

Presidential candidates, including Democrats, have historically been a little gun-shy when it comes to supporting liberalization of archaic drug laws. That may soon change, thanks to Governor Bill Richardson, who just signed into law a bill making New Mexico the 12th state to protect patients using medical marijuana from arrest. The other states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Asked by the Associated Press about the political risk involved, Richardson replied “So what if it’s risky? It’s the right thing to do…This is for medicinal purpose, for … people that are suffering. My God, let’s be reasonable.”
It’s not likely that Richardson’s presidential campaign will suffer as a result. Opinion polls taken in the 21st century indicate that between 70 and 80 percent of the public supports protecting medical marijuana users from arrest. Indeed, the interesting question is whether Richardson may win votes as a result. Federal government statistics indicate that 80 million Americans admit they have smoked marijuana, 20 million during the last year.
Yet more than 5 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana offenses during the last decade, 90 percent for simple possession. About 700,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana-related offenses during the last year. As former President Jimmy Carter has said “Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against the possession of marijuana in private for personal use.” In singing the legislation, Richardson may have enhanced his image as a practical problem-solver. Democratic Presidential candidates John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich have said they oppose arresting and jailing patients who use medical marijuana, as did former Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry. Kucinich supports decriminalization of marijuana smoking. Senators Obama and Clinton have no information about their positions on medical marijuana on their web pages. Former President Clinton came out in favor of decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2000, softening his previous hard line position against medical marijuana.

Communications Skills May Trump Policy With Most Swing Voters

Democratic communications consultant John Neffinger has an interesting piece at the HuffPo on the power of communications skills to trump positions on the issues, especially with swing voters. Riffing on a recent post by Slate’s chief political correspondent John Dickerson pooh poohing the candidacy of former Senator Fred Thompson, Neffinger makes a convincing argument that Dems who think issues positions are more important for winning elections than communication skills are courting defeat. Neffinger cites three studies to back his argument and says:

…Swing voters by definition are not strongly committed to the policy views of one side or the other. For many of them, compelling language and policy positions are as important for how they shape their feelings about the candidate as they are for their own virtues. (Just to be clear, no one is disputing that sound ideas are critical to governing well. We’re just talking about getting elected.)
Is this scary? Sure. Unwelcome? Clearly. Contrary to everything we ever learned about democracy, from kindergarten through the Federalist Papers? Absolutely. And even though it can work in our favor too (e.g., Bill Clinton), it is profoundly dispiriting, to say the least, to realize how unhinged the process is from the issues that ultimately matter in governing.
But better to face that reality now, while we can still do something about it, than to place our faith in the fairy-tale version of democracy and be left grasping for excuses after we lose.

Neffinger notes the irony that the ‘party of science’ ignores studies that show how voters make their choices, while the ‘party of faith’ takes it very much into their political calculations:

Democrats feel wronged when swing voters let emotion cloud their view of reality, but our side often doesn’t grasp the reality of how swing voters make up their minds because we can’t get past our own emotional attachment to the power of ideas. We accuse swing voters of voting capriciously, irrationally, but if we were only rational ourselves, we could easily see why they do.
In fact, unlike blinkered Democrats, in some ways swing voters are acting perfectly rationally by voting with their gut (yet another irony, if you’re still counting). For voters who don’t pay close attention to issues, it’s not easy to figure out which positions are best (not least because conservative think tanks and media do an excellent job at muddying the waters of debates democrats would otherwise win). So what can a casual voter do? Go with what they know. Every day they make judgments about people they interact with, size ’em up, trust their instincts. So they use the same method to pick a candidate.

Most Democrats old enough to remember Reagan’s first campaigns will recall how he was dismissed by many Dems who said “Oh come on. He’s an actor,” or something similar. Large groups of voters screwed by Reagan again and again still voted to re-elect him, beyond all reason. Let’s not make the same mistaken assumptions about Thompson.