washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Daily Strategist

July 17, 2018

The Optics of Obama’s Gospel Event

One of the more interesting aspects of contemporary politics is the variable impact of “events” on different media in different places. And you get a full measure of that variability in reading about Barack Obama’s South Carolina “gospel tour,” which hit Columbia last night with “ex-gay” singer Donnie McClurkin in the cleanup spot. McClurkin basically ended the event by denying he was an anti-gay bigot because he’s “suffered the same feelings” as gay folk, and reiterated his belief that God “delivered me from homosexuality.”
To read many progressive bloggers, Obama’s decision to involve McClurkin (introduced to him, reportedly, by Oprah Winfrey) was a cataclysmic mistake. So says Kos, who called it the lowpoint of the “worst [week] I have seen from any candidate in this presidential cycle.” So says Atrios, who described Obama’s explanation of his decision as “incredibly insulting” to, well, just about everybody. So says Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake, who dismisses arguments that Obama just screwed up, and accuses him of “dog-whistle outreach” to gay-bashers.
So how did the brouhaha play down in South Cackalacki itself? Well, the Columbia State, which features massive political coverage every day, didn’t bother to cover Obama’s Columbia event. It did publish an AP story with the title: “McClurkin Wins Cheers At Obama Event Despite Gay Protests,” which gives you an idea how seriously the writer took the cataclysmic-disaster interpretation of Obama’s gospel tour.
These different optics reflect the very different issues Obama’s campaign was dealing with in putting on this kind of event. On the one hand, it deeply offended not only gays and lesbians, but many progressive activists who want to support Obama as an alternative to Clinton, but suspect his commitment to the kind of ideological rigor and partisan zeal they consider essential in a nominee. On the other hand, it might have done him some good in SC, where his candidacy may ultimately rise or fall based on his ability to wrest a sizable majority of African-American votes away from HRC.
I realize I am analyzing this episode from a purely political, not moral, point of view. But so, too, are many of those who are blasting Obama nonstop today. Nobody really believes that Barack Obama is homophobic, and nobody (at least on the Left side of the political spectrum) really doubts the sincerity of his religious faith. There’s no contradiction there, since Obama belongs to a faith community, the United Church of Christ, that proudly ordains gay and lesbian clergy. It’s sad and ironic that he’s wound up sponsoring an event where faith and inclusion have come so sharply into conflict from sharply different optics. And it will be an important test of his claim to be a “transformational” politician to see how he gets himself out of this particular trap moving forward.

Rudy the Authoritarian

The ever-insightful John Judis has a lengthly, fascinating article up on the New Republic site evaluating Rudy Giuliani’s political and governing philosphy based on his upbringing, education, and experience as mayor of New York.
In terms of Giuliani’s early background, Judis basically concludes that while Rudy is a pretty crummy Catholic when it comes to personal conduct, he drank deeply from a Catholic Aristotelian tradition of political philosphy that has been known on occasion to lead from a mild communitarianism to a dangerous authoritarianism (viz, the sad history of European Catholic political thinking in the first half of the twentieth century).
Of more immediate interest is Judis’ fine analysis of the false and frightening analogy that Giuliani often draws between his anti-crime campaign in New York and how he would “police” the world as president:

In a recent essay for Foreign Affairs, [Giuliani] wrote: “I know from personal experience that when security is reliably established in a troubled part of a city, normal life rapidly reestablishes itself: shops open, people move back in, children start playing ball on the sidewalks again, and soon a decent and law-abiding
community returns to life. The same is true in world affairs. Disorder in the world’s bad neighborhoods tends to spread. Tolerating bad behavior breeds more bad behavior.”
This is a foolish analogy. In policing the world, the United States cannot claim to be enforcing its own laws; we lack legitimacy to do so, as we found after invading Iraq. When the NYPD went into poor neighborhoods, it was not an occupying force; when the U.S. military took over Baghdad, it was, and it suffered the consequences. Some of the “neighborhoods” Giuliani wants to clean up, such as Iran, possess their own armies and can call on other “neighborhoods,” such as Russia and China, to deter an attempt to punish them for bad behavior. In short, the world is not New York writ large, and the trade-offs between authority and liberty look very different from the White House than from Gracie Mansion. But these distinctions seem lost on the man who aspires to be the next mayor of the United States.

Judis doesn’t mention the grand irony of the front-running Republican candidate using a law enforcement paradigm for anti-terrorism policy, particularly given Giuliani’s large platoon of neocon advisors. (It’s supposed to be Democrats who don’t understand this is World War III, not gang-busting). But to the extent that Rudy seems to have convinced a lot of voters that his record in reducing violence in New York is the best reason to believe he can reduce violence around the world, Judis has performed an invaluable service in showing how ridiculous a credential that really is, and the danger to both national security and civil liberties that a Giuliani presidency would pose.

Re-Testing the Third Rail

As anyone paying attention to the Democratic presidential contest is probably aware, there is a massive Greek Chorus out there, spanning the blogosphere and the MSM, telling Barack Obama that he needs to get tougher and more specific in outlining his differences with Hillary Clinton (I may be one of the few bloggers who hasn’t climbed on that bandwagon). But on the Left, at least, there probably isn’t much happiness about the precise way in Obama has chosen to take their advice.
Obama’s running an ad in Iowa–where the very latest major poll shows him effectively tied with Clinton–implicitly accusing HRC of putting her “finger to the wind” on key issues, with Social Security solvency being a leading example. Obama’s criticism of Clinton on SocSec has been more explicit in speeches and press events over the last few days.
So what is Obama offering on Social Security that Clinton’s not? The ad and his campaign’s materials say he wants to eliminate the “wealth exemption” for Social Security payroll taxation, which refers to the current $97,500 “cap” on earned income subject to the tax. But it’s not clear at this point if he is proposing to abolish the cap altogether, or, like John Edwards, to expose income above $200,000 to the payroll tax, while leaving marginal earned income between $97,500-$200,000 untaxed (sometimes called the “doughnut hole” approach). As it happens, HRC has expressed a willingness to “consider” monkeying with the payroll tax “cap”–in the context, as everyone always says, of a “comprehensive” approach (code for Republicans accepting a payroll tax increase while Democrats accept some sort of benefit cuts).
What seems to be a bit new about Obama’s line is that he’s discarded all the usual “comprehensive reform” language and is aggressively, not defensively, promoting a payroll tax increase while rejecting significant benefit changes. This makes many Democrats nervous because (a) unlike a rollback in the Bush income tax cuts, this is unmistakably a tax increase, which Republicans will point out every five minutes if Obama is the nominee; (b) abolishing the cap, instead of creating a “doughnut hole,” would represent a tax increase on millions of upper-middle-income earners, often the same people getting hit by the Alternative Minimum Tax; and perhaps most importantly (c) lots of Democratic activists, particularly after the campaign against Bush’s 2005 privatization proposal, really can’t stand any sort of talk about Social Security solvency, considering it either a non-problem or a “conservative meme.”
So why is Obama taking this controversial tack? Much of the aforementioned Greek Chorus, after all, wants Obama to go after HRC from the Left, particularly on national security and/or anti-corporate issues, not from the “entitlement reform” Center (see this post from Josh Marshall, one of the leaders of the successful fight against Bush’s 2005 SocSec initiative, on why he thinks this is a really bad idea).
I don’t have any inside knowledge here, but one reason Obama might want to talk about Social Security stems from the demographics of the Democratic electorate, particularly in Iowa. The University of Iowa poll I linked to above shows Obama with an impressive 41% from likely Caucus-goers under 44 (with 19% for HRC and 16% for Edwards). Among voters between 44 and 60, HRC leads him 31% to 21% (with an impressive 26% for Edwards). And among over-60 voters, HRC has 31%, Obama 24%, and Edwards 16%. Given the vast skewing of the Iowa Caucus turnout towards oldsters, Obama’s path to victory has two obvious elements: boosting turnout among younger voters, and gaining stronger support up the age ladder. His field organization is keyed to the former goal. And it’s beginning to appear his policy message may be keyed to the latter.
Remember that Obama has already proposed exempting $50,000 in income for seniors from income taxation. Perhaps his campaign has decided that biting the bullet for a tax increase to maintain Social Security benefits will give him a crucial boost in the geezer- and near-geezer vote.
In any event, Democrats nervous about candidate talk on Social Security–beyond adamant refusal to consider it a problem–should remember that this will inevitably be a general election issue. And given the stubborn willingness of the Republican presidential field to embrace Bush’s unpopular approach to Social Security, it’s an issue likely to favor Democrats.

Pitfalls of Evaluating Campaign Coverage

New York Times reporter Katherine Q. Seelye has a short article flagging a new study of campaign coverage, conducted 1/1 to 5/31 by the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism and Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The study will likely get a fair amount of buzz, despite the very limited representation of just five websites in the survey (AOL, MSNBC, CNN, Yahoo and Google).
There were no big shockers in the survey, which found that horse race stories accounted for 63 percent of all reports surveyed, up from 55 percent in ’04 and ’00, In terms of coverage, Clinton got the most, Obama got the most favorable and McCain got the most negative coverage. The candidates’ track records received only 1 percent of coverage — I would have guessed maybe a little more. Conservative spinmeisters will undoubtedly make much of the fact the Dems got more coverage than Repubs (49-31 percent of stories), but that will likely even out before long.
To be fair to the survey sponsors, it would be impossible to do a full-scale study of political coverage, particularly on the internet, so vast and diverse is the relevant content. But it is misleading to suggest the findings of five websites, none of which are dedicated to political reporting, is somehow representative of the scope of campaign coverage on the internet. In light of this shortcoming, make what you will of the overview bullet point about the approaches of different media categories:

There were also distinct coverage differences in different media. Newspapers were more positive than other media about Democrats and more citizen-oriented in framing stories. Talk radio was more negative about almost every candidate than any other outlet. Network television was more focused than other media on the personal backgrounds of candidates. For all sectors, however, strategy and horse race were front and center.

Shortcomings notwithstanding, the study has some insights for campaign strategy in dealing with reporters of different media, although most savvy flacks of the candidates will not be too surprised at the survey findings. For an interesting alternative view of media coverage, check out another Pew Research Center study on a related topic “Internet News Audience Highly Critical of News Organizations,” conducted in July.

Old Dominion Death Wish

In Virginia earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, who’s has been carefully planning for years to run to succeed Sen. John Warner, announced with some visible bitterness that he would not run for the Senate now that Warner has finally retired.
The bitterness flows from the immediate cause of his abandonment of that long-cherished dream: a decision by the Virginia Republican Party to hold a convention rather than a primary to choose the candidate to face Democrat Mark Warner next November. A convention, as everyone in the state understands, will be dominated by conservative activists who are almost certain to spurn the relatively moderate Davis in favor of former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who’s already announced for the gubernatorial contest.
Davis, mind you, is a prodigious vote-getter and fundraiser from Northern Virginia, the area where recent Democratic statewide victories have been based, while Gilmore is a failed governor, failed RNC chair, and most recently, a failed presidential candidate, who will not have a prayer against Mark Warner. Moreover, Gilmore represents the hard-core culturally rigid, fanatically anti-tax wing of the state GOP, which has now lost two straight gubernatorial bids and a Senate contest, and whose primary challenges to moderate GOP state senators this year are endangering a GOP majority of that chamber previously thought to be impregnable.
This deliberate decision to hand Gilmore the Senate nomination can only be understood as an act of self-deception, under the bizarre theory that Virginia Republicans have been losing because they are insufficiently conservative, or as the expression of a death wish, reflecting a determination to hold onto intraparty power at the expense of real governing power.
Virginia is only the latest example of this phenomenon, as explained by Ron Brownstein in a column today. What he calls an “ideological inquisition” in the GOP is reflected in other primary challenges of party heretics, and indeed, in the behavior of the GOP presidential field (with the arguable exception of Rudy Giuliani).
The CW on this subject remains that both parties are under the control of their activist “bases,” and that moderates in both parties are being hunted to extinction. But as Kevin Drum accurately suggests in his commentary on Brownstein’s column, this equivalency argument is just wrong:

Every two years the losing party has this exact same conversation: (a) move to the center to appeal more to swing voters, or (b) move left (right) in order to stay true to the party’s liberal (conservative) heritage? My sense is that (b) is almost always the choice after the first loss or two, after which (a) finally wins out.
This year, though, we’re in a historically odd position. The Republican Party is still in stage (b), but to a smaller extent, the Democrats are back there too. The Democratic Party spent so long in stage (a) during the 90s, moving aggressively to the center after years in the wilderness, and the GOP moved so far to the right under Gingrich and Bush, that Democrats have the luxury of being able to move modestly to the left and yet still be moving relatively closer to the center than the Republican Party. On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s like the GOP is moving right from 8 to 9 while the Democratic party is moving left from 4 to 3.5. The lunacy of the conservative base is providing a huge amount of cover for liberals to make some modest progress this year.

And Virginia offers a good illustration of the relative moderation of Democrats, even those on the intense Left. After all, there are plenty of Democrats, in Virginia and elsewhere, who probably think Mark Warner is an unprincipled Clintonian triangulator whose constant talk of bipartisanship makes him a sell-out (viz, Matt Stoller’s description at OpenLeft of Warner’s announcement statement for the Senate as “disgusting” and “Liebermanesque”). But you don’t see anyone trying to deny him the nomination, at the cost of a precious Senate seat.

Is It Over?

Walter Shapiro doesn’t think so in his Salon article “Is Hillary running away with the race?” Despite Senator Clinton’s fomidable lead in all recent opinion polls, Shapiro observes:

This year, Hillary Clinton’s wide lead has only increased the long-standing temptation to believe in the polls’ predictive power…But a strong case can be made that these polls are not as definitive as they seem — that they are little more than the political version of dream books that use nighttime visions to predict winning lottery numbers.

Pollsters and poll analysts can be forgiven if they think that’s a little overstated. But then there is this reminder:

Since 1975, only twice has the candidate atop the Democratic field in the national Gallup Polls at this point in the campaign cycle gone on to win the nomination. The exceptions were Al Gore in 1999 and Walter Mondale (47 percent in the November 1983 Gallup Poll), who almost lost the nomination to Gary Hart, who was literally an asterisk in the same survey. And in the November 1991 Gallup Poll, a small-state governor named Bill Clinton was running sixth (yes, sixth) in the Democratic horse race, behind Mario Cuomo and such implausible presidential choices as Jerry Brown and Doug Wilder.

Shapiro points out the GOP horse race polls have a better track record, and adds:

There is a glimmer of an argument that, despite their historic inaccuracy, national polls may have greater forecasting power this year because the primary calendar has been scrunched into a single month, with more than 20 states holding primaries on Feb. 5, just 33 days after the Iowa Republican caucuses. “If we’re going to have a national primary, then national polls may matter because they do measure national name ID,” said Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “But you could make an equally good argument that Iowa and New Hampshire could change everything.”

Shapiro gives fair vent to both sides of the argument about horse race polls’ predictive merit at this stage, with an edge to the skeptics. It’s a good read for poll-watchers of all stripes.

Nashville Skyline Rag

Launching a stout campaign for Most Unlikely Analogy of the Year, Jay Cost of RealClearPolitics provides an extended meditation on Fred Thompson as the Bob Dylan of the 2008 presidential campaign.
The idea is that all of Fred’s rather, you know, counter-intuitive conduct on the campaign trail doesn’t indicate a lazy or irresolute geezer who expects the nomination to fall into his lap, but instead a brave rule-breaker who, like Bob Dylan going electric in the mid-60s, may be redefining the genre.
In Cost’s defense, he’s apparently doing a post next week that addresses the down side of ol’ Fred’s campaign style. The current column is entitled “Thompson Goes Electric.” Maybe he’ll call the next one “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”

One Term Pledges and Veep Surprises

In his efforts to help along the sorta-kinda revival of John McCain’s presidential campaign, National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru came up with an interesting proposal: McCain should announce that if elected, he would serve only one term.
Ponnuru doesn’t exactly explain why this would work magic for McCain, other than attracting some buzz, and perhaps (if he followed Ramesh’s advice and said his one term would be devoted to a few big goals) reviving his tarnished rep as a principled pol among power-mad opportunists. If McCain were in better political shape, a one-term pledge might assuage concerns about his age and health, but those aren’t really his problem at present. Theoretically, knowing a President McCain would leave office in 2013 might appeal to current or potential Republican rivals, but that won’t turn many real votes. If things started looking really, really bad for GOPers in 2008, I suppose McCain could fulfill his old buddy Marshall Wittmann’s dream by announcing Joe Lieberman as a running-mate and propose some sort of four-year Government of National Salvation. But it’s hard to imagine that series of events congealing in time to crucially affect the nominating contest, and as Ponnuru says, the time for a big bold move is now.
But there is one Republican candidate for whom the strategy of a one-term pledge coupled with a strategic, announced-in-advance running-mate could make some sense: Rudy Giuliani. Rudy’s appeal to many Republicans is that he may be the only choice who could thwart the likelihood of a Democratic president working with a Democratic Congress, perhaps breaking the partisan gridlock of the last decade or so, and taking the Supreme Court out of reach of those whose raison d’etre is the overturning of Roe v. Wade. But many of the same people are terrified that a President Giuliani would reshape the GOP itself in his image. Limiting himself in advance to one term, and at the same time choosing in advance a culturally conservative running-mate who would be the Heir to the Throne, might produce a small but crucial breakthrough for Rudy in the GOP ranks.
While we are on the subject, the use of the vice-presidential nomination as a strategic device is an idea that doesn’t get discussed much these days, thanks to the abundant evidence that it usually doesn’t change many votes. But a well-timed and dramatic running-mate announcement is a proposition that’s rarely been tested. What if John Kerry had actually secured McCain as his running-mate in 2004 (which I’m pretty sure was a much livelier possibility than a lot of people realized then or now)? And while the Reagan-Ford ticket that nearly materialized at the GOP Convention of 1980 would probably not have affected the outcome of that election, it certainly might have affected world history by sparing us all the Bush Dynasty.
Then there’s the ever-lurking idea of a candidate announcing a running-mate before winning the nomination. It’s happened just once: in 1976, when Ronald Reagan stunned Republicans by choosing Sen. Richard Schweiker of PA as his putative Veep shortly before the convention. The move was narrowly tactical, aimed at prying loose some delegates from PA, and it failed, because Schweiker’s relatively liberal voting record produced a backlash that lost Reagan the previously uncommitted Mississippi delegation and thus the nomination.
But it’s a strategem eminently available to any candidate who wants to create a large buzz, signal a grand coalition, or attract a key voter bloc. And at some point, if not this year then before too long, it will be tried.

The Colbert Boom

In case you missed it, the robo-pollsters at Rasmussen have released a survey showing that an independent presidential run by Stephen Colbert would net 13% support in a Clinton-Giuliani contest. Just as surprisingly, comparison of the three-way test with Rasmussen polls of the Big Two alone seems to indicate that Colbert pulls significantly more support from Rudy than from HRC. Less surprisingly, Rasmussen finds that the comedian does really, really well–around 30%–among voters under the age of 30.
There is one very obvious reason to dismiss these “findings”: Asking poll questions about an unserious candidate invites an unserious answer.
So why am I writing about it? Because when polls came out a few months ago showing Mike Bloomberg with similar levels of support in a three-way race, many thousands of words of serious analysis were spilled in print and online. But the truth is that polls offering any well-known “third choice” typically elicit significant support well in advance of elections–support that tends to evaporate as actual voting grows nigh. The alleged Bloomberg Boom wasn’t any more serious than today’s Colbert Boom.
Still, to suspend disbelief for a moment, it is fun to wonder why Colbert would cut into Rudy Giuliani’s base of support so disproportionately. Are there actually a lot of Colbert viewers who don’t understand that his Fox Bloviator shtick is a joke? Or is Rudy benefitting from a hitherto-undiscovered segment of the electorate that doesn’t understand he’s dead serious?

Red Meat Diet

In a final note on Family Research Council’s “Value Voters” Summit, Sarah Posner of The American Prospect‘s FundamentaList has this interesting reminder on Mike Huckabee’s performance at the event last year:

At last year’s Values Voter Summit, Huckabee got a pretty stony reception for suggesting that the Christian right work with feminists to combat porn, with gay rights activists to combat AIDS, and with unions to make better workplaces. But this time he came back with all the venom — and stock humor — that sells to the FRC audience. Starting with a joke about the Nobel committee needing to count more chads before finalizing Gore’s prize, Huckabee went on to call for sealing the border to stop illegal immigrants, fighting “Islamofascism,” ending “the holocaust of liberalized abortion,” and preserving “the holy word of God as it relates to the definition of marriage.”

Mike Huckabee may be renowned for the healthy eating tips associated with his own significant weight loss. But when it comes to wowing right-wing audiences, he’s figuring out that a strict diet of red meat is the key to adding political muscle.