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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Daily Strategist

May 20, 2018

John the Un-Baptist

Lord ‘a’ mercy! For the self-styled Party of the Godly, the GOP is certainly having a lot of religious issues with its presidential field. There’s Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. There’s Rudy Giuliani’s rather tenuous relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. There’s the question as to whether Fred Thompson is a member of the conservative Church of Christ or the progressive United Church of Christ, or doesn’t go to church at all. There’s Sam Brownback’s conversion from Methodism to Catholicism via the controversial Opus Dei organization. And for those Republicans, if there are any, who are scrupulous about separation of church and state, Mike Huckabee’s position as an ordained Southern Baptist minister might raise a few eyebrows.
And now we learn via AP that John McCain has suddenly started telling people in heavily Baptist South Carolina that he’s not, as he has always been identified, an Episcopalian, but a Baptist, having attended a Phoenix-area Southern Baptist Church for about 15 years.

The Associated Press asked McCain on Saturday how his Episcopal faith plays a role in his campaign and life. McCain grew up Episcopalian and attended an Episcopal high school in Alexandria, Va.
“It plays a role in my life. By the way, I’m not Episcopalian. I’m Baptist,” McCain said. “Do I advertise my faith? Do I talk about it all the time? No.”

This news apparently led AP reporter Bruce Smith to do a little googling, and he promptly turned up a rather interesting personal tidbit about McCain from a few months ago:

In a June interview with McClatchy Newspapers, the senator said his wife and two of their children have been baptized in the Arizona Baptist church, but he had not. “I didn’t find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs,” he said.

Well, you’d think anyone who’s been attending a Baptist Church for 15 years might have caught wind of the fact that the denomination, as its name suggests, believes rather adamantly that baptism is necessary for salvation, a reasonably important “spiritual need” by most measurements.
And no, it wouldn’t cut any ice with his fellow-Baptists if it turns out that McCain, like most Episcopalians, was baptized via sprinkling as an infant. Any kind of Baptist I’ve ever heard of holds that only a “believer’s baptism” (i.e., at an age of consent) through full bodily immersion is valid. That’s why their theological ancestors in Europe were contemptuously dubbed “Re-baptizers,” or “Anabaptists.”
I don’t know why McCain has chosen to wander into this particular thicket. But the only way out I can imagine is if he asks Huckabee to baptize him during the next candidate debate.

Big Monday

This is indeed a busy Monday morning in the political world. The White House is likely to announce retired federal district court judge Michael Mukasey as its nominee to succeed Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General, having backed off more controversial possibilities such as Michael Chertoff and Ted Olsen.
Mukasey’s close relationship to Rudy Giuliani will raise a lot of Left and Right eyebrows, and his outspoken support for the Patriot Act will probably spur some netroots talk about opposing his confirmation. But the immediate reaction among Democrats has been fairly conciliatory (reflected most notably by positive comments from Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, as quoted in the Post article linked to above), and the best bet is that Dems will use the confirmation hearings to pin down Mukasey on Gonzales’ various misdeeds and prevarications, most notably the U.S. Attorneys scandal (Mukasey was himself a federal prosecutor under Giuliani back in the day).
On the presidential campaign trail, Hillary Clinton is releasing the “coverage” piece of her health care proposal today, and all indications are that she will embrace an “individual mandate” to ensure universal coverage, joining John Edwards and differing from Barack Obama on that wonky but important point. Initial reaction in the progressive blogosphere is likely to be positive. One things’s for certain sure: any similarities between HRC’s plan and the Massachusetts initiative (which also includes an individual mandate) signed into law by Mitt Romney will be used by the Mittster’s GOP presidential rivals to label him as an advocate for HillaryCare, probably forcing him to discuss the MA plan more frequently.
But while HRC is making news on health care, Barack Obama moved a major chess piece in the politics of Iraq, coming out clearly yesterday for the no-war-funding-without-deadlines approach, earning cheers from Markos Moulitsas. Obama’s statement (in Iowa, of course) aligned him with Edwards, Dodd and Richardson on the funding cutoff strategy (Biden is stridently opposed to it), and shifted the focus to HRC, who in the past has moved in tandem with Obama on this particular issue. But Obama, like HRC (and to a lesser extent Edwards) remains exposed to demands by Dodd and Richardson that he disclaim support for a significant residual troop presence in Iraq after combat brigades are withdrawn.
In the Republican presidential contest, Newt Gingrich made a lot of Democrats happy late last week by renewing talk of a last-minute bid.
And in celebrity-culture-meets-politics news, last night Al Gore picked up an Emmy (for his role in launching the Current channel) to go with his Oscar, while the Fox Network may be open to charges that it censored Sally Fields’ Emmy acceptance speech for profane anti-war comments.

White Male Dems An Endangered Species?

Thomas F. Schaller has a provocatively titled Salon post “So Long White Boy,” in which he all but urges Democrats to write off the white male voter, or as the article subtitle asks “Could 2008 be the year that Democrats finally admit an old sweetheart is never coming back, and stop pandering to the white male voter?” Schaller trots out some interesting numbers to bolster his argument, including:

In 2004, according to New York Times exit polls, Democrat Kerry won 38 percent of the total white male vote, confirming a familiar pattern. Kerry’s share was basically the same that every Democratic presidential candidate has received since Michael Dukakis. In the four elections between 1988 and 2000, in fact, using New York Times exit poll results, the Democratic nominee won 36 percent, 37 percent, 38 percent and 36 percent, respectively, of votes cast by white men. Because white men cast between 33 and 36 percent of all votes in 2004, that means a mere 12 to 13 percentage points of Kerry’s 48 percent nationally came from white men — about one vote in four. Nevertheless, and despite running against an incumbent in the first post-Sept. 11 presidential election, Kerry still came within one state of winning the Electoral College. Four years earlier, Al Gore also came within one state of reaching the magical 270 electors, and actually won the popular vote nationally — while, like Kerry, receiving only about one-fourth of his support from white men.

Schaller concedes that Dems are still “competitive” among white women voters and that unionized white male voters are still pro-Democratic. He compares demographic trends and voting patterns for white male and African American voters and concludes:

Democrats are able to neutralize their white male voter problem with votes from African-Americans — even though the latter group is only about one-third the size of the former….today, the black vote fully compensates for the Democrats’ deficit among white men.

Schaller doesn’t say anything about what possible effect discontent over the Iraq war, GOP scandals or other issues may have on white male votes in ’08. And Democratic presidential candidates may be less eager than he to write off one out of four of their voters. But it’s an important article in terms of political strategy, and one which merits the attention of Dems concerned about the Party’s future.

Iraq’s “Empowerment” Zones

One of the strange shifts in its public posture on Iraq that’s been made by the Bush administration in recent weeks is the idea that total lack of progress on a national political settlement doesn’t matter, because progress towards a more orderly existence is being made on a local level here and there, a development that will somehow perculate up to Baghdad. The fact that Iraq’s sectarian fault lines are incredibly resistant to this kind of simple bottom-up solution, or that local “empowerment” may be completely inconsistent with national unity, doesn’t seem to enter into the equation. There’s a good, full analysis of the incoherence of what now passes for a Bush political strategy in Iraq by Dennis Ross up at the New Republic site.
Bush’s celebration of developments in Anbar Province is highly reminiscent of an earlier, grossly premature celebration over Iraq’s first “national” elections, back in January of 2005. All those GOP politicians waving purple fingers didn’t seem to be aware that the vast majority of Iraqi voters rejected every available inter-communal political option. And like Bush’s basic course of action in Iraq, that’s something that hasn’t changed at all.

Polling “the Petraeus Plan”

Now that Petraeus Week is over, and Bush has made his Big Speech announcing he’s willing to consider withdrawing enough troops by next July to bring us back to exactly where we were the day after the 2006 elections, the spin wars over how Americans (and Iraqis) will react are beginning in earnest. And for those of us who like the idea of clarity, one of the first shots out of the block, a Rasmussen poll on “the Petraeus Plan” for Iraq, is truly infuriating.
In fairness, the pollsters quizzed Americans about the “Petraeus recommendations” for Iraq, to wit that the U.S. “withdraw 30,000 soldiers from Iraq but leave 130,000 troops in place at least through the summer.” But the initial media report on the poll, in The Hill, changed “recommendations” to “plan,” so we have poll results supposedly showing a plurality of Americans–43 percent to 38 percent–supporting the self-same “Petraeus Plan” that Bush “embraced” last night. That looks like a pretty big shift in sentiment on Iraq, eh? Particularly when the poll shows only a bare majority of Democrats oppose the Petraeus Plan.
The problem with the poll, of course, other than enabling Bush’s effort to make it look like the military, and a particularly popular general, are actually controlling the overall war strategy, is this: are people responding to the question focused on the idea of withdrawing troops, or the idea of leaving troops? Do they know the “Petraeus Plan” makes troop withdrawals contingent on political progress, or that most of the the withdrawals would occur nearly a year from now? And do they know the relationship of pre- and post-surge troops levels?
I’m sure other polls, using better methodology and better questions than Rasmussen’s, will soon come out. But the last thing America needs right now is “evidence” that seems to support the already rampant idea in GOP circles that Bush’s massive bait-and-switch tactics for continuing the same policies indefinitely are producing some sea-change in public opinion. We are talking about people, as Ron Brownstein reminded us in a L.A. Times column today, who have convinced themselves that their 2006 defeat was a mandate for a more right-wing Republican Party (and even, as you may recall from the early conservative line on the “surge,” for an escalation of military action in Iraq). They don’t need any further encouragement for their delusions.

Op-Ed Study Shreds GOP Myth

There has been a fair amount of blog buzz about the interesting and graphically-gorgeous Media Matters study “Black and White and Re(a)d All Over:The Conservative Advantage in Syndicated Op-Ed Columns.” The Media Matters team, lead by Senior Fellow Paul Waldman, pretty much shreds the GOP claim of liberal bias in the print media, at least as far as op-ed columnists are concerned. (And, in recent years GOP presidential candidates have gotten the most newspaper endorsements on editorial pages) The conclusion should not come as too much of a surprise to those who read op-eds widely. But some of the blog commentary about the study raise some interesting questions. In The Plank, TNR’s Josh Patashnik asks, for example:

…The real question then would be, if nearly one in two Americans identifies as “moderate”, why are only two of the top ten columnists in America centrists?

And Ezra Klein observes

…a liberal op-ed editor may be quite hard on other liberals, who don’t sound, to him, like they’re saying anything new. Conversely, he could be quite easy on conservatives, because even their basic arguments are, to him, analytically fresh and innovative.

And Matthew Yglesias wonders if:

…maybe opinion columns have little measurable economic value (does anyone really believe Washington Post circulation would change in either direction if they sacked Krauthammer and hired Rosa Brooks away from the LA Times?) and basically exist to put forward ideas that newspaper owners find congenial.

And Tapped’s Kate Shephard speculates:

…complex arguments don’t generally make for the same hard-lined, concise, and easy-to-read column fodder that our ever-more-dumbed-down mainstream media tend to favor. Conservative columnists tend to lean on the most basic, unexamined, talking-point-specific arguments – quick, easy to digest, appealing to reader’s basest instincts. Liberals tend to explore the issue and construct a case for the merits of their arguments, which fewer and fewer papers have the space for, and fewer and fewer readers have the attention span to get through.

Here’s another question: Since Dems kicked butt in the ’06 elections, might that mean that conservative columnists, or even op-ed columnists in general, have little influence on swing voters? Or would Dems have done even better if there was more political balance in op-eds?

Partisan and Ideological Rorschach Test

I’ve written earlier about the long-running but intensifying debate within the blogosphere about the netroots’ orientation towards a purely partisan or more ideological stance. Mark Warner’s announcement that he’s running for the U.S. Senate in Virginia is proving to be something of a Rorschach Test for this difference of opinion.
At OpenLeft.com (a site founded in no small part to push netrooters towards an ideological orientation), Matt Stoller greets Warner’s “disgusting, Lieberman-esque” announcement with this categorical judgment:

Warner’s a centrist, not a partisan, and my guess is that this will turn a lot of people off who had previously ‘loved’ Mark Warner. If the Republicans can find a candidate, I think he’s going to have a bumpier ride than expected. He’ll still win, in all likelihood, but he’s going to be a bad Senator.

Note the planted axiom here that “centrists” can’t be “partisans.”
Meanwhile, over at DailyKos, Markos Moulitsas expresses zero ambilvalence over Warner’s decision:

Mark Warner was the most popular governor in Virginia history. Republicans, on the other hand, will face a bloody primary that will pit not just “moderate” versus conservative, but NoVa versus Southern Virginia. This Tom Davis versus Jim Gilmore contest should be positively bloody, and further deplete and demoralize a Virginia Republican Party in retreat.
About the only Republican happy today is George “Macaca” Allen, who is eyeing the 2009 gubernatorial contest. With Warner probably out of the picture, his chances for a comeback are much greater. But that’s a bridge we’ll cross in 2009. As for now, and with all caveats about getting too cocky and all, this seat will remain in the hands of a senator named “Warner”.

As some of you may remember, Mark Warner’s relative merits have always been a contentious issue in the progressive blogosphere. Matt Bai’s book The Argument has an entire chapter about Warner’s famous appearance at the first YearlyKos conference, which began as a lovefest and concluded with some mutual reassessment of Warner’s relationship to the netroots (Bai even suggests that Warner’s experience at YearlyKos had a significant impact on his decision to fold his presidential campaign).
Now we’re talking not about a Warner presidential run, but about a red-state Senate campaign. And it’s a road-sign in the partisan/ideological debate that such a candidacy is being hooted at in a prominent progressive site.
We’ll probably see even sharper disagreements if Bob Kerrey, an inveterate defier of ideological orthodoxy, decides to run for the Senate in Nebraska.

Dems’ Untapped Unity Issue: Kids

Cultural historian Riane Eisler talks some practical politics in her Alternet post “The Ignored Issue That Can Get Progressives Elected.” Eisler makes a point that has been made many times before, though less frequently in recent years — that the health and well-being of America’s children is a unique coalition issue that can bring diverse constituencies together and empower progressives (read Democrats) to win big next year. Eisler cites polling data from an unusual source, The Barna Group, “a Christian polling organization,” noting:

The poll asked conservatives and liberals, whites and blacks, men and women, Christians and non-Christians which of 11 changes were “absolutely necessary” for the United States to address within the next 10 years. The 11 ranged from national security and environmental protection to the state of marriage and families and the spiritual state of the country. But the issues that emerged as the frontrunners were “the overall care and resources devoted to children” and “the quality of a public school education.” That was the response by 82 percent of the adults surveyed.

Eisler feels strongly that progressives have underemphasized child health and welfare in recent political campaigns, and the Barna Group poll suggests she may be on to something. Republicans as a whole have been downright negligent in addressing the needs of American children, and now we have President Bush threatening to veto an expansion of health care coverage for uninsured kids under the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Meanwhile, the Children’s Defense Fund has a post up reporting new data indicating that in 2006 more than 700,000 children were added to the uninsured — more than double the increase from 2004-5.
The proposed $50 billion expansion in funding for the SCHIP program in the House of Reps. version would insure millions more vulnerable American children. It would cost what taxpayers shell out to pay for 5 months for the Iraq quagmire, according to the latest figures of the Congressional Budget Office (Some observers believe $10 billion per month is less than half of the real cost).
So far, Senator Dodd has probably been the leading advocate for children in the U.S. Senate, and all of the Democratic presidential candidates supported SCHIP increases and other health and welfare initiatives to help children. By raising the well-being of children from a continuing concern to a top priority, Dems can not only help solidify progressive support, but also win some votes from moderates and other swing voters who have the compassion and/or good economic sense to help children in need.

Bad Company

As I wrote about last month, placing political ads linked to search terms on widely used web sites is a smart and rapidly growing practice. But you do have to be careful about the inadvertant associations such ads sometimes create, as Barack Obama’s campaign has just learned.
A reporter for the New York Sun happened to notice that an Obama ad appeared as a “sponsored link” on the Amazon.com page for The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the highly controversial book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that some observers have claimed reflects ancient anti-semitic conspiracy theories. Whatever you think of the book, it’s definitely not one that a candidate for president (unless Pat Buchanan runs again) would want to snuggle up to.
Contacted by the Sun, the Obama campaign quickly took down the ad and foreswore any endorsement of the Mearsheimer/Walt book.
The Amazon ads are run by a subsidiary of the retailer called Clickriver, which associates advertisements with keywords that customers use to search for products on the Amazon website. The Obama camp purchased “politics” as a keyword, and thus, their ad got placed beside lots of political books — one of which happened to be particularly controversial. The whole thing was done by computer and was obviously unintentional and unavoidable.
This is going to happen more and more often. And who knows what the reaction will be next time? But when an algorithm determines the link between content and an advertisement without any human input — what’s a campaign to do? You might think to avoid the situation altogether, but that’s the wrong answer.
Here and now, I think we need to decide on a rule — when computers fail to anticipate a controversy, we don’t blame campaigns. Through the course of a modern election, there will be plenty of times when candidates legitimately stumble — an operative will develop foot-in-mouth disease, a senator will fall off a stage, or a nominee will completely underestimate the importance of an attack and go a solid month without refuting the charges. These are the times at which a media circus will be quasi-justifiable. But not when an innocuous ad is automatically linked to a contentious book.

Bush’s Iraq Bait-and-Switch

By the time of the president’s “address to the nation” on Iraq tomorrow night, it should be apparent to just about everyone that the man is in the process of executing a bait-and-switch tactic on the war that is truly breathtaking in its audacity and cynicism.
There are two major aspects to the bait-and-switch. The first and most obvious is that whatever else it represented, the “surge” was designed to make it possible for Bush to embrace the possibility of troop withdrawals from Iraq without changing course or actually reducing troop levels. The fact that Bush’s best-case scenario is now a return to pre-surge troop levels exposes the circular nature of the whole exercise.
Secondly, the administration has managed to turn David Petraeus into the alleged architect of Bush’s entire war policy. He was sent to Iraq to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign designed to produce a political breakthrough. His “report” to Congress unsurprisingly noted that since no such breakthrough had occurred, he’d have to continue it for an indefinite period if people expected it to produce political gains. Now Bush is about to “embrace” the “Petraeus Plan” for military action, as though it’s some sort of end in itself. Thus, he’s offloading responsibility for his war policies to the military.
It’s hard to imagine these tactics will have any significant effect on public opinion at large, or on Democrats and independents, other than a gullible few. But all the hype about the surge has clearly boosted support levels for Bush’s Iraq policies among conservative “base” voters, which has in turn helped prevent nervous Republican members of Congress from leaving the reservation. More ominously, the “surge” campaign has had a large effect on the GOP presidential contest, in which the candidates are now falling over each other in bellicose “victory” language about Iraq, despite earlier expectations that they’d find ways to distance themselves from this political albatross. Indeed, the emerging role of one-time frontrunner John McCain in this campaign is to serve as a commissar who will sic right-wing media and angry “base” voters on any candidate who dares to inch away from the Iraq disaster.
And finally, there’s the distinct possibility that Bush’s latest Iraq gambit will lead to a major split among Democrats over how, exactly, to respond, since no one can even begin to pretend any longer that Bush will himself change course.
All in all, the sheer perversity of Bush’s political strategy on Iraq has to make you wonder if it was the final, diabolical gift of Karl Rove.