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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: July 2009

The GOP’s Vanilla Option

This item was cross-posted at The New Republic.
Tim Pawlenty made a much-anticipated speech to the Republican National Committee yesterday in an apparent first step towards a 2012 presidential bid. It wasn’t exactly greeted as a trumpet blast; a nice familiar tune from a kazoo might be a more apt metaphor. But after what’s happened in the last few weeks to putative 2012 GOP candidates John Ensign, Mark Sanford, and Sarah Palin, maybe he’s a “fresh face” in the sense of one that does not sport large blemishes.
The full text of his speech isn’t readily available yet. But from descriptions, it sounds like he performed the same dance that has been perfected by other Republican leaders such as party chairman Michael Steele: Republicans need to stand up to Obama, get back to their conservative principles, stop apologizing for their past, and oh, by the way, attract whole new categories of voters. It doesn’t say a lot for GOP outreach efforts that they think just throwing open the door and not being aggressively hostile to converts will do the trick, absent some change in message or policy. But the “not conservative enough” diagnosis of George W. Bush continues to exert an iron grip on GOP options for the future.
It does appear that Pawlenty talked a lot about “market-based health reform,” but it’s not clear yet whether he meant the kind of relentless return to the pre-insurance 1950s that John McCain’s 2008 campaign plan implicitly called for, in which Americans will be “empowered” to buy individual health care policies, or something a bit less antediluvian. But if Pawlenty came up with anything new, it clearly escaped his listeners.
One account of his speech said he received “mild applause” and a “polite standing ovation.” So it doesn’t appear he’s become Demosthenes overnight. This is a consistent problem for the Minnesotan. An upcoming book on the 2008 campaign (I’ve gotten a sneak peek) by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson confirms that Pawlenty, not Romney or Lieberman or Ridge, was actually the co-finalist for the 2008 Veep nomination alongside Sarah Palin. McCain’s wizards settled on Palin after concluding that Pawlenty, while “safe,” didn’t add much to the ticket’s electoral appeal.
And that’s Pawlenty’s problem today. If it turns out that 2012 is one of those years when any credible Republican who is acceptable to the party’s dominant conservative wing can win, then someone who’s a right-to-life evangelical with an attractively middle-class background who has non-disastrously governed a Blue State might make a lot of sense. But unfortunately for Pawlenty, such a promising landscape would undoubtedly tempt the Republican Right to get behind a True Believer who breathes fire and doesn’t hide it with vanilla mints. After four years of shrieking at Barack Obama as some sort of Leninist agent, will a party whose members apparently doubt the President was born in this country really want a candidate like Tim Pawlenty? Probably not, unless the other viable options continue to drop like flies.

Health Care and Public Opinion: Room For Improvement

To hear most of the talk the last couple weeks, you’d think the drive for health care reform–and with it, perhaps, the Obama administration’s overall agenda–is running into a buzzsaw of adverse public opinion.
But accurately assessing public opinon on health reform requires a more careful look at polling data, and the recognition that thanks to the vagaries of congressional procedure, the “Obama plan” hasn’t yet congealed into a specific plan with a clear and consistent rationale.
Andrew Baumann of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner has a very helpful item up at Huffington Post that covers much of this ground. Here are his conclusions (see his full post for examples of each point from specific polling data):
* The public knows the status quo is unsustainable and they want fundamental change now.
* Voters don’t trust the Republicans on the issue at all and trust Obama and the Democrats far more.
* Most important, when voters get more information about the likely elements of the final plan, they like it.
But all these fundamentals of public opinion are at present being obscured by the complex maneuverings in Congress:

[A]ll voters are hearing are stories about how much the plan will cost (on top of the stimulus, budget and bailouts), that it will be paid for with high taxes and that Democrats are bickering and divided. Meanwhile, the attacks on reform coming from Republicans and their allies are much simpler and easier for votes to digest, especially when Republicans can train their fire on unpopular specifics that will not likely be in the actual bill.
All of this suggests that when Democrats can finally coalesce around a single plan and Obama can go out and forcefully sell it, support is likely to increase significantly and Obama and supporters of reform will be able to get more traction in their arguments.

Similarly, Mark Blumenthal of Pollster.com has an article out that examines the polling data on health reform in detail, and notes there is a significant “gap” between support for the principles Obama and Democrats have advocated, and the “health reform plans” as they are perceived by the public. His conclusion:

The case against health care reform is getting through; the case in favor is not.

In other words, there’s a lot of room for improvement in support for what Obama and congressional Democratic leaders are trying to do, if, and only if, perception of their “plan” begin to converge with the principles of reform that a majority of Americans already embrace.

Repositioning Obama

This is a cross-post from The New Republic.
Has Barack Obama shifted to the left since his election as president? The question would seem absurd to most progressives, many of whom believe that Barack Obama has abandoned progressive policy commitments made during the campaign on issues ranging from GLBT and abortion rights to terrorist suspect treatment.
But the “Obama has abandoned the center” narrative is a staple of conservative and some “centrist” criticism of Obama, particularly on the current hot topics of health care reform and climate change legislation. David Brooks made the case most luridly in a July 20 New York Times column entitled “The Liberal Suicide March.” Clive Crook of The Atlantic followed up with a piece claiming that by “splitting with moderates,” Obama was “repudiating one of the most brilliant campaigns ever seen.” And pointing to the difficulties the administration is having with the Blue Dogs, Republican speechwriter Troy Senick of RealClearPolitics attributes all the blame to Obama, suggesting he is “perilously close to breaking the coalition that was built for him.”
It’s important to understand that this sort of repositioning of Obama by his critics, while possibly sincere, is also one of the oldest political tricks in the book. Back when I was policy director for the famously “centrist” Democratic Leadership Council, we used to say there were two ways to “seize the center”: the first was to occupy political high ground with policies and messages that resonated with a strong majority of the electorate, without abandoning any core principles; but the second, to put it crudely, was simply to push the other side out by labeling them as “extremists” or “ideologues.” Doing both (as, say, Bill Clinton did in 1995-96) is naturally the most effective approach, but repositioning your opponents rhetorically has always been wildly popular among people in both parties who don’t particularly want to change their own policies to accord with public opinion, and hope that tarring the other side as extremist will indirectly position themselves as closer to “the center.”
This is largely what we are seeing from Republicans who don’t particularly want to admit that they have in fact moved to a more rigorously ideological position on issues like health care (abandoning even their own prior reform proposals), climate change (where denying the very existence of climate change has made a huge comeback during the last few months), and the budget (where supply-siders, who until very recently derided budget deficits as meaningless, have suddenly returned to a neo-Hooverite public austerity posture).
Now you can make the argument that this whole question of positioning is irrelevant, and there are certainly a lot of Democrats and Republicans who despise the very idea of “the center,” as a place where principles are sacrificed and deals with devils are cut. But like it or not, there is political value in “the center” in a country where “moderate” remains the strongly preferred ideological self-identification, and on complex issues like health care reform and climate change where voters feel better if proposals have broad support and can claim to be “pragmatic.”
If “the center” does matter, then it should be clear that Obama’s critics shouldn’t have plenary rights to define it as they wish. In this respect, the problem is the same as with the closely associated conservative charge that Obama has “abandoned bipartisanship.” Those who refuse to cooperate with Obama and then blame him for “partisanship” or excessive liberalism should not be allowed to have it both ways.
The best measure of whether Barack Obama has “shifted” in any particular direction since taking office remains what he promised to do as a candidate. His positioning on health care reform hasn’t shifted in any significant way, and to the extent that it has at all, it has been a move in the direction of his critics on the right. The same is true of climate change legislation, and, given what he was saying on the campaign trail after the financial sector collapse, on the budget and on economic stimulus legislation.
The real problem here, which is evident from the comments of Brooks, Crook and Senick, is that Obama’s critics from the right seem to have been under the impression that candidate Obama didn’t mean it when he advanced positions deemed as “liberal,” and won strictly because of his talk about bipartisanship and pragmatism, which they define as a willingness to sacrifice his actual platform to their own point of view, contradictions be damned. This is a counterpart to the disappointment of some progressives who seem to believe that candidate Obama cynically took “centrist” positions out of a political expediency that is no longer necessary or tolerable now that Democrats control the White House and have healthy margins in both houses of Congress.
The best evidence is that Barack Obama is, for the most part, and subject to later verification, largely governing as he campaigned, and particularly so on health care reform and climate change. For all the efforts from left and right to “reposition” him, what we saw in 2008 is what we are getting in 2009. Let his critics spend some time explaining their own positions.

Brewskis for Brotherhood

I’m going to go out on a limb here and argue that President Obama’s handling of the Gates arrest/Beer Summit was both klutzsy and deft. OK, a very little limb.
Klutzsy because the President’s comment that the police acted “stupidly,” however true, was politically-unwise in that he forgot for a moment that he is also the nation’s top law enforcement officer, as well as the commander in chief of the armed forces. And a commander does not diss his troops prior to a thorough investigation of the facts. Then there is the cold reality that a large percentage of Americans, probably not only “cultural conservatives,” are always going to side with the police, absent video footage indicating that they were abusive. At least one survey, though conducted just after his press conference, indicated that white respondents gave Obama low marks for his handling of the incident.
Obama’s uncharacteristicly knee-jerk comment was a mistake, forgetting for the moment that what he said was likely accurate. Good leadership does not require immediately saying something because you believe it’s true. Obama’s imprudent comment turned the incident into a huge distraction that sucked a lot of ink and broadcast coverage from the more urgent health care battle. Very important to learn the lesson here.
That said, the “Beer Summit’ was a brilliant idea. The President realized he made a mistake, quickly owned up to it, and then came up with an idea that demonstrated how grown-ups can resolve conflicts, even racial conflicts, in a way that resonates with middle class, and particularly working class Americans. Teaching by example is good leadership. It doesn’t preach; it just shows a better way.
I like the way Baltimore bartender Zach Yarosz put it in Brent Jones’s Sun article,

After working for years in several Baltimore bars, Yarosz has many times dished out alcohol to hotheads on the verge of trading punches when an argument turns personal…”They calm down if you buy each one of them a drink. It placates the situation,” said Yarosz, 27, as he sat in the Mount Royal Tavern in Bolton Hill, downing Budweisers with about 15 others as Obama prepared to host a “beer summit”…”I like the laid-back approach…”

Yes, I know, the Beer Summit looked a bit stiff and stagy. It was not a well-choreographed photo-op. And you couldn’t blame Dr. Gates for still being pissed off. But to his credit he showed with a positive spirit. Sgt. Crowley also gets creds for showing up and being positive, if not for learning the lesson that good police work does not include bullying people in their homes. Not sure what the veep was doing there — Obama might have looked more “in-charge” without him. But the President actually looked more relaxed than all of them, very FDR.
It could have been worse, the President could have done nothing, or said something lame, and his comments would then fester on indefinitely throughout the health care reform debate. The Beer Summit brought a little closure, at least as far as the President’s role in the incident is concerned.
There wasn’t going to be a Kumbaya moment, although Gates and Crowley have agreed to meet again. But the President has demonstrated a simple truth to the nation. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We have to be together, before we can learn to live together.” Well done.


Four members of Congress who are not winning any popularity contests this week are House Blue Dogs Bart Gordon of TN, Baron Hill of IN, Mike Ross of AR, and Zack Space of OH.
These members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, as you may have heard, have agreed to vote for a Democratic health reform plan, giving it enough votes to get to the floor and probably to secure passage there, in exhange for a number of concessions. Said concessions drove a group of progressive House Democrats to fury and very nearly to open rebellion.
But it’s not like the four Blue Dogs are getting any love from hard-core critics of Obama’s health care efforts. At Redstate, one of the leading conservative blogging sites, head honcho Erick Erickson’s post on the deal had this calm title: “The Four Blue Dog Democrats Who Sold Out America.” The subtitle was also pretty even-handed: “Judas only needed 30 pieces of silver to sell out Christ. How much did these four need to sell out their country? ”
When he wasn’t comparing Blue Dogs to Judas–and presumably, the existing health care system to Jesus Christ– for agreeing reluctantly to support their own party, Erickson was fulminating about Republican Senator Lamar Alexander’s treachery in deciding to support Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination and–horror of horrors!–introducing a bill to ban mountain-top coal mining.
Everybody’s a critic.

Exaggerated Democratic Discontent

Since you’d get the general idea from news coverage that Democrats are at each other’s throats, and are gravely dissatisfied with President Obama, it’s always interesting to look at those few public opinion polls that supply breakouts not only by partisan self-identification but by sub-category or faction.
The headline on the latest national survey by Pew is the alarming “Obama’s Ratings Slide Across the Board.” What that actually means is that the President’s job approval ratio has dropped from 61/30 in June to 54/34 today, hardly the stuff of apocalypse since Obama was elected by a margin of 53-46, which was considered a semi-landslide at the time.
But with all the talk of Democratic unhappiness, particularly among “moderates” and “Blue Dogs,” with Obama’s agenda, here’s where rank-and-file Democrats stand on the President’s job performance during the summer of their deep discontent:
Democrats as a whole–85/8 (down from 88/8 in June).
Conservative/Moderate Democrats–82/10 (down from 85/10 in June).
Liberal Democrats–95/5 (up from 93/4 in June).
Not exactly a collapse in support, eh?
Meanwhile, Gallup’s tracking poll on Obama’s job approval, which also shows a general decline in July, has him at 56% as of July 20-26. Among Democrats, his approval rating plunged all the way from 92% during the week of July 13-19, to 88% July 20-26.
And here are the ideological breakdowns:
Conservative Democrats–77% (down from 80% the previous week)
Moderate Democrats–86% (down from 91%)
Liberal Democrats–92% (down from 95%)
Keep in mind that we are in a period when pundits are saying that Barack Obama is “splitting with moderates” and “threatens to break the Democratic coalition.” With 86% of self-identified moderate Democrats and 77% of self-identified conservative Democrats thinking that Obama’s doing a good job, I’d say the reports of Democratic discontent and disunity are more than a bit exaggerated.

New Polls on Obama, Congress, Health Care Reform Suggest Strategy Options

DemFromCt has a pair of good posts at the Daily Kos trying to sort out the latest public opinion on health care reform. In the first link-rich post, “NBC/WSJ and CBS/NYT Polls: Americans Are Divided On Health Care, Down On The Economy,” he analyzes recent polling data on support for President Obama, approval of the job congress is doing and support for health care refom and suggests a strategy:

The bottom line from both polls: Americans are persuadable but are not sold on what they hear on the news. Specific plans sell, but the opposition is well financed and quite skilled at obstruction. Still, the odds are that reform will pass and a bill will emerge from each chamber, and nothing drives polls like success. Depending on the public to drive the process is fraught with difficulty. This will take White House salesmanship to get the job done.
As for regaining momentum, that’s easy and takes two steps. First, bring it down to ordinary people’s level over the August break about what it means to them (affordable medical care you don’t have to worry about losing), and second, have an actual bill to debate rather than Mike Enzi’s version of how to stop whatever is emerging. Nothing succeeds like success.

In his second post, “TIME Poll: Americans Back Reform but Worry About Details,” DemFromCT reviews numbers showing a strong mandate for comprehensive coverage for “all Americans” and for the public option, and he concludes:

Bottom line here, when looking at all the polls: critics in the GOP have raised doubts about Obama’s plan, but he remains 15-20 points ahead of Congressional GOP in terms of public preference. And though doubts are there, especially about cost, people are anxious, fear losing what they have, and crave stability. They want details, and they want Obama to explain and reassure.

Mark Blumenthal’s Pollster.com post “Health Care: ‘Losing the Message War?‘” cites Kaiser Foundation data indicating strong support for fundamental reforms, despite persistent anxieties about cost and coverage:

…The Kaiser Foundation surveys are typically the most comprehensive on the subject of health care and this latest tracker is no exception. The found a majority of Americans continuing to support the goal of reform and large majorities expressing support for a “variety of methods of expanding health insurance coverage, including Medicaid expansion (74 percent), an individual mandate (68 percent), an employer mandate (64 percent) and a public plan (59 percent).”..

Both DemFromCT and Blumenthal cite the effectiveness of anti-reform messaging in keeping public anxieties high. But Democrats do have a strong tailwind in the public’s recognition that substantial reform is urgently needed, and recognition that Republican obstructionists have failed to deliver even a semblance of meaningful reform. The challenge is now for the President, congress and reform advocates to refine and simplify their messaging and raise the confidence level of the insured that their health security will benefit from the Democratic reforms.

Teixeira: Obama Improves U.S. Global Image

In his current ‘Public Opinion Snapshot‘ at the Center for American Progress web pages, TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira spotlights a new 25-nation ‘Global Attitudes Survey” by Pew, which clearly indicates that President Obama’s foreign policy has been a stunning success. Described by Teixeira as “heavy on consultation and diplomacy and notably light on the unilateral use of U.S. power,” Obama’s foreign policy has produced a dramatic turn around in America’s image abroad, as Teixeira explains:

…From 2008 to 2009, favorability toward the United States increased in 21 of 24 nations, excluding the United States. This increase in favorability included double- digit rises in 11 nations: France (up 33 points), Germany (+33), Indonesia (+26), Spain (+25), Mexico (+22), Britain (+16), Argentina (+16), Nigeria (+15), Brazil (+14), Canada (+13), and India (+10).

The survey credits President Obama with leading the remarkable transformation, notes Teixeira, who cites:

…An enormous increase in the number of people internationally with a lot or some confidence that the U.S. president will do the right thing in world affairs. The median level of confidence in the U.S. president among the 21 countries surveyed in both 2008 and 2009 shifted from just 17 percent for Bush in 2008 to 71 percent for Obama in 2009.

Teixeira explains that the extraordinary transformation is attributable to two factors — Bush’s dismal performance in foreign affairs and President Obama’s exceptional credibility as a world leader. Says Teixeira: “It’s good to know that a progressive foreign policy has been able to repair some of this damage so quickly.”

What Makes Dogs Blue?

This item was cross-posted at The New Republic.
While Jon Chait is definitely right that much of the difficulty with House Blue Dog Democrats on health reform (like climate change) has had to do with the legislative timing, there is still a residual question about their generally reluctant position with respect to much of the Obama agenda. And the oversimplistic answer to this oversimplistic question has often been that Blue Dogs tend to represent marginal districts they could lose by toeing the party line.
So now comes the ever-insightful Mike Tomasky with an analysis of exactly how vulnerable those Blue Dogs really are. He keeps this analysis clean by limiting himself to those Members from districts carried last year by John McCain—i.e., those where fears of a voter backlash are most reasonable. And his conclusion is that the vast majority of Blue Dogs seem to have little to worry about based on their 2008 performance.
His conclusion:

Yes, some Democrats have to be very careful and not be seen as casting a liberal vote. But they’re a comparatively small number. A very clear majority of these people have won by large enough margins that it sure seems to me they could survive one controversial vote if they [put] some backbone into it.
But many of these folks manage to sell this story line to Washington reporters who’ve never been to these exurban and rural districts and can be made to believe the worst caricatures. I say many of these Democrats are safer than they contend. People need to start challenging them on this.

Mike’s post is very valuable in dealing with broad-brush stereotypes of the Blue Dogs and of Democratic “centrists” generally. He doesn’t, of course, deal with alternative explanations, including the diametrically opposed possibilities that they believe what they say they believe on policy issues as a matter of principle, or that they are deeply beholden to interests (whether home-grown or national) who oppose Obama’s agenda.
But let’s stick with electoral calculations. Mike plausibly assumes that any Democrat in a “red” district whose 2008 margin of victory exceeded McCain’s might be in a pretty strong position to take a bullet for the donkey team. Here, however, are three provisos to this argument:
1) Risking serious GOP competition” is not as compelling a motive as “risking defeat,” but anyone familiar with how Members of Congress think would understand that the former is treated as a personal disaster by anyone ill-accustomed to heavy fundraising and campaigning. This is hardly a Blue Dog exclusive: some may remember the disputes over racial gerrymandering during the early 1990s, in which some members of the Congressional Black Caucus stoutly defended the “packing” of their districts with African-Americans, at the arguable expense of overall Democratic prospects, on grounds that they deserved a safe, not just a winnable, seat. (To their credit, many CBC members volunteered for less safe seats during the next round of redistricting). And in all fairness, it should be remembered that many of the “loyal” Democrats who fulminate about Blue Dog treachery haven’t had a competitive race since their first elections. Avoiding actual accountability to voters is hardly an honorable motive, but it’s real.
2) It’s generally assumed by many analysts that 2010 is likely to be a pro-Republican year, particularly in districts carried by McCain in 2008. So 2008 performance levels aren’t necessarily dispositive of 2010 prospects. But equally important, more than a few Blue Dogs are from states where Republicans are likely to control redistricting after 2010. Invincible Members tend to be treated kindly in opposition-party redistricting; potentially vulnerable Members could wind up with much more difficult districts than they represent today. This may seem to be a remote worry, but again, it’s real.
3) Most Blue Dogs, whatever you think of their principles, loyalty, or ethics, are not stupid people. They understand that association with “liberal” Obama initiatives may be a problem, but that the value of the “D” next to their name on the ballot also depends on Obama’s success as a president. So like any politician, they undertake a personal cost-benefit of their positions on legislation and the overall effect on Obama, the party, and political dynamics generally. This, as much as concerns over “timing,” helps create the Kabuki Theater atmospherics of Blue Dog rhetoric. Most Blue Dogs want Barack Obama to succeed, but many would prefer that he do so without their own votes.
This last factor helps explain why, in addition to the important timing concessions, the Blue Dogs have reached an agreement with Henry Waxman that will allow health care reform to emerge from the House, but probably with only enough Blue Dog votes to avoid disaster. It remains to be seen how many of the conceded and ultimately insignificant “no” votes from Democrats can be sorted into the principled, the suborned, or the politically endangered. In any event, the Blue Dog bark may be worse than its bite.

Making the Case on Health Care Reform

Just over a month ago we featured a Democracy Corps analysis from TDS Co-Editor Stan Greenberg, James Carville and Andrew Baumann about the case that needed to be made to create a “sustainable majority” for health care reform.
To recapitulate, DCorps set up five criteria for winning the “health care swing vote:”
1. Voters need to hear clearly what changes health care reform will bring.
2. Build a narrative around taking power away from the insurance companies and giving it to people.
3. The president and reform advocates have to explain concretely the changes that will mean lower costs.
4. Show all voters and seniors that there are benefits for them, including prescription drugs.
5. All of these points should be made with the dominant framework that continuing the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.
Today Nate Silver of 538.com used these five criteriato grade the Democratic reform effort so far.
You don’t have to share his harsh assessment–and it is harsh–to agree the public case for health care reform has yet to be made.