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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: May 2011

TDS Strategy Memo:Why can’t the Dems make jobs a winning political issue? It seems like it should be a “slam dunk” but it’s not. Here’s why

One of the most exasperating Democratic failures of the last two years has been the Dems inability to turn high unemployment into a winning political issue. To many progressive Democrats the failure seems literally incomprehensible. After all, millions of Americans are deeply and painfully affected by job losses and opinion polls show with absolute consistency that voters strongly accord “creating jobs” a higher priority than deficit reduction. This holds true across an extraordinarily wide variety of different polls and question wordings.
Given these two facts, many progressives conclude that the only plausible explanation for the Dems failure is their timidity and fear of challenging conservative myths with sufficient boldness. Had Democratic candidates and officeholders displayed sufficient passion and commitment on this issue — and championed genuinely aggressive action to create jobs — many progressives and grass-roots Dems argue that they would surely have been able to mobilize the huge latent well of support that the opinion data shows must exist within the electorate.
It is easy to sympathize with the intense frustration that motivates these views but the reasons why Dems have had less success with the jobs issue than seems warranted are more complex than simply a lack of sufficient passion or commitment. It’s important to understand these deeper causes because they suggest more effective strategies for the future.
Why the opinion poll data is less clear-cut than it appears.
The key problem that must be recognized is that the apparently unambiguous support opinion polls suggest for creating jobs is actually extremely misleading. While creating jobs is indeed consistently given a higher priority than reducing deficits, how this particular fact fits into the larger pattern of public attitudes is far from obvious.
As Democratic pollster guy Mark Melman notes:

It is in the connection [of deficit reduction] to job creation that Democrats misunderstand the tenor of public opinion. Economists, Keynesian and otherwise, along with Democrats, mostly recognize that federal spending creates jobs. Not so voters, at least many of them.
In (a recent) Bloomberg poll, by a nine-point margin, Americans said the better way for the government to create jobs was to cut spending, while smaller numbers opted for “invest[ing] in projects such as high-speed rail, expanding access to broadband Internet,” etc. Indeed, several polls suggest that voters judge cutting federal spending to be the single most effective step government can take to create jobs.
So when Democrats argue that the GOP is focused on spending cuts at the expense of job creation, most Americans shake their heads in disbelief, seeing those cuts as exactly the kind of “stimulus” we need.

For most progressives, who generally have at least a nodding acquaintance with the basic ideas of John Maynard Keynes, it seems almost impossible to believe that substantial numbers of voters can seriously accept this genuinely wacky notion. It appears simply irrational. But when one listens to enough focus groups and other real-world discussions it becomes clear that this view is indeed incredibly pervasive. People will frequently say that “Only private business creates “real” jobs. Government just takes money away from the private sector and transfers it to government bureaucrats and lazy civil servants”. The fact that this view is objectively false does not make it any less common or deeply held.
Another leading Democratic pollster, Guy Molyneaux, seconds Melman’s point:

The public-opinion data on this point, unfortunately, is unambiguous…To be sure, voters do still put jobs and the economy ahead of the deficit in a head-to-head contest of their leading concerns. However, such poll questions assume a choice — reduce the deficit or improve the economy — which voters do not actually perceive. Instead, the public believes deficit reduction is an important step for growing the economy. Indeed, other polling Hart Research conducted in February showed that by a margin of 50 percent to 40 percent, voters believe that reducing the deficit and cutting government spending is a better way to improve the economy than investing in America’s infrastructure, education, renewable energy, and new technology.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Public Good

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
On a slow Friday afternoon, I settled in to read two lengthy reports–one from the West Virginia Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel on the Upper Big Branch/Massey Energy explosion that killed 29 miners, the other from the Urban Land Institute on the slow-motion crisis in U.S. infrastructure. On the surface, these reports seemed to have nothing in common. But as I plowed through them, I realized that they were addressing two sides of the same question–namely, what government does that nothing else can or will. We need government to prevent private bads, such as corporate greed that gives short shrift to mine safety, and also to provide public goods, such as infrastructure, that the market, left to its own devices, will always undersupply.

The Upper Big Branch report
makes for chilling reading. Massey Energy’s management systematically ignored basic safety practices and impeded regulators’ efforts to correct them. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration failed to use the tough enforcement tools in its arsenal, even after more moderate measures had failed to turn things around. And not only was the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training understaffed and outgunned, but also it faced what the report bluntly calls the “politics of the state of West Virginia.” Here’s how the report ends:

Many systems created to safeguard miners had to break down in order for an explosion of this magnitude to occur. … Such total and catastrophic systemic failures can only be explained in the context of a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm. In such a culture it was acceptable to mine coal with insufficient air; with buildups of coal dust; with inadequate rock dust. The same culture allowed Massey Energy to use its resources to create a false public image …. And it became acceptable to cast agencies designed to protect miners as enemies and to make life difficult for miners who tried to address safety.

In an appendix, the report lists 18 individuals who responded to a state subpoena by invoking the Fifth Amendment and refusing to testify. They include Massey Energy’s former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, as well as its Chief Operating Officer, Vice President of Safety, and President of the Upper Big Branch mine. I don’t know how these people live with themselves. Keep this episode firmly in mind whenever you hear conservatives’ ritual denunciation of “burdensome, job-killing regulations.” Life-saving would be more like it.
Although the temperature of the Urban Land Institute’s infrastructure report is considerably lower, its story is no less compelling. It inventories the vigorous efforts our competitors–established as well as emerging economic powers–are making to upgrade their energy, transportation, information, water, and waste facilities. And it contrasts them with the decades of virtually unbroken decline in the share of our GDP that we devote to these purposes. In 2007, inflation-adjusted federal infrastructure spending was no higher than it had been more than a quarter of a century earlier, in 1981. This investment deficit concerns more than convenience and aesthetics, the report argues; it affects, as well, our long-term commercial productivity and national competitiveness. And there’s no possibility that the private sector alone can take up the slack, because not all potential economic gains from infrastructure investments enter into the calculus of individual private actors.
Not only must the public sector do more; it must act differently. At the federal level, says the report, funding should be allocated in a way that ensures support over extended project time horizons. For their part, states and localities will have to expand and diversify their funding sources. And despite the near-certainly that I’ll be accused yet again of laughable monomania, I’ll quote a key sentence from the report: “At a time when funding is scarce, establishing a U.S. infrastructure bank seems like a no-brainer.” It sure does.
So–to repeat–those of us who reject conservative assaults on government do so for forward-looking, practical reasons, not out of obsolete ideological commitments. We believe that without appropriate government activity, our country will be less efficient and productive as well as less secure and humane. That doesn’t mean that we should resist all proposed reforms, even when they involve long-cherished programs. But we must defend the need for government, staunchly and unapologetically, against the narrow and blinkered attacks that have come to dominate our public discourse.

The Ultimate Proof That Early National Primary Polls Don’t Matter

So you’ve probably heard any number of analysts say that you must take early national polls of presidential nominating contests with a shaker of salt. They mainly measure name ID, and in any event, we don’t have a national primary, so who cares about the early preferences of people in high population states that don’t hold primaries until the field has already been culled or the contest decided?
But the ultimate proof of the limits of such polls is the new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey that shows Rudy Giuliani leading the 2012 field. Yes, Rudy Giuliani, who regularly led the early 2008 polls before (predictably) crashing and burning in the early states. Rudy’s done nothing much since 2008 other than make money, so it’s reasonably clear there’s not some news-driven surge of retroactive appreciation for the man, particularly among the totally dominant conservative wing of the GOP that would never in a million years accept a pro-choice presidential nominee.
The fact that Rudy would lead any 2012 poll, though, even for a moment, is indeed a pretty good sign of how wide-open the race is at this point. His fans should not get carried away and deduce he should actually run again, unless they think everyone else will drop out.

Memorial Day

I don’t know if you are attending any special Memorial Days events, but just wanted to wish everyone the chance to spend at least a few minutes today thinking about the supreme sacrifices made by so many–usually very young people who haven’t tasted a whole lot of life–in defense of our country. And since they don’t get their own day, it’s not a bad time to express a thought or prayer for non-combatants killed in war, or those losing loved ones.

Buyers’ Remorse Summary

You may be aware that Public Policy Polling has been occasionally conducting “do-over” polls–surveys to see if voters would confirm or reverse the results of recent elections–of key states this year. At HuffPost Pollster, Margie Omero has a useful summary of PPP’s findings in eight states, at least seven of them considered “battleground” states–where Republicans won governorships in 2010.
Nevada’s Brian Sandoval would do about the same in a “do-over” contest with Rory Reid. But that’s the exception to the rule: in the other seven states (FL, GA, IA, MI, OH, PA, WI), 2010 Republican wins would turn into losses today.
The most dramatic swings have been in Ohio, where John Kasich’s 2-point win over Ted Strickland would be a 25-point deficit today; and in Florida, where Rick Scott’s very narrow victory over Alex Sink would be a gully-washer of a landslide loss today, by nineteen points.
As Romero notes:

Beneath the surface, these Republicans are losing ground with independents. Nationally in 2010, independents gave Republicans a +19 advantage. In the five states above for which we have exit poll data (FL, IA, OH, PA, WI), the Republican won among independents. Yet in six of these eight re-do polls, independents now say they would vote for the Democrat.

In separate news from PPP, Barack Obama leads virtually all comers in polling from 6 of the 9 “swing states” that went for Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008.

GOP Immigration Policy = Labor Shortages + Rotting Crops

Georgia is often classified with the reddest of states, not without some reason, even though a third of the voters are people of color. But the new Republican Governor Nathan Deal has just signed into law a bill which could push some white rural voters, thoughtful farmers in particular, into the Democratic column.
The reason is nicely encapsulated in the title of Jeremy Redmon’s Atlanta Constitution article “Farmers Tie Labor Shortage to State’s New Immigration Law, Ask for Help,” which explains:

This month, Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 87 into law. Among other things, the law punishes people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants here. It also authorizes police to investigate the immigration status of suspects they believe have committed state or federal crimes and who cannot produce identification, such as a driver’s license, or provide other information that could help police identify them.
Georgia’s agricultural industry — the largest in the state — vigorously opposed HB 87 in the Legislature, arguing it could scare away migrant workers and damage the state’s economy

The consequences thus far, are less than impressive, according to Redmon:

Migrant farmworkers are bypassing Georgia because of the state’s tough new immigration enforcement law, creating a severe labor shortage among fruit and vegetable growers here and potentially putting hundreds of millions of dollars in crops in jeopardy, agricultural industry leaders said this week.
…Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said he has been in close contact with Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black about the shortage, calling it the most severe he has seen. Hall said it’s possible state officials could hold job fairs to steer some of Georgia’s unemployed workers to these farm jobs, which pay $12.50 an hour on average. The state’s unemployment rate is now at 9.9 percent.
Farmers, however, say they often have little luck recruiting Georgia residents to work in their fields because it is temporary, hot and physically demanding. To recruit more workers, some farmers are offering signing bonuses, Hall said.
The law doesn’t take effect until July 1 but is already making migrant Hispanic farmworkers skittish, said Dick Minor, a partner with Minor Brothers Farm in Leslie in southwest Georgia who says he is missing about 50 of his workers now, threatening as much as a third of his crops.
Some farmers who work in Georgia’s $1.1 billion fruit and vegetable industry are now reporting they have only two-thirds or half the workers they need now and for the weeks of harvesting to come, Hall said. Farmers said the full extent of the shortages won’t be known until the coming weeks as they harvest their remaining crops, including watermelons and sweet corn. Hall estimated such shortages could put as much as $300 million in crops at risk this year.

Georgia’s pain may translate into Florida’s gain, reports Redmon:

Manuel De La Rosa, who recruits workers for Minor’s farm, confirmed many migrant workers are skipping Georgia for other states, including Florida. He said these workers became afraid after they heard Hispanic television news programs comparing Georgia’s new law to a stringent one Arizona enacted last year.
“Some of the people who were coming over here to [pick] cucumbers said: ‘No. They are going to catch us. They are going to put us in jail,’ ” said De La Rosa, a U.S. citizen. “Some of them were going to try another state where they have not passed this law yet.”

While white southern voters have often displayed a singular genius for voting against their own economic interests, the sheer idiocy of Republican immigration “reform” in Georgia and other states should give rural Georgians pause the next time some Republican leader prattles on about GOP pro-business creds. Redmon adds:

Meanwhile, the state’s Republican labor and agricultural commissioners are discussing issuing a joint statement in the coming days about what they intend to do about the labor shortage, a Labor Department spokesman confirmed Thursday.

No doubt Georgians await the next edition of GOP business acumen with baited breath, while state consumers may not be too thrilled with expected price hikes at the supermarket, courtesy of the Republican Governor and legislators. Here’s hoping Georgia Dems call them out.

Bad Day For Bachmann

Campaigns have good days and bad days, but it’s rare to have as bad a single day as Rep. Michele Bachmann suffered through yesterday.
For breakfast, Sarah Palin’s PAC announced the soon-to-be-former-Alaskan was making an appearance at the annual Rolling Thunder biker event in Washington on Memorial Day, and then launching a national bus tour. This came on the heels of the disclosure that Palin had commissioned a movie about herself that will debut in Iowa next month and then be shown in other early caucus and primary states.
No one knows if Palin is doing anything other than keeping her name in the news and reminding Republicans she could change the dynamics of the race if she chose to (though Slate‘s Noreen Malone’s Wasilla-or-the-White-House meter measuring the odds of a Palin campaign has leapt up to 75). If she does run, though, it’s hard to see Bachmann staying in as a serious candidate. Yes, as I’ve said before, Bachmann is sort of an improved version of Palin–more intensely serious, more experienced, more devoted to her day-job, and more deeply rooted in both the Christian Right and the Tea Party movement. But there’s no way she can compete with Palin’s celebrity status, even in her native Iowa. And their constituencies are just too similar.
Speaking of Iowa, Bachmann topped off her bad day with a no-show at a pretty big Iowa event: a fundraiser for the Polk County (Des Moines) Republican Party. Yes, she had a good excuse for a last-minute cancellation–votes in the House–but per The Iowa Republican‘s Craig Robinson, everything about the way she handled it was a “debacle”:

The scheduling conflict arose because of a House vote on extending the Patriot Act. Backup plans were made for her to use a private jet. In the end, nothing worked and Bachmann was unable to make it. Instead, she appeared on choppy and blurry Skype-style video. Local Republicans were extremely displeased.
“It’s awful,” said activist Becky Irvin. “She just shot herself in the foot. She dissed Iowa. You don’t diss Iowa….”
[A]round 40 people who made reservations no-showed the event. Making matters worse, Bachmann’s political organization reserved three tables for the event, at a cost of $750 per table. However, no one paid for those tickets and at least one of those tables remained completely empty. The Polk County GOP had to pay for several dinners for Bachmann’s people that were never eaten.
The Minnesota congresswoman’s speech-by-video only made matters worse. Bachmann made the mistake of name-dropping Donald Trump during her talk. “Donald Trump was right, we are getting our tail kicked by China,” she said. Last week, Trump cancelled his scheduled appearance at a Republican Party of Iowa fundraiser. Bachmann was clearly ignorant or tone deaf to that controversy.

“You don’t diss Iowa”. You’d guess Waterloo native Bachmann would know that. But on what is likely the very eve of her planned official announcement as a candidate, she’s got a lot to distract her right now: First, Herman Cain becoming a media phenomenon and grassroots favorite, and now, Palin potentially on the way into the race.

DCorps: New York’s 26th Not Alone — Alert Based on New National Survey

Republican leaders and conservative pundits have spun Democrat Kathy Hochul’s upset win in New York’s 26th Congressional District as exceptional – with peculiar ballot lines, Tea Party independents, quality of the candidates, and Democratic message discipline. We concede: yard signs in Upstate New York did read “Save Medicare: Vote Hochul.” But our national poll completed on Wednesday shows that New York’s 26th is not alone. It is an advance indicator of a sharp pull back from Republicans, particularly those in the House.
Disapproval of the Republicans in the House of Representatives has surged from 46 percent in February to 55 percent in April to a striking 59 percent now. Disapproval outnumbers approval two-to-one; intense disapproval by three-to-one. For the first time in more than a year, the Democrats are clearly even in the named Congressional ballot – an 8-point swing from the election – and Obama has made a marked gain in his job approval and vote against Mitt Romney – with the President now leading by 4 points. This period captured the introduction of the Republican budget plan and vote by the House – and voters do not like what they see.
Perhaps most notably, this survey flags a major retreat from the Republican approach to deficits and spending, the economy, and jobs. As the Republicans have unveiled their plans and approach during this four-month debate on the deficit, priorities and the economy, they have pushed many voters away.
On Wednesday, Democracy Corps will release a major multi-study report on the economy and economic messaging, but we wanted to release these political findings before the holiday weekend.
The memo and frequency questionnaire can be found at Democracy Corps.

Rome and Rand

One of the more interesting back-stage brouhahas of recent weeks has been the effort of Rep. Paul Ryan and his Capitol Hill fans to use a pleasant letter from New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to indicate church support for, or at least neutrality towards, his increasingly infamous budget proposal.
At TNR, Michael Sean Winters provides the essential background to the exchange of letters between Dolan and Ryan. He describes Dolan’s letter not as any sort of endorsement of Ryan’s budget, but as a diplomatic effort to find something positive to say about a document squarely at odds with Church teachings, as part of a characteristic Dolan strategy of non-confrontation.
In the end, Winters predicts, the conflict between the neo-Randian principles of Ryan and centuries of Catholic teaching about the poor just cannot be papered over. It’s that fundamental:

The Catholic Church, with its vast array of hospitals, shelters, and schools, knows firsthand how nutritional and educational and health programs really do make a difference in the lives of the poor. Most importantly, at the heart of the Church is a gospel that instructs the faithful to care for “the least of these” and sets such care as the price of admission to sanctity and to heaven. No matter how Paul Ryan tries to convince himself that Rome and Rand can be reconciled, they can’t. Ayn Rand despised the poor. The Church is called to treasure them.

Let’s Compromise: Do It Our Way!

One of the classic Beltway memes is that both major parties are equally responsible for lack of progress towards getting federal spending under control. A classic of the genre is a new op-ed by “reasonable” and “responsible” Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who was a member of the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission last year, and until recently a member of the senatorial “Gang of Six” that many deficit hawks have considered the best avenue for a bipartisan breakthrough.
Here’s all you really need to read of Coburn’s manifesto:

The solution is obvious. Democrats have to accept the reality that structural entitlement reform is necessary. Republicans have to accept the reality that in order to get Democrats to make those changes we will have to agree to tax reform that will increase revenue but not rates. This solution isn’t a betrayal of either party’s values, but a defense of those values on behalf of future generations. Again, doing nothing would be the real act of betrayal that would lead to both higher taxes and the demise of entitlement programs for the poor and elderly.

You will notice right away several oddities about this “obvious” and high-minded solution. There’s no mention of defense spending (to be fair, Coburn himself has in the past suggested that Pentagon spending should not be “off the table,” but that still violates GOP orthodoxy, as reflected in the kid glove treatment defense spending receives in both of the supposedly tight-fisted budget resolutions, Paul Ryan’s and Pat Toomey’s). And there’s certainly no admission that maybe “structural” reforms in defense spending might be under consideration.
Speaking of the word “structural,” use of that modifier to talk about entitlement programs presumably suggests the kind of radical approaches Ryan has talked about: changing Social Security and Medicare from defined benefit to defined contributions progams, for example. You wouldn’t know from reading this that the biggest impetus to increased Medicare spending is a health care cost spiral that the Affordable Care Act, opposed by all Republicans, took the first major steps to address.
And finally, there’s Coburn’s strange treatment of revenues, in which tax rate increases are assumed to violate GOP values but perpetuation of existing rates–due, of course, to expire, which means keeping them will boost the budget deficit even more–somehow do not violate Democratic values, even though most Democrats opposed the Bush cuts initially and have been promising to reverse them ever since.
Even if you put aside such highly germane issues as responsibility for past, present and future deficits, and how different deficit reduction strategies affect a fragile economy characterized by deep and growing inequality, it’s clear that Coburn’s come-let-us-compromise plea is extremely unbalanced. So Beltway pundits should not get too carried away with congratulating him for his courage and generosity.