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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Scapegoating the Staff

As I used to hear old people say years ago: “You just can’t get good help these days.” That seems to be the refrain of the Republican Party this week, what with a $338 billion omnibus bill crashing and burning, and with intelligence reform legislation being stalled yet again–and unidentified low-level staffers appearing to take the blame in both cases.
After an elaborate game of hot potato in which House and Senate GOP leaders, Rep. Ernest Istook and the IRS took turns pointing fingers and denying responsibility, everybody seems to have agreed to blame House appropriations committee staffers for the language authorizing access to taxpayers’ returns that derailed the omnibus bill until December. According to CNN, “Senate GOP leader Bill Frist said Sunday that ‘accountability will be carried out’ against whoever slipped in the provision.” Guess somebody will be leaving the Emerald City posthaste and going back to toil in Daddy’s law firm.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indignantly denied widespread reports that he had lobbied against intelligence reform. This leaves reform-smashers James Sensenbrenner and Duncan Hunter, who made it clear they were acting to protect DoD’s turf in this matter, looking kind of exposed, at least until such time as Rumsfeld and the White House figure out which low-level staffers at the Pentagon can be blamed for this perfidious disloyalty to the President’s position.
Ah, the staff makes such good scapegoats, and opportunities like these give politicians an excellent opportunity to vent their underlying irritation at having to rely on whippersnappers whom they suspect of forgetting Who’s the Boss.
Back when I worked in state government, every time the National Governors’ Association met they would hold Governors-only sessions where staffers were strictly banned. I once asked one of my bosses what they talked about in these sessions, and he looked me in the eye and said: “We sit around and complain about our staffs.”


Bad Behavior

When you’re down south, you can’t twirl the radio dial without running across sports talk, so I’ve been listening to endless discussions of the Big Brawl in Detroit last Friday night. Some gabbers think Ron Artest got a raw deal, losing roughly a million dollars per punch for his foray into the stands after those beer-and-popcorn hurling Pistons fans. Others think he should be strung up by sundown.
I couldn’t help but think about extending the civility rules from basketball to politics. What if Tom DeLay was subject to a suspension-without-pay for his next ethics violation? I know House Members don’t get paid as well as NBA stars, but maybe DeLay could pony up some cash from one of his political action committees when he goes into the stands back home in Texas and roughs up some innocent Democrat, eh?
Some kinds of poor political sportsmanship, however, deserve a penalty that goes beyond the deepest wallet. I don’t know about you, but I’d love to toss a beer right now at the Honorable James Sensennbrenner of Wisconsin, or the Honorable Duncan Hunter of California, the two solons who are risking all our lives by gumming up bipartisan intelligence reform legislation in Congress over a stupid turf fight with the Senate and the White House. (A note to any zealous law enforcement agents who may be reading: this is a fantasy, not a terroristic threat).
Right now the only person in a position to punish these guys for their bad behavior is the President of the United States, who in a statement from Chile, allowed as how he’d like to get things worked out when he gets home (assuming he doesn’t have one of those Crawford vacations previously scheduled). This is one time I truly wish Bush was the swaggering cowboy his publicists claim he is, and that he’d hogtie these boys and drag them to the House floor to do their jobs for the American people.


Profiles in Hubris

I’m down in Georgia for an extended Thanksgiving holiday with family, so the shenanigans in Washington seem a little remote. But when the wind blows south, I can catch a distinct whiff of Republican hubris, which smells like brimstone inadequately covered by overpriced perfume.
Last week we all gazed in awe at the House GOP’s passage of the DeLay Rule, which proffered the unprecedented idea that Republicans in Washington had the power to decide which state legal proceedings were legitimate or not.
This was followed by the passage of one of those obnoxious omnibus appropriations bills that treat all investments of taxpayers’ dollars as pretty much identical knots on rolling logs. There’s no telling how many legislative stinkbombs were included in this unread and undebated mess of a bill, though thanks to vigilant Democratic staffers and Josh Marshall, we do know about a provision sponsored by the reliably scary Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK), which would allow the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees access to anybody’s federal tax returns.
And for dessert, House Republicans decided to block action on a desperately needed intelligence reform bill, loosely modeled on the 9/11 commission recommendations, because they wanted to protect the turf of the massive, shadowy, and unaccountable proliferation of intelligence operations being run out of the Pentagon.
But the supreme act of hubris is now under consideration by Republican Senators: the first modification of filibuster rules in 20 years, and the most significant enhancement of raw majority power in the Senate since 1917. Republicans, of course, had no problem with filibusters, and often used them, until the moment when (1) they gained control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, and (b) their top priority became stocking the federal judiciary with conservative judges requiring Senate confirmation.
There are hundreds of legitimate arguments for and against the Senate tradition of unlimited debate, and the limited but real power of the minority to slow down legislation and force compromise through actual or threatened filibusters. But there’s no question that the power of a party controlling both executive and legislative branches to control another branch for decades through a host of lifetime appointments to the federal bench is one of those contingencies that make filibusters respectable. And the willingness of today’s Republicans to throw out more than two centuries of precedent, and subject the Senate to raw majority power like the House, makes you wonder how they can continue to call themselves “conservative.”


The Christian Right and the Sanctity of Marriage

As we all know, the Christian Right has now made defense of the institution of marriage, as defined as a union of a man and woman, not only its top political priority, but the very touchstone of Christian moral responsibility.
I’ve always found this rather ironic, since the Protestant Reformation, to which most Christian Right leaders continue to swear fealty, made one of its own touchstones the derogation of marriage as a purely religious, as opposed to civic, obligation. Virtually all of the leaders of the Reformation denounced the idea of marriage as a scripturally-sanctioned church sacrament, holding that baptism and the Eucharist were the only valid sacraments. Luther called marriage “a secular and outward thing,”which he did not mean as a compliment. Calvin treated marriage as a “union of pious persons,” and while he did consider marriage a “covenant,” he used the same term for virtually every significant human relationship.
More tellingly, throughout Protestant Europe, from the earliest days, one of the most common “reforms” was the liberalization of divorce laws. And even today, in America, conservative Protestants have the highest divorce rates of any faith community, or un-faith community.
My point is not to accuse today’s conservative Christians of hypocrisy, though there’s room for that; it’s that the Christian Right has made a habit of confusing secular cultural conservatism–the simple and understandable impulse to resist unsettling change–with fidelity to their own religious traditions. “Defending marriage” is far down the list of concerns, historically, of the Reformation tradition, and indeed, that tradition has done far more to loosen the bonds of matrimony, for good or for ill, and to “de-sanctify” the institution, than all the gays and lesbians who have ever lived.


Crawl Before You Walk

Those of you watching this story probably know that Arlen Specter seems to have passed whatever hellish test his Senate GOP colleagues laid out for him before letting the Pennsylvanian ascend to the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. There’s no way of knowing what abject acts of submission he had to perform to achieve this “victory,” but his public statement’s pretty sweeping. There are a goodly number of words in this statement, but they all add up to a public promise that Specter will do absolutely nothing to annoy or inconvenience the administration or the Republican Right on any subject whatsoever, whether it’s judges or constitutional amendments or tort reform.
Specter said one particular thing that will seem especially perverse to anyone to the left of Jimmy Dean Sausage: “I have long objected to the tactic used in bottling up civil rights legislation in the Judiciary Committee when it should have gone to the floor for an up-or-down vote. Accordingly I would not support committee action to bottle up legislation or a constitutional amendment, even one which I personally opposed, reserving my own position for the floor.”
What he’s talking about, of course, is a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. It’s just wonderful of him to analogize a constitutional amendment denying Americans rights to “civil rights legislation.”
Let’s all hope Specter really enjoys that chairmanship, now that he’s stripped it of much of anything meaningful other than preserving the pleasure of browbeating witnesses hostile to the will of his new masters.


Respect Does Not Mean Submission

In the debate among Democrats about how to overcome conservative-bred stereotypes of us as cultural nihilists, there’s a persistantly false idea circulating that we have to choose between a “moving to the right” on hot-button cultural issues or just accepting that the hostility of culturally conservative people is the price we pay for doing the right thing. If this truly were the only choice, you could mark me down for the “hang tough and take the heat” position. But it’s not the only choice, as I have explained at redundant length in this blog every other day since November 2.
Some of the people pushing this false choice are Democrats who (1) don’t understand there are people with cultural concerns about the direction of the country who aren’t devotees of the theocratic Christian Right; (2) don’t really care what “those people” think of us, or (3) persist in the failed strategy of treating cultural issues as phony and changing the subject to more material matters.
But the “move right or move on” choice is also being pushed by those on the Right who have their own reasons for pretending they speak for many millions of people who’ve never heard of James Dobson and would be horrified by the idea of a theocracy. The New Republic’s Peter Beinart does a brilliant job in an online piece today in dissecting the Christian Right’s claims that respecting their religion means submitting to their point of view. Indeed, he accurately accuses them of the same type of “identity politics” and “political correctness” that the Right has long attacked among those on the Left who argue that respecting who they are means suspending any criticism of what they want to do.
Here’s a sample:
“It’s fine if religion influences your moral values. But when you make public arguments, you have to ground them–as much as possible–in reason and evidence, things that are accessible to people of different religions, or no religion at all. Otherwise, you can’t persuade other people, and they can’t persuade you…. [Harsh] cricitism is not disrespect–and to claim it is undermines democratic debate.”
I’ll go Beinart one better: the Christian Right’s effort to make “respect” equal “agreement” is even more deeply disrespectful to people who actually share their religion. I’m a Protestant Christian myself, and read the same Bible that James Dobson reads, and I see no evidence at all that the message (much less the primary message) of Scripture to the faithful of this time is to outlaw abortion and stigmatize gay people. So it really offends me to be told I’m an “anti-Christian bigot” for disagreeing with the Christian Right on such subjects.
It behooves Democrats to challenge Christian conservatives for playing identity politics and refusing to engage in civil discourse about the intersection of faith and policy, and to challenge themselves to reject the false choice of disrespect or submission.


Zell No

Attentive Hotline readers today might have noticed a little item reporting that Bill Shipp of the Athens Banner-Herald had urged Georgia Democrats to make Zell Miller their next chairman.
I had to go check this out. Shipp is generally known as the “dean of Georgia political journalists,” primarily because his byline has been appearing somewhere since approximately midway through the Spanish-American war. But he’s no wingnut, by any measure.
Turns out Shipp was joking, though you had to get to the end of his column to figure that out:
“As chairman, Miller would help mount a Democratic-sponsored initiative for a constitutional amendment requiring the teaching of creationism in all Georgia schools. Such a measure could do for Democrats what stopping gay nuptials have done for the GOP. Besides, young people everywhere would love Miller. The creationists’ dramatic story line on how we got here is much more gripping than the dull and arcane text of Charles Darwin, an elitist snob still revered by Harvard liberals.”
A real knee-slapper, eh? But I’m glad no one really seems to be taking Zell up on his offer to rebuild the Democratic Party on the solid foundation of total surrender to the Republican Right. Georgia Dems have had a pretty bad century so far (though they did knock off one of the two Republican House incumbents to lose this year), but you don’t recover from a knifing by hiring one of the perpetrators as your surgeon.
POSTSCRIPT: Registering on the Banner-Herald site brought back fond memories of my years in Athens, when this paper–universally called the “Banana-Herald”–vied for the honor of being the worst newspaper in Christendom. Their site today doesn’t look at all bad, but they had a lot of room for improvement. Once they ran a front-page photo of newly elected Roman Pontiff John Paul II over the caption: “John Paul II–the first non-Catholic Pope.”


What’s A Little Indictment Among Friends?

Well, they went ahead and did it: House Republicans voted today to repeal their 1993 caucus rule requiring leadership figures to step aside temporarily if indicted for a felony involving a potential sentence of two or more years. The step was taken in anticipation that House GOP Whip Tom (The Hammer) DeLay might be about to hear from a grand jury in Austin, Texas, in reference to a DeLay-related shakedown effort to (1) get corporate money to (2) elect enough Republican legislators to (3) re-redistrict Texas House seats to (4) further entrench DeLay and his colleagues in control of the House.
This vote protects DeLay’s power against an indictment, but if he is indicted, he’ll have to stand trial, unless he pulls an Adam Clayton Powell and just stays the hell away from his home state for the foreseeable future. And if he’s convicted, nothing short of a get-out-of-jail-free card from his buddy the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, could keep him hammerin’ away in DC. But at this point, friends and neighbors, I wouldn’t put much of anything past these guys. They are truly out of control and drunk on power, apparently believing they have a mandate to do whatever they want.
I can’t add much in vitriol to what the DLC said today in the New Dem Daily, or what my colleague The Moose, who knows these guys like St. Augustine knew the Manichees, said as well.
In my experience, the two sins the Good Lord tends to punish most rapidly are self-righteousness and hypocrisy. When you’ve got both, from the party that styles itself as the guardians of moral values and godliness, I think we’ll see some thunderbolts pretty soon.


Another Cross to Bear for Santorum

Even as he struggles to convince his fellow conservatives that his PA colleague, Arlen Specter, is, so to speak, kosher as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman at a time when the Right is eagerly looking forward to a raft of lifetime appointment to the federal bench for True Believers, Sen. Rick Santorum is in a bit of trouble on the home front.
As AP reporter Jennifer Yates explains, the Penn Hills school district in suburban Pittsburgh is investigating complaints that taxpayers have spent about $100,000 providing Santorum’s children with internet-based educational services even though the family actually lives in Virginia.
The Santorum kids are benefitting from a “cyber-charter” law in PA that allows frequently travelling famlies to avail themsleves of distance learning opportunities at public expense. But the question is whether the Santorums are “residents” of Penn Hills in any meaningful way. They own a modest house in the school district, but don’t appear to have lived there, preferring a much posher residence in tony, horsy Leesburg, VA.
I do not believe in visiting the sins of the father on his children, and wouldn’t for a moment try to interpose political objections at the expense of the education of the Santorum clan; maybe the kids will become Democrats with enough schooling. But the junior Senator from Pennsylvania really does need to figure out, like every other Member of Congress, where he lives. I know it’s vitally important to him to become a Big-Time Washington Player, and he is said to look in the mirror and see a future President of the United States. But for this apostle of “family values,” family values ought to trump ambition. If he cannot bring himself to live in Pennsylvania (some Members of Congress actually sleep in their offices Tuesday through Thursday, and spend most of their time back home), then he should make it clear he lives elsewhere and act accordingly. The public schools in Leesburg are pretty good, and there are a variety of fine private and parochial schools in the vicinity as well.
And moreover, as a fervent supporter of charter public schools, it honks me off that Santorum is doing his own part to undermine the credibility of his own state’s charter laws. Charter public schools are primarily intended to offer new choices and a better guarantee of achievement for disadvantaged kids being failed by traditional schools. Their purpose is not to give United States Senators the opportunity to pretend to live in their home states, and to educate their children in the wealthiest exurbs of The Imperial City, with the taxpayers of their abandoned domiciles footing the bill.


More About The Late Electoral Unpleasantness

While waiting breathlessly for the smoke from the Senate chimney signalling the outcome of Arlen Specter’s baptism of fire today, I caught up on some web reading, and ran across Noam Scheiber’s “&c” post about the comments that Ruy Teixeira and yours truly had made on Democracy Corps’ analysis of late-breaking voters.
Noam suggested that national security, not “culture issues” per se, were the key to Bush’s surprising success with late-deciding voters, but also argued (and I agree completely) that security and cultural concerns tend to merge. Indeed, I would submit that all the issues that hurt Kerry and that have so persistently hurt Democrats–security, “culture,” and the role of government–are “trust” issues on which our candidates have too often failed the credibility test and exposed themselves to GOP attacks on “elitist, soft-on-defense, big-government liberals.”
But let’s dig a little deeper here. DCorps suggested that seniors were especially disappointing for Democrats on November 2. And there’s no disputing the numbers: Kerry lost over-60 voters by 8 points, a 12-point negative swing from both Gore’s performance in 2000 and Clinton’s in 1996. That’s amazing, when you think about what the Kerry campaign was about during the last phase of the campaign: Iraq, Rx drugs, and Don’t Touch Social Security.
Seniors were famously the age cohort least likely to support the invasion of Iraq, from the very beginning. They were also unhappy with the administration-supported Rx drug benefit. And they are supposed to vibrate like tuning forks at any suggestion of changes in Social Security.
Maybe the results indicate that cultural issues were more important to seniors than Noam thinks. Maybe it means that they thought that trusting Bush on the war on terror trumped their concerns about his Iraq policies. But it almost certainly means that years and years of Democratic efforts to target seniors with a negative message about evil GOP designs on Medicare and Social Security aren’t getting us anywhere. Hell, that’s just about all Democratic congressional candidates in 2002 ever talked about. And whether or not you agree with DCorps’ apparent belief that Kerry didn’t focus enough on domestic issues in the home stretch, he sure focused on those domestic issues thought to work magic with seniors.
I know this is a radical thought, but maybe Democrats should focus on developing a broad, national message for change on all the challenges facing the country, since our “targeted” messages, some of which violently oppose “change,” don’t seem to be succeeding very well. I know for an absolute fact that John Kerry’s campaign considered that option, but his pollsters and consultants hooted it down. This is not a “recrimination,” but simply an observation about a long-standing way of thinking among Democrats that is not standing up well to the test of time after time.