washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Message Indiscipline on Iraq

Unless you did a lot of channel-surfing earlier today, you might have missed the overall story of four Republican Senators dissenting from the administration’s happy-talk about how we are doing in Iraq. The New York Times summed it up:

Reflecting rising concerns, one senior Republican senator said today that the United States was in “deep trouble” in Iraq, another denounced administration “incompetence” in Iraqi reconstruction, while two others said that unless American-led forces quickly retake several areas from insurgents, credible elections cannot be held in January.

The senators’ comments, made on televised political programs, underscored mounting worries even within President Bush’s party about the murderous attacks of recent weeks, and about the coalition’s failure to bring some Iraqi cities under control.

The comments of Senators Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina came as the interim Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, was telling a television interviewer that “we are winning” the fight against what he said were increasingly desperate insurgents.

You can certainly forgive Allawi for spinning the situation as positively as he possibly can, but Americans have the right, and the responsibility, to make an independent assessment of conditions on the ground. And it looks increasingly like the Bush administration is not going to be able to distract attention from those conditions between now and November 2.


Ends and Means

My post earlier today about Mitch McConnell and Rick Santorum, and the cash nexus that seems to link conservative ideology to partisan Republican power, probably requires an additonal comment.
When you look at guys like DeLay and Santorum, the charitable interpretation of their behavior is that they sincerely believe American politics is a battle between good and evil, civilization and barbarism, the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death, or the “real America” and the not-so American America, to cite several Manichean formulations common in conservative circles. That leads them to believe they are morally compelled to fight for partisan political power, and then to descend further down that slippery slope to the belief that practices clearly unethical in daily life are actually ethical in this titantic struggle. This is standard “ends justifies the means” reasoning, as any student of history can tell you.
But history also shows that in the van of every movement of political, religious, or cultural extremism, there are those who invert the equation, using the righteous ends to pursue the morally bankrupt means. The examples are far too numerous to list, but they range from the Spanish Catholics who used the Inquisition to dispossess their business rivals on trumped-up heresy charges to the English Protestants who exploited the Reformation’s horror of Masses for the Dead to seize monastic lands; from the U.S. carpetbaggers who joined the fight against the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan to obtain military backing for their own political and economic avarice, to the kleptocrats who used the communist ideology of equality to build a new privileged class of party bureaucrats throughout the Soviet Bloc. It goes on and on.
No, I’m not comparing Tom DeLay or Rick Santorum to any of these great villains of the past, and I’m fully aware that there are plenty of people in the Democratic Party who would behave the same way if given the opportunity. But the salient point is that any effort to make the “ends justify the means” tends to devolve into the means as an end in themselves, over and over again, thoughout human history. Principled conservatives need to ask themselves if their movement is currently endangered by this moral hazard, and police their ranks accordingly. A good start would be to stop applauding, and begin questioning, those political leaders most eager to justify the lowest tactics by the highest ideals.


W. Stands for “Weak”

Ever wonder why the president’s steely-eyed determination to pre-emptively attack challenges to America doesn’t extend to non-defense issues? Looks like Tony Blair has wondered that too, as reflected in a very clever speech on global climate change that uses the same calculus of risk applied to the decision to invade Iraq. He doesn’t mention Bush by name, but makes a pretty good indirect case that W. is a weasely, flip-flopping defeatist who’s made the U.S. the France of environmental policy. Today’s New Dem Daily connects the dots and draws the obvious conclusions.


Unmasked

Most pundits have given the GOP high marks for the “moderate makeover” (less charitable souls might call it a “con job”) it accomplished on the first couple of days of its convention in New York, featuring speeches by John McCain, Rudy Guiliani and Arnold Schwarzeneggar, three people who disagree with 80% of the conservative orthodoxy that governs today’s Republicans.
The underlying reality of today’s GOP is better illustrated by a (subscription only) Roll Call article on Wednesday about the early handicapping of the contest to succeed Bill Frist as Republican Senate Leader when he retires in 2006. The two front-runners are Mitch McConnell of KY, and Rick Santorum of PA, both of whom, as Roll Call says, “represent the conservative wing of the party.” That’s the understatement of the year.
But ideology aside, what really distinguishes these two solons is their dedication to the idea that money is the root of all good in politics. McConnell for many years has been the Darth Vader of campaign finance reform in the Senate, repeatedly claiming, without a hint of irony, that the problem with money in politics is that there ain’t enough of it. (I guess there is a rough logic to the idea that if, as the Supreme Court has ruled, Money Equals Speech, then Money Talks, and what’s wrong with a little more debate?).
Nationally, Santorum is best known as the hammerhead shark of Social Conservatism, ever ready to demonize those who defend the constitutional right to choose, and those who oppose a constitutional right to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But in Washington, Santorum is better known as the Chief Enforcer of the sinister K Street Strategy. That’s the GOP’s remarkably heavy-handed campaign to force Washington lobbying firms and trade associations to (a) tilt all campaign contributions to the GOP, and (b) hire only Republicans on their staffs, or lose all access to the drafting and crafting of legislation important to their industries. It’s the crassest pay-for-play gambit on Capitol Hill since the Gilded Age, but it’s given Santorum folk-hero status on the Right as Tom DeLay’s true peer in partisan and ideological thuggery.
Of course, Democrats could well take back control of the Senate this year (when McConnell’s up for re-election) and in 2006 (when Santorum’s up), which would seriously mess up the GOP effort to shake down K Street and consolidate its power over the federal government it claims to despise. Santorum has an especially tricky task ahead, since he has to go back to Pennsylvania and perform his own “moderate makeover” if he is to get himself into a position to cash in on the services he’s performed for the hard-core Right.
Ah, those flip-flopping Republicans! Fuzzy and moderate before close general elections, and then something entirely different when the cameras go off.


Barry’s Back Yet Again

If you, dear reader, are a resident of the Washington, DC, metro area, you probably don’t need me to get a fix on the news that former mayor Marion Barry has made yet another comeback by winning a seat on the DC Council. But for those of you who live elsewhere, and may have thought Barry’s show, and its various reruns, were canceled long ago, here’s an explanation:
1) Barry’s Ward: Barry won a surprisingly decisive, better-than-two-to-one victory over Ward 8 Council incumbent Sandy Allen, once his protege. But Ward 8, in southeast Washington, has long been Barry Country, and it probably will be as long as he lives. It’s the poorest part of the District, the most heavily African-American part of the District, and the Ward that has probably benefitted least from the economic development and real estate boom that has accompanied Anthony Williams’ tenure as mayor.
2) Class Warfare: The Ward 8 backlash against the DC status quo was echoed in Ward 7, also in southeast Washington, where another Council incumbent, Kevin Chavous, was soundly beaten. And because these were the only two Wards with competitive Council races, turnout patterns also doomed at-large Council incumbent Harold Brazil, another pro-Williams candidate. The basic argument of the challengers was that Williams and his allies have promoted downtown development at the expense of poorer neighborhoods, and more generally, that the large-scale gentrification of the city has done little for po’ folks other than raise their rents. This, of course, is a common political conflict in reviving urban cores all across the country, but it’s especially tense in DC, which has the largest income stratification of any major city.
3) The Demise of Chocolate City: There is also, of course, a racial element to the economic politics of DC. The white percentage of the District population has been steadily rising in recent years, partly the result of gentrification, and partly because of a major exodus of black middle-class families, mostly into the Maryland suburbs east of the city. A majority of the DC Council members are now white (all the losing incumbents and winning challengers in yesterday’s primary were African-Americans). One of the most enduring myths of DC folklore, going back for decades, has been “The Plan”–the idea, often alluded to publicly by Barry, that shadowy White Power Structure types were maneuvering to restore white leadership of DC government. Some local activists aren’t bashful at all about claiming that Anthony Williams’ tenure as mayor is the penultimate step towards fulfillment of The Plan.
4) What’s Next: The most immediate impact of yesterday’s DC primary could be, oddly enough, on baseball. Williams’ plan for public financing of a District stadium to lure relocation of the Montreal Expos–reportedly the strongest option available to major league baseball–was supported by all the losing incumbents, and opposed by all the winning challengers. Williams may still have the votes for his plan, but the bigger problem is that baseball is getting ensnared in the broader economic and racial politics of the District.
In the longer run, there’s now lots of speculation that Barry will inevitably challenge Williams in 2006, assuming he stays healthy enough and avoids the “personal problems” that have plagued his career, most notably the smoking-crack-with-a-hooker incident that sent him to the hoosegow for a while.
But don’t bet on the Final Barry Comeback. For all the economic and racial conflicts mentioned earlier, the single largest beef of low-to-middle-income Washingtonians of all races remains poor public services, and especially poor public schools (it’s noteworthy that losing incumbent Chavous was the long-time chairman of the Council education committee) . Williams, who’s managed to clean the Augean Stables of several DC government departments in the past, appears vastly more willing and able to do something about public services than any of his critics, especially Barry. After all, Williams tried to wrest control of DC schools from the perpetually feckless elected school board, only to be rebuffed by the Council. And while Barry is best known nationally for his “personal problems,” his enduring political legacy is the proposition that municipal government should function primarily as a jobs program, not as a provider of public services.


A Light in the Fog

Confused about all the polling data out there? Hey, who isn’t? Fortuntately, Ruy Teixeira has posted a handy-dandy guide to the methodological issues that separate the sheep from the goats in all the recent polls, and his conclusions suggest a much, much closer presidential race than many of the headlines we’ve all been reading.


Stopping the Big One

During Dick Cheney’s convention speech in New York, the one line that sorta surprised me was the veep’s acknowledgement that terrorists getting access to nuclear weapons is “the ultimate threat we face today.” There’s no question that’s right, but nuclear non-proliferation has not exactly been a high priority for the administration, and moreover, Cheney’s admission seemed to undercut the general convention theme that George W. Bush has terrorists so frightened that it doesn’t much matter what they want to do or what weapons they have.
The American Prospect web page has posted a very useful Matt Yglesias piece reviewing the ragged and incompetent Bush-Cheney record on loose nukes, and the administration’s bogus claims to have made progress on this front.
Matt doesn’t go into the Democratic candidate’s record on the subject, but this is one national security issue where it’s impossible to deny that Kerry has been strong, consistent and far-sighted. It’s also a subject he’s addressed in extraordinary detail on the campaign trail.
It would be helpful–not just to Kerry, but to public understanding of the war on terrorism–if it comes up early and often in the debates. It would be fun to watch Bush defend a whole series of flip-flops on the issue his running mate calls “the ultimate threat we face today.”


I’ve Got It! We’ll Lie!

After reading some of the Bush-Cheney campaign’s coordinated attacks on the Kerry health plan this morning, I was reminded of a galvanizing moment many years ago when I worked for a state agency that handed out grants according to a complex mathematical formula. Word had come down that Higher Authorities would appreciate a thumb on the scale for a particular community, and we spent many hours pouring over charts in an effort to lawfully harmonize the grant procedures with the desired outcome. Late that night, one of my colleagues suddenly had a conceptual breakthrough, and shouted: “I’ve got it! We’ll lie!”
Fortunately, she was joking, but BC04’s conceptual breakthrough about how to cast Kerry’s proposals in the worst possible light is no joking matter at all. Systematic dishonesty is the key to the much-admired simplicity and message discipline of the incumbent’s campaign. Read all about it in today’s New Dem Daily.


“Fight the War, Or Bring the Troops Home”

Time columnist Joe Klein has a simple suggestion for what John Kerry ought to be saying about Iraq: blast Bush for fighting an incompetent, no-win war, and challenge him to get serious about ending the Sunni insurgency or admit the whole thing’s been a failure. Klein even scripts a debate line for JK: “Fight the war, Mr. President, or bring the troops home.”
Though Klein framed this advice as a retroactive critique of what Kerry’s actually been saying on Iraq, TNR’s Noam Scheiber endorses the approach as an avenue the candidate can still pursue. And I would add to his comments that it’s (a) consistent with Kerry’s sharp critique of administration war leadership in Afghanistan, past and present, and (b) consistent both with Kerry’s earlier proposal for a larger troop deployment in Iraq, and his more recent argument that we need an end-game for the Iraq engagement. Sure, the Bushies would call it a “flip-flop,” but they’re going to do that with anything Kerry says on any subject.
I’m sure the CW will be that Kerry dare not try to out-tough Bush on Iraq for fear that it will “de-energize” all those anti-war Deaniacs he’s counting on in November. But as I recall, the Good Doctor himself often said that stabilizing post-war Iraq was a mission in which the United States could not afford to fail.


Election Day Has Already Started

Today’s New York Times has a useful front-page piece on early voting and the uses and abuses thereof. But it’s written from a strange goo-goo perspective that emphasizes the potential for voter fraud inherent in unsupervised absentee balloting rather than the much bigger story that early voting is slowly changing the very definition of “election day.” The piece also doesn’t hint at the partisan implications of loose absentee balloting laws. I can think of at least one state where Democrats won big in the 1990s by investing heavily in absentee ballot distribution, and another where Republicans did so. But by now, it’s pretty safe to say that both parties understand the laws and are exploiting them to the fullest extent.
Early-voter targeting, like traditional election-day GOTV, focuses on heavily partisan segments of the electorate, so it’s unlikely that the overall dynamics of the race will have much impact on who “wins” or “loses” in this shadowy competition. But conversely, early-voter targeting could greatly affect the outcome in a very close race.