washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Zell’s Problem Graphically Presented

The Georgia Democratic Party has put up a video that you might want to watch before watching tonight’s Zell Miller speech. Even I had forgotten the strong parallels between Miller’s 1992 attack on George H.W. Bush and Kerry’s critique of his son today.

Zell’s Problem

Zell Miller’s “keynote” speech in NY tonight will obviously get a lot of attention. The DLC’s opinion on Zell’s apostasy is pretty clear, and can be found here and here.
But I’m interested, from a purely mechanical point of view, in seeing how Miller and his new GOP handlers deal with a certain logical problem about his speech. At some point, probably months ago, it dawned on BC04 operatives that Bush would be nominated in the same building where their new buddy Zell Miller gave the Democratic keynote address back in 1992. Hey, somebody said, wouldn’t it be cool to get Zell to keynote our convention?
The problem, of course, is that Zell’s return engagement in the Garden raises a pretty obvious question about what, exactly, happened between ’92 and now to convert him from a Bush-bashing partisan Democrat to a Kerry-bashing supporter of Bush the Younger. And as I assume at least someone in the media will remind viewers tonight (maybe CNN’s Paul Begala, who ghosted much of the ’92 speech), Miller did everything short of kicking Millie the First Dog to promote the eviction of W.’s dad from the White House back then.
Miller could obviously tell delegates he was wrong then, and right (not to mention Right) today. But at a time when much of the Convention is devoted to branding John Kerry as a flip-flopper, it probably won’t be helpful if the man once mocked by Georgia Republicans as “Zig-Zag Zell” suggests it’s possible to change your mind about anything.
Moreover, Miller has repeatedly rejected the apology route up until now. In his recent book, which many of his new right-wing friends probably haven’t actually read, he doesn’t for a moment apologize for supporting Clinton in ’92 or even in ’96. He suggests, instead, that the Democratic Party lurched off in a leftwards direction some time around 1998–roughly the same time that Miller moved to Washington and lost his bearings.
Call it a psychic flash, but I somehow don’t think Republican delegates are quite ready to applaud a speech that says: “If you liked Bill Clinton, you ought to love George W. Bush.”
My guess is that Miller will allude to his ’92 gig with a brief joke, and then spend the rest of his time churning out every anti-Kerry talking point he can download from the BC04 web page, nestled in a lot of faux-populist “humor” about the opposition of Democrats to the ownership of pickup trucks. But his speech does present a problem, and I hope the punditocracy gets over its dull-witted stupor in covering this Convention just enough to call him on it.

Slash and Burn

As some of you may remember, the Democratic Convention was characterized by a systematic refusal to “go negative” on George W. Bush, which probably disappointed a lot of delegates, but not so you’d notice it. In fact, with a very few exceptions, speakers were prohibited from even mentioning the incumbent’s name.
My understanding is that this especially hard line on negative rhetoric was taken after KE04 operatives focus-grouped a few speech drafts with undecided voters, and discovered that they absolutely hated anything that sounded like an attack on Bush.
It’s pretty obvious by now that the GOP has taken a different tack on going negative at its Convention. And it’s almost certain to get a lot worse tonight, with the headliners being Zell Miller, who loves negative rhetoric like a wino loves cheap muscatel, and Dick Cheney, who can barely take a breath without attacking Kerry and Edwards.
There are at least four possible explanations for the different approaches of the two parties on negative rhetoric:
1) The GOP truly has given up on undecided voters, and is truly concentrating on energizing its conservative base and maybe raiding a few conservative Democrats.
2) Voters hold a double standard whereby Democrats can’t get away with criticizing the Leader of the Free World, while it’s okay for the President’s party to call John Kerry a lyin’ liberal flip-flopper, so long as the invective does not come directly from the Compassionate-Conservative-in-Chief himself.
3) Republicans have become intoxicated by their belief that the Swift Vote Veterans ads have hurt Kerry, and have decided to throw out the rule book.
4) Rove and Co. know going negative is risky, but don’t think they have much choice at this point.
Of course, it’s also possible that today’s Republicans are just mean and nasty people who do this stuff because they enjoy it. But hey, I wouldn’t want to say anything that negative about them.

Hype Watch

I was pretty busy up in Boston, and didn’t watch much of the television coverage of the Democratic Convention. So you tell me: did the pundits gush over all the speeches like they’re doing in New York?
Best I can tell, most of the commentators, even those who are apparently supposed to be “objective” or even “pro-Democratic,” think Guiliani’s speech on Monday ranked up there with some of the best efforts of Demosthenes. And they clearly thought Arnold hit a Barry Bonds shot into the upper deck. (Personally, I thought the best podium appearance of the night was by the Bush Twins).
And hey, I was watching MSNBC and PBS. I didn’t have any blood pressure medication on hand, so I avoided Fox altogether. That was probably a smart move, according to WaPo’s wonderful TV critic, Tom Shales, who said this morning that Fox was covering the Convention like it’s a “happy birthday party for God.”
Maybe the entertainment paradigm for political media really has taken over, with commentators treating conventions like football games where ratings depend on the idea that every boring 7-3 contest is a Clash of Titans that will go down in the annals of sport.

Florida Senate Showdown

It’s being overshawdowed by the GOP Convention, but Floridians went to the polls today and nominated each party’s strongest candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by Bob Graham.
The White House’s guy, former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, surprised many observers by thumping former Congressman Bill McCollum by a comfortable 45-31 margin. Martinez is a Cuban-American who will probably help the GOP get a desperately needed high turnout in that reliably Republican community; his pull among the fast-growing non-Cuban Hispanic population of Florida is more questionable. His background as a trial lawyer will also complicate Bush-Cheney campaign’s loud efforts to suggest that litigation costs are the main drag on the U.S. economy.
On the Democratic side, former state education commissioner Betty Castor’s win over Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Pinelas was no surprise, but her margin was impressive, beating the lavishly financed Deutsch by a 59-27 margin. Castor has long been considered the strongest possible Democratic candidate, and she’s been running even with or a bit ahead of Martinez in most polls.

Arnold Reads His Lines

The Governor of California, featured along with First Lady Laura Bush on “Compassion Night” of the Republican National Convention, did a workmanlike job in lending his glamor and moderate reputation to George W. Bush. As he said at the beginning of the speech, it was sorta like an Oscar Ceremony, and on this stage as in the Academy Awards, he didn’t win any big prizes.
The most interesting part of Arnold’s pitch was something that’s emerging as the major theme of this convention: the conflation of America with its president, and the identification of patriotism with Republicanism. America’s a great place, so it must have a great chief executive. Americans have been reminded of their pride in their country since 9/11, so America must re-elect the guy who was given the opportunity to emblemize that pride immediately after 9/11. Republicans are more jingoistic than Democrats, so voters feeling a bit more jingoistic than in the past should vote Republican. It’s simple, and simple-minded stuff, but it’s clearly what Karl Rove thinks will win.
Arnold didn’t pay much attention to John Kerry, though both his references to the opposition were guaranteed media play because they included allusions to his movie career: the “True Lies” shot at the Democratic Convention, and the inevitable “girly man” line about Democratic critiques of Bush’s economic record. It’s interesting, if you think about it. In 2000 Republicans whined about the few dark corners they could find in the dazzling economic record of Bill Clinton, but nobody accused them of a lack of patriotism. This whole GOP Convention is about making George W. Bush so intimately connected with post-9/11 national pride that voters are literally unwilling to use their minds in assessing the incumbent’s record.

Bad Night for Logic

If you want a reasonable analysis of the first night of the GOP Convention, check out today’s New Dem Daily. But I’m not feeling very reasonable after watching John McCain and Rudy Guiliani last night.
I think Saletan pretty much nailed it in his convention blog in Slate. Guiliani’s speech, in particular, was a masterpiece of loose reasoning and false analogies, leading to the bizarre conclusion that George W. Bush is the Churchill of our era. You know, Churchill stood up to Hitler, Bush stood up to Saddam, and the appeasers didn’t like either one of them. I especially like Saletan’s dissection of the “offensive/defensive” rhetoric used by Guiliani. It’s no secret that Neocons tend to think that worrying about homeland security is kinda wussy; real men go out and “take it to the enemy” (which is a bit problematic when the enemy is a stateless terrorist network). But this kind of reasoning is particularly strange coming from the living symbol of New York’s response to 9/11. Maybe Guiliani will take the next step and call on New Yorkers to turn back their federal homeland security money. After all, with W. at the wheel, there’s nothing to worry about, right?
There was a kind of rough logic to the McCain and Guiliani speeches, however. These guys basically disagree with Bush on just about everything other than his decision to invade Iraq. So in order to make the case for his re-election, they had to pretend that’s the only issue that really matters. Never mind that about half the delegates they were addressing think abortion or gay marriage is the only issue that matters, while the other half get up in the morning determined to abolish the income tax and destroy the federal government. I’m beginning to think that Bush’s main political asset is to serve as the empty vessel for other people’s obsessions.

80 Years Ago in the Garden

Before undertaking the herculean effort of watching and then analyzing the Republican National Convention, I can’t resist the opportunity to flog one of my favorite political books, about a Convention held at the original Madison Square Garden 80 years ago.
Robert K. Murray’s 1976 book, The 103d Ballot, focused on the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York, which took, yes, 103 ballots to nominate a doomed ticket of John W. Davis for president and Charles Bryan (younger brother of The Commoner) for vice-president. The book has been out of print for decades, but is probably available at any decent university or big-city library. Here’s a link to a big PDF file that includes a longer take on the book and the ’24 Convention, under the title of “Unhappy Warriors.”
Today’s conventions are tightly controlled, relentlessly timed affairs aimed at conveying partisan messages through the ever-narrowing lens of network television coverage. 80 years ago, the new medium of radio offered gavel-to-gavel coverage of conventions, while most newspapers devoted massive coverage to all the speechifying. And as Murray amply demonstrated, the uncontrolled nature of the 1924 Convention, and the disastrous impressions it created, began the long, slow, uneven trend towards submerging party differences during the Big Show of party conventions.
At The Garden in 1924, Democrats were deadlocked between the rural, prohibitionist, anti-Wall Street forces that united behind William Gibbs McAdoo, and the urban, wet forces symbolized by New York’s favorite son, Al Smith. There was a frenetic and toxic platform fight on the floor about whether or not to specifically condemn the Ku Klux Klan, considered a “progressive” organization by the populists of that time. It was William Jennings Bryan’s last convention, and it helped make Franklin D. Roosevelt (already the vice-presidential candidate in 1920) a national political figure after his “Happy Warrior” speech nominating Smith.
If nothing else, Murray’s book amply shows that cultural issues did not somehow emerge in 2000 as a source of partisan identification against a “normal” background of class-based divisions. The real aberration in American political history occurred in and after 1932, when the emergency of the Great Depression enabled FDR to create the first grand coalition of low-to-middle income voters since Andrew Jackson.
Check out Murray’s book if you can, and then stock up on the caffeine to watch the latest Garden Party, if you must.

Brooks Whistles In the Dark

It’s become a truism that David Brooks, the most entertaining sort-of-conservative commentator of the last decade, has lost his edge since becoming a regular columnist for the New York Times. Part of his problem has been the discipline of a 1000-word column, which prohibits the leisurely tours of American political sociology that have been his signature.
But he has no such excuse today. The New York Times Magazine gave Brooks plenty of space, and cover billing, to analyze the future direction of Brooks’ political party, on the eve of its convention in The Big Apple. And Brooks responds by demonstrating exactly how out of touch he is with the GOP, and how out of touch the GOP is with any sort of mainstream political point of view.
Check it out yourself. Brooks offers a devastating if mildly worded critique of today’s Republican Party as an ideologically bankrupt enterprise. But in the search for a “new, progressive conservatism,” he goes back to the “national purpose” ideology that Brooks and Bill Kristol famously proposed as the centerpiece of John McCain’s failed presidential campaign of 2000.
Harkening back yet again to the long-lost activist Republican tradition of Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, Brooks now seems to suggest that the barrenness of George W. Bush’s GOP means that by 2008 something like a “progressive” ideology will have to re-emerge.
But when it comes to specifics, Brooks proposes that Republicans embrace ideas that have long been identified with New Democrats, and that the Kerry-Edwards campaign has largely appropriated. They range from waging a wider, non-military war against Islamic extremism and rebuilding multilateral institutions and alliances, to advocating a stronger national role in education reform, energy and environmental policy; reforming entitlement programs; attacking corporate subsidies; lifting working families above the poverty line; and expanding national service opportunities.
If Brooks were simply proposing a reconstruction of the Republican Party after a Bush defeat, his agenda would be constructive, if not practical. But he pretends, against all evidence, the Bush himself can become the sponsor of a “progressive conservative” revival. And after four years of identifying himself with the failed traditional conservatism that Brooks denounces in this piece, there’s no reason to believe that George W. Bush can or will do anything else.

But In Other Polls….

There’s another major presidential poll that was released today: the highly regarded “Battleground” poll jointly conducted by the Democratic firm of Lake Snell Perry, and the Republican firm The Tarrance Group, sponsored by George Washington University. The data’s a little over a week old.
Among LVs, the poll shows Kerry up 44-43, with Nader at 1 and 12 percent undecided. But after quizzing respondents about the candidates and then including leaners, their “aided ballot” shows Kerry up 49-47 without Nader in the mix, and 48-47-3 with Nader in.
Interestingly enough, the poll has Bush winning a big 5 percent of Democrats, as opposed to the 15 percent reported by the LA Times poll. It also shows Kerry up by 5 among households with veterans, and only down 3 among vets themselves.
One of the fun things about the Battleground polls is you get to read “strategic analysis” memos from both Celinda Lake and Ed Goas: in other words, Democratic and Republican spin on the same data. And it’s about what you’d expect, with Celinda emphasizing Bush’s failure to get majority support after four years and Ed suggesting that Kerry’s missed an opportunity to seal the deal. With the particular relish of so many partisans, both predict a result determined mainly by turnout patterns. It’s so much neater than the messy process of actually persuading voters rationally, doncha know.
At any rate, this poll may offset some of the insider buzz about the LA Times survey. In the past, Battleground polls have been known for an unusually tight “screen” for likelihood to vote, and have often shown results more favorable to the GOP than other major surveys.
And finally, it should be noted that Zogby Interactive released a big batch of polls of 16 battleground states the other day, all conducted from August 16-21. They show Kerry leading in 14 of these states. But Zogby’s erratic rep in state polling makes that scorecard questionable, and the specific results don’t exactly inspire confidence. He’s got Kerry up by 2 in Tennessee, and Bush up by more than 5 in Ohio, and by nearly 8 in West Virginia.
In general, state polling in a presidential race is a very tricky thing, with small samples and widely varying methodologies complicating the picture. Much as I appreciate RealClearPolitics‘ effort to provide all the polling, their effort to summarize the race each day by averaging poll results is definitely misleading, especially when they include blatantly partisan polls by outfits like the GOP firm Strategic Visions.
Maybe we’ll be better able to separate the sheep from the goats among state polls when we get a little closer to November 2.