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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

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.

What Must Specter Do?

Tomorrow’s apparently the big day when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) must “make his case” to his GOP colleagues about why they should allow him to ascend to the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, as dictated by the seniority system. Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist laid out a pretty high hurdle for the prickly Pennsylvanian: to preside in a way that reflects “the feelings, the beliefs, the values, the procedures that are held by the majority of that committee.” In other words, Specter must have the courage of other people’s convictions.
It’s hard to imagine what sort of servile gesture would suffice for Specter at this point. Agree to weild a papier-mache gavel? Get himself wired up with one of those instructional devices that George W. Bush was suspected to have worn during the first presidential debates? Recuse himself when any actual business comes before the Judiciary Committee?
About the only thing I can think of that would do the trick is for Specter to dramatically announce a conversion: no, not just to Movement Conservatism, or to the views of the Right to Life Committee, but to Christianity. Imagine the cries of joy that would ensue in Virginia Beach and Colorado Springs and other precincts of the theocratic Right! It would be like that scene in The Apostle when Billy Bob Thornton succumbed to the Call just as he was preparing to bulldoze Robert Duvall’s church! Victory is mine! Victory is mine!

Like the president himself, Specter would be forgiven his decades of “youthful indiscretions,” such as his career-long support for abortion rights.
But such are Specter’s sins that I would not recommend a mere recitation of creeds or a high-church “sprinkling.” Nothing short of a Full Immersion will likely convince his critics. Imagine the scene: the Senate Republican Caucus gathers on the banks of the Anacostia River, and robed in white, the senior Senator from Pennsylvania, accompanied by Brother Frist and Brother Coburn and Brother Santorum and Brother Novak, wades into the greasy waters….
If, as France’s Henry IV was reported to have said upon agreeing to convert to Catholicism to become King, “Paris is worth a mass,” then perhaps Arlen Specter must decide whether “Judiciary is worth a swim.”

The Dobson Difference

Josh Marshall among others has taken special note of the unusually abrasive comments made during and after the election by James Dobson, patriarch of the huge, Colorado-based Focus on the Family radio ministry. There is unmistakably a totalitarian tone to Dobson’s lurid arguments that gay people not only threaten the institution of marriage, but the survival of Planet Earth, along with his description of Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) as a “God’s people hater.”
This is nothing new for Dobson. I wrote a piece six years ago for The New Democrat magazine (the predecessor to the DLC’s Blueprint) noting that Dobson represented a new and dangerous strain of the Christian Right, based on the frequent parallels he drew between (Clintonian) America and Nazi Germany, and his corresponding claims that Christian conservatives were, like the Confessing Church of Nazi Germany, a rare beacon of conscience in a satanic society that was determined to wipe them out. I know that for many secular or Catholic or Jewish or “mainstream” protestant people all the Christian Right leaders pretty much sound alike, but Dobson is different: in the kulturkampf, he’s the apostle of Total War.
Dobson first came to my attention in 1996, for his part in a famous public controversy launched by Richard John Neuhaus’ First Things magazine, entitled “The End of Democracy?” Neuhaus posed the question whether legalized abortion and gay rights and other affronts to traditional culture justified civil disobedience and other extra-legal forms of resistance. In a subsequent issue of First Things, Dobson was by far the most emphatic in rejecting the “legitimacy” of “the current regime,” and of constitutional democracy as well, so long as the courts continued to defy “divine law.”
One of the enduring ironies of this controversy was that it created a serious split between hard-line Christian conservatives and the largely-Jewish neoconservatives who expressed horror at the theocratic views of Neuhaus, Dobson, and their allies. Yet little more than seven years later, Dobson and at least the most prominent neocons are yoked together to the political fortunes of George W. Bush’s Republican Party.
It’s a truism–and like all truisms, partially true–that the GOP is an ideological party, while Democrats represent a coalition party. But underneath the surface of Republican harmony, there are serious differences that cannot be perpetually suppressed. I will defer to my colleague The Moose in analyzing the fault lines of contemporary conservatism. But I can’t help but wonder what doubts privately afflict Bush’s neocons. They have succeeded in convincing the president to rhetorically embrace their vision of America as a militant advocate of secular democracy and liberty in the Islamic world. But when they look down the party line, they cannot help but see their ally James Dobson, who so fervently believes that democracy and liberty are mere disposable tactics for the imposition of “divine law.”

Dean and the Long Green

There’s a buzz around Washington that former Gov. Howard Dean has decided to make a run for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. And out in the blogosphere, former Deaniacs are getting excited about this possibility as a way to resume their Long March to control of the party and eventually the country, which was so rudely interrupted by the caucus-goers of Iowa last January.
No, dear readers, I’m not going to break my self-imposed cease-fire by saying anything nasty about Dean or his supporters, though they are hardly reciprocating this spirit of comity. But I would like to suggest that maybe the Doctor is in danger of making a mistake, in terms of his own stated principles and objectives.
Some Deaniacs may imagine that conquering the DNC would represent an “outsider” assault on the ramparts of The Party Establishment and the Washington Cabal of corporate interests and Clintonites who keep dragging Democrats into (sic!) cooperation with Republicans. But let’s remember what the DNC is: a fundraising operation. It has little or no involvement in policy or ideas, and its role in electioneering is strictly at the sufferance and the direction of presidential nominees and congressional campaign committees.
For that very reason, the Deaniacs may be bringing up the battering rams to attack a half-open door. As DailyKos noted today, 100 DNC members formally endorsed Dean for president last year. Aside from the bandwagon effect of early Dean success in the opinion polls, the enthusiasm of these fundraisers for the Doctor was pretty clearly attributable to his remarkable ability to–surprise!–raise money.
And today, I strongly suspect that DNC interest in Dean is not about his ideas, or his reformist credentials, or even his grassroots support. I doubt they look at this born-again liberal from the bluest of blue states and see the face that will launch an assault on the Red State Fortress the Republicans have been building. I betcha money they look at Howard Dean and see Green, as in Long Green.
Now I doubt that’s the legacy, or the mission, that the Governor wants to identify his movement with going forward. And even more generally, I can’t imagine a less suitable vehicle for genuine reform than the DNC, at least as it’s currently constituted.
Since so many Deaniacs self-consciously identify with the efforts of the conservative movement to take over the other party, I’ll remind them of an acute comment made by Theodore White about the bitter disappointment of Goldwater activists when their leader, Cliff White, was passed over for the chairmanship of the RNC in 1964:
“Party chairmanships are the fool’s gold of American politics.”
That’s one thing that hasn’t really changed in the last 40 years.