washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Witness

If I sometimes seem obsessed with the cultural dimensions of contemporary politics, it’s because I am in a continuing rage over two dumb ideas that far too many Democrats are determined to embrace, losing election after losing election: (1) economic issues, if you scream about them loudly and abrasively and “populistically” enough, will trump cultural issues, which are essentially phony, and (2) there’s no way to deal with voters’ cultural anxieties without abandoning Democratic principles, since cultural issues are all about banning abortion and gay marriage and so forth.
The first idea is palpably, demonstrably wrong, as established by frequent trial and constant error. And the second idea misses the whole point of cultural anxiety, which has far less to do with abortion or gays than with a widespread sense that a whole host of traditional values are being threatened and perhaps extinguished by cultural forces ranging from globalization and commercialization to sex-and-violence saturated entertainment products and the moral flatulance of the celebrities whose “lifestyles” and views assault us from every direction.
But when it comes to the political impact of cultural angst, hey, don’t listen to me, listen to a real witness who has just personally experienced the kulturkampf. Listen to U.S. Rep. Brad Carson, who lost to conservative wild-man Tom Coburn in a Senate race in Oklahoma last week, and who has penned a remarkable article for The New Republic on the subject. Please read it all, but here’s a pertinent passage:
For the vast majority of Oklahomans–and, I would suspect, voters in other red states–these transcendent cultural concerns are more important than universal health care or raising the minimum wage or preserving farm subsidies. Pace Thomas Frank, the voters aren’t deluded or uneducated. They simply reject the notion that material concerns are more real than spiritual or cultural ones. The political left has always had a hard time understanding this, preferring to believe that the masses are enthralled by a “false consciousness” or Fox News or whatever today’s excuse might be. But the truth is quite simple: Most voters in a state like Oklahoma–and I venture to say most other Southern and Midwestern states–reject the general direction of American culture and celebrate the political party that promises to reform or revise it.

We’re the “wrong track” party when it comes to the cultural direction of the country, and we have to decide whether to bravely swim upstream out of loyalty to hip-hop and Michael Moore and Grand Theft Auto IV and Hollywood campaign contributions, or do something else, like at least expressing a little ambivalence about it all. Changing the subject is cowardly and insulting no matter how you look at it.


Late Break to Bush

I know that you, like me, are probably tired of reading post-election analysis, but there’s one more you should check out: Democracy Corps’ final interpretive memo. What’s most interesting about this piece is that it documents from its own polling data how late-breaking voters actually broke.
Like just about everybody else in politics, I thought late-breakers would move to Kerry, because (1) they generally do break against incumbents, and (2) all year long, undecided and shaky decided voters were showing very high “wrong track” numbers, which normally indicates they are likely to move away from the incumbent if they move at all.
Yet DCorps says a surprising array of voters moved towards Bush in the last 10 days, including white rural voters, older non-college-educated white voters, and white senior voters. As the memo’s subtitle–“Why Americans Wanted Change But Voted for Continuity”–indicates, those “wrong track” numbers did not translate into votes to change the track by firing Bush.
The memo strongly suggests these voters got focused on cultural issues down the stretch. As Ruy Teixeira notes: “Lacking, however, is much of an explanation for why this cultural surge at the end of the campaign took place and what, if anything, Democrats could have done to forestall it.”
Democrats will undoubtedly disagree about that, with some saying Kerry should have re-distracted these voters towards their pocket-books by relentlessly pounding Bush on the economy, and others (like me) saying you have to meet the cultural issues head-on instead of perpetually and insultingly trying to change the subject. But it’s increasingly clear that the weight of informed opinion, despite many efforts to claim otherwise, is that Democrats can no longer rationalize away cultural issues as a big part of the systemic political problem we now face. Unless we prove otherwise, no matter who runs Washington, we are part of the “wrong track” when it comes to cultural concerns.


Nominating Process Reform?

As attentive readers know, the DLC is spending a lot of time right now arguing for a “reform insurgency” agenda for Democrats, including a specific agenda for political reform. One thing we haven’t gotten into yet is the possibility of reforming the nominating process for president, which is, by any measure, strange if long-settled.
But now comes DailyKos with a welcome argument for opening this question as well. I find it particularly interesting that Kos likes the idea of rotating regional primaries, which I’ve personally supported for about a quarter of a century.
This is the sort of topic we ought to be discussing now, because, like election procedure reform, it is an issue that people tend to forget about between cycles, and an issue that gets caught up in machiavellian calculations about which candidate would benefit or suffer from reform as we get closer to the next cycle. And unlike election procecure reform, Democrats can, if they choose, change their system for nominating presidential candidates without much cooperation from the GOP.
The legendary Iowa Caucuses, of course, would be the first “casualty” of any change in the nominating process, and I have a lot of political friends there myself who probably wish I would never mention the subject. But in their hearts, even Iowans and New Hampshirites know our current nominating system is the last thing anyone would come up with if he or she were designing a rational, fair system. And Iowans in particular should understand this, since they hail from the one state that has designed a rational system for congressional redistricting aimed at ensuring fair, competitive races at a time when in most of the country House members and many state legislators are totally insulated from competition or the popular will.
I applaud Kos for raising this subject, and after watching him agonize throughout the 2004 cycle about the difficulty of overcoming entrenched Republican control of the U.S. House, I hope he’ll get on the bandwagon for redistricting reform as well.


Vets

It’s Veterans Day, and I hope one thing that survives the defeat of John Kerry is the widespread appreciation of vets–if not SwiftBoatVetsFor”Truth”– among Democrats.
Personally, I’m one of those baby boomers who, like Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney and a lot of other truculant civilians, never had to go into harm’s way. Unlike the president, my family connections had nothing to do with my safety; it was pure luck, as in drawing Draft Lottery Number 265.
I have no idea how many veterans read this blog, but to any of you out there, thanks. Sacrificing oneself for the ease and prosperity of others is the essence not only of patriotism, but of virtually every major religious tradition. And in this country, as in others, as is evidenced by the ongoing sacrifices of our troops in Iraq, those who serve rarely have the civilian leadership they need and deserve. In addition to remembering and honoring veterans, the best thing the rest of us can do is to change that.


Upper-Class Warfare

There’s a bit of a buzz in the blogosphere about a New Republic Online article by Hamilton College professor Phillip Klinckner arguing that rich folks provided George W. Bush with his real margin of victory on November 2. Using the usual 2000 baseline, he shows that most of the religiously-motivated voters who went for Bush this time did so last time, while the GOP significantly improved its performance among top earners.
It’s not terribly surprising, of course, that after throwing money at top earners for four straight years, Bush pried some of them away from Democrats. But there’s actually a double-whammy going on here: Gore’s strong performance among the same category of voters owed a lot to the fact that wealthy people, like everybody else–and despite the “confiscatory” tax rates of that time–did pretty damn well during the Clinton administration. It isn’t terribly surprising that John Kerry did not benefit from that particular “right track” vote. As an editorial in Blueprint magazine pointed out way back in July of 2001:
“There’s no doubt at all that Democrats in 2004 will suffer from the absence of the remarkable Clinton record of economic, social, and fiscal accomplishment — the 900-pound gorilla at the kitchen table during the 2000 campaign. Without the ability to run as incumbents on that record — whose power nearly lifted Al Gore to the presidency — Democrats must aggressively and consistently promote a pro-growth, pro-opportunity agenda that unites the party base with swing voters. Or they must risk debilitating losses among the growing ranks of well-educated suburban voters who were trending heavily toward Democrats in the 1990s.”
The evidence is mixed about John Kerry’s success in advancing that kind of “pro-growth, pro-opportunity” message; he often did, but the campaign’s obsession with job loss numbers and outsourcing may have narrowed it a bit too much for parts of the country (e.g., Florida and the Southwest, and even some parts of Ohio) that were doing relatively well. But in any event, the predictable losses among high earners make it that much more important that Democrats come to grips with the cultural and security issues–the non-economic “populist” issues, if you will–which kept so many downscale voters from supporting Democrats in both 2000 and 2004.


Did Rove Win for the Wrong Reasons?

Dr. Donkey himself, Ruy Teixeira, is putting the gradually-refined-towards-truth exit polls under the surgeon’s knife in recent posts, and is coming up with some important findings, though none of them are that surprising.
You should read all his stuff, but the bottom line is that Bush’s biggest improvements over his 2000 performance were among women, especially married women, and especially white working class women, and senior women. And although there remains some methodology-based arguments about the Hispanic vote, it’s pretty clear Bush made gains there, too, despite a variety of pre-election polls showing Kerry running about as well as Gore.
Hmmmm. Married women, seniors, Hispanics–geez, weren’t these precisely the three categories that Karl Rove’s original 2004 “swing voter” strategy focused on?
I mention this because I am one of the Democrats who heaped scorn on this strategy during most of the last year. I suggested that because No Child Left Behind (aimed at married women), an Rx Drug Benefit (Bush’s candy for seniors) and a guest worker proposal (supposedly magic among Hispanics) all seemed to have failed as popular initiatives, Rove had to shift to a different strategy of revving up his conservative base and demonizing Kerry.
Post-election, Rove and other conservatives are explaining Bush’s success as attributable to cultural and national security issues. So it makes you wonder: was this Rove’s intention all along? Did he simply adopt a different strategy aimed at the same targets? Or did he just get lucky? And in any event, does this mean that in the future Rove will stop manipulating administration policy in the pursuit of voter categories and just rely on cultural issues and pure viciousness in promoting the GOP’s political fortunes?
I guess we’ll soon see.


Attention CSPAN Junkies!

The DLC held its official post-election event today, entitled “The Road Back,” with Ron Brownstein, Donna Brazile, Doug Sosnik, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, and our own Al From and Will Marshall, with Bruce Reed as toastmaster and moderator. It will be aired on CSPAN tonight at 9:15 EST.
If you are so inclined, you can stay tuned to CSPAN for a replay of this morning’s Washington Journal, where the entertaining but fundamentally misguided Thomas Frank argues that Democrats can trump cultural issues by coming out for public ownership of grain elevators and free coinage of silver at a 16-1 ratio. (Yes, that’s a parody of Frank’s argument, but so, too are all the insults he’s hurled at New Democrats lately). And for reviews of the entertaining but fundamentally misguided Frank book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which has vaulted him into the ranks of Washington Punditry, you can go here and here.


Specter-Vision

It’s been a busy day around the ol’ DLC Corral, so I haven’t been in posting distance until now. You might enjoy today’s New Dem Daily about the greater meaning of the frantic conservative effort to purge Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) from his seniority-destined chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. It’s a must-read for those who get a kick out of watching Rick Santorum experience an acute case of political indigestion.


Is the South Hopeless for Democrats?

While some Democrats continue to wax sanguine about the 2004 election results, arguing that a nip here and a tuck there and a little better performance among Hispanics everywhere could elect a Democratic president in 2008, I think it’s safe to say that all of us are more than a little nervous about the skewing of the electoral battlefield in favor of the GOP. As Ron Brownstein persuasively argues today, Democrats start every presidential election at a serious disadvantage if they are simply playing defense in a host of “blue states” while trying to pick off one or two key “red states.” And the perils of the electoral status quo are even more evident down-ballot, where it will be very difficult for Democrats to make gains in Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative races if they begin each cycle by conceding 30 states.
But where to go in expanding the battlefield? The most pressing question involves the South, where we’ve gotten skunked in two straight presidential elections, while losing a majority of statewide races from 2000 through 2004.
There is a legitimate argument that can be made that the whole region, with the exception of the quasi-southern state of Florida, has just gotten impossible, at least for the national party, and/or that the kind of issue positions necessary for success in the South would involve a sacrifice of party principle.
But I would remind Democrats that we’ve been here before, and that predictions of the Democratic Party’s demise in the states of the Former Confederacy have been notoriously premature for four decades.
In presidential elections, the Democratic share of the popular vote dropped precipitously from 1960 to 1972. It rebounded dramatically in 1976, and then declined steadily through 1988, rebounding yet again in 1992 and declining steadily through 2004.
Down-ballot, the ebbs and flows of Democratic strength have been even more regular. As early as 1966, it looked like the party was toast throughout much of the region, but by 1970, Dems were winning most Senate and gubernatorial elections. 1980 was another year when obituaries were read for statewide Democratic candidates, who rebounded nicely in 1986. 1994 was a disaster; 1996 and 1998 showed a partial rebound.
The constant element in this drama has been the relative ability or inability of Democrats to build and rebuild biracial coalitions that drew on the loyal support of African-Americans, who make up about a fifth of Southern voters, combined with varying combinations that added up to roughly 40 percent of white voters. In the 1970s and the 1980s, Democrats managed to hold onto a significant share of rural white voters. In the 1990s, they improved their performance in the suburbs. The point is: so long as Democrats continue to earn the support of African-Americans (and part of that equation is to support African-American candidates in the South), it’s not that big a stretch to get to 50 percent, and in the long run, certainly no harder than winning nearly half of white voters in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire with limited numbers of minority voters.
One example of why Democrats shouldn’t give up on the South is this: in Georgia, in 2002, a now-legendary Republican blowout that defeated Sen. Max Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes, two African-American centrist statewide candidates (Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Labor Commissioner Mike Thurmond), and two white centrist statewide candidates (Lt. Governor Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox), all won.
And this year, Southern Democrats did not exactly get destroyed in Senate races: with the exception of Oklahoma and a lopsided race in Georgia, Dems lost pretty narrowly in a tough year on tough terrain.
There’s also reason to believe that time is on our side in the South, for several reasons:
1) The more the Republicans become the majority, governing party, the more they will have to defend their records in office (viz., a whole series of failed Republican governors in the region dating back to the 1960s).
2) There are a variety of slow but sure demographic and economic changes, including the growth of “knowledge industry” jobs, the rapid expansion of the Hispanic population, and a reversal of African-American outmigration, that favor Democrats in the region, as explained by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in their 2000 book, the Emerging Democratic Majority.
3) The current Republican boom in southern exurbs will almost certainly be moderated by time; new suburbs are always heavily Republican, but invariably are influenced by fears about over-development; intra-GOP factional fights; and the gradual aging and diversification of population.
I am not arguing that national Democrats need to obsessively focus on the South, and I do not believe we have to nominate a southernor for president to become competitive there, though it clearly helps. But at a time when Democrats are rightly looking at the whole map and wondering where they can reverse the Red Tide, it’s no time to “look away” from the South without considerable reflection.


Brain Food

This is another one of those occasional Sundays when it’s worth the effort to heft those fat newspapers through the front door and read them. At some point I’ll find time to check out some regional papers online, but there’s plenty of brain food in the Papers of Record, WaPo and The New York Times.
In the Post, The DLC’s Bruce Reed assesses where Democrats need to go in an Outlook column, and as usual, he says more in fewer words than about anybody in the business. His money quote about the basic lesson of the election for Democrats is typically concise: “We ran a good campaign against a bad president and still got beat.” Sad but true. Opposite Bruce’s article is one by National Review’s Kate O’Beirne, that argues rather unconvincingly that the GOP is not an ideological party, but a coalition party, in which “social liberals” like Ah-nold and Rudy have a real home. We’ll see about that in the immediate future.
Elsewhere in WaPo, there’s a front-page piece about Karl Rove that was painful to read. Written by the excellent Dan Balz and Mike Allen, it’s relatively free of puffery, but does let Rove and his friends express a DeLay-ish rejection of Democratic “demonization” of the Boy Genius, while not exactly providing a whole lot of evidence that Dems are wrong about his basic character. Sure, there’s some anecdotes about Rove’s “goofiness,” along with a photo of Rove dressing up like a hunter to mock Kerry’s goose-bagging incident in Ohio, but “goofiness” in the pursuit of the destruction of one’s political enemies is in my opinion no particular virtue. Caligula had his “goofy” and fun-loving moments as well.
Here’s the passage in the article that most disturbs me: “Those around him expect he will stay at Bush’s side for the foreseeable future. They note that his interest in policy is as deep as his interest in politics. ‘Karl sits at the intersection of politics and policy, and that’s where real power is exercised in a White House,’ said a Republican official who works closely with him.”
The one thing we know for sure about Rove is that he views policy as little more than a lever for producing political advantages. That he will remain “at the intersection of politics and policy” is a very bad if unsurprising sign about where the Bush administration is likely to go.
Over at The New York Times, Adam Nagourney provides a clear assessment of Democratic thinking about the election and its implications. The quotes from Democratic governors Janet Napolitano, Mark Warner and Jennifer Granholm are especially blunt and instructive.
In the top Times editorial, the Grey Lady usefully lays out an agenda for making voting procedures more uniform, in the accurate anticipation that interest in this subject tends to fade after each screwed-up election, until the next election, when it’s generally too late to do anything about it. The conservative warhorse Lyn Nofziger implicitly responds to O’Beirne’s WaPo piece by arguing that Bush will not be able to accomplish much of anything unless he suppresses the socially liberal and fiscally conservative views of his “coalition partners” of the GOP center, especially in Congress. And there’s lots of interesting micro-political analysis as well, especially the piece on Florida which shows that Bush won that key state by boosting both turnout and the GOP share of the vote in in exactly the places you’d expect it to happen: the panhandle and the I-4 corridor.
There’s a lot more in both papers, including Dana Milbank’s sober assessment of the chiliastic tendencies that have led Christian conservatives into such a passionate alliance with Bush, and buried in the Post book section, a review of the latest Tom Wolfe novel that shows you don’t have to be a Bible-thumper to be worried about the moral and cultural condition of American adoloscents.
All of us Donkeys are still partially in recovery, partially unwilling to think about what happened on November 2, and partially hostile to any intepretation of events that strays from the comforting line that the bad people beat the good people through evil and cynical tactics and strategy. It’s good that Dems aren’t melting down, freaking out, or going after each other with knives. But it is time to read and think.