washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

For the Tomorrow File

In eight days, John Kerry may have to replace his campaign strategy with a strategy for governing a deeply divided country. That will mean “lifting his game” to embrace a presidential message that can appeal to millions of people who didn’t vote for him.
I hope he’s keeping a “tomorrow file” of outside-the-box ideas for expanding his appeal. If so, he should definitely download Andrei Cherny’s New Republic article about a progressive, Democratic approach to the “ownership society” theme that George W. Bush has used as his signature message on domestic policy.
Cherny knows whereof he speaks. He was a speechwriter for Al Gore in 2000, and watched Bush effectively use the choice-and-competition mantra to help brand himself as a “different kind of Republican,” and to blast Gore as a big government liberal. He was also Kerry’s chief speechwriter for the pre-nomination phase of his candidacy, and has watched Bush renew the same mantra to support the same negative attack on the Democratic candidate. (Between campaigns, BTW, Cherny edited the DLC’s Blueprint magazine, and wrote a book about how Democrats needed to adjust to information-age politics and society).
In his TNR piece, Cherny lays out a compelling case that the “ownership society” ought to be progressive Democratic turf, and that Bush’s ability, however superficially and insincerely, to appropriate it is a function of Democratic negligence (born, I might add, of an obsession with seniors that ignores the long-term challenge of engaging younger voters who have trouble identifying with a party that simply defends a social insurance system created in the 1930s and 1960s).
You ought to read Cherny’s piece, and so should John Kerry, if and when he has the time to turn to bigger thoughts than winning Ohio and Florida.


October Surprises

Well, it would be weird if this campaign didn’t end weirdly, right? And there are two straws in the wind today that could be harbingers of weird things to come.
Most obviously, there’s the news from the International Atomic Energy Agency about the Iraqi interim government’s disclosure that big quantities of scary (if non-nuclear) munitions somehow vanished from a facility in a place called al Qa Qaa (can’t wait to hear George W. Bush’s pronunciation of this one!).
The initial White House reaction was basically: “Hey, Iraq’s a sovereign country now! Don’t ask us. Ask Baghdad.”
Now aside from the high probability that this stuff was lost a long time ago, the idea that U.S. military and intelligence officials don’t know what’s going on in Iraq is either hysterically ludicrous, or an inadvertant admission of incompetence. To paraphrase Scripture, not a sparrow drops to the ground in Iraq without U.S. officials at least claiming the prerogative to know about it.
It’s too early to tell if this is a development that will knock BC04 off-message and off-stride, but it bears close watching. Check out Josh Marshall for play-by-play coverage, or read Spencer Ackerman’s “Iraq’d” blog at New Republic for a quick summary.
Meanwhile, in my more paranoid moments I’ve wondered if the buzz about an al Qaeda election day attack was part of the BC04 voter suppression strategy. It didn’t help my mood to hear the President himself on Good Morning America say this about the possibility of an attack on polling locations: “I am worried about it and we should be worried about it.”


Good To Have Him Back

He’s looking a little gaunt and a little tired, but he’s right back where you’d expect to see him eight days before a close national election: Bill Clinton, campaigning with John Kerry in Philadelphia, and soon to make stops in Florida and New Mexico. With the sudden appearance of a media poll in Arkansas showing that state, too, in a dead heat, you have to figure Clinton will make a few trips home, as well.
Aside from being the only Democrat of most of our lifetimes to be elected and re-elected president, Clinton represents two reminders of the recent past that might appeal to undecided voters as well as the party faithful.
First, he represents the successful Democratic economic and fiscal record of the 1990s, which make the current incumbent’s claim that everything’s as good as could possibly be seem a bit laughable.
And second, Clinton’s a reminder that it’s possible to run for re-election as president on one’s own record, instead of staking everything on sleazy negative attacks on the opposition.
Everything about Clinton makes George W. Bush seem limited and petty, and perhaps those who hear him over the next eight days will remember how nice it was to have a president who treated Americans like grownups to be persuaded and inspired, not children to be distracted and frightened.


State of the Race

There have been long stretches in this interminable presidential election cycle in which the “newspapers of record,” the New York Times and Washington Post, have offered analysis that is gratuitously irrelevant, negligently sloppy, or just plain wrong. But this has been one weekend when turning off the TV and reading the grainy print was profitable.
The Times kicked off its Saturday coverage with a timely and chilling report on the GOP’s plans for challenging–i.e., intimidating–minority voters in Ohio and elsewhere. This devilish scheme was enabled by a weekend federal appeal court ruling that in OH, as in FL, the “provisional” ballots required by the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) for voters who do not appear on precinct registration lists will be ultimately thrown out if they are cast in the wrong location. This is a clear violation of the spirit, if not the vague letter, of HAVA.
Appropriately, the Sunday Times includes a lead editorial offering sensible reforms to make voting and vote-counting procedures uniform in the future, with the central presumption being that eligible voters should have their intentions respected, even if incompetent or malicious state or local officials make that difficult.
The Times’ Nagourney and Seelye supply a useful front-page report on the eleven remaining battleground states, noting that internal BC04 and KE04 polls show nine of them (all but Colorado and Nevada) even or close to even. This is a timely (no pun intended) rebuttal to the raft of Mason-Dixon polls released last week that predictably showed Bush doing better than expected everywhere.
The Sunday Times also offers interesting Nagourney and Busmiller takes on what will happen to each party if its candidate loses the presidency on November 2. Busmiller’s piece focuses on demolishing the fatuous idea (popular among the chattering classes during the Republican Convention in New York) that party “moderates” like John McCain, Rudy Guiliani and Arnold Schwarzenneger will take charge if Bush loses. But she underplays the “succession” crisis that will afflict the GOP’s conservative wing, which is deeply divided over the future leadership of the Party.
Over at WaPo, Mike Allen and Lois Romano sum up the race, and detect a bit of panic among the president’s people. “One Republican official described the mood at the top of the campaign as apprehensive. ‘Grim’ is too strong,’ the official said. ‘If we feel this way a week from now, that will be grim.'”
Dan Balz does a fine job on Sunday of discussing the widely varying assumptions about the composition of the electorate that undergird each candidate’s strategy, and that have created such wildly disparate poll findings. (He would have benefitted from a careful reading of the DLC’s recent analysis of “peripheral voters,” but you can’t have everything). And WaPo’s editors consume the left-hand side of the op-ed page with their endorsement of Kerry, which, like The New Republic’s endorsement last week, shows that centrists most sypathetic to Bush’s foreign policy interventionism and occasional willingness to consider entitlement reform still think his administration has been a rolling disaster, and that Kerry offers a better agenda for toughness at home and abroad.
For dessert, Dana Milbank takes a look at polls showing that Bush loyalists believe all the unbelievable things their candidate is saying, while believing unbelievable things about Bush’s own positions.
All in all, it’s a fine weekend to supplement college football with some eye-straining good gray matter.


Wolf-Pack of Lies

Today’s big buzz in Washington is over BC04’s latest ad attack on John Kerry, an early Halloween treat called “Wolves.” You can check it out yourself, but the basic idea is to charge Kerry and “Congressional Liberals” of trying to gut intelligence funding “after the first terrorist attack on America” amidst footage of a pack of wolves in a murky forest. It’s not a hundred percent clear whether the wolves are supposed to represent terrorists or liberals, but I doubt the president’s wizards really care.
Opinions are mixed about the Scare Value of the spot. Bruce Reed watched it a couple of times and said, “I dunno. After a while those wolves start looking kind of cuddly.” Maybe they should have focused-tested it with some toddlers to make sure they didn’t point at the screen and gurgle “Doggie!”
But there’s no doubt that the content of the ad is unbelievably dishonest, as Josh Marshall explains in a recent post. The ad clearly intends to suggest that Kerry’s dastardly assault on terrorist-hunting spooks occurred after 9/11. Turns out the reference is to a vote in the mid-90s, after the first attack on the World Trade Center. And Kerry’s proposal was to take back some funding that intelligence agencies were refusing to spend, at a time when he and other Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, were struggling to do something about budget deficits. And far from this being a “liberal” preoccupation, Republicans in the Senate passed a motion cutting intelligence funding at about the same time. It makes you wonder: is Zell Miller now in charge of writing Bush ad scripts?
The real irony, of course, is that Bush has been dragged kicking and screaming into what little effort he’s made to improve our intelligence efforts after 9/11. When it comes to fighting terrorists with better intelligence, the incumbent can best be described as a sheep in wolf’s clothing.


Act of Contrition

I really, sincerely, appreciate those kind readers who reacted to my post on Bush’s heretical leanings by emailing me to dispute this or that definition of Symbolism or Pelagianism, or to let me know that the Second Vatican Council overruled the Tridentine definition of Protestantism as a heresy. But before I get attacked by the Methodist Anti-Defamation League, or Fox News cites NewDonkey in a piece on Democratic hostility to born-again Christians, I should probably make something real clear:
IT WAS A SATIRE. A REALLY LONG JOKE. OKAY, MAYBE TOO LONG.
Truth is, I’m not a canon lawyer. Actually, I’m not a Roman Catholic; I’m a Protestant myself, though I do have a pronounced weakness for incense and chant and Jesuit logic. I wrote the post in about an hour, without benefit of clergy. Maybe I should have quoted Father Guido Sarducci to make the joke a little clearer.
To the extent I was trying to make any serious points, they were (a) the inquisition of John Kerry’s religious views by some conservatives is remarkably one-sided, with everybody taking it for granted that the president is a veritable Tower of Faith; yea, verily, of Everybody’s Faith, Catholic and Protestant alike; and (2) in this country at least, Christian controversy seems to be about nothing other than sexual ethics, instead of the old-fashioned arguments over the nature of God, the divine order of the universe, and the appropriate manner of worshipping one’s Creator, which is what Christians fought and often died over for most of the last 2,000 years. I’m glad we’re not burning each other any more, but I’m not sure the shift in emphasis from God to us is an improvement.
But in any event, to anyone who was somehow offended by the humorous treatment of religious subject-matter, I offer a perfect act of contrition, if not a firm purpose of amendment. Which reminds me of a great Methodist joke (for all I know, it may be the only Methodist joke):
Two friends, one Baptist, one Methodist, agreed to attend each other’s church. The first Sunday they worshipped with the Baptists, and the Methodist asked a few pertinent questions about the choice of hymns, the purpose of the large baptismal font, etc. The next Sunday, after the Methodist service, the Baptist told his friend he had just one question. “Who’s this John Wesley you keep talking about?” The Methodist, visibly shocked, replied: “Who’s John Wesley? Read your Bible, man! Read your Bible!”
Thus endeth today’s lesson.


The Kerry Conspiracy To Sell Out Israel

Catholics aren’t the only faith community being urged to vote for George W. Bush as an act of group loyalty. Republicans have spent a lot of time telling Jewish Americans they owe the incumbent a vote because of his staunch support for an embattled Israeli government.
This is a Republican pitch that dates back to Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign, in which Karl Rove cut his teeth. And indeed, Republicans were making some slow progress in reducing Democratic margins among Jews until the administration of Daddy Bush, whose Secretary of State, James Baker, oversaw a Middle East policy that seemed, well, like about what you’d expect from a guy who thought about oil 24-7 (it’s no accident that Baker has been relegated to the role of political fixer by Bush the Younger).
But what the hey, you can’t blame BC04 for giving the political conversion of the Jews the ol’ college try. They are, after all, working uphill against a mistrust of the political Right–and especially of the theocratic political Right–among Jews that was earned over a millenium or so.
Proving once again that nobody even remotely connected with the president’s re-election effort can stay positive for any length of time, the ever-angry conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer today tossed a real screwball into the discussion: John Kerry’s going to sell out Israel!

This is, shall we say, a rather counter-intuitive argument. Kerry, after all, has a twenty-year record in the Senate of unflinching support for Israel; even Zell Miller wouldn’t dare claim otherwise. Two of Kerry’s grandparents were Jewish. His one significant difference of opinion with the incumbent on Israeli-Palestinian issues is that he has promised to become more personally involved.
Krauthammer’s reasoning can be boiled down to this: Kerry wants to make nice with Europeans. Europeans don’t like Israel. Thus, Kerry will “sacrifice Israel” in order to make his Euroweenie buddies feel all warm and cuddly inside. Open and shut case, all right.
To be fair, Krauthammer isn’t necessarily singling out Kerry for abuse. As his long-time readers know, he pretty much suspects everybody, including most Israelis, of a conscious or subconscious willingness to betray Israel. Perhaps this is just an occupational hazard of being a psychiatrist-turned-pundit. Or maybe it’s an example of the old saying that if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But Krauthammer’s argument is not exactly bolstered by his bitter tangent blasting Bill Clinton for his willingness to negotiate with Yasir Arafat. I know it’s been a while, but if I remember correctly, Clinton agreed to deal with the blood-stained old kleptocrat precisely because that’s what every Israeli government of the period wanted him to do. And Clinton was, and remains, very popular among Israelis, who haven’t quite bought Krauthammer’s line that the 42d president was working hard to sell them down the river.
In any event, GOPers would be well advised to stick to the positive case for Bush’s Middle East policies, as part of a positive case for Jewish support. Rabbi Daniel Lapin of the American Alliance of Christians and Jews recently argued (in a piece optimistically entitled American Jews Will Support Bush!) that support for Israel “springs from the heartland of the United States as a reflection of the deep commitment to Judeo-Christian values felt by so many people in the United States. President Bush personifies that commitment which is starting to make so many Jews feel comfortable with his party.” Yes, it’s yet another argument that seeks to identify Bush with qualities properly attributed to the country as a whole–a claim that would be a bit more compelling if he were not a deeply divisive president waging a deeply divisive campaign for re-election. But at least the Rabbi isn’t trying to smear John Kerry–and by implication, every Democrat–for anti-Zionist sentiments so secret that they don’t even exist.


Are Catholics Shifting to Kerry?

As Steve Waldman explains in a beliefnet.com article, there’s evidence in a new Pew Poll that Catholic voters–for whom Karl Rove lusts like the faithful lust for righteousness–may be shifting towards their co-religionist John Kerry, despite, or perhaps even because, of the highly visible efforts of some conservative bishops to instruct otherwise.
Here at NewDonkey, of course, I’d like to think my recent analysis of George W. Bush’s heretical leanings is responsible for the shift. But that would be an example of what beneficiaries of a solid Catholic education surely recognize as a post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) logical fallacy, similar to the error in reasoning made by those who credit the President’s foreign policies for the failure of al Qaeda to strike the United States since 9/11.
As for the theory that Catholics are returning to the party of the earlier JFK, we’ll know on November 2, when the votes are in and res ipsa loquitur (the facts will speak for themselves).


Who Has the Right To Vote?

I observed in a post the other day that when Republicans talk about “voter fraud,” they are typically not talking about illegal voters or ballot-box stuffing, but about perfectly eligible voters who fail to figure out and overcome official acts of incompetence or malice, such as complicated ballots and registration forms, voter registrar errors, or poorly advertised changes in polling places.
Leave it to George Will to offer a High Tory rationalization for this shoddy way of thinking about the right to vote. In his WaPo column today, Will suggests the belief that eligible voters should get every benefit of the doubt in registration and vote-counting decisions is emblematic of the “liberal” refusal to understand that rights carry responsibilities.
This is pretty rich coming from a columnist who recently penned an obsequious ode to the power and glory of the NRA, an organization notable for its belief that the right to bear arms is absolute, excluding even the most common-sense safety limitations, even if there’s a little collateral damage now and then in terms of kids killed by gun accidents or square citizens blown away by crazy people.
Hypocrisy aside, Will’s “rights and responsibilities” rap on voting doesn’t pass the smell test. Burdening the exercise of fundamental rights of citizenship with “responsibilities” that don’t contribute to any positive public good is a very dangerous practice. Sure, voters could spend days doing research into stupid ballot designs, redundant requirements for proof of eligibility, changes in precincts and voting locations, “provisional” ballot rules, redistrictings and (in Texas, at least) re-redistrictings, and every other official decision that might affect their votes. But who, exactly, would suffer from safeguard measures aimed at ensuring to the maximum extent possible that eligible voters get to express their actual intent? Incompetent election officials? Partisans interested in suppressing certain categories of votes? Republican candidates for office?
Will sniffs that “voter carelessness” should righteously bear the “condign punishment of an unrecorded preference.” Who is he to say what represents “voter carelessness?” I personally think people who vote for George W. Bush because they think he’s kept America safe from another terrorist attack are being pretty damn “careless,” but you don’t see me trying to impose actual knowledge of the president’s record as a “responsibility” that must be discharged before they exercise their right to vote.
Back when conservative columnists set higher standards for themselves, William F. Buckley, Jr., used to frankly argue for “placing potholes” between voters and the ballot box on grounds that a restricted franchise would yield a more determined and educated electorate. That was an honest, if benighted viewpoint. If George Will agrees with it, he should say so, instead of claiming that clear and uniform policies aimed at letting voters vote are the civic equivalent of riotous libertinism. His own careless reasoning should earn him the “condign punishment” of a snort of dismissal.


Welcome To the Zoo

Well, it’s now official, or perhaps I should say unofficial (since, like NewDonkey, the site is unofficially sponsored by the DLC). Marshall Wittmann’s deservedly notorious Bull Moose Blog is back up, and it’s good to see that he hasn’t lost his distinctive voice, or his ability to run crashing through the thickets of contemporary politics. I urge everybody who enjoys NewDonkey to visit the Moose early and often. After all, the Moose drives Karl Rove absolutely crazy, and strong traffic numbers may distract The Dark Lord of BC04 from whatever devilment he’s up to in the home stretch of this campaign.
In honor of Marshall’s inaugural posts, I have conjured up from the memory banks a bit of anonymous doggerel from the 1912 Teddy Roosevelt campaign that I read at some point during the last thirty years:
I want to be a Bull Moose
And with the Bull Moose stand
With antlers on my forehead
And a big stick in my hand.

Welcome to the Zoo!