washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Three Votes and a Cloud of Dust

Throughout this election cycle, spinmeisters from both parties have regularly boasted “their team” was going to have a big advantage in the “ground game” of turning out voters on Election Day (or even before that, in the case of absentee ballot voters). For the most part, media types have blandly reported both sides’ claims, creating the impression that Democratic and Republican GOTV efforts would cancel each other out.
Finally, somebody went out and checked.
On the front page of the Sunday NYT, Ford Fessenden reports on a Times study of registration numbers in the two most crucial battleground states, Ohio and Florida. And it confirms two things I’ve felt strongly about, but had little more than anecdotal evidence to support: (1) this is going to be a high-turnout election (which in itself is helpful to Democrats), and (2) Democrats are way, way ahead in the ground game.
I won’t go through the numbers; you should read the whole story yourself. But they are overwhelming in Ohio. In Florida, the Democratic advantage is equally striking, but the actual number of new voters being registered is much lower, for a very obvious reason: stormy weather. And that, too, is a special problem for the GOP, since Republican-leaning areas of the state have been hardest-hit. It’s kinda hard to run phone banks or send emails (much less run television ads) in places with no electricity or phone service. Parts of the Florida panhandle will be literally dark for weeks, even if the horrific wave of hurricanes finally ends. The same problems, of course, make accurate polling difficult, so we should all take any Florida polls with a large shaker of salt over the next couple of weeks.
Even the Times report slips over the line from empirical data to partisan mythology in citing Republican ground-game success in 2002 as an indication that the GOP may do better than the Ohio and Florida registration figures suggest. As always, the example used is Georgia, where Ralph Reed got a chance to test-drive the GOP’s state-of-the-art “72 Hours of Hell” (or whatever it’s called) GOTV effort, producing upset wins in Senate and gubernatorial races.
I know a little bit about Georgia, and it’s clear to me that the 2002 Republican GOTV effort in that state is not generally replicable in battleground states across the country.
What happened in Georgia is that the massive growth of Atlanta’s exurban communities gave Republicans something they’ve rarely had in the past and still don’t have in most parts of the country: heavy geographical concentrations of conservative voters where a big uptick on total turnout guarantees a large partisan harvest, just like the minority neighborhoods that have long given Democrats a better reason to invest in GOTV.
Georgia Republicans figured that out, flooded the exurbs with every dollar and every knock-and-drag technique imaginable, and won.
Republicans may be able to use the same techniques to boost their turnout in states like Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Florida, though there are pro-Democratic demographic trends in all four states that may be equally or even more significant.
But states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin, simply don’t have the kind of massive exurban growth that makes Republican GOTV investments pay off so handsomely. And even in states like Minnesota that do have rapid exurban growth, it’s worth noting that non-sunbelt exurbs are not as culturally conservative, or as overwhelmingly Republican, as those in the South and parts of the West.
I think it’s increasingly clear that if Kerry (and other Democrats in battleground states) are two or three points behind on November 1, they might still win. Getting to the point where the “ground game” can be decisive, however, means succeeding in the “air war” of convincing persuadable voters to smile upon the donkey.

Don’t Go There

The GOP strategy for responding to John Kerry’s sharp and forceful critique of administration policy in Iraq is pretty clear by now: (1) it’s another Kerry flip-flop; he’s now decided to condemn the train of events that inevitably flowed from his vote for a use-of-force resolution back in 2002; and (2) Kerry has now joined the anti-war forces that opposed any action against Saddam Hussein, and cannot be trusted to use military force in future threats to our security. In other words, their argument is that John Kerry has morphed into Howard Dean, if not Michael Moore.
This argument is hardly surprising, given BC04’s determination to wrap Iraq into the war on terror, and everything that’s happened in Iraq into the response to 9/11. It’s a simple and seductive pitch, given all the confusing events of the last three years: you’re either with Bush in resolutely using force against all these crazy Arabs, or you’re not.
Unfortunately, this dynamic creates a strong temptation for anti-war Democrats to help make that very case. The best example is today’s column by NYT’s Maureen Dowd, who complains that Kerry’s still talking about how Bush dealt with Saddam, instead of simply condemning the very idea of the war. “When Mr. Kerry says it was the way the president went about challenging Saddam that was wrong, rather than the fact that he challenged Saddam, he’s sidestepping the central moral issue…. It wasn’t the way W. did it. It was what he did. ”
In effect, speaking for those Democrats who were “right from the beginning” on Iraq, Dowd’s demanding that Kerry bend the knee and explicitly say: “I was wrong. You were right.”
Most anti-war Democrats aren’t, so far as I can tell, following Dowd’s lead, though some probably hope Kerry will explicitly concede their case. If so, they would be well advised to keep that thought to themselves, for four very good reasons:
(1) A retroactive debate on the use-of-force resolution is inevitably an exercise in extremely hypothetical speculation. Kerry’s said throughout the campaign he would have done everything differently with respect to Iraq. And that’s undoubtedly true. But there’s no way to know what, exactly, an administration less blinded by ideology, less arrogant in its ignorance, less hostile to traditional alliances and international institutions, and less hell-bent on war might have ultimately done about Saddam. Perhaps a Kerry (or Gore) administration would have found a way to rally the U.N. into a determination to enforce its own long series of resolutions demanding Iraqi compliance with the conditions imposed on it after the Gulf War, and convinced Saddam Hussein to abandon his insane effort to avoid verification of his non-existent WMD program. Perhaps a different president would have ultimately used force, but with far more international support and less “collateral damage” in Iraq, and across the Muslim world. We don’t, and can’t know. That’s why we don’t, and can’t know whether there was any viable option to the authoriztion of force in 2002.
(2) The case against Bush’s Iraq policies in no way depends on accepting the premise that the whole idea of confronting Saddam was a mistake. There are plenty of Democrats, independents, and even Republicans who supported the decision to confront and attack Saddam who think the administration’s policies since then are a rolling ball of madness. Nothing in Michael Moore’s multimedia assault on Bush’s Iraq policies can compare in vivid argument and righteous indignation with the latest editorial of the strongly pro-war New Republic. Lord knows the DLC has heaped abuse on Bush for the same reasons. And the recent statements by Republican senators–all of them strong supporters of the decision to topple Saddam–about the fantasy land of administration claims of steady progress on Iraq are the most compelling arguments of all. Must all of these Bush critics–including Kerry’s running mate, his top foreign policy advisors, the embattled Senate Democratic leader, and most Democratic candidates in competitive races all over the country–be forced to say there were actually no circumstances in which the use of force against Saddam might be justified? The question answers itself.
(3) The public consistently rejects an all-or-nothing choice about Iraq. As documented in another lucid post by John Belisarius on Ruy Teixeira’s Donkey Rising blog, a consistent majority of Americans support the decision to invade Iraq as “the right decision,” and also deplore the results as “a mistake.” Sounds like the high ground is one that deplores the mistaken results, while at least being open to the belief that the decision to invade was if not “right,” then defensible.
(4) Democrats simply don’t get cut much slack on national security. As Al From often says, the question voters have about Republican candidates is: “Do they have the compassion to care?” The question voters have about Democratic candidates is: “Do they have the toughness to govern?” After 9/11, the second question is crucial. There is absolutely nothing about John Kerry’s biography, record, or agenda that suggests he’s not tough enough to govern, or tough enough to defend his country, though the GOP has tried mightily to distort his biography, record and agenda to suggest otherwise. The one thing that would clinch the argument for BC04 is pressure from Democrats to undermine Kerry’s repeated pledge that he will never hesitate to use military force to defend his country and its interests.
So: anti-war Democrats would be wise to let Kerry be Kerry, and not demand that he become somebody else. Democrats can and will disagree about who was right and who was wrong in the use-of-force resolution two years ago. But they agree about where we are now, where Bush’s policies have taken us, and where each candidate is likely to go in the next four years. They should stay focused on the here and now, and softly chant to themselves, don’t go there, when the incumbent tries to return the debate to decisions made before his incompetent stewardship of both Iraq and the war on terror became obvious.

Ends and Means, Part II

What a buzzkill for the House GOP. Just when they were getting ready to pop the balloons and cut the cake in celebration of the ten-year anniversary of the Contract With America, word came in that a Texas Grand Jury had indicted three of Tom DeLay’s closest political associates for a variety of campaign law violations.
I don’t have any specific dirt on The Hammer, but the indictments strike pretty close to DeLay’s big homestate project back in 2002: getting enough Republicans elected to the Texas legislature to give the GOP control, thus paving the way for the Great Texas Power Grab of 2003. In case you missed it, that was the DeLay-driven re-redistricting of Texas Congressional seats aimed at ginning up as many as six new Republican House members in 2004. It took a lot of cash, a lot of long-distance phone calls from Washington to Austin, a lot of scrambling around by Texas Rangers to track down Democratic legislators seeking to block the Grab by deyning a quorum. But by God, the Hammer got his new Congressional map. And it turns out some of his buddies may have gotten too zealous in shaking down Texas business people to put the plot into motion.
Now, of course, DeLay and his House colleagues are denouncing the indictments as a Democratic conspiracy, even as they deny he had any idea what his friends were up to. I know it’s hard to believe that a guy like DeLay is a detail hound or a control freak when it comes to achieving his most cherished political goals. I know he’s never raised any suspicions that he expects business groups to join “our team” and pony up dough if they want to play ball. And clearly, the Texas investigation is a lot more blatantly trumped up and partisan than, say, a vast multi-year hunt, employing hundreds of federal agents and costing tens of millions in taxpayer dollars, to find something illegal about an old Arkansas land deal.
But hypocrisy is not an indictable offense. If DeLay’s really clean on this one, he should stick to that story and lay off the demonization of anybody who dares suggest he might have gone over the line. And Republicans should not be so hasty to accept that anyone who serves the holy cause of controlling Congress forever is by definition righteous, while his critics are by definition corrupt.
In their recent tendency to confuse ends and means, today’s Republicans call to mind a Georgia governor of my early youth in the Jim Crow south, Marvin Griffin, who invariably attacked anyone questioning his frequent ethical lapses as a secret agent of the NAACP. Charlie Pou, who was then political editor of the Atlanta Journal, referred to Griffin’s argument as: “If you ain’t for stealing, you ain’t for segregation.” Just goes to show that dubious means are most often found in the service of dubious ends.

Is It OK To Stop Panicking Yet?

The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Bush up 3 among RVs, up 4 among LVs, pretty much where they had the thing a month ago. A new Democracy Corps poll has the race tied. A new poll sponsored by The Economist has Kerry up 1. The latest poll from Investors’ Business Daily and the Christian Science Monitor has Kerry up 1. A new batch of state polls from ARG has Kerry up in states with a majority of the electoral votes.
I’m just wondering: is it okay to conclude that the race is pretty much even, which is where it’s been on average most of this year, and where just about everybody figured it would wind up? Or do we have to wait for the next CNN/USAToday/Gallup poll to finally concur with everyone else?
Look, I have plenty of respect for The Gallup Organization, but it’s been showing Bush doing better than other polls for months, and its most recent polls have been extreme outliers in suggesting a huge Bush lead. The reason is very clear: Gallup is showing that Republicans will make up a larger percentage of the electorate than they have in any recent cycle. I don’t buy it, and neither, apparently, does any other polling outfit.

Gender Bending

The “gender gap” is such an enduring factor in American politics that for a long time it became one of those things people don’t even bother to think about. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus; Men care about money and guns; women care about health care and education; Republicans are the Daddy Party, Democrats are the Mommy Party, bark bark woof woof.
That started to change after the 2002 elections, when analysts noted the gender gap had dramatically shrunk, with Democrats winning women by a slender 2 percent. Thence was born the legend of “security moms”–married women with kids whose voting priorities were profoundly altered by the trauma of 9/11.
After the 9/11-haunted and security-saturated Republican National Convention gave George W. Bush a much-improved showing among women in several polls, “security moms” quickly pulled ahead of “NASCAR dads” in the Winston Cup standings for the dominant political cliche of the 2004 electoral cycle.
The New York Times’ Katharine Seelye summarized the current Democratic anxiety about “security moms,” but may have missed a crucial distinction about the kinds of security issues that are driving these women back and forth between the candidates and the parties.
The best analysis of what makes “security moms” tick remains Garance Franke-Ruta’s April 2003 Washington Monthly essay, “Homeland Security Is For Girls.” In a masterpiece of the-personal-is-the-political analysis, Franke-Ruta began by observing that the duct-tape shoppers that surrounded her in the crowded Home Depot checkout lines during the first big Code Orange terrorism scare were overwhelmingly women. She went on to suggest that protection of the home against potential terrorist attacks–homeland security in the literal sense–is not a distraction from the traditional priorities of women, but an extension of them at a time when when war has become a domestic issue.
Franke-Ruta digressed a bit to take a few choice shots at the men who delegated Code Orange responsibilities to “the little woman at home,” while staying glued to SportsCenter. But her analysis still makes intuitive sense, and also helps explain some of the high-stakes partisan maneuvering this year to frame this or that issue as part of or separate from the war begun on 9/11.
Viewed from a gender perspective, the Kerry-Edwards “A Stronger America Begins At Home” slogan suggests that “security moms” don’t really have to choose between health care, jobs and personal safety. The Bush-Cheney effort to re-brand the Iraq war as an integral part of the immediate response to 9/11, rather than as a “war of choice” aimed at deposing a tyrant, was clearly targeted to voters, and especially women, who otherwise might be nearly as alarmed at the vision of Americans dying in Iraq as the memory of Americans dying in New York or at the Pentagon. And Kerry’s latest decision to focus on a critique of conditions in Iraq is arguably an effort to isolate “Bush’s war” from the war on terrorism, and perhaps even label it as a contributor to the terrorist risk.
My personal recommendation to Kerry’s wizards is that there is a rich lode to mine in Bush’s overall stewardship of national security, including the war on terror itself, and his incompetent management of the chaos in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, shredding the president’s claim that we’re safe and secure–not to mention prosperous and united–is his hands is the trump card, for “security moms,” and for everyone else.

Split Decision

With growing signs that the presidential race is beginning to tighten up again, you can expect the punditocracy to get back into the ol’ 2000 mindframe of looking at small factors in individual states that might be decisive in a nailbiter, instead of all the Big Trends that have dominated the news over the last few weeks. One of the more fascinating small factors is the ballot initiative in Colorado that would split the state’s nine electoral votes proportionately according to the popular vote.
On the assumption that Bush is likely to win Colorado (not an unreasonable assumption since Democrats have carried the state just once since 1964), the reaction to the initiative has generally broken down along party lines, with Republicans screeching against it as a nefarious plot to steal 4 EVs for Kerry. Indeed, CO Republican governor Bill Owens has been leading the charge against the initiative.
But so far Colorado voters seem to be evaluating the initiative on its merits rather than its potential impact this year. A poll released today by the Pueblo Chieftain showed the initiative ahead among likely voters by a 51-31 margin. If that’s the baseline, GOPers are going to have to decide exactly how much time and money they want to spend explaining and attacking an eminently reasonable-sounding initiative at a time when their presidential, Senate, and House candidates in the state are not exactly kicking ass.
Their fallback position is a legal challenge to the initiative on grounds that it would “retroactively” apply to an election held the same day. But as we were all reminded in 2000, electoral votes are not actually cast until December. Stay tuned.

Grover the Top

Every time I think that conservative super-lobbyist and “starve the beast” theoretician Grover Norquist has finally reached the maximum feasible level of provocative craziness, he finds a way to ratchet his rhetoric up another notch. Last year’s “bipartisanship is another name for date rape” quip was pretty far off the charts. But thanks to Daily Kos (who posted a translation of the piece), Grover’s outdone himself again in an op-ed for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. Why is he upbeat about the political future of “our team” as against the hated Democratic opposition? Let him explain.

Each year, 2 million people who fought in the Second World War and lived through the Great Depression die. This generation has been an exeception in American history, because it has defended anti-American policies. They voted for the creation of the welfare state and obligatory military service. They are the base of the Democratic Party. And they are dying. And, at the same time, all the time more Americans have stocks. That makes them defend the interests of business, because it is their own interest. Because of that, it’s impossible to bring to the fore policies of social hate, of class warfare.

Now it’s no secret that Grover’s one of those people who not only wants to win elections against Democrats, but would just as soon see us all dead. But it’s uncharacteristic of him to rely on Demographic Destiny to kill off the Greatest Generation and destroy the Democratic Party base. I figure Grover wants to be the angry executioner, not just the cheerful pallbearer.
It would all be pretty funny if it weren’t for the fact that Norquist is a close friend of Karl Rove, an important ally of George W. Bush, the evil genius behind the K Street Strategy, and perhaps the biggest dog in the conservative activist kennel.

Two Plus Two Equals–Democrats!

With Capitol Hill so listless that staffers are sneaking out of Washington to work in campaigns “instead of miming the motions of work in a Congress that’s on legislative autopilot,” as Hans Nichols put it in The Hill newspaper today, Republican House Members are occupying themselves with an effort to supress or perhaps just pre-spin an impending CBO report showing more bad news on the budget if the president’s policies are implemented.
According to a Ben Pershing report in (subscription-only) Roll Call today, an aide to House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-IA) sent around a memo warning that the new report, which was requested by Committee Democrats, “will be immediately used solely for political purposes.” But here’s the interesting part of Mead’s whine: “The majority or minority staff can easily calculate these deficit projections on their own using CBO’s data provided to us. However, I suspect the reason CBO is being asked to do the math is to lend the all-important seal of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to their partisan calculations.”
Hmmmm. It’s just a matter of doing the math, but doing the math means a “partisan calculation.” I know Republicans tend to think that scientists are biased towards the views of godless liberals; that’s why the Bush administration is stacking federal science panels with conservative ideologues. But now, it appears, they have to do something to deal with the Democratic conspiracy that suffuses mathematics as well. No wonder they don’t care about fiscal arithmetic.

You Don’t Have To Be Christian To Be a Deacon

In my post on Zell Miller’s latest ukase against the Georgia Democrats he’s abandoned, I failed to note that the zany senator referred to former president Jimmy Carter, former U.S. representative Ben Jones, and current state Democratic Party chairman Bobby Kahn as “a Board of Deacons for Democratic Disaster.”
Kahn informed me by email that “my rabbi has congratulated me on becoming a Deacon.”

You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Love Leon

If you’ve been reading The New Republic as long as I have, you’re probably aware that the magazine has gone through a lot of changes in editorial and political direction over the last two decades. But one of the constants, since 1983, has been TNR’s “back of the book”–its literary and cultural commentary, edited by Leon Wieseltier.
Like many TNR regulars, I sometimes find Wieseltier’s editorial decisions a bit esoteric. I’m frankly not interested in modern dance, sculpture, or the latest developments in the echo chambers of literary criticism or neo-Freudian psychology. But hey, you can’t please or stimulate everybody.
Leon’s own writing is often difficult and occasionally too self-consciously ironic. But when he’s on, he’s on, and no one in the world of quasi-political analysis is his equal in exposing the moral hazards of political rhetoric. He provides another fine example in the current TNR, in a brief, elegant, and passionate essay about the settler-driven backlash on the Israeli Right against Ariel Sharon’s effort to withdraw from Gaza.
Here’s a sample:

It is certainly the case that the right to Nablus and the right to Tel Aviv is the same right–a right, after all, pertains to the whole; but Palestinians have this right too, which is why partition of the land, territorial compromise, the widom of the founders of the Jewish state who prevailed over the ideological ancestors of the indignant irredentists of today, remains the only answer, because it signifies an agreement to suspend the rhetoric of rights, which is the rhetoric of war.

Wieseltier’s detractors would undoubtedly observe that this is a very, very long sentence, which would take half a chalkboard to diagram. But it’s worth unpacking, because it’s packed with important and inter-related insights. And in the end, if you understand each phrase, you understand a lot more about the Zionist case for the recognition of a Palestinian State. And you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate that.