washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore


While watching my Georgia Bulldogs demolish LSU this weekend, I couldn’t help but think about the last time I watched these two teams play. ‘Twas early December of last year, and I was visiting a friend of mine who was working for John Kerry in New Hampshire. This was the absolute nadir of the Kerry campaign; he was trailing HoDean by more than 30 points in NH, and had just begun to shift staff and money to Iowa in a high-stakes gamble to revive his candidacy there. The Boston press was pounding its junior senator day in and day out, and every sign pointed to a humiliating defeat.
Kerry’s staffers were putting on a brave front, and were still working insane hours (I watched my friend spend 30 minutes in a restaurant trying to talk our waitress into attending one of those ubiquitous firehouse chili dinners). But there was a smell of death about the whole thing.
Thanks to a blizzard that shut the campaign down for a day, I was able to talk my buddy and a couple of other pols into watching the SEC championship game. It was a brutal LSU wipeout, just not competitive at all, made worse by the fact that we ran out of food and beer during the first quarter. I left Manchester the next day feeling like I had escaped the Village of the Damned.
It’s hard to believe that was just ten months ago. The recent brief swoon of the Kerry campaign–which has apparently ended–was laughably minor compared to what it went through just weeks before its Iowa and New Hampshire wins. The cliche is that Kerry is a “good closer.” Where I come from, we’d say his campaign is a fourth-quarter football team.
P.S.–Let me be clear that no, I am suggesting any ties between the University of Georgia football team and John Kerry, or between LSU and George W. Bush (or Howard Dean, for that matter). I actually love the “Gret Stet of Loosiana” and all its honorable traditions of both football and politics.

Gallup Makes It Officially a New Race

In case you missed it, the new Gallup/USA Today/CNN poll (taken October 1-3–after the first presidential debate) has Kerry and Bush tied at 49 among LVs. The last Gallup had Bush up 8; the one before that showed a 13-point Bush lead.
This is significant because Gallup has consistently shown Bush as stronger than most other pollsters, sparking a big debate in the blogosphere about its partisan weighting scheme and other geeky controversies.
The poll’s internals include two especially interesting findings. Most of the “character” and “issues” questions show a modest, but not dramatic, trend towards Kerry since the last Gallup. But the poll asked two new “character” questions: which candidate “expresses himself more clearly” (Kerry 54, Bush 41) and “is intelligent” (Kerry 48, Bush 38, with 11 saying “both” and 1 saying “neither”). Could it be that some Americans are beginning to think it might be a good idea to have an articulate and intelligent president? How French of them!
The new Gallup also shows that Camp Kerry decisively won the post-debate spin wars. On the night of the debate, Gallup found that Americans thought Kerry won the contest by a 57-37 margin. In the latest poll, the margin grew to 59-25.
Everything about this poll suggests a dead-even race. It will be interesting to see if Gallup is again an outlier in showing Bush doing relatively well. The next batch o’ polls should give us an idea.

Anti-Government Incumbents

I noted in my last post that the fall-back attack line the GOP is pursuing on Kerry and Edwards in addition to the “flip-flop” charge is to accuse the Democrats of being old-fashioned tax-and-spend, Big Government liberals who are also weak on defense. But while these would appear to be logically inconsistent charges, there is a theme that connects them: Democrats are the party of Washington, where Big Government and duplicity go hand in hand. This theme, moreover, enables Bush to avoid responsibility for the performance of the federal government on his watch, and to pose once again as a “reformer” struggling against high odds to fix the mess on the Potomac.
From any objective point of view, this line of argument is truly grotesque. Republicans completely control the executive and legislative branches of the federal government (and arguably, viz. Bush v. Gore, the judicial branch as well). And they are running Washington with a degree of partisanship, ideological zeal, and power-lust that exceeds the worst excesses of the long period of Democratic control. The GOPers have deliberately engineered budget deficits through both tax and spending policies. The size of the federal workforce is rising again after declining during the Clinton years, even if you don’t count the explosion of federal contractors. Both these trends are reflected in the robust economy of the DC area, where the theme song of Republican rule could be Happy Days Are Here Again.
So: why isn’t every Democratic candidate for federal office railing against those WashingtonRepublicans? It’s a mystery even deeper than Al Gore’s reluctance to run on the successful record of his own administration in 2000. I discuss this anomaly incessantly with a wide array of Republicans (who chuckle happily about it) and Democrats, and have heard two basic theories. One is that Democrats believe government is “their” institution, even if they don’t control it. The other is that they believe bashing Washington will discourage the Democratic “base,” and have decided instead to bash corporations like Enron and Halliburton.
I hope the first theory isn’t true, because it actually reinforces the Republican claim to be the anti-Washington party, even as they swell with the power and influence of controlling Washington top to bottom. And the second theory reflects an understanding of the electorate that’s simply wrong.
As a soon-to-be-released DLC study will show, both independent voters and “peripheral” voters (those who often don’t vote but might–i.e., the object of Democratic turnout efforts) lean towards Democrats in favoring an activist government that tries to address big national challenges. But they also are hostile to government as an institution, and want to be reassured that government can be made efficient and responsible for results. In other words, exploiting Republican control of a big, fat, debt-ridden government that doesn’t accomplish much of anything is a message that helps Democrats with both of their big targets in this election cycle.
The DLC has long argued that Democrats need to understand that anti-government populism trumps anti-corporate populism, every day of the week. But this year, Democrats don’t have to choose: Republicans are using big government to entrench economic privilege. The GOP is on the horns of a dilemma, and Democrats would be smart to keep them there rather than letting them pretend they care about Big Business more than the Big Government they have placed at its service.
Perhaps the sheer hubris of Republican claims of hostility to Washington will wake Democrats up to the political opportunity they have been given, and to the political liability they invite if they pretend the federal government is still “theirs.” Letting a party led by George W. Bush, Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum pose as brave reformers of a corrupt Imperial City is just plain wrong.

Back to the Beginning

Sorry for the absence of posts over the last two days. I was at this Fiscal New Year party, and things got out of hand, and the bail bondsman wouldn’t answer his cell phone…. No, I’m joking. I’ve been moving since Thursday, and am finally back online amidst boxes, cleaning supplies, and a menagerie of disoriented cats and dogs.
Bailing out of the chattering classes for a couple of days enables me to hit the refresh button and look at the presidential race without the distraction of all the post-debate spin. It looks like, at long last, we’re back to where things stood in April or May, before the pre-Boston Kerry Surge and the post-New York Bush Surge had people thinking this thing might not be a nail-biter after all. Kerry’s focus is Bush’s record at home and abroad. Bush’s focus, just as it was in the spring, is the endless pounding of Kerry as a flip-flopper. Bush’s approval ratings have gone up slightly, but the closer we get to November 2, the harder it will be to raise them further. And it continues to appear this will be a high-turnout election where Democrats have an advantage in the ability to selectively boost turnout.
The only enduring trend since the spring that favors Bush is the narrowing of the battleground. Kerry has more “must-win” battleground states than the incumbent, including one (Wisconsin) where Bush seems to have a really surprising lead. Ohio and Florida remain the big prizes. There’s some evidence Kerry has closed the gap in Ohio after a couple of weeks of polls showing a large Bush lead. And no one really knows what’s going on in water-logged and distracted Florida.
The one thing that’s clear about the two remaining presidential debates, and the veep debate on Tuesday, is that Kerry and Edwards have an inherently easier mission than the incumbents. They must simply rebut the flip-flop charge, without falling into the trap of the GOP’s backup attack theme, that they are tax-and-spend big government liberals who are weak on defense. Bush and Cheney must deal with their record, and with the objective reality that record has produced. That’s much more of an immovable object.

First Debate: Advantage Kerry

The debate was on Bush’s strongest turf. The rules of engagement were tailored to favor him. He had far less to lose than the challenger, and was operating under far fewer restraints and risks. He had the famous likability factor working for him.
Yet by almost any standard, the first debate was a Kerry win, and perhaps more importantly, showed Bush flustered and defensive in dealing with the topic everybody knew would be central, Iraq.
In terms of style points, everybody knows Bush gets cut a lot of slack by Americans, but this was probably the least effective debate performance of his career. He, not Kerry, rambled on with long sentences and kept going when the red light went on (until towards the end, when he seemed to run out of gas with time left over). He, not Kerry, displayed condescending body language towards his opponent. (Even the infamous Bush smirk, repressed for so very long, made a surprise appearance.) He, not Kerry, lapsed into insider references and tried to show off his knowledge of foreign people and places. And most of all, he, not Kerry, was hostile, partisan, and defensive in demeanor. I don’t know who has advised Bush to refer to Kerry as “my opponent” rather than “Senator Kerry,” but it really stood out after a while.
On substance, Kerry laid out a credible overall strategy for the war on terror, a credible defense of his positions on Iraq, and a tough critique of administration foreign policy. It was notable how often he contrasted Bush’s positions with those of his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and at one juncture, with the president’s own father. And it was clear his aim, which he largely accomplished, was to focus on widespread unhappiness with how things have gone in Iraq, where Bush once again could not recall a single mistake or offer a single change in policy.
There were a couple of moments when I thought Kerry could have turned a win into a rout: offered a chance to list the administration’s miscalculations on Iraq, he dwelled too much on the original decision to go to war and didn’t get around to Bush’s more recent mistakes, including the reliance on exile politicians, the overerstimation of Shia support for a long occupation, and the endless “mixed messages” sent to insurgents. And speaking of “mixed messages,” I wish Kerry had mentioned Bush’s flip-flops on the Department of Homeland Security and intelligence reform.
But all in all, Kerry won on substance as well as style. I was particularly impressed with his focus on nuclear proliferation (though again, the discussion of Putin gave him a chance to point out that loose nukes in Russia never seems to be a topic of discussion between W. and his buddy Vladimir), an issue where Bush and Cheney’s record directly contradicts their claim of understanding this as the most important threat to our security. And I was also impressed by his commitment to send, if necessary, U.S. troops to stop the genocide in Sudan, after pointing out that Bush’s over-commitment of U.S. troops elsehwere has made this very difficult.
The President’s sole aim in this debate appeared to be to endlessly contrast his sense of certainty and resolution with the “mixed messages” Kerry has sent on Iraq. Kerry scored especially well in pointing out that it was possible to be “certain but wrong.” And I have no idea why Bush has chosen “mixed messages” as the latest term of abuse for Kerry, when that term can so easily be turned on him, as Kerry did several times tonight.
However you score it, this debate was just what John Kerry needed, and if nothing else, should wipe the smirk off the faces of a lot of Republicans who were already beginning their post-election victory dance.

Bush the Unfaithful

When he first started talking about it during the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush’s promise to mobilize “the armies of compassion” through an initiative to help faith-based organizations address the nation’s social problems looked like a political consultant’s dream. The idea simultaneously reinforced Bush’s key swing-voter appeal that he was a “different kind of Republican” and a “compassionate conservative,” and flattered the Relgious Right segment of the GOP base.
Four years later, not much has come of Bush’s “faith-based initiative,” but he’s still bragging about it. In a new article in The Washington Monthly (where’s she recently assumed a position as editor), Amy Sullivan, that intrepid advocate for the spiritual side of Democratic politics, separates the wheat from the chaff in the Bush record, and shows how the White House eventually cast its lot with Mammon.
UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey

Two Cents

Since everybody and their dog is offering advice to John Kerry about rapier thrusts he can make in tomorrow’s debates that will leave George W. Bush weeping on his knees: here’s mine.
1. I know a lot of Americans are puzzled by the way the president has chosen to fight the war on terror, but they think, hey, he must be doing something right, because we haven’t been attacked here since 9/11. The truth is, none of us know exactly why they haven’t struck again, but it’s not because they are afraid of George W. Bush, and it’s not because we invaded Iraq. There are four things we can do that will definitely make us safer: hardening the targets here at home, finishing the job of destroying al Qaeda in Afghanistan, reforming our intelligence agencies, and doing everything possible to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. The president hasn’t made any of these things his top priorities in the war on terror; I will; and that’s why I’ll make America safer.
2. The president likes to call me a flip-flopper, and says every American knows where he stands. But let’s look at the record. He opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security before he supported it; he opposed making the case against Saddam Hussein at the U.N. before he decided to do it; he opposed looking into intelligence failures prior to 9/11 before he went along with it; and he opposed creating a national director of intelligence before he woke up one day and decided it was his idea. I didn’t change my position on any of these urgent matters. I’m glad the president flip-flopped on all four issues, because otherwise he would have just flopped.

3. The president claims his commitment to unilateral, preemptive action against terrorist threats to America’s security has kept us safe. I wish he had that same attitude towards other threats to our interests. Why won’t he launch a unilateral attack on his allies in Congress who are holding up intelligence reform? We won’t he act preemptively to deal with the spread of nuclear materials, which every days raises the risk of a nuclear 9/11? Why won’t he hunt down the financiers of terrorist operations and strike them where they live, in places like Saudi Arabia? And why won’t he show courage and resolve in standing up to his friends in the energy lobby and free us from dependence on Middle Eastern oil? Those are missions worth accomplishing.
My dog likes these lines as well.

Those Amazin’ Red State Dems

With all the attention being paid to the presidential race, something remarkable is happening down-ballot that should cheer Democrats.
There are, according to all the experts, eight highly competitive Senate races underway.
Every single one is in a state (AK, CO, SD, OK, LA, FL, SC and NC) that cast its electoral votes for George W. Bush in 2000. Several are in states Bush carried by landslides.
Yet Democratic candidates are currently ahead or statistically tied in every damn one of them (In LA, nobody knows who’s ahead until the December runoff begins). And a grand total of one of those candidates (Tom Daschle of SD) is an incumbent.
In an off-year for gubernatorial races, Dems are heavily favored to win in WV and NC; favored in MT; and even bets in NH, IN, MO and UT.
Even if the presidential election map winds up looking a lot like 2000, Democrats are showing they can remain competitive in tough territory, with the right candidates and message. This should give pause to those who believe Democrats should give up on such territory and simply become the loud ‘n’ proud Blue State party. So long as we have fifty governors and state legislators (who in turn control U.S. House redistricting), and each state has two senators, such a strategy will consign Democrats to minority status for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, nearly all of the Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates we’re talking about –along with most of the Democrats running in competitive House districts–are by any measure centrist, New Demish candidates. This should give pause to those who believe that the party can or should turn hard left to build a majority.
The Democratic Party is and will probably continue to be a broad progressive coalition, not a narrow ideological cult like the GOP is becoming (despite the illusion of inclusiveness it cultivates at its national conventions). But winning a majority will always require a serious effort to compete everywhere, and a determination to command the high, center ground of American politics.

More Dust From the Ground Game

It’s not as precise as the Sunday NYT piece, but there’s another straw in the wind suggesting that this may be a high turnout election where Democrats are doing a better job at the “ground game” of signing up new voters and getting them to the polls.
Check out this AP story that reports big increases in new voter registrations, and seems to suggest it’s happening most in pro-Democratic areas. Examples of both include a 65% increase (through mid-September) in new registrations in Miami-Dade County, Florida, as compared with 2000, and a 150% increase in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Ohio.
The official Bush campaign spin on this phenomenon, interestingly enough, confirms my theory that the only places offering Republicans a ripe GOTV harvest are fast-growing exurbs. “It’s the high-growth areas, the suburban and exurban areas in those battleground states… there are opportunities there because there are so many new residents to register,” sez BC04’s Scott Stanzel. Yeah, but (1) the states with big and fast-growing exurbs have other pro-Democratic trends underway that are equally important, and (2) they just aren’t a factor in much of the midwest.
The Bushies better have a pretty good lead down the stretch if they want to win.

Blogger Envy

There were not one, but two, major newspaper takes on political blogs yesterday. One graced the cover of The New York Times magazine. The other was on the op-ed pages of the LA Times. The first was by a journalist who suspects many bloggers would like to graduate to more traditional outlets for political commentary. The second was by a former blogger who fears the same thing.
Both pieces take very seriously the belief of many bloggers that they represent something truly revolutionary in political discourse, and even in politics itself. And both pieces suggest that celebrity, commercial success, and mainstream respectablility may be producing a Thermidor in that revolution wherein its leaders are being coopted by the hated establishment.
The Times’ Matthew Klam focuses on three bloggers who have already crossed the line into celebrity: TalkingPointsMemo’s Josh Marshall, Wonkette‘s Anna Marie Cox, and DailyKos‘ Markos (Kos) Molitsas, and suggests all three are at a crossroads where they must choose between street cred and fame and fortune. But I think he confuses his story by conflating two very different rationales for political blogs. Some bloggers want to do political journalism. Some view their role as movement-building and agitprop.
While Marshall is quite partisan (who isn’t this year?), he’s still basically a journalist. And his segment of the blogosphere was made possible by the conjunction of a market failure in traditional political journalism with the emergence of a new technology that provided a way around that market failure.
It’s no secret that political print journalism has been a steadily declining segment of a steadily declining industry for decades now. Radically reduced readership; competition from electronic media; ownership conglomeration; cost-driven downsizing; the collapse of commercially viable niche markets; rampant editorial cronyism: all these factors have dried up opportunities for would-be political journalists, while ossifying the profession into a self-referential universe of carreerist status and specialization, much like academia.
Josh Marshall had the choice of spending two decades struggling through old-boy networks and ownership crises to land an insecure perch in a paper or magazine, or taking advantage of a new technology to practice political journalism right now. And that’s what he does: chasing down stories, digging beneath the surface, sticking to them when other reporters lose interest. He may feel that he’s contributing to a political movement, but he’s still a journalist, and there’s nothing dishonorable about that. The fact that he’s figured out a way to support himself without sucking up to editors or attending Washington cocktail parties is an example of successful entrepreneurship, not betrayal of some blogospheric ethic.
Ms. Cox is another example of journalistic enterprise, but of a very different sort. Unlike print poltitical journalism, electronic political commentary has been expanding in recent years, but only by embracing the entertainment paradigm of television and radio media generally. Like thousands of other, less successful, bloggers, Wonkette probably watched 1,000 hours of scandal-dishers and partisan “pundits” trading insults, and thought, Hell, I can do that. Klam’s discovery that she’s now ready to graduate to television or even movies is hardly shocking. Like Marshall, she’s already doing political journalism–but it’s a kind of journalism that commands little respect and adds even less to the common weal. To put it another way, Marshall’s type of journalism carries a moral hazard of celebrity; Wonkette’s is basically about celebrity.
Kos, of course, is a blogger who’s more into movement-building and agitprop than journalism. His temptation is not to go onto the masthead of The Nation; it’s to gain real influence over real-life political institutions. Klam’s most interesting Kos anecdote involves a near-physical altercation between the fiery blogger and the executive director of the DCCC, involving the latter’s allocation of campaign dollars in House elections. If Kos were inclined to think this way, he might say his and similar blogs address a market failure in the political world itself, where the inbred clan of Democratic fundraisers and political consultants are more concerned with protecting their turf than winning elections.
To sum it all up, Josh Marshall and Kos are blogging with a purpose, and thus their efforts can and will be judged in terms of their success in meeting their purposes. And that seems to be the main complaint of retiring blogger Billman in the LA Times. For him, blogging is essentially about itself: a revolutionary culture of dissent, of “speaking truth to power,” that “made blogging such a potent alternative to the corporate-owned media.” By this measurement, actually gaining influence and power is ipso facto a betrayal of the blogosphere.
I guess you know where I come down on this. Blogging is a means, not an end. It’s open to everybody, whether or not you pass the test of subversiveness some would impose. Nobody’s forced to read anybody’s blog, and it’s not like there are limited options. And if bloggers put their work to good purpose, then good for them.