washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

Luntz Noodles on GOP Health Care Strategy

Frank Luntz has resurfaced, after a long deep whale-dive into relative political obscurity. Luntz didn’t really disappear. He’s just been in a low-visibility mode since the election. He remains one of the more thoughtful GOP rhetorical strategists. So when he pops off, it’s worth a listen.
In a Luntz memo obtained by and published in Politico, he outlines a GOP battle plan for killing Obama’s health care reform goals. From the Politico report:

You simply MUST be vocally and passionately on the side of REFORM,” Luntz advises in a confidential 26-page report obtained from Capitol Hill Republicans. “The status quo is no longer acceptable. If the dynamic becomes ‘President Obama is on the side of reform and Republicans are against it,’ then the battle is lost and every word in this document is useless.

Starts out lucidly enough. But then he heads south, as Politico reveals:

Instead, Luntz says Republicans should warn against a “Washington takeover” of health care, and insist that patients would have to “stand in line” with “Washington bureaucrats in charge of healthcare.”

Then with the fear-mongering cliches:

And he suggests they steer constituents toward keep the “current arrangement by asking at “every healthcare town hall forum”: “Would you rather … ‘Pay the costs you pay today for the quality of care you currently receive,’ OR ‘Pay less for your care, but potentially have to wait weeks for tests and months for treatments you need.’”


—“It could lead to the government setting standards of care, instead of doctors who really know what’s best.”
—“It could lead to the government rationing care, making people stand in line and denying treatment like they do in other countries with national healthcare.”
-“President Obama wants to put the Washington bureaucrats in charge of healthcare. I want to put the medical professionals in charge, and I want patients as an equal partner.”

Luntz’s memo is not all the same, tired palaver, voters turned their backs on a long time ago. He’s got some interesting tips on verbiage:

…Humanize your approach. Abandon and exile ALL references to the “healthcare system.” From now on, healthcare is about people. Before you speak, think of the three components of tone that matter most: Individualize. Personalize. Humanize.

And diabolically-clever:

Acknowledge the “crisis” or suffer the consequences. If you say there is no healthcare crisis, you give your listener permission to ignore everything else you say. It is a credibility killer for most Americans. A better approach is to define the crisis in your terms. “If you’re one of the millions who can’t afford healthcare, it is a crisis.” Better yet, “If some bureaucrat puts himself between you and your doctor, denying you exactly what you need, that’s a crisis.” And the best: “If you have to wait weeks for tests and months for treatment, that’s a healthcare crisis.”
…Nothing else turns people against the government takeover of healthcare than the realistic expectation that it will result in delayed and potentially even denied treatment, procedures and/or medications. “Waiting to buy a car or even a house won’t kill you. But waiting for the healthcare you need – could. Delayed care is denied care.”

Fear-mongering can be an art form, I guess. Then there is the inevitable blanket government-bashing:

…WASTE, FRAUD, and ABUSE are your best targets for how to bring down costs. Make no mistake: the high cost of healthcare is still public enemy number one on this issue – and why so many Americans (including Republicans and conservatives) think the Democrats can handle healthcare better than the GOP. You can’t blame it on the lack of a private market; in case you missed it, capitalism isn’t exactly in vogue these days. But you can and should blame it on the waste, fraud, and abuse that is rampant in anything and everything the government controls.

Not sure that dog will hunt like in the good ole days, back when Newt ruled. And for the finale, what passes for the health care “vision thing” in GOP circles:

It’s not enough to just say what you’re against. You have to tell them what you’re for. It’s okay (and even necessary) for your campaign to center around why this healthcare plan is bad for America. But if you offer no vision for what’s better for America, you’ll be relegated to insignificance at best and labeled obstructionist at worst. What Americans are looking for in healthcare that your “solution” will provide is, in a word, more: “more access to more treatments and more doctors…with less interference from insurance companies and Washington politicians and special interests.”

As much as this stuff strains credulity, it’s about the best ammo they have. For better or worse, Luntz is the GOP’s master wordsmith, if Huckabee is the go-to quipster. Dems would do well to take note of Luntz’s recommendations and be ready with sharp responses when his verbiage starts to appear in the GOP echo chamber, as it surely will.

Jack Kemp: Last of the Big Tent Republicans

I note the passing of Republican Jack Kemp with some ambivalence about his legacy. On the one hand the Kemp-Roth tax cut arguably did more damage to America than any other piece of post-war legislation this side of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. On the other hand, Jack Kemp was a sincere advocate of interracial justice and goodwill, the last of the big tent Republicans in that regard.
Coming so soon after Senator Specter’s defection, Kemp’s passing brings yet another reminder of GOP shrinkage. There are no living Republicans I could name who are anywhere near as passionate as was Kemp about bringing people of color into their party. As Kemp is quoted after the drubbing of the GOP in 2008, in Adam Clymer’s New York Times report on his death ,”The party of Lincoln needs to rethink and revisit its historic roots as a party of emancipation, liberation, civil rights and equality of opportunity for all.”
Kemp, a former GOP VP nominee, HUD Secretary and congressman from Buffalo, earned his creds in race relations early on, as an all-pro quarterback who supported Black players’ boycott of New Orleans in 1965 because of segregated cabs and nightclubs in that city. He was a vocal supporter of civil rights, affirmative action and rights for illegal immigrants and called himself a “bleeding-heart conservative.” What has not been reported in the obits in the major rags is that Kemp also provided pivotal, perhaps decisive support for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday legislation, twisting the arms of GOP moderates and even some conservatives to support the bill. He remained a friend of Black leaders, including Coretta Scott King, even while she lobbied against the Kemp-Roth legislation.
Kemp was a wonkish conservative ideologue on economic issues. He differed from many Republicans in that he actually believed that massive tax cuts were good for the poor and working people, as welll as the rich. Although he supported many programs that benefited the disadvantaged, Kemp-Roth has lead to billions of dollars in funding cuts for a host of needed social programs. Kemp is also credited with influencing Reagan to push for even deeper cuts in social spending. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman J. Ornstein, said, “I think there is no doubt that he had a greater impact on conservative and Republican economic philosophy than anybody else. More than Laffer, more than Reagan.”
Kemp was also the leading political advocate for “enterprise zones,” tax carrots for businesses to invest in decaying neighborhoods, an idea first proposed by Senator Robert Kennedy shortly before he was assassinated. I’ve always thought the basic idea has merit for job-creation, but so far urban enterprise zones have produced mixed results at best in delivering stable jobs that pay a living wage.
As Democrats, we tend to celebrate the weakening of the Republican Party because it usually adds to our numbers. But having a weakened adversary is not such a great thing in terms of keeping us honest, sharp and focused on creative policy solutions. Better in this sense to be challenged by a strong opponent.
With Kemp’s passing and Specter’s departure, however, the GOP looks even less like a Party that offers strong opposition based on reasoned alternatives — and more like a demolition derby.

Will Obama’s Template Transform Race Relations?

We have to be careful about making too many generalizations about Obama’s election. After all, McCain did hoist his sails in the perfect Democratic storm, which hit ferociously on the final lap, no less. For a change, we Dems got every conceivable break. But Obama tacked into the storm with awe-inspiring confidence and calmness. In this context, Gary Kamiya’s article, “Obama and Race: Silence is Golden” just up at Salon.com is instructive. Kamiya’s larger point is that Obama’s non-racial strategy provides not only a template for getting African Americans elected in predominantly white constituencies; in so doing, he may also have transformed race relations in America. As Kamiya notes,

Barack Obama’s 100-day-old presidency has already had a remarkably positive effect on race relations in America. When asked, “Are race relations in the U.S. generally good or generally bad?” 66 percent of Americans answered that they were good, with just 22 percent saying they were bad. Asked the same question last July, 53 percent said race relations were good, 37 percent bad. The number of black respondents who said race relations were good doubled since the earlier NYT/CBS poll.

Kamiya adds,

It’s not surprising that having a black president has caused Americans to take a sunnier view of race relations. For blacks especially, the ascension of a black man to the highest office in the land is cause for enormous and justifiable racial pride, the kind of deep personal validation that history rarely offers. The fact that millions of whites voted for Obama has obviously made blacks feel more hopeful about white racial attitudes.

The feeling that a corner has been turned is so strong now, that opponents of renewing the Voting Rights Act preclearance provisions are using it to bolster their arguments. African Americans are rightly suspicious of the argument — one election does not prove that racial injustice has been eliminated at the polls.
Still, Obama’s election and presidency have turned our racial dialogue upside down, as Kamiya argues:

We are a country used to talking endlessly about race but not doing anything about it. Obama is doing exactly the opposite. He is not talking about race, but that very fact, combined with his high popularity, has advanced racial harmony more than any utterance could do…But Obama’s silence about race, and the positive consequences of that silence, could also be the harbingers of a subtle but fundamental movement away from America’s dominant approach to race, one based on the idea that “we have to take race into account in order to get beyond it.”

I tend to agree with Kamiya to a point. But I found Attorney-General Holder’s remark about America being “a nation of cowards” for not talking more about race strangely out of synch with President Obama’s grand strategy, which is a version of T.R.’s ‘speak softly and carry a big stick” strategy. Leverage the powers of the presidency to advance racial justice, but without a lot of clamor.
Something about the feeling Obama’s presidency conveys is reminiscent of the brief period in the early sixties, just before the Beatles hit the U.S.A., when African Americans and millions of white kids were spending their dough to purchase the same music — that would be the Motown sound. Only now the shared currency is pride in a young, dynamic President, who happens to be Black.
As for the new era Kamiya hopes for, we may be disappointed if race relations revert to past patterns. But President Obama’s example will almost certainly inspire more young African Americans to run for elective office using his template. Many will win, is my guess.

Obama’s Measured Strategy on Torture

WaMo‘s Hilzoy has a sharp retort for WaPo‘s David Broder, who has made a sort of blanket generalization that those who want accountability for torture are driven by “an unworthy desire for vengeance.” Broder’s column doesn’t flat out say that all who want accountability for torture are motivated by such darker emotions. But he does swab with a very broad brush — “politicians and voters who want something more — the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past.” Broder warns further about “endless political warfare,” “vendettas” and “untold bitterness — and injustice.”
Punishment for torturers? Horrors. Hilzoy’s post blasts Broder’s psychologizing:

…Who died and made David Broder Sigmund Freud? How on earth does he presume to know what actually motivates those of us who think that the people who authorized torture should be investigated? Speaking for myself: I have never met David Broder. As far as I know, he has no idea that I exist. So how does he know that underneath my “plausible-sounding rationale” lurks “an unworthy desire for vengeance”? And how, stranger still, does he presume to know this about everyone who thinks this — a group that (as Greg Sargent notes) included 62% of the American public before the latest memos were released?

Hilzoy argues that motives for investigating torture are basically irrelevant and,

…By not investigating torture now, we would be setting ourselves up for future government lawbreaking. Isn’t it obvious that preventing this matters more than anyone’s motives?

The poll Hilzoy cited was conducted 1/30-2/1. In Sunday’s Post, Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta cite a WaPo/ABC News poll, conducted 4/21-24:

About half of all Americans, and 52 percent of independents, said there are circumstances in which the United States should consider employing torture against such suspects…Barely more than half of all poll respondents back Obama’s April 16 decision to release the memos specifying how and when to employ specific interrogation techniques. A third “strongly oppose” that decision, about as many as are solidly behind it. Three-quarters of Democrats said they approve of the action, while 74 percent of Republicans are opposed; independents split 50 to 46 percent in favor of the decision.

On Sunday, during “Meet the Press,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs added this clarification on President Obama’s policy on torture:

The president doesn’t open or close the door on criminal prosecutions of anybody in this country because the legal determination about who knowingly breaks the law in any instance is not one that’s made by the president of the United States…he leaves it to the attorney general to figure out who should be prosecuted for what.

Hilzoy is right to call out Broder for his stereotyping, which is reminiscent of the Gingrich era “the left is driven by hate” meme (and the right is driven by, what, love?). Hilzoy is also correct in saying that we can’t just ignore accountability for torture and let bygones be, not if we want to keep a shred of cred as a justice-respecting democracy.
But there is a valid concern buried in Broder’s reference to “endless political warfare.” It would be bad strategy for the Obama Administration to let the torture investigation get on a fast, loud track, at first investigating the decision-makers, but soon devolving into horrific images, grisly photos and revelations sucking away needed media coverage for reforms in health care, economic and energy policy. Then one day we wake up and read on page A-5 that, once again, health care reform is a dead issue for this session of Congress, which is preoccupied with the media circus re-hashing Abu Ghraib ad nauseum. It would serve the interests of “if it bleeds, it leads” journalists and Republicans seeking distractions from Democratic reforms, but it doesn’t serve Obama’s reform agenda.
In terms of legislative accomplishments, Obama has the strongest political momentum of any Democratic president since LBJ, and he understandably wants the public and media focused on his reforms. He did right in releasing the torture files. Getting bogged down on torture as the dominant media issue at this time, however, could obstruct his agenda until his approval/favorable numbers fall, which is exactly what the Republicans want.
America is honor-bound to address accountability for torture — but later better than sooner. Maybe the best thing, strategy-wise, would be for Holder to initiate a thorough investigation, but save the investigation revelations and recommendations until after we get the economy on solid footing and health care reform safely enacted.

Cuba Policy Could Tilt Elections

Paulo Prada’s article “Cuban-Americans Ponder What U.S. Should Do Next” in today’s Wall St. Journal” reports on the splintering of Cuban American opinions on U.S. policy.

More than half the people of Cuban origin now living in the U.S. have emigrated since the 1980s, according to the Census Bureau. That means that they, unlike the Cuban exiles that fled as the Castro regime embraced communism, lived for extended periods with the harsh reality of that economy and are more likely to have immediate family there. Because of the decrepit state of much of the island, most Cuban-Americans no longer harbor a dream of returning to the houses, haciendas, and pueblos their families fled.
“You no longer think about going back to live because what you once had is no longer there,” said Miguel Vazquez, who fled the island as a boy and now runs Sentir Cubano, a store that specializes in such vintage Cuban goods as reproductions of Havana phone books from 1959. “You think about helping redevelop the country once the regime is gone.”

In terms of national public opinion, there is fairly strong support for liberalizing trade relations with Cuba. As Gallup reports:

Over the past decade, Gallup has found Americans remarkably steadfast in their views about U.S. relations with Cuba — particularly in regard to the U.S. trade embargo. Since 1999, Americans have been more likely to support than oppose the U.S. government’s ending its trade embargo against Cuba — with support narrowly ranging between 48% and 51%, including 51% in the new poll.[conducted 4/20-21]..Americans more widely support ending restrictions on travel to Cuba — with 64% in favor.

The poll also showed 60 percent favoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and 64 percent supporting ending travel restrictions.
It’s been a while since there has been a poll of Floridians on the topic of the economic embargo, but a Rasmussen survey conducted in Florida in March ’08 found that “Now that Fidel Castro has turned over power in Cuba to his brother, 37% of Florida voters believe it’s time to lift the economic embargo against Cuba. Thirty-seven percent (37%) disagree and 26% are not sure.”
Pablo Bachelet reports in his article “Democrats in No Hurry to Change Cuba Policy” in the Miami Herald’s series “The Cuba Puzzle” that congressional Democrats are anxious about Florida’s early presidential primary date and are waiting for the “post-Fidel Castro transition to unfold.” No doubt Democrats are thinking about the ’10 and ’12 elections. Florida’s popular Republican Governor Charlie Crist leads in polls for the ’10 Senate race, and President Obama knows that Florida can still be a make or break state for his re-election campaign. Bachelet also reports that “a majority of those who arrived in the United States prior to 1984 — and are more likely to vote — still oppose any concessions to Cuba.” Also Majority Leader Harry Reid supports a “tough line” on Cuba. Given all of these factors, President Obama’s policy of slowly opening up relations seems politically-prudent, if a tad overly-cautious.
In terms of fostering change in Cuba, however, Michael Kinsley made an interesting point in his WaPo op-ed “A Cuba Policy That’s Stuck On Plan A” last week:

As many have pointed out, we won the Vietnam War in a way. Two ways, in fact. Vietnamese fleeing communism have been a great new ingredient in our ethnic stew, and meanwhile Vietnam is embracing capitalism as hard as it can. We’ve already been enriched by the energies of Cubans who have arrived here since Castro’s revolution. So why do we continue to deny the Cubans still stuck on Castro’s Island the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of capitalism as well?

More accurate to say that our withdrawall from Vietnam made it possible for private enterprise to thrive, but his argument that a softer line on Cuba could do the same seems plausible enough. It will be a long time, however, before we can expect bipartisan support for the change. Once again, Dems will have to go it alone.

McGovern: Military Quagmires Delay Recovery

George McGovern, Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, will never get much respect as a political strategist, although he ran a good campaign up until the convention that year, followed though it was by a Nixon landslide. History, however, will be kinder to McGovern as a foreign policy analyst. He got it right about Vietnam and he gets it right about the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan today in The Los Angeles Times. As McGovern writes in his op-ed:

Three years ago, public opinion polls indicated that a majority of Americans believed our policymakers were wrong in ordering troops into Iraq. It is widely accepted that this sentiment more than any other factor in the 2006 congressional elections resulted in Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have faded as a political priority. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll conducted March 12-15, 2009 found that “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ranked fourth (cited by 8 percent) as the “most important” priority, behind the economy (63 percent), health care (9 percent) and the federal budget deficit (8 percent).
When pressed, however, to respond in more detail, we see a slightly different result from poll respondents. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll conducted less than a month earlier, from Feb. 18-19, 2009, found that 75 and 76 percent agreed that “the situation in” Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively were “extremely important” or “very important,” compared to 95 percent for the economy. The economy, and the range of associated concerns contained inside the term, still trumps other issues. but when asked to think about it a little more, three out of four voters are still quite worried about what we are doing in those countries.
Not that the higher-rated priorities are unconnected to the economic cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. McGovern cites the economic effect:

Are we now going to ignore for another three years the public mandate of 2006 against this costly, preemptive war based on deceit? And how can we justify putting thousands more U.S. troops into Afghanistan? We have already exhausted our treasury…Can there be any doubt that the enormous war cost has contributed to the financial crisis here at home? The expense of waging two Middle East wars, plus the loss of revenue caused by the previous administration’s tax cuts, have skyrocketed the national debt to a record high. Do we ever consider what the interest alone is on our $10-trillion national debt — much of it paid to China?
Frankly, we cannot afford a two-war commitment year after year if we want to balance the federal budget and restore our economy. The huge bonuses that directors of failing corporations have awarded themselves and their chief executives have rightfully angered people, but those figures are peanuts compared with the $12 billion a month we have poured into Iraq and Afghanistan over the last six years.

But there is a significant distinction between public perceptions of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Yet another CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll, this one conducted April 3-5, found that, when asked “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan?,” 53 percent said they favored the war, with 46 percent opposed. And 68 percent favored Obama’s plan to send 20 thousand more troops to Afghanistan, with 31 percent opposed. But the respondents in this poll took a very different view when asked “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. war in Iraq?” Only 35 percent favored the war, with 63 percent opposed.
The problem with military occupations is that they go on and on, eventually numbing the public and political decision-makers to the downside of having an imperial foreign policy. It’s the “just a little longer and we’ll get things under control” self-delusion. McGovern understands this better than most:

The Obama administration recommends we leave 50,000 troops in Iraq to “police” that troubled country through 2011. There may well be flare-ups that will keep them there indefinitely, struggling to police the war-induced chaos.
In June 1950, President Truman ordered our troops into Korea, stating it would only be a brief police action that did not require a declaration of war. Three years later and after 38,000 American soldiers had been killed, the new American president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of Allied forces in World War II, promptly ended our involvement in the Korean War, to the relief of our combat soldiers and the American public.
Unfortunately, Washington left 40,000 American soldiers behind to police the 38th Parallel — for a brief time. Yet, more than 50 years later, nearly 30,000 American troops are still in South Korea. So much for brief police actions.

McGovern’s op-ed has other important things to say about the self-defeating effects of U.S. military occupations abroad. He goes on to urge an “orderly withdrawall” from Iraq by Thanksgiving. But a Newsweek/Princeton Survey Research Associates International poll conducted April 1-2 indicates that 46 percent of respondents said Obama’s plan to remove most U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2010 was “about right,” with 28 percent wanting them to “come home sooner” and 19 percent wanting them to “stay longer.” Disagree though many might with McGovern’s timetable, it’s hard to deny the common sense that undergirds his concluding sentence: “For our sake and God’s sake, let’s get out of there and begin healing our own bankrupted land.”

Westen: Dems Need Better ‘Branding’

Drew Westen’s HuffPo column, “Why the Democrats Are Losing Ground As Obama Is Gaining It” should generate some concern in Democratic Party circles. Westen, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, cites recent Rasmussen polls, which indicate a worrisome trend for Dems:

As the latest Rasmussen polls show, in March the percent of voters who consider themselves Democrats dropped by 2 percent–four times the rate of decline among Republicans (even as the Republicans were publicly flailing, producing numberless budgets, and unwittingly branding themselves as the party of old ideas and the party of “no”). More ominous, the margin of voters supporting a Democrat over a Republican in a generic ballot for Congress dropped to its lowest point since both the Iraq War and the economy had clearly gone south by 2006: one percent (40 vs. 39%).

Westen attributes the decline in Democratic self-i.d. to a failure of political ‘branding’:

But the best products fail without good branding. In politics, you don’t win on ideas alone…Successful branding requires two things: creating positive associations to your own brand, and differentiating it from competing brands. In politics, that means offering voters a clear, memorable, emotionally compelling narrative about your party’s core principles, while presenting them with an equally clear, memorable, and evocative story about the other party that would not make anyone want to be associated with it. If there were ever a time Democrats could offer both stories, this is it.

While Westen’s premise would be more convincing if there were another poll or two indicating similar results, his corrective prescription makes a lot of sense, regardless. He points out that “repetition is essential psychologically, neurologically, and empirically to branding,” and FDR provided a useful template for Democratic presidents:

Roosevelt’s consistent branding of the Republicans as inflexible ideologues at the same time as he showed what progressive, pragmatic action and Democratic leadership could offer led to a political realignment that lasted 40 years.

Westen acknowledges that this has not been President Obama’s ‘style’ — the President prefers to criticize negative values like greed, rather than people, and it’s hard to argue with his success thus far. However, Westen believes that it’s critical for Dems to provide a credible voice to do the needed branding:

But someone needs to be in the fray other than the GOP. The worst thing to be in politics is silent, because it allows the other side to shape public sentiment uncontested. It wouldn’t hurt to have a Southern voice like Tim Kaine’s behind a megaphone with a “D” written on it. But whether it’s Kaine or someone else with credibility and charisma, somebody needs to start saying what Democrats and Republicans stand for other than Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, and Richard Shelby. That’s a lesson we should have learned a long time ago…In politics, there is nothing so deadly as silence.

Right now it’s hard to identify anyone south of the presidency who has the megaphone to make it stick. Westen’s point about the need for more of a ‘southern voice,’ including Governor Kaine, is well taken. Former Presidents Clinton and Carter are busy being statesmen, but it would be helpful if they joined the fray from time to time. Perhaps it’s time for Dems to organize a southern ‘echo chamber’ composed of southern governors, senators and house members in a concerted branding project.
On the positive side, the progressive blogosphere has made an excellent contribution towards branding the Republicans as the party that ran America into “the ditch…by the side of the road” Westen refers to, and some of it (not enough) has reverbed into the traditional media. But the blogosphere can’t do it all. The Democratic Party will now have to step up and lead the way in more clearly defining itself as the Party of solutions and progress.

Big Demos, Political Strategy Need Narrower Focus

Are big protest demonstrations still effective? London Timesonline writer Phil Collins has a video clip giving the once-over-lightly treatment to the broader question of the influence of public demonstrations in a historical and contemporary context.
Collins takes a quick look at a half dozen successful and failed demos in the UK, The U.S. and India (with brief video of demos in other countries) and he makes a salient point about the G20 protests communicating “the vague sense that it’s against this whole set of global institutions, but no clear sense of what it is for.”
Collins argues that a protest does better when it “connects to a wider sense in the people that an injustice has been done” and that a successful protest “needs authorities on the verge of capitulation.” I’m not sure he’s right about the latter point. Sometimes a protest can serve a good purpose by publicizing an injustice, even when authorities are firmly opposed. You have to start somewhere. The 1999 “Battle of Seattle” demos, for example, didn’t achieve any concrete reforms, but they did help expand public awareness about the injustices of WTO trade policies.
Joshua Keating’s “Do Protests Ever Work” post at Foreign Policy‘s ‘Passport’ blog riffs on Collins’s clip, adding:

The fact that much of the street activism against the U.S. war in Iraq has been led by a group called Act Now to Stop War & End Racism is a good indication of why the antiwar movement has never really been a factor in debates over U.S. foreign policy. Rather than organizing around a specific political goal, ending the war, these marches tend to devolve into general lefty free-for-alls encompassing everything from Palestine to free trade the environment to capital punishment.

Keating is here talking more about large demonstrations than protest in general. For the most thorough discussion of forms of nonviolent protest available, check out Gene Sharp’s 3-volume “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” and other of his works on the topic (Sharp has been called “the Clauswitz of Nonviolence”).
As a veteran of many street demos going back to the sixties, including one that got me three days in the hoosegow, I have long had the feeling that too many 21st century demonstrations have a ‘kitchen sink’ quality, with a long, eye-glazing list of diverse grievances and no shortage of windy speakers to back them up. I also suspect that, instead of winning hearts and minds, spectators may be turned off by all of the negative yammering, which is what they see in the news clips, since the media rarely broadcast the positive vision part of the speeches.
So I say amen to Collins’s point about narrowing the focus, a principle which could be extended to political strategy in general, the failure of California’s ‘Big Green’ referendum in 1990 being an instructive case in point. The broader the legislative reform, the bigger the target for the oppos. I wonder if the same principle might apply to issues like health care reform strategy, as is suggested by the fate of ‘Hillarycare.’ Why not, for example, start with a bill that forbids all insurance companies from denying complete catastrophic coverage to their policy-holders and expanding Medicaid to provide it to those not covered by private insurers. Later for drugs, preventive care, Dental and myriad related concerns. Yes I know, it’s complicated and health issues are all interconnected. But “big package” reform is always problematic, and too often doomed by its very complexity. It’s difficult to build public support for reforms so broad and complex that the public doesn’t have time to read up about everything needed to form strong supportive opinions. Breaking reform packages down into separate one-at-a-time initiatives, on the other hand, builds the potential mass of active supporters.

Can Obama Deploy Some LBJ Strategy?

Robert Dallek has put a must-read post for political strategy junkies up on the New York Times Opinion section, “Can Obama Be a Majority of One?” Dallek, author of acclamed books about Democratic presidencies, discusses which of LBJ’s impressively successful legislative reform tactics might work for President Obama. On Johnson’s sober expectations:

Despite his majorities, Johnson took nothing for granted. He predicted “a hard fight every inch of the way.” He told one adviser: “I’ve watched the Congress from either the inside or the outside … for more than 40 years, and I’ve never seen a Congress that didn’t eventually take the measure of the president it was dealing with.”

LBJ had a toughness of spirit in dealing with congress, but it was tempered with matchless parliamentary know-how and lengthy mental dossiers on hundreds of members of congress that informed his deployment of carrots and sticks:

…He directed aides to treat every member of Congress as if he or she was the center of the political universe. They were instructed to return a representative’s or senator’s call in “10 minutes or else.” Johnson himself devoted countless hours talking to them on the telephone.
Conservative Democrats and Republicans were not neglected. When Representative Silvio Conte, a Republican from Massachusetts, cast a vote for a Johnson initiative, the president called to thank him “on behalf of the nation for your vote.” “It’s the only time since I have been in Congress that a president called me,” Conte said. “I will never forget it”
Every bill Johnson sent to the Hill was presented as a collaboration and was identified with a particular representative or senator. And no cooperative legislator would go un-rewarded…Uncooperative legislators paid a price for their independence. When Senator Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, justified a vote against a Johnson bill by saying that columnist Walter Lippmann shared his view, Johnson scolded him: “Frank, next time you want a dam in Idaho, you call Walter Lippmann and let him put it through.”

On President Obama’s more limited options:

Three months into his presidency, it’s apparent that Mr. Obama is not likely to match the 207 significant pieces of Johnson legislation; but not because he’s unmindful of L.B.J.’s methods. Like Johnson, the current president has been showering considerable attention on members of Congress, courting them by traveling to the Hill and asking their input into his big ticket items — the budget, health insurance, educational, and environmental reforms…
But Mr. Obama faces a more difficult challenge than Johnson’s. Unlike L.B.J., he lacks long-time ties to Congressional leaders, which may be one reason his stimulus plan barely made it out of the Senate and many Democrats, including Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, are balking at the president’s proposed budget. In addition, the sort of mutual back-scratching Johnson relied on is out of vogue. Trading pork-barrel grants for Congressional votes is no longer seen as acceptable politics but as unsavory opportunism. Also, Mr. Obama has far thinner majorities than Johnson had and fewer moderate Republicans to woo. Finally, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and deficits running as far into the future as the eye can see are problems that did not burden Johnson’s reach for a Great Society.

On a more positive note, however:

Yet all is not lost. President Obama has a degree of popular support that rivals the approval F.D.R., Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan enjoyed. And the public’s continuing eagerness for change gives him an advantage over Congress that may yet translate into major economic and social reforms.

Add to this Obama’s email rollodex, the progressive blogosphere support and the edge provided by a highly competent staff, and Obama’s political assets for winning legialtive reforms are formidable.
It would be hard to match LBJ’s mastery of political hardball and softball, and Obama may face a test sooner than later, if congressional Democratic leaders decide to go with the controversial “fast track” budget reconciliation process to pass President Obama’s health care reform and global warming legislation. Resorting to the filibuster-preventing tactic makes some Democrats who still hold fast to fading hopes for a more bipartisan approach a little queasy. But it has been used 19 times in recent years in which both houses of Congress were controlled by one party, according to Majority Leader Harry Reid, who says ” I don’t know why everyone is up in arms about it.”
Indeed. When was the last time an incoming GOP President sincerely reached out to embrace Democrats in genuine bipartisan goodwill? And it’s equally hard to cite an example of Republicans reaching out to help President Obama achieve bipartisan reform. It is early in Obama’s term for protracted trench warfare, but if that’s what it takes to get decent health care coverage for Americans and a sane environmental policy, then we need to bring it on.

Obama Af-Pak Strategy Gains Qualified Support

President Obama’s new strategy regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan is getting cautiously favorable reviews from a broad range of foreign policy experts, most of whom give him credit for narrowing the U.S. mission to defeating Al Queda and their supporters in the Taliban.
The New York Times has an editorial, “The Remembered War,” which does a good job of putting Obama’s new policy in perspective, noting:

…It was greatly encouraging simply to see the president actually focusing on this war and placing it in the broader regional framework that has been missing from American policy. That is a good first step toward fixing the dangerous situation that former President George W. Bush created when he abandoned the necessary war in Afghanistan for the ill-conceived war of choice in Iraq.
Mr. Obama has come back to first principles. Instead of Mr. Bush’s vague talk of representative democracy in Afghanistan, he defined a more specific mission. “We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or dictate its future,” Mr. Obama said, but “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Foreign Policy magazine’s ‘Flashpoints‘ leads the discussion on the pros and cons of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy paper with a package of 7 separate articles from different authors, including “Will the Real Obama Middle East Strategy Please Stand Up?” by Brian Katulis, who credits Obama with,

a much-needed step in the right direction on the Pakistan piece of its policy. Increasing support for the democratically-elected civilian government and massively increasing development assistance to the country are steps that many think tanks have been calling for

Robert Templer, Asia program director at the International Crisis Group adds this in his Flashpoints contribution, “Call in the police (but please help them first)“.

Policing is one of the most effective — and also the most ill-used — tools available to tackle extremism. Yet compared with military and other assistance, international support for policing is miniscule, and much of it is delivered in an uncoordinated and ineffectual manner. Since 2002, the United States has given the Pakistani military more than $10 billion, only the thinnest slice of which has gone to policing…Giving police forces a greater role in counterinsurgency shouldn’t mean sending them heedlessly into harm’s way. What is needed are police to keep everyday peace on the streets. Reducing general criminality and providing security to the public provides the most widely shared and distributed public good. It is much more effective in winning hearts and minds than digging wells or building schools — and indeed encourages and protects such development activities.

In addition to the Flashpoints collection, FP is featuring “The Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan” by Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation who lived in Pakistan in 2006 and 7. Schmidle witholds judgment about the prospects of our Pakistan policy, but he provides a sobering read for gung-ho interventionists.
The New York Times also has a ‘Topic A’ roundtable addressing the President’s Af-Pak strategy with 10 short articles, one of which by Andrew Bacevich, author of “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism,” asks an interesting big-picture question:

Ask yourself: When it comes to American prosperity and security, which matters more — Afghanistan or Mexico? The question answers itself. So if the United States has billions of dollars lying idle that it wishes to invest in development and security assistance, why prioritize Afghanistan?

Bacevich adds

More important than Afghanistan is neighboring Pakistan — bigger, at least as dysfunctional and armed with nuclear weapons. Yet the Obama plan treats Pakistan as an afterthought, promising trivial levels of assistance given the challenges facing that country. Even assuming that America can “fix” Afghanistan, does it possess the wherewithal, wisdom and will to do likewise in Pakistan?

In the NYT roundtable, former deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan Meghan O’Sullivan takes a more positive view:

President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan deserves high marks on several fronts: The president made a compelling case connecting these countries with U.S. interests; he committed substantially more military and civilian resources to the effort; and he placed equal weight on Afghanistan and Pakistan — the latter being the true epicenter of this conflict. It is reasonable to wonder whether the new strategy is informed by the most important lesson from Iraq: Nothing is more important than winning the support of the population by providing security. Obama announced a “shift [in] the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of the Afghan security forces.”

Then there is the thorny question about how welcome we are in Muslim countries. Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute, notes at his Informed Comment blog:

In a recent poll, Muslim publics, including that in Pakistan, overwhelmingly rejected US military presence in Muslim countries. A year ago, an opinion poll of Pakistanis found that “most Pakistanis do not believe that Pakistan-U.S. security cooperation has benefited Pakistan, and a majority (84 percent) sees the U.S. military presence in Asia as a greater threat to Pakistan than Al Qaeda and the Taliban (60 percent). Two-thirds of the Pakistanis polled do not trust the United States to “act responsibly in the world,” and a vast majority thinks the United States aims to “weaken and divide the Islamic world.” A recent poll of residents of the tribal belt themselves found majority support for the US Predator strikes, but polls show that Pakistanis in general view the US as a destabilizing factor for their country.

Cole told Rachel Maddow “I didn’t think we were at war with Pakistan so much as with some Pushtun tribes on either side of the Hindu Kush. And I didn’t think it was likely that they would be brought under “control.”
Meanwhile I’m hoping President Obama and Secretary Clinton read an interesting article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, “How Development Leads to Democracy” by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, co-authors of Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy. A couple of nut graphs:

…The bad news is that it is unrealistic to assume that democratic institutions can be set up easily, almost anywhere, at any time. Although the outlook is never hopeless, democracy is most likely to emerge and survive when certain social and cultural conditions are in place. The Bush administration ignored this reality when it attempted to implant democracy in Iraq without first establishing internal security and overlooked cultural conditions that endangered the effort.
The good news, however, is that the conditions conducive to democracy can and do emerge — and the process of “modernization,” according to abundant empirical evidence, advances them. Modernization is a syndrome of social changes linked to industrialization. Once set in motion, it tends to penetrate all aspects of life, bringing occupational specialization, urbanization, rising educational levels, rising life expectancy, and rapid economic growth. These create a self-reinforcing process that transforms social life and political institutions, bringing rising mass participation in politics and — in the long run — making the establishment of democratic political institutions increasingly likely…

It’s a good point to keep in mind as the Obama Administration refines its long range strategy in the mid and near east and we invest billions of dollars to fight terrorism and promote democracy.