washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

The Big Picture

Back in 1980, when Reagan announced “It’s morning in America,” the day after he won the presidential election in a landslide, I remember feeling a chill of revulsion about what was going to happen. And sure enough, Reagan delivered the largest ever transfer of wealth from working people to the already wealthy, plus a tripling of the federal deficit, along with fomenting a general meanness of spirit toward liberals and even moderates that swept the land.
But now, 28 years later, it’s really morning in America, in a much more inclusive sense — for all who believe in the possibility of brotherhood. Even if Obama had lost, his campaign would be credited with moving America forward to the fulfillment of MLK’s dream. (Digby leads with it today).
Obama’s victory is a wonderful thing for African Americans, and the pride and joy in his example has already been an empowering force in Black communities. But it’s a big win for Americans of all races because it shows the world our best side for a change. And it provides an instructive example for Democrats, and yes even Republicans, who want to learn how to run an intelligent, efficient campaign. Political scientists, as well as candidates, will be studying the Obama campaign for many decades to come. And if David Axelrod writes a strategy playbook/memoir, he will get filthy rich, and deservedly so.
Future candidates should also study President-elect Obama’s spirit, the way he responds to criticism, not by bristling or returning personal insults, but instead calmly addressing the core issue with directness and eloquence. His emotional maturity and coolness under fire is indeeed reminiscent of MLK. Last night in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. and Mrs. King’s daughter, Rev. Bernice King told a rally about how her mother, Coretta Scott King reacted when she saw Obama address the 2004 Democratic convention. “Bernice, come here,” she said. “I think we got somebody.”
One of the big challenges facing Dems and president-elect Obama in the short run is the meme that ‘America is a center-right nation” and he should proceed accordingly. David Sirota has a couple of interesting posts at Open Left today addressing this fear-based notion (here and here).

GOP Whistling Nervously in Dixie

One of the more interesting questions that will be answered tonight is whether the southeast will come home in terms of electoral votes. Of the four southeastern states with the most EV’s, one is trending blue (VA), two are toss-ups (FL and NC) and one (GA) is tilting red, but only slightly.
Among poll analysts, the pollster.com map projects the south staying red as a region, with the exception of VA. Chris Bowers’ final poll-averaged projection map at Open Left is a little more optimistic, coloring FL baby blue and NC pink, although his VA is baby blue. The TPM Election Central‘s map shows a blue VA, but toss-ups for the other three. Nate Silver’s map has VA safely blue, with NC and FL light blue, but GA red. Chuck Todd’s MSNBC map has a baby blue VA, a pink GA and toss-up gray for NC and FL.
The November polls suggest a blue tide may indeed be rising in Georgia. The final Insider Advantage poll, taken 11/2 and reported in the Southern Political Report, is calling a “dead heat in Georgia.” FiveThirtyEight.com reports that the Pew, Survey USA and Strategic Vision Polls all taken 11/1, a day earlier, have McCain leading in GA by 2, 7 and 4 points, respectively.
And clearly, the four largest southeastern states are very much in play in terms of candidate visits and ad investments by the Obama campaign.

A Vote for the Big Orange

I tried to vote at 8:00 a.m on Wednesday at an early voting location in downtown Decatur, Georgia. I waited for ten minutes or so in a long, fairly chaotic line in a parking garage. Everyone seemed to be having a good time of it, chattering away and drinking coffee. But the cold that penetrated my flimsy jacket and fear of a parking ticket ran me off. I’m told those who stayed waited about 2 hours. Later in the day I looked into the voting by mail option, but decided against it because the available information I got about deadlines seemed contradictory.
I lined up to vote early the next day at a different poll at an abandoned mall, where parking was less of a hassle, and cast my ballot exactly an hour later. The feeling at this poll was very different than the party-like atmosphere of my experience the day before and from that described in other accounts I’ve read.
There wasn’t much chatter and nobody I could hear was joking or otherwise cutting up. Instead there was a mood of solemnity and a seriousness of purpose I’ve never before sensed at the polls, almost like church. A long line of several hundred people, 99 percent African Americans, snaked around inside an abandoned T.J. Maxx, partitioned into a couple of narrow, sheet-rocked halls. There were a lot of young voters, but few elderly people in the line.
There were volunteers posted every 30 feet or so, carefully checking i.d.’s, initialing ballot applications, collecting and distributing clipboards and pens, keeping people in single file and running a very tight ship in general. The volunteers, all African Americans, were courteous and businesslike. The walls inside the halls were full of sample ballots and other voting information. When I got to the comparatively small voting room, there was an extra checking process, also run by efficient volunteers with computers.
The scene reminded me of James Orange, MLK’s march organizer and Atlanta’s top GOTV activist, who died early this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if the organizers of this particular poll were Orange-trained volunteers. Orange had worked hard for Obama, and if Obama wins Georgia, much if not most of the cred should go to Orange-trained volunteers, who are now mobilizing a record Black voter turnout in the peach state. I got a little dewy-eyed thinking about Orange’s legacy being played out so beautifully, how he worked his whole life for Black political empowerment and how he would celebrate Obama’s victory. I imagine hundreds of his co-workers are feeling the same way these days.
I felt a flash of what I hope was paranoia, when I saw the voting machines because they were all Diebold branded. But the touch screen voting machines worked fine, and no one seemed to be having problems with them. However, there should have been twice or triple the number of machines. This is where I think a lot of vote suppression is implemented, not only the inadequate number of polling places Ed cited yesterday, but also in the shortage of machines in minority precincts. I cast my ballot but got no written receipt confirming my choices. Still, it felt like the most important ballot I’ve ever cast.
President-elect Obama will take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural address the day after the national holiday marking MLK’s 80th birthday anniversary. I’m sure President Obama will credit Dr. King and the movement he lead for making his presidency possible. It will be an especially sweet day for the ‘community organizers’ who were dissed at the GOP convention, and I know Rev. Orange’s spirit will still be with us as we begin organizing for the 2010 mid-term elections the next day.

Dole’s ‘False Witness’ May Give Hagan Senate Seat

It appears that Sen. Liddy Dole (R-NC) has lost either her marbles or control of her campaign. Dole has unleashed a ridiculously bombastic ad that tries to slime her opponent, Kay Hagan as “Godless.” Hagan has put in time as both a Sunday school teacher and church elder in a Greensboro Presbyterian church her family has attended for more than a century.
MyDD‘s Jonathan Singer has a nicely presented pair of video clips that shine light on Dole’s heavy-handed slime.
It’s a huge blunder. No doubt Dole hopes to fire up her evangelical base for the home stretch. But Dole’s absurd allegations are easily rebutted, given Hagan’s clear record of commitment to her Christian faith. It’s hard to see how Dole can get off scott-free from the consequences of such a silly accusation. And not all evangelicals are happy about what Hagan describes as Dole’s ‘false witness.’ The latest NC Senate race poll average at Pollster.com has Hagan ahead by a margin of 46.6 to 43 percent. If the people of North Carolina are as decent as I think, Dole’s ad could cost her the election.
I remember Dole once saying that her husband, Bob Dole’s lagging campaign for the Presidency needed “adult supervision.” It looks like her campaign has the same problem.
Contributions to Hagan’s campaign can be made here.

The Tao of Obama

Stanley Fish has an enjoyable op-ed in today’s New York Times, ruminating on Senator Obama’s remarkably calm temperament in the midst of blazing political conflict at the highest level. Fish likens Obama’s equanimity in absorbing blistering insults to that of the “preternaturally still Jesus” enduring the attacks of Satan as portrayed in John Milton’s Paradise Regained. It makes for a jolly read, especially as a possible response to the religious lunatics who have tried to demonize Obama. It’s an apt metaphor as Fish explains it:

The power Jesus generates is the power of not moving from the still center of his being and refusing to step into an arena of action defined by his opponent. So it is with Obama, who barely exerts himself and absorbs attack after attack, each of which, rather than wounding him, leaves him stronger…
And McCain knows it. Last Wednesday, campaigning in New Hampshire, he spoke sneeringly about Obama’s campaign being “disciplined and careful.” That’s exactly right, and so far the combination of discipline and care — care not to get out too far in front of anything — along with a boatload of money is working just fine. Jesus is usually the political model for Republicans, but this time his brand of passive, patient leadership is being channeled by a Democrat.

Sure, it’s a grandiose comparison, although he makes a good point about Obama’s strategy in dealing with conflict. One could just as easily liken Obama’s temperament to that of the Buddha under the Bo Tree. Even better, Obama’s strategy in addressing conflict has a Taoist aspect: “The water that flows around the rock reaches the destination faster than the water that fights the rock.” Obama doesn’t waste a lot of time whining about personal attacks; he graceful glides around them and moves on to the next obstacle, while McCain is left behind, preaching to the choir or yammering about some non-issue ( Rev. Wright, Ayers, ‘socialism’ etc.) of little interest to most voters.
Obama has an impressive ability to convey both a passionate spirit and a cool temperament at the same time, in the tradition of JFK and FDR. Hard to say how much of it is a gift and how much is studied. But clearly Democratic candidates can learn from it.

Early Voting Lines a Good Issue for Dems

Despite all the blah-blah about supply and demand, it can’t be a complete coincidence that gas prices are tumbling exactly as early voting begins in states across the nation. The connection between gas prices and political approval ratings is exceptionally strong and well-documented. In addition to price gouging, voters in several states experienced shortages and long lines at gas stations during the last month. Atlanta residents had several days with no gas, and Georgia’s Governor Sonny Perdue got heat from more than a few angry voters.
Few experiences piss people off so much as having to wait in line for something that ought to be available on demand. The same principle applies to the long lines at the early voting polls — up to four hours at one Miami-Dade precinct, and two hour waits being reported in many localities across the country. More people are enduring longer lines at the polls than they experienced at gas stations.
As Democrats we still want to encourage early voting, even when it means waiting a couple of hours. It is still our best check against voter suppression and GOP obstructions. But we need not take the blame for the unnecessary long lines that are not of our making.
In the closing days of campaign ’08, this is a good issue for Democrats. Almost all of the delays at the polls can be attributed to Republican obstruction and mismanagement. One of the most consistent policies of Republicans at the federal, state and local level is to make it hard for people to vote, or at least people who are not likely to vote for GOP candidates.
It’s probably too late for the DNC to do a good ad about GOP obstruction of voting, although it would be worth doing, because now is the time it would resonate most powerfully and the issue fades as a priority as time passes. But Democratic candidates should make sure the message gets out via speeches and media interviews that voters have to wait hours to cast ballots because the Republicans opposed adequate funding for voting machines and they routinely obstruct reforms like weekend voting, internet balloting and more polling sites. This is true in state and local legislatures across the country, as well as in the U.S. Congress, with very few exceptions.
There has been a lot of good reporting on GOP vote suppression. (For starters, see this excellent report by Greg Palast and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.). But Democratic candidates, the national and state Democratic parties should do more to prioritize the issue at the optimum time than just grumble and gripe. It’s not one of the major issues of campaign ’08. But it is a good issue this week, particularly for the few remaining undecideds. A lot of voters are ticked off about it right now. It’s up to Democrats to make sure their anger is accurately directed.

Obama Should Share Some Love

HuffPo Founder Arianna makes the case that it’s time for Obama to spread some of his campaign wealth around with other Dem candidates. It’s an important suggestion, and one which is sure to provoke some strong disagreements within the Democratic Party.
It’s a tough decision, arguably THE toughest decision going forward. “With victory within sight,” she asks, “the question becomes: how much change can he deliver if Democrats don’t reach a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate?”
There is an understandable tendency within every political campaign to deploy all political assets within the campaign. There’s always the potential for an upset, and it’s hard to accept that things are going so well that the campaign can spare a little jack for the down ballot Dems. The very idea of surplus money does not compute, especially for Democrats, who are more often playing catch-up with their GOP competitors in terms of cash assets. Yet, as Arianna notres:

Republicans, while still holding out hope for a “McCain Miracle,” are increasingly worried that McCain is losing in a way that, as David Frum put it, “threatens to take the entire Republican Party down with him.” As a result, Frum and other Republicans are urging party officials to shift the emphasis off the presidential race and on to preserving as many Senate seats as possible.

Because we Dems have been out of the white house so long and have lost the last two presidential elections by small margins, we can be forgiven for a little monomania, when it comes to protecting Obama’s lead and securing a big win on Nov. 4. And then there is the argument that a huge Obama margin will lift all Democratic boats.
But there are a number of very close House and Senate races that could be won with a timely cash infusion. Think about Dems on the cusp of victory, who just need a little more cash to bring it home. Think about the filibuster-proof majority and what it could do for America. As Arianna notes,

In the just-ended 110th Congress, obstructionist Senate Republicans, led by human roadblock Mitch McConnell, mounted a record 104 filibusters (and that was with Bush in the White House; imagine how much more intransigent they would be with Obama). To put that number in context, in the previous Congress, the 109th, in which Democrats were in the minority, there were just 54 filibusters.

Think about empowering Obama to not merely occupy the white house, but to actually lead congress.
Here’s how she urges Obama to do it:

…Immediately guarantee a loan to the DSCC that will allow Democratic Senate candidates to spend whatever amount is necessary to secure a 60-seat majority. With Obama’s donor list, he’ll be able to wipe out that loan with a single post-election email. Money should not be the reason Democrats don’t put themselves in a position to defang the obstructionists.

Obama is going to face daunting challenges in securing peace, economic and health care reforms. Every extra Democrat in the House and Senate will help him succeed and win re-election. In that sense, every unleveraged dollar in his campaign coffers when the polls close on November 4 is a failure of strategy that works against his success.
For her best clincher, Arianna quotes a Norm Coleman ad echoed in numerous other GOP candidate ads this week

“Want real change? Put Democrats in control.”

Oh hell yes.

Obamacons Exodus Holds Lesson for Dems

The Economist has a heart-warming (for Dems) cartoon depicting elephants bailing out of a sinking GOP ship and swimming toward a ship bearing an “Obama ’08” campaign flag, as pleasantly surprised donkeys watch them scramble on board. The accompanying article, “The Rise of the Obamacons,” notes:

The biggest brigade in the Obamacon army consists of libertarians, furious with Mr Bush’s big-government conservatism, worried about his commitment to an open-ended “war on terror”, and disgusted by his cavalier way with civil rights. There are two competing “libertarians for Obama” web sites. CaféPress is even offering a “libertarian for Obama” lawn sign for $19.95. Larry Hunter, who helped to devise Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1994, thinks that Mr Obama can free America from the grip of the “zombies” who now run the Republican Party.

The Economist article goes on to cite a recent WaPo/ABC News poll indicating Obama is winning 22 percent of self-described conservatives, “a higher proportion than any Democratic nominee since 1980” and calls the roll of the more recent conservative intellectuals endorsing Obama, including General Powell, Francis Fukuyama, Christopher Buckley, Douglas Kmiec and Kenneth Adelman. (See Ed Kilgore’s Oct. 14 TDS post on the Buckley endorsement of Obama for a longer list)
The Economist article also does a good job of probing the “why” of the exodus of conservative intellectuals:

For many conservatives, Mr Obama embodies qualities that their party has abandoned: pragmatism, competence and respect for the head rather than the heart. Mr Obama’s calm and collected response to the turmoil on Wall Street contrasted sharply with Mr McCain’s grandstanding.
Much of Mr Obama’s rhetoric is strikingly conservative, even Reaganesque. He preaches the virtues of personal responsibility and family values, and practises them too. He talks in uplifting terms about the promise of American life. His story also appeals to conservatives: it holds the possibility of freeing America from its racial demons, proving that the country is a race-blind meritocracy…

I doubt that the smarter conservatives believe an Obama presidency will “free America from its racial demons,” but I do believe that they like the fact that Senator and Mrs. Obama achieved so much without affirmative action.
But the larger lesson of the ‘Obamacons’ may be that temperament and style of leadership can trump policy. Many of these same conservatives believe that Obama is one of the more liberal members of the Senate. But they like his prudence and deliberate manner of decision-making. True conservatives also respect competence, and it’s not hard to imagine them wincing painfully at the McCain campaign’s blunder of the day. The McCain campaign’s Keystone Kops routine has made it embrarrassing for many conservatives to wear his campaign button, while Obama continues to make impressive gains on a daily basis.
There is a lesson here for Democrats, that it is possible to win the support of thinking conservatives without compromising unduly on progressive reforms. Yes, it helps a lot to have blundering adversaries, but dems would do well to remember the conservative exodus of ’08 and the way Obama handled himself to help make it happen.

Early Voting: Weapon Against Suppression

It’s now estimated that as many as a third of America’s voters will cast ballots before election day, up from 22 percent in ’04. That’s an impressive statistic, but, for Dems especially, it may not be enough.
All indications are that the nation will have a record-setting turnout, so high is voter interest in the current presidential campaign. There will be long lines across the nation on November 4, especially in predominantly African-American precincts. One fear is that elderly voters, who just can’t stand around for a long time will go home before casting ballots. There may be an even larger group of impatient individuals among Obama supporters of all races in swing states. Bad weather could exacerbate the problem.
More to the point, there will be Republican shenanigans in swing states on election day. The safe assumption is to expect confusion, disinformation, delays, parking hassles, disappearing registration records and computer glitches. If Dems are caught by surprise at the scale of election day problems, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Consider the ACORN smear campaign and possible politicization of the FBI as tip-offs that disenfranchisement efforts on an unprecedented scale could be in in the works.
Surely, the Obama campaign and DNC have their legal teams in training already (For a good report on the legal strategy against suppression see here). But one powerful weapon we all have against voter suppression is to vote early. Every Democrat who votes early has made a contribution to reducing election day confusion. Even better, it’s harder to discount early votes, because there is more time to challenge any effort to do so. Another reason to encourage early voting is that the race always narrows in the last few days of the campaign. Banking Obama votes now, while the memory of the debates is still fresh is good strategy. Those who vote early are also freer to use their time on election day helping others get to the polls.
Yes, there are reports of long lines, even for early voting in many localities. Better to wait now, however, than add to the confusion on election day. If you get in and out quickly, you can use the hour your employer gives you to vote to help a carless co-worker get to the polls.
So putting some effort into early voting for ourselves, our families and friends is time well-spent for Dems. If we can bump up the share of early voters from a third to say 40 percent, it could make a huge difference for the better for America’s future.