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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

‘Swift Boat’ Ads Launched to Stop Health Reform

WaPo‘s Dan Eggen has an article today about the launching of the GOP’s ad campaign to stop health care reform. Eggen reports that the ads

feature horror stories from Canada and the United Kingdom: Patients who allegedly suffered long waits for surgeries, couldn’t get the drugs they needed, or had to come to the United States for treatment.

As if there are no long waits in private sector health care and Americans don’t spend many millions on cheaper drugs from Canada.
The ad campaign is being coordinated by CRC Public Relations, the firm most famous for its “Swift Boat’ attack campaign to discredit 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry. Rick Scott, a leader and spokesmen for the campaign and former partner with W in the Texas Rangers, is also a former hospital chief executive who Eggen reports was ousted from the helm of the Columbia/HCA health-care company during a fraud investigation in the 1990s. “The firm eventually pleaded guilty to charges that it overbilled state and federal health plans, paying a record $1.7 billion in fines,” explains Eggen.
The good news is that the ads are already being challenged, as Eggen reports:

In an ad broadcast in the Washington area and in Scott’s home town of Naples, Fla., last week, a group called Health Care for America Now says of Scott: “He and his insurance-company friends make millions from the broken system we have now.”
The group’s national campaign manager, Richard Kirsch, said: “Those attacking reform are really looking to protect their own profits, and he’s a perfect messenger for that. His history of making a fortune by destroying quality in the health-care system and ripping off the government is a great example of what’s really going on.”

The Scott/CRC ads are in line with the strategy suggested by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, whose paper on stopping President Obama’s health care refom initiative I discussed at TDS last week.
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) says, via HuffPo, that the Luntz strategy is “intended to prolong the broken system we have today” and he describes it thusly:

So expect a massive misinformation campaign coming to a health care debate near you. Opponents using Dr. Luntz’s doublespeak will argue for a “balanced, common sense approach” to health care but what they really want is to keep the system the way it is. They’ll say that a public plan will not be “patient centered,” but their real goal is to block accessible health care for every American. They’ll say reform will deny Americans “choice” even when every American will be allowed to keep their health insurance and their doctor. They’ll claim that the “quality of care will go down,” while callously ignoring the fact that millions of Americans have no health care at all and millions more are denied the medications and procedures they need.

Also at HuffPo, Chris Weigant offers some good strategy pointers in his post “Countering the Luntz Playbook on Health Care,” including:

…We’ve got an easier job than Republicans in convincing the people, because they already agree with the most basic Democratic premises on health care — every family has a health insurance horror story. Meaning “the system is broken” is not something we have to convince people of. The Republicans, meanwhile, have only fear. Which brings us to our first talking point.

And when a Republican Senator/member of congress starts railing against government involvement in health care as a form of socialism, Weigant has a response:

“Excuse me, Senator, but I can’t help but pointing out that the health care you receive from the American taxpayers could be called ‘socialized medicine’ as well. And yet, I notice that you accept this health care — which is paid for straight out of the American taxpayer’s wallet. Are you over 65? Have you refused all Medicare benefits, since you are so adamant about the evils of ‘socialized medicine’? If you are trying to limit American citizens from getting the health care you yourself enjoy, which is incidentally paid for by those very same taxpayers, why should anyone listen to what you have to say? You are saying ‘I’ve got mine’ and at the same time ‘nobody else should get to choose what I’ve got’ even though they’re paying for yours. I will start to listen to you on the evils and dangers of government health care when you voluntarily give up your own government health care and go out and buy insurance on the open market. By doing so, you might begin to understand the crisis as the average Americans see it… but until you do, I have to say you’re being somewhat of a hypocrite, Senator.”

George Lakoff, along with colleagues Glenn W. Smith and Eric Haas, have a list of ten principles of health care reform messaging, also at HuffPo. Among the nuggets mined by Lakoff, Smith and Haas:

Why do HMO’s have a high administrative cost – 15 to 20 percent or more? They spend money to justify denying you the care you need and all too often delaying care so much that you are harmed by the delay…
The American Plan is there to provide you care, not deny or delay it. Its administrative costs would be low, about 3 percent….HMO’s are big spenders, not on your health, but on administrative costs, commercials to tout their plans, and profits to investors. As much as 20 to 30% of what you pay does not go to your care. In The American Plan, 97% of what you pay goes for your care. It’s a better deal for you and for our country.

The authors also emphasize the importance of stating that “Health care is a moral issue” and underscoring the “central principle of empathy.” While it is important to affirm the moral case for comprehensive health care reform, I would also emphasize that it is a compelling national security priority, when we have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the developed world, nearly 50 million citizens have zero health insurance, when tens of millions of Americans are in immediate danger of economic ruin in the event of a catastrophic illness and many more millions simply don’t know how much their insurance will cover —- until they get the bill.

Is Gun Control Still “Third Rail” for Dems?

Dorothy Samuels challenges Democrats to rethink a destructive misconception in her New York Times opinion piece, “The Deadly Myth of Gun Control in Electoral Politics.” Samuels argues, in essence, that an election 15 years ago has all but paralyzed today’s Democrats from addressing one of the most important public safety issues.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama tossed cold water a few weeks back on Attorney General Eric Holder’s well-founded enthusiasm for reviving the assault weapons ban that Congress and the Bush White House let expire in 2004. I was struck by a common thread in the responses I heard:Enactment of the original 1994 assault weapons ban cost Democrats control of Congress.
…The notion that gun control was responsible for the Democrats’ debacle 15 years ago was floated by Richard Gephardt, the former Democratic House leader, and other pols and commentators after the ’94 election. But it was Bill Clinton who gave it current credence. “The N.R.A. could rightly claim to have made Gingrich the House speaker,” Mr. Clinton wrote in his 2004 autobiography, pumping up the gun lobby and, not incidentally, himself by attributing the body blow to his party to his principled leadership on guns.

Samuels argues that “other major factors in the Democrats’ 1994 loss, starting with perceived Democratic arrogance and corruption” had more to do with the Dems being routed in that year. She points out that Bill Nelson, a strong gun control advocate was elected to the Senate in FL, despite NRA support for his opponent. She also cites,

…voter unhappiness with Mr. Clinton’s budget, his health care fiasco, the Republican Party’s success in recruiting appealing candidates, and that ingenious Republican vehicle for nationalizing the elections known as the “Contract With America.” The contract, by the way, did not mention guns.

Samuels points out that Clinton did well enough in 1996, trumpeting “his role in enacting the assault weapons ban and the ’93 Brady law requiring background checks for gun buyers” and she notes also the prime time speaking slots for James and Sarah Brady at the Democratic Convention in that year She also cites “the stunning defeat four years later, in 2000, of prominent Republican senators running with strong N.R.A. backing” (John Ashcroft in MO, Spencer Abraham in MI, Slade Gorton in WA), noted in Dennis Henigan’s book, “Lethal Logic.” She concludes:

Today, there’s ample reassurance for the Democratic Congress and White House in the N.R.A.’s unsuccessful crusade against Barack Obama in 2008, and the poor showing of its favored House and Senate candidates against hopefuls running with backing from the pro-gun-control Brady Campaign. Yet, the gun lobby’s exaggerated ’94 triumph continues to haunt the nation’s capital, inflating the N.R.A.’s clout and Democratic cowardice on gun violence.

Samuels makes a pretty good case that a 15-year old myth has empowered the gun lobby beyond all reason. Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed has argued in an interesting Slate article that the key to passing meaningful gun control reforms is to link it to crime control:

The political case for not running for cover on guns is equally straightforward. Unlike most politicians, voters are not ideological about crime. They don’t care what it takes, they just want it to go down. The Brady Bill and the clip ban passed because the most influential gun owners in America—police officers and sheriffs—were tired of being outgunned by drug lords, madmen, and thugs.
When Democrats ignore the gun issue, they think about the political bullet they’re dodging but not about the opportunity they’ll miss. In the 1980s, Republicans talked tough on crime and ran ads about Willie Horton but sat on their hands while the crime rate went up. When Bill Clinton promised to try everything to fight crime—with more police officers on the street, and fewer guns—police organizations dropped their support for the GOP and stood behind him instead.

I’m also wondering if the widespread use of the catch-all term “gun control” is a big part of the problem. The American public clearly supports specific measures like a ban on the sale of assault weapons, reasonable waiting periods before gun purchase etc. Polls taken as recently as April indicate that a healthy majority of respondents favor a ban on the sale of assault weapons and tougher restrictions on handgun sales. But the majority shrinks, when the term “stricter gun control laws” is used. Why use the adversary’s terminology in debates, and call it “gun control”? Dems should always challenge the use of such a broad term to obscure specific reforms, and call out the gun lobby for their distortions.
“Gun control” has often been called the “third rail” of American politics in recent years. Certainly, Samuels is right that a 15-year old myth should not be allowed to prevent life-saving reforms — and safer communities for all Americans.

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.