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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

Team McCain’s Inner Circle

Democratic oppo researchers should clip Maeve Reston’s La Times article “McCain’s team forged loyalty in collapse,” a revealing profile of the inner circle of Team McCain. Reston’s article focuses on “The Sedona Five,” key McCain insiders Rick Davis, Mark Salter, Charles Black, Steve Schmidt and Mark McKinnon, who shaped and implemented McCain’s nomination-winning strategy at a time when most pundits believed he was toast. Reston provides this succinct description of the group:

Davis, a calm and efficient lobbyist who impressed everyone with his budgeting skills, manned the northern Virginia headquarters. Salter, 53, who in his younger days spent four years as an Iowa spiker laying railroad tracks before becoming McCain’s speechwriter, was most often at McCain’s side.
Black, a lobbyist who initially signed on as debate coach, was drafted onto the Straight Talk Express bus by McCain as his tactician and, at 60, as the “wise elder of the group.” Schmidt, 37, a strategist who ran the 2004 Bush campaign war room, and McKinnon, a one-time songwriter who served as media strategist for President Bush’s White House campaigns, parachuted in from their respective bases in California and Austin.

Reston rolls out an illuminating account of McCain’s comeback and image-tweaking, as told from the inside. Her article also has some interesting detail about the McCain campaign’s ad-buying strategy and McCain’s trust of the ‘Sedonas,’ apparently well-placed.

GOP’s ‘Cybersquatter’ Edge

Lest anyone entertain delusions about the GOP taking more of a high road in campaign ’08, The New York Times has an instructive article by Kitty Bennett, “R.N.C. Snaps Up Domain Names“. Bennett explains:

At least 25 domain names related to Hillary Rodham Clinton have links to the Republican National Committee: the names were either registered by the R.N.C. last year or showed up on servers the committee uses…The party has also begun preemptively registering domains that could be used to attack John McCain, like mccainamigos.com, voteagainstmccain.com, flipflopmccain.com and hatemccain.com.

Bennett notes the GOP’s edge in ‘cybersquatter’ warfare:

The Democratic Party and the campaigns have shown little of the verve and creativity of the R.N.C. …The party has been focused more on the national convention, registering variations of denverdemconvention08.com in February, but so far apparently no domains related to Mr. McCain.
The election has “triggered an avalanche of cybersquatter activity,” according to NetNames, a domain name management service. Speculators have registered nearly 2,000 domain names related to presidential candidates as of last week. Names related to Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy made up over half of the registrations, followed by Mr. Obama with 635 and Mr. McCain with 269.

It would be a mistake to overstate the importance of hogging domain names as a political tactic, and it’s hard to see how it will affect many votes. But it does show that there is not much the Republicans won’t fund to help muzzle Dems’ messaging resources.
Although it’s a stretch to attribute all of the tactical lag to the Democrats superior moral ground, no one should be surprised that the GOP has a stronger proclivity for purely obstructionist tactics (some history here) and an edge in deploying them. The DNC might benefit by setting up an internet-savvy task force to anticipate such shenanigans and respond accordingly.

Good for the Party?

Even if Obama is your candidate, Hillary Clinton’s Texas and Ohio victories may be a good thing. Sure, he would have preferred to put it away yesterday. But a closer race keeps interest and turnout high. The fact that our two candidates who are locked in a high turnout race are an African American and a woman underscores the Democratic Party’s creds as the Party of hope for the disempowered and gives campaign ’08 an aura of heightened historical significance.
The narrowing race also keeps both candidates sharp and forces McCain to split his attacks, while getting hammered by both Dems. When we get to the convention, Clinton and Obama will be more seasoned and better prepared to rumble with the Republicans’ toughest front-man. Because of the extended campaigns, Obama, Clinton and their troops will have learned more about the political arts of self-defense, ad-making and buying, media interviews, speechmaking, targeting demographics, GOTV, leveraging issues, strategy and tactics etc.
That’s the good news.
There are, however, a couple of ways the aforementioned scenario could sour. Badly. Despite the media emphasis on delegate-counting, the popular vote is the key to claiming the moral high ground. If Super-D’s give the nomination to the loser of the popular vote, it won’t be worth having, and most of them, one hopes, are smart enough to know that and to do the right thing. But what if the popular vote totals going into Denver are so razor-close that neither candidate can convincingly claim the moral high ground? Imagine the deal-making and bitterness of the loser’s supporters. Imagine the field day McCain could have in mocking the Democrats’ commitment to “democracy.” A near-tie in popular vote totals would be less of a problem if ALL delegates were allocated by popular votes in their districts.
I get it that the super-delegate idea was conceived to check convention delegates on occasions when they don’t reflect the popular vote. But the potential for abuse is just too high. May the genius who cooked up the super-delegate scheme go join the GOP and let them benefit from his sage advice.
The other booby trap now looming larger is the Michigan-Florida mess. After last night, Obama still leads in the popular vote tally of all the primaries except MI and FL thus far by 582,718, while Clinton leads by 40,363 when MI and FL are included in the count (Obama wasn’t on the ballot in MI). It’s a little more difficult to assign blame here. But changing the rules without an agreement from both Clinton and Obama would be an equally-disastrous response. If they are not both on board with whatever is decided, expect mayhem.
Both of these obstacles can be overcome — the first by either candidate getting a clear majority of the popular vote and the second by Clinton and Obama reaching agreement on what should be done about FL and MI, sooner, better than later.
Looking toward the future, Democrats have a big job ahead in adopting reforms to insure that the popular vote total always prevails. The focus should be on dismantling the super-delegates and other vestiges of Party elitism, and moving in the direction of direct popular election of our nominee, so it becomes clear to all that we are the party that champions the will of the people.

Learning from Nader

Ralph Nader’s announcement of his presidential candidacy on ‘Meet the Press’ yesterday included an insightful critique of the Democratic Party, but clouded by a kind of big-picture myopia Nader-watchers may find familiar. There were several Nader nuggets worth quoting in the MTP interview. Asked by Tim Russert how he would feel if his candidacy handed the presidency to the GOP this year, Nader responded:

Not a chance. If the Democrats can’t landslide the Republicans this year, they ought to just wrap up, close down, emerge in a different form. You think the American people are going to vote for a pro-war John McCain who almost gives an indication that he’s the candidate of perpetual war, perpetual intervention overseas? You think they’re going to vote for a Republican like McCain, who allies himself with the criminal, recidivistic regime of George Bush and Dick Cheney, the most multipliable impeachable presidency in American history? Many leading members of the bar, including the former head of the American Bar Association, Michael Greco, absolutely dismayed over the violations of the Constitution, our federal laws, the criminal, illegal war in Iraq and the occupation? There’s no way. That’s why we have to take this opportunity to have a much broader debate on the issues that relate to the American people…

I doubt Nader will make a difference in the ’08 outcome this year, given the ’04 vote. What I find exasperating is that he could have made a difference for the better as a presidential candidate — if he would have campaigned within the Democratic Party. Certainly he would have gotten more media coverage for the causes he cares about. But it will never happen, since Nader harbors an almost splenetic contempt for the Democratic Party and the two-party duopoly in general. Also, he may figure that if Edwards and Kucinich couldn’t get much traction with an anti-corporate message as Dems, he wouldn’t either. Still, Nader’s speechmaking and debating skills are a match for any Democratic candidate and are instructive for our future candidates. For better or worse, he could do more to push the party leftward from the inside.
There’s a lot more Dems can learn from Nader, including the paramount importance of doing the homework and the way he marshalls his arguments and commands facts. There’s also his integrity, energy — still remarkable at age 74 — and his work ethic that sparked critical reforms like OSHA, EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.. Few Dems can match his record as a reformer. Yet today he choses to be a fringe figure, rather than an influential force in defining the national debate in one of the leading parties.
Ralph Nader has earned respect and admiration for his numerous accomplishments as a ‘public citizen.’ But he hasn’t made the case that a large number of votes for him wouldn’t help the Republicans. He ignores the fact that the aforementioned reforms were enacted by Democratic leadership. Given the choice of voting for a candidate for President who can actually win and provide some real world change, I think I’ll hang with the donkeys.

The Big Orange

Do read AFL-CIO Director of Organizing Stewart Acuff’s remembrance of Reverend James Orange at Campaign for America’s Future ‘Blog for Our Future.” James Orange was MLK’s street guy, the one he called on to get young people and even gang members involved in King’s historic campaigns against racial injustice, and he also served as MLK’s March mobilizer and was with King when he was assassinated. Acuff recalls:

During the 1960s and 1970s, Rev. Orange was a key field organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. More than that, he was a member of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inner circle. He joined Dr. King during the Birmingham movement where he organized the demonstrations of school children who were firehosed and attacked by police dogs. Those images broadcast across the nation helped turn public opinion to support the civil rights movement.
Rev. Orange also played key roles in civil rights actions in Selma, Memphis and Chicago—and in Dr. King’s last campaign, the Poor People’s Movement. In both Memphis and Chicago Rev. Orange was assigned to deal with the street gangs attracted to the movement but not committed to King’s nonviolent civil disobedience. He never stopped teaching activists and organizers the principles and basic tactics and strategies of nonviolent civil disobedience.
In 1977 Rev. Orange became a union organizer. He personified the link between the civil rights movement and the union movement. He understood at his core what Dr. King taught – that civil rights without economic rights or justice was insufficient.
Reverend and I began working together in 1985 when I went to Atlanta as an organizer for SEIU to start the Georgia State Employees Union (GSEU/SEIU Local 1985). Reverend knew activists and political leaders all over Georgia and he opened doors for me and our staff wherever we went. He marched with us in Milledgeville and Savannah, helped with a 72 hour, round the clock, vigil and picket line in Augusta, and when budget cuts threatened staffing levels at state hospitals and prisons, Reverend Orange helped us take over state department heads’ offices and went to jail with us.

Acuff has more to say about Orange’s amazing spirit and uncompromising integrity, which I also witnessed when I worked with Orange on a number of projects. He was the best of a great generation of young men and women who answered the call of history and never lost faith or courage, even after MLK was assassinated. Orange continued the fight for social justice until his last breath.
Orange was a gifted labor organizer and after King was assassinated, he led some 300 union organizing campaigns across the southeast. He was once well-described in Southern Exposure magazine as a “big black mountain of a man,” standing about 6’3″ and hitting the scales just south of 300 lbs. Other writers knick-named him “the gentle giant,” partly in tribute to the open-hearted way he embraced ostracized minorities in organizing the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. March in Atlanta. Orange was sort of a ‘pied piper’ as well, commanding an army of political activists who conducted voter registration drives for every Atlanta election and organizing a group called “the blue crew” that turned out the black vote to elect Atlanta’s Black mayors and African American members of congress. He and his activist wife, Cleo raised a house full of great kids, who also became activists.
James Orange was the most widely-loved of King’s lieutenants, and his memorial service at Morehouse College’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapel on Saturday will be SRO. Both Senators Obama and Clinton sent messages of tribute praising Orange’s contributions. Indeed, neither candidate would be contending for the Democratic nomination without the groundwork laid by James Orange and his followers.

The Conservative Delusion

Fareen Zakaria’s Newsweek article “The End of Conservatism” makes the short case that GOP leaders are marinating in self-delusion by arguing that their party’s shrinking support is a result of abandonment of conservative principles. Zakaria counters that a combination of events, demographic change and the transformation of public opinion have rendered Reagan-Thatcher hard-line conservatism obsolete, creating a world in which “conservative slogans sound weirdly anachronistic.” Zakaria’s read on the Democrats’ prospects is also on target, and he quotes TDS co-editor Ruy Teixeira and his co-author John Judis:

“The Emerging Democratic Majority,” written in 2002, makes the case that perhaps for these broad reasons, the conservative tilt in U.S. politics is fast diminishing. It gained a brief respite after 9/11, when raised fears and heightened nationalism played to Republican advantages. But the trends are clear. Authors John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira note that several large groups have begun to vote Democratic consistently—women, college-educated professionals, youth and minorities. With the recent furor over immigration, the battle for Latinos and Asian-Americans is probably lost for the Republicans. Both groups voted solidly Democratic in 2006.

While many hard line conservatives have problems with John McCain’s policies on issues like torture and immigration reform, Zakaria is overstating the case in saying of McCain that “He seems to understand that a new world requires new thinking.” McCain’s advocacy of open-ended occupation of Iraq and his support of escalating US military presence in Iraq is anything but new thinking. Ditto for a broad range of McCain’s polices on such issues as the environment, women’s rights, health care and education. Republican voters who want some leaders capable of ‘new thinking’ can best send their party the message by voting Democratic in November, as many have already done in the primaries.

Super Delegates: How Elitist?

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the ‘superdelegates,’ who will cast more than 19 percent of the votes for President at the Democratic National Convention this summer, is that nearly all of them have been elected to something at some point. The general categories include: 28 Democratic governors; Every Democratic member of congress; 23 Democratic Party ‘elders’ (former Presidents, vice presidents, speakers of the House etc.); 411 DNC members elected by Party activists in the 50 states. After that the case for having superdelgates in the next convention gets very weak.
In his Sunday L.A. Times article “Who Are These Superdelegates?,” Peter Nichols quotes Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen:

This is a device to try to reduce the influence of one-person, one-vote…It’s anti-democratic. It’s specifically designed for the purpose of having the insiders . . . have some sort of final decision over who the nominee is going to be, regardless of what the voters want.

And Chris Bowers, who has launched a ‘Superdelgates Transparency Project,‘ has this to say about the danger of the superdelegate system in his Sunday Open Left post:

The Democratic Party is a living institution that changes through time, and it must change to adapt to the changing nature of its membership. This is a progressive era of mass engagement in politics, and for superdelegates to defy the popular will would deal a generational body blow to huge sections of its new activist corps, not to mention give it a black eye nationally for years, and would also simply violate progressive principles of democracy.

The demographic profile of the superdelegates is not impressive. In Josephine Hearne’s Politico article “White men hold superdelegate power balance,” for example, the author notes:

The exact percentage of white males varies slightly depending on whether the penalized Michigan and Florida delegation superdelegates are counted, but the overall percentage is at least 46 percent. Overall, men of all races represent 64 percent of the party’s superdelegates…The percentage of white male superdelegates is disproportionate to the share of white males who make up the overall Democratic electorate. According to a January 2008 national poll by Zogby International, 28 percent of Democratic voters are white men. Women account for 55 percent of Democratic voters.
…Among the superdelegates, including Michigan’s and Florida’s, there are 28 governors (21 white men), 49 senators (33 white men) and 228 representatives (137 white men). Members of the Democratic National Committee are also superdelegates, and among this group, there is more diversity.

One group. 2008 Democratic Convention Watch, keeps a running tally of the superdelgates who are committed and uncommitted. For their list of names of some 439+/- superdelegates who have endorsed a presidential candidate, click here. For their list of the 356+/- superdelegates who have not endorsed a candidate, click here. As of this writing 76 have yet to be chosen by their state conventions.
As Ed’s post below pointed out, the Clinton-Obama latest snapshot breakdown estimates vary somewhat, with a range of 210-242 for Clinton to 142-163 for Obama.

Managing Political Photo-Ops

This little item at WaPo by Al Kamen got me thinking about political photo-ops, and more particularly the value of composing them carefully when possible. Political ad agencies test images for campaign lit and videos regularly, but I know of no studies that provide statistical verification of the relative importance of photo-ops in a campaign. Nonetheless, visual images have consequences in politics, one of the most oft-cited cases being Nixon’s beard stubble in his televised debate with JFK, which many believe was a significant factor in Kennedy’s 1960 victory.
The appearance of candidates gets a lot of attention, as Edwards’s famous haircut indicates. But I wonder how much attention campaigns are paying to the background in photo-ops, debates and candidate appearances. No doubt the sheer chaos of campaigns limits opportunities for composing photo-op backgrounds. But there are some occasions, such as debates when it becomes possible and potentially important.
In the July 23rd “YouTube” Democratic debate, Senator Clinton was centrally positioned among the podiums, wearing a bright peach-hued jacket among the dark suits (photo here). CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin cracked that the field looks “like Gladys Knight and the Pips.’ She also brought her ‘A game’, which added to the effect of making the others look like also-rans, in stark contrast to her Iowa concession speech, when she was flanked by Clinton Administration elders, a drab tableau, to put it charitably. I gather that her positioning at the YouTube debate was random, but it showed that a favorable set-up can have a beneficial effect.
I remember also watching a televised debate between Senator Max Cleland and GOP challenger Rep. Saxby Chambliss in ’02, and being struck by how downright “senatorial” Chambliss looked — straight out of central casting. He was all gussied up in an elegantly-tailored dark suit and crowned by a shock of perfectly-coiffed white hair (I think they pretty much all shell out big bucks for their doos, not just Edwards). But more interesting, Chambliss was positioned in such a way that the American flag was behind him, not the incumbent Cleland, who was a little off his game that day and looked tired. I’d like to think that Georgians would not be swayed by such superficial considerations as candidate appearance or a flag in the background, but Chambliss did win, so who knows? I strongly suspect, however, that somebody in the Chambliss campaign paid a lot of attention to the setting for that debate, and Cleland’s campaign probably didn’t give it enough thought. The same guy who managed the Chambliss upset is now running McCain’s campaign, as noted yesterday. So don’t be surprised by American flags in the backdrop becoming a staple of McCain image management going forward.
I’m sure it’s possible to over-do it, and photo-ops can look too ‘stagey.’ The Colbert Report certainly gooses a lot of grins out of the set’s flags and eagles slo-mo background, a goof on the networks. Flags or otherwise, it might be a good idea for Democratic campaigns to try and get some more inspiring backdrops for candidate photo-ops than their fading stars of yesteryear.

Unmasking McCain, Deuce

MyDD‘s Jonathan Singer flags Laura Vozzella’s Baltimore Sun article about John McCain’s recent visit to Baltimore. Vozzella’s piece included this nugget shedding new light on McCain’s much-noted ‘character.’:

McCain’s visit brought Bo Harmon back to town. Ehrlich’s former campaign manager is McCain’s national political director.
Ehrlich created a bit of a stir by hiring Harmon, who in 2002 had run Saxby Chambliss’ upset campaign against then-Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia. The Chambliss campaign ran a TV ad questioning the courage of the Vietnam vet and triple amputee.
Among those who objected to the ad: a certain senator from Arizona. “Worse than disgraceful,” McCain called it.

Singer adds:

The evidence of this unscrupulous side of McCain does not begin with his hiring of someone whose pièce de résistance he previously called “worse than disgraceful.” From the beginning of his career through today, McCain has shown that he stands for little other than advancing his own career for ambition’s sake. For instance, in 2001 McCain was apparently nearly willing to give up on everything he ever believed in, including his vaunted Ronald Reagan, in order to switch parties to give the Democrats control over the United States Senate. Three years later, McCain’s campaign approached John Kerry about forming a bipartisan ticket, which would have thoroughly undermined everything he had purported to fight for over the course of his career in Washington. Just in the last few months McCain has given up on his long-standing position on immigration. The list goes on.

It will be interesting to see if any other msm reporters call on McCain to account for his record in the months ahead.

Unmasking the Bogus Maverick

I know we’re all juiced about the Clinton-Obama race. But whoever wins the Dem nod, McCain’s nom is a done deal, and there is a need for some serious oppo-focus if Dems want to shut him down. Toward that end, Arianna gets things off to a good start with her perceptive HuffPo via Alternet post on the McCain of today vs. his saner persona of a few years back. Here’s a taste, with a richly-deserved b-slap for the msm:

So, please, stop pretending that McCain is still the dashing rebel that made knees buckle back in the day — and stop referring to him, as the New York Times did this weekend, as “moderate” and a “centrist.”
What is it going to take for you guys to face reality? McCain verbally stroking Rove should be the equivalent of that great scene at the end of The Godfather where Diane Keaton’s Kay watches in horror as Al Pacino transforms, in the kiss of a ring, from her loving husband Michael into the next Don Corleone. This ain’t the same man you married.
…The Thousand Year War Express is careening along the road to the White House, and the new John McCain is gunning the engine. And he has to be stopped.

Now take it on over to The Nation, where David Roberts picks up on one of Arianna’s themes in “John McCain and Climate Change.” As Roberts explains:

The media touts McCain’s stance on climate as evidence of his straight talkin’ maverickosity. Conservative stalwarts assail McCain for his heresy (Romney attacked McCain’s climate bill in Michigan and Florida). The public hails him for reaching across the aisle. Even Democrats and greens seem inclined to give him a grade of Good Enough on climate.
This is a classic case of what our president calls the soft bigotry of low expectations. Judged against his fellow Republicans, McCain is a paragon of atmospheric wisdom. Judged against the climate and energy legislation afoot in Congress, he falls short. Judged against the two leading Democratic presidential candidates, he is a pale shadow. Judged against the imperatives of climate science — that is to say, judged against brute physical reality — he isn’t even in the ballpark.
It’s time to stop grading McCain on a curve.

Roberts has plenty more, enough to put a permanent end to the oft-cited McCain-as-green-gipper myth. But Paul Waldman’s American Prospect article “The Maverick Myth” is the capper for today.

A Lexis-Nexis search reveals that in the month of January alone, McCain was referred to in the media as a “maverick” more than 800 times. Pick up today’s newspaper or turn on cable news, and you won’t have to wait long before a reporter or pundit calls McCain a maverick.
According to Congressional Quarterly’s party unity scores, which track how often members of Congress side with their party on key votes, over the course of his career McCain has voted with his party 84 percent of the time—not the highest score in the Senate but hardly evidence of a great deal of independence. Similarly, the American Conservative Union gives McCain a lifetime rating of 82.3, making him a solid friend of the right’s. And according to the widely respected Poole-Rosenthal rankings, McCain was the eighth-most conservative senator in the 110th Senate.
…Reporters decided long ago that John McCain’s character is of a higher order than ordinary mortals. In their telling, his motives are pure, his every word and deed speaks of unrivaled courage, and his fierce independence makes him a “maverick.” Everything McCain does is either highlighted or ignored based on whether it fits this pre-existing portrait. So when McCain lards his campaign with lobbyists and GOP insiders, as he did in its initial formation, or when he genuflects before religious radicals like Jerry Falwell and John Hagee, reporters dismiss it as a momentary aberration not representing the real John McCain.

No matter who wins the Democratic nomination, a prerequisite for winning in November is putting an end to McCain’s free ride with the media, and the progressive blogosphere will have to lead the charge. The aformentioned articles are a good beginning for unmasking McCain as the GOP’s flip-flopping, pseudo-maverick errand boy for the fat cats.