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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


Ryan Cooper hits the nail on the head about the latest put-down of the progressive wing of the Democratic coalition

Here’s what he says:

[The rise of inequality as a political issue] has brought about a reaction from center-left types, who insist that the progressives have their priorities wrong. In the process, they mischaracterize the progressive view, and set up a false dichotomy between that and establishment positions….
In a New York Times Op-Ed, Bill Keller recently provided a representative sample:

The left-left sees economic inequality as mainly a problem of distribution — the accumulation of vast wealth that never really trickles down from on high. Their prescription is to tax the 1 percent and close corporate loopholes, using the new revenues to subsidize the needs of the poor and middle class…
The center-left — and that includes President Obama, most of the time — sees the problem and the solutions as more complicated. Yes, you want to provide greater security for those without independent means (see Obamacare), but you also need to create opportunity, which means, first and foremost, jobs. … The center-left … agrees on the menace of inequality, but places equal or greater emphasis on the fact that the economy is not growing the way it did for most of the last century.

First of all, this is a bit rich to hear from the center…I have never met or even heard of someone concerned with inequality who is not also a fervent supporter of immediate monetary and fiscal stimulus to restore full employment as fast as possible…The left has been howling about jobs and growth for five years now, for so long and so loud that our collective tonsils have about come unglued — and who were we arguing against? The centrists, who were a major bloc of support behind the premature turn to austerity back in 2010. Better late than never, I guess. Welcome to the party, guys!

In fact, Cooper is being much too charitable. Keller is worse than just a Johnny-come-lately. What’s basically going on in his Op-Ed is that Keller is creating a straw man called the “left-left” – an imaginary political formation for which he does not offer a single actual think-tank or spokesman as an example – that is invariably wrong — even when it is right. For example, in paragraph twelve of his Op-Ed, Keller says “Almost everyone to the left of John Boehner agrees, for example, that we are overdue for a raise in the minimum wage” (This, Keller omits to note, was a position that was championed by progressive think-tanks like the Economic Policy Institute but until recently ignored or rejected by more conservative groups within the Democratic coalition). But in paragraph six of his same Op-Ed, Keller then cites raising the minimum wage as an example of the flawed “redistributionist” approach of the “left-left” that ignores the more important issue of jobs.
So which is it? Is raising the minimum wage a good policy or a bad policy? After one carefully parses Keller’s Op-Ed, the only possible answer is that it’s a good policy when “the center left” (in which Keller includes absolutely everybody in the Democratic coalition except for the straw man “left-left”) endorses it and bad when the “left-left” straw man endorses it. The issues of jobs and inequality follow a similar but more convoluted “it’s right when I say it but wrong when you say it” pattern.
Democrats should prepare themselves for more of this kind of intellectual three-card-Monte in the coming period. As the center of gravity in the Democratic coalition has shifted toward more progressive economic stances, left-bashing centrists, primarily those in Third Way, and commentators like Keller are going to increasingly claim that they always favored the progressive approaches that have now become widely popular (when in fact they really didn’t) and will also criticize the excesses of imaginary “left” straw man opponents who somehow can never be identified with any actual policy paper or notable spokesman.
Here’s a simple rule of thumb to follow to cut though the nonsense: if a commentator doesn’t point to a single specific position paper or statement by a recognized spokesman as evidence for the significance of some “left” or “left-left” or “left-left-left-left-left” wing faction or position he claims malignly influences the Democratic coalition, it’s because it exists only inside his head.
P.S. By the way, Keller’s titles his Op-Ed “Inequality for Dummies.” The temptation to take advantage of that to say something snarky is absolutely tremendous but I’ll refrain. It’s just too damn easy.

Just in time for the holidays David Brooks sends a message about Obamacare from the alternate universe in which he resides.

Today’s New York Times offers one of David Brooks’ periodic communiqués from the alternate – and far, far more pleasant – universe in which he lives.
What is most charming and attractive about the alternate America in which Brooks resides is that there are no extremist Republicans in it. None. Not one. Things that happen here in our America because of conscious and deliberate GOP attacks, in Brooksland happen spontaneously and without malevolent intention.
Consider his description of why people resist the individual mandate in his alternate universe:

Already, it’s very clear that millions of Americans — and not just Tea Party types — do not accept the legitimacy of the government to overrule individual decisions, even on something like health insurance. This is not the America of 1932 or of 1964. This is an America steeped in distrust of government. It’s an America that is, on both left and right, steeped in the ethos of individual choice….
…In the age of the Internet, people are used to decentralized systems and maximum personal choice. The mandated elements of Obamacare may look good on paper and they may be necessary to get the plan to work, but they probably can’t survive the public sense they are illegitimate….
…Governing in an age of distrust is different than governing in an age of trust. Government now lacks the legitimacy to impose costs…People like Social Security, but I bet you that Congress could not pass a Social Security law today. If people were unfamiliar with the concept, you couldn’t pass a bill that said: Government is going to confiscate money from each paycheck and spend it on other things, but don’t worry because you’ll get it back decades from now when you retire.

There you have it, an explanation for the resistance to Obamacare in which the most ferocious, coordinated right-wing attack on a social program in modern history doesn’t play any role at all. If people are unhappy with the individual mandate and would even reject Social Security it’s because they are “steeped in the ethos of individual choice”, “used to decentralized systems and maximum personal choice” and, most of all “steeped in distrust of government.”
And gosh, that distrust of government just kind of popped up right out of nowhere, didn’t it? It certainly couldn’t be that the GOP and conservative media played a major role in creating that distrust by systematically misrepresenting facts about a program they originally conceived and once championed, or by creating imaginary threats and dangers (e.g. death panels) to spread opposition and even by throwing a fundamental conservative principle like insisting on an individual responsibility to plan ahead for medical expenses out the window in order to sabotage a plan that might make people trust government a bit more.
Things like that could not possibly have been consciously orchestrated by the GOP and conservatives in Brooks alternate universe because otherwise he surely would have mentioned it, wouldn’t he? In our America, of course, it’s just too big a factor for any serious person to ignore.

Hey Dems: You really have to give Third Way credit – they have unified the Democratic coalition in a way no-one else could possibly have done.

I mean, wow, when you think about it, it’s really pretty rare when Democrats from virtually every single sector of the party can find a solid common ground. After all, when’s the last time can you remember a single analysis being attacked in The New Republic, The American Prospect and The Nation, all at the same time? When’s the last time you remember a thesis being rejected by Democratic-oriented Think Tanks ranging all the way from the generally pro-Obama Center for American Progress to the very progressive Economic Policy Institute? When was the last time one Washington Post Op-Ed was not only repudiated by essentially all progressives in the Democratic coalition but also by a wide range of Democratic “centrists” including (implicitly) Obama himself, former members of DLC and the Clinton inner circle and even by Democratic politicians who are formal honorary co-Chairs of the same organization that penned the analysis.
It really is a genuinely unique achievement. Those Third Way guys really did nail those crazy lefties. To quote Woody Allen, they punched them solidly in the fist with their nose and kicked them right in the knee with their groin.
Now granted, the Third Way guys have back-pedaled with admirably breathtaking speed. In a concession that must have caused them genuine and acute physical pain, they now insist that they really do respect and admire Elizabeth Warren and Bill DeBlasio as valuable members of the democratic coalition (although they have carefully refrained from explicitly repudiating the view implied in the Op-Ed that Warren is probably more than a little nuts and wants to drive the Democratic Party over a “populist cliff”). They now unctuously complain– in faux-humble “aw, gee wiz, come on guys” style–that all they really wanted to do with that editorial was just to present their very serious perspective about Democratic economic policy.
Well, OK, let’s take them at their word. If that’s really, really, really what Third Way wants to do, then here are two things that they should immediately and permanently stop doing:

1. Stop name calling. Calling the Obama-centric Center for American Progress “the left”, as they did in one recent Washington Post op-ed is not just so damn silly that to any informed Democrat it’s laughable; it’s also deliberately intended to brand CAP’s ideas with a false political label that will discredit them with people who know nothing at all about the groups’ actual positions. Equally, saying that Elizabeth Warren and Bill DeBlasio represent “fantasy-based Blue-state populism” and are pushing the party over a “populist cliff” isn’t debating their specific views on policy, it’s deprecating them as individuals.
2. Stop creating straw men. In Third Way’s recent Op-Ed pieces, one common thread is that they never directly attack the specific policy proposals issued by actually-existing pro-Democratic groups like the Center for American Progress, the Economic Policy Institute, the Congressional Progressive Caucus or any of the other real-world center-left or progressive-left think-tanks and organizations. Instead their repeated modus operandi is to create an exaggerated caricature of an imaginary “crazy left-wing” position that they wish their opponents actually held, slap a label on it they themselves invent (e.g. the “Have It All” philosophy) and then proceed to wallop the straw man they themselves have created.

Let’s be clear: an organization that aspires to be a genuine part of the Democratic coalition simply can’t engage in this kind of divisive behavior and then, when they are criticized, turn around and whine that all they really want to do is to seriously debate policy. It’s not just a transparently false claim, it’s deeply and profoundly insulting to the entire Democratic audience they are presumably trying to convince. It assumes Democrats – people like you, the readers of The Democratic Strategist — are so utterly stupid that you can’t tell the difference between schoolyard taunts and make-believe battles with fabricated straw men on the one hand and serious policy debates and honest engagement with opposing ideas on the other.
I mean, really, it’s not at all hard to tell the difference between the two approaches. As Ed Kilgore pointed out in his response to the latest Third Way op-ed, institutions with serious reputations as centers of thoughtful moderate or “centrist” thinking – groups like the Brookings Institution — have played a constructive centrist role for decades. Progressives frequently and passionately disagree with their conclusions but they continue to respect their intellectual honesty and commitment to reasoned debate.
So here’s a very simple acid test for Third Way: the next time you guys want to go out and write an op-ed, hire an outside copy-editor to remove every single damn instance of name-calling and every single fabricated, straw-man opponent from your piece. Instead, identify the very specific policy proposal or legislative bill you disagree with, demonstrate that it really represents a significant point of view within the Democratic coalition, quote directly from the document you are criticizing and then explain your dissent without directly attacking the individuals or group who wrote the document but focus rather on the specific ideas you believe wrong in the proposal itself.
If you can’t do this, then don’t complain if no one takes you seriously when you claim that all you really want to do is to seriously debate Democratic policy.
On the other hand, of course, now that I think about it for a moment, maybe I’m really wrong about this. Maybe you guys should just keep on doing exactly what you’re doing. There are all kinds of important policy issues that currently divide the Democratic coalition and which inevitably but unfortunately weaken Democratic unity. It’s a real and important contribution to the Democratic coalition to generate the kind of massive intra-party unity that you guys have generated as a counter-weight to these divisive pressures – even if it is a massive intra-party unity that is directed directly against yourselves.
P.S. Oh, and by the way, if you want to create a serious dialog with Democrats, you might also want to consider using a different platform than the Wall Street Journal. The sincerity and plausibility of your critique is not particularly enhanced when it appears alongside editorials channeling old Ayn Rand novels and paid ads promoting offshore bank accounts in remote Pacific islands.

Dems: here’s something interesting – a clear statement of the Democratic negotiating position in the recent budget debate.

Ezra Klein yesterday obtained and published a document Patty Murray has been circulating among Senate Democrats that explains her stance in the just concluded negotiations. It lays out three basic negotiating positions that Senate Democrats seem to have agreed on as the basic foundation for their discussions with the GOP. They are:

(1) No changes to entitlements absent tax increases
(2) No changes to sequestration without revenues
(3) No restoration of defense spending without an equal restoration of domestic spending.

Now obviously firm progressives would like to see the Dems win upper-income tax increases and the abandonment of sequestration without making any concessions at all in return. But, given the current balance of power, the reality is that Dems simply do not have the leverage to force Republicans to grant such concessions.
This then presents progressives with a more specific question that is worth considering more carefully than is often done: are these three stances actually the best negotiating positions that are available to Democrats given the current balance of power between the two parties or are there other positions that could form a superior basis for negotiation – particularly given the fact that negotiations to agree on a budget cannot be avoided and do indeed have to occur?
There is no simple answer to this question but it is a very useful one for progressives to consider. The difference between successful and unsuccessful political strategies is often best determined not in comparing the results of one specific strategy with a groups’ basic long-range goals and objectives but rather by comparing it with the alternative strategies that might actually be available in a given situation.

Progressives: Here’s a copy of a top-secret, hush-hush, “for your eyes only” memo. It’s titled: “Some unsolicited advice from Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes for his counterparts at the New York Times”

Note: this is a top secret memo passed to us by an anonymous source.

Dear competitors over there at the New York Times:
I know it is unusual for someone like myself to offer advice to a liberal icon like The Times, but, to be really honest, it’s just not fun anymore for us over here at Fox to compete with a news organization that simply refuses to use all the modern tricks of the trade that we have pioneered here at Fox in order to go beyond the incredibly old fashioned – “who, how, when, where and why”, “Just the facts, ma’am” approach of traditional journalism.
Let’s just take your recent coverage of the problems in the rollout of ObamaCare as an absolutely perfect example. Your reporters interviewed relevant experts and participants about the design of the websites and – while they most certainly pointed out that GOP attempts to block the rollout played a significant role in the problems of the site – they still basically apportioned the culpability evenly among the technology companies, the integrators and the subcontractors, the government bureaucracies and the political actors. As a result, your story has ended up being used by conservatives and nonpartisan moderates to criticize the rollout as well as by your core liberal readership to defend it.
Gee whiz guys come on and wake up. I mean that is just so, so, so completely 20th century old-fashioned. Haven’t you learned any lessons at all from watching us at Fox all these years? You just gotta know that we don’t play games like that over here. Heck, right off the top of my head here are three incredibly simple suggestions that would ideologically supercharge your coverage and make it 100% liberal friendly and 100% conservative-proof.

Charles Krauthammer: “If Obama would just give me all the money he’s spending to stop me from robbing him, I’d stop robbing him.”

Several days ago I noted that the Washington Post’s leading conservative windbag in residence, “Big Charlie the K” Krauthammer, was actually channeling a classic old vaudeville routine in his arguments against Obama and the Dems. In that previous case, his indignant argument was actually a variant of the old joke about the man who kills his mother and father and then asks the judge for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.
Well, guess what? Big Charlie is back at it again today and this time his comedy routine is drawn from a famous moment in the 1969 movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In that film two comically inept train robbers, played with self-mocking, “twinkle in the eye” charm by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, execute a series of increasingly large train robberies, fueled with a cheerfully goofy self-confidence that — gosh darn it all – a couple of amiable rogues like them really aren’t doing anything all that wrong.
Their robberies eventually attract a massive troop of highly professional, relentless trackers and lawmen who pursue them through the entire middle third of the movie. At one point Redford comments on the extraordinary investment that the railroad company must be making to track them down and Newman, with comic exasperation exclaims “Hell, if the railroad would just give me all the money they are spending to stop me from robbing them, I’d stop robbing them.” By this point in the film, when our sympathies have been entirely enlisted on side of the charismatic outlaws, this suggestion actually seems to have a wacky comic logic.
Krauthammer’s variation on this classic joke is the argument that if nasty old Obama would just give the GOP all the concessions they are trying to extort by shutting down the government, well by gosh, they wouldn’t shut down the government. So, the shutdown is really all Obama’s fault because he’s so damn “intransigent.”
Here’s Charlie putting on a silly looking cowboy hat and doing a Butch Cassidy imitation:

…there has been remarkable media reticence about the president’s intransigence. He has refused to negotiate anything unless the Republicans fully fund the government and raise the debt ceiling — unconditionally.

It’s outrageous. Obama actually expects the GOP to allow the government to operate normally – to run the country and pay the nation’s debts – without giving the GOP a laundry list of its demands in return. In his own mind, Krauthammer is turning to Robert Redford and saying “you know, Sundance, if they would just give us the concessions we are trying to extort by shutting down the government, we’d stop shutting down the government.”
Well, sorry, Charlie boy, but while a classic Hollywood star like Paul Newman can take a punch line like that and make it sound charming and funny, when you do it, it comes off more like a bad imitation of Tony Soprano.

Have Pity, Your Honor, I’m an Orphan!

There are some conservative commentators who can be extraordinarily amusing to read because they combine a massive sense of pompous self-righteousness with a willingness to offer without embarrassment arguments of absolutely flamboyant silliness.
A case in point is the Washington Post’s official windbag-in-residence “Big Charlie the K” Krauthammer, Whenever Big Ole Charlie boy grabs himself a handful of some GOP talking points to recycle and sets his internal dudgeon on “high,” the results are often a kind of warped comic surrealism resembling a Cohen Brothers sequence in films like Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski.
For example, here’s big Charlie hyperventilating loudly about the outrage of Obamacare:

From Social Security to civil rights to Medicaid to Medicare, never in the modern history of the country has major social legislation been enacted on a straight party-line vote. Never. In every case, there was significant reaching across the aisle, enhancing the law’s legitimacy and endurance. Yet Obama¬care — which revolutionizes one-sixth of the economy, regulates every aspect of medical practice and intimately affects just about every citizen — passed without a single GOP vote.

Now as everyone who actually follows events in Washington knows, it was decided by the top Republican leadership in a meeting in March of 2009 that the GOP would resolutely refuse to participate in any negotiations with the Democrats about the shape of the proposed law and to instead instruct all Republican representatives to totally oppose it. In Charlie’s hands, this carefully and deliberately calculated GOP strategy and decision to refuse bipartisan cooperation then becomes the basis for an argument that the law is unacceptably “partisan” because the Dems could not get any Republicans to support it.
Now many conservatives, lacking as they do a sense of absurdist humor and therefore any broad familiarity with the history of American comedy, will actually take this argument quite seriously. But connoisseurs of comedy will immediately recognize that it is actually a tongue-in-cheek update of a classic old vaudeville routine:

Judge: You have killed your mother and father. This is a vile and heinous crime that deserves the maximum penalty.
Defendant: Have pity, your honor, I’m an orphan.

The logical structure of the argument offered by Charlie the K and the homicidal defendant in the vaudeville routine is, of course, precisely the same.
But you really have to give Big Charlie an awful lot of credit as a stand-up comedian here. He manages to tell this old classic joke with a completely straight face and without even once beginning to giggle.

Now you’re running. Now you’re running.

There is a funny moment in “Men in Black 2” where Will Smith runs though a subway shouting “Run, there’s a bug in the subway system” only to find that none of the passengers seems concerned. The camera then pulls back to reveal that a gigantic worm/centipede type-thing is devouring the subway, car by car. When the passengers suddenly become aware of this they quickly begin fleeing in terror.
Smith looks at them in utter disgust and says “Yeah, Now you’re running. Now you’re running.”
As I watch the “serious”, “mainstream” pundits and reporters of the Washington Post, the Times and other papers now suddenly discovering and piteously bewailing the dangerous extremism of the GOP – about which The Democratic Strategist has been stridently warning for close to five years — I feel just like Will Smith.
I’m thinking in utter disgust “Yeah, Now you’re running. Now you’re running.”

Watch out, Dems. There’s a general view right now that if there is a government shutdown, the GOP will get the blame. But things may not work out that way. The GOP has a secret weapon in this fight – the appalling dishonestly of the mainstream media

The general assumption behind most progressive discussion lately has been that the GOP will shoulder most of the blame if there is a government shutdown. The two main arguments for this view are that opinion polls currently show voters will blame GOP more and that the Republicans were generally blamed for the previous shutdown in 1994.
But neither of these arguments are fully convincing. For one thing the opinion poll results are deeply dependent on question wordings which tend to suggest the shutdown is being promoted by the GOP. Equally, there is a major, indeed fundamental difference between the 1994 shutdown and one today. In 1994 GOP proudly took credit and ownership of the shutdown. Today, they are already trying to avoid responsibility by promoting the notion that it is Obama and the Democrats who are refusing to “compromise.” “After all”, they say innocently, they are just asking for a tiny little “delay.”
Now it is true that if the Republicans are forced into taking a clear “make or break” vote on shutting down the government in order to defund Obamacare – and the media presents it that framework – the GOP will probably shoulder most of the blame.
But if the final legislative maneuvers involve a series of votes on different aspects of the budget (the sequester, funding levels etc.) as well as defunding Obamacare, confusion is extremely likely to occur. As Mike Tomasky notes:

Without a vote defunding Obamacare, only a relatively small percentage of the population can probably keep track of what’s going on. It’s an argument about the sequester and funding levels. That’s an argument that any reasonably skilled pol can fudge and turn into a situation that leaves most observers walking away thinking well, they’re both probably lying, and the truth is somewhere in the middle, and they’re both to blame.

An honest media that properly focused on the fact that a political party that lost the last election is using the threat of economic blackmail to overturn a law duly passed by congress might limit this problem. But the simple reality is that today’s media has been completely intimidated by conservatives to the point where they will wiggle and twist to avoid saying this clearly and directly. Instead, they will “split the difference,” suggesting that Obama really ought to consider “compromising.” They will admit that the GOP’s actions are unprecedented and extreme, but they will unctuously mutter that Obama’s compromising would be “for the good of the country” and that “someone has to be the adult in the room” and so on and so on with groveling commentary.
This nonsense will further muddy the waters and produce even more ambivalence on opinion surveys. A vicious cycle will develop in which the more fanatical and extreme the GOP resistance becomes, the more the mainstream media will turn its criticism on Obama for failing to “solve the problem” i.e. capitulate.
To repeat, much will depend on the exact way the last minute voting on the budget proceeds. But Democrats should be prepared for a scenario in which the mainstream media once again becomes the GOP’s secret weapon and political “fifth column.”

I’m sorry but this is just downright ridiculous. Look at the headlines of Jennifer Rubin’s columns in the last 16 days. This isn’t writing, it’s spitting.

1. Is Obama losing it?
2. The presidents Syria plan is already a mess
3. Voters reject white house spin
4. [Obama’s] Pacts with the devil
5. Summers latest indication Obama out of steam
6. President Obama plays the victim instead of leading the country
7. Rare policy agreement between left and right: Obama foreign policy is a disaster
8. {Obama] can fool some of the people some of the time
9. Obama panned by key constituency: the media
10. Obama’s Syria speech: an illogical speech from a paralyzed president
11. Obama’s foreign policy hits rock bottom
12. If no on Syria, Obama’s to blame
13. An untrustworthy commander in chief
14. Obama’s politicizing national security
15. Obama adrift, America isolated
16. Obama no longer commands respect
17. Critics of half-measures in Syria: Obama’s pathetic
18. Obama dwarfed by MLK