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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


A new study of Drone warfare has sparked criticism of Obama as “cynical” and “immoral.” But the criticisms lack any context. They don’t say a single word about the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, counterinsurgency strategy or the military establishment.

A report two weeks ago on the effect of the Drone strikes in Pakistan has stimulated a range of quite fierce criticisms of Obama – criticisms that have appeared in publications other than the traditionally anti-war and anti-militarist progressive press.
An article in the New Republic summarized the study’s conclusions:

A new study released this week by researchers at Stanford and NYU has found that American drone strikes in Pakistan are killing far more civilians than advertised, taking out few high value targets, and have become the primary recruiting tool for the terrorist groups the policy is aimed at combating. The report, “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan,” is based on “more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting” conducted over nine months.

The article minces no words in criticizing Obama:

Indeed, Obama has shrewdly–some might say cynically–positioned himself to the right on foreign policy, thereby insulating himself from the “weak on defense” canard that has plagued his party going back to the days of George McGovern. He doubled down on Afghanistan, at the expense of more than a thousand dead American soldiers and marines, at a point when it was obvious the war was unwinnable on the timetable he set. He ignored the hectoring over damaged relations with Pakistan that would result from the bin Laden raid, betting that success would ensure his re-election. And his use of drone strikes makes George W. Bush look like a cautious man

This conclusion, however, is a model of restraint compared to a commentary by Conner Friedersdorf in the Atlantic:

Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment.
At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy.

Writing in The American Prospect, Jamelle Bouie rejects Friedersdorf’s angry call for progressives to refuse to vote for Obama because of his policies but is pretty harsh himself on Obama failings:

Obama campaigned as someone who push back against the civil liberties abuses of the Bush era. As president, he has doubled-down on them. The drone war in Pakistan, expanded by the Obama administration, has claimed hundreds of innocent lives, and is conducted under a veil of secrecy. The “militants” targeted by the United States are often just military-aged men who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obama’s kill list-his program of extrajudicial killings, directed at American citizens suspected of terrorism–is an affront to the values of the Constitution, and a huge blemish on his record.

It is easy to understand and in varying degrees to sympathize with many of the criticisms and the moral outrage expressed in these articles. From within the particular framework of facts and assumptions that they use, the moral conclusions follow logically.
But when one steps back for a moment and examines the arguments in these articles from a broader perspective, it quickly becomes clear that they leave out a great deal. In fact, in all three, the discussion ultimately seems be about some quite unfamiliar, alternative America.
Consider the fact that in all three of these articles – articles that are entirely concerned with military strategy and policy:

• The Pentagon is not mentioned once.
• The Joint Chiefs of Staff are not mentioned once.
• The Joint Special Operations Command is not mentioned once.
• General Petraeus and counterinsurgency doctrine are not mentioned once.
• The military and national security decision-making hierarchy in the Obama White House and the decision-making process they employ are not mentioned once.

In short, in these commentaries the discussion of Obama’s moral choices regarding the use of drones is conducted as if Obama lives in some alternative universe where the president sits behind his desk in the oval office, listens to briefings from his honest, loyal, hand-picked advisors and then issues inescapable and irrevocable orders and commands. In this alternative universe Obama has an absolutely unrestricted, indeed Olympian degree of power. He can therefore be validly held directly morally responsible for every single nuance of policy that emanates from his administration.
For anyone who has observed the evolution of military strategy and policy since the late 1990’s and the tremendous conflicts between the military establishment and the Obama presidency since his election, this image is – to be frank — so utterly detached from reality and indeed patently absurd that it essentially invalidates any conclusions that might be deduced on its basis. Whatever possible moral or political culpability Obama might hypothetically have for actions he might hypothetically take in some simple alternative universe, they are simply not relevant to the real choices he has faced and now faces in the real world of his administration.
To take a more realistic perspective it is necessary to look at the broader military and strategic context out of which the use of drone strikes emerged:

Greg Sargent Makes a vitally important point today – Democratic unity is the secret weapon that may preserve a Democratic Senate – and the future of America.

In a Plum Line post today, Greg Sargent notes what he calls “an under-appreciated dynamic of the cycle — The surprising unity we’ve seen on the Democratic side between the base and what can be broadly called the Democratic establishment.”
He continues:

If you think about some of the leading Dem candidates — Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Martin Heinrich in New Mexico, and Sherrod Brown in Ohio — they are not just considered acceptable to the base and to the establishment. Both see them as exceptional, outstanding candidates, for political and substantive reasons alike. These candidates are considered progressive heroes by the base and its institutions, and they are considered excellent general election candidates by party leaders in Washington.
Meanwhile, the more moderate candidates — such as Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Richard Carmona in Arizona — are also liked by the Dem base. Liberals like Heidi Heitkamp because she’s aggressively defending Obamacare. They like Carmona partly because he has an impressive set of qualifications as a former Surgeon General and Vietnam vet, and because he’ll help make the party more attractive to Latinos long term. The result is that the leading liberal institutions — labor, the League of Conservation Voters, Emily’s List, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the liberal blogosphere — are playing heavily in the Senate races in a way that puts them, to a surprising degree, on the same page with Beltway Dems.
It wasn’t always thus. Labor and the left fought a bitter, divisive war with the Dem party committees in Arkansas in 2010, pitting their candidate Bill Halter against incumbent Blanche Lincoln. And back in previous cycles, as Politico details, the Dem party leadership pushed its chosen candidates past the base with a much heavier hand. But this time around, there’s relative peace and unity.
Dems still could very well lose the Senate if a few races break against them and if Romney wins the presidency and pulls along GOP candidates with him. But if Dems do hold the Upper Chamber, this surprising degree of unity may be a key reason why. And by the way, this also bodes well for liberals: If Dems hang on to it, the next Senate will likely gain a handful of new, high profile progressive warriors, who will pull the institution in a more liberal direction.

Sargent is right that this is an underappreciated dynamic of this election. But it’s also possibly the most important dynamic as well.

A Letter to a “Middle of the Road Moderate” Non-Latino Friend About the Profound Moral Difference Between Democrats and Republicans

A message from TDS Managing Editor Ed Kilgore:
Dear Readers:
Now that the GOP has officially embraced “self-deportation” or “attrition through enforcement” in its platform as the solution to the problem of illegal immigration, I am pleased to have the opportunity to share with you a TDS Strategy Memo from our contributing editor James Vega expressing his very deeply personal reaction:
A letter to a “middle of the road, moderate” non-Latino friend about the moral difference between Democrats and Republicans.
Click Here to read the memo.
I believe you will find the memo both useful and important.
Sincerely Yours,
Ed Kilgore

Jonathan Chait captures the key point about the Romney tape – it reveals Romney’s true and appalling character that lurks behind his public mask

Here’s how Chait puts it:

…the video exposes an authentic Romney as a far more sinister character than I had imagined. Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party. He believes that market incomes in the United States are a perfect reflection of merit. Far from seeing his own privileged upbringing as the private-school educated son of an auto executive-turned-governor as an obvious refutation of that belief, Romney cites his own life, preposterously, as a confirmation of it. (“I have inherited nothing. Everything I earned I earned the old fashioned way.”)
…The revelations in this video come to me as a genuine shock. I have never hated Romney. I presumed his ideological makeover since he set out to run for president was largely phony, even if he was now committed to carry through with it, and to whatever extent he’d come to believe his own lines, he was oblivious or naïve about the damage he would inflict upon the poor, sick, and vulnerable. It seems unavoidable now to conclude that Romney’s embrace of Paul Ryanism is born of actual contempt for the looters and moochers, a class war on behalf of his own class.

For voters who pay attention to the daily news cycle, it is this dramatic glimpse of the “real Romney” that will be most destructive to his campaign. The elaborately constructed public persona – not only the Republican convention “nice guy with a sense of humor” (which virtually no-one believed anyway) but also the “tall, take-charge-guy with great hair and pseudo-Kennedyesque look of smart, competent leadership” (which the campaign has studiously promoted in all of Romney’s ads and public appearances), have all been revealed as media artifice.
The public Romney, it turns out, is an air-brushed, sanitized, focus-grouped, media-coached illusion. What lies beneath is, as Chait says, a “sneering plutocrat” of genuinely “sinister character,” a man who should be seen as a sincere ideological comrade-in-arms of Ayn Rand and Rush Limbaugh and a genuinely repugnant candidate for the presidency.
Richard Nixon’s carefully crafted public image collapsed when the Watergate tapes first revealed the genuinely vile, nasty, brutish man behind the public image. If the media presentation of the new video dramatizes the reality behind Romney’s public façade, it may actually play a similarly pivotal role in his downfall.

Why GOP ads assert the odd notion that rejecting Obama is just like breaking up with your lousy boyfriend.

Greg Sargent returned to one of his ongoing concerns yesterday, framing the issue as follows:

The Republican National Committee released a new ad today starring a former supporter of Obama who is in the process of breaking up with a cardboard cutout version of the President. Here’s what the woman says, more in sorrow than in anger:

Listen: This just isn’t working. It’s been four years. You’ve changed. You’re spending is out of control. You’re constantly on the golf course. And you’re always out with Hollywood celebrities….your jobs council says you haven’t even showed up in six months. You’re just not the person I thought you were. It’s not me. It’s you. I think we should just be friends.

…. The ad’s tagline: “Tell us why you’re breaking up with President Obama, at BreakUpWithObama.com.” Americans for Prosperity is also running an ad featuring former Obama supporters saying (again more in sorrow than in anger) that they feel duped by Obama’s promise of hope and change.

Sargent then notes:

I’ve probably suggested this too many times now, but each time an ad like this appears, it’s worth reiterating. The GOP theory of the race seems grounded in the assumption that many Obama voters are reluctant to part ways with him for purely emotional and symbolic reasons. They personally like him; they understand he inherited an unthinkably difficult situation; and they don’t want this historic and transformative presidency to end in rejection. These voters believe Obama’s performance merits replacing him, or are close to believing this, but they hesitate to boot him from office because it will make them feel guilty. So the ad tells these voters that they can feel okay about breaking up with Obama because, ultimately, he is the one who created sky high expectations for himself; it’s not your fault he let you down. “It’s not me. It’s you.”
But the thinking underlying these ads may neglect another possibility: What if the Obama supporters the Romney camp is trying to woo (but apparently has yet to win in the numbers he need) are reluctant to part ways with him for substantive reasons? …Perhaps these targeted voters are taking a more nuanced view of the economy and the Obama presidency, and are in the process of choosing between Obama’s ideas, priorities, values and vision and those of Romney. …

Sargent notes that, based on his conversations with Obama’s polling and media strategists, he suspects that the Obama team believes that this may be what is really going on.
But, if one pursues Sargent’s line of thought, there is actually an interesting psychological reason why the Republicans are quite literally incapable of seriously considering the particular possibility he proposes. There is, in fact, a kind of mental axiom among conservatives that all truly “normal,” “real American” people absolutely must perceive Obama in exactly the same way that they do. Oh, sure, lazy welfare spongers, social and cultural deviates of various kinds, silly, irresponsible students and corrupt union thugs may support Obama for “rational” reasons, but all “real Americans” must, and I mean simply must, see him in the way that Fox News presents him.
This is a necessary psychological deduction that follows from what is a core psychological premise among conservatives: that there is not – and in fact, simply cannot be – such a thing as millions of sincere, reasonable and honest liberals, progressives and moderates living alongside them in “real,” mainstream America. For conservatives, the world is rigidly divided into the real American “us” – who all see the world in a fundamentally conservative way — and the culturally and ideologically foreign “them” who see the world in some messy Islamic/Kenyan/Greenwich Village/Harvard/ Ghetto/Beverly Hills/East L.A./Woodstock way. For conservatives, there is simply no such thing as a pro-Obama or Obama-leaning “real American.”
The result of this inflexible mind set is that when conservatives try to imagine the reasoning process of the “persuadable” voters who the polling data demonstrate are indeed “out there” somewhere in the real America and who have not rejected Obama, conservatives find themselves forced to fall back on notions like gullibility, celebrity worship and media induced hypnotism to explain why these voters don’t see Obama in exactly the same way that they themselves do. The fact that the polling data show that Obama remains personally more popular than many of his policies seems to validate the gullibility/hypnotism hypothesis.
This explains why the GOP commercials this year so insistently present the case for voting against Obama in a way that appears to most Democrats and progressives as very weird and indeed hallucinated – as being something comparable to deciding to break up with a boyfriend who turns out to be a total jerk or becoming disillusioned with a hippy “love and peace” guru who turns out to be a fraud.
As it happens, Democrats should probably not be too unhappy about this conservative blind-spot. It is reasonable to suspect that for many weak Democrats and persuadable voters – even those who are in fact genuinely disappointed and disillusioned this year – the underlying subtext of the GOP ads actually comes across as extremely condescending and insulting.
Listen carefully to the “voice” that is speaking behind the message – the voice that is saying “Don’t worry, dear, it’s OK to break up with that lousy, no-good boyfriend you picked” or “Thank goodness darling, we’re so glad you finally left that weirdo cult you were in.” When you listen carefully, this voice suddenly becomes recognizable as the voice of pompous, gloating, self-righteous parents telling their wayward but now chastened son or daughter “We told you so from the beginning, you silly gullible idiot, why don’t you ever just listen to us.”
As anyone who has ever been a parent –or a child for that matter — will quickly recognize, this kind of sanctimonious parental lecture is, to put it mildly, rarely received by the son or daughter with vast, unbridled gratitude and joyful re-submission to firm parental control. I tend to suspect that on some subconscious level the Republican message may be received with an equal lack of appreciation by the persuadable voters to whom these GOP ads are directed.

A TDS Strategy Memo: A letter to a “middle of the road moderate” non-Latino friend about the profound moral difference between Democrats and Republicans.

A message from Ed Kilgore:
Dear Readers:
As most of you know, the GOP has officially embraced “self-deportation” or “attrition through enforcement” in its platform as the solution to the problem of illegal immigration.
In response, I am pleased to have the opportunity to share with you a TDS Strategy Memo from one of our contributing editors expressing a very deeply felt personal reaction:
A letter to a “middle of the road moderate” non-Latino friend about the profound moral difference between Democrats and Republicans.
Click Here to read the memo.
I believe you will find it both useful and important.
Ed Kilgore

Dems: here’s a really interesting result buried in this week-end’s big WaPo/Kaiser poll

Take a look at these responses to a reasonably neutral question on Medicare
33. Which of these two descriptions comes closer to your view of what Medicare should look like in the future?
OPTION A: Medicare should continue as it is today, with the government guaranteeing all seniors the same set of health insurance benefits,
All: 58%
Dems: 68%
Ind 53%
Rep. 55%
OPTION B: Medicare should be changed to a system in which the government guarantees each senior a fixed amount of money to help them purchase coverage either from traditional Medicare or from a list of private health plans?
All 36%
Dem 29%
Ind 42%
Rep. 39%
Dang, according to this, even Republicans don’t support the Ryan/Romney/Goron Gecko plan when it is stated neutrally.

The invasion of Iraq overthrew Iran’s most lethal enemy and replaced it with a regime that is now Iran’s closest and most reliable ally. Depressingly, Mitt Romney has chosen the architects of this massive strategic fiasco as his principal advisors.

A recent profile of Colin Powell described his growing concern about Romney’s disturbingly narrow range of foreign policy advisors. As the article noted:

Romney’s team of about 40 foreign policy advisers includes many who hail from the neoconservative wing of the party…Many were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq War, and many are proponents of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran.

This group includes a number of well-known Neo-con figures like John Bolton, Elliot Cohen and Robert Kagan but it also includes a variety of lesser-known individuals who were intimately connected with the botched planning and execution of the war in Iraq. As a Nation review of Romney’s advisors noted:

Romney’s team is notable for including Bush aides tarnished by the Iraq fiasco: Robert Joseph, the National Security Council official who inserted the infamous “sixteen words” in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union message claiming that Iraq had tried to buy enriched uranium from Niger; Dan Senor, former spokesman for the hapless Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer in Iraq; and Eric Edelman, a top official at the Pentagon under Bush. “I can’t name a single Romney foreign policy adviser who believes the Iraq War was a mistake,” says the Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble.

Given Romney’s very narrow set of pro-invasion advisors, it becomes particularly important to review what the invasion of Iraq actually accomplished in strategic terms. Dan Froomkin, who wrote penetrating commentary about Iraq for the Washington Post during the period of the Iraq War, recently wrote a very useful review of that history and an overview of the situation today. He began his review as follows:

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, neoconservative hawks in and out of the Bush administration promised that the U.S. invasion would quickly transform that country into a strong ally, a model Arab democracy and a major oil producer that would lower world prices, even while paying for its own reconstruction.
“A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region,” President George W. Bush told a crowd at the American Enterprise Institute in 2003, a few weeks before he launched the attack.

In fact, the Neo-con promises for what the invasion of Iraq would produce were actually even more flamboyantly manic and — in retrospect — patently delusional then even this summary suggests. The Neo-con’s actually promised that the invasion would achieve two objectives of absolutely breathtaking scope.

The Third Way study and the issue “that dares not speak its name”

A lot of people have been weighing in on the new Third Way study that contrasts a “fairness” agenda with an “opportunity” agenda and — not surprisingly — comes down hard in favor of the latter.
Ed Kilgore has two posts up at the Washington Monthly about this poll today and Jonathan Bernstein has one at the Daily Plum cleverly titled “Beware of “Swing Independents” bearing deficit reduction.”
I’ll just add one quick point here that has not been made elsewhere: last year a vast amount of polling was concerned with the debate between “deficit reduction” and “jobs” or “job creation.” In that polling and the related discusssion, this dichotomy was seen as the critical policy choice and political issue.
In the new Third Way poll, however, the issue of jobs has disappeared. The dichotomy is between “fairness” and “opportunity” — and the “opportunity” side of the ledger includes “economic growth” which is as close as the study gets to raising the issue of employment.
So all of a sudden it’s as if the vast debate of last year never happened nor did Obama’s shift in the fall to a more populist focus on jobs. When progressives were insisting that the focus should be on jobs, they were challenged by those who said dealing with deficits was more important. Now that the employment picture is improving and Obama is gaining support on the issue, job creation suddenly disappears from the list of issues championed by progressives against deficit-prioritizing centrists.
It’s hard not to feel that the terms of the debate are being subtly switched in the middle of the argument and that when progressives prove to be right on a particular issue, it’s suddenly edited out of the debate.

Wake up, mainstream media. Santorum believes scientists are inherently immoral, the universities are controlled by Satan, “free exercise of religion” trumps protection of minority religious rights and only Christian morality can guide America.

As of this moment, it looks like the media is going to give Rick Santorum a free pass on his denial that he agrees with the Rev. Dennis Terry – the man who introduced him at a church service with the most over-the-top assertion of Christian theocracy in decades.
Here’s what Terry said in his introduction:

America “was founded as a Christian nation” and remains a country where “there is only one God and his name is Jesus…If you don’t love America you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, GET OUT! We don’t worship Buddha. We don’t worship Mohammed. We don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

Now here’s how Santorum distinguished his own view:

“If the question is do I agree with his statement…obviously I believe in freedom of religion and all religions are welcome. I think I’ve made that pretty clear throughout my campaign that I believe very much in the freedom of religion and folks should be able to worship whoever they want to worship and bring their thoughts in the public square.”

As of this writing, it appears that the media is pretty much accepting this response at face value and is basically wandering away muttering “Oh well, I guess that’s O.K.”
But for anyone who has read the other major addresses Santorum has delivered about religion, his ambiguous sound bite about all religions being “welcome”, and free to “bring their thoughts to the public square” is a tip-off that he’s actually dodging the expression of his actual opinions on religion rather than honestly asserting them.
Several weeks ago The Democratic Strategist published a substantial analysis of Thomas Jefferson’s religious philosophy that began with a summary of Santorum’s religious views. The following excerpt from that analysis reveals the major elements of Santorum’s religious philosophy.
Rick Santorum’s Religious Views
In recent weeks Rick Santorum has suddenly brought into the mainstream national political debate a series of core ideas of the religious right that had previously been confined to the conservative community. Santorum shocked many commentators with the statements that he believed that the Christian faithful were literally in a “spiritual war” with secular society, that John Kennedy’s 1960 speech supporting the constitutional separation of church and state made Santorum “want to throw up” and that not only Barack Obama but most mainstream Christian denominations had actually ceased to be genuinely Christian.
Behind the controversial quotes that appeared in the media in late February, there are two major speeches that Santorum delivered, one at the Ave Maria University in Florida and the other at the University of St Thomas in Houston Texas. These two speeches provide a more robust and nuanced view of his theological views and taken together with his public statements on the campaign trail make it possible to summarize Santorum’s basic theological ideas with a series of direct quotations: