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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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Targeting the GOP’s Achilles’ Heel

In the Sunday New York Times, columnist Thomas L. Friedman blasts the Bush Administration for its lack of a coherent energy policy, other than drilling for oil. For Democrats paying attention, Friedman’s broadsides reveal another Achilles heel Dems can target leading up to the ’06 and ’08 elections. Friedman’s column “Geo-Greening By Example” lays bare the GOP’s “who needs an energy policy?” attitude and the mounting dangers it entails for our security, our economy and the environment.

By doing nothing to lower U.S. oil consumption, we are financing both sides in the war on terrorism and strengthening the worst governments in the world…we are financing the jihadists – and the Saudi, Sudanese and Iranian mosques and charities that support them – through our gasoline purchases…By doing nothing to reduce U.S. oil consumption we are also setting up a global competition with China for energy resources, including right on our doorstep in Canada and Venezuela…Finally, by doing nothing to reduce U.S. oil consumption we are only hastening the climate change crisis, and the Bush officials who scoff at the science around this should hang their heads in shame. And it is only going to get worse the longer we do nothing.

Some of Friedman’s remedies are debatable, such as a huge hike in the gas tax, building nuclear power plants and having the President use an armor-plated Ford Escape hybrid as his “limo.” (armor plating would likely obliterate the hybrid’s mpg advantage). He supports some better ideas long-advocated by Democrats, including tax incentives for development of wind, solar and hydro power, but omits mention of the need for accelerating development of mass rail transit within and between cities.
In an earlier (January 30th) article, “The Geo-Green Alternative,” Friedman made a persuasive appeal for energy independence as the most powerful — and cost-effective — leverage we have for promoting democracy in the Middle East. John Kerry and John Edwards touched lightly on the advantages of a comprehensive energy policy during the ’04 campaign, but their efforts were not well-covered in the media or adequately promoted. Because the Republicans are wedded to the interests of the oil companies, it is highly unlikely that they will meet Friedman’s challenge to develop a credible energy policy.
With rising gas prices now identified as the number one economic problem (see March 25 post) and with 61 percent of respondents expressing support for more conservation measures in a recent Harris Poll (see March 22 post below), Friedman’s critique merits serious consideration. As the energy and environmental crises worsen, Democrats have much to gain by uniting behind a comprehensive strategy for energy independence.


Concern About Runaway Gas Prices Soars

Until very recently, the American people have been remarkably unflappable about soaring gas prices. No more, according to the latest Gallup poll, conducted 3/21-23. Asked “What is the most important economic problem facing the country today?,” 17 percent of respondents put “fuel/oil prices” at the top of the list, ahead of such factors as unemployment, health care costs and social security and more than triple the percentage polled a month ago, when 5 percent chose gas prices as top priority.


Ideologues Dis Majority On End-of-Life Issues

In today’s New York Times, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, sheds some welcome light on the Terri Schiavo case and the GOP’s penchant for interfering in the most sensitive and difficult decisions facing American families. Kohut’s article, “A Political Victory That Wasn’t,” makes a persuasive case that the Republicans’ meddling in the Schiavo family’s affairs demonstrates a blatant disregard for the beliefs of the American people and also shows that the Christian conservative movement may be becomming the most potent driving force of GOP political strategy. Kohut cites an ABC News Poll showing how the American people feel about the GOP-lead congressional vote allowing Terri Schiavo’s parents to take the case to federal court:

…the public, by a margin of 70 percent to 27 percent, opposes Congressional involvement in the case. Fully 67 percent of the poll’s participants thought members of Congress were more focused on using the Schiavo case for political advantage than on the principles involved.

What makes the poll’s findings even more striking, as Kohut notes, is that more than half of the poll’s respondents had been involved in making a decision concerning the termination of life support for a friend or family member. While conceding that some of the members of congress who supported the measure were acting out of conscience, he warns that the vote may signal a dangerous new trend in American politics:

…the Christian conservative movement now has the clout on life-and-death issues to do what the National Rifle Association has done for years on gun control. Strengthened by the results of the November elections, the movement can convey to legislators that the intensity of their constituents’ beliefs is more important than the balance of national public opinion.

Kohut sees the vote in congress as a test run for Christian conservatives, to see “whether they have enough standing to run against public opinion.” But Democrats can take some comfort and hope in the enduring pragmatism of American voters who may be “wary of political constraints on the tough choices their families may face…Like Social Security, end-of-life issues hit close to home, where ideology and partisanship play much less of a role than all-too-human self-interest.”


Newsweek Poll: Majority Oppose GOP ‘Nuclear Option’

The latest GOP ploy to suppress free speech and subvert checks and balances has run into a major roadblock. As a showdown approaches over the so-called “nuclear option,” which would change Senate rules to require 51 votes to cut off debate on judicial nominees, instead of 60, a new Newsweek Poll reports that 57 percent of Americans oppose the idea, with 32 percent supporting it. The poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International 3/17-18, found an even greater margin of disapproval among self-identified Independents, 60-31 percent.


GOP Spin Doctor Defends Euphemisms

Connoisseurs of political spin are directed to “The Lexicon of Political Clout” by conservative consultant and GOP sound bite guru Frank Luntz in in todays’ LA Times. Luntz, author of the GOP Playbook (see Feb 24 and March 2 posts below) defends his “A New American Lexicon,” in which he advises his conservative clients to use specific phrases and avoid others in describing their policies. Luntz decries the “Orwellian” label liberal commentators have used to describe his terminology. But at the very least, he displays a flair for euphemisms that torture reason and language. For example:

I would assert that “responsible exploration for energy,” which includes the search for incredibly clean natural gas, is a far different activity than plunking down a well haphazardly and just “drilling for oil.”

Or:

Similarly, I’m for calling the money paid to help parents choose their kids’ school a “scholarship” because “voucher” trivializes the powerful opportunity the transaction confers on poor families. I’d argue that it’s more accurate to call “school choice” “parental choice in education.” Considering how such a program equalizes education for rich and poor, the most accurate phrase would be “equal opportunity in education.”

What Democratic strategists can learn from Luntz is to pay closer attention to crafting the language of political discourse, a pivotal factor in GOP victories of recent years. If we keep our language clear and straight, the GOP will be regarded as the party of equivocation.


Dems Must Fight for Economic Reforms

With the exception of the battle over Social Security privatization, the Republicans are finding weak resistance to their greed-driven legislative agenda, the disastrous bankruptcy bill being the most recent example. Yet, opinion polls indicate a solid majority of Americans want strong leadership for economic reforms that benefit working people. Writing in the Boston Globe, columnist Robert Kuttner, also co-editor of The American Prospect, notes that 63 percent of respondents in a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week felt that President Bush “had different economic priorities than those of most Americans.”
Kuttner explains that some Democrats’ timidity in challenging the white house economic agenda derives from five factors — corporate contributions, fear of being labled ‘populists,’ lapdog media eating out of Bush’s hand, cultural conservatism and the war in Iraq. But he argues that the hefty majority for economic reforms reflected in recent polls offers Dems an opportunity to reverse the GOP’s recent string of victories without alienating the Democratic base — if they can find the courage:

Democrats need to challenge Bush on the best strategies to keep Americans safe, but they are not maximizing their advantage on the pocketbook issues where they should be eating Bush’s lunch. The one happy exception is Social Security, where Democrats have managed more unity than usual, and they may prevail. There’s surely a lesson here.

As Kuttner says, “Bush’s economic program harms ordinary people. And a majority of voters notice.” And when Democrats stand up and fight for economic justice, they win needed reforms for their constituents and electoral victories for themselves.


Bankruptcy Bill Draws Line In Sand for Dems

Judging by the mainsteam media coverage, you wouldn’t think the votes to pass the Bankruptcy bill (S. 256) in the U.S. Senate were all that important. NBC’s Meet the Press and ABC’s This Week, for example, lavished substantial air time on the steroids in baseball issue, but zilch on the Bankruptcy bill, which will affect the economic well-being of millions of working people. The mainstream print media, with a few notable exceptions (liberal columnists Molly Ivins, Paul Krugman and David Broder), was only marginally better.
The Bankruptcy Bill ranks high on any list of the 10 most odious pieces of legislation considered in recent years, “a nightmare for the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak,” in the words of Senator Edward Kennedy. Kennedy also noted:

It favors the credit card companies, the giant banks and the big car loan companies at every turn. It favors the worst of the credit industry — the interest rate gougers, the payday lenders, and the abusive collection agencies. It hurts real people who lose their savings because of a medical crisis, or lose their jobs because of outsourcing, or suffer major loss of income because they were called up for duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. It protects corporate interests at the expense of the needs of real people.
It does absolutely nothing about the glaring abuses of the bankruptcy system by the executives of giant companies like Enron and Worldcom and Polaroid, who lined their own pockets, but left thousands of employees and retirees out in the cold.
It favors companies like MBNA, a top credit card issuer, with over $80 billion in loans, and which has contributed $7 million to federal candidates – half a million dollars to President Bush alone, and spent over $20 million in lobbying, since 1997, when their lobbyists wrote this bill.

Despite the comparative indifference of the traditional media, the liberal blogs and political websites were smoldering last week with heated coverage of the Bankruptcy Bill votes, (See Salon’s Warroom, Gadflyer, Democrats.com and liberaloasis, for example)– and rightly so because few bills now before Congress do more to violate the “first principles” of the Democratic Party. Certainly opposing multi-billion dollar transfers of wealth from poor and working people to corporations and the rich ought to be a “first principle” strongly reflected in Democratic political strategy.
Regrettably, however, 18 Democrats voted with the Republicans for cloture and/or final passage, including Senators Lieberman, Bayh and Biden, who are frequently mentioned as possible Presidential candidates in ’08. No Republicans voted against cloture or the bill. As Kennedy said, “This bankruptcy bill is mean-spirited and unfair. In anything like its present form, it should and will be an embarrassment to anyone who votes for it.” House of Reps Dems, Take note.


GOP Senators Kill Minimum Wage Hike, Despite Majority Support

According to a January report by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of Americans supported an increase in the federal minimum wage as an important priority, with only 6 percent opposed. Yet, the U.S. Senate voted 49-46 to defeat a bill that would have provided three increases of 70 cents in the federal minimum wage, from $5.15 to $7.25 over the next 26 months. All 49 of the Senators voting against the bill were Republicans. Earlier polls have shown strong support for even higher increases.
The Republicans did offer a substitute bill providing a $1.15 increase in the minimum wage, but it was tied to provisions that would have eliminated long-standing wage and overtime protection for millions of workers. Of course the GOP knew their bill was doomed and it would kill any chance of a minimum wage increase. The GOP point man for the ‘alternative’ bill, Sen. Rick Santorum, has voted against minimum wage increases 17 times in 10 years, according to Sen. Edward Kennedy, despite the fact that the inflation-adjusted value of the federal minimum wage has decreased alarmingly in recent decades. The 1968 minimum wage, for example, would be worth $8.88 in today’s dollars.
The GOP opposition may have handed Democrats a potent weapon for mobilizing low-wage workers in the upcomming elections, and the campaign against Sen. Santorum will likely be the marquee contest of 2006.


Arnold’s WH Prospects Terminated

Don’t lose any sleep worrying about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s candidacy for the Presidency. A Westhill Partners/Hotline Poll conducted 2/24-27 reports that 66 percent of respondents opposed a constitutional amendment that would allow a U.S. citizen born in another country to be elected President, with only 29 percent supporting such a measure.


Liberal Editors Mull Dems’ Future

The New York Times has an interesting roundtable discusssion in “Left Behind‘ on the challenges facing American liberals. Peter Beinart, Katrina vanden Heuval and Michael Tomasky, editors of The New Republic, The Nation and The American Prospect, respectively, share their thoughts on Democratic strategies for future victories. Some ideas:

The party has to have a listening tour within its own base but also a listening tour among swing constituencies that are moving away: Hispanics, Jews, the military in particular. (Beinart)

One of the things that came out of this election, which is exciting, is that there’s the beginning of an independent infrastructure outside the Democratic Party, a kind of fusionist politics combining movement politics with electoral politics. And I would build on that, building a farm team of new, Paul Wellstone-type leaders, developing messages and ideas.(vanden Heuval)

Liberal concepts still have more resonance than you might think. Polls continually show that people are rhetorically conservative and operationally liberal or progressive.(Tomasky)

There’s more, including a lively reader’s forum responding to the editors’ ideas now underway.