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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


Felon Voting Rights Movement Gathers Steam

Following the example of Nebraska, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack announced on June 17th that he would restore voting rights for all convicted felons who have completed their sentences in his state. When Vilsack signs the executive order on July 4th (a nice touch), he will make 80 thousand ex-felons eligible to vote.
Disenfranchisement of felons has been used by the GOP as a powerful tool for reducing the vote of African Americans in particular, who vote close to 9-1 Democratic in presidential elections. As Kate Zernicke explains in her article in today’s New York Times:

Nationally, about 4.7 million people are ineligible to vote because of felony convictions, about 500,000 of them war veterans, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternatives to incarceration. About 1.4 million are black men.

This number represents about 13 percent of Black men, and in six states, one out of every four African American males have been disenfranchised as a result of felony convictions. In addition, convicted felons who are white often tend to be from impoverished and low-income families, another constituency which may lean Democratic.
The hope is that Vilsack’s example will inspire other states to take similar corrective measures. Currently, only Maine and Vermont give felons full voting rights, while other states have a patchwork of different restrictions, notes Zernicke:

According to the Right to Vote Campaign, which works to reverse laws preventing felons from voting, 14 states automatically restore voting rights to felons after they are released from prison; four states restore rights after ex-felons complete parole; and 18 states do so after they complete their prison sentence, parole and probation.
Iowa is one of five states – the others are Kentucky, Alabama, Florida and Virginia – that deny a vote to anyone convicted of a felony or an aggravated misdemeanor…Ryan King, a research associate at the Sentencing Project, said that about one million ex-felons, including 600,000 in Florida alone, would be eligible to vote if the four states with laws similar to Iowa’s granted voting rights to ex-felons

Movements to enfranchise felons who have served their time are underway across the nation, and lawsuits have been filed in behalf of them in several states. Of course there is no guarantee that, once enfranchised, ex-felons will exercize their voting rights. But Dems should take note that, given the statistics in Florida alone, it’s clear that this constituency could have a potent impact in election outcomes.

Dem Senators Pull Ahead in Approval Ratings

SurveyUSA has just released a report on the approval ratings of U.S. Senators, and the news is good. Of the 25 US Senators with the highest approval ratings, 17 are Democrats, plus Independent Jim Jeffords. Stated in reverse terms, only 7 of the 25 senators with the highest approval ratings are Republicans. Ed Kilgore over at New Donkey notes further:

Barack Obama is America’s most popular Senator in his own state, with a 72/21 approval/disapproval ratio. The least popular Senator is John Cornyn from Bush’s home state of Texas, who registers at 40/36. Notable 2006 target Rick Santorum actually has the highest disapproval rate of any Senator, with a 45/44 ratio. Ohio’s Mike DeWine continues to beg for a strong opponent in 2006, coming in at 44/43. Conrad Burns of MT is at a marginal 50/42 ratio. Supposedly vulnerable Democrat Ben Nelson is at a robust 64/26, while the other Nelson, Bill of Florida, is doing relatively well at 47/29.

Not too shabby — and it gets better. Republicans are 8 of the 10 senators with lowest approval ratings. True, it’s a little early for high-fives and it would be better, as Kilgore notes, if more of the GOP bottom-feeders were up for election in ’06. But as an overall trend indicator, the SurveyUSA report offers encouragement to Dems hoping for a net gain of 7 seats needed to regain a Senate majority.

Gov Warner: Dems Need ‘Aspirational, Future-oriented, Hopeful Vision’

Salon.com’s Tim Grieve continues his excellent series on Dems to watch with his interview with Virginia’s popular Governor Mark Warner, frequently mentioned as a presidential contender for ’08. Warner, Grieve says,

…got himself elected governor of Virginia in 2001 in large part by reaching out to rural voters who were supposed to be in the Republicans’ pocket. Warner sponsored a NASCAR team, used a bluegrass song as his campaign theme, and appealed directly to gun-loving hunters and sportsmen — and it worked.

Warner would bring impressive assets to a white house race. As Grieve notes,

He’s a governor, not a Washington politician; he’s got money and the ability to raise more; he’s got a base of supporters in the high-tech world; he’s a Southerner, or at least he is one now; he’s got crossover appeal because of his centrist views; and he’s got time because Virginia terms out its governors after just four years.

Warner says that “perhaps the most vulnerable entity in politics today is not the liberal Democrat but the moderate Republican.” But he says the Dems must “get past some of the cultural issues that just make us seem foreign.” Not surprisingly, Warner sees the “write-off the south” strategy as a sure loser for Democrats:

If Democrats do not commit to being a national party, competitive everywhere in this country, we do not only our party but our country a disservice. Because even if we elect a president on a 16- or 17-state strategy, we skip two-thirds of this country, and I’m not sure we truly set the agenda.

Warner describes the Dems greatest failure in ’04

There was discontent leading up to the 2004 election. Somehow, we didn’t have that aspirational, future-oriented, hopeful vision of America — we didn’t lay it out. We laid — “Here are the programs.”

Grieve does get Warner to outline various policy positions. But he also draws out Warner’s views about what the Democratic Party must do to win. Warner, who has established a federal political action committee, says Democrats have to focus more intently on crafting a future vision:

My starting premise is that I really think we need to change the framing of the political debate, from right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, to future vs. past. The Democratic Party at its best has always been when it has been about the future…Democrats have to be a party that recognizes that, in a global economy, the way America is going to maintain its position in the world is by having the best educated workforce. Democrats should be the party that says America has got to lead the world not only with our military might but with our moral might as well. Democrats ought to be the party that represents innovation, investment in research.

GOP Ethics Mess Lifts Dems’ House Prospects

In today’s edition of the Washington Post, Mike Allen has good news for Dems hoping to win back a controlling majority in the House of Representatives. In his article, “GOP Worries Ethics Issue May Hurt Party in ’06,” Allen cites four GOP House members, whose deepening ethics problems have made them vulnerable targets: Robert Ney (OH); Richard Pombo (CA); Tom Feeney (FL) and Charles Taylor (FL). Add to this list the seven Republican House Members Alan Abramowitz has identified as also vulnerable in his April 17 post, plus Tom Delay (see John Judis’s New Republic article on DeLay’s ’06 vulnerability), and it appears that Dems are rapidly closing in on the 15 seats needed to win back a House Majority.
Allen quotes GOP strategist Rick Davis, the former manager of John McCain’s presidential campaign:

The combination of gridlock and ethics charges indicate that the system’s busted, and the system is the majority party…The contest for us in the bi-election is to explain what we’ve gotten accomplished in the last two years, and right now, it’s not looking so hot. The focus is on the problems, because there isn’t that much happening.

Gerrymandering has made it more difficult to unseat incumbents in recent elections. Yet, ethics and corruption issues alone could give Dems new leverage in the quest to regain majority control of the House. Slowly, the outlines of a winning Democratic strategy for ’06 are beginning to take form. As Christopher Hayes, noted in “Corruption — A Proven Winner” in The Nation (flagged in EDM’s April 21 post “Cookie-Jar Republicans Give Dems Edge”):

Congressional Democrats should take a page out of Gingrich’s and Blagojevich’s books and propose comprehensive ethics reform. They should talk about the “corrupt Republicans” and “restoring transparency and integrity” at every turn. They should use DeLay’s mounting ignominy to tar fellow Republicans who benefit from his fundraising and clout. In short, they should make Republican scandal and Democratic reform one of the central narratives of their opposition over the next two years. “Newt Gingrich came to power because of an ethics scandal,” says Obama’s state political director, Dan Shomon. “Rod Blagojevich got elected partly because of scandal. You can defeat an incumbent if you can catch his or her hand in the cookie jar.”

As noted in EDM’s May 19 post, a Wall St. Journal/NBC News Poll conducted 5/12-16 indicated that 47 percent of Americans chose Democrats when asked “which party they want to control Congress after the 2006 elections,” while only 40 percent chose the GOP. The latest revelations of GOP ethics problems will likely increase that margin to the Democrats’ benefit.
As Abramowitz noted, 15 House seats is close to the average mid-term loss of the Party occupying the white house. Looking at the average loss of the President’s party in the last five “six-year itch” elections (see May 31 post below), the number is considerably more encouraging — 44 seats.

Zogby Poll: Americans Want Action in Darfur

A new Zogby poll, conducted 5/9-16 finds a huge majority of Americans supporting stronger U.S. action to stop genocide in Darfur in western Sudan. Unfortunately, however, as Julia Scott explains in her Salon.com article on the poll’s findings:

Since terming the ongoing scorched-earth campaign against civilians in Darfur genocide several years ago, the Bush administration has done everything it can to avoid committing to substantial intervention in the region, even downplaying the number of dead.

Yet, as Scott notes, over 80 percent of respondents want the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone over Darfur to prevent further bombing of civilians. More than four out of five also want the U.S. to “use its military assets to bolster African Union troops on the ground in Darfur” and “impose tough sanctions” on the leaders responsible for the atrocities. Americans are understandibly less enthusiastic about sending ground troops at this point, as Scott explains:

Only 38 percent of respondents supported deployment of U.S. troops in Darfur…a number the ICG considered surprisingly high given a strained U.S. military and the intractable situation in Iraq. And ninety-one percent of people polled disagreed with the Bush administration’s policy of non-cooperation with the International Criminal Court, which works to bring genocidaires to justice.

Thus far, however, the Administration seems unphased by the large majorities of Americans wanting U.S. action to relieve the suffering. Scott quotes John Norris, chief of staff of the Darfur Crisis Group on the poll’s findings and the Administration’s response:

“This level of support comes at a time when the Bush administration has never used its bully pulpit to issue much of a real call to action on Darfur…This is one of those issue areas where [they’ve] said there’s little public support, but when you open [it] up, you see that’s not the case.”

If ever there was a genuine mandate for measured U.S. military and diplomatic intervention, the time is now and Darfur is the place — and the crisis cries out for Democratic leadership to make it happen.

TAP Articles Chart Future of Liberalism

As the Democratic Party girds for the ’06 elections, a pair of articles in The American Prospect by co-editors Paul Starr and Robert Kuttner shed light on the challenges confronting contemporary liberalism and reforms needed to secure its future.
Starr’s “The Liberal Project Now” urges liberals to avoid the trap of becomming “merely defensive and oppositional” and to renew “the principled commitments to liberal ideas” and “liberal innovation.” He offers this challenge to Dems:

Rebuilding a Democratic majority will require a broad and inclusive politics and the acceptance of ideological diversity within the party. As the Republicans support centrists who can win in the blue states, so Democrats — including liberals — will have to support centrists who can win in the red states. Some say the Democrats need only the courage of their convictions to tap a deep well of progressive sentiment, but if there is a latent national majority for that kind of pure and unadulterated liberal politics, it has kept itself well hidden for a long time. The more realistic goal is a government that is responsive to liberal influence on foreign and domestic policy and committed to the constitutional principles in force since the late 1930s.

In “The Death and Life of American Liberalism,” Kuttner argues that the primary reason for the right’s recent success is that it is “a movement, 30 years in the making” and a “smooth machine joined by common ideology.” He cites the power of the GOP’s superior institutional unfrastructure, discipline and echo chamber as formidable GOP assets, in stark contrast to the Dems’ “uncertain trumpet” and failure to fully grasp that “conviction beats waffling.” But he finds cause for Democratic optimism in surveying the current and future political landscape:

And yet, this overpowering structural tilt conceals some surprisingly good news. Despite its immense advantages, the right barely prevailed in the last two presidential elections, even against feckless Democratic campaigns. The superior infrastructure just offset the extremism. The country remains skeptical about most Republican policies, from Social Security privatization to the assault on the courts. As John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira have documented, potentially liberal groups are demographically ascendant. There is a latent liberal majority, if liberals can once again learn to do politics.

Kuttner counsels Dems to become more vigorous champions of “the economic struggles of ordinary citizens” and argues that “a resurgent Democratic Party built on progressivism would be more worth having” than a centrist party based on moderation. He concludes with this observation:

The resurgence of liberalism and the Democratic Party, when it comes, will necessarily be grass roots as well as intellectual or professional. A new generation of think tanks and message machines can help, but in a democracy, the ultimate test is whether a program animates voters. Democratic candidates will shed their temporizing not when a linguistic expert gives them better packaging but when voters demonstrate that a muscular progressivism that addresses the plight of the common American is a winning politics.

Kuttner’s and Starr’s articles, along with Meyerson’s piece cited below, show why The American Prospect should be a regular bookmark for Dems. TAP offers its readers a lot free of charge, but subscribers help to make a worthy investment in a more focused Democratic vision.

Nation Articles Mull National Security, Hillary and Dems Future

The June 6th issue of The Nation, now online, has a pair of articles of interest to Dems seeking a winning strategy in the ’06 and ’08 elections.
Eric Alterman’s “Cowboys and Eggheads” succinctly lays bare the Dems’ “conundrum” in formulating a foreign policy that resonates in a positive light to average Americans. Drawing from recent articles in The American Prospect, the Wall St. Journal and think tanks, Alterman ventures a disturbing thought:

Liberal Democrats today are faced with an unhappy paradox. The most significant factor in John Kerry’s defeat was that, according to exit polls, 79 percent of voters who said terrorism or national security determined their vote chose the chickenhawk over the war hero. Though they agreed with the Democrats on most issues–and agreed, by a 49 to 45 percent margin, according to election day exit polls, that the Iraq War had made us less, not more, secure–a majority of voters still felt safer with the idea of George W. Bush minding the store. Based on the evidence, it is almost a perfectly irrational reaction to reality….making sense on foreign policy is not enough. It may actually be a net negative. As Bill Clinton famously explained, Americans prefer a President who appears “strong and wrong” to one who seems right but looks weak.

Not a lot for Dems to be optimistic about there, but Alterman, a media critic and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, does note growing discontent about U.S. policy towards Iraq, and the Administration’s inability to formulate a credible policy towards Iran and North Korea as trends that may help Dems in the future.
On a more upbeat note, Greg Sargent’s “Brand Hillary” provides an engaging portrait of a Democratic politician (and ’08 front-runner in recent polls), who is expanding her credibility with constituencies Dems lost in ’04. Sargent, a contributing editor to New York Magazine, sources her upward arc in opinion polls:

Clinton’s evolving approach–call it Brand Hillary–is sincerely rooted in her not-easily-categorized worldview, but it’s also a calculated response to today’s political realities. In effect, she’s taking her husband’s small-issue centrism–its trademark combination of big but often hollow gestures toward the center, pragmatic economic populism and incremental liberal policy gains–and remaking it in her own image, updating it for post-9/11 America with an intense interest in military issues…For all the consternation on the left about Clinton, her approach depends less than her husband’s did on using the left as a foil. Instead it relies on two fundamental ingredients: She projects pragmatism on economic issues, and she signals ideological flexibility on social issues. This latter tactic is not, as is often argued, about appeasing the cultural right. It’s about appealing to moderates in both parties.

What makes Hillary Clinton’s “centrist” approach interesting is that it is tempered by her 95 percent ADA rating (By comparison, Sargent notes that John Edwards scored a 60 in his last ADA rating). Sargent wonders if the Dems “real problem” on national security “is not just the quality of their ideas, but that moderates simply won’t listen to them.” Senator Clinton, as Sargent makes clear, is determined to be heard.

Progressive Leaders to Gather for ‘Take Back America 2005’

The Campaign for America’s Future is sponsoring a major conference, “Take Back America 2005,” June 1-3 at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C. The Conference will feature a dazzling line-up of many of the nation’s prominent progressive leaders, activists and spokespersons, including: Senator Dick Durbin; Senator John Edwards; Howard Dean; Arianna Huffington; Robert Borosage; Los Angeles Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa; Celinda Lake; Robert Kuttner; Thomas Frank; Jesse Jackson; George Lakoff; Katrina vanden Heuval; Jim Wallis; Kim Gandy; Tom Hayden; Donna Brazile; Wade Henderson; and many others.
The purpose, according to organizers:

The Take Back America Conference brings thousands of progressive activists, thinkers and leaders together to discuss our vision, unite our groups and train our campaign organizers. By building relationships and creating strategy, the Take Back America Conference is a catalyst for building the infrastructure we need to ensure that the voice of the progressive majority is heard.

The Conference will feature segments on:

STRATEGIES for building a progressive majority to make America better
Critical ISSUE CAMPAIGNS that will drive America’s political debate
NEW IDEAS and winning message with leading progressive public scholars, political leaders and organizers
TRAINING in media, organizing and campaigning, organized by Progressive Majority

‘Take Back America 2005’ provides a unique opportunity to access the wisdom of some of America’s best progressive thinkers and strategists. For more information click on the link above or, for all questions regarding the Take Back America Conference, including Conference registration, payment and accomodations, please contact:

Natalie P. Shear Associates, Inc.
1730 M Street NW, Suite 801
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 833-4456, ext. 104
Toll-Free: 1 (800) 833-1354 (for callers outside the D.C. area)
Email: takebackamerica@ourfuture.org

New Poll: Donkeys Take Early Lead in ’06 Races

As GOP Senate leaders prepare to deploy their “nuclear option,” a new Wall St. Journal/NBC News poll indicates that discontent with congress is approaching stratospheric proportions. The poll, conducted May 12-16, indicates that 65 percent of respondents agree that congress does not share their priorities, while only 17 percent of those polled say it does. As WSJ reporter John Harwood, puts it in his wrap-up of the poll’s results:

While the survey contains warning signs for members of both parties, it is especially problematic for Republicans as the party in power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The poll of 1,005 adults, conducted May 12-16, shows that the greatest erosion in congressional approval has occurred among self-described Republicans.

Harwood points out that, when asked “which party they want to control Congress after the 2006 elections, Democrats hold a 47%-40% edge — the party’s best showing since the Journal/NBC survey began asking that question in 1994.”
There’s much more in this poll that bodes ill for the white house and the GOP, especially with respect to the growing discontent of senior citizens, a key constituency, which Republican pollster Bill McInturff says “disproportionately turns out to vote in mid-term elections.”
With a little luck — and a lot of hard work — 2006 could be the year of the donkey.

Dem Goal: Net Gain of 7 Senate Seats in ’06

It’s a long way to November ’06, and a lot can happen between now and then to make predictions look silly. But if Democrats are serious about regaining control of congress, it’s time to focus energies on the strategy that can win and the work that needs to be done to make it happen.
For an expert analysis of the struggle to win control of the House of Representatives, no better place to begin than Alan Abramowitz’s EDM post “Seven Potentially Vulnerable GOP Incumbents.” WaPo columnist Terry Neal has a pretty good wrap-up of the challenges Dems face in winning back congress in “Political Horse Race Season Opens.” Neal transposed his numbers in counting the respective Senate seats defended by the Dems and Republicans. The correct figures are 17 Senate seats being defended by Democrats and 15 being defended by the GOP, according to the Senate’s webpage list. As a practical matter, Dems also must defend the Senate seat of retiring Independent Jim Jeffords, who votes with Dems.
An 18-15 Democratic disadvantage in seats to defend could spread Dem resources a little thin, and regaining control of the Senate will be a tough challenge. Yet historically, the party of the sitting President has lost an average of 6 Senate seats in off-year elections, and Dems have increasing grounds for optimism. As Neal quotes Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Phil Singer:

“I’m not going to say we’re going to win back the Senate but we feel pretty confident about picking up seats,” Singer said. “With [House Majority Leader Tom] DeLay’s issues, and [lobbyist Jack] Abramoff, and Social Security, there’s a general discontent about the way Republicans are running Congress, and we’re waiting for a wave to emerge.”

Republicans, who enjoy a 55-44-1 majority, are already talking up their prospects for a net gain in the ’06 Senate races. For a look at the conservative take on the ’06 Senate races, read John J. Miller’s round-up “Springtime for Senators” in the National Review. Miller’s article has some interesting inside details about 25 of the 33 Senate races. As might be expected, however, Miller is a smidge over-optimistic about GOP prospects, particularly in Rhode Island, Maryland and Ohio, where Dems will run strong.
There’s no denying the GOP has a formidable advantage in 3 fewer seats to defend in ’06, and a net gain of 7 seats to regain control of the Senate is an ambitious goal for Dems. But polls are tilting nicely in the Dems’ favor, issues are breaking our way and the downside of one-party rule is becomming more painfully obvious every day.