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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey

See You At TDS

After about 33 months and (as of today) 932 posts at NewDonkey.com, I’m finally ready to do what so many other bloggers have done, and move from a solo gig to something a bit more integrated into a strategic political mission.As of June 18, I’ll be blogging regularly at The Democratic Strategist, an online magazine that’s about a year old. In case you’re not familiar with TDS, its editors are the much-esteemed Bill Galston, Stan Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira, all major Democratic strategists in their own spheres. The e-zine’s main purpose is to provide a focused and non-factional forum for civil and empirically-based discussions of strategic issues for Democrats–everything from demographic and electoral analysis, to message and communications challenges, to party unification measures–with a special interest in long-range concerns that may elude the day-to-day debates over tactics. You should check out TDS’ current and back issues to get a sense of the already broad and impressive range of contributors, which include academics, journalists and practitioners from every corner of the party.My job, as successor to Managing Editor Scott Winship, is to enliven the daily content of TDS and to continue and sharpen its issue forums. As a big believer in its mission of party unity, civility, and fact-based reasoning, I’m excited about joining the TDS team.Given time constraints, this means I’m suspending NewDonkey for the time being. I’m not killing the beast; I’m cryogenically freezing it, sort of like Ted Williams’ head. Starting next week, visitors to this site will be redirected to TDS. Ruy Teixeira’s doing the same thing with his longstanding Donkey Rising blog, so we should benefit from some new energy all around.When I made the decision to suspend this blog, I got sentimental for a minute or two, until I remembered my pledge not to take blogging too seriously. I’ll never forget the first political blog I ever laid eyes on: Kausfiles, by Mickey Kaus, whom I knew back when he was at The New Republic. My first reaction was to think, “Oh my God; this is so embarassing for Mickey. Why does he think anybody will want to read anything he feels like saying on any subject?” Within two years, I was doing it myself, but the idea still sometimes seems preposterous. And I’ll remember that every day at TDS, and try to keep my words useful.Still, I know this blog has become a habit for a fair number of readers, and a source of information and amusement on occasion. I’m often humbled to learn that the quality of its readership is frequently superior to the quality of its content. Some folks have come here looking for a more heterodox if partisan point of view; others appear to consider it a voice from the New Democrat tradition that they find congenial or stimulating. And maybe some readers liked the occasional break from politics when I lurch off into religion or college football.In any event, the TDS leadership has encouraged me to keep The Daily Strategist blog as lively as NewDonkey, so if you follow me over there, you may not notice a great deal of difference, other than the fact that my pithy comments will be surrounded by outstanding contributions from others. (And speaking of comments, those who have long deplored the absence of a comment thread here will be happy to hear that we are in the process of making the comment thread at TDS more functional).So: I’m not saying goodbye, but instead “see you over at TDS,” where I hope all the donkeys can gather.

Ch-ch-changes in Caucusland

Yesterday brought a batch of news from the presidential campaigns in Iowa, where believe it or not, the first stage of the nominating contest will commence in about six months (and that’s if Iowa doesn’t move back a week in a shuffle caused by Florida’s legislation moving its primary back to January 29, or even further if New Hampshire decides to deal with all its competitors by moving back into this December, as is rumored to be a possibility).On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani (followed within hours by John McCain) announced he would skip the massive Straw Poll being held by the state GOP in August. This is actually a bigger deal than it sounds like. The Straw Poll isn’t some symbolic thing; about one-third of those who ultimately participate in the Caucuses are expected to show up, not exactly a group you want to diss. The news will feed earlier rumors that Rudy’s decided to downplay Iowa and NH and count on winning the nomination in the mega-primary of February 5.You have to figure McCain’s camp had already decided the Straw Poll was going to be a disaster for him, and leaped on Guilani’s announcement as a heaven-sent opportunity to turn a potentially humiliating defeat for the one-time frontrunner into an effort (probably futile) to convince the punditocracy that the Straw Poll has become meaningless without the participation of two of the “Big Three.”All this points to a big Mitt Romney win in the Straw Poll that would solidify his suddenly powerful status as the front-runner in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Maybe the downplaying of Iowa by Giuliani and McCain could create some space for a darkhorse like Mike Huckabee, but the Arkansan just ain’t got the money to play well in Iowa at this point; his campaign is also suffering from the perception that he’s auditioning for the second spot on somebody else’s ticket. And maybe Fred Thompson will come into Iowa forcefully to challenge Romney, but probably not, given his very late start; it’s more likely that he’ll make his first big push in South Carolina, where he’s already leading in at least one recent poll.Over on the Democratic side, the big Iowa news this week was that legendary organizer Teresa Vilmain was replacing the near-legendary organizer JoDee Winterhoff as Hillary Clinton’s campaign director in the state. The buzz is that the step was partially in response to Iowa blowback over a leaked memo from HRC’s deputy campaign manager, Mike Henry, urging her to skip Iowa altogether. But more likely, the shift was in the works for a while; Vilmain, who was Tom Vilsack’s top strategist during his brief campaign, simply wasn’t available when Clinton first set up her Iowa operation.As it happens, the Washington Post today published a front-page piece about the campaign in Iowa in both parties. It includes a good description of the Caucus process, and a nifty chart on the byzantine interconnections of some of the top campaign operatives.

The NH Republican Debate

I didn’t watch the NH Republican debate on CNN, but figure that the most important reactions are among the conservative commentariat. At National Review’s The Corner, which basically liveblogged the debate, Rudy Guiliani was the clear winner. At Redstate.org, Mike Huckabee was the winner on the stage, and Fred Thompson was perhaps the big winner. Republicans remain way divided at this point.

Two What-Ifs

The big what-if in the news today was in sports, when Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan scuttled back to Gainesville four days after penning a big-bux contract to go to the NBA’s Orlando Magic. This was a what-if not only for the Magic, but for the daisy-chain of hirings and openings that might have emerged in the college coaching ranks if Donovan had stuck with his decision to book.The best comment so far on this fiasco was by Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn:

At a press conference to announce Billy Donovan’s hiring by the Orlando Magic last Friday morning, nearly 6,500 words were spoken by Donovan and general manager Otis Smith as they sat side-by-side on stools at the center of the team’s practice court. Buried in the final 300 words of the 45-minute ordeal was Smith’s smiling statement — in response to what Donovan’s first act as coach would be — that “we gave him the weekend off.””We’ll see him,” Smith said, “bright and early on Monday morning.”That, in retrospect, might have been a mistake.

Indeed. If the Magic had dragged Billy around central Florida to a series of publicity events and team meetings, it’s not clear he would have had time for the Dark Night of the Soul that apparently changed his mind. Or so we can speculate.But there was another “what if” story a bit further under the surface, in terms of the post mortems on Sunday night’s CNN Democratic presidential debate. What if Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had not voted against the Iraq supplemental appropriations bill week before last? If they had gone the other way, there’s no question that John Edwards, with an assist from several other candidates, would have entered the debate as the avenging angel of antiwar Democrats, whose anger towards party members who voted for the supplemental has stayed white-hot. As it was, Edwards’ fiery sword of righteousness on the war pretty much flamed out Sunday night, reduced as he was to flailing away at Clinton and Obama for not casting their votes more noisily. The difficulty of his position was best illustrated by Obama’s quick rejoinder that Edwards’ own antiwar leadership was “four-and-a-half years too late.” And Edwards’ efforts to separate himself from Clinton and Obama by deriding the “war on terror” (accurate as it is with respect to the terminology involved) is politically perilous, to say the least. There’s been some talk, which is likely to pick up after the debate, that Edwards is struggling in the national polls, and in states like South Carolina and Florida where you would think he would have a bit of a regional advantage. I honestly don’t know how much all that matters: it’s generally conceded, even by the Edwards campaign, that he pretty much has to win the Iowa Caucuses to have a serious shot at the nomination. If he does win Iowa, he’s sure to get a big bounce elsewhere, and so far, he’s consistently doing better in polls in Iowa than in any other state. But it doesn’t look like he’s going to get a clear path to national preeminence by being the undisputed antiwar Democrat in the top tier.

Permanent Bases In Iraq

There’s been quite a buzz in the blogosphere and elsewhere recently about the likelihood that the Bush administration’s ultimate fallback goal in Iraq is to establish permanent U.S. military bases, as a sort of shriveled imperial booby-prize for our disastrous policies towards that country. Sam Rosenfeld at TAPPED has a good summary of the latest talk. You’d think that maybe this was an issue nobody had noticed until recently. But I happen to remember that clearly and publicly abandoning any intention to set up permanent bases was one of the major recommendations made by Larry Diamond (an original opponent of the Iraq War, but whose unhappy service in the Provisional Coalition Authority made him suspect in some antiwar circles) in his 2005 book, Squandered Victory. As it happens, the DLC endorsed that position–not only opposing permanent bases, but making a clear, presidential renunciation of permanent bases a critical step in salvaging the disaster–at about the same time.I mention this very simply as a reminder of little-noticed Democratic unity on Iraq, obscured by the original decision to go to war; the more recent obsession with withdrawal deadlines; and the latest fight over troop funding and residual troop commitments after combat troops leave. The really big picture is that Republicans want to keep fighting this war and stay in Iraq forever; Democrats want to end the combat role very quickly and make it clear that any permanent military presence in Iraq is way out of bounds. Maybe that’s not everybody’s favorite way to draw the partisan lines on Iraq, but it’s a pretty clear line–the line between fighting a war and supporting a quick transition, and the line between soon and forever.

Obama’s Health Plan: The Best of Incrementalism

As you probably know if you’ve been following the presidential campaign news, Barack Obama released his long-awaited health care reform proposal earlier this week, and it’s getting decidedly mixed reviews from the chattering classes. Two progressive blogger/journalists with pretty good street cred on health care issues, Ezra Klein and Jon Cohn, have published quite similar takes, praising many of the details of the plan but decrying its timidity in challenging the health care status quo–most particularly its failure to provide universal coverage (other than for children). On the positive side, it does indeed seem that Obama’s plan represents sort of a greatest hits collection of incremental health care reform ideas. It picks up John Kerry’s underappreciated 2004 proposal for federal reinsurance of catastrophic health costs, which could have a big impact on rising insurance premiums. It adopts the federal employee health plan model for a national insurance purchasing pool, which makes abundant good sense substantively and politically. It calls for a federally-driven shift towards prevention and chronic disease management, along with IT investments to help control costs and improve quality, which ought to be a point of agreement among those who may disagree on financing mechanisms and/or the role of public and private sectors. It includes a direct assault on health care industry abuses through federal regulation, instead of treating such abuses as an unavoidable byproduct of for-profit involvement in health care. It does cover all kids, which makes sense if you aren’t going to cover everybody. And it provides very robust subsidies to make voluntary health insurance affordable to as broad a segment of the uninsured as possible, along with an employer mandate to avoid erosion of existing coverage. Those are a heap o’ positives, but the negatives, most especially the plan’s failure to include a universal individual mandate for health insurance, and its complexity, are likely to get more attention, on both substantive and political grounds. Substantively, the plan obviously fails to fundamentally overhaul the current system, with its patchwork of public and private programs, its heavy reliance on economically damaging and arguably regressive employer-based coverage, and its failure to cover everyone. And politically, the plan will reinforce claims that Obama isn’t quite the transformative, great-leap-forward progressive so many have seen in him. One particular problem for Obama is that his plan superficially resembles the Massachusetts initiative signed by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, with the crucial exception that Massachusetts did include a universal individual mandate for coverage (underfunded, to be sure, but still in place). Another is that Obama’s plan achieves less than universal coverage at a pretty steep price tag, given its lavish subsidies to tempt rather than force individuals into obtaining insurance. Beyond the initial reactions, perceptions of Obama’s plan will be crucially influenced by his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. John Edwards is already in a position to exploit Obama’s incrementalism on health care, given his own comprehensive universal plan, which not only embraces an individual mandate for coverage but also provides a stronger Medicare-style public option attractive to Democrats who favor a single-payer system. Given Edwards’ competition with Obama for the support of left-leaning Democrats, this could become an important point of distinction between the two candidates, at least among activists. But the other shoe that will soon drop is Hillary Clinton’s; she’s slowly rolling out a very thorough and comprehensive health care reform proposal, building on her unquestioned expertise in this field. Still under wraps is what she would do to achieve expanded coverage. If she goes for a universal plan (which is quite likely), then Obama will begin to look like an incrementalist outlier among those who care about policy details.

Winship Weighs In

It’s rare these days to find a blog post by someone calling him or herself a New Democrat, and rarer still when that someone is a member of the post-Clinton generation of political activists and analysts. So I have more than a passing interest in the Table For One guest blogs being posted by Scott Winship (former managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, and now with Third Way) over at TPMCafe. Scott’s talking about the need for empiricism among progressives, and secondarily, defending the progressive credentials of what used to be called the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. I’ll be doing a post or two myself in that discussion, but for the time being, Scott is certainly holding his own without reinforcements. Check it out.

The Decline of Conservative Envy

Over at MyDD, Chris Bowers has an important post about one of the most fundamental but insufficiently discussed lessons of the 2006 elections: the collapse of the supposedly invincible Right Wing Machine.

One of the nice side effects from our great electoral success in 2006 is that the tide of books, speeches, and studies by progressives with conservative movement envy has been significantly reduced. No more do we have to hear about how great Republicans are at virtually everything political: language crafting, staying on message, voter identification, GOTV, paid media quality, free media booking, etc. Now that Republicans and the conservative movement have been historically trounced on the electoral front, their political sophistication no longer appears all that profound. We beat them at the height of their fundraising prowess, the height of their early voting programs, the height of their voter contact programs, and basically the height of their everything. Republicans did not lose in 2006 because of mistakes. In fact, their machine was working so well that supposed uber-genius Karl Rove was convinced that Republicans would do just fine in the 2006 elections.

That’s all quite true. But I’d go a bit deeper on why the machine crashed, and what progressives should infer not simply about the quality of that machine, but about the seeds of destruction that were inherent in its very nature. The “conservative movement envy” Chris is talking about, and that I’ve deplored on many occasions, was all about admiration for the unity, discipline, ideological rigor, “base” orientation, and sheer ruthlessness of the conservative apparatus in all its many subelements. Progressives who were convinced that Democrats as a whole were losing elections because they were disunited, ideologically heterodox, disloyal to the “base,” and cowardly, looked across the great divide and often expressed a desire to make Democrats more like Republicans in every one of those respects. To put it simply, many progressives reflexively thought that a coalition party like the Democrats was at a permanent disadvantage against an ideological party like the GOP, and moreover, that its coalition character made even electoral victories bittersweet, given the necessity for both internal and external compromise. But as we’ve seen over the last few years, “machine” politics, particularly of the conservative variety, are largely incompatible, except in very unusual circumstances, with any sort of effective government. When ideology drives policy, and partisan unity is made an end in itself, there’s no internal debate, no respect for empirical reality, no interest in genuine persuasion, no flexibility, no room for error, and no feedback mechanism other than the demands of “base” activists and opinion-leaders and the money-lenders who feed the whole beast. And when the ideology in question denies a positive role for government, favors unilateral violence as the sole instrument for American influence in the world, and views half of the U.S. population as complicit in a domestic Holocaust (legalized abortion) and in the destruction of all the norms of western civilization–well, it’s not surprising that you wind up with a record of folly, malicious mendacity, incompetence, corruption and authoritarianism like Bush’s. It’s very important that progressives understand that the results in 2006 were largely dictated by that record, not by strategic or tactical errors in the GOP campaign, or for that matter, by the strategic or tactical brilliance of Democrats. Yes, the expanded playing field and “fighting spirit” adopted by Democrats, and the hard work and enthusiasm evident at the grassroots (and in the netroots) were crucial in exploiting the opportunity created by the GOP “machine,” but when you look at the freshman congressional class of 2006, it’s clear we are still a coalition party, notwithstanding efforts to describe last year’s winners as a new breed of “populists.” All this is immediately relevant in view of the anger and despair (and those words are no exaggeration) of many progressive activists over last week’s Democratic divisions on Iraq funding. Such divisions are inevitably going to happen in a coalition party, and for all its sometimes maddening disadvantages, it’s still better than a party whose unity and ideological rigor can sometimes lead it down the road to perdition, with no road back (viz., a Republican Party still chained to its conservative base and its domestic and international delusions).

Memorial Day 2007

I’m just old enough to actually remember a time when large elements of the American male population had died or risked death in uniform, and just young enough to have legally avoided military service myself. I was lucky, while many of my Vietnam-era peers weren’t, and part of the emotion properly felt on Memorial Day has to do with the recognition of young men and women who wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and paid the ransom for the good luck the rest of us enjoyed. Life and death in modern war are rarely a simple matter of skill or courage; brave individuals often die with no opportunity to actually face their enemies. That was true in the trench warfare of World War I; the Total War of World War II; the jungle war of Vietnam; and the shadow war in Iraq. And that is why in modern war, the System–the government, the generals, the war plans, and the war aims–are so culpable for unnecessary deaths when they occur.So it is entirely appropriate on Memorial Day to remember not only the sacrifices of Americans who died for their country, but to remember the specific reasons they died, and the leadership, good and bad, that sacrificed them, and is sacrificing them today.

Why Chris Bowers Should Fraternize With Third Way

Yesterday Chris Bowers of MyDD did a long, interesting post about the Third Way organization, and wondered aloud why he should treat as comrades-in-arms people whose name, he suspects, represents a commitment to extinguish his and his friends’ influence over Democratic politics.Here’s the key section:

To be perfectly blunt, why would I want to speak to a group that seems to have been created for the purpose of reducing the influence over public policy of those with whom I share like-minded legislative ideals? Even their very name directly implies that I am wrong when it comes to public policy, and must be stopped, as it seems to me that I may very well be one of the two “ways” from which they are overtly, and equally, distancing themselves. However, at the same time, all of their members seem to be Democrats, and the group self-identifies as “progressive.” What’s going on here?

Now the Third Way folks are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, and I in no way represent them. But I do know a fair amount about the historical meaning of “the Third Way,” and can answer at least parts of Chris’ basic question.First of all, the term “Third Way,” used most often in the U.S. and in the U.K. to describe the New Democrat movement associated with Bill Clinton, and the New Labour movement associated with Tony Blair, referred not to some middle-point between Left and Right, but to a modernizing and self-consciously progressive effort to create a new Left capable of competing with the New Right of the U.S. conservative movement and of the British neo-liberal ascendancy of the early 1990s. In the U.S., the Third Way was aimed at transcending not the Left per se, but the paleo-liberals of the Democratic establishment of the 1970s and 1980s, who were temperamentally reactionary in that their sole purpose in political life seemed to be the preservation of every legislative and bureaucratic detail of the New Deal/Great Society accomplishment of the distant past, regardless of changing times or perverse outcomes.What really started the “Third Way” movement in the U.S., and led immediately to the creation of the DLC, was Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign, which was a direct challenge to “the groups,” the vast coalition of single-issue advocacy organizations united behind the candidacy of Walter Mondale. “The groups” were focused almost exclusively on taking the party and the country back to the pre-Reagan 1970s; the proto-Third Wayers thought that progressives needed to stand for something, well, progressive, even if the media insisted on calling any alternative to the prevailing Democratic orthodoxy “moderate” or “centrist” or “neoliberal” or even “conservative” (and yes, some advocates of the alternative went by each of these monnikers, along with just plain “liberal”). Mondale’s disastrous general election defeat gave the new movement a lot of momentum.In 1988, Dukakis basically straddled the lines of division in the Democratic Party, but did, it is sometimes forgotten, perform a lot better than Mondale. And in 1992, Clinton campaigned from beginning to end as a “different kind of Democrat,” without notably sacrificing any basic progressive principles or for that matter, progressive support.Throughout his presidency, when Clinton talked about “the Third Way,” he invariably meant it not as a compromise between Left and Right, but as a pursuit of progressive values and goals focused on legitimate issues often raised by conservatives (e.g., welfare reform or crime reduction), and sometimes using nontraditional means (e.g., markets or state-based initiatives). Just to set one chesnut aside, Clinton (and for that matter, the DLC) never embraced the idea of “triangulation,” a deliberate effort to marginalize or even campaign against those in the party (again, mainly the “paleoliberals”) who differed from him on policy grounds. That term was the construct of one man, Dick Morris, who had a much-exaggerated effect on one relatively short phase of Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. And even Morris defined “triangulation” as developing progressive approaches to issues monopolized by conservatives.In Britain, the Third Way referred to the Labour Party’s abandonment of some of the shibboleths of the Labour Party past–such as a commitment to nationalization of much of industry–along with a more immediately relevant agenda that dealt with post-industrial social issues in a progressive way, and, emulating Clinton, with progressive approaches to “conservative” issues like crime.While the “Third Way” monniker was very controversial outside the U.S. and U.K., it came to be used by many observers as a shorthand for the center-left revival of the mid-to-late 1990s, which in country after country involved a self-conscious revision–not abandonment–of the social democratic orthodoxy of the Left in much of the twentieth century. And despite the electoral reverses of the Left in the current decade, and the divisions, at least in the U.S. and Europe, created by differences of opinion about how to deal with the corrupto-Right of the Bush administration and its overseas allies–much of the Third Way reform effort has been internalized by the Left.So I would say to Chris: the term Third Way is not aimed at marginalizing you or what you consider to be the contemporary Left. Yes, it does represent the belief that the progressive reform effort of the 1990s is still alive and is still needed. But its main enemy continues to be the Right, and its main goal remains the conversion of progressives to a point of view that transcends base-tending, preservation of old government programs, and reflexive opposition to progressive approaches to “conservative issues.” Like that or not, it’s a legitimate exercise that cannot be rejected out of hand as somehow apostate. Moreover, genuine Third Wayers, including the organization that has chosen to take that name, are generally open to empirical discussion of the value of their political analysis and policy ideas, and don’t get into silly attacks on “liberals” or “the Left.” If they basically live up to that standard of intra-party comity and rational discussion, sure, Chris, you should at least talk to them, and compare notes. You should assume you are on the same side, until convinced otherwise.