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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey

RIP Jerry Falwell

I did a post over at TPMCafe about the death of Jerry Falwell, mainly dealing with my own perceptions of his less-than-titantic domination of his home town of Lynchburg, Virginia. More generally, it’s pretty clear that Falwell’s national role as anything other than a symbol of, and as an occasional embarassment to, the Christian Right ended a long time ago. Still, he was indeed a pioneer in the fateful decision of far too many evangelical leaders to subordinate their spiritual missions to a largely secular agenda of cultural reaction and Republican factional politics. I hope that like anyone who’s died, he rests in peace, but you also can’t blame me for hoping that against Falwell’s own beliefs, there’s such a thing as purgatory, and that he spends some time–no more than a few million years–getting straightened out before getting past the pearly gates.

Will GOPers Take a Dive in ’08?

Over at The American Prospect, Tom Schaller goes through the various reasons that conservatives are unhappy with the Big Three Republican front-runners for the 2008 presidential nomination–Giuliani, McCain and Romney–and comes up with an interesting suggestion: GOPers could decide it’s more important to make a “statement” of conservative principle than to win, and may prove it by uniting behind a second-tier candidate that they, but not general-electorate voters, like.I’m with him on his brisk diagnosis of the problems conservatives have about the Big Three. Giuliani is unacceptable to social conservatives on the issues social conservatives most care about. McCain has accumulated a long record of heresies, concluding with his terrible mispositioning on the emerging hot-button issue of immigration. And Romney’s Massachusetts record and Mormon religion are big millstones.But the problem with Schaller’s hypothesis is that there’s not an obvious vehicle for the let’s-take-a-dive-for-conservatism bandwagon. Looking at the GOP field, Tancredo for sure, and probably Brownback, have views too extreme to qualify them for the consensus-conservative mantle.Huckabee and the Thompson Twins could each serve as conservative lighting rods, but they’d probably become viable general election candidates if they got within striking distance of the nomination.The only potential candidate who meets Schaller’s congenial-loser profile is Newt Gingrich. And just today, on Good Morning America, the Newtster invited speculation that he may indeed toss his well-worn tinfoil hat into the ring.But in order to emerge as the Good Loser candidate, Gingrich would need to make a big splash in Iowa. He’s repeatedly said he won’t announce any candidacy before the end of September, and Iowa is the worst possible place for a late start.So Schaller’s hypothesis is interesting as an abstract exercise in what a conservative party might do given a not-so-conservative field of front-runners, but perhaps not terribly relevant to the actual conditions of Campaign ’08. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Fred Thompson’s still the New Candidate To Watch. Check out the large, puffy profile of Ol’ Fred that recently appeared in The Weekly Standard. Remember that his proto-campaign was first launched in the media by that reliable sounding board for cultural conservatives, Bob Novak. Check out today’s report that religious conservatives are active in promoting his candidacy.And remember–particularly if you, like Tom Schaller, believe that Republicans have become the Party of Southern Identity–that Fred Thompson is from the South, and unlike Newt Gingrich, looks and sounds the part.Fred’s underwhelming by many measures, but he’s not an obvious general-election loser, and he may be the best the Right’s got in their spring of discontent.

Mandate for Democracy

Washington Post reporter and columnist David Broder has been frequently barbecued in the progressive blogosphere in recent years for epitomizing the Beltway Establishment mindset, and particularly its reflexive support for bipartisanship in an era of Republican-driven polarization. But he’s also long harbored a quirk that is decidedly and unfortunately unusual among bigfoot journalists: an abiding interest in political and policy developments in the states. This interest leads Broder periodically to take up state grievances with Washington, and he does so today in a blistering column about pending election reform legislation in Congress, a high priority for House Democrats. Broder lauds the objectives of the Voter Confidence and Increased Accountability Act (cosponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Rush Holt), particularly its demand for a paper trail for electronic voting systems. But then he touts a variety of state government complaints about the legislation, and gets snarky towards the end in suggesting that House Democrats don’t really care if the bill works or not. The headline assigned the column by the Post–“A Paper Trail Towards Chaos?–decisively tilts the piece. It may well be that the bill’s deadlines and independent audit requirements need some work, and there will be plenty of time to refine it in the Senate if it gets that far. But it’s clear the states’, and thus Broder’s, main complaint is that Congress will never get around to fully funding the changes the bill’s demands. And that’s where I think Broder, and his state friends, are missing a very basic point. In our constitutional system, states have an independent and fundamental responsibility to operate elections fairly. If they choose to purchase voting machines that raise questions about the fairness and reliability of vote counts, it is their independent and fundamental responsibility to answer those questions. Lest we forget, state failures to competently administer elections, ensure the right to vote, and ensure that every vote is accurately counted, have for decades forced the federal government into this arena. This isn’t one of those government functions where the feds have intervened inappropriately. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the fiscal concerns of state governments in implementing federal mandates. I’ve spent a good part of my own career advocating for those concerns, and as it happens, back in the early 1980s, actually drafted a bill, subsequently adopted, creating a point of order against budget amendments that created unfunded mandates on state and local governments. And yes, Congress should fully fund this latest effort at election reform if it wants the reforms to work. But still, this ain’t a matter of Washington telling states how to fill potholes. A mandate to require states to fulfill one of their most important constitutional responsibilities is something states should welcome, or at least not carp about, and David Broder, given his credibility with state officials, should remind them of that.

Sticks and Stones

One of the perennial issues kicked up in the discussion of Jon Chait’s TNR cover article on the netroots was the abusive language frequently encountered in blogs and particularly in comment threads. To summarize a whole lot of posts by a whole lot of people, the theory among some is that MSM types are hostile to the blogosphere because they aren’t used to getting criticized up there in their comfortable perches, and/or they resent losing their oligopoly on published opinionating.That may well be true for some MSM folk (though not for Jonathan Chait), but Kevin Drum probably got closer to the more general truth in Political Animal yesterday:

This isn’t really apropos of much of anything, but it was prompted by the conversation on a variety of blogs today about why so many mainstream reporters fear and loathe the blogosphere. It was, for my taste, a wee bit disingenuous: bloggers could probably do themselves a favor by stepping back once in a while and trying to understand the impact of being on the receiving end of a hundred furious blog posts, a thousand livid comments, and five thousand enraged emails telling you in very personal terms why you’re a corrupt, sniveling, lying sycophant merely because you said something nice about Joe Lieberman or opposed net neutrality or opined that Harry Reid was wrong about the war. It’s really not the same thing as mere “blunt criticism.”

Exactly. Sure, some journalists and pundits may well be offended that the blogospheric hoipolloi aren’t simply meditating on the brilliance of their columns as though internalizing the lessons of a particularly good Sunday sermon. But for the most part, their revulsion towards bloggers is often a reaction to the speed with which their utterances are met with attacks on their character, honesty and motives, not their intelligence or (supposed) credentials. And no, it’s not just about blogospheric profanity or “style.” As someone who is a blogger, and not really much of a pundit, but who occasionally gets this sort of treatment, I can say it’s a lot easier to read that I’m a bleeping idiot, or bleeping ill-informed, than that I am (to quote one recent comment on my fine work) a “Wal-Mart fellator,” or to be informed (which has happened many times) by total strangers that I spend my free time attending Georgetown Cocktail Parties and rubbing elbows with David Broder. Having said that, I would ask, just as Kevin Drum did, whether these sort of blogospheric sins are less important than the extraordinary infusion of new voices and new viewpoints enabled by blogs. And the answer, of course, for me as well as for Kevin, is yes, by many miles.As it happens, I’m old enough to remember what it was like in the pre-Internet days when there really wasn’t any opportunity for political analysis or expression outside a very small segment of the journalistic guild. In the mid-80s, I was sorta stuck in my federal-state relations and speechwriting careers. I tried to do a lateral transfer into journalism, but was quickly informed my experience and writing ability were worthless without a journalism degree and entry-level apprenticeship. Not having the time or money to start all over, I developed the habit of writing pseudonymous letters to the editor, becoming something of a regular in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with occasional appearances in places like The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal. It was all good clean fun, but I felt like a crank. And as I’ve reflected on more than one occasion since then, what I was looking for would have been perfectly and more honestly accomodated by a blog. I am abundantly aware there are many, many people out there blogging and commenting who have more to say, and who express it better, than I did back then, or than I do today, for that matter. Many of them labor in obscurity, but some, including quite a few who are now Big Wheels in the blogosphere, started as nobodies and gained attention purely on the merits, not by climbing the greasy pole of any journalistic or political profession. You don’t have to buy into the whole People-Powered Movement idea that the netroots are turning politics upside down to accept that blogs have indeed turned journalism and political discourse generally upside down. And that’s unambiguously a good thing, for my money, and worth far more than all the verbal sticks and stones aimed by bloggers and commentors towards thee or me.

To Hell With Romney

Via Christopher Orr at The Plank, it was interesting to discover that not all the conservative evangelical Christians who hate Mitt Romney’s religion are keeping those views to themselves. Florida televangelist Bill Keller, in an email reportedly sent out to a 2.4 million-member subscription list, made this measured comment, among others, about the consequences of voting for the Mittster:

“Those who follow the false teachings of this cult, believe in the false jesus of the Mormon cult and reject faith in the one true Jesus of the Bible, will die and spend eternity in hell,” he charges. “Romney getting elected president will ultimately lead millions of souls to the eternal flames of hell!”

Placing “jesus” in lower-case when referencing the deity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was a truly original touch, eh?Keller also suggested that Pat Robertson was “out of his mind” for inviting Romney to speak at Regents University.So things ought to get pretty interesting in Christian Right circles between now and next year, what with some leaders endorsing the Mittster, and at least one suggesting he’s herding millions of souls straight to hell.UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey

Rudy Recalibrates

So: after his disastrous debate performance on the question of abortion, Republican presidential front-runner Rudy Giuliani has apparently decided to recalibrate his position, and will be a sorta-loud, sorta-proud proponent of abortion rights. At the same time, his aides suggest, he may downplay the early-states gauntlet of Iowa, NH, and SC, and stake his candidacy on a smashing win in Florida on January 29 (assuming that state’s decision to move that far up survives pressure from the RNC) and in the quasi-national primary on February 5.To the extent that this “new” position is a lot easier to explain and is consistent with his longstanding record in New York, it makes some sense, but it’s obviously a big gamble. Sure, anti-abortion activists are stronger in relatively low-turnout contests like the Iowa Caucuses than in, say, a California primary. But no one should underestimate the extent to which this is a litmus test issue for broad swaths of conservative GOP rank-and-file voters in almost every part of the country. And while Paul Waldman at TAPPED is right in suggesting that Rudy won’t get much of a pass from social conservatives for whom a politician’s position on abortion is essentially a symbolic reflection of their shared belief that American culture is plunging hellwards, Rudy’s bigger problem is going to be with the significant number of conservatives who really do think Roe v. Wade initiated an ongoing American Holocaust. They will do anything to deny Giuliani the nomination, up to and including reaching agreement on a single alternative candidate if necessary.A more immediate problem for Rudy is that his recalibrated position supporting abortion rights happened to coincide perfectly with a statement in Mexico by Pope Benedict XVI adding his personal authority to the conservative clerical contention that pro-choice Catholic politicians should be denied communion. And right away, the rector of the parish where Rudy’s last church-sanctioned marriage was performed told the New York Daily News that he’d deny Giuliani communion if he happened to show up at the altar rail there.This last news was a bit odd, insofar as it ignored the more obvious reason that Rudy might be denied communion at this particular church, or any other Catholic church: his civil dissolution of the marriage performed there, and his civil remarriage to a woman who had also been married twice previously. I sort of doubt Giuliani is going to be seeking communion anywhere, unless he’s pre-arranged it very carefully with a priest who’s willing to take an enormous amount of hierarchical heat.The Pope’s statement is actually bigger news for the four Catholic Democrats running for president: Richardson, Dodd, Biden and Kucinich. In 2004 John Kerry managed to take communion regularly with only a modicum of church-shopping, despite considerable conservative rumblings about denying him access to the sacrament. That may be a lot dicier for pro-choice Catholic Democrats now, on and off the presidential campaign trail.As for Rudy, putting aside his personal religious convictions, he would be politically smart to just go ahead and leave the Catholic Church under protest. His official Catholicism is very unlikely to survive this campaign. Abjuring it would make him one of millions of American ex-Catholics, without offending the many millions of Catholics who disagree with Church teachings on divorce and abortion but who aren’t visible enough in their views to get denied communion.In terms of Giuliani’s position on abortion, he’s probably waffling his way towards a stance that (1) expresses support for reversal of Roe v. Wade on constitutional grounds, (2) makes it clear he’d appoint federal judges who feel likewise, and (3) suggests that in a post-Roe world, he’d support state-level legislative efforts to protect basic abortion rights, though not from the Oval Office. As a practical matter, reversal of Roe is the major objective of anti-abortion activists, and they’d be happy to take their chances with a technically pro-choice president if that happened. Unfortunately for Rudy, his serpentine path on this subject may have fatally undermined any confidence that anti-choicers could trust him to appoint their kind of Supreme Court justices.

Galbraith on Trade

Anyone interested in the intra-progressive debate on trade policy should check out Jamie Galbraith’s new piece at the American Prospect site, which takes apart much of the neo-populist argument for trade restrictions or strict bilateral labor and environment conditions on trade agreements as a panacea for the downside of globalization. To make a long story short, Galbraith thinks that it’s entirely possible to combine strong domestic wage supports and corporate regulation with a relatively laissez-faire attitude towards overseas labor conditions that we can’t really dictate and that only tangentially affect trade patterns to begin with. And in an especially interesting twist, given Galbraith’s impeccably liberal background, he argues that globalization has actually made a regimen of dramatic, European-style domestic economic and social improvements possible by all but abolishing inflation. Galbraith also engages in a follow-up exchange with EPI’s Jeff Faux, long an advocate of making all trade contingent on vastly higher overseas wage rates–i.e., of massively restricting trade, as an evil in itself.

Let’s Compromise: Do It My Way

Even as House Democrats prepared to offer George W. Bush the face-saving gesture of a short-term supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq that doesn’t impose a deadline and simply requires a report back to Congress on the progress made by the Iraqi government towards a security takeover and a political settlement, the White House is already threatening a veto.And at the bottom of the Post article on the veto threat is a nugget that indicates where the administration may be going next:

Military officials now say it will be several more months before they can determine whether the “surge” in troops authorized by Bush is helping quell sectarian and other violence. In announcing new troop deployments, top commanders said the increased troop levels may need to last until next spring — a timetable that could clash with congressional sentiment in favor of a quicker troop withdrawal.

If that’s the new party line, then Bush will not only insist on a “clean” supplemental appropriations bill through the end of the fiscal year, but will reject any conditions well into next year, the last of his presidency. So not that it’s any surprise, this president is going to finish his tenure in office with the same attitude towards “bipartisanship” he began with: Let’s compromise: Do it my way.

GOP Debate–Not So Clear

Well, I suffered through the first Republican presidential debate last Thursday night, and thought it was revealing if not dispositive. The staging of the event at the Reagan Library made the predictable pandering to the Gipper’s heritage seem more natural than it actually should have been, nearly twenty years after the man left office. And though I have never been a Chris Matthews fan, I think he did a pretty good job of cutting off the bloviating, and of following up on answers that begged follow-up questions.The most obvious thing about this debate is that with the exception of libertarian Ron Paul, none of the candidates could bring themselves to dissent from the Bush administration’s current policies in Iraq. If Chuck Hagel decides to enter the field, he will be able to fill an important vaccum on that issue.This being a debate among Republicans and all, I recommend the immediate commentary at National Review’s The Corner. Their reaction, which most observers have since more or less echoed, is that there was one big loser: Rudy Giuliani. He went into the debate the front-runner in the polls, and somehow managed to terribly flub the questions about his most vulnerable point among Republican conservatives, his position on abortion. For cultural conservatives, the defining moment of the debate was when candidates were asked what they’d think if Roe v. Wade was reversed. One after another, the candidates expressed variations on the theme of “O Happy Day,” until Rudy got his turn, and said “It’d be okay.” He then said it would be okay if Roe were not overturned, conveying an indifference to the whole topic that is guaranteed to offend people on both sides of the abortion divide.Rudy did an even more complicated and ineffective shuffle in answering a question on public funding of abortions. The fact that he joined John McCain in supporting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research may have pleased Nancy Reagan, the debate’s host, but further estranged him from anti-abortion voters.Equally damaging to Rudy, given his effort to make his anti-terrorism bona fides the central point of his campaign, was his answer, both inscrutable and wrong, to the predictable question about the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslisms.Ratings of the performance of the other members of the Big Three, McCain and Romney, seem to depend on preconceptions. I thought McCain looked younger and more energetic than in recent media appearances, and got some style points for quick and honest-sounding reactions on issues ranging from the idea of Tom Tancredo as immigration czar to his belief–modified slightly in a follow-up–in evolution. I also thought Romney looked and acted too slick and slippery, but Romney fans thought he did well.In terms of Everybody Else, Ron Paul won the Dennis Kucinich award for consistently and sometimes eloquently representing views that disqualified him from the nomination race. Duncan Hunter surprised viewers by expressing concerns about global warming; Jim Gilmore tried to trim on abortion; and Tommy Thompson probably blew his first mass media appearance by looking unbelievably saturnine, and talking too much about his record on the 1990s big issue, welfare reform.Two aspirants for the True Conservative Alternative to the Big Three, Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, got very mixed reviews. Brownback missed a variety of opportunities to distinguish himself from the pack. Huckabee answered a lot of questions flunking Debate Prep 101, by facing the moderator rather than the camera. But he did, out of the blue, offer what was perhaps the entire debate’s most interesting answer:

MR. VANDEHEI: Governor Huckabee, this question comes from a reader in New York. In light of the scandals plaguing the current administration and its allies, involving corruption and cronyism, which mistakes have you learned not to repeat?MR. HUCKABEE: The most important thing a president needs to do is to make it clear that we’re not going to continue to see jobs shipped overseas, jobs that are lost by American workers, many in their 50s who for 20 and 30 years have worked to make a company rich, and then watch as a CEO takes a hundred-million-dollar bonus to jettison those American jobs somewhere else. And the worker not only loses his job, but he loses his pension.

That’s criminal. It’s wrong. And if Republicans don’t stop it, we don’t deserve to win in 2008.

That was clearly a planned answer, and indicates that Huckabee is willing to become a conservative populist candidate. He ain’t got no money, and ain’t got much buzz, but so long as the Republican field is as moribund as it now appears to be, nobody should count him out.

Chait on the Netroots

The LA Times’ Jonathan Chait has a big cover article in the current New Republic analyzing the netroots as a political phenomenon. I did a post on it over at TPMCafe, and won’t go through the whole thing here, other than to say that Chait’s piece, despite a few questionable assertions, is a very good introduction to the whole topic of the netroots’ role in Democratic politics. That it appeared in The New Republic, a favorite whipping-boy of many netroots activists, will probably negatively pre-dispose more than a few readers. Indeed, it’s a token of Chait’s excellence as a journalist that a fair number of bloggers have some good things to say about his article, overlooking not only his long association with TNR but his own early effort at blogging, the short-lived but venomous (and often very funny, at least to non-Deaniacs) Diary of a Dean-o-Phobe.If you’re interested in other reactions, you can check out Chris Bowers’ post at MyDD, or the responses published by TNR by Eric Alterman and Matt Yglesias. The criticism most consistently aimed at Chait is that he overemphasizes the role of a handful of high-profile bloggers in coordinating the netroots “message.” I think that’s a bit unfair, since the whole piece was about the netroots as a self-conscious political movement, which is obviously what most of its most prominent personalities think it is. Chait might have dwelled a bit more on the inherent tension between the medium’s decentralized nature and various effort to make it a unified political force; it’s a tension you see every day in the comments threads of most “activist” sites.But still, even with as many words at his disposal as Chait had, you have to generalize somewhat, and I think it’s fair to take this movement at its own word as a coherent political faction.I do have one small issue with Chait in his treatment of the DLC as an object of particular opprobrium in the lefty blogosphere.On the one hand, he shoehorns the DLC and TNR together as institutions that haven’t really earned the hatred they frequently elicit in the netroots:

When it comes to identifying its adversaries more specifically, the two institutions named most often are the DLC and tnr. Netroots activists speak of these two institutions in stark terms. “This is the modern DLC–an aider and abettor of Right-wing smear attacks against Democrats,” wrote Moulitsas, who proceeded to threaten to “make the DLC radioactive.” In a posting about tnr, titled “tnr’s defection to the Right is now complete,” Moulitsas wrote that this magazine “betrayed, once again, that it seeks to destroy the new people-powered movement for the sake of its Lieberman-worshipping neocon owners.” Both the DLC and tnr are perpetually described as “dying” or “irrelevant,” yet simultaneously possessed of sinister and ubiquitous control over the national discourse.In reality, of course, the DLC is a political enterprise and tnr a journalistic one; each has on its staff individuals who do not always agree with each other; and neither institution exerts total control over every individual on its payroll. While both the DLC and tnr supported the Iraq war, both stridently opposed almost every other element of the Bush agenda. The overwhelming majority of DLC missives and tnr articles are perfectly congenial to mainstream liberalism and perfectly hostile to the Republican Party of George W. Bush. But these sorts of subtleties generally escape the Manichean analysis that pervades the netroots.

That’s all completly accurate. though it should be noted that some who deplore the DLC and TNR would argue that being wrong about the Iraq War makes being right about anything else irrelevant (a position that becomes a bit complicated for the many netroots supporters of John Edwards’ presidential campaign). But Chait goes on to echo the often-expressed netroots take on the DLC as an organization that led the Democrats into a trap of moving “right” on issues in recent years as an accomodation of the conservative ascendancy:

Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 in part because he defined himself as “a different kind of Democrat”–one who favored capital punishment, welfare reform, and so on. But, over time, the DLC strategy led to a kind of ideological retrogression. Having reestablished the left pole of the national debate further to the center, the only way for Democrats to maintain their centrist image was to move further right still. By the late ’90s, the DLC had abandoned its preference for universal health insurance for small piecemeal reforms and flirted with partial privatization of Social Security.

Now if you happen to believe that the whole Clinton administration was, to use Howard Dean’s description, nothing more than an exercise in “damage control”–a rearguard effort to find a way for Democrats to win presidential elections in a conservative climate–then obviously the DLC was complicit in that effort. But the idea that the DLC “moved right” after 1994 just isn’t correct. If it ever abandoned its “preference for universal health care,” I missed it; like most Democrats, the DLC endorsed “small piecemeal reforms” as better than nothing. The “flirtation” with “partial privatization of Social Security” was in the context of broader social security reforms that would have made the system more progressive, and predated the late 1990s. As even Will Marshall, the PPI president most associated with the “flirtation” Chait’s writing about, was a good soldier and probably turned down 200 press inquiries during the fight over Bush’s social security proposal, which the DLC formally opposed.In reality, the DLC moved “left” in conventional terms during the late 1990s, and has continued in that direction ever since. During the late 1990s, the DLC, to the discomfort of some of its political allies, came out unambiguously for abortion rights, gay rights, public financing of political campaigns, and efforts to strengthen unions. It loyally supported Gore during the 2000 end-game, and warned against the Bush approach to “bipartisanship.” I am particularly aware, having written most of this, that the DLC published about a million words attacking the Bush tax cuts in a particularly hyperbolic way, worthy of a blog if such had existed at that time.Oh well. The broader point is not about the DLC, but about the widespread belief that Democrats lost in 2000 (technically), in 2002 and in 2004 because they were cowards. A lot of things were going on in all these elections, and reducing it all to an unwillingness to “fight” is one of the netroots conceits I really can’t share. It’s not that surprising that the viscerally pugilistic journalist Jon Chait finds that a point of common ground with the netroots, but for my money, it’s brains rather than guts that Democrats have too often lacked.