I’m doing this post because my old friend Armando at TalkLeft has cited me twice in the past week for opposing partisanship, “contrast,” and “fighting” as elements of a Democratic political strategy, once quoting, slightly (but not unfairly) out of context, something I said back in 2005.His latest post selectively quotes from an analysis I did the other day of the Democratic presidential field, noting in passing that Gore and Kerry lacked an overarching message, but had plenty of policy proposals and lots of Shrumian “fighting” rhetoric. This somehow translates, in Armando’s view, into me saying that I said Gore and Kerry’s candidacies lost because they “fought” or were too partisan. Not true. All I said is that both candidacies (and yes, I understand that Gore won the popular vote and Kerry clame close) would have benefitted from a consistent, overarching message that complemented their vast policy agendas and their “fighting” spirit. No, I do not think wanting to “fight” Republicans represents a sufficient message for any Democrat; but that doesn’t mean I’m opposed, then or now, to a strong contrast in campaign messages, so long as there is a message other than “I oppose the bad guys.” As it happens, I was as unhappy as anybody with the weird, poll-driven reluctance of the Kerry campaign during the 2004 convention to attack the opposition; I was in the convention speechwriting operation, and chafed against the High Command’s edict that speeches barely mention Bush and rarely mention the GOP. As Armando suggests, the Kerry campaign got out of that mindset later in the campaign, and I’m glad they did. As for the “politics of contrast,” which Armando has repeatedly used me as a foil to promote, yes, of course, absolutely, if you don’t explain to voters why you’re different from the opposition, you can’t expect to win many elections. But just as obviously, there are legitimate questions about where to draw contrasts, and how much contrast is necessary. If contrast is the only thing that matters, then Democrats should just distance themselves as far from Republicans as possible, regardless of public opinion, principles, actual consequences, or common sense, and I doubt Armando or anyone else really thinks that makes any sense. He has his point of view about how far Democrats need to go to “contrast” themselves with the GOP on Iraq, but that point of view, however passionately and articulately advanced, is just a debating point between people who agree on the basics, not a self-evident position held by anyone who wants “contrast.” So don’t count me among the (largely imaginary) ranks of Democrats who never want to be partisan, don’t want to draw contrasts, and don’t want to fight. I continue to think we need a broader message that appeals to people who aren’t reflexively ideological or partisan, and I reject the idea that Bill Clinton (for example), wasn’t acting as a partisan politician when he talked about “progress not partisanship” in 1996 and 1998. Partisanship, contrast and “fighting” do need to be connected to a broader national agenda and a rationale for Democratic candidacies that transcends these tactics, and that’s all I’ve tried to say.
As a follow-up to my recent post on the Democratic presidential race, I would say there really isn’t any dominant conventional wisdom about the Republican contest at this point.Some observers think the field is a big mess, with the Big Three candidates (Giuliani, McCain and Romney) all sporting gigantic liabilities that could theoretically take them down before Iowa, but with no one else emerging or likely to emerge from the weak second-tier pack to win the nomination and unite the GOP.Yet some observers (in both parties) think the biggest of the Big Three, Rudy Giuliani, can pull off a miracle by winning the nomination despite his rich history of ideological heresies and marital issues, and then win the general election based on his personal charisma and his reputation and “America’s Mayor” on and after 9/11. And a few think a dark horse–most recently Fred Thompson–can snuff all the front-runners.The Giuliani issue is indeed fascinating. He’s totally kicking butt in the polls. Real Clear Politics’ average of GOP polls since March 21 shows Rudy up in the 30s, while McCain has collapsed into the teens, with Romney (the other member of the Big Three) stuck in the single digits, actually trailing Thompson and barely ahead of Newt Gingrich.But Giuliani’s manifold liabilities, especially on cultural issues, seem to be multiplying, given his recent reiteration of support for public funding of abortions (his lame-o follow-up pledge that he wouldn’t try to repeal “current law” radically restricting such funding was cold comfort to Right-to-Lifers, whose main raison d’etre is to overturn the “current law” making abortion legal in the first place). Now some analysts seem to think that cultural conservatives will look at Rudy’s overall record and platform and give him a pass on issues like abortion and gay marriage and immigration. But as I never tire of pointing out, these aren’t negotiable issues to culturally conservative voters, many of whom think legalized abortion is a second Holocaust; that gay marriage is a fundamental threat to the institution of the family; and that current immigration policies threaten the basic cultural integrity of the nation. At a minimum, Giuliani is going to face a nasty, scorched-earth demonization effort far more intense than the one that brought down John McCain in 2000, while providing a lot more raw material to work with than McCain ever did. You can count on it.An alternative argument, made most persuasively by Mike Tomasky, is that Rudy’s mastered dog-whistle politics, and might well, in office, give the Cultural Right whatever they want, despite his public positions. That may be true, but I doubt it will do him much good in running for the nomination, since (a) Rudy built a long record of untrustworthy behavior towards conservatives in New York, and (b) the Cultural Right has repeatedly been gamed by past Republican presidents, including those who publicly agreed with their demands, making conservatives vastly less likely to accept bare promises, much less dog whistles.The final argument you hear is more basic: today’s Republicans, like Democrats accepting Bill Clinton in 1992 or even GOPers Liking Ike in 1952, are simply so desperate to hang onto the White House that they’ll plunk for Rudy simply because he might win the general election.The analogy to Clinton is reasonable in one respect: like Clinton, Rudy faces a very weak field. Many people may have forgotten the grand irony of the 1992 nominating process: the same New Hampshire primary that threatened Clinton’s campaign and ultimately made him “the Comeback Kid” also croaked the candidacies of Tom Harkin and Bob Kerrey, leaving Clinton to face two underwhelming rivals, Paul Tsongas and (later) Jerry Brown. It’s possible that Giuliani could win the nomination in 2008 simply because no one is strong enough to beat him, though this outcome would run a high risk of creating a conservative third-party candidacy. Indeed, as Tomasky pointed out in his (above-cited) article, there’s no way that Clinton was as far from the Democratic mainstream on major issues in 1992 as Giuliani is today. As for Ike–well, aside from the fact that the GOP was far less ideologically conservative in 1952 than it is today, there’s this small matter that Eisenhower, having supervised the defeat of Nazi Germany, was vastly more popular than anyone in public life in this day and age, definitely including “America’s Mayor.”Meanwhile, Rudy’s strength in the polls has fed the other boom, the otherwise unlikely effort to catapult Fred Thompson into the role of the “true conservative” in the race. The Thompson proto-candidacy really does make you wonder if George Allen might be headed towards the nomination if he hadn’t disgraced himself en route to losing his Senate seat last year. He was a lot more acceptable to conservatives than Thompson has ever been, and had at least an arguable record of accomplishment as governor of Virginia, whereas ol’ Fred warmed a chair in the Senate between stints as a mediocre character actor and a lobbyist. Maybe he’ll manage to run a campaign that strikes a chord stronger than “I’m not those other guys,” but until then, it appears his sudden double-digit position in the polls is simply a sad reflection on the field.There is a pretty firm CW about two other candidates: Romney and McCain. Despite his powerful fundraising numbers, it’s almost universally accepted in GOP circles that the Mittster has flunked his first audition as “the true conservative candidate,” mainly thanks to those toxic videotapes of his earlier protestations of cultural liberalism, along with exceptional hostility in conservative evangelical circles towards his Mormon faith. He may get a second audition before it’s over, but he’s so far shown no reason to believe it will go better than the first. Unlike Giuliani, he doesn’t have the positive national image that makes him look good in general election trial heats. He’s actually afraid to talk about his main policy achievement, his role in Massachusetts’ health care plan. So it’s hard to see what, exactly, would convert his money and on-paper strengths into actual votes.And there’s also general agreement that John McCain is in deep trouble. He’s lost about half his early GOP support in the horse-race polls; he’s actually running behind Thompson in at least one. And his one big gambit to regain conservative support, his increasingly visible support for the “Bush surge” in Iraq and his abrasive slurs on the patriotism of Democrats who are opposing it, may help him with the GOP base, but only at the price of all but eliminating his already-decimated positive image among independents and Democrats. And given just about any alternative, few conservatives really want to support McCain if he looks like a weak general election candidate harnessed to the GOP’s worst issue.Little needs to be said about the GOP’s other candidates. Tancredo will continue his bid to become the new Pat Buchanan of presidential politics, probably forcing other candidates to get shrill on immigration, which will help solidify the Democratic advantage among Latinos in the general election. Sam Brownback will serve a similar destructive function on abortion and gay marriage. Gingrich, if he runs despite a very late start, will be the ultimate fallback candidate, sort of Bob Dole with a lot of baggage, offering the party the option of just taking a dive in 2008. And Mike Huckabee doesn’t have two nickels to rub together. Nor does Tommy Thompson. Hagel shouldn’t be mentioned unti
l he acts like he’s running.And don’t forget this: Republicans don’t have some Ultimate Savior out there who could run a credible campaign if push came to shove. In the extremely unlikely event that all of the Democratic Big Three crashed and burned, the party still has Al Gore, who would probably accept a real draft. The only person on the GOP side that could theoretically offer that is Jeb Bush, whose last name is almost certainly a disqualifier.So count me as a member of the “big mess” faction when it comes to an analysis of the GOP field. Rudy makes no sense; Fred’s got no game; Mitt’s stuck in neutral; John’s mired in a lose-lose relationship with the conservative base; and the rest of the candidates seem to be going nowhere fast.
The novelist Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday at 84. Like a lot of baby boomers, no doubt, the news made me feel sad and very old, and perhaps wondering what Vonnegut had been up to during the decades after we all read his early stuff like Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions. I’m sure a lot of people who grew up in the 60s and 70s remember Vonnegut as part of a group of fiction writers who were considered de rigour at the time– a group that at least for my classmates at Emory University included Richard Brautigan, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Robbins, Joseph Heller, and probably many others whose names and works I have completely forgotten. (Their non-fiction counterparts included radical writers like Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, R.D. Laing, and Emory’s own Thomas J.J. Altizer).Vonnegut was already an “old guy” back then, and it was his distinctive contribution to connect the cultural, political and literary preoccupations of the day with older traditions of pacifism, anti-authoritarianism, science fiction, and sheer anarchic whimsy. With the possible exception of Slaughterhouse-Five, which audaciously challenged (like Heller’s Catch-22) the morality of “The Good War,” Vonnegut’s work probably hasn’t aged as well as he did. But as he might have himself put it, “So it goes.”As it happens, I owe a small personal debt to the man: he made my surname cool, via his strange science-fiction-writer character Kilgore Trout. So I pray that Vonnegut may rest in peace, in whatever dimension he now occupies.
It’s become a commonplace observation to note that the 2008 presidential race, particularly on the Democratic side, is already achieving an unusually frantic pace. And perhaps the best evidence of that hypothesis is the fact that each of the Big Three Democratic candidates, Clinton, Obama and Edwards, has already been described, by the Conventional Wisdom of the Washington chattering classes and key elements of the blogosphere, as undergoing a potentially fatal “swoon.”HRC was the first to be thusly described, especially when Barack Obama entered the race and predictably started building support among the African-American voters who had previously tilted heavily to Clinton, erasing much of her early, big lead in the polls. The fact that this trend coincided with a MSM and blogospheric obsession with her refusal to apologize about her vote for the Iraq War resolution, compounded by her lukewarm appeal to independent voters, led some smart people to predict her early demise.Just a few weeks ago, of course, John Edwards had to put up, however briefly, with reports that he was actually about to drop out of the race, and/or would be capsized by public concerns about his wife’s health, and/or couldn’t raise any money.And now Barack Obama is suffering from a bit of a drop in support in the polls, explained by many as the result of his refusal to get specific on policy ideas, and/or to give Democratic audiences the red meat they expect. As a new and relatively balanced New Republic article by Noam Scheiber reflects, the emerging CW is that Obama’s buzz factor is fading (just as many Obama-skeptics in the punditocracy had long predicted), leaving him in a downward trajectory unless he changes course.Taking all these “trends” together, the lesson is that you shouldn’t pay much attention to the early CW on any of these three candidates. The best bet is that the Big Three are all viable and tightly bunched, which is mainly bad news for the Little Three (Richardson, Dodd and Biden) who need some oxygen to get taken seriously by the media, the activists, and the money folk.What’s more interesting to me is the extent to which the Big Three have taken varying courses in laying out a rationale for their candidacy.When you boil it all down, our last two presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, were rich in policy proposals and Shrumian “fighting” rhetoric, but largely bereft of any overarching message (Gore, to be more precise, had several messages, but couldn’t settle on one for any length of time).Nobody needs Bob Shrum any more to convey an intention to “fight” Republicans. Obama is all message (the same message of beyond-polarization and reform that John Kerry rejected and Wesley Clark botched in 2004), and part of his early appeal is that he scratches a long-standing itch among message-starved Democratic and independent voters. It also enables him to simultaneously run to the left and right of his main rivals.HRC, so far, stands in the Gore-Kerry all-policy, no-message tradition, assuming that “I’m in it to win!” is a short-term, tactical slogan designed to deal with doubts about her electability.Edwards is the one candidate so far to put together both a clear message (an updated version of his “Two Americas” theme from 2004) and a lot of policy detail. But I strongly suspect that Obama and Clinton will soon catch up on that front, and then we’ll begin to see some real and congruent competition. The other thing that’s likely to happen is that George W. Bush will find a way to make moot the current tactical arguments among the Democratic presidential candidates over Iraq, which will make their opinions on other topics more visible and politically relevant.Each of the Big Three has a distinctive set of strategic issues to navigate.HRC is clearly the least vulnerable to mood swings, media narratives, or gaffes; she’s already suffered the most important setback, the loss of her overwhelming African-American support. She’ll be fine if none of her rivals, Big or Little, catch fire.Obama needs to overcome the current negative buzz about his campaign; continue, through heavy and broad-based fundraising and competitive poll numbers, to solidify his status as a national candidate who doesn’t have to win early; and unfold a policy agenda that satisfies the critics without pigeon-holing him ideologically.And Edwards, aside from getting past the rumors about the impact of his wife’s health on his candidacy, needs to continue his interesting tandem strategy of becoming the preferred choice of the activist Left, while maintaining his appeal as a regional Southern candidate, which could be very important after New Hampshire. So far, he seems to be pulling it off, as evidenced by his recently unveiled and impressive endorsement list in South Carolina (no, endorsements aren’t all that important in themselves, but in this case they do show he hasn’t in any way become toxic in his home region. He should say a prayer every night in thanks for Mark Warner’s noncandidacy). Unlike HRC and Obama, Edwards really does need to win or at worst finish a strong second in Iowa, but if he does, he could be in very good shape.This post does obviously reflect the CW in focusing on the Big Three, as opposed to Richardson, Dodd and Biden. But in this case, the CW may well be accurate, given the front-loaded caucus and primary schedule, the strength of the Big Three in the early states, the Little Three’s money disadvantage, and the absence of any issue on which the Little Three–with the possible exception of Biden’s relative hawkishness, which doesn’t look like a winner among Democratic voters in 2008–could distinguish themselves.The most likely dark horse is Bill Richardson. The good news for Richardson is that all the rumors over the decades about his alleged “zipper problem” are probably just bunk; we’d have almost certainly learned otherwise by now if it were otherwise. The bad news for Richardson is that he almost has to win in Nevada to have a prayer, and even then, he’s not well-positioned to win in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.So: get used to the idea that the Democratic nominee will likely be named (to list them alphabetically) Barack, Hillary or John, and that you can ignore a lot of the daily buzz about the Big Three until people start voting, which will be soon enough.
Maybe some people think that mocking Tom DeLay is a matter of shooting fish in a barrel, but insofar as The Hammer has fantasies of becoming the Big Fish of the right-wing blogosphere, it’s worth the effort to fire a few rounds when he lifts his gills from the water.Via Jonathan Schwartz, we have this snippet transcribed from a recent DeLay radio interview, wherein he compares himself to Holocaust victims:
I am so outraged by this whole criminalization of politics. It’s not good enough to defeat somebody politically. It’s not even good enough to vilify somebody publicly. They have to carpet bomb you with lies and made up scandals and false charges and indicting you on laws that don’t exist. … It’s the same thing as I say in my book, that the Nazis used. When you use the big lie in order to gain and maintain power, it is immoral and it is outrageous…It’s the same process. It’s the same criminalization of politics. it’s the same oppression of people. It’s the same destroy people in order to gain power. It may be six million Jews. it may be indicting somebody on laws that don’t exist. But, it’s the same philosophy and it’s the same world view.
It’s breathtaking, eh? I mean, really, is there anyone in American politics who has done more to demonize political opponents, and encourage–big hint: the endless investigation of, followed by the impeachment of, Bill Clinton for “high crimes and misdeameanors”–the criminalization of politics? And while I know people like DeLay consider any legal restrictions on campaign financing some sort of totalitarian assault on the power of money, is it possible he really believes he’s been indicted on “laws that don’t exist”? Given his amazing inability to see the beam in his own eye, it’s probably not that surprising that DeLay is willing to go right over the brink and commit an offense that ranks right up there with Don Imus’, not only cheapening the Holocaust by comparing it to his battles with the Texas justice system, but judging his loss of power as equivalent to the sufferings of those in the death camps. Imus has, at least, apologized repeatedly. DeLay seems determined to compound his disgusting behavior, and confirming its premeditated nature, by reiterating it on every available occasion.
The much-commented-upon willingness of conservatives to overlook Rudy Giuliani’s heretical views on social issues is about to get the acid test. In an interview today with CNN’s Dana Bash, Rudy reiterated his past support for using public funds to pay for abortions in every case where abortion itself is legal. He also, incidentally, reiterated his support for a constitutional right to choose as well.Bash was apparently trying to get Giuliani to admit a flip-flop by showing him a 1989 tape where he told a women’s group he supported public funding of abortions. Asked directly if this was still his position, he said “Yes,” and elaborated:
“Ultimately, it’s a constitutional right, and therefore if it’s a constitutional right, ultimately, even if you do it on a state by state basis, you have to make sure people are protected,” Giuliani said in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash in Florida’s capital city.
Wow. This means Giuliani supports repealing the Hyde Amendment, the law that currently prohibits use of Medicaid dollars for abortions in all cases except those involving rape, incest, or endangerment of the life of the woman. First enacted in 1977, the Hyde Amendment is one of the anti-abortion movement’s few genuine trophies. And unlike such contrived issues as bans on so-called “partial-birth abortions,” the Hyde Amendment has a very significant effect. The National Abortion Federation web site quotes a Guttmacher Insitute study suggesting that “20-35% of Medicaid-eligible women who would choose abortion carry their pregnancies to term when public funds are not available.” This is a very big deal. I’ll be amazed if Rudy’s conservative critics, and his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, don’t jump on this issue powerfully and immediately. What interests me is whether Giuliani fully understood the political implications of his interview with Bash. If he did, I guess you have to admire his suicidal chutzpah.
For decades now, columnist Robert Novak has served as the unofficial but very real loudspeaker in national politics for the serious conservative activists of both the economic and cultural variety. Throughout the Reagan and G.H.W. Bush years, Novak was the guy who could be counted on to express the unhappiness of the Right with any deviation from its agenda by Repubican leaders. And most famously, it was Novak who, back in 1998, did George W. Bush the giant favor of a column calling him the ideological son of Ronald Reagan rather than his own father.That’s why it’s noteworthy that the Prince of Darkness today placed his imprimatur on the all-but-official candidacy of Fred Thompson, in no uncertain terms:
In just three weeks, Fred Thompson has transformed the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. It is not merely that he has come from nowhere to double digits in polls. He is the talk of GOP political circles because he is filling the conservative void in the field.
The Dark One briskly dismisses Thompson’s rivals:
Sophisticated social conservative activists tell me they cannot vote for Giuliani under any conditions and have no rapport with McCain or Romney. They do not view Sen. Sam Brownback, representing the social right, as a viable candidate. They are coming to see Thompson as the only conservative who can be nominated.
But here’s my favorite part of the column: Novak’s explanation of Thompson’s specific appeal to the Right:
Their appreciation of him stems not from his eight years as a U.S. senator from Tennessee but from his role as Manhattan district attorney on the TV series ” Law & Order.” The part was molded to Thompson’s specifications as a tough prosecutor, lending him political star power.
So that’s how Thompson gets to be the Heir of Reagan, eh? He’s pretended to be an ideal conservative on the screen. If Fred’s bandwagon gets to rolling, expect Rudy Giuliani–who actually was a successful prosecutor in Manhattan–to have great sport with Thompson as his Mini-Me.
The first quarter fundraising numbers for the Republican presidential candidates are trickling out now, and their Big Three money men have demolished all past records as well. It was certainly being rumored that the Mittster would have a great quarter to offset his recently dismal poll ratings, but his $23 million haul was pretty amazing. Giuliani reported $15 million, and John McCain came in at about $12-and-a-half million. The McCain numbers are bad news for the some-time front-runner, given his Establishment Candidate status, although, as Markos points out, McCain’s dollar-to-donor ratio is quite low, meaning he’s raising smaller contributions from benefactors who haven’t hit the legal limit. But the bigger news is that Romney, Giuliani and McCain–all of whom have serious vulnerabilities as candidates–or going to be hard to catch by the rest of the field.
Last Thursday, in the wake of Harold Ford’s kickoff speech as chairman of the DLC, the Washington Times published a toxic little article entitled “Ford Splits With Democrats On Iraq,” by Brian DeBose. It somehow interpreted a comment by Ford warning against too precipitious a withdrawal from Iraq as meaning he opposed the withdrawal language in the supplemental appropriations bills passed by both Houses of Congress. The article–surprise, surprise–led to fiery posts at DailyKos and at MyDD suggesting that Ford and the DLC were supporting Bush, dissing all Dems, etc., etc.Ford put out a statement on Friday disputing the WaTimes piece and making it clear he supported the supplemental, withdrawal language and all. I’m not holding my breath in anticipation of an acknowledgement of the statement by the WaTimes, Kos, or Matt Stoller. And none of the three are likely to pay any more attention than they already have to the main point of Ford’s speech last Wednesday, which was to deplore the obsessive focus almost everywhere on fundraising by presidential candidates in lieu of a discussion of policy and ideas.The main progressive blogospheric rap on the DLC has been the organization’s “divisiveness” in failing to tow the party line (except on those occasions when progressive bloggers don’t want to tow the party line, either). Fine; make that case if you wish, though it would be nice if everyone accepted that there’s a debate that must precede the definition of the party line in any given circumstance. But when a right-wing reporter just invents an “intra-party fight,” it would be prudent to check with the source before immediately piling on. To the extent that many folks on the Left think the DLC exercises vast influence in the Democratic Party, you’d think they would be a little less eager to assume the organization or its chairman will always go in the wrong direction, on the evidence of the Washington Times.UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey
We won’t get the official numbers for a few days, but on the Democratic side at least, presidential campaigns are beginning to informally release their first quarter fundraising totals, and as expected, the amounts are staggering.According to Jerome Armstrong at MyDD, Clinton will lead the pack with $26 million in the quarter, followed by $21-22 million by Obama, $14 million by Edwards, $6 million by Richardson, $4 million by Dodd, and $3 million by Biden. The previous record for off-year fundraising in a quarter was $8.9 million by Al Gore, in 1999. And to place this in even sharper perspective, John Edwards turned heads four years ago with first-quarter fundraising of just over $7 million. Looks like he may double that haul this time around, while significantly trailing two other candidates, who will triple it.There’s less information available thus far on GOP fundraising, though the buzz is that Romney will do quite well, and McCain may (on the evidence of a last-minute fundraising appeal) fail to meet expectations. But one number that is interesting comes from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who says he raised about $500,000 in the quarter. Huckabee has consistently been rated as a viable darkhorse candidate by a lot of pundits in both parties. Yet he only raised a sixth of the cash brought in by Democrat Joe Biden, who has largely been written off by the commentariat.This pattern suggests that the front-loaded primary schedule for 2008 may actually have a greater impact on the GOP field than on Democrats, despite some very serious vulnerabilities shared by GOP frontrunners Giuliani and McCain. Raising money a half-mil a quarter ain’t going to get close to the price of admission to the early states, much less the massive Feb. 5 sweepstakes.