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Editor’s Corner

The Republican Civil War: Your Guide To This Year’s Primaries

This item by Ed Kilgore is cross-posted from The New Republic, where it was first published on March 2, 2010.
All across the country, Republicans are fantasizing about a gigantic electoral tide that will sweep out deeply entrenched Democratic incumbents this November. In their telling, this deep-red surge will be so forceful as to dislodge even legislators who don’t look vulnerable now, securing GOP control of both houses of Congress.
But could this scenario really come to pass? That will depend, in part, on what type of Republican Party the Democrats are running against in the fall.
Hence the importance of this year’s Republican civil war. In a string of GOP primary elections stretching from now until September, the future ideological composition of the elephant party hangs in the balance. Many of these primaries pit self-consciously hard-core conservatives, often aligned with the Tea Party movement, against “establishment” candidates—some who are incumbents, and some who are simply vulnerable to being labeled “RINOs” or “squishes” for expressing insufficiently ferocious conservative views.
Below is your guide to this year’s most important ideologically-freighted GOP primaries and their consequences. Confining ourselves just to statewide races, let’s take them in chronological order:
TEXAS, MARCH 2: Today’s showdown is in Texas, where “establishment” Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is challenging conservative incumbent Governor Rick Perry. Perry, who won only 39 percent of the vote in a four-candidate race in 2006, spent much of the last year cozying up to Tea Party activists and occasionally going over the brink into talk of secession. He seemed to have the race against the Washington-tainted Hutchinson well in hand, until a third GOP candidate, libertarian/Tea Party favorite Debra Medina, started to surge in the polls early this year.
Medina’s candidacy once threatened to knock Perry into a runoff or even displace Hutchison from the second spot. But then Medina went on the Glenn Beck Program and expressed openness to the possibility that the federal government was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Still, it’s not clear Perry will clear 50 percent. An expensive and potentially divisive runoff would weaken him against the Democratic candidate, Houston Mayor Bill White, who looks quite competitive in early polling.
INDIANA, MAY 4: In the Hoosier State, right-wingers are flaying each other. Former Senator Dan Coats, a relatively conservative figure with strong “establishment” support, faces three even more conservative rivals in the race to succeed Evan Bayh. Coats is a longtime favorite of religious conservatives and an early member of the evangelical conservative network which author Jeff Sharlet dubs “The Family.” He’s secured early endorsements from D.C.-based conservative leaders Mike Pence and James Bopp (an RNC member who authored both the “Socialist Democrat Party” and “litmus test” resolutions). But his Beltway support has created a backlash in Indiana, and some Second Amendment fans recall that Coats voted for the Brady Bill and the assault-weapons ban. Coats is also smarting from revelations that he’s been registered to vote in Virginia since leaving the Senate, and working in Washington as a lobbyist for banks, equity firms, and even foreign governments (his firm represented—yikes—Yemen).
With the vote coming so soon, hard-core conservatives probably won’t have time to unite behind an alternative; some favor Tea Party-oriented state senator Marlin Stutzman, while others are sticking with a old-timey right-wing warhorse, former Representative John Hostetler. But if they do, and Coats loses, it will probably spur a headlong national panic among “establishment” Republicans, even well-credentialed conservatives who haven’t quite joined the tea partiers. Indiana Democrats have managed to recruit a strong Senate nominee in Congressman Brad Ellsworth, who might hold onto Bayh’s Senate seat.
UTAH, MAY 8: Utah Senator Bob Bennett, the bipartisan dealmaker, is in trouble. He voted for TARP, he has been a high-visibility user of earmarks, and, worse yet, he co-sponsored a universal health-reform bill with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. So right-wingers want his head. Bennett’s defeat has become an obsession of influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson of Red State, and the Club for Growth, the big bully of economic conservatism, has attacked Newt Gingrich for speaking on his behalf.
Bennett’s first test will come on May 8, when delegates to Utah’s state GOP convention will vote on a Senate nominee. If he fails to get 60 percent, he’ll be pushed into a June 22 primary. Bennett faces three potentially credible right-wing challengers, but the “comer” seems to be Mike Lee, a former law clerk to Justice Samuel Alito, who has been endorsed by Dick Armey’s powerful FreedomWorks organization. Since this is Utah, there is no Democrat in sight who is strong enough to exploit such a right-wing “purge.” Bennett’s defeat would only make the Republican Party more conservative, and provide another object lesson to any GOP-er thinking about cosponsoring major legislation with a Democrat.


Post-Summitry

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on February 25, 2010.
I generally agree with J.P. Green’s take on today’s health care summit, but would add a couple of points in an effort to answer his question: will this help pass health care reform?
I doubt too many Americans watched the whole seven-hour show, and it’s unclear yet how it will be covered in the MSM (though I’m afraid the Obama-McCain exchange will soak up more attention that it really merited). But certainly the president and congressional Democrats did a good job of trying to explain the fundamentals of health care reform: why the system’s broken; why an individual mandate, subsidies, and regulation of benefit levels are necessary to fix it; and why Republican panaceas such as interstate insurance sales, association health plans, health savings accounts, and state high-risk pools, won’t help and will probably make things worse. Anyone who did watch big chunks of the summit probably understands by now that you can’t just do the easy, popular stuff like banning exclusions of people with pre-existing conditions and let it go with that. You’d guess that a poll of people watching would rate the Democratic approach to health care reform as far superior to that of Republicans, and perhaps that impression will spread or seep through the media coverage.
The harder question is how the summit affects public opinion on the very key question of what comes next. From the president on down, Democrats frequently said there were many areas of fundamental bipartisan agreement, and Republicans frequently said it’s time to start over and work on a bipartisan plan. You could listen to all that talk and conclude it’s time for a new round of negotiations based on “common ground.” If you listened more closely, you’d more likely conclude that Republicans object to the basic design of any plausible comprehensive health care reform initiative, and that “common ground” is confined to some broad goals that have never been in doubt, and to some details that could theoretically still be addressed, but that aren’t game-changers for anybody. Any time Republicans seemed to sound too agreeable or friendly towards the president, one of their leaders (most notably House Minority Leader John Boehner) would reset the mood with some hammer-headed comments on “government takeover of health care ” or “abortion subsidies,” as though to remind all attendees that this is essentially an exercise in political theater.
The President’s concluding comments indicated that he wanted to let the summitry marinate for a while, and see if some new progress could be made within four or six weeks. But at that point, he made clear, it would be time to act, which means the House passing the Senate bill and then the Senate and House enacting what would normally be a conference committee report via reconciliation (which, as Democrats kept explaining today, is hardly an unusual procedure for major legislation). If, as appears most likely, Republicans simply retreat to their “start over” demand, you can expect Obama to unilaterally endorse a few more of “their” ideas (perhaps a stronger interstate sales provision with stronger federal regulation, or something more tangible on medical malpractice reform than grants to states, or maybe one of Tom Coburn’s fraud prevention or chronic disease management concepts), and then let the public decide who’s been reasonable. Since it would have probably taken that long to work out differences among House and Senate Democrats anyway, nothing much will be lost by this kind of delay, and perhaps the summit will have somewhat disrupted the conservative demonization campaign over the entire legislation.
At the very least, opponents of health care reform can no longer credibly complain that they haven’t been given a fair hearing for their “ideas” and their point of view. And Democrats have been given, and have largely taken advantage of, a fresh opportunity to get back to the basic arguments for health care reform.


TDS Co-Editor William Galston: The Republican Sprint Away From Sanity

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic, where it appeared on February 21, 2010.
Because Congress failed to adopt a bipartisan deficit commission on its own, President Obama created one through executive order on Thursday. This comes as a disappointment to members of both parties who had endorsed the Conrad-Gregg bill: that proposal would have forced the Congress to vote on the commission’s recommendations, while the administration’s initiative does not.
The failure of Conrad-Gregg was surprising as well as troubling. By last December, the bill had garnered almost three dozen cosponsors across party lines and seemed to be gaining momentum. Although Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell had not formally signed on, he had made a number of favorable public statements. (Last May, for example, he proclaimed on the Senate floor that the Conrad-Gregg proposal was “the best way to address the crisis” and that it “would provide an expedited pathway for fixing these profound long-term challenges.”) And just days before the vote, President Obama endorsed the bill.
But it wasn’t enough. On January 26, the bill went down to defeat: 53 senators voted in favor, but it needed 60 to pass. Democrats assembled a solid majority of 37 votes, while Republicans could muster only 16. As has been widely reported, seven of the bill’s Republican cosponsors ended up voting against it; had they remained resolute, it would have passed. Reversing his earlier position, the minority leader also voted against the bill.
So what happened between December and January? Put simply, the forces within the conservative movement who oppose any and all tax increases mobilized against legislation that might have produced the long-sought grand bargain—significant entitlement reform coupled with additional revenues.
On December 9, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform sent a letter to Conrad and Gregg expressing his opposition to their proposal. “Despite the appearance of protection for taxpayers,” he wrote, “this commission would guarantee a net tax increase. … In order to make this commission acceptable from a taxpayer perspective, language must be included that explicitly removes tax increases and/or new taxes from commission consideration.” The substantial anti-tax coalition Norquist leads then swung into action with a steady drumbeat of op-eds and open letters to elected officials.
Even more significant was a lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal on December 29. After issuing a thinly veiled warning to Republicans who might go along with the plan and denouncing past bipartisan efforts–including the 1983 Greenspan Social Security commission and the 1990 Andrews Air Force Base summit–the Journal launched a preemptive strike against the kind of deal it feared a Conrad-Gregg commission would reach: “Democrats would agree to means-test entitlements, which means that middle and upper-middle class (i.e., GOP) voters would get less than they were promised in return for a lifetime of payroll taxes. … In return, Republicans would agree to an increase in the top income tax rate to as high as 49% and in addition to a new energy tax, a stock transaction tax, or value added tax. The Indians got a better deal for selling Manhattan.”
In short, the Journal opposed not only new taxes, but also progressivity in spending cuts. The only remaining alternatives to national bankruptcy (although the editorial writer wasn’t candid enough to say so) are draconian cuts imposed on those Americans who can least endure them.
In the few weeks following the editorial, the intensifying pressure proved too much for many Republicans. The seven Conrad-Gregg deserters included Robert Bennett, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and John McCain, all of whom are embroiled in tough primary campaigns, along with Sam Brownback, who’s running for governor of Kansas, and John Ensign, who’s already in more than enough trouble.
Also of interest is the roster of 16 Republicans who stood up to the pressure and held their ground. In addition to four senators who are retiring and have little to lose, the honor roll includes a dozen who will have to answer to the forces that Norquist and the Journal represent: Lamar Alexander, Saxby Chambliss, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, John Cornyn, Mike Enzi, Lindsey Graham, Johnny Isakson, Mike Johanns, Dick Lugar, David Vitter, and Roger Wicker. (Olympia Snowe is conspicuous by her absence, yet another in a lengthening list of disappointing performances.) Whatever their substantive views on fiscal policy, these are public servants who at least take the responsibility of governance seriously and understand that no single party—whether today’s Democratic majority or a possible future Republican majority—can discharge this responsibility on its own.
And that’s the issue: Will the Republican party remain beholden to the forces that Grover Norquist and The Wall Street Journal represent? Does the party just want to mobilize popular grievances in the effort to regain power, or is it willing to help govern our country and address its mounting problems? Beyond undermining campaign finance legislation, Mitch McConnell is interested in only one thing—winning elections—an outlook apparently shared by two-thirds of his colleagues. The question is whether the minority of the minority party can ever get together with the majority of the majority to find real solutions—and then level with the people about what these solutions will mean. The alternative to a new governing coalition is the intensification both of our problems and of public contempt for its elected representatives.


TDS Co-Editor Stan Greenberg: Avoiding Another 1994

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on February 18, 2010.
When political observers start comparing Republican prospects in 2010 to those of 1994, they really ought to spend more time consulting people who were, you know, sort of there in 1994. TDS Co-Editor Stan Greenberg certainly was, and in a new piece for The New Republic, he provides some important advice on how Democrats can avoid a repeat performance later this year.
Greenberg sees a lot of the same warning signs: a president struggling to get his agenda enacted; Democratic divisions and discouragement; Republican intransigence and excitement. But he also notes there was a lot more going on in 1994 than Clinton’s struggles on the health reform front, the subject of so many 1994-2010 comparisons:

At about this stage in the electoral cycle, in midwinter, we were feeling pretty satisfied with ourselves. The State of the Union address on January 25 hailed the previous year’s passage of the Clinton economic plan, nafta, and the Brady Bill. Health care reform was still supported by half the country. Clinton’s approval rating stood at 58 percent.
Then, it all went tragically and almost comically downhill. The State of the Union glow was blotted out by a media frenzy when a special prosecutor subpoenaed White House officials to testify before a grand jury on the Whitewater land deal–and the president was forced to defend his wife’s honor at a prime time press conference. The president’s job approval plummeted eight points–and support for health care dropped ten. Paula Jones kicked off May with her sexual harassment suit. And, by the June publication of Bob Woodward’s The Agenda–and his characterization of the Clinton White House in a word, “chaos”–the president’s approval had fallen to 45 percent.

Moreover, the health reform debacle was not the abiding reminder of Democratic disarray going into the 1994 elections: it was the omnibus crime bill.

With the Congressional Black Caucus rebelling against the bill’s death-penalty provisions and the conservative Democrats standing against its assault-weapons ban, the popular measure was defeated just before the August recess–only three months before the election. Reporters battled to capture their own astonishment. USA Today called it a “shocking” loss that “plunged” the White House to what could be “its worst political defeat.” In a hoarse voice, the president gathered reporters and upbraided his congressional opponents and vowed to “fight and fight and fight until we win.” After a frantic ten days of campaigning against Congress, followed by high-wire negotiations, he finally won the vote on a Sunday night.
Clinton’s approval fell to 39 percent after this fiasco–which voters interpreted as further evidence of Democratic incompetence and fractiousness. Congress’s approval plunged, and voters warmed to the Republicans, who had moved to about a four-point advantage in party sentiment.

That points up the single largest difference between 1994 and present circumstances, says Greenberg, is that Democratic weakness in the former year led directly to Republican strength. It’s not so clear that’s happening today:

Unlike the party of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, which gained standing with each battle with Bill Clinton, today’s Republican Party looks like a cult. During the 2008 campaign, the Republican Party fell to its lowest level in the history of our thermometers measuring the party’s popularity, and it has not improved its standing since Election Day. The Republicans’ widely held conviction that Obama has a hidden “socialist” agenda, and the ascendancy of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck as ideological spokespeople, indelibly defines the party. At the same time, Tea Party candidates are contesting mainstream Republicans in primaries–dividing their base.

This provides a potential opening for Democrats if they get their act together and congressional Democrats behave responsibly. Even in 1994, says Greenberg, he urged the White House to attack the GOP’s Contract With America as promising a return to unpopular Reagan policies. But Clinton, who was by then listening closely to Dick Morris, refused to do so. It doesn’t have to be that way in 2010:

Put aside the rancor and gridlock and show a very different face. Take Paul Krugman’s advice and quickly pass a version of the Senate health care bill. That will raise presidential and congressional approval ratings, just as Clinton bucked up Democrats by passing nafta and tax increases for deficit reduction–neither of which were popular at the time.
They must put the Republicans on the defensive. Make them an offer they can’t refuse on bipartisan legislation they dare not oppose–jobs measures that help small businesses and energy-independence legislation. Then, force Republicans to cast tough and defining votes–on Wall Street bonuses and bailouts and limiting corporate spending on elections….
Most importantly, Democrats must explain this election’s stakes and frame the choice that voters face. This is something we failed to get right in 1994. In the summer before the election, we began to see some power in a populist narrative–“[A] president trying to make a better life for ordinary people against Republicans who favor the wealthy and hurt the middle class.” But we could not define this choice in a way that similarly helped congressional Democrats.

There’s a lot more time in 2010 for Democrats to recover from their troubles, with the important exception that they need at least a little help from economic indicators. Democrats really didn’t know what hit them in 1994. This time around, says Greenberg:

Democrats have already lived through their legislative nightmare. We have already had the benefit of Massachusetts to concentrate the mind. And, just as valuable, we have the lessons of history to guide our course.


Obama’s Two-Front Offensive on Health Reform

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on February 15, 2010.
It’s been obvious for a while that in forcing congressional Republicans to attend a presidential summit on health care reform on February 25, the president is trying to place them on the horns of a dilemma: they must either admit they don’t have their own “plan,” or must advance a “plan” that could be very unpopular (viz. vouchering Medicare). More generally, Obama is trying to create a broader political context in which Americans compare the agendas of the two parties, instead of treating the November elections as an up-or-down referendum on the administration’s policies or, worse yet, on feelings about the political and economic condition of the country. The president is also seeking the deepen the growing sentiment that he’s been a lot more “bipartisan” than the opposition.
But it’s also likely that Obama is using the summit to push congressional Democrats to get their own act together before it’s too late. The formal announcement of the summit indicates that the White House will in advance post on the internet a plan that meets the administration’s criteria for reform. Here’s how Jonathan Cohn analyzes the implications of that statement:

That passage seems to suggest one of the following is true:
1) House and Senate leadership have nearly finished negotiating a new compromise version of their legislation. The text the administration plans to post will reflect that compromise.
2) House and Senate leadership are still struggling to come to an agreement, if not over what to pass then in what sequence to pass it. The administration hopes this promise will force them to wrap things up.

In other words, Obama could be engaging in a two-front offensive: forcing action by Democrats to complete or revive their own health reform negotiations, on pain of looking like fools on February 25, while compelling Republicans to choose the path of open obstruction or of perilous conservative ideology.
With the summit being just ten days away, the White House isn’t affording either party a whole lot of time to make these fateful choices. But one thing seems to be sure: by February 25, there will finally be a plan on the table that merits the much-abused term “ObamaCare.”


G.O.P = Gridlock, Obstruction & Paralysis

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on February 11, 2010.
Thanks to the recent Supremes Citizens United decision, Dems can expect record-level spending on attack ads targeting Democratic policy from GOP supporters. The worst response would be to crouch down in a defensive posture and not initiate an aggressive counter-offensive.
For a hint of how nasty GOP attacks on Dems are going to be, read the recent editorial, “The Politics of Fear” in The New York Times supporting the Obama Administration’s adherence to the principle of civilian trials for most accused terrorists. The editorial notes that “Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, suggested — without any evidence — that vital intelligence was lost by that approach.” The objective here is to ‘slime’ Democrats as soft on national security — and Collins is one of the least conservative Republicans. Of course Collins and other Republicans said not a peep when the Bush Administration prosecuted over 300 accused terrorists in federal courts. This is just a preview of slimes to come.
Dems should fight back more aggressively on all fronts, with an emphasis on soundbite-sized attack memes that call out Republican candidates where they are vulnerable, and their party as a whole when the critique fits.
The headline for this post is one example. It fits nicely on a bumper sticker, picket sign or in a 10-second TV ad, and it does accurately describe GOP’ “leadership,” particularly during the last year. It’s a good political argument-starter because it puts the adversary on the defensive immediately. The Republicans have no bite-size slogan that so accurately describes what some voters may believe to be the worst impulses of the Democrats. It is not an ad hominem attack in that it criticizes organizational policy, not personalities, so no demerits for being mean-spirited.
The “GOP = Gridlock, Obstruction and Paralysis” meme is just one of many possible hard-hitting attacks Dems could launch in the months ahead. The Republicans have formidable advantages in attack messaging, including discipline, FoxTV, right-wing radio and money. But they also have a serious vulnerability — weak policy. Thus far they have been able to steer media coverage away from policy.
Dems need a strategy to better educate undecided voters about policy differences. But it’s more important to take the offensive and stop allowing them to monopolize media coverage of policy debates with fear-mongering cliches about Democratic policy being ‘socialistic’ or leading America to economic armageddon. Through sheer repetition in the media, Republican cliche-memes have taken root, even with some voters who, when asked, say they support the Democratic policies being slimed.
Democrats have to attack and hit a lot harder in the months ahead to correct the imbalance. One excellent example of how it’s done in the media can be found in Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC report last night on the utterly shameless Republican hypocrites who trashed the Obama stimulus package and voted against it, but who now are so eager to pose for pictures with “big goofy fake stimulus checks,” as Maddow terms them — checks that are now being spent in their districts. If Democratic opponents of these Republicans don’t use these images and nail them with ‘windmill’ ads and the like, they will be guilty of political negligence. Maddow’s interview with The Nation‘s Washington editor Chris Hayes in the segment also features an interesting discussion of requirements for hard-hitting political attacks.
At TPM, Christina Bellantoni reports on another example of an effective hard-hitting Democratic attack strategy, in this instance the DSCC compelling four Republican Senate candidates to take a stand on Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Social Security and slash Medicare benefits to create a voucher system. The DSCC publicity cites the jobs and economic impact of the Ryan scheme in each of the four states. Another good example of fierce attack strategy. Force them to diss long-standing wingnut policy or alienate senior voters in their state. Dems need more of the same.


Playing Chicken

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on February 9, 2010.
President Obama has now thrown down the gauntlet to Republicans to demonstrate that their alleged willingness to work with him on big national challenges is not just a pose.
On one, very high-profile track, Obama has invited congressional Republicans to participate in a public forum on health care reform. After some talk among GOPers of insisting on preconditions like abandonment of the current House and Senate bills, and of any intention of using reconciliation to enact health reform measures in the Senate, it now looks like Republicans will show up. That’s probably in part because a new ABC-Washington Post poll shows Americans blaming the GOP much more than the president for intransigence.
Despite Democratic fears that Obama is going to screw up the highly fragile prospects for final congressional action on health care reform, all he’s publicly said in the way of concessions to the GOP is that he’s willing to take action on medical malpractice insurance reforms if Republicans are willing to get out of opposition to serious action to cover the uninsured. That’s probably not a deal Republicans will seriously consider.
Meanwhile, on another front, the White House is pushing Republicans to make a deal on jobs legislation.
This is a really tricky proposition for Republicans. They’ve spent months attacking any jobs bill as a “second stimulus” bill, which in their vocabulary is a deadly insult. And they’ve certainly boxed themselves into a proposition that any bill significantly increasing budget deficits is a no-go.
But on the other hand, the administration has made it clear that targeted tax cuts for businesses creating new jobs would be the centerpiece of a jobs bill, and it will be difficult for Republicans to reject that in the current environment. At the same time, though, GOPers have consistently argued that across-the-board, not targeted, tax cuts, is what they demand, even though across-the-board cuts benefit big corporations and/or wealthy individuals, and tend to cost a whole lot.
It’s pretty clear the White House is playing chicken with the GOP: offering bipartisan cooperation, but in a way that either exposes Republican self-contradictions and hypocrisy, or makes them finally cooperate on more-or-less his terms. This may represent a revival and intensification by Obama of his controversial “grassroots bipartisanship” strategy, just when most observers in both parties thought it was dead.
The stakes in this game of chicken are very, very big.


Defanging America’s Hard Right

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on February 5, 2010.
Sara Robinson’s post, “State of the Union: A Status Report on the Far Right ” at the Blog for Our Future helps to put the big Tea Party confab in interesting perspective. After collecting and crunching all of the data, Robinson called up Chip Berlet, one of the leading authorities on America’s hard right, and asked the money question, “…How many far-right wingers are there in the United States?” Berlet responded:

Ten percent of the population….It’s been the same number for most of our history, and it doesn’t change much.

Robinson adds, “How many really hardcore conservatives are we dealing with here?” It’s thirty million people, give or take.”
Many progressives might find the ten percent figure encouragingly low, although it’s scant comfort that thirty million paranoid, sometimes violence-prone reactionaries are out there. Robinson paraphrases Berlet, however, in cautioning that there is another group on the far right, “who are conservative by temperament, but don’t live full-time in that same overwrought, hyper-vigilant, paranoid space that the ultra-right wing authoritarian 10 percent do.” This group is capable of a hard right turn in times of economic and /or social stress, like, well now.
This group is a key base element of the Tea Party movement, according to Robinson and Berlet, and is is “actively decoupling itself from the center-right position of the GOP’s mainstream, and forming stronger alliances with the ultra-right 10-percenters—creating a super-right-wing faction that includes upwards of 25-30 percent of the country.”
It’s a scary prospect, almost a third of the electorate hardening their political views in a rightward direction, including flirtations with racism and anti-semitism, according to Robinson. She continues:

And it’s the combination of the two that’s worrisome. On their own, the far-right wingnuts can’t elect a dogcatcher (and even trying to do that much would no doubt cause a schism that would wind out for years in court. It’s just how they are.) But controlling 25 to 30 percent of the American electorate — while not enough to take over the country in straight numeric terms — is enough for the combined group to win limited but serious victories here and there. And, of course, their power is further magnified by the vagaries of the electoral college and the way we choose senators. In real terms, the system is set up so that this 30 percent can wield the political clout of 50 percent. That’s where we are now — and it’s one reason we’re running into so much gridlock in trying to govern the country.

Robinson notes that Fox News feeds this toxic mix at a time when independent daily newspapers are shrinking and disappearing. She has some harsh words for Democratic leadership:

Another driver is the Democrats’ continued fecklessness in clearly communicating the coherent moral values at the heart of the progressive worldview; and their extreme reluctance to support any kind of progressive populist agenda. Everybody knows now that there’s a rising populist tide in America. Average Americans, left and right, are uniting behind an implacable fury at the big banks — and at Congress and Obama, who seem determined to enable criminal behavior rather than make any serious attempt to control it.
You don’t need me to tell you that the tide is rising. We’re seeing the signs of political climate change all around us. But most of the Village still regards any kind of populism as a dangerous (and avoidable) impulse. “Responsible” consultants are cautioning Democrats not to get out front of that wave and ride it. In 20 years, historians will record this as a mistake on the same magnitude as the one they made in 1972 when they started backing away from the unions…

Robinson sees a remedy, but one that requires new focus and commitment from progressive Democrats:

Any progressive strategy to weaken the right should begin by finding a way to peel the second slice back off from the ultra-right, and bring it back toward the center. That alliance is the keystone on which the entire strength of the conservative movement is resting right now; pull that stone, and the rest of it crumbles. Reviving a vital progressive populism is the best wedge and sledge we’ve got right now…

I’m sure Robinson is right that such a wedge strategy could be efffective. Theresa Poulos has a post, “Five Ways It Could Fail” at the National Journal Online, which could help flesh out the specifics of an effective wedge strategy. Poulos’s post is less an article than a collection of five interesting video clips highlighting weaknesses in the Tea Party movement. The videos address: political infighting in the Tea Party Movement; exploiting the political inexperience of Tea Party participants; the difficulty of GOP attempts to absorb the movement, which includes a Independents; social issue schisms; and the possibility of an improving economy.
The Republicans hope to mimimize the internal disagreements within the Tea Party Movement and portray it as a monolithic anti-Obama/Democrat juggernaut. If we fail to challenge this meme, the blame will be ours.


TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Freedom Agenda

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is crossposted from The New Republic, where it was published on February 4, 2010.
Our political debates, our public discourse—on current economic and domestic issues—too often bear little or no relation to the actual problems the United States faces.
What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need is not labels and clichés but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.
The national interest lies in high employment and steady expansion of output, in stable prices and a strong dollar. The declaration of such an objective is easy; their attainment in an intricate and interdependent economy and world is a little more difficult. To attain them, we require not some automatic response but hard thought

–John F. Kennedy, Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11, 1962
We deliberate, not about ends, but about means.
–Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics III. iii
Harvey Mansfield, the well-known conservative professor of political philosophy (and—full disclosure—a longtime friend) has penned a serious and civil critique of what he takes to be the animating impulse of the Obama administration. The nub of his argument is that Obama is a “progressive” whose purported non- (or post-) partisanship is designed to put certain issues “beyond political dispute” so that arguments are about means, not ends. And once the argument is about means, the door is opened wide to “rational administration” and the rule of experts.
Take health care. Mansfield interprets Obama’s statement that “I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last” as an effort to take the issue out of politics once and for all—to decide, by side-stepping, the fundamental issue of principle. In his view, that issue is: “Should the government take over health care or should it be left to the private sphere?” The question precedes, and trumps, the myriad technical issues that transform the reform impulse into impenetrable, trust-destroying 2,000-page bills. By pursuing reform without dwelling on that question, he writes, Obama’s worldview “wants to put an end to politics. It considers its measures to be progressive, and progress to be irreversible.” The problem with progress, so understood, is that it is at war with political liberty, rightly understood. One cannot seek to place matters of principle beyond politics without wanting “an imposed political solution.” Some human beings—and by implication, political parties—love progress more than they love liberty; others reverse the hierarchy. Mansfield stands with the party of liberty, the republican principle, against the party of progress, the party of rational administration, which is “more suited to monarchy than to republics.”
Where to begin? Mansfield offers an elaborate argument in defense of the proposition that Obamacare represents a government takeover. I disagree and could offer an equally elaborate rebuttal. I could argue, as well, that Obama’s appeal to transcend the division between red and blue America reflects not a desire to end partisan argument, but rather most Americans’ disgust with the contemporary hyper-partisanship that thwarts effective governance and allows problems to fester indefinitely. These are hardly trivial matters. But because they would divert us from the questions Mansfield raises, I shall pursue them no farther.
As Mansfield knows very well, he does Democrats no favor by framing current disputes as conflicts between progress and liberty. In American politics, the defenders of liberty always occupy the rhetorical high ground. If there really were a contradiction between progress and liberty, progress would surely lose—and so would the party of progress. So there are two questions. First, is there such a contradiction? And second, if there isn’t—if what we really have is a dispute between two competing understandings of liberty—which should we prefer?
I can dispose of the first question quickly: There is no inherent contradiction between progress and liberty. Simply put, removing issues from the political agenda—placing them beyond dispute—often promotes liberty. After political contestation and a bloody war, we decided that slavery was impermissible, and we reordered our laws and institutions accordingly. A century later, we made a parallel decision about racial discrimination, with similar consequences.
I suppose we could view these questions as permanently open to debate. But we don’t, and rightly so. In that sense, there is a “progressive” component to our political history: While some questions remain open, others don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Settling questions neither ends politics nor denies liberty.
Mansfield might reply that, while some disputes raise such fundamental issues, most don’t, and it disserves political liberty to place the latter beyond the bounds of ordinary political contestation. Fair enough. So what is Obama actually saying—about health care, for example?
As I understand the president’s argument, it goes something like this: Our current health care system’s costs are rising at an unsustainable rate, threatening businesses, households, and our public finances. At the same time, nearly 50 million people go without health insurance—some by choice, to be sure, but most out of necessity. The only way to deal with all these problems effectively is to get nearly everyone into the insurance system, with a mix of subsidies and mandates, while creating a more competitive market among insurance plans. He may be right about this, or he may be wrong. But the key point for my purposes is that he is putting forth his plan as the means to an ensemble of ends—universal insurance coverage in a system that reduces the rate of cost increases—that he takes to be both desirable and essential to the long-term common good.
This is a political argument, pure and simple. The president never intended to side-step politics, and he certainly did not succeed in doing so. He hoped that his articulation of the good to be achieved through his plan would outweigh the objections—such as cost and complexity—that he knew would be arrayed against it.
There are several ways to disagree with the president’s proposal. One is to say that while his ends are defensible, his means are defective. This is the line that Representative Paul Ryan takes, as the president has acknowledged. But note that this debate lies squarely within the arena of deliberation as Aristotle defines it. Nothing apolitical or liberty-denying about that–unless deliberation itself suffers from these defects, which would be an odd contention.
Another way of disagreeing with the president is to say that his ends are less important than he thinks—otherwise put, that we can better serve the public interest by giving priority to competing ends. In this vein, many Republicans contend that because even people without insurance get care when they need it, through emergency rooms or charitable organizations, it is unnecessary to use either legal coercion or public funds to universalize insurance coverage. And many fiscal hawks argue that the mechanisms the president uses to fund his proposal—tax increases and Medicare cuts—should be used instead to reduce the long-term federal budget deficit, which is projected to soar unsustainably. Again, a classic political debate, of the sort Aristotle analyzed in the Rhetoric, and the president has done nothing to short-circuit it.
Mansfield gives short shrift to both these sorts of disagreements, focusing instead on a third, which is (to repeat) whether government or the private sphere should take the lead. He describes this as a question of “principle.” Is it? No doubt this question frames a major disagreement between the two political parties, and among Americans. And, as I’ve argued repeatedly, public mistrust of government has done more than anything else to weaken the president’s health reform effort.
The deeper question concerns not public sentiment, but, rather, the basis on which government may legitimately act under the Constitution. In 1933, FDR argued that that only the powers of government could be adequate to the exigencies of the moment. If so, he said, it could not be the case that our Constitution had disabled us from meeting a grave threat to the general welfare, and potentially to constitutional government itself. He won that argument: We live today in the legacy of his victory, and (I say this at the risk of sounding “progressive”), we’re not going back.
The alternative formulation of the dispute–Mansfield’s, I think–is that the issue isn’t the relation of means and ends, but rather the right of government to act in certain ways. If government doesn’t have the right, then considerations of efficacy are irrelevant. Even if government could bring about a good result by acting ultra vires, doing so would be an invasion of liberty, which is the most fundamental good. Rather than invade liberty, we should be prepared to live with the consequences of government forbearance. (I note for the record that if Abraham Lincoln had accepted this view, we’d probably be presenting passports at the Virginia/Maryland border.)
This brings me to the second question: If the issue is liberty, what is the nature of liberty, rightly understood? And does the Obama health care plan invade liberty, so understood?
To begin, experience gives us no reason to conclude that government is the only, or always the gravest, threat to freedom; clerical institutions and concentrations of unchecked economic power have often vied for that dubious honor. The unchecked market, moreover, regularly produces social outcomes at odds with the moral conditions of a free society. Capitalism does not reliably produce, or reward, the good character a free society needs: Perceptive observers from Charles Dickens to Tom Wolfe have given us ample evidence to the contrary. And, while it may be that long-term dependence on government saps the spirit of self-reliance that liberty requires, there are other forms of dependence—economic, social, and even familial—that often damage character in much the same way.
At the heart of the conservative misunderstanding of liberty is the presumption that government and individual freedom are fundamentally at odds. At the heart of any liberal understanding of freedom is the proposition that public power can advance freedom as well as undermine it.


Obama Doubles Down

This item by Ed Kilgore was cross-posted from ProgressiveFix. It was originally published on January 28, 2010.
Many conservatives hoped last night’s State of the Union Address would represent something of a white flag from President Obama. Some progressives hoped for a fiery, “populist” attack on malefactors of great wealth. Others yearned for rhetorical enchantment, a speech that would redefine messy contemporary debates according to some previously unarticulated transcendent logic.
The president did none of those things. He essentially doubled down on the policy course he had already charted, made a serious effort to re-connect it to the original themes of his presidential campaign, and sought to brush back his critics a bit. In purely political terms, the speech seemed designed to halt the panic and infighting in Democratic ranks, kick some sand in the faces of increasingly smug and scornful Republicans, and obtain a fresh hearing from the public for decisions he made at the beginning of last year if not earlier. It was, as virtually every one I spoke to last night spontaneously observed, a very “Clintonian” effort, and not just because it was long and comprehensive. It strongly resembled a couple of those late 1990s Clinton SOTUs organized on the theme of “progress not partisanship,” loaded with data points supporting the sheer reasonableness of the administration agenda and the pettiness of (unnamed) conservative foes.
Substantively, the speech broke little new ground. But while such “concessions” to “conservative ideas” as highlighting business tax cuts in the jobs bill, or making nuclear energy development part of a “clean energy” strategy, were decided on some time ago, they were probably news to many non-beltway listeners.
All in all, Obama used the SOTU as a “teachable moment” to refresh some old but important arguments. And he did that well: his reminder of Bush’s responsibility for most of the budget problems facing the country was deftly done, in the context of accepting responsibility for what’s happened fiscally on his own watch. He rearticulated once again the economic rationale for his health care and climate change initiatives, a connection that was reinforced by the subordinate placement of these subjects in the speech. And he conducted something of a mini-tutorial on the budget, and cleared up most of the misunderstandings created by his staff’s use of the word “freeze” to describe a spending cap.
Perhaps the most surprising thing in the speech was his frontal attack on the five Supreme Court justices sitting a few yards from his podium, about the possible impact of last week’s Citizens United decision liberating corporate political spending. I only wish he could have amplified this section by quoting from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s many hymns of praise for this disturbing opinion as a giant blow for free speech.
And that gets to my only real criticism of this well-planned SOTU: a lot of it was in code. A number of the digs at Republicans were clear to people who watch Washington closely, but not so much to people who don’t. For example, the president was clearly taunting congressional Republicans when he said he’d be glad to consider any ideas they had that met his list of criteria for health care reform. To someone watching who didn’t know how ridiculous contemporary conservative “thinking” on health care has become, this may have sounded less like a criticism than like a decision to reopen the whole issue to many more months of wrangling in Congress, even as he tried to urge congressional Democrats to get the job done and not “run for the hills.”
Yes, the president has to walk a fine line in dealing with public and media perceptions that both parties are equally responsible for “partisanship” and gridlock. But at some point between now and November, he needs to better connect the dots, and explain exactly whose “partisanship” is an obstacle to “progress.”
UPDATE: Nate Silver did an analysis of “buzzwords” in Obama’s speech, comparing it to those of previous presidents at similar junctures in their administrations. Unsurprisingly, Obama’s most resembled those of Bill Clinton.