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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: WWRD: What Would Reagan Do?

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic. It was published on January 27, 2010.
“The problems we inherited were far worse than most inside and out of government had expected; the recession was deeper that most inside and out of government had predicted. Curing these problems has taken more time and a higher toll than any of us wanted. Unemployment is far too high. Projected federal spending—if government refuses to tighten its own belt—will also be far too high and could weaken and shorten the economic recovery now underway.
“We’re witnessing an upsurge of productivity and impressive evidence that American industry will once again become competitive in markets at home and abroad, ensuring more jobs and better incomes for the nation’s work force. But our confidence must also be tempered by realism and patience. Quick fixes and artificial stimulants repeatedly applied over decades are what brought us the … disorders that we’ve now paid such a heavy price to cure.
“The permanent recovery in employment, production, and investment we seek won’t come in a sharp, short spurt. It’ll build carefully and steadily in the months and years ahead. In the meantime, the challenge of government is to identify the things that we can do now to ease the massive economic transition for the American people.”
A sneak preview of Barack Obama’s forthcoming State of the Union address? Nope. It’s part of the address Ronald Reagan delivered in January 1983, when unemployment stood at 10.8 percent. If today’s Republicans heard these very words coming out of Obama’s mouth, would they applaud him or denounce him? And what if the president were to recommend a comprehensive deficit reduction strategy that included a standby tax increase, contingent on spending cuts? That’s what Reagan, who had already signed a significant tax increase in August 1982, proposed in his address. Was he a RINO?
Yes, Obama needs to focus and clarify his agenda. But Republicans have a responsibility as well—to reconsider their anti-tax theology, to reengage with the governance process, to address the country’s real problems, not just the politics of those problems. If they don’t, they may make some tactical gains this November, but they won’t be selling any durable goods the American people will want to buy. Right now the Republicans are thinking too much about 1994 and not nearly enough about 1996.

Supremes Blow Up Corporate Spending Ban

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on January 21, 2009.
It was not entirely unexpected, but is still dramatic and depressing news: in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned a century-old ban on direct corporate political spending, potentially opening a very large spigot of special-interest money into our airwaves just in time for the 2010 elections.
The decision did not immediately affect federal limitations on contributions to candidates, or “soft money” contributions to party committees. But it did strike down the ancient prohibition of direct corporate sponsorship of “issue ads.” The decision also kills state-level corporate political spending bans.
It will take awhile to fully digest the impact of this decision, which is the most tangible consequence yet of George W. Bush’s Court appointments (Roberts and Alito joined the majority). And it’s not an unambiguous victory for corporations, since labor unions and progressive non-profit corporations are also “liberated” by the ruling.
But this does represent one of the hard-core Right’s long-term agenda items, and obviously strengthens the Court’s “money equals speech” formulation of First Amendment rights, which has long frustrated campaign reform advocates and puzzled observers from other countries. It also may feed the trend among reformers to focus on public financing of campaigns as an alternative to private political money, instead of increasingly futile efforts to regulate private political money.
All in all, though, the Supremes made sure this will go down as an especially bad week in progressive politics.

Brown’s Inroads with Workers Key in Massachusetts

This item by J.P. Green was published on January 20, 2009.
In her Wall St. Journal article, “Union Households Gave Boost to GOP’s Brown,” Melanie Trottman reports on a new Hart Research Poll:

A poll conducted on behalf of the AFL-CIO found that 49% of Massachusetts union households supported Mr. Brown in Tuesday’s voting, while 46% supported Democrat Martha Coakley…The poll showed Ms. Coakley drew more support among voters with a college education, by a five-point margin, while she lost by a 20-point margin among voters without a college degree.

Tula Connell puts it this way in her FiredogLake post, “The Working Class Has Spoken. Will Democrats Listen?” at the AFL-CIO Now Blog:

The poll, conducted by Hart Research Associates among 810 voters for the AFL-CIO on the night of the election, also found that although voters without a college degree favored Barack Obama by 21 percentage points in the 2008 election, Democratic candidate Martha Coakley lost that same group by a 20-point margin.

The Uneasy Marriage Between Tea Partiers and the GOP

This item by Ed Kilgore is cross-posted from The New Republic, and was originally published on January 14, 2009.
Recent polls show their movement is thought of more favorably by Americans than either the Democratic or Republican Parties. Political independents are said to be attracted more each day. Progressive dissenters against the “pro-corporate” policies of the Obama administration pine for alliances with them.
But at the same time, Republican politicians constantly ape their rhetoric and seek to deploy them against their Democratic, and sometimes intraparty, enemies.
So the question persists: Is the Tea Party Movement an independent “third force” in American politics? Or is it essentially a right-wing faction aimed at the conquest of the Republican Party?
There are no snap answers to these questions. Tea Party activists unsurprisingly stress their independence from both parties, and their hostility towards the “Republican establishment.” The grassroots and citizen-based nature of the movement is constantly promoted as a bedrock principle. And even when tea-partiers operate in the conventional electoral setting of Republican primaries, their candidates are billed as insurgents, not as intraparty warriors.
But the fact remains that these candidates are almost invariably self-identified Republicans, campaigning on traditional conservative Republican themes, and cooperating with Republican politicians tactically and strategically on major issues. There is zero visible outreach to Democrats of any stripe. And to the extent there is a consensus Tea Party ideology, it is indistinguishable in any significant way from the longstanding agenda of the right wing of the GOP—particular the agenda of the most recent past, when conservatives have sought conspicuously to disassociate themselves from the record of the Bush administration.
Republican politicians are already very active in the movement itself. Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who appears to have a better than even chance of toppling popular Republican governor Charlie Crist in a Senate primary this year, is a major figure in both the Tea Party Movement and more traditional conservative GOP circles. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, generally known as the most conservative Republican U.S. senator, has said: “We need to stop looking at the tea parties as separate from the Republican Party.” (For a look at the rise of Tea Partiers in the House, read Lydia DePillis’s excellent piece.)
What makes this sort of talk especially relevant politically is that it serves a very deep psychological need among contemporary conservative Republicans. They’ve largely succeeded in subduing those few voices in the GOP urging a old-fashioned “big tent” party that’s tolerant of ideological moderates. Now the Tea Party phenomenon offers conservative Republicans a talking point they badly need: evidence that there is a previously hidden conservative majority in the country that only a more sharply consistent conservative message can reach. In other words, electoral gold is to be found on the right, not in the center, of the ideological spectrum. But aside from a shared antipathy towards Barack Obama, “liberals,” taxes, and various other bugaboos, sealing the deal between a “reformed” GOP and Tea Party activists is a complicated proposition.
This much has been made clear by the calling of a National Tea Party Convention in Nashville next month, by a for-profit group called Tea Party Nation. Aside from the questionable right of anyone in particular to “convene” this highly decentralized movement, a $549 registration fee has raised hackles in many circles, and it’s not clear how legitimate the Nashville gathering—denounced this week by the highly influential RedState founder Erick Erickson as “scammy”—will turn out to be.
But interestingly enough, no one seems to be complaining about the speakers list put together for the National Tea Party Convention. The big keynote speaker is Sarah Palin; other featured speakers include Republican House members Michelle Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn (the latter a member of the House GOP leadership). Aside from illustrating an unusual and admirable commitment to gender equity in speaking gigs, this lineup does not exactly show uneasiness about alliances with Republican pols.
The Nashville linup also would appear to rebut another commonly held argument that the Tea Party Movement’s independence is guaranteed by its fundamentally libertarian character, so incompatible with the GOP’s heavy reliance on cultural conservatives and foreign-policy neocons. Palin is, of course, the maximum heroine of cultural conservatives. Bachmann is famous for questioning the patriotism of any and all Democrats. Beyond that, Tea Party Convention panelists include the Christian Right warhorse Rick Scarborough of Vision America (notable, among other things, for his advocacy of global conflict with Muslims) and Judge Roy Moore, the famous “Ten Commandments Judge” who’s a favorite of theocrats everywhere. No genuine libertarian would embrace this crew.
Indeed, for all the talk about the Tea Party Movement as a potential “third force” in American politics, it’s just as easy to argue that it’s mainly composed of right-wing Republican activists who have been radicalized by the political and economic events of the last couple of years, and particularly by the election of Barack Obama.
The usefulness of the Tea Party Movement in a full right-wing takeover of the Republican Party is obvious. What’s less obvious is why a close relationship with Republican politicians serves the purposes of truly independent citizen-activists disgusted by the political status quo. Republicans have swallowed a lot of Tea Party rhetoric, but they may be in the process of swallowing up the Tea Party Movement.

Clintonomics, Bushonomics, and the Politics of Economic Decline

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on January 7, 2009.
One of the simmering intraprogressive arguments that’s been going on during the last decade involves the responsibiity, if any, borne by the Clinton administration for the economic conditions of the Bush Era.
The standard Democratic take has been that during the Clinton years the country was putting into place the building blocks for long-term growth, fiscal solvency, and real across-the-board income gains. The Bush administration systematically demolished these building blocks and returned to the ecomomic policies of the 1980s, and produced 1980s-style booms and busts, financial panics, big federal budget deficits, and growing inequality.
But alongside this narrative has been a persistent “minority report” arguing that Clintonomics differed in degree rather than in kind with Republican economic policies, and that the tech stock bust at the end of the 90s exposed the pro-corporate illusions of Clinton’s New Democrats and paved the way for the dangerously laissez-faire policies of the Bush administration. This take was especially popular among netroots activists convinced that both parties, or at least their “D.C. Establishments,” had largely been captured by corporate influences.
The revisionist argument has now gained new momentum among some progressives who are unhappy with the Obama administration’s economic policies, which they blame in no small part on the influence of Clinton administration economic advisors back in power in Washington.
This week the inveterate controversialist Michael Lind has published at Salon the most sweeping restatement yet of the hypothesis that today’s economic troubles were largely created by Clintonomics.
Indeed, Lind takes shots not only at the alleged results of Clintonomics, but at the whole notion beloved of New Democrats that a knowledge-based New Economy had emerged in which technology, education and skills had become prized national assets and the key to erasing income inequality:

Here’s what the New Democrats of the DLC and PPI who chattered enthusiastically about the “creative class” of “knowledge workers” in the “new economy” failed to understand: The main jump in income inequality took place in the 1970s and the 1980s, before the alleged new economy created by the tech revolution.
The relative decline of wages at the bottom had little or nothing to do with technology or the global economy and everything to do with the weakening of the bargaining power of American workers vis-à-vis their employers thanks to declining unionization, an eroding minimum wage and the flooding of the low-end labor market by unskilled immigrants from Latin America, both legal and illegal.
Having misdiagnosed the problem, New Democrats, including Clinton and Obama, have consistently prescribed the wrong medicine: sending more Americans to college. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most of the occupations with the greatest number of openings in the foreseeable future require only a high school education or an associate’s degree, not a four-year B.A.
The most effective way to raise wages at the bottom would be to increase the bargaining power of workers, by unionizing the service sector and by tightening the labor market through restricting unskilled immigration. That would probably spur genuine productivity growth over time as employers substituted technology for more expensive labor.

Lind goes on to suggest that the Clintonians were blind to the damaging effects of the accumulation of paper wealth by tech entrepreneurs as well as Wall Street tycoons, and continued to promote “neoliberal” policies that ignored the real problems and perpetuated them–and now, as Obama advisors, they are making the same mistakes.
Since the Progressive Policy Institute was singled out by Lind as among the villains of Clintonomics, it’s not surprising that PPI president Will Marshall has responded at some length at Salon:

If you lived through the Clinton years, you might recall them as flush times. Some basic facts: The economy grew briskly, creating 18 million new jobs; rapid innovation, especially in information technology and online commerce, bred new businesses and helped to raise productivity in old ones; unemployment stayed low despite a steady influx of immigrants and women coming off welfare rolls; markets rose as the percentage of Americans owning stock jumped 50 percent; homeownership reached a record high (nearly 70 percent); the poverty rate shrank significantly; and the United States ran budget surpluses for the first time in three decades.
Not bad, right? Well, as reimagined by Lind, the 1990s were another “lost decade,” just like the Bush years, with their successive dot.com and housing bubbles, regressive tax breaks, zooming federal deficits and, of course, the grand finale: the near-meltdown of U.S. financial markets in the fall of 2008 along with the worst recession since 1982. If the comparison seems, well, strained, no matter. Lind’s real target is what he calls the myth of the “New Economy,” an illusion conjured by Clintonites (Progressive Policy Institute comes in for honorable mention here) to justify “neoliberal” policies.

Bowers: Hostage-Taking Doesn’t Work

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on January 7, 2009.
At OpenLeft today, Chris Bowers notes that the efforts of Sens. Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to hold health reform legislation hostage to their own personal demands have significantly damaged their home-state approval ratings. To put it simply, both supporters and opponents of health reform didn’t like it, and both men have painted big bulls-eyes on their backs when they are up for re-election in 2012.
But Chris goes on to say there’s a lesson in this development for those progressives who favored more aggressive efforts to hold the same legislation hostage:

I think this is a lesson for public option advocates, and our high-profile hostage-taking strategy called The Progressive Block. It seems clear to me now that a strategy like that only works if you build up public support for it (which we most definitely did not do among the Democratic primary electorate), or if the fight is far more low-profile (such as IMF funding in the Afghanistan supplemental). High-profile hostage taking just doesn’t work from the left (or, as polling shows, from the right or the center, either) Voters of all sorts, including those on the left, just don’t like it, and they will punish you given the opportunity. It is indeed small comfort that the mendacious hostage-takers who stopped us are now wildly unpopular both at home and around the country, but it is also a warning that we would have been in the same position if we had become the hostage takers ourselves.

That’s a very interesting, and typically honest, admission from Chris Bowers.

Go Comparative, Democrats!

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on January 6, 2009.
There’s an interesting and potentially misleading theme developing in coverage of the 2010 political season: vulnerable Democrats will try to turn attention away from their record in 2009 and, in the words of a Tom Edsall post today, “make the race about the other guy.” The implication many will draw from this theme is that Democrats, having no popular positive agenda, will “go negative” on the GOP.
This is an interpretation that Democrats should fight tooth and nail. Elections are, by definition, a choice between candidates and parties. The framing that Republicans would like to impose, that the election is a “referendum” on the Obama administration or the Democratic Party, is absurd. Without any question, the administration inherited a recession, a financial crisis, a budget crisis, two wars, and a dysfunctional and gridlocked Congress, from a Republican administration. The views of Republicans as well as Democrats about what to do with that inheritence are deeply relevant to the 2010 elections. Yes, Democrats have a specific agenda to defend and explain; to the extent that Republicans have identified their own agenda, that’s on the table, too, and to the extent that they haven’t, that’s of interest to voters as well.
To the extent that Republicans have engaged in extremist rhetoric this last year, and flirted with atavistic nullification theories and race-baiting conspiracy theories concerning ACORN or the president’s credentials as an American, that needs to be pointed out. That’s not “going negative” or “changing the subject;” it’s a matter of presenting the actual choices, which are not “the status quo” and “something better” but one party and the other, and one candidate or the other.
Another relevant issue is what will happen to the country’s interests in the immediate future if a violently obstructionist GOP is strengthened this November. Will Americans welcome two years of partisan conflict and inaction? Are they prepared to resolve the problem by electing any of the currently available Republican leaders their president in 2012?
These questions are all necessary, if not entirely sufficient, to a Democratic message for 2010. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, Democrats.

Is “The Party Base” Fed Up With Obama? No.

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on January 5, 2010.
Anyone paying attention to political discourse during the last two or three months is aware of an acute unhappiness with the Obama administration among a goodly number of self-conscious progressives, sometimes expressed in terms of the president’s “betrayal” of “the Democratic base,” which may not turn out to support the party in November.
But is “the Democratic base” really as upset with Obama as elements of the progressive commentariat?
Mark Blumenthal looks at the numbers over at pollster.com, and concludes there’s not much evidence of displeasure with the president among rank-and-file Democrats, particularly those of a more progressive bent. Using Gallup’s weekly tracking poll of presidential approval ratings as a benchmark, Blumenthal notes:

Obama’s rating among liberal Democrats the week before Christmas (89 percent) was just a single percentage point lower than in the first week of his presidency (90 percent). None of this suggests a full revolt.

Approval ratings, of course, don’t get at intensity of support or disdain, which could have an impact on voting participation, particularly in midterm elections. So Blumenthal goes on to look at more nuanced measurements:

Between late February and mid-December, the ABC/Post survey shows an overall decline in Obama’s strongly favorable rating from 43 percent to 31 percent. Among liberal Democrats, strong approval started out at 77 percent in February and varied between a low of 72 percent and a high of 81 percent through mid-September. It fell in October (65 percent) and November (67 percent) before rebounding in December (76 percent).

So that’s a one point drop in Obama’s high “strong approval” rating from self-identified liberals between February and December.
Now everyone doesn’t mean “self-identified liberal Democrats” when they refer to the “party base.” As Blumenthal notes, Bob Brigham, among others, has suggested that “base” really refers to smaller communities like activists or donors. But it is fair to say that the political relevance of any particular community is somewhat limited if its views are sharply at odds with those of rank-and-file voters who say they share the same ideology.
Remember that next time anyone presumes to speak exclusively for “the base.”

The Y2K Decade

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on December 31, 2009.
I’m surely not alone in thinking today about New Year’s Eve, 1999, when everyone had at least a small nagging fear, and many people were in abject terror, about the possibility of a technological or even economic meltdown associated with the advent of the third millenium.
In a very real way, the Y2K experience was emblematic of the decade that ensued in the United States, characterized by fear, mistrust, disinformation and a growing awareness of the downside of technology-driven globalization. The word “catastrophe” reintered the vocabulary in a big way, whether the subject was the threat of a “dirty bomb,” climate change, or global economic collapse. The upbeat, almost-triumphalist spirit that sometimes accompanied public life in the late 1990s died a slow, noisy death, and pre-existing discontents with the entire Clintonian “New Democrat” mindset on the progressive Left solidified into demands for a very different party structure and message.
Among progressives, at least, the upbeat spirit re-emerged temporarily in 2008, with momentary hopes that a new and enduring political coalition was finally arriving on the scene. While the demographic trends that nourished these hopes were very real, and aren’t going away, the short-term political landscape is obviously more difficult than many expected.
Conservatives, meanwhile, had a very strange and psychologically volatile, decade in almost every respect. They began it with the failed and folly-filled effort to impeach Bill Clinton and got deviously lucky with the sort-of election of George W. Bush. What ensued was a sustained effort to turn back the clock to the economic and social policies of the 1980s (or earlier), accompanied, of course, by a new Cold War frenzy aimed at a new global enemy. The reigning political strategy of the Republican Party in the ‘aughts was Karl Rove’s base-plus gambit that used aggressive polarization to keep his party’s conservative base happy and energized, along with highly targeted swing voter appeals to married white women, Hispanics and seniors. When this strategy failed decisively prior to the 2006 elections, the GOP took a counter-intuitive but very powerful turn to the right, which accelerated notably during and after the 2009 elections, partly as an effort to disassociate conservatism from the record of the Bush administration.
So here we all are, ten years after the night of Y2K, still in fear and uncertainty about the future and even about the facts of our present existence, and still maintaining a deeply ambivalent attitude towards technology and globalization in their many forms. I sincerely hope it’s the end, not a continuation, of an era.

Taking Strategic Differences Seriously

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on December 17, 2009.
In a post yesterday, I argued that some intra-progressive fights reflect ideological differences, particularly over the role of private-sector entities in pursuing progressive policy goals, that need to be taken more seriously, in part because failing to acknowledge them often makes such fights nasty exercises in name-calling and character attacks.
There’s another broad area where differences of opinion often originate, and that must be understood as well: differing political strategies.
Two Examples of Strategic Disconnect
Consider two examples: Democratic political operatives and progressive “issue” advocates.
Many full-time political operatives undoubtedly have a personal ideology, or more generally, a reason for being a Democrat. Some have the opportunity to reflect those views in primary campaigns, or in where and on whose behalf they practice their craft. But by and large, when a general election comes along, it’s all about Ds and Rs and Us and Them, and this orientation tends to color how they feel between elections. Anything that promotes the election of a maximum number of Democrats–any kind of Democrat–to public office is more or less the Prime Objective. There are obviously major differences of opinion about how to achieve this result, short-term or long-term, and ideology play a role there as well. But the bottom line is probably best expressed by an old ditty from the presidential campaign of 1892, when Grover Cleveland’s comeback election marked the end of a period of fierce partisan competition and very little ideological differentiation between the parties:
Grover! Grover!
Four more years of Grover!
Out they go, in we go,
Then we’ll be in clover!

Not much deep thinking there, eh?
At the other end of the spectrum, there are “issue” advocates who are involved in politics not out of some broad commitment to a progressive coalition but out of concern for a particular cause, often arising from or rising to the level of personal identity. The relationship of issue advocates to a political party is by definition conditional and instrumental: I support you if you advance my cause, or at least smite the enemies of my cause. Such relationships were much, much weaker in the many decades prior to the Great Ideological Sorting-Out of the two major parties that culminated in the 1990s. As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, supporters and opponents of civil rights for African-Americans, women’s rights, antiwar movements, environmentalism, and to some extent even labor rights, were found abundantly in both parties. So progressive issue advocates might be Democrats, Republicans, or independents, but were often functionally independent in their basic relationship to political parties.
Nowadays, when a politician’s position on, say, Union Card Check is a generally reliable predictor of his or her position on abortion or climate change, progressive issue advocates are obviously constrained, and must focus on maximizing influence within the Democratic Party alone. That can be done in noncontroversial ways, such as grassroots organizing, petitions, the cultivation of favored candidates and elected officials, and of course efforts to promote or modify legislation or executive actions. But in the end, issue advocates are largely prisoners of a polarized political system, and must rely in the extreme on threats to sit out elections or even defect from the coalition. That’s where some LGBT activists, some civil libertarians, and some antiwar activists, seem to be right now.
To those whose commitment to the Democratic Party is less conditional, such threats often look selfish, destructive, or even childish. But they are perfectly rational, if sometimes short-sighted: if you are engaged in politics for a cause, that cause’s prospects have to be paramount, and absent the occasional threat to defect, your cause and its advocates can be taken for granted, which is the death-knell of political influence.
But what if a variety of “cause” advocates reach this point of frustration simultanously? Then you can have a genuine “revolt,” which some Democrats fear or hope is in the process of happening out of progressive unhappiness with Barack Obama and the congressional Democratic Party on issues ranging from civil liberties and health care to LGBT rights, Afghanistan, and the financial system.