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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

Seizing the “Historic Moment”

This staff post was originally published on July 10, 2009
Robert Creamer’s HuffPo post, “How Progressives Can Deliver on the Promise of Change in 2009 — Seven Rules for Success,” is a good read for Democrats mulling over the “So what do we do now” options. Creamer, author of ‘Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, ‘ one of the more well-regarded political strategy books of recent years, makes some bold challenges, including:

…We must always present our case in populist terms. We represent the interests of average people — not the elites that benefit from the status quo. The other side will try to argue that we favor a “government takeover” of health care that allows “Washington Bureaucrats” or some other elite to control our lives. If we spend all of our time talking about “insurance exchanges” and the arcana of health care policy we will lose.
We must frame the debate for what it is — a battle between the private health insurance companies and their multi-million dollar CEO’s on the one hand, and the interests of average Americans on the other. Populist frames are necessary for each one of our fights. Populism always trumps policy-speak.

Not a bad strategy slogan. And here’s a piece of Creamer’s carpe diem:

7). This historic window for progressive change will close if we don’t act, just as surely as a hole in the line disappears in football if a running back doesn’t burst through.
Mike Lux’s book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be surveys the history of progressive change in our country. He finds that it is not randomly spread. It occurs in clumps – during “big change moments.”
We are blessed to live in one of those big change moments. But, Lux finds, the lengths of those moments have varied enormously depending mainly on how well Progressives execute.
…For the next year, every Progressive in America needs to realize that he or she has an opportunity to make history that simply isn’t available to most people at most times. That means that all of us have a responsibility to all of the Progressives that have gone before us — and to our kids and grandkids — to make the very most of this precious opportunity.
More than anything else people want meaning in life. They want to do something of lasting importance. At this very moment we have that opportunity. It is up to each of us to seize it.
…But — just as in last year’s election — the critical ingredient that will allow us to be successful is the mobilization of millions of Americans. It simply won’t happen without us.
Some people are lucky enough to be able to say: “I was there at Selma.” For many, it was the proudest moment of their lives. Their eyes well up when they speak of it. It changed the course of history.
We all have the opportunity to be present at another one of those moments. To be there, each of us has to empty the stands — march into the arena – and help make history…It’s simple as this: If we don’t take advantage of this historic moment we may not have another for many years to come. If we do, we will help lay the foundation for a period of unparalleled possibility and hope.

Creamer urges progressives to get active with groups working for reforms and offers other pointers for making the most of the current political environment. As always, his insights provoke thought and inspire action.

What happened yesterday in Iran?

This item by James Vega was originally published on July 10, 2009
Dictatorships are often caught off guard by sudden explosions of popular discontent. It takes them several days to determine that the protests are so deep and widespread that they cannot be controlled by normal means.
Once they make this determination, however, they often make a strategic decision to strike back as savagely as possible. It is at this point that massacres often occur and hundreds of people are beaten, jailed or simply disappear. Protest movements of ordinary people are by their nature almost never able to directly resist the full power of the organized violence soldiers or elite riot police can unleash against them.
After the violent repression pauses and the streets temporarily become quiet, the regime follows up with a mixture of carrots and sticks. The ordinary protesters are told that they are “forgiven,” that they were mislead by a small group of subversives, that perhaps – perhaps – some unfortunate mistakes had been made and that some small and symbolic concessions will be offered. At the same time, a massive wave of brutal, covert and systematic arrests are made in an attempt to decapitate the leadership of the protests.
The streets are quiet and strangely empty. No-one is sure what will come next.
At this moment the regime has one vast and overwhelming objective — to re-establish a surface appearance of normality. Things must be quiet. The leader has to give a speech reasserting his legitimacy, and reassuring the population that the institutions of the country are intact – that things have gone back to normal.
This is a critical moment in every struggle against dictatorship. If the regime is successful, a surface calm may indeed return. A sullen, grumbling undercurrent of discontent always remains, but life goes back to what it was.
But if the protesters return to the streets to defy the authorities once again, on the other hand, an awesome and profound psychic barrier collapses. The protesters demonstrate to both themselves and to the authorities that their spirit cannot be broken, that they will never again be the same people they were before. From that moment on uniformed men with guns may still control the streets, but the legitimacy of the regime has received a mortal blow.
In moments of quiet reflection the protesters know success may take months or years of patient organizing and persistent struggle, but each of them senses that in some profound way the tide has fundamentally shifted to their side.
The regime will never be the same again — because they will never be the same again.
That is what happened yesterday in Iran

The Palin Cult Kicks It Up a Notch

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on July 6, 2009
Whatever you think of Sarah Palin, you have to hand it to her: what other politician this side of the White House could commandeer national attention on a major Holiday weekend, and even override all the Michael Jackson retrospectives? Better yet, her confusing jumble of rationales for the decision to quit her job, and her refusal to reveal her own future plans, have kept the buzz and speculation going strong, for God knows how long.
FWIW, I posted my own speculation back on Friday at The New Republic site, suggesting, with a lot of qualifiers, that her action may just mean she’s gotten too big for Alaska, in her own mind and in the minds of her avid followers around the lower 48.
But I don’t, of course, really know what’s going on, and neither does anyone else other than Herself and maybe the First Dude.
Unsurprisingly, in the absence of hard information, the speculation has largely varied along partisan and ideological lines, and the most interesting thing is that Palin fans are extremely focused on the reaction of her “enemies.” Here’s Kellyanne Conway at National Review:

It may confound old men and spinsters in the media that a mother of five would want to stop the madness and protect her brood from the relentless and vicious attacks by people who literally don’t know anyone like her, but, at some level, Governor Palin should be taken at her word: She’s had enough.
The advent of the blogosphere means there is not a single unexpressed thought left in America. And one would be challenged to find someone more singularly excoriated by people whose opinions, issued from poison keyboards, matter so little (except perhaps to their cats).

Conway has nicely exhibited, in just three sentences, all the fascinating self-contradictions of the Cult of Palin: isolated and irrelevant critics have driven poor Sarah to distraction, and perhaps to retirement. A click away at The Corner, Jim Geraghty takes the same thought a step further into martyrology:

The lesson that the ruthless corners of the political world will take from the rise, fall, and departure of Sarah Palin that if you attack a politician’s children nastily enough and relentlessly enough, you can get anybody to quit.

And at RedState, Erick Erickson throws the cloak of martyrdom over all conservatives:

Unfortunately, by resigning, I think the left and national media will be emboldened to ritualistically engage in the metaphorical gang raping of conservative politicians, particularly those who are female and have children. They’ll decide savaging Palin’s family drove her from office, so the sky’s the limit on the next conservative with kids.

Never mind that the “savaging of Palin’s family” was limited to a stupid Letterman joke and one or two stupid blog posts. It’s all the evil, evil work of “the left and national media,” which has also arranged for the “frivolous lawsuits” and ethics claims that have entangled Palin in Alaska. (There’s a nice parallelism here to the “frivolous lawsuits” that conservatives believe to be the primary source of high health care costs, despite the brave and selfless efforts of private health insurers to compete with each other to hold costs down).
It’s not hard to figure out that some conservatives are talking themselves into attributing anything and everything bad that happens to Sarah Palin to her detractors. That plenary indulgence may well even extend to indictments or other damning events that would sink any other politician. So maybe resigning her office really was a smart move, assuming that St. Joan of the Tundra wants a political future. To her fans, she can do no wrong, and criticism from outside the Cult of Palin simply supplies fresh evidence of her martyrdom.

Needed: Simplified Framing for Health Care Reform

Note: this item by J.P. Green was originally published on July 3, 2009
While the basic principles of health care reform should be simple enough for progressive political leaders to frame as opposing forces gird for the battle over health care reform, American voters are being presented an ever-expanding range of complex issues and policies . As WaPo‘s Dana Milbank put it in his July 2nd column,

…Americans are passionate and confused about it — and their opinions are all over the lot.
A CNN-Opinion Research poll found that 51 percent of Americans favor Obama’s health-care plan, but a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll found that only 33 percent think it is a “good idea.” A New York Times-CBS News poll found that nearly six in 10 would be willing to pay higher taxes so that all could be insured, but a Kaiser poll found that 54 percent would not be willing to pay more to increase the number.
A Quinnipiac University poll found that a majority — 54 percent — believe that reducing health-care costs is more important than covering those who lack coverage, while the Times-CBS poll found that 65 percent thought that insuring the uninsured was a more serious issue. A Washington Post poll found that 57 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the health-care system — but 83 percent are satisfied with the quality of their own care.
In short, when it comes to health care, the state of the union is confused. The confusion won’t be cleared up by the complexity of the debate, with all the jargon about community ratings and insurance exchanges and risk adjustments and guaranteed issues…

A point made also in Mark Blumenthal’s July 1 post at Pollster.com:

Let’s start with what is hopefully obvious: Democrats in Congress are drafting multiple proposals, and the Obama administration has not specifically endorsed any of these. So a well informed respondent ought to have trouble evaluating “Obama’s plan,” since Obama has not yet committed to a specific plan. Even more important, very few Americans are following that debate with rapt attention. Last month’s CBS/New York Times poll, for example, found only 22% of Americans saying they have heard or read “a lot” about the health care reform proposals (50% said they heard or read “some,” 23% not much, 5% nothing).

“Softness” of responses is also a concern with analyzing polling data, particularly regarding health care reforms. As Blumenthal notes of the difficulty of overgeneralizing about polling responses:

When pollsters push as hard as CNN/ORC for an answer, a lot of the responses are going to be very soft, often formed on the spot and based on very superficial impressions. Nonetheless, if I were charged with conducting a benchmark survey for a candidate over the next few months, and I had room for only one question about health care reform, I would be tempted to ask a very general question about “President Obama’s plan to reform health care” (though I’d strongly lean to the NBC/WSJ version that explicitly prompts for “no opinion”).
Yes, public opinion on health care reform is multi-faceted. Americans come to the debate with a rich set of values and attitudes about what they like and dislike about the health care system, what they would change and what they worry about changing. Most have not yet focused on the details of the legislative debate. Many never will. So questions about specific policy proposals can produce results all over the map. As Slate’s Chris Beam puts in an excellent summary this week, “health care polling is especially variable, depending on the wording, the context, and the momentary angle of the sun.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation adds in its wrap-up of some recent public opinion polling on‘Footing the Bill’.

What the public thinks about health care reform from this point will depend on what they learn about any proposals over the course of the summer – whether it be the actual details of any plan that might emerge or the spin on such a plan that will inevitably come from ideologues on both sides, the health care industry itself, and interested advocacy groups. Our surveys have repeatedly found that opinion on most specific proposals is quite malleable and can be moved in both directions. Expect this to happen.

It’s not hard to see why framing is critical to the success of any health care reform package. President Obama has settled on a current strategy of framing the debate in terms of cost. In his article in The Atlantic on “Obama’s Inversion Of Harry And Louise,” Mark Ambinder notes of the President’s framing of the health care reform debate:

His basic message: your health coverage will be taken away if we don’t reform health care this year.
His arguments for reform have focused heavily on rising costs and the unsustainability of the current system. His public remarks on the matter are rife with figures about how much costs have risen and will rise in the future, and how soon the nation won’t be able to pay them.
“In the last nine years, premiums have risen three times faster than wages. If we don nothing, they will rise even higher. In recent years, over one third of small businesses have reduced benefits and many have dropped coverage altogether since the early ’90s,” Obama told the audience at his town hall meeting on health care in Annandale, Virginia Wednesday.
“If we do not act, more will lose coverage and more will lose their jobs. Unless we act, within a decade, one out of every five dollars we earn will be spent on health care,” Obama said.
Obama’s economic rhetoric is all about how things can’t remain the same. It’s the same point the Harry and Louise ad made, but backward, and in Obama’s version, the “naysayers” who oppose health reform are the ones who play fast and loose with the coverage Americans currently enjoy. And as polling indicates that Americans are concerned heavily with costs, the president has, in turn, stuck to telling people about the costs of not passing his plan…And so part of his rhetoric is about shaking people with fear into supporting his reforms. If Harry and Louise made people afraid of passing Clinton’s reform plan, Obama is making people afraid of not passing his.

President Obama is undoubtedly right that cost-containment is a critical element of any successful health care reform pitch. But any successful pitch is also going to have to explain in simple terms how the reforms will improve health security for millions of Americans. Ruy Teixeira argues in a TNRtv clip that the public option of health care reform proposals has surprising bipartisan appeal in recent polling, which suggests it could have merit as a key messaging/framing point.

Strrength and Strategy

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on July 2, 2009
In a Financial Times column that congeals a number of complaints heard in various quarters of late, Clive Crook blasted Barack Obama for “choosing to be weak” on climate change and health care legislation.
Some progressives who are upset by the watered-down contents of the House climate change bill, or worried about where the Senate’s going on health care, might scan Crook’s column and nod their heads in agreement. Actually, though, Crook seems less concerned about the precise nature of climate change and health care provisions than about Obama’s refusal to flat out defy not only Congress but public opinion:

Congress offers change without change – a green economy built on cheap coal and petrol; a healthcare transformation that asks nobody to pay more taxes or behave any differently – because that is what voters want. Is it too much to ask that Mr Obama should tell voters the truth? I think he could do it. He has everything it takes to be a strong president. He is choosing to be a weak one.

While political leadership does generally require the shaping of public opinion, few successful leaders “tell the truth” to constituents in the form of telling them they are ignorant louts who are either too stupid to understand the choices involved in big challenges, or too selfish to make sacrifices in the national interest. That seems to be what Crook would have Obama do to look “strong.”
In terms of dealing with Congress, moreover, Obama has simply learned from the lessons of past presidents (particularly Bill Clinton) that success almost never involves my-way-or-the-highway presidential edicts, and that choosing the right moment for presidential interventions is as important as how much pressure is exerted. In other words, “strength” is no substitute for “strategy.”
Like most supporters of climate change legislation, I’m not happy with the compromises that were made to get the Waxman-Markey bill out of the House. But instead of despairing like Crook, I’d listen to another unhappy camper, Bradford Plumer, who has a good column that details all the reasons that passage of a bill like this is worthwhile and perhaps crucial (one of them being the disastrous effect that a failure to enact anything might have on the international climate change negotiations this December). And I might listen to Al Gore, hardly a man adverse to telling “inconvenient truths,” who worked the phones to keep progressive Democrats on board in the House when many were tempted to bolt over their disappointment in the final product.
As for health care, it’s entirely too early to make any real judgment on Obama’s congressional and public-opinion strategy. Yes, the president will need to strongly deploy the bully pulpit, probably more than once. But Crook’s assertion that Obama is abandoning the idea of health care cost-control or major changes in the incentive system for health services because he’s not out there right now demanding big public sacrifices in the middle of a recession either an overstatement of the facts or an impolitic demand that health reform be made as unsavory as possible.
Even by Crook’s standards, Obama would obviously be “stronger” if the financial system and then the economy hadn’t melted down just before he took office. But that’s the hand he was dealt, and he should be allowed to play it.

Obama’s Third Option In Iran

This item by J.P. Green was first published on June 29, 2009.
Gabriel Schoenfeld’s article in today’s Wall St. Journal, “What If Obama Did Want to Help Iran’s Democrats?” argues that the Obama Administration may be crippling its Iran policy by not recognizing the efficacy of “covert political action.” As Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and a resident scholar at Princeton’s Witherspoon Institute explains Obama’s problem:

In a better world, toppling this vicious regime and altering the tide of history would be a primary objective of U.S. foreign policy. Yet even if President Obama miraculously came to that conclusion, how could he realize such an objective? This is a useful question to ask because it reveals how much the United States has disarmed itself in the vital realm of intelligence.
…Harsh criticism of such operations — beginning in the 1970s when all the CIA’s secrets spilled out — is what prompted the U.S. to dismantle its capabilities in covert political action. Interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, legions of agency critics said, was both immoral and illegal.
As a matter of law, the critics are right. Such covert action is indeed illegal. But legality is beside the point. Espionage is by definition illegal and yet all countries engage in it. This is what the Soviet Union did in Italy, and it is what Iran, by organizing terrorist structures in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere, has been doing intensively for 30 years.

Schoenfeld’s article, subtitled “The CIA is no longer in the business of influencing politics abroad,” credits CIA funding of centrist political parties in Italy during the 1950’s as an effective strategy to counter the rapid growth of Italy’s Communist Party, thereby helping Italy to remain a “stable democracy today.” But Shoenfeld’s characterization of Italy’s Communist Party as undemocratic is unfair, since they did participate in elections.
If covert ops have any legitimacy, they should be narrowly focused on supporting pro-democratic, not exclusively “centrist”, forces in dictatorships and in nations at risk of becomming dictatorships. Using U.S. resources to oppose democratically-elected governments, as we did in Chile, or to influence elections in other nations, is immoral, unwise and can easily backfire.
But if Schoenfeld is right that U.S. support of centrist political parties was the pivotal element in achieving our foreign policy objectives in Italy, however misguided, without expensive military action, then perhaps there is an instructive strategic lesson for our policy toward Iran.
The debate over U.S. policy toward Iran is usually cast in terms of military vs. diplomatic action, with very little discussion about the possibilities of covert political operations, or even expanding our propaganda outreach in Iran. The latter wouldn’t be hard since our current effort is so weak. The current issue of The New Yorker for example, features an eyewitness report on the June 15th protest against the stolen election, in which the author notes,

…the government tries to jam all foreign TV stations—in particular, the BBC’s Persian-language channel. This channel, beaming images and reports sent by normal Iranian citizens back into the country, has been hugely influential in spreading news of the protests to Iranians who would otherwise have relied on state television or the inferior American-based Persian-language channels.

Peruse recent public opinion polls on the topic of U.S. policy toward Iran going back 5 years or more, and you won’t find any mention of enhancing intelligence, propaganda or covert ops as a choice in polling questions. (A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted 9/21-24, 2008 indicates the public favored “diplomacy now” over “military action now” in Iraq by a margin of 61 to 10 percent)
Perhaps the pollsters assume the public has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude regarding covert ops, or they include it conceptually as an intelligence function under the rubric of “diplomacy.” But if the U.S. becomes more vigorously engaged in the struggle to win hearts and minds as a third option, it could prove to be a highly effective use of our resources in achieving foreign policy objectives in trouble spots like Iran. (More on this topic here)
According to Schoenfeld, the U.S. is not getting much credit for our disengagement from Iranian politics:

The great irony in all this is that even as the U.S. seeks to claim the moral high ground by not “meddling” — to use Mr. Obama’s term — we and our allies are getting blamed all the same. “There are riots and attacks in the streets that are orchestrated from the outside in a bid to destabilize the country’s Islamic regime,” says Sheikh Naim Qassem, a ranking figure of Hezbollah, Iran’s obedient instrument in Lebanon.

A fair point, Perhaps some thoughtful “meddling,” if not by the CIA, then by other U.S. agencies concerned with foreign policy could help encourage a stable democracy in Iran. Diplomacy is almost always a better choice than military action. But strengthening our on-the-ground intelligence in Iran and in other Arab nations and using it to promote the spread of democracy, instead of U.S. military dominance, should become a leading strategic objective.

Health Care “Swing Vote”

This Staff post was first published on June 26, 2009.
Democracy Corps is out with a new analysis of public opinion on health care reform, based on extensive polling and focus group work. Much of it reflects the advice that TDS Co-Editor Stan Greenberg has been offering on how to succeed where President Clinton failed in securing universal health coverage.
But the new DCorps memo provides an interesting focus on the “swing vote” for health care reform:

Proponents and opponents of reform will be battling for the 35 percent of the electorate
who are not satisfied with the health insurance system but satisfied with their personal insurance.
Conservatives and some in the media think these voters are not serious about change, but that
misreads them, as we realize from our focus groups last week. They are “satisfied” with their
choice of doctors, that their employer is picking up most of the cost and that they may have
better insurance than others. But, they are not happy about having traded off wages or gotten
locked into a job because of health care or about the fate of a child with a chronic ailment who
may not be able to get insurance in the future. So, they are nervous about change, but they want

The DCorps team goes on to identify five key strategies for appealing to these key voters:
1. Voters need to hear clearly what changes health care reform will bring.
2. Build a narrative around taking power away from the insurance companies and giving it
to people.
3. The president and reform advocates have to explain concretely the changes that will mean
lower costs.
4. Show all voters and seniors that there are benefits for them, including prescription drugs.
5. All of these points should be made with the dominant framework that continuing the status
quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.
This analysis leads to a overarching narrative that DCorps recommends:

Continuing the status quo in health care is not acceptable and not sustainable. Keeping the status quo means the insurance companies are still in charge, jacking up rates and denying coverage. It means more people losing insurance or enslaved to their job, prices skyrocketing for families and businesses and our companies less
competitive. We need change so that people no longer lose coverage or get dropped for a pre-existing condition, and see lower costs.

“Safe change” is always a tricky message to convey, even when people are open to or eager for change. But if DCorps is right, then it will be the key to navigating health care reform through many obstacles.

No Time For Caution

Note: This is a guest post from Michael A. Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of “Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America.” We welcome it as part of a continuing effort to enlist diverse voices in discussions of Democratic strategy. It was first published on June 25, 2009.
Last week Ed highlighted a post over at TNR by William Galston raising a number of red flags about public opinion and growing doubts about the President’s domestic agenda. One of the points Galston made jumped out at me – and has been further crystallized by Mark Sanford’s painful press conference yesterday:

The best thing Democrats have going for them right now is the public’s near-total withdrawal of confidence from the Republican Party, which now “enjoys” its lowest rating ever recorded in the NYT/CBS survey–a finding that Pew confirms.

Yet even with this good news and additionally positive approval ratings for President Obama, Galston offered some rather timid recommendations for Democrats, arguing that they need to focus on “major legislative initiatives . . . that the public can accept” and to make a priority “their ability to persuade the public that something real is being done to rein in spending and debt.”
But I wonder if Bill is making this a bit too complicated and overemphasizing temporary concerns over spending, the deficit and traditional voter suspicion toward government. Right now it seems the most important two factors in public opinion are that the country trusts Barack Obama to do the right thing and they don’t trust Republicans . . . at all.
Right on cue, this week’s new poll from the Washington Post provides compelling evidence of this phenomenon. At the same time that confidence in the President’s stimulus package is softening his approval ratings remains sky high – at 65%. In addition, Obama is far more trusted that his Republican opponents on a host of issues.
Obama maintains leverage because of the continuing weakness of his opposition. The survey found the favorability ratings of congressional Republicans at their lowest point in more than a decade. Obama also has significant advantages over GOP lawmakers in terms of public trust on dealing with the economy, health care, the deficit and the threat of terrorism, despite broad-based Republican criticism of his early actions on these fronts.
The GOP’s approval rating is at 36% with disapproval at 56% and only 22 percent self-identify as Republicans. After watching Mark Sanford yesterday and considering the public spectacle of another prominent Republican publicly confessing private infidelity, it’s hard to imagine that these numbers are going to see much bump in the near future.
Even on the deficit, an issue that both Republicans and Democrats have trumpeted as being of great concern, the President has a twenty-point advantage over the GOP. Recent polls on health care reform show strong support for a so-called public option even though the idea has near unanimous opposition from Republicans. While it can be dangerous to draw too overly broad conclusion from a handful of polls, it’s hard to see any evidence at all that GOP attacks on the President are having much of an impact. In fact, outside their narrow base of supporters, Republicans seem to have almost no credibility, notwithstanding Jim Vandehei and Jonathan Martin’s threadbare effort to find a sliver of hope for the GOP.
The President – even in the face of worsening economic news – has not only enormous credibility, but is widely trusted. Again, according the Post, a majority of voters see the President as someone “”who will be careful with the public’s money” rather than a tax-and-spend Democrat. Quite simply, with strong majorities in the House and Senate, it’s been a long time since the country has seen a political leader with this type of political capital (whatever George Bush might have said in 2005).
So the time has come to use it. Galston’s advice is an argument for playing defense rather than the right course of action for Democrats: going on the offensive. While Obama obviously should not ignore the deficit, he and the Democrats must avoid overreacting to an issue that is generally a stalking horse for a lousy economy. If the economy shows signs of improvement, as it likely will when the stimulus package begins to kick in, I would be willing to make a small wager today that concerns over the deficit will decline. In the end, Democrats will live or die by not only the strength of the economy, but also by the ambition of their policy goals.
As for the notion that Obama should be tied down by perceptions of what he thinks the country “can accept,” frankly this is even worse advice. As Galston notes, voters “have little confidence in government as an effective instrument of public purpose. Trust in government remains near an historic low and has not improved significantly since the beginning of Obama’s presidency.”
But the way to change that perception is not to nibble around the edges, but instead move forward a piece of legislation that changes the entire political equation for Democrats: something like passing a sweeping health care package. The negative perception that voters continue to have toward government is because, as Obama suggested during the campaign, they don’t see it being responsive to their needs.
Forget the polls for just a second. In November 2008, the electorate voted not only for change, but they voted to send someone to Washington who would change the tone, bring new ideas and get things done. Passing comprehensive health care reform is the best way I can think of to not only fulfill the promise of Obama’s campaign, but also expose the rigidity of Republican opposition. If Democrats are dealing with a down economy in 2010 they will likely pay a price at the polls, but the best response to bad economic news is evidence that Congress and the President have worked to fulfill their campaign promises. As I asked a few days ago at Politico: “Would Democrats prefer to go to the voters and say, ‘I shrunk the deficit’ or would they rather say, ‘I passed health care legislation that improves access and care for 50 million people — and, by the way, my opponent voted against it?”
I can already imagine the likely response to my confidence: 1993 and 1994. The political path I’m advocating, of course, bears striking similarities to President Clinton’s ambitious domestic policy agenda. The critical difference, however, is the lack of confidence voters have not only in the Republican Party, but for conservatism in general. In addition, there is simply no question that the electorate trusts Obama far more than it did Clinton. I understand, Galston’s pleas for caution and no one who lived through 1993 and 1994 would ever question the dangers of overreaching. But if ever there were a time for overreaching it would be right now.

The Progressive Block

Note: This is a guest post by Chris Bowers, co-founder of OpenLeft, that we feature as part of our continuing discussion on intraparty and intraprogressive debates. It was first published at OpenLeft on Friday, June 19, and was discussed by Ed Kilgore here that same day.
When Democrats were in the minority in the Senate, they argued to progressive activists that, in order to pass the type of legislation we wanted, we needed to take back the majority in the Senate. So, in 2006, progressive activists worked their butts off and helped deliver Democrats a Senate majority.
After Senate Democrats had the majority, they argued to progressive activists that, in order to pass the type of legislation we wanted, they told they needed not just the majority, but also 60 votes in the Senate and control of the White House. So, in 2008, progressive activists worked their butts off and helped deliver not only the White House, but also sixty votes in the Senate (once al Franken is seated, of course).
Now that Democrats have wide majorities in both branches of Congress, not to mention control of the White House, we are still being told that our agenda is not politically possible. However, what is really happening is that a block of conservative Democrats are regularly joining with Republicans to weaken, or block entirely, many of the pillars of the progressive legislative agenda:
1. Stimulus: A group of nearly twenty Senators, most of them Democrats, successfully watered down an already too small stimulus was watered down by $96 billion.
2. Health Care: After the budget passed, and allowed for the 50-vote process on reconciliation, we are now being told by Kent Conrad that there are not enough votes in the Senate to pass a public option. Since that time, bad news for the public option has rained down, including former Democratic Senator Majority Leader and one-time nominee for HHS Secretary Tom Dsachle telling Democrats to drop the public option.
3. Climate Change. The already weakened Waxman-Markey climate change bill is currently being help up and further weakened by a block of 50 House Democrats led by Collin Peterson. The bill already has lower renewable targets than China and most of the 50 states, not to mention removes the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon. However, that isn’t good enough for Peterson, so expect much of the same to happen once this bill finally passes the House and reaches the Senate.
4. Employee Free Choice Act: Six Senators, all of whom are now Democrats, flipped their position on the Employee Free Choice Act. Originally, at the start of Congress, and once Al Franken was seated, there were enough votes to pass EFCA. No more–not even in a 60-vote Senate.
5. Cramdown: Twelve Democratic Senators, and all Republicans, voted against the foreclosure bankruptcy reform known as cramdown. This measure would have allowed bankruptcy judges to reduce the price of mortgages for people in bankruptcy, thus allowing hundreds of thousands to keep their home. It was ostensibly supported by the Obama administration.
Time and time again, conservative Democrats representing between 10% and 25% of their chamber’s Democratic caucus have formed a block, joined with Republicans, and successfully weakened, severely threatened, or entirely blocked key elements of the progressive legislative agenda. They were successful in every case despite the ostensible, public support for that agenda by the Obama administration.
All of this is enough to make one think that it simply wasn’t true that Democrats needed 60-votes in the Senate and control of the White House in order to pass progressive legislation. It turns out that Matt Stoller’s arguments on the 60-vote myth were correct.
Instead of 60 votes in the Senate, what progressives need is Democratic control of both branches of Congress, control of the White House, and a progressive block of at least 13 Senators and 45 House members that will vote against Democratic legislation unless their demands are met. What we need is our own version of the Blue Dogs and Evan Bayh’s “conservodem” Senate group that is large enough, and staunch enough, to be able to block Democratic legislation by joining with Republicans.
We need this group to draw hard lines in the sand for the two biggest legislative priorities of 2009: health care and climate change. The group needs to make it clear that, if their demands are not met, then no climate change or health care legislation of any sort will be passed. Demands like:
1. Health care: A public health insurance option that is immediately available to all Americans.
2. Climate change: Restoring the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon and renewable energy targets that surpass those put in place by China..
The models for the progressive block are the Blue Dogs, the Senate “conservodems,” and also the Afghanistan-IMF supplemental fight. In that fight, a progressive block of 32 House Democrats help up the White House and the Democratic congressional leadership for two weeks, forcing them to whip votes hard and make some concessions. With 13 more votes, there was a good chance they could have succeeded in severely denting the neoliberal “Washington consensus,” and forcing real reform at the IMF. While the fight was not ultimately successful, it forced the White House to deal with the Progressive Caucus more than any other legislative fight in 2009.
Such a progressive block is already in place in the House for health care. In that chamber and on that issue, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has stated there are not enough votes to pass health care reform without a public option. We need to form a corresponding health care block in the Senate, and corresponding blocks in both chambers on climate change legislation.
Once these blocks are in place, the White House and Democratic leadership will be forced to either whip conservative Democrats to fall in line with the demands of the Progressive Block, or to convince an equal number of Republicans to support compromise legislation. Either way, we will put an end to the dynamic of the White House and Democratic leadership offering muted public support for progressive legislation, while conservative Democrats threaten, weaken and block that legislation. They will either have to come out in public for more moderate legislation, or start working hard for progressive legislation.
We need a Progressive Block, not 60 votes in the Senate. For the next few months, progressive legislative efforts should be directed at putting that Block into place.

Why Rove Failed

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on June 16, 2009.
The new issue of Democracy magazine–the first since my esteemed friend Michael Tomasky took over as editor of the journal–feaures an essay, styled as a “re-review” of several books from a few years ago, by the equally esteemed journalist Ron Brownstein on the subject of why Karl Rove’s “realignment” project failed. It’s a good question worth pondering at some depth. But I think Ron’s take, which faults several of the authors of the “re-review” volumes for overestimating and emulating “base polarlization” as a political strategy, misses some key points.
Here’s his basic hypothesis:

To reread the major political books from the years around Bush’s reelection is to be plunged, as if into a cold pool, back into a world of Democratic gloom and anxiety. Those books were linked by the common belief that Republicans had established a thin but durable electoral advantage that threatened to exile Democrats from power for years, if not decades. Many books from that time assumed Democrats could avoid that eclipse only by adopting the tactics used by Republicans in general and Rove in particular. Liberal activists and thinkers all exhorted Democrats to attack Republicans in vitriolic terms, to find liberal “wedge issues” that could divide the electorate as sharply as the conservative stand-bys of abortion, gun control, and gay marriage, and most important to emulate Rove’s approach of seeking to win elections more by mobilizing the party’s base with an uncompromising message than by persuading swing voters with a more centrist appeal….
[But] Bush’s reelection proved the high point of Rove’s vision, and even that was a rather modest peak: Bush’s margin of victory, as a share of the popular vote, was the smallest ever for a reelected president. Through Bush’s disastrous second term, the GOP’s position deteriorated at an astonishing speed. By the time Bush left office, with Democrats assuming control of government and about two-thirds of Americans disapproving of his performance, his party was in its weakest position since before Ronald Reagan’s election. Rather than constructing a permanent Republican majority, Rove and Bush provided Democrats an opportunity to build a lasting majority of their own that none of these books saw coming.

I quoted this section at considerable length because Brownstein seems to be conflating two different if not contradictory themes: (1) that lots of people failed to understand the demographic “upside” for Democrats of the Republican focus on “wedge” issues that divided the electorate, and (2) that Rove failed because “base mobilization” and “polarization” drove a decisive number of voters into the Democratic coalition.
On the first point about demography, the puzzling omission in Brownstein’s “re-review” is any reference to The Emerging Democratic Majority, the 2002 book by (TDS Co-Editor) Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, that pretty much got it all right, not that they got much credit for it when it was published on the eve of a big Republican midterm victory.
The omission, I suspect, is attributable to Brownstein’s focus on the second point, and his concern that Democrats who wanted to emulate Rove with a counter-polarization strategy were wrong, and thus weren’t vindicated by Rove’s subsequent failure. This preoccupation may also account for an inclusion in the re-review that’s as odd as the exclusion of Teixeira and Judis: Tom Schaller’s Whistling Past Dixie, which sharply distinguished itself from other mid-decade handwringing progressive tomes by predicting a bright Democratic future, but which also endorsed an anti-southern polarizing strategy that Brownstein wants to knock down.
Since I share Ron’s general antipathy to political strategies that focus excessively on base mobilization and polarization, it pains me somewhat to say that I think he exaggerates the role of those strategies in Rove’s failure.