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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

On “Ending the Culture Wars”

Note: this Ed Kilgore post was originally published on January 28, 2009
In a post yesterday about the anti-abortion movement, I made passing reference to an article by Peter Beinart arguing that Obama might be presiding over an end to–or at least a pause in–the culture wars of the last couple of decades.
This is actually a proposition that merits its own discussion. Has the Cultural Right begun to run out of steam? Will the economic crisis radically reduce the salience of issues like gay marriage or abortion or church-state separation? Is there something about Barack Obama’s style and substance that tends to calm the cultural waters? And what if any accomodations should Obama or progressives generally make to neutralized culture-based opposition?
The first three questions are rather speculative and also perhaps premature, but I’d answer them “some,” some,” and “a little.” The last question is the real kicker, and the key thing here is to define who, exactly, we are talking about neutralizing or persuading.

Let’s face it. All too often Democrats end up just yelling at each other when they try to discuss long-term political strategy – with the challenges that confront us, it’s urgent that we figure out how to do better.

Note: this item by James Vega was originally published on January 6, 2009.
It’s no secret that the groups that compose the Democratic coalition have dramatically different perspectives on many issues. But on one key topic they do agree. Democrats – whether in the Obama administration, Congress or the nation – recognize that they face an unparalleled set of strategic challenges today. As a result, they urgently need to develop more productive ways to debate political strategy within the Democratic coalition.
The challenge is to figure out how to conduct intra-Democratic debates in a way that doesn’t end up in a shouting match but rather clarifies the points of contention and achieves the maximum degree of collaboration and cooperation. Productive debates between Democrats should accomplish three objectives (1) identify the areas of agreement and common action (2) identify the issues that can be clarified or settled with data and (3) agree on ways to work together in a spirit of mutual respect in areas where there are fundamental disagreements on matters of principle.
Today, debates among Dems often accomplish none of these goals. Instead, the participants end up talking across purposes and conclude in frustrated mutual incomprehension.
There is one basic, underlying problem that is often at the root of this failure. Debates among Dems frequently do not distinguish disagreements over political principles from disagreements over political strategy. The result is arguments that do not genuinely engage with each other in a meaningful way.

Obama and Grassroots Bipartisanship

Note: this Ed Kilgore article was originally published on December 23, 2008.
If you don’t mind a holiday meditation on a big question that’s been central to widely varying predictions about Barack Obama’s presidency, here goes:
Many of the remaining doubts about his approach to the presidential office can be summed up in one word followed by a question mark: bipartisanship?
From his emergence onto the national political scene in 2004 throughout the long 2008 campaign, Obama has consistently linked a quite progressive agenda and voting record to a rhetoric thoroughly marbled with calls for national unity, “common purpose,” a “different kind of politics,” and scorn for the partisanship, gridlock and polarization of recent decades. Call it “bipartisanship,” “nonpartisanship,” or “post-partisanship,” this strain of Obama’s thinking is impossible to ignore, and has pleased and inspired some listeners while annoying and alarming others.
The weeks since Obama’s electoral victory have not resolved doubts and confusion on this subject. He’s worked closely with the outgoing Bush administration on emergency financial plans, appointed two Republicans to his Cabinet, and called repeatedly for overcoming the divisions of the election campaign—while simultaneously outlining the most ambitious progressive agenda since LBJ’s Great Society. He’s won applause from the Washington punditocracy for his “pragmatism” and “centrism”—even as leading Republicans blamed excessive moderation and complicity in activist government for their defeats in the last two elections.
Among self-conscious progressives and conservatives alike, there’s a prevailing belief that Obama’s “bipartisan” talk is largely a tactical device without real meaning—and a lingering fear that he might really mean it.
But suffusing these hopes and fears is a concept of “bipartisanship” that arguably has little to do with Obama’s: Democrats and Republicans in Washington, with their aligned lobbyists and interest groups looking over their shoulders, getting together behind closed doors and “cutting deals.” It’s the bipartisanship of legendary congressional sausage makers like Bob Dole or John Breaux who “get things done” by compromising principles and allocating influence according to Washington’s peculiar and semi-corrupt power dynamics. At its best, it’s the shabbily genteel Village Elders elitism that progressives call High Broderism. At its worst, it produces legislative abominations like virtually every big tax, energy or farm bill enacted in recent memory.
Is this what the anti-Washington change agent Barack Obama has in mind? And if not, what is he talking about, and shouldn’t he stop?
I’d suggest we suspend the iron belief that bipartisanship and bringing progressive change to Washington are contradictory goals, and take Obama’s own rhetoric a bit more seriously.

A Special Message from Bill Galston, Stan Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira

Note: this item was originally published on December 15, 2008
Dear Fellow Democrats;
Greetings from The Democratic Strategist.
We are pleased to present the two TDS Strategy White Papers below. It is our hope that they spark some useful and energetic discussion among Democrats.

1. “Planning Ahead for Democratic Victory in 2010 – Setting Initial Goals and Objectives.”
2. “How Democrats Can Keep and Expand the Support of the Younger White Working-Class Voters who Voted for Obama in 2008.

For some time we have felt that the Democratic community has needed an additional format for the discussion of political strategy, one that is longer than standard newspaper and magazine political commentary, makes direct use of empirical data and proposes specific strategies to accomplish some defined objective.
We see TDS Strategy White Papers as filling that role.
As a result, we are now making a call for proposals for Strategy White Papers. We are looking for Strategy Papers that address the following subjects:

1) Specific political strategies for 2010 and 2012
2) Strategies for strengthening and building upon the new geographic and demographic patterns of support that have emerged from the 2006 and 2008 earthquakes.
3) Analyses of key strategic choices facing the Dems and how they will impact our success in 2010 and 2012.

More detailed editorial requirements are spelled out in the “Write for us” section of the TDS website. Accepted submissions will receive appropriate compensation and substantial electronic distribution.
Please send letters describing proposed strategy papers to editors@thedemocraticstrategist.org, and be sure to include your full contact information.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Bill Galston, Stan Greenberg, Ruy Teixeira

The GOP and Two Democratic Reform Models

Note: this item was originally published on December 1, 2008
As you probably know, there’s been a lot of intra-Republican talk lately about how to recover from the 2008 elections, and more generally, from the disastrous trajectory of the Bush administration.
And as you may also know, most of the participants in this debate begin by asserting that the problems of the GOP are not fundamentally ideological, or if they are, it’s just a matter of insufficient conservatism, or insufficient consistency. Those would-be reformers like Ross Douthat who suggest the old-time religion of small-government conservatism could use a reformation aren’t making a lot of headway. Nobody’s much in the mood to topple any Ronald Reagan statues.
It’s not surprising, then, that the hot item in Republicanland right now is a manifesto entitled: “Rebuild the Party: A Plan for the Future” put together by two young conservative campaign operatives turned bloggers, Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn, along with redstate.org managing editor Erick Erickson. Two candidates for RNC chair have already endorsed the “plan” as their own, and the reaction in the conservative blogosphere has been predictably avid.
What jumps out at any reader of “Rebuild the Party” is the virtual invisibility of any ideological issues, and the extent to which the “plan” is a faithful imitation of the nutsier and boltsier sections of Crashing the Gate, the book-length 2006 netroots manifesto written by Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong. There’s lots about the revolutionary nature of the internet as a vehicle for organizing, fundraising, and communications; lots about the need for a younger and more diverse generation of activists and candidates; lots about rebuilding party infrastructure and competing in all fifty states.
There’s some rich irony in this heavy dose of progressive-envy, since much of the netroots thinking that the Conservative Young Turks are slavishly echoing was itself based on a close reading of the rise of the conservative movement. But more importantly, the “rightroots” movement is missing a key ingredient that helped make the netroots blueprint so successful: a preparatory period of ideological ferment. On the center-left, that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as a result of the much-maligned but essential “neo-liberal” and “New Democrat” movements.
For all the Clinton- and New Democrat-bashing amongst the netroots, most honest progressives would admit that what happened in 2006 and 2008 was made possible in the first place by earlier party reform efforts that challenged the self-conception of the Donkey Party as a coalition of shrinking interest and identity groups huddled together to protect “their” pieces of the New Deal/Great Society legacy from the conservative onslaught. There wasn’t much of a positive message or agenda, and not much of a strategy for a progressive majority beyond the hope that the GOP would fatally overreach (as they eventually did under Bush, Rove and DeLay).
It’s reasonable to argue that Clinton’s New Democrats themselves overreached through too many compromises, too much Washington-think, too much adulation of globalization and other market forces, and too little respect for the legitimate needs and interests of traditional constituencies. But as Markos and Armstrong recognized in Crashing the Gate, some crucial work was accomplished in opening the party to new ideas; in neutralizing conservative wedge issues by addressing long-neglected public concerns like crime, welfare dependency, and bureaucratic inertia; and in challenging interest-group tunnel-vision and litmus tests. After all, the “fighting Democrats” of the Dean campaign or the 2006 comeback weren’t just 1970s liberals with better technology, and the Obama campaign wasn’t just a hipper version of the McGovern or Mondale campaigns.
It took a second wave of reform in this decade to complete the picture by reconnecting the Democratic Party to its grassroots and its activists, and to constituencies that may have been maginalized during the Clinton years, while reviving the progressive espirit de corps and extending it beyond the Left’s old redoubts.

The relationship between Obama and the Progressives – is it a “battle for the President’s soul” or a “natural division of labor?”

Note: this item was originally published on November 25, 2008
The rapidly mushrooming debate about the relationship between the Obama administration and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party suffers from an unnecessary lack of clarity because many of the commentators do not make a clear distinction between two very distinct ways of visualizing the issue.
The first, which might be called “the battle for the President’s soul” perspective, visualizes progressives and centrists or conservatives as engaged in a permanent tug of war to win the President’s support for their agenda. In this perspective, each cabinet appointment and each policy decision the President makes represents one more episode in a perpetual struggle to pull, pressure or cajole the President toward progressive approaches and solutions
For progressive Democrats who entered politics during and after the Clinton administration, this way of thinking about a new administration seems entirely natural and indeed almost completely self-evident. By late 1980’s most progressive movements had become increasingly Washington-focused and political campaign-oriented, in contrast to previous eras of independent progressive grass-roots organizing and mobilization. For many younger progressives, working for political candidates and campaigns was actually their sole form of progressive activity. As such, it made sense for them to feel that a victorious campaign naturally ought to deliver a very clear and explicit ideological “payoff” to progressives after the election, one properly proportionate to the effort they invested during the campaign and the degree of their success.
But during past eras of major progressive social movements – the trade union movement of the 1930’s and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s — there was a very different perspective. It could be called a “natural division of labor” point of view. A Democratic President was basically assumed to be a ruthlessly pragmatic centrist who would make all his moves and choices based on a very cold political calculus of what was necessary for his own success and survival. He might have private sympathy for some progressive point of view but there was generally no expectation among social movement progressives that he would “go out on a limb” for progressives out of a personal moral commitment to some social ideal. As a result, the most fundamental assumption of progressive political strategy was always the need to build a completely independent grass roots social movement, one that was powerful enough to make it politically expedient or simply unavoidable for the political system to accede to the movement’s demands.
In a widely read 1966 essay, “Non-violent Direct Action“, historian and civil-rights activist Howard Zinn clearly expressed this view:

“.What the civil rights movement has revealed is that it is necessary for people concerned with liberty, even if they live in an approximately democratic state, to create a political power which resides outside the regular political establishment. While outside, removed from the enticements of office and close to those sources of human distress which created it, this power can use a thousand different devices to persuade and pressure the official structure into recognizing its needs.”

This same traditional progressive movement view was recently restated in a Nation magazine editorial by Katrina Vanden Heuvel.

…it’s worth remembering another template for governing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to become a bolder and, yes, more progressive President (if progressive means ensuring that the actual conditions of peoples’ lives improve through government acts) as a result of the strategically placed mobilization and pressure of organized movements.
That history makes me think that this is the moment for progressives to avoid falling into either of two extremes –reflexively defensive or reflexively critical. We’d be wiser and more effective if we followed the advice of one of The Nation’s valued editorial board members who shared thoughts with the Board at our meeting last Friday, November 21.
It will take large scale, organized movements to win transformative change. There was no civil rights legislation without the [civil rights] movement, no New Deal without the unions and the unemployed councils, no end to slavery without the abolitionists. In our era, this will need to play out at two levels: district-by-district and state-by-state organizing to get us to the 218 and sixty votes necessary to pass any major legislation; and the movement energy that can create public will, a new narrative and move the elites in DC to shift from orthodoxy. The energy in the country needs to be converted into real organization…
We need to be able to play inside and outside politics at the same time. I think this will be challenging for those of us schooled in the habits of pure opposition and protest. We need to make an effort to engage the new Administration and Congress constructively, even as we push without apology for solutions at a scale necessary.

The choice between this “natural division of labor” social movement perspective and the “battle for the President’s soul” perspective is important because the choice of the conceptual framework one uses has a number of very large consequences.

Anatomy of Conservative Self-Deception

Note: this item was originally published on November 11, 2008
For those Democrats who were settling down with a bag of popcorn to watch an orgy of ideological strife among Republicans, it’s beginning to become apparent that the war may be over before it began. Sure, there’s plenty of finger-pointing and personal recriminations over tactics and strategy, some of it focused on the McCain-Palin campaign, and some looking back to the errors of the Bush administration. There’s clearly no consensus on who might lead Republicans in 2010 or 2012. But on the ideological front, for all the talk about “movement conservatives” or “traditionalists” at odds with “reformers,” it’s a pretty one-sided fight. And one prominent “reformer,” the columnist David Brooks, pretty much declared defeat yesterday:

The debate between the camps is heating up. Only one thing is for sure: In the near term, the Traditionalists are going to win the fight for supremacy in the G.O.P.
They are going to win, first, because Congressional Republicans are predominantly Traditionalists. Republicans from the coasts and the upper Midwest are largely gone. Among the remaining members, the popular view is that Republicans have been losing because they haven’t been conservative enough.
Second, Traditionalists have the institutions. Over the past 40 years, the Conservative Old Guard has built up a movement of activist groups, donor networks, think tanks and publicity arms. The reformists, on the other hand, have no institutions…..
Finally, Traditionalists own the conservative mythology. Members of the conservative Old Guard see themselves as members of a small, heroic movement marching bravely from the Heartland into belly of the liberal elite. In this narrative, anybody who deviates toward the center, who departs from established doctrine, is a coward, and a sellout.

Now there’s nothing particularly new about this dynamic. It’s exactly the way conservatives reacted to the 2006 debacle, and in fact, to virtually every Republican defeat since about 1940 (with the exception, of course, of 1964). They’ve never been shy about saying that “moderate” or “liberal” Republicans are not only wrong, immoral and gutless, but are in fact losers. And there’s nothing new as well about their take on George W. Bush; it’s pretty similar to their ex post facto take on Richard M. Nixon: a potentially great leader surrounded by venal hacks who sacrificed principle in an illusory search for short-term political gain and personal riches and power.
There are, however, two aspects of contemporary conservative self-justification that strike me as somewhat new.

Predictive Theories: How Did They Grade Out?

Note: this item was originally published on November 10, 2008
As we all sort through various theories for what happened on November 4, and what it all means, Mark Schmitt of The American Prospect performs a public service by looking back at some of the predictive theories bruited about during the campaign season, and grading their eventual accuracy.
He gives his highest grade to the model advanced back in 2002 by TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira and The New Republic’s John Judis in their book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, which, as Schmitt notes, made “predictions [that] were close to an exact map of the Obama demographic.”
He gives somewhat lower but still positive grades to Tom Schaller’s signature efforts to predict a Democratic majority that ultimately did not depend on southern votes; the “economic determinist” models that predicted a Democratic victory based on macroeconomic indicators; and those such as Michael Lind who drew attention to the enduring resistance of Appalachian voters to Obama’s candidacy.
David Sirota’s “Race Chasm” theory, which projected into the general election Obama’s success in states with many or few African-American voters, gets a “C-minus.” A “D” is assigned to the “wine-track” theory that Obama would become just another Democratic candidate attractive to elites but repellant to working-class voters. And “Fs” go to the prophets of a vast “Bradley Effect,” and to those who thought disgruntled Hillary Clinton voters would swing the election to McCain.
Finally, Schmitt gives a big shout-out to Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, whose demographics-and-polls based analysis of the entire campaign from Iowa to November 4, was spot-on, culminating with very accurate predictions of the final popular-vote margin and the state-by-state results. Since Nate’s background is in sabermetrics (the statistics-based analysis of baseball), you’d have to say that he had the kind of year that was the equivalent of winning both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards.
In any event, Mark’s report card is good clean fun, at least for those who didn’t get assigned failing grades.

All the Polls Can Tell Us

Note: This item was originally published on November 3, 2008
While channel surfing very early this morning, I dwelled for a moment at Fox, and heard the usual cawing about the presidential race tightening. But unless I’m mistaken, the pre-spin there seemed half-hearted, as did the talk about an obscure Obama relative living in the country illegally.
We’re now finally at the point where polls have told us everything they have to say, and here’s Nate Silver’s assessment as of 3:00 a.m. today:

McCain’s clock has simply run out. While there is arguable evidence of a small tightening, there is no evidence of a dramatic tightening of the sort he would need to make Tuesday night interesting.
Related to this is the fact that there are now very, very few true undecideds left in this race. After accounting for a third-party vote, which looks as though it will come in at an aggregate of 2 percent or so…I am showing only about 2.7 percent of the electorate left to allocate between the two major-party candidates. Even if John McCain were to win 70 perecnt of the remaining undecideds (which I don’t think is likely), that would only be worth a net of about a point for him. Frankly, McCain’s winning scenarios mainly involve the polls having been wrong in the first place — because of a Bradley Effect or something else. It is unlikely that the polls will “tighten” substantially further — especially when Obama already has over 50 percent of the vote.

When it comes to the state-by-state contests, the situation is even clearer. All of the states that seem to be close at the end of this campaign–FL, MO, OH, NV, NC, IN and VA–are states that John McCain must carry. But even if he carries them all, he still loses.
To sum it all up, if McCain somehow wins, it will produce the largest demolition of the public opinion research profession since Dewey and Truman 60 years ago–perhaps even larger, since the two national pollsters of that era didn’t bother to test opinion during the last week in 1948.

The Futility of “Redistribution” Attacks on Obama

Note: this item was originally published on October 28, 2008.
It’s been obvious for a while that attacks on Barack Obama for favoring “redistribution of wealth” and other “socialist” beliefs is the final gambit of the McCain-Palin campaign. They’re reached this essentially ridiculous position for a variety of reasons:
(1) It’s highly congenial to conservative “base” voters, who think virtually all Democrats are “socialists,” and who also view much of the New Deal/Great Society legacy as “socialist.”
(2) It’s also arguably persuasive to some swing voters, who may not like or trust either candidate, and are trying to figure out who represents the greatest risk.
(3) It intersects with the McCain campaign’s heavily tax-and-budget based approach to the economy, which it is intensifying in the absence of anything much to say about what he would do to deal with the actual economic crisis the country faces.
(4) It also intersects with the sleazier aspects of the McCain/GOP/conservative assault on Obama, aimed at painting him as a dangerous radical who “pals around with terrorists” and is secretly close to anti-American, black nationalist, and perhaps even Jihadist Islamic elements.
So anything Obama’s ever said and done that can be twisted into support for “redistribution of wealth” is being avidly promoted by the GOP. The latest example is a 2001 Chicago public radio intereview in which Obama the law professor discusses the reluctance of the judicial branch to engage in “redistributive” efforts.
This is really, really a reach, as Obama legal advisor Cass Sunstein explains at The New Republic. Obama was in fact articulating approvingly a conservative legal theory about the hamhanded nature of direct judicial intervention into social policies that don’t involve fundamental rights:

In answering a caller’s question, he said that the court “is just not very good at” redistribution. Obama added, with approval, that the Constitution “is generally a charter of negative liberties.”
Obama’s principal claim–about the institutional limits of the courts–was made by many conservatives (including Robert Bork) in the 1960s and 1970s: Courts should not attempt to guarantee “positive” rights, or interpret the Constitution to redistribute wealth. Obama is squarely rejecting the claim that was made by many liberal lawyers, professors, and judges at the time–and that is being made by some today.

So this latest attempt to show that Obama’s a “socialist” is almost completely bogus.
But facts aside, there are two other reasons these sort of attacks aren’t getting much traction.
First of all, most Americans generally understand that there are a variety of longstanding and very popular policies in this country that involve “redistribution of wealth” to some extent or other. Certainly Medicare and Medicaid aren’t “pay as you go” programs. Nor is public education. And the basic principle of progressive taxation is inherently redistributive.
Second of all, we are at a point in U.S. history when upper-income and corporate complaints about “redistribution” are going to fall on an awful lot of deaf ears, given the consequences of regressive conservative economic policies over the last eight years. As I noted in an earlier post about progressive taxation, a majority of Americans right now appear to actually support the use of the tax code to redistribute wealth from the rich to lower-and-middle class folk, which is what Obama is unfairly being accused of covertly supporting.
In general, the McCain-Palin campaign’s attack lines on “redistribution” and “socialism” are poorly timed, as were earlier efforts to brand Obama as an “extreme liberal.” This is one election cycle where given the choice between the economic policy status quo and a more liberal approach, “change” is the preferred option regardless of how it is mischaracterized with alarmist terms.