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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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Fun For Fiscal Hawks In California

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on July 21, 2009.
One of the odder political phenomena of 2009 has been the strength of the neo-Hooverite argument that the most appropriate response to the deepest recession since the 1930s is radical retrenchment of public spending policies to mitigate (or, at the state and local level, avoid) deficits. Most Republicans and some Democrats have embraced the rhetoric of hard-core fiscal hawkery, with particularly tough words for those state and local governments who have suddenly, through no particular fault of their own, watched revenues drop through the floor.
Well, the fiscal hawks ought to be enjoying the latest news from California, where Republican manipulation of a two-thirds-vote requirement for enactment of a state budget has led to a no-tax-increase deal to close an astounding $26 billion state shortfall.
The deal does have a revenue component that manages to take money out of California’s economy without actually increasing the state’s revenue base: it will increase and speed up tax withholding, and exploit an arcane provision related to Prop 13 that enables the state to borrow (to the tune of $1.9 billion) property tax dollars from local governments, who will in turn, of course, be forced to cut their own spending.
The spending side of the deal includes $1.2 billion in unspecified cuts to prison expenditures–virtually guaranteed to force early release of prisoners, a practice that earlier led to public demands, in California and elsewhere, for mandatory sentencing rules and restrictions on parole and probation.
But the crown jewel of the spending cuts in the California budget deal is the continuation and extension of furloughs for public employees that amount to a 14% pay cut. This isn’t exactly great news for California businesses that will feel the impact of reduced consumer spending by state employees.
Given the Golden State’s size, there’s no question the budget deal (if, indeed, it secures legislative approval) will represent a significant blow to national economic recovery. But it will undoubtedly please those for whom public spending is the villain, and “sacrifice” in every area other than taxes is the panacea.

The Less-Information Lobby

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on July 16, 2009.
One of the hardiest lines of argument in American politics, going back for decades now, is that public opinion research, or more colloquially, “the polls,” are a threat to good government, accountability, principled leadership, or even democracy itself. Few insults carry as much wallop as the claim that a politician or a political party is “poll-driven.” And in sharp distinction from most anti-information campaigns in public life, hostility to polls is not a populist preoccupation, but an elite phenomenon.
Last week Conor Clarke offered a vintage summary of the no-polls position at The Atlantic Monthly. Clarke’s fundamental contention is this:

News organizations are supposed to provide information that holds government accountable and helps the citizenry make informed decisions on Election Day. Polls turn that mission on its head: they inform people and government of what the people already think. It’s time to do away with them.

Note Clarke’s planted axiom about the purpose of “news” as a one-way transmittal belt of information to the citizenry. Under this construction, government feedback from the public is limited to the “informed decisions” made on election day. This is not terribly different from George W. Bush’s taunting remark in 2005 that he didn’t need to pay attention to critics of his administration because he had already faced his “accountability moment” in November of 2004.
Putting that dubious idea aside, Clarke goes on to make three more specific arguments for “getting rid of polls:” they reinforce the “tyranny of the majority; they misstate actual public preferences (particularly when, as in the case of polling on “cap and trade” proposals; they public has no idea what they are being asked about); and they influence public opinion as much as they reflect it.
In a response to Clarke at the academic site The Monkey Cage, John Sides goes through these three arguments methodically, and doesn’t leave a lot standing. He is particularly acerbic about the argument that polls misstate actual public opinion:

[P]eople tell pollsters one thing, but then do another. Sure: some people do, sometimes. Some say they go to church, and don’t. Some say they voted, and didn’t. All that tells us is to be cautious in interpreting polls….
So what do we do? We triangulate using different polls, perhaps taken at different points or with different question wordings. We supplement polls with other data — such as voter files or aggregate turnout statistics. Polls can tell us some things that other data cannot, and vice versa.

In this response Sides hits on the real problem with poll-haters: the idea that suppressing or delegitimizing one form of information (and that’s all polls are, after all) will somehow create a data-free political realm in which “pure” or “real” or “principled” decisions are made. Willful ignorance will somehow guarantee honor.
As Sides suggests, the real problem isn’t polling, but how the information derived from polling is interpreted and combined with other data–from election returns to weekly and monthly economic indicators–to influence political behavior. And that’s true of the variety of polls themselves. We’re all tempted to cite poll results that favor our predetermined positions. But the use of questionable polls for purposes of spin (e.g., the ever-increasing dependence of conservatives on Rasmussen’s outlier issue polling) is, as Sides says, an issue of interpretation rather than of some inherent flaw in polling:

Clarke is right about this: we are awash in polls. The imperative for journalists and others is to become more discerning interpreters. The imperative for citizens is to become more discerning consumers. When conducted and interpreted intelligently, we learn much more from polls than we would otherwise. And our politics is better for it.

So instead of fighting against the dissemination of polls like Odysseus lashing himself to the mast to keep himself from heeding the Sirens, political observers would be better advised to listen more carefully and process the information more thoughtfully. The desire for less information is a habit no one as smart as Conor Clarke should ever indulge.

How Stupid Talking Points Get Started

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on July 13, 2009
In looking for something else this morning, I ran across a couple of conservative blog posts that almost perfectly illustrated how rapidly routine information can be distorted into talking points used in attacks on the Obama administration, the Democratic Congress, and in this case, state and local governments.
The original source of those talking points was a General Accounting Office report on how state and local governments were (so far) using money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a.k.a. the economic stimulus package. According to the report:

Across the United States, as of June 19, 2009, Treasury had outlayed about $29 billion of the estimated $49 billion in Recovery Act funds projected for use in states and localities in fiscal year 2009. More than 90 percent of the $29 billion in federal outlays has been provided through the increased Medicaid Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) and the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) administered by the Department of Education.

A Reuters blogger named James Pethokoukis linked to the report under the headline, “Maybe this is why the stimulus isn’t creating tons of jobs yet,” implying that the amounts were small and the spending wasn’t going into “infrastructure” projects.
Now keep in mind that of the estimated $787 billion in stimulus funds, only $185 billion was slated to occur in Fiscal Year 2009, mainly because FY 2009 began last October 1. I do wonder if Mr. Pethokoukis might have been confusing fiscal years with calendar years.
His apparent surprise that 90 percent of the state-local funds spent so far for FY 2009 are going to something other than “infrastructure” indicates (1) he wasn’t paying much attention when ARRA was enacted and (2) he doesn’t seem to understand that it’s inherently a bit speedier to adjust a Medicaid match rate or disburse a block grant than it is to fund specific highway projects. The GAO report indicates that $9.2 billion in highway funds for have already been obligated but not spent, which is about a third of the total highway money in the stimulus package (about what you’d expect given the time frames). Moreover, a significant portion of the roughly $111 billion in “science and infrastructure” money in ARRA will not flow through states and localities (e.g., most of the scientific research money).
But whatever you think of Mr. Pethokoukis’ brief and sardonic take on the GAO report, here’s how it devolved at the hands of Stephen Spruiell at National Review’s The Corner, under the headline, “Ninety Percent of Stimulus Funds Spent on Bailouts for State Government:”

The [GAO] study found that 90 percent of the stimulus funds spent so far have gone toward bailouts for fiscally irresponsible state governments. These states made commitments on health care and education spending commensurate to what they could afford during the boom years. When the economy crashed and tax revenues dried up, they had no way to pay for these commitments short of raising taxes, which none of them wanted to do. (Most states’ constitutions restrict their ability to run deficits.)
This is what the stimulus was really all about — not creating or “saving” jobs, but preventing states from suffering the consequences of their profligacy.

Note that the relatively small portion of stimulus money GAO was analyzing, which excluded direct federal expenditures and tax provisions, has now become “the stimulus funds spent so far.” And the temporary Medicaid match rate increase, along with funds to prevent education cuts and a very small provision for flexible state funds, has become “preventing states from suffering the consequences of their profligacy.”
Aside from the fact that the Medicaid, education and flexible money Mr. Spruiell is saying “aha” about was in the original legislation, and was fully debated and (in the case of the education and flexible funds) reduced before ARRA was enacted, he does not seem to understand that (1) it’s hardly “profligate” to fail to immediately slash Medicaid rolls or dump school costs on local property taxpayers when state revenues drop massively in a major recession, and (2) if states and localities weren’t “profligate” and made these cuts, they would contribute to the recession and heavily offset the impact of federal stimulus funds, through both reduced consumer spending and personnel layoffs (which were happening all across the country before ARRA was enacted, and which are still happening to some extent because what Spruiell calls “bailouts” weren’t sufficient).
Maybe that’s why not a single one of the 22 Republican governors–including the up-until-recently fiscal conservative hero Mark Sanford of SC–objected to the Medicaid money that always represented over half of the federal-state assistance in ARRA, and why only two–Sanford and Sarah Palin–tried to reject anything other than a very specific set of funds aimed at expanding unemployment insurance coverage.
But loose talk about “bailouts” from people who haven’t followed the debate and don’t know the numbers or the issues can go viral pretty fast, so don’t be surprised if you or your conservative friends soon get emails claiming that 90% of all the stimulus funds are being spent on profligate state social programs.

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.