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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

Message of Misery

By Anne Kim, Adam Solomon, and Jim Kessler
$23,700. That is the household income level at which a white person became more likely to vote for a Republican over a Democrat in congressional races in 2004. That’s $5,000 above the poverty line for a family of four, less than half the median income of the typical voting household of all races, and an emphatic repudiation of all things Democratic among the white middle class. Obtaining a sustainable Democratic majority in either house will be impossible unless there is a significant change in this economic tipping point.
To solve this problem, Democrats must first realize that they have a problem – no, actually a crisis – with the middle class. Democrats – the self-described party of the middle class – have not won the middle class vote in at least a decade. Among all voters with $30,000 to $75,000 in household income, Bush bested Kerry by six-points and congressional Republicans won by four-points. Democrats continued to win nine of ten black voters of all income levels, but Hispanic margins have decreased as their economic situation has improved. And as noted above, we got slaughtered among the white middle class.1
The second step is to admit that our deficit is as much due to economic disconnects as cultural and national security disconnects. That may be harder for Democrats to swallow. Many believe the middle class have been duped by a what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas scheme in which clever conservatives trick the beleaguered middle class to vote against their own economic interests through the use of irresistible cultural wedge issues and national security concerns.
Of course national security and culture matter, but in 2000, when national security was a b-list issue, both Gore and congressional Democrats lost the middle class. In 1996, before the culture wars were fully ignited, Clinton also lost the middle class to the combination of Dole and Perot, as did congressional Democrats.
At Third Way, we not only believe the what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas analysis is wrong, but that it represents a dangerous red herring for Democrats. In a report we co-authored called The Politics of Opportunity, we isolated five areas of disconnect between how Democrats talk about the middle class and view the economy and how the middle class view their own economic situation and that of America.
Disconnect one is optimism versus pessimism. Whether it’s the “people versus the powerful” Al Gore’s convention speech or John Kerry’s “Benedict Arnold companies” where American workers see their factories “unbolted, crated up, and shipped thousands of miles away,” the Democratic economic message is pervasively pessimistic. Democrats see the American Dream fading, the middle class being squeezed, jobs disappearing, schools crumbling, and wages stagnating.
That is not the way middle-class Americans view their own lives. Days after 9/11, 80% of Americans expressed optimism about the year ahead.2 Two months after gas hit $3 per gallon, 73% said they were optimistic about their family’s finances.3 In 2004, 78% said they were doing “fairly well” financially.4 And only 22% believe they will not “earn enough money in the future to lead the kind of life [they] want.”5
Voters may feel that the economy is heading in the wrong direction at a particular point in time, but they consistently view their own outlook as better (think of voters who hate Congress, but like their own representative). And they are turned off by a message of gloom and doom.
Disconnect two is economic decline versus economic strength. Democrats have become the “falling behind” party. America is falling behind China and India in innovation. Our kids are falling behind in math and science. Our middle class is shrinking. And by the year 2062 our GDP will be half the size of Burma’s.
Fortunately for America, and unfortunately for Burma, this does not reflect economic reality. Most economists who advise investors seeking to earn money (rather than those who advise politicians seeking to win votes) are confident in America’s future. Most see America winning the competition against India and China, just as we did over Japan in the 1980s and Germany in the 1970s. They know that our economy boasts strengths unmatched by other nations, including flexibility, resiliency, strong capital markets, financial and political transparency, legal protections for intellectual property and an unparalleled university system.
It is true that our national prosperity is threatened by the Bush policies of high debt, tax giveaways to the most affluent, a theocratic faith that corporate America will solve our health care and energy crises, and the growing income inequality found in our country. Yet even with six years of wrong choices behind us, the bursting of the tech bubble, the attacks of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and sky-high oil prices – America’s vital economic signs are fundamentally robust.
Disconnect three is economic security versus individual opportunity. Democrats rarely talk about individual aspirations of greatness or success; they mostly talk about people’s economic status or about their economic fears.
As Americans have grown more affluent — and with a few blips along the way, American households have steadily grown more affluent over the past 60 years — they have come to care less about economic security and more about economic opportunity. In the past, individuals were far more likely to aspire to a job that offered modest pay but high security. Today they would rather choose a potentially higher paying but riskier job.
Economic security should be addressed, but equal time should be given to the yearning most Americans have to get ahead.
Disconnect four is ideas. Most signature Democratic ideas do not benefit middle class people; they benefit those who aspire to the middle class. The typical Pell Grant recipient earns less than $20,000. The minimum wage impacts less than 2% of working Americans. The earned income tax credit phases out to a pittance for families over $25,000. Head Start, food stamps, and WIC are for the poor, poorer, and poorest of society. The middle class believes in these programs, but they are wondering when someone will pay attention to them.
Part of the problem is that Democrats have been misled about the state of the middle class. Progressive economists typically peg median household income at about $45,000. But that includes households headed by 22-year olds (who are on their way up) and 76-year olds (who live on fixed incomes that may be small but are often comfortable since they have no dependents and limited work related expenses).
Among households headed by prime age Americans – adults between the ages of 26 and 59 – the median household income is about $63,000. For prime age married households the median income is over $70,000, and it is nearly $80,000 for two-earner prime age households.6 The point is that Democrats have a view of the middle class that is at one place on the income spectrum, when the reality is in a very different place.
We do not argue for Democrats to abandon programs to help poor people climb into the middle class or to play them down. We simply argue that Democrats must have a comparable set of signature ideas that benefit the middle class.
Disconnect five is an unconvincing economic critique of conservatives. Folks, if bashing rich people, the oil industry, and the drug companies were an effective political strategy, jets would be landing at Michael Dukakis National Airport in Washington.
An effective economic critique should tell a story. The conservative story about Democrats is that they believe the government does a better job of spending your money than you do. Every conservative economic argument against the left derives from this statement. Democrats need a story of their own.
That brings us to repairing these five disconnects. Democrats cannot connect with the middle class until they understand that they are richer, more optimistic, and more firmly in control of their lives than they think. Democrats need to know that the typical middle-class family is likely to be married with children; many of the pressures they face come from trying to get ahead, not simply staying in place.
With that in mind, we suggest a very simple message aimed at the middle class and a related set of policies. Our positive message is that Democrats will build a new era of middle-class opportunity – a message that is optimistic, forward-looking, implicitly critical of the old regime, and aimed squarely at the group of voters who once formed the bedrock of the Democratic Party. This kind of message also reinforces the successful progressive tradition of optimists like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton.
We offer a series of signature Democratic initiatives designed to help middle-class Americans live a better and more prosperous life. They include a generous middle-class college tuition tax break, a new first-time homebuyer tax credit, tax cuts to help sandwich-generation families pay for the care of elderly parents, and a more generous tax break for families with preschool children. They are all designed to help the middle class attain their goals – like purchasing a home, paying for college, and maintaining economic freedom as parents age.
How do we pay for them? Well that gets to our critique: conservatives believe the wealthy are the engine of the economy; we believe the middle class is the engine of the economy. So we would roll back some of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy to finance a generous set of middle-class tax breaks designed to create a new era of middle-class economic opportunity.
Now we have a story to tell – about them and about us. And here’s how it could sound in a 30-second spot.

That’s right, Buck Bickerson and Mitzi Chase each have a tax plan. The Bickerson plan would help wealthy parents send their kids to Europe in the summer. The Chase plan would help middle-class parents send their kids to college in the fall.
It’s your choice. The Chase plan – better for America, better for Springfield, and better for you.

For Democrats, the road to a lasting majority runs through the heart of the middle class. This is something that Bill Clinton understood and he, above all others, fared best with middle-class voters. By making a college tuition tax break one of the six pieces of their New Direction campaign, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are talking directly to the needs of the middle class.
A commitment to a new era of middle-class opportunity would not only help the self-described party of the middle class win a sustainable majority, it has the added benefit of making America a better and stronger nation. After all, the engine that drives our economy is truly the middle class.

1All election statistics rely upon exit polls from 1996, 2000, and 2004, which were obtained from the Roper Center at University of Connecticut.
2Gallup Poll, “Terrorism Reaction Poll,” September 21-22, 2001, 1,008 respondents.
3ABC News/Washington Post, “Outlook for 2006 is Positive, but Wide Partisan Gap Remains,” December 31, 2005.
4Roper Poll, “Americans Talk About Personal Finances,” May 2004, 1,014 respondents.
5Pew Research Center for People and the Press, “Economic Concerns Fueled by Many Woes,” May 11-15, 2005, 1,502 respondents.
6Current Population Survey, March Supplement, 2005.

Anne Kim is the Director of the Middle Class Project at Third Way, Adam Solomon is the Chairman of StoneWater Capital LLC and a Third Way Trustee, and Jim Kessler is the Vice President for Policy at Third Way.

Sorting Out A Few Straw Men

By Ed Kilgore
Batting cleanup here, I’d like to note there’s something of a “myth” underlying the “redistricting myth.” It’s that most of the discussion of redistricting reform (a) stipulates redistricting as the primary cause of the decline in competitive legislative contests, and (b) is motivated by the desire to explain away Republican control of the U.S. House, and excuse Democratic timidity in challenging it.
Not being a political scientist, I’m not that familiar with the academic literature on redistricting. But most of us who have promoted redistricting reform as a worthy priority for Democrats don’t deny that factors like ideological realignment, incumbent power, and money have contributed to the decline in competitive districts, and would agree with Krasno and Abramowitz that Democrats have to make their own luck regardless of the districting landscape. In other words, the “myth” Krasno attacks is something of a straw man.
I have read some of Alan Abramowitz’s work on this subject, and have to say that his sole focus on turnover trends in the first election after decennial redistricting makes his argument less convincing than would otherwise be the case; it ignores both extended redistricting incidents and less immediate effects on incumbents (e.g., the wave of endangered Democrats who retired in 1994). I’d also be interested in learning if there’s any significant research on state legislative redistricting, where the technological ability to gerrymander districts is reinforced by the blatant conflict of interest involved in self-mapping. The complete elimination of competitive state legislative races in Florida and California since the last redistricting is pretty hard to blame on any other factor.
More importantly, Thomas Schaller is spot-on in arguing that even if redistricting is not a major cause of uncompetitive districts, it could represent a major solution. Entrenched incumbents can be exposed to greater competition; parties can be encouraged to recruit more salable candidates; the battleground can be expanded simply by reducing the safe behind-the-lines areas.
It’s a separate question, of course, as to whether large-D Democratic interests as well as small-d democratic values would be advanced through a systemic effort to increase competition in any one state or nationally. I would hope there is some residual sentiment that the two ought to coincide.
But I hope discussions like this one do not succeed in squelching the debate over redistricting reform. The next decennial round of map-making is now just ahead, and the U.S. Supreme Court has now ensured that mid-decade re-redistricting will likely become a familiar part of the political landscape. So we Democrats need to make up our minds how we feel about redistricting as a positive strategic exercise-not as an excuse for past defeats. Lord knows Republicans will continue to use redistricting as a partisan tool as ruthlessly as they have in this decade.
In any event, it would be helpful to disentangle redistricting from the very different issue of national targeting of congressional districts. I don’t doubt the DCCC has been too pessimistic in targeting in the recent past. But let’s not forget objective reality as a factor. To read some bloggers, you’d think the reason we are having a debate over targeting 70 or 100 or 200 enemy districts is simply because energized activists have the courage to take the fight to the opponent, and the DC establishment is reluctantly going along. Actually, the expanded battlefield represents little more than the political consequences of Republican misgovernment, making relatively safe GOP seats vulnerable. There are always limits to what activists, party committees, candidates or strategists can accomplish. The relative ability of Democrats to produce results in the real world of governing will have more to do with our future success than all the other factors combined.

OK, But Dems Could Benefit from Strategic Redistricting

By Thomas F. Schaller
Although I have great confidence in the empirical findings of Jon Krasno and Alan Abramowitz regarding the impact of gerrymandering on U.S. House competitiveness, their conclusions do not preclude Democrats from trying to win as many governorships and state legislative seats between now and 2010 in order to exercise maximum possible influence during the next round of redistricting. At that point, in many states a real opportunity for Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) members will present itself: Will they gamble a bit of electoral security in exchange for a promise of greater party or committee power if and when Democrats recapture the House majority?
Regardless of their race or the racial composition of their districts, far too many Democrats in the U.S. House are representing too-safe districts, a reality which prevents the party from maximizing its House seat share. The “unholy alliance” forged between Republicans and minority Democrats led to the election of more CBC and CHC members to Congress, but also more Republicans. As well, many white Democrats enjoy unusual electoral security. A new alliance between white and minority Democrats must be forged, with the goal of redrawing the 2012 maps to enable Democrats to recapture-or, if already recaptured, retain-a House majority.
To understand the extent of the problem, look at the figure below, which depicts the Partisan Voting Index of all 435 House districts, as published by the Cook Political Report. PVI measures the congressional district performance of presidential candidates during the past two presidential cycles: Positive numbers indicate districts Bush carried in 2000 and 2004, and vice versa for the Kerry/Gore districts. For visual clarity, the Democratic districts were signed positively and then all 435 districts were arrayed, left to right, from the most Democratic district (Jose Serrano’s NY16 = -43.4 percent margin for Kerry) to the most Republican (Chris Cannon’s UT3 = +26.2 margin for Bush).
Notice that, including Serrano’s, there were 31 districts with higher Democratic PVIs than Bush’s 26.2 margin in Cannon’s Utah district. This is troubling. Indeed, Democratic voters are distributed so inefficiently than the 199 Democratic-leaning districts on the left side comprise a greater total area than the 236 Republican districts on the right side. Given that Bush’s combined popular vote from 2000 and 2004 exceeds that of Gore and Kerry combined, what explains the apparent paradox of the right side containing less area than the left? The answer is simple: The bars in the figure are percentages, not absolute vote margins, and only if turnout were identical in every district would the Republican side necessarily be larger.1
Turnout is far from identical, however. Consider the accompanying table, which reports the 2004 turnouts from 20 districts: a set of 10 Democratic districts and another 10 Republican districts with almost the same, opposite-signed PVI scores. The average turnout in the 10 Republican districts was 253,837, compared to just 214,121 in the 10 Democratic districts-about 40,000 fewer votes, or 16 percent lower turnout. These differences cannot be explained by the 2004 presidential contest, because the only swing-state district among the 20 is Democrat Gwendolyn Moore’s 5th District in Wisconsin which, not coincidentally, had the highest turnout of the 20. Despite Moore’s total, the 10 Republican-represented districts still had higher turnout. Notice that all but two of the 10 Democrats (New York’s Carolyn Maloney and California’s Howard Berman) are CBC or CHC members.
Because socioeconomic status affects turnout, the majority-minority districts represented by these mostly black and Hispanic members feature some of the lowest turnouts in the country. Can anyone blame their constituents for not showing up? If they live in a non-swing state with a safe Democratic incumbent running literally, if not virtually unopposed, why bother? Many racial minorities also reside in non-competitive state legislative districts. As my colleague Tyson King-Meadows and I report in our new book, Devolution and Black State Legislators, typically about 90 percent of black state legislators win with at least 60 percent of the vote, with 60 percent winning with at least 90 percent! When and where possible Democrats should try to produce a more competitive set of maps in 2012 which, though still ensuring the election or re-election of minority Democrats, also induce higher turnout among Democratic base voters. To accomplish this, in any state where they exert power over the redistricting process Democrats should duplicate what might be called the Cummings-Wynn model from the 2000 round of redistricting in Maryland.
Prior to 2002, in a state that was overwhelming Democratic in both legislative chambers and had not elected a Republican governor since 1966, Maryland’s eight-member U.S. House delegation was split, four seats for each party. The Democratic governor, Parris Glendening, along with the Democratic Senate President and House Speaker created a new map to tip the state’s split delegation in favor of Democrats, six seats to two. How? African American voters from black Congressman Al Wynn’s Prince George’s-based 4th District were moved into Republican Connie Morella’s 8th District, and white suburban voters from Howard County were moved into black Congressman Elijah Cummings’ 7th District to free up extra Democrats for the 2nd District that Robert Ehrlich had vacated to run for governor. Capturing both seats required Cummings and Wynn to run in slightly less favorable and familiar districts. Yet Cummings and Wynn still won re-election easily.
The lesson of the Cummings-Wynn approach is simple: CBC and CHC Democrats have the surplus voters the party can redistribute elsewhere to create a larger set of competitive districts. This is an asset CBC and CHC members should neither horde nor bargain away. If Nancy Pelosi wants to be the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, she should broker a deal with black and Hispanic members of her caucus in which they agree to assume a bit more electoral risk in exchange for two promises: (1) that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will rally behind any black or Hispanic incumbent who faces a serious primary or general election challenge; and (2) that the CBC and CHC will be granted greater leadership or committee roles if the bargain helps produce a new Democratic majority. (Democrats should do the same with state legislative maps, because the identical problem of over-packed majority-minority districts also exists in many states.)
In previous decades, African-American and Hispanic elites could hardly be blamed for doing what was necessary to break through the electoral glass ceiling. But the 2010 redistricting will be the fifth since the Supreme Court ruled malapportionment unconstitutional in the 1960s. Black and Hispanic legislators today are political enterprisers with their own personal constituencies, well-earned reputations, legislative accomplishments, and fundraising abilities. In addition to these advantages, do they really need districts so overwhelmingly packed with Democrats that they either run unopposed or against token opposition? What black and Hispanic Democrats in Congress need is more power. To obtain it, they should collude white Democrats in an effort to apply the Cummings-Wynn model wherever possible.

1Theoretically, it is also possible because populations of districts change during the course of a decade following reapportionment, as well as the complicating matter of at-large districts in the seven states which have only one House seat. But these differences are small; the main contributing factor is lower average turnout in Democratic districts.

Thomas F. Schaller is associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South (Simon & Schuster, October 2006).

Compete and Reach Everywhere

By Jerome Armstrong
Jonathan Krasno is right – the “lack of effort” by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in too many congressional districts has got to end. The DCCC has failed to adapt their strategies to the organizing possibilities that have emerged this decade, and they continue to make expenditures that ignore the reality of the changing media landscape. So what should be done?
Krasno noted that in 1992 the “parties invested half of the money they spent in congressional elections in 84 districts,” but by 2004, the number of seats on which half the money was spent had dropped to just 11. At least, given the historical opportunity, the DCCC this cycle has done a good enough job of recruiting that it is targeting more top-tier races than just the amount needed to gain a mere majority in the House.
Yet, for too many contests, the DCCC just hasn’t provided any resources to the Democratic candidates making the challenge. The “why” of this question is something that’s taken up in the “Gravy Train” chapter of Crashing the Gate, the book I wrote with Markos Moulitsas, but what about the “how” of the matter? Let me offer an example that embraces the potential for engaging the millions of partisans that can be reached online and radically changes the political landscape to one in which we can compete everywhere.
Rather than ridiculing efforts made to compete everywhere, imagine if the DCCC leadership had embraced fielding a candidate in all 235 of the Republican congressional districts and then challenged the online netroots and grassroots activists to match their efforts. So, for example, the DCCC would pledge – barring some unusual circumstance – an amount (say $20,000) to every single Democratic congressional nominee challenging a Republican, and that contribution would be contingent upon the challenger/activists matching it with small contributions from 200 individuals from within the congressional district. So, for that investment of about $5 million, the DCCC would have gained about fifty thousand small-dollar donors in every part of the nation. But more than just challenging every Republican, every congressional district would have the beginnings of a progressive infrastructure, and every conservative stronghold would begin to be challenged by progressive ideas. I realize I’d get complaints for the amount of money being proposed, but for an organization that spent $10 million on broadcast television the last week of the 2004 campaign, only to badly lose five congressional districts in Texas, it’d be tough to take their hesitancy seriously.
Instead, we read that the DCCC has reserved time for about $30 million worth of campaign television advertising this fall in about two dozen congressional districts (and probably with a media strategy that continues to eschew cable in favor of broadcast, in a related failure to adapt to the changing media landscape).
Money always seems to be near the root of the resistance, and as Mark Schmitt pointed out in his response, there are consultants that make a lot of money while giving advice to keep the current system in place. It would be foolish to ignore the money, and an exhaustive study of how the Democratic organizations spend their money this cycle is needed—especially regarding media expenditures. Not only do we need to “compete everywhere”, but also we need a strategy to “reach everywhere”. At best, the reach of broadcast television is about 35 percent of the population now, and 2006 Democratic media strategists who deny the ability of niche media to reach the other 65 percent of potential voters do so at the cost of a Democratic majority.
“Competing everywhere” and “reaching everywhere” are not merely requests from the people that make up the Democratic Party—they are demands. A solution is already in place (ActBlue.com) to allow partisan activists to completely bypass the Democratic committees in favor of giving directly to competitive candidates everywhere who operate modern campaigns. As the prominent Democratic contributor Andy Rappaport conceded in Crashing the Gate, “We haven’t created a parallel leadership structure” within the Democratic Party– at least not yet:

For better or worse, there are still people in positions of leadership and visibility that are still either driven by or represent or are on the side of the consultants. Even though people are becoming a little bit more frustrated or a lot more frustrated, we haven’t yet constructed anything else in which they can believe—that’s our most important and medium-term challenge. It is to make this not just an intellectual discussion but really to have a parallel leadership structure.

More on the Redistricting Myth

By Alan I. Abramowitz
Jonathan Krasno’s analysis of redistricting and competition in House elections is right on the money. As Brad Alexander, Matt Gunning, and I recently argued in The Journal of Politics1, redistricting has been a minor factor in the decline of competition in House elections. There are fewer marginal House districts today than there were 20 or 30 years ago, but that’s mainly because of demographic change and ideological realignment within the electorate, not redistricting. The same trend can be seen at the state and county level even though the boundaries of states and counties have not changed. But there are more than enough marginal districts to produce a swing of at least 15 seats, which is all that Democrats need in 2006 to regain control of the House.
What is required to shift a substantial number of House seats, and what has been lacking in recent elections, is a combination of a strong national tide and quality challengers in districts with potentially vulnerable incumbents. Both of these conditions appear to be present in 2006. George Bush’s approval rating remains stuck below 40 percent. The Republican Congress is even less popular. As a result, Democrats have held a consistent lead of 10-12 points in the “generic vote” for Congress. And Democrats have recruited enough quality challengers to put a substantial number of Republican seats in play. In the most recent Cook Political Report, 14 GOP seats were classified as tossups and 21 were classified as leaning Republican. Not one Democratic seat was classified as a tossup and only 10 were classified as leaning Democratic. While the 2006 midterm election is unlikely to produce a shift of the magnitude of 1994, a Democratic gain of at least 15 seats is well within the realm of possibility.

1Alan Abramowitz, Brad Alexander, and Matthew Gunning, “Incumbency, Redistricting, and the Decline of Competition in U.S. House Elections,” Journal of Politics, 68 (1), February 2006, 75-88.

The Benefits of Long-Term Thinking

By Mark Schmitt
I agree with almost everything in Jon’s piece, so I want to start my comments from Jon’s last point, which is that parties target races too narrowly, and work back from there.
Sixteen years ago, when I was new to Washington, I heard Newt Gingrich, who was then not yet his party’s leader in the House, decry a “culture of corruption” in Congress on a Sunday talk show. He identified six House Democrats who he thought exemplified this culture, all touched by scandals, mostly trivial.
I quickly wrote an article that appeared in Roll Call noting that all six of Gingrich’s poster-children had been left essentially unopposed in the previous few election cycles. That is, they either had no Republican opponent, or that opponent was woefully underfunded and got no help from the national Republican Party, and therefore the GOP bore plenty of responsibility for their continued presence in Congress. These members continued to hold their seats, I wrote, “because of the Republicans’ failure to build a party that reaches down to the grassroots level of politics,” which was true at the time.
I would hate to think that my advice helped Gingrich figure out that he needed to contest these seats, at least one of which his party now holds, and I’m sure it didn’t. He didn’t need me to tell him that he needed to build a party from the bottom up. My point was basically, “put up or shut up” about the culture of corruption. To his credit, Gingrich put up. He knew that a party had not just an electoral opportunity but a duty to fight what it saw as corruption first in the electoral arena, before turning to the Ethics Committee or the Courts.
So the situation is the same for Democrats today: Democrats bear almost no responsibility for the culture of corruption in Congress, but they nonetheless should be ashamed of one thing: leaving Bob Ney, John Doolittle, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Jerry Lewis, Duncan Hunter, and others largely unopposed. While most of these soon-to-be jailbirds had many hundreds of thousands or millions to spend on their reelections, their opponents, entirely ignored by the Democratic establishment, had nothing – averaging somewhere in the low five digits. The corrupt incumbents still would probably have won their heavily Republican districts (some gerrymandered, others just naturally partisan districts) but an adequately funded opponent might at least have called some attention to their misbehavior. And when the indictment comes, or the national tide arrives, there’s no better opponent to take advantage of the moment than one who has run before.
So I think that a party has not just a tactical reason, but a moral obligation to not whine about gerrymandered districts but to put up meaningful alternatives wherever possible. In “ordinary” elections, that may seem like a waste of money and energy, but it will pay off in years like this one. And to do otherwise is simply to choose not to be a national party, to have no presence in the lives of the many Democrats who live in red states.
Now, were I to make this argument to one of the professionals who, let’s say, runs one of the Democratic committees, I can imagine the answer: “Thanks for informing me of my ‘moral obligation,’ college boy! Look, I got one obligation and one only: to make Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House in January (or Harry Reid majority leader). You want me to waste money on some schmuck who’s running in a district drawn by Bob Ney for Bob Ney, where Bush got 55%? What if I put money in there, and then lose one of the ten districts where we have a real shot?”
I don’t think that viewpoint is represented in this forum, but it is a common attitude. But there are two assumptions embedded in it that need to be challenged: First, that resources are finite. I heard a leading Democrat complain the other day that all the money going to Ned Lamont’s primary challenge to Joe Lieberman in Connecticut could be put to better use on behalf of Democratic candidates Claire McCaskill in Missouri or Jim Webb in Virginia. And it’s hard to argue with that – if you assume there is a fixed pot of money from a fixed group of Democratic donors that must be allocated with care. But all evidence from the last few elections suggests that’s not the case. The number of donors to Democratic candidates tripled between 1998 and 2004. The two Democratic campaign committees outraised the Republicans in the last reporting cycle, an amazing achievement considering that Democrats possess none of the committee chairmanships or positions of power that can usually be used to leverage campaign donations. Excitement, sense of possibility, a sense of a real, meaningful national party with a message, and the presence of big issues – these are the things that are driving Democratic fundraising. And when candidates like Lamont, or Howard Dean before him, bring in new donors, those donors probably aren’t limited to that first $250. There’s no reason that the $250 Lamont donor can’t be persuaded to give another $250 to McCaskill or Webb later in the fall, and that donor is now on a list. Exciting candidates running against particularly vile Republicans, like Richard Morrison in his challenge to DeLay in 2004, can also generate new donors. But it’s hard for the Democratic establishment – accustomed to the 1990s, when the pool of Democratic donors was most definitely finite – to think in terms of possibilities rather than limits.
The second assumption is a linear analysis of the value of increasing spending. The parties tend to assume that targeting is essential because the more money they can put into a race, the more likely they are to win it. So a few top-tier races, such as New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid’s challenge to Rep. Heather Wilson, have millions of dollars poured into them, while scores of other Democratic candidates plod along with barely enough money to buy palm cards. The Democratic operative who insists that he needs to put more money into one of the handful of swing races assumes that the $300,000 that takes Madrid from $1.8 million to $2.1 million is worth at least as much as the $300,000 that takes a second-tier candidate from $250,000 to $550,000. But it’s not. And here Jon Krasno’s previous work is very relevant. He is the scholar who demonstrated that there are severely diminishing returns to additional spending on campaigns, even when both candidates are spending a lot. Another $300,000 to Madrid will make little difference to her chances of winning, whereas the same sum to a good but underfunded candidate running in a district that looks tough on paper might actually put the race in play.
(Incidentally, that’s why I favor campaign finance reform that focuses on public financing, rather than limits on spending or contributions. I’m more concerned with getting more candidates to the point of viability, so that they can effectively challenge a Ney or DeLay, than with chasing after the endless loopholes by which those in power raise more money.)
This is not unique to politics; in all areas of life, people have a tendency to misjudge the value of big investment for a high payoff vs. a smaller investment in a longer shot. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis told exactly the same story in terms of baseball – how the Oakland A’s realized that they could stay competitive by investing in a good number of under-appreciated players, while richer teams fell over each other to overpay a few established stars, many of whom didn’t work out anyway.
But there is also the factor that in politics, a lot of the key decision-makers have a personal investment in the system of targeting. The political consultants who get rich – those who get media commissions, those who do mail and to a lesser degree pollsters – don’t make their money off a handful of moderately funded campaigns. They make it off the big scores, the campaigns like Madrid-Wilson, or better, the self-funded millionaires. For the media consultant, there is no diminishing return to that extra $300,000 – it pays the same $45,000 commission either way.
So Jon’s argument goes well beyond, “Does redistricting matter?” There’s a whole system of incentives and assumptions that work together to narrow the field and protect incumbents, and the myth of gerrymandering tends to obscure those assumptions, and prevent them from being challenged.

The Redistricting Myth

By Jonathan Krasno
The conventional wisdom about congressional elections is that redistricting has made about 90 percent of House seats so heavily Republican or Democratic that they are out of reach for the other side. This comes up repeatedly in discussion of recent polls showing trouble for the GOP this fall. Experts caution that public opinion will only matter in the relative handful of districts where real competition is possible.
This extreme view of redistricting’s impact is simply wrong. How district lines are drawn does affect who wins and loses elections. But the argument that the mapmakers have managed to wring almost all of the potential competition out of the system vastly overstates the case and manages to make a bad situation worse.
Politicians have always wanted safe seats, and in the last decade mapping software has made it easier to draw those sorts of districts. Mapmakers’ handiwork is supposedly reflected in the 2004 House results: just 22 House races were decided by 10 points or less (of the two-party vote), the lowest number of close elections in more than 50 years.
The problem with that evidence is that districts are not the only reason why elections may be lopsided. For example, two thirds of House candidates in 2004 outspent their opponents by more than 5 to 1. It is no surprise when those candidates run up huge margins over their outgunned rivals.
That is one reason why academics often use presidential elections to measure the underlying partisan balance in a region. Sure enough, the presidential results from 2004 reveal a much different picture: President Bush or Senator Kerry prevailed by 10 points or less in 102 districts. That is actually a small number for such a close election, but it still suggests that there are far more potentially competitive districts than the House results reveal.
I could incorporate more elections or use fancier statistics, but I would still find a fair number of closely-drawn districts. It is worth remembering that this standard of “closeness” is entirely arbitrary; plenty of Democrats and Republicans have shown that they can win in areas where their party is a distinct minority.
If district lines do not explain the lack of competitive House elections, what does? Incumbents do their share in other ways. Sitting politicians work constantly to publicize their good deeds, using all of the advantages that come from holding an important office. It seems to work: polls show that citizens have a much higher opinion of their own member of Congress than of Congress itself.
But this, too, is an old story. Incumbents have been using their offices to build name recognition and good will for years. Unless one believes that they have become better at this over the last decade, incumbency cannot explain the striking decline in the number of close elections.
The best explanation is deceivingly simple: lack of effort. That is not to say that the main actors in congressional elections – candidates, parties, interest groups, and the media – do not work hard. Rather, these players have increasingly come to focus their attention on the group of races they find most competitive, essentially ignoring a growing number of campaigns.
For example, consider the actions of the political parties. Parties are an important source of funds for many congressional campaigns, and their decisions influence other donors. In 1992, parties invested half of the money they spent in congressional elections in 84 districts; in 2004 they spent half in just 11.
It is tempting to conclude that parties are merely responding to political reality. That is certainly true, but it is also true that parties and other big players help create that reality. Where good candidates run – with financial support from their party and the resulting media coverage – elections are cliffhangers. Where they do not, or they receive little funding or coverage, the results are foregone conclusions, no matter how evenly balanced a district may be.
Francine Busby as an under-funded nobody barely registered against Duke Cunningham in 2004. Francine Busby as a Democratic priority almost won the special election to succeed Cunningham in 2006. It is true that Busby’s funding was not the only difference between 2004 and 2006 – Cunningham went to jail in the interim – but no Democrat would have stood a chance without a substantial campaign. And with serious resources, she surely would have given Cunningham more of a race in 2004.
New York State is another good illustration of how these factors play out. The Democrats are reportedly planning to target as many as six of the nine seats held by the GOP. They targeted none of them in 2004, spending just under $12,000 in all nine combined. And, none of the Democrats came within 10 points of the Republican winner.
Obviously, party leaders feel that 2006 offers better opportunities – even though district lines are unchanged – and they are probably right. If they back that up with money, the candidates they help will have a better chance of competing and winning.
Therein lies the danger for Republicans in recent polls. If the polls convince the Democrats that they can win in more places, they might just try. And, if they try, more of their candidates will do better. The lottery motto applies: you’ve got to be in it to win it. That advice applies equally well to both parties. The difference is that the Democrats, as the minority party, have more to gain by maximizing their pick-up opportunities. And if either party is going to pick up many seats in 2006, it will be the Democrats.
That is why all the rhetoric about redistricting is so counterproductive, especially for the Democrats. The perception that competition is impossible in so many places gives parties, candidates, groups and the media an excuse for ignoring these races, and leaves most voters without any real choice for Congress. Coincidently, that perception also happens to be wrong. Politicians and their allies just need to believe that they can make a race of it in many areas, and they probably can. The question for 2006 is whether the Democrats will believe.
Jonathan Krasno is an associate professor of political science at Binghamton University.

Do We Care About the Future?

By John W. Wilhelm
If demography is destiny, then the Democratic Party may be destined to permanent minority status if it is unwilling to squarely appeal to the surging immigrant population, especially Latinos. Consider a few critical trends. (Hispanic statistics are used here because they are available, but similar trends pertain to those coming to the U.S. from all over the world.)
— In just the last four years, the Hispanic population in the United States has grown by 14 percent to 40 million people versus only 2 percent growth for the non-Hispanic population. By the year 2020, the projected Hispanic population will top 60 million.
— As the Latino population grows, its composition is undergoing an underlying change. Births to Hispanic immigrants, rather than immigration itself, will be the key source of population growth in the near future. By 2020, second-generation Hispanics (i.e., citizens) are projected to reach 21.7 million in number, representing 36 percent of the overall Hispanic population, up from 9.9 million in 2000, when they represented 28 percent. As the white and African-American baby boom generation reaches retirement age, young Hispanics are filling in. In the year 2000, the U.S. Census reported that the median age of Hispanics, at 26 years, was nearly ten years younger than non-Hispanics. More than one-third of Hispanics are under the age of eighteen. These trends will continue regardless of our border policies, and native-born, English-speaking, U.S.-educated Hispanics will have a much greater voting impact on the country than their parents did.
— The Hispanic population is growing faster in much of the Republican Party-dominated South than anywhere else in the United States. North Carolina (394%), Arkansas (337%), Georgia (300%), Tennessee (278%), South Carolina (211%) and Alabama (208%) registered the highest rate of increase in their Hispanic populations of any states in the U.S. between 1990 and 2000, except for Nevada (217%). To be sure, these numbers started from a small base – between 293,000 and 1.2 million in the six southern states – but the trend is expected to continue. Notably, Hispanic voters in the South gave George Bush 53 percent of their votes in 2004.
— The Hispanic electorate is growing much faster than the non-Hispanic electorate. Between the 2000 vote and the election this November, the number of eligible Latino voters will have increased by about 20 percent — six times faster than the non-Hispanic population. Based on the most recent population data available, 40 percent of Hispanics, 15.7 million people, were eligible voters in 2003. Going forward, applying the same eligibility percentage to the expected 2020 Hispanic population suggests that it will grow to 24 million eligible voters, an increase of 52 percent.
Democrats may gloat that the Republican Party’s intramural brawl over immigration will do for national Democrats what California Governor Pete Wilson’s Prop. 187 did in the 1990s for Democrats in California, namely turn the Republican Party into a minority party.
Not so fast. While the leadership of a number of Democrats in the current immigration debate is helpful, too many Democrats (and their political consultants) are frightened of this issue. Indeed, a March 28 survey by the Center for American Progress shows legal immigrants giving both political parties low marks for the job they have done so far on immigration policy. While just 22 percent of Republicans received a positive rating, Democrats and the President scored little better at 38 percent and 32 percent respectively. This suggests that immigrant voter attitudes are still in play. Many of these new arrivals are newcomers to the U.S. political system, with no strong loyalties to any political institution and uncertain in their partisanship.
And who knows – the enlightened wing of the Republican Party shows signs of standing up to the Tancredo wing and rescuing their party from losing this growing bloc of voters. If Democrats treat it as a spectator sport, we can expect to see a continued erosion of votes for Democratic politicians.
The Bush experience is instructive. First as Texas governor and then in the White House, Mr. Bush has wisely tried to burnish his pro-immigrant image. And it is working. Among Hispanics in particular, he has made enormous progress. Bob Dole won 21 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1996; Mr. Bush improved that to 35 percent in 2000 and again to 44 percent in 2004.
The recent unprecedented outpouring of immigrants (not just Latinos) in marches all across the country ought to make clear that politicians and their parties risk losing this increasing bloc of voters by endorsing punishing measures aimed at immigrants.
In the context of a deeply polarized electorate, the shallow attachments many Latinos have to political parties in the U.S. make them attractive potential recruits to both parties. How attractive?

  • Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada together have 47 electoral votes.
  • In Arizona, where over 1.5 million votes were cast in the last presidential election, the Latino voting-age population is 16 percent of the electorate. Eighty percent of Latinos are native-born. There are about 337,600 unregistered Latino voters.
  • In Nevada, Latinos make up 13 percent of the voting-age population. Since the last presidential election, the number of eligible Latinos in Nevada has increased by about 50 percent, and Latinos account for about half of all the increase in the Nevada electorate. About two-thirds of the Latino eligible voters in Nevada are native-born. There are an estimated 126,600 unregistered Latino voters.
  • In Florida, 14 percent of the voting-age population is Latino. The fastest growth has been among native-born Latinos, who account for 83 percent of the new eligible Latinos. There are an estimated 568,700 unregistered Latino voters. Florida Hispanics increasingly are from countries other than Cuba.
  • In New Mexico, Latinos comprise 40 percent of the voting-age population. An estimated 203,900 Latinos are unregistered.

Just over the horizon, a political tidal wave is swelling in immigrant communities. It is still anybody’s guess who will get drowned out and who will ride the wave.
There is, of course, much more than the future of politics at stake here.
Economic growth is also at stake: because the native-born American work force will shrink over the next two decades, continued immigration is critical to our ability to grow the economy.
Most of all, this is a justice issue.
America was built by successive waves of immigrants, whether they came here voluntarily or involuntarily. The genius of this country has been its repeated ability to rejuvenate and re-energize itself with new immigrants, to fight against nativism and racism, to enable all of them to become Americans and to stand, eventually, alongside earlier arrivals, all woven together into the great tapestry of America.
Memories of who stands up for justice last a long time. Catholics voted overwhelmingly Democratic for generations, stemming from nativist Republican anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic positions in the first part of the twentieth century. African Americans have voted overwhelmingly Democratic for almost fifty years, in spite of the legacy of Lincoln, because of the civil rights movement.
Justice speaks loud. All Americans should follow the welcome leadership of many Catholics on immigration as a human rights issue. The fact that the political future is also at stake should be a bonus.

NOTE: This article draws from U.S. Census data, published survey data from the Pew Hispanic Center, published survey research of the Tarrance/Bendixen Firms, and published research of the Center for American Progress.

Raid the Red Zone

by Will Marshall
After stewing in impotent rage for six long years, Democrats at last see their chance to stage a comeback. President Bush’s public approval is in free fall, the GOP-controlled Congress is begrimed by corruption scandals and special interest pig-outs, and conservatives are falling out over basic questions of war, government spending, immigration and environmental health.
Let’s enjoy the moment. But let’s also resist the temptation to see the GOP’s swoon as evidence of an irreversible slide, or of a chastened public finally willing to admit Democrats were right all along. The same voters who are disillusioned with the Bush Republicans consistently tell pollsters they have yet to hear a persuasive case for change from the other side.
Still, the oh-so-slender GOP majority is in trouble because independents and moderates seem ready to defect in droves. If Democrats can make inroads among these voters this year, then pick a 2008 nominee whose themes resonate in red states as well as blue, we could fashion a new progressive majority.
How to seize the opportunity? There are basically two choices. One, favored by many liberals and lefty bloggers, sees partisan belligerence as the key to mobilizing a Democratic majority. The idea is that by intensifying attacks on our opponents, we can galvanize the party faithful while also projecting the strength of conviction that swing voters have supposedly found lacking among Democrats.
But this approach is based more on wishful thinking than rigorous electoral analysis. The party’s core problem is not a pandemic of cowardice among its leaders, it is that there are not enough Democratic voters. Since the late 1990s, Democrats have been stuck at about 48 percent of the vote in national elections. Moreover, polarizing the electorate along ideological lines plays into Karl Rove’s hands because conservatives outnumber liberals three to two. Democrats need to win moderates by large margins, but moderates by definition resist strident partisanship and ideological litmus tests. The politics of polarization repels them.
To successfully raid the political red zone—the South, Mountain West, Great Plains and lower Midwest—Democrats instead need a politics of persuasion. It starts by acknowledging that moderates and independents have substantive reasons for swinging Republican in recent elections, including persistent doubts about Democrats on security, taxes and the role of government, as well as moral questions. Progressives need to meet these doubts head on, marshaling facts, arguments and new ideas to change the way persuadable voters think about Democrats.
For this, the party needs themes and ideas that limit its liabilities with persuadable voters and exploit growing fissures in the GOP coalition, as well as building on traditional Democratic strengths. Party strategists should pay close attention to Democrats who have won and governed effectively in red states. Tim Kaine’s victory in Virginia last year was especially encouraging as he did well in the fast-growing suburbs Bush overwhelming won in 2004. No less than three red-state Democrats, Bill Richardson, Tom Vilsack and Mark Warner, are hoping to parlay their local success into a race for the White House.
Their knowledge of tricky cultural terrain is essential, because building a durable majority requires that Democrats be competitive in every part of the country. We cannot continue to spot the GOP thirty states in national elections and have any chance of recapturing Congress or the White House. But cartography need not be destiny—not if Democrats finally get serious about rolling back the GOP’s red tide in America’s heartland.
To do that, Democrats must craft a creative governing agenda that is credible on national security, consonant with middle-class moral sentiments and economic aspirations, and committed to the radical reform of politics-as-usual in Washington.
Put Security First
Americans should not be complacent about the fact that we have not been hit by another terrorist attack since 9/11. The front in the struggle against Islamist extremism has simply shifted elsewhere: to Europe, Iraq, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia. In fact, the jihadist contagion is spreading, not contracting, as the Bush administration has somehow managed to lose ground in the ideological war against a fanatical creed that exults in barbaric violence against civilians.
This means security will continue to dominate national politics for the foreseeable future. It is axiomatic that the American people are not likely to give power to a party they do not trust to defend their values and keep them safe.
Democrats therefore must close the national security confidence gap that has dogged them since the era of Vietnam protests. This requires reclaiming, not abandoning, the party’s venerable tradition of muscular liberalism—the Truman-Kennedy legacy that helped America win the Cold War. Updated for new threats, it offers the best answer to the challenge of Islamist extremism today.
Specifically, Democrats need to do three things. First, we must put security first—and mean it. No more trying to change the subject to domestic policy, where we feel more comfortable. After World War II, the party’s platforms routinely led with national security, and its leaders consciously linked America’s defense of democratic values abroad to the pursuit of liberal goals at home. It is time for Democrats to be a full-spectrum party again, once more integrating our international and domestic policies in a seamless vision for advancing progressive ideals.
Second, Democrats must convince the public that we are ready to take over the fight against Islamist extremism. We must offer a comprehensive, long-range strategy that employs all our nation’s might, not just the blunt instrument of military power, to delegitimate the jihadist ideology and patiently nurture the spread of liberal ideas and democratic institutions throughout the greater Middle East.
Third, Democrats must recognize that since 9/11, patriotism has become the most potent values issue in US politics. More than anything else, we need to show the country a party unified behind a progressive patriotism that is determined to defend liberal values against Salafist totalitarians, succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq, close a yawning cultural gap between Democrats and the military, and summon a new spirit of national service and shared sacrifice to counter today’s politics of polarization.
Close the Cultural Gap
It is not enough to convince working families that Democrats will make them safer and take America’s side in international conflicts. A winning heartland strategy must also assure them that Democrats share their values.
The perceived erosion of “moral values” has played a key role in GOP successes in this decade, especially with rural voters and women. Although married women voted for Clinton in the 1990s, they preferred George Bush over Al Gore by 15 points in 2000. By 2004, the “marriage gap” had widened to 19 points.
What is it about getting married and having children that inclines parents toward the GOP? Barbara Whitehead calls it “lifestage conservativism,” noting that the transition to parenthood produces a new outlook on culture:

Parents have a beef with the popular culture. As they see it, the culture is getting ever more violent, materialistic, and misogynistic, and they are losing their ability to protect their kids from morally corrosive images and messages. To be credible, Democrats must acknowledge the legitimacy of parents’ beef and make it unmistakably clear that they are on parents’ side.

Whitehead advises Democrats to begin simply by honoring the vital work parents do in teaching their kids right from wrong. We should also equip parents with better tools to shield their kids from the onslaught of the consumer culture and aggressive corporate marketing campaigns. And there is no good reason for progressives to exempt the entertainment industry from the same kind of accountability we demand from corporations in general.
Along with a progressive, pro-family policy, Democrats need to reach out to religious voters. As Bill Galston has written, religious observance is now the most important cultural fault line in U.S. politics. On religion as on other culturally fraught issues, Democrats need to define themselves, lest voters default to GOP caricatures of a militantly secular party that has launched a “war on Christians.”
Democrats should start by affirming the formative role that faith has always played in shaping America’s civic culture. They should engage skeptical religious voters, not to pander to them but to challenge them to look at issues other than abortion and gay rights through the prism of their faith. All major faiths enjoin their adherents to care for the sick and the poor, to work for justice, not just material gain, and to preserve the natural world. Indeed, U.S. evangelical leaders increasingly speak of “creation care”—a religious duty to be responsible stewards of nature—and some have split openly with the Bush administration, which has done nothing to curtail global warming. This opens fascinating possibilities for progressives to forge alliances with evangelicals around a “green gospel” agenda to stop doing irreversible damage to the earth’s climate.
Of course it also helps to pick candidates who can relate genuinely to religious voters. A turning point in the Virginia governor’s race, for instance, came when Kaine’s Republican opponent attacked him for opposing the death penalty. Kaine assured voters he would enforce the state’s capital punishment laws, even though his Catholic faith led him to oppose the death penalty. By affirming the role that religion plays in shaping his moral outlook, Kaine won respect from socially conservative voters without changing his stance on the death penalty.
Champion Middle-Class Aspiration
It is an article of faith among liberals that cultural politics is preventing voters from recognizing that their economic interests lie with Democrats. There are two problems with this thesis: first, in post-industrial America, economic or material concerns don’t play as large a role in shaping voters’ choices as they previously did. Today’s voters do not neatly compartmentalize their pocketbook worries and their moral concerns. Second, as labor economist Stephen Rose shows in a forthcoming Progressive Policy Institute study, middle-class voters do not really see Democrats as champions of their economic interests. Instead, they identify Democrats most with means-tested social programs aimed at poor and working poor families.
In fact, the white working middle class (voters making between $30,000 and $75,000 a year) – once the heart of the New Deal coalition — is now the mainstay of the Republican majority. According to a study by Third Way, Bush beat John Kerry by a whopping 22 points among white middle-class voters.
The fast-growing suburbs and exurbs are these voters’ natural habitat. Bush won them overwhelmingly. A year later, however, Kaine ran strongly in key Virginia suburbs by avoiding highly partisan attacks, affirming his religious beliefs, and addressing voters’ concerns about growth, congestion and traffic.
Likewise, Democrats need a positive economic message that speaks to these voters’ aspirations, not their fears. Above all, they want to hear ideas that can help them get ahead and realize their ambitions, not alarmist rhetoric about how globalization is crushing their hopes. .
Push More Radical Reforms
For Democrats, there is one and only one benefit of being out of power: the chance to hang the corrupt status quo in Washington around GOP necks for a change and recast themselves as the insurgent party of radical reform. Yet we have flubbed the job so far, because we have been unwilling to embrace political and policy reforms big enough to match the problems before us. Faced with corruption, cronyism and misgovernment on a scale not seen since the “Great Barbecue” of the Grant years, Democrats have shown an unerring instinct for the capillaries rather than the political jugular.
Where are the big ideas that can protect our political system against the machinations of future Delays, Cunninghams and Abramoffs? Gift and travel bans and new disclosure requirements for lobbyists fall risibly short of the systemic changes we need to break up the incumbency self-protection racket, allow non-rich citizens to run for Congress and reduce the power of private money in our democracy.
At a minimum, Democrats ought to insist on replacing Congress’ toothless ethics committees with an independent body that can bring criminal charges against errant lawmakers. They should also back state efforts to create nonpartisan redistricting bodies charged with increasing the number of districts that are truly competitive. That would both undermine the structural underpinnings of today’s polarized politics and boost voter interest in elections. Most important, we should call for some form of public financing for Congressional elections. Nothing short of public funding will truly break the nexus between private cash, legislation and campaigns, or restore public confidence in the basic integrity of our national political system. Although pundits view it as quixotic, public financing may also be the only hope for passing progressive reforms across the spectrum of national needs, since the current system makes it very easy for special interests to block change even if they cannot always order up specific legislative outcomes.
Finally, Democrats need a broader agenda for policy reform, not just political reform. Historians likely will look back on the two Bush terms as the years the locusts ate. Our most pressing national problems—fiscal profligacy, over-consumption and regressive taxation, economic insecurity and inequality, runaway health costs and the vulnerability of uninsured millions, climate change and a debilitating petroleum addiction—have either been aggravated or ignored. Americans are tumbling to the reality that conservatives’ animus toward government makes them lousy at governing.
This should be a boon to Democrats, the natural party of public remedy. But crafting new ways to modernize underperforming public sector systems will bring the party’s unresolved tensions to the surface. Many Democrats, for example, cling to the illusion that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid can be preserved in their 1935 and 1965 incarnations. They reject later retirement as well as progressive indexing or means testing of benefits—both necessary to create a modern retirement system for a rapidly aging society. Some imagine latent public support for a government-dominated health program like Britain’s or Canada’s. Others continue to defend an archaic public education monopoly that is chronically failing poor and minority kids.
It is time for Democrats to abandon their “just say no” stance toward Social Security reform and instead offer a progressive plan for modernizing the system. We should dramatically expand public school choice, by making it possible for every public school to become an independent, self-managed charter school freed from the stifling grip of centralized bureaucracies. We should insist on a national “cap and trade” system for carbon and other greenhouse gases, a step that would also hasten the development of plug-in hybrid cars and other clean energy technologies and fuels. We should offer a tough plan to reimpose fiscal discipline, reduce the Bush budget deficits and make America’s tax code fair and progressive again. Following the example of Massachusetts, we should propose a decentralized path to universal health care, using a mix of public subsidies, access to purchasing pools similar to the one Members of Congress use and individual mandates to make sure that young and healthy people do not get a “free ride” on the system. And more.
Democrats face a big strategic choice. We can continue to be the default party, defining ourselves chiefly by partisan combativeness. Or we can become the reform party, offering compelling ideas for solving national problems. In theory we could do both but in practice it is a lot easier to unite the party around antipathy to conservatives than a new vision for governing. That is the well-worn path of least resistance, but Democrats today should play for higher stakes.

Give “Competence” Another Try: This Time it Might Work.

by Elaine Kamarck
In the 1988 presidential election, Michael Dukakis was pilloried – rightly – for running a soulless campaign whose message consisted of the phrase, “It’s not about ideology, it’s about competence.” But times change. That was before the Federal Government’s response to Hurricane Katrina so overwhelmed us with its incompetence that America was humiliated before the world. The response to Katrina, however, was only the most dramatic in a long series of government failures, from the planning of the war in Iraq, to the failure of the occupation, to the design of the Medicare prescription drug policy. At the Kennedy School of Government, where I teach, we have traditionally begun the required course in government management with a case study on the Chicago heat wave of 1995 where hundreds of people died before the government even knew what was happening. The message we try to convey to our students of government every year was brought home to the entire country in September of 2005: when the private sector fails to manage organizations well, people lose money; when the public sector fails to manage well, people die.
For decades, Democrats have suffered under the political albatross of being the party of big government. But in the past decade we have had several dramatic “teaching moments” in America; moments that just might allow us to change the political conversation going forward and get out from under this millstone. First came the government shutdown in early 1996. Lots of Americans learned that the federal government was everywhere – it was funding pieces of their state and local governments and it was funding charities like Catholic Charities. President Clinton won a fairly dramatic victory over that shutdown – to the surprise of the Republicans who had believed perhaps too much in their own small government rhetoric.
Next came the tragedy of 9/11 where the heroes were government workers – from the New York firefighters who ran into the collapsing buildings, to the cops, to the airmen, seamen and soldiers who took off into Afghanistan. In the aftermath of 9/11 “trust in government” leapt higher than it had been at any time since the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nothing like a tragedy to make people appreciate when and why government matters. While the trust-in-government numbers came down to more normal levels in the months after 9/11, the temporary spike served as a useful reminder that, in the end, the private sector does not keep us safe.
And then came Hurricane Katrina where government at all levels, but especially federal government, failed spectacularly. Once again, everyone understood that we needed a government that works. No one seriously thought that the private sector could have rescued New Orleans.
In just four years tragedy showed us that sometimes we really need government and that when we really need it we need it to work. Just as Democrats had no trouble agreeing on a message of opposition to Social Security privatization, they have had no trouble agreeing on a message about the incompetence of the current government. Focusing on competence allows those Democrats who voted for the war and those who voted against the war to have a unified message. No wonder that the opening of the Democratic response to the 2006 State of the Union focused on competence. The new Governor of Virginia, Tim Keane, summed up the argument as follows: “You know, no matter what political philosophy you hold or what state you call home, you have a right to expect that your government can deliver results.”
Competence is not a very rousing theme. It is not easily turned into a convention cheer. But for the upcoming mid-term elections it’s not a bad start for the Democrats. For six years now the Bush Administration has beaten up Democrats over values: patriotism, family, life – you name it. But they are in a tailspin now. Why? They can’t deliver results. They can’t get armor to troops in the field in Iraq, they can’t design a Medicare prescription drug program, they can’t save lives in a hurricane, they can’t protect American ports. This list of what they can’t do is fairly impressive. Think about it for a moment – maybe a political party that hates government is doomed to govern badly.
It is not just that competence is back – over the past six years the entire basis for disliking Democrats has been turned upside down. In 2001 a Republican president inherited a budget surplus; by 2008 a Republican president and a Republican Congress will have bequeathed record budget deficits. Numerous conservative think tanks and scholars have pointed this out as well as Democrats. So just who is the party of big government these days? And, perhaps more importantly, aren’t we entitled to some competence for all that money?
Republicans will try to argue that the Bush deficits are all about military and homeland defense, but the Cato Institute, not exactly a bastion of liberal apologists, has shown the fallacy of that argument. Looking at spending policy back to President Johnson, Stephen Slivinski says, “Contrast that with Bush’s presidency so far. He has presided over massive increases in almost every category. This is a dramatic change from previous presidents, when increases in defense spending were offset by cuts in non-defense spending…”
Democrats have a chance to morph their image as the party of government into the party of government that works. They should put together a robust reform agenda that focuses on the adaptations the federal government needs to make to protect America in this new era. To do that they should start with one simple but powerful proposal (championed by Senator Hillary Clinton): take FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) out of DHS (the Department of Homeland Security).
A government that can “deliver results” will stand in stark contrast to the current situation. Democrats voted for and against the Iraq War, but none of them thinks it has been led wisely. Democrats are the long-time champions of a prescription drug program, but no one thinks the bureaucratic mess that seniors are now muddling through is what the doctor ordered. Democrats do not have to solve every internal disagreement they have in order to go to the country with a pretty convincing case that the Administration is the “gang that can’t shoot straight” and that allowing a pliant and beaten Republican majority to control Congress has allowed a bad situation to get even worse.
Looking beyond the mid-terms, a government reform agenda can do for the Democratic candidate of 2008 what “reinventing government” did for Bill Clinton in 1992: show that he or she is attuned to the fact that government needs to work better and more efficiently than it does now. This was an important message for Clinton to deliver in 1992 since it helped him show people that he was a “different kind of Democrat.” In 2008 a new version of that message, re-worked around the theme of government competence, will be a welcome change from the record of the previous Administration.
In the long run focusing on the competence issue will be the political equivalent of making lemonade out of lemons. Democrats need to take the fact that they created the modern federal government and show that they are uniquely qualified to make it work. This means a non-stop reform effort, one that will sometimes displease the government workers unions that now constitute the largest portion of the American labor movement. This means taking on entrenched interest groups that benefit from government ineptness. This means a constant drive towards productivity in government as a way of moving the Democrats away from the party of big government to the party that provides the government that you need.