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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

Is the Senate a Field of Broken Progressive Dreams?

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on March 30, 2009
Jonathan Chait has penned a very interesting and important article in the New Republic today about the institutional barriers to Democratic unity, and to achievement of any coherent progressive agenda, posed by the Congress, and especially the U.S. Senate. He covers a lot of ground in this piece, from the floor rules that make 60 votes necessary to pass important legislation, to the “small-state” bias of the Senate’s constitutional structure, which exaggerates conservative power, to the chaotic culture of 100-sun-kings that makes senators resist discipline, to the committee system that gives certain sun kings an outsized ability to shape legislation.
If anything, I think Chait understates the importance of this last factor. Seniority-based committee and subcommittee chairmanships are, after all, the primary magnet for special-interest campaign contributions, and also a powerful reinforcer for legislative parochialism, which enables the committee baron to survive adverse political trends by bringing home and defending the bacon in a way that a replacement senator couldn’t hope to achieve.
Chait’s more controversial theme is that Democrats have a much harder time negotiating senatorial landmines than Republicans. This he attributes to a combination of historical patterns, the influence of business interests, and a tradition of ideological hedge-betting against Democratic presidents.
On history:

Since Democrats controlled the Congress almost continuously for more than 60 years beginning in 1933, the culture of Congress left a deeper imprint on their party. Republicans, shut out from the perks of majority status, finally decided under the opposition leadership of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s that their only path to power lay in partisan discipline.
Democrats, on the other hand, came of age under the old Democratic chieftains, and they have mostly aped that style. They do not fall in line, even under a Democratic president who mostly shares their goals.

On business interests:

[T]he affluent carry disproportionate political weight with elites in both parties. So, while people who earn more than $250,000 per year make up just a tiny slice of the electorate, they make up a huge chunk of any congressman’s friends, acquaintances, and fund-raisers.
What’s more, whatever their disposition toward business in general, Democrats feel it is not just a right but a duty to slavishly attend to the interests of their home-state businesses. That is why Kent Conrad upholds even the most absurd demands of agribusiness, or why even a good-government progressive like Michigan’s Carl Levin parrots the auto industry’s line on regulating carbon dioxide.
Taken as a whole, then, the influence of business and the rich unites Republicans and splits Democrats.

And on bet-hedging:

Democrats have locked themselves into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When their party controls all of Washington, things tend to go south quickly. The president’s popularity plunges, and soon his copartisans in Congress find themselves scrambling to keep from losing their own seats in the political undertow. It happened to Carter in 1978 and 1980, and again to Clinton in 1994.
And, so, they hedge their bets by carving out an independent identity. It doesn’t matter that Obama is popular now, or that a majority of Americans (according to a recent Pew poll) reject the criticism that he’s “trying to do too much.” If Obama defies history and retains his popularity, they’ll retain their seats anyway. They have to worry about the scenario where Obama turns into an albatross.

It’s all a pretty persuasive case, and one that does not, as many accounts do, rely on excessive attributions of treasonous motives to a particular faction of the party. Though party “centrists” are the current top suspects for a revolt against the Obama agenda in the Senate (as opposed to the op-ed pages, where progressives are issuing strong objectives to the Obama-Geithner financial plan), more traditional liberals, sometimes on institutional or parochial-interest grounds, were the main rebels against the last two Democratic presidents.
But Ezra Klein, who agrees strongly with Chait on the importance of institutional factors, challenges Chait’s claim that Republicans managed Congress in a superior fashion during the Bush years.

Obama Af-Pak Strategy Gains Qualified Support

Note: this item by J.P. Green was originally published on March 28, 2009
President Obama’s new strategy regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan is getting cautiously favorable reviews from a broad range of foreign policy experts, most of whom give him credit for narrowing the U.S. mission to defeating Al Queda and their supporters in the Taliban.
The New York Times has an editorial, “The Remembered War,” which does a good job of putting Obama’s new policy in perspective, noting:

…It was greatly encouraging simply to see the president actually focusing on this war and placing it in the broader regional framework that has been missing from American policy. That is a good first step toward fixing the dangerous situation that former President George W. Bush created when he abandoned the necessary war in Afghanistan for the ill-conceived war of choice in Iraq.
Mr. Obama has come back to first principles. Instead of Mr. Bush’s vague talk of representative democracy in Afghanistan, he defined a more specific mission. “We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or dictate its future,” Mr. Obama said, but “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Foreign Policy magazine’s ‘Flashpoints‘ leads the discussion on the pros and cons of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy paper with a package of 7 separate articles from different authors, including “Will the Real Obama Middle East Strategy Please Stand Up?” by Brian Katulis, who credits Obama with,

a much-needed step in the right direction on the Pakistan piece of its policy. Increasing support for the democratically-elected civilian government and massively increasing development assistance to the country are steps that many think tanks have been calling for

Robert Templer, Asia program director at the International Crisis Group adds this in his Flashpoints contribution, “Call in the police (but please help them first)“.

Policing is one of the most effective — and also the most ill-used — tools available to tackle extremism. Yet compared with military and other assistance, international support for policing is miniscule, and much of it is delivered in an uncoordinated and ineffectual manner. Since 2002, the United States has given the Pakistani military more than $10 billion, only the thinnest slice of which has gone to policing…Giving police forces a greater role in counterinsurgency shouldn’t mean sending them heedlessly into harm’s way. What is needed are police to keep everyday peace on the streets. Reducing general criminality and providing security to the public provides the most widely shared and distributed public good. It is much more effective in winning hearts and minds than digging wells or building schools — and indeed encourages and protects such development activities.

“Democrats in Disarray!”

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on March 26, 2009
There’s no political narrative more beloved in large swaths of media-land than that of “Democrats in Disarray!” Conservatives have obvious motives for promoting tales of indiscipline and factionalism in the Donkey Party. Certain Democrats from Left to Center, with varying degrees of sincerity, also have their own reasons for drawing bright and dreadful fault lines or launching “battles for the soul of the party.” And many MSM gabbers probably talk about the subject out of sheer laziness as a hardy perennial, much as they can always fill a slow news day by pointing to the latest batch of rhetorical craziness from right-wing talk show hosts or very junior GOP House members.
As Congress moves towards action on a new federal budget, however, reports of Democratic factionalism should be examined carefully and taken with more than a grain of salt.
Consider a story today from US News’ Political Bulletin, headlined: “Democrats Split Over Obama Budget.” If you actually read it, evaluations of the extent to which House and Senate Democratic budget committee chairs differ with Obama are all over the place. And if you actually think about it, the main difference so far other than obscure variations in out-year deficit reduction numbers is that the other shoe is dropping on the subject of carbon cap-and-trade legislation, which, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with Democratic ideology or Barack Obama, probably would not survive a Byrd Rule challenge that could knock it out of a budget reconciliation bill. Since cap-and-trade auction fees are the financing mechanism in the Obama budget for his Make-Work-Pay tax cut (created for the next two years by the stimulus legislation), that, too, is being left out of the Democratic budget drafts for the time being.
These are important omissions, but are not irretrievable this year or (more likely) next, and don’t represent some sort of Democratic “circular firing squad” or a fullscale congressional Democratic revolt against the administration.
Indeed, after reading the lurid US News headline, check out the headline in this AP assessment of the exact same facts: “Unified Democrats Mirror Obama Budget Priorities.”
The other “Democrats in Disarray” story getting circulation this week involves the announcement by a group of “centrist” Democratic senators led by Evan Bayh that they are creating a 14-member caucus, followed by announcement of an effort by several progressive groups, including MoveOn.org and Americans United for Change, to run ads encouraging said “centrists” to support Obama’s budget and policy priorities (a development that Politico reported under the headline: “Democrats versus Democrats.”).
So far, despite widespread accusations of incipient betrayal, the Bayh group hasn’t issued any demands or offered to broker any deals with Republicans, but the reaction led three of its members to pen a Washington Post op-ed disclaiming treasonous intentions. And the supposed counterweight, the pro-Obama ads, fall pretty fall short of violent chain-yanking or purge-threatening, and could in fact help make it easier for Dems in conservative states to support Obama’s agenda. “There’s zero anger coming from our side,” said Americans United spokesman Jeremy Funk to Politico.
Democratic factionalism may ultimately become a big problem for the Obama administration, but it ain’t happened yet. We all need to understand that such “stories” invariably fall on very fertile soil in Washington, and require little nourishment in the way of objective reality.

Republicans and the Bristol Palin Vote

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on March 17, 2009
If there is one topic that Democrats come back to over and over in electoral analysis, it’s the party’s persistantly weak performance in recene years among non-college-educated white voters, a.k.a., the White Working Class. And there are some obvious reasons for this debate. As Ruy Teixeira’s new study for CAP (“New Progressive America“), Democratic weakness among WWC voters persisted in 2008, although the impact was mitigated by the steady decline in that demographic’s share of the electorate. And that bugs Democrats a lot, since these are voters who should be (and in opinion if not sometimes in voting behavior actually are) responsive to the progressive economic message. There’s even a moral argument that a progressive party which struggles to connect with working-class voters isn’t adequately representing a core constituency.
But as this debate continues, a parallel debate is developing on the other side of the partisan divide, as some Republicans are beginning to argue against the targeting of WWC voters, urging instead a refocus on the upscale voters who have been sharply trending towards Democrats over the last 20 years. In some respects, this point-of-view is the direct corollary of conservative attacks on Obama’s tax policies; they sense that many upscale voters are ready to vote Republican, and perhaps even join the Tea Party “movement,” in reaction to Obama’s outrageous advocacy of top marginal rates on high-earners that resemble those of the bad old 1990s.
But there are some interesting generational arguments as well. Michael Barone suggests, mainly from inferences rather than hard data, that younger WWC voters are pretty much checking out and can’t be relied upon in the future to support the GOP in the numbers represented by their parents. (In fact, there is tantalizing evidence that Obama may have done surprisingly well among under-30 WWC voters in 2008, which Andrew Levison wrote about in a TDS White Paper in December).
Barone cites and at least tentatively endorses another theory, one advanced by David Frum in reaction to the news that single mom Bristol Palin ain’t getting hitched any time soon. Frum contends that young WWC voters don’t exhibit the sturdy folk virtues of their parents, and thus won’t be attracted to the cultural conservatism of the GOP:

Many conservatives carry in their heads a mental image of American society that’s a generation out of date. They imagine the existence of a huge class of socially conservative downscale voters, ready to vote Republican because of abortion and gay marriage.
The story of Bristol Palin should help puncture this illusion.
Take a look at Table A17 in this report by the Educational Testing Service. Of children born to white women with a college degree, only 8% were born out of wedlock. But of children born to white women who did not finish college, 28% were born outside of marriage. Of children born to white women who stopped their education after high school, 42.1% were out of wedlock. And of births to white women like Bristol Palin, who have not completed high school, almost 61% were out of wedlock.

Thus, as Barone puts it in his gloss on Frum’s argument, young WWC Americans are embracing “chaotic and undisciplined” lifestyles that aren’t conducive to GOP voting behavior.
This”forget about the white trash” dismissal of future WWC voters has pretty significant strategic implications for those GOPers who adopt it. And it exposes a dilemma in conservative message development that became obvious during the 2008 campaign, and is becoming even clearer today. In retrospect, as some of us pointed out at the time, the whole Joe the Plumber phenomenon in the McCain-Palin campaign was an effort to put a WWC face on an argument over tax policy that really affected only high-income voters.
The same conflict is even more evident in the current disagreement among conservatives about whether to go after Obama for his “socialist” and “redistributist” economic policies that threaten to destroy the “productive” upper class, or instead to go populist with an attack on bailouts of Wall Street firms, while stressing Obama’s alleged cultural radicalism. And even those who attack bailouts on laissez-faire grounds, like Joe the Plumber’s replacement, CNBC “reporter” Rick Santelli, don’t much like “demagoguery” about the AIG bonuses (which, after all, benefit the very people he has defended as victims of lower-class perfidy).
This conflict is complicated, of course, by the fact that upper-income voters do not proportionately embrace the cultural conservatism that’s been a big factor in WWC Republican voting, and that Frum and Barone suspect the WWC is beginning to abandon, as evidenced in the marital data and symbolized by the devolution of the Palin family.
It’s all pretty fascinating as a sign of fault lines in the GOP and the conservative movement that will probably become more apparent in days to come. And these fault lines have obvious implications for the putative front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Bristol Palin’s mother.
We Democrats, of course, would like nothing better than a GOP abandonment of non-college-educated voters as a target. Whatever well-heeled conservatives think of their “chaotic and undisciplined” lifestyles, we’ll take ’em.

Rand and Conservatives: A Reminder to Galt Fans

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on March 15, 2009
One of the odder phenomena of contemporary public life is the enthusiasm of conservative gabbers and even elected officials for the idea of “Going Galt:” the suggestion that the oppressed wealthy of America withdraw their vast contributions to the commonweal in protest against the supposedly confiscatory taxes and redistribution of income to the morally depraved underway at the behest of the Obama administration. The allusion is to John Galt, the hero of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, that massive tome that represented the Summa of her rigorously capitalist, atheist, and anti-altruist philosophy of “Objectivism,” which has captured a vast number of adolescents and an impressive number of adults over the last several decades.
I’ve written about this in the context of U.S. Rep. John Campbell’s (R-CA) claim that “we’re living through the scenario” laid out in Atlas Shrugged, wherein the industrial leaders of the West, sick of subsidizing “parasites” and “looters,” drop out, take to the Rockies, and finally, through Galt’s voice–a radio address that took up 90 solid pages in the novel–chastise an economically helpless nation.
But Campbell was just surfing the right-wing zeitgeist, where excited talk about “going Galt” has spread like kudzu. It’s merged, in fact, with the Rick-Santelli-spawned Tea Party “movement” of “productive” people fed up with the poor-and-minority scum who cause the financial collapse by living beyond their means, and who now refuse to shuffle off into the ranks of the homeless and instead are instituting a socialist tyranny.
I don’t need to summarize the “going Galt” literature; that’s already been done quite well by David Weigel of the Washington Independent and Roy Edroso of the Village Voice (the more Galt-sympathetic Stephen Gordon of The Liberty Papers also has a long list of relevant links from various points of view). I also don’t need to analyze the absurdity of well-heeled, not-going-anywhere conservative bloggers and pundits like Michelle Malkin or Helen Smith to encourage others to “go Galt,” or of the self-congratulatory people who think it’s a license to cheat on their taxes, lay off a few underlings, or stop tipping (no, seriously!). Hilzoy has succinctly demolished the clownish and entirely un-Randian nature of these latter-day Galtists.
What I’d like to do as a public service is simply to remind folks tempted to “go Gault” or to gush ignorantly about the subject in blogs or on Fox that they are flirting with a philosophy that is profoundly and expressly hostile to anything that could remotely be described as “conservative.” And before anyone even thinks of offering the “you-don’t-have-to-be-a-fascist-to-love-Ezra-Pound’s-poetry” defense, it’s important to understand that John Galt, Atlas Shrugged, and their creator Ayn Rand represent a remorselessly unified and logical world-view that can’t be sliced and diced into bite-sized portions you can take or leave. Galt’s speech, in particular, which is the supposed inspiration for all this excited Tea Party chatter, was a painstakingly wrought distillation of Rand’s all-encompassing philosophy of Objectivism, which few “conservatives” could stomach, much less endorse. And Rand, if she were alive, would be the first to object to promiscuous use of her words and character, especially by political “conservatives,” whom she largely despised as life-hating slaves to an imaginary God, or as unprincipled demagogues little better in practice than all the other “collectivists.”
The following are a sprinkling of quotes from Rand’s work that ought to make any self-conscious conservative think twice about scribbing “Who is John Galt?” on the nearest whiteboard.

It’s time to shine a light on the decentralized but reinforcing smear campaign against Barack Obama – a campaign that stretches from the extremist fringe to leading conservative political commentators

Note: this item by James Vega was originally published on March 10, 2009
To put this campaign into context, for a moment just imagine the following scenario. Suppose that John McCain had been elected president last November and by this point in time,

1. A minor Democratic presidential candidate had directly accused him of being a member of a secret Nazi organization. A second Democratic presidential candidate said Hitler and Mussolini would approve his policies.
2. A significant liberal journal of opinion had said that McCain was following Hitler’s political strategy and quoted Hitler to prove it.
3. The leading liberal commentators in the New York Times and Washington Post wrote commentaries about McCain’s program using political expressions with absolutely clear and unmistakable connotations of fascism (e.g. “Aryan superiority”, “racial purity”, “national culture” etc.),

If this had actually happened, not only would Fox News and company would go absolutely ballistic (justifiably, for a change), but many moderate voices would express sincere outrage and many Democrats themselves would be deeply – and vocally – disturbed.
But, guess what? This is what conservatives are doing to Barack Obama right now – and hardly anybody is raising a stink.

The Ultimate David Brooks Column

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on March 3, 2009
David Brooks penned a column for The New York Times today that is destined to become a classic of its type. His editors seem to think so as well, titling his essay: “A Moderate Manifesto.”
Its main thrust is to agree with conservative arguments that the Obama administration’s budget proposal is a radical big-government, class-warfare, tax-and-spend package that would remake the country in a horrifying fashion. Indeed, “moderates” are explicitly called upon by their would-be chieftain to join the Right in opposing the whole thing. But what makes the argument both distinctive and incoherent is Brooks’ concession that the key components of the proposal all make sense:

We [moderates] sympathize with a lot of the things that President Obama is trying to do. We like his investments in education and energy innovation. We support health care reform that expands coverage while reducing costs.

So what’s the huge beef? It’s just all too much:

[T]he Obama budget is more than just the sum of its parts. There is, entailed in it, a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs. There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor — caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once….
We end up with an agenda that is unexceptional in its parts but that, when taken as a whole, represents a social-engineering experiment that is entirely new.

And with that assertion, Brooks is off to the races, providing a lurid spin on specific Obama proposals that are apparently “unexceptional” in themselves, but are somehow terrifyingly radical when attempted in combination. Consider his treatment of the Obama tax proposals which, as I am sure he knows, are basically designed to restore the structure of federal income tax rates as they existed prior to 2001.

The U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment. Yet the Obama budget is predicated on a class divide. The president issued a read-my-lips pledge that no new burdens will fall on 95 percent of the American people. All the costs will be borne by the rich and all benefits redistributed downward.

Then there’s this howler:

The U.S. has always had vibrant neighborhood associations. But in its very first budget, the Obama administration raises the cost of charitable giving. It punishes civic activism and expands state intervention.

Brooks appears to be referring here to a relatively minor Obama tax proposal that would further limit (they are already limited now) the total value of deductions for high earners, a very conventional way to ensure effective progressive rates of taxation. To hear Brooks, this is a direct assault on the Tocquevillian concept of voluntary association.
He doesn’t bother to extend the argument much further than these pathetic examples of Obama’s alleged radicalism, pivoting instead to his trumpet call to “moderates” to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” He does make this observation that pretty much exposes the underlying “thinking” of his position:

[Moderates] will have to take the economic crisis seriously and not use it as a cue to focus on every other problem under the sun. They’re going to have to offer an agenda that inspires confidence by its steadiness rather than shaking confidence with its hyperactivity.

David Brooks is not a stupid man. He knows that progressives aren’t simply “using” the economic crisis to “focus on every other problem under the sun.” They believe, as Brooks sometimes appears to believe, that you cannot separate “the economic crisis” from health care costs, an inefficient and unsustainable energy system, an underperforming education system, or indeed, from a tax code that undermines middle-class work and rewards upper-class wealth. If moving towards universal health care is the best way to restrain uncontrolled health care costs (a huge burden for both the public and private sectors) while mitigating the real-life damage wrought by the
economic crisis, why would you not want to do that? If a retooled energy system does indeed position the United States to dominate a huge and fast-growing global market in alternative energy technologies, does it make any sense to wait on initiatives to achieve that in the pursuit of “moderation?” And if addressing the fundamental causes and dire consequences of poorly regulated financial institutions requires “more government,” what’s the point in insisting on “less government”–the supposed “Hamiltonian” principle Brooks insists Americans cherish–at the risk of producing the same disastrous results?
The “moderation” Brooks is championing seems to represent little more than an instinctive reaction against any coherent plan of action, and a horror of following through with the logic of progressive–and actually, “moderate”–analysis of why the economy has collapsed and what, specifically, needs to be done to revive the country.
In the title of this post, I’ve called Brooks’ essay today “The Ultimate David Brooks Column.” That’s because it epitomizes two key Brooksian vices that have always maddeningly accompanied the virtues of his fluid and interesting writing and his revulsion against Movement Conservatism: “moderation” is defined as compromise, any kind of compromise, and “moderates” are invariably urged to pursue a course of action that coincides with the immediate political needs of the Republican Party.
On this latter point, Brooks may well continue to ventilate his disdain for the Rush Limbaughs of the world. But you will note that this column essentially urges “moderates” to join Rush in derailing Obama’s agenda, with an asterisk suggesting that somewhere down the road, they will need to develop and support an “alternative” agenda that represents the better angels of Barack Obama’s nature. The whole thing reads like an extended rationalization for “moderate” Republicans and Blue Dogs to cower in fear before the savage Obama-hatred of the Right, comforting themselves that they will eventually rule the country when the equally-extreme Left and Right have finally become exhausted.
Anyone tempted to agree with Brooks’ “manifesto” needs to have his or her head and conscience examined.

Get Ready, Democrats — Obama’s opponents are getting set to “Unleash Hell”

Note: this item by James Vega was originally published on March 5, 2008
It has taken several days for the full implications of Obama’s budget and message to sink in among conservatives and Republicans, but now the surprise has passed and the gloves are coming off.
The conservative hope that Obama might actually be the timid, dithering, “split the difference” centrist that some progressives feared he was has now evaporated. On the contrary, the scope of his ambition to be a solidly progressive Roosevelt-style president makes him appear as a genuine threat — not just for committed Republicans, but to a substantial group beyond. For many, this threat is so grave that insuring the defeat of Obama’s political program now takes priority over what might be best for the economy.
The larger group beyond the usual Republican base that finds Obama’s program threatening is essentially comprised of the substantial number of relatively un-ideological Middle Americans – small businesspeople, managers and office park voters among others — who –deep down – simply don’t accept a Keynesian view of economics or understand the need for significant, ongoing government intervention in the economy. On survey questions they will often support certain specific and appealing government programs but then will simultaneously reject “deficit spending”, “big government” and “regulations” as unambiguous evils. If you asked many of these Americans to choose between, on the one hand, a “lost decade of growth” like Japan suffered as well as continuing crises in health care, energy and the environment and, on the other hand, the unknown long-term political consequences of a wildly successful and deeply progressive Democratic Presidency, many will hem and haw for a moment but finally opt for “the devil they know” – recession and stagnation – rather than the uncharted waters of an energetically progressive future.
The result is that Democrats can’t rely on Obama’s tremendous advantage in personal popularity right now to keep the Republicans on the defensive. On the contrary, Democrats must begin preparing to defend themselves against a massive, well-financed and coordinated, three pronged offensive.
Prong Number 1 — The Official Party Line – The most familiar and visible of the three prongs of this offensive is the official Republican Party — represented by the Congressional Republicans and the Republican National Committee. By now virtually every politically involved American has heard the official Republican position. The battle against Obama is a direct clash between socialism and the free market, between liberalism gone completely berserk and the traditional American Way. Buried in the byzantine twists and turns of Rush Limbaugh’s epic , Fidel Castro- length, pronunciamento to the Conservative Political Action Conference last week lie a collection of virtually every one of his “oldies but goodies” and “greatest hits” drawn from his radio show.
By itself, however, this official Republican message will not be sufficient. It needs to be reinforced by two additional forces to successfully challenge Obama’s coalition. It needs (1) “responsible” apologists to give it intellectual cover with more moderate voters and (2) “Black Ops’ boys” to do the political “wet work” – the stuff too ugly to display in public.
Prong Number 2 — The “Responsible” Apologists — David Brooks’ retreat into the boilerplate anti-Obama rhetoric of the Republican National Committee in his recent New York Times column (misleadingly titled “a Moderate Manifesto”) signals the groveling surrender of the “responsible” and “sophisticated” conservatives to the Republican Party base. As Ed Kilgore has noted, for Brooks,’ “moderation is defined as compromise, any kind of compromise, and “moderates” are invariably urged to pursue a course of action that coincides with the immediate political needs of the Republican Party… you will note that [Brooks’] column essentially urges “moderates” to join Rush Limbaugh in derailing Obama’s agenda.”
In fact, the truth is that, without directly using the word “socialism”, Brooks’ entire column is nothing more than a euphemistic restatement of the Republican Party’s central accusation.
Just look at what Brooks actually says:
• [supports] “relatively limited central government”
• “puts competitiveness and growth first, not redistribution first”
• [is] “skeptical of top-down planning”
• “has never been a society riven by class resentment.”
Obama’s administration, on the other hand, is:
• “swept up in its own revolutionary fervor…
• “caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it” …
• “a social-engineering experiment that is entirely new” …
• “expands state intervention”…
• “concentrates enormous power in Washington”…
• “is predicated on a class divide…All the costs will be borne by the rich and all benefits redistributed downward”
• [will lead to] “polarizing warfare that is sure to flow from Obama’s über-partisan budget.”
This is not even remotely subtle. It references quite literally every traditional anti-socialist cliché of the previous century except for the use of the actual word “socialism” itself. (Well, OK, the little “uber-partisan” thing hiding in there is a tiny bit subtle — a subliminal hint of Mein Kampf and Nazi jackboots to distract from the near-monotonous recitation of 1950’s anti-“pinko” buzzwords).
In fact, Brooks’ column is for all practical purposes a Frank Luntz-type “words that work” playbook for other editorial and commentary writers. The words above are, in combination, a roundabout, “responsible” way of saying precisely the same things as the Republican National Committee.
Other “responsible” conservatives are also quickly falling in line. In a Wednesday Washington Post commentary Michael Gerson describes Obama’s budget as “ideologically ambitious, politically ruthless and radical to its core… This is not merely the rejection of “trickle-down economics,” it is a weakening of the theoretical basis for capitalism — that free individuals are generally more rational and efficient in making investment decisions than are government planners.” Once again, the basic RNC charge of “socialism” is repeated while carefully avoiding the use of the actual word.
(Note: let’s be clear about this. “Responsible” conservatives actually do know that policies like progressive taxation, government regulation of business and federal protection of the environment are more accurately traced back to Theodore Roosevelt than to Lenin and Mao Tse-tung. They are, however, endowed with a sophistication and nuance of perspective that allows them to see a deeper truth that lies beyond such superficial objections)
As a result, Democrats should look for each and every one of the venerable tropes trotted out by Brooks and Gerson to start showing up in editorial pages, business magazine commentaries and so on all across the country. There are a very large group of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats who would be embarrassed to turn purple while screaming “socialist” like the red-meat conservatives at a Sarah Palin rally. They will, however, be quite happy to gravely knit their brows and purse their lips in theatrical displays of preoccupation while muttering ominously about their concern over “extreme” and “irresponsible” measures.

Right-Wing Populist Illusions

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on February 27, 2009.
In a column on the Rick Santelli rant against “losers” on CNBC and the excited reaction it received in conservative circles, Jon Chait offers this key insight about the instant mythology aroused by both Santelli and Joe the Plumber:

The only thing that separated Santelli’s rant from any other similar outburst that could be found on Fox News or talk radio was that it seemed to represent the vox populi. Santelli was not previously known as a right-wing ideologue–mainly because he was not known for much of anything–so he came across as a fed-up investor, just as Wurzelbacher initially cast himself as an undecided voter skeptical of progressive taxation. And Santelli was surrounded by actual people who dug his message, people he described (absurdly) as a representative sample of American opinion. His rant thus appeared like a genuine expression of popular revolt.

Interesting, then, that Santelli has since described himself as an “Ayn Rander.” Whatever else you think that allegiance represents (Chait notes that it certainly makes opposition to any sort of government relief efforts axiomatic), it ain’t “populism,” unless there’s some hitherto unnoticed popular enthusiasm for the ideas of privatizing the sidewalks or denouncing religion as “the mysticism of the mind.”
There does seem to be an interesting pattern here of self-styled conservative “populists” turning out to be people with some pretty marginal political associations. Joe the Plumber was recently registered to vote as a member of the now-defunct Natural Law Party, best known for its advocacy of transcendental meditation. Sarah Palin had a well-established friendly relationship with the Alaska Independence Party, itself affiliated with the far-right theocratic Constitution Party.
Men and Women In the Street may well harbor some strange views on some issues, but by and large they don’t choose to vote for or support tiny extremist parties or ideological movements, which is why they are tiny. Conventional conservatives should probably look a little more closely at their “populist” champions before designating them as representatives of vast undercurrents of public opinion that somehow aren’t reflected in actual elections.

Redefining the “Center”

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on February 24, 2009
Matt Miller has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal which adds to the minority of us progressive gabbers who think that Barack Obama’s “bipartisanship” is aimed at a political realignment rather than short-term compromises with Republicans in Washington.

The president has his eye on a bigger prize than winning a few Republican votes for his stimulus package or having a conservative in his cabinet. He aims to move the political center in America to the left, much as Ronald Reagan moved it to the right. The only way he can achieve this goal is to harness the energies and values of both parties.

Matt doesn’t quite put it this way, but the more concrete Obama objective is to expand the Democratic electoral base by consolidating high levels of support among independents and exploiting the growing divide between Republican politicians and a significant minority of GOP voters.
It’s obviously too early to judge whether this approach is working, but a new Washington Post-ABC poll out today certainly shows how it might work in terms of voter categories.
The Post‘s write-up of the poll dwells on the sharp reduction in Republican support for Obama’s job performance: it’s down to 37% from 62% on Inaugural Day. Well, of course it is; Inaugural Day was and always has been a “peak moment” for any new president, and a month of relentless pounding of Obama by GOP elected officials was bound to resonate with the conservative “base” who heard him described as an elitist socialist baby-killer throughout the presidential campaign.
But Obama’s job approval rating among independents is 67%. Meanwhile, the percentage of voters who think Obama’s trying to compromise with Republicans in Congress is 74%, while the percentage who think Republicans in Congress are trying to compromise with him is 34%. Unsurprisingly, while Obama’s overall job approval rating is 68%, and that of Democrats in Congress is 50%, Republicans in Congress earn a job approval rating of only 38%.
All this could change, but the trajectory in public opinion is towards an isolation of congressional Republicans, who are helping this dynamic along by their behavior towards Obama and the economic crisis itself. You can call it “redefining the center” or simply “realignment,” but if it continues, Obama and the Democratic Party could be well-positioned for the future.