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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

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.

Uptick In ‘Symbolically Conservative, Operationally Liberal’ Constituency May Steer Future

Note: this item by J.P. Green was originally published on February 23, 2009.
Paul Starr has a short, but insightful post, “Breaking the Grip of the Past” at The American Prospect today, which sheds light on president Obama’s political strategy. As Starr explains:

For Barack Obama and the Democrats, the problem is not just the hard-right conservatives who dominate the Republican Party and the right-wing media echo chamber. Given the urgency of present circumstances, the critical impediment may lie in the ambivalent center — among the middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans who hold the margin of votes in the Senate, much of the business and opinion-leader establishment, and a large part of the public who are not strongly affiliated with any party or ideological position.
Winning over those groups poses the key challenge if Congress and the new administration are to free the country from the dead right hand of the past. Obama’s mix of conciliatory and assertive stances — an openness to talking with the other side and a willingness to concede, in principle, that it may have a point, yet a determination when pressed to fight for his policies — is not just an expression of his personality. It’s the rational strategy of a politician who can’t get his program through unless he peels off some part of the opposition.

Starr goes on to note Obama’s tendency “not to confront conservatism in general terms” which Starr believes makes some sense because “Many Americans who identify themselves as conservative nonetheless favor liberal positions on specific policies” — a “symbolically conservative, but operationally liberal” group estimated at 22 percent of the public in 2004 by James A. Stimson in his book Tides of Consent. Starr believes surveys indicate there may be a “big increase” in this group since the election.
Starr believes Obama’s ‘whatever works’ rhetoric is calibrated to address this group and the “deep American strain of post-partisanship.” WaPo columnist E.J. Dionne sees the evolving consensus on bipartisanship a little differently in his column today on “Obama’s FDR Moment“:

And when it comes to bipartisanship, the point is not the numerical count of Republicans who vote for this or that. It’s whether frightened citizens sense that government is working…”People want the basic stuff fixed,” said state Rep. Vernon Sykes, a Democrat who chairs the Finance and Appropriations Committee in the Ohio House. “They don’t have a romantic notion of bipartisanship. They just want people to come together to solve problems.”

Post or bipartisanship notwithstanding, Starr credits Obama with drawing a line in the sand against more tax cuts for the rich and do-nothing government. Starr feels this rhetorically-nuanced approach could well “educate the public about the folly of conservative views and help move the country toward a new progressive center.” However, Starr warns,

it’s crucial, perhaps more for others than for Obama, to continue to press the case that our present problems have ideological roots — that they are not due equally to all sides but rather to the mistaken premises, malignant neglect, and sometimes outright malfeasance of a long era of conservative government…But if he concedes too much, it could be another version of disabling triangulation

It’s a delicate balancing act, and the President’s communications skills in educating the public will be on wide display tomorrow, when he addresses the nation. It may be Obama’s “FDR moment,” but he should also remember MLK’s dictum “Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”

Worst Numbers Moving Up

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on February 17, 2009
At pretty much any point during the last four or five years, you could count on two public opinion survey measurements looking really, really bad: approval ratings of Congress, and assessments of the direction of the country.
So it’s interesting to note that both these numbers seem to be gradually moving up.
According to a new Gallup survey, Congress’ job approval rating jumped from 19% a month ago to 31% from February 9-12, or about the time that Congress was finalizing the economic stimulus package. As Gallup notes:

Gallup has been measuring public approval of Congress on a monthly basis since January 2001. During that time, there have been only two month-to-month increases larger than the 12-point jump observed this month.
The largest single-month increase was a 42-point rally in congressional support after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, from 42% in a Sept. 7-10, 2001, poll to 84% in mid-October 2001. Gallup found similar increases in ratings of other government institutions around that time.
The next-largest jump of 14 points occurred after Democrats took party control of both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate in early 2007.

And if the 31% approval rating for Congress sounds pretty low, check this out:

In general, Congress’ approval ratings tend to be low. In fact, the current 31% score is very near the historical average of 35% in Gallup Polls since 1974.

The “direction of the country” (or right track/wrong track) numbers are gradually improving as well, even though most of the economic indicators continue to deteriorate. Look at pollster.com’s chart on these numbers, and you can see “right track” sloping up and “wrong track” sloping down since October at a pretty steady pace.
Meanwhile, President Obama’s job approval rating seems relatively stable in the low 60s, depending on the poll you follow.
At some point, maybe sooner, maybe later, the Obama approval ratings and the “right track” number should begin to converge. When and where they converge will probably tell you everything you need to know about the political direction of the country in 2010 and 2012.

The military way of thinking about “strategy” may help Democrats to figure out their own

Note: this item by James Vega was first published on February 17, 2009
One major problem Democrats are having in their internal debate regarding Obama’s support for “bipartisanship” as a political strategy results from fact that different political commentators use the word in several distinct senses and at several different levels of analysis. In ordinary Democratic political discourse there is no agreed-upon way to distinguish them.
There is a basic concept from military strategy that may prove helpful in this regard. In military thinking, the term “strategy” itself is usually broken down into three levels – the small scale level of individual battles (often called tactics), the medium-scale level of military campaigns (often called the “operational” level), and the large-scale level (sometimes called strategy proper or “grand strategy”).
This schema is, on the surface, simple. It becomes more complex, however, because the “small-medium-large” distinction repeats itself like a fractal pattern in geometry over and over at many different levels of the military hierarchy, creating a number of overlapping levels of “small-scale”, “medium-scale” and “large-scale” strategies.
This is easier to see in a specific example.

During World War II, from the point of view of the U.S. commander in Bastogne in December, 1944, the holding actions conducted at the junctions on the three main roads leading into the city were small scale battles, the defense of the city proper was the mid-level strategic challenge and the overall struggle in the geographic area around the city (which including managing the airlift of supplies through the blockade, the German outflanking of the city and continuation of their offensive to the West and the eventual relief of the city from the South by Patton’s Third Army) was the large-scale strategic perspective.
On the other hand, from the point of view of General Eisenhower and the allied command, all of Bastogne was a single battle, the entire German winter counter-offensive (The “Battle of the Bulge”) was a mid-level struggle and the entire Western front (including its resupply via the North Atlantic sea routes and the strategic bombing of Germany) represented the large-scale strategic perspective.

It is easier to disentangle these distinct layers of strategy in a military environment because the rigidly hierarchical organization (“squad-platoon-company” etc.) makes the overlapping frameworks more explicit than does politics. But the basic “small-medium-large” way of analyzing strategy can still be of use in political strategy. In the case of the current argument over “bipartisanship” for example, it makes it quickly apparent that different commentators are talking about quite different levels of strategy when they announce that “bipartisanship” has “failed.”

Does Obama Need a “Loyal Opposition” From the Left?

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was first published on February 13, 2009
The hot read in the progressive chattering classes today is an article for The New Republic by the always-estimable John Judis arguing that Barack Obama can’t achieve his goals without vibrant and popularly-based pressure from the Left to raise his progressive game.
His argument has predictably unleashed a lot of pent-up progressive angst about Obama’s “centrism” and “bipartisanship.” Some of it is very specific, like Ezra Klein’s suggestion, which galvanizes a very large number of scattered lefty blogospheric views, that Obama should have come into the “stimulus” debate with a much bigger figure, like maybe a trillion-and-a-half, anticipating the “centrist” reductions necessary to get the legislation through Congress and raising the final figure.
Other commentors on Judis’ hypothesis, like Glenn Greenwald, argue for a broader opposition to Obama, because, they think, he has little but contempt for progressive views:

Part of the political shrewdness of Obama has been that he’s been able to actually convince huge numbers of liberals that it’s a good thing when he ignores and even stomps on their political ideals, that it’s something they should celebrate and even be grateful for. Hordes of Obama-loving liberals are still marching around paying homage to the empty mantras of “pragmatism” and “post-partisan harmony” — the terms used to justify and even glorify Obama’s repudiation of their own political values.

To get back to Judis’ own argument, it’s important that he doesn’t seem to value the progressive-gabber allies that have found his article most attractive:

I think the main reason that Obama is having trouble is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are leftwing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry.

Judis goes on to critique the unions and Moveon.org as the progressive forces that need to support a Loyal Opposition From the Left, and to offer the immensely radical and (according to some interpretations) proto-fascist Share the Wealth and Townsend movements of the 1930s as historical precedents for the kind of constructive Left alternative that can keep Obama’s feet on the path of righteousness.
There’s not much doubt that Judis’ hypothesis is closely related to his fear that Obama, particularly on the internatioal finance front, simply isn’t getting the job done. As he said back in early January:

Obama is certainly right to abandon the “anything goes” mentality of the Bush administration and to promote an $800 billion stimulus program. But to reverse to current economic collapse, the new administration may have to go even farther than this in the direction of a fiscal equivalent of war and a new Bretton Woods.

In many respects, Judis is calling for a moblization of progressives to push Obama “to the Left” based on his assumption that Obama, like FDR in his first year, is going to fail in generating a major turnaround in the economy.
And I’d have to say that Judis’ prescription will only make sense if Obama indeed fails. You can’t really mobilize anything like a Huey Long or Francis Townsend “left opposition” to Obama short of a catastrophic economic failure that challenges the basic presumptions of American democracy.
Moreoever, the most viable left-populist opposition to Obama agenda is going to be about the financial bailouts, and the relative ability of Obama-Geithner to distinguish their efforts from those of their Republican predecessors. John Juds may have already decided they simply can’t do that; if they can, then the grassroots pro-Obama campaign that Judis implicitly abhors may actually make sense.
The broadest issue raised by Judis is the idea that Barack Obama needs a Left Opposition to position himself as the new “center.” I will mention without further commentary the rich irony of the idea that the liberals who so resented Bill Clinton’s alleged “triangulation” strategy are now begging Obama to triangulate them.
My own feeling is that Obama should continue to focus on commanding a majority of Americans in support of his presidency and his general agenda, and at the same time seek to lead and represent progressives, even if they don’t like every element of his strategy or policies. His whole political persona up until now has been to depict himself as a progressive who also reprents the “center” in American politics. The “left” can support him or (selectively) oppose him. But the idea that he can’t succeed without an obdurate Left Opposition that forces him, and the debate, to the Left, strikes me as both an extrapoliation of congressional politics into public opinion, and as an underestimation of Obama’s own political abilty to move national policy to “the left” on his own terms.

On “Ending the Culture Wars”

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

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

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

Obama and Grassroots Bipartisanship

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