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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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Medicare Prescription Drugs: Democratic Debacle or Republican Albatross?

The CW is still that GOP-led passage of a Medicare prescription drugs bill–any Medicare prescription drug bill–gives the GOP an additional boost for 2004.  The more DR thinks about this, the less sure he is that it is true.  That’s because of how bad the bill is likely to be and the probable reaction of those whom it is intended to benefit.
On how bad it is likely to be, check out Jacob Hacker’s excellent analysis today in The New York Times.  He lays out, crisply and clearly, just how godawful both the Senate and, especially, the House bills are.  Talk about the devil is in the details.  And then take a gander at another Times article about how employers are going to run, not walk, to shift as many drug costs as they can onto Uncle Sam.  As Hacker points out, the average retiree is going to wind up not much better–maybe worse!–than where they started out.
This isn’t exactly what your typical senior voter had in mind.  That’s why savvy nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook predicts that “If the prescription drug benefit is a factor in next year’s election, it will be as an albatross around the necks of Republicans and the Bush administration.”  He argues that what seniors want is a drug benefit like a Fortune 500 company might provide–modest premium, minimal co-pay, no gaps and unlimited coverage–and they want it provided through Medicare.  What they’re likely going to get doesn’t look anything like that and when they figure this out–and Cook thinks they will–it will be the Republicans who’ll pay the price. 

Will Ho-Ho Have the Last Laugh?

When Howard Dean first started running for President, he was an object of considerable derision among political observers.  “Who does he think he’s kidding?” was the general reaction.  Well, they’re not laughing now and more and more of them are taking very seriously the idea that Howard Dean could actually get the Democratic nomination.  (For an idea of how this might happen, check out Daily Kos’ very plausible scenario by which Dean could beat the rest of the field.)
There are a lot of reasons why people are taking Dean so seriously now, but one is his second quarter fundraising totals: $7.5 million from 59,000 donors, much of it over the internet, where he’s clearly outdistanced the other candidates.  Garance Franke-Ruta argues, however, that his fundraising success is only partly about technology; it’s mostly about the message that technology is helping get out.  More on Dean’s message may be found here in another article by Franke-Ruta.   Also, check out David Kusnet’s “Seriously Now: Howard Dean’s transformation from protest candidate to populist” and Joe Klein’s “Why Dean Isn’t Going Away”.
If the other Democratic candidates (John Kerry, are you out there?) hope to stop the Dean express, they better figure out a message that’ll inspire voters in the way that Dean has.  To use a phrase that was popular in a slightly different context in 2002: you can’t beat something with nothing.  Maybe it’s time to stop campaigning so cautiously and realize that message counts….a lot.

Turn Away from the Dark Side, Al and Bruce!

In yesterday’s post, DR argued that liberals and progressives don’t give the DLC enough credit, that they are fellow Democrats and, as their latest magazine abundantly illustrates, they give the Bushies–the real enemy–a very hard time.  I’ve gotta say, though, that it would be easier to defend the DLC if Al From and Bruce Reed–CEO and President, respectively, of the organization–didn’t insist on issuing periodic jermiads against The Liberal Enemy in their unending war to save the Democratic party from itself.  Their latest installment, “What We’re Fighting For” can be found here.  Lead paragraph: “Democrats are fighting again over the direction of the party.  But contrary to conventional wisdom, that’s a good thing”.  Those who say this isn’t a good thing and think this is “fighting yesterday’s wars”, according to From and Reed, are sadly mistaken.  So the fight must go on!
War yesterday.  War today.  War Tomorrow.  War forever.  Don’t these guys ever get tired of it?  They’re fond of pointing out that Americans are roughly 20 percent liberal, 30 percent conservative and 50 percent moderate.  So (can’t those liberal dopes do the math?), we can’t just rely on the liberal base.  But, Al and Bruce, if you’re fighting the Bushies, and half the Democratic party as well, doesn’t that put you (and the rest of us Democrats as well) at a disadvantage?  Can’t you do the math?  25-75 is a loser every time.
DR will have more to say about this piece in a future post.  But for now he says: let’s give this endless war thing a rest.  Turn away from the dark side, Al and Bruce, and walk in the light.  Try it; you might even like it.

I Have a Dream (of Democratic Unity)

“While Democrats feud, Grover gloats”, comments Joe Conason in his June 30 column.  “Grover”, of course, is Grover Norquist, head of the Americans for Tax Reform, whose sophisticated philosophy of “cut taxes, shrink government and then drown it in the bathtub” is explained in detail in an excellent profile by Ed Kilgore in the new edition of the DLC’s magazine, Blueprint.  And Grover’s doing more than gloating about the present, he’s staking a claim on the future.  As he charmingly informed The New York Times: “The Republicans are looking at decades of dominance in the House and the Senate, and having the presidency with some regularity.  So if this year the tax cut isn’t the one we wanted–no biggie.  There’s a sense we can afford to wait.”
As Conason points out, the blistering profile by Kilgore is one of the featured articles in the DLC’s magazine.  And the rest of the magazine is chock-full of equally scathing articles about the Bush administration and its policies (the tag-line for the whole issue is “Stop, Thief!).  In fact, since Bush entered office, the DLC has, through its various outlets, produced over 260 hit-pieces on various aspects of Bush skulduggery.  Maybe it’s time progressives and liberals gave these guys a break, instead of referring to them as ”Republican lite” or ”Democrats in name only”.
Now liberals may have some disagreements with the DLC.  That’s fine (DR has a few himself).  But let’s never forget that they’re still Democrats and members of the same team.  Remember: the opposing team has that guy in the White House and people like Grover (see above).  It shouldn’t be too hard to tell the difference.

Let’s Take Advantage of the Fact They May Be Cracking Up!

Another great reason for Democratic unity is to take advantage of emerging Republican weaknesses.  And one of those weaknesses may be: they’re cracking up!  Start with the fact that a fringe element like Norquist has now attained such power.   Let’s face it, Grover is a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but is now a huge influence on Republican economic and fiscal policy.  But Norquist doesn’t want better economic and fiscal policy; he wants to eliminate economic and fiscal policy. 
The Republican party has always had “thinkers” like Norquist to deal with, but in the old days, they were muzzled most of the time and only allowed out to howl at the moon on special occasions.  But now the lunatics are running the asylum.  And writing books like Ann Coulter’s Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism.  As hilariously detailed in today’s Richard Cohen column in The Washington Post, Coulter has managed to convince herself that anyone to the left of the President (note to Coulter: more than half the country voted against him), and certainly anyone who criticizes the President, is (let’s call a spade a spade!) a traitor. 
Yep, there’s no doubt about it, those conservatives are getting kind of wacky.  And, of course, it’s not just Norquist and Coulter, it’s the whole radical right groupthink that now appears to have taken over the Republican party.  Which makes liberals look pretty good by comparison.  As Eric Alterman notes in is latest column in The Nation, “Today, ‘liberal’ is just another word for ‘not nuts’.  Don’t go around invading countries that do not pose a threat and lie to the world to justify it; don’t destroy the nation’s fiscal health in order to give trillion-dollar gifts to the wealthy; don’t gratuitously insult countries whose help we need to maintain peace and security; don’t shred the Constitution at every opportunity, etc. etc.”
Of course, the amazing thing about this is that the conservatives themselves are quite unaware of any of this.  They think there’s nothing wrong–like Grover, they see a Republican future that stretches on forever.  It’s the Democrats who are going over the cliff, as normally-astute conservative commentator David Brooks recently argued in The Weekly Standard, because–well, because, some of them actually criticize President Bush and denounce his policies. 
David, that’s not being nuts, that’s being the opposition party.  If you want nuts, I can think of another place to check.  Hint: it’s a group whose name begins with “R”.
Democrats: We’re the not nuts party!

Jews and the Democratic Party: Still Together After All These Years

Part of Karl Rove’s master plan is peeling off parts of key Democratic-leaning constituencies and melding them with the GOP’s base among conservative whites. It is remarkable, however, how little progress has actually been made, especially in relation to Republican claims about such progress.
This week comes further evidence that Republicans have not succeeded in making much of a dent in a small, but significant, part of the Democratic coalition: Jewish voters. According to data released by Ipsos Public Affairs/Cook Political Report, in the first quarter of 2003, Jews gave Bush an overall approval rating of 39 percent, an economic job approval rating of 26 percent, and a domestic issues approval rating of 24 percent.
Wow. They clearly haven’t drunk the Rove Kool-Aid yet. Guess that’s why Bush’s hard re-elect (definitely vote to re-elect) among these voters was just 22 percent, less than half of the number (45 percent) who said they would definitely vote for someone else. And why they give Democrats a staggering 72 percent to 24 percent lead on the generic Congressional ballot question and declare their partisanship as Democratic by more than 3:1 (67 percent to 22 percent).
The Democrats have a lot of things to worry about. But declining support among Jewish voters doesn’t appear to be one of them.

Medicare Prescription Drugs: Did the Democrats Blow It Again?

There’s certainly a reasonable argument to be made that they did.  Here is one of the Democrats’ signature issues being taken off the table, with the assistance of the Democrats themselves, including most famously, the Senate’s liberal lion, Ted Kennedy (and Kennedy, of course, played a similar in the passage of the No Child Left Behind education reform package in early 2002).  Assuming the House- and Senate-passed bills are reconciled, which seems likely, and the President signs the resulting bill, which seems very likely, Bush and the GOP will trumpet the legislation as a great accomplishment for their team and proof that Bush is indeed a compassionate conservative.  And that will make Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 much easier by shoring up his image at its weakest point.  
Many observers–for example, Matthew Miller–believe the Democrats should have been made of sterner stuff and blocked what are terrible bills anyway to prevent the GOP from reaping these political dividends.  Even nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook remarked: “By going along with a compromise that many Democrats are convinced is too limited, too complex, and too likely to spark a senior furor later on, the Democratic Party may well be making yet another miscalculation.”
That could very well be so.  Certainly, the CW seems to be coalescing around that view, as can be seen in the headlines of the main analysis stories last weekend in The Washington Post (“GOP May Get a Boost with Seniors”) and The New York Times (“GOP Steals Thunder”).  The issue, though, is how the bill will play once the 2004 campaign heats up and Democrats have a chance to point out its many shortcomings, including the bizarre “doughnut hole” in coverage where (to take the House version) no benefits whatsoever are paid on drug expenditures from $2,000 to $4,900.  That means that, for example, a retiree with $5,000 in drug expenses would wind up paying about 80 percent of costs herself, under this version of the bill.
Note also that the benefit does not actually become available until 2006.
This should give the Democrats plenty of time and raw material to make their case.  Why does the bill have such huge gaps in coverage?  Because they didn’t have the money to provide the full benefit.  Why didn’t they have the money?  Because they spent umpty-gazillion dollars on tax cuts before they ever got around to considering a drug benefit.
Nothing complicated about that argument.  Even the average Democrat should be able to make it.   A recent poll of 55 and over voters by Peter Hart Research on Medicare and prescription drugs shows they’ll probably have a receptive audience.  Many of the provisions likely to be in final prescription drugs bill are already viewed unfavorably by large majorities of these voters, including, of course, the doughnut hole in coverage, which is viewed unfavorably by 72 percent.  It is possible the Democrats will find themselves in better shape not having to advocate for their Plan A versus the Republican Plan B on prescription drugs, as they have in past elections, which has proved to be a murky and surprisingly unproductive debate for them.  Now they can just concentrate on crisp, clear criticisms of Plan B, which makes a nice fat target.  And maybe talk about some other issues for a change.
DR is ready to take opening bids on an education plan.

Are We Off On the Wrong Track?

Apparently more and more Americans think so, according to a just-released Democracy Corps poll.  In a mid-May poll by the same group, 51 percent said the country was going in the right direction, compared to 41 percent who said was off on the wrong track (a 10 point right direction advantage).  But now, the public is about evenly split, with 46 percent saying right direction and 45 percent saying wrong track (a mere 1 point right direction advantage).  If wrong track responses continue to rise, that’s a serious danger sign for the incumbent administration.
The poll also asked respondents whether the country should continue going in the direction Bush is headed in various areas or go in a significantly different direction.  By 17 points, the public wants a new direction on health care and on the Federal budget/deficits, by 11 points, they want a new direction on the economy, by 9 points, they want a new direction on retirement/Social Security and on the environment, by 6 points they want a new direction on energy policy and by 5 points they want a new direction on prescription drugs for seniors.
In a problem sign for Democrats, however, the public actually wants to continue in Bush’s direction on support for education, albeit by a modest margin (3 points).  This is an area the public rates second in importance after the economy and jobs and where Democrats are generally viewed as the party better able to handle the issue.  So the Democrats’ failure to sell the public on the need for a new direction in support for public education looms large.  This is an issue they will need to open up a lead on if they hope to do well in 2004.
Areas of Bush strength include, of course, the war on terrorism (by 37 points), foreign policy (by 14 points) and respect for the US in the world (by 10 points).  Interestingly, he does not do well in two traditional areas of Republican strength: taxes (the public is split evenly on staying with Bush or going in a new direction) and the moral climate in the country (Bush only gets a 1 point advantage).
The poll also finds signs that the situation in Iraq is getting a “wrong track” feel for more and more of the public.  For example, in mid-May, 61 percent said the war in Iraq was worth the cost in US lives and dollars, compared to just 33 percent who thought the war wasn’t worth the cost–a 28 point margin.  In this new poll, that margin has been cut in half, with 41 percent now saying the was wasn’t worth the cost (including a 9 point increase, to 32 percent, in those who strongly believe the war wasn’t worth the cost), compared to 55 percent who say the war was worth the cost.
Moreover, the poll finds a plurality of the public (by 49 percent to 46 percent) saying they cannot trust what the government is saying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Bush fares better on the same question, with the public saying by 56 percent to 40 percent that they can trust what he says about Iraq’s WMDs, but it’s clear which way the wind is blowing on this one.  As distrust in the government increases on this issue, distrust of Bush will likely move in the same direction (and there’s already 40 percent who don’t trust him).  For a President who relies so much on his bond with the American people, that could be a problem.  A big problem.

How to Fight Bush’s Tax Cuts

One of the most important questions for Democrats as we move into the 2004 campaign season is how to fight Bush’s tax cuts.  Bush has already revealed his strategy, as detailed in a Monday article by Mike Allen in The Washington Post.  They will use carefully-doctored statistics to argue that repealing the tax cuts will mean significant tax hikes for the typical middle class family.  All the better if they can get the press to confront Democrats with these carefully-chosen “facts”, as Tim Russert obligingly did to Howard Dean on Sunday’s Meet the Press, but we can be sure these same factoids will show up in campaign commercials, debates, etc.
How can the Democrats effectively counter this strategy?  One way is to expose these facts as careful cooking of the data to defend the indefensible. Another way is to decry the tax cuts in general as massively unfair.  Even if–to use the example brought up by Russert from data supplied to him by the Treasury Department–a typical married couple with two kids and a $40,000 income gets a $1,933 savings from the 2001 and 2003 bills, the top 1 percent of taxpayers save an average of $56,000 and receive 37 percent of total tax cut savings.  
All true.  But probably not so effective, as Michael Tomasky points out in a good post on The American Prospect website.  People want the money they can get, modest as it may be, and just pointing out the wealthy get more may not be enough to turn them against Bush tax cuts, even if you allow the non-wealthy to keep the bulk of their tax savings (though that’s a start).   Instead, Tomasky argues, Democrats should make the case that the tax cuts have effects that are directly counter to the typical voter’s self-interest, since the Feds have no money to help states shore up budget shortfalls.  That results in cutting services and raising taxes in the states and localities where voters actually live.
That’s a promising approach.  Polling evidence has consistently shown that voters only really oppose tax cuts in the context of taking away something else that they want.  Fairness is a concern, but it will never be enough to carry a Democratic politics on this issue.
Probably the Democratic Presidential candidate who done the best job articulating this perspective on taxes is John Edwards.  You can read his recent speech at Georgetown University here and an analysis of that speech by Willliam Saletan of Slate here.  Other Democrats hopefully are paying close attention.

Two or Three Things I Know About Iraq

One is that the WMDs still haven’t been found. Two is that the Bush administration misrepresented and just plain lied about the evidence concerning Iraq’s WMDs and the threat they posed. And three–the factor that could finally make the first two bite politically–is that soldiers are dying in Iraq every day and that doesn’t seem likely to stop anytime soon.
On point two, see Josh Marshall’s excellent column in The Hill and long post on his website about increasingly obvious administration fibs, like not knowing the alleged Niger uranium purchases by Iraq were bogus. It’s just getting harder and harder for the administration to maintain that they had no knowledge of the problems with the “evidence” they were using and that, therefore, they could not possibly have been lying.
On point three, today brought news on the deaths of six British soldiers in a southern Iraqi town, to add to the steady stream of other deaths from various attacks. The danger sign here for the administration is the rise in the number of Americans who feel the level of military casualties in Iraq is unacceptable, as revealed in a just-released Washington Post poll. Right after the statue of Saddam came down in Baghdad, just 28 percent said the level of casualities was unacceptable, while 66 percent said it was acceptable. Now, it’s getting close to even: 44 percent say the level of casualties is unacceptable and 51 percent say it is acceptable.
We’re not far away from the point where “unacceptable” will outnumber “acceptable” It will be interesting to see what happens then. And whether the public is still not bother about the missing WMDs and the administration’s deceptions about them.