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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Daily Strategist

October 22, 2018

The Base Bails On Bush

Yesterday’s Washington Post Outlook piece by National Review’s Byron York made it all but official: the GOP’s conservative base, including its opinion leaders, has largely given up on George W. Bush’s presidency.
York’s analysis identifies three specific reasons for this development: Bush’s advocacy of an approach to immigration reform that has deeply offended conservatives; his self-contradictory handling of the Scooter Libby saga; and perhaps most of all, his botching of Iraq. Of everything York says, this last point is the most interesting, indicating conservative acknowledgment that the “surge” is failing, and that the Right will no longer embrace it as a reflection of its own thinking on Iraq. Though York doesn’t go into this, we may be about to experience an especially ironic political moment this week, when John McCain returns from a trip to Iraq, and could conspicuously part company with the administration’s strategy there. Even though McCain’s own presidential campaign has become road-kill during the recent conservative rebellion against Bush, his original support for the “surge” was widely interpreted as validating a defiant conservative “tilt” by Bush on Iraq. If McCain bails on the “surge” now, many Republicans will follow him in reassuming a position to the right of the administration on Iraq.
In terms of the impact on Bush of a bailing base, York offers this comment:

So now the president has 18 months left in office, and they won’t be quiet ones. Absent the committed backing of his party, he will be forced to exercise power based not on his political clout but rather on the authority the Constitution gives the office of the president: He is commander in chief. He can veto bills. He can issue pardons. And that’s about it.

Well, some of us have thought “that’s about it” in terms of Bush’s power ever since the autumn of 2005, when the Katrina fiasco and growing signs of futility in Iraq decisively turned independent voters against Bush, while permanently destroying, across the board, the Bush-Rove reputation for political wizardry, built up by the 2004 re-election campaign. And we’ve learned since then that Bush’s constitutional prerogatives are indeed formidable in terms of enabling him to stubbornly pursue wildly unpopular policies. Sure, “base” support for the “surge” temporarily lifted Bush’s approval ratings into the tepid 40s range after the 2006 elections, but it’s pretty clear the White House has declared final independence from accountability to public opinion of any sort.
The real impact of the conservative defection from support for Bush is that it will further enable 2008 GOP presidential candidates to distance themselves from the incumbent’s record, as part of a desperate effort to make the election something, anything, other than a referendum on the previous eight years. It’s more essential than ever for Democrats to lash the GOP to the mast of Bush’s record, and to make it clear that the “change” GOP candidates offer from the status quo is if possible even more irresponsible and extremist than the disastrous path blazed by W.

Dems Challenged by ‘Irrational Voters’

Louis Menand has a review article in The New Yorker entitled “Fractured Franchise: Are the Wrong People Voting?,” a freebie for net users. Menand discusses “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Chose Bad Politics” by George Mason University Economist Bryan Caplan.
Menand’s review is really a spingboard for mulling over some theories of why people vote the way they do. Along the way, he provides this disturbing rant on political illiteracy:

The political knowledge of the average voter has been tested repeatedly, and the scores are impressively low. In polls taken since 1945, a majority of Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” and explain what the Bill of Rights is. More than two-thirds have reported that they do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade and what the Food and Drug Administration does. Nearly half do not know that states have two senators and three-quarters do not know the length of a Senate term. More than fifty per cent of Americans cannot name their congressman; forty per cent cannot name either of their senators. Voters’ notions of government spending are wildly distorted: the public believes that foreign aid consumes twenty-four per cent of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about one per cent.

It goes on. Not a pretty picture, nor a compelling argument for increasing voter turnout in general. Similar scary litanies about “low-information voters” have dogged U.S. democracy for a while now. The preferred assumption is that the political illiterati are voting mostly for the other party, or alternatively that most of them are not voting at all.
Menand sees an elitist strain in Caplan’s thesis:

The average voter is not held in much esteem by economists and political scientists, and Caplan rehearses some of the reasons for this. The argument of his book, though, is that economists and political scientists have misunderstood the problem. They think that most voters are ignorant about political issues; Caplan thinks that most voters are wrong about the issues, which is a different matter, and that their wrong ideas lead to policies that make society as a whole worse off….Caplan thinks that the best cure is less democracy. He doesn’t quite say that the world ought to be run by economists, but he comes pretty close.

According to Menand, Caplan also advocates dubious reforms, such as an “economic literacy” test for voters, and giving extra votes to people with “greater economic literacy.”
Menand also touches on the phenomenon of “shortcut” voters — those who don’t follow issues closely, but rely on the judgement of friends, relatives or political parties in deciding who to vote for. The latter may be more common in western Europe’s democracies, where turnount is much higher and where political parties and party-line voting traditions are stronger. Building Party cohesiveness is easier in Parliamentary systems, but that doesn’t mean Democrats can’t do more to encourage straight ticket voting in the 17 states where it is permitted. Such ‘shortcut voters’ may well provide the margin of victory in any number of close races.

The Intersection of Money and Strategy

I didn’t write much this last week about the second-quarter fundraising reports for presidential candidates, figuring the story was being obsessively covered elsewhere. The news that John McCain now has less cash-on-hand than Ron Paul did put an exclamation point on the terminal diagnosis of his candidacy which has been apparent for some time. And like just about everyone, I agree that the overall Democratic advantage in fundraising is significant, if not dispositive.
But there’s an interesting buzz on the Democratic side about the possibility that the huge Clinton/Obama money advantage over the rest of the field may spell doom for their rivals, most specifically John Edwards, whose status as one of the Big Three of Democratic candidates is increasingly being questioned, partly because of the money problem, and partly because his poll standings are lagging everywhere but in Iowa.
Over at The New Republic Online, John Judis made the case that Edwards, even if he wins Iowa, may not be able to duplicate the Iowa-driven Kerry miracle of 2004 because of the compressed primary schedule, which would not give him time to raise enough cash to compete in the vast array of big-state contests on February 5. At The Plank, Jason Zengerle, a notably Edwards-friendly writer, wondered if the whole Iowa-centric strategy of that campaign was a mistake.
To deal with the last point first, I can’t imagine why John Edwards would not want to focus on Iowa. He entered the 2008 cycle leading almost every poll in Iowa, with a strong and well-nourished organization already in place. Doing anything other than trying to build on that advantage would have been nuts, particularly since Iowa represents a landscape in which his rivals’ money would not necessarily translate into Caucus attendance.
Judis’ argument about the differences in the 2004 and 2008 calendars is clearly right, but let’s remember a couple of peculiarities of the 2004 dynamics. The meltdown of the Dean campaign post-Iowa was attributable to the catastrophic outcome in Iowa, and to the huge media exaggeration of The Scream–but also to the revelation that Dean’s significant money advantage had vanished thanks to promiscuous spending on organization and media in states well down the road. As it turned out, Kerry’s Iowa bounce, which produced a decisive NH bounce, not only enabled JK to raise money, but also wiped out the impact of earlier Dean spending in a variety of states. It’s not clear to me that a compressed primary schedule in 2004 would have changed the ultimate outcome at all. If anything, the “pause” after NH gave two other rivals, Edwards and Clark, a slim but definite chance to overcome the Iowa-NH bounce for Kerry.
The real and unanswerable question for 2008, particularly if Edwards or even someone further down in the field wins or places early, is the size of the impact of Iowa and New Hampshire on the immediate landscape of later states. And we’ve not even begun to assess whether HRC and Obama are wisely investing their vast hauls over the primary calendar.
To mention just one strategic dilemma: how does HRC approach Iowa? She clearly needs to beat Obama there. And given her overall investment in an “inevitability” campaign, she might be tempted to throw everything into an effort to win outright, thereby croaking Edwards. But that would run the risk of making Obama the clear and unified anti-HRC candidate in later caucuses and primaries.
In the end, John Edwards has no choice but to go for Iowa, and try to create a domino effect that neutralizes his rivals’ poll and money advantages, with the additional hope that they focus on each other and spend too much early money on states where the Iowa-New Hampshire bounce might overwhelm every other factor. It’s the other candidates, I suspect, who really need to make some perilous decisions about the intersectiom of money and strategy in this campaign.

The Amazing Shrinking Prez

Those who thought 30 percent approval was probably as low as President Bush could go need to think again. According to a just published Newsweek poll, Bush’s job approval rating has tumbled to 26 percent, which, as Kos‘s McJoan points out, approaches Nixonian levels of public support.
She also cites a new ARG poll, which indicates that 45 percent of adults want the House of Reps to begin impeachment proceedings against President Bush (46 percent opposed). And things could get gnarly sooner for the puppetmaster. According to the ARG poll, 54 percent want the House to begin impeachment proceedings against Vice President Cheney. There is already a fair amount of heated discussion in the blogs about the wisdom of impeachment in the context of Democratic ’08 strategy, and If this trend persists or grows, it will get even hotter.
How much of the Bush/Cheney free fall can be attributed to rising gas prices? A good question, and Professor Pollkatz’s Pool of Polls has a graphic that indicates a pretty clear relationship over time.

Republican Divisions

Last week Mark Ambinder of The Atlantic did a post reporting some of the findings from a big survey of Republicans done by Tony Fabrizio, including some comparisons to a similar survey ten years ago. And last night, Tom Edsell, at HuffingtonPost, supplied a link to the Fabrizio-McLaughlin power point presentation on the survey.
You can read it yourself, and try to absorb Fabrizio’s segmentation of rank-and-file Republicans into seven categories (Free Marketers, Dennis Miller Republicans, Heartland Republicans, Government Knows Best Republicans, Moralists, Fortress America, and Bush Hawks). More interesting IMHO are the survey’s conclusions about divisions in the GOP ranks, particularly given the clear 1997-2007 trend it shows towards a self-consciously conservative party (71 percent of those in the survey self-indentify as conservatives–up from 55 percent ten years ago).
The divisions cut across a broad swath of economic and social policies. While big majorities of Republicans claim to favor both balanced budgets and additional tax cuts, they’re split 52 % (tax cuts) to 44% (budget balancing) on the highest fiscal priority. Perhaps more significantly, GOPers support the proposition that “universal health coverage should be a guaranteed right for every American” by a 51%-43% margin, with interesting splits among the seven segments. 44% of Republicans appear to dislike private accounts for Social Security. They’re all over the place on global warming and federal involvement in education.
On cultural issues, the two things that stand out are: (a) while 61% of Republicans call themselves “pro-life,” and 80% appear to support significant restrictions on abortion, 53% also agree with the proposition that “the Republican Party has spent too much time focusing on moral issues like abortion and gay marriage”; and (b) a startling 49% (with 42% opposed) favor allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military.
The issues where Republicans are united are interesting, too. 74% of GOPers still think the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do; a host of surveys show large majorities of independents, and overall majorities of Americans, feel differently. And on immigration, 76% agree that enforcing the laws against illegal immigrants, even if that means deporting them, should be the main goal of national policy. Aside from illustrating why John McCain’s campaigning is tanking, this finding could mean trouble down the road for presidential candidates whose opposition to the “grand bargain” approach to immigration reform (i.e., Rudy Giuliani) is technical rather than fundamental. It could also mean trouble for the GOP generally if the immigration debate begins to focus not on “amnesty” but on “deportation.”
The survey also includes presidential candidate questions, but since the data’s about a month old, it’s interesting mainly in terms of the preferences of different segments. Giuliani runs first in all seven categories, but is (unsurprisingly) weakest among “Moralists.” Fred Thompson’s nascent bid also appears to have reasonably broad support; his weakest segment is one (‘Heartland Republicans”) that is basically a midwestern regional grouping.
All in all, Fabrizio displays a Republican Party that’s more of a coalition than is generally assumed; whose points of unity could be problematic in a general election; and where relative support for Bush’s Iraq/terrorism policies has complicated the old economic/cultural fault lines among GOPers.

Dems More in Tune With Voters on Health Care

In connectiion with the growing buzz about “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s new documentary about America’s health care system, Robin Toner has an update on the health care proposals of ’08 presidential candidates of both parties in today’s New York Times. She touches on the candidates positions on public and private sector plans, inclusiveness of coverage, financial and cost containment ideas, tax incentives and other aspects.
Toner provides capsule policy summaries for each candidate here. (See also our post here for more insight into the candidates’ policies and here for an overview of how the different states are doing ).

Democrats, “Change,” and the 1990s

A small incident on the campaign trail in Iowa yesterday, highlighted by the Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut, illustrated an important strategic choice for Democrats that is being dramatized in the competition between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Everyone agrees that Democrats must identify themselves as the “change” party in 2008. But is the “change” they stand for a revolution or a restoration? More specificially, what do Democrats say, if anything, about the Bill Clinton years, with its mix of toxic, scandal-ridden partisan politics and solid policy achievements? Here’s how the question is being raised by Obama and Clinton, according to Kornblut:

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) took aim at his main Democratic presidential rival during his July 4 campaign swing through Iowa, saying that “change can’t just be a slogan” — days after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) introduced her new slogan, “Ready for Change, Ready to Lead.”
Obama has long cast himself as part of the future of politics, in contrast with a Clinton era that he portrays as part of a divisive past.
But Obama had a ready target on Wednesday: Both Clintons were campaigning nearby in Iowa, their first swing together. Bill Clinton repeatedly introduced his wife with reminders of the 1990s. The former first lady embraced the role of virtual incumbent on their holiday-week tour, promising to restore conditions — in the economy and in the government — to the way they were during her husband’s administration.
Obama praised the former president, then quickly shifted his tone. “I think he did a lot of fine things, and I think he’s a terrific political strategist,” Obama told the Associated Press. “What we’re more interested in is looking forward, not in looking backward. I think the American people feel the same way. What they are looking for is a way to break out of the harsh partisanship and the old arguments — and to solve problems.”
Clinton, a two-term senator who also spent eight years in the White House as first lady, is trying a “change — but not too much change” approach. Her advisers believe that her candidacy, to become the first female president, inherently signals change. But they also think voters want something familiar, rather than an unknown quantity of the kind that Obama, a first-term senator and an African American, might represent.

Obama has obviously been pursuing a “total change” message, thought generally to reflect and reinforce his particular appeal to post-baby-boom voters. And Clinton has little choice but to rely on her experience in the White House as central to her own credentials, even as she tries to avoid falling under her husband’s large shadow (a balancing act that has been evident this week as she barnstormed through Iowa with the Big He, who was careful to keep his remarks short at every stop).
The “how much change” contrast between the two candidates hasn’t gotten into policy questions yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time until it does.
What to say about the Clinton legacy has been a perennial issue for Democrats. Al Gore famously eschewed clear-cut identification with the Clinton-Gore administration during his own presidential run (at least until the home stretch), though that decision reflected fresh memories of the Lewinsky scandal and the president’s low personal ratings rather than any repudiation of Clinton policies (it’s less clear whether voters understood the distinction).
In late 2003, however, Howard Dean, then the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, delivered what was billed as a major domestic policy speech, and began to articulate the never-completely-repressed unhappiness of some Democrats with Clinton’s policy agenda. Referring to the entire Clinton presidency as an exercise in “damage control,” Dean suggested that the Republican Congresses Clinton faced made it impossible for him to pursue a truly progressive course. In his post-election book, You Have the Power, Dean elaborated on this theme, arguing that only Clinton’s unique political skills kept him from a path towards complete capitulation to Republicans–the kind of capitulation he accused Clintonian Democrats of conducting once George W. Bush was in office. This take on the Clinton legacy is one that is often echoed, with varying degrees of emphasis on Clinton’s own culpability vis-a-vis his New Democrat allies, by many netroots and/or Left observers.
I’ve gone through this quick trip down memory lane to suggest that the Obama-HRC contrast on “change” reflects, though it does not at present express, an ideological fissure among Democrats about how to contextualize the 1990s. Complicating the picture, of course, is the empirical question of how voters will respond to a “restoration” message that clouds the degree of change Democrats represent, or to a “total change” message that leaves Democrats exposed to Republican efforts to exploit doubts about their intentions.
I’ve heard some talk in New Dem circles that one way to make the “restoration” theme–whether or not it’s connected to a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign–more forward-looking and “change”-oriented is with the slogan: “Restart the Twenty-First Century.” The idea, of course, is that Bush has so thoroughlyl screwed up the last seven years that the only way to place the country on track is to go back to square one. This approach might well appeal to some progressives who aren’t terribly enamored of the Clinton legacy, but who do like the idea of ripping up the Bush legacy root and branch.
It will be most interesting to see if, how and when this question of the nature of progressive “change” plays out in the 2008 nominating process, and in the general election beyond it. And keep in mind that the Democratic presidential nominee will have to make his or her “change” pitch in the context of a Democratic Congress that will be fighting for re-election.

How Netroots Strengthens MSM

Media Matters has a zinger for NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd, noting his prediction last November that, if the Democrats won “control of Congress” and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) became speaker of the House, then President Bush’s “approval rating will be over 50 percent by the Fourth of July next year.”
Well, Independence Day has come and gone, and Bush’s approval ratings have tanked way below 50 percent. More accurately, the Media Matters post, artfully flagged by MissLaura at Kos, cites a recent analysis of national polls conducted 6/11 to 28 pegging Bush’s average approval rating at 30.5 percent.
Just about every journalist who comments on politics for any length of time gets burned for making a silly prediction at some point, and that may be as true for netroots writers as well as the MSM over time. But unlike most political bloggers, the big networks, rags and mags pundits rarely own up or acknowledge their gullibility for GOP spin. Worse, they don’t give the bloggers with better track records any cred for getting it right. A little less hubris and a little more humility would serve us all well.
This incident not only shows the kind of blunders too often made by MSM pundits who have been fed GOP spin; it also shows the importance of progressive bloggers in restoring political balance. What has changed is that the MSM will be more closely monitored from now on — and that’s good for everyone.

Partisanship and Patriotism

For political types, Independence Day is a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, it’s a day for national unity. Regardless of party or ideology, Americans generally take some time on the 4th to listen to the same Sousa marches, display the same flag, eat the same grilled food, and mingle at parades and parks and sporting venues, rubbing shoulders with people we might regard, in a different context, as warmongering fascists or baby-killing moral relativists. On the other hand, it’s also always been a day for politicians to make speeches and hold rallies. On this particular Independence Day, for example, many Iowans won’t be able to go outdoors without running into a presidential candidate.
On another level, the paradox is The Point. Whatever your views on the fundamental meaning of The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, or the American Experience, the 4th is one day when we can all reflect, talk and even argue about the relevance of those events to the contemporary challenges facing this country. It’s hard today for Republicans to regard Democrats as flag-despising Francophile elitists. And it’s hard today as well for Democrats to view Republicans as plotting to repeal the Bill of Rights. All our passionate arguments are a bit constrained by the rituals of Independent Day. You don’t have to be a squishy, David-Broder-style antipartisan to enjoy that for 24 hours. Tomorrow we take up the cudgels again, reinvigorated by this reconnection with the American traditions we champion in parades, rallies and songs. I personally have little doubt Our Side is truly in synch with those traditions, but don’t mind being forced to think about it more deeply once a year, when we all wear the same colors.

Does Libby Commutation Issue Have Legs?

How broad is the outrage over President Bush’s commutation of Libby’s sentence? And is the outrage likely to last through November ’08?
No way to gauge the intensity fade factor at this juncture. But SurveyUSA has a new interactive voice response poll conducted on July 2nd, measuring how respondents feel about Libby’s free ride, and Pollster.com‘s Charles has an analysis. He reports that of 825 respondents familiar with the Libby case and presidential commutation,