« February 2005 | Main | April 2005 »

March 31, 2005

'Frames,' 'Messaging' Overhyped?

An article in the May issue of Atlantic Monthly, "It Isn't the Message, Stupid" by Joshua Green takes a sobering look at the popularity of the 'frames' buzz in Democratic circles. Subtitled "A new kind of guru is convincing Democrats that they don't need new ideas after all—a snazzy new sales pitch will revive their fortunes," Green's article cautions Democrats from making George Lakoff's book, "Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate" the last word in formulating political strategy. Says Green:

Cognitive linguistics may not rate with Iraq, terrorism, and health care in surveys of voters' concerns (it doesn't rate at all, actually), but it has achieved that status among a surprising number of Democratic leaders. Lakoff has twice addressed the caucus on how to frame its policies, and his book is a surprise best seller in Washington; it has become as much a partisan totem as the lapel-pin flags worn by Republicans. Lakoff and a handful of other self-appointed gurus have raised tactical phrasing to something approaching a religion.

Green points out that Lakoff's champions include DNC chairman Howard Dean and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But he warns that Lakoff and other 'messaging' gurus may be leading Dems down a dead end road. "Buzzwords are not going to rescue a failing party," says Green.

Green's sour take on Lakoff's 'frames' seems a little overdone. Lakoff's book does provide a useful guide to understanding how GOP strategists manipulate language to achieve political goals, and he has encouraged Democrats to frame their arguments more thoughtfully. But Green's point that language is no substitute for substance is well made.

March 30, 2005

Will GOP Moderates Look Left?

If current trends continue in the months ahead, growing discontent among GOP moderates may translate into Democratic gains in '06 -- if not sooner. In today's New York Times, former GOP Senator John C. Danforth, now an Episcopal minister, says:

BY a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians. The elements of this transformation have included advocacy of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, opposition to stem cell research involving both frozen embryos and human cells in petri dishes, and the extraordinary effort to keep Terri Schiavo hooked up to a feeding tube

The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active. It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement.

Danforth's remarks echo Connecticut Republican Rep. Christopher Shays, who recently said "This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy."

In his SLATE.com article "The Not So Fantastic Four: The Demise of the Republican Moderates," Michael Crowley notes that Senate GOP moderates Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and John McCain of Arizona are increasingly isolated as voices for sanity in their party. Notes Crowley of the prospect of the Republicans "nuclear option" destroying the filibuster:

If Frist finds a way to drop the Bomb, the moderates' lack of clout will be proved. And in the all-out partisan warfare that would be sure to follow—call it nuclear winter—they'd be stuck in a bleak no-man's land.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Peter Wallsten reports on cracks in the GOP base in Florida:

With the GOP base polarized over the Terri Schiavo case and the public skeptical of Bush's plan to overhaul Social Security, two issues with explosive relevance in Florida are stirring up confusing political crosscurrents for Republicans preparing to face the voters there next year.

Even conservative media critic Howard Kurtz comments on the trend in "Splitsville," his wrap-up piece in the Washington Post.

One of the most common headlines around these days is "GOP Split on [Fill-in-the-Blank]." The image of a unified governing party is cracking fast.

As the article by former Senator Bill Bradley quoted below indicates, the GOP has a stronger structure than the Dems' inverted pyramid to endure such splits. And no one should be surprised if GOP leaders suddenly adopt a more moderate tone leading up to the '06 elections. Yet it is not out of the question that Senator Chafee, for example, would consider switching parties, if only because he will likely face a strong challenge from a Democrat.

Even assuming no GOP moderates switch parties between now and '06, it is clear that rank and file moderate Republicans are becomming increasingly uncomfortable with their Party's current direction. Democratic candidates should make an extra effort to reach out and welcome their support.

Bill Bradley Deftly Analyses Where the Dems Go Wrong

Former Senator Bill Bradley has an extremely important op-ed page piece in Wednesday’s New York Times – one of the genuine “must reads” of post-2004 election strategic thinking. In it, he contrasts the Republicans very stable pyramid-shaped organizational structure with the Dems “upside-down” organizational pyramid. Here are a few excerpts:

….You've probably heard some of this before, but let me run through it again. Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid…

…The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate…And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.

At the very top of the pyramid you'll find the president. Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine….

Bradley then turns to the Dems:

…To understand how the Democratic Party works, invert the pyramid. Imagine a pyramid balancing precariously on its point, which is the presidential candidate.

Democrats who run for president have to build their own pyramids all by themselves. There is no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on. Unlike Republicans, they don't simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus - they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too. …
…in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas. Campaigns don't start thinking about a Democratic brand until halfway through the election year, by which time winning the daily news cycle takes precedence over building a consistent message. The closest that Democrats get to a brand is a catchy slogan.

Democrats choose this approach, I believe, because we are still hypnotized by Jack Kennedy, and the promise of a charismatic leader who can change America by the strength and style of his personality. The trouble is that every four years the party splits and rallies around several different individuals at once. Opponents in the primaries then exaggerate their differences and leave the public confused about what Democrats believe...

…In such a system tactics trump strategy. Candidates don't risk talking about big ideas because the ideas have never been sufficiently tested. Instead they usually wind up arguing about minor issues and express few deep convictions…


And here’s his conclusion:

…If Democrats are serious about preparing for the next election or the next election after that, some influential Democrats will have to resist entrusting their dreams to individual candidates and instead make a commitment to build a stable pyramid from the base up. It will take at least a decade's commitment, and it won't come cheap. But there really is no other choice.

Make sure to read the entire piece. It’s a key contribution to Democratic thinking about 2008 and beyond.

March 29, 2005

Time/SRBI Poll Has More Bad News for Bush

The new Time/SRBI poll, coming out on the heels of the very negative Gallup and Pew polls, has more bad news for President Bush.

Bush's approval rating in the poll has declined to 48 percent, 5 points down from a week ago. Time/SRBI tends to run high on Bush approval relative to other public polls and that 48 percent rating is is the lowest for Bush they have ever recorded.

His rating on the economy is down to 42 percent, also his lowest ever in this poll. His rating on the Iraq situation is now 44 percent and even his rating on handling the war on terrorism is down to 52 percent, another low for this poll.

But his worst rating by far is on Social Security, which has sunk to 31 percent, with 58 percent disapproval--a rating even worse than in other recent public polls.

Turning to the Terri Schiavo case, the public says, by 59-35, that they agree with a Florida judge's decision to uphold the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube. As in previous polls, support for removing Schiavo's tube extends across the spectrum, including even the highly religiously observant.

The public judges the political intervention into the Schiavo case quite harshly. By 75-20, they say it wasn't right for Congress to intervene in the case and, by 70-24, that it wasn't right for Bush to intervene in the case. Moreover, by 65-25, the public believes Bush's intervention in the case had more to do with politics than values.

The public's probably right about that--and, based on these and other data, it would now appear Bush made a very substantial mistake in doing so.

The Rural Vote in 2004

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner has just released a very useful analysis of the rural vote in 2004, along with a chartpack of interesting graphs on the rural vote. Here is their summary of the memo's major findings:

Rural America emerged as one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds in the election. Both campaigns invested millions of dollars courting these voters, investing heavily in television and field outreach program. Kerry did not cede this vote any more than the Bush campaign took it for granted.

The final outcome in 2004 masks an often competitive political environment in rural America. Not only did Democrats closely contest the rural vote in recent elections (1992 and 1996), but even in 2004, the rural vote ebbed and flowed with the vagaries of the campaign, from Saddam's capture to the debates. Only in the end did the Bush team salt away its win in rural America.

George Bush prevailed by successfully framing this election as a referendum on values and security. By moving the economy to the political back-burner and amplifying the disconnect between the perceived values of the Democratic nominee and the conservative, cultural values of the rural electorate, Bush improved upon his 2000 margin in rural parts of the country.

At the same time, rural voters signaled significant frustration with the economic course of the country. That Kerry could not capitalize on this frustration speaks to the power of values in shaping this vote, but more fundamentally, also to a missed opportunity among Democrats to speak to the populist anger of this vote in a disciplined and credible fashion.

March 28, 2005

The Role of the Terrorism Issue in the 2004 Election

Philip Klinkner, posting in the blog Polysigh, provides some very interesting National Election Study (NES) data on the terrorism issue and its influence on the 2004 election. Here are some of his key findings, but check out his full post for much more:

The NES includes a question, “What do you think has been the most important issue facing the United States over the last four years?” In 2004, terrorism and the war in Iraq clearly dominated voters minds. Approximately 42 percent of voters cited terrorism as the most important issue.....

For one issue to so dominate an election is rare. In fact, the last time that an issue was cited by this many respondents was in 1968 when 43 percent cited the Vietnam War.....

Moreover, President Bush dominated on the issue of terrorism. Among those who cited terrorism as the most important issue, 70 percent voted for Bush. That’s the highest percentage of supporting a candidate on the most important issue in any election since 1960 (when NES first began to ask the question).

How Can the Democrats Make Progress in the South?

That's a tough question that deserves a full and frank discussion among Democrats. After 2004, it has become clear that, while Democrats' primary emphasis must lie elsewhere, they cannot afford to concede an entire region to the opposing party.

In the interests of promoting such a discussion, I present here a contribution from Glen Browder, a former Democratic Congressman from Alabama and currently Eminent Scholar in American Democracy at Jacksonville State University. You may not agree with everything he says but I do think you will find it interesting and provocative.

Memo to Howard Dean: The Real Southern Problem and Our Party’s Future

It seems like everybody’s got a southern cure for our struggling Democratic Party these days. Everything from reframing progressive values for a southern audience, to energizing the region’s black voters, to putting a white southerner atop the national ticket, to simply ignoring the South. But most of these recommendations seem to be weak, narrow, self-serving fixes; what’s missing is practical advice grounded in sound analysis of the “southern problem”.

So, here I offer you some pointed advice of the latter sort from a former public official in Alabama and Washington who also is a long-time academic analyst of regional and national developments. More personally, I’m a southern white Democrat who’s not interested in switching parties, launching petty recriminations, or sitting in silent stupor while things get worse.

The Real Southern Problem

Democrats everywhere are aware of their so-called “southern problem”, the fact that most whites in this region used to vote for the donkey and now vote for the elephant.

However, I believe that the Democratic Party’s real problem—seriously impacting our presidential and congressional aspirations—is (1) its inability or refusal to recognize the transformational dynamics of southern and national politics, and (2) its stubborn reluctance to consider a potentially workable southern solution to our national troubles.

I contend that many Democratic leaders and activists evidence a mindset of extremely “Blue” indignation, with cultural disdain toward “Red America” in general and toward the white South as freakish, racist embodiment of that redness. While these extremely blue Democrats (I’ll call them BluDems) realize that we need “Red” votes, they reflexively flinch at the idea of coursing our party’s destiny, even partially, through Dixie.

Of course, this critique of “Blue Conceit” invites ridicule as trite provincial griping; but I wonder whether these powerful partisans can deal with the urgent, altered nature of southern and national politics.

Transforming Southern Politics and American Democracy

First, a quick review of transformational dynamics.

The 1960s GOP “Southern Strategy” successfully exploited racial tensions; but, over time, southern politics has shifted to broader considerations—factors historically grounded in the South’s perverse caste system but now just as often reflective, in relatively moderate areas, of cultural patterns among citizens, a logical normalization of politics similar to that of the rest of the country.

In the process, both southern politics and American democracy are transforming, thus far entrenching diminished Democratic standing in a new American political system (arguably the first real two-party system in our nation’s history).

But also evident in that process are areas of southern moderation that seem likely prospects for Democratic resurgence within a cooperative national party environment.

Democratic Convulsion

Our Democratic Party, however, is engaged in uncooperative convulsion.

Most commonly, BluDems dominate debate over basic values, contentious causes, and core constituencies, along with tactical arguments about organizing more effectively or speaking more clearly to an American public that doesn’t understand things appropriately. They generally finesse the southern issue, except for gratuitous rhetoric and frenzied discombobulation (as when you mentioned that guy in the Confederate-flagged pickup truck).

Of course, we can always hope for the cosmos to shift, magically, back in our favor; but that’s not likely.

The problem is that neither this debate nor tactical adjustment nor cosmic shift is likely to generate a reliable governing majority. Statistically, a Democrat can win the presidency without any southern state, and we can take over the House and Senate without a single southern member; but neither scenario is realistic. We are—absent sufficient and stable white southern support—a minority party into the foreseeable future.

What To Do?

So, what can the Democrats do?

(1) For openers, Democratic leaders might acknowledge that our current course is creating a new national party system, with Republicans running American government as long as we forfeit the Solid South.

(2) Then Democrats should confront BluDem attitudes impeding rational discussion of our southern problem.

(3) Finally, if we hope to ever get back on top, we have to aggressively develop and implement a “New Southern Strategy” for cracking the Solid South.

The South probably will remain a Republican bloc bonanza to the extent that national Democrats continue to ignore or misread southern political dynamics; and, as we’ve seen, fielding attractive candidates, energizing minority constituencies, and preaching to the liberal choir are futile as long as our national party views the region as an alien culture. Just as importantly, articulating that we can win without the South further alienates southerners and encourages a political agenda that loses places like Ohio as well as Alabama.

To speak the unspeakable, the Democrats must genuinely embrace the moderate South, balance traditional values with economic issues, and venture comfortably into the alliterative Guy-zone of white southern culture—guns, God, and Old Glory.

We need to reach out to white southerners through new attitude, policy, and organizational resources, while maintaining our base among blacks and other progressive voters and moderating some of the noisy distractions that play so well in GOP commercials down here. It’s not an easy assignment, but I believe we can compete in the South without becoming Republican-Lite, pandering to racists, or nominating Bubba for the presidency.

Our Democratic Destiny?

Whether you can lead the Democratic Party to craft a winning national strategy remains to be seen. However, our party is destined for permanent minority status unless it deals realistically with the fundamental transformation of both southern politics and American democracy.

Good luck, Mr. Chairman.

For the Last Time, the 2004 NEP Exit Poll Did Not Provide Evidence of Voter Fraud in the 2004 Election

Alas, the absurd idea that the 2004 NEP exit poll, whose early unweighted data showed a Kerry lead, indicated widespread voter fraud in the 2004 election is still with us, promoted especially by alleged exit poll "expert", Steven Freeman. For a useful demolition job on Freeman's highly flawed analysis, see the recent paper by Rick Brady, posted on the website, Stones Cry Out. Some comments on Brady's paper, as well as further disparagement of the exit polls/voter fraud thesis, may be found in this post over at Mystery Pollster.

Now can we please get back to thinking about the real issue: how to beat the folks who did, in fact, win the last election?

Targeting the GOP's Achilles' Heel

In the Sunday New York Times, columnist Thomas L. Friedman blasts the Bush Administration for its lack of a coherent energy policy, other than drilling for oil. For Democrats paying attention, Friedman's broadsides reveal another Achilles heel Dems can target leading up to the '06 and '08 elections. Friedman's column "Geo-Greening By Example" lays bare the GOP's "who needs an energy policy?" attitude and the mounting dangers it entails for our security, our economy and the environment.

By doing nothing to lower U.S. oil consumption, we are financing both sides in the war on terrorism and strengthening the worst governments in the world...we are financing the jihadists - and the Saudi, Sudanese and Iranian mosques and charities that support them - through our gasoline purchases...By doing nothing to reduce U.S. oil consumption we are also setting up a global competition with China for energy resources, including right on our doorstep in Canada and Venezuela...Finally, by doing nothing to reduce U.S. oil consumption we are only hastening the climate change crisis, and the Bush officials who scoff at the science around this should hang their heads in shame. And it is only going to get worse the longer we do nothing.

Some of Friedman's remedies are debatable, such as a huge hike in the gas tax, building nuclear power plants and having the President use an armor-plated Ford Escape hybrid as his "limo." (armor plating would likely obliterate the hybrid's mpg advantage). He supports some better ideas long-advocated by Democrats, including tax incentives for development of wind, solar and hydro power, but omits mention of the need for accelerating development of mass rail transit within and between cities.

In an earlier (January 30th) article, "The Geo-Green Alternative," Friedman made a persuasive appeal for energy independence as the most powerful -- and cost-effective -- leverage we have for promoting democracy in the Middle East. John Kerry and John Edwards touched lightly on the advantages of a comprehensive energy policy during the '04 campaign, but their efforts were not well-covered in the media or adequately promoted. Because the Republicans are wedded to the interests of the oil companies, it is highly unlikely that they will meet Friedman's challenge to develop a credible energy policy.

With rising gas prices now identified as the number one economic problem (see March 25 post) and with 61 percent of respondents expressing support for more conservation measures in a recent Harris Poll (see March 22 post below), Friedman's critique merits serious consideration. As the energy and environmental crises worsen, Democrats have much to gain by uniting behind a comprehensive strategy for energy independence.

March 26, 2005

Gallup, Pew, Confirm Bush Decline

In posts on Thursday and Friday, I argued that Bush's political support, already eroding because of his unpopular Social Security plan, is suffering additional and serious damage from his handling of the Schiavo case and from growing public disenchantment with the economy.

Abundant evidence for that view is provided by new polls from Gallup and the Pew Research Center. In the new Gallup poll, Bush's approval rating is down to 45 percent--that in a poll that typically runs high on Bush approval relative to other public polls. The Gallup report on the poll points out:

This is the lowest such rating Bush has received since taking office....

In the last three Gallup surveys, conducted in late February and early March, Bush's job approval rating was 52%. The timing of the seven-point drop suggests that the controversy over the Terri Schiavo case may be a major cause. New polls by ABC and CBS News show large majorities of Americans opposed to the intervention by Congress and the president in the Schiavo case, and Gallup's Tuesday-night poll shows a majority of Americans disapprove of the way Bush has handled the Schiavo situation. Almost all recent polling has shown that Americans approve of the decision to remove Schiavo's feeding tube.

But the CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey suggests that the public's increasingly dismal views about the economy, and about the way things are going in general, could also be factors in Bush's lower approval rating.

The report goes on to detail those "dismal" views about the economy:

Gallup's economic measures also show a continual decline since the beginning of the year. Thirty-two percent of Americans rate current economic conditions as excellent or good, while 24% say poor. That eight-point positive margin is the smallest since Gallup found a two-point margin last May. At the beginning of this year, 41% rated the economy as excellent or good, while just 17% said poor -- a 24-point positive margin. Earlier this month, the positive margin was 19 points, 35% to 16%.

Even more dramatic is the greater pessimism about the future of the nation's economy. Fifty-nine percent of Americans say the economy is getting worse, just 33% say better -- a 26-point negative margin. Earlier this month, the net negative rating was just nine points, with 50% saying the economy was getting worse, and 41% saying better. This is the worst rating on this measure in two years.

One factor clearly contributing to the economic malaise, as the report points out, is concern about rising gas prices (see below).

The latest Pew Research Center poll also finds Bush's approval rating at 45 percent. In addition, the poll finds support for the most basic part of Bush's Social Security plan--private accounts funded by part of the Social Security tax--continuing to sink. A generic question about these accounts, that does not mention Bush or any possible costs or tradeoffs, now returns only a narrow 44-40 plurality, down from 58-26 last September. Moreover, support for these accounts declines substantially (to 52-41 opposition) among those who have heard the most about this idea--in other words, awareness of the private accounts idea appears to promote opposition to it. Perhaps most disheartening of all for the Bush administration, the "awareness breeds opposition" dynamic appears to be strongest among the 18-29 year old cohort they are counting on to push Social Security privatization forward--opposition to private accounts is 26 points higher among 18-29 year olds who have "heard a lot" about the idea, than among those who have heard little or nothing.

And did I mention that 18-29 year olds oppose allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 54-33, according to this same poll? If Bush is counting on young voters to pull him out of his current slide, he'd better think again.

Concern About Runaway Gas Prices Soars

Until very recently, the American people have been remarkably unflappable about soaring gas prices. No more, according to the latest Gallup poll, conducted 3/21-23. Asked "What is the most important economic problem facing the country today?," 17 percent of respondents put "fuel/oil prices" at the top of the list, ahead of such factors as unemployment, health care costs and social security and more than triple the percentage polled a month ago, when 5 percent chose gas prices as top priority.

March 25, 2005

Americans Getting a Touch Impatient About the Economy

Below, I pointed out the new CBS News poll has Bush's economic approval at just 36 percent. A fluke? Nope; it reflects the gathering economic pessimism of the US public as month after month of the economic recovery (now well over three years old) fails to generate the robust growth people have been looking for. Instead they're getting stagnant wages, persistent unemployment, signs of inflation and high energy prices.

Reflecting this disquiet, in a mid-March ARG poll, 46 percent said the economy was getting worse and just 27 percent said it was getting better. That compares to 39 percent better/30 worse in February. And, looking forward, 38 percent said the economy will be worse in a year, while just 30 percent said it will be better. That's quite a bit more pessimistic than in February, when 38 percent thought the economy will be better in a year and only 25 percent said it will get worse.

Similarly, a recent Gallup report notes:

Americans have become more pessimistic about the direction of the nation's economy. In Gallup's initial 2005 poll, 48% of Americans said the economy was getting better and 42% said worse. A more recent poll, conducted March 7-10, finds 41% say it is getting better and 50% say it is getting worse. That represents a net shift of 15 points, from a 6-point net positive assessment (48% better, 42% worse) to a 9-point net negative assessment (41% better, 50% worse).

The report goes on to note some detailed demographics about this shift toward economic pessimism, including the fact that, of 30 groups analyzed, 27 show a shift toward economic pessimism. Even worse for the Bush administration, the biggest shifts tend to be among the very groups that provided Bush with his biggest margins last November: whites (20 point shift toward economic pessimism); residents of the south (30 points); rural residents (37 points); those with $30-75K in household income (20 points); and those with some college (25 points).

The economy's "strong and getting stronger"? Not according to the voters Bush needs the most.

March 24, 2005

The Culture of Life or the Culture of Ideology?

The Bush administration, with its aggressive intervention into the Terry Schiavo case, appears to have bet that it can make political gains from linking the Schiavo case to a generalized case for a "culture of life".

So far, this attempt has been a thunderous failure.

1. In a March 20 ABC News survey, 63 percent supported the decision to Schiavo's feeding tube while just 28 percent opposed it. Support for the decision cuts across partisan, ideological and religious lines, showing a remarkably undivided public. Democrats supported the decision 65-25, independents 63-28, Republicans 61-34, moderates 69-22, conservatives 54-40 and even conservative Republicans 55-40. Catholics supported the decision and even self-declared evangelicals narrowly supported it 46-44.

The public also solidly opposed federal intervention into the case by 60-35, with the same broad support across partisan, ideological and religious lines. And by 70-27, the public thought it was inappropriate for Congress to get involved in this case.

2. A March 18-20 Gallup poll, the public, by 56-31, agreed that removing Schiavo's feeding tube was the right thing to do, with the same pattern of broad support seen in the ABC News poll. For example, while Democrats said removing the tube was the right thing to do by 62-26, independents agreed by 54-31 and even Republicans by 54-35. Hilariously, these exact data, which show a very small partisan spread, were displayed by CNN on its website in a classically deceptive way to imply a big partisan spread. This was done by using a truncated scale that went from a low of 53 to a high of 63. That truncated scale gave the Republicans and independents a bar height of just 1 and the Democrats a bar height of 9 that wound up towering above the Republicans and independents in the chart. Naughty, naughty, CNN!

Gallup also did a March 22 poll that found 52 percent of the public supported the federal judge's decision not to reattach Schiavo's feeding tube, compared to 39 percent who didn't. The same poll found Bush will only a 32 percent approval rating, with 52 percent disapproval, on handling the Schiavo case.

3. In a March 21-22 CBS News poll, the public endorsed the decision to remove Schiavo's feeding tube, 61-28. And, by 66-27, they said the feeding tube should not be re-attached at this point.

As for intervention into the case, they said the following: by 82-13, Congress and the president should stay out of the matter; by 75-22, federal and state governments should generally stay out of life support cases; and, by 67-31, the Supreme Court should not hear the Schiavo case. And as a kicker, the public said that Congress' intervention into the case was to advance a political agenda (74 percent) rather than because they really care about what happens in the case.

How's all this affecting Bush's popularity? Well, it certainly doesn't seem to be helping. In this poll, Bush's overall approval rating is just 43 percent, with 48 percent disapproval. In addition, his rating on Iraq is now only 39 percent approval/53 percent disapproval and his rating on the economy is a stunningly bad 36/53, further evidence of growing public disenchantment with the economy.

And let's not forget Congress. In the wake of their handling of the Schiavo case, Congress' approval rating has plunged to 34/49.

In light of these data, is there any way not to read these data as a bad thing for the GOP? One way, of course, is to argue that all the pollsters' questions are biased, an absurd contention disposed of handily by Mark Blumenthal over at Mystery Pollster (thanks, Mark!).

Another way (see Noam Scheiber) is to argue that, despite the unpopularity of Bush's and the GOP's stand, it serves to create a favorable contrast with the spineless, morally relativist Democrats.

I don't buy it. Sometimes bad politics is just bad politics. As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center put it in his recent op-ed, "A Political Victory That Wasn't", in the New York Times:

....Americans have a strong pragmatic streak. While most Americans may say they believe in creationism rather than evolution, on issues that directly affect their own lives, like health and protection of the quality of life, science wins.

Take note, for example, of the increasing support for stem-cell research. A nationwide Pew poll last August found respondents by a 52 percent to 34 percent margin saying it was more important to conduct stem-cell research that might result in new cures than to avoid destroying the potential life of embryos. Two years earlier, when this issue was first emerging, the public was more evenly divided, with 43 percent in favor and 38 percent against .

The August poll, taken during the presidential campaign, had another noteworthy lesson: the middle of the electorate, the swing voters, not only cared a lot about the stem-cell issue but also backed stem-cell research by nearly a two-to-one margin.

Thus, far from being devilishly clever on this one, Republicans are really creating another issue like stem cell research where the minority ideology of socially conservative forces within their party becomes counterposed to most Americans' pragmatic interest in health research and control over health decisions.

In short, this is an issue that identifies Republicans with a "culture of ideology", rather than with a culture of life. And that's a loser every time.

Dems Challenged to Proselytize

In These Times is featuring a provocative contribution to the discussion of Democratic political strategy. "How to Turn Your Red State Blue," by Christopher Hayes challenges Democrats to think more like evangelicals in adopting some of their methods of recruitment:

...the improbable fact about missionary activity is that it works, regardless of the faith’s specific dogma. Mormons are the fastest-growing church in the country. Evangelical protestant congregations make up 58 percent of all new churches in the United States. Globally, Islam continues to reach into new and unfamiliar lands, experiencing explosive growth in China. Religions that actively proselytize—Pentecostals, Mormons, Muslims—grow, almost without exception.

There’s a corollary to this in politics. Yale political scientists Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber have found in numerous studies of voter contact that face-to-face canvassing is far and away the most effective means of persuasion: Roughly one out of every 15 voters approached at the door will add their vote to your tally.

Hayes believes that Democrats are focusing too much energy and resources on securing their base and fighting for the "mushy middle," while ceding opportunities for growth through active conversion and creating new progressive voters. "The operative challenge," says Hayes, "is not how we stitch together 51 percent of the voters into the Democratic quilt, not how we wake people up to their own elusive progressivism. It is how we make more progressives."

Hayes cites the GOP's success in reaching out to new constituencies through churches and other community-based organizations, while the Democrats fritter away their energies on internal debates or 'preaching to the choir.' He notes further:

Organizations like MoveOn and Democracy For America have revived grassroots, meeting-based membership organizations, but they serve chiefly as a means of coordinating existing progressives rather than pulling new people into the fold...In order to grow, progressives need to systematically expand the universe of access points to the progressive worldview and actively recruit people into the fold.

MoveOn probably deserves more credit for reaching out to new voters. But Hayes offers the germ of a good idea in urging Democrats to begin focusing more intensely on potential 'converts' created by disastrous GOP policies:

Here’s one point of access that conservative policies are inadvertently expanding: the moments of personal crisis—unmanageable debt, hospitalization without health insurance, lack of mental health services, sudden unemployment—that reveal to Americans that the right’s ideology of “personal responsibility” masks the destruction of a social safety net for middle-and lower-income workers.

Hayes suggests that building an "anti-debt movement" could be a profitable undertaking for Democrats seeking to grow the party, noting that the 10 states with the highest bankruptcy rates went red in 2004. He urges the formation of local "Debt clubs" as a vehicle for organizing progressive support against politicans who push corporate credit policies.

Hayes points out that the late Senator Paul Wellstone provided an excellent example of the kind of experienced community organizer Democrats should emulate in order to expand their supporters. Above all, Hayes implores Democrats to "be outward looking, expansionist and evangelical in our every move."

Hayes may be on to something here, and his thought-provoking piece should stimulate further discussion among Democrats.

March 23, 2005

Ideologues Dis Majority On End-of-Life Issues

In today's New York Times, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, sheds some welcome light on the Terri Schiavo case and the GOP's penchant for interfering in the most sensitive and difficult decisions facing American families. Kohut's article, "A Political Victory That Wasn't," makes a persuasive case that the Republicans' meddling in the Schiavo family's affairs demonstrates a blatant disregard for the beliefs of the American people and also shows that the Christian conservative movement may be becomming the most potent driving force of GOP political strategy. Kohut cites an ABC News Poll showing how the American people feel about the GOP-lead congressional vote allowing Terri Schiavo's parents to take the case to federal court:

...the public, by a margin of 70 percent to 27 percent, opposes Congressional involvement in the case. Fully 67 percent of the poll's participants thought members of Congress were more focused on using the Schiavo case for political advantage than on the principles involved.

What makes the poll's findings even more striking, as Kohut notes, is that more than half of the poll's respondents had been involved in making a decision concerning the termination of life support for a friend or family member. While conceding that some of the members of congress who supported the measure were acting out of conscience, he warns that the vote may signal a dangerous new trend in American politics:

...the Christian conservative movement now has the clout on life-and-death issues to do what the National Rifle Association has done for years on gun control. Strengthened by the results of the November elections, the movement can convey to legislators that the intensity of their constituents' beliefs is more important than the balance of national public opinion.

Kohut sees the vote in congress as a test run for Christian conservatives, to see "whether they have enough standing to run against public opinion." But Democrats can take some comfort and hope in the enduring pragmatism of American voters who may be "wary of political constraints on the tough choices their families may face...Like Social Security, end-of-life issues hit close to home, where ideology and partisanship play much less of a role than all-too-human self-interest."

March 22, 2005

Live-Blogging at the Brookings Event on New Media

Earlier today, I attended a Brookings event on the new media and live-blogged throughout the event. Below are my comments, arranged chronologically from first to last.

10:15 AM

I'm writing this from the Brookings event on "The Impact of the New Media". What does live-blogging add to an event like this that regular old blogging might not? Possibly nothing, but it sounded like a fun thing to do, so here I am.

10:22 AM

The question has been posed to the panel of Shafer, Cox, Allen and Ratner (Sullivan is a no-show so far), do bloggers sometimes get it wrong? The consensus seems to be that that sometimes does happen.

I'm learning a lot!

10:39 AM

The issue has been raised of whether the blogs are a reflection of political polarization or help create that polarization. Probably both. I'm still learning!

Sullivan has showed up and Dionne posed a question to him re two of his recent posts, one of which denounced conservatives for pushing federal involvement in the Schiavo, while the other suggested the need to get rid of the Medicare entitlement. Is that consistent?

Sullivan replies that one of the greatest things about blogging is that you can say exactly what you want and publish it immediately. If it doesn't fit into pre-existing standard conservative or liberal categories, that's just fine. On the other hand, he points out, having maverick views on certain issues that differentiate you from your generally conservative or liberal readership can hurt your level of readership and ability to raise money. So there is a price for independence.

"A blogger has to be a pariah"--Sullivan

10:50 AM

Cox: Bloggers can be more independent than mainstream media. But, in important ways, it is becoming more like mainstream media. There are feeding frenzies as in the mainstream media, there is a blogger hierarchy just as there's a mainstream media hierarchy and, increasingly, many of the top bloggers know each other and interact with each other.

Reasonable points, based on my observations and experience.

Dionne raises the issue of bloggers being paid by political campaigns to generate buzz around candidates or to spread specific political attacks. Shafer argues the key thing is to evaluate the truth content of what is in the blogs, rather than worry too much about where some money that supports the site might be coming from. Allen points out, though, that there can be a problem when sources of money are not disclosed so that readers cannot factor that into their evaluation of content on a particular site.

Shafer pooh-poohs the idea that campaign finance laws should be brought to bear on blogs' activities and argues that this would amount to an infringement on free speech. Sounds right. Allen's full disclosure approach seems far preferable.

11:07 AM

Blogs and slander: Are blogs much, much better for the spread of slander than the old media? Shafer, who is emerging as a resolute defender of blogs, argues that, if there was so much exceptional slander on blogs, there would be more legal actions against them.

Sullivan characterizes blogs as more about gossip than slander. He also points out that much of the vituperation on blogs is directed against other bloggers.

Dionne raises the Martin O'Malley question. Would the mainstream media have publicized the allegations about O'Malley's private life (leaving aside the fact that, in the short run, the poster of these allegations appears to have hurt his boss, the Maryland governor, more than O'Malley)?

Shafer points out that mainstream media publish stuff all the time that they don't know for sure is true. So what's the big difference? There is nothing new here in what the blogs are doing.

The issue of comments sections on blogs has been raised. The consensus seems to be that there are a lot of intelligent folks out there who do comment on blogs or send in emails to sites and that's a good thing. I'll buy that, though the best way to harness and display all that intelligent commentary is left unresolved.

11:22 AM

Is blogging journalism? An audience member has posed that provocative question. Speaking for myself, no, I'm an analyst not a journalist and I wouldn't consider my blog journalism.

Cox also stoutly denies that her blog is journalism, though she does admit to occasionally commiting journalism outside the bounds of her blog. She says, however, that Josh Marshall is a journalist and much of what is in his blog could reasonably be considered journalism.

Sullivan argues that this is not an interesting question; bloggers are writing about the world and so are journalists (who are referred to by the universal term "hack" in England). The whole concept that you need special traing and adherence to these special standards to be a "journalist" is, in Sullivan's view, baloney. Anybody who does some research and/or analysis and writes them up in an entertaining and clear way is a journalist.

There is, however, a difference between reporting and commentary and it is true that almost all blogging is commentary, not reporting. But that is a different question than whether blogging qualifies as journalism.

Color this question "unresolved".

11:38 AM

What are blogs good for? Sullivan points out--very rightly in my view--that blogs can tap into sources of information and expertise very fast that might never see the light of day otherwise. He gives the example of trying to understand county-level developments in Florida and finding a professor who could provide him with just the information he needed which he could then immediately put on his blog.

Dionne points out that most people relate to information on the internet not through blogs but rather through conventional sites (e.g, newspaper websites). Allen adds that the readership of blogs is still quite small and that only a very small proportion of the public actually reads them (undeniably true).

Back to free speech. Shafer argues that blogs should be protected by the same regulations that protect mainstream print and broadcast journalism. And he believes they eventually will be. Anyhow, he says, all these media are bleeding into one another and becoming one big uber-media. Newsweek runs a story, it's also featured on its website and then blogs pick up the web version and link to it, comment on it, embellish it and provide more information that was not in the original story. To censor the blogs is to censor this whole process.

11:45 AM

Final comments: So, what to make of this event? Looking over the various points I posted about above, I guess I'd have to say that nothing particularly earth-shaking was said today. The discussion was generally interesting and certainly blogs were treated very respectfully as a new member of the media universe.

Perhaps that's the real news here: blogging has now developed a high enough profile and plays a big enough role in society that it can be the subject of a very pleasant and characteristically earnest Brookings event.

As to where blogging is going--no one here seems quite sure, other than it is likely to be more important in the future than it is now. And is blogging good or bad? It seems that most agree that it's more good than bad, though there are obviously some places where blogs go awry. But clearly blogs can provide much important information to readers faster than the conventional media--and in the process bring many, many important voices into the media universe that would otherwise not be heard.

And that's a very good thing whose implications we are only beginning to understand.

Dems Need to Work on Environmental Education

A newly-released Harris Poll, conducted 3/8-14 indicates that 47 percent of Americans disapprove of President Bush's environmental policies, while 36 percent approve. The poll also found that 20 percent of self-identified Republicans disapproved of the Administration's environmental policies, with 70 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Independents expressing disapproval.

Given the utter failure of the Bush Administration to provide leadership to address a broad range of environmental concerns, it is somewhat surprising that a majority of Americans did not express their disapproval of Bush's policies in the poll, as did in the recent Gallup Poll on the ANWR pipeline. (see March 18 post below). The Gallup Poll also found that 61 percent of Americans believe there should be more emphasis on conservation to solve the nation's energy problems, with 28 percent prefering an emphasis on energy production. The question in the Harris Poll was more general, but it does provide some indication of the public's overall view of the Administration's environmental stewardship. Clearly the Democratic Party, progressive leaders and groups must do a better job of educating the American people about Bush's dismal record on environmental issues -- and the Democrats' ability to deliver credible alternatives.

March 21, 2005

The National Opinion Survey on Youth and Religion -- Are Non-Religious Teenagers Really Deficient in Almost Every Imaginable Way?

By Andrew Levison

There are some public opinion studies whose conclusions are so easily misinterpreted – and whose effects can be so potentially destructive – that they really ought to have consumer warning labels attached.

Here’s a prime example. There is a short item that is now showing up in newspapers across the country that says “according to an important new survey”:

“devout [teens]… are better off in emotional health, academic success, community involvement, concern for others, trust of adults and avoidance of risky behavior [then their nonreligious counterparts]”.

Now that’s a pretty hefty assertion. But it’s downright tepid compared with the following summary of the data by one of the survey’s authors:

…on every measure of life outcome—relationship with family, doing well at school, avoiding risk behaviors, everything—highly religious teens are doing much better than non-religious kids. It's just a remarkable observable difference…Highly religious American teens are happier and healthier. They are doing better in school, they have more hopeful futures, they get along with their parents better. Name a social outcome that you care about, and the highly religious kids are doing better.

Wow. Now that is one humongous whopper of a conclusion. If the data actually demonstrate what this summary seems to be asserting, it could easily be used to argue that secular parents are profoundly and even horribly damaging their teenagers’ lives and futures by denying them religion, even if these parents do teach their kids sound moral and ethical principles. It could equally be used to justify allowing public schools to introduce a substantial amount of religious activity and instruction, not for any specifically religious reasons, but simply “in the best interests of the kids.”

So quick, let’s slap on that consumer warning label before this thing gets totally out of hand:

Warning: the opinion survey cited above does not contain any data that directly compares a sample of devout American teenagers with a comparable group of non-religious teenagers who have been taught to respect basic American moral and social values but who do not happen to believe in a supreme being or attend church services. As a result, the data cannot be used to draw any conclusions whatsoever about (a) the relative benefits of teaching secular or religious morality as a child-rearing strategy (b) the relative performance of religious and non-religious teen-agers, (as defined above) on any measures of positive social outcomes or (c) the potential benefits of introducing any specifically theological, as opposed to general moral and ethical, instruction in the public schools.

There, that ought to help keep things under control until we get this thing straightened out. To the extent that it gets out to the honest editorialists and commentators, this warning label could seriously help to limit the spread of the most blatant and damaging misinterpretations of the Youth and Religion study.

But what the heck is actually going on here anyway? What data does the study -- just published as “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Life of American Teenagers” – actually present on this subject and what conclusions can properly be drawn from it?

The problem is not that the study was improperly conducted or that it is slanted to further a conservative religious political agenda. Quite the contrary, the survey, part of a 6 year National Project on Youth and Religion funded by the Lilly Endowment and headquartered at UNC-Chapel Hill, is a carefully structured combination of a very large telephone survey of 3,290 teenagers (ages 13-17) conducted over a 9 month period from July 2002 to April 2003 as well as 276 extensive personal interviews. In fact, the study’s research design and methodology are far more rigorous then that of many if not most commercial opinion surveys.

Equally, the authors of the study -- led by Dr. Christian Smith, Associate Chair of Sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill -- are primarily concerned with understanding and combating what they perceive as a deeply disturbing superficiality and self-involved materialism in modern teenagers’ religious outlook. This concern leads them to seriously condemn the corrosive effects of “consumer-driven capitalism” (their words) and modern advertising, bringing them at times close to the views of liberal observers of American religion like Alan Wolfe and even Thomas Frank, author of “What Happened to Kansas?”. To be sure, the Youth and Religion study -- like the overall 6 year project itself -- is unabashedly aimed at supporting the work of adult church and religious youth group leaders in their ministry with teen-agers. But it is also clearly not deliberately designed to promote a conservative crypto-theocratic agenda.

But what the Youth and Religion study does indeed reflect, however, is a strongly “theocentric” perspective – a point of view that sees religion as central and non-religion as simply its lack or absence. In setting up the categories for the comparison of religious and non-religious teenagers, the study defines four basic “ideal types”. The first is of the “devoted” or devout religious teen – one who attends religious service weekly, is actively involved in a religious youth group, prays and reads scripture frequently and feels deep faith and closeness to God. The other three categories – The “regulars”, the “sporadic” and the “disengaged”, in contrast, are simply defined by the increasing absence of these particular characteristics of the first, “devoted” group.

The result is that the most non-religious category – the “disengaged” – does not define a coherent social group of any kind but rather a heterogeneous grab-bag of adolescents whose only shared characteristic is that they are not at all devout. As a consequence, this approach mixes together two kinds of non-religious adolescents who are really quite distinct.

One group is the children of secular parents who have been taught and accept American cultures’ basic moral and ethical standards but who do not believe in a supreme being or attend church. These teenagers’ parents take their kids to soccer practices and scout meetings and themselves attend PTA and neighborhood association meetings but do not show up at Sunday morning services. When asked, these parents will often say that “We seriously thought about joining the church for the kids benefit because they do teach many good values over there. But we just felt it was hypocritical to make the kids accept beliefs and doctrines that we don’t really believe or practice ourselves” These parents frequently encourage and participate with their kids in civic voluntarism, from after-school tutoring to Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels and Hands on America. Over the last 30 years, young people from families like these have played a major role in literally tens of thousands of local and national environmental volunteer projects which more conservative religious groups avoided because of the environmental movements’ reliance on scientific modes of thought and methods of investigation. These are the kind of teens who grew up watching Sesame Street, Nature, and re-runs of Star Trek starring Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

The other, and very distinct, group of teenagers is composed of the vast numbers of “Rebellious” teens who actively reject some or even most of mainstream society’s rules, norms and values. These teenagers come in kaleidoscopic variety -- Gangstas, Punks, Goths, Dopers, Drop-outs, Bikers, Slackers, Skinheads, Losers, Ravers, Weirdos, Cokeheads, Junkies, Thrill-seekers, Risk-takers, Pill-poppers, Shit-kickers and dozens of other rebellious subcultures of the teenage social environment. These young people – of whom there are vast numbers - have three basic traits in common: they tend not to be religious, they tend to repeatedly break social rules or violate the laws, and (being teenagers) they tend to constantly get caught, racking up a wildly disproportionate share of all recorded youthful infractions of municipal laws and school regulations.

There may be some specific research objectives for which it makes sense to lump these rebellious teens together with the first group into a single catch-all category called the “non-religious”. But, for a productive national discussion of the differences between religious and non-religious teenagers, it certainly seems more logical to consider the two groups separately. Combining the two groups simply insures that the rebellious group’s extremely low average scores on almost any measure of social adjustment will pull down the overall average of the two groups, making the first group, as well as the rebels, appear to be deeply inferior in comparison to a highly supervised and rigorously socialized group like committed religious teens who are active participants in organized Church youth activities.

And this is, of course, exactly what happens in the Religion and Youth survey. On variable after variable measuring obedience to rules, compliance with social norms and general social adjustment– variables like the number of arrests, number of driving tickets, frequency of expulsions, level of sexual activity, use of drugs, quality of self-image, relationship with parents, participation in volunteer activities, level of school grades and so on – the mixed group of “non-religious” teenagers invariably appears inferior to the devout.

The obvious question that continually hovers over the proceedings, however, is whether the first group alone might actually score as high or even higher then the religious group on some or all of these measures. But, quite remarkably, there is not one single piece of data in the entire study that is designed to answer that question.
On the contrary, in fact, the most troubling feature of the study is the very deeply-imbedded presumption that healthy, productive non-religious teenagers and morally responsible secular parents are so relatively scarce in American society that they need not be considered as a distinct or significant social group.

This overall attitude is most dramatically evident in two long personal profiles that are the most vivid and specific portrait the book contains of non-religious teens. One of the two teens portrayed is a drug dealer who smokes marijuana, drinks alcohol, uses crystal meth, has withdrawal symptoms, was expelled from high school, has been in jail and watches porn videos. The teen’s father is “a biker who drinks and sends Raymond soft-porn backgrounds for his computer”.

The other non-religious teenager, on the contrary, is described as an “earnest, caring, hardworking, affable adolescent, the kind most adults would enjoy and admire”. But as the profile continues, however, it emerges that he once attempted suicide, and has difficult relations with his parents -- a mother he describes as “really new-age-y, into a lot of weird, crazy things” and a father who is a “hard-ass” who “worked so much I hardly ever saw him.”

Despite his extreme lack of parental guidance and support, the 17 year-old non-religious teen expresses a wide variety of admirable moral and ethical sentiments. But the interviewer subsequently comments that “lacking recourse to ground his moral commitments in, say, divine command or natural law, Steve finds himself…possessing few coherent, rational grounds for explaining, justifying and defending those standards…Of course, nobody expects a 17 year old to be an articulate moral philosopher. But the apparent lack of clear bearings or firm anchors in Steve’s moral reasoning are conspicuous and perhaps worrisome.”

These two profiles, which the authors refer back to at a number of other points in the study, illustrate an unstated but evident tendency to consistently visualize non-religious teenagers as either mired in delinquency and social pathology or as basically confused and adrift, lacking clear parental moral guidance and unconsciously yearning for the clarity and certainty religious faith would provide.

The authors do warn that the two profiles they offer are not actually meant to typify all non-religious adolescents and their parents, but the only broad generalization the book actually does offer about healthy non-religious teens and their families reflects the same basic view:

“Although there are certainly many well-adjusted American adolescents who do not attend religious services regularly, as a whole, low-attending American teens, like the non-religious teens, appear to reflect some likely signs of family strain and general civic and organizational disconnection”

In fact, in all of the data from the 3,200 telephone surveys, 276 face to face interviews, and scores of regressions and statistical tables, the social categories of morally responsible non-religious parents and decent, law-abiding and successful non-religious teens hover like ghostly, unseen presences. One senses their existence somewhere in the underlying data, but nowhere are their numbers estimated and nowhere can they be directly observed. In a book subtitled “The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” one could be forgiven for thinking that this represents a not inconsequential omission.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

(Note: It is worth noting in advance one incorrect defense of the study that will quickly occur to some readers – namely that it is proper to lump “rebels” and “decent” non-religious teens together because it is the lack of religion that causes the rebelliousness of the non-religious young. As it happens, the authors of the Youth and Religion study themselves provide a quite excellent review of the permissible kinds of inferences their data allows, and they clearly label logic such as that above as fallacious reasoning of the “the presence of many people on the subway platform makes the trains arrive” variety)

March 20, 2005

Bush Approval Ratings Hit the Skids in New Newsweek Poll

A new Newsweek poll confirms Bush's generally poor and sinking approval ratings across the board.

Start with his overall approval rating of 45 percent, down 5 points since early February. Then consider his approval rating on the economy, at just 42 percent with 51 percent disapproval. And his rating on Iraq, at 41 percent with 54 percent disapproval, is his worst ever in this poll.

As usual, the sole exception to a string of dismal approval ratings in this poll is Bush's rating on "terrorism and homeland security". And even here, his 57 percent approval rating in this area is tied for his lowest ever in this poll.

Turning to health care, including Medicare, only 34 percent say they approve of the job Bush is doing, compared to 56 percent who say they don't, also a low for Bush in this poll. Bush also hits new lows on the environment (41 percent approval), on energy policy (35 percent approval, with 45 percent disapproval--also his first net negative rating in this area) and on the federal budget deficit (29 percent approval with 60 percent disapproval). And his job rating on education, 46 percent, is tied for his lowest ever in that particular area.

Quite a sterling record! And we haven't even talked about his rating on Social Security in this poll: a magnificent 33 percent, with 59 percent approval. This is the first time Newsweek has asked this item during Bush's presidency, so there is no trend data. However, that 33 percent rating is exactly at the average of the last five public polls to release job ratings for Bush on Social Security, so it is no anomaly: the public just doesn't like--in fact, strongly dislikes--the job he is doing on this issue.

Two recent articles shed light on why the public may not be warming up to Bush's activities in the Social Security area: the private accounts he is proposing make them nervous for some very good reasons. One is that, as discussed in a Saturday Washington Post article, the returns on these private accounts will probably not be nearly as good as the White House says they will be. Here's the basic analysis, as summarized in the article (the full paper referred to below, by Yale economist Robert Shiller, can be found here):

Under the Bush plan, workers ultimately would be able to invest 4 percent of their income subject to Social Security taxes in their choice of stock and bond funds. At age 47, workers who had chosen private accounts would automatically be shifted to a life-cycle portfolio, unless they and their spouse specifically opt out with a waiver acknowledging awareness of higher risk.

When workers with private accounts retire, the Bush system would subtract from their traditional Social Security benefit all of the money deposited in the private account, plus 3 percent interest above inflation. That "offset" or "claw-back" equals the amount the White House assumes those deposits would have earned in Treasury bonds had they gone into the Social Security system.

But the 3 percent hurdle appears too high for many to clear, Shiller found, especially with the conservative strategy the administration has embraced. According to U.S. historical rates of return, the life-cycle portfolio fell short of the 3 percent threshold 32 percent of the time, meaning nearly a third of personal account holders would have been better off sticking with the traditional Social Security system.

The median rate of return was 3.4 percent, barely better than the traditional system. Upon retirement, accounts would yield an annuity payment of about $1,000 a year, "hardly a windfall," Shiller said.

But he also adjusted for what he expects to be lower future rates of investment return by using historic rates of return from international stock and bond markets. Those returns "correspond more closely to projections of financial economists and should be emphasized more as the appropriate evaluation of the accounts going forward," Shiller wrote.

The results were not encouraging: The life-cycle portfolio under these adjusted returns lost money compared with the traditional system 71 percent of the time, with a median rate of return of just 2.6 percent, $2,000 less in annual benefits than those of workers who stick with the traditional system.

Another reason for justifiable public nervousness about these accounts is the increasing problem of income volatility for American families. Here are some excerpts from an excellent article by Daniel Gross in the Sunday New York Times summarizing relevant recent research on this problem and its implications for the debate around Bush's private accounts plan:

After mining data from the Panel Study of Income and Dynamics, a database produced by the University of Michigan that tracks the incomes of the same families over a 40-year period, scholars have concluded that incomes are much less stable - i.e., much more volatile - today than they have been in the past. "There has unequivocally been general upward-trend income volatility since at least 1975," said Bruce A. Moffitt, the Krieger-Eisenhower professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, who, with Professor Gottschalk, wrote one of the first papers on income volatility in the 1990's. "It accelerated in the 1980's, turned down in the early 1990's, and then accelerated into the end of the 1990's."

According to a measure of volatility constructed by Jacob S. Hacker, a Yale political scientist, which tracks the five-year moving average of family incomes, income volatility rose 88 percent between 1978 and 2000.

"The problem in the past few decades," Professor Moffitt said, "is that volatility has risen while real incomes haven't risen." What's more, income volatility has grown significantly for those who can afford it least. A series of articles last year in The Los Angeles Times, written by Peter G. Gosselin, who worked closely with Professor Moffitt and other scholars, reported that in the 1970's, income for middle-class Americans tended to fluctuate by 16 percent a year. But in the 1980's and 1990's, middle-class incomes fluctuated an average of 30 percent. For those whose earnings placed them in the bottom fifth, income volatility rose from 25 percent in the early 1970's to 50 percent in recent years.

Because of other longstanding trends in the economy, strong income volatility can wreak greater havoc now than it did in the past. "The old view among economists was that income volatility didn't affect consumption much," said Raj Chetty, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. It was generally thought that when families' incomes fell sharply and unexpectedly, they would borrow, tap into savings or send a second adult (frequently a mother) into the work force rather than sharply reduce consumption. But, Professor Chetty said, "that no longer seems to be the case today."

Why? Many families already rely on two incomes. What's more, fixed commitments have risen as a percentage of total income. In her book, "The Two-Income Trap," Elizabeth Warren, a bankruptcy specialist at the Harvard Law School, found that the typical American household in the early 1970's spent about 54 percent of its income on big fixed expenses - home mortgage, health insurance, car, child care - with the rest left over for discretionary spending. By the early part of this decade, however, the typical family was spending 75 percent of its income on these large fixed costs. "They're spending much more of their income on things that can't be cut back quickly," said Professor Warren. "If you lose income suddenly, you can't decide to sell off one bedroom or decide to cover only half of your family" with insurance.

The factors that functioned as internal shock absorbers for families have weakened. And so, too, have external buffers. Over the last three decades, the percentage of workers covered by defined-benefit pension plans and employer-provided health insurance - guarantees that provide ballast for fluctuating incomes - has declined. Add this to the trend of rising volatility - especially for people in the lower and middle income levels - and it's easy to understand the reluctance to transform a government program that guarantees seniors an income.

Exactly. No wonder the public isn't chafing at the bit to sign up for Bush's private accounts plan. In today's economy especially, Bush's approach just seems too risky. That's why, when Bush tells people over and over that they shouldn't worry about risk and that they'll all be big winners with private accounts, the public doesn't buy it and, instead, keeps on telling pollsters they disapprove heavily of the job Bush is doing in the Social Security area.

There's a message there for the president, albeit not one he apparently cares to hear.

Newsweek Poll: Majority Oppose GOP 'Nuclear Option'

The latest GOP ploy to suppress free speech and subvert checks and balances has run into a major roadblock. As a showdown approaches over the so-called "nuclear option," which would change Senate rules to require 51 votes to cut off debate on judicial nominees, instead of 60, a new Newsweek Poll reports that 57 percent of Americans oppose the idea, with 32 percent supporting it. The poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International 3/17-18, found an even greater margin of disapproval among self-identified Independents, 60-31 percent.

March 18, 2005

Does the Public Support ANWR Oil Exploration?

In the wake of the recent narrow Senate vote in favor opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration, it is worth asking whether public opinion now supports the approach adopted by the Senate.

In a word: no. Very recent data from Gallup (March 7-10) show that the public still opposes such exploration in ANWR by 53-42, rising to 58-37 among political independents. Moreover, the intensity of feeling is heavily on the opposition side. Just 19 percent say that oil drilling should proceed and that they'll be upset if it does not. But 45 percent--a gap in intensity of 26 points--say that oil drilling should not proceed and that they'll be upset if it does. And among independents that intensity gap is even larger: 48 percent to 14 percent, for a gap of 34 points.

We shall see if the GOP's ability to push the ANWR oil exploration provision through the Senate winds up as a pyrrhic victory. By these data, it just might.

Once Again on the 2004 NEP Exit Poll

Still not tired of the controversies that have swirled around the 2004 NEP exit poll? You're in luck. There's a new report out from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), "A Review of Recent Controversies Concerning the 2004 Presidential Election Exit Polls", authored by political scientists Michael Traugott, Benjamin Highton and Henry Brady, that does a fine job of summarizing these controversies and relating them to the recent history and key methodological issues of exit polling.

The paper does a particularly good job of explaining the mechanics of how the 2004 exit poll was conducted and connecting those mechanics to the subsequent controversies that erupted. Indeed, the report is much, much clearer about all this than the rather arcane 77 page evaluation report issued by Edison/Mitofsky on the 2004 NEP poll. And it's a hell of a lot shorter: just 18 pages.

So, if you never got through the Edison/Mitofsky report (which I suspect includes almost everybody reading these words) give yourself a break and read the SSRC report instead. That'll give you the big picture and I suspect for most readers that'll be enough.

GOP Spin Doctor Defends Euphemisms

Connoisseurs of political spin are directed to "The Lexicon of Political Clout" by conservative consultant and GOP sound bite guru Frank Luntz in in todays' LA Times. Luntz, author of the GOP Playbook (see Feb 24 and March 2 posts below) defends his "A New American Lexicon," in which he advises his conservative clients to use specific phrases and avoid others in describing their policies. Luntz decries the "Orwellian" label liberal commentators have used to describe his terminology. But at the very least, he displays a flair for euphemisms that torture reason and language. For example:

I would assert that "responsible exploration for energy," which includes the search for incredibly clean natural gas, is a far different activity than plunking down a well haphazardly and just "drilling for oil."

Or:

Similarly, I'm for calling the money paid to help parents choose their kids' school a "scholarship" because "voucher" trivializes the powerful opportunity the transaction confers on poor families. I'd argue that it's more accurate to call "school choice" "parental choice in education." Considering how such a program equalizes education for rich and poor, the most accurate phrase would be "equal opportunity in education."

What Democratic strategists can learn from Luntz is to pay closer attention to crafting the language of political discourse, a pivotal factor in GOP victories of recent years. If we keep our language clear and straight, the GOP will be regarded as the party of equivocation.

March 17, 2005

Conservative View of Clinton’s Success, Dean’s DNC Lacks Focus

Every now and then it’s a good idea for Democrats to try and see ourselves from the adversary’s point of view, if only to get a better fix on what drives their strategy. Grudgingly recommended in this context is Duncan Currie’s well-written Weekly Standard article “The Clinton Paradox: Liberal Democrats claim they want 'another Bill Clinton.' But that's only half-true.”

Currie says Democrats are “only being half-serious” when they “yearn for another Bill Clinton to lead their Party out of it’s doldrums.” He argues further:

What they want, one assumes, is a charming, charismatic, good-looking, and eloquent partisan who appeals at once to both blue-state Deaniacs and red-state moderates. That sure sounds like Clinton, the Democrat who twice carried Ohio, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Arkansas (his home state), Tennessee (Al Gore's home state), Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, Nevada, and New Mexico.

… DLC-bred Clinton was a political maestro: a once-in-a-generation natural who melded a wonkish command of the issues with a magnetic allure that drove Republicans batty. Which explains liberals' enduring fascination with Clinton: They want a nominee with Clinton's charisma and electoral viability, but minus his me-too-ish centrism on the issues.

Some of this rings true, but Currie’s conclusions are less convincing than his tribute to Clinton’s command of the issues and Alpha Male charms. Currie argues that Dean’s chairmanship of the DNC is a step backward to the shrill moralistic tradition that he believes leads to Democratic electoral defeats. Currie has more to say about Democratic prospects for success under a more hawkish foreign policy and various candidate scenarios. Currie's arguments deserve a cautionary read. But there is just as much reason to bet that Dean will confound the conservatives’ expectations and help unify the Democratic Party as a credible force for peace and prosperity.

March 16, 2005

Public Still Dislikes Iraq War and the State of the Economy

I've been copiously detailing lately how little progress (really, negative progress) Bush has been making on selling his Social Security plan. And that lack of progress is starting to make even him admit the truth (gasp!) or at least some of it about his Social Security plan. A Reuters story today reported that:

President Bush said on Wednesday he would not send Congress a specific plan to change Social Security because it would be "dead on arrival" and admitted his idea of personal accounts would not fix the retirement system.

Welcome to the real world, W! But as his Social Security plan sinks slowly in the west, is he making up for that probable failure with progress on other fronts? The economy, after all, has been "strong and getting stronger" for years, according to Bush, and we are now in the 40th month of the current recovery. Are people suitably delighted with the economy's performance?

And how about Iraq? With the Iraq elections, a new, more moderate Palestinian leadership and signs of positive change in Lebanon, has the public now concluded that the Iraq war was a great idea and that Bush is doing a fine job in that area?

No and no. Take the economy first. In the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, Bush's approval rating on the economy is just 43 percent with 55 percent disapproval. That's his lowest rating on the economy in a year.

And a new Gallup report, "How Long Can Wall Street Diverge from Main Street?: Can the Economy Be Good for Investors, But Not for the Average American Worker?", points out that:

Only 41% of American consumers say economic conditions in the country as a whole are "getting better" right now compared to 50% who say they are "getting worse." This negative difference of 9 percentage points is the largest since last October, when there was a negative difference of 11 percentage points, with 39% saying things were getting better and 50% saying they were getting worse. It is also three times as large as the negative difference of 3 percentage points recorded a year ago (March 8-11, 2004).

The report concludes:

As the good news on household wealth reflects, many Americans have benefited as real estate values and the stock market surged. Even now as energy prices escalate, the value of energy related stocks has increased. As a result, it is not surprising that upper-income families are spending more not only on higher-priced necessities but also on other goods and services as well.

On the other hand, lower- and middle-income households have experienced little wage growth. They are being squeezed by higher gas/energy prices. And, they are increasing their debt -- consumer debt increased 11% in 2004. As a result, they are also feeling the impact of higher interest rates even at today's lower levels. According to a March Experian/Gallup Personal Credit Index poll, one in four Americans currently have some form of variable rate credit and one in five Americans say that they are already feeling the pinch of higher interest rates.

In the short term, it is possible for the economic outlook on Wall Street to diverge from that on Main Street. This remains a much better economy for higher-income investors than for average Americans. But, this divergence can't continue for too long. At some point, the squeeze on middle- and lower-income Americans will slow the economy to such an extent that even Wall Street will feel the impact.

Guess Bush isn't quite out of the woods on the economy yet. Turning to Iraq, his approval rating is now down to just 39 percent, with 57 percent disapproval--his worst rating ever in this area in this poll! This is despite the fact that people are now more confident (56 percent) than not (43 percent) that the Iraq elections will produce a stable, effective government in Iraq and that they believe overwhelmingly (67-25) that the Iraqi people are better off as a result of the invasion of Iraq.

But these positive views are apparently more than offset by continued qualms about the war itself and whether it has been worth the costs. By 53-45, the public still says the war in Iraq wasn't worth fighting, given the costs versus benefits of the war for the US. By 70-27, they still deem the number of casualties sustained by the US unacceptable, given the goals versus costs of the war. And, by 54-43, the public still thinks we are bogged down, rather than making good progress, in Iraq.

And in a very telling question that has been asked in one form or another about every conflict the US has been involved in since Korea, the public now says US made a mistake (51 percent), rather than did the right thing (48 percent), in going to war with Iraq. That contrasts starkly with assessements of the Afghan war, where no more than 9 percent thought the war was a mistake and of the Gulf war, where no more than 21 percent thought that war was a mistake. Indeed, besides the Iraq war, only the Vietnam war itself has been assessed by the US public as a mistake in the last half century.

Based on this evidence, it doesn't seem Bush can count on public appreciation for his job on the economy and Iraq to counterbalance his declining political support in the Social Security area. On the contrary: public views on the economy and Iraq seem likely to reduce his political leverage and make his already-daunting sales job on Social Security even harder.

Dems Must Fight for Economic Reforms

With the exception of the battle over Social Security privatization, the Republicans are finding weak resistance to their greed-driven legislative agenda, the disastrous bankruptcy bill being the most recent example. Yet, opinion polls indicate a solid majority of Americans want strong leadership for economic reforms that benefit working people. Writing in the Boston Globe, columnist Robert Kuttner, also co-editor of The American Prospect, notes that 63 percent of respondents in a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week felt that President Bush "had different economic priorities than those of most Americans."

Kuttner explains that some Democrats' timidity in challenging the white house economic agenda derives from five factors -- corporate contributions, fear of being labled 'populists,' lapdog media eating out of Bush's hand, cultural conservatism and the war in Iraq. But he argues that the hefty majority for economic reforms reflected in recent polls offers Dems an opportunity to reverse the GOP's recent string of victories without alienating the Democratic base --- if they can find the courage:

Democrats need to challenge Bush on the best strategies to keep Americans safe, but they are not maximizing their advantage on the pocketbook issues where they should be eating Bush's lunch. The one happy exception is Social Security, where Democrats have managed more unity than usual, and they may prevail. There's surely a lesson here.

As Kuttner says, "Bush's economic program harms ordinary people. And a majority of voters notice." And when Democrats stand up and fight for economic justice, they win needed reforms for their constituents and electoral victories for themselves.

March 15, 2005

CAP Tax Reform Plan Can Win Consensus

Today’s Washington Post features an op-ed article by John Podesta, president of The Center for American Progress (CAP), offering an aggressive tax reform plan designed to counter the forthcoming Administration package now being prepared.

You may recall what happened the last time the Bush Administration secured a tax “reform” package in 2001. Podesta describes it all too well:

We ended up with a tax bill that produced exploding deficits, protected the special interests, undid the progressivity of the tax code, and laid more of the burden on wage earners and less on those with investment income.

Unfortunately the Democratic response was as ineffectual as the GOP plan was venal. As Podesta notes:

Our arguments against it were never heard; we didn't offer a larger progressive counter-narrative, and we didn't offer a tax cut alternative worthy of its name. Hampered by these strategic errors, the Democrats were left with a "just say no" campaign that ultimately was not much of a match for the president's considerable lobbying effort…we lost more than the vote; we also lost a crucial opportunity to remind people that progressive values -- the belief in an expanding middle class and in providing the greatest rewards for people who work the hardest -- promote both economic growth and economic justice.

In 2005, however, Dems have a clear opportunity to present a tax reform package that will earn the support of working people, particularly if it is based on three principles identified by Podesta --- fairness, rewarding hard work and keeping it simple. In this way, Podesta argues, Dems can “seize the moral high ground.” The CAP reform plan meets these criteria by taxing all sources of income according to a simple and more equitable three-rate structure at 15, 25 and 39.6 percent, cutting the number of tax brackets in half, closing corporate loopholes and expanding eligibility for the child tax credit. The CAP plan would also shore up the Social Security trust fund and reduce by half the gap between revenues and outlays.

As a former chief of staff for President Clinton, Podesta understands that enacting such reforms will be a formidable challenge given the GOP domination of congress and the white house. Yet, win or lose, making a determined effort this time around will help position the Dems advantageously for ‘06. As Podesta says, "This is a fight that the president’s opponents can win. But they must get on the field.”

Dems Need Fiercer 'Frames'

Parker Blackman, deputy g.m. and managing director of Fenton Communications west coast office, floats some interesting ideas for Democratic wordsmiths in a new article excerpted at TomPaine.com. Blackman urges Dems to take a page from George Lakoff's "frames" theory and put Bush's wing of the GOP in its rightful pidgeon hole:

We all know that the current leaders of the Republican party—be it President Bush, Tom Delay or Bill Frist – represent the extreme right wing of their party. But most of America doesn’t see them that way, because nobody has successfully framed them as such. It's time we start calling them what they are—irresponsible, reckless, extreme and radical. These are four adjectives that most accurately describe their agenda. More important still, these adjectives imply un-American values and speak to a flaw in their collective character.

...Most Americans are moderate in their views; extremism on either side of the political spectrum makes them uncomfortable. Reckless behavior makes them very uncomfortable. Americans would rather that their leaders be conservative in the true sense of the word.

Blackman also believes that many Republicans can be peeled off from the GOP vote:

...if you can create space in some voters’ minds that the Bush administration’s current agenda isn’t the one they signed up for, you give those voters space to rationalize moving away from Bush and the Republican leadership.

By creating this wedge, we open the door for some Republicans...to say, “Well I’m a Republican, but I can’t support a reckless agenda like this one.” Voters don’t have to repudiate their core beliefs or admit that they were wrong to vote for Bush...By demonstrating how the extreme right-wing faction of the party is clashing with Republican moderates, we can reinforce the fact that the party leadership is so extreme that even members of their own party —true fiscal conservatives and social moderates—are feeling uncomfortable with the agenda.

Blackman's idea makes sense, and offers Democratic candidates a way to gain support from moderates in both political parties without compromising progressive principles.

March 14, 2005

Social Security: What Part of "No" Don't You Understand?

Polling data continue to stream in indicating that the public's answer to Bush's Social Security plan is a polite, but firm, "no".

A Quinniapiac University poll released on March 9 found Bush's approval rating on Social Security down to 28 percent, with 59 percent disapproval. Among independents, that rating worsens to 25/62.

In addition, the public opposes "reducing Social Security benefits to bring more money into the Social Security system" (part of Bush's plan) by 81-16, but supports "raising [the] $90,000 income cap to help bring more money into Social Security system" (which Bush opposes) by 72-23.

The latest Ipsos-AP poll, released on March 10, measures his approval rating on Social Security at 37 percent with 56 percent disapproval, down slightly from 39/56 in late February. And his approval rating on this issue among "pure" independents (those who refuse to lean toward either party) is now a stunningly bad 20/62.

Finally, in the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, released today, Bush's approval rating on Social Security has dropped to 35 percent, with 56 percent disapproval, his lowest rating every on this issue in this poll.

The poll also finds that the public now opposes "Bush's proposals to change the Social Security system" 55-37. Even worse for Bush, 58 percent of the public says that, the more they hear about these proposals, the less they like them. That compares to just 33 percent who say that the more they hear about these proposals, the more they like them.

In addition, the benefit-cutting part of Bush's plan generates strong 57-36 opposition even when described using Bush's preferred language: "Changing the way Social Security benefits are calculated so that benefits increase at a slower rate than they would under the current formula". And the more straightforward language of "Reducing guaranteed benefits for future retirees" yields overwhelming 75-20 opposition.

That's a lot of "no" in a lot of different ways. Perhaps even Bush is getting to the point where he can (or perhaps must) understand this all-important two-letter word.

March 13, 2005

Bankruptcy Bill Draws Line In Sand for Dems

Judging by the mainsteam media coverage, you wouldn't think the votes to pass the Bankruptcy bill (S. 256) in the U.S. Senate were all that important. NBC's Meet the Press and ABC's This Week, for example, lavished substantial air time on the steroids in baseball issue, but zilch on the Bankruptcy bill, which will affect the economic well-being of millions of working people. The mainstream print media, with a few notable exceptions (liberal columnists Molly Ivins, Paul Krugman and David Broder), was only marginally better.

The Bankruptcy Bill ranks high on any list of the 10 most odious pieces of legislation considered in recent years, "a nightmare for the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak," in the words of Senator Edward Kennedy. Kennedy also noted:

It favors the credit card companies, the giant banks and the big car loan companies at every turn. It favors the worst of the credit industry -- the interest rate gougers, the payday lenders, and the abusive collection agencies. It hurts real people who lose their savings because of a medical crisis, or lose their jobs because of outsourcing, or suffer major loss of income because they were called up for duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. It protects corporate interests at the expense of the needs of real people.

It does absolutely nothing about the glaring abuses of the bankruptcy system by the executives of giant companies like Enron and Worldcom and Polaroid, who lined their own pockets, but left thousands of employees and retirees out in the cold.

It favors companies like MBNA, a top credit card issuer, with over $80 billion in loans, and which has contributed $7 million to federal candidates - half a million dollars to President Bush alone, and spent over $20 million in lobbying, since 1997, when their lobbyists wrote this bill.

Despite the comparative indifference of the traditional media, the liberal blogs and political websites were smoldering last week with heated coverage of the Bankruptcy Bill votes, (See Salon's Warroom, Gadflyer, Democrats.com and liberaloasis, for example)-- and rightly so because few bills now before Congress do more to violate the "first principles" of the Democratic Party. Certainly opposing multi-billion dollar transfers of wealth from poor and working people to corporations and the rich ought to be a "first principle" strongly reflected in Democratic political strategy.

Regrettably, however, 18 Democrats voted with the Republicans for cloture and/or final passage, including Senators Lieberman, Bayh and Biden, who are frequently mentioned as possible Presidential candidates in '08. No Republicans voted against cloture or the bill. As Kennedy said, "This bankruptcy bill is mean-spirited and unfair. In anything like its present form, it should and will be an embarrassment to anyone who votes for it." House of Reps Dems, Take note.

March 12, 2005

Hey-Hey, Ho-Ho, John Sweeney’s Got to Go

That’s the thrust of John Judis’ new article in TNR on the crisis of the labor movement. Recently, the labor movement has been embroiled in an acrimonious debate about whether and how much to reform the AFL’s approach to organizing and collective bargaining.

On one side are SEIU’s Andy Stern and his allies in unions like the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, the Laborers and the UFCW, who advocate a dramatically stepped-up emphasis on union organizing. Stern, in particular, has advocated rebating as much as 50 percent of AFL dues to member unions to be used for organizing, as well as essentially forcing smaller unions to merge into larger unions to promote more effective and concentrated bargaining. And he has said a number of times that he will consider taking SEIU out of the AFL if adequate progress is not made toward his goals.

On the other side are John Sweeney, the rest of the current leadership of the AFL, unions like AFSCME, AFT, CWA and almost all the smaller unions who argue that such a large rebate would gut the AFL's successful political mobilization program and that forcing smaller unions to merge is both unnecessary and fundamentally undemocratic.

At the recent semiannual executive meeting of the AFL in Las Vegas, this conflict sharpened when the Teamsters moved a motion to implement the 50 percent rebate to support organizing (though they pointedly dropped the more-controversial proposal to merge smaller unions into larger ones). In the end, it was defeated easily, 15-7, though that margin of defeat probably conceals considerable support for a new direction at the AFL and, particularly, replacing John Sweeney himself. As Judis puts it:

Sweeney's performance has privately aroused the ire of many union presidents, but, over the last year, his opposition has become chiefly identified with Andrew Stern, the lean, gray-haired president of the SEIU....Stern and his allies have not launched an open challenge to Sweeney's reelection, which will be decided this July. Instead, Stern has launched a complicated set of structural proposals that will not necessarily solve any of the Federation's problems. And he has done so in a manner that has focused the debate on his own contentiousness rather than on Sweeney's deficiencies....

Altogether, Stern's actions may have actually strengthened Sweeney. Many union officials interpreted Stern's threat to bolt as a gesture of contempt toward them and the AFL-CIO. One union official described Stern as a "millstone" around the neck of the unions that want Sweeney replaced. Unions that had previously railed against Sweeney and his staff, another official explained, "are supporting Sweeney because they hate Stern more."

Judis argues that's a shame, because the need to replace Sweeney is so pressing. As he puts it:

Since its founding in 1955, the AFL-CIO has provided the largest counterweight to business interests, both in the workplace and in Washington. But, as the labor movement's share of the workforce has declined, the Federation has lost power. The union presidents desperately want to halt that decline, but disagreement about how to do so has been acute, reaching new heights at the Las Vegas meeting, where the issue of structural reforms dominated the agenda. That's too bad, because the solution to the Federation's problem lies elsewhere: in finding an effective replacement for John Sweeney.

I am more sympathetic than Judis to the structural reforms Stern and others are proposing, but it is hard to argue with the proposition that the AFL is in urgent need of a leadership change. Consider the sorry record of the Sweeney era, as highlighted by these data pulled together by Judis (comparison is of Kirkland's last full eight years with Sweeney's last full eight years [neither was in control in 1995]):

Kirkland era

1986: 16,975,000 union members; 17.5 percent of workforce unionized
1994: 16,740,000 union members; 15.5 percent of workforce unionized

Change, 1986-1994: 235,000 members lost, 2 percentage point decline in union density

Sweeney era

1996: 16,269,000 union members; 14.5 percent of workforce unionized
2004: 15,472,000 union members; 12.5 percent of workforce unionized

Change, 1996-2004: 797,000 members lost, 2 percentage point decline in union density

It isn't that Sweeney's record isn't much better than Kirkland's in the all-important area of union members and unionization. It's that it's been no better at all. Sweeney's leadership, in this sense, has been an utter failure.

But wait, say Sweeney's defenders, what about labor's big success in political mobilization, boosting union household turnout from 18 percent of voters in the 1992 election and 14 percent in the 1994 election, to 24 percent in 1996, 23 percent in 1998, 26 percent in 2000 and 24 percent in 2004? This would indeed be impressive if it happened. But it almost certainly did not.

The reason is simple: the figures above are all from exit polls from the respective years and the low apparent union turnout in the 1992 and 1994 exit polls was primarily driven by a change in question wording in those years. In 1988, when the union household membership was measured by a separate yes/no question, reported union household membership among voters was 25 percent. But in 1992 and 1994, union household was included in a lengthy "grab-bag" list of items that respondents could check as applying to them, rather than as a separate yes/no question. That format depressed the number of respondents reporting membership in union households, accounting for most of the falloff in union household voters to 18 percent in 1992 and 14 percent in 1994.

As soon as the format was changed in 1996 to a yes/no question, reported union household membership among voters shot back up to 24 percent and has stayed in that range ever since. Contrary to the claims of the Sweeney defenders, that question wording change is a more plausible explanation for the big jump in reported union turnout than a fabulously successful political mobilization program.

In reality, there has probably been no big jump in union turnout. Indeed, labor economist Richard Freeman, in his exhaustive study of union turnout and voting data, "What Do Unions Do....to Voting?", concludes:

[T]he share of voters in unions fell by about 1 percentage point and the share of voters in union households fell by about 2 percentage points from 1990 to 2000. The [exit poll]-based estimated increase in the union share is erroneous.

Of course, just keeping the union share of voters from falling much in the face of the steady decline of unionization can be reckoned a modest accomplishment. But the Sweeney regime's claims of big success in the political mobilization area are based on faulty data and should not be taken seriously.

So the reality is that Sweeney's leadership has produced precious little real gain for the labor movement anywhere. Clearly new leadership is needed and the sooner the better. The problem is, as Judis points out, the current faction-fighting in the labor movement may make it harder, not easier, to produce that leadership change. Let's hope Stern and his allies learn from their defeat in Las Vegas and start focusing more realistically on what it will take to get Sweeney and his ineffectual regime out of office.

March 11, 2005

Enhancing the Democratic Party’s Platform

TomPaine.com has posted an interesting Seattle Post-Intelligencer column by the former Washington State Political Director of the Kerry/Edwards campaign that suggests how the Dems can convert the often sterile Democratic Platform into a more effective tool for the party. As the author, Ari Melber, notes:

Usually, platforms are hurriedly written under election-year pressure and forgotten. Many are highly forgettable, and the 2004 Democratic Platform is no exception. It is vague and meek. (It was drafted by appointees selected by the Kerry campaign and former party chairman Terry McAuliffe.) …

Overall, the current platform is hazy on policy and weak on politics. It does not help candidates advance a unified message. It does not appeal to potential voters. It does not even represent Democratic activists.

Yet the Democrats have a lot more to offer. [DNC chair Howard] Dean should work with Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the aggressive and talented leaders of the Democrats' midterm campaign committees, to draft a bold, specific and politically appealing platform this year. This project could build genuine internal consensus, energize Democrats with a clear statement of principals and show voters in 2006 exactly what Democrats stand for -- just as the 10-point "Contract with America" did for Republicans in 1994.

There is little doubt that when the next elections roll around, Dean will have raised enough money and Democrats will have fulfilled their role as the opposition party. But if they don't work together now to outline a specific and unified Democratic agenda, they may remain the opposition party for a long time.

Definitely worth a read -- and giving serious consideration.

Dems Must Use Social Security Battle As Springboard

When he heard about John Kerry's statement on funding the war in Iraq, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it," Karl Rove reportedly responded with lip-smacking glee "You don't get a gift like that very often."

Greg Anrig returns the favor in a new American Prospect article "The President's Gift" and cuts a fresh angle on the opportunity presented by President Bush's Social Security privatization scheme. Anrig, vice president of The Century Foundation and co-editor of "Social Security: Beyond the Basics," argues that Bush's proposal "gives liberals more than just a good shot at a legislative victory. It gives them a chance to define themselves."

Anrig skewers the GOP premise that workers'retirement security "should depend on how well the stocks and bonds in their accounts perform." He argues that Dems must hammer home their message that working peoples' retirement income must instead be anchored "to their earnings over the course of their careers." Winning the Social Security battle, Anrig believes, will give the Dems an even greater victory:

simply gaining ownership of the word “security” has the potential to pay enormous dividends with the public on both domestic and international issues...Progressives should no longer be undecided about what should come between “It’s” and “stupid.” Security, security, security.

Anrig says the GOP push for privatization gives the Democrats an unprecedented opportunity to reveal the Republicans as the party of impractical ideologues, whose grandiose policies won't work on "planet earth." This gives the Dems a chance to project a stronger alternative:

Contrasting the well-established desire of liberals to achieve real-world results with the fanciful theories of conservative ideologues can help progressives win on a range of issues, just as it is helping on Social Security.

Anrig urges Dems to drive home this message:

Conservatives are dividers, not uniters; they cannot be trusted to run the government; they care more about ideology than results; and they value the unpredictability of markets over your personal security.

If the Democrats amplify this message over the next 18 months, it could produce victories in the '06 elections -- and strengthen the party for even greater gains in the long term.

March 10, 2005

GOP Pitch for Black Votes Dissected

In their article "The Campaign for Black Republicans" at TomPaine.com, Glen Ford and Peter Gamble, co-publishers of The Black Commentator, provide an insightful explanation of Bush's slight increase in his percentage of African American votes in '04. Ford and Gamble cite the so-called "faith-based intitiatives" and vouchers as the lynchpins of GOP strategy to dilute the African American voting bloc:

The Republican Party quickly adopted both strategies as tools to drive a wedge between blacks and teachers' unions and to lure opportunistic black clergy into the GOP orbit. Vouchers and faith-based bribery are the strategic battering rams the right hopes will demolish the Black Political Consensus. Gay-baiting, the "Death Tax" and longevity issues related to Social Security are tactical flourishes.

Ford and Gamble argue that the overwhelming majority of Black voters are not so easily swayed:

The received wisdom from the corporate media is identical to the line run by rightists at the Manhattan and American Enterprise Institutes: African Americans are becoming more conservative as they join the middle class, especially younger blacks. However, black voting behavior proves differently. Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, a flamboyant progressive, lost to right-backed Denise Majette in the 2002 open primary. But McKinney received 83 percent of the black vote in what is probably the second most affluent black majority district in the country— the very demographics that supposedly favor black conservatism.

Further, Ford and Gamble note:

As BlackCommentator.com reported on November 18: "With 11 percent of a much larger black electorate, Bush picked up about a quarter million more black votes than he should have." A huge portion of those were new voters from the Pentecostal ranks, who are in such thrall of their ministers that there is nothing political to decipher in their actions.

Clearly the Democratic Party has a huge stake in Black voter turnout outside the Pentacostal ranks targeted by the GOP, and more support for voter mobilization conducted by progressive Black clergy and secular institutions should prove to be a cost-effective investment in '06 and '08.

March 8, 2005

Where the Public Wants the Money Spent

I strongly recommend the new report from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), "The Federal Budget: The Public's Priorities". The report, based on an extensive poll by PIPA/Knowledge Networks, highlights just how far away from the public's preferences the priorities of the current administration are. Here is an excerpt from the report summarizing some of the major findings, but I urge you to take a look at the whole report:

To find out how Americans would allocate the discretionary federal budget if they each could control a correspondingly small portion, a representative sample participated in a budget exercise. Respondents were shown a spreadsheet with allocations for 16 key areas of the discretionary budget. All the figures they saw were based on the requests in the president’s budget proposal for fiscal 2006. Two other items were included: the amount of probable supplemental funding for operations primarily in Iraq but also in Afghanistan (as projected by the Congressional Budget Office); and an option to assign money to reduce the budget deficit.

Budget items were converted in terms of a total of $1,000 for all of these budget items, as this is an amount that respondents would feel more comfortable dealing with and happens to roughly be the portion of the median taxpayers’ bill that corresponds to the portion of the general budget devoted to these items....

Respondents were also provided a line for reduction of the budget deficit, which, of course, was set at zero.

Nearly all respondents were able to complete the exercise. And overall, there were many changes made to the proposed budget. The budget items that were most deeply cut were defense spending, the Iraq supplemental, transportation, and federal administration of justice. The budget items that were increased the most were allocations to reduce the budget deficit and spending on education, conserving and developing renewable energy, job training and employment, and medical research....

National Security Spending

Overall, by far the largest modification to the proposed budget was a major cut in defense spending. On average, defense spending was cut by the equivalent of $133.8 billion (or 31%), from $435.9 billion to $302.1 billion. Fully two-thirds of respondents (65%) made cuts to the defense budget.

The projected Iraq supplemental was reduced a similar percentage (35%) from $85 billion to $55.4 billion--a reduction of $29.6 billion. Here again, two thirds (65%) of respondents cut this item.

Homeland security received a robust average increase of 38% or $10.5 billion (from $27.3 to $37.8 billion). But only 41% favored such increases.

Cutting the Deficit

The largest increase was the reallocation to reductions in the budget deficit. The mean respondent reallocated $36.3 billion to deficit reduction, with 61% of respondents making some reallocation.

Interestingly, Democrats allocated more to deficit reduction ($39.4 billion) than Republicans ($29.6). It should be noted that respondents were in no way prompted to make some allocation to the deficit, other than offering a line for doing so. They were also not told the size of the deficit and, as will be discussed below, a large minority did not believe there was a large deficit. Those who did believe there was a large deficit allocated substantially more to deficit reduction.

Social Spending

The largest budget areas increased were for social spending. Spending on human capital was especially popular. Education was increased $26.7 billion, from $68.5 billion to $95.2 billion (a 39% increase), with a majority of 57% making increases. Job training and employment-related services were increased $19 billion, from $7.2 billion to $26.2 billion, a sizeable increase of 263%, which was made by a strong majority of 67%. Veterans’ benefits were also increased $12.5 billion, from $31.4 billion to $43.9 billion, an increase of 40% by a majority of 63%. Likewise, medical research was increased $15.5 billion, from $29.2 billion to $44.7 billion—a 53% increase by a 57% majority....

Environmental Spending

By far the largest increase in percentage terms was for conserving and developing renewable energy. This amount was increased $24 billion, from $2.2 billion to $26.2 billion—an extraordinary increase of 1090%. This was also the area increased by the largest majority—70%. The environment and natural resources received a more moderate increase of $9 billion (from $28 billion to $37 billion), up 32%—an increase driven by 42% of respondents. Similarly, housing was also increased $9.3 billion, from $30 billion to $39.3 billion—a 31% increase made by 43% of respondents.

Wow! Now if we could only get an administration whose priorities were remotely like the public's.....

About That Military Vote

I posted briefly on Monday about Peter Beinart's op-ed "A Democratic Call to Arms", where he bewailed Democrats' weakness among military voters, contrasting that with Republicans' alleged big success among black and Hispanic voters. I cast doubt in that post on Beinart's claims for Republican success among minority voters.

Now here are some interesting data unearthed by Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College concerning the 2004 military vote. These data suggest that the situation for the Democrats among military voters may not be nearly so dire as Beinart claims.

From the 2004 National Election Survey data:

Military Experience
Bush 55-45

No Military Experience
Kerry 51-49

Military Family
Bush 50-50

Non-Military Family
Kerry 51-49

GOP Senators Kill Minimum Wage Hike, Despite Majority Support

According to a January report by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of Americans supported an increase in the federal minimum wage as an important priority, with only 6 percent opposed. Yet, the U.S. Senate voted 49-46 to defeat a bill that would have provided three increases of 70 cents in the federal minimum wage, from $5.15 to $7.25 over the next 26 months. All 49 of the Senators voting against the bill were Republicans. Earlier polls have shown strong support for even higher increases.

The Republicans did offer a substitute bill providing a $1.15 increase in the minimum wage, but it was tied to provisions that would have eliminated long-standing wage and overtime protection for millions of workers. Of course the GOP knew their bill was doomed and it would kill any chance of a minimum wage increase. The GOP point man for the 'alternative' bill, Sen. Rick Santorum, has voted against minimum wage increases 17 times in 10 years, according to Sen. Edward Kennedy, despite the fact that the inflation-adjusted value of the federal minimum wage has decreased alarmingly in recent decades. The 1968 minimum wage, for example, would be worth $8.88 in today's dollars.

The GOP opposition may have handed Democrats a potent weapon for mobilizing low-wage workers in the upcomming elections, and the campaign against Sen. Santorum will likely be the marquee contest of 2006.

March 7, 2005

RX for 'New Democrats' in TNR Article

Kenneth Baer’s article“Rebuilding Project” in The New Republic is generating some buzz in the pro-Dem blogosphere. Baer, a former Gore speechwriter and author of “The Politics of Liberalism From Reagan to Clinton,” challenges “New Democrats” – loosely defined as Democratic moderates and conservatives gathering under the Democratic Leadership Council umbrella – to do some soul searching. Says Baer:

It's not that New Democrats don't draw bright lines where they differ from the liberal-left. It's that they don't do the same when it comes to those on the right. To undo the damage--and restore themselves to the level of influence they enjoyed during the early 1990s--New Democrats have to explain not just who they are, but more importantly who they are not.

Baer’s article defines the core values of “true New Democrats” - and makes some revealing distinctions between sub-groups in the Democratic spectrum. To become a more relevant force in today’s Democratic Party, Baer urges New Democrats to refocus their arguments:

For New Democrats to reenter today's debate about the future of the Democratic Party, they must reclaim their identity as the modernizing, reformist wing of the party…Put another way, New Democrats need to be just as critical of those who would simply pare back the brain-dead ideas of the Republican right as they are of those who espouse the brain-dead dogmas of the Democratic left.

Baer’s challenge merits serious consideration from the New Democrats. But he should have also urged them to ease up on the demonizing of MoveOn and other liberal groups within the Party (and vice versa). Policy differences between different Democratic constituencies must be vigorously debated in order to find the common ground, but the insult-trading between liberal and conservative Dems serves no one but the GOP.

Arnold's WH Prospects Terminated

Don't lose any sleep worrying about Arnold Schwarzenegger's candidacy for the Presidency. A Westhill Partners/Hotline Poll conducted 2/24-27 reports that 66 percent of respondents opposed a constitutional amendment that would allow a U.S. citizen born in another country to be elected President, with only 29 percent supporting such a measure.

Military Voters, Black Voters, Hispanic Voters

Peter Beinart argues in his op-ed "A Democratic Call to Arms" in the Sunday Washington Post that Democrats must make big progress among military voters to counter the Republicans' big success among black and Hispanic voters. As Beinart puts it:

Republicans have been conquering their demographic challenge, while Democrats have not. Between 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush increased his share of African American votes from 9 percent to 11 percent....Among Hispanics, Bush's total rose from 35 percent to as much as 44 percent. But despite widespread talk about military disaffection over Iraq, John Kerry won only 41 percent of Americans with military experience.

I think it's a fine idea for Democrats to increase their share of the military vote--but not because they need to match big Republican gains among blacks and Hispanics. Indeed, the idea that, based on the last election, Republicans have somehow conquered "their demographic challenge" is absurd.

In terms of the black vote, Kerry's 88-11 margin is the highest obtained by a Democratic candidate since the exit polls started in 1976, except for 2000 and Mondale's 1984 campaign. To say the 2004 result represents a breakthrough for the Republicans is ridiculous.

In terms of the Hispanic vote, if Bush had really gotten 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, that would represent some kind of a breakthrough. But he almost certainly did not. The 44 percent figure Beinart alludes to is the NEP national exit poll figure which has more or less been repudiated by the exit pollsters themselves, due to sampling problems in the 2004 poll. The best exit poll figure for the Hispanic vote at this point is 40 percent, based on aggregating all the state exit polls. And there are good reasons for thinking that the true figure may actually be closer to 39 percent.

So, by all means, go after the military voters. But Democrats should go after them not out of desperation (Help! We're losing blacks and Hispanics!), but because it's a good idea in its own right.

March 5, 2005

Liberal Editors Mull Dems' Future

The New York Times has an interesting roundtable discusssion in "Left Behind' on the challenges facing American liberals. Peter Beinart, Katrina vanden Heuval and Michael Tomasky, editors of The New Republic, The Nation and The American Prospect, respectively, share their thoughts on Democratic strategies for future victories. Some ideas:

The party has to have a listening tour within its own base but also a listening tour among swing constituencies that are moving away: Hispanics, Jews, the military in particular. (Beinart)
One of the things that came out of this election, which is exciting, is that there's the beginning of an independent infrastructure outside the Democratic Party, a kind of fusionist politics combining movement politics with electoral politics. And I would build on that, building a farm team of new, Paul Wellstone-type leaders, developing messages and ideas.(vanden Heuval)
Liberal concepts still have more resonance than you might think. Polls continually show that people are rhetorically conservative and operationally liberal or progressive.(Tomasky)

There's more, including a lively reader's forum responding to the editors' ideas now underway.

March 4, 2005

Unpopular from Coast to Coast (Continued)

Yesterday, I reviewed several recent polls that show how public opinion is turning against Bush and, particularly, his proposal to privatize Social Security. Bad as these polls are for Bush, perhaps the bleakest news for him is in the just-released CBS News/New York Times poll. Here are the key findings:

1. Bush's overall approval rating is 49 percent, his rating on Iraq is 45 percent and his rating on foreign policy is 44 percent. Bad, but par for the course for Bush these days. More startling, this poll has his approval rating on the economy down to 38 percent, with 54 percent disapproval. That's only a couple of points above his worst rating in this poll, indicating that the public may be losing patience with the continued failure of the Bush recovery to generate robust growth. And Bush's approval rating on the federal budget deficit is a miserable 29 percent, with 60 percent disapproval.

2. The poll asked respondents whether they thought Bush had the same or different priorities as most Americans on two different types of issues. On foreign policy issues, 58 percent thought he had different priorities and only 37 percent thought he had the same priorities. And on domestic issues, the verdict was a substantially more negative 63 percent different/31 percent same. And we are supposed to believe that Bush is somehow in tune with the American people, even if his party is not? Not by the evidence of this poll.

3. Slightly more people say they are uneasy with Bush's ability to handle an international crisis than say they are confident (51-47)--hardly a ringing endorsement. But that looks robust compared to 63 percent uneasy/31 percent confident judgement on Bush's ability to make the right decisions on Social Security.

4. On abortion and legal recognition of gay or same sex couples, people say the Democrats are closer to their views than the Republicans by margins of 5-10 points. And Democrats are favored by 17 points (48-31) as the party more likely to make the right decisions about Social Security.

5. The poll asked:

Some people have suggested allowing individuals to invest portions of their Social Security taxes on their own, which might allow them to make more money for their retirement, but would involve greater risk. Do you think allowing individuals to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes on their own is a good idea or a bad idea?

That wording returned a 51 percent bad idea/43 percent good idea judgement--the most negative response yet on this question, which was first asked in May, 2000. Moreover, consistent with other recent polls, the question has been following a downward trajectory as Bush has pushed his privatization proposal to the fore.

Followup questions reduce the number saying individual accounts are a good idea to 22 percent, if guaranteed benefits are cut, and to 17 percent, if the accounts would increase the federal budget deficit.

6. The public overwhelmingly believes individual accounts would not have a positive impact on Social Security's financial situation. Only 19 percent believe such accounts would make Social Security's financial situation better, while 69 percent believe it would either make it worse (45 percent) or have no impact (24 percent).

7. Currently, 50 percent believe the US should have stayed out of Iraq, compared to 46 percent who believe the US did the right thing in taking military action. That's only the second time the "stay out" figure has broken 50 percent--more evidence that the failure of the Iraqi elections to substantially change the facts on the ground in Iraq is feeding into a jaundiced view of the US intervention. And people are actually less convinced now than they were before the November election that Bush has a clear plan for dealing with the Iraq situation (71 percent now believe he doesn't, while only 21 percent believe he does).

8. Bush is continuing his long-term work of alienating the political center. That didn't quite kill him in 2004, but this trend can't be good for the GOP's future prospects and the hopes they harbor of creating a new political majority.

In this poll, Bush's overall approval rating among independents is 42 percent. Among the same group, his rating on Iraq is 42 percent, on foreign policy, 40 percent, on the economy, 33 percent and on the federal budget deficit, 23 percent.

And on Social Security, it is extraordinary how close the views of Democrats and independents are on most key issues and how far apart both are from Republicans. Bush is completely losing the battle for the middle on this one.

For example, independents reject private accounts by 56-37, fairly close to the 63-31 opposition among Democrats. But Republicans support them by 65-28, a huge gap. Similarly, just 14 percent of independents and of Democrats think individual accounts would be a good idea, even if guaranteed benefits were cut, while almost three times as many Republicans (40 percent) think so.

While Bush did just manage to squeak by in 2004, despite the many ways he alienated the political center, he and his party are likely to pay a considerable price for this approach as the Social Security struggle unfolds and we move toward 2006 and 2008.

March 3, 2005

Unpopular from Coast to Coast

There's been a rather remarkable string of polling data in the last week or so detailing how public opinion is turning against Bush and, particularly, his proposal to privatize Social Security. A second term that was to have been turbocharged by the Iraq elections and his grandiloquent inauguration and State of the Union speeches seems to have gone sour more quickly than his opponents dared hope.

A Zogby poll released on February 27 included the following dreadful job approval numbers for Bush: 46 percent overall; 44 percent on taxes; 40 percent on foreign policy; 39 percent on the Iraq war; 37 percent on jobs/economy; 37 percent on education; and 32 percent on the environment. He only cracks 50 percent on one issue: the war on terror (54 percent). In addition, this poll found only 39 percent saying the Iraq war was worth the cost, compared to 54 percent who say it wasn't worth the cost.

Then there was the NPR poll that I wrote about in my February 28 post. In that poll, voters said they opposed Bush's "proposed changes to Social Security" 53-30, bad enough on the face of it. But subsequently-released charts of the poll data make the situation seem even more dire for Bush.

To begin with, the more familiar people were with Bush's Social Security plan, the more likely they were to say they opposed it, including 64-31 opposition among those who were "very familiar". Even worse, voters living in counties carried by Bush in '04 actually said they opposed his plan 49-34. And changing the wording of the question to Republican-leaning language resulted only in a split 45-45 verdict among Bush county voters, while Democratic-leaning language elicited solid 53-39 opposition among these same voters.

That suggests just how difficult the situation is getting for Bush on this particular issue. That difficult situation is underscored by the latest Pew Research Center poll, which also documents considerable slippage for Bush in other areas. Here's the lead of Pew's report on the poll:

President George W. Bush is losing ground with the public in his efforts to build support for private retirement accounts in Social Security. Despite Bush's intensive campaign to promote the idea, the percentage of Americans who say they favor private accounts has tumbled to 46% in Pew's latest nationwide survey, down from 54% in December and 58% in September. Support has declined as the public has become increasingly aware of the president's plan. More than four-in-ten (43%) say they have heard a lot about the proposal, nearly double the number who said that in December (23%).

The new poll indicates that the Social Security debate is packing a powerful political punch. It finds that just 29% of Americans approve of the way that Bush is handling the issue. This is the president's lowest approval rating for any policy area, and is considerably lower than his overall job approval rating of 46%. Moreover, by a 65%-25% margin, most say the president has not explained his Social Security proposal clearly enough.

Further, the public expresses much more confidence on this issue in the AARP, which is strongly opposed to private accounts, than they do in the president or in Republican congressional leaders.

Ouch! That's gotta hurt down at the White House and RNC headquarters. It looks like Bush's efforts on Social Security are only succeeding in diminishing support for his own proposal and lowering his approval rating in that area. Not only that, his unsuccessful efforts are probably helping drag down all his other ratings besides. Confirming the pattern seen in the Zogby poll, only his approval rating on "terrorist threats" (59 percent) cracks 50 percent, while every other job rating in a specific area is 44 percent or less: education (44 percent); foreign policy (43 percent); economy (43 percent); environment (42 percent); budget deficit (41 percent); Iraq situation (40 percent); health care (36 percent); and, of course, that abysmal 29 percent (22 percent among independents), with 55 percent disapproval, on Social Security.

More on "Unpopular from Coast to Coast" tomorrow...

Southern Dems Launch New Dialogue

With 120 thousand more votes in Ohio or spread out over a few western states John Kerry would be President today, even though he wrote off the South. But, in his article in The Nation, "Southern Strategies," Chris Kromm argues that writing off the South in future Presidential elections could be a strategic disaster. Kromm puts it this way:

Given that almost a third of the country lives in the South and it's growing fast, and that the South still sets the tone for national politics (look at the Tennesseans and Texans who lead the White House and Capitol Hill), ignoring the South is hardly an option....There are four Southern Democratic governors, hundreds of Democratic state legislators, and in six of thirteen Southern states, more registered voters identify as Democrats than Republicans.

But Kromm has no illusions about the magnitude of the challenge facing Democrats. Reporting from "New Strategies for Southern Progress," a conference of 200 southern progressives in Chapel Hill, Kromm quotes Dem consultant David 'Mudcat' Saunders, a proponent of the 'NASCAR Dads' strategy: "We've lost the white working-class male." Kromm adds:

Poll analyst Ruy Teixeira rolled out a compelling set of numbers to back up the claim: Although the ideology of the Southern electorate hasn't changed over the last decade -- it's now 14 percent liberal, 41 percent moderate and 45 percent conservative, only a hair to the right of 1996 -- voting patterns have. Bill Clinton got 46 percent to Bob Dole's 44 percent of the Southern white moderate vote in '96; in 2004 Kerry had a 58-to-41 deficit to Bush among the same voting group. Even accounting for Clinton's Southern touch, it's clear that Democrats have lost ground.

Democrats need to pay very close attention to this discussion as it develops in the months ahead. To help get up to speed, read the DR posts on Democratic prospects and strategies in the South (Feb. 20, 23 and 27) below. In addition, a new blog, "Facing South," where Kromm and other southern progressives discuss their strategies, merits the attention of Democrats seeking future victories.

March 2, 2005

Dems Hustled on Tort Reform?

Stephanie Mencimer's thought-provoking article, "Class Action Warfare: Why
Are So Many Democrats Voting Against Their Own Interests?
" in American Prospect addresses the wrongheadedness of many Democrats caving in to the GOP on tort reform. Mencimer quotes Pamela Gilbert, a former executive director of the Consumer Products Safety Commission during the Clinton administration on the huge investment behind the tort reform propaganda campaign:

It’s the result of 30 years and hundreds of millions of dollars by the business community to convince people that tort reform is right...The public is beginning to believe that we have too many lawsuits and the people to blame are the ones suing, not the wrongdoers. The Democrats who vote for tort reform should know better.

Interestingly, even after such a large and sustained investment in pro-tort reform propaganda, just 50 percent of Americans support President Bush's proposal to put a $250,000 cap on jury awards for pain and suffering, while 42 percent oppose the caps, according to the most recent poll on the topic, conducted conducted by the Los Angeles Times 1/15-17

Mencimer notes that Kerry and even Edwards, one of the best legal advocates for consumers in lawsuits, caved on the issue, though it meant lending legitimacy to the GOP's bogus argument that lawyers were primarilly responsible for the nation's health care crisis. Notes Mencimer:

In putting himself and Edwards on record as tort-reform supporters, Kerry was explicitly endorsing the conventional wisdom put forth by George W. Bush and his business backers that Americans are too litigious, that too many frivolous lawsuits are driving doctors out of business, and that lawsuits are hindering America’s economic progress. By embracing the term “tort reform,” Kerry was agreeing that Americans need to have their legal rights restricted, a view quite at odds with most of the core values traditionally expressed by Democrats, who like to campaign on their support of “the people, not the powerful.”

Mencimer argues that a spirited defense of consumers' right to litigate against coporate abuse would have served Kerry-Edwards better. As Mencimer points out, not all Democratic candidates rolled over for the GOP propaganda juggernaut. Those who stood firm for the rights of consumers may find themselves in a stronger position in future campaigns.

GOP Playbook Now In Accessible Format

Today's Daily Kos makes Frank Luntz's GOP Playbook on Republican strategy (see Feb. 24th entry below) available in a much more accesible format, which can be read chapter by chapter on line. Before today, it was available only as a problematic 160-page download.

March 1, 2005

New AP-Ipsos Poll: Most Disapprove of Bush SS Plan

A new poll by Ipsos-Public Afairs for the Associated Press indicates that a solid majority of Americans oppose President Bush's proposals for privatizing Social Security. The poll, conducted 2/22-24, found that 56 percent of respondents "disapprove of President Bush's handling of Social Security and oppose investing a portion of Social Security taxes in stocks and bonds," with 39 percent saying they approve. In addition, 66 percent of the respondents said they oppose increasing the retirement age, 93 percent opposed cutting benefits for current retirees and 87 percent opposed reducing benefits for future retirees.

The poll indicated that there was substantial support for one potential reform --- 74 percent favored requiring those earning more than $90,000 per year to pay Social Security taxes on all their earnings.

The poll also included some good news for Dems. Asked "who do you trust more to handle the issue of Social Security?", 43 percent chose Democrats, while 37 percent chose Republicans.