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September 30, 2004

First Debate: Advantage Kerry

The debate was on Bush's strongest turf. The rules of engagement were tailored to favor him. He had far less to lose than the challenger, and was operating under far fewer restraints and risks. He had the famous likability factor working for him. Yet by almost any standard, the first debate was a Kerry win, and perhaps more importantly, showed Bush flustered and defensive in dealing with the topic everybody knew would be central, Iraq. In terms of style points, everybody knows Bush gets cut a lot of slack by Americans, but this was probably the least effective debate performance of his career. He, not Kerry, rambled on with long sentences and kept going when the red light went on (until towards the end, when he seemed to run out of gas with time left over). He, not Kerry, displayed condescending body language towards his opponent. (Even the infamous Bush smirk, repressed for so very long, made a surprise appearance.) He, not Kerry, lapsed into insider references and tried to show off his knowledge of foreign people and places. And most of all, he, not Kerry, was hostile, partisan, and defensive in demeanor. I don't know who has advised Bush to refer to Kerry as "my opponent" rather than "Senator Kerry," but it really stood out after a while. On substance, Kerry laid out a credible overall strategy for the war on terror, a credible defense of his positions on Iraq, and a tough critique of administration foreign policy. It was notable how often he contrasted Bush's positions with those of his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and at one juncture, with the president's own father. And it was clear his aim, which he largely accomplished, was to focus on widespread unhappiness with how things have gone in Iraq, where Bush once again could not recall a single mistake or offer a single change in policy. There were a couple of moments when I thought Kerry could have turned a win into a rout: offered a chance to list the administration's miscalculations on Iraq, he dwelled too much on the original decision to go to war and didn't get around to Bush's more recent mistakes, including the reliance on exile politicians, the overerstimation of Shia support for a long occupation, and the endless "mixed messages" sent to insurgents. And speaking of "mixed messages," I wish Kerry had mentioned Bush's flip-flops on the Department of Homeland Security and intelligence reform. But all in all, Kerry won on substance as well as style. I was particularly impressed with his focus on nuclear proliferation (though again, the discussion of Putin gave him a chance to point out that loose nukes in Russia never seems to be a topic of discussion between W. and his buddy Vladimir), an issue where Bush and Cheney's record directly contradicts their claim of understanding this as the most important threat to our security. And I was also impressed by his commitment to send, if necessary, U.S. troops to stop the genocide in Sudan, after pointing out that Bush's over-commitment of U.S. troops elsehwere has made this very difficult. The President's sole aim in this debate appeared to be to endlessly contrast his sense of certainty and resolution with the "mixed messages" Kerry has sent on Iraq. Kerry scored especially well in pointing out that it was possible to be "certain but wrong." And I have no idea why Bush has chosen "mixed messages" as the latest term of abuse for Kerry, when that term can so easily be turned on him, as Kerry did several times tonight. However you score it, this debate was just what John Kerry needed, and if nothing else, should wipe the smirk off the faces of a lot of Republicans who were already beginning their post-election victory dance.

September 29, 2004

Bush the Unfaithful

When he first started talking about it during the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush's promise to mobilize "the armies of compassion" through an initiative to help faith-based organizations address the nation's social problems looked like a political consultant's dream. The idea simultaneously reinforced Bush's key swing-voter appeal that he was a "different kind of Republican" and a "compassionate conservative," and flattered the Relgious Right segment of the GOP base. Four years later, not much has come of Bush's "faith-based initiative," but he's still bragging about it. In a new article in The Washington Monthly (where's she recently assumed a position as editor), Amy Sullivan, that intrepid advocate for the spiritual side of Democratic politics, separates the wheat from the chaff in the Bush record, and shows how the White House eventually cast its lot with Mammon. UPDATE: I failed to mention that Amy's article was co-published by Beliefnet.com, the indispensible web portal for Higher Things.

Two Cents

Since everybody and their dog is offering advice to John Kerry about rapier thrusts he can make in tomorrow's debates that will leave George W. Bush weeping on his knees: here's mine. 1. I know a lot of Americans are puzzled by the way the president has chosen to fight the war on terror, but they think, hey, he must be doing something right, because we haven't been attacked here since 9/11. The truth is, none of us know exactly why they haven't struck again, but it's not because they are afraid of George W. Bush, and it's not because we invaded Iraq. There are four things we can do that will definitely make us safer: hardening the targets here at home, finishing the job of destroying al Qaeda in Afghanistan, reforming our intelligence agencies, and doing everything possible to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. The president hasn't made any of these things his top priorities in the war on terror; I will; and that's why I'll make America safer. 2. The president likes to call me a flip-flopper, and says every American knows where he stands. But let's look at the record. He opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security before he supported it; he opposed making the case against Saddam Hussein at the U.N. before he decided to do it; he opposed looking into intelligence failures prior to 9/11 before he went along with it; and he opposed creating a national director of intelligence before he woke up one day and decided it was his idea. I didn't change my position on any of these urgent matters. I'm glad the president flip-flopped on all four issues, because otherwise he would have just flopped. 3. The president claims his commitment to unilateral, preemptive action against terrorist threats to America's security has kept us safe. I wish he had that same attitude towards other threats to our interests. Why won't he launch a unilateral attack on his allies in Congress who are holding up intelligence reform? We won't he act preemptively to deal with the spread of nuclear materials, which every days raises the risk of a nuclear 9/11? Why won't he hunt down the financiers of terrorist operations and strike them where they live, in places like Saudi Arabia? And why won't he show courage and resolve in standing up to his friends in the energy lobby and free us from dependence on Middle Eastern oil? Those are missions worth accomplishing. My dog likes these lines as well.

September 28, 2004

Those Amazin' Red State Dems

With all the attention being paid to the presidential race, something remarkable is happening down-ballot that should cheer Democrats. There are, according to all the experts, eight highly competitive Senate races underway. Every single one is in a state (AK, CO, SD, OK, LA, FL, SC and NC) that cast its electoral votes for George W. Bush in 2000. Several are in states Bush carried by landslides. Yet Democratic candidates are currently ahead or statistically tied in every damn one of them (In LA, nobody knows who's ahead until the December runoff begins). And a grand total of one of those candidates (Tom Daschle of SD) is an incumbent. In an off-year for gubernatorial races, Dems are heavily favored to win in WV and NC; favored in MT; and even bets in NH, IN, MO and UT. Even if the presidential election map winds up looking a lot like 2000, Democrats are showing they can remain competitive in tough territory, with the right candidates and message. This should give pause to those who believe Democrats should give up on such territory and simply become the loud 'n' proud Blue State party. So long as we have fifty governors and state legislators (who in turn control U.S. House redistricting), and each state has two senators, such a strategy will consign Democrats to minority status for the foreseeable future. Moreover, nearly all of the Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates we're talking about --along with most of the Democrats running in competitive House districts--are by any measure centrist, New Demish candidates. This should give pause to those who believe that the party can or should turn hard left to build a majority. The Democratic Party is and will probably continue to be a broad progressive coalition, not a narrow ideological cult like the GOP is becoming (despite the illusion of inclusiveness it cultivates at its national conventions). But winning a majority will always require a serious effort to compete everywhere, and a determination to command the high, center ground of American politics.

More Dust From the Ground Game

It's not as precise as the Sunday NYT piece, but there's another straw in the wind suggesting that this may be a high turnout election where Democrats are doing a better job at the "ground game" of signing up new voters and getting them to the polls. Check out this AP story that reports big increases in new voter registrations, and seems to suggest it's happening most in pro-Democratic areas. Examples of both include a 65% increase (through mid-September) in new registrations in Miami-Dade County, Florida, as compared with 2000, and a 150% increase in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Ohio. The official Bush campaign spin on this phenomenon, interestingly enough, confirms my theory that the only places offering Republicans a ripe GOTV harvest are fast-growing exurbs. "It's the high-growth areas, the suburban and exurban areas in those battleground states... there are opportunities there because there are so many new residents to register," sez BC04's Scott Stanzel. Yeah, but (1) the states with big and fast-growing exurbs have other pro-Democratic trends underway that are equally important, and (2) they just aren't a factor in much of the midwest. The Bushies better have a pretty good lead down the stretch if they want to win.

September 27, 2004

Blogger Envy

There were not one, but two, major newspaper takes on political blogs yesterday. One graced the cover of The New York Times magazine. The other was on the op-ed pages of the LA Times. The first was by a journalist who suspects many bloggers would like to graduate to more traditional outlets for political commentary. The second was by a former blogger who fears the same thing. Both pieces take very seriously the belief of many bloggers that they represent something truly revolutionary in political discourse, and even in politics itself. And both pieces suggest that celebrity, commercial success, and mainstream respectablility may be producing a Thermidor in that revolution wherein its leaders are being coopted by the hated establishment. The Times' Matthew Klam focuses on three bloggers who have already crossed the line into celebrity: TalkingPointsMemo's Josh Marshall, Wonkette's Anna Marie Cox, and DailyKos' Markos (Kos) Molitsas, and suggests all three are at a crossroads where they must choose between street cred and fame and fortune. But I think he confuses his story by conflating two very different rationales for political blogs. Some bloggers want to do political journalism. Some view their role as movement-building and agitprop. While Marshall is quite partisan (who isn't this year?), he's still basically a journalist. And his segment of the blogosphere was made possible by the conjunction of a market failure in traditional political journalism with the emergence of a new technology that provided a way around that market failure. It's no secret that political print journalism has been a steadily declining segment of a steadily declining industry for decades now. Radically reduced readership; competition from electronic media; ownership conglomeration; cost-driven downsizing; the collapse of commercially viable niche markets; rampant editorial cronyism: all these factors have dried up opportunities for would-be political journalists, while ossifying the profession into a self-referential universe of carreerist status and specialization, much like academia. Josh Marshall had the choice of spending two decades struggling through old-boy networks and ownership crises to land an insecure perch in a paper or magazine, or taking advantage of a new technology to practice political journalism right now. And that's what he does: chasing down stories, digging beneath the surface, sticking to them when other reporters lose interest. He may feel that he's contributing to a political movement, but he's still a journalist, and there's nothing dishonorable about that. The fact that he's figured out a way to support himself without sucking up to editors or attending Washington cocktail parties is an example of successful entrepreneurship, not betrayal of some blogospheric ethic. Ms. Cox is another example of journalistic enterprise, but of a very different sort. Unlike print poltitical journalism, electronic political commentary has been expanding in recent years, but only by embracing the entertainment paradigm of television and radio media generally. Like thousands of other, less successful, bloggers, Wonkette probably watched 1,000 hours of scandal-dishers and partisan "pundits" trading insults, and thought, Hell, I can do that. Klam's discovery that she's now ready to graduate to television or even movies is hardly shocking. Like Marshall, she's already doing political journalism--but it's a kind of journalism that commands little respect and adds even less to the common weal. To put it another way, Marshall's type of journalism carries a moral hazard of celebrity; Wonkette's is basically about celebrity. Kos, of course, is a blogger who's more into movement-building and agitprop than journalism. His temptation is not to go onto the masthead of The Nation; it's to gain real influence over real-life political institutions. Klam's most interesting Kos anecdote involves a near-physical altercation between the fiery blogger and the executive director of the DCCC, involving the latter's allocation of campaign dollars in House elections. If Kos were inclined to think this way, he might say his and similar blogs address a market failure in the political world itself, where the inbred clan of Democratic fundraisers and political consultants are more concerned with protecting their turf than winning elections. To sum it all up, Josh Marshall and Kos are blogging with a purpose, and thus their efforts can and will be judged in terms of their success in meeting their purposes. And that seems to be the main complaint of retiring blogger Billman in the LA Times. For him, blogging is essentially about itself: a revolutionary culture of dissent, of "speaking truth to power," that "made blogging such a potent alternative to the corporate-owned media." By this measurement, actually gaining influence and power is ipso facto a betrayal of the blogosphere. I guess you know where I come down on this. Blogging is a means, not an end. It's open to everybody, whether or not you pass the test of subversiveness some would impose. Nobody's forced to read anybody's blog, and it's not like there are limited options. And if bloggers put their work to good purpose, then good for them.

September 26, 2004

Three Votes and a Cloud of Dust

Throughout this election cycle, spinmeisters from both parties have regularly boasted "their team" was going to have a big advantage in the "ground game" of turning out voters on Election Day (or even before that, in the case of absentee ballot voters). For the most part, media types have blandly reported both sides' claims, creating the impression that Democratic and Republican GOTV efforts would cancel each other out. Finally, somebody went out and checked. On the front page of the Sunday NYT, Ford Fessenden reports on a Times study of registration numbers in the two most crucial battleground states, Ohio and Florida. And it confirms two things I've felt strongly about, but had little more than anecdotal evidence to support: (1) this is going to be a high-turnout election (which in itself is helpful to Democrats), and (2) Democrats are way, way ahead in the ground game. I won't go through the numbers; you should read the whole story yourself. But they are overwhelming in Ohio. In Florida, the Democratic advantage is equally striking, but the actual number of new voters being registered is much lower, for a very obvious reason: stormy weather. And that, too, is a special problem for the GOP, since Republican-leaning areas of the state have been hardest-hit. It's kinda hard to run phone banks or send emails (much less run television ads) in places with no electricity or phone service. Parts of the Florida panhandle will be literally dark for weeks, even if the horrific wave of hurricanes finally ends. The same problems, of course, make accurate polling difficult, so we should all take any Florida polls with a large shaker of salt over the next couple of weeks. Even the Times report slips over the line from empirical data to partisan mythology in citing Republican ground-game success in 2002 as an indication that the GOP may do better than the Ohio and Florida registration figures suggest. As always, the example used is Georgia, where Ralph Reed got a chance to test-drive the GOP's state-of-the-art "72 Hours of Hell" (or whatever it's called) GOTV effort, producing upset wins in Senate and gubernatorial races. I know a little bit about Georgia, and it's clear to me that the 2002 Republican GOTV effort in that state is not generally replicable in battleground states across the country. What happened in Georgia is that the massive growth of Atlanta's exurban communities gave Republicans something they've rarely had in the past and still don't have in most parts of the country: heavy geographical concentrations of conservative voters where a big uptick on total turnout guarantees a large partisan harvest, just like the minority neighborhoods that have long given Democrats a better reason to invest in GOTV. Georgia Republicans figured that out, flooded the exurbs with every dollar and every knock-and-drag technique imaginable, and won. Republicans may be able to use the same techniques to boost their turnout in states like Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Florida, though there are pro-Democratic demographic trends in all four states that may be equally or even more significant. But states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin, simply don't have the kind of massive exurban growth that makes Republican GOTV investments pay off so handsomely. And even in states like Minnesota that do have rapid exurban growth, it's worth noting that non-sunbelt exurbs are not as culturally conservative, or as overwhelmingly Republican, as those in the South and parts of the West. I think it's increasingly clear that if Kerry (and other Democrats in battleground states) are two or three points behind on November 1, they might still win. Getting to the point where the "ground game" can be decisive, however, means succeeding in the "air war" of convincing persuadable voters to smile upon the donkey.

September 24, 2004

Don't Go There

The GOP strategy for responding to John Kerry's sharp and forceful critique of administration policy in Iraq is pretty clear by now: (1) it's another Kerry flip-flop; he's now decided to condemn the train of events that inevitably flowed from his vote for a use-of-force resolution back in 2002; and (2) Kerry has now joined the anti-war forces that opposed any action against Saddam Hussein, and cannot be trusted to use military force in future threats to our security. In other words, their argument is that John Kerry has morphed into Howard Dean, if not Michael Moore. This argument is hardly surprising, given BC04's determination to wrap Iraq into the war on terror, and everything that's happened in Iraq into the response to 9/11. It's a simple and seductive pitch, given all the confusing events of the last three years: you're either with Bush in resolutely using force against all these crazy Arabs, or you're not. Unfortunately, this dynamic creates a strong temptation for anti-war Democrats to help make that very case. The best example is today's column by NYT's Maureen Dowd, who complains that Kerry's still talking about how Bush dealt with Saddam, instead of simply condemning the very idea of the war. "When Mr. Kerry says it was the way the president went about challenging Saddam that was wrong, rather than the fact that he challenged Saddam, he's sidestepping the central moral issue.... It wasn't the way W. did it. It was what he did. " In effect, speaking for those Democrats who were "right from the beginning" on Iraq, Dowd's demanding that Kerry bend the knee and explicitly say: "I was wrong. You were right." Most anti-war Democrats aren't, so far as I can tell, following Dowd's lead, though some probably hope Kerry will explicitly concede their case. If so, they would be well advised to keep that thought to themselves, for four very good reasons: (1) A retroactive debate on the use-of-force resolution is inevitably an exercise in extremely hypothetical speculation. Kerry's said throughout the campaign he would have done everything differently with respect to Iraq. And that's undoubtedly true. But there's no way to know what, exactly, an administration less blinded by ideology, less arrogant in its ignorance, less hostile to traditional alliances and international institutions, and less hell-bent on war might have ultimately done about Saddam. Perhaps a Kerry (or Gore) administration would have found a way to rally the U.N. into a determination to enforce its own long series of resolutions demanding Iraqi compliance with the conditions imposed on it after the Gulf War, and convinced Saddam Hussein to abandon his insane effort to avoid verification of his non-existent WMD program. Perhaps a different president would have ultimately used force, but with far more international support and less "collateral damage" in Iraq, and across the Muslim world. We don't, and can't know. That's why we don't, and can't know whether there was any viable option to the authoriztion of force in 2002. (2) The case against Bush's Iraq policies in no way depends on accepting the premise that the whole idea of confronting Saddam was a mistake. There are plenty of Democrats, independents, and even Republicans who supported the decision to confront and attack Saddam who think the administration's policies since then are a rolling ball of madness. Nothing in Michael Moore's multimedia assault on Bush's Iraq policies can compare in vivid argument and righteous indignation with the latest editorial of the strongly pro-war New Republic. Lord knows the DLC has heaped abuse on Bush for the same reasons. And the recent statements by Republican senators--all of them strong supporters of the decision to topple Saddam--about the fantasy land of administration claims of steady progress on Iraq are the most compelling arguments of all. Must all of these Bush critics--including Kerry's running mate, his top foreign policy advisors, the embattled Senate Democratic leader, and most Democratic candidates in competitive races all over the country--be forced to say there were actually no circumstances in which the use of force against Saddam might be justified? The question answers itself. (3) The public consistently rejects an all-or-nothing choice about Iraq. As documented in another lucid post by John Belisarius on Ruy Teixeira's Donkey Rising blog, a consistent majority of Americans support the decision to invade Iraq as "the right decision," and also deplore the results as "a mistake." Sounds like the high ground is one that deplores the mistaken results, while at least being open to the belief that the decision to invade was if not "right," then defensible. (4) Democrats simply don't get cut much slack on national security. As Al From often says, the question voters have about Republican candidates is: "Do they have the compassion to care?" The question voters have about Democratic candidates is: "Do they have the toughness to govern?" After 9/11, the second question is crucial. There is absolutely nothing about John Kerry's biography, record, or agenda that suggests he's not tough enough to govern, or tough enough to defend his country, though the GOP has tried mightily to distort his biography, record and agenda to suggest otherwise. The one thing that would clinch the argument for BC04 is pressure from Democrats to undermine Kerry's repeated pledge that he will never hesitate to use military force to defend his country and its interests. So: anti-war Democrats would be wise to let Kerry be Kerry, and not demand that he become somebody else. Democrats can and will disagree about who was right and who was wrong in the use-of-force resolution two years ago. But they agree about where we are now, where Bush's policies have taken us, and where each candidate is likely to go in the next four years. They should stay focused on the here and now, and softly chant to themselves, don't go there, when the incumbent tries to return the debate to decisions made before his incompetent stewardship of both Iraq and the war on terror became obvious.

September 23, 2004

Ends and Means, Part II

What a buzzkill for the House GOP. Just when they were getting ready to pop the balloons and cut the cake in celebration of the ten-year anniversary of the Contract With America, word came in that a Texas Grand Jury had indicted three of Tom DeLay's closest political associates for a variety of campaign law violations. I don't have any specific dirt on The Hammer, but the indictments strike pretty close to DeLay's big homestate project back in 2002: getting enough Republicans elected to the Texas legislature to give the GOP control, thus paving the way for the Great Texas Power Grab of 2003. In case you missed it, that was the DeLay-driven re-redistricting of Texas Congressional seats aimed at ginning up as many as six new Republican House members in 2004. It took a lot of cash, a lot of long-distance phone calls from Washington to Austin, a lot of scrambling around by Texas Rangers to track down Democratic legislators seeking to block the Grab by deyning a quorum. But by God, the Hammer got his new Congressional map. And it turns out some of his buddies may have gotten too zealous in shaking down Texas business people to put the plot into motion. Now, of course, DeLay and his House colleagues are denouncing the indictments as a Democratic conspiracy, even as they deny he had any idea what his friends were up to. I know it's hard to believe that a guy like DeLay is a detail hound or a control freak when it comes to achieving his most cherished political goals. I know he's never raised any suspicions that he expects business groups to join "our team" and pony up dough if they want to play ball. And clearly, the Texas investigation is a lot more blatantly trumped up and partisan than, say, a vast multi-year hunt, employing hundreds of federal agents and costing tens of millions in taxpayer dollars, to find something illegal about an old Arkansas land deal. But hypocrisy is not an indictable offense. If DeLay's really clean on this one, he should stick to that story and lay off the demonization of anybody who dares suggest he might have gone over the line. And Republicans should not be so hasty to accept that anyone who serves the holy cause of controlling Congress forever is by definition righteous, while his critics are by definition corrupt. In their recent tendency to confuse ends and means, today's Republicans call to mind a Georgia governor of my early youth in the Jim Crow south, Marvin Griffin, who invariably attacked anyone questioning his frequent ethical lapses as a secret agent of the NAACP. Charlie Pou, who was then political editor of the Atlanta Journal, referred to Griffin's argument as: "If you ain't for stealing, you ain't for segregation." Just goes to show that dubious means are most often found in the service of dubious ends.

Is It OK To Stop Panicking Yet?

The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Bush up 3 among RVs, up 4 among LVs, pretty much where they had the thing a month ago. A new Democracy Corps poll has the race tied. A new poll sponsored by The Economist has Kerry up 1. The latest poll from Investors' Business Daily and the Christian Science Monitor has Kerry up 1. A new batch of state polls from ARG has Kerry up in states with a majority of the electoral votes. I'm just wondering: is it okay to conclude that the race is pretty much even, which is where it's been on average most of this year, and where just about everybody figured it would wind up? Or do we have to wait for the next CNN/USAToday/Gallup poll to finally concur with everyone else? Look, I have plenty of respect for The Gallup Organization, but it's been showing Bush doing better than other polls for months, and its most recent polls have been extreme outliers in suggesting a huge Bush lead. The reason is very clear: Gallup is showing that Republicans will make up a larger percentage of the electorate than they have in any recent cycle. I don't buy it, and neither, apparently, does any other polling outfit.

September 22, 2004

Gender Bending

The "gender gap" is such an enduring factor in American politics that for a long time it became one of those things people don't even bother to think about. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus; Men care about money and guns; women care about health care and education; Republicans are the Daddy Party, Democrats are the Mommy Party, bark bark woof woof. That started to change after the 2002 elections, when analysts noted the gender gap had dramatically shrunk, with Democrats winning women by a slender 2 percent. Thence was born the legend of "security moms"--married women with kids whose voting priorities were profoundly altered by the trauma of 9/11. After the 9/11-haunted and security-saturated Republican National Convention gave George W. Bush a much-improved showing among women in several polls, "security moms" quickly pulled ahead of "NASCAR dads" in the Winston Cup standings for the dominant political cliche of the 2004 electoral cycle. The New York Times' Katharine Seelye summarized the current Democratic anxiety about "security moms," but may have missed a crucial distinction about the kinds of security issues that are driving these women back and forth between the candidates and the parties. The best analysis of what makes "security moms" tick remains Garance Franke-Ruta's April 2003 Washington Monthly essay, "Homeland Security Is For Girls." In a masterpiece of the-personal-is-the-political analysis, Franke-Ruta began by observing that the duct-tape shoppers that surrounded her in the crowded Home Depot checkout lines during the first big Code Orange terrorism scare were overwhelmingly women. She went on to suggest that protection of the home against potential terrorist attacks--homeland security in the literal sense--is not a distraction from the traditional priorities of women, but an extension of them at a time when when war has become a domestic issue. Franke-Ruta digressed a bit to take a few choice shots at the men who delegated Code Orange responsibilities to "the little woman at home," while staying glued to SportsCenter. But her analysis still makes intuitive sense, and also helps explain some of the high-stakes partisan maneuvering this year to frame this or that issue as part of or separate from the war begun on 9/11. Viewed from a gender perspective, the Kerry-Edwards "A Stronger America Begins At Home" slogan suggests that "security moms" don't really have to choose between health care, jobs and personal safety. The Bush-Cheney effort to re-brand the Iraq war as an integral part of the immediate response to 9/11, rather than as a "war of choice" aimed at deposing a tyrant, was clearly targeted to voters, and especially women, who otherwise might be nearly as alarmed at the vision of Americans dying in Iraq as the memory of Americans dying in New York or at the Pentagon. And Kerry's latest decision to focus on a critique of conditions in Iraq is arguably an effort to isolate "Bush's war" from the war on terrorism, and perhaps even label it as a contributor to the terrorist risk. My personal recommendation to Kerry's wizards is that there is a rich lode to mine in Bush's overall stewardship of national security, including the war on terror itself, and his incompetent management of the chaos in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, shredding the president's claim that we're safe and secure--not to mention prosperous and united--is his hands is the trump card, for "security moms," and for everyone else.

Split Decision

With growing signs that the presidential race is beginning to tighten up again, you can expect the punditocracy to get back into the ol' 2000 mindframe of looking at small factors in individual states that might be decisive in a nailbiter, instead of all the Big Trends that have dominated the news over the last few weeks. One of the more fascinating small factors is the ballot initiative in Colorado that would split the state's nine electoral votes proportionately according to the popular vote. On the assumption that Bush is likely to win Colorado (not an unreasonable assumption since Democrats have carried the state just once since 1964), the reaction to the initiative has generally broken down along party lines, with Republicans screeching against it as a nefarious plot to steal 4 EVs for Kerry. Indeed, CO Republican governor Bill Owens has been leading the charge against the initiative. But so far Colorado voters seem to be evaluating the initiative on its merits rather than its potential impact this year. A poll released today by the Pueblo Chieftain showed the initiative ahead among likely voters by a 51-31 margin. If that's the baseline, GOPers are going to have to decide exactly how much time and money they want to spend explaining and attacking an eminently reasonable-sounding initiative at a time when their presidential, Senate, and House candidates in the state are not exactly kicking ass. Their fallback position is a legal challenge to the initiative on grounds that it would "retroactively" apply to an election held the same day. But as we were all reminded in 2000, electoral votes are not actually cast until December. Stay tuned.

September 21, 2004

Grover the Top

Every time I think that conservative super-lobbyist and "starve the beast" theoretician Grover Norquist has finally reached the maximum feasible level of provocative craziness, he finds a way to ratchet his rhetoric up another notch. Last year's "bipartisanship is another name for date rape" quip was pretty far off the charts. But thanks to Daily Kos (who posted a translation of the piece), Grover's outdone himself again in an op-ed for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. Why is he upbeat about the political future of "our team" as against the hated Democratic opposition? Let him explain.

Each year, 2 million people who fought in the Second World War and lived through the Great Depression die. This generation has been an exeception in American history, because it has defended anti-American policies. They voted for the creation of the welfare state and obligatory military service. They are the base of the Democratic Party. And they are dying. And, at the same time, all the time more Americans have stocks. That makes them defend the interests of business, because it is their own interest. Because of that, it's impossible to bring to the fore policies of social hate, of class warfare.
Now it's no secret that Grover's one of those people who not only wants to win elections against Democrats, but would just as soon see us all dead. But it's uncharacteristic of him to rely on Demographic Destiny to kill off the Greatest Generation and destroy the Democratic Party base. I figure Grover wants to be the angry executioner, not just the cheerful pallbearer. It would all be pretty funny if it weren't for the fact that Norquist is a close friend of Karl Rove, an important ally of George W. Bush, the evil genius behind the K Street Strategy, and perhaps the biggest dog in the conservative activist kennel.

Two Plus Two Equals--Democrats!

With Capitol Hill so listless that staffers are sneaking out of Washington to work in campaigns "instead of miming the motions of work in a Congress that's on legislative autopilot," as Hans Nichols put it in The Hill newspaper today, Republican House Members are occupying themselves with an effort to supress or perhaps just pre-spin an impending CBO report showing more bad news on the budget if the president's policies are implemented. According to a Ben Pershing report in (subscription-only) Roll Call today, an aide to House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-IA) sent around a memo warning that the new report, which was requested by Committee Democrats, "will be immediately used solely for political purposes." But here's the interesting part of Mead's whine: "The majority or minority staff can easily calculate these deficit projections on their own using CBO's data provided to us. However, I suspect the reason CBO is being asked to do the math is to lend the all-important seal of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to their partisan calculations." Hmmmm. It's just a matter of doing the math, but doing the math means a "partisan calculation." I know Republicans tend to think that scientists are biased towards the views of godless liberals; that's why the Bush administration is stacking federal science panels with conservative ideologues. But now, it appears, they have to do something to deal with the Democratic conspiracy that suffuses mathematics as well. No wonder they don't care about fiscal arithmetic.

September 20, 2004

You Don't Have To Be Christian To Be a Deacon

In my post on Zell Miller's latest ukase against the Georgia Democrats he's abandoned, I failed to note that the zany senator referred to former president Jimmy Carter, former U.S. representative Ben Jones, and current state Democratic Party chairman Bobby Kahn as "a Board of Deacons for Democratic Disaster." Kahn informed me by email that "my rabbi has congratulated me on becoming a Deacon." Selah.

You Don't Have to be Jewish to Love Leon

If you've been reading The New Republic as long as I have, you're probably aware that the magazine has gone through a lot of changes in editorial and political direction over the last two decades. But one of the constants, since 1983, has been TNR's "back of the book"--its literary and cultural commentary, edited by Leon Wieseltier. Like many TNR regulars, I sometimes find Wieseltier's editorial decisions a bit esoteric. I'm frankly not interested in modern dance, sculpture, or the latest developments in the echo chambers of literary criticism or neo-Freudian psychology. But hey, you can't please or stimulate everybody. Leon's own writing is often difficult and occasionally too self-consciously ironic. But when he's on, he's on, and no one in the world of quasi-political analysis is his equal in exposing the moral hazards of political rhetoric. He provides another fine example in the current TNR, in a brief, elegant, and passionate essay about the settler-driven backlash on the Israeli Right against Ariel Sharon's effort to withdraw from Gaza. Here's a sample:

It is certainly the case that the right to Nablus and the right to Tel Aviv is the same right--a right, after all, pertains to the whole; but Palestinians have this right too, which is why partition of the land, territorial compromise, the widom of the founders of the Jewish state who prevailed over the ideological ancestors of the indignant irredentists of today, remains the only answer, because it signifies an agreement to suspend the rhetoric of rights, which is the rhetoric of war.

Wieseltier's detractors would undoubtedly observe that this is a very, very long sentence, which would take half a chalkboard to diagram. But it's worth unpacking, because it's packed with important and inter-related insights. And in the end, if you understand each phrase, you understand a lot more about the Zionist case for the recognition of a Palestinian State. And you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate that.

The Harrowing of Zell

Okay, I admit it: my inability to ignore Zell Miller's continual ravings is in part because of the bottomless opportunities he provides for catchy titles playing off the Zell/Hell pun. And I haven't even resorted to "Zell's Bells," "To Zell in a Handbasket," or even "Zell No, We Won't Go." Today's installment of "Come Zell or High Water" was provoked by another logic-defying Miller statement, this time in a open letter to "All Georgia Democratic Candidates" essentially urging them to follow his lead in abandoning the party to save the party. No kidding. The nut of Zell's argument is to analogize this election to that of 1972, when George McGovern was the presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter was Governor of Georgia, Sam Nunn was running for the Senate, and Miller himself was state party executive director. "We cautiously and carefully worked to avoid any connection between the far-left presidential candidate and our centrist state and local candidates." As a result, "Nunn received 54 percent and Georgia Democrats continued to dominate the state Legislature and local offices," and then four years later Carter was elected president. Gee, Senator, I was a Georgia Democrat who watched the 1972 election pretty closely, and I somehow missed that part where Jimmy Carter or Sam Nunn endorsed Nixon, praised all his domestic and international policies, went to the Republican convention and made a fist-shaking attack on the Democratic nominee, and then went barnstorming around the country with Tricky Dick. Georgia Democrats managed somehow to avoid supporting Nixon at all, even though a lot of them back then were George Wallace supporters who probably thought "centrist" was a synonym for "communist." Miller can't seem to get his mind around the reality that he is not a Democrat anymore in any meaningful sense of the term. He didn't just endorse Bush or smear Kerry; he's become one of the most reliable votes in the U.S. Senate for the Republican Party line. His very first step down this slippery slope was to cosponsor Bush's original tax cut proposal. In doing so, he deeply undercut the very "centrist and conservative" Democrats he claims to represent, who were either opposing the whole mess (like the DLC did) or trying to force Bush into a compromise that wouldn't break the bank and might give poor and middle-class folks a few scraps from the table. And now he's accusing Georgia Democrats of cowardice for failing to make total surrender to the opposition their highest principle. Before his New York tirade, part of Miller's rap was that he intended to help "rebuild" the Democratic Party after helping beat Kerry in November. That was a laugh. Now in his open letter he continues to say: "I still care deeply about the Georgia Democratic Party." The joke's over.

September 19, 2004

Is Coburn OK?

One of the most interesting Senate races this year is in OK, where New Dem Rep. Brad Carson is fighting to take away a Red State seat being vacated by Don Nickles. His Republican opponent, former U.S. Rep. Dr. Tom Coburn, makes Nickles look like Rudy Guiliani. Today's NYT profiles Coburn as a hero of the national Right. But the question is whether the Mad Doctor from Muscogee has managed to become too conservative for Oklahoma. As the Times notes, Coburn is renowned for taking unusually extreme positions on cultural issues, attacking the promotion of condom use to prevent AIDS as a pro-gay position; calling for capital punishment for abortion providers; and referring to his contest with the moderate-to-conservative Carson as a battle between "good and evil." But oddly enough, Coburn spends most of his time on the campaign trail blasting Congress for letting the federal budget deficit get out of control. Last time we checked, Republicans controlled Congress and the budget process. Coburn appears to be demanding cognitive dissonance from Bush voters in OK, who have repeatedly heard the president alternate between dismissals of budget deficits as irrelevant, and claims that everything's getting better. The last few polls have shown Carson pulling ahead of Coburn, who had a sizeable lead after his win in the GOP primary. If his history is any indicator, Coburn will respond by moving even farther to the Right. We'll soon see if the center can hold in Oklahoma.

Message Indiscipline on Iraq

Unless you did a lot of channel-surfing earlier today, you might have missed the overall story of four Republican Senators dissenting from the administration's happy-talk about how we are doing in Iraq. The New York Times summed it up:

Reflecting rising concerns, one senior Republican senator said today that the United States was in "deep trouble" in Iraq, another denounced administration "incompetence" in Iraqi reconstruction, while two others said that unless American-led forces quickly retake several areas from insurgents, credible elections cannot be held in January.

The senators' comments, made on televised political programs, underscored mounting worries even within President Bush's party about the murderous attacks of recent weeks, and about the coalition's failure to bring some Iraqi cities under control.

The comments of Senators Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina came as the interim Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, was telling a television interviewer that "we are winning" the fight against what he said were increasingly desperate insurgents.

You can certainly forgive Allawi for spinning the situation as positively as he possibly can, but Americans have the right, and the responsibility, to make an independent assessment of conditions on the ground. And it looks increasingly like the Bush administration is not going to be able to distract attention from those conditions between now and November 2.

September 17, 2004

Ends and Means

My post earlier today about Mitch McConnell and Rick Santorum, and the cash nexus that seems to link conservative ideology to partisan Republican power, probably requires an additonal comment. When you look at guys like DeLay and Santorum, the charitable interpretation of their behavior is that they sincerely believe American politics is a battle between good and evil, civilization and barbarism, the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death, or the "real America" and the not-so American America, to cite several Manichean formulations common in conservative circles. That leads them to believe they are morally compelled to fight for partisan political power, and then to descend further down that slippery slope to the belief that practices clearly unethical in daily life are actually ethical in this titantic struggle. This is standard "ends justifies the means" reasoning, as any student of history can tell you. But history also shows that in the van of every movement of political, religious, or cultural extremism, there are those who invert the equation, using the righteous ends to pursue the morally bankrupt means. The examples are far too numerous to list, but they range from the Spanish Catholics who used the Inquisition to dispossess their business rivals on trumped-up heresy charges to the English Protestants who exploited the Reformation's horror of Masses for the Dead to seize monastic lands; from the U.S. carpetbaggers who joined the fight against the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan to obtain military backing for their own political and economic avarice, to the kleptocrats who used the communist ideology of equality to build a new privileged class of party bureaucrats throughout the Soviet Bloc. It goes on and on. No, I'm not comparing Tom DeLay or Rick Santorum to any of these great villains of the past, and I'm fully aware that there are plenty of people in the Democratic Party who would behave the same way if given the opportunity. But the salient point is that any effort to make the "ends justify the means" tends to devolve into the means as an end in themselves, over and over again, thoughout human history. Principled conservatives need to ask themselves if their movement is currently endangered by this moral hazard, and police their ranks accordingly. A good start would be to stop applauding, and begin questioning, those political leaders most eager to justify the lowest tactics by the highest ideals.

W. Stands for "Weak"

Ever wonder why the president's steely-eyed determination to pre-emptively attack challenges to America doesn't extend to non-defense issues? Looks like Tony Blair has wondered that too, as reflected in a very clever speech on global climate change that uses the same calculus of risk applied to the decision to invade Iraq. He doesn't mention Bush by name, but makes a pretty good indirect case that W. is a weasely, flip-flopping defeatist who's made the U.S. the France of environmental policy. Today's New Dem Daily connects the dots and draws the obvious conclusions.


Most pundits have given the GOP high marks for the "moderate makeover" (less charitable souls might call it a "con job") it accomplished on the first couple of days of its convention in New York, featuring speeches by John McCain, Rudy Guiliani and Arnold Schwarzeneggar, three people who disagree with 80% of the conservative orthodoxy that governs today's Republicans. The underlying reality of today's GOP is better illustrated by a (subscription only) Roll Call article on Wednesday about the early handicapping of the contest to succeed Bill Frist as Republican Senate Leader when he retires in 2006. The two front-runners are Mitch McConnell of KY, and Rick Santorum of PA, both of whom, as Roll Call says, "represent the conservative wing of the party." That's the understatement of the year. But ideology aside, what really distinguishes these two solons is their dedication to the idea that money is the root of all good in politics. McConnell for many years has been the Darth Vader of campaign finance reform in the Senate, repeatedly claiming, without a hint of irony, that the problem with money in politics is that there ain't enough of it. (I guess there is a rough logic to the idea that if, as the Supreme Court has ruled, Money Equals Speech, then Money Talks, and what's wrong with a little more debate?). Nationally, Santorum is best known as the hammerhead shark of Social Conservatism, ever ready to demonize those who defend the constitutional right to choose, and those who oppose a constitutional right to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But in Washington, Santorum is better known as the Chief Enforcer of the sinister K Street Strategy. That's the GOP's remarkably heavy-handed campaign to force Washington lobbying firms and trade associations to (a) tilt all campaign contributions to the GOP, and (b) hire only Republicans on their staffs, or lose all access to the drafting and crafting of legislation important to their industries. It's the crassest pay-for-play gambit on Capitol Hill since the Gilded Age, but it's given Santorum folk-hero status on the Right as Tom DeLay's true peer in partisan and ideological thuggery. Of course, Democrats could well take back control of the Senate this year (when McConnell's up for re-election) and in 2006 (when Santorum's up), which would seriously mess up the GOP effort to shake down K Street and consolidate its power over the federal government it claims to despise. Santorum has an especially tricky task ahead, since he has to go back to Pennsylvania and perform his own "moderate makeover" if he is to get himself into a position to cash in on the services he's performed for the hard-core Right. Ah, those flip-flopping Republicans! Fuzzy and moderate before close general elections, and then something entirely different when the cameras go off.

September 15, 2004

Barry's Back Yet Again

If you, dear reader, are a resident of the Washington, DC, metro area, you probably don't need me to get a fix on the news that former mayor Marion Barry has made yet another comeback by winning a seat on the DC Council. But for those of you who live elsewhere, and may have thought Barry's show, and its various reruns, were canceled long ago, here's an explanation: 1) Barry's Ward: Barry won a surprisingly decisive, better-than-two-to-one victory over Ward 8 Council incumbent Sandy Allen, once his protege. But Ward 8, in southeast Washington, has long been Barry Country, and it probably will be as long as he lives. It's the poorest part of the District, the most heavily African-American part of the District, and the Ward that has probably benefitted least from the economic development and real estate boom that has accompanied Anthony Williams' tenure as mayor. 2) Class Warfare: The Ward 8 backlash against the DC status quo was echoed in Ward 7, also in southeast Washington, where another Council incumbent, Kevin Chavous, was soundly beaten. And because these were the only two Wards with competitive Council races, turnout patterns also doomed at-large Council incumbent Harold Brazil, another pro-Williams candidate. The basic argument of the challengers was that Williams and his allies have promoted downtown development at the expense of poorer neighborhoods, and more generally, that the large-scale gentrification of the city has done little for po' folks other than raise their rents. This, of course, is a common political conflict in reviving urban cores all across the country, but it's especially tense in DC, which has the largest income stratification of any major city. 3) The Demise of Chocolate City: There is also, of course, a racial element to the economic politics of DC. The white percentage of the District population has been steadily rising in recent years, partly the result of gentrification, and partly because of a major exodus of black middle-class families, mostly into the Maryland suburbs east of the city. A majority of the DC Council members are now white (all the losing incumbents and winning challengers in yesterday's primary were African-Americans). One of the most enduring myths of DC folklore, going back for decades, has been "The Plan"--the idea, often alluded to publicly by Barry, that shadowy White Power Structure types were maneuvering to restore white leadership of DC government. Some local activists aren't bashful at all about claiming that Anthony Williams' tenure as mayor is the penultimate step towards fulfillment of The Plan. 4) What's Next: The most immediate impact of yesterday's DC primary could be, oddly enough, on baseball. Williams' plan for public financing of a District stadium to lure relocation of the Montreal Expos--reportedly the strongest option available to major league baseball--was supported by all the losing incumbents, and opposed by all the winning challengers. Williams may still have the votes for his plan, but the bigger problem is that baseball is getting ensnared in the broader economic and racial politics of the District. In the longer run, there's now lots of speculation that Barry will inevitably challenge Williams in 2006, assuming he stays healthy enough and avoids the "personal problems" that have plagued his career, most notably the smoking-crack-with-a-hooker incident that sent him to the hoosegow for a while. But don't bet on the Final Barry Comeback. For all the economic and racial conflicts mentioned earlier, the single largest beef of low-to-middle-income Washingtonians of all races remains poor public services, and especially poor public schools (it's noteworthy that losing incumbent Chavous was the long-time chairman of the Council education committee) . Williams, who's managed to clean the Augean Stables of several DC government departments in the past, appears vastly more willing and able to do something about public services than any of his critics, especially Barry. After all, Williams tried to wrest control of DC schools from the perpetually feckless elected school board, only to be rebuffed by the Council. And while Barry is best known nationally for his "personal problems," his enduring political legacy is the proposition that municipal government should function primarily as a jobs program, not as a provider of public services.

September 14, 2004

A Light in the Fog

Confused about all the polling data out there? Hey, who isn't? Fortuntately, Ruy Teixeira has posted a handy-dandy guide to the methodological issues that separate the sheep from the goats in all the recent polls, and his conclusions suggest a much, much closer presidential race than many of the headlines we've all been reading.

Stopping the Big One

During Dick Cheney's convention speech in New York, the one line that sorta surprised me was the veep's acknowledgement that terrorists getting access to nuclear weapons is "the ultimate threat we face today." There's no question that's right, but nuclear non-proliferation has not exactly been a high priority for the administration, and moreover, Cheney's admission seemed to undercut the general convention theme that George W. Bush has terrorists so frightened that it doesn't much matter what they want to do or what weapons they have. The American Prospect web page has posted a very useful Matt Yglesias piece reviewing the ragged and incompetent Bush-Cheney record on loose nukes, and the administration's bogus claims to have made progress on this front. Matt doesn't go into the Democratic candidate's record on the subject, but this is one national security issue where it's impossible to deny that Kerry has been strong, consistent and far-sighted. It's also a subject he's addressed in extraordinary detail on the campaign trail. It would be helpful--not just to Kerry, but to public understanding of the war on terrorism--if it comes up early and often in the debates. It would be fun to watch Bush defend a whole series of flip-flops on the issue his running mate calls "the ultimate threat we face today."

I've Got It! We'll Lie!

After reading some of the Bush-Cheney campaign's coordinated attacks on the Kerry health plan this morning, I was reminded of a galvanizing moment many years ago when I worked for a state agency that handed out grants according to a complex mathematical formula. Word had come down that Higher Authorities would appreciate a thumb on the scale for a particular community, and we spent many hours pouring over charts in an effort to lawfully harmonize the grant procedures with the desired outcome. Late that night, one of my colleagues suddenly had a conceptual breakthrough, and shouted: "I've got it! We'll lie!" Fortunately, she was joking, but BC04's conceptual breakthrough about how to cast Kerry's proposals in the worst possible light is no joking matter at all. Systematic dishonesty is the key to the much-admired simplicity and message discipline of the incumbent's campaign. Read all about it in today's New Dem Daily.

September 13, 2004

"Fight the War, Or Bring the Troops Home"

Time columnist Joe Klein has a simple suggestion for what John Kerry ought to be saying about Iraq: blast Bush for fighting an incompetent, no-win war, and challenge him to get serious about ending the Sunni insurgency or admit the whole thing's been a failure. Klein even scripts a debate line for JK: "Fight the war, Mr. President, or bring the troops home." Though Klein framed this advice as a retroactive critique of what Kerry's actually been saying on Iraq, TNR's Noam Scheiber endorses the approach as an avenue the candidate can still pursue. And I would add to his comments that it's (a) consistent with Kerry's sharp critique of administration war leadership in Afghanistan, past and present, and (b) consistent both with Kerry's earlier proposal for a larger troop deployment in Iraq, and his more recent argument that we need an end-game for the Iraq engagement. Sure, the Bushies would call it a "flip-flop," but they're going to do that with anything Kerry says on any subject. I'm sure the CW will be that Kerry dare not try to out-tough Bush on Iraq for fear that it will "de-energize" all those anti-war Deaniacs he's counting on in November. But as I recall, the Good Doctor himself often said that stabilizing post-war Iraq was a mission in which the United States could not afford to fail.

Election Day Has Already Started

Today's New York Times has a useful front-page piece on early voting and the uses and abuses thereof. But it's written from a strange goo-goo perspective that emphasizes the potential for voter fraud inherent in unsupervised absentee balloting rather than the much bigger story that early voting is slowly changing the very definition of "election day." The piece also doesn't hint at the partisan implications of loose absentee balloting laws. I can think of at least one state where Democrats won big in the 1990s by investing heavily in absentee ballot distribution, and another where Republicans did so. But by now, it's pretty safe to say that both parties understand the laws and are exploiting them to the fullest extent. Early-voter targeting, like traditional election-day GOTV, focuses on heavily partisan segments of the electorate, so it's unlikely that the overall dynamics of the race will have much impact on who "wins" or "loses" in this shadowy competition. But conversely, early-voter targeting could greatly affect the outcome in a very close race.

How To Deal With a Smear

I highly recommend guest blogger John Belisarius' analysis in Donkey Rising of the public opinion evidence about the Swift Boat Veterans' smear and the lessons learned for the future. It should give pause to all those "eye-for-an-eye" Democrats who believe high-pitch shrieking is the only proper response to negative attacks on a candidate.

Telling It Like It Ain't

Every now and then, even the most inveterate political junkie just has to take a break, and that's what I did this weekend. Instead of obsessively surfing the internet to make sure I didn't miss a single assessment of the Mood of Ohio. I spent Saturday in a redneck bar watching college football. And the only partisan conflict I encountered was a brief but tense discussion with a bartender who threatened to switch all nine televisions to a NASCAR race (thank God I wasn't trying to watch a French soccer game). Properly refreshed, I returned to Washington this morning and made the mistake of reading the Wall Street Journal, which featured an op-ed by Zell Miller. It was like an electric cattle-prod plunged into my morning bathwater. The guy gets more unbelievable every day. He delivers the most over-the-top convention speech in decades, for the opposition party. He becomes the Maximum Hero of the Republican Right. He's spent the last week strutting around the country with George W. Bush. Yet he now feels compelled to publish a whiny, defensive op-ed in America's most renowned right-wing editorial page complaining about "my critics in the national media" and responding to their criticims of his smear-job on John Kerry's national security record. I can't link to this screed because I won't pay WSJ for access to their online edition, and neither will you. But suffice it to say that Miller does as much violence to the Laws of Logic as he does to John Kerry's record. Citing his "critics'" accurate observance that Dick Cheney opposed many of the same weapons systems that Miller scored Kerry for opposing (or more accurately, for scaling back), he claims Kerry opposed them "at the height of the Cold War" while Cheney "waited until after we won the Cold War." Wrong-o, Zell. Read that oppo research memo more carefully. They opposed them at exactly the same time, in 1990 and 1991 (there's one other Kerry vote to scale back certain types of weapons in 1995, but if I'm not mistaken, the Cold War was over then, too). Moreover, Miller's argument in New York was that Kerry was trying to zap the very weapons systems that proved useful in Iraq. So who cares whether Cheney tried to scrap them before or after the collapse of the Soviet Union? But Miller's most egregious rebuttal is this one:

My critics love to point out that I had nice things to say about John Kerry when I introduced him to a Georgia Democratic dinner in 2001. That's true and I meant it. But again, timing is everything. I made that introduction in March 2001--six months before terrorists attacked this country on Sept. 11. As I have said time and time again, 9/11 changed everything.

If that's the case, then what's the relevance of John Kerry's votes on weapons systems in the early to mid-90s? Has Miller cited a single example of any weapons system votes by Kerry after 9/11, which "changed everything"? There are three or four other howlers in Zell's brief op-ed, but you get the idea. The WSJ entitled the piece "Telling It Like It Is." A better title would have been "The Man Who Can't Smear Straight."

September 10, 2004

About Ralph

As we all navigate through the fog of the polls that are rolling in almost hourly this week, one factor in the presidential race is especially confusing: what about Nader? Will he pick off anti-Bush votes in battleground states and throw the election to the incumbent? Will his support melt away in a close, high-stakes contest? What if anything can Kerry and his allies do to minimize his vote? The threshold question here is how many Americans will have a chance to waste a vote on the wiggy former Green. And the answer is very unclear at present. According to a very comprehensive AP story published today, Nader's currently on the ballot in eight of the 18 battleground states (AR, IA, ME, MI, NV, WA, WV, and CO), and is likely to get certified in three others (MN, NH, and WI). He's definitely off the ballot in MO, and probably won't make the grade in OR and PA. The situation in AZ, FL, OH--all states where Nader's ballot status is in legal limbo--is hard to assess, and LA is just now looking at the petitions. There's rich irony in all the kvetching we've heard from Ralph about the flotillas of lawyers Democrats have unleashed on his ballot petitions and on the dubious credentials of the Reform Party (last seen as Pat Buchanan's vehicle) that is sponsoring him in several states. After all, Nader is a lifelong ally of the Maximum Litigation wing of the trial bar; if given the option, he'd probably prefer to make his case against the Corporate Conspiracy To Sell Out America via a vast class-action suit than by running for president. And it's hard to symphathize with his apparent belief that he's a national icon with the inherent right to hop from party to party like a political cowbird, gaining ballot access on the prior efforts of others. So Democrats have every right within the law to challenge Nader's ballot access. And I can't see how even Ralph can complain about the very public efforts of former supporters like Michael Moore, Jim Hightower, and half the editorial board of The Nation to deride his candidacy. But Democrats should not get hysterical about Nader's 2-4% standing in national polls. Even in 2000, when the dishonest "compassionate conservative" candidacy of George W. Bush and the eccentric "I'm not Clinton" candidacy of Al Gore convinced millions of voters that the stakes in the election were low, Nader's support dropped 50% between the pre-election polls and the actual results. Sure, Nader's Florida vote exceeded that of Bush's dubious margin in the state, but so too did the vote of the Trotskyist and Natural Law candidates. In a tie election, everything matters, and all the dirty tricks and screwups in Florida election procedures undoubtedly had a greater impact than Ralph. In the end, Democrats should recognize that there is an irreducible minimum of roughly one percent of American voters who, basically, are crazy people. They've always been there, and God bless 'em, they always will be there. They have every right to their opinions. Some of them will vote for overtly crazy-people candidates, and some will vote for Ralph, who's staked out a position near the gates of delirium. Some won't vote at all, and nobody knows what they'll do if they show up at the polls and don't see a valid crazy-people option. The Kerry campaign should obviously make every effort to convince voters that this is a high-stakes election with stark differences between the two candidates, in which every vote counts in the actual, two-party choice. But beyond that, Democrats should leave the fringe votes that Nader and others may receive in the hands of the Lord, or whatever other voices fringe voters happen to hear.

September 9, 2004

The Man Can't Play Baseball

One way of looking at the dynamics of the presidential race is this: Will BC04 succeed in making the election about the incumbent's character? Or will KE04 succeed in making the election about the incumbent's record? The character/competence choice is hardly a new development in presidential politics, but I certainly can't remember an election where an incumbent struggled so hard to avoid any discussion of the actual impact of his actual policies on the actual condition of the country. For that reason, it's pretty important that the challenger continue to draw attention to Bush's actual performance in office. On the issue of the relative importance of character and competence--not in politics, but in George W. Bush's real lifelong passion, baseball--the best lines I've ever read were written back in 1983 by the Kansas Sage Bill James. In a tirade aimed at then-Detroit manager Sparky Anderson for his frequent praise of Tiger first baseman Enos Cabell as a "we ballplayer" whose character justified his position in the lineup, James said:

I mean, I would never say that it was not important to have a team with a good attitude, but Christ, Sparky, there are millions of people in this country who have good attitudes, but there are only about 200 who can play a major-league brand of baseball, so which are you going to take? Sparky is so focused on all that attitude stuff that he looks at an Enos Cabell and he doesn't even see that the man can't play baseball. This "we" ballplayer, Sparky, can't play first, can't play third, can't hit, can't run and can't throw. So who cares what his attitude is?

No, I am not endorsing Bill James' views about Sparky Anderson or Enos Cabell, but the underlying point is not only accurate, but is applicable to government as well as baseball: performance matters. If we are going to choose a president strictly in terms of admiring someone who is resolute, self-confident in his judgments, and ill-disposed to pay attention to contrary developments or the opinions of others, then there are probably millions of Americans who match or exceed George W. Bush in possessing these qualities. Hell, I know ten or twenty people like that. But I don't think they're qualified to serve as President of the United States. You can certainly argue that the president has some character flaws with serious implications for the country, but in the end, the most compelling critique of the incumbent comes down to his performance in office. And if that record of performance is terrible, then: The man can't play baseball. So who cares what his attitude is?

Waffle House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The president doesn't just flip-flop on issues other than tax cuts; sometimes he waffles and plays possum. Remember campaign finance reform, the prescription drug benefit, the highway bill, and for all while, even the gay marriage amendment? These were all issues where Bush tried to have it both ways. Well, there's another great example today, where supporters of an extension of the assault weapons ban on Capitol Hill officially threw in the towel, while the White House pretended there was just nothing poor George W. Bush could do about those mean Republicans in Congress. Check out the story in today's New Dem Daily.

Another Bush Flip-Flop

Having opposed a 9/11 commission, and then accepted it; opposed cooperation with the commission and then agreed to it; opposed a National Director of Intelligence, and then pretended to propose it; and then opposed giving that director real power over intelligence agencies: the president has now suddenly flip-flopped on this last issue as well. Republicans like to say you always know where George Bush stands. But on just about everything other than tax cuts, he rarely stands in the same place for very long if it's not to his political advantage.

September 8, 2004

The $4.4 Trillion Hole in the Bucket

Yesterday's CBO update on the federal budget--which projected $4.4 trillion in deficits over the next ten years, if Bush's own proposals are implemented--is being spun by BC04 as just wonderful, wonderful news. These guys really are shameless. Today's New Dem Daily looks at the facts and the spin, and says everything worth saying on the subject, so I won't comment here.

Gaze In Awe

You might think that having savaged John Kerry for four days on national television, the Bush-Cheney campaign would give it a rest for a week or so. But no. Dick Cheney's remarks yesterday in Iowa said it all about the tone we can expect from BC04 in the runup to Election Day: "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again--that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mindset, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts and that we are not really at war." In response to these pithy remarks, John Edwards accused Cheney of trying to "scare voters," which Cheney's flack called an "overreaction." "Whoever is elected in November faces the prospect of another terrorist attack," said Anne Womack. "The question is whether or not the right policies are in place to best protect the country. That's what the vice president is saying." Nice try, Anne, but that's not what the vice president is saying. Look at the words. He's directly saying that John Kerry doesn't believe we're fighting a war with terrorists, and that terrorists will immediately take advantage of that and hit America again. It would be nice if the news media would follow up by asking Cheney exactly how Kerry would differ from Bush in fighting the war on terrorism. Unless I'm missing something, Kerry would do five things differently: (1) beef up homeland security, in part by making this a core mission of the National Guard; (2) refocus on Afghanistan, where the Taliban appears to be making a comeback; (3) get serious about finding and securing nuclear materials that may wind up in the hands of terrorists; (4) provide some international support and clear direction to our troops in Iraq, resolving the mess that's currently the number one recruiting tool for al Qaeda; and (5) rebuild our alliances and international institutions to make the war on terrorism a collective security mission instead of a unilateral U.S. effort. Now Cheney is perfectly free to disagree with any of all of these suggestions, but the idea that Kerry is less worried about terrorism than the incumbent, or less committed to waging an aggressive war to defeat terrorists, is a conscious lie. But it points to an even bigger act of deception that was at the center of the GOP convention: the not-so-subtle claim that the only reason terrorists haven't struck the United States since 9/11 is that they are terrified of what George W. Bush would do to them. Nobody knows why there hasn't been another attack. Maybe al Qaeda's going after softer targets elsewhere. Maybe our military and intelligence operatives have disrupted their leadership (though not because of any distinctive Bush administration policies). Maybe they're planning an operation right now. But the idea that George W. Bush's steely Texas character has intimidated them into inaction defies everything we know about al Qaeda and about jihadist terrorism generally. But expect to hear this line of "reasoning" often from the GOP. The implicit claim that Bush has somehow already defeated al Qaeda may be audacious demagoguery at its worst, but it's the one claim they can make about Bush's record that cannot be refuted by the evidence before our eyes.

September 7, 2004

Anti-Labor Day

As Dana Milbank and Spenser Hsu noted in today's WaPo, George W. Bush spoke to union audiences on the last three Labor Days, but instead spent yesterday regaling a partisan crowd in rural Missouri with his stump speech. Now perhaps BC04 simply couldn't find a friendly union audience this time around. And there's no question Rove and company wanted to keep the campaign focused on the GOP convention message that all this economy and deficit and health care and energy stuff should be subordinate to the argument that Bush is the embodiment of America's war on terrorism. But the attitude of this president towards labor is worth thinking about in some depth. And I'm not just talking about the labor movement. Yeah, this administration seems to hate unions like sin, and appears perfectly happy to appeal to union members not in terms of their economic interests, but through a combination of national security fear tactics and the usual cultural slurs against the opposition. On a more fundamental level, however, Bush's policies represent the most profound disrespecting of the value of labor and the contributions of working families to our economy in a long, long time. The most obvious example of this attitude is the administration's tax strategy, which is clearly aimed at shifting the burden of government from wealth to work. Bush has already succeeded at least provisionally in eliminating federal taxation of inherited wealth. He has also succeeded in "flattening" personal income tax rates, and is reportedly flirting with a full-fledged "flat tax" assault on the principle of progressive taxation. His goal in the aborted 2003 tax offensive was to all but eliminate federal taxation of investment income. His friends in Congress are beavering away at the task of undermining federal taxation of corporations, through an assortment of new loopholes and concessions. Everywhere you look, the federal tax base is getting narrower, and where it's broadest is in the taxation of work. Worse yet, Bush's borrowing binge means that this narrow tax base will have to sustain an even-larger share of today's spending and tomorrow's interest costs. Add in the strong possibility that the GOP's raids on the Social Security trust fund will likely mean either (a) cuts in benefits or (b) increases in the most regressive tax on labor, the payroll tax, and you've got one of the most profound tax shifts from wealth to work in history. And that's without even considering the reverse-Robin-Hood tilt of Bush's spending policies.... But it gets worse. Bush's economic strategy, such as it is, increasingly focuses on the atavistic premise that lowering the cost of doing business is the sole key to economic growth. Why is this atavistic? Let me explain. As regular readers of this blog have probably figured out, I'm from the South. And I'm just old enough to have experienced the tail end of the century of grinding poverty the South experienced following the Civil War--not just for African-Americans, but for most of the population. If you had to identify one simple reason for this grinding poverty, beyond the legacy of racism, it was the perpetual delusion of southern political and business leaders that the region had to stay poor and dumb in order to attract the capital necessary to eventually climb out of the ditch. Like some of today's third world countries, the South, right up to the 1970s, was paralyzed by the idea that decent wages, unionization, protection of natural resources, business regulation, progressive taxes, and quality education were all impossible because they would "price" the region out of opportunities for economic development. All of the South's social and economic weaknesses were perceived as essential to maintaining a "good business climate." And that benighted belief also helped perpetuate Jim Crow, since the ability to keep roughly a third of the region's population in semi-serfdom gave the South a cost advantage no other part of the country could ever meet. Gradually, by the 1970s and 1980s, southern political leaders, and even many business leaders, woke up to the fact that deliberately maintaining a low standard of living wasn't worth the paltry payoff in low-wage textile jobs. And slowly but surely, a consensus developed that decent education and adequate public services were positive, not negative, factors in long-term economic development. The states that pursued this "high road" strategy--especially North Carolina and Georgia--tended to prosper. The states that stayed on the low road--especially Mississippi and Alabama--didn't. That's why it is so profoundly depressing to see the theory of economic development that my home region finally began to abandon over the last few decades now being embraced by the national government as the way for America to successfully compete in a global economy. That's sure what it looks like to me. And it's the best measurement imaginable of how far off track Bush has taken our economic policies over the last four years. Bill Clinton endlessly proclaimed the key to U.S. leadership in an information-age economy was to promote innovation, encourage small entrepreneurs, value work, and invest in the knowledge and skills of our workforce. Implicitly and sometimes explicitly, today's Republican party argues that the key to economic success is to reduce taxes, end regulation, insulate businesses from the costs of malfeasance, slow down environmental protection, subsidize corporate operations, gut collective bargaining, and shift as many public services, including public education, into the private sector. If that approach made any sense, then Mississippi would be the economic dynamo of the nation, and of the world. But that's the road this administration and its party appears to be paving for us all. So when you hear Kerry or Edwards talk about Bush's tendency to value "wealth, not work," this isn't just a clever campaign line. It's an accurate description of the GOP's basic world-view of the economy, and it's worth shouting about.

Back to Reality

Dismayed that about half my posts on this blog have been about polls, I'm not going to delve into the new CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey that shows a much smaller Bush convention bounce than the Time and Newsweek polls that freaked out so many Democrats over the weekend. Check out Ruy Teixeira's analysis, and if that's not enough, look at Gallup's own take, which pours gallons of cold water on the idea that the GOP Convention was a brilliant success (Gallup also provides a peak behind the curtain about the assumptions behind its "likely voter" definition: it's based on the theory that turnout on November 2 will be 55%). Frankly, I'm less worried about polls right now than about the bad advice some Democrats are offering Kerry in panicked reaction to the polls, and to the GOP Convention: Stop talking about national security, they say. That's Bush's issue. Talk about Medicare and jobs. Sure, after a Republican confab where domestic issues were at most an afterthought, the Kerry campaign needs to remind Americans about those issues, and how poorly the administration has handled them. More generally, he needs to hammer away on Bush's entire record. But that doesn't mean conceding national security to the GOP. That's the Mother Of All Democratic Delusions, dating back for decades. And if "decades" is too much to think about, then consider 2002, when most Democratic congressional candidates either ignored national security and then talked about Social Security and prescription drugs, or agreed with Bush on national security and then talked about Social Security and prescription drugs. It didn't work then, and there's no reason to think it will work now. The truth is that Bush is as vulnerable on national security as he is on domestic policy. He's squandered the pricesless strategic asset of the good will America enjoyed around the world after 9/11. He let Osama get away at Tora Bora. He made no real effort to get international support for the invasion of Iraq, and then, in a dumb and ideologically driven decision, gave the "go" signal without any post-war planning, and without committing enough U.S. troops to secure the country. He was dragged kicking and screaming into a half-assed commitment to homeland security, and now he's being dragged kicking and screaming into a half-assed commitment to intelligence reform. At some point, if we're lucky, he'll be dragged kicking and screaming into a half-assed commitment to do something about the unsecured nuclear materials floating around a dangerously unstable former Soviet Union. John Kerry is the right candidate to raise all these points and score on them, not because he won medals in Vietnam, but because he's never, ever been willing to concede national security issues to the GOP. And I doubt he's going to start now. Kerry's immediate strategy should be to expose the bizarre parallel universe constructed by the Republicans in New York; remind Americans of Bush's bad record on almost every issue; and challenge Bush's arrogant refusal to lay out a credible second-term agenda. If you had to sum up Al Gore's most important mistake in 2000 (yes, I know, he won the popular vote and got jobbed in Florida), it was his campaign's inability to make Objective Reality its friend, at a time when a big majority of Americans thought the country was on the right track and that his administration's policies were working. Now KE04 needs to identify the incumbent with a very different, and far less positive, state of affairs, and then let reality set in.

September 5, 2004

A Calm Look At the Polls

As all you political junkies out there know, Time and Newsweek released polls earlier this weekend showing Bush opening up an 11-point lead over Kerry during the GOP Convention. (The Newseek poll was of RVs; the Time poll was of LVs; Time had Bush up 8 among RVs in a two-way race, up 9 among RVs in a three-way race). The Newsweek internals had Bush doing a bit better across the board, and Kerry doing a lot worse across the board. The most interesting internal was that 45 percent of voters think Kerry is too liberal, while only 32 percent think Bush is too conservative. In other words, the Bush tactic of seizing the center by claiming Kerry's more out of the mainstream that he is has worked to some extent. But that gives Kerry the opportunity to push back. I stand by my contention that there's no reason for Democratic panic, or for over-reaction by KE04 (yeah, they need to get it in gear, but purposefully, not frantically). For one thing, we haven't seen enough polling data yet to judge whether the news weeklies, who've had a pretty erratic polling record this year, have it right. Zogby's got a poll covering the same period that shows Bush's lead at 2. And while Zogby's record in state polling has been suspect in recent years, his national surveys have been fairly accurate. Josh Marshall reports that both campaigns' internal polls show Bush up about 4 right after the convention. More importantly, it's unclear whether the Bush bounce represents a fundamental shift in the race, or merely a gut reaction to (a) obsessive media coverage of the Swift Boat smear, merging into (b) a big assault on the Democrat in New York, and (c) a convention that framed the election, and media treatment of the election, in the most positive possible light for the incumbent. Interestingly, the only poll out after the Time and Newsweek surveys shows a quick drop in Bush's margin. Rasmussen's three-day tracking poll through Saturday shows Bush's lead dropping from 4.4 percent on September 3 to 1.2 percent on September 4 (no info on daily numbers, unfortunately). Yeah, I know, this is Rasmussen we're talking about, but sometimes even the shakiest tracking polls do pick up trends. Then there's the Objective Reality factor. Hurricanes and college football aside, there have been three big news stories since the balloon drop in New York that might influence the race. (1) The July jobs report (jobs up 144k, unemployment slightly down) was marginally helpful to Bush, though the bad news is that it virtually guarantees a September interest rate hike. (2) The announcement that Medicare Part B premiums will jump a record 17 percent next year is terrible news for Bush. He probably made a mistake in his acceptance speech identifying himself with the new Rx drug benefit, which seniors generally dislike; discovering that they'll pay more next year for Medicare without obtaining anything new that they value won't help their mood. Kerry's already yelling about this, as he should. (3) The impact of the growing nightmare in Russia--sort of a slow-motion 9/11--is harder to assess. The CW is that anything reminding voters of the war on terror helps Bush. The minority view, which I share, is that Bush's strength is the perception that he's made America, and the world, a safer place, and it's unclear how voters will react to signs that Islamic terrorism is actually on the rise, even if it's in another country.

September 3, 2004

True Lies

There was a disturbing little passage in John Harris' WaPo piece today about the impact of Zell Miller's Wednesday night rant from New York. After examining the evidence that many of Zell's new GOP friends weren't exactly happy with his Angry Werewolf routine, Harris reported this: "A focus group conducted with 17 independent voters in Ohio by GOP pollster Frank Luntz for MSNBC drew a mostly positive response. These voters, Luntz said, did not care for Miller's attacks on the Democratic Party because they were too 'broad-brush,' but the attacks on Kerry resonated because Miller anchored his criticism in specific arguments about Kerry's record. "'They liked facts,' Luntz said. 'They're not responding to style. They're asking for a level of detail.'" There's a lesson here for all you young aspiring political consultants. When you get ready to smear an opponent, be sure to get real specific about it. Season your character assassination with a few facts and figures. Avoid "broad-bush" attacks. "Senator Bilbo Sells Out America" is far less effective than "Senator Bilbo Sells Out America For Thirty Pieces of Silver." It's all about credibility.

Bush Hits a Ground Rule Double

I have to admit at the outset here that I'm really struggling to remain objective about the 2004 GOP convention. Plenty of people (including many Democrats) a lot smarter than me have overruled my low opinion of the Guiliani and Schwarzenneger speeches. And my basic reaction to Cheney's speech as the sort of thing you'd hear at a small-town Rotary luncheon hasn't turned out to be a trendsetter, either. So: I assume my objectivity gland has swollen up and maybe busted, and perhaps I missed the brilliance and political power of George W. Bush's acceptance speech. To be sure, the prez delivered this speech well, as he generally does when he doesn't have to think on his feet. There was a bit of Gerson poetry here and there. Even when he attacked Kerry, he managed to remain relatively upbeat. And he really, really has mastered the art of suppressing his natural smirk with the lip-pursing thing and an occasional Pepsodent smile. Having said that, my impression of Bush's Big Speech is that it performed several tasks fairly well, without conveying much of an overall case for his re-election. He checked a lot of boxes, without getting outside the boxes much at all. Specifically he: (1) Offered a superficial defense of his record on domestic issues, about as thorough as Cheney's Rotary speech; (2) Labored through a second-term agenda that convinced media bean-counters to announce "15 new initiatives," though I only counted two that were really new, assuming you don't take seriously his content-free lines about reforming and simplifying the tax code; (3) Identified himself and his party with a combo platter of Clintonian, New Democrat themes, ranging from the general endorsement of "empowering government" to specific, if hazy ideas about lifelong learning. (4) Hit Kerry with several of the poll-tested "flip-flop" lines we've heard throughout the convention, while perhaps opening up a second front by talking about Kerry as an example of old-fashioned, pre-Clinton liberals. (5) Echoed the general convention message that 9/11 equals Iraq, and that questioning how we are doing in Iraq questions America's courage. (6) Reinforced the personal message that he knows who he is and what he wants to do, even if he can't explain it before or after the fact. (7) Threaded an important needle by including mildly "self-deprecating" lines about his verbal challenges and his Texas swagger, without ever admitting a single mistake in how he's run the country. Predictably, the delegates were pretty quiet during the obligatory domestic stuff, really waking up when Bush checked the cultural conservative boxes of "respecting the unborn" and defending traditional marriage, and then getting into the groove of chanting "USA" and "Four More Years" when he boasted about the brilliant success of his foreign policies. All in all, the speech reminded me of a moment at the end of the 2000 Democratic Convention, when I was standing on the floor amidst the balloon drop, and a friend of mine who worked for Gore came up to me and said: "Whaddya think? Ground Rule Double?" Like Gore's 2000 speech, Bush's effort tonight struck me as tactically successful, but strategically questionable. To stretch the baseball metaphor, it was a Ground Rule Double, and not a home run, because it went over the fence thanks to the peculiar dynamics of the home park. These dynamics revolved around a convention where Bush's explanation of his record and agenda were held to the minimal standard associated with world-historical figures like Reagan and Churchill, who had bigger fish to fry than such trivial matters as keeping their countrymen employed or managing the aftermath of "liberation" struggles. Lest we forget, Churchill lost his first post-war election, and Reagan left office before the messy residue of his policies could interfere with his generally successful legacy. For all the triumphalism and rhetorical overkill of this convention, it's still unlikely that a majority of Americans revere George W. Bush enough to give him a pass on his domestic or international policies, or his meagre plans for the future. We'll see what the polls say, but I still believe this election is John Kerry's to lose. Bush needed a big rally in New York, but it's not clear he's got a lead, and it is clear he doesn't have a lead that's safe going into the late innings.

September 2, 2004

Steak and Sizzle

If the climate of hysteria at their convention is tempting some GOPers to become overconfident, it's also driving some Democrats into unnecessary panic. I can't count the number of people I've talked to this week who are beside themselves with frustration that KE04 isn't sufficiently "fighting back" against the crap being thrown against the wall in New York. And at least among those old enough to remember, they invariably cite the example of the '88 Dukakis campaign, which "just stood there" and let Lee Atwater and the boys tear them apart. But aside from the need for "rapid response," there were two other lessons to be learned from the Dukakis defeat, which ought to be kept in mind today. The first is that you can't always choose the issues landscape. The Duke's strategists didn't fail to respond to the attacks on their candidate because they were sluggish or stupid. They were in thrall to the idea that you should campaign on "your issues" and not "their issues." When the elder Bush's thugs went after Dukakis on defense or cultural issues, he invariably responded with his message of "good jobs at good wages," on the theory that talking about defense and cultural issues would just play into their opponent's strength. Suffice it to say it didn't work. I mention this point because I'm also hearing a lot of Democrats complain that Kerry set up the Republicans for this week's assault-and-battery by talking too much about national security--"their issue"--instead of hammering away on health care and the economy--"our issues." Now think about it, folks. Does anyone really think the GOP Convention was ever going to be about anything other than national security and the war on terrorism, no matter how much Democrats yelled about other issues? If the Democratic nominee had failed to talk about "their issues," the assault would have been even worse. And if that nominee had not been a war hero with a reputation for toughness on national security, it would have been much, much worse. Aside from the guaranteed focus of the GOP on this issue, there's also the small problem that the public cares about it as well. The Republicans may be fanning the flames of fear all right, but there was already a fire. The final lesson of the Dukakis campaign that should be remembered right now is that how quickly and how aggressively you respond to attacks is less important than what you say. "Rapid response" doesn't do much good unless the response itself is credible and compelling. You gotta have the steak, not just the sizzle. When Dukakis got around to responding to the Bush-Quayle attacks, his answers were too often lame-o. (Remember Mikey in the Tank? Remember how he handled Bernie Shaw's Rape-of-Kitty hypothetical on the death penalty?) Serving up these lame-o responses faster or at a higher volume wouldn't have done much good. Sure, Kerry needs to respond quickly and aggressively, but when he does, he needs two things above all: (1) a series of crisp, one-sentence responses to all the "flip-flop" charges, and (2) a simple, compelling Fall Message (not just a slogan) that enables him to connect his responses to the broader set of issues that he wants to talk about and Bush can't. I'm pretty sure the KE04 folks understand this. The rest of us nervous Democrats should let them work it out and not pressure them into meaningless frenetic activity.

Buying Their Own Spin

Nestled in a WaPo piece by Mike Allen and Jonathan Weisman on the second-term agenda that Bush is allegedly going to present tonight are two remarkable graphs:
Bush's agenda consists almost entirely of expanded or repackaged ideas he has proposed before--partly because the deficit precludes major new programs. Outside economists said campaign strategists argued this week that the political terrain has shifted dramatically in the president's favor and that specific proposals are unnecessary. "The strategists are saying, 'Everything is breaking our way. It looks like it's almost over,'" said one close adviser who demanded anonymity. In this climate, the political strategists believe they have no reason to offer plans that would give opponents new targets to attack.
Now I have no doubt the Bushies would love to avoid the troublesome little chore of having to lay out a second-term agenda. But "It's almost over"? So far two national polls are out that reflect some of the impact of the convention. One, an ARG poll conducted August 30-September 1, shows Kerry up 2 among RVs. The other, a three-day-average tracking poll from Rasmussen, has Bush up 4 among LVs as of September 1. Unless BC04's internal polling is showing something a lot more dramatic, it's a tad early for these guys to be prancing around the end zone. Maybe they're even committing the cardinal political sin of buying their own spin. Remember: the Convention has given Republicans the opportunity to get voters to squint sideways at George W. Bush and John Kerry in the light most favorable--and perhaps the only light truly favorable--to the incumbent. But they're not going to keep squinting sideways for two more months. Eventually, the two candidate's actual records, and their actual proposals for the future, will get out there. And don't forget that ol' devil Objective Reality, which is not friendly to George W. Bush. Objective Reality may dump a cloudburst on BC04 as early as tomorrow, when the latest monthly jobs report is released. Unless they're playing rope-a-dope, administration officials act like they're battening down the hatches for some ugly news. And then there's Iraq....


Zell Miller's Republican handlers may or may not have made a mistake encouraging him to go up on the podium and howl at the moon last night. But they sure made a mistake letting him to go do a round of TV interviews afterwards, without spending some time in a decompression chamber. During his first interview, on CNN, Judy Woodruff got him all flustered by asking the obvious question about his praise for Kerry's defense record at a Georgia Democratic fundraiser three years ago. Miller wound up coming dangerously close to the ol' George Romney "I was brainwashed" defense, essentially saying he was a "junior Senator" way back then who didn't know what he was talking about. Then Wolf Blitzer calmly pointed out that Dick Cheney as Defense Secretary had taken many of the same positions as Kerry on weapons systems during the late 80s and early 90s. Miller challenged that claim, but then retreated into incoherence, brandishing a sheaf of papers (maybe BC04 oppo research notes?), after Blitzer reminded him that he knew what he was talking about, having served as CNN's Pentagon Correspondent in those days. The interview ended in embarrassed silence as Miller visibly struggled to regain his composure. He should have called it a day, but instead appeared on "Hardball," and after misunderstanding a question from Chris Matthews, said: "I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel." That's the most honest thing Zell Miller said last night. He would have fit in much better back in those nineteenth century days when you picked sides in politics and just rolled in the mud. And if you decided to switch sides, you just moved to the other side of the ditch and rolled in the mud some more. If I believed in reincarnation, I'd suspect Zell Miller is the second coming of Andrew Johnson.

The Bigger Picture

If you want a big-picture reflection on the first three days of the convention, including a careful analysis of last night's slander-o-thon, check out today's New Dem Daily, entitled "The GOP Fun-House Mirror."

Dogs of War

I suggested last week that the Republicans might "let slip the dogs of war" a bit earlier and more emphatically than they did in 2000. Boy, was that ever an understatement. On an evening supposedly devoted to defending the administration's economic record, the two big prime-time speakers, Zell Miller and Dick Cheney, unloaded a truckload of bile against John Kerry's national security record. I'm not sure I've ever heard so many slurs, misleading inferences, and bold-face lies in the course of an hour of rhetoric. Miller didn't bother to even mention the economy or any other domestic issue. Cheney barely did, and even then just trotted out the usual BC04 talking points with a notable lack of enthusiasm. This night was about destroying John Kerry, period. Yesterday I wondered how Miller would explain his support for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. He didn't even deign to mention, much less defend his strange transformation. But perhaps his own flip-flop led him to ignore that prong of the GOP attack on Kerry, and instead devote his entire speech to the argument that the Democratic candidate hates the military, hates his country, and would turn over the world to the French, if not to al Qaeda itself. The Bushies supposedly thought Zell would help them win over swing voters. I have a hard time believing anybody was won over by this glowering rant. Not since Pat Buchanan's famous "culture war" speech in 1992 has a major speaker at a national political convention spoken so hatefully, at such length, about the opposition. At the dark heart of the speech was the same old tired litany of lies and mischaracterizations about Kerry's Senate votes on military spending and weapons systems that BC04 has been retailing for many months. While Zell was too hot, Cheney was too cold, sounding more like a Haliburton exec speaking at a retirement dinner than a Vice President of the United States defending his administration's record. Even his best attack lines, like the "John Kerry sees two Americas....America sees two John Kerrys" bit, were delivered with a tone of condescending sarcasm rather than conviction. Unlike Miller, Cheney alternatively pursued both prongs of the attack on Kerry's national security credentials: he's a flip-flopper who always takes the wrong position. At some point, BC04 will have to make up its mind which one of these slurs it chooses to emphasize, and stick with it for a while. But clearly, this is a convention whose managers are not overly worried about logic. Inspired by the Swift Boat Veterans ads which they believe have turned the election completely around, the Bushies have gone negative with a real vengeance.

September 1, 2004

Zell's Problem Graphically Presented

The Georgia Democratic Party has put up a video that you might want to watch before watching tonight's Zell Miller speech. Even I had forgotten the strong parallels between Miller's 1992 attack on George H.W. Bush and Kerry's critique of his son today.

Zell's Problem

Zell Miller's "keynote" speech in NY tonight will obviously get a lot of attention. The DLC's opinion on Zell's apostasy is pretty clear, and can be found here and here. But I'm interested, from a purely mechanical point of view, in seeing how Miller and his new GOP handlers deal with a certain logical problem about his speech. At some point, probably months ago, it dawned on BC04 operatives that Bush would be nominated in the same building where their new buddy Zell Miller gave the Democratic keynote address back in 1992. Hey, somebody said, wouldn't it be cool to get Zell to keynote our convention? The problem, of course, is that Zell's return engagement in the Garden raises a pretty obvious question about what, exactly, happened between '92 and now to convert him from a Bush-bashing partisan Democrat to a Kerry-bashing supporter of Bush the Younger. And as I assume at least someone in the media will remind viewers tonight (maybe CNN's Paul Begala, who ghosted much of the '92 speech), Miller did everything short of kicking Millie the First Dog to promote the eviction of W.'s dad from the White House back then. Miller could obviously tell delegates he was wrong then, and right (not to mention Right) today. But at a time when much of the Convention is devoted to branding John Kerry as a flip-flopper, it probably won't be helpful if the man once mocked by Georgia Republicans as "Zig-Zag Zell" suggests it's possible to change your mind about anything. Moreover, Miller has repeatedly rejected the apology route up until now. In his recent book, which many of his new right-wing friends probably haven't actually read, he doesn't for a moment apologize for supporting Clinton in '92 or even in '96. He suggests, instead, that the Democratic Party lurched off in a leftwards direction some time around 1998--roughly the same time that Miller moved to Washington and lost his bearings. Call it a psychic flash, but I somehow don't think Republican delegates are quite ready to applaud a speech that says: "If you liked Bill Clinton, you ought to love George W. Bush." My guess is that Miller will allude to his '92 gig with a brief joke, and then spend the rest of his time churning out every anti-Kerry talking point he can download from the BC04 web page, nestled in a lot of faux-populist "humor" about the opposition of Democrats to the ownership of pickup trucks. But his speech does present a problem, and I hope the punditocracy gets over its dull-witted stupor in covering this Convention just enough to call him on it.

Slash and Burn

As some of you may remember, the Democratic Convention was characterized by a systematic refusal to "go negative" on George W. Bush, which probably disappointed a lot of delegates, but not so you'd notice it. In fact, with a very few exceptions, speakers were prohibited from even mentioning the incumbent's name. My understanding is that this especially hard line on negative rhetoric was taken after KE04 operatives focus-grouped a few speech drafts with undecided voters, and discovered that they absolutely hated anything that sounded like an attack on Bush. It's pretty obvious by now that the GOP has taken a different tack on going negative at its Convention. And it's almost certain to get a lot worse tonight, with the headliners being Zell Miller, who loves negative rhetoric like a wino loves cheap muscatel, and Dick Cheney, who can barely take a breath without attacking Kerry and Edwards. There are at least four possible explanations for the different approaches of the two parties on negative rhetoric: 1) The GOP truly has given up on undecided voters, and is truly concentrating on energizing its conservative base and maybe raiding a few conservative Democrats. 2) Voters hold a double standard whereby Democrats can't get away with criticizing the Leader of the Free World, while it's okay for the President's party to call John Kerry a lyin' liberal flip-flopper, so long as the invective does not come directly from the Compassionate-Conservative-in-Chief himself. 3) Republicans have become intoxicated by their belief that the Swift Vote Veterans ads have hurt Kerry, and have decided to throw out the rule book. 4) Rove and Co. know going negative is risky, but don't think they have much choice at this point. Of course, it's also possible that today's Republicans are just mean and nasty people who do this stuff because they enjoy it. But hey, I wouldn't want to say anything that negative about them.

Hype Watch

I was pretty busy up in Boston, and didn't watch much of the television coverage of the Democratic Convention. So you tell me: did the pundits gush over all the speeches like they're doing in New York? Best I can tell, most of the commentators, even those who are apparently supposed to be "objective" or even "pro-Democratic," think Guiliani's speech on Monday ranked up there with some of the best efforts of Demosthenes. And they clearly thought Arnold hit a Barry Bonds shot into the upper deck. (Personally, I thought the best podium appearance of the night was by the Bush Twins). And hey, I was watching MSNBC and PBS. I didn't have any blood pressure medication on hand, so I avoided Fox altogether. That was probably a smart move, according to WaPo's wonderful TV critic, Tom Shales, who said this morning that Fox was covering the Convention like it's a "happy birthday party for God." Maybe the entertainment paradigm for political media really has taken over, with commentators treating conventions like football games where ratings depend on the idea that every boring 7-3 contest is a Clash of Titans that will go down in the annals of sport.