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October 31, 2004

Another Vote Suppression Update

It's no secret that many people in both campaigns think that Wisconsin could turn out to be the ballgame, and that's probably why the GOP is becoming most brazen in the Cheese State in voter supression strategies. Having been slam-dunked by Milwaukee officials who ruled against their effort to challenge thousands of mainly-minority voters in that city, Republicans have ramped up their claims to argue that 37,000 Milwaukee voters are registered with erroneous or non-existent addresses. Their case, like the one they lost last week, is based on the very questionable tactic--the one that led to a judicial consent agreement ruling this out back in the 1980s--of sending mail to targeted minority voters and representing undeliverable mail as indicating voter fraud. In other words, having lost the legal case, the Wisconsin GOP is resorting in a big way to a political case that it's justified in challenging minority voters in Wisconsin, and in tainting any adverse result in the state.

Spin Update

Want another piece of evidence that Republicans believe pre-election spinning is important? Check out WaPo's "crystal ball" feature today, providing projections from "experts" about what's going to happen on Tuesday. Republican spinmeisters Tony Snow, Bill Kristol and Ann Coulter all predicted historic GOP landslides: Bush by five percent, and well over 300 in electoral votes, supplemented by big Republican gains in Senate, House and gubernatorial contests. Democratic pundit Donna Brazile, by contrast, predicted a narrow Kerry win, and small Democratic gains elsewhere. Brazile's being honest if optimistic. Snow, Kristol and Coulter are just spinning.

Happy Halloween

In case you missed it, check out Friday's New Dem Daily for a list of scary things in honor of Halloween.

Last-Minute GOP Spin

ABC's Note today reports that despite widespread agreement among pollsters that the presidential contest is too close to call nationally, and too close to call in the key battleground states, the Bushies are exuding more confidence than they were a week ago. Their reasoning, at least publicly, is that the Osama video has changed the dynamics of the race at the perfect time for Bush, reminding voters that the bad man still wants to kill us all. I have no way of knowing if they really believe this stuff, but I do know that Karl Rove and company strongly believe in the self-fulfilling prophecy theory of acting like a winner before and after the polls close. And I also know they are playing into the media Conventional Wisdom that the last-minute disclosures about Bush's Maine DWI erased the Republican's lead in the final stages of the 2000 campaign. Most of the evidence I've seen (sorry, no links here, since the polling and analysis is mostly long gone on the internet) suggests that undecided voters down the stretch in 2000 broke towards Bush, not Gore, and that Gore's strong finish was attributable to a big advantage in the ground game that polls didn't and couldn't pick up, reinforced to some extent by Gore's reluctant decision to finally begin campaigning on his own administration's record. The New York Times' Kirk Johnson penned a report today suggesting the Osama video isn't having much of a visible impact, and I'm inclined to agree (Ruy Teixeira reviews the polling evidence and reaches the same conclusion). It will probably come down to the ground game again, along with the tendency of undecided voters to break against the incumbent. Since nobody seems to dispute that Democrats have the most expensive and expansive GOTV operation in American political history, Bush's chances come down to his elaborate effort to win unpredented margins in rural and exurban areas, based on the 2002 Republican model of demanding personal loyalty to the president, and of accentuating sharp and often false differences between the candidates on national security and cultural issues. Every incumbent running for re-election uses the trappings of the presidency on the campaign trail, but BC04 has really taken this to a whole new level. I instinctively reject the partisan tendency to attribute un-American and anti-democratic tactics to the opposition, but it's impossible to avoid smelling the whiff of authoritarianism in the incumbent's campaign events. The personal pledge of loyalty to Bush that's become a staple of his home-stretch rallies is one example. The exclusion of Democrats, the routine taunting of news media, and the tight security is another. And the heavy-handed overtone of patriotic and religious appeals is still another. I must say that the fervent response to these tactics surprises me. I can understand how some voters can rationally make a decision that Bush has done as well as he can on domestic and international issues, or that Kerry's record doesn't make him a desirable alternative. I can understand that some Americans really do believe that abortion is homicide, or that Republicans empathize with traditionalist cultural impulses more than Democrats, or even that Bush as a self-professed evangelical Christian has earned their support by rhetoric alone. There may even be a small percantage of voters who are convinced that erasing progressive tax rates and "starving the beast" of Washington by deliberately engineering budget deficits are valid and important goals. But that George W. Bush, of all people, has become the object of a cult of personality and of intense personal devotion for millions of Americans is harder to understand. Most of the serious conservative ideologues I talk to privately concede the president is a man of limited gifts who has united Republicans behind him as a matter of historical accident more than his intrinsic political or policy skills. But whatever its provenance, it's clear the ability of the president's campaign to break every record of "base" support, while creating a polarized atmosphere essential to justifying extraordinarily partisan election-day and post-election day tactics, is the slender reed on which his whole enterprise now depends. That's why everybody even remotely connected to the Bush effort will be spinning like mad over and beyond the next 48 hours.

Vote Suppression Update

In addition to growing press coverage of various efforts to suppress or intimidate voters, especially in heavily Democratic and/or minority areas, I'm getting a lot of email from attentive readers citing this or that development, most of it in battleground states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan. It's probably useful, at this point, to separate these developments into three categories: (1) Good ol' fashioned dirty tricks. As Jo Becker and David Finkel report in this morning's WaPo: "Dirty tricks are a staple of campaigns, but election officials say this year's could achieve new highs in numbers and new lows in scope, especially in key battleground states such as Florida and Ohio." As usual, many of the nasty tactics are aimed at minority voters, which gives you a pretty good idea where they are coming from. In Leon County, Florida, thousands of students at (historically black) Florida A&M University and at FSU are discovering that their addresses have been changed on registration lists, possibly disqualifying them from voting. In Milwaukee, mysterious fliers are appearing in African-American neighborhoods telling voters they cannot participate on Tuesday if they voted earlier in the year. In Charleston, South Carolina, a dirty tactic used in Maryland in 2002 re-emerged, with a fake NAACP letter warning voters they can be arrested if they show up at the polls owing parking tickets or in arrears on child support payments. And in Ohio, another fake letter "informs" voters registered by the NAACP that their registrations have proved invalid, and that they face legal sanctions if they vote. It goes on and on. (2) Official malfeasance. There's also a noticable upsurge in major screwups--due either to incompetence or malice--by election officials. One reader informed me on Friday that the (Republican-controlled) Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania election board suddenly announced changes in polling locations for 21 precincts, affecting as many as 15,000 voters in one of the hottest battleground areas of the country. There have been widespread delays in the mailing and processing of both new voter registrations and absentee ballots, along with poor preparations for places where early votes can be cast. It's impossible to know in many of these case if the blunders are unintentional or designed to put a thumb on the scales, but they reinforce how little progress has been made since 2000 in creating an efficient and even playing field for voters. (3) Voter intimidation. We won't know for sure until Tuesday how far the GOP will go in wholesale challenges to voters in heavily Democratic precincts, but so far, they are winning the obscure legal battle over the rules for casting and counting the "provisional" ballots required by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in cases where voters' eligibility is in question. Michigan will apparently be the only battleground state where voters who are residents of the county, not the precinct, where they show up to vote will have their votes counted. That may be why last-minute changes in precinct boundaries and polling places seem to be happening. Meanwhile, the high-stakes maneuvering over voter challenges in Ohio continues. As I cynically (but accurately) predicted on Friday, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell's noble-sounding "instruction" to Attorney General Jim Petro that he ban voter challenges altogether went nowhere, as Petro quickly denied he had the authority to take that step. On a more marginal issue, a federal judge overruled Blackwell's earlier ruling that official partisan challengers could be apportioned to concentrate them at particular polling places within precincts. Unfortunately, it's not the number of challengers, but the number of challenges, that matters. Finally, there's an aspect of the voter challenge/provisional ballot maneuvering that should be kept in mind. Provisional ballots will not be counted on Election Night; most states will allow up to ten days for them to be resolved and either counted or discarded. If you remember how important it was to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 to claim victory in Florida from the get-go, it's entirely possible that a part of its strategy this year is to get the maximum number of Democratic votes in very close states made provisional, so that Bush will be "ahead" in the count the morning after. I certainly hope that impartial election officials, Democratic poll watchers, and journalists pay close attention to the number of provisional ballots that are pending in key states, and to deny possible Republican victory claims based on initial counts. With most tracking polls showing the race dead even going into the final 48 hours, this sort of stuff, murky as it is, could be crucial. UPDATE: Here's another important question: How will the official, media-consortium-sponsored exit poll operation deal with provisional ballots? Will voters be asked if their votes are provisional? And if not, will some voters who have been challenged volunteer the information, or simply fail to respond? My own information about the exit poll operations this year suggests (a) the exits will be done very professionally, and (b) it's very likely that despite the best efforts of the sponsors, they will be leaked on election day in a way that minimizes word-of-mouth distortions, and that will be all over the internet within hours if not minutes. Be forewarned.

October 29, 2004

More Strange Doings in Ohio

Before the Osama tape furor erupted, there was a surprising story out of Ohio, where Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell called a press conference to announce he was asking Republican Attorney General Jim Petro to ban election-day challenges of voter eligibility statewide. There was lots of nice talk from Blackwell about the "disruptive" nature of such challenges, and the possibility that they would make voting too slow and difficult. Now there are three possible explanations for this development. First, I may have been wrong in suggesting a Rove-driven, highly coordinated GOP effort to mess with minority voters next Tuesday. Maybe all the talk about voter challenges was a head fake, or perhaps just a way to build a legal and political foundation for post-election fraud claims. Second, Blackwell could have decided to break ranks on this one, odd as that may seem for a guy who has been doing everything possible to give Bush an advantage in his state. It's no secret Blackwell wants to run for governor in '06, and he's sufficiently quirky that he endorsed Steve Forbes for president back in 2000. There's also the fact that Blackwell is African-American. It's possible he actually had an attack of conscience about cooperating in tactics redolent of the Jim Crow era. And third, this could all be a show. All Petro has to do is to deny Blackwell's request, or say he doesn't have the authority to ban challenges, and we'll be back to square one, with Blackwell getting some positive press and a bit of protection from charges of partisanship that may emerge on or after November 2. I guess you can tell I think this last explanation makes the most sense, but we'll soon know.


It's 4:27 EST, and like anyone near a television, I'm waiting to see the new Osama bin Laden tape that surfaced today. Although the tape itself has apparently not been completely translated yet, it shows Osama attacking Bush. The Fox News people are already calling this "Osama's endorsement of Kerry," and Drudge has followed quickly with "Osama campaigns against Bush." I have a very low opinion of the ethics of the Bush apparatchiks, but this shocks even me. It will be interesting to see how Kerry responds, and whether the more official BC04 types pull back from this despicable tactic. UPDATE: Now that material from the tape is dribbling out making it clear that Osama explicitly said it didn't make any difference who leads the infidels from the White House, the wingers seem to be pulling back a bit from the direct suggestion that he's intervening in the election to help or hurt one candidate or the other. Now the conservative line is that it's a break for the president because it squashes the al Qa Qaa story and shifts the discussion to Bush's supposed area of greatest strength. It also, of course, reinforces Kerry's reminder that Osama's still out there making threats because the administration failed to crush him, kill him or capture him at Tora Bora.

October 28, 2004

The Rove M.O.

The latest political news from Ohio is important and instructive. A federal judge in Columbus blocked Republican efforts to force county election boards to review tens of thousands of new voter registrations. Before the ink was dry on the judge's order, the Ohio GOP's top lawyer said the action meant the GOP would challenge such voters at the polls on November 2. "We wanted to have all these questions resolved this week," said attorney Mark Weaver. "Now they won't be resolved until Tuesday, when all of these people are trying to vote. It can't help but create chaos, longer lines and frustration." In other words, the GOP is using the demise of one prong of its voter supression strategy to pre-justify the other. And I wouldn't be surprised if that's exactly the way they planned it. Now they can can get their "volunteers" out to "create chaos, longer lines and frustration" in minority polling places and sadly say that an "activist judge" who didn't care about voter fraud left them no choice. It's going to get worse, too: mark my words, when Democrats, civil rights attorneys, and voters themselves get visibly angry about this gambit, the GOPers will start whining about "potential violence" at the polls, and even pretend their goons are being intimidated and harassed. If nothing else, it will give them an excuse to go to court to contest Ohio's outcome if the state goes for Kerry. Now I have no direct evidence that Karl Rove has planned and is executing this voter suppression strategy, though it's interesting that every Republican hack and pundit in the universe started singing like a cicada about "voter fraud" about a week before the Ohio story got into the national news. But it sure as hell fits Rove's M.O. like a glove. The Florida debacle of 2000 illustrated two Rove tactics that are devilishly effective: (1) Getting in front of media interpretation of a controversy in a way that reshapes public perceptions of the actual event, and sticking with the spin come hell or high water. In retrospect, the war for Florida was half-won the day after the election, when the Bush campaign (knowing Katherine Harris would give the spin official sanction as soon as she could) announced it had won the state, and then began a relentless and ultimately successful campaign to depict efforts to get a full and accurate count as an attempt to reverse the outcome. (2) Deliberately pursuing outrageous tactics and then using the opposition's outrage to establish a false moral equivalency. The Bushies used this one throughout the Florida 2000 chess-game. Every effort was made to polarize the recount process, and to constantly emphasize the Democratic affiliation of county canvassing boards and the Florida judiciary. This approach not only invested every Republican in the state and the country in one side of every empircal controversy, but also gradually convinced the nation at large that the saga was nothing more than a partisan food fight among pols, lawyers and judges, not an attempt to find out how the people of Florida actually voted. This perception was crucial to the GOP's ultimate strategy of running out the clock and inviting the Supreme Court in to "save" the country from chaos. Republicans are pursuing exactly these two tactics in planning an Election Day operation designed to mess with minority voters this year. As Joshua Green shows in his important profile of Karl Rove in the current issue of Atlantic Monthly, Rove followed the same M.O. in close elections earlier in his career. And in addition to the two tactics outlined above, Rove's clients have benefitted from something more fundamental: an absolute ruthlessness that often leaves his victims gasping in astonishment and the news media gaping in--literally--disbelief. Here's Green's chilling and potentially prophetic conclusion about Rove's ace card in manipulating the media and, through them, the public: "If this year stays true to past form, the campaign will get nastier in the closing weeks, and without anyone's quite registering it, Rove will be right back in his element. He seems to understand—indeed, to count on—the media's unwillingness or inability, whether from squeamishness, laziness, or professional caution, ever to give a full estimate of him or his work. It is ultimately not just Rove's skill but his character that allows him to perform on an entirely different plane. Along with remarkable strategic skills, he has both an understanding of the media's unstated self-limitations and a willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others."

October 27, 2004

How To Sound Like a Political Insider

Now that we're down to the lick-log of this election cycle--or at least getting close to the point where the lawyers take over--politics will briefly outrank last night's reality shows as a topic of conversation in many American households. If the World Series ends tonight, it could happen right away. As a public service, I thought I would offer non-political-junkie readers a quick and easy lesson in how to sound like a political insider down at Applebee's this weekend. It's all a matter of mastering ten magic phrases that will clearly mark you as a guy or gal who knows the inner workings--the viscera and the cartilege--of the Body Politic. Here we go: 1. Early Exits. This does not refer to the behavior of election-night celebrants at a losing candidate's party, but rather, to the first round of exit polling done by a media consortium to guide network "calls" of various races, and later, as the central data source for the massive spin and finger-pointing campaign that will occur once somebody has won or lost. These "exits" are supposed to be a deep, dark secret prior to the polls being closed, so naturally, every single soul in Washington knows about them by mid-afternoon on election day. That's why 2002, when the whole exit polling system crashed, was such a nightmare for political insiders. So: get ready to email the following to your coworkers, friends and families during your lunch break on November 2: "Early exits show dead heat." 2. Gross Ratings Points. A highly technical measurement for the number of viewers likely to see a political ad. For greatest effect, abbreviate this to "points," as in: "Our team just dumped 3,000 points on Minneapolis-St. Paul. Those poor bastards up there will be mouthing our message in their sleep." 3. MoE. Short for "margin of error" in a poll. Right now, you could say that "Kerry and Bush are inside the MoE in nine of eleven battleground states," which is a cool way of saying, "I don't know what the hell's going to happen." 4. D-Trip. No, this is not a rapper's name, but an abbreviation for the "D-Triple-C," or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political action arm of the House Democrats. Nothing will send a frisson of admiration and envy through every political insider wannabee quite like your knowledge that "The D-Trip pulled out of Colorado 8 when it learned its guy hadn't paid property taxes in 20 years." 5. 527s. Derived from a section number in the Internal Revenue Code, this refers to "independent" organizations running advocacy ads or registering and turning out voters. They cannot endorse a candidate, but can demonize an opponent. They are a very big deal in this election cycle. So: be sure in your pre-election pontification to say at some point: "It's our 527s versus theirs, and they missed the boat by investing so little in GOTV (Get Out the Vote)." 6. POTUS. An insider term for President of the United States. Variations are FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) and SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States, the institution responsible for the election of the current POTUS). Using POTUS indicates that you have worked in, or know people who worked in, the White House. This very day, you could say: "Looks like Arnold's finally agreed to do a POTUS trip to Ohio." 7. I-4 Corridor. I-4 is the interstate highway that connects the key Florida electoral battlegrounds of Orlando and Tampa-St. Pete. Ever since 2000, it has been considered the height of political insider wisdom to suggest that the next election will be "all about the I-4 Corridor." Alternatives include: "It's all about Lackawanna County" (a northeast Pennsylvania swing area) or, to sound more sophisticated, "It's all about Bush topping 60 in the Cincinnati exurbs." 8. Message Discipline. This describes the ability of a candidate to stay "on message," i.e., to robotically pivot any question, discussion, or speech towards a recitation of whatever pithy and meaningful pitch the campaign has decided voters must be forced to remember, at all costs. Despite their vast differences in style and substance, George W. Bush (the current POTUS) and John Edwards (a potential future POTUS) are both considered excellent practitioners of message discipline. But like any virtue, this can become a vice if pursued to extremes. A good example was the last presidential debate, when the president was asked about the minimum wage, and started warbling about education reform. Message discipline can quickly morph into message bondage. 9. Down-Ballot. A slighting reference to those candidacies of lower status than the one you are concerned about. Given the executive-o-centric nature of the current American imperium, the term is often used to express indifference to Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative outcomes. "If we win the White House, I go to bed happy, and to hell with what happens down-ballot," would be a good Election Eve line. 10. Decision Desk. This is not a piece of furniture, but a term used for the small group of expert number crunchers employed by television networks to instruct the earpieces of On-Camera Talent that they should immediately race the competition to announce the winner of this or that state, in this or that contest. The black arts of Decision Desk ops became briefly visible, of course, in 2000, when on every network they called, and then recalled twice, a decision on Florida's electoral votes. Here's a safe insider comment to make: "I know a guy who's on the ABC Decision Desk, and he's sweating bullets about what they do if Kerry's up five in the Florida exits at 7:00; the polls in the Panhandle, you know, don't close til 8:00. Do they make the call and get unholy hell from Republicans, or let NBC beat 'em to the punch? It's like Chariots of Fire, man!" Properly equipped, may ye go forth to Applebee's and wow the crowds this weekend. And BTW, if and when this election is finally decided, NewDonkey will offer another installment in this series: the ten magic phrases that will establish you as a Washington Insider, in case you move to the Emerald City in search of fame and fortune.

Desperately Seeking Democrats

Man, the Bush-Cheney campaign must be getting into Full Panic Mode. Its supreme self-confidence that it could win this thing simply by getting the conservative base lathered up into a state of righteous hysteria seems to be slipping. The evidence? Yesterday W. varied from his stump speech in Wisconsin by making a pitch for votes from--are you ready?--Democrats. Never mind that he doesn't allow them to attend his campaign rallies; he still wants their votes. And get this: his pitch is that he is a president in the tradition of "Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John Kennedy." My colleague The Moose calls this speech "Grave Robbery." I call it something unprintable. Today's New Dem Daily says everything printable I could say about the incredible effrontery of Bush's latest tactic.

October 26, 2004

The GOP's November Surprise

I should have known when George Will started writing columns about the dastardly threat of voter fraud that something big was in the works. And sure enough, the conservative media echo chamber is now vibrating from a cacophany of warnings that Democrats are trying to steal the presidential election by fradulently registering ineligible voters. What's happening here is an effort to soften up the news media and the public for a truly audacious, and perhaps even desperate, gambit by the Republican Party that appears to be planned for election day: wholesale challenges to minority voters in battleground states in an effort to either (1) intimidate or demoralize likely Democratic voters, or (2) lay the groundwork for one of those Bush-v.-Gore-enabled retroactive legal actions aimed at reversing an adverse result. More likely, the aim is (3) both. In case you've missed it, both the New York Times and the Washington Post have published extensive reports on the GOP's plans in Ohio to deploy "volunteers" (paid a reported $100 a pop for their time) in 8,000 mostly minority voting precincts with the goal of challenging the eligibility of many if not most voters. Aside from throwing such voters into the category of "provisional" voters whose ballots may get tossed out later on, the idea appears to be to make voting as slow and unpleasant as possible in the precincts that might give John Kerry the electoral votes of this key state. While this scheme has been best documented in Ohio, I'll bet you a fist full of buckeyes that similar plans are under way in other battleground states with large minority populations. Hence the "voter fraud" cries from the GOP. "You know how these people are," is the implicit message. It is highly reminiscent of the Bush-Cheney campaign's successful strategy in 2000 of preemptively claiming victory in Florida and then depicting any effort to actually get the votes counted as an election-stealing enterprise. I don't know exactly who the "volunteers" are who are planning to flood African-American polling places in Ohio to gum up the works and mess with the minds and ballots of voters. But given the rather limited number of black Republicans available, I have a clear mental image of some pasty-faced, bow-tie clad Federalist Society dweeb from Case-Western Law School showing up at an inner-city Cleveland precinct spouting 1953 case law at angry voters who know how often this sort of crap was pulled on African-Americans in the Deep South. Now I have no particular reason to doubt the physical courage of conservative activists, and absolutely no reason to doubt their willingness to engage in bully-boy tactics. A good precedent was provided by the famous Brooks Brothers Riot of November 22, 2000, when a gang of Republican operatives, including quite a few GOP congressional staff down from Washington, succeeded in intimidating the Miami-Dade Canvassing Board into abandoning a hand recount of presidential ballots. But if this year's Republican intimidation tactics are half as bad as I suspect they will be, they may simply fortify the determination of their targets to get out and get in their votes. Today the DLC called on President Bush to personally condemn any wholesale challenges to minority voters on or before Election Day. He's about as likely to do that as he is to suddenly admit he's made a bunch of mistakes over the last four years. But at a minimum, he should have the decency to warn his campaign's "volunteers" that they may experience more than a $100 worth of unpleasantness if they spend November 2 randomly hassling minority voters. After all, playing Bull Connor without the fire hoses and the police dogs could be hazardous to your health. UPDATE: Tapped's Nick Confessore has an excellent post on the GOP's minority voter intimidation project, and documents the propaganda war to pre-justify it better than I have.

October 25, 2004

For the Tomorrow File

In eight days, John Kerry may have to replace his campaign strategy with a strategy for governing a deeply divided country. That will mean "lifting his game" to embrace a presidential message that can appeal to millions of people who didn't vote for him. I hope he's keeping a "tomorrow file" of outside-the-box ideas for expanding his appeal. If so, he should definitely download Andrei Cherny's New Republic article about a progressive, Democratic approach to the "ownership society" theme that George W. Bush has used as his signature message on domestic policy. Cherny knows whereof he speaks. He was a speechwriter for Al Gore in 2000, and watched Bush effectively use the choice-and-competition mantra to help brand himself as a "different kind of Republican," and to blast Gore as a big government liberal. He was also Kerry's chief speechwriter for the pre-nomination phase of his candidacy, and has watched Bush renew the same mantra to support the same negative attack on the Democratic candidate. (Between campaigns, BTW, Cherny edited the DLC's Blueprint magazine, and wrote a book about how Democrats needed to adjust to information-age politics and society). In his TNR piece, Cherny lays out a compelling case that the "ownership society" ought to be progressive Democratic turf, and that Bush's ability, however superficially and insincerely, to appropriate it is a function of Democratic negligence (born, I might add, of an obsession with seniors that ignores the long-term challenge of engaging younger voters who have trouble identifying with a party that simply defends a social insurance system created in the 1930s and 1960s). You ought to read Cherny's piece, and so should John Kerry, if and when he has the time to turn to bigger thoughts than winning Ohio and Florida.

October Surprises

Well, it would be weird if this campaign didn't end weirdly, right? And there are two straws in the wind today that could be harbingers of weird things to come. Most obviously, there's the news from the International Atomic Energy Agency about the Iraqi interim government's disclosure that big quantities of scary (if non-nuclear) munitions somehow vanished from a facility in a place called al Qa Qaa (can't wait to hear George W. Bush's pronunciation of this one!). The initial White House reaction was basically: "Hey, Iraq's a sovereign country now! Don't ask us. Ask Baghdad." Now aside from the high probability that this stuff was lost a long time ago, the idea that U.S. military and intelligence officials don't know what's going on in Iraq is either hysterically ludicrous, or an inadvertant admission of incompetence. To paraphrase Scripture, not a sparrow drops to the ground in Iraq without U.S. officials at least claiming the prerogative to know about it. It's too early to tell if this is a development that will knock BC04 off-message and off-stride, but it bears close watching. Check out Josh Marshall for play-by-play coverage, or read Spencer Ackerman's "Iraq'd" blog at New Republic for a quick summary. Meanwhile, in my more paranoid moments I've wondered if the buzz about an al Qaeda election day attack was part of the BC04 voter suppression strategy. It didn't help my mood to hear the President himself on Good Morning America say this about the possibility of an attack on polling locations: "I am worried about it and we should be worried about it."

Good To Have Him Back

He's looking a little gaunt and a little tired, but he's right back where you'd expect to see him eight days before a close national election: Bill Clinton, campaigning with John Kerry in Philadelphia, and soon to make stops in Florida and New Mexico. With the sudden appearance of a media poll in Arkansas showing that state, too, in a dead heat, you have to figure Clinton will make a few trips home, as well. Aside from being the only Democrat of most of our lifetimes to be elected and re-elected president, Clinton represents two reminders of the recent past that might appeal to undecided voters as well as the party faithful. First, he represents the successful Democratic economic and fiscal record of the 1990s, which make the current incumbent's claim that everything's as good as could possibly be seem a bit laughable. And second, Clinton's a reminder that it's possible to run for re-election as president on one's own record, instead of staking everything on sleazy negative attacks on the opposition. Everything about Clinton makes George W. Bush seem limited and petty, and perhaps those who hear him over the next eight days will remember how nice it was to have a president who treated Americans like grownups to be persuaded and inspired, not children to be distracted and frightened.

October 24, 2004

State of the Race

There have been long stretches in this interminable presidential election cycle in which the "newspapers of record," the New York Times and Washington Post, have offered analysis that is gratuitously irrelevant, negligently sloppy, or just plain wrong. But this has been one weekend when turning off the TV and reading the grainy print was profitable. The Times kicked off its Saturday coverage with a timely and chilling report on the GOP's plans for challenging--i.e., intimidating--minority voters in Ohio and elsewhere. This devilish scheme was enabled by a weekend federal appeal court ruling that in OH, as in FL, the "provisional" ballots required by the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) for voters who do not appear on precinct registration lists will be ultimately thrown out if they are cast in the wrong location. This is a clear violation of the spirit, if not the vague letter, of HAVA. Appropriately, the Sunday Times includes a lead editorial offering sensible reforms to make voting and vote-counting procedures uniform in the future, with the central presumption being that eligible voters should have their intentions respected, even if incompetent or malicious state or local officials make that difficult. The Times' Nagourney and Seelye supply a useful front-page report on the eleven remaining battleground states, noting that internal BC04 and KE04 polls show nine of them (all but Colorado and Nevada) even or close to even. This is a timely (no pun intended) rebuttal to the raft of Mason-Dixon polls released last week that predictably showed Bush doing better than expected everywhere. The Sunday Times also offers interesting Nagourney and Busmiller takes on what will happen to each party if its candidate loses the presidency on November 2. Busmiller's piece focuses on demolishing the fatuous idea (popular among the chattering classes during the Republican Convention in New York) that party "moderates" like John McCain, Rudy Guiliani and Arnold Schwarzenneger will take charge if Bush loses. But she underplays the "succession" crisis that will afflict the GOP's conservative wing, which is deeply divided over the future leadership of the Party. Over at WaPo, Mike Allen and Lois Romano sum up the race, and detect a bit of panic among the president's people. "One Republican official described the mood at the top of the campaign as apprehensive. 'Grim' is too strong,' the official said. 'If we feel this way a week from now, that will be grim.'" Dan Balz does a fine job on Sunday of discussing the widely varying assumptions about the composition of the electorate that undergird each candidate's strategy, and that have created such wildly disparate poll findings. (He would have benefitted from a careful reading of the DLC's recent analysis of "peripheral voters," but you can't have everything). And WaPo's editors consume the left-hand side of the op-ed page with their endorsement of Kerry, which, like The New Republic's endorsement last week, shows that centrists most sypathetic to Bush's foreign policy interventionism and occasional willingness to consider entitlement reform still think his administration has been a rolling disaster, and that Kerry offers a better agenda for toughness at home and abroad. For dessert, Dana Milbank takes a look at polls showing that Bush loyalists believe all the unbelievable things their candidate is saying, while believing unbelievable things about Bush's own positions. All in all, it's a fine weekend to supplement college football with some eye-straining good gray matter.

October 22, 2004

Wolf-Pack of Lies

Today's big buzz in Washington is over BC04's latest ad attack on John Kerry, an early Halloween treat called "Wolves." You can check it out yourself, but the basic idea is to charge Kerry and "Congressional Liberals" of trying to gut intelligence funding "after the first terrorist attack on America" amidst footage of a pack of wolves in a murky forest. It's not a hundred percent clear whether the wolves are supposed to represent terrorists or liberals, but I doubt the president's wizards really care. Opinions are mixed about the Scare Value of the spot. Bruce Reed watched it a couple of times and said, "I dunno. After a while those wolves start looking kind of cuddly." Maybe they should have focused-tested it with some toddlers to make sure they didn't point at the screen and gurgle "Doggie!" But there's no doubt that the content of the ad is unbelievably dishonest, as Josh Marshall explains in a recent post. The ad clearly intends to suggest that Kerry's dastardly assault on terrorist-hunting spooks occurred after 9/11. Turns out the reference is to a vote in the mid-90s, after the first attack on the World Trade Center. And Kerry's proposal was to take back some funding that intelligence agencies were refusing to spend, at a time when he and other Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, were struggling to do something about budget deficits. And far from this being a "liberal" preoccupation, Republicans in the Senate passed a motion cutting intelligence funding at about the same time. It makes you wonder: is Zell Miller now in charge of writing Bush ad scripts? The real irony, of course, is that Bush has been dragged kicking and screaming into what little effort he's made to improve our intelligence efforts after 9/11. When it comes to fighting terrorists with better intelligence, the incumbent can best be described as a sheep in wolf's clothing.

Act of Contrition

I really, sincerely, appreciate those kind readers who reacted to my post on Bush's heretical leanings by emailing me to dispute this or that definition of Symbolism or Pelagianism, or to let me know that the Second Vatican Council overruled the Tridentine definition of Protestantism as a heresy. But before I get attacked by the Methodist Anti-Defamation League, or Fox News cites NewDonkey in a piece on Democratic hostility to born-again Christians, I should probably make something real clear: IT WAS A SATIRE. A REALLY LONG JOKE. OKAY, MAYBE TOO LONG. Truth is, I'm not a canon lawyer. Actually, I'm not a Roman Catholic; I'm a Protestant myself, though I do have a pronounced weakness for incense and chant and Jesuit logic. I wrote the post in about an hour, without benefit of clergy. Maybe I should have quoted Father Guido Sarducci to make the joke a little clearer. To the extent I was trying to make any serious points, they were (a) the inquisition of John Kerry's religious views by some conservatives is remarkably one-sided, with everybody taking it for granted that the president is a veritable Tower of Faith; yea, verily, of Everybody's Faith, Catholic and Protestant alike; and (2) in this country at least, Christian controversy seems to be about nothing other than sexual ethics, instead of the old-fashioned arguments over the nature of God, the divine order of the universe, and the appropriate manner of worshipping one's Creator, which is what Christians fought and often died over for most of the last 2,000 years. I'm glad we're not burning each other any more, but I'm not sure the shift in emphasis from God to us is an improvement. But in any event, to anyone who was somehow offended by the humorous treatment of religious subject-matter, I offer a perfect act of contrition, if not a firm purpose of amendment. Which reminds me of a great Methodist joke (for all I know, it may be the only Methodist joke): Two friends, one Baptist, one Methodist, agreed to attend each other's church. The first Sunday they worshipped with the Baptists, and the Methodist asked a few pertinent questions about the choice of hymns, the purpose of the large baptismal font, etc. The next Sunday, after the Methodist service, the Baptist told his friend he had just one question. "Who's this John Wesley you keep talking about?" The Methodist, visibly shocked, replied: "Who's John Wesley? Read your Bible, man! Read your Bible!" Thus endeth today's lesson.

The Kerry Conspiracy To Sell Out Israel

Catholics aren't the only faith community being urged to vote for George W. Bush as an act of group loyalty. Republicans have spent a lot of time telling Jewish Americans they owe the incumbent a vote because of his staunch support for an embattled Israeli government. This is a Republican pitch that dates back to Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, in which Karl Rove cut his teeth. And indeed, Republicans were making some slow progress in reducing Democratic margins among Jews until the administration of Daddy Bush, whose Secretary of State, James Baker, oversaw a Middle East policy that seemed, well, like about what you'd expect from a guy who thought about oil 24-7 (it's no accident that Baker has been relegated to the role of political fixer by Bush the Younger). But what the hey, you can't blame BC04 for giving the political conversion of the Jews the ol' college try. They are, after all, working uphill against a mistrust of the political Right--and especially of the theocratic political Right--among Jews that was earned over a millenium or so. Proving once again that nobody even remotely connected with the president's re-election effort can stay positive for any length of time, the ever-angry conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer today tossed a real screwball into the discussion: John Kerry's going to sell out Israel! This is, shall we say, a rather counter-intuitive argument. Kerry, after all, has a twenty-year record in the Senate of unflinching support for Israel; even Zell Miller wouldn't dare claim otherwise. Two of Kerry's grandparents were Jewish. His one significant difference of opinion with the incumbent on Israeli-Palestinian issues is that he has promised to become more personally involved. Krauthammer's reasoning can be boiled down to this: Kerry wants to make nice with Europeans. Europeans don't like Israel. Thus, Kerry will "sacrifice Israel" in order to make his Euroweenie buddies feel all warm and cuddly inside. Open and shut case, all right. To be fair, Krauthammer isn't necessarily singling out Kerry for abuse. As his long-time readers know, he pretty much suspects everybody, including most Israelis, of a conscious or subconscious willingness to betray Israel. Perhaps this is just an occupational hazard of being a psychiatrist-turned-pundit. Or maybe it's an example of the old saying that if you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But Krauthammer's argument is not exactly bolstered by his bitter tangent blasting Bill Clinton for his willingness to negotiate with Yasir Arafat. I know it's been a while, but if I remember correctly, Clinton agreed to deal with the blood-stained old kleptocrat precisely because that's what every Israeli government of the period wanted him to do. And Clinton was, and remains, very popular among Israelis, who haven't quite bought Krauthammer's line that the 42d president was working hard to sell them down the river. In any event, GOPers would be well advised to stick to the positive case for Bush's Middle East policies, as part of a positive case for Jewish support. Rabbi Daniel Lapin of the American Alliance of Christians and Jews recently argued (in a piece optimistically entitled American Jews Will Support Bush!) that support for Israel "springs from the heartland of the United States as a reflection of the deep commitment to Judeo-Christian values felt by so many people in the United States. President Bush personifies that commitment which is starting to make so many Jews feel comfortable with his party." Yes, it's yet another argument that seeks to identify Bush with qualities properly attributed to the country as a whole--a claim that would be a bit more compelling if he were not a deeply divisive president waging a deeply divisive campaign for re-election. But at least the Rabbi isn't trying to smear John Kerry--and by implication, every Democrat--for anti-Zionist sentiments so secret that they don't even exist.

October 21, 2004

Are Catholics Shifting to Kerry?

As Steve Waldman explains in a beliefnet.com article, there's evidence in a new Pew Poll that Catholic voters--for whom Karl Rove lusts like the faithful lust for righteousness--may be shifting towards their co-religionist John Kerry, despite, or perhaps even because, of the highly visible efforts of some conservative bishops to instruct otherwise. Here at NewDonkey, of course, I'd like to think my recent analysis of George W. Bush's heretical leanings is responsible for the shift. But that would be an example of what beneficiaries of a solid Catholic education surely recognize as a post hoc ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this") logical fallacy, similar to the error in reasoning made by those who credit the President's foreign policies for the failure of al Qaeda to strike the United States since 9/11. As for the theory that Catholics are returning to the party of the earlier JFK, we'll know on November 2, when the votes are in and res ipsa loquitur (the facts will speak for themselves).

Who Has the Right To Vote?

I observed in a post the other day that when Republicans talk about "voter fraud," they are typically not talking about illegal voters or ballot-box stuffing, but about perfectly eligible voters who fail to figure out and overcome official acts of incompetence or malice, such as complicated ballots and registration forms, voter registrar errors, or poorly advertised changes in polling places. Leave it to George Will to offer a High Tory rationalization for this shoddy way of thinking about the right to vote. In his WaPo column today, Will suggests the belief that eligible voters should get every benefit of the doubt in registration and vote-counting decisions is emblematic of the "liberal" refusal to understand that rights carry responsibilities. This is pretty rich coming from a columnist who recently penned an obsequious ode to the power and glory of the NRA, an organization notable for its belief that the right to bear arms is absolute, excluding even the most common-sense safety limitations, even if there's a little collateral damage now and then in terms of kids killed by gun accidents or square citizens blown away by crazy people. Hypocrisy aside, Will's "rights and responsibilities" rap on voting doesn't pass the smell test. Burdening the exercise of fundamental rights of citizenship with "responsibilities" that don't contribute to any positive public good is a very dangerous practice. Sure, voters could spend days doing research into stupid ballot designs, redundant requirements for proof of eligibility, changes in precincts and voting locations, "provisional" ballot rules, redistrictings and (in Texas, at least) re-redistrictings, and every other official decision that might affect their votes. But who, exactly, would suffer from safeguard measures aimed at ensuring to the maximum extent possible that eligible voters get to express their actual intent? Incompetent election officials? Partisans interested in suppressing certain categories of votes? Republican candidates for office? Will sniffs that "voter carelessness" should righteously bear the "condign punishment of an unrecorded preference." Who is he to say what represents "voter carelessness?" I personally think people who vote for George W. Bush because they think he's kept America safe from another terrorist attack are being pretty damn "careless," but you don't see me trying to impose actual knowledge of the president's record as a "responsibility" that must be discharged before they exercise their right to vote. Back when conservative columnists set higher standards for themselves, William F. Buckley, Jr., used to frankly argue for "placing potholes" between voters and the ballot box on grounds that a restricted franchise would yield a more determined and educated electorate. That was an honest, if benighted viewpoint. If George Will agrees with it, he should say so, instead of claiming that clear and uniform policies aimed at letting voters vote are the civic equivalent of riotous libertinism. His own careless reasoning should earn him the "condign punishment" of a snort of dismissal.

Welcome To the Zoo

Well, it's now official, or perhaps I should say unofficial (since, like NewDonkey, the site is unofficially sponsored by the DLC). Marshall Wittmann's deservedly notorious Bull Moose Blog is back up, and it's good to see that he hasn't lost his distinctive voice, or his ability to run crashing through the thickets of contemporary politics. I urge everybody who enjoys NewDonkey to visit the Moose early and often. After all, the Moose drives Karl Rove absolutely crazy, and strong traffic numbers may distract The Dark Lord of BC04 from whatever devilment he's up to in the home stretch of this campaign. In honor of Marshall's inaugural posts, I have conjured up from the memory banks a bit of anonymous doggerel from the 1912 Teddy Roosevelt campaign that I read at some point during the last thirty years: I want to be a Bull Moose And with the Bull Moose stand With antlers on my forehead And a big stick in my hand. Welcome to the Zoo!

October 20, 2004

Kerry Cleared of Heresy Charge--But What About Bush?

As you may know, this presidential election has been roiled by claims from certain conservative Catholics--including a noisy minority of Bishops--that Catholics emperil their souls by voting for John Kerry, whose views on abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research allegedly divide him fatally from Church teachings, making him a self-excommunicated heretic. Yesterday, according to the Catholic News Service, an unnamed Vatican official representing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed this argument by saying: "No, Kerry is not a heretic." Now that we've cleared that up, Catholics might want to apply a similar test to President Bush, whose campaign has made a mighty effort to convince Catholic voters they have a religious duty to vote Republican this year. I don't want to prejudge any official proceedings here, but a quick examination of the president's professed beliefs create a strong suspicion that he is guilty of a number of heresies condemned by ecumenical councils and leading Catholic theologians over the last two millenia. Although he does not appear to belong to any specific religious congregation, Mr. Bush has publicly identified himself as a "born-again Christian" of the Methodist denomination. He is thus presumptively an adherent of the Protestant Heresy, condemned most notably and definitively by the sixteenth-century Council of Trent. If so, Bush has implicitly embraced an array of subordinate heresies, including: * Denial of the teaching authority of the Church (the basis, BTW, for questions about Mr. Kerry's views on abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research). * Bibliolatry (rejection of Church tradition as amplifying and interpreting scriptural authority) * Symbolism (rejection of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist) * Sacrilege (rejection of marriage, holy orders, penance, confirmation and extreme unction as valid Sacraments of the Church) * Dishonoring the Mother of God (rejection of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception, Assumption and Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) * Schism (rejection of papal authority and establishment of a separate ecclesiastical structure) In addition, as a Methodist, Bush must be suspected of additional grave errors associated with the heresiarch and patron saint of that denomination, John Wesley. * Pelagianism (belief in the perfectibility of human nature, suppressed in the 4th century by the Emperor Honarius, following the teaching of St. Augustine). * Abandonment of the Apostolic Succession of Bishops (achieved when Methodists seceded from the Church of England) Moreover, as Msgr. Ronald Knox argued in his influential 1950 book, Enthusiasm, Wesleyans reflect a persistant heretical tendency towards elevation of subjective experience in the pursuit of religious truth that links them to such widely varying heresies at Donatism, Hussism and Jansenism. Finally, the President's persistant "unilateralist" demand that the United States must enjoy a privileged and unique status with respect to the use of force specifically and international law generally raises some concern that he is guilty of the Americanist Heresy (the belief that this country's special conditions require deviations from universal laws of faith and morals), condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1899. If fidelity to the totality of Church teachings is supposed to be the sole test for voting behavior by Catholics, then perhaps the examination of conscience that some conservatives have urged on Catholics prior to entering the voting booth should extend to the highly suspect belief and value system of the incumbent.

Profiles in Chutzpah

Of all the deceptive claims being made by BC04 this year, the most shameless has to be Dick Cheney's habit of darkly suggesting that a Kerry administration wouldn't do anything to prevent nuclear terrorism. The Bush administration's record on securing nuclear materials to keep them out of the hands of terrorists is by any standard disgraceful. Prior to 9/11, the administration repeatedly tried to gut the Nunn-Lugar initiative, and succeeded partially, to the point that Sam Nunn had to go to Ted Turner and secure private funding for his efforts to deal with loose nukes in the former Soviet Union. After 9/11, the administration grudgingly allowed Nunn-Lugar to continue, but without additonal funding; meanwhile, there's no evidence that Bush has even mentioned the subject in his various meetings with his buddy Vladimir Putin. To top it all off, the administration managed to invade the one rogue state that didn't have a WMD program. This is one subject where Kerry has been absolutely far-sighted and consistent for many years. He has gone into excrutiating detail in this campaign in outlining exactly what he'd do to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and materials, and exactly what the administration has failed to do. So: where are all the media fact-checkers when Cheney calls a nuclear 9/11 the most important threat to our security, and says (as he did yesterday in Ohio) John Kerry can't be trusted to even understand the threat, much less deal with it? Of course, the media might be awakened from their sluggishness on this issue if the Kerry campaign responded by pointing out the two candidates' records, instead of simply hitting the replay button and citing Kerry's Vietnam service as proof of his toughness. Today's New Dem Daily makes the case that KE04 should start making if Cheney keeps up his Cassandra routine.

October 19, 2004

Swingin' Peripherals

Anyone who's paid any attention to this presidential election has heard repeated debates about whether the candidates should pursue "swing voter" strategies focused on persuasion, or "turnout" strategies focused on "mobilizing" or "energizing" the "base." There's a rarely examined assumption behind this debate: that "peripheral" voters--those who might or might not turn out--are "base" voters. This assumption is, I suspect, intimately related to the age-old belief of liberal and conservative activists that non-voters don't vote because they think there's not enough difference between the parties. And this belief, in turn, stems from what I can only describe as a total myth: that there's a "hidden majority" out there among non-voters for a more partisan and ideological candidate. Today the DLC released an analysis of "peripheral" voters over the last three presidential cycles that shows pretty convincingly that they are (1) not that different from regular voters, (2) they are in fact closer as a group to classic, independent, swing voters, than to committed partisan voters, (3) they are less, not more, partisan and ideologically polarized than the electorate as a whole, and (4) they have to be persuaded, not simply "energized" or "mobilized" to vote. The good news for Democrats is that peripheral voters tend to lean Democratic, and are in particular not attracted to culturally conservative wedge issues (that's one reason the conservative myth of millions of Christian conservatives will flood the polls this year is just that --a myth). The cautionary news is that peripheral voters, who are relatively estranged from civic as well as political involvement, don't particularly trust government. That's yet another reason that Kerry and other Democrats need to counter the incessant GOP propaganda that they are "big government, tax and spend liberals." Since Kerry seems to be taking persuasion of swing voters more seriously than Bush, this analysis suggests the Democrat may have an extra edge on November 2 among peripheral voters in what is shaping up as a high-turnout election.

Thaw Out the Crow

Two big new polls out, and here's the really bizarre disparity in a year of bizarre polling disparities. The latest New York Times/CBS poll has Bush's approval rating at 44. The latest WaPo/ABC poll has Bush's approval rating at 54. The first suggests that Bush is in the toaster, if not already toast. The second suggests he's in better shape than he's been in months. They cannot both be right. If this sort of thing continues right up until Election Day, there's gonna be a whole lotta crow on the menu of some pollsters the day after.

October 18, 2004

No Gallup Towards Bush

Perpetually panicky Democrats have panicked anew at the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey that show Bush up 8 points among likely voters. The same survey, of course, has Bush up just three--and under 50--among registered voters, which has generated another jeremiad by Ruy Teixeira about the weird LV assumptions in the Gallup methodology. But here's what nervous donkeys really need to hear: four years ago today, Gallup had Bush up 13 percent among likely voters. It did not exactly turn out that way, right?

Two, Three, Many Floridas

It's statistically improbable that we could have another post-election presidential selection for, oh, another century or so. The prospect of two in a row is one of those things--like a plague of frogs--that can drive you into an obsessive reading of the Book of Revelations. But if, on November 3, the outcome in the electoral college is again in doubt in one, two, or three key states, you can expect a raft of litigation that could make what happened in Florida last time look like a moot court tournament. So says The New York Times, in a front-page piece today that's as interesting as it is depressing. "The legal preparations," says James Dao, "are very real--and very large. With more than two weeks to go before polls open, lawyers recruited by the two parties and independent groups have begun flooding into Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and other swing states. Already, those lawyers are preparing strategies to challenge new voters at the polls, to keep polling stations open late if lines are long and to demand recounts if victory margins are razor-thin." Some of this activity simply reflects the ancient desire of Democrats to maximize opportunities to vote and have votes counted, and the equally ancient Republican desire to minimize such opportunities, which the GOP likes to think of as conducive to "voter fraud." Few Republicans, of course, make a credible case that there's much of a prospect for multiple voting or ballot-box stuffing; most of their "anti-fraud" efforts really boil down to a determination to entrap perfectly eligible voters in technical violations of questionable laws, or involuntary mistakes made in marking confusing ballots. Right beneath the surface of all the "anti-fraud" rhetoric is the unsavory belief that voters who cannot negotiate weird and inefficient election laws and ballots don't deserve to vote, anyway--a belief that is starkly contrary to more than a century's worth of constitutional progress towards elimination of any "ballot tests" other than citizenship and adulthood. So I'm perfectly happy to see flotillas of lawyers deployed to make sure Americans have every chance to vote, if only to offset the flotillas of lawyers eager to deny them that right. But hey, didn't Congress pass legislation a couple of years ago designed to stop the madness and reinforce some uniformity of election laws and procedures? Sure enough: legislation optimistically entitled the Help America Vote Act did indeed get signed into law in 2002, but it's created almost as much confusion as it's resolved, because: (a) it has to be implemented by state and local election officials, including Republican secretaries of state in Ohio and Florida who sure as hell don't seem very interested in Helping America Vote unless it votes the "right" way; (b) it introduced the idea of "provisional" voting for people who aren't on precinct registration lists, but didn't make it clear how such ballots would be challenged and judged; and (c) it encouraged, but did not require or really regulate, new technologies for casting and counting ballots, creating even more inconsistency and confusion than existed four years ago. But aside from the inadequacies of HAVA, the other looming menace this year is the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. As Jeffrey Rosen recently explained in The New Republic, the Supremes didn't just decide one presidential election: they created an "equal protection" argument that could enable partisan lawyers to get a wing-tipped foot through the door of federal court on a whole host of electoral claims. So: we have a system where state and local officials make all the calls on Election Day, and a potentially unlimited climate for state and federal litigation to question any of these decisions if they arguably affect the results in any state. We could wind up with two, three, many Floridas. If that happens, folks, it's going to be time to create a large, loud, abrasive grass-roots campaign to standardize voting rights and procedures in this country once and for all. Look, I've spent a majority of my own career in state government, and I respect the role of the states as "laboratories of democracy." But when it comes to the right to participate in democracy's most fundamental ritual--namely, elections--we cannot let a few partisan state officials and their black-robed cheerleaders in a politicized judiciary turn the states into the laboratories of Dr. Frankenstein.

October 15, 2004

The Other L-Word

It's bizarre, to say the least: at precisely the moment when the Bush-Cheney campaign has fully committed itself to an 18-day drive to demonize John Kerry as a Massachusetts Liberal, BC04 and its conservative media echo chamber are suddenly focused on a different L-word: Lesbian, as in the sexual orientation of Mary Cheney. Kerry's reference to the veep's daughter, in response to a debate question about each candidate's views on the nature or nurture origins of homosexuality, is now the obsessive preoccupation of the entire pro-Bush talking points network. Their motivation is not 100% clear. In part, Bush partisans are simply trying to find something in the last debate that will change the public perception that Kerry won that one, and the whole three-game series. In part, Bushies want to dent the more positive impressions of Kerry's character by suggesting he's playing dirty politics. And finally, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that BC04 is simply freaking out at Kerry's exposure, deliberate or inadvertant, of a vulnerability in their base-first strategy, which depends heavily on piggy-backing battleground state referenda on gay marriage. Mary Cheney's father, after all, has conspicuously declined to support his boss in demanding a constitutional amendment to defend the "sanctity of marriage" against the alleged assault from those demanding gay marriage rights. This is not something conservatives want to be reminded of. The unfortunate thing about this dispute is that Kerry was trying to make a legitimate--perhaps even a profound--point in answer to the question about the nature of homosexuality. Instead of citing the ever-increasing scientific evidence that being gay or lesbian is a basic orientation, not a "lifestyle choice," Kerry cited the experience of American families, whose attitudes towards homosexuality are heavily affected by the extent to which they actually know gays and lesbians as family members, friends, or work associates. Bush, who is politically dependent on those who believe homosexuality is a form of voluntary "sinful behavior" that can be "cured," dodged the question entirely. And lest we forget, it's the incumbent, not the challenger, who has chosen to make this an issue in the presidential campaign to begin with. I personally wish Kerry had made his point more clearly, and without mentioning the vice president's daughter. But it's not clear to me how, exactly, BC04 is going to turn this second "L-word" into a campaign issue that turns voters. After all, Mary Cheney's sexual orientation is mainly an issue for those who have already decided to vote for the president. For everyone else, this is an unwelcome diversion that has little or nothing to do with the choices Americans face on Election Day--except as a reminder that Republicans don't like anybody who's any kind of "L."

It's "All About" Everything

We're at that dangerous stage of the presidential campaign in which all the pundits--and quite possibly, the campaigns themselves--try to boil down the complex dynamics of the election into something really simple. It's "all about" this or that state, or this or that segment of the electorate, or this or that tactic, we will be told again and again. To be sure, our electoral college system does mean that the contest is "all about" winnable "battleground" states, and inevitably, their number is shrinking as we get closer to Election Day. But it's important to avoid quick judgments, based on current polling or recent history, about which battleground states matter most to either campaign. Sure, Ohio and Florida are especially crucial because of their size, and it's hard, though not impossible, to construct scenarios where a candidate loses both of these states and still wins 270 EVs (those of you who are spending your lunch hours playing with one of those cool interactive electoral vote maps already know this). But in the end, it's "all about" reaching 270 one way or another, not just one way. Remember the decision made by the Gore campaign at about this point four years ago: it was "all about" Florida. In retrospect, it's clear this judgment led to the infinitely regrettable decision not to bother running any Gore-Lieberman ads in the Boston media market down the stretch. Had those ads run, Gore would have almost certainly won New Hampshire (which Bill Clinton won by 10 points in 1996), and the whole Florida saga would not have mattered. You can also make the case that Ohio was there for the taking by Gore; yet he did not even contest the state in any serious way. The danger of tunnel-vision at this point is even more apparent when you look inside the battleground states. Already, the pundits are telling us that victory in Ohio (to cite one example) is "all about" the relative success of BC04 in turning out culturally conservative rural and exurban voters, as compared to KE04's drive to maximize turnout in minority neighborhoods in Ohio's largest cities. Don't get me wrong: it's smart and essential for both campaigns to do everything possible to boost turnout in reliably partisan precincts. But in the end, a vote's a vote, and holding down Bush's margins in rural Ohio is just as important to Kerry as boosting his vote totals in the cities. Moreover, even if you believe there are relatively few undecided voters in play this year, every one of them a candidate captures represents two votes: one for himself, and one denied to the opposition. So: next time you hear someone say it's "all about" the I-4 corridor in Florida, or Lackawanna County in Pennsylvania, or the Nader vote in Dane County, Wisconsin, your reflex should be to respond: a vote's a vote, and it's "all about" every one of them.

October 14, 2004

Is Kerry Crossing a Threshold?

I didn't say this in last night's post, but I was a little surprised at Kerry's big margin in the snap polls about debate performance. They keep rolling in, and if the last two debates are a precedent, the "Kerry won" perception may grow even stronger in a day or two. There are three possible explanations for this apparent gap between my perceptions of the debate and those of voters. First, I may have just been wrong in thinking the debate was pretty much a tie, probably because I spent more time shouting cool lines I thought Kerry should use at the screen than in really paying attention to how the debate was going. Second, voters may be making a cumulative judgment about the relative performance of the candidates in all three debates, a measurement that Kerry would definitely win among everybody other than Bush partisans. Or third, something more fundamental may be going on: Kerry may be crossing the magic threshold of credibility that enables challengers to beat incumbent presidents. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened as a result of televised debates: as all you political junkies know, it happened in 1980 when the one televised debate pivoted the whole election in the direction of Ronald Reagan, who just didn't come across as the shallow right-winger depicted by Jimmy Carter's campaign. Even if this third hypothesis has merit, I'm certainly not suggesting that John Kerry's about to blow the race open and win by a landslide. The political dynamics of the country are far too polarized for either candidate to win over that many votes. There's plenty of time before election day--time BC04 will use relentlessly to re-smear Kerry and drive up his negatives (though it sure didn't work in 1980 for Carter whose late-campaign negative tactics were described at the time as "Mean Jimmy"). And again, this whole idea may be wrong. But I for one am going to pay special attention to Kerry's "internals" in the next couple of big nonpartisan national polls. Democracy Corps already has a post-debate poll out, and it shows a sizeable shift in positive voter perspections of Kerry as a leader. If others show the same trend, then we may rightly conclude that Kerry's begun to close the deal with those undecided voters who (if their "wrong track" numbers are any indication) are itching for a reason to vote against Bush. We'll know soon enough.

October 13, 2004

Third Debate: Bush's Lost Chance

Just saw CNN's snap (who won?) poll of the last presidential debate: Kerry 52%, Bush 39%. What's fascinating about this reaction is that (1) it cannot be attributed to Bush's demeanor, which was better in this debate than in either of the first two; (2) it doesn't reflect some slam-dunk, soundbite Kerry line that affected the immediate reaction, though the "Sopranos" line was pretty good; and (3) it indicated that Bush's "base-first" strategy isn't working. I personally expected Bush to go much more negative on Kerry that he ultimately did, though the structure and sequence of Schieffer's questions made that pretty hard. And when the light want off in his head, Bush did everything he could to label Kerry as a godless liberal. The bottom line is that it's difficult, as an incumbent president, to shift the attention totally away from one's own record. That's the bar that Gerald Ford failed to surmount in 1976, as did Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the president's father in 1992. If, as seems likely in the immediate reaction, Kerry has gone 3-0 in the presidential debates, the case for George W. Bush's re-election has gone from implausble to improbable, at the worst possible time for a vulnerable incumbent.

Bush and Carter

Going into tonight's final presidential debate, you hear a lot of Democrats--or at least the grey-headed donkeys of the stable--reminiscing about that crucial moment in the 1980 presidential debate when Ronald Reagan managed to frame the election as a referendum on Jimmy Carter's performance in office by asking the famous question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Wouldn't it be cool, they say, if John Kerry could come up with a killer line like Reagan's? But you don't hear anybody talking about Jimmy Carter's strategy in that debate, and how it compares to that of another vulnerable incumbent, George W. Bush. To make a long story short, Carter's debate strategy was called the "Two Futures" approach. It involved constantly comparing the two candidates' agendas for the future in a way that avoided Carter's own record, and made Reagan the riskier choice for positive change. From all indications, George W. Bush doesn't much want to talk about his record on domestic issues, but also doesn't much want to talk about his agenda for a second term. But he does want to talk about the risky choice involved in electing a scary liberal like John Kerry to the presidency. It's sort of a "One Bad Future" approach that depends heavily on a negative characterization of his opponent. So sure, it would be nice for Kerry if he can find a way to encapsulate Bush's failed presidency in a compelling way tonight, and during the remainder of the campaign. But by eschewing both a defense of his own record, and a positive argument for his own agenda, Bush is in some respects fighting with one hand tied behind his back, as a deliberate strategic decision. No matter how the scorekeepers rate tonight's contest, this will be a factor of increasing importance in the ultimate contest on November 2.

October 12, 2004

Kerry's Catholicism

One of the subterranean issues in the presidential contest is the Democratic candidate's status as a member of the Roman Catholic Church. He's the first Catholic nominee since another Massachusetts Democrat with the same initials, and that is a potential problem for a Republican Party that's been working overtime to turn Catholics into a GOP constituency group. Today's New York Times has a big writeup about one aspect of the Republican strategy to blunt or even invert the electoral impact of Kerry's Catholicism: the campaign by a handful of conservative Bishops to convince Catholics they have a religious duty to reject their co-religionist because of his positions on abortion and stem-cell research, and his rejection of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. There's a lot of evidence that it's not exactly the right moment for elements of the American hierarchy to get too high and mighty about lecturing the laity on their moral obligations, but that won't stop them from trying. Aside from the effort to convince voters that Kerry's a bad Catholic, there's a slightly subtler BC04 argument that he's not much of a Catholic at all, being a "liberal" and a "moral relativist" and a "flip-flopper," etc., in comparison with the resolute Christian in the White House (never mind that Kerry seems to go to church a lot more often than Bush). Kerry himself has followed the quaint custom (more common among American Catholics than evangelical Protestants) of trying to keep his religion out of the campaign; as he put it in his acceptance speech in Boston, he doesn't wear his faith on his sleeve. But for the record, here's what Kerry said about the political implications of his faith in his 2003 book, A Call to Service:

I am a believing and practicing Catholic, married to another believing and practicing Catholic. And being an American Catholic at this particular moment in history has three particular implications for my own point of view as a candidate for the presidency. The first two follow directly from the two great commandments set for in the Scriptures: our obligation to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The first commandment means we must believe there are absolute standards of right and wrong. They may not always be that clear, but they exist, and we must honor them as best we can. The second commandment means that our commitment to equal rights and social justice, here and around the world, is not simply a matter of political fashion or economic and social theory but a direct commandment from God. From this perspective "Christian" bigotry and intolerance are nothing less than a direct affront to God's law and a rejection of God's love. There's a third facet of being an American Catholic that I take very seriously. We've always been a minority in this country, and have sometimes suffered persecution. To a larger extent than Catholics elsewhere, we have supported and relied upon the constitutional principle of separation of church and state to guarantee our right to worship and our liberty of conscience. That tradition, strongly advanced by John Kennedy in his quest to become our first Catholic president, helped make religious affiliation a nonissue in American politics. It should stay that way.


GOP Congress Finally Does Something

After compiling one of the least distinguished records in living memory (as Casey Stengal used to say: "You could look it up"), the Republican leaders of Congress bestirred themselves to pass legislation yesterday, before sending their members home to campaign for re-election. Unfortunately, the legislation was a classic Christmas Tree of special interest provisions that boosted the federal budget deficit and made almost every editorial writer in the country gag. Read all about it in today's New Dem Daily.

Lesbians Run Wild in the Sooner State

Anytime you get bored with this election cycle, you can always count on Dr. Tom Coburn, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma, to liven things up. The latest from Mad Tom is a late-August comment at a town hall meeting that's just come to light. According to the Tulsa World, Coburn told the crowd about a conversation he'd had with a local state representative: "He was telling me lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl go to the bathroom. Now, think about it. Think about that issue. How is it that that's happened to us?" How indeed? After the World found a few SE Oklahoma educators who expressed puzzlement over the suggestion that their region had become unusually Sapphic, Coburn's flack--pausing to attack opponent Brad Carson as a "pro-gay rights" candidate with "Hollywood liberal values"--said the Doctor's remarks had been "taken out of context." Now I don't know about you, but I'm going to pay special attention over the next few days to see what context the Coburn campaign comes up with to "explain" this howler. Maybe the candidate added a few lines about the boys' restrooms, too.

October 11, 2004

Rove Reverts To Type

Today's NYT tells you most of what you need to know about the President's re-election strategy going into the home stretch. Elisabeth Bumiller reports on Bush's savage new stump speech, first unveiled in PA last week. As I noted when the speech first went up on the BC04 web page, the speech is almost entirely a negative attack on Kerry, and almost entirely based on distortions of the challenger's record and unsupported name-calling. Bumiller notes that all the positive stuff about the administration's record has been dumped out of the speech, apparently at the insistence of Karl Rove. (A separate AP story observes that neither Karl Rove nor Karen Hughes can take a breath without calling Kerry a "liberal"). A front-page Pear and Toner piece in the Times on the new Medicare Rx drug benefit helps explain why Bush doesn't want to go into the final presidential debate all puffed up about his domestic record. It's clear by now that the discount drug card that was the first phase of the new initiative has been pretty much a bust so far; by and large seniors don't like it, and don't trust it. And remember: this was supposed to be the easy part of the initiative, the no-pain, first-course-dessert that would make everybody happy before the broccoli is served in 2006, when the full Medicare drug coverage, with its convoluted premium structure and ever-escalating costs, is implemented. Rove, of course, would probably urge Bush to go negative even if he did have something positive to talk about. You may have heard about Josh Green's profile of Rove in the latest (subscription only) Atlantic Monthly. Green makes a very astute observation about Rove's history that may show why his faith in negative campaigning is so strong, and why it might be misplaced today. Most of Rove's past campaigns were in two states--Texas and Alabama--that were at the time loaded with conservative, ticket-splitting Democrats likely to swing Republican in an ideologically polarized election. In that atmosphere, relentlessly attacking a Democratic candidate as a godless liberal simultaneously served the GOP's base-moblization and swing voter strategies. But few battleground states today are anything like Texas and Alabama in the '80s and '90s. If Bush stays negative right on through to election day, he will (a) help Democrats with their own turnout strategy, and (b) quite possibly alienate swing voters who are already unhappy with the incumbent's record. The other possible flaw in Rove's strategy is that he may be overestimating the willingness of both the news media and the public to swallow the poisonous distortions of Kerry's record and agenda that his candidate is so shamelessly spewing into the air waves. As revealed by Drudge, The Note's Mark Halperin sent a memo to his ABC colleagues warning them not to simply report exchanges between the campaigns as morally equivalent, because: "The current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done." Josh Marshall notes that Fox News is already trying to Ratherize Halperin (an absurd characterization given The Note's unctuous treatment of BC04 throughout the campaign), and I'm sure other conservative media will follow. It will be interesting--not to mention important--to see if the rest of the political world will go along with the idea that the president's flat-out lies about Kerry's record should be treated as no more negative than Kerry's efforts to point out what's actually happening in Iraq. I'll say this: if Bush wins this thing by following Rove's strategy, it will have a baleful effect on political campaigns here and around the world for years to come. So much for Bush's interest in spreading the blessings of democracy.

October 9, 2004

Battle For Big MO

Last night's "town-hall" presidential debate in Missouri was about what I expected. The two things Bush most wanted to do--to get over the defensive stammering and fidgeting and incoherent repetitions of his first debate peformance, and to aggressively Dukakisize Kerry as a tax-and-spend-weak-on-defense-big-government-liberal--led him to an unusually combative manner. And indeed, Bush was most effective rhetorically when he was distorting Kerry's record and reinforcing every old Democratic stereotype, and least effective when he had to defend his own record. Kerry won most of the debating points, and generally repeated his strong first-debate performance, though he got tripped up a bit on two cultural issues towards the end. Much of the buzz about the debate seems to revolve around Bush's manner. I suspect voter reactions to his banty rooster routine last night--strutting around the stage and shouting and crowing--will break down on partisan lines. Republicans will see it as a projection of strength and likeability; Democrats as grating and exaggerated. On foreign policy and security issues, including Iraq, the second debate changed nothing, which is bad news for the incumbent. As in the veep debate, the discussion of domestic issues was a little thin, but very interesting. Kerry cleaned Bush's clock on the drug-reimportation issue, the one moment when the incumbent fell back into the defensive incoherence of the first debate. Bush had two other very weird moments. Asked about his record on the environment, the president barked: "Off-road diesel engines," a good example of a talking point headline leaping directly to the tongue of an overbriefed debater. And in the discussion of his judicial philosophy, Bush made it clear he had one absolute litmus test for Supreme Court candidates: he wouldn't appoint a justice who supported the 1857 Dred Scott decision upholding the Fugitive Slave Act. This reassuring statement should boost Bush's support levels among African-Americans all the way up into the high single digits. On the inter-related issues of taxes, the budget, and "big government," Bush again tried to keep the focus on Kerry, not himself--a revealing tactic, since his tax cuts are the sum and substance of his whole economic and fiscal record. Most interestingly, Bush didn't put much effort into the claim that Kerry's tax proposals would boost taxes for the middle class; instead, he simply asserted that Kerry's the kind of guy--you know, a tax-and-spend liberal--who'll raise everybody's taxes first chance he gets. Even though I knew it was coming, I nearly attacked the screen when Bush trotted out the bogus National Journal "most liberal senator" rating of Kerry in 2003. I guess I'm going to have to personally hand-deliver the DLC's analysis of that rating--and especially its bizarre description of deficit-reduction measures as "liberal"--to every journalist in Christendom. I was delighted to see Kerry mention that the president's party controls Congress. He should do a lot more of that down the stretch. And on the tax issue, he would be well advised to remind voters that small businesses--and for that matter, millionaires--did a whole lot better under the tax rates of the Clinton years than they are doing today. Surprisingly, there were no questions about gay marriage. And the abortion question posed to Kerry was a real curve-ball, asking him to specifically address himself to people who think abortion is "murder" (not exactly the formulation you'd expect from an undecided voter), and to the question of government funding for abortions, an issue that hasn't been the focus of abortion politics for about fifteen years. Similarly, the question about stem-cell research was worded in the way best suited to Bush's purposes--distinguishing between adult and embryonic stem cells. This got the discussion immediately down into the technical weeds, and enabled Bush to cut through the details and claim he's just trying to balance ethics and science. I suspect Kerry will find a way to nail him on this one in the third debate. Neither candidate committed any obvious gaffes, but Bush's answer to the very last question was one of those things that post-debate analysis could turn into real problem for the incumbent, because it reinforces a basic aspect of the candidate's character that voters find troublesome. Asked directly to name three mistakes he's made as president, Bush couldn't do it, though he vaguely talked about appointments he now regrets. As Josh Marshall acutely observed in his take on the debate, you just know Bush was thinking about administration officials like Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke, George Tenet, and John DiIulio--people who had the temerity to suggest the president had made mistakes. Bush's chronic refusal to admit mistakes when even his strongest supporters acknowledge them is beginning to look downright pathological, and if it continues, it could undermine all of his positive "character" and "likeability" ratings. So: who if anyone got the Big Mo--in MO and in other battleground states--from this debate? I suspect the answer depends strictly on how you think the race was developing prior to last night. Many Bush partisans think the president was cruising towards an easy and inevitable win prior to the first debate; they will naturally now claim his performance last night will put him back on the glide pattern to victory. I think the first debate simply helped bring the contest back to its natural dead-even state, and that a whole host of factors--Kerry's steadiness, bad news at home and abroad, Democratic advantages in the ground game, and most of all, the natural tendency of late-breaking voters to focus on, and turn against, the incumbent's record--favor the challenger down the stretch.

October 8, 2004

Reality Rolls In

As Political Animal Kevin Drum pointed out earlier this week, these are tough times for those administration spinners who are trying to convince the country that the bluebird of happiness is sitting on George W. Bush's shoulder. Day after day, BC04 upbeat talk about Iraq, past, present, and future, is getting hammered by reality. The polls have turned on W. The resolute, confident commander-in-chief we saw in New York morphed into a self-parody in last week's debate. The Republican Congress is about to go home in a blaze of pork and ethics scandals, having accomplished less than any Congress in recent history. And to top it off, today's Final Job Numbers confirm that Bushonomics has basically deployed a couple of trillion dollars in deficit spending to produce a tepid and shaky recovery characterized by wage stagnation and rising insecurity. This is the reality that Bush must try to distort, explain, or ignore in tonight's debate. I suspect his performance tonight won't be as bad as the last. The president's handlers have undoubtedly retrained him in that lip-pursing thing he uses to suppress the frat-boy smirk that reappeared so alarmingly in the first debate. Maybe the town-hall format will enable him to show off his famous rapport with regular guys. But my guess is that Bush will go savagely negative on Kerry tonight, packing the best sound-bite put-downs money can buy. With the reality of the Bush record beginning to roll in like a toxic fog, making the election a referendum on his opponent is about the last play left for George W. Bush.

The ComCon

Remember "compassionate conservatism," the alleged new ideology of non-bureaucratic activism on social problems that Bush trademarked in 2000? It's back, in the president's rhetoric at least. Indeed, you'll probably hear quit a bit it in tonight's debate (gotta do something to fill the void left by all those "this is hard work" references, which became such a universal object of derision). The "compassionate conservative" label is a classic Karl Rove two-fer: (1) it's reassuring to the millions of Americans who aren't too keen about old-fashioned, uncompassionate conservatism of the Newt Gingrich, let-em-go-to-orphanages variety; and (2) it's appealing to the religious conservatives of the GOP base, who do generally believe the Lord wants them to help the poor and sick along with banning abortion and gay relationship and building a missile defense system. The Christian Right also, of course, likes the so-called Faith-Based Organizations initiative that's been the centerpiece of the ComCon agenda. But like so many signature Bush initiatives--indeed, like all of them that don't involve cutting taxes for the wealthy or invading Iraq--the reality behind the rhetoric is pretty feeble. If only to get yourself ready to hoot at the screen tonight, you should definitely check out a new Progressive Policy Institute study that concludes Bush has done little or nothing to advance his "compassionate conservative" agenda. Most astounding, when you think about it, is that despite the three separate major tax bills he's pushed through Congress, Bush hasn't lifted a finger to implement his biggest ComCon proposal: making charitable contributions deductible for non-itemizers. In fact, given the baleful impact on charities of Bush's drive to eliminate the estate tax, and the lousy economy, it's pretty clear his term in office has been a terrible experience for both religious and secular charities. The PPI study makes it abundantly clear that ComCon is just a con. It would be nice if the president were willing to admit it and say: "Compassion... that's a word they use in Washington, DC."

October 7, 2004

The Reform Mask Slips

If I'm right in suggesting that the Bush-Cheney campaign is in the process of pivoting towards an old-style Liberal!Liberal!Liberal! campaign seeking to Dukakisize John Kerry, a big part of the message will be that George W. Bush and his party are brave reformers seeking to bring Washington under control. That may seem preposterous to anyone who knows the iron partisan control the GOP exercises over the federal government today, but intellectual honesty just doesn't matter at all to these guys. What could really step on this message, of course, would be real-life events that expose the GOP's power-lust, and its eager embrace of all the corruption that comes with political power, especially among people who actually oppose using government for any higher ends. And that may be happening right now. Tom DeLay, having set a new modern record for rebukes by the House Ethics Committee, is in serious trouble, with investigations continuing into his possible involvement in a whole host of sleazy tactics used by his friends to plan, finance, and engineer the Great Texas Power Grab--the GOP's successful effort to force a second redistricting of TX congressional districts to pad the party's margin in the House and further insulate DeLay and company from any troublesome meddling by voters. But there's another story that could pack even more dynamite against the GOP's drive for perpetual control of Washington. The Senate investigation (led by retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and the very unretiring Sen. John McCain) of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff is unfolding an incredibly tawdry tale of shakedowns and influence-peddling, involving a guy with close and deep connections with the whole rogue's gallery of conservative gangbangers--Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist, to mention a few. And speaking of our ol' buddy Grover, his baleful influence was illustrated again today in the WaPo op-ed pages. You may recall that Grover got into a little hot water recently when he penned a column for a Spanish newspaper that cheerfully predicted the Democratic Party was literally dying off as those inveterate socialists of the Greatest Generation went off to the welfare state in the sky. Grover squawked that he was misquoted, but today that staid symbol of conservative respectability George Will recycled (without attribution) exactly the same argument in all its cynical and malicious glory. Indeed, Will managed to lower the tone of Norquist's argument by adding the smear that fear of losing its funding base among trial lawyers and public employees is the only reason Democrats oppose Bush's domestic agenda (conversely, BTW, Karl Rove has been known to argue that destroying the Democratic donor base is the primary reason his boss wants to enact tort reform and shrink the more progressive precincts of government). Now, I obviously don't know if the DeLay and Abramoff ethics probes represent tempests in a teapot or another Teapot Dome. And maybe I'm exaggerating the significance of a guy like George Will buying into the Norquist-Rove reduction of every public policy question into a scramble for cash. But we already know the Bush claim to be a "reformer with results" is nonsense, and that the GOP's claim to be the anti-Washington party is outrageous nonsense. The question is whether the mask of deception will slip in time for voters to do something about it.

October 6, 2004

Here Comes the Bush Pivot

I've been figuring for a while now that BC04 would eventually begin to pivot at least partially from the "flip-flop" attacks on John Kerry to the more conventional conservative argument that JK is an old-fashioned, big-government, tax and spend liberal. If Bush's new stump speech, unveiled today in the NE Pennsylvania cockpit of one battleground state, is any indication, the pivot is fully underway. It's a very primitive and totally negative speech, emblematic of a president who can't claim the political center and thus is determined to shove his opponent to the fringes by sheer assertion and extensive misrepresentation of his record. Aside from focusing on some random 1972 Kerry statement on the role of the UN (we all know how substantive Bush was three decades ago, right?), the speech repeats the usual GOP lies about Kerry's defense record; accuses Kerry of an inveterate desire to raise taxes and expand government; and heavily features the one-year "most liberal Senator" rating of Kerry by the National Journal, a claim the DLC demolished months ago. It's hard to believe that the president, whose fiscal record is a disaster, and whose administration and party bestride Washington like a colossus, is trying to make John Kerry the candidate of Big Government and of runaway federal spending. But if we know anything about BC04, it's that it treats facts and reason, and the intelligence of the American people, with equal contempt. Get ready for some real outrages.

Best of the Veep Debate

If you want a Big Picture analysis of last night's veep debate, check out today's New Dem Daily. The most my exhausted brain can manage is a list of Superlatives: 1. Best Pure Debate Point: After Edwards did his indictment of Halliburton, and Cheney declined to respond within the assigned thirty seconds, Edwards took the unused time and went through the same argument, word for word. Pull that one across the flow chart, judge. 2. Best Rebuttal: When Cheney did the usual trial-lawyer bashing number, Edwards responded in a way that (a) described the problem, (b) showed more emphathy than Cheney for doctors with high malpractice insurance premiums, and (c) came down emphatically on the side of injured regular folks--and with a personal anecdote to boot. 3. Cleverest Cheney Gambit: The veep's reflection on the humble origins he shared with Edwards was smart for three reasons: (1) most Americans probably assume Cheney grew up with oil derricks in his back yard; (2) he needs something humble in his background to counterbalance his striking lack of humility today; and (3) it's always good to identify with po' folks when you have the demeanor of a bank president foreclosing a family farm, and you're making the argument that rich people deserve more tax breaks. 4. Most Disingenuous Cheney Gambit: There's a lot of competition for this one, but my fave was the veep's sorrowful expression of bafflement about the decline of bipartisanship in Washington. That's kind of like a strip mall developer wondering why the traffic's getting so bad. 5. Best ripostes I wish Edwards Had Delivered: (1) When Cheney sneered about Edwards' poor Senate attendance record, he might have responded: "With your party running the Congress, what's the point of showing up? I haven't missed anything important. Schedule some real business, and I'll punch the clock." (2) When Cheney claimed (inaccurately) that he had never met Edwards, he should have said: "It's hard to meet a man who spent two solid years in an undisclosed secure location." 6. Best Psych-War Tactic: KE04's arragement to have Pat Leahy sitting in the front row, 7. Greatest Disconnect Between Words and Body Language: Cheney's warm "thank-you" to Edwards for talking about his lesbian daughter. The Veep clearly wanted to repeat the anatomically impossible suggestion he made a few months ago to Leahy. 8. Best Zinger Edwards Couldn't Use, But It Woulda Been Fun: Two nominations: (1) if Cheney had repeated Bush's litany on Kerry's terrible disrespecting of Brave Coalition Ally Poland: "The Polish government just announced it was pulling its troops out of Iraq by year's end. As Gerald Ford's chief of staff, Mr. Cheney should know better than to talk about Poland." (2) After Cheney's "global test" tirade: "I don't know why the vice president is so hung up about this word "global." The earth is a 'globe,' you know. It's not flat. The economy's not doing well. And your Iraq policies aren't working." 9. Most Questionable Sartorial Choice: Cheney's red power tie was definitely coals-to-Newcastle. If I were him, I'd have fished out that Snoopy tie he received as a gag gift at the last Halliburton Christmas party. 10. Best Opening Line Either Candidate Could Have Used: [with a British accent:] HELLO CLEVELAND!

October 5, 2004

Where Does Bush Worship?

In the best blogger tradition, Amy Sullivan has decided to keep pointing out that the famously faith-based President of the United States doesn't seem to go to church very often, and certainly hasn't joined any congregation of believers. Her hope is that somebody on the campaign beat will start watching for signs of Bush's relative interest in expressing solidarity with the Mystical Body of Christ (the term that both Bush's Methodists and his family's Episcopalians apply to the Church), much as they track John Kerry's every approach to the altar rail. In her latest post on the subject, for The New Republic, Sullivan disposes of all the excuses offered for Bush's disinclination towards community worship, and points out that Republicans are forever citing frequency of church attendance as a key dividing line between the Red State faithful and the Blue State spiritual slackers. Moreover, she rightly suggests the question is relevant because Bush himself has made his faith so central an issue in his presidency, and his campaign. I'm reminded of a famous quote from a less culturally polarized time in our history, when a reporter asked the wife of Mr. Republican, Senator Robert Taft, where he worshipped on Sunday mornings. She blurted out: "At Burning Tree," naming the congressional golf course.

More Yardage Figures on the Ground Game

In a new post on the New Republic site, John Judis sifts through the evidence about new voter registrations in a number of battleground states. His conclusion is that Dems are doing a lot better than their rivals in the Midwest, while they're trying to catch up with earlier Republican efforts in Florida. Remember, though: boosting voter registration is just stage one of the Ground Game. The real key is voter turnout. And I remain convinced that Dems will have a big advantage there, because (1) high-turnout elections currently favor Democrats, (2) the peripheral voters most likely to vote Democratic are more geographically concentrated, making turnout efforts more efficient, and (3) Democrats are investing a lot more money and people in turnout efforts than the opposition. And also remember this: you gotta get close to even in the "air war" for persuadable voters before the Ground Game really matters. Current polls are generally showing that Kerry is now drawing even with Bush. And as Mark Penn notes in today's WaPo, the CW that there are no "swing" voters this year is rather obviously being undermined by the large swings in support for Bush and Kerry over the last month.

The Donkey Welcomes the Moose

Back when the blogosphere was in its infancy, one of the most influential and entertaining blogs was Marshall Wittmann's McCainiac site The Bull Moose. While The Moose took shots at Democratic Orthodoxy on more than one occasion, his real ire was aimed at the desecration of the Republican Party by the unholy alliance of Neo-Gilded Age corporate cronies and the organized Religious Right--the very forces that spearheaded George W. Bush's savage 2000 primary campaign against John McCain. Wittman shut down his blog upon answering the call of duty and going to work for McCain as his legislative director. But now that McCain has decided to cast his lot with the Elephants one more time, The Moose has sprung loose of the GOP and has gone to work for the DLC and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute. Here's a link to his explanation of his decision to defect, and of his belief that John Kerry offers a far greater possibility for a revival of the Teddy Roosevelt progressive tradition than the unreformed and money-mad Bush-era Republicans. Soon Wittman will bring back the Bull Moose blog in some form. NewDonkey welcomes him to the DLC menagerie.

October 4, 2004


While watching my Georgia Bulldogs demolish LSU this weekend, I couldn't help but think about the last time I watched these two teams play. 'Twas early December of last year, and I was visiting a friend of mine who was working for John Kerry in New Hampshire. This was the absolute nadir of the Kerry campaign; he was trailing HoDean by more than 30 points in NH, and had just begun to shift staff and money to Iowa in a high-stakes gamble to revive his candidacy there. The Boston press was pounding its junior senator day in and day out, and every sign pointed to a humiliating defeat. Kerry's staffers were putting on a brave front, and were still working insane hours (I watched my friend spend 30 minutes in a restaurant trying to talk our waitress into attending one of those ubiquitous firehouse chili dinners). But there was a smell of death about the whole thing. Thanks to a blizzard that shut the campaign down for a day, I was able to talk my buddy and a couple of other pols into watching the SEC championship game. It was a brutal LSU wipeout, just not competitive at all, made worse by the fact that we ran out of food and beer during the first quarter. I left Manchester the next day feeling like I had escaped the Village of the Damned. It's hard to believe that was just ten months ago. The recent brief swoon of the Kerry campaign--which has apparently ended--was laughably minor compared to what it went through just weeks before its Iowa and New Hampshire wins. The cliche is that Kerry is a "good closer." Where I come from, we'd say his campaign is a fourth-quarter football team. P.S.--Let me be clear that no, I am suggesting any ties between the University of Georgia football team and John Kerry, or between LSU and George W. Bush (or Howard Dean, for that matter). I actually love the "Gret Stet of Loosiana" and all its honorable traditions of both football and politics.

Gallup Makes It Officially a New Race

In case you missed it, the new Gallup/USA Today/CNN poll (taken October 1-3--after the first presidential debate) has Kerry and Bush tied at 49 among LVs. The last Gallup had Bush up 8; the one before that showed a 13-point Bush lead. This is significant because Gallup has consistently shown Bush as stronger than most other pollsters, sparking a big debate in the blogosphere about its partisan weighting scheme and other geeky controversies. The poll's internals include two especially interesting findings. Most of the "character" and "issues" questions show a modest, but not dramatic, trend towards Kerry since the last Gallup. But the poll asked two new "character" questions: which candidate "expresses himself more clearly" (Kerry 54, Bush 41) and "is intelligent" (Kerry 48, Bush 38, with 11 saying "both" and 1 saying "neither"). Could it be that some Americans are beginning to think it might be a good idea to have an articulate and intelligent president? How French of them! The new Gallup also shows that Camp Kerry decisively won the post-debate spin wars. On the night of the debate, Gallup found that Americans thought Kerry won the contest by a 57-37 margin. In the latest poll, the margin grew to 59-25. Everything about this poll suggests a dead-even race. It will be interesting to see if Gallup is again an outlier in showing Bush doing relatively well. The next batch o' polls should give us an idea.

October 3, 2004

Anti-Government Incumbents

I noted in my last post that the fall-back attack line the GOP is pursuing on Kerry and Edwards in addition to the "flip-flop" charge is to accuse the Democrats of being old-fashioned tax-and-spend, Big Government liberals who are also weak on defense. But while these would appear to be logically inconsistent charges, there is a theme that connects them: Democrats are the party of Washington, where Big Government and duplicity go hand in hand. This theme, moreover, enables Bush to avoid responsibility for the performance of the federal government on his watch, and to pose once again as a "reformer" struggling against high odds to fix the mess on the Potomac. From any objective point of view, this line of argument is truly grotesque. Republicans completely control the executive and legislative branches of the federal government (and arguably, viz. Bush v. Gore, the judicial branch as well). And they are running Washington with a degree of partisanship, ideological zeal, and power-lust that exceeds the worst excesses of the long period of Democratic control. The GOPers have deliberately engineered budget deficits through both tax and spending policies. The size of the federal workforce is rising again after declining during the Clinton years, even if you don't count the explosion of federal contractors. Both these trends are reflected in the robust economy of the DC area, where the theme song of Republican rule could be Happy Days Are Here Again. So: why isn't every Democratic candidate for federal office railing against those WashingtonRepublicans? It's a mystery even deeper than Al Gore's reluctance to run on the successful record of his own administration in 2000. I discuss this anomaly incessantly with a wide array of Republicans (who chuckle happily about it) and Democrats, and have heard two basic theories. One is that Democrats believe government is "their" institution, even if they don't control it. The other is that they believe bashing Washington will discourage the Democratic "base," and have decided instead to bash corporations like Enron and Halliburton. I hope the first theory isn't true, because it actually reinforces the Republican claim to be the anti-Washington party, even as they swell with the power and influence of controlling Washington top to bottom. And the second theory reflects an understanding of the electorate that's simply wrong. As a soon-to-be-released DLC study will show, both independent voters and "peripheral" voters (those who often don't vote but might--i.e., the object of Democratic turnout efforts) lean towards Democrats in favoring an activist government that tries to address big national challenges. But they also are hostile to government as an institution, and want to be reassured that government can be made efficient and responsible for results. In other words, exploiting Republican control of a big, fat, debt-ridden government that doesn't accomplish much of anything is a message that helps Democrats with both of their big targets in this election cycle. The DLC has long argued that Democrats need to understand that anti-government populism trumps anti-corporate populism, every day of the week. But this year, Democrats don't have to choose: Republicans are using big government to entrench economic privilege. The GOP is on the horns of a dilemma, and Democrats would be smart to keep them there rather than letting them pretend they care about Big Business more than the Big Government they have placed at its service. Perhaps the sheer hubris of Republican claims of hostility to Washington will wake Democrats up to the political opportunity they have been given, and to the political liability they invite if they pretend the federal government is still "theirs." Letting a party led by George W. Bush, Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum pose as brave reformers of a corrupt Imperial City is just plain wrong.

Back to the Beginning

Sorry for the absence of posts over the last two days. I was at this Fiscal New Year party, and things got out of hand, and the bail bondsman wouldn't answer his cell phone.... No, I'm joking. I've been moving since Thursday, and am finally back online amidst boxes, cleaning supplies, and a menagerie of disoriented cats and dogs. Bailing out of the chattering classes for a couple of days enables me to hit the refresh button and look at the presidential race without the distraction of all the post-debate spin. It looks like, at long last, we're back to where things stood in April or May, before the pre-Boston Kerry Surge and the post-New York Bush Surge had people thinking this thing might not be a nail-biter after all. Kerry's focus is Bush's record at home and abroad. Bush's focus, just as it was in the spring, is the endless pounding of Kerry as a flip-flopper. Bush's approval ratings have gone up slightly, but the closer we get to November 2, the harder it will be to raise them further. And it continues to appear this will be a high-turnout election where Democrats have an advantage in the ability to selectively boost turnout. The only enduring trend since the spring that favors Bush is the narrowing of the battleground. Kerry has more "must-win" battleground states than the incumbent, including one (Wisconsin) where Bush seems to have a really surprising lead. Ohio and Florida remain the big prizes. There's some evidence Kerry has closed the gap in Ohio after a couple of weeks of polls showing a large Bush lead. And no one really knows what's going on in water-logged and distracted Florida. The one thing that's clear about the two remaining presidential debates, and the veep debate on Tuesday, is that Kerry and Edwards have an inherently easier mission than the incumbents. They must simply rebut the flip-flop charge, without falling into the trap of the GOP's backup attack theme, that they are tax-and-spend big government liberals who are weak on defense. Bush and Cheney must deal with their record, and with the objective reality that record has produced. That's much more of an immovable object.