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December 31, 2004

Lessons Learned, Part IV

There are plenty of other political lessons we learned in 2004, but I think I'll conclude with what we learned about our dear ol' fightin' donkey, the Democratic Party. On the plus side, we learned we could get through a tough general election battle, after a fractious nominating process, with extraordinary unity. It wasn't always easy, but we made it look that way. We learned it was possible to use technology to create a whole new, decentralized, small-dollar donor base, reducing an advantage the GOP has had in small-dollar funding for a generation, and enormously increasing the overall amount of money available to our candidates. The diversification of the party's financial base also reduced our dependence on big-money sources ranging from corporations to trial lawyers to unions, without significantly diminishing these sources. We learned Democrats could at least begin to compete in the "new media" sources of political commentary and advocacy previously dominated by conservatives, ranging from radio to cable TV to the Internet and its boisterous spawn, the blogosphere. And we learned that Democrats could win younger voters. Although there were not enough of them to make a big difference this year, Democratic strength in the younger cohorts of Americans is a good and important sign for the future. On the minus side, we learned that self-identified Democrats no longer outnumber Republicans for the first time since the New Deal. We learned that a lot of the negative perceptions of the Democratic Party that we thought had gone away during the Clinton administration were simply dormant. We learned that all the excitement, enthusiasm, and money generated by the Dean/MoveOn/Blog phenomena of 2003 are not necessarily transferable into votes. We learned that we could use a new generation of pollsters and campaign consultants. And we learned that Republicans have now gained a geographical advantage in the country that undoubtedly gives them an edge in control of state governments, of the U.S. Senate, and (indirectly, through redistricting) of the U.S. House, and a strategic advantage in presidential campaigns as well. The post-election analysis among Democrats has been relatively free of recriminations (though the brewing campaign for the DNC chairmanship threatens to change that happy situation), with the main divide separating those who think the party needs to significantly change to become competitive in broader parts of the country, and those who think we just need to raise more money, excite more activists, and attract more Hispanic voters, and things will be just fine. While most Democrats agree that we should now become (in Washington, at least) a loud-and-proud opposition party, there is less consensus about the positive message Democrats should stand for. And some of us, especially at the DLC, are worried about (a) the tiny investment we are making as a party on new policy ideas--we're basically all living off the policy thinking of the Clinton administration; and (b) the relative lack of interest in the current intra-party debate about Democratic state and local elected officials, who deserve at least as much attention as grass-roots activists and Washington consultants in plotting the course forward. It's been a painful but instructive year for this Donkey, and for all of us. And may we toast the New Year with a prayer for unity, imagination and courage.

Bowling for the New Year

At my age, and after a lifetime of changing perspectives on just about everything, there aren't that many rituals that take me right back to early childhood, other than the passion of Election Night and the feeling of renewal that accompanies Easter Morning in every variety of Christian faith. But then there's New Year's Day, when every single atavistic southern chromosome in my body drives me to a television to watch college football. It surely ain't what it used to be. In those pre-ESPN, pre-BCS days of my childhood, you would get in front of your black-and-white television with its three channels right after a gut-busting lunch of turkey and ham, and switch back and forth (without benefit of a remote) between the Sugar and Cotton Bowls. After a brief break from eating still more wonderful and non-nutritious food, you'd tune in to the Rose Bowl, followed immediately by the prime-time Orange Bowl, which would usually end at about midnight. There was no "championship game" unless a traditional bowl was lucky enough to get a number one/number two matchup, and no trophy presented on national TV. Us serious college football fans were dimly aware at the time that there were big monetary stakes involved in these New Year's games (with the Rose Bowl being the richest), but none of us could have told you the payoff for a particular bowl within a hundred grand, which was real money then. And there were no--repeat, no--corporate sponsorships of bowl games, no Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, much less bowls named completely for the sponsor like the ludicrous Continental Tire Bowl (it's a small miracle that small children will not be exposed this year to a Viagra Bowl, but just wait). Tomorrow morning, I will not be able to follow the exact ritual of my childhood, because my team, the Georgia Bulldogs, will be playing at 11:00 a.m., in a bowl named after a certain pseudo-Australian steak house known for its inspired variation on the traditional southern onion ring. I probably won't bother with the later bowls, just as my interest in the March presidential primaries has lagged unless the outcome happens to matter. But for at least three hours, I will join my distant cousins and red-and-black-state compadres in watching every play from the money-stained, corporate-dominated Outback Bowl, making barking noises where appropriate. This will signal my own recognition of the continuity between the year passed and the year ahead, and the importance of ritual in coping with an era that seems dangerously evergreen.

Sauce For the Gander

Washington's Secretary of State (a Republican) has now officially certified Christine Gregoire's election as Governor by 129 votes following a hand recount of ballots, the last stage in the state's process for recounting votes in a very close election. But losing GOP candidate Dino Rossi, who had taken to calling himself "Governor-elect" after holding infinitesimal leads prior to the hand recount, is not accepting the certified results, and is demanding a new election. There was nothing shady or unexpected about Gregoire's taking the lead after the hand recount. Most Washington counties use optical scanners, a voting method which, despite its many virtues, tends to produce a significant number of counting errors, usually to the detriment of Democratic candidates. A few weeks ago, Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox told me she was certain Gregoire would ultimately prevail for that very reason. As for Rossi's refusal to concede, there is, of course, a great deal of irony in the inability of a Republican candidate to accept a Republican certification of an election. As I am sure we all remember, George W. Bush's success in the 2000 post-election legal wrangle owed a great deal to his campaign's decision to treat certification of the results as a "final victory," and to denounce the Gore campaign's efforts to secure hand recounts as an attempt to overturn the results. In this case, we not only have a certified result, but a certified result following a hand recount, so Rossi is hardly entitled to bitch. I recommend that Washington Democrats speedily begin referring to Governor-elect Gregoire as "Governor," and to her vanquished opponent as Dino "Loser" Rossi. Sauce for the geese, sauce for the gander.

December 30, 2004

Lessons Learned, Part III

Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about "cultural issues," but in this post, I'd like to take on the subject more systematically. There's been a less-than-illuminating back-and-forth debate on the importance of "moral values" in the 2004 elections that's been going on since November 3. Some observers saw that "moral values" was the single most important factor cited by voters in the Edison exit polls, and went stampeding off into a variety of colorful hysterics about the vast gulf in weltanschaung between "red state" and "blue state" Americans. Others then noted both the vagueness of this category, and the unnatural importance assigned to it by the exit-poll practice of dividing up other issues (e.g., national security and domestic governance) into smaller categories that diminished their apparent significance. But these same observers often stampeded off into ridiculous overstatements of the irrelevancy of cultural issues, typically by arguing they were no more significant this year than in 2000--which is a bit like saying that baseball salaries aren't too high because they didn't much go up over the last twelve months. The first step towards clarity about "moral values" is to distinguish the two very different ways in which this term is typically used: (a) the relative ability of politicians to frame their biographies, their principles, their agendas, and their messages in terms that convey a distinct sense of the values that matter more to them than personal power and ambition; and (b) a set of concerns about "moral issues" which typically touch on various perceived threats to "traditional values," including the nuclear family, parental and social authority, personal responsibility, the strength of faith communities, and in general, the belief in the ability of Americans to perceive and enforce clear standards of "right" and "wrong" behavior. There is a pretty strong consensus among Democrats today that we need to do something to strengthen the party on the first definition of "moral values." And that's a very good thing. As a coalition party, Democrats have to try harder than the ideologues of the GOP to articulate the values that unite them, even as they sometimes disagree on policy positions or political strategies. And as the party of public sector activism, Democrats inherently have a more complex agenda and message than the ostensibly anti-government Republicans, and have to try harder to avoid the gobblydegook language of government programs and policy nuances. This should not be a matter of simply wrapping Democratic policy positions in "values language" or, God forbid, "God Talk." What's needed is a re-engineering of Democratic message to place values first, policy goals second, and programmatic ideas third and last. And for those of you who think of the DLC as unprincipled, poll-driven opportunists, I will mention here that we have been conducting values-based message and agenda training for state and local elected officials for seven years, pushing literally hundreds of Democrats, many of whom had no prior relationship with us, and some of whom disliked us going in, into rethinking their basic principles, uniting around values and big policy goals, and then developing an ideas agenda aimed at reflecting those values and implementing those policy goals. In many cases, these Democrats came up with policy positions the DLC would not necessarily agree with, but we didn't care (please note this, Kos, since you consistently claim the DLC is determined to impose some ideological litmus test on the party). I'm not arguing that there's anything unique about our approach, but Democrats of all stripes should undertake something similar, as a matter of principle and of political survival. But it's the second definition of "moral values"--the one that deals with what we think of as "cultural issues"--that hangs fire among many Democrats. The case for trying to improve Democratic performance among voters worried about "cultural issues" is pretty obvious: we are consistently losing millions of voters, especially white non-college educated men and women, whose economic interests would normally indicate support for Democrats. And to those who argue that only a hyper-populist economic message can win these voters back, the big counter-example is Bill Clinton, who won them in both 1992 and 1996, in no small part because he was able to deal with cultural issues more directly and sensitively, without in any way abandoning progressive policy positions. What did Clinton do that Al Gore and John Kerry couldn't do on cultural issues? He did two simple things: (a) projecting a message that acknowledged the legitimacy of cultural concerns, and found common ground, as in making abortion "safe, legal and rare," and defending both gay rights and the right of states to define marriage; and (b) directly addressing concerns about cultural threats to the traditional family by advancing a limited but family-friendly agenda of proposals (derided by pundits at the time) like expanded family leave, youth curfews, school uniforms, and V-chips. And had the issue fully emerged during his presidency, there is almost zero doubt that Clinton could have found a way to support public partnerships on social projects with faith-based organizations in a way that honored religious communities' contributions without abandoning separation of church and state. Simply emulating Clinton's approach would be a good first step towards de-toxifying cultural issues, but in today's more polarized and mistrustful atmosphere, Democrats must do more. And the obvious place to start is by extending the routine Democratic demand for corporate responsibility to the entertainment corporations which purvey the sex-and-violence saturated products that emblemize the threat to traditional culture so many Americans perceive. The unwillingness of many Democrats to "go there" is strange but pervasive. Some, of course, simply view Hollywood as a reliable source of campaign contributions that must not be criticized, a cynical approach that reinforces every conservative stereotype about the party. Others change the subject by claiming that any effort to promote some self-regulation of entertainment products amounts to censorship or even repression, as though the utterances of Paris Hilton, as opposed to those of Joe Camel, merit judicial protection. And still others resist the very idea of "compromise" with the yahoos who watch reality shows three hours a night but profess to deplore the hellbound direction of American culture. (History, of course, shows repeatedly that the most culturally threatened people are those who are complicit in the tranformation of culture from what they honor to what they desire). It's not that hard for Democrats to identify with, and reassure, culturally threatened Americans that they live in the same moral universe, and that they are vastly superior to the GOP in their ability to manage change--economic, cultural, and geo-political--in a way that reflects our common values and respects our differences. But we can't do that if we continue to deny or minimize this problem, or pretend that cultural concerns are a fool's substitute for material matters. The lesson we learned in 2004 is that our obtuseness on "moral values"--in both the senses discussed above--enables a cynical and in many respects immoral GOP to pose as the cultural champion of people they fully intend to betray. And continuing to let them do that is the ultimate, damning judgment on the "moral values" of Democrats.

December 29, 2004

Lessons Learned, Part II

The next stop in the discussion of lessons learned during this painful Year of Our Lord 2004 is the subject of Democrats' difficulties in projecting a strong and confident message and agenda on national security. There's a reasonably broad consensus among Democrats on the importance of this problem for the Kerry campaign, though (a) there are still those who believe Kerry should have largely conceded the issue to Bush and just hammered away at the economy and health care, and (b) there are even more (perhaps four out of five supporters of a certain Doctor) whose idea of a "strong and confident" security message was to simply and loudly oppose the invasion of Iraq. At the other end of the consensus are those, for whom The New Republic has been the major post-election sounding board, who think security dwarfs every other Democratic handicap, and who argue for a forceful repudiation of non-interventionist and "soft multilateralist" views as a threshold requirement for Democratic recovery. Perhaps the first step we should take in properly assessing the security issue is to recall that this has been a persistent problem for at least a quarter-century. Anyone who didn't live through the Carter administration as a news-watching adult can barely imagine the extent to which the last pre-Clinton Democratic president became identified with U.S. weakness and futility. The botched hostage rescue attempt in 1980 was the absolute nadir in modern American military and diplomatic prestige. And in the 1980s and through the First Gulf War, Democrats were divided on national security issues, while Republicans got (unearned) credit for the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and a series of easy military victories in Granada, Panama and Iraq. Bill Clinton did a lot to lay to rest the post-Vietnam legacy of weakness and division of the Democratic Party on security matters by deploying military force, though the Kosovo intervention was the only action that resembled the previous administrations' relatively cost-free victories. But frankly, and this is important to remember today, the American people did not much care. You probably have to go back to the mid-1930s to find a time when the U.S. population was so resolutely uninterested in world events as it was in the 1990s. Mark Penn did a survey for the DLC in 1997 that used a technique called "conjoint analysis," which aimed at discovering which options in policy positions in four broad areas (economy, role of government, "values" and international affairs) most determined the decision to vote for one candidate over another. To our shock (and, as Democratic internationalists, our dismay), Penn found that there was virtually no position on international issues, encompassing national security, foreign relations, and trade, that could "turn" a voter. And this disinterest was not simply a matter of post-Cold War fatigue or "isolationism:" political and economic freedom appeared to be sweeping the globe with little or no direct involvement by the U.S. government or military. Aside from Kosovo, the "national security" debates of the Clinton era generally revolved around exactly how fast to pare back defense spending, along with relatively marginal arguments about military pay, base closing decisions, and a few weapons systems. So: when it is said that "9/11 changed everything" in terms of the political importance of national security, we should remember that the sense of disjunction was partly attributable to the remarkable, and historically anomalous, 1991-2001 era it replaced. In many respects, the country returned to its pre-1991 psychology, which included persistent doubts about the national security credentials of the Democratic Party. And that's the background--raised in even higher relief by a 2002 cycle in which Democrats kept trying to change the subject to domestic issues--against which the impact of national security on the 2004 presidential election must be assessed. At an analytical level, John Kerry did a creditable job of handling national security issues, especially towards the end of the campaign when he consistently blasted the administration for an Iraq adventure that distracted from the war on terrorism, essentially adopting the Bob Graham-Wes Clark "right idea, wrong Arabs" approach of opposing the war on national security grounds. But he never achieved the simplicity of the Graham-Clark message, in part because of his own wandering views on Iraq, and in part because the other elements of his national security agenda sounded like a Foreign Service School master's thesis, which a lot of fine detail but little in the way of a clear overarching theme. And that's where Bush and his allies really nailed him as a guy who had trouble making decisions about national security without an extraordinary number of qualifiers. The "87 billion" issue was devastating because it offered what appeared to be a simple choice of supplying the troops or not, and Kerry came across as a guy who couldn't satisfy the commander-in-chief qualification of decisiveness on national security, running against an incumbent whose message was that he would never think twice about using force when he thought it was necessary to protect the country and its interests. Mesmerized no doubt by polls showing increasing public doubts about the wisdom of the Iraq war, Kerry's advisers pushed him to exploit that weakness at every stop. In the end, however, the folly of the admninistration's Iraq policy did little or nothing to undermine public faith in Bush's record on fighting terrorism generally, and that, not Iraq, was the ball game on national security. At a subrational level, many Americans who were disturbed by the course of events in Iraq--and retroactively, by the deceptions Bush used to get the war going--probably sized up Bush as follows: some Arabs killed a lot of Americans; Bush killed a lot of Arabs, and whatever else happened, there were no more attacks on the United States. Kerry's critique of Bush's record never adequately addressed those feelings, while reinforcing Republican claims that Kerry would be another Jimmy Carter, all talk and deliberation, but little or no action in difficult cases. Now that we are past the "first-post-9/11" presidential election, and the original decision to invade Iraq is becoming less relevant to the present situation, are Democrats over the worst of their national security handicap? Can they unite around a credible and distinct message and agenda that convinces a majority of Americans they can be trusted to defend the country decisively, but more intelligently than the bellicose and unilateralist GOP? There are real grounds for optimism here. At the level of policy elites, there's not a lot of disagreement among Democratic foreign policy thinkers about the road forward for America, even if there remain disagreements about the road that led us to Baghdad. Early this year, the DLC's think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, helped put together a manifesto entitled Progressive Internationalism that presented a tough, smart, clear foreign policy strategy for the country that was highly critical of Bush without succumbing to defeatism in the war on terror or ignoring the real differences that will continue to cause problems between the U.S., our traditional allies, and multilateral organizations. A very broad array of Democratic foreign policy gurus signed onto this document. It's probably a good first draft for Democratic unity on international issues going into the next election cycle. But on the other hand, there are differences of opinion among Democrats--especially among party activists--that go deeper than Iraq. As University of Maryland professor and long-time DLC advisor (and, for the record, a vocal opponent of the decision to invade Iraq) Bill Galston has often pointed out, when asked if they believe U.S. military power is, on balance, a force for good or evil in the world, Americans endorse the positive view by a four-to-one margin. But the vast majority of the 20% who take what might be called the Michael Moore position are Democrats. This is the reality that led Peter Beinart in his now-famous post-election essay to argue that Democrats will never shake their reputation of weakness, irresolution, and yes, even anti-Americanism until they decisively repudiate this point of view, even if it means intra-party heartburn. Now, it's possible that after another four year of governance by George W. Bush that 20% figure will rise to something approaching an electoral majority (though it almost certainly will not do so in places like the South). And it's also possible, as Noam Scheiber argued in his response to Beinart, that Michael Moore Democrats will loyally support an overall foreign policy they don't necessarily agree with in the broader interest of getting rid of the incompetent warmongers of the GOP. But unsettling as it is, this is a subject that will require continued, honest debate among Democrats over the next two-to-four years. The main lesson we learned on national security in 2004 can be summed up by the warning Bill Clinton provided Democrats nearly two years ago: given a choice, Americans will support candidates who are strong and wrong over those who are (or who appear to be) weak and right. In George W. Bush, we had the perfect example of strong-and-wrong, so it's clear the continuing weakness of the Democratic Party on national security had a lot to do with his re-election.

December 25, 2004

Xmas in God's Country

Happy Holidays to everyone, and to my co-religionists, Merry Christmas. Down here in Central Virginia, it's a relatively peaceful holiday, though the peacock nearly froze last night; the water pump from the spring went out for the second time in a month yesterday (potentially the result of sabotage by a jealous wannabe land owner); and my kid's new dog devoured a ham bone intended for the beanpot. Also late yesterday afternoon, I was sent on an essential supply run to the one place in the region still open: yes, that pariah of all left-thinking people, Wal-Mart, packed right up until closing time with less-than-prosperous looking folk trying to squeeze five toys for their children into a four-toy budget. It was a good illustration of the tangled morality of "low-road" retailers: which struggling families benefit, and which suffer, and who has the scales to measure it all? I certainly didn't as I struggled to the parking lot loaded down with a small bag of loot and a large bag of guilt, with not an economist in sight to make me feel definitively better or worse. In any event, despite my strong antipathy to Christmas commercialism and greed, I'm happy with my own haul of presents: Bruce Chilton's Rabbi Paul, Michael White's From Jesus to Christianity, Jessica Stern's Why Religious Militants Kill, Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America, and one CD, Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose, which combines the skills of two of my favorite country and rock 'n' roll talents (the latter, of course, being Jack White). I got yet another book, entitled Enslaved by Ducks, a humorous account of a man's gradual servitude to family pets, but can't find the author's name because the dog's already destroyed the cover and the title page. I'll continue my posts on political lessons learned in 2004 tomorrow or so, but now it's time to pack up all the wrapping paper I bought from various school fundraisers over the last year and decide whether to assuage my residual Christmas guilt by taking them twenty miles to the county recycling bin. BTW, in entitling this post with the abbreviation "Xmas," I'm reminded that an earlier version of the right-wing campaign to convince Christians that secular humanist jackboots are about to kick down their doors and smash their Christmas trees occurred during my childhood, when certain religious figures claimed "Xmas" was an effort to take "Christ out of Christmas." It was years before I realized that the "X" was for the Greek letter "Chi," an early Christian abbreviation of "Christ."

December 22, 2004

Lessons Learned, Part I

It's traditional at the end of the year to take stock of the previous twelve months and derive lessons learned. And when it comes to politics, we Democrats have been subjected to some tough schoolin.' So between now and New Year's Eve, I'll do a series of posts outlining what we've learned and what remains in the realm of debate and (sometimes) dissension. Perhaps the most surprising development of 2004 was the re-election of a president with a shaky record, a vague (at best) second-term agenda, and a strategy focused on ideological polarization and base mobilization. This is the first time since 1948 that such a strategy has worked for an incumbent president, and it's arguably only the second time (the other being 1988) since then that a presidential candidate has won while doing relatively little to reach out to swing voters and other "persuadables." Some Democrats have interpreted this development as a clear sign that we should do likewise, forgetting about swing voters and simply doing everything imaginable to get our own base excited. Of course, some of those same Democrats would favor that strategy no matter what the 2004 results indicated. Let's don't forget that people like Joe Trippi were arguing a year ago that the best model for Democrats was the Goldwater '64 approach of slow but steady movement-building around a hard-core oppositional message. There are several problems with this proposed "lesson learned." 1) Bush's polarization strategy worked in no small part because conservatives outnumber liberals by a three-to-two margin nationally, and by better than a two-to-one margin in some relatively competitive "red states." This means Democrats have to win moderates by a sizeable margin; Kerry won them by 11, and it wasn't enough. It's hard to see how a Democratic strategy of pure counter-mobilization will do anything other than reinforce the conservative advantage in a polarized electorate. 2) As Mark Gersh showed in his recent Blueprint analysis of three key battleground states, the Kerry campaign hit virtually all of its own "mobilization" targets for Democratic voters. For the foreseeable future, and for a variety of reasons, Democrats cannot expect to regain the advantage we had in get-out-the-vote efforts up through 2000. And while it's entirely possible to find fault with the Kerry campaign's difficulties in presenting a sharp, compelling critique of the Bush administration (its strange refusal to criticize the Republican Party as a whole being exhibit A), I don't think anybody could seriously argue that the Democratic base was poorly motivated in the end. Bush himself took care of that chore for us. 3) Despite its relative lack of attention to swing voters, the Bush campaign did indeed have a message for the country as a whole, and a strong, if often savage and dishonest, litany of abuse designed to raise doubts about Kerry as the alleged avatar of Northeastern Elitism and pre-Clinton liberalism. One way to "occupy the political center" is simply to push the other guy out by claiming he's more extreme. The Bushies did an excellent job of doing just that, and in the absence of a clear and compelling positive message from Democrats, it was enough to tilt a close election to a weak incumbent. 4) It took the conservative movement 16 years after Goldwater to take over the Republican Party; and another 14 years after that to take over Congress. And the 2002-2004 elections represent the very first signs that they have achieved a real national majority--an incredibly tiny and fragile majority at that. This doesn't strike me as an especially promising path for Democrats to take; we need to win immediately, not after some long period of ideologically rigid "movement-building," because the damage the GOP will do to this country if given even a short period of dominance is horrifying. For all these reasons, I think there's a growing consensus among Democrats today that (a) mobilization of partisans and ideologues is not enough; we need a persuasion strategy as well; (b) we're the out-party now, and no longer have any excuse for behaving as the Party of Government; (c) you just cannot win a presidential election without a clear, overarching message, defined as a theme or two that explain what you propose to do to organize public resources to address the needs and interests of the American people at home and abroad; and (d) that message must, for the foreseeable future, address the perceived weakness and incoherence of Democrats on national security issues; the perceived elitism and relativism of Democrats in terms of their understanding of the direction of American society and culture; and the perceived obsession of Democrats with a program-heavy, values-lite approach to economic and other domestic issues. There's plenty of room for argument about how to deal with all four of these lessons, but it's useful to keep reminding ourselves that all four are at least as important as, and perhaps much more important than, the money and mechanics that political pros tend to favor as the solution to every problem.

December 21, 2004

Christ and Christmas

Nothing, it seems, not even the Season of Peace and Good Will Towards Men, can evade today's great secular idol, the conservative kulturkampf. Until I read E.J. Dionne's column in today's WaPo, I was only dimly aware of, and in some sort of unconscious mental triage had decided to ignore, the right-wing campaign to convince Christians there is some sort of conspiracy to deny them the right to celebrate their religious holiday. Frankly, I don't much care that Fox News types or conservative politicians are fishing in these religiously divisive waters. But it bugs me no end that (it appears) some Christian leaders and rank-and-file, at the very time of year when they ought to be pondering Christ's gospel of humility and reconciliation, are instead posing as victims and demanding universal recognition of their faith. Have Christians forgotten how many early martyrs died because of their refusal to pay homage to the "universal" religion of the Romans? And have Protestant Christians (who undoubtedly make up the vast majority of those upset at the resistance of Jews, Muslims, and the irreligious to the idea of demanding univeral acknowledgment of Christmas) forgotten that the imperial establishment of Christianity by Constantine was the beginning of what the Reformers considered the "Babylonian Captivity" of the Church? And speaking of the Reformers, have today's heirs (including Presbyterians, and indirectly, Southern Baptists) of the Scots Reformer John Knox forgotten that official celebration of Christmas was actually banned in Scotland until well into the twentieth century, as a "pagan" feast? I'm prejudiced on this subject, believing, as I do, that Knox might have been right for the wrong reasons: Christmas is spiritually dangerous not because it's a holdover from "idolatrous" Roman Catholicism, but because it has become intimately associated with values--greed, commercialism, and insincere family conviviality--that have nothing to do with the Feast of the Nativity, and its profound underlying idea, the Incarnation. The Incarnation is as radical, unsettling, and difficult an idea as ever, and Christians would do well to spend the season meditating on it, and respecting the Divine Image in everyone they meet. That approach is incompatible with a triumphalist demand that everyone they meet bend the knee to the questionable trappings of their holiday tradition, and even more incompatiable with the claim that Christians in a free country are being persecuted if they must suffer under the handicap of equality.

Not a Detail Man

TAPPED's Sam Rosenfeld noted that the President got a tad touchy during yesterday's rambling press conference when he was questioned about the details and feasibility of his Social Security proposal. “I know what you’re trying to get me to do. You’re trying to get me to answer ‘Why this,’ ‘why that,’ to take positions -- don’t bother to ask me.” Geez, I thought it was Bush who had raised the whole subject, as the touchstone of his second-term domestic agenda and his bold, amazin' plan to make this an "ownership society." But it's typical of him to get exasperated when he's asked to address any kind of policy details beyond the talking points he brings to the podium. It reminds me of a great Will Rogers story from World War I. At a time when German U-Boats were regularly sinking Allied shipping in the Atlantic Ocean, Rogers announced he had a solution: "Let's just drain the Atlantic." Asked how he would accomplish this bold stroke, he replied: "That is a detail, and I am not a detail man." That's George W. Bush, all right. But Rogers didn't fill the Atlantic; Bush has indeed deliberately engineered the fiscal crisis that makes his Social Security proposal so exceptionally dangerous and deceptive.

December 20, 2004

Rummy's Heart of Stone?

As the drumbeat of criticism of Donald Rumsfeld's handling of Iraq spreads across party lines, his boss, George W. Bush, went out of his way at today's snap press conference to defend Rummy's heart. "I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart," quoth he. "I know how much he cares for the troops." I know Bush was responding in part to unhappiness about Rumsfeld's insensitive handling of a Q&A session with those troops he cares so much for, and to a new report that Rummy uses an autopen to sign condolence letters to the families of troops killed in the line of duty. But still: this defense of Mr. Defense was off the mark. If we wanted a "sensitive" SecDef, there are, oh, about 250 million Americans who probably have better credentials than Donald Rumsfeld. He was hired because he's supposedly a management wizard with exceptional knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of the U.S. armed forces. And personally, I'd forgive him all sorts of "insensitivity" if he had proven himself competent to prosecute a war of choice and a post-war transition in Iraq. But he hasn't, and shows no signs that on-the-job training has improved his competence. His inveterate arrogance is dangerous not so much because he cannot put himself in the place of the men and women he's placed in peril, but because, like his boss, he has an extraordinary inability to conduct a mid-course correction in his policies and practices. My colleague The Moose nailed it yesterday when he compared Rumsfeld to Robert S. McNamera, another management wizard who could not accept the evidence of his eyes that his state-of-the-art strategy for victory in Vietnam was failing. I don't personally care if Rumsfeld has a heart of stone. But his head of stone is another matter.

No Easy Road, No Easy Code

Okay, sports fans, my official, substantive response to David "Sirota's Democrats' DaVinci Code" is now up on the American Prospect site for your reading pleasure. The bottom line is (a) there's no silver bullet for winning in "red states," and if there was, it probably wouldn't be "economic populism"; (b) "populist" means a whole lot of different things, mostly good, sometimes not so good, that cannot be conveyed simply by intoning the word; (c) demonizing "trade" without an alternative strategy for dealing with globalization is bad policy and questionable politics; and (d) abandoning Clinton's political tradition is perilous if you want to win red states, since he did and his successors didn't.

December 19, 2004

Posh Offices, "DLC Suits," and Best Wishes

Since Matt Yglesias discharged the task of defending the DLC's honor against the multiple calumnies hurled at us by David Sirota in recent weeks, I was able to send off on Friday a response to the substance, such as it is, of the "Democrats' Da Vinci Code" article in The American Prospect that launched this silly food fight. But there are two personal details that neither I nor Matt got around to mentioning, which require a response for the record. The first is Mr. Sirota's lead sentence in his piece in The Nation, which refers to Al From "looking out over Washington" from his "posh office." Actually, Al's office looks out over a parking lot. And The Moose, who has worked for a wide variety of Washington organizations, including a couple of labor unions, assures me that Al From's office is the least posh he has seen for any chief executive. As a prominent member of the DLC's corporate-funded Power Elite, I should mention that my own office is a rabbit warren constantly threatened with condemnation for Toxic Chaos, and for the loud, eccentric, and entirely non-corporate music I play after-hours. And I take particular umbrage at the assertion Sirota made in his response to the NewDonkey post about his Prospect article, to the effect that I am a "DLC suit who's never been outside the beltway." Excuse me. I have spent most of my life outside the beltway; spend every weekend outside the beltway; travel constantly outside the beltway; work for an organization whose main focus is outside the beltway; would never be described by my associates as "well-heeled," or, on most days, as a "suit." People don't always, or even often, match the stereotypes of people who don't actually know them. I learned that myself when I got down here to the country, and after feeding the livestock, got the internet access puffing and wheezing into life. I found a new email from David Sirota that informed us that he was off to get married, and thanked us for a "good debate." In my religion, the Sign of Peace trumps every dispute, because it's the only way we can approach God together as people divided, but united in our common need. I wish David Sirota and his spouse a blessed event and a wonderful honeymoon, and will include them in my prayers. And let's all get a fresh start in the New Year, and argue, if we must, over things of real substance.

The Over-Reaction to the Over-Reaction

One of the things that makes me crazy about the chattering classes of Washington is the dialectical interaction that invariably takes place after every major election. Somebody writes a column that focuses on a particular interpretive factor. Seven other people write columns pointing bright red arrows to this analysis, and hailing it as The Final Word. Then still seven more people write columns "debunking" the Final Word, and before long, the Final Word is not only inaccurate, but totally, absolutely wrong, and worthy of deep contempt. A case in point is the question of the impact of "moral values" on the 2004 elections, and the broader issue of the cultural divide between "red" and "blue" America. No doubt about it, some analysts over-emphasized the "moral values" question on the Edison exit polls as an interpretation of the presidential outcome, but only to the extent that they claimed it was a bigger factor than in 2000. It was, however, a very big factor in 2000. And those who denigrated the impact of "moral values" in order to stress the importance of the national security issue undoubtedly ignored the extent to which security itself is a moral, cultural issue to many voters. All this back and forth is probably useful, but at this particular moment, the over-reaction to the over-reaction to "moral values" is getting a little out of hand. While home this weekend in Amherst County, Virginia, I was driving down to the local dump with a big load of flotsam and jetsam when I heard through the mountain static snatches of an NPR show in which host and guest were hurling brickbats at anybody who thought there was such a thing as a cultural divide in this country. The whole "red state, blue state" thing was an hysterical construct by East Coast naifs who had never really visited "flyover" country, they avidly agreed. I got the sense the idea these guys had of "red America" was from visiting places like, say, Big Sky ski resort or Austin, Texas, but the real irony is that they were replacing one hysterical East Coast oversimplification with another. Splitting my time as I do between DC and Central Virginia, supplementing a resolutely red-state background of four decades in and around Georgia, I think anybody who denies the cultural divides that undergird contemporary politics is nuts. Amherst County is a poor, nonindustrial, and in many ways feudal community, where most po' white folks vote Republican. And the big conflicts here are not between rich and poor, or black or white, but between "been heres" and "come heres." There's a local guy we've hired to do some odd jobs that my wife and I are not around to do; he likes us, and is happy for the work, and he and I share a beer now and then and talk about most everything. But he knows we are Democrats, and made a big point of telling us that he and his wife had gotten up with the roosters to go vote for George Bush and cancel our votes. That theirs was a "cultural" vote, in part in friendly but proud opposition to "come heres" like us, is pretty clear. This is hardly a unusual situation. Back in Georgia twenty years ago, I used to do community development work up in the mountains of North Georgia, and just about everything revolved around conflicts between the locals and the "Florida People," the term for second-stage retirees who had moved there in pursuit of high vistas and low taxes. And as I often remind those "economic populists" who are horrified at cultural conservatism as representing some sort of repressed class conflict that leads to the "false consciousness" of Republican voting behavior: culture, region, ethnicity, religion, and group reaction to big traumatic events like the Civil War have always had a bigger impact on partisan identification in this country than economic class. It didn't first appear in 2000, and whether or not it increased or decreased in 2004, it's there, and it cannot be wished away.

December 16, 2004

St. Matthew

In the midst of an insane week here at the Day Job, I've been laboring away at a response (which Prospect Executive Editor Mike Tomasky asked me to do) to David Sirota's American Prospect piece, "The Democrats' Da Vinci Code," which among other things demonizes the DLC and the "pro-corporate" tendencies of Bill Clinton that the author feels have inhibited Democrats from the winning red-state message of 100% pure economic "populism." I've been laboring at this, because the industrious Mr. Sirota has the rare ability to knock out, oh, about 10 questionable assertions (and in the case of the DLC, outright distortions) per paragraph, so it's tough to cover it all without sounding defensive or quarrelsome. So: after returning from a long but useful session on the future of the Democratic Party in the South sponsored by Ruy Teixeira and Todd Lindberg's "Left-Right" discussion group, I fired up the email and literally groaned when I saw yet another message from Mr. Sirota (this one, usefully, did not include any supplementary insults) advertising yet another DLC-bashing piece he's written for The Nation. Other than observing that Sirota had finally found an appropriate venue for his venom, my main reaction was to think: "Jesus, man, how can you make a career out of demonizing us if you don't give the devil his due opportunity to respond?" Fortunately, the Prospect's Matt Yglesias intervened (on his personal web page) and quickly "debunked" Sirota's "Debunking Centrism" piece, through the simple expedient of showing that Sirota's characterizations of the DLC are entirely at odds with what the organization actually says, does, and stands for. As Matt notes, he's no syncophant or regular supporter of the DLC; nor has he been the beneficiary of any of that satanic corporate money that Sirota thinks we keep in big sacks around the office. So far as I know, Matt has never even had the opportunity to chow down on any corporate-funded sandwiches at our frequent policy forums. But he does think, as I do, that intra-party disputes, and especially those as unprovoked as Sirota's, ought to be based on actual disagreements rather than straw-man charicatures or ad hominem attacks, and for that, I offer Matt a very hearty thanks.

December 14, 2004

Do Corporate Subsidies Violate the Constitution?

Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris laid down an interesting challenge the other day on the Political Animal site. Noting a Court of Appeals ruling in Ohio that declared state and local tax subsidies to corporations re-locating within the U.S. a violation of the Commerce Clause, Glastris suggested that progressives might be able to unite behind this idea as a way to dramatize our opposition to corporate welfare. Unlike Glastris, I do have a law degree, but my Commerce Clause training is a couple of decades old, and I'm skeptical that this holding would survive Supreme Court review. I have always, however, believed that the economic development philosophy that underlies most corporate subsidies is deeply flawed, and should in fact become a point of attack for Democrats nationally and in the states. The Progressive Policy Institute's Rob Atkinson has been a consistent critic of development strategies based on individual corporate subsidies and on the theory that lowering business costs (as opposed to improving the overall business climate, which includes a good environment, first-class public education, strong research institutions, and a highly trained workforce) is the right way to attract private investment and good jobs. The DLC has also promoted this advice to state policymakers near and far, noting that if low business costs were the true measure of economic development potential, then Mississippi would be the economic dynamo of the nation and the world. Reading through the comments to Glastris' post, I was surprised at their general tenor: sure, most respondents said, it would be nice if we could curb smoke-stack chasing through corporate subsidies, but it would also be political suicide. I don't know about that. In my own home region, the South, there has been a raging debate in economic development and political circles for years on this subject. Way back in the late 1970s, then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas began shifting his state away from this approach, arguing instead for home-grown industries and a higher quality of life. For the most part, Georgia has avoided incentives-based competition for companies, particularly the high-stakes bidding wars over big auto plants. Mark Warner has focused Virginia's economic development strategy on better education, stronger work-force development, and deployment of new technologies, especially in rural areas. And with the possible exception of Alabama, I don't think there's any southern state exclusively committed to the old approach, though recent Republican gains in the region may well turn the clock back significantly. Where I may differ from Glastris is that I don't think this is the sort of subject where Democrats should simply rely on the courts, much less champion court intervention. States and localities should give up on the corporate-subsidy, low-road, market-our-weaknesses approach because it's simply not the right path to long-term, high-wage, high-quality-of-life development, not because they are told to by the courts. Moreover, if I understand the court of appeals ruling (which I, too, have not yet read), it sounds a little too sweeping. There's nothing wrong with offering industry-wide (as opposed to company-specific) inducements to private capital that don't begger public services or compromise local workers or communities. Customized training, industry-labor-educational institution partnerships, or highly targeted and enforced job tax credits may sometimes make sense, and may reinforce a community's overall strengths without creating a race-to-the-bottom competition with other communities. (Here's a link to a good resource for separating the sheep from the goats in providing business development incentives.) But I'm really glad Glastris brought this up, because the general habit of recruiting capital through corporate subsidies is not only hard to shake, but is a perfect reflection of the kind of economic growth strategy the Bush administration is trying to impose on the whole damn country.

Gersh Does the Numbers

For those of you with an unslaked thirst for post-election analysis, Mark Gersh, probably Washington's most respected Democratic number-cruncher, offers a detailed look at the late presidential election in the new edition of Blueprint Magazine. After drawing a few general conclusions, he gets down into the nitty-gritty of the results in three key battleground states: Pennylvania, Ohio and Florida. Gersh's main point is that the Kerry-Edwards campaign actually did as good a job as can be expected in turning out the Democratic base vote. But it wasn't enough in Ohio and Florida, and was barely enough in PA, because the Democratic percentage of the electorate is shrinking. We need a persuasion as well as a mobilization strategy in the future, and we need to expand the base, not simply motivate it to turn out. The full article is available online through the link above, but if you want to see the cool, multi-colored, county-by-county charts Gersh produced, you'll have to get the hard copy.

December 13, 2004

Clouseau for Homeland Security

As the unanswered questions about now-abandoned Homeland Security Secretary nominee Bernard Kerik continue to mount, I've stopped thinking about Kerik and started thinking about the rich irony of an administration that can't seem to conduct a competent background check trying to appoint this guy as head of the department whose ability to conduct competent background checks is kind of important to the task of keeping the rest of us alive. I mean, I don't know the ultimate truth about Kerik, and I gather he was a pretty good Top Cop, but Lord-a-mighty: forget the nanny stuff, which by now should be a basic part of the vetting process. You've got allegations of mob links, financial improprities, violations of ethics rules, threats against a former romantic interest, cronyism, and who knows what's next? And nobody was able to ferret out any of this damaging material, unless Kerik brought it forth himself? Makes you wonder if the sleuthing model of this admninistration is Inspector Clouseau.

Jerry Whatshisname

Opening up the WaPo op-ed pages today gave me a nasty jolt. "Mr. Kilgore's False Start" was the title of the lead editorial, which rapped the Republican Attorney General of Virginia for a typically demagogic comment pointing out that Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine, his probable opponent for the governorship next year, once defended death row inmates. I've been dreading this for a while. Certainly people who happened to be named Bush or Nixon or Reagan have gone through this in the past, but my own name is rare enough outside Georgia, Alabama and Texas that people just naturally assume I'm related to ol' Jerry, especially since I live in Virginia. Already I've gotten used to introducing myself to Virginia Democratic folk with the immediate disclaimer: "No relation, biologically or ideologically." There's certainly nothing about the name that would naturally connote the infinitely snooty Virginia Republican pedigree. "Kilgore" is a classic Scotch-Irish Appalachian name, redolent of red clay hills, pioneer rambling, and a taste for 100 proof Calvinism and moonshine, often at the same time. The name itself means "tender of goats," or perhaps "church by the goat stream," with "goats" being the unmistakable root. But to my sorrow, this honorable cracker name will be associated for at least the next year with the agenda of the Virginia GOP. I've thought of avoiding the problem by temporarily adopting a hip-hop name like "Special K" or something. But why should I? I'm older than Jerry, and am putting our common name to a better use. It kinda reminds me of an incident back in the McCarthy era, when some Republican Congressman arose on the House floor to demand that the Cincinnati Reds baseball team change its name to avoid association with Godless Communism. One of the Reds' players (doubtless with a jaw full of Red Man to clinch the point) quickly responded: "Let the Communists change their name. We had it first."

Don't Let Them Fricassee Misty & Eeyore

Boy, the stuff that keeps trickling out about the Big Fat Omnibus Appropriations Bill that the GOP Masters of Washington put together is just amazing. You've got the language that allowed congressional appropriations staffers to peer into every federal tax return in America. You've got the grimy little gotcha that transportation cardinal Ernest Istook pulled on northeastern and midwestern Republicans who had the temerity to call for more AMTRAK money. And now, you've got the rider nestled into the bill by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) that would overturn three decades of federal law and policy to authorize the sale of wild horses and burros on federal lands to foreign-run slaughterhouses for consumption at upscale eateries in France, Belgium and Japan. For a calm, reasoned analysis of the Burns howler, check out today's New Dem Daily. But I can't help but wonder what Democrats could do with this development if we were as nasty and dishonest as Republicans. You know what we'd do? We'd print up millions of flyers with four images: one of Burns, one of Misty of Chincoteague, one of Eeyore, and one of an obese Frenchman with a huge napkin tucked into his shirt, eying a big platter of mystery meat. "SAVE OUR FRIENDS!" the text would scream. "CALL MR. BURNS IN WASHINGTON AND TELL HIM TO STOP THE KILLING NOW!" And we'd distribute the flyers outside every elementary school in America.

Toxic Thermidor

The Moose and I have been hinting for a while that the slowly unfolding scandal involving conservative godfather Jack Abramoff, former Tom DeLay staffer Michael Scanlon, and a series of incredibly cynical shakedowns of Louisiana and Texas Indian Tribes, could be The Big One in taking down a generation of Republican hucksters while exposing the internal rot and corruption of the Conservative Establishment in Washington. This scandal, which a variety of federal law enforcement agencies, and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee (now under the chairmanship of Establishment Right bete noir John McCain) are investigating, has already implicated Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and Rep. Bob Ney of OH, and more importantly, could shine a big spotlight on the extent to which Mammon is the true God of today's self-righteous conservatives. But there's more: in the latest Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson interprets the scandal as signalling the death throes of the Republican Revolution of 1994, the event that brought so many of the players in the Abramoff affair into proximity to power, despite all their talk about cleaning up the Augean Stables of Washington. This is a pretty big deal, if you recall that The Standard was essentially created to serve as the voice of that Revolution. And Kristol's magazine is not the only source of charges that the Revolution is expiring in a toxic Thermidor of corruption and power-mania: no less a figure than Newt Gingrich has expressed disgust with House Republicans' hubristic decision to publicly and preemtively protect Tom DeLay's power against the possibility that he will be indicted for a major felony. Aside from its symbolic importance, the Ferguson piece is a useful connect-the-dots account of the scandal, and of the personal relationships in the conservative movement that helped Abramoff set himself up as the Big Dog on K Street. My favorite quote in the piece is what Grover Norquist said back in 1995 when Abramoff first set himself up as a lobbyist: "What the Republicans need is 50 Jack Abramoffs. Then this becomes a different town." Not much question about that.

December 11, 2004

Reform Democrats

There is, praise Jehovah, a growing consensus among Democrats that we have to become a "reform" party in order to properly critique the ever-growing pig-sty in Washington that the GOP is wallowing in, and also in order to build trust with an electorate that still views the Democratic Party as representing government to voters rather than the other way around. True, many Democrats who are sharing the reform pew don't trust each other to sing from the same hymnal. Dean/MoveOn types think of Clintonian New Democrats as The Corporate Establishment, no matter how often we shriek (as we've done for more than a decade) about ending corporate welfare and opposing corporate cronyism. And we Clintonian New Democrat types aren't sure Dean/MoveOn insurgents understand that the Washington status quo includes the leaders of many of the Democratic interest-and-constituency groups they think of as the party's base. And all of us fear that Congressional Democrats will be tempted to view themslves as the once-and-future barons of important committees and subcommittees rather than as a besieged minority fighting for survival. But a common acceptance of the imperative of being a reform party is a good start. And we ought to be able to agree on a few basic reform agenda items. The DLC has suggested election reform, political reform, budget reform, and tax reform as a start, and there's no particular reason I can think of that any Democrat, regardless of ideological background, should object to that agenda. Our current plight reminds me of an anecdote about two southern legislators who went out on the town with the state prison warden. Fifteen drinks later, the solons were a little out of control, and the warden, having no better idea, took them back to the prison and put them in a cell to sleep it off. Next morning one of the legislators woke up, ran to the barred window, looked out on the exercise yard, saw the guard towers, and ran over to his colleague and yelled: "We're in the penitentiary. Do you remember them putting us in here?" And the other legislator, head in hands, replied: "Hell, I don't even remember the trial." We need to forget the arguments about how we got into our current political trap, and concentrate on getting out, and that means some serious jail-breaking, hell-raising ideas for reform.

December 10, 2004

Green Day

Have you given up entirely on Congress or the administration doing anything constructive on the environment? Couldn't really blame you, given the recent record, and the general attitude of Washington's current management that environmental initiatives reflect either (a) the ravings of pagan eco-terrorists who want snail darters to take over every middle-manager's back-yard swimming pool, or (b) the secret comeback strategy of socialist central planners to control the commanding hights of the economy. But a lot of people have forgotten that the first big round of environmental initiatives in the early 1970s began not in Washington but in the states, and that most recent progress on the environment has involved place-based local coalitions like the one that helped avoid an eco-catastrophe in the Chesapeake Bay. Maybe it's time to look around the country to find ways to regain national momentum towards a better environment. Check out a new report from the Progressive Policy Institute that outlines four "green strategies" that federal policymakers should be urged to emulate, before it's too late.

From Montpelier, With Love

Since my last post, I continued my travels from Colorado to Vermont and back home to Virginia. In Vermont, I helped facilitate a DLC "values-based agenda-setting" training session for a large group of Democratic elected officials, most of them part of the party's new majority in the state legislature. As has been the case in many of the sixteen or seventeen similar trainings I've co-facilitated over the last seven years (all in all, nearly 500 state and local elected officials have gone through this program), some of the participants came in with pre-conceived, and often mixed or negative impressions of the DLC. This was particularly true in Montpelier where, as you can imagine, a lot of Democrats are big fans of their former Governor, Howard Dean. But I'm reasonably sure just about everyone left the training happy, and with a very different view of the DLC, since the whole purpose of the training is to help Democrats wherever we go better articulate their own values, and develop policy goals and ideas tailored to the particular needs of their states. There's no "left, right or center" in these sessions, and nobody postures as the only "real Democrats;" we treat each other with equal respect. Why do I mention this? Because the blogosphere is beginning to crowd up again with some intra-party venom, much of it related to the DNC chairmanship competition, and a fair amount aimed at the DLC as a favorite whipping boy. But I saw none of that in Vermont, in Colorado, and in Alabama, the three wildly different places where I've work with diverse groups of Democrats over the last two weeks. Don't get me wrong: I am not for party unity as an end in itself, and if there are real matters of principle, strategy or policy we need to fight about, then let's choose up sides and have at it. But I am tired beyond belief of fights among Democrats based on nothing more than labels, stereotypes, conspiracy theories and name calling. I didn't see that in traveling round the country, but it's never more than a click away online, and in Washington. So I'm glad to be home, but after many fine days of working with elected Democrats of every stripe who are rediscovering their common values, I'm sad to be back in the land where my immediate challenge is whether to dignify the likes of David Sirota with a response to his latest round of baseless ad hominem attacks on me and my colleagues as evil corporate agents selling out working people to the Bavarian Illuminati, blah blah, bark bark woof woof. This sort of "dialog" is a lose-lose proposition, and it makes me want to go back out where Democrats are more interested in win-win discussions.

December 8, 2004

Code Red

Yesterday I got via the email transom an article, slated for publication in The American Prospect, entitled "The Democrats' Da Vinci Code." The author, one David Sirota, sent along his piece with a missive saying, in part, that "various 'red state' and 'red region' Democrats are already showing the party how to win in conservative areas. The key is to fundamentally reject the corporate/DLC argument--and follow those who continue to win with a progressive populist message." (emphasis in original). That let me know right away that Sirota is one of those guys whose knowledge of the DLC is unencumbered by any actual information on what we believe, write, say and do, other than what he's picked up on the Democratic Underground site, or in the Collected Works of Bob Borosage. It turns out the whole piece pretty much lives down to my initial expectations. I hate to sound like a pointy-head here, but the argument Sirota's making--that economic 'populism' of the most atavistic sort trumps cultural conservatism--has been around for a long time, dating back at least to the early '70s. Yet Sirota seems to think he's the first to discover it; hence the "Da Vinci Code" title, and article's breathless claim, repeated often with the tone of revelation, that beating back the Cultural Right is real easy if you just keep appealing to the ol' pocketbook. But it's the specific examples cited by Sirota for his post-election satori that are especially weird. He was involved with Brian Schweitzer's campaign in Montana, so unsurprisingly the Governor-Elect of that state is his Exhibit 1. And he usefully explains how Schweitzer blasted Montana Republicans for corporate subsidies, government inefficiency, and poor public lands management to win--without, of course, realizing that these are strategies the DLC has strongly and repeatedly endorsed. But you wouldn't know from Sirota that Schweitzer also (a) chose a Republican as running-mate, (b) endorsed a ban on gay marriage, or (c) vehemently opposed gun control in any form. I'm not approving or disapproving of these actions, but it's pretty clear Schweitzer himself didn't think populism made it unecessary to deal with cultural issues on their own terms. Sirota goes on to list a lot of other red-state Democrats who have succeeded by defying the "corporate/DLC argument," and most of them are actually politicians with long-standing close connections with the DLC: Ken and John Salazar of CO, Janet Napolitano of AZ, John Spratt of SC, Eliot Spitzer of NY, and Stephanie Herseth of SD. But the bizarre nature of Sirota's definition of a "progressive populist" is illustrated by his constant references to two House Members: the Socialist independent from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, and the Blue Dog from Mississippi, Gene Taylor. You don't have to be a political whiz to know that Sanders is the at-large Congressman from Vermont, a state that gave John Kerry a 20-point win over George Bush. That state's relevance to a discussion of "red-state and red region" Democrats is mystifying, to say the least. As for Taylor, this "progressive populist" is a guy who (a) voted to impeach Bill Clinton, (b) voted for Bush tax cuts, and (c) has supported virtually every socially conservative piece of legislation that's ever come to the House floor. The only way to shoehorn Sanders and Taylor as fellow "populist progressives" is to make opposition to trade agreements the sole definition of both "populist" and "progressive," and sometimes that seems to be the thrust of Sirota's argument. But if that's the case, perhaps the roughly one-third of House Republicans who routinely vote against trade agreements deserve another long look from "progressives." And perhaps that great opponent of "corporate free trade," Karl Rove's idol William McKinley, was the real "populist" in his two presidential campaigns against free trader William Jennings Bryan. In any event, if you feel compelled to read an argument for the "populism trumps culture" totem, give Sirota a pass and read Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas." At least he's readable and very funny.

The Dean Shadow Box

Today former Gov. Howard Dean gave his big speech in Washington on the future of the Democratic Party, presumably as the first public shot in his campaign to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He said Democrats should compete in all 50 states. That's right. He said Democrats should proudly proclaim their values. That's right, too. He said grassroots organizing and small-donor fundraising will help Democrats win. Yep, no doubt about it. He said Democrats should stand for universal access to health care, fiscal responsibility, strong public schools, retirement security, a strong national defense, and above all, an agenda of reform, reform, reform. I couldn't agree more. But before he said all those things I agree with, he did an odd bit of shadow-boxing: "Here in Washington, it seems that after every losing election, there's a consensus reached among decision-makers that the way to win is to be more like Republicans.... if we accept that philosophy this time around, another Democrat will be standing here in four years giving this same speech. We cannot win by being 'Republican-lite.' We've tried it; it doesn't work." Maybe I've spent too much time travelling around those states Governor Dean says we're going to take back, but I haven't heard anybody arguing that we should "be more like Republicans." Who is Dean talking about? Zell Miller? And who, exactly, tried "Republican-lite" and lost a presidential election? Is he talking about his friend Al Gore, who endorsed his candidacy in 2004? Is that his take on John Kerry's campaign? On one occasion during the nomination contest, and more notably in his recent book, Dean pretty much accused Bill Clinton of the "Republican-lite" heresy. But even if you buy that notion, which would offend most rank-and-file Democrats coast-to-coast, Clinton kinda won, didn't he? Twice. I understand why the Doctor needed an intra-party dust-up for his primary campaign, but it might be time for him to throw out that stock speech and focus on the future. If there are specific matters of principle, strategy or policy we need to fight about, let's get specific about it. But if we don't need to fight, let's unite.

December 7, 2004

Bush Hatred, Redux

Boy, the New Republic is having an interesting week. Having stirred up a big controversy among Democrats on foreign policy in Peter Beinart's cover feature in the latest issue, TNR Online also offers a colloquoy between Jonathan Chait and Jeffrey Rosen about a favorite intra-Democratic topic of discussion: is it appropriate, morally and politically, to hate George W. Bush and the Republican Party? It's probably a good time to raise the subject, now that the election's over and we must all search for some semblence of equilibrium in how we will view politics between now and the next cycle. I will cheerfully admit that my own partisan fever exceeded its prior career high in late 2003, and kept going up right through election day. And for the first time in my life, I had a hard time understanding how friends and family members--people with whom I thought I shared a lot--could bring themselves to vote for the other guy. To put it bluntly, I didn't see any honest case for giving Bush a second term, and was angered by the dishonest case--he's done a brilliant job of fighting terrorists, he's a tower of wisdom and resolve, he's going to control big government, he's going to protect traditional values, he's got a second-term agenda to create an "ownership society"--advanced by his campaign. Moreover, I came to believe strongly that the real agenda of the people closest to Bush--including his political advisors and much of the Republican congressional leadership--was not only dishonest, but deeply cynical and irresponsible: a drive to simultaneously wreck the federal government and to perpetuate their control over the wreckage as long as possible through the exercise of the rawest sort of institutional power and corruption. And moreover, this belief made me angry at even those Republicans who did not share that agenda, because they were helping to promote it against their own best instincts. But do these feelings extend to Bush personally? Yes and no. On the one hand, many of his (perhaps contrived) red-state personality traits don't bother me, a red-state native, at all: the swagger, the nicknames, the scriptural references in his speeches, even the anti-intellectualism. Both Chait and Rosen say Bush reminds them of certain children of extreme privilege they knew in high school. I didn't know anybody who went to prep schools or had Ivy League--much less Top Ruling Class--aspirations when I was in high school, so Bush doesn't bring back those kind of memories. What I most dislike about Bush personally is his happy complicity in the GOP myth-making machine that treats him not as a rich kid who found a new spiritual home in Texas, but as the opposite: a salt-of-the-earth character who's achieved world-historical greatness as the Winston Churchill of his time. That's a double lie, and he lives it every day. And maybe that's the bottom line. I think today's Republican Party, and its leader, are built on a foundation of fundamental dishonesty about who they are, what they want, and where they are taking the country. As a Christian, I will endeavor not to hate them for that. As an American, I will endeavor to respect those who voted for Bush, because after all, they have as much right to the franchise as I do. But until they demonstrate the ability to walk, or perhaps I should say swagger, in a straight line, I will continue to hold the president, his advisors, and his allies in Congress in minimum high regard. That did not change on November 3.

December 6, 2004

Beinart's Challenge

The current issue of The New Republic features an article by its Editor, Peter Beinart, that's creating a continuing and widening stir in Democratic circles. His argument, to boil it down to its essentials, is that today's Democrats need to do what their predecessors did at the beginning of the Cold War: unambiguously make a commitment to warfare against totalitarianism (in this case, the illiberal ideology of jihadist Islam) central to the party's message, and disassociate themselves from those who won't make that commitment. The article is fascinating, in part because it serves as a reminder that Democrats actually did have an internal struggle, resolved by Harry Truman's 1948 re-election, during which anti-anti-communists, emblemized by Henry Wallace, were a serious force in the party and in the labor movement. Two comments on Beinart's piece--both by Democrats who share his basic belief in a tough foreign policy message--illustrate the most debatable points of his argument. Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly's Political Animal contests the analogy Beinart draws between Stalinist communism and Islamofascism, not in terms of their similarly toxic ideological content, but in terms of the tangible threat they pose to life and limb (in a follow-up post, Drum makes it clear he's not denying the analogy, but is simply arguing that it needs to be demonstrated, and offers several useful distinctions in making that case). Beinart's TNR colleague Noam Scheiber comes at the argument from a very different direction, arguing that the pragmatism of today's anti-war Left gives Democratic leaders plenty of room to adopt the kind of message Beinart is promoting, which means that a loud intra-party fight or "purge" is unnecessary. Indeed, Scheiber says John Kerry erred crucially by failing to understand how far anti-war Democrats would let him go in establishing his anti-terrorist bona fides, and suggests future presidential candidates learn from his lesson. As one who shares Scheiber's belief that Kerry could have decisively changed the dynamics of the presidential race by arguing for a "win or leave" position on Iraq, I'm symphathetic to his argument. But I think Beinart's right in suggesting that Democrats suffer significant political damage from association with highly visible public figures who basically share the European view that the U.S. has gotten unnecessarily hysterical about terrorism, perhaps for lurid reasons involving oil or Israel. Sure, Michael Moore endorsed Wes Clark, and then John Kerry, who do not agree with his apparent conviction that Bush is a greater threat to world peace than Osama bin Laden, or that Iraq was an innocent victim of U.S. aggression. But let's don't forget that Clark's implosion in the primaries was significantly fed by his identification with Moore (remember that moment when Big Mike called Bush a "deserter" while standing next to Clark on a platform?), or how useful a figure Moore became in the demonology of the Bush campaign's attacks on Kerry. Now, much more than in 1948, a candidate's message can be muddled or distorted by the company he or she keeps. That does not mean Democrats need to "purge" anybody. We are a coalition party, and none of us have the moral standing to apply litmus tests to any other Democrat. (Personally, I respect outright pacifists a great deal, even though I wouldn't be happy with entrusting them with high elected office.) And moreover, as the public debate over national security focuses more on the future than on the past (i.e., the decision to invade Iraq, which divided Democrats but not Republicans), Democratic divisions are likely to abate to some extent. What it does mean is that Democratic candidates have to make their own position on matters of war and peace as clear as possible, and to have the courage not only to stand up to a Republican president, but to discomfit fellow Democrats whose views of America's role in the world are morally hazardous and politically disastrous. The war on terror simply is not a topic on which Democrats have the liberty to hedge or fudge or change the subject; for the foreseeable future, it will be a continuing threshold credibility test for the party and its candidates. On that fundamental premise, I'm pretty sure Beinart, Drum and Scheiber would agree. And as my colleague The Moose says, this is a "heated and much needed debate in the Democratic Party."

Western Swing

I promised last week to offer some observations comparing and contrasting the situation facing Democrats in the red-state South and West. But first it's useful to take a closer look at two western states where down-ballot Democrats did especially well on November 2, despite a losing performance by the presidential ticket. I did a short post about Colorado a few days ago, noting that Democrats won a Senate seat, and a House seat, and captured both chambers of the state legislature even though Bush won by eight points. Most Dems in Washington know about the successful Senate candidate, attorney general Ken Salazar, because, after all, he was the only Democrat to win in the nine Senate contests considered toss-ups in October. And it's Salazar's brother, John, who picked up that House seat in a relatively conservative area of the state. Both Salazars ran well ahead of the Kerry-Edwards ticket in the rural communities that have been trending so sharply Republican all over the country, and both found ways to neutralize cultural issues. But the state legislative gains made in Colorado by Democrats cannot be attributed to the Salazar name and appeal. Anyone interested in the future of Democrats in the West should check out this article by Colorado DLC chief Jim Gibson that covers the full story. Meanwhile, up the Rockies in Montana, Democrats pulled off a similar triumph despite an even heavier Bush landslide. There's been some national buzz about winning gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer. But as in Colorado, Democratic gains went far down the ballot, as Democrats won all but one statewide race, and while taking back control of one chamber of the legislature while achieving a tie in the other. The Montana swing was partly made possible by the fact that the statewide election cycle coincided with the presidential cycle, which gave Democrats the opportunity to gain more attention for state-level issues than would otherwise be the case, at a time when long-dominant Montana Republicans were screwing up on a host of issues. But as the Schweitzer article I linked to above points out, Democrats there did a very shrewd thing: identifying GOP public lands management in Helena and Washington with policies that offend not only environmental activists, but also the state's massive numbers of hunters and anglers. This is an approach that might work in other parts of the West, where public lands management is an issue of continuing and overriding importance to an extent hard to comprehend back East. As in Colorado, Democrats in Montana aggressively and effectively neutralized GOP cultural wedge issues by linking their policy agendas to a clear values message, and by appealing directly to culturally traditionalist voters. Long-time DLC activists have probably heard Montana's State Auditor, John Morrison, speak on this subject at one event or another. At the DLC training event in Colorado I attended last week, I heard Morrison make another valuable observation about the intersection of values and policy in the West. Noting that there is relatively little fear in Montana about the possibility of a terrorist attack, he said Montanans' strong support for the war on terror is based on the feeling that "America should kick butt where there are butts that need kicking." Given the fondness of Westerners for very large motor vehicles, that's a line that would probably fit on a bumper sticker througout most of the Rocky Mountain region.

Back Among the Chattering Classes

After two weeks of non-stop travel, I'm finally back among the chattering classes of Washington. So I guess it's appropriate to do an immediate post about a particular DC gabfest on the future of the Democratic Party that I participated in a few weeks ago over at The Washington Monthly. The quality of the session was quite high, including as it did E.J. Dionne, Mike Tomasky, Walter Shapiro, Jim Pinkerton, and the Monthly's own Paul Glastris and Amy Sullivan. A mini-jumbo version of the transcript is in the latest issue of the Monthly, and is available on its web site. Check it out.

December 3, 2004

Billions for Marketing, But What About the Product?

Today's big political story is the preliminary FEC report on spending in the 2004 presidential elections. And the numbers are just stunning, in two respects: (1) the total spent on behalf of the two major-party candidates was a staggering $1.7 billion, up from an estimated billion four years ago; and (2) Democrats, for the first time in living memory, outspent Republicans. According to the FEC, $925 million was spent on behalf of John Kerry from all sources, while the total for Bush was a mere $822 million. The latter number, of course, doesn't even begin to match the free publicity available to Bush as Chief Executive, but still, Democratic fundraising, particularly given the party-wide panic about the likely impact of Feingold-McCain, was amazing. The WaPo report on the FEC numbers doesn't get into the breakdown of donor categories, so it might be a little early to endorse the widespread assumption that small donations, including those over the Internet, were the major source of all this new Democratic money. And I'd be willing to bet that Republicans still retained their traditional advantage in small-donor dollars, though by a narrowed margin. But amidst all the well-justified self-congratulations we'll soon hear about Democratic fundraising in 2004, there's an important point that should never be forgotten, and no, it's not just that we lost despite all that money. It's how that money was spent: basically, in ads and in voter registration and GOTV efforts--in other words, in marketing. But despite all that marketing, in the end, about 40% of voters couldn't tell you what John Kerry and John Edwards wanted to do if elected. It may be time for Democrats to make a collective decision to spend a few sheckels on the product development side of the political biz along with all the hundreds of millions they spend on marketing. That's even more important given the fact that Democrats have for too long lived off the ideas and messages developed during the Clinton administration--many of them still relevant, but now beginning to recede a bit in the rear-view mirror. Without control of the White House or either branch of Congress, where, specifically, is the Democratic institutional capacity for creating, refining, and messaging good and politically salient policy ideas? Academics? MeetUps? The new breed of talking-points distribution organizations that sprang up in 2004? Yeah, all of these can be sources of something to say, but in a party capable of raising a spending close to a billion dollars, there ought to be a little spare change under the sofa for real-live think tanks like those who have served the GOP so well over the years. We've got a few good ones, including our own Progressive Policy Institute, which gave the Clinton administration many of its best ideas, but they are pretty small operations compared not only to their conservative rivals, but to the vast array of Democratic groups focused on everything other than policy content. So: whether you're someone who squeezed $100 out of the family budget this year to try to beat George Bush, or someone with serious jack to burn, give a thought going forward to making at least a small investment in the intellectual side of progressive politics, before the well runs dry and all we are marketing is that we are not Republicans.


A thousand apologies, dear readers, for the absence of posts over the last two days, but I've spent most of them on planes travelling indirectly from Birmingham, Alabama to Aspen, Colorado, for two different DLC training events. And as you can imagine, the transition from The Heart of Dixie to Ski Country has been pretty jolting from a cultural as well as geographical point of view. Not being a skier (where I grew up, you pretty much had to be a Republican to indulge in skiing, golf or tennis--bowling was the Democratic participatory sport of choice and financial necessity), most of what I knew about Aspen before arriving here was derived from the various accounts of Hunter Thompson's Freak Power campaigns in 1969 and 1970, which culminated in the Gonzo Journalist's near-election as sheriff of Aspen County. The most memorable plank of the Freak Power platform was to change the name of the community to "Fat City," theoretically forcing private enterprises using the name "Aspen" to adopt the new monniker, a very early example of negative branding, I suppose. I haven't been into the town proper yet, and thus don't know if Thompson's prophecies of a natural wonder consumed by "greedhead" development have been fulfilled over the last three decades, though I'm reasonably sure The Doctor did not anticipate the Latte Town phenomenon of private capital being harnessed to a cultural outlook not unlike his own. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Thompson's own name and likeness emblazoned across the gates of trendy local businesses, just as his Rolling Stone co-conspirator Ralph Steadman has lent his unsettling art to Colorado microbrew bottles and ads. Politically, if Colorado wasn't exactly being swept by Freak Power in the 1970s, it was trending sharply Democratic, as reflected most notably by the Senate victory of Thompson's ol' buddy Gary Hart in 1974. And thirty years later, even though George W. Bush won the state handily, the down-ballot races here were a notable Democratic success story, with Dems picking up a Senate seat, a House seat, and regaining control of both Houses of the state legislature. This performance, moreover, gives local Democrats high hopes of toppling Gov. Bill Owens (if he runs for another term) in 2006; Owens is perhaps the national Right's true favorite for the 2008 presidential nomination. After a couple of days of conversations here, I hope to be able to offer some comparative observations on Red State Democrats in the South and the West. I won't be spending any time on the slopes, and if there's a bowling alley in these parts, it's well-hidden. CORRECTION: Bill Owens is actually term-limited, and cannot run for another term in 2006. And his "availability" as the national Right's presidential champion in 2008 is currently being clouded by rumored problems with his marriage.