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January 30, 2007

I've Got Your Back, Chris

Over at MyDD today, Chris Bowers goes on an endearing tirade about netroots denial of Hillary Clinton's current strength in the polls; apparently he's hearing a lot of talk that HRC is in the same position as Joe Lieberman was at this stage in the last cycle, and he demolishes that talk pretty effectively.But by way of introduction, Chris says: "What I am about to write will invariably result in several people calling me a Hillary supporter and / or a wholly owned subsidiary of the DLC...."I've got your back on this one, Chris. I know enough about the DLC to warrant convincingly that you aren't owned, rented, or even occasionally suborned by that organization.I don't always agree with Chris Bowers (the subject of Democrats and religion being one topic of frequent disagreement), but do admire his stubborn, reality-based determination to follow actual evidence of political trends, even if they don't conveniently fit into his own, or his colleagues', preferred "memes." I hope that I can occasionally make the same claim when my own colleagues look sideways at polls and see what they want to see.There is, in the end, this thing called Objective Reality, and if any of us diverge from it too far in order to grind factional or ideological axes, we do so at our peril.

GOPers Mull Their Lousy Field

On the day after the midterm elections, a lot of Republicans undoubtedly consoled themselves with visions of a 2008 comeback. After all, the electorate's thorough repudiation of George W. Bush eliminated any political obligation for 2008 candidates to run on the Bush legacy. A Democratic Congress would probably start sharing in the opprobrium of Wrong Track voters. And most important, early trial heats showed at least two 2008 Republican candidates, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, running ahead of all potential Democratic rivals.Eleven weeks later, GOPers are beginning to take a long, realistic look at their 2008 field, and they aren't happy about it any more. A galvanizing example (via The Plank's Michael Crowley) is a recent post by RedState's Erick Erickson, an influential conservative blogger, entitled "They All Suck." A sample:

Every one of the thus far announced Republican candidates for President sucks. From the lecherous adulterer to the egomaniacal nut job to the flip-flopping opportunist with the perfect hair to the guy who hates brown people to the guy we've never heard of to the guy who has a better chance of getting hit by a meteor while being consumed by a blue whale being struck by lightening.They all suck. (Well, okay, Brownback doesn't suck at all, but I perceive no viability for his candidacy.)
Over at The Politico, Jonathan Martin has a more conventional account of conservative unhappiness with the 2008 batch, but it adds up to the same story.To sum it up, from my own reading of the field:John McCain looked like a hold-your-nose-cause-he-can-at-least-win choice for GOPers until his own poll numbers started sliding, thanks to his choice of Iraq esalation as his bonding device with conservatives. And conservative disgruntlement with McCain is not just a matter of his past apostasy on campaign finance reform, taxes, and cultural issues. Right now he is in the uncomfortable position of being the primary Republican cosponsor, with Ted Kennedy, of immigration legislation roundly loathed by rank-and-file conservatives, and also, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, of legislation creating a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, another highly visible non-starter with the Right. For all his money, his success in recruiting big-time campaign operatives, and his continuing love affair with the media, McCain is increasingly in danger of falling between two stools in his attempted Shift to the Right.If McCain's problems are quite visible, Rudy Giuliani's are just beneath the surface, but larger. Less than a year before the Iowa Caucuses, Rudy has yet to deliver the Big Speech everyone says he must do to become acceptable to social conservatives, somehow changing his long-standing positions on abortion and gay rights. The later it comes, the less credible it will be. And worse yet, Giuliani's many years of negotiating the straits of New York politics, and of a, well, rather complicated personal life, offer a gold mine for opposition researchers. I wonder exactly when grimly serious conservative activists are going to find themselves staring at images of "America's Mayor" in drag in 1997, calling himself (a la Victor/Victoria) a "Republican pretending to be a Democrat pretending to be a Republican." If he survives that, he deserves the nomination, but don't hold your breath.Meanwhile, the audition for the "true conservative alternative" to McCain and Giuliani ain't going so well.After a good start with conservative opinion-leaders, Mitt Romney's checkered ideological past, and his sometimes vapid current message, aren't wearing very well. And on top of everything else, he has the burden of detoxifying his religion, which decades of those soft- focus LDS television ads apparently failed to do.I know a few smart Republicans who think the Newtster will catch fire. But aside from his marital baggage (which rivals Giuliani's) and his late-1990s record as a national pariah and punching bag for Bill Clinton, Gingrich is stubbornly refusing to commit to a candidacy until September, at which point his rivals will have all but taken up residency in Iowa.Brownback? Aside from being to the right of Jimmy Dean Sausage on abortion and gay rights, the Kansan has recently taken positions on immigration and Iraq that will repel many conservatives (I also wonder about the Da Vinci Code factor, since Brownback is an Opus Dei convert to Catholicism). Hagel? He's McCain without the hawkishness or the media buzz. Tancredo? Hunter? Gilmore? Give me a break.Tommy Thompson might have been an intriguing possibility in the past, but his recent gig heading up what conservatives consider an out-of-control-welfare-state at HHS doesn't bode that well for his long-shot candidacy. Mike Huckabee has been many insiders' favorite dark horse for a while, but he's off to a slow start, and must also deal with a tax increase on his watch as governor of Arkansas.The crowning irony, as Martin's Politico piece explains, is that the candidate conservatives really pine for in 2008 is named Bush--not W., of course, but Jeb:
In separate interviews, two prominent Republican strategists in Washington used almost identical language to lament that the incumbent president's brother will spend 2008 on the sidelines."If his last name was 'Smith' instead of 'Bush,' Jeb would be the front-runner," said one. "If he were 'Jeb Smith' instead of 'Jeb Bush' he'd probably be at the top of the pack right now," said the other.
Cry me a river, folks. After all, W. made it into the finals in 2000 in no small part because of poll ratings inflated by rosy memories of Bush 41, whom many respondents actually confused with his son. There's some rough justice in the fact that Jebbie's now being disqualified by his last name, which has become a millstone. Live by the dynasty, die by the dynasty, eh?Meanwhile, GOPers slouch towards 2008, grumbling the whole way.

Obama: More Than Skin Deep?

It's hardly surprising that analysis of Barack Obama's sudden viability as a presidential candidate dwells on race. He is, after all, a black man whose main source of popularity at present seems to be with white voters. Like Colin Powell, moreover, he is often described as a black man almost perfectly engineered to appeal to white voters, at potential risk to the "authenticity" deemed essential to attact the African-American voters who are so important in the Democratic presidential nominating process, at leasts when it pivots beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.Peter Beinert has an article up on the New Republic site examining the Powell parallel in detail, suggesting that Obama represents an implicit repudiation of other, more "authentic" African-American politicians, which could create a backlash among black voters generally. And last week Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post examined African-American ambivalence towards Obama, as reflected in his little-known congressional primary loss to Bobby Rush in 2000.There's also the simple data point that national polls currently show Hillary Clinton trouncing Obama among black Democrats, which makes his overall robust poll numbers that much more remarkable.But while fascinating, these race-based takes on Obama don't come to grips with the genesis of his startling appearance on the national political scene in August of 2004, when few Americans knew much about his personal story, or had experienced his "charisma" or marveled at his political skills. Ever since his famous Democratic Convention speech, Obama has been articulating what might be called the Great Alternative Democratic Message, and it clearly has some clout.What is that message? It could be described as "The New American Patriotism," or "The Politics of Higher Common Purpose," or "Towards One America," or even "Meeting the Big Challenges." But whatever the precise rhetoric, its core is to suggest that Democrats can and will lift politics and government out of the slough of polarization, culture wars, smears and sheer pettiness characterized by the Bush-Rove era, transcending party and ideology to unite the country around an agenda that really matters.This was the meta-message Stan Greenberg urged Democrats to embrace in 2004 in his pre-election book, The Two Americas. It was the original theme of John Kerry's campaign, until Bob Shrum convinced him to shift in the autumn of 2003 to a message focused on the candidate's biography (with fateful, perhaps fatal, consequences a year later). It was then picked up (or perhaps, according to insiders, accepted as a gift from former Kerry advisor Chris Lehane) by Wes Clark, whose campaign never really got its act together. And it was echoed in some respects by John Edwards, though his "one America" aspiration drew much less attention than his neo-populist "two Americas" indictment of the status quo.But this alternative message never got a full test until Barack Obama, at the time still a state senator, made it the core of his "Red, White and Blue America" speech in Boston. And it's still Obama's distinctive message.That's one important reason for the half-submerged skepticism about Obama in some precincts of the progressive blogosphere, where all his talk about unity and civility sometimes sounds uncomfortably like the much-despised "bipartisanship" of party centrists. But it still strikes a chord in the electorate, I suspect.Obama must, of course, soon begin to fill out a more detailed message and agenda that explains exactly what Democrats should do to transcend the counter-polarization of the 2006 campaign and expand the party base, without repudiating principles or sacrificing unity. His success or failure in doing that may in the end have a greater impact on his candidacy than his alleged role in some great national psychodrama about race and identity.UPDATE: Obama's announcement today that he would introduce legislation designed to force a withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq by March of 2008--subject to a suspension of the withdrawal if the Iraqi government meets strict benchmarks towards a political settlement--will undoubtedly be greeted with cheers in the progressive blogosphere, as a clarification of his previously cloudy ideological position in the 2008 field (expect a lot of talk about Clinton's "isolation" on "the Right.") But given public opinion on Iraq, which Bush's escalation plan has clearly pushed towards a quick-withdrawal stance, I don't think this really changes a single thing I wrote above about Obama's overall message.

January 29, 2007

Which Enemy At Home?

Over the weekend Atrios (a.k.a., Duncan Black) named Fred Hiatt, governor of the op-ed pages of the Washington Post, "Wanker of the Day" for publishing Dinesh Dsouza's piece defending his new book, The Enemy At Home. I have to disagree. Dsouza nicely illustrates the dark underside of the conservative case for what we ought to do in response to 9/11 that we are going to hear a lot more about if and when the disaster in Iraq ever leaves center stage.You can pretty much dismiss the first half of Dsouza's op-ed as a long whine about the assaults on his book in various liberal publications; it's Exhibit Z in the bizarre conservative argument that the Right is a persecuted minority in this country. But when he gets that out of the way, Dsouza gets down to the heart of his book's argument: Islamists and other defenders of "traditional cultures" are legitimately outraged by the spread of "liberal" American culture, and that's the real source of al Qaeda's strength. Thus, repudiating the "cultural left" is the only way to win the war with Jihadism.In case you think I'm exaggerating, check out this passage from Dsouza's op-ed:

What would motivate Muslims in faraway countries to volunteer for martyrdom? The fact that Palestinians don't have a state? I don't think so. It's more likely that they would do it if they feared their values and way of life were threatened. Even as the cultural left accuses Bush of imperialism in invading Iraq, it deflects attention from its own cultural imperialism aimed at secularizing Muslim society and undermining its patriarchal and traditional values. The liberal "solution" to Islamic fundamentalism is itself a source of Islamic hostility to America.
In one of the reviews of his book that Dsouza whines about, Alan Wolfe explains where this line of "reasoning" leads:
America is fighting two wars simultaneously, he argues, a war against terror abroad and a culture war at home. We should be using the former, less important, one to fight the latter, really crucial, one. The way to do so is to encourage a split between “radical” Muslims like bin Laden, who engage in jihad, and “traditional” Muslims who are conservative in their political views and deeply devout in their religious practices; understanding the radical Muslims, even being sympathetic to some of their complaints, is the best way to win the support of the traditionalists. We should stand with conservative Muslims in protest against the publication of the Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad rather than rallying to the liberal ideal of free speech. We should drop our alliance with decadent Europe and “should openly ally” with “governments that reflect Muslim interests, not ... Israeli interests.” And, most important of all, conservative religious believers in America should join forces with conservative religious believers in the Islamic world to combat their common enemy: the cultural left.
Identifying yourself with America's great detractors is obviously a risky endeavor when you are a "scholar" at the conservative Hoover Institution, so Dsouza tries to pull a "so's your old man" maneuver by claiming that the self-same "cultural left" that's despoiling the world perceives the larger battle just as he does:
Indeed, leftists routinely portray Bush's war on terrorism as a battle of competing fundamentalisms, Islamic vs. Christian. It is Bush, more than bin Laden, they say, who threatens abortion rights and same-sex marriage and the entire social liberal agenda in the United States. So leftist activists such as Michael Moore and Howard Zinn and Cindy Sheehan seem willing to let the enemy win in Iraq so they can use that defeat in 2008 to rout Bush -- their enemy at home.
This isn't, of course, what most hard-core Left antiwar activists "routinely" say; they tend, in fact, to ascribe economic or militarist motives to Bush's foreign policies, and often view the cultural aspects of the conflict with Jihadism as phony window-dressing for oil-lust or military contracts. But here's Dsouza's most ridiculous misrepresentation of reality:
Now I fear that the extreme cultural left is whispering into the ears of the Democratic Congress. Cut off the funding. Block the increase in troops. Shut down Guantanamo Bay. Lose the war on terrorism -- and blame Bush.
This is, to use a technical term, complete crap. If anyone's "whispering in the ears of the Democratic Congress," it's the American people, many of whom have become convinced that Bush's Iraq policies, not our liberal cultural traditions, are risking defeat in the broader struggle with Jihadism. And if anyone's being defeatist here, it's people like Dsouza, who believe this country should blame itself for Jihadism, repudiate our own culture, curtail our own freedoms, and align ourselves with people whose main dissent from al Qaeda's doctrines is merely tactical.

January 27, 2007

Hard Boys

During a recent solitary drive, I did something I hadn't done in a long, long time: listened to Rush Limbaugh for thirty minutes or so. I was curious to learn if Rush's recent extracurricular problems, and/or the November election results, had made him a tad humbler.Of course not. The first few minutes of Rush were devoted to redundant and completely idiotic assertions (on the authority of some British journalist, no less) that "liberals" were demanding the presidency for Hillary Clinton as compensation for her endurance of a troubled marriage. (Guess Rush doesn't read many "liberal" blogs, eh?). But it got a lot worse: Limbaugh then started reading, verbatim, a long blog post by a Selwyn Duke entitled "Soft People, Hard People." Aside from making Sigmund Freud stir in his grave, Duke basically argues that the "feminization" of American society, and our "weak" and sentimental attachment to things like civil liberties, sexual equality and independent media, doom us to extinction by the "hard people" of the Third World, especially Islamists, who laugh, laugh, laugh at our "soft" refusal to fight fire with fire.This is, of course, an argument about the indefensibility of "civilized" impulses that goes all the way back to Gibbons' suggestion that Christianity fatally undermined the martial spirit of Rome. More recently, it was an essential element of the fascist contention that bourgeois liberal parliamentary democracy was too weak and "soft" to prevail against Bolshevism.Since Duke, and his publicist Limbaugh, don't explicitly call for imprisonment of what Duke calls the "enemy inside the gates," (though he does indulge in the "disease" metaphor for domestic enemies that the Nazis were so fond of, implying as it did a license to exterminate them as an act of biological self-defense), maybe a fairer analogy would be the Cold War argument that civil liberties should not be extended to communists, and that "hard" anti-communist authoritarian regimes beyond our borders deserved our maximum support. Indeed, Dinesh D'Souza recently extended that argument into the post-Cold War era by claiming that Jimmy Carter's human rights fetish destabilized Reza Pahlavi and led to the Islamic Revolution in Iran and every Middle East calamity since then.Aside from confirming that Rush Limbaugh is as nutty and dangerous as ever, his reading of Duke's jeremiad provided a timely reminder that there is and always has been a vast and momentous difference in world-view between Left-Center and Right, even among those who thought the Cold War was worth fighting, and among those who now think we are in a war with Jihadism. Some folks on the Left appear to believe there's really no fundamental difference between Dick Cheney (who clearly thinks only "soft people" care about Abu Ghraib or Gitmo) and, say, Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton, or Peter Beinart or Thomas Friedman (who clearly think the universal values of liberalism are America's best weapons in any war).If the only thing that matters to you is being right or wrong on the original decision to go into Iraq, or if your litmus test is whether this or that person favors immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, maybe such subtle distinctions as this or that person's basic orientation on civil liberties, sexual equality, human rights, independent media, or the ultimate meaning of Western Civilization, represent nothing more than a lot of elitist talk. But in the long run, when it comes to electoral choices between the Hard Boys of the Right who think liberal values should be discarded as self-destructive baggage, and the Soft Men and Women of the Center-Left who think they are the essence of any civilization worth fighting for--maybe it will matter a whole lot.

Ford and the DLC

Former Congressman Harold Ford became chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council last week. It didn't get much attention, other than from the Stonewall Democrats, who want to know if the DLC still opposes a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (short answer: yes) even though Ford voted for it (short explanation: the DLC is not a monolith). It's probably a good sign that nobody much was surprised when an African-American takes over an organization once stereotyped as the homeland of Southern White Good Ol' Boys. One well-known progressive blogger, Digby of Hullabaloo, checked out Ford's appearance on CNN and proclaimed herself pleasantly surprised.There were a couple of notably weird drive-bys about the DLC that didn't have much to do with Harold Ford. Markos of DailyKos strings together a bunch of quotes about the fighting spirit of freshman Dems and decides that means they are "refusing to follow" the "out-Republican-the-Republicans" "playbook" of the DLC. All of this is simply delusional, but maybe it reflects Markos' apparent decision to upgrade his diagnosis of the DLC's condition from "dead" to "dying." And then at MyDD, Matt Stoller did a long, long post on various aspects of Hillary Clinton's campaign, none of which have much of anything to do with the DLC (though Matt does seem to be laboring under the extremely mistaken impression that the DLC designed the 1993 Clinton Health Plan), and then titles the whole rambling thing "Hillary Clinton's DLC Problem."I'm no longer an officer, a spokesman, or even a full-time employee, at the DLC, but this crap still drives me crazy. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for people to disagree with or dislike the organization or what it allegedly stands for, without just making stuff up or implicitly buying into the loony idea that the DLC is some sort of Bavarian Illuminati that secretly controls the world through its vast [sic!] piles of money and its occult influence in the punditocracy.

Early '08 Handicapping

Over at MyDD, Chris Bowers has the best early analysis of the '08 presidential contest I've seen so far. He understands that Obama's rise, by muddling Clinton's front-runner status, ironically liberates HRC to run a campaign-by-attrition in which her money and broad base of support may mean she doesn't have to win right away. He notes how important winning in Iowa is for Edwards. He suggests that beating expectations may be critical for Obama. And he rightly indicates that for the "rest of the field," the token of their seriousness as candidates is whether they have a plausible chance to win or come close to winning anywhere in the early going (Vilsack's target is Iowa; Richardson's is Nevada; Dodd's is New Hamphsire; Biden's, apparently, is South Carolina).It's obviously early, and lots could change. For one thing, threats by California and Florida to move up their primaries could alter the landscape crucially by tossing two expensive, delegate-rich states into a mix now dominated by small, inexpensive states. The rumbling in New Hampshire about moving up its primary to protect its ancient status could produce a nightmarish leapfrogging process (both Iowa and New Hampshire have state laws aimed at guaranteeing their one-two positions) that could start the whole show crazy early. And most obviously, what the candidates say and do, and that ol' devil, external events, could trump everything.I don't agree with Chris about the real possibility of a brokered convention. Just about everything about the nominating process makes that a science fiction proposition; remember that the last multi-ballot Democratic Convention was in 1952, when most delegates were still selected by home-state poohbahs and many delegations remained uncommitted until the convention.But lots of other unusual contingencies are entirely possible, including one that's always right under the surface: an early running-mate deal between a top-tier and lower-tier candidate with strength in a particular state.In general, Chris' handicapping is a lot better than most of the stuff being published in the MSM at this stage of the campaign.Incidentally, I don't personally have any dog in the hunt at this point. If that changes, I'll shut up about '08.

January 25, 2007

More on the Anglican Wars

Those of you who don't immediately get annoyed when I go off onto one of my theological benders may want to check out a piece I did that just came out in the Washington Monthly about the Anglican schism over ordination of gay bishops. My purpose was to slice through all the lazy rhetoric about "liberals" and "traditionalists" in the fracas, and talk about the older split between Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals, since the latter, who are hardly "traditionalists" when it comes to liturgy and scriptural interpretation, are the main base of support for the effort to expel the U.S. Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion.But in doing so, I may have gotten a bit too far into the weeds of Anglican history, with tangents off onto subjects like Elizabeth I's frustration of evangelical efforts to deny the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and the relative "catholicity" of the current Book of Common Prayer's Rite I and Rite II. If you are interested in this sort of thing, or just want a less predictable take on the Anglican Wars, give it a look.

Kerry Bows Out

John Kerry announced yesterday that he's not running for president in 2008.As a from-the-beginning Kerry supporter in 2004, and as someone who's been doing some writing work for him more recently, I think it was the right decision, painful as it was for a guy who clearly wishes he could re-do the last presidential election and get it right (not to mention a guy who was told he had won early on Election Night, based on what appeared to be clear evidence from unusually flawed exit polls). JK is especially haunted by the Swift Boat smears, which he views not only as a key turning point in the campaign, but as a dangerous precedent for blatant character assassination working at the highest levels of American politics. I can't even imagine what it must feel like (for Al Gore, as well as for John Kerry) to wake up every day thinking how the course of world and national events might be very different had a handful of votes gone the other way in 2000 and 2004. It doesn't help that under our winner-take-all system, that handful of votes (in the case of Al Gore, a couple of votes on the Supreme Court) meant the difference between being Commander in Chief and Leader of the Free World, and having, well, no real power at all.Anyone who's spent any time around John Kerry knows he is a tireless, endlessly energetic man. He will remain very active in the Senate and in Democratic politics. And even if he never gets to enter a room to the strains of "Hail to the Chief," he can now say what he thinks and get a hearing for the content of his words, not for the political motives others are so quick to ascribe.

January 24, 2007

Bush's Wasted Breath

I tried to watch the State of the Union Address from a Washington hotel bar last night, but could barely hear it through the noise of drinkers who were completely ignoring the tube. And the fact that even in Political JunkieLand, people were ignoring the speech, probably tells you everything you need to note about the impact of this SOTU.This is at least the second SOTU in a row where the White House kept signalling in advance that Bush was going to unleash some big, meaty domestic proposals. Instead, we got a sentence on climate change, a vague endorsement of better fuel efficiency standards, and a content-free call for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind. The one interesting idea in the speech--for limiting the tax subsidy for Cadillac employer-sponsored health plans and using the savings to subsidize health insurance for everyone else--was offset by dollops of the usual conservative pablum about Health Savings Accounts and medical malpractice lawsuit limits.I admit my attention was wandering during the Iraq sections of the speech, but I heard enough to wonder why the White House thought that repeating the same arguments Bush made during his recent prime-time speech on the subject was going to work any better than it did the first time around.Most of all, the speech reminded me of that moment back in 1995 when Republicans were calling Bill Clinton "irrelevant." It didn't turn out that way for Clinton, but it's increasingly true of Bush.If Bush was largely wasting his breath, Jim Webb's Democratic Response to SOTU was truly a breath of fresh air. Instead of the usual pallid laundry list of Mark Mellman's poll-tested bromides about work that works for working families, Webb focused on the two overriding points of difference between Democrats and Bush--the economy and the war in Iraq--and kept his arguments clear and simple. I was particularly impressed by his repeated efforts to turn around the central rationale for Bush's war policies, arguing that the war in Iraq has been a damaging distraction from the broader war with jihadists, not its central theater.

January 23, 2007

C'mon, People, Let's Win! Okay?

I'm not in the habit of calling people who disagree with me stupid or shallow. But I have to admit the impulse to mutter intelligence-based insults grabbed me pretty hard this morning when I read Liz Cheney's op-ed in the Washington Post petulantly suggesting that opponents of the administration's escalation strategy in Iraq just don't want to win badly enough.An example of Ms. Cheney's "analysis" is her "refutation" of the argument that the administration is defying public opinion on Iraq:

In November the American people expressed serious concerns about Iraq (and about Republican cor:ruption and scandals). They did not say that they want us to lose this war. They did not say that they want us to allow Iraq to become a base for al-Qaeda to conduct global terrorist operations. They did not say that they would rather we fight the terrorists here at home.
You half-expected the graph to end: "They did not say they endorsed treason." I felt a lot better about my reaction to the piece when I read Josh Marshall's take: "Is it just me or does this column read like it was written by someone in junior high?" But Josh also knew something I should have known but didn't: Liz Cheney is not only a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (one of those titles that remind me of the old Rolling Stones song, "Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man"), but Dick Cheney's daughter. And there I was wondering how Ms. Cheney managed to get her gibberish published in the ever-so-picky op-ed pages of the Post.

January 22, 2007

Ford Focus

Some readers may recall I had a genial if pointed exchange in the cyber-pages of Salon last November with University of Maryland professor Tom Schaller about his hypothesis, broadcast in his recent book Whistling Past Dixie, that Democrats need to not only write off the South, but maybe spit at it now and then.I've now engaged in another exchange at Salon in response to a Schaller post spitting at Harold Ford as the soon-to-be chairman of the DLC. This is a less genial exchange, insofar as I think Schaller is abandoning the rigorous empiricism of his case against Dixie, and indulging himself in a predictable, audience-pleasing, paint-by-the-numbers assault on the DLC. You'd think a guy who's obsessively worried about Democrats playing into implicit southern racism might be impressed by an organization like the DLC choosing an African-American chairman; but no--Schaller comes pretty close to implying that Harold Ford himself is some sort of reincarnation of the Dixiecrats. And then there's his whole weird thing about Bill Clinton as the reincarnation of Grover Cleveland.... well, check it out yourself.I have to say at this point that I am exceptionally weary about the amount of time I seem to be spending online defending the DLC, and defending the Clinton tradition in Democratic politics. I don't think the DLC has any sort of monopoly on political wisdom, and I also understand the misgivings many sincere progressives have about Clinton and his legacy. But so long as people keep attacking the DLC and Clinton for things they did not do, do not say, and don't stand for today, while wilfully ignoring what they did, what they say, and what they stand for today, then I guess I'll keep on keeping on, at the expense of whatever little bit I can contribute to a common progressive debate. I'm loyal and stubborn that way. I hope you are too.

January 19, 2007

Democratic Unity Against Iraq Escalation

After all the interminable talk about Democratic disunity on Iraq since 2002, it's worth noting that congressional Democrats are lining up against the Bush escalation plan with impressive near-unanimity. Think Progress is keeping a running scorecard of public positions on the plan among all 535 Members of Congress. At present, of the 282 Democrats in the House and Senate, 210 publicly oppose the plan, 23 are leaning towards opposition, and a grand total of two support the plan (none are currently leaning that way, though 47 have not made any position known, including just one Senator, Blanche Lincoln).Of the two announced pro-escalation Democrats, one name will raise eyebrows: Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, recently appointed chairman of the Intelligence Committee by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But it should be noted that Reyes voted against the original Iraq War resolution, which probably gives him a bit of slack. (The other announced pro-escalation Dem is Rep. Jim Marshall of GA, who just survived a near-death-experience in a Republican-tilting district in November). If you add in Joe Lieberman as a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, you still just get three Democratic Members favoring the Bush plan, out of 235 stating a position.Meanwhile, and despite relatively strong support for the Bush plan among rank-and-file Republicans, it's the GOPers on the Hill who are all over the place. Of the 251 Republicans in Congress, 128 support or are leaning towards support of the Bush plan; 50 oppose it or are leaning towards opposition, and a whopping 73 have not indicated a position. 12 Senate Republicans oppose or are likely to oppose the plan (and 8 others have taken no position), which guarantees a large majority vote for whatever resolutions of opposition the chamber ultimately takes up.

January 18, 2007

The Netroots and Clintonism

The discussion at TPMCafe on the netroots took a strange turn yesterday, when Scott Winship of Democratic Strategist, a rare post-Clintonian self-described New Democrat, did a post that immediately got demonized and dismissed in a way that failed to come to grips with what he was trying to say.Best I could tell, Scott was suggesting that Netroots Progressives had bought into a revisionist take on Clintonism that was, well, inaccurate and strategically misleading. But partly because Scott plunged into a discussion that had earlier been skewed by Max Sawicky's blunt argument that the Internet Left was ignorant and ideologically empty, he got definitively bashed, not just at TPMCafe, but over at MyDD, by Chris Bowers, for suggesting that Netroots Lefties didn't know their history.But in skewering Scott for his alleged disrespecting of netroots intelligence and knowledge, Chris and others didn't come to grips with Scott's underlying argument about the anti-Clinton worldview of the Netroots Left. And that's a shame.There's little question that many if not most Left Netroots folk buy into the some variation on the following take on the Clinton legacy:1) Bill Clinton got elected by accident (a combination of Bush 41's political stupidity, and Ross Perot's third-party candidacy), and then spent much of his first term betraying his core progressive constituency by focusing on deficit reduction, supporting free trade, and refusing to fight for single-payer universal health care;2) After his first-term record discouraged the Democratic base and created a Republican landslide, Clinton got re-elected by "triangulating," caving into Republicans on welfare reform in particular.3) Clinton's apostasy from progressive principles led to a meltdown of the Democratic Party in Congress and in the states.4) Clinton's political guidance snuffed Al Gore's 2000 campaign, and his "centrist DLC" acolytes led Democrats into an appeasement strategy that killed the party in 2002 and 2004. Moreover, it became obvious that Clintonism represented not just appeasement of the political Right, but a subservience to corporate interests that Clintonites relied on for campaign contributions.5) The revival of the Left and of the Democratic Party in 2006 involved an implicit repudiation of Clintonism.I won't go into a refutation of these contentions until someone in the Left Netroots openly admits to them. But as Scott suggests, this isn't a distinctive Netroots take.Throughout and beyond the Clinton years, there persisted an enduring hostility to Clintonism in the establishment DC Democratic Party. It was evident in congressional (especially in the House) Democratic opposition to many of Clinton's signature initiatives; it got traction in Al Gore's rejection of Clintonism and everyone connected with it in his 2000 campaign; and reached fruition in 2002, when Democrats went forward with the anti-Clinton, Bob Shrum-driven message that we were "fighting" for prescription drug benefits at a time when the country was absorbed with national security concerns.Indeed, the primacy of Shrum--the only major Democratic strategist with no involvement in either of Clinton's' campaigns--in the 2000, 2002, and 2004 Democratic campaigns, is a good example of how the hated DC Democratic Establishment hasn't been Clintonian for a good while.So: let's talk more about Clintonism, the Left, the Democratic establishment, and the netroots.Scott Winship is onto something important here, and dissing his views because he seems to be dissing the intelligence or historical knowledge of netroots folk is no excuse for refusing to talk about it.

Faulty Radar

If you stay in politics long enough, you'll have the wonderful experience of finding yourself reading a "news"' story that you infallibly, personally know to be utter crap. That happened to me yesterday when I followed a link at DailyKos to an "exclusive" story at Radar Online entitled: "DLC Shakeup Comes To Fruition." Written by a Jeff Bercovici and posted last Friday, the piece suggested the DLC had forced Gov. Tom Vilsack out of its chairmanship because it favored Bush's Iraq plan and Vilsack opposed it:

But while Vilsack's statement cited "the precedent established by former DLC Chair Bill Clinton," who resigned in advance of his 1992 White House bid, a Washington source says there was an additional factor in his departure: the widening rift between Vilsack and DLC's permanent leadership over what to do about the crisis in Iraq.Al From, the group's founder and CEO, and Will Marshall, head of its policy arm, have called for an escalation in troop levels, while Vilsack has spoken of his "fundamental opposition to leading more troops into harm's way in Iraq."With President Bush outlining a plan to send fresh forces to Baghdad this week, the divergence of thinking was at risk of becoming untenable, says the source. "Vilsack and the DLC talking heads have been heading in different directions on this for some time," he adds.
There are only two problems with this "story." The first paragraph is absolutely wrong, and so is the second. No one at the DLC "called for" an escalation in troop levels in Iraq, or supports Bush's plan; the same day Bercovici posted his story, in fact, the DLC put out a New Dem Dispatch opposing the escalation. And Vilsack's resignation was decided upon, by him, in November, when he decided to run for president; as a courtesy, he simply held off announcing it until the DLC had time to decide on a successor.Presumably the author of this "exclusive" could have learned all this with a phone call, instead of relying on one of those unnamed "Washington sources" who in this case didn't know his butt from page eight.So who cares? Nobody but me, probably, and even I wouldn't be writing about it if it hadn't popped up in a major blog site. When a BS story gets linked to and repeated a couple of times, it might as well be fact. So it's occasionally worth the trouble to shoot one down.

January 16, 2007

The Net and the Left

There's an interesting whirligig underway over at TPMCafe where a bunch of us bloggers are debating the extent to which the "netroots" represent a new Left-bent political movement. (My own post mainly suggests that the very nature of internet-based political discourse creates limits to its utility as an ideological vehicle, which is a good thing).But because the kicker-offer of the debate, MyDD's Matt Stoller, conducted a drive-by dissing of the 60s-era New Left and its ultimate influence, the discussion veered off into all sorts of odd historical byways. It then exploded with a post by labor-left economist Max Sawicky, who defended the comparative value of the New and Old Lefts as compared to the Progressive Netroots. Two Max-imalist sound bites really got the juices flowing:"The 'Internet Left' is mostly a brainless vacuum cleaner of donations for the Democratic Party.""The 60s left read Marx, Trotsky, Luxembourg, Lukacs, Chomsky, Franz Fanon, Malcolm X, C.L.R. James, Ernest Mandel, Joan Robinson, Herbert Marcuse, Michael Harrington, Saul Alinsky. What does the netroots read? Don't Think of an Elephant?"The furor Max unleashed spilled out of the comments threads and onto other sites, where battles over the obscure legacy of various New Left and Marxist organizations rage on.It's good clean fun. And it's interesting to see criticism of the netroots from the left. Check it all out.

January 15, 2007

MLK, Vietnam and Iraq

Given the raging debate over Iraq, it's not surprising that on this particular Martin Luther King holiday, various observers are drawing parallels between King's opposition to the Vietnam War and today's anti-Iraq War movement. The most striking example was John Edwards' direct evocation of King's signature anti-war speech at New York's Riverside Church nearly forty years ago--delivered by Edwards yesterday from the same pulpit, in which he called on Democrats to show moral fortitude by cutting off funding for an increased troop deployment in Iraq.Entitled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence," King's sermon was indeed about a lot more than the Vietnam War. And the "silence" he spoke of did not refer simply to reluctance to oppose the war--the anti-war movement was, after all, fully underway in 1967--but to those who in his view refused to see or talk about the connections between oppression of African-Americans in this country and oppression of "Asians, Africans and Latin Americans" by the United States and its allies in the name of the Cold War.From what we know of the historical context for King's Riverside sermon, he was likely conducting a sort of two-front offensive aimed at two very different sets of critics of his leadership within the civil rights movement. On one side were those who urged him to mute his growing criticism of LBJ's foreign policy--and even some aspects of domestic policy--as a distraction from the civil rights cause, and as a corrosive influence on establishment liberal support for that cause. And on the other side were more radical civil rights voices--e.g., Malcolm X and some of the early SNCC firebrands--who wanted to discard King's strict policy of nonviolent protest. For King, the response to both was to underline the necessity of nonviolent social progress at home and abroad.What comes across from a reading of the sermon today is its consistent radicalism. Yes, King made some prudential arguments against the Vietnam War, including the resources it sapped from domestic priorities, the war's disparate impact on minorities, and its essential futility in terms of conditions on the ground in Vietnam itself. But King's real mission was a root-and-branch attack on the fundamental assumptions of Cold War liberalism. Calling the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," King unsubtly suggested that his country had gotten itself on the wrong side of a "world revolution" for political and economic self-determination in which leadership had often been tacitly ceded to communists:

All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light." We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgement against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated.
The Riverside sermon is a sharp reminder that the core of King's public ministry was the rigorous advocacy of a Gandhian nonviolence philosophy that he believed to be a practical extension of he Gospel of Jesus Christ. Reading it anew, I have little doubt that if MLK were alive and active today, he would not just be calling for a "redeployment" of U.S. troops from the Iraq civil war, but would be challenging the entire framework of the war with jihadist terrorism, including the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.I wouldn't personally agree with him on that broader vision of world events, any more than I would have agreed with him that the Cold War was essentially the product of U.S. arrogance and militarism. But there's not much point in honoring King's memory without grappling with the full and (to use his own word) "disturbing" integrity of his prophetic stance.Progressives have long deplored the tendency of conservatives to selectively quote from King's writings, and to use them to support policies (e.g., "color-blind" opposition to affirmative action measures) that arguably would subvert everything he fought for. But progressives need to beware of a similar, if more benign, temptation to quote King out of context. Citing MLK's Riverside sermon as moral authority for demanding that Democrats support a cut-off of funding for an expansion of the U.S. presence in Iraq is a bit like citing the Sermon on the Mount in talking points for a minimum wage increase. It's true as far as it goes, but it misses the larger points, and reduces prophecy to politics.

January 14, 2007

Bush On Iraq: Nowhere Fast

I deliberately waited a while to write anything about Bush's latest "big speech" on Iraq, because it's generally more interesting to weigh reactions after the spin has died down and public opinion has begun to congeal. But I don't think there's any possible conclusion to reach other than that the whole Bush "new direction" has been a dismal and completely unnecessary flop.The speech itself was most notable in that it did not even remotely live up to the White House's own advance billing. We were told Bush was finally and fully going to embrace the counter-insurgency strategy that so many military experts had been urging on him for at least a year. Instead, we got nothing on that front other than a ritual recitation of the barest bones of the strategy, the clear-hold-build formula (supplemented by a lame-o dollop of money to throw at unemployed Iraqis). We were told he'd admit the failure of his old policies. Instead, he allowed as how 2006 wasn't exactly a great year in Iraq.I personally expected Bush to provide one "surprise," by announcing some token of a political breakthrough in Iraq--a "benchmark" actually met--such as an impending deal on distribution of oil revenues, but we didn't get that, either. And that's a reflection of Bush's weird and continuing inversion of the growing feeling in this country that we should withdraw sooner rather than later if Iraqis don't begin to live up to their own responsibilities for self-government. Bush is essentially saying we'll withdraw later rather than sooner--and maybe never withdraw--if they continue to polarize along sectarian lines. He's not stopping or preventing civil war; he's enabling it.For that reason, the most bizarre feature of the speech was Bush's insistence that the whole "surge" was simply an effort to support an Iraqi government initiative to control violence in Baghdad and Anbar Province; indeed, he expressed great confidence that Maliki was finally biting the bullet and was willing to remove "restrictions" on troop operations that might involve conflict with Shi'a militias. But right up to the moment of the speech, Maliki's staff was out there constantly saying they didn't want or need more American troops. And if they said or did anything new to suggest a sudden willingness to mess with the Mahdi Army, it didn't make the news.Add in the factor that the new troop deployments are not that large, and will take a while to execute, and you've got a formula for almost certain military and political failure. So why did Bush do this? And why all the hype?You'd have to guess he seized upon the one vaguely new-sounding thing he could do that didn't cross the self-imposed line that has divided him from Democrats, from many Republicans, from the Iraq Study Group recommendations, from Iraqi public opinion, and from U.S. public opinion; he couldn't bring himself to begin withdrawing troops. He couldn't realistically get the troops he needed for the kind of big-time escalation that many on the Right favored, and that commanders in the field considered essential for an actual victory over insurgents and militias. So he went with a pallid proposal linked to overblown rhetoric.I know a large and growing number of fellow progressive bloggers have seized on Bush's saber-rattling towards Iran and Syria, followed by several mysterious military maneuvers and one weird confrontation with Iranian embassy employees in Kurdistan, to suggest with alarm that the administration is about to deliberately widen the Iraq war by provoking Tehran and Damascus into armed conflict. I have a hard time believing that; where the hell is the Pentagon going to get the resources for a regional war?But in any event, the pallid support levels, even among Republicans, for Bush's Iraq plan, could derail it even without even affirmative action by Congress to get in the way by, say, restricting funds. The pending "no confidence" resolution now in the works could effectively reinforce the clear judgment of voters in November.UPDATE: On the crucial question of whether the Iraqi government is actually on board with Bush's escalation plan, here's disturbing blind quote from a generally pessimistic New York Times assessment of the plan published on Monday: “'We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem,' said an American military official in Baghdad involved in talks over the plan. 'We are being played like a pawn.'”

January 9, 2007

March of Folly

At the risk of stating the semi-obvious, George W. Bush's decision to go on national television tomorrow night and announce a plan to deploy 20,000 more U.S. troops in a long-term operation to "secure" Baghdad and some Sunni territory as well, is as mystifying as anything "the decider" has done in the course of his mystifying presidency.Hardly anyone thinks this deployment will work, even within the Pentagon and the White House, as the vast number of blind quotes in the news media questioning the decision makes clear. (Fred Kaplan's exhaustive review of the operational implausibility of the Bush plan is definitely worth reading). It's also clear the Maliki government, on whose willingness to fully commit Iraqi forces the slim chances of the whole enterprise rest, is being dragged kicking and screaming into line with Washington's edict. And that's hardly a surprise, since "clearing" Baghdad of "terrorists" or "extremists" or whatever Bush chooses to call them, will inevitably involve armed clashes with the Mahdi Army, one of the pillars of Maliki's political base.Even fans of the idea of deploying more troops typically think the troop levels Bush is talking about will be insufficient to make a difference, other than convincing Iraqis that we'll never, ever leave. And then there's the little matter of Bush's willingness to give American public opinion a big middle finger; as new polls indicate, despite relatively strong (if probably temporary) Repubublican rank-and-file support for the escalation, it's anathema to the coalition of Democrats and independents that flipped Congress in November.The big symbolic factor in Bush's decision is supposedly this: he's finally abandoned the old stay-the-course rap, even if he doesn't acknowledge the shift tomorrow night. But the strange timing of the escalation strategy helps illustrate something about the administration's post-invasion Iraq policies that has often been obscured by the consistent happy-talk: they've repeatedly flip-flopped, but almost always far too late.Think about it. Rumsfeld took us into Iraq absolutely determined not to conduct an occupation, assuming instead that he could turn over the country to Iraqi exile politicians. That determination barely outlasted the invasion itself. When chaos broke out, administration talking heads first welcomed the phenomenon as the natural exuberance of a liberated people, and savaged anyone who suggested an organized insurgency. When that claim became increasingly absurd, the Bushies described the insurgency as a temporary rear-guard action by Baathists with no real popular base. Then they shifted to a description of the newly-recognized insurgency as composed primarily of "foreign fighters" recruited by al-Qaeda (which, BTW, was thereby "pinned down" in the "flypaper" of Iraq, and couldn't conduct terrorism operations anywhere else, until they did). When the indigenous Sunni insurgency was finally acknowleged, the administration suggested its increasing ferocity was a sign of desparation. For many months, the president's men dismissed intra-Pentagon arguments for adoption of a counter-insurgency strategy. And they finally started talking about "clear, hold and build" strategies--and have now placed their chief advocate, Gen. David Petraus, in charge of the "new direction" in Iraq--when the conditions necessary for successful counter-insurgency have all but vanished.What has united all these horribly belated "decisions," of course, has been the administration's remarkably consistent resistance to empirical evidence of failure and folly. And by that standard, there's nothing about the "new direction" that really breaks new ground.

January 7, 2007

Terms Limits for Congressional Committee Chieftains

Props to Markos and the New York Times' Carl Hulsey for noting something in the just-enacted Democratic House rules package that I missed: the retention of Newt Gingrich's one good idea--term limits on committee chairmen.Neither of them get into the grittiest problem with this idea: the understandable reluctance of African-American chairs to give up their newfound power in the same seniority system that was used for so very long to obstruct and delay civil rights, and to marginalize and even humiliate minority Members.And by explaining the term limits issue strictly in terms of Caucus and leadership discipline, Markos and Hulsey also miss another well-identified problem with Perpetual Chairmanships: the tendency of Perpetual Chairmen to get trapped in the Iron Triangle uniting the executive-branch programs they supposedly oversee, the special-interest and advocacy groups that exist to defend and/or expand those programs (most of whom are avid campaign contributors), and their own professional committee staffs, who are typically cycling through the other sides of the triangle.According to Hulsey, Speaker Pelosi has privately indicated that the term-limits decision could be reversed later on. Let's hope that's not the case. There are other ways to ensure that minority voices in the House Caucus are heard; for one thing, "term-limited" committee and subcommittee chairs can be moved to equally influential perches. In any event, it will certainly be hard for this Democratic Congress to pose as a vehicle for "reform" if it backtracks on one of the most ancient and well-abused privileges of the Old Order.

January 5, 2007

Ethics Reform: Yes, But....

It's undoubtedly a good thing that the newly Democratic House finally passed lobbying reform (and less noticed but equally important, budget reform) legislation in its first moment in power.:But as today's DLC New Dem Dispatch noted, lobbying reform won't mean much if Congress doesn't go on to deal with the real source of special-interest abuse in Washington--our crazy system of financing elections:

The much-anticipated new restrictions on lobbyist relationships with members, which were enacted late yesterday with only one dissenting vote, are fine so far as they go, though a willingness to strictly enforce bans on the worst abuses (e.g., "revolving door" arrangements that tempt members to lobby the lobbyists for future jobs) will be critical. Moreover, since most of the banned activities will be permitted if conducted as part of campaign fundraisers, we think it's important that House Democrats signal a renewed interest in cutting the link between campaign contributions and legislation, preferably by jump-starting progress toward serious campaign finance reform, including public financing of congressional elections. A good place to start might be a fresh look at the voluntary public financing plan proposed by Al Gore in 2000, which is one of the few proposals certain to pass constitutional muster.
Aside from those on both the demand and supply sides of campaign contribution checks who prefer the current system, the main sources of indifference to the kind of public financing in place in virtually every other democratic nation are twofold: the immovable object of the Supreme Court's infinitely regrettable doctrine that political contributions are hyper-constitutionally-protected "free speech," and the movable but daunting obstacle of public opposition to the use of taxpayer funds for political campaigns. There are many possible if unsatisfying paths around the Supreme Court's roadblock, as illustrated by the various state systems of voluntary but politically coercive public financing schemes. And at the federal level, as the New Dem Dispatch suggests, Al Gore's long-forgotten but promising proposal for a public financing fund for congressional campaigns, developed by then-Gore-advisor and now Progressive Policy Institute scholar Paul Weinstein, is worth another look. The key thing for progressives is not to give up, for even a moment, on public campaign financing as a goal. It may take a while to get there, but leadership requires, well, leadership, and succumbing to the current crazy and corruption-feeding system is not acceptable. This is something on which progressives who disagree on many other topics ought to be able to unite.

Frank Talk From the Chair

Last night, over at New Republic's The Plank, Michael Crowley marveled at the appearance of Rep. Barney Frank in the chair of the U.S. House of Representatives (sitting in for newly-elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi), describing the visual impact on him as one of "cognitive dissonance," and a reminder of how much things changed on November 7.This immediately reminded me of a much earlier appearance in the chair by Frank, in the early 1980s, during one of those interminable end-of-year round-the-clock sessions when junior Members were often dragooned into presiding in the wee hours. During a tedious speech by Republican Rep. Marjorie Holt on school prayer, Holt referred to America as "a Christian nation." Frank interrupted her to observe: "If this is a Christian nation, why does some poor Jew have to get up in the middle of the night to preside over the House of Representatives?" Interestingly enough, when I Googled the quote to find a source, what popped up first was a reference to the hilarious incident in a 1984 piece by none other than Charles Krauthammer, appearing in--you guessed it--The New Republic--a piece reposted on the TNR site about two weeks ago. The more things change....

January 4, 2007

Seymour Martin Lipset RIP

It has been much unremarked given the holidays and the Gerald Ford reminiscences, but on New Year's Eve, Seymour Martin Lipset, the great American political sociologist, died after a debilitating illness following a stroke in 2001.Marty Lipset was part of an amazing generation of New York Jewish intellectuals of the mid-to-late twentieth century that was educated at City College, went through immersion in socialist theoretical combat, and emerged to make all sorts of contributions, some Left, some Right, to the political life of the United States. Lipset's most important contribution was his analysis of "American exceptionalism," and especially his elucidation of the cultural and social factors that prevented the American working class from the commitment to socialism that characterized their counterparts in Europe. Lipset is also well-known in Canada for his long-standing and serious efforts to examine differences between U.S. and Canadian culture and politics.On a more personal level, I would note Lipset's involvement late in his career with the Progressive Policy Institute, and his work on the emergence of post-socialist progressive politics in the 1980s and 1990s. During my own long association with the DLC/PPI, I have had the opportunity to meet two "living legends" (politicians aside). One was Betty Friedan, at a lunch with Will Marshall to discuss a New Democrat magazine article that Friedan was writing. And the other was Marty Lipset.

January 3, 2007

Getting Serious About Worker Retraining

Jonathan Cohn has a fascinating article up on the New Republic site touting Denmark as a country that has managed to post world-class economic growth and employment figures despite maintaining (with some important reforms) a generous social safety net. The whole article's worth reading and pondering, but there's one detail in Cohn's account of the Danish experience that especially caught my attention:

Denmark spends more than 4 percent of its GDP on its labor market programs--the most of any country in the n Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (oecd) and more than 20 times what the United States spends on its worker-training programs
.There's been a long-raging debate in U.S. progressive circles over the proper role, if any, of worker retraining initiatives in coping with job loss and other economic dislocations associated with both technological change and with globalization. Those of us from the Clintonian pro-trade persuasion are often accused of advocating better education, and particularly worker retraining, as a substitute for direct government efforts (e.g., trade restrictions) to prevent job dislocations before they happen. Indeed, deriding worker retraining opportunities as a sort of withered booby prize for people who ought to expect their government to protect the jobs they already have is a habit that's recently spread from protectionist circles to many progressive writers and thinkers, mainly because of growing evidence that high skill levels don't necessarily insulate workers from offshoring and other globalization-related dislocations.I certainly don't think of worker retraining as a silver bullet, and don't intend to get into the general argument over globalization in this post. But as Cohn's article illustrates, before anyone buries worker retraining as one of many strategies for coping with globalization, maybe we should actually try it, because we haven't. For all the talk about worker retraining, the U.S. had never made s significant investment in this resource as compared with other countries. And despite many proposals for overhauling our cramped, uneven and bureaucratized system of training programs, and despite several cosmetic changes (i.e., the Workforce Investment Act, following the Job Training Partnership Act), it's still a mess, and hardly a genuine national commitment.The Clinton administration is partly to blame for the disconnect between its rhetoric of universal and easily accessed worker retraining resources and the underlying reality. This was, in fact, one of those "investments" that never much survived the initial Clinton budget, with its emphasis on deficit reduction. But in my view, the Congresses, including Democratic-controlled Congresses, of the early to mid-1990s, deserve more of the blame, thanks to their bipartisan deficit reduction strategy of freezing spending on various discretionary programs without setting real priorities among them. A new and robust commitment to worker retraining was one of the casualities of this everything's-equal approach.There remain plenty of proposals out there for getting serious about worker retraining. Back in 1996, former PPI vice president and Under Secretary of Commerce Dr. Rob Shapiro suggested that the "non-discrimination rule" that denies companies tax write-offs for health care benefits unless they are offered to all employees be extended to training and retraining benefits. And it's not that hard to figure out ways to cut through the bureaucracy and offer workers direct support for retraining, as illustrated by Paul Weinstein's PPI proposal for "New Economy Scholarships."My fear is that the debate over the role of worker retraining as a response to globalization is blocking investments and reforms in this area that no progressive should oppose. After all, no one pretends that any government action can eliminate job churn, job loss, or the need for individual workers to upgrade their skills. Why deny workers these opportunities? To prove a point about their insufficiency as a total solution to economic insecurity? Beats me.

January 2, 2007

Rudy Can Fail

One of the odd phenomena in the 2008 presidential runup is the disconnect between Rudy Giuliani's strong GOP poll ratings and the CW that he can't get the Republican nomination because of his socially liberal policy stands. Until recently, Rudy has floated above this disconnect, but now a leaked strategy document is giving his opponents an opening to bash him. According to the New York Daily News account of this document, Rudy's self-identified problems are: "his private sector business; disgraced former aide Bernard Kerik; his third wife, Judith Nathan Giuliani; 'social issues,' on which is he is more liberal than most Republicans, and his former wife Donna Hanover."The leaked strategy document goes on to dwell at great length on a fifth problem, fundraising, and barely gets into the ideological issues he faces. You have to conclude from this document that this ideologically handicapped GOP presidential candidate has a host of preliminary handicaps, personal and ethical, that even his own braintrust considers potentially debilitating. I don't know how Rudy intends to deal with these handicaps. But I do know how his conservative opponents will exploit them in the early '08 caucus and primary states, and I suspect "America's Mayor" will be reduced to "America's Dogcatcher" before the deal goes down in 2008.

Progressives and Liberals

Over at MyDD, Chris Bowers gets the new year rolling with a post about the gradual displacement of "liberal" by "progressive" as the key self-identifier of Americans on the left and center-left of our political system. Chris' history lesson on the subject is basically sound if a bit incomplete. He's correct in saying that late-nineteenth century Democrats (at least up until the fusion with Populists in 1896) were "liberal" in the European sense of favoring laissez-faire economic policies; there's a good reason that ur-libertarian Ayn Rand regarded Grover Cleveland as the beau ideal of American political history. But they did not always think of themselves as such, given their espousal of states-rights and constitutional strict-construction doctrines; regular southern Democrats in particular called their party "conservative" through most of the nineteenth century.Likewise, "progressive" was not universally used as the self-identifier of the center-left prior to the New Deal. The term was often used by business interests who thought of advanced capitalism as a historically determined trend. And many Populists, who often argued they were restoring a pre-capitalist Jeffersonian political order, certainly didn't embrace the label of "progressive," either. Chris is spot-on in noting that "progressive" became tainted by its association with the pro-communist (or at least anti-anti-communist) Left, especially in 1948. And he's also right in acknowledging that the revival of the "progressive" self-identification occurred almost simultaneously in two very different parts of the Democratic Party in the 1990s: the anti-war, anti-corporate, anti-establishment Left, and the New Democrat movement in the center-left. I have one quibble with Chris' suggestion that New Democrats started using the term "progressive" (most notably with the establishment of the Progressive Policy Institute in 1989) "as a means to avoid being labeled as 'liberal.'" That suggests the terminology was purely cosmetic and non-ideological. In fact, the early New Democrats argued that "liberalism" had become temperamentally reactionary, consumed with defending the dead letter of every single New Deal/Great Society program and policy, while sacrificing the spirit of innovation that made "progressives" progressive. The whole international "Third Way" phenomenon was not designed to produce a moderate middle-point between Left and Right, but instead a reformulation of the progressive mission of the center-left at a time when the Right was successfully battening on popular discontent with outworn social democratic programs. That's why many of us from the New Dem tradition heartily dislike the "centrist" or "moderate" labels, even though they are hard to escape as a short-hand for intra-party politics. (I could, but won't, go off into a digression about the unusual nature of the American left, which never even flirted with Marxism, and never really embraced European-style democratic socialism, despite some social-democratic features of the Populist program and the New Deal).As for Chris' ultimate question about the advisability of "progressive" as a unifying, if not always clarifying, self-identifier for the American left and center-left, I'm certainly comfortable with the P-word as opposed to the L-word. Outside the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom (and perhaps to a very limited extent, Germany), the term "liberal" is invariably associated with the political right, while "progressive" has begun to replace "social democratic" as the preferred general term for the left and center-left (the latter process being hastened by the collapse of communism). A particular irritant in any transnational discussion of political terminology has been the variable meaning of the term "neo-liberal," which outside the US denotes the Thatcher-Reagan revival of the political right based on dogmatic market capitalism, while here it lingers as the chosen self-identifier for those proto-New Democrats of the 1980s associated with the germinal thinking of the Washington Monthly in those days, which reached its brief zenith in Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign. Even if "progressives" often disagree on a host of issues, the term reminds us of our common moorings in a tradition that is hostile to inherited or state-backed privilege, committed to equal opportunity, cognizant of the ultimate solidarity of all human beings, and determined to both accept and shape the forces of change through collective action. That's why I'm a progressive, anyway.