Events, New Realities, and the Right Attitude

Now is the time for all good people to stiffen the spines of the Democratic Party — both before and after the election.

Apparently there’s been some hand-wringing about Josh Marshall’s piece published last night entitled “Events Create New Realities.”  Is he giving up on the midterms?  Well, no, but Josh has a crucial point to make:

How well will Democrats stand up to the headline that says Republicans win 50 House seats?

And remember, it won’t be “Republicans win 50 House Seats.”

The headline will read “Angry Country Repudiates Obama Agenda, Embraces Small Government Conservative Values.” And that will be the Times. Believe me, it won’t be pretty.

In any case, a lot of folks are thinking, well, sure the Republicans take the House and maybe they even take the Senate. But Obama’s got the veto pen and the big legislation has already been pushed through. And if they come after Social Security, c’mon, let them try: Obama can veto whatever they pass. And they’ll kill themselves for 2012.

But all of this is based on the premise that the Democrats — congressional leaders and the White House — are going to be something like the same people on November 3rd as they were on November 1st. And a lot of painful history, the post-Scott Brown victory period being only the most recent example, says that’s a very bad assumption.

Josh is right.  It is a very bad assumption.  Blue Blogistan and loyal Democrats, however, can make a difference here.

This is going to be a very ugly midterm.   But it will be even uglier if Democrats buy into what will surely be the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom: America’s voters have rejected progressivism, it’s a conservative country, and — most maddeningly — the Dems took it on the chin because they went “too far to the left.”

Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, in one of those necessary takedowns of Matt Bai, said it the best:

It’s not complicated at all: Obama’s approval ratings have fallen because the economy stinks.  End of story.  Anything else is on the margins…and it’s certainly possible that everything else is pushing his ratings up, not down.  

The same is true for Democrats generally.  That means the last thing we want to do is start getting into a defensive crouch, setting up yet another round of interminable “Rethinking Liberalism” conferences, wondering where we “went wrong,” or why we’re “not connecting.”  The economy stinks.  End of story.

Or maybe not even that.  The economy stinks because (to extend Bernstein’s scatology) the Republicans put it in the toilet.  Their policies failed.  As Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhardt have demonstrated in their recent superb book, financial crises take a very long time to shake out, particularly because of the key role the financial system plays in directing investment through the economy.  Combine that with historic gains in the last two cycles, many of them in Reddish areas, and you have the recipe for a bad cycle.  But a bad cycle does not equal rejection.  It’s just a bad cycle.

This Congress has accomplished a tremendous amount of good: the stimulus, student loan reforms, financial reform, and of course the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act.  If it hadn’t been for the Senate, there would have also been historic climate legislation, a bigger stimulus, stronger support for higher education (particularly community colleges), and probably a much stronger economy.  There is nothing for Democrats to be ashamed of.

If the predictions from the polls come true, our tasks will be 1) keeping Nancy Pelosi as House Democratic Leader (if she wants the job); 2) stiffening the President’s spine (which from his excellent statement today on the Bush tax cuts, seems to be in decent shape); and 3) continuing to fight in the trenches for important things, like making sure ACA implementation proceeds, blocking GOP gerrymandering, and attacking conservative talking points.  I’ll have more to say more on these in due course, but we cannot do any of these things if we wake up on November 3rd in some sort of ideological stupor, cowed by right-wing browbeating, and lacking the courage of our convictions.

Fight like hell the next two months.  Give money when you can.  Here’s an excellent place to start.  But most of all, let leading Democrats know that they must not back down, no matter what happens.  The country, and the world, depend on them getting this message.

How to Insult Your Base

Everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten: if you want to attract loyalty from your base, it’s probably best not to go out of your way to humiliate them.

Jonathan Chait wonders why the liberal base is so demoralized.  He observes correctly that

the overwhelming cause of the Democrats’ perils is that they held overstretched majorities while taking control of government at the outset of a massive economic crisis. But the inability of the left to handle majority status is an important contributor to the dilemma. It’s not surprising that Democrats would lose independent voters, or that Republicans would be wildly enthusiastic, when they control the government and push agressive reforms during an economic calamity. But they sheer sullenness of the liberal base does seem to be avoidable and puzzling.

Hmmm..maybe something like this (which I just came across today)?

A senior White House official just called me with a very pointed message for the administration’s sometime allies in organized labor, who invested heavily in beating Blanche Lincoln, Obama’s candidate, in Arkansas.

“Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise,” the official said. “If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November.”

Usually going out of your way to publicly insult your base isn’t a pretty good way to pep them up.  Chait is right: this was avoidable.  And it might be the different between maintaining a slim majority in the House and facing impeachment hearings next year.

The President Insults His Most Loyal Supporters AGAIN

Come November, General Obama is going to look behind him and suddenly realize he doesn’t have an Army.

Some of us complained about this several months ago, but Jonathan Bernstein notes today that the White House has been unconscionably derelict in filling empty federal judicial slots: the number of vacancies has grown over the last two months. 

And no, this isn’t just about GOP obstructionism:

The important thing to remember here is that this is in one important respect unlike Democratic obstruction while George W. Bush was president: right now, and throughout this 111th Congress, every one of Barack Obama’s nominees probably has the votes to be confirmed. And I’m not talking about 50 votes plus Joe Biden; I’m talking about the Senate gold standard, 60 votes, enough to beat a filibuster and invoke cloture. Of course, that hasn’t been tested on the remaining nominees, but I’m confident that there’s no one nominated who would lose the votes of Snowe and Collins…in fact, I think there’s a solid bloc of somewhere between 62 and 65 votes for cloture for any scandal-free liberal nominee. I believe that’s true across the board; it’s certainly true of most of the nominees. That doesn’t mean that GOP obstruction isn’t a factor, but it’s a factor that Harry Reid, Pat Leahy, and Barack Obama could easily overcome if they decided to make it a top priority. There’s still plenty of time to confirm every single one of the current nominees if Democrats really want to do that and are willing to be as aggressive in their use of Senate rules on offense as the Republicans have (quite legitimately, for the most part, in my view) in their attempts to obstruct. They won’t do it, however, unless Barack Obama sends clear signals that he wants it done. And if they don’t, well, who knows what’s going to happen in the 112th Senate? So, Mr. President, are you going to step up on this one?

Do we even need to ask this last question?  I’m far less optimistic than Bernstein is on the obstruction question, but you can’t test it unless you’ve got nominees.

Once again, this is where Obama has just decided that he doesn’t care about his most loyal supporters.  Judgeships are a way of showing people you care about their concerns without the need for constant compromising — and it’s not as if there is a shortage of outstanding candidates.  Why do you think George W. Bush made such a big deal about stem-cell research?  Or was out there every day with “up or down vote” demands for Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown?

Obama was right to compromise on the health care bill: he needed the votes.  But he doesn’t need to do that here.  Or with Elizabeth Warren. Or with Dawn Johnsen.  Or with the Solicitor General’s position on Connecticut v. AEP.  Or with recess appointments.  Or with Afghanistan.  Or with all kinds of things.

This is the sort of steady drip, drip, drip that does a wonderful job in deflating your most loyal supporters.  Oh yes, we’ll come out to vote — but it’s harder to get people to give money, to walk precincts, to make phone calls, to do the kind of basic blocking and tackling that you need in a very challenging electoral environment.

I can’t help but think that this is a Rahm Emanuel production.  His only political tactic is to tell liberals to STFU, and he keeps playing it regardless of the circumstances.  Sometimes it is right, but not always.  He’s got a hammer, and every political problem looks like a nail.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s campaign featured marchers billing themselves as the “wide-awakes.”  Obama seems set on establishing the Chloroform Brigade.

Howard Dean: A Party-Builder, not a Leader.

Howard Dean: great party builder; lousy moral leader.

Howard Dean made the news twice this week.  By that I mean that he was in the news once and brought it about invisibly a second time.

He was in the news for his inane remarks about the non-mosque that has been approved for a site not-at-Ground Zero (if its backers had any money to build, which they don’t)–not that Dean took the trouble to learn any of this before mouthing off that Cordoba was an “affront” to the families of 9/11 victims.

He was behind the claim trumpeted by Tim Kaine that “Democrats [hold] important structural advantages over Republicans, particularly the strength of their political organization in states across the country.”  I’m less confident than Kaine is that this will salvage the election (it’s his job to be upbeat), but it’s a real strength nevertheless, and Dean can take credit.  Kaine is talking about the fifty-state strategy, which was Dean’s doing, and which made the Democratic Party stronger throughout the country than it had been in decades.

I know that people’s political likes and dislikes tend to go in a lump: our favorable or unfavorable feelings about politicians radically shape our judgments about everything they do.  In Dean’s case, though, a mixed verdict seems appropriate.  This week vindicates both those (e.g. me) who thought Dean the presidential candidate an arrogant, moralizing aristocrat with a barely concealed cynical streak and those who thought his ideas about fundraising and party-building were nothing short of a revelation.  We should be very glad that Dean brought back the party, and very glad that he’s not running the country.

Wanted: A New Blogosphere Epithet

What do you call a progressive who undermines his/her own party from the left, under circumstances where there is no chance his or her policy can be enacted?

Believe it or not, we need yet another new derogatory term in the blogosphere.

I think it was Dr. Black who first coined the term “wanker” to mean “ostensibly liberal Democrat who mouths right-wing talking points to undermine his party.”

But what do you call Russ Feingold, who has decided to support a Republican filibuster against the financial reform bill on the grounds that it isn’t strong enough?  The chances of a subsequent Congress enacting stronger legislation is exactly zero.  So is this bad faith?  Stupidity?

Two caveats are in order:

1)  Sometimes progressives have to withhold their votes in order to drive a bill leftward, i.e. toward the reality-based world.  So the mere fact of opposing a bill on the grounds of it being too conservative does not put a person in this category.  Theoretically, Feingold might just be doing some last-minute negotiating.  Since the bill has not yet been reported out of Conference (making it unamendable on the Senate floor), perhaps that’s the issue.  But I doubt it; Feingold really has been nowhere on this issue.  He has not made any serious proposals.  He has not been a leader on it.  It looks like prima-donnism.

2)  But of course this could apply to “wankerdom” also.  Simply because a progressive agrees with conservatives on some issues does not make him or her a wanker — or at least I hope not!  I agree with conservatives on many issues concerning teachers’ unions, for example, or some church-state issues such as charitable choice laws.  I reject wankerdom in these instances!

So I would say that this new term who have to be for a progressive who holds out against a good bill, under circumstances where it is virtually impossible to get something better, and thus undermines his/her own party’s ability to govern, while pretending to uphold the “true” values of the party, movement, coalition etc.

What would you call that?  A Hamsher?  A Nader?

Good cause, bad argument

Mercantilist nonsense weakens the case for the Kerry-Lieberman climate change bill.

An attainable future:

Abengoa’s operating solar thermal power station at Sanlucar la Mayor near Seville

Some of the arguments for the Kerry-Lieberman “American Power Act” (my italics):

John Kerry:

It’ll help us create nearly 2 million new jobs, develop new products, and support the research and development to help us maintain leadership in the global economy.

President Obama:

Now is the time for America to take control of our energy future and jumpstart American innovation in clean energy technology that will allow us to create jobs, compete, and win in the global economy.

The group of 10 “Brown Dog” Democratic senators:

We know that other countries, in particular China, have already started to vie for leadership in the new clean energy economy. China has already become the world’s leading manufacturer of wind turbines and solar panels. This is a contest that America cannot afford to lose. Our nation’s economic future depends both on our global competitiveness and access to reliable energy sources. We must not allow our nation to become dependent on foreign clean energy industries or squander the opportunity to compete successfully in the global clean energy marketplace.

This stuff may be essential pap for the Democratic base but it really does not make much sense. The Brown Dogs’ claim even implies that buying a wind turbine from the Danes and sticking it in a field in Iowa creates a scary dependence as bad as buying oil from Saudi Arabia. I suppose the Danes could threaten to cut off the supply of gearbox oil. Look, this plant is easily replaceable kit for capturing your own renewable energy and you can buy it anywhere.

I won’t belabour the truism that national “competitiveness” is a category mistake and attempts to measure it are hokum. Does Switzerland suffer in any material way from having to import almost all its technology?

It’s more interesting to take a look at what is actually happening in the renewable energy sector. Continue reading “Good cause, bad argument”

Dumb Idea of the Day: Escrow Campaign Finance

If Congress is going to be on the take, then small donors should have the right to play the game.

One of the nice things about living in a Blue State is that most of the time, I don’t have to worry about my Representative or Senator.  To be sure, Dianne Feinstein can often be a moral cretin, but it could be worse: I could live in Connecticut and have to deal with Holy Joe.  Thank heaven for small favors.  My Congressmember, Howard Berman, is one of the best in the business.

But that puts me in a tough position on the eve of the historic health care vote: how do I influence a congressmember who does not represent my district?  Calls won’t work.

So here’s an idea.  Someone — probably Act Blue — should set up escrow campaign accounts, payable if the members on it vote the right way on a particular bill.  Note that there need be no direct contact with the Representative at all: somehow I get the impression that if these things were set up, members’ finance chairs would know how to check them.  Each member could have an escrow account that would pay off if certain conditions were satisfied.

Would the right try to hijack this?  Maybe, but I doubt it, because it would involve “centrist” Dems whom they want to knock off anyway (which is why these Dems shouldn’t vote their way, but that’s another story).

Most corporate lobbyists do this anyway, although with language that gets them out of the bribery trap.  This could be the way that small donors, who don’t stand to get legislative favors anyway, could influence congressmembers — and the congressmembers would have the transparency of knowing what they will get upon a particular vote.

What if the Congressmember votes the wrong way anyway?  The money could be stored in an escrow account with ActBlue, available for any other candidates on the ActBlue list.

And no — I have no idea if it’s legal, but I think it would be.  It’s no different that major lobbies promising to run ads under certain contingencies (either positive or negative).

In the wake of Citizens United and the corporate sloshing of money through the Hill, there has to be some way in which small donors can actually influence Congress.  This is a place to start.

Republican voters: Highly motivated-and scarce.

A lot has been said about the motivation gap in the midterm elections. It’s true that Republicans are more likely to say they’ll vote in November than Democrats. But that’s because there are many fewer of them.

A lot has been said about the motivation gap in the midterm elections: Republicans are much more likely to say they’ll vote in November than Democrats.  That’s true as far as it goes.  But it obscures the bigger pattern in ways that may make Democrats more scared than we should be.

Take the recent Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll (in which, by the way, Obama’s approval ratings are very good, and Democrats have regained the lead in the generic Congressional poll).  Look at the cross-tabs.

Lumping together people who say they will “Definitely” or “Probably” vote in November, 79% of Republicans are likely voters, against only 52% of Democrats.  That sounds dire.  But only 22 percent of the sample are self-identified Republicans; 31 percent are Democrats.  This multiplies out to a statistical (and substantive) dead heat.  If the election were held today on these assumptions, 17 percent of the electorate would be Republicans who turned out; 16 percent, Democrats who did.

In other words, the reason Republicans are more likely to be die-hard voters is that the only people who still identify as Republicans are the die-hards.  The motivation gap doesn’t necessarily represent a disillusioned Democratic base.  It represents the fact that the Democratic party, unlike the Republican, consists of more than its base.

Finally, Republicans are much more geographically concentrated than Democrats.  In the South, the Republican Party’s net favorables are at +34 (63-29).  But in no other region does the GOP do better than minus 44. The GOP could win the election in a walk in the one region where it still has supporters, and still not do that well overall.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry, and doesn’t mean that we don’t need to give partisan Democrats reasons to turn out (as well as looking out for Independents, who favor generic Democrats over Republicans by ten points, though “not sure” swamps both).  It does mean that there are no grounds for panic.  On current evidence, this will be a tough race—but no rout.  Time for some sangfroid.

“Just in case there’s any confusion”

“I’m not going to walk away from healthcare reform”—Barack Obama, today, to ecstatic applause from DNC members. Some self-styled progressives may approach the health care bill with ambivalence. Partisans can’t, and won’t.

“So just in case there’s any confusion out there, let me be clear: I am not going to walk away from health insurance reform.” —Barack Obama, to the DNC, earlier today.

Per Tom Schaller, this was his “biggest applause line” in front of a DNC audience. Forget “I do not quit.”  From now on, it’s “I do not triangulate.”

Bipartisan rhetoric aside-though activists scorn such rhetoric at our peril, way underestimating how well it plays with most voters-this is now a matter of party, not ideology. As Obama says, “Here’s the thing, Democrats“-one of three times, in a pretty short speech, that he used that word describing his audience.  Nate Silver has pointed out for some time that while those fighting for an ideology can argue over small differences and bridge some of their disagreements through constructive compromises, partisan politics is largely zero-sum: what makes one party looks good, makes the other look bad.  (I can’t find my favorite post from him on this, but this gives an idea.)  So far, this has been an uncannily good way of parsing the health reform debate-except that even Nate overestimated how likely Olympia Snowe was to cooperate.

Some “progressives,” if one can apply the term to people who care more about hurt feelings and sticking it to Washington insiders than about sick and poor people, may be unwilling to whip the health care vote.  (SEIU, and other groups whose members actually lack health coverage, are another matter.)  But anyone concerned with whether the country is run by Democrats or Republicans has only one choice.  Pass the damn bill.

Update: Transcript here.

Second Update: Video here.