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Anyone Can Be a Strategist

chicago dyke's picture

Even me! So play along with me, as I have some fun with a new site/organization, The Democratic Strategist.

So who are these guys, and why should you care? Well, they're members of the Democratic Beltway establishment, and include such luminaries as Stan Greenberg and Ruy Tiexeira. Here's what they say about their new venture:

For several months, the three of us have been working on plans for The Democratic Strategist. We believe this publication - for which we will serve as co-editors - can fill a critical need within the Democratic community.

We are launching this publication because we believe Democrats must begin to develop political strategies that look beyond the standard two- and four-year time horizons set by the American electoral calendar. Democrats must develop a set of concrete and coherent political strategies for regularly winning elections and over the longer term - perhaps over a decade or more - winning new areas of support and creating nothing less than a stable Democratic majority in the country.

This is an extremely ambitious objective, but it is one that - as specialists in voting behavior, public attitudes, political demography, campaign strategy and organization - we believe is indeed achievable. For the last three presidential elections Democratic presidential candidates have come within one or two percentage points of winning an outright majority. It is not unrealistic to think that, with creative and determined strategic thinking and message development, Democrats could build a stable majority.

This is where we believe The Democratic Strategist can play a critical role. Right now there is no publication that brings together the latest solid research on public attitudes and social trends with extended, ongoing discussion of long-range Democratic political strategy. Academic journals provide empirical data but avoid political strategy; weekly opinion magazines discuss political strategy but do not have space to cover serious research on social currents on a continuing basis.

We see The Democratic Strategist as the place where these two currents can meet. The Democratic Strategist will seek to publish substantial articles that draw strategic conclusions from the latest public opinion and demographic research conducted by the academic community and commercial public opinion polling firms as well as from the leading think-tanks and policy institutes across America. The Democratic Strategist will make a special effort to encourage academic researchers whose scholarly research in specific fields has clear implications for political strategy to revise and reinterpret their data for a broad audience of Democratic planners, strategists and policymakers.

We will also create a space for campaign professionals, public intellectuals, and campaign and partisan activists to reflect on current trends and discuss or write about new strategies and options. Our goal is lively publication, informed by real data and real experience, but focused on the future.

The Democratic Strategist will also seek to create a shared venue and forum for the serious, sustained and ongoing discussion of long-term political strategy. We have developed a new and innovative system for conducting online roundtable conferences - a system that will allow groups of Democrats to make detailed responses to an initial presentation and then engage in extended back and forth discussion in much the same way that they might in a real-world conference.

Sounds like fun to me. So I've been over there giving them a hard time in the comments, and I was interested in this piece by Scott Winship, who seems to be an activist, consultant type, and grad student at Harvard. If you haven't read the J. Chait piece he's referring to, here's where you can find it. (Never say I didn't do anything for you, TNR.)

G-Rated Sequel to On the Importance of !&*@# Ideas

Yesterday I objected to Jonathan Chait’s claim that ideas are overrated on the grounds that, contrary to his assertion, it is quite possible to concisely state general but meaningful ends around which Democratic governing philosophy ought to be organized. Today I want to address Chait’s argument that “big ideas” have neither been important in the Republican ascendancy to power nor are likely to be important in reviving Democratic prospects.

Consider the forty-year realignment of the electorate toward the Republican Party. Since the Nixon Administration, the GOP has proposed a number of original and bold policy ideas that have advanced their agenda and shifted the balance of political power:

• The neoconservative confrontational foreign policy toward the Soviet Union
• Deregulation
• Welfare reform
• Supply-side fiscal policies
• Block grants to states and cities
• Faith-based service delivery

Democrats generally oppose these policies or their conservative details, but they have been successful electorally.
It is true, as Chait notes, that the Democratic Party has had no shortage of ideas themselves during this period. Many of these ideas have been both good on the merits and successful:

• Environmental protection
• Tax simplification in the mid-eighties
• Deficit reduction in the nineties
• Work supports such as the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit
• Reinventing government
• Incremental health care coverage expansions

What is striking is how many of these policies tend toward the incremental and moderate. The fact of the matter is that those are the types of policies that have produced success for the Party. Consider an analogous list of unsuccessful proposals or unpopular policies:

• Universal health care
• Federal support for smaller class sizes or more teachers, national education standards
• More money for housing, job training, and unemployment
• Affirmative action and busing
• Greater international cooperation and strengthening the United Nations (though this has grown more popular over time and will likely continue to)
• Stronger regulation of business and greater worker protection
• Strategic industrial policy
• Maintaining or raising taxes on the wealthy

The point is not that these are bad ideas, just that they have failed to resonate politically or have proven enormously difficult to advance. Republicans have succeeded not because their ideas have been somehow more creative, beneficial, or up to the task. They have succeeded because popular preferences are more sympathetic to them.

Now, right away my hackles get a little frisky. "Failed to resonate politically" is a pretty loaded term. Resonate with whom? He's making the claim that the list of Republican ideas are more popular, and again, I have to ask, with whom?

I don't have all night to do the hard research for this post, but I think that there are a couple of flaws in this logic. Let's look at the fine points.

Confrontation with the Soviet Union

Now, I was pretty young in the Raygun years, but I have come to understand that he had little to do with the fall of the Soviet system, despite the hero worship that has enshrined him in the mind of the American right. IIRC, internal intelligence from the CIA and other government agencies advising Ronnie about the Soviets were massively off-base, completely overestimating the threat of the Soviet military machine, and the support Soviet ideologies had in the Russian population by the end of that period. What brought them down was a combination of decay, corruption, and fatigue with a system that the people could see no longer served its stated functions. The relatively peaceful shift from Soviet to post-Soviet government in the former USSR came about with little actual help from our side; perhaps more importantly the expensive spy games and nightmare nuclear posturing looks rather pointless and foolish from today's perspective. So I'm not really sure I want to give Republicans any credit for this "success."

Welfare Reform/Faith Based Service Delivery

I lump these two together because to me they are inextricably linked. Welfare "reform" may have been signed by Clinton, but as many have shown both in academic studies and movies like "Bowling for Columbine," its results have been devastating to our nation's poorest. And you know what? No one cares! The vast majority of the poor and lower working class missed out on the "boom" of the 90s, and the situation today is hardly any better.

But what did "reform" really accomplish? Salving the egos of a bunch of racists, who bought into the "Cadillac driving welfare mom" bullshit. Killing welfare was one important step in undoing the progress of the Civil Rights periods, in which Brown and Black America taught White America that to care about the poor and to care about racial justice is often the same thing. And never mind that the majority of people on welfare are white, as far as the Republicans are concerned, they can die too. So sure, it's a "success," in that it legitimized a coded form of racism and destroyed one of the pillars of advanced civilization that we were developing way back then.

The faith based crap is essentially the same animal, but with a different stripe. There isn't so much research that I'm aware of which proves that "faith based" delivery of social services is effective, economical, or that it permanently solves the problems it purports to address. What such programs do do is allow groups to discriminate, and disseminate religious propaganda to the most helpless and vulnerable. "Pray or you don't eat, nigger." Where such programs are "successful" has to do with the not-so-slow anymore mixing of government and evangelical protestant religions. Because I've yet to see any Wiccan or Nation of Islam centers being funded with such dollars. In fact, at Kosvegas I met a Wiccan who formerly ran a homeless shelter, only to lose her funding due to you guessed it, objections of the protestant fundie majority in her southern state.

Taking a look at Democratic ideas that have "failed," I get even more upset.

Universal Health Care.

Yes, HillaryCare was a legislative loser. But as I argued in the comments over there, it would be a slam-dunk out of the park goal today for sure. Health care expenses are the #1 reason people declare bankruptcy in this country, and no one but the very rich has not encountered all the evils the insurance company ads of yesteryear touted in the very well coordinated "Harry and Louise" ads which killed Hillary's attempts. We're approaching a majority of people in this country with no effective health insurance as premiums and costs skyrocket, and services decline in frequency and quality while providers are freaking out about making impossible choices or breaking their oaths. As a member of the uninsured class, I can tell you that I will work my ass off for the first politician who promises to make Universal Care a reality, as I did for Dean back in the day. I'm not alone. It's just a feeling, but I perceive that this issue alone could unite moderates, progressives and even conservatives behind a Democratic candidate brave enough to use it in her/his platform.

Education, Smaller Class Sizes, etc.

Again, here's another place where an intelligent Democrat could win all the livelong day. I got called out by cooler heads for falling in love with Vilsack at Kosvegas, but the presentation he gave about education made me cum in my pants. There are many, many reasons why solid Federal support for all types of education public and private isn't just good progressive sense, but also in the economic and social senses as well. We can't compete, we can't innovate, we can't control our kids, and we can't have representative democracy function without good education. I've worked in education all my life, and I've yet to meet anyone who didn't want good educational opportunities for their kids. The vast majority are willing to pay for it, in the form of well spent taxes. Anecdotally, those people most in favor of public funds for education: rich Republican parents. Ask me about the Aryan, blue eyed pale-faced boy I once interviewed, and his dad, who told him to ask me about free funding for...wait for it...his son's 1/32 Native American heritage. But the point I'm making is that American parents have never been more concerned with the state of education, and at the same time less satisfied by what they're finding in public schools and colleges. They are also aware, even if they don't always express it "correctly," that what's happened to our schools didn't have to happen, and that no amount of busing or not busing is going to fix the many problems in our system.

Scott goes on to make some more points:

Recognizing that ideological disadvantage faced by Democrats precedes tactical and candidate weakness – rather than attributing under-performance to tactics and candidates themselves – leads to a rather different prescription for reviving Democratic prospects. It points to the importance of new ideas that address electoral weaknesses while staying true to progressive principles.

No problems there.

For starters, the Party needs to develop a tighter over-arching vision about what it stands for. I argued yesterday that an emphasis on equal opportunity and security would be particularly effective. Democrats also should adjust their priorities, devoting more attention, for instance, to national security. Some counterproductive (and arguably non-progressive) stances and policies ought to be downplayed or even jettisoned. We also need to think about electorally viable ways to find the money to pay for programs we wish to create or expand.

Does anyone else find this a tad vague and unsatisfying? Is there a difference between "security" and "security" in that paragraph? I think I get it, but I'm not sure.

In addition, the Party must propose new means of achieving long-standing policy goals. For example, many Democrats have a knee-jerk reaction to voucher-type programs such as those sometimes proposed for elementary and secondary education, social security, and Medicare. On the other hand, progressives support food stamps and Section 8 housing, which are essentially voucher programs. It is not the case that vouchers are simply always preferable to provision by the state, but there is a lot of gray here. One can propose education voucher programs limited to public institutions, for instance.

I find this a bit of an unjust comparison. Food Stamps and housing vouchers work because they deliver the same services to all people who use those programs. Yes, there is "choice" in the sense that one can buy Coco Puffs or Cheerios, or live in one part of the ghetto or another. But school vouchers? Um...Edison, anyone? Massive failure, corruption of funds, even lower test scores? There's a reason why real progressive "just say no" to certain kinds of voucher programs. The main one being: when they don't work, they often not only fail to address the problem, they frequently make the situation worse. There's plenty of data out there from actual educational professionals about the failures of vouchers, and how vouchers in education have limited usefulness at best.

Scott continues:

Finally, the party needs to develop new ideas for new problems. Terrorism is obviously the most important of these. Economic insecurity may also be such an issue, and the advance of biotechnology will dramatically transform debates over opportunity and values.

I'm not sure how these three things are interconnected in his mind, and I certainly don't think that "terrorism" is the #1 problem in America today. I wonder why he implies it is, or if in fact most Americans and potential Democratic voters think it is. Perhaps he's watching a bit too much Fox? Then again, they don't really study at Harvard, so I suppose he's got plenty of free time...(I keed, I keed)

Ideas matter, though not in isolation from voter preferences. The story of the past forty years is one of economic, geopolitical, and social change favoring Republicans, producing a realignment that was abetted by unpopular Democratic ideas and some popular Republican ones. Democrats need not change dramatically – recent elections have, of course, been remarkably close. But new ideas that are consistent with progressives’ core values can help win over more voters and shift the electoral map decisively in the Democrats’ favor.

Posted by Scott on June 28, 2006 07:54 AM

Wow. That last part is so loaded...where to begin? First off: terrorism isn't the #1 concern of most American voters. It may have been in the months following 911, but more recent and scientific studies put items like health care, job security, education and the environment at the top of the major-worries lists. I know I'm not the only one reading those polls.

And even if it were, as I argued over there, it's not like one can claim that the Republican party has done anything to make the situation better with respect to the "terror" threat. Again, "reality based" experts in the diplomatic, academic, economic and religious worlds tell us that Bush's wars and foolish policies have made the threat worse, even the US gov't has admitted this a couple of times in a couple of publications. State itself said that terror acts have been on the rise worldwide since Bush took office. I don't think any sane person can argue that Iraq is a "success," and I don't think most of the troops, if given the freedom to speak freely, would say they disagree with or despise Murtha.

And lest anyone think I'm a card-carrying Islamofascist Rabid Lamb: I'm all for truly and seriously addressing the causes and problems of terrorism. Diplomacy, multilateralism, funding aid programs, promoting regionally acceptable democratic political movements, microloans, promoting women's rights, critical's not too hard to make an historically supported list of anti-terror policies that actually work. There is even this crazy idea that if we stopped meddling in other nations and strong-arming them into giving us their resources for pennies on the dollar, their populations would happily embrace our consumerist rock-n-roll culture and want to become us, and not bomb us.

As far as what I'd do if I were a Democratic candidate, well, I'd have to spend a lot of my time talking about the myriad Bush failures in this "war" of his own making. Let's start with the port deal, and move on to cronyism in Iraq (KBR's foreign work force and rotten food to vets), we could also discuss the incompetence and lack of expertise in the many people Bush has put in charge of various enterprises in the War on Terror (Ledeen, Baldy at CIA, Negro-death squad) and then take a stroll through the finer and unexamined details still swirling about 911. Even if you can accuse me of "having no plan" to combat terror, it's pretty clear that Bush's "plan" had utterly failed. Cough, Osama been forgotten, cough. So I find this whole notion that Democrats need to "get real" about the terror war a little disingenuous at best, if not downright Foxesque as a Republican talking point.

I'm not going to disagree that in some senses, the last forty years really have been great ones for the Republicans...that's what happens when you gut the Fairness Act, share a boat with a rabidly religious and power hungry minority, and use the wedge of post-modern racism to split the moderates off from your opponents. There is also that little matter of funky voting machines, bullshit registration lists and “felon” no-voter rolls, and a one-time get out of free jail card SCOTUS decision....but I won't go there. Stacking the courts, playing the politics of race baiting, queer bashing, misogynist bait and switch, wow! I think we're on to something! I think what Scott is suggesting is that the Democratic party shift even further to the right, sell out its remaining intact values, and throw out the rule book of fair play and civility altogether! You know, it just may work. And then, when the Democratic Party is just like the Republican Party, we'll in concentration camps? Hmmm, I don't think that's what he really means. I wonder if he's a well-off white straight guy who's never experienced face to face what today's Republican values really mean to those of us who don't qualify for membership in the "ownership society?" Natch, that's can't be. I'm sure he's a true progressive, just like me.

Like I said, I don't have the time to load this post up with live links that support my assertions, and I welcome data from critical readers refuting any point I've made. But I'm fairly confident in my facts, and I think the gist of my argument stands. I'm not sure why these guys are taking the "more of the same" road to consulting on the issues, but I'm afraid I'm just not able to get on board, no matter how much “new, new, new!” language they employ on the website.

I don't think progressive Democrats lack ideas. I do think we live in an age in which all three branches of government are controlled by law-breaking, intellectually dishonest, crony-loving, hypocritical, treasonous, warmongering, lying sacks of shit who have spent the last 30 years buying out the media and colluding with corporations and the fundies to destroy the foundations of representative democracy. I'm sorry if I can't endorse their tactics as I advocate for a return to Constitutional Government.

But I warn you guys: you wouldn't like me when I do advocate for what I suspect must come to be rid of that ilk. You really, really wouldn't like me when I'm angry. This was one of my "happy" posts. grabs kit, polishes metal I haven’t forgotten everything I learned at Quantico.

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