Monthly Archives: May 2006

So Which Is It?

Two stories about the Pennsylvania elections Tuesday. One in The New York Times says the ouster of more than a dozen state lawmakers in the primaries was caused by the revolt of Club for Growth style conservatives. But The Washington Post story makes no mention of the right-wing group’s claims of victory. But both articles seem to agree it proves the vulnerability of incumbents in general and GOP incumbents in particular. Either way, it suggests the implosion of the GOP. Note in the Times story:

While conservatives were cheering, G. Terry Madonna, an election analyst at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said the results could cheer Democrats, as well.

Dr. Madonna pointed to a special election in Chester County, outside Philadelphia, where a Democrat, Andrew Dinniman, won a Senate seat in a district dominated by Republicans. As the party moves right, Dr. Madonna said, “the moderate Republicans may vote for Democrats now.”

On blogs and talk radio shows, conservatives have been engaged in an intramural debate about whether to work hard in the November Congressional elections or sit them out to punish Republican Party leaders.

Chester County is nothing like Loudoun County. It’s established and it is growing slowly and older. But it’s another example where suburbanites might be turning blue.

“We’re the Other Guy”

Democrats may have swelled chests this morning after reading the latest poll results from The Washington Post. I wished I had saved the version that appeared online last night at about 5:30. If I recall correctly, this morning’s story was re-edited to bring higher into the story two warning to Democrats:

One is a growing disaffection with incumbents generally. When asked whether they were inclined to reelect their current representative to Congress or look around for someone new, 55 percent said they were open to someone else, the highest since just before Republicans captured control of Congress in 1994. That suggests that some Democratic incumbents could feel the voters’ wrath, although as the party in power Republicans have more at risk.

The second warning for Democrats is that their improved prospects for November appear driven primarily by dissatisfaction with Republicans rather than by positive impressions of their own party. Congressional Democrats are rating only slightly more favorably than congressional Republicans, and 52 percent of those surveyed said the Democrats have not offered a sharp contrast to Bush and the Republicans.

If I’m correct, the edits were probably an attempt to be more “balanced.” Whatever the reason, I’m glad the editors made the changes. It’s now less likely that readers might not have gotten to the these two paragraphs that were much farther down in the online story.

Reading the data, there is more cause for caution. The number of voters who say they prefer a Democratic candidate hasn’t changed since last November. All this bad news and declining support for Bush hasn’t made Democrats any more appealing. They were at the same 52% last November. And they have made no progress (still at 44% since November) in convincing the majority of Americans that they have a clear agenda. (Granted, those who say their vote for Congress will be to show opposition to Bush is much higher today than it was in 1998 against President Clinton just before the November elections that swept the GOP into power in Congress.)

As I’ve said before, in the long run being the other guy doesn’t get you very far. If the Dems win control, Republicans then become the other guys.

But the Dems still seemed paralyzed, afraid to make a mistake. They’re afraid to outline an agenda. Yet, what we’ve learned over the past five years is that having an agenda and fighting for it gives you a lot of traction with voters. It wasn’t until the Iraq War clearly turned south and other problems piled on that voters became disenchanted with Bush and his cronies. What Dems should have learned from this is that they need to stake out some territory, outline some policies and promote the hell out of them. They’ll win a lot of votes just for having positions. Once they win and try to implement them, the other thing I hope they learned is that if those policies don’t pan out, they quickly change course, modify them and try to make them better.

Virginia Democrats are hoping for the same voter discontent to help them regain the GA, at least by 2009. And some GOPers are worried, too.

Republicans in Virginia’s General Assembly are growing fearful that voters could become frustrated with their party’s recent failures to complete state budgets on time and take out their anger at the polls.

Many worry that Democrats are poised to use the Virginia GOP’s years-long intraparty feud over taxes and spending as a potent political tool to argue that Republicans are too divided to govern.

But Virginia Democrats so far have offered little as alternatives. The tax hike of ’04 and the proposal this year would not have happened without Republican support.

“Republicans are in control, and this battle in leadership is within the Republican Party,” Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) said. “The Democrats, even though they may see some political opportunity in it, are basically bystanders, onlookers. It’s something we need to sort out as Republicans. Ultimately, if we don’t sort it out in a timely manner, we won’t remain the majority party.”

Bystanders, indeed. Even the Governor has seemed to become a bystander lately. He and fellow Dems seem to be following that old (and worn out) advice:

“When you don’t have the power, you can’t really be blamed for anything,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, an associate professor of political science at Mary Washington University. “It’s the first rule of politics: When the other party is shooting itself in the foot, get out of the way.”

But when you “get out of the way,” the best place to go is into the back office to plot an alternative you can offer voters in the next election. Strong communities is one theme. Bi-artisan redistricting is another. “Level playing field” and a “legacy to our grandchildren” is another. But now is the time to test these themes and create policies behind them, not two months before the election.

In the national picture, we hear that we’ll get some themes, but not before late summer. Let’s hope it’s not to late. But I can assure you that the national Dems have been hammering out those themes for months. Are the Virginia Dems doing the same?

Bush in VA

Raising Kaine points out Bush’s Va. numbers. Three things jump out:

1. Hispanics still like the guy.
2. The less education, the less the general population likes him [clarified from earlier version].
3. His lowest numbers are the central Va., not NOVA.

Voodoo That You Do So Well

The Roanoke Times cites the Mallaby op-ed I alluded to Monday to argue that tax cuts don’t boost the economy. The editors add:

There’s no way of knowing what federal revenues would be doing right now if the Bush tax cuts had never passed. But it is possible to compare this recovery to past recoveries, and the current one pales in comparison.

A study by the liberal Economic Policy Institute compared several measures of recovery since the peak of the last business cycle to the previous four recoveries. In every measure, the current recovery is falling short.

Gross domestic product and gross domestic income are rebounding more slowly than average. Job creation and the employment rates are far below average for a typical recovery.

All those measures increased faster after the 1991 recession, even as President Clinton raised taxes.

As the EPI study concluded, “Although the tax cuts have failed to boost economic performance, they have not failed to reduce revenues substantially. In the recently completed fiscal year 2005, the combined effect of the tax cuts passed since 2001 was $225 billion without interest.”

With interest costs included, the tax cuts reduced federal revenue by $260 billion. Thus four-fifths of the $317 billion deficit in 2005 can be attributed to tax cuts Republicans insist pay for themselves.

The Voodoo That You Do

Sebastian Mallaby has a good column this morning about the canard that tax cuts increase revenues. He debunks it using conservative economists. David Broder effectively made the same point by quoting Republican Senator George Voinovich in yesterday’s column. The senator several times refers to our children or grandchildren. That’s an effective image that must be repeated ad nauseum.

While the national debt, of course, was not an issue in David Poisson’s campaign for the House of Delegates last year, he very effectively would often say that his campaign was “about the children.” People responded, if for no other reason than he effectively delivered the message that it wasn’t about what he wanted, but what the children needed. The campaign wasn’t about what was in it for him.

I was surprised in a campaign I was part of a few years back to renovate our old high school, how many of the older folks wanted to make sure the school remained vibrant for the kids, not theirs, now in the neighborhood. (I also think they realized how much good schools impact real estate prices.)

Mallaby’s column has all the facts we need to support a more compelling message that tax cuts will burden the lives of our children and grandchildren. The trick is to translate the arcane concept of national debt into a compelling narrative. It seems to me that using a closer to home story about how personal debt affects an individual is one way. My kids, late stage teenagers and early 20s, can easily understand that message. Many kids who have college loans can understand what debt can mean — and what they can’t do when they have debt. And if we can get the younger generation, especially since they became a little more engaged in national politics in 2004, to appreciate the looming crisis, they will understand the need for a different approach to taxes and spending.

Whether at a national or state level, the story of the burdens we’re fostering on the next generation should be delivered in forums with audiences with a lot of gray hair and a lot of baggy pants and $5 flip-flops.

Strong Communities

The Halpin/Teixeira paper “The Politics of Definition” suggests that the central theme of Democrats should be the “common good.” While I agree in principle, I think the terminology is all wrong. The better framework is “strong communities,” especially for state politicians. “Common” can be a pejorative term and “good” is not good enough.

All politics is local because much of one’s sense of security and well being is related to the family, a career and the local area in which s/he lives. Especially in a time of national insecurity, both economic and by the terrorism threat, people look to their communities for support and comfort. They want to feel safe on their streets with children, engaged in the schools, strong religious institutions and neighbors who look out for one another. They also want strong local economies that provide jobs.

From the strong communities framework we can build a message of working for the common good, but the strong communities frame provides the sense of benefits for the individual voter, whereas common good sounds too much like sacrifice for others.

But clearly, Halpin/Teixeira are on the right track with data to back it up.

Strikingly, research conducted by Westhill Partners for the Center for American Progress in the fall of 2003 found that Americans view the 1950s as the most idyllic decade in our nation’s history (this was true even among African-Americans). Despite clear problems in addressing the status of racial minorities and women during the 1950s, Americans give three primary reasons for honoring this time period: “(1) a strong belief that community spirit — ‘we’re all in this together’ — is fundamentally American; (2) nostalgia for the real or perceived ‘close-knit’ community of the past; and (3) a conviction that decline in community is the primary cause of crime and the erosion of public safety.” (Emphasis added)* Americans also believe in this period as a time when neighbors looked out for one another, parents taught their children right and wrong, and kids understood their place in the world and respected their elders. The 1950s represented for these participants a time not only of informal commitment and service to their communities, but also a more formal commitment to uphold their duties as citizens.

When my wife and I married 21 years ago, we lived in a perpetually gentrifying neighborhood. The occasional gunshot in the distance only served to make it a little exciting. Then she got pregnant. We moved to a more established neighborhood, and yes, a more boring one. We hardly knew our neighbors. But we lived there only three years before moving to northern Virginia. While the neighborhood was similar in many ways, it was inhabited by more engaged and caring residents who scheduled annual “progressive dinners” where not only the neighbors on the block were invited but so were all the previous residents of the homes.

It was for this neighborhood that I first become politically engaged. And the process confirmed for me that the most important things that affect my life are those that impact my small corner of the world. The community was paramount. The community was worth fighting for.

I think framing the issue as one of strong communities where everyone looks out for one another and yes, “all the children are above average” is the way to get to that common good result we want from our national policies and programs.

Sometimes it’s difficult to relate what happens on Capitol Hill to the local community, but it’s easier when relating to state policies. After all, the core responsibility of the state is education, an issue that is probably the most important factor beyond economic opportunity that determines where families with children live. Even older citizens whose children are long gone recognize the role good schools play in preserving the neighborhood. Transportation and public safety also resonate with citizens whether they are married or single. By emphasizing how addressing these issues can build strong communities, progressives can gain traction.

This is only one of the messages I think can work. And along with the message has to be a plan to deliver it. That will be part of what Commonwealth Commonsense will discuss.

Obama Delivers Gingrich’s Message

If you can get the full text of Sen. Barrack Obama’s speech to Emily’s List last week, let me know. He invoked former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said if he were a Democrat, his message would be “Had enough?” I only saw part of the speech on CSPAN. The senator delivered a well crafted overall message for Democrats. Missing, of course, is what he would do instead. That still needs to be answered, but this was nice positioning.

UPDATE: Speaking of Gingrich, his appearance this morning on “Meet the Press” reconfirmed for me just how overrated Tim Russert is, and why lazy reporters are a real challenge for those who want to deliver a different message. Russert lives for the “gotcha” moment. Many reporters do, and consequently, they don’t listen. Like Russert, they have a list of questions they ask and never bother to listen and challenge many statements.

When asked about the NSA collecting phone records, Gingrich started off by saying that first of all, the collection is legal. He then went on to make his point that Americans support such invasions of privacy to be secure. Russert then quoted Gingrich to try to catch him in a contradiction. But not about the legality of the records collection. It is by no means clear that what this administration did is legal, but Russert never challenged him.

A Test

Speaking of polls (below), here’s another test for the national Dems.

A majority of Americans initially support a controversial National Security Agency program to collect information on telephone calls made in the United States in an effort to identify and investigate potential terrorist threats, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The new survey found that 63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, including 44 percent who strongly endorsed the effort. Another 35 percent said the program was unacceptable, which included 24 percent who strongly objected to it.

Who wants to bet that the Dems back off, afraid that it’s a losing issue? But here’s another result from the poll: Half–51 percent–approved of the way President Bush was handling privacy matters.

That indicates a much more divided electorate. Digging more into the data, we learn that only 41% “strongly support” the NSA’s collection of call data. Twenty-two percent support the effort “somewhat.” I call them persuadable. And I call Bush’s command of this issue tenuous, at best.

And what’s missing from the data: How many of the respondents are likely voters? If you don’t care that the government is spying on you, how much do you care about the government at all. And if you don’t care, you don’t vote.

Between now and Nov. 2008 is plenty of time for true leaders to make the argument that the war on religious fundamentalism (terror is just the a tactic) is a much about selling democracy to Muslims who see our Iraq effort as a war on their religion. What are we selling? That democracy is about government collecting records of your phone calls? What’s next? Your bank account records? Your medical records? (Credit Joe Scarborough for asking these questions last night.) And what safeguards are there that this data won’t be shared, compromised or stolen?

What do we expect of our government? How do we balance protecting ourselves and protecting our privacy? Raising these questions alone is the first step Dems should take. Initiating the dialogue is what leaders do.

UPDATE: And is Bush really a leaderwith any political capital left?

So What?

Virginia Democrats don’t have an overriding message. So what? Why does it really matter? What matters, leaders will tell you, is that Dems raise lots of money because you can’t win without money.

No, alas, you can’t. But if you spend it on the wrong things, it’s money wasted. Candidates don’t live or die on whether they put out eight or 10 direct mail pieces. If they can only send two, then yeah, they’re at a disadvantage. But all a candidate needs is enough money. In the Poisson campaign, one will look at VPAP and see that he raised as much as Dick Black and spent as much. But most of that money was raised in the last month when many donors hoped on board what they saw as a winning cause. The election was won, however, in September and October when Dave’s communication strategy painted Black as so focused on social issues that he never addressed transportation or education issues. Guess what the folks in Loudoun County really cared about? In fact, Dave will probably admit that we probably spent too much in the last days of the campaign, simply because we could. Complaints from votes about too many calls and too much mail indicate that even your friends have a tolerance limit.

The House and Senate caucuses have embarked on a fundraising drive. Bully for them. But to what ends?

Ninety percent of voters go to the polls perhaps knowing not which candidate they will vote for but which lever they’ll pull. (OK, the image is out of date, but you get my point.) People vote party unless given a compelling reason to vote for the other guy. Just being the other guy may be enough. 2006 could test that theory, although there are reports that Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has a platform in the works to be delivered in the fall. That and voter frustration might be enough to help Dems win back Congress. But it won’t be enough to beat John McCain in ’08. In fact, if the Dems succeed in November, they have the tough task of governing in a way that moves voters into their presidential column against a very tough and respected opponent.

In Virginia, we’ve seen the downsides of having only a Democratic governor. He can achieve some good. Warner’s tax hikes were welcomed but let’s face it, they were modest. It wasn’t tax reform; it was a small hike and tinkering around the edges. And we still have abhorrent social legislation getting passed with support from both moderate and conservative Republicans and weak-kneed Democrats.

And we have too many House Republican leaders who aren’t even challenged. As Poisson proved, nobody is invincible. But it’ll take more than money.

The first reason to develop a coherent statewide message is not about selling the candidate. It’s about selling potential candidates. If Dems are to find good candidates (and good candidates trump boatloads of cash any day), they must sell them the Democratic vision. It’s much easier to find candidates when you’re the majority. When you’re the minority, you need to convince potential candidates that they will be joining a party that will soon be the majority. Who wants to get elected only to be thwarted legislatively, which is what’s happening to Democrats now?

Many good candidates may not win on their first attempt. But that losing effort may well be the first nail in the coffin of entrenched incumbents. Dems need to mount campaigns in every race. That discussion is going on at the national level, with Howard Dean and Emanuel battling each other.

In a heated meeting last week, Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, challenged Mr. Dean on his 50-state program, saying it was undercutting Democratic hopes of taking back the House and the Senate, Democrats said. They warned that Mr. Dean was squandering an opportunity by sending money to parties in states that are a long way from becoming Democratic.

… Mr. Dean’s program of sending money to state parties reflects his criticism of party leaders for having only focused on a handful of states. One politically practical result is that he has strong support among many state chairmen.
“The governor feels very strongly that the Democratic Party needs infrastructure to make us competitive in every state,” said his spokesman, Stacie Paxton.

I agree with Dean. And I think it needs to happen in Virginia’s state races. There are two election cycles before redistricting. Even if Dems lose against incumbents in ’07, they have another election to capture the 11 in the House or four in the Senate necessary to have input into the 2011 redistricting. And that’s key in the long-term. (More on that later.)

Developing a program now that identifies the issues that will resonate with independent and moderate Republicans is the first step. I was told by one state Dem that first we must test the ideas in polls. I agree you test the ideas, but not in polls. Leadership isn’t divined through polls.

Some of my best friends are consultants. They tend to be the most entertaining people in the political community: eccentric, fanatic, creative, violently verbal and deeply hilarious—the sort of people who sat in the back of the room in high school and shot spitballs at the future politicians sitting up front. But their impact on politics has been perverse. Rather than make the game more interesting, they have drained a good deal of the life from our democracy. They have become specialists in caution, literal reactionaries—they react to the results of their polling and focus groups; they fear anything they haven’t tested.

In his book “Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You’re Stupid,” Joe Klein argues that consultants who live and die by polls have snuffed vision and leadership out of political life. He cites John Kerry’s refusal to address the Abu Graib scandal because focus groups indicated people were willing to give Bush a pass. Can you imagine Bobby Kennedy avoiding the issue?

It takes time and repetition, but vision can be sold. And it is vision Virginia Dems need. It will need to come from legislators as well as from Gov. Kaine. Given his parsing of the capital murder issue, we need more adventuresome participants in that exercise.

I am not arguing, as many liberals do, that we just have to stand on our principles and full steam ahead. We need to figure out how to articulate our principles.

But first, what are our principles?

Back in the Saddle

Last September, I put Commonwealth Commonsense on what I thought would be a two-month hiatus, as I worked on David Poisson’s campaign for the House of Delegates. But then I couldn’t resist the temptation to spend the winter at the lovely Richmond sausage factory, so CC remained on hold.

While there, I came to the conclusion that despite the gifts of incompetence and reactionary ideology bestowed by House Republicans, Virginia Democrats must craft a compelling narrative and policy ideas to win control of the General Assembly before the next redistricting. The challenges are similar to those facing the national Democrats. Fair or not, “Democrats don’t have a message” is so ingrained in the collective public and media psyche, that without rising to that challenge, progressives will find it nearly impossible to win enough Republicans and independent voters in 140 precisely carved districts to become the majority. And if they do so without the message, they’ll be on shaky ground. Being the “other guy” is not the foundation for a lasting political power base.

My thoughts are echoed in a provocative paper recently published by John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, “The Politics of Definition,” published in four parts, here, here, here and here. Many other Democrats and progressives are arguing for an aggressive, pro-active agenda that gives voters a reason not simply to vote against Bush’s incompetence and crass politics, but to vote for something.

So I come back to this blog, first published in early 2004, with a narrower focus: to discuss how Democrats can articulate a message that produces not just an electoral shift in one cycle, but a lasting philosophical and programmatic agenda that might enjoy the impact that the neo-conservative movement has for the past 25 years. While I’m especially interested in the Virginia General Assembly, I suspect many examples of the ideas and messages that work — and those that don’t — will be played out as this year’s national elections approach.

I welcome your thoughts.