Wednesday, December 22, 2004

To Populist or Not To Populist...State of the Party V

Now, before we go off and spend the next three pre-Iowa-caucus-2008 years making horse race predictions as I just did in the last post, we ought to get back to this business of message. I've already laid out the parameters of what I think our approach should be on campaigning in the South (yes) and the priority civil liberties issues should have in the next few years, but there's also this little matter about economic policy, and as Thomas Frank suggested in What's The Matter With Kansas, having we Dems go back to a focus on populist economics as a counter to the culture war the Repubs have been waging. As my concern with civil liberty issues probably suggests, I don't completely agree with Franks' emphasis on economics over culture, if that is indeed what he arguing. But I do thing there's good policy and good political grounds for Democrats to pursue a focused, and bold, approach to economic policy that challenges many of the conventional myths that conservatives have been spinning for the last couple of decades.

The root of this New Democratic Economic Populism is philosophical and from a political psychology standpoint, as much about reframing issues as about concrete policy alternatives. While I will elaborate on my basic philosophy in hopefully greater clarity in the days and months ahead, my basic point and plea to the Democrats is to say out loud at every forum that the conservative spin about "less government", the wonders of "capitalism" and the magic of "free markets" and "individualism" is a bunch of gobblydogook. The "free market" as conservatives revere it, doesn't exist. Capitalism doesn't spring up from the soil unbidden, ready to work its god-given majesty to all who will sacrifice themselves to its mercies. Capitalism, the economy, and the "market" is a fabrication. It is a construction. It requires an infrastructure and rules. And favors. And privileges. Now, what conservatives want is for people to believe that government and society have no role to play in ensuring some measure of economic justice or wellbeing, while on the other hand, allowing and encouraging government institutions to go on quietly existing to maneuver through means of regulations and legislation that the economic needs of corporations are provided for.

Maybe you get where I'm going with this. From an economic populism standpoint, perhaps for Democrats the return to power is a matter of "less is more". Perhaps, instead of calling for greater public spending and the higher taxes needed to support it, there is a basis for Democrats to focus on pruning the corporations from the public trough. I recognize I'm simplifying something here that is more complex than a matter of attacking corporations in a general sense. And that is not my argument. But I do believe there are plenty of avenues, both philosophical and tangible, to refocus Democratic economic policies towards leveling the playing field by removing corporate preferences and subsidies from the public sphere, rather than attempting to add additional spending programs and layers of bureaucracy.

Which I guess brings us to taxes, and tax policy in particular. The Rogue Progressive, Rogue that he is, is talking economic heresy for Democrats. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, it's a good read, and maybe even good heresy.

Like the Rogue, I've begun to wonder whether the progressive income tax is either good policy or good politics for Democrats. Before the Rove machine began floating the idea of ending certain tax exemptions (deducting state and local taxes from fed income tax, the health insurance write off for corps, the mortgage interest deduction) as part of a tax reform package, I'd been thinking much of the same thing, but from a more liberal vantage point. Simply put, I believe the progressive income tax, such as it is, is more a cesspool of inequities than a means of "progressive" policy, both in the forward thinking as well as redistributive senses of the word.

Should Democrats consider the in-name-only progressive income tax as the gold standard of tax policy or should we, as a part of unmasking the hidden role of government and the disparities it creates, see the income tax as a viable basis for reform, from a progressive standpoint?

Most people don't realize the degree to which their livelihoods depend on certain features of the tax code and other indirect and hidden dimensions of government driven economic policy. The progressive income tax, with its host of subsidies, tax deductions, and hidden incentives, has created a situation where the government role in the economy is not well understood and has been the breeding ground for conservative misinformation and scorched earth politics that needs to be countered.

As the Rogue Progressive implicitly argues, conservatives have used liberal support for government programs as a whipping boy while continuing to work the levers of government to serve its own inequitable ends. As we continue to grasp the circumstances of being out of power, Democrats should reconsider our tax and economic policy positions and be prepared to branch out in new, if challenging directions.

Dude, Where's My Primary?

Matt Yglesias has a bit on the presidential nominating process, which is a subject that's crossed my mind a time or two as well. Matt semiseriously proposes a type of playoff system where two nominees would compete in each state and the winners would face off in other states until only one was left standing. The underlying theme seems to be that the current system, where one or two states end up determining the nominee before any of the rest of us get a say in the matter (other than that form of speech represented by credit card contributions to our preferred candidate(s) ), is lacking in excitement, widespread participation, and questionable decisions.

I'm not sure what the solution is, and since this is a blog and not a journal or newspaper I can think out loud and make up stuff as I go along (oh, they do that in journals and newspapers, too, oh well). Now, as everyone and their uncle knows, the primary system was instituted to give The People a voice in choosing nominees, as opposed to the process where party bigwigs and big city bosses picked nominees in smoke filled rooms.

But has the primary process accomplished that? Considering this last go around was over after NH, we may have had fewer people voting in those two caucus-primary states than would have voted on the convention floor, the old way nominees were picked. OK, I'm exaggerating. But it does give me an opening to talk about what I really want to talk about--the conventions.

As a political junky, I'd love to see the primary season be competitive up till the conventions and have the convention open without any one candidate with the necessary delegates to clinch the nomination, requiring an actual vote on the floor, and thus less attention given to the parade of speeches now that no one pays any attention to.

Of course having a competitive primary season and open nominating session at the convention has drawbacks. It creates money problems for one, as it makes it less likely for the eventual winning nominee to have the adequate cash on hand to devote to beating the other party's candidate because the money lenders have not been able to direct their resources to any one candidate. And there are some who would say a more competitive, drawn out and combative primary system would damage the eventual nominee for the general election.

All probably true to a certain degree. So we're back to square one. How do we come up with a system that ensures greater participation, is more competitive and open to divergent messages, and most importantly for all, is more interesting to us bloggers?

Interestling, however flawed the current system is with Iowa and New Hampshire hogging the spotlight, the current system doesn't actually preclude the possibility of a competitive and longer primary season and an actual battle for the nomination at the convention, if you're in to that sort of thing. It just so happens that it hasn't worked out that way very often.

But there have been exceptions. Consider 1992. Then, there was a favored son in Iowa (Harkin) and to a certain degree, in NH (Tsongas). So neither of those states were considered as critical as they turned out this year. Clinton didn't win Iowa or NH and yet hung on long enough to get to the south and to bigger states which put him over the top. So we can have an interesting, informative, and attention drawing primary season with the continued presence of Iowa and NH at the top of the batting order.

If memory serves me correctly, the assumption going into this past campaign was Iowa was Gephardt's state, Kerry had NH, and Edwards would take SC, a three way split for the first three states on the calendar. But it turned out that the Iowa electorate felt Gephardt's time had passed, and obviously even before then, the emergence of Dean as a viable and compeeling candidate prior to the Iowa vote relegated Gephardt to third of fourth string in Iowa. And we all know how it turned out from there.

So what does all this mean? What alternatives are available for the party in designing its primary nomination system? It depends on what the party and its likely contenders' goals are. As I indicated above, the front loading of the system was designed to get an early nominee, who could then soak up campaign funding and campaign in the spring without being attacked by fellow Democrats. And even though that was how it essentially came out this time, there's no certainty that even with a front loaded schedule, that the same would occur in 2008.

But there are other party goals than those of giving the eventual nominee a financial and political cushion. The party also has an interest, or at least it should, in building up state party candidates and infrastructures. With that in mind, it might be in the interest of several states to put forward "favorite son" candidates whose name recognition and other resources within a state could serve to ensure that not anyone candidate ran away with the nomination before the rest of us had a chance to contribute to the debate and selection process. Of course, this wouldn't necessarily work in all situations. But it could serve to bring heretofore unheard or not widely known voices out into the open and help sustain an interest in the local and state party figures and party apparatus. I realize that others have made similar if inchoate arguments. For example, Donna Brazille talked about this prior to the past campaign as an alternative for some candidates and states.

Which I guess brings us to talking about the 2008 campaign. Assuming the primary calendar doesn't change substantially before then, what are we likely to see? Here is the pool of potential candidates as I envision it: Edwards, Bayh, Gore, HRC, Kerry, Dean, Biden, and I'll throw in Feingold and Mark Warner as wild cards. Some of these will not run, and there will likely be some not on this list who will. If I'm missing any obvious names, let me know. But this is probably the group.

My bet is that Kerry, HRC, and Gore, should they make noises about running, will receive mixed support, leaving the field relatively open, and without a clear front runner or shoo-in winner in either Iowa or NH. But then again, neither is there anyone in this list that would make Iowa or NH a throw away state, meaning that if someone such as Bayh or Biden were to emerge for example, and should he win in Iowa, the dominos might fall, and we'd have close to a repeat of this past year. I hope that doesn't happen. I'd like to cast a meaningful vote in a primary, and maybe be motivated to sign on as a delegate and have the opportunity to cast a meaningful vote at a convention.

Send me your thoughts on campaign '08 and what sort of nomination process you'd like to see.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


I saw this in the Post over the weekend and meant to talk about it but it slipped my mind once the week got going. Yglesias had a post on it, though, so I wanted to point it out to any interested.

Basically, Kuttner gives George Will the business about the latter's column on gays, economics and the election.



My inner bureaucrat has posted some comments relative to the Social Security program on a few other blogs, here, and here.

Giving Thanks

To Dave Johnson from Seeing The Forest, who's added Bulworth to his blog's links.

Go pay them a visit to show your appreciation. You'll be glad you did.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Getting Religion

Time for a detour. I'm gonna try and waid into the swamp that is "religion in politics".

Or maybe it's "religion in society". In any event, I feel compelled to add yet another voice to this reemerging debate with the hope of trying to answer some basic questions that too often are ignored.

The three or so of you who have frequented this blog are probably aware of my distaste for the religious wrong. There is no love loss between myself and such outfits as Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, the 700 Club, The Family Research Council, and the Republican Party, just to name a few. They're authoritarian and nationalistic, with a little religion tossed in to dress things up a bit. But my basic opinion is that people like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Dr. Laura, and Jerry Falwell, again just to name a few, are about as religious as my office wall. Now, there are some who would question my ability to lodge such accusations. After all, I don't know there hearts, etc. True. But I can see and hear their deeds, and since they are the ones questioning everyone else's attitudes and behaviors, I feel free to act as a "fruit inspector" and "test their spirits" as some religious individuals would understand it.

On top of that, I'm bothered by the popularization of Christianity, the condescending and simple minded bumper stickers, and the gratuitous comments by sports celebrities about how they owe everything to God but whose words and actions are all about themselves. I think much of what circulates within the evangelical community and out to the world seems contrived, staged as it were, for some sort of propagandistic purpose. Artificial. And many Christians that are quoted in the news or by exit polls and such come off intolerant and unloving.

So there's plenty not to like.

But, as it turns out, I was actually raised a Christian and I continue to participate in my church in various capacities. So I understand how other Christians and religious people look at the world, even though I differ from many of them as to an application of religious principles.

So why am I a Democrat? That's a good question. Or maybe the question should be What Kind of Christian am I? These are questions I intend to explore in the course of writing this blog.

I'll begin with some questions for my non-religous friends, although if you are religious and want to speak to these questions, you are most welcome.

Now, the recent election has served to bring a host of issues again to the fore, issues which act as fault lines in the body politic, issues which serve as identifying markers for adherents and opponents alike.

Among these issues are Evolution and the accuracy of, and applicability of, the Holy Bible for providing answers to life's questions.

Having been raised Christian, I went to church schools, and so didn't get to learn much about evolution. I took a biological-anthropology course as an undergraduate at a public university, but that was about it.

From what little I know of the Theory of Evolution and its supporters is that the notion of evolution itself does not attempt to explain the origins of matter, the cells that we're told formed the basis for an original lifeform, from which all of us, human and non-human today derive from.
We religous have done what many groups do in attacking their perceived enemies: we've created a straw man to knock down. The straw man of evolution Christians have held up is that of our relation to and descent from apes. Surely, you evolutionists don't think we came from apes do you, we Christians mock in feigned surprise?

But I won't hold that strawman up. I know things are more complicated than that. But I am honestly interested in knowing more. To the extent that you believe in evolution and or don't believe in God as a creative being, can you explain to me, in layman's terms, How Did We Get Here? What Happens When We Die? and What Is The Purpose of Life?

For my Christian friends, let me say you're not off the hook either. I have some questions for you, too. But for now, let me hear from those that can explain the basis of life to me, if that basis of life is understood as being separate from and perhaps in direct conflict with, the view put forward by the Bible.

The White House Considers its "Donald" Problem

As controversy considers to swirl around Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor, pays the Secretary of Defense a visit.

Rove: Hi, Donald, whaaattt's happening?

Rumsfeld: Uh, I still haven't received my paycheck, and I--

Rove: Umm, you're gonna have to talk to payroll about that, umkay?

Rumsfeld: I did, and they said--

Rove: And I'm gonna have to ask you to move your desk again... yeeaaaaah.

Rumsfeld: But, I've already moved my desk three times...

Rove: If you could just push your desk back, there's some boxes we need to put in here...yeeaaaaah

Rumsfeld: But there's no space...

Rove: If you could take care of that, that would be terrific, umkay? Thanks, Donald.

Rumsfeld (muttering under his breath as Rove leaves): OK, but that's the last straw, I could shut this whole place down, I could set the building on fire, I could write a book, I could write a book and have this administration condemned...