Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What is to be done?

I've just finished reading Rick Perlstein's The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo, a short booklet outlining various perspectives on the Democratic Party's decline and future prospects.

Perlstein's basic argument is that the reason Democrats have continued to lose ground to Republicans over the last several decades is because the Democratic elite has grown too cautious, turning away from the economically populist vision associated with the New Deal and Great Society, substituting in its stead, a short term, swing voter approach that is either policy marginal (think V-chips, school uniforms) or self-defeating (balance budgets) but that is in either case, ever changing and malleable, leaving more and more voters less sure of the party's goals and values and therefore less and less likely to identify with the Democratic Party, ultimately driving down party identification and with it, long term party success. And resulting in more and more bad policymaking by conservatives. Perlstein says to interrupt this vicious downwardly spiraling process by proposing bold initiatives and sticking with them through rain or shine. As conservatives have patiently built a brand name, achieved majority status, and enacted a policy agenda--the many particulars of which majorities of voters cite as unpopular or of low priority--this way, so should Democrats go and do likewise.

The remainder of the booklet contains 12 short complimentary as well as counter arguments by several well-known and some not so well known analysts, former officials, and political scientists, followed by a final rebuttal by Perlstein at the end.

The critiques of Perlstein's argument represented by each of the contributors are not mutually exclusive and not easy to firmly pigeon-hole or categorize. Nonetheless, it helps me to at least give it a shot.

I'd say that at least one strain of criticism concerns the belief--held by many among the DLC--that the Democrat's achilles heal or heals has been its liberalism, particularly in regard to cultural issues, taxes and national security. This, combined with the country's growing conservatism, renders Democratic attempts to recreate itself on more economically liberal lines highly problematic. The pieces by Galston and Teixeira highlight this perspective and Klinkner touches on it. In the case of Galston and Teixeira, these authors would agree with Perlstein that the Democratic decline is real, worrisome, and presumably correctable. But they disagree with Perlstein as to the reasons--largely because they differ with respect to interpreting past election results--and what to prescribe to arrest the party's decline. Galston and Teixeira would have us tack to the right or at least shift our focus to a different demographic set of targets (i.e. more or less keep the status quo).

A second, important line of critique implies that the Democratic Party's decline is either not as dramatic or the party's future as worrisome as Perlstein alleges, or that to the extent that it is, is just as likely to remedied by time, outside events or chance as by any wholescale purposeful or planned changes in party direction, organization or philosophy. Dan Carol, Philip Klinkner and Larry Bartels all make arguments of this type. In Carol's case, he argues that while the old powerful and visible Democratic Party is probably not going to be reborn anytime soon, a newer do it yourself type of politics driven by grassroot activists and issue publics is and will do a lot to create the same effect. Klinkner, meanwhile, contends that planning the type of long term wholescale movement envisioned by Perlstein is unrealistic and doesn't take into account the fact that election outcomes are driven by party id, which isn't easy to change, and by outside and unpredictable factors, such as wars and scandals. Klinkner also notes that the party out of power has a 50/50 chance to win a presidential election in any event, so the advantages to be gained by vision making, dream building, and party restructuring may be easy to overstate. Bartel's contribution is to say that short term strategizing isn't all that bad since most elections can't be won on the basis of party mobilization alone--independents and fence-sitters need to be swayed so some degree of swing voter targeting makes sense.

There are other arguments I could discuss but I think these the most important.

So where do I come down in all of this? Basically I tend to discount the Galston, Teixeira school of thought. I agree with Perlstein that few voters are carrying around images of the Democratic Party from the 1960's and increasingly, from the 1970's, two decades that have done so much to singe the memories of many Democratic strategists.

I do, however, think there is a lot to the arguments presented by Carol, Klinkner and Bartels. In particular, elections, especially presidential ones, are both highly idiosyncratic as well as difficult to control or shape. The economy, part id, and the charisma of the candidate matter a lot and aren't always susceptible to message intervention or even mobilization (as we saw this last time around).

At the same time, while the quantitative evidence for Perlstein's argument may be somewhat insufficient, I do agree that the party is at a minimum highly tentative, defensive and inconsistent in regards to promoting the cultural, economic and international liberalism I think most of its members support and which I believe would enjoy greater respect and support among the public were Democrats to be more upfront and less apologetic about it. This may in fact be what drives Perlstein's views more than anything.

What needs further refining is how Perlstein believes the Democrats should go about implementing his vision. Should it be driven by the presidential candidate and thus dependent on a progressive at the top of the ticket? How do congressional elections, dependent as they are on local influences fit into this? Perlstein I believe also minimizes the importance of civil rights and civil liberties issues to the Democratic agenda and the public good of the country.

In any event, I come away from Perlstein's thesis and the arguments of his peers somewhat more optimistic than I was going in. And I see a good deal of issue consistency in Democrats support for reproductive rights, civil rights and the like, defensive as it may be, and as unpopular or at least subject to negative demogoguery as these issues sometimes are, that model much of the consistency I believe Perlstein would like Democrats to emulate on economic issues.

In conclusion, I think it's important for Democrats to think about picking up the tool used so well by Newt Gingrich in 1994 and begin working on a contract type document, outlining what the party would do if it had control of Congress. I'll even mention a few: prevent the president's tax cuts from taking permanent effect; restore the estate tax; increase the minimum wage; reverse the bankruptcy "reform" changes; reverse the "tort reform" changes; reauthorize the voting rights act.

That should get you started. Please contribute your own ideas. Maybe with a little luck, we bloggers might provide something constructive for Democratic members to think about in preparation for 2006 and beyond.

He's Tanned, Rested and Ready

Gary Hart in today's Wash Post:

In 2008 I want a leader who is willing now to say: "I made a mistake, and for my mistake I am going to Iraq and accompanying the next planeload of flag-draped coffins back to Dover Air Force Base. And I am going to ask forgiveness for my mistake from every parent who will talk to me."

Further, this leader should say: "I am now going to give a series of speeches across the country documenting how the administration did not tell the American people the truth, why this war is making our country more vulnerable and less secure, how we can drive a wedge between Iraqi insurgents and outside jihadists and leave Iraq for the Iraqis to govern, how we can repair the damage done to our military, what we and our allies can do to dry up the jihadists' swamp, and what dramatic steps we must take to become energy-secure and prevent Gulf Wars III, IV and so on."

At stake is not just the leadership of the Democratic Party and the nation but our nation's honor, our nobility and our principles. Franklin D. Roosevelt established a national community based on social justice. Harry Truman created international networks that repaired the damage of World War II and defeated communism. John F. Kennedy recaptured the ideal of the republic and the sense of civic duty. To expect to enter this pantheon, the next Democratic leader must now undertake all three tasks.

But this cannot be done while the water is rising in the Big Muddy of the Middle East. No Democrat, especially one now silent, should expect election by default. The public trust must be earned, and speaking clearly, candidly and forcefully now about the mess in Iraq is the place to begin.

The real defeatists today are not those protesting the war. The real defeatists are those in power and their silent supporters in the opposition party who are reduced to repeating "Stay the course" even when the course, whatever it now is, is light years away from the one originally undertaken. The truth is we're way off course. We've stumbled into a hornet's nest. We've weakened ourselves at home and in the world. We are less secure today than before this war began.

Who now has the courage to say this?

Who has the courage to say this? Um, you do, Senator.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

With Friends Like These

Over at the Whiskey Bar, Billmon takes apart one of Will Marshall's (the head of the DLC's "Progressive" Policy Institute) comments about the Iraq war, and emphasizes the bold type:

As they catalogue the administration's many mistakes, Democrats should also attend to the other side of the balance sheet. That side shows that our forces and their allies have toppled one of the world's most odious tyrants; upheld the principle of collective security; liberated a nation of 24 million; made possible Iraq's hopeful experiment in representative self-government; and changed the strategic equation in the Arab-Israeli conflict. (emphasis added)

But the part in bold type isn't what strikes me as the most offensive and ridiculous aspect of Marshall's statement. That would be the assertions about topplying the world's most odious "tyrant", upholding "collective security" and "liberating" a nation. The bit about "self-government" is either bafflingly ignorant, or deliberately manipulative, too, but we'll leave that for another day.

First of all, I suspect Marshall is in danger of being held liable for plagiarism since his remarks seem strikingly similar to those from any one of a number of Republican outlets, conservative think tank websites, or chicken-hawk blogs that have sounded like-minded themes over the past three years in an effort to combat any anti-war sentiment and oh, say, the facts about Iraq's supposed stash of WMD.

Second, it strains credibility to believe or accept the notion that the task of American foreign policy is to remove by military means foreign heads of governments, and the destruction of innocent civilian life that inevitably accompanies such military action, just because we believe those foreign heads to be, today, "odious tyrants" or "brutal dictators" (while in the past we might have cozied up to them despite their "odious" ways). In fact, American history sports a long, rich, and infamous record of support for brutal military dictatorships in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, that have largely gone unnoticed by the American public, including our nation's support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980's when an alliance with him supported our material and ideological interests. We've overthrown or worked to overthrow democratically elected governments, even as recently as three years ago in Venezuela (whose democratically elected head Republican "reverend" Pat Robertson wants whacked, as if American foreign policy should be conducted like an episode of the Sopranos). So please, Will Marshall, spare us the sanctimonious babble about removing "tyrants". You might be able to peddle this to a kindergarten class (although that would be an insult to kindergarteners) or at the American Enterprise Institute, but don't try shoving it off on dedicated party supporters.

Third, everybody alltogether now, there was no principle of "collective security" involved in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It wasn't "collective" because the U.S. invaded unilaterally, never mind the sprinkling of soldiers supplied by Britain, Spain and Australia (and Don't Forget Poland!!) whose small additions were undoubtedly provided in exchange for promises of future American aid the details of which I shudder to consider. And it wasn't "security" because Iraq wasn't a threat to us or anyone else. It possessed no WMD, had no alliance with Al Qaeda or connection to 9-11, and its military was in shambles stemming from the first Gulf War, thus presenting no threat to its neighbors. Rather, our invasion has only served to fuel the rising tide of Islamic hostility to our expanding military bases in their lands and thus undermined our own security (and theirs).

Fourth, again, everybody alltogether now, only in the minds of the PNAC-led foreign policy establishment and their DLC enablers does the situation in Iraq now and for the foreseeable future resemble anything along the likes of "liberation." The country is on the brink of civil war and would already be there in actuality were 150,000 U.S. troops not encamped there. What was a relatively secular society is now threatening to become either a splintered, failed state ready and waiting to serve as the new terrorist haven, or, and apparently with our blessing, a Shiite dominated, women repressing Islamic state aligned with Iran. Both scenarios would require and imply the need for a prolonged U.S. military presence in Iraq so as to guard against, in the worst case scenario, an invasion by Iran in support of its Shiite compatriots, or, just as necessary, to prevent wanton mass murder between the various religious and tribal groups that we've now allowed to be unleashed on one another on the account of our invasion and destabilizing of the country. Moreover, the presence of even the relatively low levels of American military forces needed for keeping order and deterring Iranian intercession would themselves require greater numbers of American military personnel so as to ensure that the low troop numbers needed aren't themselves in danger of being overrun, especially to the extent that those remaining would be required to conduct operations outside the concrete security walls of Baghdad's Green Zone.

Finally, at a time when public opinion has finally managed to see through the media and political elite smokescreen that is the camaflouge of the support for the Iraq invasion, Democrats are faced with the prospect of squaring off against not only existing Republican majorities in Congress (some of whose members are actually beginning to respond to the war's failure to a greater degree than most Democrats) and the weight of the executive bureaucracy and bully pulpit of the presidency, but also against Republican sympathesizers masquerading under the guise of the DLC and committing grand larceny with the Democratic label.

Ooops. There goes my stab at being "moderate" in this debate. Oh well. Try try again. I now return you to your regularly scheduled blog cast.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

What I'm Reading

The Stock Ticker and the SuperJumbo: How the Democrats Can Once Again Become America's Dominant Political Party by Rick Perlstein and Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President by Harold Holzer.

The Perlstein book, which is actually a short and edited booklet, contains, in addition to Perlstein's own argument, those of William Galston, Ruy Teixeira, and Robert Reich, among others, as well.

I picked each of the books up separately, without any preconceived idea that they fit together. But since I enjoy reading history and am interested in the future of the Democratic Party, both suit my eclectical tastes. And as I have started the Lincoln book, it strikes me that the two works may actually have a lot in common.

The Lincoln book is concerned with an address the future president delivered in February of 1860 in New York City that is credited with being instrumental in giving Lincoln positive exposure in the east and in helping him gain the new Republican Party nomination for president later that year. In the speech, Lincoln set out a historical, factual, and legal argument against the extension of slavery in the territories.

The book highlights the fact that Lincoln was in essence campaigning as the "moderate" candidate--more conservative than New York Senator William Seward, whose "irrepressible conflict" speech had alienated many "mainstream" Free Labor proponents, and more progressive than his Illinois rival, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, who argued for the principle of "popular sovereignty", which on the basis of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowed territories to vote on whether to allow slavery or not. Although earlier in 1858 he pronounced that "a house divided against itself cannot stand", Lincoln moderated his appeal in NYC two years later, trying to assure the South that he did not intend, and did not believe that any of that region's "peculiar institutions" would need to be disturbed. At the same time, he set out a distinct course from Douglas, arguing strenously against the idea of popular sovereignty and at the same time, warning the South about any future intrangience.

That Lincoln's was the "moderate" voice in the debate that seemed to be if anything, one revolving moral absolutes, is something I believe Democrats might do well to remember.

Democrats would do well to also remember the basis for Lincoln's approach and argument that night in NYC: that the nation's history as well as the ideas and votes of the founding generation, backed up Lincoln's argument that the federal government had the authority over slavery in the territories, a point of contention that Douglas earlier had denied. It is true that I have criticized historical romanticism from this space. However, it is also true that in moving away from the conservatism and injustice of America's past Democrats have allowed Republicans to hijack history, casting themselves as the true legacy holders of the American tradition. Democrats would do well to begin the process of reversing this image by laying claim to the most progressive instincts and examples of our heritage to support the need for a more free, and more progressive and modern future.

It is no secret what Democrats have lacked in past elections and most need to make up for in future ones in a rhetorical and demographic sense: the support of religious and rural voters. Naturally, there are a variety of ways for Democrats to begin making inroads to these constituencies.

What the Lincoln experience also helps confirm is that Democrats should not be embarrased to recognize and assert that they need a midwestern or southern candidate at the top of the ticket. Part of Lincoln's appeal to the nascent Republican Party was exactly that--his geography, both literally as well as figuratively. Not only did he sectionally represent a growing "battleground" area, but he spoke its language as well.

Lincoln's appeal to history and faith provide additional models for Democrats to follow. While, again, the exact methods of doing this are varied, and as Robert Kennedy once said in managing his brother's campaign for the White House, campaigns are not well oiled and methodic processes, but rather, consist of a multitude of efforts, keeping those that work, discarding those that don't, and trying new ones. Democrats will fail, as they must, in trying to recapture the country's allegiance. But try they must.

As I continue with the Lincoln and Perlstein books, I hope to continue this discussion and perhaps arrive at some more satisfactory suggestions.

For the moment, I'll reiterate that Democrats do need to appeal to religious and rural voters, and that I believe they can do that without sacrificing the vital issues of civil liberties and political pluralism I believe progresssives value. On the religious question, Democrats can authentically claim the positive dimensions of our country's religious history while at the same time warning against the dangers of religious extremism.

As Lincoln remarked regarding slavery in NYC the evening of February 27, 1860: Our fathers, when they framed the government under which we live, understood the question just as well, and even better, than we do now.

As with religion as with the extension of slavery. "Our fathers" did understand this question as well if not better than we do today. That is why they acknowleged the right to its free expression while prohibiting the coercision of religious worship and the requiring of religious oaths of affiliations as a mark of government service or citizenship. Democrats can and need to reaffirm our history on this point, authenticating our tradition of religious freedom while protecting the rights of religious and non religious minorities.