March 31, 2005
So a buncha pointy-headed sciencey types are all upset because we're "using up resources" and "destroying the world." Well, boo hoo hoo! Do you hear that sound, sciencey-types? It is the world's largest violin playing just for the exhaustion of our natural resources. The violin is made entirely of mulched rainforest and played by enormous smoke-belching engines of steel and concrete, standing a thousand feet tall in glorious tribute to the undying achievement that has been man's rape of the natural world! Tomorrow it will be scrapped and replaced with a newer, bigger violin with built-in wireless and dolphin-exploding capabilities
Shooting the Devil in the Back
Jesse Lee thinks the sole force able to take out DeLay is Rove, and he can only do that by converting the GOP caucus. True, but I don't think he's got the power. The house leadership is surprisingly disconnected from the White House -- there's been no patron relationship there. Unlike Frist, Hastert and DeLay built this goddamn majority, and I'd be stunned if they let the transient occupants of the White House tell them how to run it. So I think Rove's meddling might prove counterproductive.
But what about internal fears from the conference? That's trickier. If DeLay is dragging down the poll numbers and become a problem for the Republicans, would he allow Hastert and Blunt to put him out of his misery? My answer, again, is nope. You have to remember that DeLay was never a Gingrichite, he's never been a movement guy concerned with creating an enduring GOP majority in order to change the world. DeLay's ruthlessness, and thus his success, actually comes from his alternative motivation -- the man wants power, simple as that. And he doesn't just want it for his friends or party or patrons, he wants it for himself. So you're about to watch DeLay cash in all the chits, call in all the debts. All those lawmakers he installed in power? Watch them circle the wagons. All those lobbyists he invited into the Capitol? Watch them contribute to the fund. And DeLay himself? He's readying for war, already constructing a him-against-the-world narrative. His very belligerence closes off his escape routs, once he's entered the fight and vowed to win it, losing becomes unacceptable, a knife in his pride. He won't allow it -- it's personal.
And that, for Democrats, is probably the best outcome. DeLay flailing wildly, desperately trying to survive as Republicans distance themselves, caucus dissension hits the papers, and the poll numbers nosedive. DeLay, for his part, has never been good in front of the cameras. He's not a skilled media personality, more apt to reach heights of sublime absurdity (i.e, his defense of Quayle, which argued that minorities snatched up all the spots in Vietnam, leaving no room for white boys like Dan and Tom) and blistering rage than to turn in compelling and vulnerable performances. But if he wants to survive, he'll have to step into the limelight, which might kill him on its own. And the more damage DeLay takes, the more his omnipresent PAC contributions and fundraisers will hurt the candidates they were meant to benefit. In the end, he's got too much pride to go quietly and he's too connected to go on his own. If Tom's going to die, he won't go clean. He'll writhe and flail, and he'll take many a friend and foe down with him.
We can only hope.
You Will Stop Buying Everything.
Kevin Drum knocks George Will's support for a national sales tax out of the park:
A national sales tax is an idee fixe among a certain type of conservative lunatic, sort of like the gold standard and the Trilateral Commission. George Will might be dumb enough to fall for it, but the rest of us shouldn't. It's just a plain stupid idea.
But you know what? I wish Republicans would quit gabbing about it and actually implement it. They'd then be out of power for about a century or so, which might give the rest of us a chance to do some good. So go ahead Rep. Linder: make my day.
Go read his reasoning and marvel over what a fun debate this would be to have.
Thoughts on Hegemony
Brad Plumer's got a characteristically thoughtful post on why Americans want to be the dominant global power. I mean, really, what good does it do us? And, from a logical standpoint, he's right. In fact, I'd much rather be a highly-developed country on the second-tier of world power (like Japan or France) than America. So long as you believe the global strongman to be basically benevolent -- and, odd bouts of French-hating and Japanophobia aside, we've proved ourselves such -- you're really in much better shape letting someone else worry about supporting a massive army, purchasing all the latest weapons technology, and dashing across the globe when the bat eagle signal dances across the sky. You can save your cash and create a nice, comfy social net, full of health care for all and long, paid vacations.
But, if you're an American, and you've got even an ounce of nationalism in you, you'd rather see a world dominated by you than anyone else. You are good, you don't believe there to be anyone better, so the best possible outcome for the world, if not for your deficit, is American preeminence. in that way, I think Brad underestimates how much of this is a weird offshoot of white man's burden, call it best country's chore. It's not that Americans really want to be dominant, it's that they feel they kinda owe it to the world, all things considered.
Aside from some folks at the top of the national security food chain who defend it in cost-benefit terms, I think this is mostly an instinctive thing. Americans are a bit isolationist and a bit reluctant to project force in order to promote Good Stuff, but they'll generally vote for the hegemonically-inclined over his opponent, because this taps into nationalism rather than foreign policy opinion. And that's why I believe any effective national security critique the Democrats can adopt will rely, in large part, on arguing that there are better ways to promote American preeminence and apply American force. I don't think you'll get far by tapping into isolationist strains, but I think you can make quite a run by invoking our moral authority and responsibility to set an example for the world.
Winning Without Gains
So back to the Democracy Corps poll (no Josh Marshall-esque, never-ending cliffhangers here!). Let me go through the relevant results and then get to thoughts. The Republican party rates about 4% higher than we do, while Bill Clinton rates a smidge higher than the Republican party and George W clocks in at .4% above him (yes, I know we're leaving statistical significance here). Weirdly, when asked who they'll vote for in the 06 midterms, a Democrat or a Republican, respondents chose the good guys over the not-so-good, 46%-45%. When thinking about the presidential, Hillary beats Jeb, 50%-47%, and the hypothetical Bill v. George match-up gives Clinton the easy edge, 51%-46%.
When asked what direction the country should be heading in, Bush's or something totally different, totally different won effortlessly, 52%-45%. From there we go to comparative polls, the graphs of which I posted here. They show, basically, that the Democrats win on specific domestic issues, but Republicans win on general attributes ("know what they stand for", etc). Foreign policy wasn't a major focus of the poll.
So what we've got is a party whose individuals do just fine (remember kids, we've won the popular vote in three of the last four presidentials, and we would've made congressional gains in 2004 save for a bout of illegal redistricting in Texas) but the party itself, as a standalone structure, may well be more hurt than help to those carrying its flag. That is, of course, a problem. In some ways it returns to the argument I was having with Matt a few days ago. Democrats, right now, are doing an excellent job of foiling Bush's legislative strategy and thus protecting Americans from privatization. But that success is not conferring benefits on the party itself. Maybe that's just because few Americans are tuned in, and when we run against privatization in 2006 we'll see the gains. In fact, I'd bet there's an element of that in the mix. But when total success is doing you no good whatsoever, you know there's a problem.
So what's the answer? Blah blah party-building blah blah blah. But in the specific, we really have to be more overt about tying our opposition to our party, which is to say embracing what we oppose and what we support as characteristics of Democrats rather than the battle lines of a particular congressional battle. That's why we need some general Democratic media representatives like Dean really pounding away at the connection between this fight and the Democratic/Republican philosophies. Beyond that, that's why we really need to increase the coherence between the Democratic thinkers (like the national security experts at Democracy Arsenal, which has now been recommended by everyone but me) and ordinary Democrats. Beyond that, it's back to Bill Bradley's pleas to build a stable pyramid of our own and create an institution where our party is stronger than its candidates.
Yeah, I know, this is all standard. And I hate to be a Cassandra about all this, but I fear we're getting so excited about defeating Bush's Social Security plan that we're not noticing how little good it's doing our party. What we've got, thus far, is just a good first step. We've put the President on the defensive and found a ripe issue for the election. But you know what? We've had good first steps before. It's all part of our inverted pyramid: rather than building a solid foundation for the next election, we just hope that whatever's going on at the moment will be enough to take down the right. It rarely is. What's going on at the moment has to also boost us. Gingrich understood that, and used the defeat of health care as a starting point to nationalize and sell a Republican message about limited government and establishment hubris. We're being presented with the same opportunity, and we need to approach it with the same vision. This poll should be plenty of evidence for that.
RIP Terry Schiavo
God knows she deserves it. The NY Times editorial page puts it particularly well and, hopefully, dredges some meaning and beauty out of this whole sordid affair.
Apologies for Ruining Your Morning
The new Democracy Corps memo just popped into my inbox and, despite the spin, it strikes me as bad news. It's not that Republicans are doing well so much as Democrats are doing really, really badly. And that's not individual Democrats -- Hillary easily beats Jeb (and 11% of Republicans cross lines for her) and Bill stomps all over George. But the party's image stinks. It's past midnight and I lack the energy to work up a full analysis now, but I'll leave you with these two graphs to noodle over; my comments to follow in the morning:
Enforce my Cheeseburger!
Via Body and Soul, this 911 recording is hilarious. That's right, it's so funny that my recommendation wouldn't carry enough weight unless I italicized it. And, apropos of my earlier comments that Orange Count is not a sandbox full of spoiled rich kids, this all occurs -- sigh -- in the OC. Alright then, off you go.
Update: If you've listened to the call, wiped the tears of mirth (mirth is an underused word, don't you think?) from your face, and are still looking for things to read, this post of Kevin's is mighty interesting.
March 30, 2005
Bill Bradley's op-ed today is so spot-on it brought a tear to my eye. For awhile now, I've been incoherently expressing the difference between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates by saying that the former are defined by their party while the latter are forced to define their party. But Bradley hit the target much more accurately:
To further the party's ideological and political goals, Republicans in the 1970's and 1980's built a comprehensive structure based on Powell's blueprint. Visualize that structure as a pyramid.
You've probably heard some of this before, but let me run through it again. Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.
The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate. That language is sometimes in the form of an assault on Democrats and at other times in the form of advocacy for a new policy position. The development process can take years. And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.
At the very top of the pyramid you'll find the president. Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.
To understand how the Democratic Party works, invert the pyramid. Imagine a pyramid balancing precariously on its point, which is the presidential candidate.
Democrats who run for president have to build their own pyramids all by themselves. There is no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on. Unlike Republicans, they don't simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus - they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too. Many Democratic fundraisers join a campaign only after assessing how well it has done in assembling its pyramid of political, media and idea people.
There is no clearly identifiable funding base for Democratic policy organizations, and in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas. Campaigns don't start thinking about a Democratic brand until halfway through the election year, by which time winning the daily news cycle takes precedence over building a consistent message. The closest that Democrats get to a brand is a catchy slogan.
A party based on charisma has no long-term impact. Think of our last charismatic leader, Bill Clinton. He was president for eight years. He was the first Democrat to be re-elected since Franklin Roosevelt. He was smart, skilled and possessed great energy. But what happened? At the end of his tenure in the most powerful office in the world, there were fewer Democratic governors, fewer Democratic senators, members of Congress and state legislators and a national party that was deep in debt. The president did well. The party did not. Charisma didn't translate into structure.
If Democrats are serious about preparing for the next election or the next election after that, some influential Democrats will have to resist entrusting their dreams to individual candidates and instead make a commitment to build a stable pyramid from the base up. It will take at least a decade's commitment, and it won't come cheap. But there really is no other choice.
Absolutely correct in every way.
Update: Kevin's got some further thoughts, mainly, that the remarkable success conservatives have had has come from exploiting levers of power no one had really thought of before (though he forgets what may be the most important two -- direct mail and churches). Regarding Bradley's op-ed, I'd argue that conservative innovation hasn't been the result of dedicated and original thinkers looking for new opportunities but the simple dividends of paying attention to structural strength. None of the paths they formed were particularly novel, at least not once they started forging them. But Democrats never really tried to counter the conservative radio presence (at least not until Air America), never tried to figure out our own framing, never attempted to pack the courts (not since FDR, anyway) -- but none of this stuff was exclusive to the other side, it was more our lack of interest that gave offered them such massive returns. If Bradley's ethos was adopted, Democrats would be on the lookout for ways to challenge current forms of conservative advantage and create some of their own. Evidence is they're trying, at least to a degree. Online fundraising is really owned by liberals, with DailyKos, MoveOn.org, and the Dean campaign all firmly settled on the left so that, at least, is positive.
What always surprises me is that there is a natural place to make great gains that Democrats completely ignore. While both parties battle over Hispanics and Catholics, Republicans begin vying for Blacks, and Democrats start Godding up their language, nobody pays any attention to the young. As a group, we naturally tilt towards the left, but Democrats show little-to-no interest in codifying that advantage. You don't see them working to support mobilization on college campuses, you don't see them deploying speakers and politicians to schools, you don't see them working to align themselves with the young on issues they care about, you don't see them trying to do, well, anything. And yet, here you've got a constituency that tilts left, that Republicans don't care about, and that will be voting for a long time to come. It's really a very stupid oversight.
I think this might be my favorite blog ever.