December 31, 2005
In Praise of Fighting Dems
People at Daily Kos and elsewhere are getting all excited about congressional candidates with military records. Dadahead isn’t. He says, “Why anyone would think that being a veteran is an advantage for a Democrat, after the the flame-out of Wesley Clark and the swift-boating of John Kerry, is beyond me.” I happen to think that running a bunch of congressional candidates with Iraq War records is an excellent idea, and I'll respond to Dadahead’s arguments.
There’s a world of difference between a presidential
candidate who has the mannerisms of a Senator invoking his
Which brings me to Hackett. He polled 48.3% in a district where Republicans held a 3-1 registration
advantage and no Democrat in 12 years had surpassed Lee Hornberger’s 29.1% score
from 1993. Jean Schmidt’s weakness and
Hackett’s donations from werewolves are part of the explanation. But there’s no doubt that Hackett’s military
background, around which he built his campaign, accounts for a big chunk of the
improvement. If you’re looking for data
to predict how Fighting Dems will do in congressional races, he’s the best
The vast majority of the
Dadahead is wrong to criticize Hackett supporters for past strategic
incompetence, and use this to attack their reliability. The Kossacks who love Hackett so dearly aren’t
the people who brought you John Kerry – they’re the ones who wanted to bring you
Howard Dean. (Okay, that doesn’t support
my point as well as I hoped. But it’s
more a case of throwing strategy to the wind than strategic incompetence.) So I'll be self-aggrandizing here and ask Dadahead to take it from me. I’ve done reasonably well at this – thinking that
Hackett would do very well but not win his House race, and arguing against
Kerry’s electability (at least, relative to Edwards) since my first blog entry ever
on Kos. Being an
July 23, 2005
Why'd the Big Dog "Sell Out"?
As a sidebar to the conversation on med mal, Ezra also asks the important question, "why is Bill Clinton parroting right-waing talking points"? It's an interesting puzzle.
My best guess is that Clinton's been hanging out a fair bit with Bob Rubin, who is a big fan of tort reform (of course, he's also a big fan of greater social spending and poverty reduction, so the two sort of balance each other out. That, and he was The Man in the Clinton White House). And as political advice, he does have a point. It's much easier to agree with the public that malpractice costs are a problem than it is to try and convince them that they're not. And there are plenty of ways to address malpractice suits without capping payouts at a tiny sum; the John Edwards "three strikes and you're out" proposal, Clinton's "national standards" that would raise the presumption of innocence, and creating pre-trial hearings would all do something about the problem. Given that Democrats seem compelled to do business in the Reality-Based community, and we have a finite amount of time and money to expend tearing down right-wing fabrications, saying "yeah, we should do a little something about malpractice" might be a path of lower resistance than a full-bore PR campaign against the insurance industry.
July 12, 2005
Thanks to Ezra for inviting my wolfy self back for another guestblogging run!
About a month ago, Ezra made us aware of the good folks pushing Ed Prado for Supreme Court. Ezra saw the movement as a bit naive -- Bush isn't looking for independent, fair-minded consensus candidates in the Prado mold. He wants to drive wedges and pay off special interest groups that support him.
I actually think that the Draft Prado movement -- and other movements to get the media to include moderate candidates in their "who replaces O'Connor?" stories are a big help. Republicans must not be allowed to define the political spectrum so that Alberto Gonzalez is a liberal, Luttig is a moderate, and only Janice Rogers Brown counts as a conservative. Putting genuine moderates on the map and calling them moderates is a good way to do this.
It's something that I wish we could do more in other political contexts, but it works especially well here. Unlike most policy issues, Republicans can't respond to our activism by passing different versions of Ed Prado in the House and Senate, replacing his brain with Priscilla Owen's in conference committee, and looking moderate to everyone but a bunch of well-informed activists while doing real damage.
April 26, 2005
So Trent Lott and Ben Nelson are pushing a compromise that would bring four of the blocked nominees to the floor, kill three of them, and end the Republican effort to kill the filibuster. But according to the new WaPo/ABC News poll, only 26% support "changing the Senate's rules to make it easier for Republicans to confirm Bush's nominees", while 66% oppose it. That's quite a majority firmly in opposition, and it includes almost half the Republicans surveyed. More interesting, from the perspective of who'd win a media war over the issue, is this question: "The Senate has confirmed 35 federal appeals court judges nominated by Bush, while Senate Democrats have blocked 10 others. Do you think the Senate Democrats are right or wrong to block those nominations?" 48% think the Democrats are right, 36% think them wrong. And that's a much softer numerical comparison than the one Reid uses (I think he's got a 195-10 number, or something similar).
So why compromise? Numbers like this ensure that Frist simply won't have the votes. Neither the principled Republicans nor the opportunists are going to feel safe on the nuclear option bandwagon. So let him go ahead and try to force the issue. Let's say, hypothetically, he got the votes. Is this a fight he can win? The Senate comes to a screeching halt, the talk shows focus on the protection/dissolution of minority rights, and folks don't understand why Republicans have broken with years of tradition over 10 nutball judges. Public opinion, already against the GOP solidifies, and Senate Republicans begin to defect, handing the right a HUGE loss and effectively ending Frist's presidential aspirations.
Now, it's certainly true that the outcome isn't as preordained as all that, nothing's ever immutable in politics. But it seems that Reid and Co. could gamble, with reasonable certainty, on killing the nuclear option. And serving Republicans with a defeat on that, right after Social Security and Schiavo, would really solidify perceptions -- and thus the media storyline -- of the right as disorganized and on a downward trajectory, while adding significantly to Democratic momentum. So while I recognize that there's more risk in pushing forward, it seems that the potential rewards are much greater. It codifies GOP overreach, it'll empower Republican moderates, and it'll solidify the power and unity of the Democratic caucus. And I think that's worth the risk.
April 08, 2005
The Imaginary Center
Via Political Wire, pollster Scott Rasmussen, annoyed at his post-2004 election irrelevance, has created the Hillary Meter, an enormously useless waste of webspace tracking, twice monthly, how close to the political center Americans think Hillary is.
The obsession with centrism is, to me, the single most puzzling thing about presidential politics. It's as if the strategists and pollsters and commentators all sat down over Scrabble one night, decided the work they did was too hard, and unanimously agreed that, from then on, the middle would be the ideal and everybody could simply work off that. Then the pollsters would know what to poll, the strategists would know what to strategize, the commentators could pen their critiques, and everyone could hit the bars by seven. They did all this in a century where none of the great and effective leaders were middle-of-the-road kinda men. FDR, Kennedy, Johnson (got an enormous amount done), Reagan -- there was no obsession with moderation directing their compasses, and had there been, they'd be consigned to dust-gathering biographies in particularly well-stocked libraries, not still injecting themselves into political discussions.
Whether Hillary hits dead middle is far less important than whether she connects with the American people. Because, surprise surprise, the nation doesn't quite rest in the magic center either. They like class warfare, soaking the rich, government-run health care, preserving the environment, and participating in all manner of international treaties. Of course, Hillary's move to the center will be judged on how well she rejects these American priorities -- how quickly she gives up the ideal of universal health care, how blithe her dismissal of international treaties is, how much she protests against a progressive tax code.
But then it's not the American middle she'll be moving to, instead, she'll by traveling to a hypothetical center that exists only in the heads of the commentariat. And to get the secret key that opens up the hidden door to that electoral treasure room, she'll have to gut punch what she believes in, deny good policy, and show herself willing to bleed her supporters. Being judged viable in politics has the distinct oder of a frat hazing, where not only do you have to demean yourself, but for entry, they love it if you offend and even cause pain to your former friends. And so, If Hillary were smart, she'd take her husband's advice, not Scott Rasmussen's.
Strength and certainty will do her much more good than meaningless, muddled moderation. Her current attempts to frame her positions in massively appealing and concrete terms are exactly right, so much so that they've even sent her marching towards the center in Scott's polls without changing her positions a bit. Because, in the end. the American people judge the center to be where they are, and so long as they like what's being said, they'll drag the middle over to is. Hillary should just keep on keepin' on, no matter which direction these meaningless polls point in.
April 07, 2005
Lindsay Beyerstein has a thoughtful response* to my post on Lakoff from a few days back. Yes, I said from a few days back. Which is kinda important because blog posts have the lifespan of fruitflies** -- come each dawn, the bell is tolling for all those words you wrote the day before, which kinda sucks. So it's nice to see one achieve some shelf life. But I digress.
She takes issue with my lashing of Lakoff's "nurturant parent" model which, she explains, isn't meant to be a frame so much as a way of conceptualizing how the two parties view themselves. Fair enough. But that doesn't, as I see it, much change the critique. Whether it's the wellspring our frames emanate from or the frame itself doesn't much matter; in the end, whatever emerges will always be pointing to the nurturant parent v. strict father choice, a a match-up we'll lose.
That's because, in the the American polity, the idea of the strict father is stronger than the idea of the nurturant parent. That's how Republicans win elections -- not on health care and education and Social Security, all places the nurturant model functions best, but on scaring people over foreign threats. The nurturant parent will never win on terrorism. It's no coincidence that the only presidential recently won by Democrats fell between the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11. With domestic issues dominant, nurturant parent won; when foreign policy returned, it lost. So while nurturant parent is a fine starting place for explaining how we take care of our fellow citizens, it's no good for protecting them from alien dangers.
This means that the way we conceptualize and articulate ourselves at present doesn't work. Whether we're actually saying nurturant parent or just operating off its tenets, we need to change it. We need to understand that, as Clinton says, the American people prize strength above all else. Now, we may be able to combine strength with values more natural to our worldview, but we're going to have to figure out how, on terrorism, to be a tough dad rather than a nurturing parent. And I fear that viewing ourselves through this inherently unworkable prism is not the best way to start that evolution. NP may have a use for part of our philosophy, but I don't see any way it can possibly contribute towards a successful foreign policy philosophy.
* Seriously, go read it.
** Actually, it's 1/37th the lifespan of a fruitfly, as they live only 37 days. Still, you get the point.
April 06, 2005
Matt's right. The DeLay scandals are cresting too quick, little would be worse than watching the right sacrifice their figurehead, install Roy Blunt Jr., and move forward untainted by ethical issues. On the other hand, I'm not sure this is in the power of "liberal advocacy groups" anymore -- the press smells the blood and I get the feeling that they're circling on their own, no one's having to herd them. The only thing liberal groups can do now is try and widen the attack, to demand that the press pay attention to the larger issues of Republican corruption and pay-to-play ethos.
This moment is as good as it gets, with the press already nailing Delay for transgressions, they're as likely as they'll ever be to pick up on stories implicating the whole caucus and it's way of doing business. The front room lobbyists, the corporate cronyism, the breathtaking shamelessness with which industry shills form legislation -- those are the real scandals, it's not just one bad apple, it's a caucus that's disgustingly bold in allowing and enlarging the nexus between cash and Congress. In the ideal hierarchy of things, what the Republicans do today is infinitely worse than what Nixon did during Watergate. His actions were just aimed at screwing his enemies, the Republicans have turned their sights towards their constituents. But the way the press works, you can't indict business as usual, you can only nail individuals for the unusual. DeLay's carelessness has thus opened the door for these stories, are job now it to push the larger issues into the front yard.
April 05, 2005
Sez Sage Brooks
Unlike some others, I don't see much to laud in Brooks's column this morning. From my vantage point, it's just another trite outing in which Sensible David explains that it's not lockstep ideological rigidity combined with top-flight institutions that has made conservatism the handsome superforce it is today, but a long process of healthy intramovement argument and deep study of their philosophical forebears. In other words, more on how wonderful Republicans are and why Democrats should take off their horns and copy their opponents. The column ends with one of those now overused conclusions that most liberals, sad to say, probably couldn't tell you their favorite philosopher if you asked them to. That, of course, is what's wrong with the Democratic party. Bush can name Christ, Brooks can name Burke, but leftists don't think quick enough to say Rawls.
But which Democratic party has Brooks been watching? Because I've certainly missed the incarnation he noticed, with its painless ideological evolution and lack of internal dissent. The party I'm part of spent the 90's arguing over free trade and NAFTA, welfare and health care, before turning its attention to a bitter discussion over the use of preemptive force in 2003. Before that, the 80's had the beginning of the battle between solid progressives and more business-minded folks, the 70's and late 60's were a war over Vietnam, the 40's and 50's showcased the ejection of Wallace and his band of "softs" that Beinart constantly memorializes -- where's the consensus? You can't read a book on the Clinton-era without being impressed by the ferocity of the intraparty arguments he presided over, and in some cases instigated. So where's the refusal to face up to big disagreements and ideas? For that matter, what serious factions are missing and therefore leaving converts no place to join up? Is there no DLC, no MoveOn, no place for liberals and greens and law-and-order types and moderates? Because, correct me if I'm wrong, but don't Marc Cooper and Al From pledge allegiance to the same ticket every four years, but spend the intervening periods screaming at each other?
Or is this just about philosophers? More than any other, I've grown to despise the who's-your-ideological-forefather parlor game. It's like the intellectual one upsmanship that danced around dinner tables in the academic community I grew up in. What Derrida said isn't so important as whether or not you can synthesize his point with a Focaultian analysis in order to make an elementary argument sound brilliantly grounded. Liberals could, if needed, turn to an endless number of sources to find their inspiration. I'm currently reading Robert Parker's massive biography of John Kenneth Galbraith, and he certainly seems a candidate. Studs Terkel's got something to say, or at least something to transcribe, and Charlie Peters certainly had points to make. Do they suffice? Should I be referencing Chester Bowles or Henderson? Or are they not "philosophers"?
Liberalism has been chock full of great minds toiling in the public sphere to make the world better, and if we wanted to glom onto their writings and work so we could present an intellectual pedigree for our thoughts as if they were pups at a show -- yeah, don't worry, my idea has papers! -- we certainly could. But this weird game of name a philosopher or face op-ed scorn; it makes no sense. And we shouldn't pretend it does. Maybe Brooks is trying to make a point that a vibrant internal discussion produces powerful and lasting institutions because they have to emerge in a competitive environment rather than spring forth full born, as, say, CAP has done. But that's not true either, Heritage emerged from the thigh, and wallet, of Joseph Coors and in the words of its founder, Paul Wyrich, was specifically created to match Democratic strengths:
"If your enemy has weapons systems working and is killing you with them," he once explained, in typically belicose language, "you'd better have weapons systems of your own." [Page 82, The Right Nation]
In recent months, various folks -- notably Mike Tomasky -- have called for liberals to learn or relearn their history, to understand their evolution. They're right to do so. But they've been joined and, in some cases, mixed up with the David Brooks and Jonah Goldbergs of the world, conserva-scolds who wear their semi-functional knowledge of Hayek and Hobbes on their sleeves, all the better to allude to the moral and intellectual grounding they've got that progressives don't. It's absurd, and we shouldn't buy into it. Knowing our history is critical to understanding the genesis and thus root causes of contemporary problems, but that imperative shouldn't be expanded to transform politics into a game of trivial pursuit. If philosophers aid your understanding of your values, fine, great, I suggest you read them. But no Republican needs to know Burke's views on the French Revolution in order to comprehend their movement and no liberal needs to rattle off philosophers to conservative columnists in order to have her beliefs judged legitimate.
Update: Digby has more.
One More Time, With Feeling
Matt's response to me in his latest Prospect column bears a read, and a reply. He's right that we should be lauding the congressional leadership for their recent triumphs and successes. And indeed, this whiny liberal has done so, making more than a few jokes about my personal altar to Harry Reid. But he's wrong to offer a broadside against criticism and shaky in his read of the Pew Poll. His central argument is that Democrats are doing only marginally worse among the general public than Republicans and a lot worse among their own partisans. This leaves room for growth and optimism because it should be easy to convert Democrats to our side. That's correct, so far as it goes. Any time your public opinion polls are at 37%, there's room for growth. But the important thing, as any good pollster will tell you, are trend lines. In the last year, the Democratic leadership has dropped 7% among Democrats, while the Republican leadership has dropped 2% among Republicans. The general public decline hasn't been so bad, but that's because we started 2004 at 38%. Merely dropping to 37% hardly merits celebration.
The point of my original post was that, contra Matt, all is not sunshine and smiles in the land of congressional Democrats. Though we're doing a nice job of beating back privatization, we aren't doing enough to link that fight to our public image, and thus our numbers are still moving in the wrong direction. My conclusion was that Reid and Pelosi have been excellent legislative tacticians, but not nearly as good at building the brand. Therefore we need more public representatives, like Dean, who can spend their time translating our congressional successes into a story the public understands, wherein Democrats are the ethical defenders of good government and popular programs who're valiantly battling a Republican majority dedicated to neither. Matt's response to this seems to be "don't complain". That's admirably stoic of him, but this isn't a booster shot, it's an ongoing process of improvement and we need to praise our successes but still identify where we're not good enough. Our public relations are still not good enough. That needs to be spoken, needs to be understood, and needs to be fixed.
April 01, 2005
Let Go of the Lakoff
In presenting his case for why Howard Dean's determination to make George Lakoff the Democratic Frank Luntz is the wrong strategy, Brad Plumer forgets to mention why it's completely insane.
Geroge Lakoff -- I'm sorry to say -- is absolutely horrible at framing things. No, I mean it, the guy is atrociously fucking bad at it. He's a perfectly good guru because he understands what framing is and why it's important and I'm glad that Democrats are realizing we need to put some thought into our language, but Jesus Christ, has anybody actually read his book? He's the worst goddamn framer I've ever read. Democrats should be the nurturing parent? Are you kidding me?
After the election, I read Lakoff's book for a review I was doing. I was stunned. The guy's recommendations seemed completely ignorant of everything else he said. Frames, for instance, bring to mind a host of contexts and other information. So the strict father frame the Republicans use immediately paints Democrats as mommy. And while mom is awesome, it's dad you call when you hear noises downstairs late at night. That's how Republicans win elections, they basically mount the stage and say "did you hear that, America? I think I heard someone jiggling the door downstairs! Now would you rather have George Bush and his bat go check it out, or should we send John Kerry and his baguette?" So Lakoff responds to this by suggesting that Democrats become a gender neutral nurturing parent, which simply doesn't exist, and would actually just mean mom.
The books flaws are legion, and all like this. He recognizes that you can boil the Republican agenda down to 10 words, forming five simple programs and principles. Great. But his counter-suggestion for the Democrats is the worst, most meaningless boilerplate I've ever heard. After the fold, I'm going to attach a review I wrote of his book shortly after the election. It never got published, but I've always liked it, so here ya go. But before you're off to there, it should be said that Brad, and for that matter, my old blogmate Jesse, shouldn't be quite as dismissive of framing as they are. It's one weapon in the political arsenal, and we should make sure we know how to use it. Just because some Democrats are too overzealous in pursuing it, doesn't mean you should marginalize the whole pursuit. But so far as we're going to do any framing at all, anything Lakoff says should be immediately reworked and forwarded over to DeLay's office, in the hopes that they'll use it and destroy their rhetorical advantage.
Anyway, my review follows:
Even before Fox called Ohio for Bush, the conversation had begun. I think it was Carville who fired the first shot, consigning Kerry’s hopes to “drawing an inside straight” and saying that the loss would cause Democrats to “reassess” things. Depressed as I was about the electoral vote, a reeling party’s quest to rebuild itself strikes a romantic, Rocky-like chord in me. I imagine us sprinting through snowdrifts, grunting out chin-ups in picturesque forests, and grimacing through raw-egg protein shakes, all set to “Eye of the Tiger”. But the Democratic Party has no biceps to rebuild or gut to trim, so we have to settle for the literary equivalent of the training montage. And with each morning’s op-ed page offering a new list of post-mortems and alternative visions, it seems we’ve already begun.
Like all good cinematic warriors of lore, we have a long list of gurus to speak to. But the most pressing appointment is surely with George Lakoff, the Berkeley-based linguist who’s long been begging us to catch-up to the Republicans in framing, warning that we need a unified ideology underpinning our policy proposals if we’re to have any chance of matching the right’s soundbyte clarity. We didn’t listen, thinking our organizational strength, fundraising success and general rightness more than enough to convince a wavering electorate. We were wrong, and now the education must begin.
Happily, we don’t need to travel all the way to Berkeley to learn the lessons. We can stay seated in the Heartland, soaking up local culture and values, all the while reading Lakoff’s new book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” It’s a quick one, 119 pages, and clear, too. Lakoff writes with the exaggerated simplicity of an academic desperately trying to dumb down a theory, and his short, declarative sentences make the work oddly reminiscent of Hemingway, or at least Hemingway with a PhD in linguistics.
Lakoff starts strong, offering a bird’s eye view of Republican successes (“tort reform”, “partial birth abortion”, “tax relief, the “death tax”) and explaining why they matter beyond superficial imagery. He provides answers for Democrats still puzzling over the working class’s apparent determination to spite their bank accounts at the ballot box and still raging over the public’s willingness to buy into links between Iraq and al Qaeda (respectively, “voters vote their identity” and “If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off”) offering a much-needed shove to a debate that, till now, had stalled at conclusions of stupidity and/or bigotry.
The book is packed with forehead-slapping moments, when Lakoff lays out a truth that had been hovering just out of your reach, or brings clarity to an argument that had seemed simply paradoxical. My personal favorite is his riff on the Bush Administration’s use of Orwellian language, (i.e, the Healthy Forests Act, PATRIOT Act, Clear Skies Initiative, and No Child Left Behind). As Lakoff notes, “Imagine if they came out supporting a ‘Dirty Skies’ bill or a ‘Forest Destruction’ bill or a ‘Kill Public Education bill. They would lose. They are aware people do not support what they are trying to do. Orwellian language points to weakness…When you hear Orwellian language, note where it is, because it is a guide to where they are vulnerable.”
At the center of his diagnosis is the Republican adherence to the “Strict Father” frame, an insight Lakoff fleshed out after some sympathetic, evangelical linguists pointed him towards the writings of popular conservative preacher James Dobson. It’s hardly a contentious claim; David Brooks regularly refers to the Republicans as “the daddy party”. From here, however, Lakoff enters shakier territory. He suggests that Democrats have the “nurturant parent” model, a gender-neutral frame that ideally combines mommy’s interest in your PTA meetings with daddy’s family protection strategies. But for a linguist dedicated to explaining the power and far-reaching implications of frames, he’s puzzlingly clueless as to the implications of his own. Parents are gendered, not gender neutral, and the word “nurturant” has, in our culture, an immediate feminine connotation. And because that brings us back to mommy, where we’re hostage to mommy’s (often unfair) stereotypes. We may be better on education, talented with the checkbook, and attuned to the children, but we’re not the one you call when you wake up and hear noises downstairs. The Republicans, with ads featuring shadowy men of swarthy complexion and, when that proved too subtle, wolves, create fear and offer protection, it wouldn’t seem that a “nurturant” perspective is effective framing for a response.
It’s not just in parental models that Lakoff seems strangely tone-deaf to his own framing. Oftentimes he seems content to simply propose alternatives, either unaware or unconcerned with his offering’s weakness. Towards the book’s end, he lauds the 10 words that define the Republicans – strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government, family values – and offers 10 words for our own. The Democrats, according to Lakoff, should throw their party behind a stronger America, broad prosperity, a better future, effective government and mutual responsibility. The obvious difference between the competing sets is that, aside from family values, the Republican’s are all grounded and actionable. Lakoff’s proposals, conversely, mean nothing, they’re campaign slogans fit for the side of a bus or the bottom of a bumper sticker, not declarative principles.
But maybe it should come as no surprise that one man’s attempts to reframe the Democratic Party would be weaker than the Republican Party’s decades-long campaign to frame itself. And therein lies the importance of this book. The right has raced ahead in their use of language, and the Democrats have been unfocused and ineffective in their attempts to catch up. That’s partially attributable to a widespread ignorance of the whole topic, and partially to a lack of motivation on our part. But, as I said at the beginning, the Democrats have woken up to their weakness and have begun training for their comeback. Genuflecting before Lakoff is a good first step, we desperately need to learn what he has to teach. That some of his proposals are weak should be no distraction; it just means that, in time, the student will have to surpass the master.