Daiblog A Fair and Balanced daily discussion of Democratic politics, ideas, strategy, and news
Friday, April 04, 2003
Hello, my name is Josh and this is my first post to this blog, which I have been following for some time now.
It seems to me that the problem facing Democrats, be they old or new, is that we have lost the ability to connect our grand theories about the country and the world to how people function on a day to day basis. The only thing that infuriates me more than a Rush Limbaugh-like conservative (you know the type - no footnotes, no logical connection between arguments, and the use of misleading statistics) is a knee-jerk, impractical liberal (you know the type - no footnotes, not logical connection between arguments, and the use of misleading statistics).
We have great ideology - the enabling of middle and lower class Americans to achieve the American Dream of education, economic security, social advancement; preservation of the environment; international peace and security; international aid to the most destitute countries; alternative fuels; education reform; and the list goes on an on. But we have, since 1994, lost the battle with the Republicans in communicating these important ideas in simple ways the demonstrate how individual Americans benefit from them. The UN is a great example. The Republicans do a great job of showing the costs, inefficiencies, and failures of the UN. Where are we showing UN successes or that the great amount of work done by the UN is distributing food and medicine to famine and disease ridden countries? Education is another great example. The Republicans are doing a fantastic job of painting themselves as the education party despite the fact that all they do is cripple public schools and strive tirelessly to maintain funding systems that keep good schools in good neighborhoods and bad schools in bad neighborhoods. And where are the Democrats? Arguing that charter schools and school voucher systems are bad on First Amendment grounds, that it is better to keep kids in bad schools to bolster the support for school reform, that we are abandoning public schools by letting poor kids out of terrible schools with incredibly high drop out rates. Is it just me or are these arguments somehow less effective than what the Republicans are putting forward?
If we want to energize the populace, let us go out an connect the dots between our view of the world and how that actually benefits people on a daily basis. Public schools should be fixed. There should be statewide funding of school districts because that's a more fair way to do it. Teacher salaries should be dramatically higher. Participation in the UN increases the peace and security of the whole world by making international relations more predictable and manageable. The costs we pay every year in supporting the organization are low compared to maintaining heightened defensive postures and running around the world pre-emptively overthrowing dictators. The cost of this security is also shared by are allies and the rest of the world. Therefore, taxes can be better spent reducing debt and providing for domestic needs that benefit ordinary Americans. To me, the debate on whether we should be old or new Democrats is less important than how we are going to make these arguments convincingly and in ways the demonstrate that the ideas are actually better. The way to beat DeLay and those knuckleheads is to show that their arguments are faulty and rest on ideologies that hurt most Americans. Personally, I'll take the more liberal arguments, but we must choose wisely how to make them.
posted by Joshua
From a purely political perspective, the trouble with the New Dem/Clintonian Moderate approach is that it is designed to appeal to the Middle, and almost by definition, you can't energize the Middle (as a group; I have no doubt that it is possible to energize individuals in the Middle). That's what makes it the Middle. The best you can hope for is to sway the middle in one direction or the other. Once you start a contest with Republicans to look appealing to the middle, though, you've already lost, because at the end of the day, the Republican candidate is going to look the Middle in its collective eye, smile, and say, "I'll give you all that, and tax cuts too." And then you lose.
Being right is more important than winning elections. First of all, if we have Democrats in office enacting Republican policies, we have rather obviously won the battle and lost the war. Second of all, Austin is right that we need to have a coherent vision to pitch to the Middle in times of crisis, but a coherent and pitchable vision is precisely what is sacrificed in the scramble to centricism, a word I may have just invented. The Middle is not, generally speaking, a source of vision. Clinton is a brilliant politician, but he is not a visionary. Ideas and energy flow from outside the center, and in fact one of the Democratic party's greatest strengths is that it is made up of diverse groups with divergent interests and ideas that work together to craft its policies and its politics. When the diverse groups within the party are acknowledged and appreciated, rather than shoved behind the podium so as not to frighten Ma and Pa Middle, they form the grass-roots infrastructure that makes it possible for Democrats to win elections. They don't do that unless they think that the Democrats are right.
Having said that, it's okay (and a natural result of its diversity) that the Democratic party is more moderate than the sum of its parts. And it is decidedly not okay to ignore the Middle. It is also not okay, however, to assume that the Middle will never be swayed toward a progressive agenda. As an example--one that we should all be talking about--consider the proper approach to the current Republican tax cut agenda, which I must assume is what Bob Dole was telling us it's unpatriotic to talk about right now. (The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' report, here, should be giving us all nightmares.) It's not so hard to sell the average person on a New Dem line, namely, the idea that tax cuts and an expensive war and a faltering economy are a bad combination. Among other things, that's not a hard sell because it's true. But there is no vision in that argument. As has already been observed, it's not enough to be against something, you also have to be for something. The vision in the Democratic party--what Democrats are for--lies in the second half of the message: that there are things government can do that will make things better, not just avoid making them worse. Funding social programs for people injured by economic instability, making sure that the money for rebuilding Iraq comes as much as possible from the oil profits Cheney & Co. are poised to make, and, yes, shoring up education and protecting affirmative action as necessary--those ideas are the stuff of vision. So I guess my argument is that you have to be right in order to win elections--at least if you're on the left.
posted by Amanda
Here's what Tom DeLay has to say about America's priorities: "Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes" he blithely told CongressDaily. Not only is this the the opposite of any sane fiscal policy (um, wars cost money and only the government can pay for it so the government needs revenues), but also remember this when he's tearing someone to shreds for questioning Bush's foreign policy. It is unpatriotic, apparently, to debate our foreign policy and the decision to go to war. However, it is appropriate to use the war as an excuse to cut taxes. DeLay has completely abdicated his duty to the American people--these so called leaders in the house are irresponsible ideologues.
At the risk of harping, I think aff. action as a political issue comes back to message and to the identity of the Democratic party. Do you want to roll out your message in point-by-point position statements or to subjugate individual position statements to a theme or vision from which many individual positions can be deduced? Is it more important to shore up traditional democratic strongholds (like African Americans) or is it more important to address the middle, the swing voter. (While no approach need totally exclude another, the points of emphasis in a campaign do exclude others.)
My preference is for addressing the middle, after the fashion of the New Democrats. (I'd argue that Clinton's appeal to African-Americans had more to do with his personal charisma than the message or positions, while the message succeeded with the middle--"It's the economy, stupid.") And I believe in the importance of a vision to pitch to the middle in a time of crisis and fear. So I would de-emphasize affirmative action. Amanda warns against the New Democrats’ approach, arguing that being right is more important than winning elections. I tend to disagree with that both on its surface and in its implication, namely that the moderation of the New Democrats is more electable but less right. As a moderate, I find it more electable and more right. I also think moderation affords the credibility and leverage to stand up for a handful of unpopular or risky positions.
The bottom line for me is indeed election, though. Between 1948 and the New Democrats, the Democratic party won just three elections (almost as bad as the Cleveland Indians!). Two out of three victories--1960 and 1964--involved candidates who offered a vision. There is only so much the Democrats can do from outside of the white house, especially having lost control of congress.
To me the question is not whether to embrace the New Democrats and the middle, but how to revive the New Democrat message and which candidate to push. To me it's the best chance of uniting the left and getting back into office. A Democratic party unconcerned about the middle and unconcerned with a central message has been losing presidential elections for half a century. It will be interesting to see whether some of our identity crisis on the left can be resolved in the primaries.
posted by Austin
This morning's award for tortured analogy goes to our own Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks, quoted in the Times today as saying: "We will approach Baghdad. The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the regime and will remain pointed at it until the regime is gone. . . The dagger remains firmly in our grasp and under good control. When it's time to be applied further, it will be applied further." Daggers aside, Shakespeare this is not.
There's A First Time For Everything
Nuance is not exactly the first word that springs to mind when considering the current Supreme Court, but apparently that's what it was seeking in the U of Michigan argument yesterday. Perhaps the strangest assertion that good ol' Ted Olson tried to slip past the Court was that a policy like Texas's, which automatically admits the top 10% of every high school in the state, is a "race-neutral" policy merely because it does not expressly mention race. He even went so far as to deny that racial diversity was a motivating factor for the policy. And I think he said it with a straight face.
posted by Amanda
There is no question in my mind that affirmative action ranks with abortion on the list of divisive issues in current American politics. As a capitalist, individualist nation, we absolutely cling to the notion that our country is really a meritocracy, and that anyone willing to work hard can succeed (the Protestant Ethic wrapped in the American Dream). The way it currently breaks down, "quotas" are bad politics, "diversity" is okay politics but is picking up bad connotations like a snowball rolling downhill, and "opportunity" remains good politics.
The problem with constructing a pro-affirmative action platform that sounds less squishy than the one that Adam quotes is that the rationales for affirmative action are explosive. There are two primary narratives offered to justify affirmative action, the Victim/Guilt/We-Owe-You Story and the Uneven Playing Field Story. They have in common that they are tainted by (1) victimology/paternalism and (2) not aging well (i.e., they both make a lot more intuitive sense with respect to the pre-Brown v. Board of Education generations than they do when applied to children born in the 1990s).
At the same time, it seems to me that the fact of what would happen to, say, Michigan's student body (and what has happened in the UC system in California) makes an eloquent argument that there is a continuing need for some sort of affirmative action policy, particularly in education (at least until Bush fully funds the No Child Left Behind Act, of course, when everything will be perfect). Which brings me to Adam's question: How can the Democrats campaign on affirmative action without being either paternalistic or whiny?
Actually, the answer may be simpler than we might assume. The Democrats should develop a coherent education platform, addressing access to and quality of all levels of education, of which affirmative action should be only one plank. Affirmative action should be what its current opponents (disingenuously, in my opinion) claim that it already is: a policy that eradicates the need for itself. It would be able to do that much more effectively if early educational inequities were being appropriately addressed. Until they are, affirmative action should be integrated into the educational system, but it should be viewed (and pushed) as one part of an evolving solution to the very real problem of unequal access to quality education. Which raises another question: how, both politically and policy-wise, should we deal with the persistent lage in minority academic achievement?
On a lighter note, if there is any doubt left in your mind that the NY Times doesn't like Rumsfeld very much, check out the current main page picture of him, in which he appears to be either casting a spell or doing the Monster Mash.
posted by Amanda
Today, the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the University of Michgan's admissions programs. These cases are the first time the Supreme Court has considered race-conscious university admissions policies since the 1978 Bakke decision. I thought it might be worthwhile to take a break from the news abroad to briefly discuss affirmative action, not as a legal matter, but as a political one.
In other words, whatever you think of affirmative action as social policy, what do you think of it as a political issue? Should the Democrats be making more of it? Less? How should politicians define affirmative action? What language should they use? >br>
Here's my two cents:
I think affirmative action is every bit as difficult a political issue as it is a policy issue. I think the first problem is that each party has its own definition of affirmative action. The Republicans define it as "quotas, whethe or not the term "quota" is accurate. In 2000 President Bush said in one of the debates, "If affirmative action means quotas, I'm against it." This statement is good politics, because most Republicans think of affirmative action as meaning quotas, so it sounds to them like Bush is on their side, but many people do not equate AA with quotas, and thus they could hear what they wanted in this answer as well.
I don't know if the Democrats have a good working definition of affimative action. The 2000 Democratic platform offers only the following:
Al Gore has strongly opposed efforts to roll back affirmative action programs. He knows that the way to lift this nation up is not by pulling the weakest down, but by continuing to expand opportunities for everyone who wants to achieve. The Clinton-Gore Administration has appointed the most diverse administration in American history, demonstrating that pursuing excellence means including the all of the best that our nation has to offer.
"I have a dream" this is not. And perhaps with good reason. Affirmative action has the potential to be a very divisive issue, particularly between minority voters and moderate swing voters. It could be that the Democrats have to soft-peddle their support for AA because they don't want to offend swing voters.
Yet, that seems unsatisfying to me. I'm not sure how to put it, but it seems to me that if all these corporations and the military support affirmative action, there ought to be a way to make it a good political issue with broad appeal for the Democrats. I don't know how. I suspect the first step is in its definition, and I further suspect that we should look to these corporations and the military to see what their affirmative action polices are and how they work. Next?
There are some things that even the most dedicated pacifist can't fault the military for--and disembedding Geraldo Rivera has to be at the top of that list. I'm sure it's not the end of Geraldo's wartime television career, though--I hear Saddam Hussein is still looking for a few good doubles...
posted by Amanda
Austin, a belated welcome. And for the record, you can criticize Adam as much as you like.
War Thoughts.I spent the last week and a half traveling and catching glimpses of "war coverage" (which turns out to be a strange and frightening hodgepodge of partial mis- and disinformation stapled together with really boneheaded questions from the likes of Paula Zahn and her cohorts) and returned to be deeply disturbed by the Clinton/Dole segment on 60 Minutes last night. As far as I could tell, Bob Dole, who I have generally had a degree of respect for, was saying that it's unpatriotic to try to direct the public's attention/money to anything in the domestic agenda while we are fighting a war overseas. Huh? Then, my cheerful breakfast was largely spoiled by Safire's column this morning, which not only has a typically pedantic and generally grating tone, but also ends on exactly the sort of smug hyperbole that has been plaguing the Bush administration: "Snap judgments, these. Considered conclusions come after unconditional surrender."
Is Bush As Dumb As He Looks? And if he isn't, why does he keep letting himself be photographed with his mouth hanging open? Adam says his (coached) maneuvers are "brilliant," which I can't quite agree with--to me they seem more accurately described as bold, meaning that they tend to be either spectacularly successful or spectacularly disastrous. At the moment, the spectacular disasters appear to be in the foreign policy realm, and that gives him some insulation, but I think he's in the midst of finding out that he's going to burn through it pretty quickly in a war setting. Some of the tide is going to turn itself. On the flip side, a "The Guy is Dumb" campaign--which Gore pretty much tried to run the last time--works a lot better on The West Wing than it does in reality.
And Then It's Time For The Hard Work. Personally, I am not a big fan of the more-moderate-than-thou New Democrat approach; I think that in the long run it really is more important to be right than to win the election. I don't meant that you should fight extremism with extremism, but I do think that in racing to the middle, the Democrats ceded a lot of ground to the Republicans that will have to be won back in a hard fight. I also think that Democrats must not shy away from negativism, particularly when it takes the form of putting the lie to the "compassionate conservatism" line. (Funding of the "No Child Left Behind Act" comes to mind.) Recessions and joblessness cry out for progressive, pro-government solutions, and the smart, difficult campaign strategy is in painstakingly matching administration promise with administration failure and proposed solution, with the overall message that 9/11 is more an excuse for the administration than the cause of all our national problems. Somewhere along the way, someone decided that your campaign had to be about either message or ideas--seems to me it's time for one that's about both.
posted by Amanda