MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACKING

One of the classic and/ or tired debate between the more and less left camps on the left is whether we win elections best by hewing or dashing to the center or by staking out strong left stances that demonstrate vision and courage and bring more people into the process. I think the latter kind of argument is underappreciated by most of the people running editorial pages and congressional campaign committees. But I’d also say that these arguments frequently overstate how much issues really determine how people vote (much as some of us might like it if they did). I think Mark Schmitt got it right when he said “It’s not what you say about the issues, it’s what the issues say about you.” That is, why candidates are perceived to have taken the stances they have and embraced the issues they have often does more to raise them up or bring them down than what those issues and positions are.

Another frustration of the debates about whether leftism or centrism will win elections is that it often willfully ducks the question of what policies are actually best for the country. Arguments about what policies win elections and arguments about what policies create better futures masquerade about as one another. Partly because that let’s us elide the very real debates amongst those of us to the left of the Republicans about whether three strikes laws or CAFTA or invading Iraq are worthy on the merits.

So when we consider the handiwork of those who try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to pick candidates, like a party’s Senatorial Campaign Committee, I think a useful question for those of us in what Wellstone first called the Democratic wing of the Democratic party to ask is: Are you putting up the most progressive candidate that could win the election?

So here are some, um, general thoughts inspired by recent events:

Bad Idea: When the state is pretty red and the most successful Democrats are agrarian populists, backing the guy with more money than god over the farmer.

Good Idea: When the state is quite red, finding a candidate who offers conservatism of personal narrative and cultural affectation rather than of contemporary ideology.

Bad Idea: When the state is even a little blue, the Republicans and the Congress are wildly unpopular, and the incumbent is the 100th most popular Senator, fielding a candidate who agrees with the Republicans on central issues we’ll face in the next couple years.

Good Idea: When the state is light red but the ruling party has fallen farther faster there than anywhere else, and the wounds of neoliberalism are particularly keenly felt, taking the chance to run a real progressive.

Bad Idea: When the incumbent sides with the Democrats on key issues in order to stay afloat in a super-blue state, trying to entice a candidate who’ll run to his right.

Good Idea: When a socialist Independent is the state’s most popular pol and he has aspirations for higher office, getting out of his way.

Advertisements

NED AND JOHN

Sometime in the next few days, or at least well before September 12, some reporter is going to think to ask Ned Lamont to take a position on Hillary Clinton’s anti-war primary challenger, Jonathan Tasini, who’s so far mustered a small, small fraction of the media attention and political support Lamont has achieved. There are all kinds of reasons Tasini’s gotten far less traction. Clinton is both somewhat more progressive and far more politically savvy than Lieberman, and she doesn’t have quite the taste for controversy he does. Jon Tasini has less money than God.

When the question comes, I suspect Lamont will back Clinton. First, he’ll be trying to extract all the help he can get from the Democratic Party establishment – which did its best to clear the way for Bob Casey (successfully) and Joe Lieberman (unsuccessfully) – in squeezing Lieberman out of the race. Second, he’ll be trying to sell himself to folks who didn’t vote in the Democratic primary or voted for Lieberman as a moderate with an MBA.

What seems worth noting about Lamont’s rhetoric of the past few months is that the animus he summoned was almost always directed at Republicans individually or collectively, at incumbent Washington as a whole, or at Joe Lieberman individually. It was hardly ever directed at incumbent Democrats as a group. There was little to compare to Howard Dean’s “I want to know why so many Democrats are…” lament of a few years ago. It was an insurgent campaign, no doubt – and a truly impressive one whose results bode well for progressives everywhere with the audacity to expect better than the neoliberal/ neoconservative brand of centrism. But it was a carefully targeted one which took clever advantage of Lieberman’s stalwart outrageousness and singal willingness to give/ take bait like few others.

Lamont could of course surprise us announce that he was, say, going to endorse whoever won the New York Senate primary and not endorse Clinton before that. But I doubt it. And assuming he does endorse Hillary Clinton, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of reaction he gets.

A letter I sent a few days ago:

To the Editor:

I was disappointed to see the Times Magazine (“The Believer,” May 22, 2005) repeat the long-discredited claim that my state’s late Governor Bob Casey “was barred from speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention because of his antiabortion views.” As reported nine years ago in The New Republic, whose editors oppose the Roe v. Wade decision, Casey Sr. was not offered a chance to speak at the convention nominating Bill Clinton because he had refused to endorse Bill Clinton. For Democrats to put Casey on the program in 1992 would have made no more sense than for Republicans to include Senator Lincoln Chafee, who refused to endorse George W. Bush for re-election, among the slew of ostensible “moderates” in the spotlight at their convention last year. Democrats who oppose a woman’s fundamental right to choose – including the party’s Senate Leader – are all too prominent, not only in the party’s speaking programs, but in its leadership. And contrary to the myth unfortunately revived this week in the New York Times, the party should be faulted not for alleged hostility to anti-choice voters but for its too-frequent willingness to compromise key values rather than finding more effective ways of making the case for them to those Americans we have not yet persuaded. The party leadership has unfortunately repeated this mistake by throwing its full weight behind the anti-choice Bob Casey Jr. in his Senate primary against Chuck Pennacchio, an inspired progressive better poised to offer Pennsylvanians a real alternative to the radical right-wing record of Rick Santorum.

Over at The New Republic, Hillary Clinton is winning accolades from Michelle Cottle and Andrew Sullivan for her new rhetoric on abortion last week. Like Clinton herself, they’re each partially right.

Cottle takes on Jim Wallis of Sojourners and others for trying to win the “moral values” debate for Democrats by shifting it onto economic turf. She’s right to argue that responding to the heartfelt opposition of all too many working class Republicans to the Democrats’ stances on abortion and other so-called “social issues” with a sleight-of-hand is both insulting and ineffective. The Democrats do indeed need to win the values debate on the “social turf.” But, contra Cottle, a winning strategy for the Democrats will also depend on broadening the popular conception of moral politics to include the economic exploitation and persistent poverty of millions of Americans. Cottle should know better than to take on face value the idea that so-called “values voters” simply could care less about children without healthcare. She completely overlooks the extent to which, in the absence of a real discussion by Democrats of America’s savage inequalities. Republicans have been able to successfully repackage “social issues” as class grievances against liberal elites and activist judges. It’s not surprising that those who want Democrats to change the topic and trounce the GOP on economic moral issues and those who want them to change the message and trounce the GOP on social moral issues each see the other standing in the way of progress. But a winning strategy will have to do both.

Sullivan, like Cottle, writes with the stated intention of helping Democrats win on abortion. And parts of the approach for which he credits Clinton are indeed good moves. Certainly, Democratic politicians and activists should recognize the difficulty and sadness with which many women approach the choice to have an abortion (Sullivan, like most pundits, drastically exaggerates the extent to which this is not already the case). And absolutely, Democratic politicians and activists should frame access to all forms of contraception in all situations as “the surest way to prevent” abortions (nothing so new here either). As for demonstrating respect for one’s opponents, I don’t think many are arguing that the Democrats should demonstrate intentional disrespect for those who disagree on abortion.

But what those on both sides of this debate want, more than respect, is to win. And while Sullivan insists (in a strange turn of phrase) that “Democrats can still be and almost certainly should be for the right to legal abortion,” readers can be excused for coming away with a mixed message. Sullivan follows a long line of pundits and reporters in conflating changes in discourse on abortion with changes in policy. Seemingly intentional ambiguity radiates from Sullivan’s insistence that

One reason that John Kerry had such a hard time reaching people who have moral qualms about abortion was his record: an almost relentless defense of abortion rights – even for third trimester unborn children – with no emphasis on the moral costs to all of us of such a callous disregard of human dignity. You cannot have such a record and then hope to convince others that you care about the sanctity of life.

One could read such a graph to mean that Kerry could have won the abortion debate if only he were on record mourning the “moral costs.” But it’s not clear why one would. A more intuitive reading would be: To win over “pro-life” voters, Democrats should cast more “pro-life” votes. Otherwise, how are we to understand Sullivan’s criticism of Kerry for being “almost relentless” in supporting the right to choose. Sullivan isn’t so much offering ideas on how to win the debate over abortion as urging a partial surrender.

More specifically, Sullivan lauds Clinton’s support for abstinence-only education as good politics, despite the preponderance of evidence that diverting dollars from sex ed to abstinence ed will lead to more unprotected sex and therefore more abortions. And Sullivan urges Democrats to back candidates like Bob Casey in Democratic primaries specifically because they oppose the party’s position on abortion rights. He pushes this plan – that Democrats essentially should sell their position by working against candidates who support it – as a corrective to a mythical “fatwa” against such politicians in the Democratic party. Those who believe such a fatwa exists may still be under the mistaken impression that Casey’s father was denied the chance the speak at the convention nominating Bill Clinton because he opposed abortion and not because Casey had announced he would be voting against Bill Clinton. Either that, or they’re willing to suggest with a straight face, as Sullivan does, that for the GOP to have a pro-choice second-in-command at the RNC while the Democratic party has an anti-choice Senate Minority Leader demonstrates that “the Republicans are more obviously tolerant of dissent than Democrats.”

Finally, Sullivan wants Democrats to tone down the rhetoric about women’s rights and instead frame abortion as killing and abortion rights as a way to avert more gruesome killing. Instead of “reproductive rights,” Sullivan argues, Democrats should talk about a decision through which “one soul is destroyed and another wounded.” But while talking about abortion as a “sad, even tragic choice” for the mother may help make the case, arguing that it’s a tragedy for “unborn children” won’t. Either a woman is a constitutionally-protected person with a fetus inside of her, or a fetus is a constitutionally-protected person with a womb attached. If Democrats frame abortion as killing, as Sullivan does, they will only increase support for banning abortion (and for the dissolution of the Democratic party). This too, is not a new idea. Neither is it a good one.