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.

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DUTIFUL DUNCAN

Apparently at least one guy out there agrees with me that there’s something of a vacuum in the Republican field for 2008 for a pro-Rumsfeld, pro-Tancredo, pro-Falwell conservative.

And public-spirited chap that he is, he’s ambling into it.

That vote against CAFTA isn’t likely to help there though.

WHAT IS BARACK OBAMA SAYING?

Friday, Barack Obama wrote a response to blogospheric criticism of his criticism from the Senate floor of advocacy groups which were condemning Senators who voted to confirm Roberts (Obama himself voted against confirmation). He makes some points I agree with, and some I don’t. Most frustrating, though – and all the more so given his gift as a writer – are the arguments which sound nice but whose meanings are difficult to tease out at all. Like this one:

My colleague from Illinois, Dick Durbin, spoke out forcefully – and voted against – the Iraqi invasion. He isn’t somehow transformed into a “war supporter” – as I’ve heard some anti-war activists suggest – just because he hasn’t called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops. He may be simply trying to figure out, as I am, how to ensure that U.S. troop withdrawals occur in such a way that we avoid all-out Iraqi civil war, chaos in the Middle East, and much more costly and deadly interventions down the road. A pro-choice Democrat doesn’t become anti-choice because he or she isn’t absolutely convinced that a twelve-year-old girl should be able to get an operation without a parent being notified. A pro-civil rights Democrat doesn’t become complicit in an anti-civil rights agenda because he or she questions the efficacy of certain affirmative action programs. And a pro-union Democrat doesn’t become anti-union if he or she makes a determination that on balance, CAFTA will help American workers more than it will harm them.

There are several ways to read this argument:

One is that what matters is a politician’s values, and not individual votes, and so it’s wrong to call a politician “anti-civil rights” for casting votes which hurt the cause of civil rights. The problem with this argument is that we elect representatives to cast good votes, not to personally sympathize with us and our values.

Another is that none of us has the right to decide what these labels mean – that it’s arrogant and inappropriate for pro-choice activists to tell politicians what it should mean to be pro-choice. The problem with this argument is that there’s no point in working to advance the cause of “choice” in general if that excludes advancing a particular understanding of what is and is not pro-choice policy. While it’s arguable whether or not the movement would be served by more politicians claiming the pro-choice mantle without changing their policy positions, but it certainly be insufficient.

Another argument which could Obama could be making here is that is that immediate troop withdrawl from Iraq, opposition to parental notification laws, defense of affirmative action from “questioning,” and opposition to CAFTA are not in fact serving the goals of the anti-war, pro-choice, civil rights, and labor movements, respectively. In other words, he could argue against the positions he thinks Democratic senators are wrongly being held to on the merits. But if there’s any such criticism here, it’s only implicit (Obama, for the record, voted against CAFTA in the Senate, voted against parental notification in the Illinois Senate, and is not calling for an immediate withdrawl of all US troops).

Given that Obama seems not to be articulating that argument, he could be arguing that these particular issues are just not important enough to make a big deal of. But it’s hard to imagine the groups he names not putting up a fight over these issues, and it would be hard to believe that Obama would expect them not to. CAFTA was the first comprehensive trade deal to come before the Congress under Bush, crafted to erode worker protections which accelerating the race to the bottom. Parental notification policies are, along with denial of government funding, one of the major policy impediments to women’s substantive exercise of their right to choose.

A more spurious argument which Obama seems implicitly to be making through questionable word choice is that the problem with these left-wing advocacy groups is that they’re out to restrict elected officials’ freedom of expression by punishing them for not being “absolutely convinced” on parental notification or “making a determination” they don’t like on CAFTA. To the extent that advocacy groups criticize elected officials for critical public statements, they’re not chilling speech – they’re responding to it, and I’d say there are some criticisms which are deserved and others which aren’t. But phrases like Obama’s here aren’t really about speech – they’re about votes. To describe a pro-choice group as punishing a legislator for not being convinced of something conjures up Orwellian images, but what pro-choice groups are taking legislators to task for isn’t private thoughts – it’s how they legislate.

The final argument that I think could reasonably be read from this paragraph, is that advocacy groups shouldn’t expect politicians to vote the way they want all of the time. But why not? Certainly, it would be a poor tactical choice for such groups to predict that everyone they want will vote however they want all of the time. But given the premise that their positions are the right ones (and with the exception of immediate and total withdrawl, I believe they are, and Obama seems to as well), shouldn’t support of all of their positions be the standard against which they judge elected officials? Does Obama really expect the National Council of La Raza to make public statements like, “Sadly, the Senator is only 85% of the way to casting votes to extend rather than restrict civil rights at least 60% of the time”? Elected officials, locally as well as nationally, often revel in disparaging “activists” for failure to understand the necessity of compromise. The first problem with that critique is that too often, the compromises are bad ones. The second is that the way we get good compromises is by having leaders on our side who are willing to take strong stands in the face of opposition. Obviously, writing a politician off as not worth working with in the future because of a vote on a particular issue is just bad politics – if you’re not organizing them, someone else is. But there’s a difference between writing off politicians who cast bad votes and being willing to publicly point out that those votes are bad. Voting for CAFTA may not make an otherwise pro-union legislator anti-union for good, but those of us who believe voting against CAFTA is the right vote and the pro-union vote to cast are, it seems to me, obligated to regard a politician who votes for CAFTA as less pro-union than if she hadn’t. Otherwise, we might as well pack up and go home.

Or maybe all Obama was trying to say was that left advocates should soften their rhetoric. I don’t think describing a Senator who votes to confirm a nominee for Chief Justice as in some way “complicit” in particularly aggregious decisions that Justice makes on the court is in any way out of bounds (and yes, that means Russ Feingold, of whom I remain a big fan, bears some degree of responsibility for what Justice Roberts does on the court). And I don’t think the left or the country are well-served when advocacy groups whose fundamental mission is an ideological one, not a partisan one, hold their fire in taking politicians of one party to task for actions for which they would condemn members of the other. Is there some exaggerated, over-the-top, nastily personal rhetoric out there? Of course. But if that’s what Obama takes issue with, he could have found a clearer way to say it.

THE WEEK IN COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM

Well, the Republican Majority has finally left DC for another one of those extended vacations that most of them like to impugn when French workers take them. They didn’t go home nearly soon enough though.

Wednesday night – by two votes – the House passed CAFTA, voting to accelerate the corporate-driven race to the bottom in working standards. As Mark Weisbrot reminds us:

CAFTA will increase some barriers to trade while lowering others. One of the barriers it increases is on patented pharmaceutical drugs. This is the most costly form of protectionism in the world today. The benefits from free trade in these goods are much appreciated by the millions of Americans who cross the Canadian or Mexican border to get their prescription drugs. But CAFTA will make it more difficult for countries like Guatemala to get access to affordable medicines…Over the last 30 years the typical (median) wage in the United States has hardly grown — only about 9 percent. Productivity — output per employee — has grown by 82 percent over the same period…Over the next decade, the dollar will fall further and our trade deficit will shrink. Measured in non-dollar currencies, the value of U.S. imports is expected to decline over the next decade. This means that CAFTA countries are making costly concessions for a prize that most likely won’t be there.

House Democrats did a much better job of bucking the “Washington Consensus” than their counterparts in the Senate, a quarter of whom backed the bill. That only fifteen House Democrats voted with Thomas Friedman on a “free trade” bill is a hopeful sign of how much that consensus has fractured in the past decade. Those fifteen votes, sadly, seem to have made all the difference Wednesday. David Sirota provides a helpful list of the eleven Democrats in Congress who voted not just for CAFTA but for the Bankruptcy and “Class Action Fairness” bills as well, and some much-needed skepticism about claims that they acted out of electoral necessity.

As if CAFTA wasn’t bad enough, yesterday the Senate passed up a bill protecting detainees’ human rights and passed a bill curtailing victims’ rights to a day in court against the gun industry. And an Energy Bill which, as John Podesta observes,

gives away our tax dollars to energy companies already making record profits. The challenges we face in moving to more secure and sustainable energy use are large. We need a bold energy policy for the United States. Sadly, even the modest commitment to increase the use of renewable sources for electricity or language acknowledging the danger of climate change did not survive in the final bill. We must continue to challenge the Bush administration and Congress to get serious about decreasing the oil consumption of the United States and combating global warming. The energy bill the Senate will vote on today ignores those challenges.

And the Senate voted to extend the PATRIOT Act, though in a slightly more constitution-friendly version than that passed by the House. As Lisa Graves of the ACLU said yesterday:

Although the ACLU was unable to endorse the final bill, it contains some provisions mindful of the Bill of Rights, and does not include such broad and unnecessary powers like administrative subpoenas.

Small victories.

FROM CHICAGO TO WASHINGTON

One of the contentions which largely cuts across the AFL-CIO/ Change to Win divide is a recognition that the labor movement has yet to match the power of its Electon Day turnout operation with an effective mechanism for holding accountable the politicians it helps elect. Still more controversial is the recognition that a winning agenda for the movement demands a broad conception of the interests of working people and a more comprehensive social vision.

Yesterday, the AFL-CIO followed progressive unions like SEIU in passing a strong anti-war resolution condemning the impact of the war on working families and urging that civil rights be strengthened in Iraq and that the troops be brought home “rapidly.” Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the days when they used to half-jokingly call it the AFL-CIA. We’re not in Kirkland-Land anymore…

And Monday, as SEIU and the Teamsters were leaving the federation, the two unions’ presidents joined the presidents of eighteen other unions, AFL-CIO and Change to Win Coalition alike, in sending a strongly-worded letter to the Democratic leadership rightly condemning the party’s refusal to put its full force behind defeating CAFTA (David Sirota offers a good overview of the damage CAFTA could do if approved tonight by the House).

Good signs, in the wake of Monday’s split, for a more muscular movement. Here’s hoping John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson, who were re-elected without opposition this afternoon, will be driven further in this direction, and can find a way to facilitate – rather than block – the co-operation with the Change to Win folks necessary to make it happen.

AN ECHO, NOT A CHOICE

Faced with the the real possibility of a rejection of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in the House, which would mark a significant defeat for George Bush and for the already-cracking “Washington Consensus” on free trade, the Democratic Leadership Council has stepped up to bat in CAFTA’s defense. As David Sirota writes:

As if the DLC is just an arm of the Bush White House, the organization timed this release perfectly to coincide with Bush’s final push for the legislation, as if they are just an arm of the Bush White House. Despite the DLC’s pathetic, transparent rhetoric about wanting to “bring a spirit of radical pragmatism” to the debate, what the DLC is showing is that it is an organization devoted to urging Democrats to sell their souls to the highest bidder. That may sell well with the DLC’s corporate funders in Washington, D.C., but out here in the heartland, that kind of gutless behavior only hurts the Democratic Party over the long run.

Sirota drew some fire from DLC folks after the election for a piece he wrote arguing that the version of “centrism” they promote is well to the right of the average American and thus not only morally but also electorally bankrupt. I’m even less interested now than I was then in trying to evaluate the claims and counter-claims which flew in the wake of the article about which politicians, or talking points have or haven’t gotten gotten the DLC’s approval at what times. As I said at the time, if the DLC wants on board with Elliot Spitzer’s prosecutions of CEOs or Howard Dean’s condemnations of GOP corruption, the more the merrier. We need all hands on deck, and the work is too important to let historical differences avert cooperation where there’s consensus.

About those historical differences though: There’s a constellation of consultants who see class-conscious economic populism as roughly equivalent to racism, see “big government” as a menace to be tamed by technocrats irregardless of the will of the governed, and see the salvation of the Democratic party in policies which fulfill CEOs’ wishlists in the name of liberating their employees. And they have exerted massive, and unfortunate, influence over the direction of the Democratic party over the two decades since their founding, particularly the eight years of the Clinton Presidency. At least for those years, the major proponents of that “business-friendly,” “free-trading” ideological position with the Democratic party, as they themselves would tell you, were the Democratic Leadership Council as an organization and its affiliated thinkers. As Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Geoghegan in Which Side Are You On?, and even self-described “radical centrist” Michael Lind in Up From Conservatism (on DLC: “an echo, not a choice”) demonstrate, the consequences included ceding the support of all too many working class voters and the control of the US Congress.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that there’s a tendency amongst some of us on the left to throw around the term “DLC” liberally (so to speak) in reference to an ideological position we disagree with rather than to the organization itself, at times even in describing policies the DLC, as an existent think tank and not a symbolic construction, may not fully support (they were indeed in favor of weakening class action lawsuits, but I’m still waiting to know what they make of Bush’s bankruptcy bill). I’d like nothing more than to be convinced never to use the acronym that way again – it’s not hard to come up with other epithets for Democrats who vote for Corporate America’s interests over everyone else’s. But there’s a reason that so many of us associate the DLC, judiciously or not, with corporate courtship and not with, say, crusades against corruption. It’s epitomized, sadly, by the choice to come out swinging for a trade agreement even “dogmatic free trader” Matt Yglesias recognizes as “an effort to impose low labor standards and a misguided intellectual property regime on Central American nations.”