BAYH BAILS

So Evan Bayh has decided he’s “just not the right David” to take on the supposed Goliaths in the race for the Presidency. Apparently, membership in 160 facebook groups just isn’t enough to build the networks of support to win a presidential campaign. Either that, or Bayh got out of the running for fear his campaign would face a steady drumbeat of questions about his facebook membership in both the “Moderate Democrats Caucus” and the “Liberal News” group, or about his supposed simultaneous membership in the College Democrats of Arkansas, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Montana, North Carolina, South Caraolina, Massachusetts, Oregon State, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Ohio, Minnesota, Hamilton County Indiana, New York, Oregon, Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana U, Maryland, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, Vermont, California, Tennessee, and “Worchester and Central Massachusetts” (where he’s 25% of the membership). Or maybe it was his claimed affiliation with the Party’s Hispanic Caucus, Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, “Young Democrats” chapters across the country, and the North Carolina Association of Teen Democrats that was destined to raise eyebrows under the microscope of a Presidential campaign. Thus the race loses the only candidate who could say he was opposed to the Facebook News Feed from the beginning.

And, on a more serious note, we see another nail in the coffin of the scenario where the primary is dominated by Clinton and someone running well to her right (sorry, Joe Biden).

Advertisement

GOTCHA GOTTA GO? NO.

Apparently, Sam Waterston has ended his much-lamented silence in American political discourse and spoken out to urge his adoring fans to heed the call of the “American idealists” at Unity08. They’re the folks who believe that all the scourges of modern American politics – special interest-driven corruption, nasty gotcha politics, the belief that women’s rights is a crucial issue – could be beaten back if only there was a presidential ticket composed not of Democrats or Republicans but of one of each, and chosen not by people who turn out in primaries but by people who turn out in primaries held over the internet by “American idealists.”

For those stubborn folks for whom Sam Waterson having “looked at it closely”, isn’t sufficient evidence that Unity08 “could save this country we love,” some obvious questions present themselves. Well, a lot of obvious questions.

Here’s one: Would a decline in gotcha politics really go hand in hand with a decline in corruption?

The conflation of the two is commonplace in media narratives grasping for any explanation of voter disgust with Congress that doesn’t involve the kinds of laws the Congress is passing or isn’t. But I think the irony here is that one of few functional bulwarks against rampant corruption in Washington is gotcha politics.

If our elected officials were circumspect about not disparaging the character of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, would the likes of Conrad Burns and Bob Ney have gone down to defeat? Would incoming legislators, new and old, have as much reason to fear following in their footsteps? Quotes from CREW’s Melanie Sloan in and of themselves are simply not enough to grab media and voter attention, let alone overcome all the advantages of incumbency. What helps the charges stick? Relentless criticism from the folks with a chance, at least sometimes, of getting heard: your challenger, and your fellow elected officials. If you don’t have to fear getting gotcha-ed, there’s more cause to do gotcha-worthy things.

Now of course it would be nice to truly venal behavior by elected officials got called out on both sides of the aisle. It’s simply not credible to claim, as the Unity08 folks and much of the media do, that both parties have the same track record on this. Compare the treatment of Bill Jefferson (D-LA) and Tom DeLay (R-TX) by their party leaders. One lost his committee chairmanship. The other was positioned for a good stretch to remain Majority Leader. Unfortunately, opinion leaders who can count more adherents than Sam Waterston delight in the myth that the two parties are bearers of equal and opposite corruption, and that that corruption – the reward of money with power and of power with money – has no relationship to ideology.

That said, when elected officials do speak in one voice across party lines, it’s as often to unite across party lines in defense of questionable congressional practices as in condemnation of them. Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert stood together in a show of bipartisanship to condemn the FBI search of Jefferson’s office. Senators and congressmen of both parties stand together to raise their salaries swiftly and quietly. They stand firm in bipartisan defense of gerrymandering congressional districts. That’s because no matter how otherwise representative your member of congress is of you, she will always be fundamentally unrepresentative in that she is herself a member of congress. Dave Barry once said the best way to get great Nielson ratings would be to make a sitcom about a Nielson family. Similarly, if you’re looking to find policies that members of Congress acorss the political spectrum will support, the right place to start is with policies that make it easier, more enjoyable, and more permanent to be a member of Congress. If you want to see those policies stop, bemoaning gotcha politics is not the place to start.

THE ART OF COMPROMISE

As a devoted Hotline TV junkie (seriously, I can’t get by without my daily fix), it’s “more in sadness than in anger” that I relate a truly weird line from guest host Josh Kraushaar, discussing Rush Holt in Friday’s episode on the Intelligence Chair race:

He’s sort of someone who kind of works with the progressive members of the Democratic caucus, but he also doesn’t have any ethical issues to deal with, so he would be an interesting compromise choice.

A compromise between the people who want a conservative candidate and the people who want a corrupt one?

RUSS WON’T RUN

Not a shocker, given that the past year and a half has seen the rise of John Edwards as Un-Hillary lightning rod and intensifying inklings of a run by Barack Obama, who like Feingold vocally opposed the war – and worst of all for Feingold’s chances, his second divorce and lack of a third marriage by the midterms (despite the efforts of the erstwhile Committee to Find Russ Feingold a Date).

That said, Feingold’s popularity in the country’s most representative state, which drew him votes from a quarter of Bush voters two years ago and has stayed strong as he talked about running for president and came out for phased withdrawl from Iraq, equal marriage rights, and censuring Bush, should be a lesson for the field of Democratic presidential contenders, and for the primary voters who’ll choose among them. You remember them: the ones who cleverly voted for John Kerry because he was the most electable.

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.

INDUCTIVE REASONING, AS PRACTICED BY BILL O’REILLY

Here’s a basic summary of the argument “No Spin Zone” listeners were treated to on the drive home tonight:

Democrats opposed the war in Iraq.

Therefore failure in Iraq is good for Democrats.

Therefore Democrats support failure in Iraq.

Therefore Democrats care more about what’s good for Democrats than what’s good for America.

Therefore Democrats can’t be trusted.

Any questions?

WARNER WON’T

So what does Mark Warner bowing out of the ’08 race mean for the prospects of a left Un-Hillary versus a right Un-Hillary come primary season?

On the one hand, having Warner out of the running allows for a consolidation of the right-of-Hillary forces in the party behind one of the remaining right-of-Hillary candidates – the strongest of whom looks to be Evan Bayh (sorry, Joe). If he isn’t gunning to be on Clinton’s ticket, Warner can take harsher shots at her now that he’s not a candidate himself, and he’s developed something of a base to throw behind Bayh.

On the other hand, Warner was probably the stronger of the right-of-Hillary contenders. Unlike most of the Democrats in contention, his experience is executive rather than legislative, which both builds credibility with a certain crowd and makes it easier to straddle certain ideological razors that Senator Bayh is more likely to slip on. And his business experience helps pry certain networks and wallets open that a right-of-Hillary candidate in particular will depend on. Warner in particular was probably best situated to compete in terms of star power and red state outside the beltway cred with John Edwards, who is gathering more and more of the left-of-Hillary energy behind himself.

So Warner’s exit seems likely to leave the right-of-Hillary crowd more unified but behind a weaker contender. Which in the end I suspect is good news for the left-of-Hillary crowd. And therefore bad news for her. Which in turn is bad news for the other side of the aisle.

SAM BROWNBACK, CALL YOUR PUBLICIST

I’m not much one for “Great Man” theories of our political history – that is, I think most of the writing on twists and turns in American political history overstates the importance of the sensibilities and psychology of individual politicians and understates social movements, cultural trends, demographic shifts, and so forth – but I’ll readily acknowledge that when it comes to, say, the Republican presidential primary for 2008, there are only so many apparent contenders. And an act of hubris or poor strategery that pulls one out of contention can seriously shift the playing field for everybody else.

That’s why Democrats may come to reconsider their glee over George Allen’s “macaca” muck-up of two months ago if it turns out to have indeed taken Allen out of serious contention for the GOP presidential nomination. Because not long ago, George Allen was well-placed to bear the mantle of “Un-McCain,” a charismatic candidate with the right combination of sterling conservative credentials and cultural compatability (however affected) to excite folks from the GOP base, particularly Christian conservatives, either nonplussed or turned off by a McCain candidacy. The evidence of racial animus on his part could have been just enough to let him take the primary but not the general election.

Now, not so much.

And just as Hillary Clinton’s best chance of taking her party’s nomination is the scenario in which a single charismatic, consenus “Un-Hillary” never quite materializes, for the GOP nod to go to McCain, whose otherwise right-wing record is marred by opposition to global warming, hard money, and torture, and by some carefully chosen symbolic snubs to the base, is the absence of a single viable “Un-McCain.”

Maybe what’s most striking in all this is the lack of a strong McCain alternative to gather in all the GOP activists under one placard. First it was supposed to be Bill Frist. Then he got outplayed by the “Gang of 14” over judicial nominations. And his impressive conversion on the road to Iowa into a religious right zealot was undercut by his betrayal on stem cells.

Rick Santorum, one of the most telegenic elected Republicans out there, from one of the states the party is trying hardest to bring back into its column, is now on track to get kicked out of office by Keystone State voters.

Mike Huckabee has so far failed to make a name for himself for more than losing weight – except with the Club for Growth and the economic right-wingers in its orbit, who hate his guts more than most non-McCain GOPers’.

Mitt Romney, though he pulled off an impressive ground game in the SRLC straw poll six months ago, is still going to have a hard time as the Mormon Governor of Massachusetts exciting the base enough to avert a marriage of convenience to McCain.

Newt Gingrich, like Gary Hart in the lead-up to ’04, seems to have underestimated the staying power of his scandals and overestimated the yearning of the American people for a wonk.

Rudy Giuliani believes in the right to choose.

So it’s not clear who is left to stop the steady flow of strategists, fund-raisers, and activists to John McCain, who is by far the most popular advocate of right-wing politics in the United States. After Macacagate, McCain has at least a passable shot at benefiting from the kind of dynamic that played a key role in elevating Bill Clinton in ’92: the absence of a primary candidate beloved by the party’s base.

And while McCain is beatable, he has the benefit of years of praise not only from starstruck journalists but from short-sighted Democrats who’ve boosted his claims to speak for the center of America.

Meanwhile, you’ve gotta wonder what’s going through the head of Sam Brownback, as staunch a social conservative as you’ll find in the Senate, with no bruising re-election fight in sight, no awkward position in the Republican leadership, and no scandal-ridden press clippings to buck.

MORE THAN ONE WAY (AS BILL FRIST WOULD SAY) TO SKIN A CAT

Over at The New Republic, John Judis takes what he seems to see as a cleverly iconoclastic position against the Sherrod Brown boosterism of the Nation and American Prospect. Both of those magazines published pieces this week pointing to Brown’s lead in his statewide race as a counterpoint to the conventional wisdom that only culturally conservative Democrats can win statewide office in reddish states. Judis responds by arguing that usually, only culturally conservative Democrats can win statewide office in reddish states. He points to Ted Strickland, the Gubernatorial candidate sharing the ballot with Brown, as a shining example.

Part of Judis’ argument is that Brown will really depend on Strickland’s coattails if he wins, because he’s not really that popular. Judis offers as evidence a couple “man on the street” quotes and the fact that Strickland has a larger lead over Blackwell than Brown does over DeWine. That might indeed show that Strickland is more popular than Brown; it might just show that Blackwell’s unabashed right-wing rhetoric on religion and record on voting is costing him votes. Or that fewer Republicans want to vote for a Black candidate.

But even if Strickland is more popular than Brown, Judis seems to be missing the point. Neither article argues that culturally conservative candidates can’t win elections in states like Ohio. They just argue that cultural conservatism isn’t a requirement. At risk of stating the obvious, these authors care about whether more progressive candidates can win as well as more conservative ones because they want to see more progressive candidates elected to office. So Judis’ claim that Strickland, not Brown, is the “perfect candidate” isn’t really a response to the descriptive arguments of either article. Either it’s a misreading of the authors’ arguments, or it’s meant to dispute their premise that the ideology of the candidates we elect, as well as their party affiliation, is reasonably important.

The authors don’t argue that Brown is the perfect candidate for winning as many Democratic votes as possible. They argue that he shows a way to win without compromising certain principles that matter – that right-wing cultural populism can be defused, rather than co-opted, by candidates offering left-wing economic populism. So when Brown is praised for drawing support across the state without doing photo ops at firing ranges, Judis isn’t really proving much of anything by pointing out that Strickland is popular and does do them. Here as elsewhere, willfully or accidentally, he’s conflating how easy it would be to get someone elected and how worthwhile it would be – which is what happens all too often in conversations about who progressives should run for office. We can care about both and recognize that they’re neither directly nor inversely correlated.

John Judis, of course, cares about policy too. And he’s not the biggest fan of the “myths of free trade” critique that Brown is levelling as part of his populist program. But if it’s the prospect, not the feasibility, of getting people like Brown into the Senate that concerns him, he should say so.

THE DEMOCRATS’ MISSING LINC

With all the ink spilled over the Chafee-Laffey primary last Tuesday, and the inevitable comparisons made to the Lieberman-Lamont primary last month, you could almost lose track of one of the critical ways in which the two primaries are not parallel at all:

Joe Lieberman is a not-so liberal Democrat from a strongly-Democratic state.

Lincoln Chafee is a not-so conservative Republican from a strongly-Democratic state.

That’s the difference: Lieberman evoked so much opposition within his own state because the median Connecticut voter is a Democrat well to the left of him. Chafee would have lost his primary had only Republicans participated, but he drew many of the GOP votes he did based on the recognition that the median Rhode Island voter was a Democrat to the left, not the right, of Chafee.

Joe Lieberman isn’t the Democratic equivalent of Lincoln Chafee. Ben Nelson is more like it. As for the Republican equivalent of Joe Lieberman, there just isn’t one. No state as red as Connecticut is blue has a Republican senator as close to the center as Joe Lieberman is. John McCain isn’t even close.

THOSE GLEEFUL DEMOCRATS

This Times article on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina offers an unfortunate example of the kind of thing that the ostensibly liberal media write about Democrats’ motivations all the time but hardly ever about those of Republicans:

Democrats are seizing this moment of reckoning with something approaching glee, while Republicans are handling it gingerly.

With friends like these, who needs Rush Limbaugh?

SORE POINT

Can we please put the phrase “Sore Loserman” to bed forever? There’s plenty to criticize about Joe Lieberman’s independent run, but surely we on the left should be creative enough to come up with a pithy pun of our own, right? No need to ressurrect a Republican phrase (it sounds like Gore-Lieberman! Get it?!?) designed to disparage the Democratic ticket’s (woefully insufficient) objections to the willful and systematic disenfranchisement of voters of color in 2000.

The invocation of the “Sore Loserman” line by progressives betrays the same maddening tunnel vision evinced by the “Chirac for President” signs I would run into at anti-war rallies back in the day.