SUSPENSION AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE

Remember when Howard Dean was going to suspend his campaign for president? You know, no more campaigning, no more staff, no more press releases, no more interviews, no more trying to get people (aside from the good people of Vermont, who couldn’t help themselves) to vote for him? That was a big deal.

On the other hand, you could be forgiven for wondering, given that John McCain is still sending his Vice President and his surrogates out to rally the faithful, still has TV ads airing (and they’ll all be back on Saturday), is still out spewing his own campaign talking points while his campaign still blasts Barack Obama, and still took the time to address (the painstakingly gracious and bi-partisan) Bill Clinton’s group while other US Senators were trying to make a deal, just what the big deal was when he announced he was suspending his campaign.

But we shouldn’t understate the significance of John McCain’s sacrifice: if he actually votes on bailout legislation, it’ll be his first Senate vote in six months! (That makes McCain the Number One Absentee Senator, ahead of Tim Johnson, who was recovering from brain hemorrhage). So if McCain’s campaign sees it is a world-historical event when he considers his first (potential) Senate vote since he was traipsing around on a largely ignored biographical tour and trying to take advantage of Hillary Clinton’s news hooks, who can blame them?

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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.

EIDELSON AND THE UNNECESSARY EXEGESIS

That’s what Alek and I recently decided my band would be called, given my penchant for, well, unnecessary exegesis (take these seven paragraphs analyzing one from Barack Obama). If that didn’t satiate you, here’s some more:

Last month, I argued that there was only room in media discourse for one “Un-Hillary,” and that the lack of consensus about Hillary Clinton’s political profile creates the potential for that “Un-Hillary” to emerge from the left or from the right. Over at TNR, Ryan Lizza suggests, I think rightly, that John Edwards’ star as a candidate for the Un-Hillary mantle is rising at the moment. There’s plenty to agree with in his analysis. And then his piece ends with a peculiar turn of phrase:

A southern, moderate, antiwar, pro-labor candidate with low negatives and high positives who has already run for president is not a bad combination.

Why “moderate”?

Now, opposing our invasion of Iraq and the President’s plan to “stay the course” there is a majority position in this country, as is support for the right to organize a union free of intimidation and the negotiation of trade deals that don’t accelerate the race to the bottom. These are both areas where, at least for now, a majority of Americans are on the left. As Paul Waldman argues, there are more of them than one would think from listening to talking heads. And as David Sirota argued in a series of pieces after the 2004 election, “centrism” in the dominant media discourse has been warped to describe a set of policies with much greater support among the elite than the electorate. That said, the fact that most people in this country take a progressive position doesn’t in and of itself make that position moderate, at least in the short term.

Sure, in the long term social change depends on pulling the center towards your end, as the right has done much better than the left over the past few decades. And the most effective political leaders we have are the ones who can communicate progressive positions in ways which resonate with fundamental shared values even amongst people who don’t see themselves as on the left. But I still think it’s worth questioning what, especially in the pages of the New Republic, qualifies Edwards as a representative of moderation – other than the fact that he’s popular, and if you believe moderation to be popular with the American people, you’re inclined to look at someone as popular as him to be moderate as well (remember the DLC essay right when it looked like Kerry was going to beat Bush that celebrated how Trumanesque he was?)

Otherwise, what is it that makes Edwards moderate in Lizza’s eyes? His voting record when he last held office (by which standard the likes of Howard Dean and Ned Lamont – neither likely to win any popularity awards from TNR – are at least as moderate)? His support for the death penalty? His equivocation on civil unions? Or is it just the fact that he’s from the South, and liberalism in some pundit’s minds is a cultural affectation and not an ideological vision, and thus not something a southerner could or would want to take part in?

Look, Edwards is no uber-leftist by any means, and there are certainly issues on which he could be more progressive and deserves criticism for not being. But it’s hard to escape the sense that he wins the moderate label here and elsewhere because he comes off as likable and electable, and it’s assumed that any likable electable politician must be a moderate.

NOT DOING US ANY FAVORS

Howard Dean was doing a decent job on Hardball reminding Chris Matthews that it was the White House, and not the Democratic Party, that first declared Samuel Alito’s record as a prosecutor to be relevant to the merits of his nomination. But then Matthews brought up Alito’s far-right position on spousal notification and instead of hitting out of the park the question of whether a woman should need a permission slip from her husband to decide what happens to her body, Dean got dragged into a losing fight over whether it was accurate to describe the Democrats as a “pro-choice party.” Dean shied away from the characterization, even though it describes a plurality of Americans, on the grounds that calling the party pro-choice suggests that people with the party’s position are not “pro-life.”

That would be the problem with the term “pro-life,” not the term “pro-choice.”

Dean fumbled back and forth between describing his position as one supporting a woman’s right to choose and one supporting a family’s right to choose, and insisted that the Democratic party’s position was not an “abortion rights” one. If the idea was to communicate that the party was open to abortion opponents, it’s not clear what Dean accomplished towards that end. But for those looking to the Democratic party in hopes of figuring out what it stands for, it clear what the costs are of bristling and hedging over whether you should be called “pro-choice.”

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.”

From Alyssa

I have to admit that Howard Dean’s email today about the pace of fundraising, and what the DNC is doing with that money, got me more excited than I expected. Hearing that the priority is hiring organizers and getting them on the ground in states like Kansas is tremendously encouraging. I don’t recall ever hearing anything like this from Terry McAuliffe, which doesn’t really surprise me, but it’s the right direction to be going. Building power on the ground, and making a long-term committment to organizing is the only way the party is going to recover, and it recognizes a central problem that we had in the last election. The Republicans had people in neighborhoods, and we had MoveOn-organized phoneathons from solid blue states to swing states. I’ve become progressively disillusioned with MoveOn, partially because of the way they spin things (I was especially frustrated with their perception of the fillibuster “victory,” and the lame Star Wars-based ad), and because I thought, even at the time, that it was glaringly obvious that wasting a lot of time, energy, and money on phonebanks was not a winning strategy. As sincere as all of those efforts were, scripts do not convince people to get out and vote particularly well, and can never be subtle enough to make people switch their votes in large numbers.

What organizers can do is far different. There are, and will continue to be, huge limitations to organizers who come in from the outside to organize communities they aren’t from. But they can identify people who have power or contacts and aren’t using them, or aren’t using them effectively enough. They can encourage people who want to get involved to make the jump by providing them with opportunities. There’s a notable passage in Grassroots, a pretty good book about the ’88 New Hampshire primary, where one veteran of ’84 talks about how she considers her box of file cards on her contacts the treasure she can bring to a campaign. The first priority of organizers should be to find people like these, whether they are leaders in quilting and book clubs or in local party organizations, and train them to be leaders. The Democrats will succeed if our new organizers make themselves obsolete. I’d like to think that this can happen; I am wary of what happened to Dean’s “Perfect Storm” in Iowa. In any case, this is an approach very different than purly raising money for ad buys and long distance phonebanks. I’m glad that something different is happening in the party; we needed both the fresh air and the reality check.

Donnie Fowler’s success in getting the support of a narrow plurality of the Executive Committee of the Association of State Democratic Chairs in his run for DNC Chair proved pyrhic today when the full membership took its own vote and Howard Dean beat Fowler 56 to 21, prompting the ASDC to endorse Dean and Wellington Webb to drop out and endorse Dean as well:

Webb, a former three-term Denver mayor, pulled out of contention immediately after an influential group of state Democratic Party chairpeople overwhelming supported Dean, a 2004 presidential candidate who promises to rally the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Also today, Colorado Democratic Chairman Chris Gates backed Dean after stumping for Webb for more than a month. “Howard Dean has been a thoughtful advocate for progressive change, both as governor of Vermont and as a candidate for president. And I think he’ll make a great national party chair,” Gates said.