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.

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.

MIKE’S MATH

Michael Tomasky chooses a very strange approach to claim some quantitative heft for his otherwise well-stated case that the Democratic Senate Caucus will continue to represent a range of views whether it includes Joe Lieberman or not:

You start with their National Journal numbers — specifically, their liberal support score for 2005. This score is defined in this way: If Senator X has a liberal support score of 90, it means she is more liberal than 90 percent of her Senate colleagues..So, off the top of your head: How many of the 44 Democratic senators have a 90 or better? Nine? Ten? Try four…

If this sounds like a meaningful measure of how liberal Senate Democrats are, or how broad the range of ideologies among Senate Dems are, then go back and read that second sentence again. According to Tomasky’s description, the National Journal rating (yes, that’s the same one that gave us that silly talking point about Kerry and Edwards being the 1st and 4th most liberal senators) is a stanine (remember standardized tests?). It measures how liberal a given senator is as compared to the other 99 senators (the system must be more complicated than Tomasky’s describing it, because it’s physically impossible for Ted Kennedy to be more liberal than exactly 96.7 other Senators). Which (lest our friends at the National Journal take offense) may be useful to know in evaluating a particular Senator, or even a few of them. But in terms of looking at a 44-member caucus, it’s less useful. It could tell us (assuming we accept the rubric for the calculations, which Tomasky goes on to say he doesn’t) whether there’s any overlap along the scale between the two caucuses – that is, whether Lincoln Chafee is more or less liberal than Ben Nelson. It could even tell us something about how the senators are spaced along the ideological spectrum they represent.

But knowing that the Democrats have four Senators in the 90s and “a passel of B’s”, while the Republicans have

have just three 90’s: Jeff Sessions, Wayne Allard, and Tom Coburn. But they do have more in the 80’s

sheds precious little light on the question Tomasky is trying to answer: How ideologically diverse is the Democratic caucus (rather than how the Democratic Senators are spaced along the ideological territory of the caucus). Maybe there’s an argument to be made about how the ideological breadth of one caucus skews the distribution of the other caucus along the spectrum of all 100 senators, but I don’t think Tomasky is making it.

His argument seems to be that if the Senate Democratic Caucus were really full of Ted Kennedys, you’d see more of its members scoring in the 90s. But if the Caucus were full of Ted Kennedys, it would become that much harder for Ted Kennedy to eke out a 90. Because, as they say, it’s all relative.

If you took a snapshot of the current distribution of Senators along the National Journal scale, on the other hand, you would have a tough time (unless you were, say, Jacob Hacker) telling from looking at it whether you were looking at the Senate circa 2006, 1936, or 1846 – because changes in the ideological breadth of the Senate would only translate indirectly into changes in the spacing of the Senators along that breadth. And you’d be no closer to figuring out how the ideologies represented by the folks in the Senate compare to the breakdown of America, or even Connecticut.

That is, if I understand the National Journal ratings correctly. If I’m confused, then forget it. If not, then Tomasky’s parallel universe of Democrats who all score in the 90’s bares a strong resemblance to Garrison Keillor’s apocryphal town in which “all of the children are above average.”

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.