THE MCCAIN STRATEGY

A couple weeks ago, the Hotline started trumpeting polling showing that 5% more Americans support a surge in Iraq when it’s described as the “McCain strategy” than as the “Bush strategy.” Like most political polls, it shows that people think differently than they think that they think – that is, few people like to think that they would come down differently on otherwise identically described plans based on who they were named after. But as a demonstration of the power of the McCain brand, I’d have to say it’s underwhelming.

John McCain, bearer of the faith of our fathers, guide to a braver life, darling of ostensibly liberal journalists and avowedly partisan Democrats, can only lift the surge from 32% to 37%? Five percent? And that’s only three percent over the support it garners with nobody’s name stamped on it.

Clearly McCain’s plan to defend his hawkish stance on the grounds that Bush failed by being insufficiently hawkish is taking a beating as Bush takes a page from his book. Now McCain is left hoping that voters give him points for the courage of his convictions, that they believe that McCain would have done the surge way better than Bush, or that the surge will have Iraqis belatedly throwing rose petals at the feet of American soldiers. Of those possibilities, none is super promising. The first is maybe the most interesting, because it provides an interesting test case on the question of how voters weigh what your issue positions say about you versus how much they agree with yours.

Paul Waldman makes a strong case that McCain’s advocacy of campaign finance reform shows that, in Mark Schmitt’s words, “It’s not what you say about the issues – it’s what the issues say about you” – that is, that McCain’s advocacy of reform is a winner not because people care about the issue one way or the other but because it casts him as a man of integrity. It’s an important point that many Democrats with a congenital need to split the difference on issues of the day would do well to remember. On the other hand, the difference between campaign finance reform and escalation in Iraq is that most Americans aren’t hell-bent against campaign finance reform – that just don’t care that much about it.

As for what this means about John McCain’s general election chances, I still think he’s a formidable opponent, certainly more so than Mitt Romney or Sam Brownback. But as a raft of polls the past few days have confirmed, he can be beaten. Which is all the more reason for progressives to seek out a candidate who would do a great job governing the country.

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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.

FIGHTING WORDS: PRIMARY EDITION

Harold Meyerson: “Next Tuesday, in fact, Connecticut Democrats will be doing exactly what small-d democratic theorists would have them do: decide an election by opting for one clear policy alternative, as personified by one candidate, over another personified by the incumbent. From a big-D Democratic perspective, Connecticut’s Democrats are doing what Democrats are hoping a clear majority of voters everywhere will do this November: reject incumbents who have supported the failed policies of this administration, the war most particularly.”

Mark Schmitt: “The real reason the Vietnam War divided and discredited Democrats and splintered the liberal consensus was because – let’s not be afraid to admit it — Democrats started that war.”

Nathan Newman: “In some ways, what Newt argued is not that different from what many in the netroots have argued — it’s just that many in the blogs are far more tepid in admiting ideas and ideology matter than old Newt. The blogs practice ideological warfare sporadically, but then seem somewhat embarassed when moderates call them on it, as if it’s something kind of dirty.”

FIGHTING WORDS

Ange-Marie Hancock: “I do not condone rushes to judgment. But far too many Black women’s legitimate claims of rape (and we do not, no matter what has been leaked to the media, yet know that this is not a legitimate claim of rape) have been ignored, considered attacks on black men like Mike Tyson or otherwise, leaving Black women feeling like they must bear the burden of their rape without the support of Black men.”

Mark Schmitt: “I don’t like the whole mode of analysis that assumes a politician has some “real” core of beliefs and then various positions he or she takes are either “real” or “political.” That whole analysis is based on the cult of authenticity of which McCain, and to a lesser extent Bush, have been the greatest beneficiaries. Politicians are aggregations of their instincts, values, and political circumstances and conditions, the pressures put on them and the niches that are available.”

Matt Singer: “We literally have a political movement that makes as one of its central claims that a central problem of the modern world is the spread of moral equivalence and a failure to adopt a rigorous moral code. Meanwhile, the same individuals who will blame defeat in Vietnam on political leadership who tied the military’s hand, now decry military critics of civilian leadership as “gutless” threats to America’s Constitutional republic.”

Mark Schmitt chooses a peculiar way to frame his question of whether progressivism can go on without labor:

Given the depth of labor’s difficulties, then, perhaps the reason that the answer to the question is “yes” is simply that we can’t wait for labor to solve its problems, and maybe labor never will come back in its traditional form.

The issue isn’t whether the Democratic Party or the left should “wait for for labor to solve its problems.” The issue is why the Democratic Party has failed to more aggressively pursue policies which would address the problem which haunts all prospects for sustained electoral or organizing victory: the absence of a robust freedom to form a union and organize collectively for industrial democracy and social change in this country.