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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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.

BORROW AT WILL

Faced with the prospect of having to cover something substantive, like Judge Alito’s long record of anti-worker jurisprudence, which Nathan Newman documented and Sherrod Brown wrote a letter about to Mike DeWine, the Cleveland Plain Dealer decided that the more interesting story was Brown’s use of Nathan’s work without attribution. As Nathan himself writes:

Were they deceived that Brown got on LEXIS, did the legal research himself, and wrote every word of the letter he sent Mike DeWine himself? This is the comparison to academic plagiarism, but the difference between students (and I teach two classes) and politicians is that we expect students to do their own research. Politicians have speech writers and use other peoples ideas without attribution all the time.

So the problem isn’t using other people’s ideas, but that somehow the American people assumed that Brown paid good money to staff for these unattributed ideas and the fact that he got them for free from a blogger is a scandal. Now, if I was a volunteer on the Brown campaign, and not a paid staff person, would all these conservatives beating their breasts over plagiarism still see a problem? I doubt they could do so with a straight face. So is the problem that I am an independent political activist offering my ideas to all progressive comers, without working for Brown specifically?

As Nathan notes, he posted the piece not only on his own website but on DailyKos, every page of which bears the disclaimer:

Site content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified.

But in case any intrepid Senate campaign staffers are out there looking to lift writing from a (less talented, younger, unmarried) blogger, let me offer an additional disclaimer of my own for Little Wild Bouquet:

Take whatever you want (as long as you don’t re-write it to mean the opposite). Please. Take it all. Have at it. No, really. This means you. You know you want it.

Please?

Anybody?

THE WRONG WAY TO HONOR THE 4TH

is to narrow Americans’ constitutional freedoms by amending the first amendment to ban unpopular symbolic speech. It’s disturbing to see the Senate within a few votes of following the House in passing the abysmal “Flag Burning Amendment.” And it’s disappointing to see so many Democrats (Bob Menendez, Sherrod Brown, and Loretta Sanchez among them) joining the pandering parade.

As I said in this piece (also here), crimminalizing flag-burning is a desecration of the flag and of our freedoms. As Hendrik Hertzberg once observed, it’s impossible to burn the flag, though some may choose to burn a flag or two. Trampling the freedoms for which that flag stands, however, is all too feasible.

That’s exactly how we should recognize the criminalization of a symbol based on offense at its content. After all, if the burning of a flag can be rendered illegal on grounds of outrage at the message it signifies, why not images of burning flags? Why not incitement to burn flags? Why not Dick Durbin’s insistence that torture is more befiting a despotic regime than the United States of America? There was a moment in this country’s history before the First Amendment when representatives on the floor of Congress had a constitutional right to free speech unavailable to regular Americans. It would be shameful for us ever to enter a moment after the unamended First Amendment in which the same is the case.

A Flag-Burning Amendment would still be outrageous if flag-burning was an everyday occurence in this country. But it’s worth noting that it isn’t. Not only was the pro-amendment Citizens Flag Alliance only able to document four incidents this year (three of them last month, while the Amendment was under debate and in the news), every single one involved people burning other people’s flags. However one ranks the wrongness of setting the local Public Library’s flag on fire relative to, say, denying healthcare to returning veterans, it’s already illegal.

What’s at issue is this: Living in a society with a robust Bill of Rights means that in some rare instance, some American may exercise the freedom granted under our flag to burn a flag in hopes of dramatizing a divide between a vision for this country and its present reality. The discomfort that’s inspired by a burning flag, or a confederate flag, is a small price to pay for liberty.