Beyond Checklist Liberalism
Two comments on Adam Nagourney’s Lieberman story yesterday:
1. It’s not said explicitly, but it sure does sound like the Party Of One option is now considered likely to fizzle. Nagourney focuses only on the way in which the move alienated Democrats, and says, “should Mr. Lieberman lose the primary, all indications are that most Democratic leaders will abandon him in the general election race.” Even David Broder, painfully unable to understand what’s happening and dreaming that sanity will one day return - “the early successes of these elitist insurgents have been followed by decisive defeats when a broader public weighs in” - seems to have little hope that the general election in Connecticut will be that return to normalcy. Lieberman, I’m told, calculated that he had a 50% chance of winning the primary and an 85% chance of winning the general as an independent, making his decision obvious. But of course that was a terrible miscalculation, because among other things it failed to factor in the effect of the decision itself. If he had a 50% chance of winning the primary the day before the election, that chance dropped enormously the day after, as both Nagourney and Broder say. And there was never an 85% chance of winning the general after being tagged as a loser, with Democratic officials and donors unable to help, with 40% of the vote sufficient for victory. I point this out only because you read it here first.
Mr. Clinton had told him to acknowledge that Democrats should be able to hold contrary opinions on the war, Mr. Lieberman recounted. But Mr. Clinton also recommended that Mr. Lieberman aggressively try to refocus the debate on other topics.
A longtime associate spoke of sending an e-mail message to Mr. Lieberman suggesting that he talk about domestic issues important to liberal Democrats: blocking oil drilling in Alaska, protecting affirmative action and preserving abortion rights.
Is “refocus the debate on other topics” really brilliant, insightful advice for Lieberman? Hasn’t he been trying to change the topic? Isn’t the whole point that that’s not working?
And what about Clinton? This is the guy who is assumed to be the de facto strategist-in-chief for the front-running Dem 08 candidate. Is “refocus the debate” the best he can do? Or, “acknowledge that Democrats should be able to hold contrary opinions on the war,” which if Lieberman can’t or won’t do, he’s got some serious problems. (If Lieberman won’t even acknowledge that views other than his own are legitimate within the party, then who’s the unyielding ideologue here?)
And then the second paragraph, which I think says it all about why the mainstream Democrat advice to Lieberman misses the point. This paragraph is not attributed to Clinton, although its positioning implies that it expands on the advice Clinton gave. It’s a great expression of the Democratic Party of 1996: You got your enviros, you got your minorities, you got your women. Each group has one issue. For the enviros, it’s ANWR (the most trivial of victories, but the one that raises the money). For the minorities, affirmative action. (Likewise, of minor relevance to the actual structure of economic opportunity for most African-Americans and Latinos.) For women, it’s all about “preserve abortion rights.” There are a couple others, but those are the basic buttons you press to be credentialed as a good liberal Democrat. After you press them, you can do whatever you want.
But has Lieberman failed to press those buttons? No! In fact, he’s been pounding on them like that guy at the elevator who thinks that if he presses “Down” hard enough and often enough, eventually the elevator will recognize how important and how late he is.
But it’s not working. Why? Two reasons: One of course is that Iraq, and the constellation of foreign policy and security failures it represents really is huge. And while Democrats can accept a fairly wide range of viewpoints, roughly from Biden’s make-it-work to Murtha’s get-out-now, only Lieberman’s stay-the-course is ridiculous. It’s pretty difficult to look at ANWR and Iraq and conclude that a good position on ANWR more than offsets a bad one on Iraq. (Especially if there’s no reason to think that Ned Lamont has a different position on ANWR or the other three buttons.)
The second reason is that Lamont supporters actually aren’t ideologues. They aren’t looking for the party to be more liberal on traditional dimensions. They’re looking for it to be more of a party. They want to put issues on the table that don’t have an interest group behind them - like Lieberman’s support for the bankruptcy bill -- because they are part of a broader vision. And I think that’s what blows the mind of the traditional Dems. They can handle a challenge from the left, on predictable, narrow-constituency terms. But where do these other issues come from? These are “elitist insurgents,” as Broder puts it - since when do they care about bankruptcy? What if all of a sudden you couldn’t count on Democratic women just because you said that right things about choice - what if they started to vote on the whole range of issues that affect women’s economic and personal opportunities?
But caring about bankruptcy, even if you’re not teetering on the brink of it or a bankruptcy lawyer yourself, is part of a vision of a just society. And a vision of a just society - not just the single-issue push-buttons of a bunch of constituency groups - is what a center-left political party ought to be about. And at the end of this fight, I don’t expect that we’ll have a more leftist Democratic Party, but one that can at least begin to get beyond checklist liberalism.
I probably shouldn’t be so obsessed with the Lieberman-Lamont race, but I can’t help it.
This seems to be the week when the Republican right (Kondracke, Chris Caldwell) has decided to make Joe Lieberman’s cause their own. Which is fine, but their opinion about who should be the Democratic nominee in a state they don’t live in is about as relevant as my opinion about who should be the next president of France. (Anyone interested in my strongly-held opinion on the latter question, the answer is here.)
But at the same time, the actual Democrats supporting Lieberman seemed to have figured out what contributors to TPMCafe and others have been saying for months: Lieberman got himself into this situation, and every day he makes it worse. The other day, while looking for some of those "savage, internet-based attacks" that Kondracke laments, I came across the blog "Lieberdem," devoted mostly to savage, internet-based attacks on Mr. Lamont and those they call "Nedheads." Lieberdem has two contributors, one being Dan Gerstein, who I recall vaguely from years ago when he, Lieberman, and Bill Bennett were trying to stamp out the threat to America’s families posed by "Melrose Place." (And especially, of course, the show’s single, chaste gay character.) While Gerstein’s contributions to the blog read like a dark-side imitation of David Sirota, his counterpart, Matt Smith, seems a little more grounded. Here’s Smith on Friday:
Joe Lieberman’s campaign has looked as if it has been in a constant state of panic ever since Lamont’s campaign started to look serious. ...Even Lieberman himself has acted like he never saw this coming. Many political observers have noticed it, and so have I.
Ned Lamont has every right to run against Joe Lieberman in the primary, and Democratic voters have every right to support him...
Lieberman simply never saw this coming, and still hasn’t gotten over the initial shock of Lamont’s entry into the race. The initial surprise is somewhat understandable. He’s a three-term Senator with a strong record on nearly all progressive causes who has not faced a serious electoral challenge at home in 18 years. Lieberman realized that most Democrats in his state disagreed with him on the Iraq War, but it probably was hard for Lieberman to imagine that any single issue could fuel a serious intraparty challenge to him.
His campaign staff also seems like they never expected to have to run a real campaign. So at first they seemed to ignore Lamont’s challenge, probably expecting it to fade fast. It didn’t, and Lieberman’s campaign came to realize that Lamont’s challenge was serious. And what they did next is mind-boggling: Instead of reminding the voters of Lieberman’s strong history on progressive causes, their campaign increasingly focused on disqualifying Lamont.
I can’t think of a polite word to describe that strategy. I agree with the general rule that if the incumbent’s campaign can make the election about the challenger, that the incumbent will almost certainly win. But that simply was never going to happen and will never happen in this race. Lieberman is one of the most prominent politicians in the state’s - and indeed in the nation’s - recent history. By contrast, Lamont has no record, and virtually no one had ever heard Ned Lamont’s name before this year. Ned Lamont is a vehicle for opposition to Lieberman; the campaign will never be about him...
The vast majority of voters voting for Lamont were doing so not because they supported Lamont, but because they were against Lieberman. Consequently, any campaign strategy that was designed to damage Lamont in the eyes of voters has always been and will always be doomed to failure. As the Hotline On Call blog asked this weekend "Are negative ads what really what Lieberman needs right now? Aren’t voters looking for a reason to come back to Lieberman?"
They are, and they have plenty of reasons to. Joe Lieberman is hardly out of the mainstream of the Democratic party - one need only look at his voting record to see this - and Lieberman’s long history of fighting for progressive causes cannot seriously be questioned. Iraq is admittedly a big thorn in Lieberman’s side, but less than a quarter of all voters and just 33% of Democrats said Iraq was the top issue for them in this election.
Lieberman clearly can improve if his campaign just reminds voters of how strong he is on the traditional progressive issues of education, the environment, civil rights, choice, worker’s rights, and virtually every other progressive cause that you can think of. Those same Quinnipiac polls still show that a majority of Democrats think he deserves to be re-elected, and the loyalty of his supporters runs deep.
The Quinnipiac polls show, as they always have, that Lieberman would easily dispatch of Lamont in the general election. However, it really should not come to that, and it’s never too late to break bad habits. There are plenty of reasons for Democrats to vote for Lieberman. He and the members of his campaign need to remind voters of what they are, or else be willing to accept a good share of the responsibility if Lieberman loses on August 8.
All very true. Lieberman’s not the first politician, Senators especially, to lose touch with his voters. Senators have a tendency to think that the people who voted for them six years earlier are some kind of loyal base, forgetting that six years is a long time; people move in, move out, turn 18, etc.; and that all those people did six years ago was a 10-second act of expressing a preference for you over your opponent. (Lieberman’s opponent from six years ago is now serving a 37-year prison term for pedophilia, so it wasn’t much of a choice.) It’s one reason Senate races tend to be more competitive, and more often surprising, than House races. Sometimes it catches a Senator totally by surprise right before the election, as in Rudy Boschwitz’s 1990 loss to Paul Wellstone. But Lieberman has had plenty of warning, plenty of opportunity to reestablish his connection with voters. And the first step would have been to acknowledge, as Smith does, that "Lamont has every right to run," and then make his own case.
What the "Netroots" Can Do, And What They Can't
Can we please put to rest the idea that Ned Lamont’s challenge to Senator Lieberman is a product of, or a wholly-owned subsidiary of, that thing called “the netroots.” (Without, in so doing, disparaging or minimizing the netroots themselves.)
Yes, a lot of nationally prominent liberal bloggers are enthusiastic about the Lamont challenge. They’ve presumably helped raise some money (the thing he needs least, but the only symbolic gesture of support available to most people outside the state) and perhaps have generated some volunteers, including a number of bloggers themselves, notably Jane Hamsher. And a number of fabulous Connecticut-based blogs are central to the internal and external communications around the Lamont campaign. But that’s true of every successful campaign today, left, right and center, and in either major party. (The centrist Democratic Senate candidate in Missouri, for example, Claire McCaskill, is backed by almost as impressive a group of Show-Me-State blogs as Lamont is by Nutmeg blogs.)
The plausibility of the Lamont campaign is attributable to two major things, none of which have anything to do with Markos Moulitsas or his loyal minions:
1. Decades of statewide progressive organizing in the state. Lamont’s campaign manager is no blogger, but Tom Swan, who left his job as head of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG) to run the campaign. According to one of the Connecticut blogs I mentioned above, much of the CCAG staff has also quit or taken a leave to help Lamont. CCAG got its start before even Al Gore had heard of the Internet, in the same year that Lieberman won his first primary - 1970 - and from the same impulses that created the reformist/anti-war Caucus of Connecticut Democrats in which Lieberman was active.
CCAG has had its ups and downs over the decades, but it is one of a very few multi-issue progressive groups of that era to have survived. A related group, the Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP) was very successful at getting progressives elected to the state legislature, many of whom are still there. CCAG has had a very successful last couple of years, most notably in winning passage of the state’s public financing law for campaigns, the first such “clean money” law to be passed through a legislature rather than by voter initiative. It takes a lot of skill and political savvy to get a legislature to back a proposal with low political salience that most politicians view as a threat. (That is, they would like to bury it and expect they can get away with it.) The Lamont campaign is coming off the energy and lessons learned of that victory.
You could imagine a challenge like Lamont’s emerging without the “netroots,” although they certainly drive a lot of the enthusiasm. You couldn’t imagine it without politically savvy, experienced organizers like Swan, with a base in a long-term, multi-issue progressive coalition that has allies and experience and understands the state. And anyone thinking about how to build structures and parties that can win elections against Republicans needs to understand this as well.
2. The fact that Lieberman has run, so far, the second most embarrassingly bad campaign of the year. (The worst campaign’s entire staff just quit, so there may be an opening to move up.) The fact is that there’s been a lot of latent discontent with Lieberman in the state at least since his speech about Monica Lewinsky, but as recently as a few months ago, his approval rating among Democrats was solidly in the low 70’s, indistinguishable from his support among Independents and Republicans. (This is an important point, by the way: A good portion of Republicans and Independents in Connecticut are more liberal than the average registered Democrat, and his support among those groups could prove just as soft as his Democratic support.) Lieberman could easily have restored his bond with Connecticut Democrats, or at least enough to be sure of winning a primary. I could have written that speech or that ad, and I would have done it, too, before he said “we criticize our commander-in-chief at our own peril.” It would involve a much stronger condemnation of Bush’s conduct of the war, a heartfelt acknowledgement of respect for opponents of the war and for the legitimacy of dissent, and a message that, wherever anyone stood in 2003, now we have a crisis on the ground in Iraq and have to work together - and with Republicans -- to get it right and get out. (If he couldn’t in good conscience say those things, then he’s got bigger problems.) The war is not the only issue driving opposition to Lieberman, of course, but it is the great question of our time and if he could defuse it somewhat as an issue, the opposition doesn’t have that much to work with.
Instead, for whatever reason, he chose to act petulant about the fact that anyone would oppose him at all, which is not the right response for a democrat, much less a Democrat; produce a series of comically inept ads, and shrink himself into a sort of suburban-mensch version of Al D’Amato : “I saved 3,000 jobs at Electric Boat in Groton.” “I voted for the energy bill because we got $800 million for energy conservation in Connecticut.” (Large forces have been unleashed in our politics, and a national figure like Lieberman should be seen as confronting those questions, not selling out for petty earmarks.) And finally, by taking out the “insurance policy” of running under a party named after himself, he highlighted every one of his own negatives and virtually ensured his defeat in the primary, with a very good chance that the independent candidacy will fizzle as well.
So let’s credit the netroots for what they do well - generate enthusiasm, force the big questions onto the agenda, generate a new definition of what it means to be a Democrat. But by themselves they can’t create a viable candidacy or bring down a popular three-term incumbent. Only organizing and the incumbent’s own mistakes can do that.
Netroots, Labor and Strong Parties
It seems to me that Noam Scheiber and Garance Franke-Ruta are both making too much of the distinction between “netroots” and traditional Democratic interest groups, especially the possible “split” between netroots liberals and organized labor.
It’s as simple as this: Interest groups think like interest groups, netroots want to think like a party. They are two different ways of operating and thinking in a political world, not two different constituencies competing for a zero-sum quantity of influence.
The key fact adduced as evidence of a breach is that unions have endorsed seven of the most vulnerable northeastern House Republicans, seats that the netroots are enthusiastic about taking back for Democrats. Is that evidence of an ideological divide between labor and the netroots? Does labor have a problem with the Democratic challengers for those seats?
No. It’s evidence of nothing of the kind. It’s simply a function of the way interest groups work, the way they have to work. I used the example of environmental groups in my column in the Prospect in June, but it applies to organized labor just as well. The one thing they know is that to get anything done, they need bipartisan support. They have to be able to go into the offices of Republican members of Congress from districts where labor has influence and ask for their help. And when the member says, “If I’m with you on these three things, will you endorse me in the fall?” they need to be able to say Yes. They need to be strategic about it, they shouldn’t sell out for peanuts. But they can’t say, “Oh, gee, we like you and we need your help, but we are a Democratic interest group after all.” That would be malpractice. And these groups can all point to good things they’ve gotten done, or terrible things they’ve prevented, as a result of offering these incentives.
So labor’s not stupid or mistaken to endorse Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania, just as NARAL’s not stupid to endorse Lincoln Chafee. Sure, both know that their causes would be better served by changing the majority, but neither can give up the retail trade of your support for our endorsement that is their basic way of doing business. But as I wrote in my column, “at a certain point, rewarding friendly Republicans crosses the line into desperately trying to prop up a few so that you can still seem bipartisan -- at the price of legitimating a majority whose highest priority after tax cuts is the evisceration of environmental regulation” (or, substitute “labor laws” or “abortion rights” for “environmental regulation.” Perhaps I should have said, amongst their priorities are such diverse elements as…) Of course it’s hard to know when that line has been crossed: after Gerlach, Shays and a dozen other Republican moderates with good records on labor, environment and choice lose this year, then how are these interest groups going to continue to function in the normal bipartisan way? Will they define moderation down, endorsing Republicans they wouldn’t touch in the past but who are now the best the party has to offer? Or will they accept that their cause is best served by operating within the single party that is pro-labor, pro-environment and largely pro-choice?
Netroots, on the other hand, doesn’t need to worry about bipartisan deals because it doesn’t have a cause. Instead, it is a vision of what the Democratic Party ought to be: Liberal, sure - up to a point. (Ideology barely begins to explain why some politicians - Brian Schweitzer, Harry Reid - are netroots favs). Fights back. Responsive. Broadly critical of corporate power. It is not a faction looking for influence in the Democratic Party, as Scheiber puts it, but the vanguard of a strong and cohesive party.
While Garance is right to point out that the netroots can’t substitute for the voter mobilization that labor produces (and doesn’t even try - this is not a voter turnout operation), there are also shortcomings to the traditional advocacy-group model of voter turnout. Only a party can do the kind of serious targeting that the Republicans do, not finding voters through membership lists but locating people who fit the economic and demographic profile of Republican voters.
There’s a lot to be said for a strong and cohesive party, even apart from questions of whether Democrats win elections or not. For one thing, as Scheiber does note, it puts different issues on the table. Interest groups, for as many as there are, leave hundreds of important issues un-spoken for. That’s why the bankruptcy bill was such a good example of the value of netroots. Members had voted for that bill several times before, and they had not heard a word about. Sure, there was a little effort by bankruptcy lawyers, but they seemed like a petty, interested party. (Although most were so busy that losing business was the least of their worries.) Near bankrupt families simply had no one to speak for them in Washington, and no power if they did. There are more such collective-action problems than there are solutions. And so a politician goes through life thinking that there are a few issues on which he has to deal with engaged and interested constituents that will endorse him or not, rank him on scorecards, mobilize voters, and then lots of other issues that no one pays attention to, and on which he can just go with his cash constituents. Netroots totally changes the logic of this - an issue he thought was invisible suddenly becomes a key marker of Democratic Party principles. And that’s a good thing.
I didn’t mean this to be so laudatory of the netroots world, because it’s not without its problems. But the era of interest-group politics is dead, and the strong party that the netroots advocates foresee will take its place, and while that won’t be without some disruptions, it will be to the good.
Lieberman and the Millionaire Provision
Senator Lieberman recently described his decision to take out petitions to appear on the November ballot as an independent if he loses the Democratic primary as “an insurance policy” against opponent Ned Lamont’s capacity to fund his own campaign.
One problem (of many) with this argument is that when Congress wrote the new campaign finance law in 2002, it wrote itself a sweet insurance policy against self-funded challengers: the so-called “millionaire’s provision.” Under this rule, if a candidate spends more than a certain amount of his or her own funds (a complex formula based on the state’s population), the contribution limits for other candidates in the race are doubled, quadrupled, and eventually sextupled.
In practice, in Connecticut, if I’m reading the law correctly, this means that if Lamont were to spend $2.5 million of his own money (which is not that much; Lieberman himself spent $3.7 million on his barely contested reelection in 2000), Lieberman would be able to accept contributions six times the normal $2,000 limit. And presumably he would be able to accept them for the primary and the general election separately: a single lobbyist could contribute $24,000 to Lieberman.
To his credit, Lieberman voted against the millionaire provision, as did most Democrats, and his colleague Senator Dodd offered the strongest speech in opposition. It is surely the worst thing in that law, incumbent protection of the most blatant kind. Yes, it is disturbing that so many Senators and members of Congress are wealthy and financed their own first campaigns. But given the advantage incumbents already have, in name recognition and access to donors - until the rise of small donors and the netroots -- a self-financed candidate has usually been the only challenger who has a chance, and many of them lose. (The world’s expert on self-financed candidates is Jennifer Steen of Boston College.) And only incumbents, not another challenger, are likely to be able to take advantage of these $4,000, $8,000 or $12,000 donors. The millionaire provision doesn’t level the playing field against self-financed candidates, rather, it restores and magnifies the advantage that incumbents already have.
And if Congress has concluded that $2,000 is an appropriate contribution limit, because higher contributions can be corrupting, why is $12,000 not corrupting when your opponent happens to be self-financed?
The Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the Millionaire Provision when it upheld McCain-Feingold in 2003, because no millionaire candidate with standing to claim he was hurt by the provision had appeared. Now, however, the Democrat challenging Rep. Tom Reynolds, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has filed suit challenging the provision.
So here’s a good question for tonight’s Lieberman-Lamont debate: “Senator Lieberman, since you have decided to run as an independent as an ‘insurance policy’ against Mr. Lamont’s personal wealth, will you promise not to use your other ‘insurance policy,’ the provision that allows you to raise huge amounts of money from private donors and lobbyists?”
Carville and Penn: Where's the Data?
There seem to be various complaints about James Carville and Mark Penn’s case for Hillary Clinton’s electability that appeared in the Post yesterday, including that Penn was not identified as a current consultant to Clinton’s Senate reelection campaign. But I had a different reaction.
Here’s one of Carville and Penn’s key arguments, and to me the most powerful one:
Pundits and fundraisers and activists may be unsure of whether Hillary can get elected president, but Democratic voters, particularly Democratic women and even independent women, are thrilled with the idea.
The X factor for 2008 -- and we do mean X -- is the power of women in the electorate.... We believe that Hillary is uniquely capable of getting those swing voters back to the Democratic column...we could see an explosion of women voting -- and voting Democratic.
The big question about Senator Clinton’s candidacy is this: Does she have a particular appeal to women, including independent and Republican-leaning women, and married women?
I think she might, which is one reason I’m open to the idea that Clinton is as electable as anyone else, and possibly more so. I could have written the sentences above, but purely as speculation. It’s a huge question, and if I were a pollster, if I had the capacity to do more than speculate, I would sure like to find out.
Which gets to the problem with the op-ed: Mark Penn is a pollster. He actually has the capacity to find out. Presumably he is out there trying to find out, unless he’s too busy inventing new and dubious demographic categories, like "office park dads." Not one single piece of data is attached to statements like, "independent women are thrilled with the idea," or "we believe that Hillary is uniquely capable of getting those swing voters," or "we could see an explosion of women voting."
At the launch of the new online publication, The Democratic Strategist, last week, Ruy Teixera promised a new era in which Democratic thinking would be guided by "facts not faction." I’m totally open to the argument that Senator Clinton is electable -- but please show us some facts.