Can There Be a Progressive Movement Without Organized Labor at its Center?

David Broder had a beautiful, thoughtful column yesterday about the significance of the decline of the labor movement as a political force. He starts by recounting the surprise of a younger reporter at learning that when Broder began covering Congress, the most significant lobbyists were those representing organized labor, and they didn't just advocate on traditional labor issues but were the leading force on civil rights, federal aid to education, housing, and other progressive causes. Indeed, one of the interesting things I learned from a book that I mentioned at length in my most recent American Prospect column, Julian Zelizer's On Capitol Hill : The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1948-2000 was that the most influential non-elected figure in liberal politics through the 1950s and 1960s was Andrew Biemiller, who represented the AFL and then the AFL-CIO. As Broder notes, labor today may be more closely aligned to Congressional Democrats, but is far less effective, and on a far more limited agenda.

Broder's column made me think about a question I was asked four or five years ago, and that I sometimes revisit in my head. At a conference sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute, I agreed to be on a panel made up of four people from foundations -- the "funder's panel" that is often the dreariest but best-attended part of a conference. (I hate being on funders' panels and sometimes refuse to do it.) In the Q&A section, Joel Rogers of the University of Wisconsin (and various other affiliations) asked: "Do any of you seriously believe that it is possible to have a real progressive movement in this country that doesn't have a strong labor movement at the center of it?"

Now that's a provocative question to ask anyone, and particularly a group of people from big liberal foundations, because while many of us think we are helping to build a progressive movement, most of us have very limited exposure to organized labor, and little understanding of its strengths, diversity, and history. Often that's because foundations themselves are creatures of American capitalism, intended to smooth only the egregious excesses of unfettered capitalism, by focusing on poverty or urban decay, rather than confronting the fundamental conditions of the great mass of workers or advocating a shift in power. In other cases, it's simply because our experience with academia or non-profits doesn't bring us into much contact with unions or union members. A colleague from the Ford Foundation made basically those points, and I don't remember my other colleagues' answers.

Nor do I remember my own, for certain. I think I said Yes. That is, I could envision a progressive movement without organized labor at its center. But I'm totally ambivalent on the question. Broder's column tells part of the story -- there never has been a progressive movement in the U.S. that didn't have labor at the center, and the ups and downs of progressive change have roughly coincided with the shifting power of labor to stand up to capital.

On the other hand, cycles sometimes end, and organized labor in the traditional sense may never recover its political clout. As the economy shifts from manufacturing, the unionized percentage of the private-sector workforce continues to decline despite much-ballyhooed organizing victories, especially for immigrant workers in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The labor movement has gained some political clout since the mid-1980s because it is more effective at delivering its own members than it was in 1984 when union members in the Midwest became "Reagan Democrats," but as it moves to represent more and more of the truly disadvantaged workers, especially immigrants, it does not increase its share of the electorate.

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. Other elements of a progressive infrastructure -- such as environmentalists, the women's movement, mobilized consumers, and the voters now organized through loose transactional networks such as rather than traditional membership groups -- have a presence in Washington and in our political life that could not have been imagined back in the days when Biemiller strode the halls of Congress, speaking for everyone. Yet those progressive groups do not speak to the economic issues that are the center of a progressive agenda and cannot speak for the families most struggling in the current economy. On the other hand, labor's agenda alone does not speak to all the elements of a progressive movement, such as women's rights and gay and lesbian rights. Still, there are efforts to build strong coalitions in which labor plays a part, such as the Apollo Alliance, a campaign to invest in energy independence which, if nothing else, can bring labor and environmentalists together for a cause.

One approach for labor is to view its role differently. Rather than making its political voice dependent on its success in organizing workers at the workplace, it could view itself as more of a voice for all workers, whether they happen to be union members or not. The AFL-CIO's efforts this election to reach not just members of its unions, but those who demographically resemble union members is one example.

At the end of the day, whatever the political strength of organized labor as we know it, there is no progressive movement unless there is some large, politically relevant constituency organization that speaks not for middle-class liberals, but for those left behind in the economy. It's just possible that some of the large-scale organizing efforts around the election, such as ACORN's Project Vote, and many others, might form a mass constituency of new voters that, coupled with labor, might be able to form a politically powerful bloc -- if it can use its power consistently in Congress and state legislatures. That's not a formula for a progressive movement without labor at the center, but one in which labor doesn't have to carry the burden for everyone else.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 11, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

A Theory About the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's campaign trip to South Dakota to defeat his Democratic counterpart brought to mind a question a friend asked me recently: Did I think there was a case to be made that something had fundamentally gone wrong with the U.S. Senate? (And, no, this has nothing to do with the extracurricular activities of young staffers, which have always involved what they will always involve.) This follows on several comments on this weblog about unbelievable comments by Senators such as Rick Santorum, a member of the majority party leadership who, a few months after equating committed gay relationships to "man-on-dog" sex declared that one of his colleagues "doesn't have the understanding of how government works" -- perhaps a mild insult in the blogosphere, but pretty much unheard of in the U.S. Senate as I know it. The more recent declaration by Senator Inhofe that he is "outraged by the outrage" at torture and abuse by U.S. personnel in Iraq shows that Santorum is not alone.

However, there is always peril in assuming there was a golden age of the Senate in which civility ruled and every man (and, if there is one notable positive change in the Senate, it is that the number of women has increased by more than 900% in a decade) was a statesman. As pointed out in comments here earlier, Joe McCarthy was a Senator, and so were many other mentally and morally compromised individuals. A recent obituary reminded me of Senator William Scott of Virginia, who in the 1970s topped a list of "Dumbest Senators" compiled by New Times magazine -- and the next day held a press conference to deny the charge. Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, while chronicling Lyndon Johnson's rise to dominate the institution, also shows that other figures who are considered titans of the 1950s Senate, such as Paul Douglas of Illinois or Herbert Lehman of New York, were most often pretty marginal gadflies in an institution dominated by less gifted or less honorable men.

But without romanticizing the quality of the actual Senators of the past

-- and if you want to lose any illusions about the "World's Greatest Deliberative Body," go even further back, to before direct election of Senators, and find an old copy of The Treason of the Senate by the muckraking journalist and novelist David Graham Phillips -- there is still something unbelievable that has occurred in the interaction between Senators, and in the general institutional culture. Frist's campaigning against Daschle is unprecedented for a good reason. The benefits of a Senate leader making campaign appearances in a state where he is barely known cannot possibly offset the cost in terms of a good working relationship on the mundane daily problems of managing the insitution, scheduling votes, or asking routine favors such as holding a vote for a Senator who is coming in on a delayed flight. And then there is the very real possibility that the Senate Republicans will attempt this year to declare that the Senate rules do not permit a filibuster on judicial nominations, or on any nominations, in order to deprive Democrats of the means of blocking the worst Bush judges. Since the Senate rules emphatically do not exempt judicial nominations from filibuster, this will require over-ruling the Senate Parliamentarian, or, more likely, firing the Senate Parliamentarian and replacing him with someone who will provide the rulings they wish.

If this seems outrageous to you, you should know that this would actually be the second time the Republicans have fired their own Parliamentarian because they didn't like his rulings. They call this "The Nuclear Option," but, if it happens, it is Nagasaki, not Hiroshima.

How did the institution come to this point? It's not because the Senators of today are lesser individuals than in the past, although that may be true also. Rather, I think, it is the way the Senate goes about its business that brings out the worst in those individuals, whereas there are things about the Senate in the past that brought out the best democratic and deliberative capacities of its members.

It took me a while to grasp that the Senate is not a rule-driven institution. It has rules, but they don't drive the process. They are more like a toolbox made up of procedures and tactics to be used for certain conditions at certain times. For example, when I worked in the Senate, cloture votes -- which would determine whether there were enough votes to end a filibuster -- were the main tool being used to drive the business of the Senate, although filibusters themselves were infrequent. There was a period when a tactic known as "filling the amendment tree" was used often to block an unwelcome amendment -- I remember when Senator Byrd did it in 1993 in an attempt to salvage Clinton's now-forgotten "stimulus package," most of my senior colleagues had never seen the tactic used, but by 1995, Senator Dole was filling the tree daily. At the same time, the rules that exist can be broken or bypassed at will: Senator Byrd once pointed out that every rule of the Senate could be waived by consent, except for the rules governing who is a Senator.

That makes the Senate a kind of improvisational theater, rather than a formalized process, and while power is not distributed equally within it, every Senator has the power to initiate action (offer an amendment) or block action. Outside of the legislative process, many Senators also have the power to, for example, launch investigations (which is how John Kerry made his mark) and at any given time, a dozen or so are national figures who can shape the debate by appearing on Meet the Press, by helping to build outside organizations, or making visits to other states. (There's probably never been a Senator who understood this outside-in role as well as Hilary Clinton.) That engenders a kind of respect or acknowledgement of each colleague. My former boss, Senator Bradley, once said something in a campaign debate early on in the period when I worked for him: "You hold power, but you must never claim power." I didn't fully understand what he meant until a few years later -- it means that whatever power you have derives entirely from your ability to influence others, create coalitions, form alliances, be entrepreneurial, etc. No one in the Senate, not the Majority Leader, not the chair of the Finance or Appropriations Committees, holds even a fraction of the actual power of their counterparts in the House of Representatives, because the power they have, if they "claim" it without consent, is so easily undermined.

Combine these factors with four other facts: Senators generally expect that they will serve for a long time and so will their colleagues. But they don't expect their party's tenure in or out of power to last nearly as long; control of the Senate has changed five times since 1980, and most Senators have seen it change at least three times. Finally, because of the filibuster and other rules, nothing can generally be done without forming a bipartisan coalition. Senator Dole used to say every day, "you need 60 votes to do anything around here," which isn't quite true, but we'll get to that in a minute. Finally, party affiliations don't correspond exactly with ideology, so bipartisan coalitions will always be the rule and the Majority Leader does not control a reliable bloc.

You can't argue that the Senate is a good representative body, but within the boundaries of the institution, these factors can create the ideal conditions for deliberative democracy. Participants know that their interactions will be repeated, that their reputations in those interactions will matter, that they may not be in the same power relationship next time as today. When I worked in the Senate, I saw plenty of partisanship, but an intense, constant effort to put together the bipartisan coalitions that would be able to get something done. Sitting behind the dais of the Senate Finance Committee, one saw a group of Senators across both sides of the center part of the horseshoe-shaped table who respected one another, had learned to like each other, and were accustomed to working together to get something accomplished. One of the best examples, though it was unsuccessful, was the "centrists group" that formed after the failure of the Clinton health plan, around Senator John Chafee in particular, which met constantly over a period of weeks in 1994 in an effort to salvage something that could pass.

So what has gone wrong with the Senate: First, party affiliation is no longer on a different axis than ideology. The Republican Party is now the right-wing party, the Democrats the liberal party, with only a few outliers. That was not something that could be said in the Reagan era, when Phil Gramm was still a Democrat, or even ten years ago, when Richard Shelby of Alabama was a Democrat. The only such "Dixiecrat" today is the retiring Zell Miller of Georgia, a very strange case because he did not come from the same tradition, and his estrangement from the Democrats seems best explained as a matter of psychology or allergic reaction to Washington, as Ed Kilgore of the Democratic Leadership Council has argued. And this means that the Majority Leader can usually command the votes of a majority without reaching out at all.

And some of the other conditions, such as the fact that every Senator can find a way to exercise some power, are no longer true either. That's because the majority of the important business of the Senate is now conducted through the process known as Reconciliation. Reconciliation is a provision of the budget rules under which Congress sets a budget, and then can put through a sweeping piece of legislation intended to bring spending programs in line with budget goals, that is, to "reconcile" the programs with the budget. Reconciliation gives Congress a way to force itself to make decisions about entitlement programs, where spending is determined not by how much Congress appropriates, but by the rules of the program, such as the age requirements of Social Security and Medicare, or the eligibility requirements and bank subsidy of the Guaranteed Student Loan program, as well as taxes and tax breaks. Reconciliation bills are governed by special rules that strictly limit the time for debate and prohibit almost all amendments.

Reconciliations used to be infrequent; the process was not used at all for several years after it was created in 1974, and there was one every two or three years between 1979 and 2001. Usually they were the results of long, tortured "budget summits," such as the one at Andrews Air Force Base in the first Bush administration or the balanced budget agreement reached in 1997, and thus leave everyone a little dissatisfied but knowing they did what had to be done. But when one party controls both Houses of Congress and the White House, the process can be used as an exercise in unilateral power, if the party can hold together. Clinton could barely hold his party together in 1993, but did manage to get through Congress, using the reconciliation process, the sweeping budget bill of 1993. This bill not only raised taxes and cut spending; it also reduced taxes for the working poor and created various new programs, such as Empowerment Zones to encourage jobs in poor urban and rural areas, and the Direct Student Loan program, which also saved money. Because no Republicans would support the bill, they were completely cut out of the process, and as a result, much of what was in the bill did not get much public scrutiny, and in the end, the decisions were being made by must a half-dozen or so Senate and House chairmen. But at least that reconciliation lived up to the basic purpose for which the process was created -- improving fiscal discipline.

Bush/DeLay have taken full advantage of the power of reconciliation and pushed through both their giant tax cuts under this process, along with much else. That means that much of the Senate, most Republicans as well as all Democrats are essentially passive bystanders to a process that reverses the normal rules of the Senate. And then, on bills that are not pushed through the reconciliation process, a different tactic is used: the Republicans push through the Senate a bill that they have no intention of fighting for in conference, and then they force the votes on the conference report. So, for example, the Republicans had the Senate pass an energy bill last year that was the same bill that had been passed by the Democrats when they controlled the body. Democrats had voted for it before, so they felt they had to again; Republicans voted for it on the explicit assurance that it would come back from conference in different form. Which it did, of course, the lobbyists and conferees having quietly written the "compromise" as they wished. A conference report can be filibustered but it cannot be amended, and with just a day to go before the end of the congressional session, a filibuster was equivalent to a "no" vote. So the Senate never got an opportunity to deal with anything on the energy bill other than to vote yes or no on a bill they had seen only hours earlier.

When most of the Senate's business is done under these conditions, the problem is that Senators get no opportunity to be Senators. They never learn to form bipartisan coalitions. They never learn to compromise. They don't get to figure out creative ways to at least get a vote on their pet idea. The majority of them are pawns, in the same way that the majority of House members of both parties are pawns, biding their time. The only mystery is why Senators put up with this.

And with so much of the Senate's business closed off to normal debate, there is increasingly just one area where Senators get to exercise some of their rights: nominations. But with all the focus of the Senate on nominations, matters only get worse, because nominations are, always, an ugly scene. You can block them, you can research the hell out of them, you can harass them in committees, you can create a media firestorm, but that's all. You can't amend a nomination or find a compromise or offer an alternative. If the president does not seek the "advice and consent" of minority-party Senators, and makes hugely controversial nominations, then the ugly dimension of the Senate gets far worse, and that's what we're seeing today.

The good news is that the Senate is an adaptable institution, and the current climate was created by deliberate choices by Senator Frist, who, like the president, seems to think he's some kind of CEO. Those choices can be undone, and probably will be.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 20, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Is the White South About to Overplay its Hand?

I haven't had much to say on the ongoing debate about whether the Democrats can or should write off the South, other than Florida, for purposes of the presidential election this year.

If the question is framed as, "Should the Democrats write off the South?," my reaction is, No, of course not.

First -- and this is not an original thought -- there is not a bright line between the South and the North, and South-like areas such as Southern Ohio (aka Kentucky), central Pennsylvania, and much of Missouri will be as central to Democratic aims of winning those states as the industrial cities with which they are identified.

Second, there will always be surprises, and in a close race, there is sure to be at least one non-Southern state that looks promising and turns out not to be, and possibly a Southern state, such as Louisiana, that suddenly turns out to be the Democrats' to win. A totally non-Southern strategy doesn't leave much room for error or opportunity.

Third, Democrats must win at least two of the Senate races in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, and an active presidential campaign in those states will help.

Fourth, and most important though least cynical, the South is the locus of the greatest suffering in this country, the worst education and health care, the dirtiest water, the lowest-paying jobs and anti-union policies, the sharpest racial and economic inequalities. For the Democratic Party to give up its claim to represent and improve the lives of the people of this region would be to give up its soul.

Mathematically, though, the fact that that no Democrat has won the White House without winning at least five Southern states may belong to the realm of history more than prediction. Formerly competitive states such as California and Illinois have become more comfortably Democratic, and once Republican strongholds such as Arizona and New Hampshire are moving into the swing state category, making it possible to imagine that in the last two weeks of October, when finite resources such as the candidates' time and the last few million dollars are being allocated, it may make perfect sense to assemble an electoral majority without the South and border states, again excepting Florida. Without explicitly writing off the South, there is still a plausible scenario in which Kerry wins without any of its electoral votes.

But the very fact that there is such a possibility raises a far more interesting question: What does it mean to the South that a Democrat can win without it? Has the White South overplayed its hand? Is it in danger of losing its grip on American politics? And what would follow from that, not necessarily in 2004, but in the near future??

WARNING: Hugely oversimplified history and wild speculation ahead:

For the purposes of this question, I'm not talking about The South as a whole, but a separate category, which I'll call the White South. By this I mean the reactionary, economically powerful, white and now almost entirely Republican forces that have governed the region for decades. I obviously don't mean the African-American voters or leaders in the South, and I also don't mean those elected officials or other leaders identified with the "New South," such as Terry Sanford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Mary Landrieu, etc. Among current elected officials, I mean most of the Southern Republicans, plus Senator Zell Miller and perhaps a few House Democrats who haven't switched yet. Elected officials of the White South are those who can or do win office without much of the African-American vote.

Since the end of Reconstruction in 1876, the White South has held the balance of power in American politics pretty reliably, with few interruptions. (The interruptions, such as LBJ's maneuver from the inside to break the obstacle to voting rights and civil rights laws, are major events.) The White South is very much a minority, but the most privileged minority in our history. And how did it achieve that status? By manipulating its electoral and congressional power so as to be always in a position of control. For example, for most of the 40s,-early 70s, political scientists agree, Congress was dominated by a "conservative coalition" made up of Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans. If you look at an old version of the yearly Congressional Quarterly Almanac, you'll see the votes broken down not just by party, but by "Conservative Coalition" vs. those outside of the coalition, because that was seen as a more accurate way to understand ideological breakdowns than party label.

After LBJ essentially broke the Conservative Coalition, the White South began the maneuver by which it maintained significant power for another 30 years -- the slow move toward the Republican party. Beginning with Strom Thurmond's switch in 1964, the White South ramped up its influence within the Republican party while still keeping a heavy thumb on the scales of the Democratic Party, so that it could not form majorities without their consent. As liberalism took hold of the Northeast and Midwest, Nixon's "Southern Strategy" meant as much to the White South as it did to Nixon: It gave the White South power within the Republican coalition. Now its power was not just congressional, but incorporated the White House as well, on both sides. Republicans Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush won the South, and the only Democratic presidents since Thurmond's switch were Southerners, albeit "New South" liberals.

In the Reagan years, the Conservative Coalition became something like a Sunbelt Coalition, with Southern "Boll Weevil" Democrats, such as Phil Gramm, joining California and Mountain State conservatives, as well as Northern Republicans, to push through the 1981 tax cuts. And even into the Clinton years, despite having a majority in both Houses of Congress, Clinton's ability to achieve anything depended on placating nominal Democrats such as Richard Shelby of Alabama.

(Liberal Democrats who complain about Zell Miller often seem to me to have little sense of historical perspective. It is not so long ago that Gramm, Trent Lott, Shelby and others were Democrats, and when they switched, they did not go from the right side of the Democratic Party to the left side of the Republican Party, as might be expected with ideologically aligned parties, but invariably shot straight to the farthest right corner of their new party. That would not happen today: With the exception of Miller, if the most conservative Democrat, probably John Breaux of Louisiana, were to switch (which he wouldn't) he would certainly take up with the moderate Republicans such as Senators Voinovich and Snowe with whom he has been most comfortable collaborating.)

On to 1994. At this point, the White South took its stand principally within the Republican Party, elevating Gingrich, Armey, DeLay and soon Trent Lott into positions of power. But still, it was a coalition: Southern Republicans like Gingrich depended on support among Northern moderates like Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, who were mostly just tired of being kicked around by Democrats. And at that point, almost the last few Democrats like Shelby and Billy Tauzin joined the Republicans, all but completing an alignment of party and ideology that makes such artificial constructs as the "Conservative Coalition" no longer needed to understand Congress. Of course, it was also a disaster. The "Contract with America" triumphalism, which led to the shutdown of government, and later the impeachment, strengthened Clinton at Gingrich's expense, and in the 1998 mid-terms, the African-American vote in the South was substantially higher than in previous years and helped elect John Edwards and three Democratic governors in the Deep South.

With the election of Bush, whose aggressive rejection of his father's Northeastern and Ivy League conservatism makes him the first president to come out of the tradition of the White South since Woodrow Wilson, the White South finally found its dream: it dominates national politics unchecked. It no longer holds the balance of power: Bush, Rove, DeLay, Lott and then Frist hold power, period. And the agenda of military spending, tax cuts, corporate subsidies, minimal social provision, and hate cloaked in religious/moral language, occasionally colored with populist rhetoric unrelated to the policies, which sometimes seems so strange to students of true conservatism, is not unfamiliar to the South. It is the same gruel that conservative Southern governors have been dishing out for dozens of years. The idea that government is an alien and oppressive force, while remaining dependent on military spending, development spending such as TVA, and subsidized industries such as oil and sugar, is a product of Southern, and to some extent Western politics.

While the Republican majority still depends somewhat on the consent of Northern Republicans, it no longer governs by any coalition or compromise, and hence we see the politics of the White South distilled to their essence. When the House Republicans push through legislation by just a few votes, as with the Medicare bill, they are essentially daring the Northern Republicans -- both moderates and "true" conservatives -- to break with them, they are not incorporating their views in a coalition. (Interestingly, of the 25 House Republicans who opposed the Medicare bill last year, 14 were from the Midwest or West.) And as Michelle Goldberg and Paul Caffera reported in Salon this week, a rebellion may be brewing among Republican moderates, as well as among conservatives associated with Senators McCain and Hagel.

Now, all this could amount to nothing. Bush could win handily, all the Southern Senate seats in play could go to conservative Republicans, the moderates could shrink away to voice their objections meekly in caucus as usual, and the unilateral rule of the White South would continue, at least for a few more years, when its inevitable contradictions catch up to it.

But what if it doesn't? What if Bush loses, Kerry is elected without a Southern state, Louisiana and both Carolinas send a Democrat to the Senate on huge black turnout, Tom DeLay goes to trial for political corruption, and the moderates do rebel and decide that it is more important to govern the country than to block everything a Democratic president tries to do?

At that point, the White South will be essentially out of the game, for the first time since Reconstruction. They will have no power over the presidency, far less power in Congress. And they will have only themselves to blame. It is always wiser to try to hold the balance of power than to try to claim power and exercise it unilaterally, and its just possible that the White South has overplayed a very good hand. If so, the next Democratic president may have more freedom of maneuver than Clinton ever had, and a new political era will have begun.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 31, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (40) | TrackBack

What if Bush is a Nixonian Liberal?

For a long time, I've argued that there wasn't much profit to talking about Bush as a conservative, right-wing, or extremist President. Sure, he betrayed his promise to "change the tone" in Washington. But conservative isn't a word loaded with bad connotations, unlike "liberal," and more importantly, it concedes too much: Bush is not conservative in the least, certainly not in the Burkean sense in which conservative means respecting a pre-existing order and our duty to future generations, or even in the vulgar sense of merely favoring a smaller government.

Chris Caldwell of the Weekly Standard, who's probably the smartest conservative writer around, and certainly the one with the broadest cultural range, makes a similar point in the Financial Times (requires regi$tration, so I'll quote at length)

Caldwell quotes Howard Dean calling Bush "the most radical president we've ever had," and CNN analyst William Schneider calling him, "the most right-wing president ever." Caldwell comments, "Crowd-pleaser though it may be, there is no credible basis for this charge. Correct or not, one can assemble a logical argument that Bush is a bad president. Or that he is slow-witted or uninspiring or smug. But not that he is radical. It is a dubious proposition, in fact, that he is governing from 'the right' at all."

Before going on, let's point out that there's a difference between conservative/right-wing and radical. The term radical was never even associated with conservatism until the late '60s, and referred to groups like the John Birch Society, which were as dedicated to the destruction of the existing order as the radical left-wing groups of the time like the Weather Underground. But in the sense that "radical" means a change down to the very roots of society, it may be more suited to Bush than conservative. It is exactly right to call the underlying vision of his tax policy, which is a system that taxes exclusively income from labor, and exempts income from investment, "the most radical idea since socialism," to quote John Edwards.

But in most other cases, and particularly when it comes to government spending, the administration and Congress are not operating from any deep principles of government, just seeing what they can get away with to benefit their friends and contributors, and figuring out how to win an election so they can keep doing it. On social issues such as gay marriage, abortion-related questions, and affirmative action, the noisy grinding of the gears as they calculate just how to hit the spot where they won't alienate either their base or swing voters makes it obvious that the question of what the President actually believes is a story to be crafted later, by speechwriters.

Caldwell also argues that the administration is neither conservative nor consistently hardline on foreign policy, but that's a tough question and I don't want to take it on right now. I suspect historians will struggle for years over the meaning of the "Bush Doctrine," and even whether it is a doctrine at all or just an occasional pose.

Caldwell argues that to compare Bush either to his father or to Ronald Reagan

"is to seek the wrong model for Mr. Bush's modus operandi. The current president of the U.S. follows Richard Nixon ... in his embrace of path-of-least-resistance politics. It is to Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's political plenipotentiary, who entered Republican politics in the late 1960s, that we owe the recrudescence of the Nixon style: throwing opponents off-balance by allying with liberal constituencies, passing reasonable facsimiles of socialist legislation and avoiding all actions that fit into Democratic speechwriters' stereotypes -- a tactic that makes opponents look like woolgathering fabricators at campaign time."

Now, I hate to hear the word "socialist" used to refer to any aspect of the social safety net almost as much as I hate words like "fascist" used to describe conservatives, so I'll just ignore that bit of innuendo. Otherwise, Caldwell has a reasonable description of the Bush strategy: Just as Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and oversaw the quiet expansion of Social Security by cost-indexing of benefits and the creation of Supplemental Security Income for the disabled, among other things, Bush expanded Washington's control power in education through No Child Left Behind and, in the Medicare bill, created the biggest new entitlement since Medicare itself.

If this is correct, it adds an important dimension to the debate over "Bush-hating." It's now beyond dispute that Nixon's presidency was close to the high-water mark for American liberalism in domestic policy, and very much an extension of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations that preceded it. It was only in the Nixon administration, after all, that the U.S. came within a hair's breadth of an actual welfare state, in the form of a guaranteed income crafted largely by Daniel Patrick Moynihan But, as David Greenberg shows in his fine recent book, Nixon's Shadow, it took the hindsight and discipline of historians to recognize this. Most liberals let their well-founded Nixon-hatred blind them to the complexity of his agenda. Greenberg has a great quote from a young Bob Kuttner, later editor of The American Prospect, writing in the Village Voice in 1973,"My God, he's dismembering the Great Society before the Texan's boots are cold." Had liberals understood just how Nixon's initiatives would compare to everything that would follow in the next thirty years, they might have thought about him a little differently, although his ethics and his expansion of the Vietnam War are not small matters.

But there are significant differences between Nixon's liberalism and Bush's domestic initiatives. For one thing, the Nixon-era initiatives were pretty sound and responsible, with the exception of wage and price controls. No one doubts the efficacy of the EPA or the idea that disabled people should be protected from becoming destitute. In many ways, they were sounder than the cutting edge of the Great Society, particularly the Office of Economic Opportunity, whose doctrine of "Maximum Feasible Participation" by poor people in designing local social programs was an invitation to political problems, especially because the local groups that could organize that participation were not yet established. (An amusing footnote to this is that the man Nixon brought in to gut the OEO was a young Illinois congressman, Donald Rumsfeld, who in turn hired a recent PhD on an American Political Science Association fellowship named Dick Cheney. And their receptionist was a well-bred, well-connected recent graduate from New Jersey named Christie Todd.)

Bush's domestic initiatives, on the other hand, are as disgraceful to liberals as to conservatives. The Medicare bill may be the biggest new entitlement in generations, but it is more of an entitlement to insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and employers than to the beneficiaries. As Caldwell puts it, "even the basic plan is indecipherable...The president is right to call this a new kind of entitlement: It is the first entitlement that you have to hire an accountant to take advantage of." It is impossible to see how this scam will form the basis for a better-structured entitlement in the future. The same is true of No Child Left Behind.

Caldwell argues that "Mr. Bush has built his re-election around policies that will help him personally in the next election but harm his party thereafter. Republicans will not long wish to defend the education bill. Nor will they be able to fund the Medicare benefit fully, as voters will surely demand. The political risk is that the drug benefit will allow Mr. Dean, should he become the Democratic nominee, to re-establish himself as a centrist."

I wish that were true. I do think that the backlash against the Medicare bill is not long in coming, and No Child Left Behind is already one of the most locally unpopular federal initiatives in a long time. But as I've written before, it's not easy for Democrats to find centrist language that shows how they would do things differently, that goes beyond the liberalism of "more." As it is, I suspect the backlash against this crappy, lazy, irresponsible legislation will not be a call to improve it, but simply another backlash against government. "Look at this Medicare mess," seniors will say: "government can't do anything right!" And when Americans are pissed off at government, who do they call? Republicans.

It will take a very subtle politician to change this dynamic, in which Bush gets credit in the short-term for expanding social spending, and the Republicans retain the advantage in the long term because of the hostility to government its will create. (I'll take up the question of whether this is deliberate in another post.) Until they craft an alternative vision, Democrats are much better off establishing the "logical argument that Bush is a bad president" than granting him the totally undeserved credit for being a conservative one.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 22, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Dean's Penguin, or Technology and the Nature of Political Interaction

(note: This is a long post, and somewhat heavy. But it does contain the nicest things I've ever said about Howard Dean.)

A lot of good comments have been provoked by Everett Ehrlich's remarkable Washington Post Outlook article on the transformation of politics by technology. My reaction was that the essay is brilliant, and helped clarify my own thinking about the question (you can be the judge of that below), but that like other attempts to understand the Dean campaign and technology, it both overstates and understates the magnitude of the transformation.

The overstatement is in the usual fetishizing of technology itself: it's not blogs and meet-ups that made Dean's success so far; it's that it's a campaign for which those are appropriate technologies and the campaign was unafraid to use them, and even embrace the loss of centralized control they imply. All of the Democratic campaigns think they're using technology, and they all have blogs and they all do online fundraising. To some degree, it's like the illusion that cost people so much money in the aftermath of the dot-com boom: just because some enterprise uses the internet doesn't make it a technology company or mean that it's transforming the way business is done. (e.g., was still a low-margin retailer selling 25-pound bags of animal feed.)

But the sense in which Ehrlich doesn't quite go far enough is that he puts the new politics into traditional categories: Dean, he asserts, is really a third-party candidate looking to capture "the Democratic brand name and legacy, the party's last remaining assets of value." In the near-future, he argues, third parties, or "virtual parties," will be easier and cheaper to create on the fly, leading to an eventual third-party president.

For this, Ehrlich reaches back to the economist Ronald Coase, whose 1937 essay, The Nature of the Firm, showed how transaction costs shape the size and character of business firms. Firms take the place of one-to-one economic transactions, Coase found, when the transaction costs of doing business one-to-one in an open marketplace, especially finding the right price signals, is too high and the command structure of a firm can better organize people and resources. (I am by no means well-versed in Coase's ideas or the institutional branch of microeconomics he pioneered, so this is oversimplified at best.) The new technologies used by the Dean campaign, Ehrlich argues, represent the reduction of political transaction costs to almost zero, and thus the possibility of a firm/campaign that is small, nimble, and has no need for the organizational structure, finances, or media operations of the Democratic Party.

Ehrlich's invocation of Coase reminded me of an incredibly interesting (and, I believe, influential) article I read earlier in the year: Yale Law professor Yochai Benkler's “Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm.” (The penguin, of course, being the symbol of Linux.)

Here's two paragraphs from Benkler's abstract, with some key points highlighted:

For decades our understanding of economic production has been that individuals order their productive activities in one of two ways: either as employees in firms, following the directions of managers, or as individuals in markets, following price signals. This dichotomy was first identified in the early work of Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, and was developed most explicitly in the work of neo-institutional economist Oliver Williamson. In the past three or four years, public attention has focused on a fifteen-year-old social-economic phenomenon in the software development world. This phenomenon, called free software or open source software, involves thousands or even tens of thousands of programmers contributing to large and small scale projects, where the central organizing principle is that the software remains free of most constraints on copying and use common to proprietary materials. No one "owns" the software in the traditional sense of being able to command how it is used or developed, or to control its disposition. The result is the emergence of a vibrant, innovative and productive collaboration, whose participants are not organized in firms and do not choose their projects in response to price signals.

In this paper I explain that while free software is highly visible, it is in fact only one example of a much broader social-economic phenomenon. I suggest that we are seeing the broad and deep emergence of a new, third mode of production in the digitally networked environment. I call this mode "commons-based peer-production," to distinguish it from the property- and contract-based models of firms and markets. Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals, rather than either market prices or managerial commands.

and one more paragraph from the body of the article:

Commons-based peer production, the emerging third model of production I describe here, relies on decentralized information gathering and exchange to reduce the uncertainty of participants, and has particular advantages as an information process for identifying human creativity available to work on information and cultural resources in the pursuit of projects, and as an allocation process for allocating that creative effort. It depends on very large aggregations of individuals independently scouring their information environment in search of opportunities to be creative in small or large increments. These individuals then self-identify for tasks and perform them for complex motivational reasons that I discuss at some length.

The language is dense, but “commons-based peer production,” "a group of individuals successfully collaborating on a large-scale project following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals," and people "scouring their information environment in search of opportunities to be creative in small or large increments" seems at least as good a description of "people-powered Howard" as it is of the open-source software projects and collaborative networks such as slashdot that Benkler describes. And it is also better describes the Dean campaign than Ehrlich's analogy of a third party. Benkler doesn't see lower transaction costs as merely enabling smaller, nimbler firms, but as "a third mode of production." The difference between Benkler's interpretation of Coase, and Ehrlich's, seems to be that Ehrlich draws from Coase the insight that the size of a firm is determined by transaction costs, whereas Benkler explores the idea that the very existence of companies as we know them is based on a particular set of circumstances and costs, and that as those change, a very different way of structuring production could emerge.

I think Benkler's analysis, although it does not make the leap from the economic to the political explicitly, is closer to what's happening than Ehrlich's. In other words, I don't think that either the Dean campaign or the right-wing evangelicals are going to become third parties, in anything like the sense we currently understand political parties. Nor does it help to call them "virtual parties." Rather, I think they are more transient, focused efforts that will either (1) entirely change the ways in which individuals interact with the political system or (2) react to a change that has already occurred, before the most recent technology, that resulted in the near-disappearance of political parties and other membership-based vehicles as organizations of mass engagement.

Another example that has helped me think about this change:

A few months ago, I witnessed a discussion – actually a bitter argument – between a person in his 30s who runs an Internet-based political project best characterized as a, and someone older who throughout the 1970s had run and vastly expanded one of the great mass-membership issue advocacy organizations that once made up the liberal infrastructure. The MoveOn-wannabe reeled off some six-digit number of people who had used their system to sign petitions or organize protests, and called these people “members” of the organization. To which the older advocacy group-leader demanded to know what those people had done besides click a petition. How much money had they given? Had they formally "joined" the group as members? Were they asked to take any other action that involved sacrifice of time or money? When the answer to each question was no, he pointed out that it was offensive to people who had over time and with great effort built real organizations around loyal memberships to characterize mouse clicks (that is, low-cost transactions) as members. (This was a private discussion, so I feel obligated to keep the participants' identities' veiled.)

At the time, and even now, I was most sympathetic to the point of view of the older organization. First, the was kind of a punk, spinning lots of cyber-baloney and overstating his case. And second, I have enormous respect for the achievement of the older organization and the effort of building a mass movement around loyalty to an idea. But then it struck me that it's an achievement that hasn't been replicated in decades. I can't think of a new mass-membership organization that has emerged since Handgun Control, Inc. in the 1980s (now known as The Brady Campaign. Common Cause, the Sierra Club, NARAL, the ACLU, Public Citizen, not to mention Moral Majority, are all products of the 1970s or earlier. In the case of every liberal group at least, the membership is astonishingly old, often averaging well over 65. It is unrealistic to ask or expect a newer organization to achieve the kind of membership and loyalty that no group has achieved in years.

In other words, it's not that technology has changed things, but the very nature of membership, loyalty and participation has already changed, and perhaps technology provides a way to catch up with the more detached, transactional forms of engagement that are all we have left. Along with political parties and mass-membership organizations, labor unions face the same challenge: on one level, the labor movement is more vital than ever before, and there have been some organizing breakthroughs, but membership remains stagnant at about nine percent of the private-sector workforce. That's the problem that Joel Rogers and Richard Freeman set out to solve in their proposal for Open-Source Unionism , under which membership would take a variety of looser forms short of full majority-vote certification in a workplace.

I see the "commons-based peer production" model of politics really as a solution to this set of preexisting problems, the decay of long-term, membership-based institutions, whether political parties, mass interest groups, or labor unions. It isn't a perfect solution, though. I see three significant drawbacks to moving toward the new model:

First, low barriers to entry mean low barriers to exit. Neither the Dean campaign nor sign people up in any lasting way, as a political party does, which is why I'm so certain that they will not become parties. As easily as people sign on, they drift away. Keeping the structure going requires constant care and feeding, and an always fresh flow of issues, activities, and challenges. As every blogger knows, drop it for a minute, or make a false move into a topic that doesn't interest people, and it all slips away. There are notable exceptions and surprises, such as, which has built itself up through a long string of successful issue engagements, starting with the Clinton impeachment and really taking off with the Iraq war. But this is transactional politics: enough succesful transactions eventually lead up to trust and loyalty (I now know people who will take any action that recommends to them) but it doesn't start with loyalty.

Second, and related to the first, it's hard to imagine developing the long-term deep vision or framework, comparable to New Deal liberalism, under a system of such transactional politics. Dean is a good example here as well. Dean's not attracting people to a comprehensive worldview, or a distinct outlook, such as Lieberman or Gephardt offer. Nor is he, as he is often characterized, just an anti-war candidate who will be weakened if the war is less controversial. Rather, he is a transactional candidate, much like Opposition to the war is his point of engagement with his supporters today, tomorrow it could be something else entirely. That's a strength, not a weakness, for Dean, but I think it's a long-term weakness for liberalism, which needs a clearer vision of core principles.

Third -- and this applies to Ehrlich's analysis as well as mine -- American politics is winner-take-all. In the economy, "commons-based peer production" can find a niche that is sustainable if not immediately profitable. I use the open-source Mozilla web browser, and thanks to its incredibly dedicated community, it is considered a success. But Mozilla has probably less than 5% of the browser market, compared to Microsoft, the George W. Bush of software. In politics, an intense, dedicated following that gets you 20% of the country would be huge. But it would also be a landslide defeat. There is a risk that the enthusiasm of a minority creates the illusion of success, while in American politics only real majorities claim any power at all. (This is a general statement, not a claim about Dean's electability specifically.)

Finally, one of the most interesting comment on the Ehrlich article is from Simon Rosenberg of the New Democratic Network, on the NDN's new blog. NDN occupies a surprising position: they are originally an offshoot of the Democratic Leadership Council, and not naturally inclined to the Dean wing of the party. But unlike the DLC, they thoroughly appreciate the capacity of Dean's methods to re-engage people, and put a high priority on that. Rosenberg sees in the new politics a challenge to "classic FDR liberalism." He doesn't say enough about it in this post, but maybe he will in the future. Is he suggesting that the new forms of engagement not only change party politics, but change the purpose and structure of government itself? What would that look like? I suspect that's the next step in the transformation of American politics, and I'll admit, it makes the mere possibility of a Dean administration quite intriguing.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 16, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The Grand Bargain

A week or two ago, I mentioned that one of the unresolved issues in the Medicare legislation was how to prevent companies that are paying for prescription drug coverage for their retirees from withdrawing that coverage and moving them into the federal system, dramatically increasing the costs of the new program. Fortunately, our president is not one to shrink from tough problems, and he took a stand and got it solved: :: President Bush Optimistic on Modernizing Medicare with Prescription Drug Coverage

a corporate executive who is from Caterpillar ... assures me that corporations have no intention of -- if there's a Medicare reform bill signed by me, corporations have no intention to what they call dump retirees into a system they don't want to be dumped into. And I appreciate that commitment by Rich Lavin.

Rich Lavin, you da man! Perhaps one day seniors will have pictures of you in their living rooms, replacing FDR.

Seriously, are our leaders incredibly gullible or do they just think we are? Mr. Lavin is a human resources guy at Caterpillar, with no more power to make a long-term "commitment" for his own company than for all of American business. Of course corporations will shift retirees into a federal system if they can. They would probably be irresponsible not to, at least according to the viewpoint that the management's sole responsibility is to maximize returns to shareholders, a view which management still seems to hold except when it comes to their own pay packages.

The twelve conferees actually working on this legislation have a tough choice to make. If they add some provision to penalize companies that "dump" retirees, they will face a tough fight with guys they don't usually say no to, big-company lobbyists. On the other hand, if they do nothing, they risk producing a bill that the Congressional Budget Office will have no choice but to score as costing far more than they have room in the budget for, because they will have to assume that many of these retirees will flow into the Medicare system.

It's a fair bet that in the end they will find some "incentive" for companies that keep taking care of their retirees -- in other words, throw money at the companies as a reward for doing exactly what they're doing now. Or, as the Times reported just as I was writing this, they will structure some sort of cap on total Medicare spending, which means that as costs go up because companies dump their commitments to retirees, Congress will be forced to cut other aspects of Medicare. Either way, we'll pay!

There's an opportunity here for liberals to do more than just yell about the outrage (although we should also yell) or acquiesce in a bad bill because we can't be against prescription drug coverage. The key is to stop trying to fight the trend. Big business is going to try to get out of it's obligations to retirees, as well as to current employees, and there's no point either trying to block the door or bribing corporations to stay in the room. "Make the trend your friend," as they say on Wall Street.

We should begin thinking about the outlines of a Grand Bargain between business and government, one that could take our economy and our society to a new level of both economic dynamism and security for all.

The fact is that companies like Caterpillar and the auto companies really are saddled with very costly burdens, dating back to a long-ago era when strong unions negotiated their members' way into the middle class, by demanding that in exchange for a lifetime of hard and dangerous work, the companies provide economic security for the last years of that lifetime. That was a wonderful era, part of what made this country great in the '50s, '60s, and even the '70s. But it's also long gone. Today new companies emerge without any of those burdens from the past and without any intention to take them on in the future, and international competitors also don't carry health and pension burdens from past decades. That's the biggest challenge facing several of the industries that are responsible for most of the job losses in the swing states of the next election.

Ultimately, many of these costs are going to be "socialized." That is, the companies are going to push them onto the public through bankruptcy or other means, forcing the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to absorb their pensions and federal programs such as the expanded Medicare benefit to pick up some of their health benefits for retirees. And for current employees, they will continue to pull back health benefits or ask workers to pay more.

Since this is going to happen anyway, let's offer business a deal: the government will absorb these responsibilities, in exchange for a significant increases in taxes on corporations themselves and on those whose income comes from corporate profits, and also for an increased minimum wage to allow workers to bear some of these costs themselves. The net result would be an advantage for American business. Higher taxes would be more than offset by reduced health and pension costs, and older companies would be able to compete more effectively against newer companies without the burden, and foreign companies. The cost of taking on a new employee would be lower, even though the minimum wage was higher and the employee would still have pension and health benefits.

It would also provide the spur for a complete revamping of the American social contract and tax structure, which, it seems to me, is the only way out of the mess that has been made by the current administration.

This is really just the roughest sketch of a pretty big idea, but the Medicare paradox got me thinking about it and I wanted to get the outlines of a thought written down. So thanks, Rich Lavin! I'll try to expand on this and add some numbers over the next few weeks.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 4, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

No Child Left Behind

Just when I thought that The Note had degenerated into nothing but insight-free chatter, they actually produce an important insight (although not without the obligatory sophomoric references to colleagues):

You don't have to be Laura Blumenfeld (but it helps … ) to understand that a big part of Dean's success is that he connects with his listeners.

But he doesn't connect because he is some sort of spell-binding speaker.

And he doesn't just connect because of his opposition to the war in Iraq.

Dean actually has an integrated, coherent critique of why (to steal, yet again, from Bill Clinton) America should fire the guy in the job now and hire him on to take over.

One not-small example:

Well over a year ago, before the New York Times had given Dean stories Ornstein Banishment treatment (and then given up and allowed them again); before magazine covers became run-of-the-mill; before even Howard Fineman saw what was coming — before all that, Howard Dean was criticizing his party for signing on to No Child Left Behind.

Dean would tell any reporter or voter who would listen exactly what was going to happen with the law and why it wouldn't work and why Democrats in Washington had made both a substantive and political mistake by helping the president pass it.

Dean "knew" NCLB behind was not going to work out exactly as planned because he was a governor; because he didn't vote for it; because he knows how education works in the states; because he was confident that the Bush economic plan would keep full funding from being available; and because he had a good enough political ear to hear how well received his attacks on it by Democratic (and other) audiences from sea to shining sea.

This is a superb explanation of one of Dean's strengths. (And I'm not a Dean supporter, as the four regular readers of The Decembrist know.) It is the ability to see around corners, to see where things are going, not just where they are. But I think there's more to it than a better understanding of the fraud that was No Child Left Behind, it's also that Dean wasn't forced into a position where he had to decide whether to vote for it or not. The Republicans have been superb at forcing Democrats into situations where they had to either vote for something that they knew would be a disaster, or vote against it and have to explain, at some length and in a difficult environment, why they opposed something they said they were for (better schools with accountability, Medicare prescription drug coverage, ridding Iraq of bad weapons).

This is not just the trap that comes with being in Congress; it's the trap that comes with being the minority in Congress, especially when the majority knows it has the power to create these situations. It also requires a majority that doesn't much care whether the result of creating such traps is programs that no one likes, of which this is one and Medicare prescription drugs, if they ever pass something, will be another. After all, it all just shows that government sucks, right?

On the specific issue of No Child Left Behind, look at a Google News search on the topic. I doubt people in the Beltway quite realize this yet, although they will, but hundreds of small and medium-sized newspapers around the country have been running stories about the failures of NCLB. They range from the tragedy of declaring schools that are dramatically improving to be failing, to the fraud that is NCLB's promise to allow inter-district transfers. This is probably the most consistent and damaging attack on a Bush administration program that is actually being heard at the local level. You couldn't buy this kind of local coverage. And the anger is coming from school superintendents, principals, teachers -- all respected members of any community -- and parents of young kids, also known as swing voters.

This could be a huge vulnerability for Bush, if the Democrats can figure out how to deal with it, or have a nominee who doesn't have to explain why he voted for it. (The only Democratic Senators who didn't were Leahy and Jeffords (from Dean's state), Hollings, Dayton, Feingold, and Wellstone. Good for them.)

By the way, here's a superb short account of the Politics of No Child Left Behind.

I think I'll have a little more on this in the next week or two and some provocative thoughts on vouchers.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 14, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saviors and Counters

One of my recent insights about politics is that most politicians are either Saviors or Counters. (Apologies for the lame, "there are two kinds of people" framework to this theory. It's still a good theory.)

Saviors are those who want to appeal to everyone. They see themselves as having a message or a mission that, ultimately, most voters can appreciate. They say things like, "I believe my message is right for the challenges we face as a nation..." Or they talk about "new politics," "changing the dynamic," or about how their campaign isn't about them but is driven by "the people." They believe they can change the mundane rules of politics.

Counters are more workmanlike. They start with a small energized base, and then calculate how to add just enough to the base to get to 50.1%, or less if they need only a plurality, as Bill Clinton did in both 1992 and 1996. They say things like, "protect Medicare," "hold HMOs accountable," and "don't turn back the clock..." They see politics as a game with a set of rules that they either learn, or lose.

Bill Clinton was a brilliant Counter. Hilary Clinton did a textbook job of counting when she took a state in which 45-47% of people didn't want to vote for her under any circumstance, and figured out how to produce exactly the 52% she needed. In the 2004 field, Dick Gephardt is certainly the best Counter: he starts with a base in labor and then calculates how he can add to that base a narrow victory in Iowa, a third-place finish in New Hampshire, a victory in Missouri, etc., etc. until he can go into the convention with just enough delegates to prevail in a multi-candidate race. On George Bush's behalf, Karl Rove is certainly a Counter.

Often Democratic primary races come down to a Counter versus an outsider candidate who is a Savior. Bill Bradley was a Savior. His campaign saw no reason that anyone wouldn't vote for him, even if he had opposed their interests in the Senate. Gary Hart was a Savior, Walter Mondale a Counter. In 1992, Tsongas was a Savior. This year, I'm not sure whether Kerry is a Counter or a Savior, which is typical of his campaign -- it's not one thing or another.

Having worked for a Savior (Bradley), it's my belief that Counters usually, but not always, beat Saviors. The problem with Saviors is that their constituency is everyone, which means that, when the going gets tough, it can suddenly be no one. A good motto of politics is this: If you can't figure out why someone wouldn't vote for you, it's hard to figure out how to persuade them to vote for you.

On the other hand, look at Gephardt or Bush. They know exactly what their base is. You'll never take the hard right away from Bush, even if you prove that he condoned an act of treason, as seems increasingly likely. You'll never take a certain segment of the labor base away from Gephardt. And both know exactly who won't vote for them, and aggressively write them off. Because they think of politics in terms of the base vote, plus the incremental votes they can add to it, Counters have a great freedom of maneuver: Clinton could sign welfare reform, for example, knowing that his electoral base wasn't going anywhere. But he would never take the risk of alienating marginal, swing voters. Saviors don't think in the same terms, don't even speak the same language. So they often don't understand what they can get away with and what they can't. That's part of Howard Dean's problem right now. He can't seem to figure out whether he should be for raising the Social Security retirement age or not. Why? Because he's not sure where or who his constituency is, beyond young, very liberal activists.

Since most politicians are Counters, it would be silly to say that Counters always win. They don't, and sometimes Saviors do win. Gray Davis is certainly a Counter, while Schwarzenegger seems to be a Savior. But the law in California has created a situation in which the Counter, Davis, has to get to 50%, whereas the Savior only has to get 30% or so. Davis is a Counter who just counted wrong. And, it seems, he didn't appreciate that he had some freedom to make tough choices because he had a base he could count on.

We need Saviors in politics. They offer the moments of inspiration that can keep people going for decades, as RFK did. And we need them to win ocasionally. We might need one right now. Ideally, we can find a Counter who can speak the language of a Savior, much as Bill Clinton was able to do at the highest moments in his career.

Politicians aren't generally born Counters or Saviors; they are created by circumstances. Howard Dean, for example, looked a lot like a typical Democratic Counter to me when I first saw him testifying in favor of welfare reform in 1994 or, as The New Yorker noted this week, opposing Michael Dukakis as too liberal in 1988. But "People-Powered Howard" is certainly a Savior, apparently caught up in the belief that his early successes in New Hampshire polls, in Internet enthusiasm and in fundraising are tantamount to winning the nomination by acclamation. It's a very dangerous assumption.

The big question in the 2004 elections: Is Wesley Clark a Counter or a Savior? He certainly enters as a Savior. As with Kerry, the guiding idea of his campaign is that voters in November will be universally comfortable with a military hero, an articulate and moderate voice. If that's the only thing making his campaign go, he'll have a hard time in the Democratic primaries, because it doesn't help to answer questions like, "which primaries do I put resources into, and which should I ignore?." But the presence of all the Clinton and Gore advisors suggests that maybe Clark will understand the strengths of the Counter: how to parlay a third-place finish in New Hampshire and a second-place finish in South Carolina into a showdown with Dean in which he can prevail in a multi-candidate race.

If Clark goes into the primaries thinking he's a Savior, able to win any primary if he just meets enough people, he's asking for trouble. The only thing that might save him is if his main opponent is Dean, who is a Savior, too.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 7, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack