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"The Defection Card"

One of the contributions that weblogs can make is by drawing out the truly outrageous aspects of those comments, quotes or events that seem to pass benignly through the studied neutrality of the daily press. And no one does that more consistently, while never overdoing it, than Josh Marshall, whether it is calling Trent Lott out on his Dixiecrat nostalgia or catching the absurdity of the "flypaper" theory of Iraq. (Draw all the terrorists there and then we've got 'em!)

He brings exactly the right tone to Howard Dean's comments about what would happen if he is not the Democratic nominee:

Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall: December 28, 2003 - January 03, 2004 Archives

From the New York Times story on Dean's demand to DNC chair Terry McAuliffe that he tell the other candidates to stop attacking him: Dean says his supporters "'are certainly not going to vote for a conventional Washington politician.' Though Dr. Dean has repeatedly said he would back whichever Democrat wins the nomination, he said Sunday that support was 'not transferable anymore' and that endorsements, including his own, 'don't guarantee anything.'"

I don't care if Dean says he'll endorse whoever wins. He's playing the defection card. And that crosses the line....The price of admission to the Democratic primary race is a pledge of committed support to whomever wins the nomination, period. (The sense of entitlement to other Democrats' support comes after you win the nomination, not before.) If Dean can't sign on that dotted-line, he has no business asking for the party's nomination.

Absolutely correct. This attitude, as much as the electability question, is the basis of my wariness about Dean. And it is surprising, frankly. Dean of all people should know how dangerous the left-wing's tyranny of small differences can be: He almost lost his last race for Governor of Vermont because of it. In 2000, Anthony Pollina ran for governor on the Progressive Party, charging that Dean was just too close to being the kind of conventional politician he now disdains. Pollina won 10% of the vote, Dean just barely 50%. Up until the day of the election, there was a real worry that Pollina's vote would hold Dean under 50%, in which case, under Vermont law, the legislature would have decided the election, and there was also reason to think that the legislature might have gone Republican. In the event, Dean squeaked by with just over 50%, the Republican conceded gracefully, and the legislature remained narrowly Democratic. (Here's a CNN story on how this race looked just before the election.) But, having come through that scare, shouldn't Dean know just how dangerous this kind of threat can be?

It is certainly true that a prolonged battle for the nomination, loaded with bitterness and vicious attacks, that extends well into the spring will be hurtful to the eventual nominee. The Kennedy-Carter battle in 1980 is the classic example. There is a point at which the party establishment, such as it is, needs to say, enough, and perhaps tell a candidate who still has a mathematical possibility of winning the nomination that it's time to join the team. But that point is sometime in March or April. It is most certainly not in December of the year before the election, when not one vote has been cast and not one delegate has been chosen.

The way a party finds its strongest nominee is through campaigns, voting, and a vigorous contest of ideas. Such a contest need not be destructive, and often leaves the eventual candidate stronger. So far, everything that the other candidates have said about Dean, even Lieberman's charge that his economic policies would lead to "the Dean Depression" are entirely within the bounds of normal, healthy political back-and-forth. There has been nothing comparable to Gore's use in 1988 of Willie Horton, which did allow George H.W. Bush to use the same loaded imagery with impunity against Michael Dukakis.

We don't choose a party's nominee on the basis of money, standing in the polls, or Meet-up attendance. If we did, we would have all had to coalesce around John Kerry a year ago. If you believe in "people power," you have to let the people actually vote before you can act as if you've actually accomplished anything.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 30, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Two Interesting Quotes About Dean

I want to comment very briefly on two provocative quotes from yesterday's Washington Post story, As Pre-Primary Season Closes, Questions Cling to Dean's Gains (washingtonpost.com)


"Our primary voters are dialed into electability like I've never seen before, and it is the argument against Dean," said a strategist working for another candidate. "But what the other candidates lack is a piece of evidence they can lay on the table to say, this is why I get the electability card over Dean. If somebody could come up with that, that could make a big difference in this race."

This is a very important point. I suspect that Dean can't win the election, but it will be hard to prove. And as he becomes better known, his national numbers are likely to move up, while his rivals like Clark, because they are still obscure, are likely to do no better in head-to-head matchups. And yet, that doesn't show that Dean is electable, or that he's not electable. Was Dukakis electable when he had a 13-point lead over George H.W. Bush? On the other hand, there was plenty of evidence that suggested Al Gore was unlectable in 2000 -- he never beat Bush in early polls, despite being better known -- and yet, he won the popular vote by a sizable margin.

It also affirms the point that, while Clark has found some focus for his campaign by talking about electability, it is far from sufficient as the basis for a campaign.

The other fascinating quote is from a political strategist I've worked with, both in the Senate and on the Bradley campaign, and respect a great deal, Anita Dunn:

"Dean faces one significant challenge, to go to the next level of his candidacy," said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser in Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign. "He has not yet achieved the level of admission to what I call that small circle of people in the United States that voters perceive as qualified to be president. That is an enormous hurdle. . . . He has, at every stage of his campaign, when he has faced a hurdle, found a way to move to that next level, but they get steeper."

That makes sense to me, but it's probably infuriating to the Dean camp. First, because the person making the statement is not easily dismissed as a hostile member of the Clinton establishment. But second, who decides when or how you've been admitted to that circle? Just out of curiosity, who right now might be said to be in that circle of people voters perceive as qualified to be president?

Gore, certainly. All he did was receive more votes than any candidate for President except Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Lieberman, probably, just by virtue of having been on a national ticket.

Gephardt, probably. He's run before, he's a national figure.

Kerry? Who knows. I don't need to bash the poor guy again.

Clark? Probably not yet, but I think he has a strong case for admission to the circle.

Hilary Clinton? Absolutely. You live in the White House for eight years, you're qualified. You have the same last name as a president, you're qualified. (See Bush, George W.)

It's also interesting to think about who might have lost the presidency because they never gained admission to the circle of the perceived-as-qualified. Dukakis? Probably. But Mondale was certainly perceived as qualified, and he lost just as badly.

And it's not at all clear how one gains admission to that circle, in a single cycle. How did Clinton do it? Was it his own doing, or the embrace of the Washington establishment?

Just like "electablity," I think this is a purely subjective judgment, one that may seem obvious after the fact, but is hard to prove right now. But subjective judgments are sometimes all we've got.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 29, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Again, Blaming "Government," Not Bush

A number of bloggers, starting with Josh Marshall, have noted and ridiculed this passage from David Brooks's New York Times column Saturday:

Because of that legacy, we stink at social engineering. Our government couldn't even come up with a plan for postwar Iraq — thank goodness, too, because any "plan" hatched by technocrats in Washington would have been unfit for Iraqi reality.

It's offensive on many levels, but also a good example of what I've been talking about in my last couple of posts: the administration's bizarre ability to turn their own specific policy failures into general indictments of government, which in turn actually supports their political agenda that rests on an aggressive rejection of government.

I think I actually said something nice about David Brooks here once, and he always looked pretty good in the company of most of the Weekly Standard writers, except Chris Caldwell. But I take it all back. Since I wrote that nice thing, Brooks has managed to, in the course of grudgingly supporting gay marriage come out in opposition to dating ("Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide"), has retailed the stupidest stereotypes of New Yorkers, has been a mouthpiece for the flimsiest White House spin about "the ownership society," and now this.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 29, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Is Bad Government Good Politics?

At the end of my last post, about whether Bush's domestic initiatives can be compared to Nixon's, I made the point that the sloppiness, complexity, and general fraudulence of both the Medicare drug bill and No Child Left Behind would lead to backlashes, but that the backlash was likely to help the Republicans, because it would further stir up anti-government feelings, and reinforce the sense that government can't do anything right. The blogger Angry Bear commented here that this was "just screwy enough to be scary." I didn't really deal with the question of whether I think it's a deliberate strategy, or just the accidental outcome when people who don't particularly like government programs and listen only to K Street lobbyists try to craft liberal social programs.

Given a choice between a conspiracy theory and a screw-up as an explanation, I usually vote for screw-up. But in this case, I'm willing to speculate that there's something deliberate about it. At the very least, someone in the White House is thinking about it in just these cynical terms. To understand why, you have to go back to those one-hit wonders, the "lucky duckies."

The lucky duckies had their fifteen minutes in a Wall Street journal editorial on November 20, 2002, with the title, "The Non-Taxpaying Class." The Journal argued that "thanks to a growing number of absolutely legal escape hatches," too many people paid little or no federal income tax. "Who are these lucky duckies?" the Journal asked. Not, as you might imagine, Conrad Black or the corporate clients of tax-shelter promoter KPMG, but the working poor and middle class, about 16 million who file income tax returns without tax liability.

The editorial was a window into a way of thinking that usually does not dare speak its name.

After all, the provisions that raised the personal exemption and the standard deduction, created and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, and then added the child tax credit were great bipartisan achievements of the 1980s and 1990s, and priceless innovations in social policy. Conservatives who could never stomach an increase in the minimum wage could live with the EITC, which is no substitute but at least helps the minimum wage dollar go further for people supporting a family. The change in tax policy, along with expansion of Medicaid, also deserves credit for the partial success of welfare reform, because moving from welfare to work was no longer quite such a leap off a financial cliff. And even George W. Bush had endorsed the idea when he promised in the 2000 campaign to cut taxes for "the waitress with two kids who makes $20,000," although he did not acknowledge that the $20,000 single parent already pays no taxes, thanks to these innovations, and that his plan did nothing for her.

The lucky ducky editorial seemed odd at first because the Journal is supposedly against taxes, period. Their idea of equality would seem to be that the rich as well as the poor should pay no taxes. But the Journal's objection to the elimination of income taxes for the working poor was not fiscal, it was psychological. Even those in the 10% bracket, the editorial said, paid an amount that was, unfortunately, "not enough to get his or her blood boiling with tax rage."

Ah, rage. That's really what this is all about. Conservatives used to be threatened by the rage of poor people; now apparently they'd like to see more of it, as long as it can be directed exclusively toward government. Without the rage, poor and middle-income voters might continue to see government as providing economic security, a modicum of justice, and essential services that the private sector can't. They will support entitlements, without feeling any of the burden that those entitlements pose to those able to pay.

It wasn't in the cards, though, to actually reverse these tax-code innovations. To get the 2001 tax cut passed, Bush actually had to swallow a further expansion of "the non-taxpaying class," when Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine made her support contingent on making the child tax credit partially refundable to low-income working families. (That is, such families can get cash back even if the credit exceeds what they owe in income taxes.) In 2003, the tax cut expanded the child credit for everyone except these poorer families, an "oversight" that was "discovered" only after the bill passed. A backlash resulted in legislation to expand the credit again, but that bill was loaded up with so many more tax breaks for wealthier people that it became expensive and died.

Without repealing these tax breaks for the working poor, there are other ways to make low- and middle-income people feel the rage that the Right wants to stoke. One very long-term gambit that John Podesta, the former White House Chief of Staff now running the Center for American Progress, pointed out recently is the creation of more and more vehicles in which investment gains can be sheltered tax-free. The Health Savings Accounts created under the Medicare bill are a minor version; the Retirement Savings Accounts and Lifetime Savings Accounts to be proposed in the State of the Union Address would be the real deal. By shifting most investment income into these tax-free vehicles, the tax burden will fall increasingly on relatively poorer people who get their income from work. More significantly, when a future president is forced to raise revenues, there will be no way to bring this income back into the taxable base. Congress could disallow any future contributions to these tax-exempt accounts, but the money already in them would continue to accumulate tax free. That means that the inevitable tax increases in the future -- what the Dean campaign has cleverly taken to calling "The Bush Tax" -- will have to take the form of rate increases on a narrower base. When middle-income people see their tax rate go from 15% to 20%, simply because so much other income is off the table, that might get their "blood boiling with tax rage."

But the other way to stoke rage is through complexity and confusion. It's probably more effective in the short-term. There's no more reliable way to get people to hate government than by creating situations where every interaction with government is fraught with hassle and uncertainty and where it's never clear just who is accountable. But that's a good description of what life will be like under the Medicare drug bill. Senior citizens will have to first decide whether the deal is worth it to them, at a premium of $420 a year (but maybe more). And then, in theory at least, there will be several private insurers offering them coverage, and they will have to decide which offers the better deal for them, now and in the future. And then, of course, they will have to fight the insurer over every claim, with the insurer given the right under the law to give preference to certain drugs and to shift those preferences around.

(Just as I was wrapping this up, and looking for an article that explained this complexity, Clinton HHS Secretary Donna Shalala appeared with a Monday op-ed that does a good job of it. Her angle is that the Department will now have to "transform a complicated, ideologically driven piece of legislation into a practical drug benefit" in order for it to be successful, but all the examples she cites are written into the law and cannot really be changed by the regulatory process.

Standard Medicare is complicated, and particularly frustrating for what it doesn't pay for: nursing home care and prescription drugs. But compared to the prescription drug scam, it's simplicity itself: You turn 65, you become eligible. You go to the doctor, or the hospital, Medicare pays. End of story.

Ultimately, that's what the right dislikes about entitlement programs like Medicare. It's not that their spending is hard to control. It's that they make government look good. At their best, they're seamless, painless, hassle-free. The rules are clear, and everyone eligible is treated equally under the law. They run so smoothly and efficiently that people don't even think of them as government programs, leading to the anecdote, which is told in perhaps a half-dozen versions, of the senior citizen who approaches a Senator in an airport in the midst of the 1993 struggle over the Clinton health plan and pleads, "Just don't let the government get a hold of my Medicare." (Here is the version of the story that carries the official imprimatur of David Broder, but of course the original source is a Cajun fabulist.) That will no longer be the case with Medicare, at least, which is guaranteed to become a very frustrating and elusive benefit, even if no less costly.

Another good example of the perhaps deliberate complexity of Bush programs is in the tax code. It's true that the benefits for low-income workers, the lucky duckies, were not cut and were slightly expanded. But the next time you do your taxes, try filling out the form for the Additional Child Tax Credit. Or, worse, the refundable child tax credit. And then consider that low-income people filing for these credits and the Earned Income Tax Credit are also twice as likely to be audited as people who make more than $100,000. It's hard to come out of that process feeling the government is responsive and respectful of people struggling to support their families on a minimum wage job.

When the backlash comes, against Medicare, No Child Left Behind, or even these tax policies, most people assume that the backlash will have to hurt Republicans, since they were in charge when all these provisions were passed. But as long as Democrats/liberals don't figure out how to talk about these things, as long as they don't have an alternative other than more funding for these flawed programs, they will not be able to capture the backlash. If it becomes a general backlash against government, which seems likely, then there is no reason that Republicans can't use it to bolster their claim as the anti-government party.

I don't know if this is, top to bottom, the understood strategy of the White House and congressional leaders. Actually, I'm sure it's not. Conservatives who think their party has "lost its moorings" are obviously not in on the plan, and maybe no one is. But in the case of Medicare in particular, I can't believe that no one in the White House fails to understand that there will be a fiercely negative reaction. I'm pretty certain that the people who do understand this have also thought about how to turn that reaction in their favor.

The right-wing provocateur Grover Norquist last year sent liberals into a tizzy with his adolescent boast that he wanted to "shrink government to the size where you could drown it in the bathtub." Of course, that never made much sense. A smaller, smoother, less capricious government would be a more popular one. The real plan, I think, is to create a government so big, impenetrable, unpredictable and aggravating that we will want to drown it in a bathtub.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 29, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (2) | 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

Fundraising Letters that Work

I happened to see a Bush '04 fundraising e-mail today, from Ken Mehlman, with the heading "Foreign liberal cash used to defeat President Bush!" Most of it is just further innuendo about the Drudge-generated phony scandal around the website, Canadians for Clark..

But there is also one priceless line in the e-mail:

Wesley Clark, who was in Europe when Saddam Hussein was captured, criticized the President this week...

Wow, what was Mr. Clark doing in Europe, when he's supposed to be an American? Probably judging a Gruyere-tasting contest, or studying up on Swedish land-use planning...

You wouldn't really know that he was helping bring another evil dictator to justice, would you?

Updated:Here's the complete e-mail, for those interested

-----Original Message-----
From: Campaign Manager Ken Mehlman
Sent: Thu Dec 18 19:44:48 2003
Subject: Foreign liberal cash used to defeat President Bush!

Bush + Cheney 2004

Ken Mehlman
Campaign Manager

December 18, 2003

Dear ,

In my last e-mail I told you wealthy liberals, led by billionaire George Soros, plan to spend $400 million to defeat President Bush. Now comes word that Soros and his anti-war allies are soliciting foreign money to use against President Bush.

Help us overcome the Democrats' liberal billionaire by making your contribution and emailing five friends today!

One group Soros supports is telling liberal foreign donors they have "a chance to defeat [Bush] -- even if you are not an American." Read more at:

To beat these billionaire liberals and the flood of foreign money they're encouraging, we need your help today!

Please help us reach our goal of 450,000 AMERICAN grassroots contributors to the Presidents campaign by sending $100, $75, $50, $25 or whatever you can afford today by contributing online at:


If you thought liberal special interest groups raising foreign cash to attack our President was bad enough ... Democrat presidential candidates are doing it too!

Web sites for Wesley Clark and Howard Dean direct visitors from outside the United States to liberal fundraising Web sites where foreign donors can pledge money to fund left-wing efforts to defeat President Bush.

This news comes days after Democrat candidate Howard Dean floated the absurd conspiracy theory that President Bush knew of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, saying, "The most interesting theory that I've heard so far ... is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis."

It doesn't stop there. This week, Dean declared that, "The capture of Saddam has not made America safer. "

And Dean is not the only Democrat making such reckless charges. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Sunday floated the theory to a FOX News correspondent, "that the Bush administration has Osama bin Laden hidden away somewhere and will bring him out before the election."

Wesley Clark, who was in Europe when Saddam Hussein was captured, criticized the President this week and said that rather than going after Saddam, he would have let the United Nations continue to seek the dictator's cooperation. Clark also declared that, "Weapons of mass destruction are no longer a threat to the United States."

Democrats will do or say anything to defeat our President -- wild accusations, reckless conspiracy theories, and now raising money from foreign, anti-American activists!

We need your help to overcome these attacks!

With your help, we can overcome these slanderous liberal attacks and make clear that foreign cash will not be allowed to determine the outcome of this election.

Contribute $100, $75, $50, $25 or whatever you can afford by using our secure online server at:


Or by calling the President's re-election campaign at 1-800-531-6789.

Federal law allows contributions of up to $2,000 per person or $4,000 per couple. And, please, only U.S. citizens.

We cannot let liberal soft money groups defeat President Bush! He has led our country through challenging times with inner strength, a steely resolve and moral purpose.


Thank you for helping to re-elect President Bush in 2004!


Ken Mehlman
Campaign Manager

P.S. Angry Democrats keep making outrageous attacks. After Saddam Hussein was captured, liberal Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said Saddam's capture was timed to help the President ! Rep. McDermott said that our soldiers could have found Saddam "a long time ago if they wanted," adding, "There's too much by happenstance for it to be just a coincidental thing."

Join the fight to overcome these vicious attacks. Send your contribution and forward this message to at least five friends today!


Or call 1-800-531-6789.

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Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 19, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

A Little More on Coase, Dean, Everett Ehrlich and Politics and Technology

via Mickey Kaus, who is quite obsessed with Everett Ehrlich's essay on technology and politics that I discussed at unnecessary length a day ago, pointed me to another long comment on Ehrlich by a law professor who seems to know what he's talking about: Ronald Coase Does Not Explain Howard Dean: Political Parties and the Transaction Cost Economics of Voting.

Professor Bainbridge takes a completely different approach to this, but basically arrives at the same conclusion I did: that Ehrlich is incorrect to predict that Internet-based organizing efforts will become third parties or take the place of the major parties. His argument is that the heuristic functions of political parties, which is to say, their value in helping people figure out who to vote for, is not replaced by the Internet. And Bainbridge confirms my understanding, based on reading one essay by Ronald Coase and one about him, that Coase was more concerned with when and why people organize their economic activity in particular forms such as firms, than with the size of firms.

As Kaus has argued, there are many other functions of political parties, or activities that take place within parties, that really can be dramatically changed by reducing transaction costs. The best example is Dean's fundraising. The Internet doesn't just make traditional fundraising easier; it completely transforms it. So, under the classic Democratic model, there is a set of people already identified as "donors," divided into major and minor donors, and a set of people identified as "fundraisers." Raising money involves deploying the fundraisers, and also the candidate, appropriately to get the largest contribution out of each identified donor, ideally in a single shot. The cost of asking for money from people who are not pre-identified as donors is too high, as is the cost of going back after each donor for multiple contributions.

But with the Internet, the cost of the "ask" goes down considerably. And the cost of asking for a repeat contribution is almost zero. In addition, some contributions come in spontaneously, which almost never happens in regular politics. This is transformative, because it allows a candidate or party to approach people who have never given, and it allows them to ask for a very small contribution at first, and then go back and back again (which is what Dean does when they "bring out the bat" on the website) until an individual either maxes ($2,000), or reaches the maximum that he or she is able to give. In other words, what had been a command-and-control system now becomes a system of constant bargaining to find the exact amount people are willing to give. This is also what I meant in the earlier post about "transactional" politics: fundraising does not ask for a single commitment of loyalty, but builds it up out of many smaller transactions, which may not be financial.

It's likely to be much more lucrative because, just in simple economic terms, it picks up a lot of dollars that would otherwise be left on the table, from potential donors who are never asked, or from people who are asked for too little or too much. But more importantly, it changes the very nature of the campaign. Instead of depending on the ridiculously narrow class of political donors, who are very different from voters, a candidate (or party) can appeal to a far broader group, largely the same people he would want to have vote for him. And it gives him some ideological freedom as well as freedom with time, because the candidate himself does not have to raise every dime. (This is one reason I think many politicians hate Dean: a guy like Gephardt spends a year at least going from one rich person's living room to another's law firm conference room to another's private club, sucking up to every one of them -- almost every politician finds this activity hateful -- and at the end of the day, all he's got is $13 million, where a guy like Dean at least appears to just sit back and $25 million rolls in! (Not that Dean didn't do plenty of the same hat-in-hand stuff, but he sure makes it look easy.))

The same logic that controlled fundraising for years governed parties' approach to voting. There is a group of people who are pre-identified as voters. Most of them are 1s or 5s -- that is we know who they're going to vote for. And then there's the smaller number of 2s, 4s (leaning for or against), and the oh-so-valuable 3s. The entire political effort of the Clinton-era party went into identifying and switching those swing voters, and all the analysis of pollsters like Mark Penn (which I mentioned over the weekend in this post) were about identifying those swing voters, soccer moms or office-park dads, who might make up just two or three percent of the population in a particular key state. This also had an effect on the way Clinton governed after 1994, with micro-issues that appealed to swing voters rather than larger visions. But going after someone who was not a reliable voter at the time just didn't seem worth the cost, given that most wouldn't vote anyway, and because a new voter is only half as valuable as switching an existing voter. (That is, he doesn't take a vote away from your opponent.)

The big question for next year is whether technology can change the transaction costs of trying to draw out new voters. If so, it will completely transform politics, as candidates will simultaneously go deeper into their bases and also try to reach new populations. Both the Republicans, with their "72-Hour Plan" for voter turnout, which was very successful in Georgia in 2002, and independent groups supportive of Democrats, through voter contact projects such as America Coming Together will use technology, such as constantly updated voter files on Palm Pilots, to reduce the cost of approaching new voters. If successful, this will have an even more transformative effect on politics than changing the fundraising.

So, Bainbridge is right and Ehrlich wrong that reducing transaction costs will lead to the creation of new political parties. But transaction costs can hugely change the way existing parties do business, the way candidates like Dean and Clark operate in their efforts to take control of an existing party, and ultimately on the way citizens are encouraged to participate. Ehrlich would have had a stronger and less confusing argument if he had not brought in the issue of third parties or virtual parties at all.

Incidentally, Bainbridge makes the point that the Internet can't substitute for the heuristic functions of parties, in that voters will never bother to use a comparative website to find the candidate they favor. This is absolutely correct. I spent a few years trying to help build up projects that would serve exactly the purpose Bainbridge talks about, which is helping people figure out who to vote for in obscure races. Unfortunately, the non-partisan voter information systems like The Democracy Network never really took off. Neither candidates nor voters participated in great numbers. Politics on the internet took a very different turn, though, as campaigns made better use of it, ultimately leading to Dean's achievement. Sometime I'd like to write more about that whole experience.

Yikes, I didn't mean to write yet another long post on this topic!

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 18, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (2) | 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., pets.com 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 MoveOn.org-wannabe, 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 MoveOn.org-wannabe 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 MoveOn.org 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 MoveOn.org, 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 MoveOn.org 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 MoveOn.org. 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


My choice for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, should a Dean-Clark or Clark-Dean combination not work out, seems to be the first one to figure out just how to cover his ass on having voted for the war: Point out that he and his colleagues were systematically lied to. Why is it so hard for others to point out that they were given specific false information that influenced their votes? Is it the specter of Michigan Governor George Romney admitting in 1968 that he had been "brainwashed" into supporting the Vietnam War?

(thanks to The Daily Kos)

Local News

Senators were told Iraqi weapons could hit U.S.

Nelson said claim made during classified briefing

By John McCarthy

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Monday the Bush administration last year told him and other senators that Iraq not only had weapons of mass destruction, but they had the means to deliver them to East Coast cities.
Nelson said the senators were told Iraq had both biological and chemical weapons, notably anthrax, and it could deliver them to cities along the Eastern seaboard via unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.

There should be nothing controversial about this claim, since Bush said just about the same thing publicly. For the most part, I think that Senators don't really have the option to disbelieve specific factual statements given them by the administration, so there should be no reason to be afraid of admitting that one voted on the basis of false statements.

Unfortunately, the "unmanned aerial vehicles" claim is one that was so stupid and implausible that you have to doubt the intelligence of anyone who fell for it, even if knowledgable administration officials did pitch it with a straight face and no one challenged it. I don't know anything about this field, but it should be obvious that, since the earth is round, you couldn't control a drone from Iraq, or even from a boat in the mid-Atlantic, over the horizon without help from a network of satellites, which isn't something the Iraqis had at their disposal.

But it's apparently very hard to look an administration official in the eye and say, that's ridiculous.

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

Did Anyone Really Believe We Would Never Find Saddam Hussein?

Apparently the conventional wisdom is that the capture of Saddam Hussein all but sews up Bush's reelection (The Democrats: Candidates Celebrate First and Worry Second)

Without getting into all the nitty-gritty about public attitudes about the war, whether the resistance will or will not subside, or the rhythms of political reaction to events, it seems to me a basic logical point is missing here: In order for an event to significantly alter one's prediction of the outcome of an election 11 months away, the event has to be one that is unexpected. Or, at least, there would have to have been a reasonably good chance that it would not happen. In other words, to assert that Bush's reelection is now very likely, whereas before the capture you thought he might have been vulnerable, implies that when you believed he was vulnerable, you must have been assuming that Saddam would remain elusive for another year.

Yet that was not a plausible assumption. The U.S. was going to catch or kill Saddam Hussein. Unlike the area of Pakistan or Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden (or, "Osama bin Forgotten," as Senator Graham called him) is presumed to be hiding, the U.S. controls every inch of Iraqi territory, and there is no country or nearby planet self-destructive enough to let Saddam in. And apparently the brilliant plastic surgeons and molecular biologists that you see on Alias, who for a million dollars could have transformed Saddam into Jennifer Garner's roommate weren't able to get past the U.S. checkpoints.

So there's drama and I suppose some relief in his capture, but not really new information that should change anyone's prediction about the course of politics over the next year. Predictions are not just a straight line from the present. Anyone making predictions has to have taken into account events that are likely to occur. The same goes for jumps in gross domestic product and declines in the unemployment rate. They will happen, and Bush is no less vulnerable after they happen than before.

While we're at it, here's a couple more likely events: Ronald Reagan will die, and there will be a week of mourning. (In which I'll join a little, because he was a whole lot better president than this one.) And Dick Cheney will be moved off the ticket in favor of maybe Senator Frist. I'm discounting those events already.

And one more thing about the press coverage of this event: Doesn't it seem at this point that CNN should not use the word "defiant" in describing Saddam's insistence that he had no weapons of mass destruction?

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 16, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack