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As goes Virginia...

From the Washington Post's story this morning on the Virginia tax deal:

In effect, some politicians and observers say, there could be three parties in Virginia: Democrats, Republicans and anti-tax Republicans.

The Virginia tax deal is quite a remarkable story, and the Post story is worth reading. As tax analyst Bob Zaharadnick wrote in an e-mail yesterday, "passage of the Virginia tax plan was remarkable from a political perspective, impressive from a revenue adequacy standpoint, and could have done more in terms of improving fairness." It is mostly made up of sales tax increases, cigarette tax, and adding means-testing to the state's deduction for the elderly. While it is not as progressive as an upper-end income tax increase would be, it does include a state Earned Income Tax Credit that helps families just above the poverty line.

This is the country's future. It's ugly and painful for everyone, but I'd rather be a Democrat than a Republican in either faction. Going back to what I wrote in my earlier post on Kerry's predicament if he wins, I think he has no choice but to try to split the Republican party in the same way. If I were Kerry, I would devote every breakfast, lunch and dinner to meeting with every Republican who's willing to break bread with him, from the true moderates like Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Snowe through the old-timers like John Warner and Pete Domenici and the mavericks McCain and Hagel, and asking every one of them, "We don't have to agree, but are we here to govern this country, or wage ideological warfare?" And slowly, as they all understand the long-term fiscal crisis and the consequences of the Bush mania, just enough of them will decide they're here to govern and begin to work with Kerry. The solutions won't be to everyone's liking. They won't float Max Sawicky's or Jamie Galbraith's boat. It will feel a lot more like the first Bush Administration, with endless, unsatisfying budget summits at Andrews Air Force base. But they just might ward off disaster and make it possible to do something more constructive with government in the future.

And, possibly, just as in Virginia, they just might destroy the Republican Party. That's the choice these Republicans will face as they decide whether to align with the Republican Party or the anti-tax Republican Party. (Or, as I would call them, the Conservative Party or the Nihilist Party.) If they join the effort to find a compromise, they will find the Club for Growth, slowly prying their fingers away from the brink of their own party, as it almost did to Specter and will now do to some Virginia legislators. But if they join the Nihilist Party, what will they have to show for it?

And if the Virginia moment doesn't happen in 2005, it will come soon enough. The seeds of a political party or ideology's demise are always sown at its moment of seeming invincibility.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Can Internet Political Ads Replace TV?

Writing in Slate, Chris Suellentrop points out that political communication on the Internet, unlike radio, television and newspaper advertising, is completely unrestricted by the McCain-Feingold reforms or other campaign finance laws. The requirement to use only hard (that is, limited) money for ads that mention a candidate by name in the weeks before the vote explicitly do not apply to the Internet, and even the longstanding prohibition on coordinating such spending with the candidate or the party has been held by the Federal Election Commission not to apply in the case of internet communications.

Suellentrop is right about the law. And this is not accidental. I wouldn't even call it a "loophole," because the purpose of campaign finance reform is not to restrict all the avenues by which money enables politicians to communicate with voters. In part, the exception is a result of our de facto industral policy under which we treat the internet as a delicate flower, and anything related to it is shielded from the normal constraints on business, such as taxes and regulation, for fear that the blossom will be snuffed out before the spring. But it also shows a recognition that political communication on the Internet has a somewhat different character than broadcast communications, and that money therefore affects it in a somewhat different way.

To be specific, what led to the passage of McCain-Feingold was really a certain kind of television ad that might best be characterized as a hit-and-run. Soft money committees, whether quasi-independent groups or the non-federal committees of the Democratic or Republican Party were running ads featuring ominous tones, dark suggestions, strange accusations, and concluding "call Congressman Jones and ask him why he loves taxes and thinks criminals should go free." These ads operated by indirection on many levels. Of course they didn't expect you to call Jones and, assuming you could get him on the phone, ask him whatever ridiculous question was on offer. The message, polling showed, was indistinguishable from campaign ads that said "vote against Jones." But there is also the likelihood that the intent of these ads was actually not to increase votes against the poor sorry pinko Jones, but simply to reduce turnout. The waters would be poisoned, voters would have a general impression that there was something bad about the candidates, and they would stay home, usually benefiting the incumbent.

These hit-and-run ads were targeted to a certain kind subset of citizens: those who might vote or might not, do not seek out information about politics, and do not have strong party loyalties. Constant repetition of a negative message (or a positive one, sometimes) in the background of television or radio entertainment and other broadcasts can seed doubt or disgust, which might make them decide not to vote at all or possibly switch sides. In a closely divided nation or state, these passive and almost fully disengaged voters can make a difference.

The other effect of soft money for broadcast ads, which exaggerated their impact, is that broadcast time, especially in the key time slots, is a finite resource. In hot races, a well-funded candidate's own ads, combined with a lot of soft money ads, could dominate the key slots, leaving an underfunded opponent almost shut out.

We know the internet is a great political tool. It's perfect for engaging voters who do seek out information about politics. It is a great organizing tool, it is a great fundraising tool because it reduces the transaction costs of the second and third "ask" to zero, and it is a great way to build a deep message for a candidate. It is also a good advertising vehicle, in part because of its extraordinary ability to deliver a message targetted demographically: Want to reach pro-choice women or environmentalists? It's easy to find people who seek out information on women's issues or the outdoors.

But can the internet do the thing that soft money did? Can it deliver multiple impressions of video or audio, to voters who are not going to click on a link, and who are not going to political sites or issue sites? Are the loose and passive voters targetted by soft money ads even likely to be active internet users? I am continually amazed when I learn about the ability of on-line advertising to get to people -- for example, did you know that voter lists can be matched with e-mail addresses for about one-fourth of the population? But I think it will take a lot of creativity to find people who are doing the online equivalent of watching The Bachelor and force them to watch 30 seconds of video about a candidate, and then do it again and again to get the three impressions that are needed. Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know. (Because I use the Mozilla browser, I never see a single pop-up ad, so I'm the internet equivalent of the person who only watches public television.)

Suellentrop declares that the advantage of the internet is that, "On the Internet, you can run things that look like TV ads," but the example he uses is the National Rifle Association's new news site . But that site -- as you will see if you click on it -- is nothing at all like a TV ad, except that it has moving pictures. It is a registration-required site for people who actively seek out information from the NRA. That's nothing at all like the kind of people targetted by soft money.

And the other aspect of broadcast ads -- the finite space -- is plainly less of an issue online. There is no online equivalent of the 8:10 timeslot in the most popular primetime show. My targetted ad does not have to displace your targetted ad. Plus, the ads are inexpensive compared to TV time. So imbalances of money don't matter as much, another reason to exempt internet communications.

The great thing about the internet for politics is not that "it looks like TV," but that it doesn't. It is not a zero-sum game like TV, it is not passive like TV, and it allows people to gather as much or as little information as they want about the choices they have to make. Much of that potential for political engagement has not yet been fulfilled, and if campaigns and interest groups really do take advantage of it this year, if only because it is less restricted than broadcast, then perhaps we will hurry the day when the era of internet politics replaces the era of TV politics.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Paul Offner

It's strange that the only two eulogies I've had the sad occasion to write on this site have been for people who influenced me in very similar ways -- in their concern about poverty and the life prospects of poor people, and in their sense of humor: a few months ago, I wrote about Marc Miringoff; yesterday, I learned that Paul Offner had died. I hadn't been in touch with Paul in perhaps eight years, but for a time, when he was working on welfare and health issues for Senator Moynihan, and I was doing the same for Senator Bradley -- whose first question on these issues was inevitably, "What does Moynihan think?" -- we spent a lot of time together.

Paul left Moynihan's staff to run the District of Columbia's Medicaid agency in the Marion Barry administration: one of those job moves that indicates either such total disgust with your current job that you are willing to do absolutely anything, even a job that's designed for failure, or else it's an expression of both confidence and an overwhelming concern for others, such that you are willing to take a huge risk in order to turn around an agency on which many thousands of lives depend. For Paul, it was certainly the latter, and the Post treats his turnaround of that agency as the centerpiece of his career.

But there had been a certain amount of frustration in Paul's work for Moynihan, mainly deriving from the fact that, while his colleagues looked to Moynihan as their resident expert on welfare and social policy, and as the author of the 1988 welfare reform act, when the issue heated up, the great man was absent. I wrote about this several years ago in reviewing a biography of Moynihan. It is a strange episode. Even many Republicans were looking to Moynihan for leadership, and all Moynihan would do was periodically hold up a chart of rising rates of out-of-wedlock births in various Western countries, which really had little to do with anything.

Paul's own relentless intellectual activity on welfare and also health issues offset Moynihan's awkward ambivalence, and his confidence was reinforced by the fact that he actually knew how welfare worked, having been the human services commissioner in Ohio, as well as a state legislator in Wisconsin. So, on his own, he wrote a series of brilliant articles in The New Republic, which had only one downside: the Clinton administration, which was obsessed with improving its relationship of maximum feasible misunderstanding with Moynihan, interpreted the articles as if they were subtle directives from the desk of the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee chairman. But that was their mistake. The articles, persuasive as they were, represented no views other than Paul's, and did not pretend otherwise. Their value was that they were a good guide to what the right policy would be.

In Bradley's office, we not surprisingly used the metaphor of "moving without the ball," to describe the kind of things that you would do to move forward on an issue when the Senator himself was engaged with something else. It often took some nerve and creativity to move without the ball, and Paul was a good example of how it could be done.

This is a minor sidenote, though, in Paul's long career of true dedication to the public and to making public programs work. Paul had -- again in healthy contrast to Moynihan's pessimism -- a sort of Midwestern faith that government programs could be made to work to give people security and improve the life chances of their children. And he had a faith that knowledge and learning what works, rather than ideological slogans, were the way to make public programs succeed. That faith will have its day again in this country; it is sad that Paul Offner won't see it.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Who Lost Arizona?

George Will yesterday noticed one of the most salient facts about the election: that the handful of swing states are not limited to the long-foreseen industrial Midwest+Florida, but also include Arizona, a state that has only voted for the Democratic presidential candidate once, in its 92 years of statehood. Some seem to believe that Colorado, a state with similar demographic and voter patterns, although a more progressive tradition, is also on the cusp of moving into play.

Will, of course, attended the Samuel Huntington school of political explanation: It's all those Hispanics, who just aren't like the rest of us regular Bush-loving Americans. (I'm old enough to remember when Hispanics were supposedly going to be the new conservative voting bloc, because they loved the Bushes.) "Migrants," he says, whether from Mexico or California, "bring aspects with them of 'over there.'" He argues that Californians moving to Arizona bring with them California liberalism, but I don't think that's the case with other states that have sizable in-migration from California, such as Oregon and Idaho. There, it's been my understanding that the white Californians have tended to be trying to get away from the liberalism and taxes of California, and have increased that attitude in their new states.

The other explanations Will offers for the Arizona turnaround are increasing urbanization -- which makes sense -- and that the state has 600,000 veterans, "another fact encouraging to John Kerry." Wow, so they've given up on Hispanics, and now they even presume that veterans are likely Kerry voters? Who's left to vote for Bush? Lobbyists?

More to the point, there are three -- and more -- other possible explanations for the reemergence of Democratic hope (and hope is all it is at this point) in Arizona:

1. Great candidates. Governor Janet Napolitano is a star for a reason. She's a straight-talker, a former prosecutor, charming and funny yet serious and tough, which is how she has managed to get budgets through.

2. Campaign finance reform that changes the culture. Arizona's "Clean Elections" system of public financing of elections has become increasingly popular. It not only makes it easier to run for office, but the system under which candidates collect a decent number of $5 contributions to show broad support, which entitles them to full public funding for the rest of the campaign, has helped to build a rich civic culture in which organizations like can play a meaningful role with candidates. There is likely to be a referendum on the Arizona ballot this fall that effectively repeals the program by adding the words, "no taxpayer money for politicians" to the state constitution. If the initiative said, "Repeal Clean Elections," it would probably lose, but it will take an aggressive campaign to beat a slogan.

3. The right has isolated itself. This, I believe, is the biggest factor of all and the one that we will see replayed on the national stage this year or soon. The hard right in Arizona, led by people like Rep. Jeff Flake and his uncle, Jake Flake, who is the speaker of the state House, along with the Club for Growth, which intends to challenge moderate Republican state legislators, have, for all their power, positioned themselves so far from the mainstream on fiscal and social issues that they are about to be revealed as the minority that they actually are. The state's ideological mid-point is probably that of Senator McCain, who is, make no doubt about it, as conservative as the heir to Barry Goldwater's seat ought to be. But the right in Arizona, much like the Bush/DeLay administration, has shot so far beyond McCain that he now seems mainstream. But they are the ones isolated, and it will be their fatal mistake. As goes Arizona, so goes the nation. (By that, I do not mean that Arizona will determine the outcome of the presidential election -- it will not, and Kerry can certainly win without the state. I mean that the trend Will is seeing is an indicator of a larger national trend which will ultimate show Karl Rove's 30-year plan of Republican dominance to be a very hollow boast by a dying faction.)

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Stability, Democracy, and Troops

We're so attuned to think of Senator Kerry as a flip-flopper that I think we barely even notice when the charge really isn't true. That was my reaction to yesterday's <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A29230-2004Apr20.html">Washington Post editorial </a>charging that Kerry's statement, "With respect to getting our troops out, the measure is the stability of Iraq" represented a "shift on such a basic question after just a few months [that] is troubling and mistaken."

I haven't seen any defense of Kerry on this, but it seems pretty simple: What troops can achieve is stability. Democracy is built in other ways. So when and if the country is stable, with basic law enforcement mechanisms of its own, most of the U.S. and "coalition" troops can be withdrawn.

That doesn't entail giving up on democracy, though. Why should it? Consider the many countries in the world that are stable, but not democratic: Ukraine, for example, or Pakistan. Even if one takes a maximalist view of the potential for and desirability of greater democracy in Ukraine (and I work with a lot of people who do), does anyone think that the most effective way to achieve that would be to send a hundred thousand U.S. and allied troops in? Of course not. It's done by tying U.S. aid to measurable indicators of democracy and political openness, by building institutions of civil society, etc. Why should Iraq be any different? Right now, there is neither stability nor democracy, so it's all hypothetical, and we don't even know what that stable-but-not-yet-democratic Iraq will look like. But if the stable Iraq has any potential for democracy, then in the gap between stable and stable+democratic, there is no reason to have a large commitment of troops.

But if the Washington Post editorial board doesn't see that distinction, what hope is there that the Republican PR hacks of the Coalition Provisional Authority do?

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 22, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack


As the possibility that Senator Kerry will win the Presidency becomes more apparent (I refuse to say that it is becoming more likely, because I think it was always a strong possibility, and we're only just beginning to see it), I've had several conversations by e-mail or in person that go something like this:

Me: "You know, we're really fooling ourselves if we think everything's going to change overnight just because Kerry wins. We can't start singing "Happy Days Are Here Again." There's so much work to be done, and the political environment is so poisonous. Imagine the disaster if there is a backlash against Kerry, as there was against Clinton, and we lose everything in 2006. The election is just the beginning of the hard work."

Other person: "Yes, yes, I agree completely." And then, "We really have to organize to hold Kerry's feet to the fire, so that he does the right things, not like that awful sell-out Clinton." Or, "I agree. Kerry could break our heart. He wasn't such a great Senator, after all."

So, actually, you don't agree. In fact, I think you don't even know what I was saying. And if that's the attitude that liberals go into the next administration with, we are sunk. While we're busy "holding Kerry's feet to the fire," the Republican right will be trying to chop off his head. I won't take this metaphor further, but before we know it, we'll have four years of paralysis followed by a landslide for the Jeb Bush-Tom DeLay ticket in 2008. (OK, I exaggerate slightly, but not about the paralysis.)

Yes, there is a place for holding Democratic politicians accountable, for building a strong movement on their left flank that both pulls them toward the left and protects them as they take chances. But political maturity means recognizing just how limited the next president's freedom of movement will be. The very best-case scenario would be a slightly less Republican House and a narrow Democratic edge in the Senate, combined with an electoral result that is sufficiently decisive that it represents an unmistakable rejection of Bushism. It's not impossible to get something done in that situation, which is basically the mirror image of what Reagan had in 1981. But it will require Kerry to put his first priority into working with moderate and not-so-moderate Republicans, from Snowe and Chafee to McCain and Hagel in the Senate, and their handful of counterparts in the House. Basically, I think he has to force them to decide: Do you want to work together to govern this country, or do you want to wage another pitched battle? But he has to listen to them and accomodate them, even ahead of liberal factions within the Democratic Party, because otherwise, he's dead in the water.

And then there are two things that Kerry has to do fairly early in his first year or two: He must deal with the long-term fiscal crisis, which in this case means raising revenues by, at the very least, ending the scheduled tax cuts, restoring the Estate Tax, and clawing back the upper-income and investment tax breaks from the three Bush tax cuts, or preferably by a sweeping tax reform. And he has to deal with Iraq. That will put Kerry in the position of asking the American people for the sacrifice and patience that Bush never acknowledged, in support of a war that Kerry would never have launched and does not own. If he feels horribly like he's been set up, it's because he was.

Democrats of all stripes have been beautifully, responsibly cynical in uniting behind a solid candidate and setting all our internal disagreements to the side, in the interest of ending the current insanity. However, too many people seem to think that the sentence ends November 6, and that at that point a battle for the soul of the President can begin. In particular, the old debate over the priority of long-term deficit reduction (aka "Rubinomics") vs. social and health spending seems ready to burst out as soon as the election results are in.

And there's nothing wrong with that. No one should bury their opinions, and we will all be stronger for the most vigorous debate about options. But as Kerry moves forward, there has to be as strong a commitment to helping him succeed there was to electing him, so if he doesn't embrace exactly the position we want, we're still on board.

In general, I often think that liberals/the left have a one-directional view of political power: it's about pressure. The idea is that, as an advocacy group or activist, you line up and unite to get someone elected, and then after the election, your role becomes to put pressure on him or her. And often, this cycle ends in disappointment. "We helped elect him, and then he turned out to be just another politician."

What's missing from this approach to politics is the idea that politicians need support as well. Politicians are not just "good" or "bad," "our guy" or "just another politician." Even the most decent and committed politicians have to be savvy calculators of their own freedom to act and the consequences. Advocacy groups have to help expand that freedom of action, not only by threatening negative consequences if they do the "wrong" thing, but also by rewarding them for doing the best they can, even if it's not exactly what "we" want.

The other dimension of this is that, just as in the election, people have to be able to look beyond their own issue or interest. The key thing here is taxes. Everyone interested in education, health care, environmental issues, work and family balance, etc., can have no higher priority than restoring the long-term fiscal balance so that government can act on these issues. Looking at the history of state tax policy, it's easy to see that people will put their energy into a tax fight if they think they will be at the head of the line for the resulting revenues. For example, if a governor proposes an income tax surcharge in order to reduce class sizes, the teachers' unions and other education advocates will throw themselves into it. But for the revenue battle ahead, everyone needs to be involved, even if they have no assurance of being at the head of the line for the revenues. Again, the unity that has gone into the election itself must be sustained, if Kerry is to succeed at all.

The first years of the Clinton administration were a searing and educational experience. On the one hand, the administration was a little too smug and triumphalist, too unfamiliar with Congress to understand the limits of its power. On the other hand, no one could ever have predicted that the Republican leadership would have given the word, "Do not let this president succeed, even when you agree with him." It had never happened before. But outside groups, those that became disenchanted with Clinton in various ways, also never quite appreciated the limits to his power.

I'd like to focus some attention in this weblog to the question of how to make the Kerry administration succeed, to understand the limits of the next president's power and how to give him more room to move. Why not? -- While everyone else is focusing on the election, a few of us should think about what might come next. I've created a new category here, "The 1/21 Project," for the day after the inauguration. I'd welcome other thoughts on this in the comments and on other blogs that link here.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 19, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

"Hardworking Individuals and Married Couples"

This happened a couple of weeks ago, but a link in Tim Noah's story in Slate about Kerry's international tax proposal led me to actually look at the Treasury's politically motivated analysis of the Kerry tax plan. This attracted a bit of attention, because public employees are prohibited from working on such political projects. (In this case, they prepared the analysis at the request of Tom DeLay, so it might more accurately be called the DeLay tax plan.)

In addition to the obvious misuse of public resources, I noticed three things in this analysis that I hadn't seen mentioned before:

1. The Treasury actually did a distributional analysis, of sorts, on the Kerry plan. This is exactly the kind of analysis that they have not been willing to do on most of the Bush proposals, leaving independent organizations such as the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute to do the work of figuring out how policy changes would affect different income classes.

2. Treasury didn't use the standard categories that would go into a distributional analysis, such as income quintiles or households with income in certain ranges. Instead, they used a category of their own devising: "Hardworking Individuals and Married Couples."

3. And what's the definition of the new population category called "Hardworking Individuals and Married Couples"? To me, it brings to mind the guy who guts chickens for a living ten hours a day and his wife who works at Wal-Mart. But I must have too bleak a view. Apparently this category refers to people who earn more than $200,000 and get much of their income from dividends and capital gains. I don't want to engage in class warfare, and I'm sure some of these people are very hardworking, but that just doesn't seem like the appropriate term.

This whole thing is just disgraceful. To top it all off, every Treasury release now has the following useful public service announcement at the bottom:

America has a choice: It can continue to grow the economy and create new jobs as the President's policies are doing; or it can raise taxes on American families and small businesses, hurting economic recovery and future job creation.

I'm sure Brad DeLong can confirm that this is the kind of thing that, in the Rubin/Summers Treasury Department -- and in fact in every Treasury Department from Hamilton and Gallatin forward -- not only would not have been done, but wouldn't even be considered.

Finally, by the way, Noah's piece wasn't about this at all, but rather, made the very important point that there's nothing protectionist about Kerry's international tax proposals. Sure, Kerry talks about "Benedict Arnold companies," and there's a little populist bluster there. But basically this is a proposal to restore tax neutrality between foreign and domestic income, which is something everyone agrees is desirable, and to eliminate the incentives for purely paper transactions that have no value except to reduce taxes. It took a long time for someone to point that out!

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 16, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Ideas in Liberal Politics, Part 2

In the previous post on this subject, I used a mostly-wrong comment by Jonah Goldberg as a starting point to riff on the differences between liberals and conservatives in having a sense of their own intellectual traditions. I read another piece last week that I want to comment on, although my comments will be less extensive because the source material is mostly correct, but I have a slightly different take.

A friend called to my attention Peter Levine's blog, and in particular Levine's essay-post, "What's wrong with the left, and what we can do about it,". Levine is an exemplary public scholar, who has written serious books on political philosophy but also devotes himself to more practical questions such as how to involve young people in politics. (I don't know him, although we travel in similar circles.)

I recommend reading Levine's essay in full, but here are his basic points and my comments:

1. That "the Left" (defined broadly) should not assume that its disadvantage is merely in money, message discipline and viciousness, and attempt to emulate "the Right" in those categories. I basically agree that there is a profound mistake in looking at the institutions, the tactics, and the tone of the right and treating them as a formula for political success, to be emulated as closely as possible. For example, I have always thought that people who argued, "We need a Heritage Foundation for our side" were ignorant about what the Heritage Foundation actually does and just how effective it is (or, to be frank, it isn't), and also inattentive to the strengths and shortcomings of the existing constellation of liberal and liberal-centrist policy organizations and media operations.

On the other hand, you do need money to develop a message and get it across to people, and you do need to respond to attacks and critiques as they come along. Too often, the lag between a Bush or Republican claim and the response has been measured in days, not hours. (The best example: it took two days before any Democrat/liberal was able to criticize Bush's "Mission Accomplished" appearance on an aircraft carrier, and by the time the criticism -- for wasting federal dollars, for dishonesty in explaining why Bush had to land on the carrier -- arrived, it merely gave the photo op another day or two of free time. Fortunately, that stunt backfired of its own accord.) There must be a capacity to respond in the same news cycle to anything that comes up. That's not something that would "damage an already fragile civic culture," as Levine warns. It's just one of the rules of the game in the world of modern media.

2. That "the Left lacks vision...their crisis is intellectual not tactical." True, or as true as such a broad generalization can ever be, but Levine says some things in support of this position that deserve further examination. First, he argues that it was back when Bush seemed most likely to win reelection that "Democrats had the incentive to develop new visions and new directions. They failed to do so." Now, Levine argues, because it seems more likely that Kerry can win merely on Bush's failures and his own better tactics, he will not develop an alternative vision, which will leave him with no mandate except to maintain the New Deal order.

This seems to be a variation on the mythology of the right, in which the darkest moments, particularly the aftermath of Goldwater's defeat in 1964, have been reinterpreted as an era in which their great forefathers (as discussed in my previous post), hiding in their catacombs, designed a philosophy. I'm not sure that theory holds up to scrutiny. It's not how the ideas associated with the New Deal came into being, or Clinton's governing agenda, which was designed after the election and ultimately turned out to have been adapted from Paul Tsongas's. The real possibility of having to govern the country will induce more creativity than the blank slate of futility.

It's also a little unfair to the other candidates. Although Kerry has not yet put forward much of a "new vision or new direction" -- it's certainly not too late -- I would continue to argue that Edwards did -- in a way that will certainly influence the Democratic Party in the future -- and so did Lieberman and Kucinich, whether you agree with either one of them or not, and while Dean's campaign had less substantive content than one would have expected, his stance and tone were an important challenge to Democrats and can be as important as ideas.

[Update: In the first version of this paragraph, I called the Dean campaign "astonishingly vacuous." While I think it was suprising to realize that a campaign that attracted such broad support at first really didn't have much to it besides opposition to the war and excitement about the campaign itself, that phrase went much further than I meant to. I thank Lerxst and other commentors for calling me on it.]

Levine notes that "political candidates are not the only ones who develop new political visions," which is truer than he realizes. In fact, I don't think they can develop them at all. Having worked on a presidential campaign in 2000, I came to the conclusion that the hardest thing to do within a campaign, even an idea-driven campaign, is to develop new ideas, because the field operation, the message-of-the-day, the press, dealing with the candidate's time, etc., consume everyone's energy. The best a campaign can do is to pick up on and promote ideas already developed, and so I see campaigns as the moment where we measure the availability of new ideas in the larger world, and the success of other groups and people in developing the kind of visions and policy blueprints that candidates can use. If the candidates fail to do so, it is at least in part an indication of the failure of the think tanks or other institutions that are supposed to do the job.

Levine goes on:

the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the Left?people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit's Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos?strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don't see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the "blogosphere," I don't know who they are.

At the risk of seeming blog-o-centric, which I'm not, I think in fact there's a lot of deeper thinking in this sphere, and the potential for more. Leaving Kos, whose site is really a campaign news site that's also a platform for a lot of other people, aside, I don't agree that Marshall and Drum are "strictly tactical thinkers": they are exactly what's often missing in the idea-generation process of politics: people with tactical intelligence about politics who also can go deeper on policy and public philosophy. All of us, whether we write blogs or opinion journalism in traditional outlets, face the temptation to jump at every stupid thing we see come out of the administration, and there are so many that every blog journalist can sometimes be the first to catch some outrage and garner some quick notice. I've done it, and it's usually when this weblog gets the most hits and trackbacks. To use a phrase that Bush might have used once, it's like "swatting flies" instead of maintaining the discipline to really construct an alternative vision. But there are a lot of flies, they're big and they bite. I take from Levine the point that we should try to maintain that discipline, and also to acknowledge blogs like Matthew Yglesias's or Crooked Timber, among others, that go well beyond the day-to-day fly-swatting.

We also all struggle with the fact that, as much as we may understand that we need an alternative liberal philosophy, all the theorizing is for nothing if we don't change the underlying conditions of government. If we don't restore some revenues for the public sector, we will wind up in less than two decades with a deficit equal to 10% of GDP, and at that point, no way to save the economy except to pare tje public sphere back to its bare essentials. If we don't stop the progression toward federal courts packed with judges determined to return to pre-New Deal jurisprudence, there will be as little opportunity for new visions as FDR had in his first years. And if we cannot bring an end to American unilateralism, we will soon live in a world so hostile that we have virtually no ability to influence cross-border concerns such as air, water, labor, security. Changing these circumstances are preconditions for any fresh vision of national possibilities, and the first step toward changing these circumstances is to change administrations.

Back to the blog issue: on the whole, I think good blogs by smart people have the capacity to put the process of debate and development of ideas on a much faster track. Imagine the old days when an interesting article might appear in a quarterly such as The Public Interest or the older American Prospect, it would circulate, letters would appear in the next issue a few months later, others would respond, the author would reply and strengthen her ideas, then a more prominent figure might give a speech based on the idea, a member of Congress might draft the idea into legislation, a foundation might fund a demonstration project and then an evaluation. Months and then years would pass. Some, not all, of this knowledge production can be done so much more quickly now, and blogs, together with online platforms associated with traditional media, think tanks, or independent projects like opendemocracy.net make up the new marketplace of ideas, now speeded up like every other marketplace: the ebay of ideas.

3. That liberals/Democrats are the real conservatives, and good for them. This is Levine's most provocative and subtle point.

Today's progressives are not only conservative about New Deal institutions. They are eager to conserve natural ecosystems and minority cultures (especially poor, indigenous ones). They are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. They are also more resistant to scientific innovation: witness their response to genetically engineered crops. They have adopted traditional conservative priorities by objecting to federal power in the areas of law enforcement (the USA Patriot Act) and education (No Child Left Behind). And they are the biggest defenders of institutions, such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that promote the high culture of the past.

This isn't quite right -- for example, it's currently the right that resists scientific innovation or independence; what progressives are more likely to object to is the rapid commercialization of technologies such as genetic engineering before the health and environmental implications are fully understood. (Wow, there's a probably whole essay here in how the Enlightenment pairing of scientific progress with rapid development of market capitalism has essentially been undone by this group of radicals. But that's for another day, and probably another writer.) Mostly Levine's point is correct. And Levine could make his point more strongly by discussing the deficit, where once again, liberals will find themselves in the position of restoring fiscal sanity, whether they like it or not.

4. That this "Left-Conservatism" is not enough of an agenda to win elections. Here Levine gets very close to an issue that I've tried to deal with a lot, although he gets at it in a different way. Levine sees paralyzing contradictions in this conservatism, and I agree. I think the problem is not the conservatism so much as the fact that liberals don't own up to it. Despite all evidence, we operate on the assumption that those who call themselves conservatives advocate modest ambitions, a limited government, and open markets. In contrast, liberals think they are offering compassion, greater spending, bigger government. The Bush agenda of short-term spending and long-term starvation has left Democrats disoriented. There's no kid we can point to who's not getting her school lunch because of Bush -- although there will be before long. As I've argued before, Democrats haven't been slick enough about breaking the tackle, and moving the occupy the space that the other side has left open. For example, the creative response to a $550-billion piece-of-crap Medicare prescription drug bill is not a $1 trillion alternative, as the House Democrats proposed. It is a $300 billion alternative that's structured to be far more effective and generous to individuals. It's the challenge of getting beyond the politics of "more," and finding a way to embrace what is conservative in the best sense about our vision and recast it as a more forward-looking and less reactive set of ideas.

These are Levine's macro-comments, and then he gets into some specific suggestions for the substance of a liberal vision, which are good. I have some comments on those as well, but I'll cut this post off right here and respond to the rest of his brief and eloquent essay soon.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 16, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Military Families and Minority Votes

I've been intrigued for a while by the possibility that military families, whether active duty military or their relatives or veterans, might start to turn away from Bush over the experience of Iraq. This was first fully explored by Ryan Lizza in The New Republic a few weeks ago. The New York Times picked the issue up over the weekend.

Both Lizza and the Times note that there is little reliable data to understand the voting preferences of military families. It is always assumed that they are overwhelmingly Republican, but my favorite pollster, Celinda Lake, told me last fall that Democratic pollsters have written off military families for so long that there is no baseline to measure whether they are changing. If there is a shift against Bush, it will be hard to spot.

I'm curious, though, about something that goes one level deeper, and so there's probably even less solid data: What is the impact of the war, the long call-ups, the casualties, the reserve call-ups, and the feeble explanations from Bush on the attitudes of African-American and Hispanic military families? The U.S. Army is about one-third African-American, based on the last statistics I could find (they seemed to have stopped reporting these in the mid-1990s), and the other branches less so. The military has traditionally been one of the most important pathways to the middle class for minorities, in part because it can provide education and job training and make up for the failures of schools in minority communities.

It has also been a conservatizing force for African-Americans, as Colin Powell symbolizes. I think there are a few Republican strategists who know -- even if it's beyond them to actually achieve it -- that for the Republican Party to maintain its dominance in the years to come, it must make some inroads with minority voters. When the party is only getting five to ten percent of the black vote, there's a lot more upside potential there than with a white vote that the Republicans are already winning most of, especially among men. And I think those who knew that also understood that there are two institutions that can recruit African-Americans toward a more politically conservative political outlook and potentially the Republican Party: the church and the military. An underlying goal of the "Faith-Based Initiative," I believe, was to expand the role of churches, to bring them in league with the conservative agenda and to get people into the habit of thinking that it's the church, not government, that provides needed services.

As the Faith-Based Initiative has turned into more of a slush fund for right-wing evangelical groups, I think that not much of this has happened, although I could be very wrong. And as the Army and other branches of the Armed Forces turn into something that doesn't look quite as much like a job training and education program, I think it's likely that there will be a significant backlash among black military families, and probably Hispanic families as well. It may even extend to the military personnel themselves, who are generally assumed to be out of reach for Democrats. After all, African-Americans start off with deep hostility to Bush, they are less likely to have the deep deference that some of those quoted in the stories show ("I don't like this Iraq thing but I support the president because he's the president," to paraphrase), and they have always strongly opposed the Iraq war.

This is purely speculative and I'd love to find out there's real data on it. I think it's just one more reason the Republican Party's future is bleak.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 14, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The 527 Committees, Considered as Policy, not Law

This post began weeks ago as an attempt to grapple with the issues posed by the 527 committees, those independent political groups that are the subject of a hearing at the Federal Election Commission tomorrow. Then it morphed into comments on the
question of whether the FEC might inhibit the free expression of nonprofit groups that aren't political committees. (I think this is not a real danger.) Then it became some of both, and reached Robert Caro length. Just to salvage something from this effort, it appears here pared back to one question that's particularly interesting to me and hasn't received much attention. That said, this is still a long and dense post.

The draft rules before the FEC cover all sorts of issues that don't need to be resolved, but the more urgent questions have to do with the legal constraints on the independent political committees set up for this election. I don't have an opinion on those questions, because each time I look at them, I see them differently. But just to set the context: The first question has to do with the "allocation rules," by which a committee such as Americans Coming Together, which is registered as a Federal Political Action Committee but also has a "nonfederal" arm, divides contributions between the two parts. The PAC can only take contributions of $5,000 or less; the nonfederal arm can take unlimited sums, including most famously those promised by George Soros, who established the foundation I work for. (I should say right here that nothing in the foundation is connected to his political activities, and this weblog is totally separate from my work at the foundation, so there are at least two wide degrees of separation between these comments and Soros.) The second question has to do with the other major 527 created to support Democrats, the Media Fund, which is not registered as a political committee at all. Here the question is whether a committee that, like ACT, has no purpose other than to influence a federal election needs to register and be subject to the contribution limits for at least part of its spending.

Loyola Law professor Rick Hasen, whose Election Law Blog is invaluable whether you need an expert-level immersion in these issues or just need to follow the major developments, had an op-ed in the L.A. Times a month ago, claims the argument is a lot simpler than it seems:

The 527s do not coordinate with candidates or parties. Unlike the political parties, 527s are not selling access to elected officials in exchange for large donations.

Under the Supreme Court cases that say one cannot limit spending on campaigns independent of candidates, it is hard to see how contributions to these groups could constitutionally be regulated.

The other side of the legalargument is probably best represented by University of Virginia Professor Dan Ortiz's lucid, concise brief to the FEC. If you care to read it, you'll see that the question rests on footnotes and concurring opinions in relatively obscure Supreme Court decisions. And while he makes the case that Congress can set contribution limits on independent committees, he does not answer the question of whether the FEC can do so in the absence of a clear legislative instruction.

But I have another question, and for the purposes of getting to that question, let's assume Hasen is right, and treat the legal and constitutional question as settled. As long as the committees act completely independently of candidates and parties, their spending cannot be restricted. The question I have, which is not the one before the FEC: Is that a desirable policy?

If the only goal of campaign finance regulation is to limit specific, quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of corruption between large donors and elected officials, it's probably an improvement to at least separate the large donors from the candidates. An elected official will probably know that a large donor gave to a favorable 527, but at least the official was not involved in soliciting the contribution. The particular problem that emerged in 1996 -- Clinton and others raising huge sums directly, promising everything from overnights in the Lincoln bedroom to interventions with regulatory agencies -- would be mostly solved.

But if you are concerned with the broader sort of general corruption, such as the influence of oil and gas interests on the energy bill or health insurance interests on the Medicare bill, cited by the Supreme Court in its decision upholding McCain-Feingold, then simply putting some distance between the individual elected official and the specific contributor doesn't solve much of the problem. If you are concerned with political equality, and ensuring that all candidates have an opportunity to be heard, it does nothing to help and may hurt. (In the special case of this year's presidential election, the 527s are perhaps helping level the field so Kerry is not so massively outspent, but most of the time in Congressional races 527s will, like soft money, merely enhance the voice of the already advantaged candidate, usually the incumbent.) And if you are concerned that candidates should have sufficient opportunity to speak for themselves, then it is actually undesirable. What Hasen sees as the constitutional strength of the 527s -- that they cannot coordinate their activities with the candidates -- is, to me, a major weakness. When the candidate is constrained by contribution limits and spending limits (had Kerry not opted out of the public financing system, the spending limit would have silenced him until the convention), but outside groups are free to spend, the fundamental process of democracy, in which candidates set agendas, make promises, and are held accountable for doing what they say they will do, will be broken.

My views on campaign finance reform were influenced by this 2000 article by Alan Ehrenhalt in Governing mazazine, about the political culture of Wisconsin, in which ads run by the two major interest groups in the states -- the labor unions led by the teachers' union, and the business and manufacturers group on the right -- far outspend the candidates themselves:

One morning in the fall of 1998, Judy Robson woke up to the sound of a radio ad talking about the special needs of older people. "Maybe it's for Geritol," she remembers thinking. But it turned out to be a testimonial--for somebody living in her hometown of Beloit, Wisconsin. This person sounded like a saint--willing to go to any length to make the lives of senior citizens a little brighter. "Who could that be?" she mused.

Then she found out. "Judy Robson," the announcer intoned. "She has given a lifetime of service for the community. Taking care of people, keeping them healthy."

To the unpretentious Robson, it was more than a little embarrassing-- it was bizarre. "Where on earth is this coming from?" Robson asked herself. It took her only a few seconds to figure it out. The testimonial was coming from the Wisconsin Education Association Council. Robson was running for the state Senate in a close race, and the teachers' union badly wanted her to win so that the Senate would stay in Democratic hands. They had launched a series of independent
expenditure ads that made her sound like Mother Teresa. But they didn't tell her about the ads because that might have been considered collusion--a felony under state law.

As the campaign proceeded, Judy Robson encountered a new batch of ads that were equally surprising but much less flattering. One of them showed her next to a lava lamp, and suggested that Robson, a student activist 30 years ago, was still somehow a representative of the
counter-culture. It said she had "never met a tax she didn't think was groovy."...

If you happen to be running for the [Wisconsin] legislature in a marginal district, there's a good chance you'll end up feeling like a pawn in someone else's very expensive game.

This is the result of a campaign finance system that's only mildly restrictive. States that have experimented with $100 contribution limits had an even greater shift from candidates to independent expenditures.

Why is this undesirable? Consider the Wisconsin situation. Suppose that Ms. Robson wants to run as an idiosyncratic Democrat, with positions not shared by the teachers' union? She doesn't really have that option -- her campaign is their campaign. Same for a Republican backed by business. They won't have the ability to balance competing interests that elected officials in a pluralistic democracy must have. (I don't know if this is how the situation is perceived in Wisconsin, or if Ehrenhalt's report still holds -- I just use this as a model.)

A frequent response when I've made this argument and cited Ehrenhalt is that organizations based around issues and membership, such as unions, have a vital role in democracy and should be encouraged to add their voice to elections. Which is very true. A business lobbyist quoted in the article puts it well:

"It's interesting," he says, "that the candidates think the campaigns belong to them. Politicians have deceived themselves that they are the source of honest truth and discussion in elections. Everybody has an ownership interest in the campaign. If we don't come in and talk about taxes and hold their feet to the fire, they may not talk about it at all."

That's a legitimate statement of the role that groups play in a pluralistic democracy, especially if you recognize that for the word "taxes," you could substitute, "schools," "health care," "the environment". But I would argue that candidates themselves should have at least as much capacity to drive their campaigns as outside groups, and so should be no more constrained in their spending than outside groups are.

And this also raises the question of whether groups that focus on issues in this way should be preferred to groups such as the current 527s that do not play that role, that have no objective and no existence except to influence certain elections. I think issue-focused groups have a certain legitimacy, and I worry about the idea that groups whose main purpose is to elect John Kerry can speak for him, but not to him. There is some precedent for treating issue groups differently: the small category that is known as "MCFL's" represent yet another category of political committee, in this case those that take only individual contributions and are organized around an issue. The League of Conservation Voters and National Right to Life are among the four existing MCFL's, but the barrier to becoming one is not high. Still, more generally, I'm not sure I trust regulators to make the judgment that one group is focused on issues and another just on candidates.

So, if Hasen is right, and independent groups of all kinds are going to play a large and mostly unregulated role in our political life, what is the best policy to deal with it? I believe there is a concrete public interest in ensuring that candidates have sufficient money and opportunity to speak for themselves at least as loudly as the independent groups. The top priority is to fix public financing systems so that no candidate ever faces the choice Kerry faced of either opting out of the system or being effectively silenced for six months. Let's be clear: It is the broken presidential financing system, and Bush's contempt for it, that created the 527 question, not the actions of any donor or operative. The system should be made more generous and more flexible. It should have a four-to-one match like the New York City system, and the state-by-state limits should be eliminated.

But I'm beginning to think that we need a more radical rethinking of campaign finance reform options would be in order, if the 527s survive in their current form. For many years, the American Civil Liberties Union advocated an approach it called "floors without ceilings." That is, public financing would be sufficient to allow candidates to be heard, but there would be no limits on spending and either no contribution limits or only very high contribution limits, along with disclosure. I've argued against this approach many times, and it has a lot of practical problems. For one, why would the public be willing to provide public funds to politicians if it did not at least come with strings attached to reduce spending? But if we are destined to live in a world in which independent political committees organized just to influence elections have no ceilings, then perhaps it is time to reconsider whether there is a way to let candidates have no ceilings as well. That would have the effect of bringing political money back into the candidates and parties, and restoring neutrality between candidate spending and issue spending. It would give up on the objective of reducing the corruption of large contributions, but given how little of McCain-Feingold would remains, I'm not sure that's such a great loss. It would be a tougher political sell than the kind of public financing that's coupled with restrictions, but all public financing is a hard sell.

I'm not ready to endorse this alternative, far from it. But I think everything should be on the table in considering the next generation of political reform initiatives, and I do mean everything. The questions are much bigger than anything that the FEC could ever hope to deal with in a rulemaking process.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 13, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack