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Sporadic, Reporting in...

Matthew Yglesias calls me on my lack of productivity recently, with the kind of generosity that truly makes me ashamed: Commenting on the article on blogs by Matthew Klam in the New York Times Magazine Sunday, (which I could not muster any opinion about, because I thought it was just hilariously written, especially the description of Ana Marie Cox's Wonkette persona), Matt laments Klam's lack of attention to the relatively small number of blogs by real experts such as Juan Cole. He then says, "A related -- and expanding -- blogospheric niche is the DC wonk blog, as seen by the efforts of Rotherham, Kilgore, Clemons, and Schmitt (sporadically). This, I think, holds a great deal of promise."

Promise, indeed. (As in, "Those who the gods would destroy they first call promising.") And he is right that while my last post provoked a lot of great discussion here and elsewhere, I haven't posted anything since, and was pretty fallow in August also. I could lie and say that I was busy helping George Soros write his blog, but there's nothing there yet either. (And I'm not.) But I do have an excuse: I have not really been a DC wonk for the last seven years. But now I can reclaim, the honorific. The last three weeks or so have been consumed by moving, finding a house, and suddenly a staggering number of things I've committed to do or to write, all in addition to settling into a new city.

So, between now and the election, despite a lot going on, I hope to get my productivity above "sporadic," and then attempt to fulfill the potential of a DC wonk blog that's actually written by a DC wonk rather than a Brooklynite. I hope I can retain some of the perspective on things that one can sometimes gain by being outside of the city and not so consumed by what crap is on the House floor this week -- those short-term obsessions that can get in the way of a deeper understanding of politics and policy.

Speaking of DC wonk blogs, in my next post I want to comment on something prompted by Steve Clemons's Washington Note, in his very moving commentary about Daniel Ellsberg and Chalmers Johnson. I don't think there's anyone who's more suited to the long-form, not-quite-daily blog than Steve. And he reveals dimensions of DC that are almost unknown, so that he can explain the complex motives and role of the neo-cons better than just about anyone. If he can maintain the productivity, this too holds a great deal of promise.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

It's Not What You Say About the Issues...

I can't disagree with Michael Tomasky's "unified theory of everything," which is basically that Republicans win elections by emphasizing character, whereas Democrats lose because they emphasize issues instead, because they believe that issues should be the ground on which elections are contested and also that the public supports them on issues.

As much of a liberal policy wonk as I am, I don't believe that issues should be the basis on which people base their votes. To rank character very high is not just a tactical necessity for candidates, it's perfectly legitimate for voters. First, this is not a parliamentary system, and rational voters know that they are not really choosing a platform along with a president, but rather are choosing a particular stance or attitude in relation to the other centers of power in the political system. And, second, in a basically affluent and tranquil society -- despite income inequality, despite 45 million uninsured, despite all that -- the problems we don't know about are still a bigger deal than the ones we do. To use Donald Rumsfeld's great taxonomy, the "unknown unkowns" are more worrisome than the "known unkowns" or the "known knowns." I don't mean to endorse the "9/11 changed everything" nonsense, but 9/11 was a vivid demonstration that how a president reacts to that, or any other, crisis is of far greater concern than the exact legislative specifics of his health care plan. (Bush ranks equally poorly by either standard.)

If I were running the issues department of the Kerry campaign, or any campaign, the sign above my desk would not be James Carville's "It's the Economy Stupid": my sign would say, "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you." That is, as a candidate, you must choose to emphasize issues not because they poll well or are objectively our biggest problems, but because they best show the kind of person you are, and not just how you would deal with that particular issue, but others yet to rear their heads. The best illustration of that is John McCain. The most admired political figure achieved his status in large part by his crusade for campaign finance reform. I've seen all the polls on this for seven or eight years, and "campaign finance reform," as an issue, is of interest to at most 5% of the public. I'd like for it to be otherwise, but it's not. And yet, for McCain, campaign finance reform is the perfect issue. It's tells a story about his independence, and his persistence, and it gives him a populist message without having to embrace more liberal economic policies. Clinton's much-derided "micro-initiatives" of the mid-1990s likewise sent a message about who he was: responsible, not extreme, neither a lover of government for its own sake nor a nihilist like Newt Gingrich. The insignificance of his gestures was a potent message in itself, and saved his presidency.

I don't think the problem with Kerry is that he talks about issues when he should be talking about character. That was Al Gore's problem. I think the problem is that the Kerry brain has split into an issues half, and a character half, and the two sides aren't communicating. The character half controlled the convention, and focused on Vietnam. Fine, but what did that say about how he would deal with Iraq? And the issues half has plans -- entirely good ones, even for Iraq. But those proposals don't reinforce any sense of the kind of person Kerry is, and how he would cope in a crisis.

I don't know enough about the internal politics of the Kerry world (in which I know almost no one) to speculate whether one side is represented by Bob Shrum or Michael Whouley or John Sasso or whoever. But whatever the factions are, they have to get it together. The issues and scheduling side of the campaign has to stop picking an issue of the day, based on the polls. It has to start trying to choose some issues that really emphasize whatever it is that they want to say about Kerry as a person that contrasts him to Bush (honest, brave, forward-seeing, smart, common-sense, independent, cares-about-ordinary-people -- pick one and reinforce it) and then use those issues to tell that story over a period of a week or more. And where they want to attack Bush on either character or issues, pick a point that best emphasizes a single point that they want to emphasize to draw the contrast with Kerry. That means, among other things, saying no to all the issue-advocacy groups that are besieging the campaign, brandishing polls and begging Kerry to devote a day to their cause.

To a voter paying modest attention, the Bush campaign would not seem less issue-oriented than Kerry's, and Bush can probably argue that he spends more time talking about issues than character. Bush is astonishingly unembarassed to march headfirst into issues that, to a knowledgeable observer, don't reflect well on his own leadership, such as Iraq, the Medicare bill, or further tax cuts. Bush understands, as Kerry does not, that what matters about those choices is not whether the public wants more tax cuts or whether the Iraq war is going well, but what those issues say about Bush as a person: resolute, unfazed, reliable. Kerry and his campaign need a little dose of that insight.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 14, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Anonyspin again

An e-mail reminded me of a post I did a long time ago about the recently adopted practice in newspapers of allowing quotes to be anonymous even when they represented the official position of the agency, and often adding little explanatory comments such as, "...asked not to be named in order to be more candid," even if the comment was no more candid than the official line of the day. I later learned that this practice results from an editorial directive to give some sort of reason that a quote is anonymous.

The e-mailer found this in the Times on August 22:

"If they were running against a Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas, nominee, they'd be down 10 points,'' said one Republican strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid being accused by fellow Republicans of disloyalty. "But they're not. They have the advantage of running against a guy who is basically a liberal from Massachusetts."

Not sure what the disloyalty is in a Republican strategies saying that Bush is going to kick Kerry's ass.

And then there's this classic, from the Times last Sunday, in an article on charges of employment discrimination at the RAND Corporation:

A department spokesman - the Labor Department does not allow its spokesmen and spokeswomen to be identified by name - said that breaking the rules did not necessarily disqualify a contractor.

"If someone gets a speeding ticket," he said, "it doesn't mean they can't ever drive again."

What is that about? A federal agency employs people to be its official spokespeople, and doesn't allow them to be named? Is there any possible reason for that? In other cases, the papers say that people "asked not to be named because his responsibilities do not include speaking to the press." Yet hear is someone whose only responsibility is to speak to the press, and yet he or she still wants to remain anonymous? Very strange.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 11, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

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

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

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

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

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

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

Given the depth of labor's difficulties, then, perhaps the reason that the answer to the question is "yes" is simply that we can't wait for labor to solve its problems, and maybe labor never will come back in its traditional form. Other elements of a progressive infrastructure -- such as environmentalists, the women's movement, mobilized consumers, and the voters now organized through loose transactional networks such as moveon.org rather than traditional membership groups -- have a presence in Washington and in our political life that could not have been imagined back in the days when Biemiller strode the halls of Congress, speaking for everyone. Yet those progressive groups do not speak to the economic issues that are the center of a progressive agenda and cannot speak for the families most struggling in the current economy. On the other hand, labor's agenda alone does not speak to all the elements of a progressive movement, such as women's rights and gay and lesbian rights. Still, there are efforts to build strong coalitions in which labor plays a part, such as the Apollo Alliance, a campaign to invest in energy independence which, if nothing else, can bring labor and environmentalists together for a cause.

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

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

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

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 6, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Back from vacation -- sorry for no posts!

Three weeks is the longest vacation I've ever taken in my life. I watched a little more TV than usual, but mostly just read and cooked and played hours of a 3-year-old's interpretation of the game of baseball. I wrote some blog posts, but never managed to post them, because of some problems with dial-up access, and just laziness. So here is one current post, and a couple of outdated ones. The second, on 527 committees and the Swift Boat ads, is long but is a key point that will come up again.

The major changes in my family's life, which I alluded to before, is that we are moving to Washington. I'm sad about leaving our wonderful neighborhood and settled life in Brooklyn, but we've lived in DC before and there are a lot of reasons its a good place for us right now. As the move proceeds, I will try to update the Decembrist frequently, but it may be necessary to put the blog on hold for another month or two. If so, I'll relaunch in the fall. I appreciate your patience, and the nice e-mails encouraging me to post more often.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 5, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Why Is It Suddenly Hard to Articulate the Case Against Bush??

More surprising than the Bush poll bounce is the fact that at this late date, it suddenly seems difficult to figure out how best to express the case against President Bush. Kevin Drum, William Saletan and others show just how much contested territory there is. Kevin's post is particularly interesting, challenging first "the consensus criticism among mainstream analysts: not so much that Bush is a captive of extremist ideology as that he's simply incompetent." Kevin picks apart several good versions of this theory, from Saletan and Andrew Tobias, and concludes, "Now, there's still nothing wrong with hammering away at this stuff, but in the end these are arguments about competence, and if you're not a policy wonk this kind of argument is just too arid and intellectual to be compelling. Michael Dukakis tried running on competence and got his head handed to him."

I have been an advocate for the incompetence argument for a long time, and while I could be described as a policy wonk, I don't think it can be dismissed this easily. I'm particularly surprised that Kevin, whose "bad CEO" theory has been the most sociologically acute explanation of Bush's performance in office, would so easily be scared off this line of attack. Granted, the most accurate case against Bush may not necessarily be the most effective -- the Republicans obviously find a completely false attack against Kerry's performance in battle more useful than the more accurate criticisms that could be leveled. ("Only intermittently effective as a Senator" doesn't have quite the ring of "He ran from a fight and betrayed us to the enemy.")

The voting public long ago lost most of its faith in Bush; to reinforce that loss of faith it is necessary to tell a story about the Bush presidency, one that rings true, makes sense, and gives people an explanation for their personal and economic anxiety. The basic premise of that story must involve a failure of leadership, and that failure is a story of incompetence.

Let's go back to Kevin's comment about Dukakis. His slogan was "competence, not ideology", in retrospect a vacuous, arrogant claim that could be knocked down simply by proving that Dukakis was not all that competent (Boston Harbor) and/or that he had some kind of ideology, which left him at the end denying that he was a liberal rather than making the case for whatever he was. Competence alone is not a case for election.

The case for Kerry cannot be simply "competence," and he knows that. But the case against Bush does depend on proving incompetence.

Consider, for example, the domestic policy proposals that Bush unveiled in his convention acceptance speech. The charges against them were as obvious and as uninteresting as the proposals: They're recycled. There's not enough detail. They're going to be expensive. All true, but not every idea has to be new; I don't need details; and if Bush really has the will, then maybe he can find the money -- he seems to find it for everything else.

What seems to have gone unsaid about this laundry list was that these weren't proposals that were blocked by a hostile Congress or that he couldn't find the money to fund. It's that most of them died as a result of his own incompetence and that of his administration. Could Bush have partially privatized Social Security in his first term? Quite possibly, but the commission he appointed, and the hacks he had working for him, didn't understand the first thing about it, and treated the serious technical problems they were paid to solve ? mainly the huge transitional costs -- as PR problems to be obscured by patently dishonest claims such as that Social Security is a bad deal for African-Americans. His "ownership society" proposals for tax-free accounts for health and retirement were so transparently just cover for another tax cut for the rich that he backed off even offering them in the State of the Union this year. His two domestic accomplishments, No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug bill, are basically sound ideas marred by profound incompetence in design. Most of those who support or supported the Iraq War now have the same view of that misadventure. And then there's allowing North Korea and Iran to become nuclear powers. On the macroeconomic front, while a president is not necessarily responsible for every turn of the business cycle that takes place on his watch, Bush is wholly responsible for his total indifference to the distinction between tax cuts and deficit spending that might shorten the recession and generate demand, and those that would not. That indifference is incompetence.

David Brooks is right that Bush's proposals hold the promise of a "transformational" presidency. The same was said of his 2000 "compassionate conservatism" campaign platform, and many Democrats worried that if Bush was truly able to integrate the idea of a supportive government with a fundamentally conservative vision, particularly by modernizing programs that Democrats are afraid to touch, it would represent a very powerful political transformation. But it didn't happen. And we know now that it's not going to happen. That's because "transformational presidents" are, above all, managerial geniuses. The success of FDR was not that he had a bunch of good ideas and pushed them through. It's that he managed a process of idea-development, collaboration, and disagreement among people he knew were far smarter than he was. For much of his eight years, Ronald Reagan was a transformational president, also because of his competence as a leader -- and before you balk at that, my point is that Reagan pretty much knew his limits, his strengths and weaknesses, and for the most part, he had competent people like George Schultz working for him. A great example of the Reagan administration's competence was the decision in 1982 to raise taxes after the tax cuts of 1981 produced a bigger deficit than expected.

Bush's case for himself is all about vision and will. He's willing to make enemies internationally, offend liberals, and transgress some of the principles of public life, because getting things done in a dangerous world sometimes requires that. For that reason, I think the two planks of Kevin's proposed case against Bush -- that he's going to get people killed and that he operates in secret -- actually reinforce the Bush message. The problem with Bush message is that he doesn't really have a coherent vision or will, and the problems we've created for ourselves didn't need to be created. That has to be the base of the message, and other points build on that. For example, Kevin's point that Bush should be critiqued for operating in secret doesn't have much bite if you assume the administration is competent. Given the threat of terrorism and other chaos, we need a certain amount of secrecy. The problem, however, is that the administration uses secrecy not to protect us, but to cover up its own incompetence and failings, and to suppress useful criticism.

Bush is almost the mirror image of Dukakis. Where Dukakis seemed to be claiming that "competence," without any content or clear aims, was his only ideology, Bush is claiming that ideology -- that is, a clear vision -- is in itself competence. That is, because he is clear about what he intends to do, you can count on him to do it. So, even if you don't fully agree with his ideology, you can trust him in a way that you can't trust Kerry, who does not have such a clear vision. It's an audacious claim, but totally false. To deal with it, Kerry needs a clear vision both on Iraq and the economy -- I think he's almost there, but it needs to be distilled down to its simplest elements -- but he also needs to challenge the Bush equation of ideology/vision with competence.

Kevin argues that "the Bush branding is just too strong" on this message. If so, I don't really see a way out. But you can't brand a lie forever. But there is now a solid two months, with people paying attention. The public has already lost faith in Bush based simply on results. They need to be constantly reminded why the President is responsible for those results, or they will fall back to the instinctive trust they give him because he is the president.

I don't have a more specific suggestion other than to always, always, always use phrases like "failure of leadership," and not try to brand Bush as simply too conservative. One way to make the case is to focus away from Bush and more aggressively on all the people around Bush, not one of whom is popular or trusted, although they are also not that well known. Cheney, Ashcroft (whose record of finding and prosecuting real terrorists ranks with Joseph McCarthy's record of finding real communists, i.e., zero), Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Feith/Perle, etc. One measure of Bush's incompetence is that he has surrounded himself with the very wrong people.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 5, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack