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Making More Democrats

I got an unusual number of "I tend to agree with you but not this time" comments on my post about proposals to rearrange the schedule of Democratic primaries, an issue in the contest for DNC chairman. To reiterate my point, I was skeptical that moving more red states or close states higher in the schedule would necessarily produce a nominee more appealing in those states, since the actual Democratic primary voters in those states are unlikely to be representative of the viewpoints of the other voters -- independents and winnable Republicans -- who will decide the state in the fall. I concluded by arguing that only open primaries, in which voters can vote in the primary of any party regardless of their registration, would have even the slightest chance of boosting a candidate with an appeal beyond his or her party's base. In fact, I would argue for the elimination of party registration entirely.

I dumped all this too casually at the end, so I should say more about it. Let's leave aside the possibility of radical strategic voting, such as Republicans supporting Dean in the Wisconsin open primary strictly because they believe he's the weakest Democrat for the general election. The real objection is that people who haven't identified as "Democrats" shouldn't be allowed to decide who the Democrats' nominee is. And for that reason alone, it's unlikely that any of the candidates for DNC chair who is not suicidal will want to admit to a room full of deeply identified Democrats that the solution to our party's misfortunes might lie in letting people who aren't as loyal have a voice in our selection.

Underlying my proposal is an idea that I wrote about a long time ago in some overlong and technically recondite comments on politics and technology: that the nature of "membership" has changed and political mobilization has to change with it. In that post, I used the example of an encounter I witnessed between the former president of a huge membership organization (the name of which I did not disclose, for no apparent reason: it was the American Civil Liberties Union) and a current leader of a newer online advocacy organization similar to but not moveon.org. The former president demanded to know how many dues-paying, long-term ("card-carrying") members the newer organization had; the newer organization responded with statistics about transactions -- so many million e-mails to Congress, etc. -- which were clearly non-responsive.

But at that moment I realized that was the point. It's been decades since a major mass-membership organization was formed and many of those that survive from the glory days in the 1970s -- with the notable exception of the ACLU -- have memberships with an average age well past retirement. Political activity for people under 60 now is more transactional. People don't join moveon.org, in the classic sense of sending $40 annual dues, so much as they participate in various activities. As long as the transactions work for them, they remain and their engagement deepens, but if the actions seem to be ineffective or participants disagree with their viewpoint or the issues aren't engaging, they're gone. The barriers to get out are as low as the barriers to get in. In the same way, I've been a loyal "member" of the world of Google users for probably six years, but it's purely transactional. I didn't pay anything or sign anything to get in, and I won't hesitate to get out if something better comes along.

Other political organizers are coming to understand the changing, looser nature of membership. I remember a top strategist at an environmental group proposing in late 2003 that rather than just go after voters who had gone so far as to join the Sierra Club or Audubon Society, they would look for voters who "look like environmentalists" on various demographic measures. Likewise, unions this year for the first time went after "union-like" households, since the barriers to actual union enrollment are so high that union membership hardly reflects the reality of working-class voters. This idea has also informed the "Open-Source Union" strategy proposed by Joel Rogers and adopted in some ways by the Service Employees' Union.

All these attempts to broaden the base to which these organizations speak reflect an understanding of the changing nature of membership and relationship between people and institutions. Political parties should recognize that as well. I don't advocate an open primary because I want strongly identified Republicans to choose the Democratic nominee. Rather, I want it to be possible for someone who has not strongly identified as a Democrat to decide at the last minute that one of the Democrats is appealing to her. In addition to possibly helping find a nominee more likely to appeal to those loosely-affiliated voters, the act of voting in a Democratic primary might be one of those "transactions" that deepens the individuals interest in the party. More generally, I would advocate making the barriers to participation in voting -- whether in a primary or a general election -- as low as they are in most of the other realms of modern life.

It would be great to see a candidate for DNC chair who was willing to think beyond the party's base in this way, but it's unlikely, not because some of the candidates aren't imaginative enough, but for institutional reasons. But the lessons that drive moveon.org, the SEIU, environmental groups, and software companies should not be lost on the political parties.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 25, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Was the "Republican Revolution" Always a Scam? Or Did It Become One?

I highly recommend reading Andrew Ferguson's account of GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff's nefarious career in the Weekly Standard. Some of this is a clip job, but not all of it, and Ferguson pulls no punches on Abramoff or on his coterie, which includes Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist. I had not realized before that Abramoff was not just this decade's State-of-the-Art Washington Sleazeball (to borrow the title of an unforgettable 1985 profile in the New Republic of Roger Stone by a veryyoung Jacob Weisberg), but in fact was deeply immersed in the culture of movement conservatism and the battles to take control of institutions like the College Republicans that brought Reed, Norquist and Karl Rove together. (Ferguson does not mention Rove.)

The core of the story is this: Abramoff and his partner, former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, milked Indian tribes for hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying expenses in support of their gambling interests, most notably being hired by a Louisiana tribe to prevent a rival Texas tribe from opening a casino, and then turning around and successfully pitching their services to the abused Texas tribes. Ferguson notes that Reed, "is far more famous, and far more careful with his reputation. As a pillar among conservative evangelicals and an ardent foe of gambling, Reed refuses to take casino tribes as clients." So, therefore Reed was hired to do the work of closing down the Texas casinos by "riling up our pastors," though paid by Abamoff and Scanlon with funds from the Louisiana tribes. There is much more to the story, some of it shocking even to those incapable of being shocked and some of it hilarious, such as a "think tank on the beach" in Rehoboth, MD, through which millions were funneled.

Ferguson admirably does not treat this case as a matter of a pair of rogues, but as a parable for the Republican power structure. He concludes by quoting Norquist, from 1995:

"What the Republicans need is 50 Jack Abramoffs," Norquist said. "Then this becomes a different town."

It was a bold statement, typical for the time, but even then it raised a question we now know the answer to: Would the Republicans change Washington, or would it be the other way around?

The answer, Ferguson insists, is that the noble ideals of the Republican Revolution were ultimately corrupted by Washington:

Stripped of its peculiar grossness, Abramoff's Indian story really is just another story of business as usual in the world of Washington lobbying... That closed, parasitic culture of convenience--with its revolving doors, front groups, pay-offs, expense-account comfort, and ideological cover stories--is as essential to the way Republican Washington works, ten years after the Revolution, as ever it was to Democratic Washington.

I'm sorry, but that's bullshit. The Republicans did change Washington; they made it fundamentally and profoundly more corrupt. There was plenty of corruption in "Democratic Washington," but even leaving out the "peculiar grossness" of this one, you won't find anything remotely comparable to this in the decades of Democratic control. (The first sentence of Ferguson's paragraph above is actually kind of funny. It makes you want to come up with parallels, like, "Stripped of its peculiar grossness, the Manson Family was just another story of a close-knit group of people.")

Nor is there anything in this story to support the idea that something changed between 1995 and today, that an idealistic dream became corrupted. This kind of corruption was built into the Gingrich/DeLay/Norquist/Rove/Abramoff/Ney syndicate from the very beginning, and it got worse only as its ability to exercise power grew unchecked.

Like the idea that there is a "Social Security crisis," the unchallenged assumption that pre-1994 "Democratic Washington" was a cesspool of corruption has been a protective shield behind which the Republicans operate with impunity. It will take some time to break this down, but it is about time for Democrats to stop apologizing for Speaker Jim Wright's $55,000 book deal 15 years ago, and start talking about Reform, Reform, Reform.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Rearranging the Primaries

Two things are predictable in the months after a Democratic presidential election loss: sniping between the Democratic Leadership Council and the party's liberals -- even if there's very little basis for it -- and proposals to tinker with the schedule of Democratic presidential primaries to produce a more electable nominee. Steve Rosenthal of Americans Coming Together proposes that the primary schedule begin with the five states that were closest in 2004, to better prepare the candidate for the general election, an idea which happens to have the advantage of keeping Iowa and New Hampshire at the top of the heap. In contrast, Simon Rosenberg, a candidate for DNC chair, has proposed that "other regions" play a role in the early process, keeping Iowa and New Hampshire in the first group but ending their gatekeeping role.

I've only spent a total of maybe two frozen weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire during primary season, but it's enough to put me loosely in the "other regions" camp. But this is not an easy puzzle to work out. I've always been tempted to start in Missouri, arguably the state most representative of the various regional and demographic forces at play, but as with any large state, it would lose the retail politics aspect of Iowa and New Hampshire, and a television campaign would give even more of an advantage to money and the "wealth primary" that precedes the votes. I'm not sure this year's schedule was that badly designed: after Iowa and New Hampshire, Kerry didn't have the nomination sewed up, making South Carolina and the other Southern primaries as important as they've ever been. If either John Edwards or Wes Clark had consistently won those Southern primaries, he might well have claimed the nomination from Kerry.

Although it's also hard to argue that either one of them wouldn't have been eaten alive by the Bush slime machine just as Kerry was. Kerry had his weaknesses as a candidate, but it's hard to argue that, from the candidates available, Democratshad a stronger one. That's why the DLC doesn't have much of an argument (if you think Bush portrayed Kerry as inconsistent, imagine what they would have done to Joe Lieberman!), and also why the calls to rearrange the primaries aren't that relevant.

But the big fallacy of these schemes is this: there is absolutely no reason to think that doing well among Democratic primary voters in a given state is any indicator that a candidate would do well in that same state in a general election. Consider that it takes about 40,000 votes to come out of the Iowa caucuses with a decisive victory. It takes 750,000 votes to win Iowa in the general election. Those 40,000 hard-core, often unionized or college-town Dems are no indicator of a candidate's appeal to the vast number of less partisan, less organized and more conservative Iowans in the general. Or, one could start in the South: the key to winning the South Carolina primary, or most Southern primaries, will be African-American votes, whereas the key to winning even one southern state in the general election would be combining extraordinary African-American turnout with some appeal to Southern whites.

The problem with our last two Democratic nominees -- and this was even more true of Gore -- is not their inability to reach Democrats. It's their inability to get quite enough support from independents and loosely affiliated voters to overcome the solid Republican base. To solve that problem, there's only one solution in the primaries: an open primary. Yes, that would mean letting people who aren't officially Democrats participate in choosing the Democratic nominee. But we live in a time when such affiliations are looser and more flexible. Democrats and independents who had a strong positive feeling about John McCain in 2000 helped him win the New Hampshire Republican primary that year; if that hadn't happened, the same independents might have swung the Democratic primary for Senator Bradley. Without arguing that either McCain or Bradley would have been better candidates for their parties in the fall, because each had their own weaknesses, it is certainly true that either one of them would have had a broader appeal, going beyond their party's core.

There is certainly potential for mischief in an open primary, as in Gray Davis's effort in California to select his own right-wing opponent in 2002. But the potential benefits of finding a candidate who can reach beyond the party's base outweigh the potential mischief. Here's my proposal: Let's get rid of party registration altogether. If you want to participate in the Democratic party's selection process, for that moment you're a Democrat, and vice versa. For the Democratic party to reach the broadest population, it needs more than just people whose loyalty is deep enough that they declared their allegiance formally and months in advance.

As the next step, I would eliminate voter registration altogether, but that's a fight for another day.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 22, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Unity in Opposition

Everyone's into renunciation now.

Nick Confessore catches the troubling political dynamic that leads too many Democrats to act as if we're playing a normal political game, in which a little compromise, a little bipartisan cooperation, might pay off in some way and perhaps even restore a Democratic majority. He suggests that the price of enforcing discipline, so that the party of opposition faces the reality of opposition, might not be too high. His particular test has to do with Democratic members of Congress who -- hypothetically -- defect on Social Security to support the White House's privatization scheme. He acknowledges that on some issues, Democrats are given a pass for reasons of region or constituency, but there is no reason that Social Security should be such an issue. At an extreme, he says, what would be the cost if such Democrats faced primary challenges? They might well lose their primaries (he is probably imagining Southern white members who might lose a primary to a more liberal African-American), although the primary winner might be unable to hold the seat for the Democrats. But what is the cost of one fewer seat in the permanent minority? What is the marginal value of one more, especially if it's a defector?

The point is right, and the culture of an opposition party should indeed try to promote coherence and unity. In fact, in my fantasies, I'd apply it retroactively: Democrats who supported the Bush Medicare bill, one of the most predictably disastrous pieces of legislative garbage in the history of social policy, should get some heat. Imagine if the party had been able to enforce some unity in opposition on the likes of Ron Wyden and Max Baucus. The bill would have failed, Republicans would have been responsible for it, Bush would have one fewer pseudo-accomplishment to carry into the election, and best of all there would be an extra trillion dollars available for things like a real cheaper-but-better drug benefit, deficit reduction, and even the small amount of money needed to improve the long-, long-term health of Social Security.

That didn't happen, obviously. I'm not sure I see the same dynamic on Social Security, though. Medicare was a trap: all Democrats were for a prescription drug benefit, and some of them made an unfortunate calculus that if they opposed this one, they would never see a prescription drug benefit again. Or perhaps they hoped they could fix it later. Few Democrats are out there in the same position on Social Security privatization. The distinction, I suspect, is not going to be between Democrats who support the president and those who don't, but those who might allow some legitimacy to private accounts to creep in to their rhetoric, and those whose position is no way, no how, never. I think that if a member of Congress wants to say that he can imagine private accounts as an add-on to benefits such as the Clinton-Gore USA Accounts, or takes a somewhat different view of the urgency of the need to shore up Social Security's financing, that's not grounds for excommunication. In fact, I think liberals need to be able to say something responsive to the appeal of privatization and greater risk for greater reward -- I'll have more to say about that shortly.

I also think that the business of enforcing such discipline is pretty dicey. The potential Democratic defectors are relatively few and they are not in leadership. The only weapon that can be used against them is the primary challenge, which is a very blunt instrument. And it's very hard for the party leadership to threaten or support a primary challenge against a sitting member. Even for the Republicans -- who use the Club for Growth as their hitman -- that would be an extreme, unprecedented act, punishment only for the most extreme of defections or misconduct. Used loosely, it would endanger the leadership's support from other members as well -- even defectors have friends.

If I wanted to deter Democrats from cooperating with the Republicans, I would visit them at night and introduce them to The Ghost of Conservative Democrats Past: Mr. Charlie Stenholm. That's former Congressman Stenholm to you. A man as cooperative and conservative and bipartisan as a Democrat can be, going back to the Reagan tax cuts, and what does he have to show for it? A nice pension, because Tom DeLay redistricted him out of his seat.

Nick wonders whether the tactics he envisions were used in the early 1990s within the Republican party to enforce unity on tax issues. I don't think so, but it's more complicated than that. The defectors in the 1990s were the anti-tax faction, and they gained power by fighting internal battles for leadership positions. Gingrich beat the established party leadership's choice to succeed Dick Cheney as minority whip, and Dick Armey ousted another "appeaser" -- Jerry Lewis of California -- for another leadership post. The most interesting thing about this period was that some of the most useful supporters of the Gingrich/Armey revolution were genuine moderates, like Nancy Johnson of Connecticut. They were, in a sense, the Stenholms of their day, sick of being kicked around by the Democratic majority and understanding that the only way out was through a strong, ideologically coherent leadership -- even if the ideology was not quite their own.

There are far fewer real Democratic defectors than their used to be, simply because the Stenholms and Tauzins and Shelbys of the past have either become or been replaced by right-wing Republicans. For those who remain, one would hope that they would recognize what Nancy Johnson did: your voice has a lot more weight in a party in power than one out of power.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 20, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

The Politics of Renunication

Great minds may think alike, but it only counts if you get it
written down in time. Story of my life. I've been puttering for a week
on comments in response to Peter Beinart's New Republic essay
calling for a more anti-terrorist Democratic Party modeled on postwar liberal anti-communism, but Josh Marshall
yesterday wrote almost exactly what I had drafted and what was in my head, right down to the basic structure of the argument, only better put.
So this will fortunately be a good deal shorter and perhaps just a gloss on Josh's

As it is for Josh, the emergence of liberal anti-communism in the late 1940s,
and the founding of Americans for Democratic Action, is a great
foundational myth for me, so Beinart's invocation of the period almost has me hooked. I think there is a small school of thought emerging, which includes Josh and me and others, and in a different way Beinart, that is based on admiration of that era and that tendency, which has been out of fashion since the rise of the New Left and the disintegration of the liberal consensus in the late 60s. We finally have enough distance to draw some lessons from that era for our own time, much as some liberals of the last decade, such as E.J. Dionne, drew lessons from the Progressive Era. In that light, I'd like to strongly recommend a very new book: Kevin Mattson's When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism is a group biography of Reinhold Neibuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith and the less-remembered newspaper editor James Wechsler, with cameo appearances by some equally fascinating figures such as the popular historian and commentator Bernard DeVoto. Kevin is an intellectual historian at Ohio University and writes beautifully, and I suspect that this book will be a key document in this new appreciation of the postwar anti-communist liberals.

Of course, like all history, this is contested territory, so where Beinart treats postwar liberalism as if it were indistinguishable from Whitaker Chambers' Manichean view of a final battle for civilization, Mattson is equally attentive to domestic liberalism, civil rights, and the opposition to McCarthyism that was also prominent in the ADA view. They were not the soft anti-anti-communists who forgave or forgot communist influence in the CIO and Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential campaign, but they understood the danger of demagoguery, alarmism and false accusations and false choices as well. We know what Galbraith and Schlesinger would say today because they are alive and wonderfully productive, though Beinart treats his heroes contemptuously when they don't help him, saying, "Schlesinger, ironically, has moved toward a softer liberalism later in life." Of the others, it's quite likely that they would be no less concerned with civil liberties than mainstream liberals are today, not so much at the expense of a fight on terror as in recognition that it's not helping. Just as Wechsler noted McCarthy's record of never identifying a single actual communist, they would note John Ashcroft's comparable record of failure to identify and prosecute a single al-Qaeda terrorist. The fact that the threat is real is all the more reason to resist false choices about it and opportunistic misuse of it.

Of course, as Josh points out well, the metaphor is just absurdly strained. "Islamic totalitarianism" is real, it's a threat, but it is not the same kind of threat as Soviet totalitarianism in the 1940s and 50s. Soviet communism dominated half of Europe and much of the rest of the world. It controlled parties and front groups throughout the world, including in the United States. The liberal anti-communists had to deal with actual communists, supported by the Kremlin, in American labor unions and political movements. Are there al-Qaeda sympathizers in danger of obtaining direct control of major institutions in the U.S. and other countries? Are there countries or populations living under the domination of al-Qaeda totalitarianism? To ask it is to answer it. Al Qaeda is a huge and monstrous gang. It "threatens millions" in one major sense: if it gets a nuclear weapon it will use it. That's a big deal, but it's a very different deal. The one and only thing, I think, would be to make sure that they don't get a nuclear weapon. Yes, we can and should also destroy the monstrous gang. But there's no reason to believe that al Qaeda is the only monstrous gang that might aspire to commit mass murders in the future, and the others may not even be Islamic.

Beinart's metaphor reminded me of the period leading up to the Iraq War. I was not a "liberal hawk," rather, I was something more like a "liberal hawk wannabe." I certainly wanted to be as clear-eyed about the threat and the need for a response as, say, colleagues of mine were about Kosovo and people like Paul Berman and Michael Ignatieff were about Iraq. Or, I wanted to be like the postwar liberals. Who wants to be on the soft side of history? But as much as I temperamentally wanted to be on that side and not the Michael Moore side, I couldn't get there. I couldn't have faith in the Bush administration to do things right, I couldn't bring myself to see the threat of Iraq as in any way related to Islamic terrorism. In the same way, reading Beinart now, I want to be like the historical figures he invokes, but I can't make it across the bridge of his metaphor, sorry.

Beinart's argument might make more internal sense as an argument for invading Iraq. But that's now thoroughly discredited, even at the New Republic. So Beinart's is an argument for Iraq without Iraq. If it's just about al Qaeda, yes, we should go after al Qaeda and its sanctuaries and its appeal in the Islamic world with all necessary weapons and all confidence of success. Is that task so overwhelming that in the richest and most resourceful country in the world, we can't also think about health care and education? Of course not. I think Beinart is in exactly the same trap as John Kerry: Kerry wanted to argue toughness on terror, and had the freedom to do so, but the question of toughness has already been framed as the question of Iraq. Kerry couldn't possibly support the Iraq war as conducted, but he didn't have the option of redefining the question. Iraq was a setup, a trap, that prevented Kerry from demonstrating that, in fact, he did "get it" on terrorism and had for decades. It might have been a little easier to get out of the trap if he had not voted against the $87 billion appropriation for Iraq, but not much. But most importantly, the trap was not set by Kerry or by moveon.org.

If the argument is about some definition of "totalitarianism" bigger than al-Qaeda itself -- Saudi Arabia, Pakistan's leadership, Syria, the Palestinian leadership, Iran, some big worldview thing -- then I'd at least want to know what it is. What tangible policy choice should we be advocating that most Democrats do not currently advocate, if we want to take Beinart's path?

The only clear thing I see is the politics of renunciation. Beinart asks us as Democrats to renounce and excommunicate moveon.org, Michael Moore, and anyone who was uncomfortable with the use of force in Afghanistan. The politics of renouncing is, like, so late '80s. Democrats were always facing demands to renounce Jesse Jackson, and Jackson was constantly confronted with demands to renounce whatever third-string black nationalist was stirring up attention that week with a "kill whitie" chant, as if Jackson was somehow responsible for everything that another black person said. It was offensive and there's no end to it. Bill Clinton finally renounced the rapper and writer Sister Souljah, as a proxy for renouncing Jackson, thus adding a phrase to the lexicon that long outlasted the brief flame of Lisa Williamson's celebrity, but that is probably the only renunciation that had any political value, although it was trivial and contrived.

I'm not a pacifist and I didn't oppose the use of force in Afghan, but I'm sorry, I see no point to renouncing those who did. They had no significant effect on the political process or the party, and did not slow down the decision or obstruct the use of force. I may think they're wrong, but so what? Should one denounce Jeanette Rankin, the pacifist elected only twice to Congress but who voted against U.S. involvement in both world wars? Of course not -- she was a principled person, even if the world would be worse off had her view prevailed. There exist true pacifists, Esperanto-speakers, and Level 5 vegans who won't eat anything that casts a shadow, as well as garden-variety infantile leftists. Is it my problem that they find the Democratic Party marginally more congenial to their views than the crazy-interventionist Republican Party?? Why is it my obligation to renounce them?

As for Michael Moore -- who, incidentally, supported one of the presidential candidates that Beinart rather arbitrarily identifies as more "serious about terrorism, General Clark -- earlier I mentioned Kevin Mattson, author of the new book about postwar liberalism. As it turns out, Kevin has also written about Moore, critically, but with much more subtlety than Beinart. As he sees it, the problem with Moore isn't that he's soft on terror, but that "his own lampooning tendencies, his vulgar materialism, his tendency toward cynicism about American politics, his contempt for all the 'dumb guys' we have to convince" reflects a takeover of entertainment culture in political debate. I recommend it as a good example of the kind of serious, thoughtful criticism that would have improved Beinart's essay.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 10, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Blogs and Think Tanks

I let an unformed idea sneak out the other day in a post on a loosely related subject, and it attracted a lot of interest where people recognized the implications of what I was asking. The question was this: Can blogs -- and related network technology -- serve some of the purposes that one would want progressive think tanks to serve? (Ed Kilgore at NewDonkey.com put the case for new progressive think-tank capacity very succinctly last week. I particularly appreciate the distinction he politely draws between "real live think-tanks" that generate ideas and "talking-points distribution organizations.")

It's become clear to me from comments on other sites, particularly Matthew Yglesias, that I should have been clearer about what I meant. The term "think tank" obviously covers a multitude of sins. (As does "blog.") What I'm thinking of is the think tank as a generator and tester of new ideas and perspectives, in just the way that Kilgore suggests: "the product development side of the political business." For example, if there is a political need to present an alternative approach to Social Security private accounts, could a self-organized network of bloggers, commentors and other participants work out some of the technical and political problems collaboratively over a fairly rapid period? That is, agree on a basic framework that would be equitable and minimize risk to individuals, figure out a way to deal with transition costs, find a creative way to sell the plan, etc. (I recognize that there is a sizable faction that would argue that the only appropriate response to Social Security privatization proposals is to yell and scream that the conservatives want to destroy Social Security and let seniors eat dog food while giving trillions away to Wall Street, but I think at the very least there should be a Plan B on the shelf.)

I use this example because it's largely already occurring, with Kevin Drum, Kieran Healy, Brad deLong and others making significant contributions, even if they are not explicitly working together. On a broader question, such as the liberal response to terrorism, I just noticed the TerrorWiki, which uses a somewhat different approach to aggregate and refine ideas. The idea of collaborative monitoring of legislation that I mentioned in the original post is a more mundane version of the same thing.

A lot of questions remain, however: How will ideas and information developed through this method of never-concluded deliberation be wrapped up, in the way that recommendations or specific proposals from a think tank are often wrapped up? How will the analysis be delivered to members of Congress or other policymakers who are not necessarily blog-readers, which is one typical activity of such think tanks? How would one ensure that the mundane work such as number-crunching or literature searches gets done? How would one give the product of such an analysis the imprimatur of credibility that comes with a report from, say, The Urban Institute? Are any of these things necessary?

What actually would be the competitive advantages of such an approach: Speed? Spontaneity? Depth of collaboration?

I'm particularly interested in the potential of collaboration not only across blogs, but through wikis, or perhaps some other variation of social software yet to be developed. The Wikipedia definition of a wiki begins "Wikis generally follow a philosophy of making it easy to fix mistakes, instead of making it hard to make them." Although that generally applies to projects that are aiming to accumulate facts rather than ideas, so that the term "mistake" is well-defined, it is very much the spirit that I am looking for here. I'm envisioning a culture in which crazy, flawed, provocative ideas can be thrown out freely, and if there is some merit, however small, a process of correction and refinement will follow. The other day, for example, Kevin Drum proposed eliminating the corporate income tax -- a provocative idea I've been interested in also (in exchange for full taxation of dividends and capital gains) but that raises a lot of problems and questions. He got a lot of good response in his comments, but perhaps that process could be refined in order to come up with a more complete proposal.

Here's what people commenting on this idea thought I was referring to, but I'm not:

* More think-tank staffers starting blogs. Not a bad thing, and Max Sawicky, Steve Clemons, John Irons and others are good examples. But not everyone is capable of producing a good blog (indeed, the esteemed Becker-Posner team seems to be having some trouble), and people at policy think-tanks are already in a fairly privileged position to get their ideas into the public debate. More interesting are people outside that world who are capable of contributing to the development of ideas, from perspectives in business, within government (this would be a great opportunity for, for example, a government analyst who has to operate anonymously to provide some knowledgeable insight about policy), or academia. In fact, in the discussion of the need for progressive think tanks that I've been involved in for several years now -- without much to show for it -- one often hears an assertion like, "There must be a lot of academics who have really good policy ideas and want to get them into the public debate." That's not as true as one would hope; many academics in the social sciences are too caught up in the narrow internal questions in their own fields or the demands that go with advancement in the academy, but there are exceptions. Increasingly, a way to get out there as an exception is through a blog, such as Crooked Timber.

* Think tanks starting blogs. Again, if someone wants to start BrookingsBlog, that's not a bad thing, but not what I'm thinking of. In general, these are likely to be as interesting as John Kerry's blog. Especially for an organization that is a 501(c)3 non-profit, too much care is required with what goes out under the official imprimatur of the organization to allow the spontaneity and flawed ideas of a blog. (c)3's have to be very careful about lobbying and cannot do or say anything that implies electioneering. Just the review process alone would slow things down, something I've seen for myself. On the other hand, anyone running a think tank should not stand in the way of someone who wants to write a blog independently.

To me the gratifying thing about writing a blog has not been in reaching the broad public, which I don't expect to do, but in the community it forms, both internally (i.e., among commentors here) but across other sites and other commentors. Even if these communities are narrow by any standard of mass media, they are something that can be used much more creatively for the production of knowledge. I intend to devote some attention to this question over the next year or so, and encourage other thoughts or suggestions of people to talk to and things to read.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 7, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

There Are No Trial Balloons

The question has been asked in several contexts of whether Democrats understand what it means to be a real opposition party. Being an opposition party does just not mean opposing every official Bush proposal, especially when that opposition will be futile. Merely opposing things would mean accepting the Republican agenda but saying no. Real opposition, to my mind, means taking advantage of every opportunity to reframe the agenda around an alternative point of view. And one key to that is to make the party in power pay a very high price for its mistakes.

This is what the Republicans did to Clinton. It's not that they opposed every initiative or every nominee. Rather, they found the holes and blew them wide open. They didn't oppose the Clinton health plan, for example. They found flaws in the process, or ideas that were not well-developed, and blew them up until they stood for the whole thing. They took control of the agenda by forcing Clinton to defend the weakest points of his -- or other Democrats' -- proposals. They didn't oppose the 1994 crime bill, for example, they just picked at the idea of "midnight basketball" -- a perfectly successful urban crime-prevention strategy that was funded at $1 million a year in the bill -- until most of the rest of the initiative collapsed.

The Bush administration has just floated the idea of eliminating the employer tax deduction for health insurance. We can -- and I would like to -- have interesting conversations about the theory, if any, the administration is working from, , or about the tradeoffs under which this might possibly be a good idea, if you recognize that the employer-based health care system is unsustainable.

But that's me. I'm a policy geek. For those operating in something closer to the political realm, the obligation is different: Make sure that it is clear as day that the Republicans have just proposed eliminating the tax deduction for health insurance. That means you, the average hard-working American, are going to lose your health coverage -- I said lose your health coverage -- to finance even more tax cuts for the wealthy.

I don't care that it's not so much a proposal as a trial balloon leaked by some Treasury official whose only qualification to do tax or health policy is probably that he was the press secretary for a bunch of Republican congressmen and then spent two years in a higher tax bracket at a lobbying firm. I don't care that it probably won't really happen -- that's all the more reason to jump on it now, because it will go away and the window of opportunity for opposition will close. This is one of those moments to ask, what would the Republicans have done if Bill Clinton had proposed something like that? They sure wouldn't have pondered it from all sides like an intriguing story on NPR. They would do everything possible to ensure that Clinton owned it, so that years later it would be hard to believe that Clinton had never actually formally proposed such a thing.

Hitting Bush hard on the proposal to eliminate the tax deduction for health insurance is surely something that all factions of the center-left can be comfortable with. It should have been the only thing that anyone talked about over the last week. Everyone on the morning shows, every interest group in their statements on whatever subject was at hand should have been referring to it.

As far as I can tell, among progressive outlets that are more than one-person operations, only the Gadflyer has been reliably up in arms about the President's bizarre predilection to destroy the existing health insurance system with nothing to replace it, having published two superb articles on the subject here and more recently here. I can't find anything on this on the websites of the Center for American Progress or the Institute for America's Future, which includes TomPaine.com. Anyone? Anyone?

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 7, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Ideology or Interest?

You've probably seen the stories about the fact that college professors are largely liberal, backed up in part by data showing that Harvard, the University of California system, Columbia and U. Michigan were among Kerry's top contributors.

This data comes from The Center for Responsive Politics, which for many years has produced data that combines all the contributions from a political action committee as well as from employees of a company or organization. Generally, this is used to show interest or potential corruption, so, for example, the fact that a member of Congress gets money from a Wall Street firm is shown as evidence that the firm or industry has a corporate interest in the elected official. The fact that some unknown portion of those contributors might be motivated by ideology rather than corporate interest, or might have some other motive entirely (for example, they might be relatives of the candidate) is treated as irrelevant.

On the other hand, when the same data put institutions like the University of California on top, it is treated as evidence that the individual employees of that institution are ideologically motivated, and thus biased.

Let's turn it around. Why not treat the evidence as showing that these major institutions of higher ed believe that their interests would have best been served by a Kerry administration? Perhaps they recognize that research funding would not be threatened by tax cuts and would not have been burdened by ideological restrictions, student aid would increase, that incoming students would be better prepared, etc. That's certainly the way contributions from Citicorp or Halliburton employees would be analyzed.

Is that a better interpretation of the evidence? Maybe not; maybe it is just that college professors and administrators are more liberal. Then why not also say that employees of Wall Street firms or Texas energy trading companies seem to be more conservative, rather than assume they are acting out of corporate interest?

I should note that the Center for Responsive Politics does not put any interpretation on its data; this is just a matter of how its treated in the press. But in the end, I think this is a dubious methodology. Contributions from a company or organization should be attributed to corporate interest, the rest are just individuals, acting on their own, with a whole range of motivations, and their current place of employment is only one small piece of information about them.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 5, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Defending the Filibuster

I got an e-mail from Ralph Neas of People for the American Way just before Thanksgiving suggesting that I should give thanks for the filibuster, the Senate rule which may allow Democrats to block some extremist judges. Believe it or not, even I don't devote my holiday blessings to congressional procedures, having somewhat more immediate and warm-blooded things to be thankful for, but it reminded me that several weeks ago, Matthew Yglesias had suggested publicly that maybe I could convince him that the filibuster was a good thing in principle. He also mentioned it when I met him in person a couple weeks ago.

It's also true, as Sam Rosenfeld pointed out on Tapped, that the New York Times's attempted defense of the filibuster didn't really hold water. The Times attempts to portray the filibuster as if it were a creation of the Founding Fathers, but you don't have to be Justice Scalia to be a little skeptical of that claim. Still, what filibusters can achieve is entirely in keeping with the concern expressed in Federalist 10 about the opressive and short-sighted power of a majority. When one party controls both houses of Congress and the Presidency, and operates on command-and-control discipline, the ability of a minority to slow down or set limits in the Senate is virtually the only protection against a temporary majority.

There are two main reasons for discomfort with the Senate's rule allowing unlimited debate unless 60 Senators vote to end it. The first is that the filibuster is historically inseparable from the Southern resistance to civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s, and that the past efforts to reform the filibuster rule were synonymous with the moral claim of civil rights. The second is the simple objection of a pure majoritarian, that a majority ought not to be thwarted in its will. I'll return to each of these objections, but first let's consider the world without the filibuster.

You can see the Senate without unlimited debate when it operates under the special rules of the budget process. Every few years, Congress produces a big "budget reconciliation" bill, governed by rules that strictly limit debate. In the past, these were painful, bipartisan budget-cutting exercises, but recently they have become vehicles for one-party control. The major Bush tax cuts were presented as reconciliation bills, as was the welfare reform bill of 1996. What you see in a budget reconciliation is not simply that the minority is unable to stop passage of the bill, but the minority is virtually unable to generate any kind of debate on the bill whatsoever. Most amendments cannot be offered because they are not germane under complicated rules. Those amendments that are offered are overwhelmingly non-binding "Sense of the Senate resolutions", given ten minutes of debate, divided between the two sides, with all the votes piled up at the end in a process sometimes known as "Vote-a-rama." When the Senate operates under the rules after cloture has been invoked -- that is, 60 Senators have voted to limit debate -- amendments are limited by similar rules.

In short, when debate is limited, there is in reality no debate and few amendments. This also means that the Senate is stripped of one the characteristics that make it an open institution: the opportunity to put any issue on the agenda. One of the most basic rights of a Senator is to force consideration of any issue. If you want a vote on increasing the minimum wage, you should be able to offer an amendment to increase the minimum wage. Even if the votes aren't there, this serves the purposes of accountability -- getting everyone on record -- as well as the opportunity to change policy. If the leadership does not want to allow such a vote, often only the threat of a filibuster makes it possible. Without that opportunity, there's not much point to being a Democratic senator. And, further, the openness of unlimited debate and unlimited amendment somewhat offset the inherently undemocratic nature of the Senate, in which states rather than citizens are represented. Without it, it's just another unrepresentative institution, an automatic-processing system for the majority.

There is no doubt that the exercise of the filibuster became, in the 1990s especially, too cheap. It became synonymous with the idea that, as Bob Dole used to say daily when he controlled 45 votes, "you need sixty votes to do anything around here." The Senate would routinely hold cloture votes or test votes, and quickly pull a bill if it couldn't get sixty votes. That's as anti-democratic as the un-filibusterable budget reconciliation, because it precludes the possibility of persuasion or refinement. A filibuster to actually block a bill should be a measure of the intensity of opposition, not just the vote count. There's nothing wrong with forcing a filibustering group of Senators to actually debate, stay on the floor, and win cloture vote after cloture vote. Filibustering is, and should be, a high-profile tactic, not a low and underhanded exploitation of the rules. And it must withstand public scrutiny. A Democratic filibuster against right-wing judges will be a political disaster and quickly collapse if the judges are perceived as responsible though conservative jurists. It can succeed only if the judges in question are shown to be quite out of the mainstream. Put another way, there are both bills and nominations that might not get 60 votes, but whose opponents could nonetheless not sustain a filibuster. The two are not the same thing.

When the question is judges, the issues are a little different, since my point about amendments doesn't apply. But here is where the majoritarian argument is put to the test. The appointment of judges to lifetime positions, especially at the high federal appelate court level, holds the potential to shape the parameters of government and the law for a generation, just as the courts of the early 20th century held back basic economic regulation for decades. Control of the judiciary is a means by which today's majority can impose its will on tomorrow's, and thus is the classic case where the impulses of a temporary majority should be checked. In the current configuration, there is no other check on them than the right of a large Senate minority to extend debate.

As for the historical linkage between the filibuster and the blocking of civil rights legislation, I pointed out in The American Prospect online over the summer that reforms that seemed fundamental to social justice in the 1940s through the 1970s are now instruments of the very same problem -- domination of the agenda by Southern conservatives -- they were expected to solve. Further, the filibuster was only one of many instruments by which the Southern Democrats blocked civil rights. Unlike today's Democrats, the Southern conservatives also dominated seniority, the key committees, and controlled the majority party for most of the period. Far preferable to the spectacle of the filibuster was to bottle things up in the Rules Committee or, as Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Eastland of Mississippi used to brag, in the special pocket of his jacket where he put every civil rights bill introduced to be sure it never reached the floor. Ultimately, the moral claims to civil rights and the fact that the majority views were clear and persistent overcame the filibuster as it did the other obstacles. The legislative process operates much more openly today than it did in the 1950s, and a filibuster can only succeed if the public is fundamentally sympathetic to its goals. I suspect that at least a few of the Bush judicial nominees will be such that the public will be increasingly sympathetic to those who would block them, as long as the choices about who to fight are made carefully and the message is clear.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 4, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack