Monthly Archives: June 2008

I Don’t Think That Means What You Think It Means

From the Times:

The new report sheds light on the beliefs of the unaffiliated. Like the overwhelming majority of Americans, 70 percent of the unaffiliated said they believed in God, including one of every five people who identified themselves as atheist and more than half of those who identified as agnostic. [Emphasis added.]

Huh? Twenty percent of athiests tell a pollster that they believe in God? Something has to be wrong.

Hat Tip: TNR

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Expanding the Map, Part 4

Obama really is going to be playing in all 50 states. Burnt Orange Report says that David Axelrod has promised there will be 15 paid Obama staffers working in the state. As Ben Smith says:

That, plus, spending of, say, $10 million on ads — as somebody speculated yesterday, and I can’t find the link — would give McCain a real choice: Ignore Texas on the overwhelming probability that it stays red; or risk that Obama steals on. Now multiply that by 10 red states, and it’s a major feature of the general.

That’s a dilemma that John McCain is going to face all over the place. There are polls showing close races in Georgia, Alaska and a ton of other supposedly “red” states. How will McCain spend his limited resources? Will he play defense in probably red states and risk losing one of the big swing states by not spending as much? Or will he ignore the probably red states and go for broke in the traditional swing states, yet risk Obama sneaking through in a Georgia and ending McCain’s hopes right there? It an impossible choice for McCain.

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While I’m at it

While I’m talking about Republicans in an Obama cabinet, there is one position above all others that it would make sense to me to fill with a Republican; the Attorney Generalship.

It is probably unlikely that Obama, with his focus on civil rights law and the general reluctance of Democrats to give up the position of the country’s top lawyer, will actually appoint a Republican to the AG position, but he would be smart to do so.

Given the incredible politicization of the Bush Justice Department one of the top priorities of an Obama administration will have to be reasserting the non-partisan tradition of the department. Part of that will be done just by replacing the political appointees with people who view the Justice Department as a non-partisan institution. However, part of it, which is sure to draw howls of protests from Republicans, will have to involve weeding out the blatantly political hires who now populate career positions at the department.

Getting rid of the partisan Republicans who now populate the Justice Department will be hard. Republicans on Capitol Hill will inevitably respond that Obama is just firing Republicans to hire Democrats and that he is politicizing the Department even more.

The best way to counteract that would be to have a known Republican as Attorney General. The only big question is who could work. Most prominent Republicans have spent the last 8 years either actively abetting the Bush administration on legal issues or burrying their heads in the sand. Of those who haven’t been as terrible Arlen Specter jumps to mind for opposing the stripping of habeas corpus rights, but his crusades about professional sports would make him a joke of a candidate.

The only other name who jumps to mind is Patrick Fitzgerald, the US Attorney from Chicago who prosecuted Scooter Libby. He’s a registered Republican who was appointed by Bush, but he has been incredibly independent and has an unimpeachable reputation and a record of going after corrupt government officials and the mob. As with any appointment to an Obama cabinet he would have to be willing to implement Obama’s policy agenda, but the way he has always done his job suggests he would be more than able of doing the job well.

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Should Gates Stay On?

Joe Klein fleshes out an idea I’ve sort of been mulling over since Andrew Sullivan floated it a few weeks ago, that Robert Gates should stay on as Secretary of Defence in an Obama administration. The core of the argument is really pretty simple; Gates has done a pretty fantastic job as Secretary of Defense thus far:

He has demanded accountability. He fired the Secretary of the Army after the Walter Reed hospital scandal and the Secretary of the Air Force for lax stewardship of the nuclear arsenal. Early on, Gates encouraged the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq; he has been one of the few Bush officials open to negotiations with Iran. He has called for a larger budget for diplomacy — “which makes him far more popular than SecDefs usually are around here,” a State Department official told me. He has clearly sided with the Army reformers against the Old Guard, and even called David Petraeus back to Washington to preside over a promotion board when it became clear that Petraeus-style officers — the bold and creative proponents of counterinsurgency strategy — were being blocked.

Beyond that, “he’s been willing to face down the plutocrats of the defense industry – the thugs in $3,000 suits who’ve robbed our military for decades, stealing your tax dollars.”

Reactions have been mixed. Noam Schiber loves it:

No question that there would be some irate liberals if Obama went this route. But it would send a powerful message at the outset of his administration. In particular, it would buy him some real political cover for withdrawing from Iraq, however he decided to execute that.

While Matt Yglesias hates it:

The problem with retaining Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is the same as the problem with the idea of appointing Chuck Hagel or when Bill Clinton about William Cohen — these guys are Republicans. It’s desperately important for the Democratic Party’s leaders to avoid re-enforcing the idea that Democrats can’t run national security. If you find a moderate Republican with sound views on key environmental issues and make him or her head of the EPA, that says “climate change is an important issue and there’s bipartisan support for taking action.” If you put a Republican in charge of the Pentagon it says “Obama likes diplomacy, but even he knows that when the going gets tough you need to call in the GOP.”

I’ve long been very sympathetic to Yglesias’ point. Democrats have long been considered, and considered themselves, weak on national security. When Bill Clinton appointed Cohen it was basically saying, “here, there’s a Republican in charge now, I don’t want to think about defense policy.” Clinton had meandered through his first term with no well defined ideas on foreign or defense policy, lacking any sort of coherent response to the end of the Cold War, the genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda or to the rising importance of non-state actors. He got a little better, though not much, in his second term, when he committed to the Kosovo intervention began to take a real, sustained interest in foreign policy. But initially, appointing a Republican was essentially a cop-out that allowed him to not pay attention to defense policy because a Republican was in charge.

Obama would be different. The nature of Yglesias’ objection to Gates staying on is that it would say that Democrats can’t run defense policy. But the precondition for Gates staying would obviously be him agreeing to administer a massive change of policy on Iraq. Obama would very clearly be running the show, especially on the one defense policy issue the general public, which is the only group that the perception problem even exists with, is paying attention to. Furthermore, as Scheiber gets at, it would allow Obama to sieze the center of the foreign and defense policy universe, despite the fact that Obama is advocating a pretty big break with past foreign policy practice.

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Weird Borders

Did you know there is a little part of Kentucky that is non-contiguous? I didn’t either, but via Waldo Jaquith I see that there is the odd little enclave, called the Kentucky Bend.

Yep, that little bubble of Kentucky that is wedged in between Missouri and Tennessee is real. It was caused by the 1812 New Madrid earthquake, which moved the Mississippi river after the borders were settled.

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The Time for Sister Souljahs

Michael Cohen argues McCain needs a Sister Souljah moment:

Today, polls suggest that the American electorate prefers the Democratic Party on virtually every major domestic issue. If Barack Obama wanted to slap down a politically unhelpful liberal interest group he’d be hard pressed to find one. The same, however, cannot be said of the Republican Party and John McCain, and here is where Republicans could learn a great deal from Bill Clinton.

As social conservatives, foreign policy neo-conservatives and anti-tax and pro-business voices have come to dominate the G.O.P. coalition, the Republican Party has become as closely linked, both politically and in terms of policy, to their special interest groups as Democrats were to theirs in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s.

John McCain’s political evolution, or possibly devolution, during the last eight years speaks volumes about the hold of these special interests. During his 2000 race for the Republican nomination, McCain openly derided the religious leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, as agents of intolerance.

Today, he actively seeks the support of such far right religious figures and has delivered a number of major speeches in recent weeks that narrowly appeal to social conservative audiences, on topics from defending religious freedom to attacking activist judges. In 2001 and 2003, Mr. McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts, but today he apes the supply-side economic theory and militant anti-tax orthodoxy of Grover Norquist and Club for Growth. Like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis in the 1980s, Mr. McCain has demonstrated little choice but to embrace the policy agenda of his party’s most prominent interest groups. His fealty to these groups not only limits his political mobility, but it threatens his once unimpeachable reformist image.

In 2000, John McCain declared of Republicans: “we are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests.” But Roosevelt split from the G.O.P. because of its growing identification with the nation’s business trusts and its abandonment of progressive values. If Mr. McCain were the true descendant of Roosevelt, he would be running against the modern Republican Party and its special interests.

In the short-term Mr. McCain’s moves may seem like smart politics; lock up the conservative base and spend the summer and fall reaching out to moderate voters. But as a generation of Democrats can testify, once the party gets into bed with its special interest groups it’s not easy to end the relationship.

As loath as it might be for John McCain, taking a page from Bill Clinton and delivering the type of speech he gave 16 years ago cannot come soon enough.

McCain really did used to Sister Souljah the Republican party all the time.

But McCain feels like he learned a valuable lesson when he lost the GOP nomination eight years ago — Republicans do not reward rebels, they reward those who stick to the script. Those interest groups that make up the Republican coalition demand fealty, and dissenters do not fare well. Ever.

So, we get the John McCain we see today, who tends to disagree with the up-until-recently John McCain on almost everything. He could try another “Sister Souljah moment” and score points with independents and moderates, but I’d argue it’s too late — McCain has made his far-right bed and now he has to lie in it.

If he were to try to reinvent himself again, and go back to the persona that had no use for Republican orthodoxy, McCain would probably be in even worse shape than he is now — the right would be livid, and everyone else would see through the transparency of his pandering.

That strikes me as McCain’s big problem. He took the wrong lesson from 2000. He ran as a candidate who repudiated Republican orthodoxies in a primary, while having to appeal to the people most likely to hold those orthodoxies. Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment was after he had the nomination locked up, not when trying to win it. If McCain had run as a more orthodox Republican in 2000 and saved his repudiation of Republicans until the general election, we may well have been living under a McCain administration the last 8 years.

Instead, McCain had to repudiate all of his past repudiations of Republican orthodoxy to win this year, leaving him with no room to pivot back to the middle. A lot of McCain’s problems this year are caused by the campaign he ran in 2000. Given the differences between McCain’s 2000 and 2008 campaigns, a return to Sister Souljah politics would do nothing more for McCain than paint him as a pandering, power-hungry hypocrite.

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Hillary’s Legacy

I’ve got to agree with Ezra Klein:

Insofar as Clinton’s campaign was a trailblazing, historic candidacy, it’s because it consciously sought to ease the way for those who would come after Clinton. By proving a woman could be commander-in-chief, by proving a woman could win primary states, by proving a women could out-campaign the guys, the idea was that the barrier would not be so high for future women who wished to run. Clinton’s example would normalize women in national politics. That is the precise opposite of preserving the idea that it’s a rare and unique thing for women to compete in national politics, and only one woman has the capability or credibility to do so.

I don’t pretend to know who from Hillary’s circle is spreading this idea, but it’s vicious. In closing the trail to those who would come after Clinton, it makes a mockery of what truly was trailblazing in her campaign. There are reasons to pick Sebelius and Napolitano and Clinton and all the other women in competition for the vice presidency, and reasons not to do so, but nothing could be worse than trying to retroactively trash the legacy of Clinton’s campaign by robbing it of its contribution to the cause of women in national politics.

I think that is largely right. Hillary did open a lot of doors for women candidates. I think we are likely on the verge of a generation of women running for public office in a way we haven’t really seen before. Perhaps Hillary’s biggest accomplishment is that she didn’t run as a woman. Much like Obama, she ran as a politician. She ran on experience, judgement and health care. She ran as though there was nothing historic about her running for the presidency.

Klein’s point from earlier in his post is important.

Plus, for reasons of simple social justice, it’s important that women are routine candidates for highest office. In an electorate that’s majority female, there should be nothing exceptional about women seeking the presidency.

We’re clearly not there yet. That was, for me, the most disappointing aspect of Hillary’s candidacy. I didn’t really see it until the end, after she dropped out, but this video brought it home for me.

Now, I don’t think that all of the statements that are in there are necessarily sexist. In particular and I don’t think Obama was attempting to be sexist in his comment or that Olbermann was. But the sad fact remains. In 2008 a woman ran for president, yet it was still perfectly acceptable to call her a bitch and a cunt. That stems in part from Hillary’s preexisting public image, but a lot of it was clearly just from the fact that she’s running.

To quote an insightful post at Daily Kos:

I first noticed the nutcracker in late December, next to a rack of doomed “Rudy for President” shirts at a National Airport kiosk specializing in ephemeral topical kitsch. At the time, I was taken aback at the sheer misogynist chutzpah of the product, but I figured that it was a niche political product being sold at a niche political store in a niche political city — Washington — and that it would disappear from the shelves in a couple weeks, relegated to fringe online backwaters like the Newsmax store. Yet the nutcracker spread from DCA through the airports of the nation like a tacky virus, and soon one couldn’t clear security anywhere without being confronted with its stainless steel thighs. Eventually, the nutcracker escaped from the sterile zones and its TSA protection into mainstream American retail, and became minor fodder for late night comics and “wacky news” types like CNN’s Jeannie Moos. But the nutcracker never became a serious news or commentary item — there was very little discussion, at least in the mainstream media, of what the novelty, and its apparent popularity, said about the 2008 campaign or about the nation itself.

And that was the most remarkable aspect of the nutcracker blight: the manner it which it was just accepted. Here we had a blatantly sexist product which traded on one of the most misogynistic archetypes of the last 50 years — the castrating, pantsuit-wearing, hyper-ambitious professional woman — being sold in otherwise anodyne, apolitical stores throughout the country, and no one with a serious microphone was saying anything about it. Anyone with a hint of consciousness about gender politics had to be asking themselves what the hell the deafening silence meant.  Is America irredeemably sexist? Does the fact that a similarly racist Obama doll couldn’t be sold without massive public outrage mean that casual sexism is more tolerated than casual racism?  Would any woman running for president be subject to the same mockery, or is Hillary somehow more susceptible than other female politicians?

Hillary’s not the only one who faced this, Obama does too, and I’m sure that if Bill Richardson caught fire he would have too. In fact, you could make the exact same video about Obama. But with Hillary it went mainstream, with utterly sexist comments being made on national television and in major newspapers, as though it were OK. I think that when people look back on Clinton’s run she will clearly be a pathbreaker, she almost won after all and she would have been a strong favorite in the general election, but they will also be shocked at the amount of sexism that was considered OK in 2008. We may be getting close, but it isn’t normal for a woman to run for president yet.

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Obama and the Value of Going Wide

One of the impressive things about the Obama campaign, and Democrats in general this cycle, is its aggressiveness in going after not just a win, but a wide, convincing win. Obama is doing this by actually implementing a 50 State Strategy, which is just about unprecedented in modern campaigning. Democrats in the Senate are going wide by explicitly aiming for 11 GOP held seats, which give the Democrats 62 Senate seats, an unfilibusterable majority and the largest for either party since 1967.

I think what the Obama campaign is going for here is linked to two points made by Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. Yglesias:

If Obama wins the election, marginal Democratic members of congress will face a basic choice. They can decide that their political interests will be served by making the Obama administration a “success” and agree to pass stuff that resembles what he’s proposed. Or they can decide that their interests will be served by distancing themselves from every controversial administration initiative. If they choose the former, marginal Republicans will feel pressure to get on board. If they choose the latter, marginal Republicans will stand firm. What will happen? I’m not sure. The ideological distance within the party is much narrower than in 1977 and 1993, but I worry that the incentives are still bad and encourage defection rather than discipline. Either way, though, I think the key decision-makers will be in congress rather than in the White House.

Klein:

We talked a lot in the presidential primary about theories of change, but the simplest theory of change is 60 votes in the Senate.

I don’t know that it will necessarily take 60 Democrats in the Senate to implement a President Obama’s agenda, but that would be the easiest way. However, winning 9 GOP held seats is a tall task, even given the favorable environment for Democrats. The real key to being able to get anything done is a President’s ability to build political coalitions. That task becomes much, much easier after the type of resounding win that Obama and the Senate Democrats are aiming for than after a narrow win. In running in all 50 states Obama’s clear goal is to run up his margin of victory in places like New England, New York and California while holding his margin of defeat down in states like Texas, Alabama and Alaska. That is a mirror of Bush’s strategy from 2004, where he invested a lot of effort into running up the margins in conservative areas.

The real consequence of such a strategy is a large margin in the popular vote, which is useless in terms of getting elected but essential to governing. A President can’t really do anything without a mandate. Winning the popular vote is the only way to really achieve a mandate. In 1980 Reagan won a convincing majority on an agenda of tax cuts. Lo and behold he was able to pick off a lot of Democrats to vote for his tax cuts and keep the rest from filibustering. In 1992 Clinton won, but won without getting a majority of the popular vote. Republicans in Congress responded by holding firm against his healthcare, spending and social agenda.

To me, the clearest path to 60 votes in the Senate isn’t winning all 9 seats but rather winning several and giving a lot of supposedly safe Republicans uncomfortably close elections, combined with a relatively convincing majority in the popular vote for Obama. Does anyone really think that Republicans like George Voinovich or Judd Gregg, let alone Arlen Specter or Olympia Snowe, will go along with filibusters against popular Democratic legislation after watching a dozen or so of their colleagues be voted out in 4 years and facing off with a President who has the majority of the public behind him? Even hard line ideologues like Jim Demint and Tom Coburn would have second thoughts if Democrats run beat expectations but still lose in places like North Carolina, Texas or Mississippi.

The single best way to get good legislation through the Senate is to do what the Republicans did for years to Democrats; convince the other side that they will lose elections if they vocally oppose Democratic proposals. When Republicans appeared ascendant there was a cottage industry for Democrats like Max Baucus, John Breaux and Zell Miller who were afraid of voting with Democrats for fear of losing. Hence, Democrats were rarely able to stop Republican legislation.

Fear is healthy for legislators. Winning wide majorities is the way to provide them with it.

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Biden for Veep?

I think Ezra Klein is largely right in his case for Joe Biden as Vice President.

In the 2008 election, he was the only Democrat who really figured out how to talk about Republicans and foreign policy. All the other candidates on the stage started from the presumption that Republicans were strong on national security, and voters needed to be convinced of their failures and then led to a place of support for a Democratic alternative. Biden dispensed with all that. He started from the position that Republicans had been catastrophic failures on foreign policy, and their ongoing claims to competence and leadership should be laughed at, and even mocked.

When Rudy Giuliani said, simply, “America will be safer with a Republican president,” Obama responded with a traditional, more-in-sadness-than-in-anger statement. “Rudy Giuliani today has taken the politics of fear to a new low and I believe Americans are ready to reject those kind of politics. America’s mayor should know that when it comes to 9/11 and fighting terrorists, America is united.” The release goes on in this way for eight more lines.

Biden, by contrast, laughed at Giuliani. He mocked him. “The irony is, Rudy Giuliani, probably the most underqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency, is here talking about any of the people here,” said Biden at one of the debates. “Rudy Giuliani… I mean, think about it! Rudy Giuliani. There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence — a noun, a verb, and 9/11. There’s nothing else!”

That’s Biden’s great strength. He’s the single best foreign policy advocate the Democrats have. Obama has some of these strengths as well. He’s the most confident Democratic presidential candidate on foreign policy issues in a generation, perhaps since Johnson. But its is hard for Obama to be an attack dog. It just isn’t his personality.

But it is Biden’s. He’s made a point of it recently, going after McCain on warrantless wiretapping, Lieberman on the Democratic foreign policy tradition and Bush on appeasement. He revels in being an attack dog. He skewers Republican foreign policy arguments with gusto and is completely comfortable doing it. Plus, as Ezra points out, he has a long, and mostly positive, relationship with the press, who universally regard him as a foreign policy expert.

To me, the case for Biden boils down to the fact that the only real chance McCain has at winning the general election is making it all about foreign policy. Biden helps neutralize that. He allows Obama to outline his own positive vision of American foreign policy, while outsourcing the most virulent attacks to Biden, who is better than any other Democrat at it.

Biden does have downsides. His plagiarism of Niel Kinnock would inevitably come up, he is old, he has a reputation as being gaffe prone, he wouldn’t do anything to help expand the map and he isn’t the greatest campaigner. But Biden has a single big strength, which may well overwhelm all his weaknesses; his ability to attack on foreign policy.

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Expanding the Map, Part 3

One of the potential benefits to Republicans of John McCain’s candidacy was supposed to be his appeal to Hispanic voters. After the GOP has spent much of the last 4 years trying their hardest to alienate the fastest growing block of voters in the country, McCain was supposed to be able to reach out to Hispanics thanks to his work on immigration reform.

However, based of Gallup’s daily tracking polls from May, that doesn’t appear to be the case. McCain is losing to Obama 62-29 among Hispanics, which dwarfs the 53-44 loss among Hispanics that Bush suffered in 2004. If McCain loses Hispanics that badly Obama would easily win states like Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, with large Hispanic populations.

Even Texas could become close, depending on how much effort Obama puts into registration and turnout efforts in the Hispanic community. In 2008, Hispanics made up 32 percent of Texas Democratic primary electorate, compared to 24 percent in 2004. A similar increase in turnout in the general, if they continue to swing towards Obama by a 60-30 margin or so, could make Texas very close. That might not seem possible, given how big a margin Bush won Texas by in 2004 (61-38), but it is.

In 2004 Whites made up 66 percent of the Texas turnout, going for Bush 74-25. African-Americans made up 12 percent and went for Kerry 83-17. Latinos were 20 percent and went to Kerry 50-49. Bush also got a significant bump in Texas seeing as how he was the Governor of the state before he was President. Playing with the assumptions a little the state could easily be at least competitive.

Here’s what would need to happen to get a tied race out of Texas. First off, Latinos continue to go for 2 out of 3 for Obama, and increase their share of the electorate by 7 points to 27 percent. Secondly, Obama takes the Black vote 95-5 and there is a turnout bump there as well, to 14 percent of the electorate. Lastly, Whites don’t go as heavily for McCain as they did for the Texan Bush. Assigning McCain the same margin among White voters as Kay Bailey Hutchinson in her blowout Senate win in 2006, 68-30 and reducing the White share of the vote to 57 percent, which makes up for the increased Black and Latino turnout, you get a 49-49 tie in the state overall. Now, that scenario isn’t likely to happen. That big an increase in Hispanic turnout is very unlikely and Whites only making up 57 percent of the Texas electorate is probably even more unlikely, but a 60-24-14 turnout model would still yield a very competitive 50-48 race. Even the 2004 electorate would yield a 53-45 election.

Will Texas be competitive? Likely not. But it could be at least a marginal state if Obama is able to maintain his current support among Latinos and increase their turnout percentage, Texas is exactly the type of state that McCain could be forced to make a very tough decision about whether to spend time and money there or not.

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