Strategy

New Media and Politics

 

Obama. Chris Christie. Iran 2009. Egypt 2011.

What do these four very different, very influential and widely followed political and international phenomena have in common?

Exceptional execution of new media as a tool for mass political outreach, exposure and resolve.

To the savviest of journos and politicos, the rise and importance of new media options such as Facebook and Twitter is yesterday's news, and its influence is on the rise.

But, there are still many skeptical and discouraged by its role in society.

Whether or not it is used for egregious personal self-indulgence/narcisicissm the fact of the matter is that new media plays a vitally positive role in political outreach, accountability and oversight by the public. 

It is tremendously important to make this distinction, capitalize on the positives, and ignore/hope the negatives fall to the wayside.

Former Congressman Joe Scarborough recently wrote a very thoughtful piece for Politico that recognizes a serious drawback that this new media generation brings into play.  And I agree.

At the same time.....

For those unable to traverse all the way to District or Washington offices, they can connect to their representatives through Facebook and Twitter.

Internationally, movements in Iran and Egypt gained tremendous and important international oversight and attention by those movements' abilities to utilize new media. 

Actually, in the case of Egypt, the serious drawback was that Facebook was not taken seriously enough.  One of the questions asked during this latest democracy appeal was why the U.S. did not see it coming, to some the signs were right there on Facebook....

It's important to distinguish Facebook and other new media engines as tools to supplement the traditional flow of information, but it's also important to take advantage of the links and opportunities it can create.

The Obama-Piven-Palin Strategy

Obama associated with Marxists and other lefty radicals when he was young. This is not controversial. The real question is whether he still associates with such radical riff-raff today, or worse, is secretly carrying out their nefarious plans. In one case the answer is: we can only hope so.

I am referring to the infamous Cloward-Piven Strategy, an undemocratic plan to force a basic income guarantee by overloading the welfare system with applicants. Numerous writers have associated Obama with Cloward and Piven, and it is certainly true that Obama spent much of his career carrying out the strategy – that’s what  a “community activist” does. But we cannot prove conscious intent.  Or as Zombie puts it in Pajamas Media:

Me, I have a different explanation. I think it’s unconscious. I think Obama is on auto-pilot and never really sat down and pondered the distinction between trying, on one hand, to save the economy with government spending and, on the other hand, to ruin the economy with…government spending. It all blurs together after a while, doesn’t it?

Whether the conspiracy theorists are right, and Obama is secretly carrying out the Cloward-Piven Strategy, or whether the more charitable Zombie is correct and Obama is simply acting on a subconscious mind brought up on a combination of 60s radicalism and Keynesian pseudoscience is beside the point.The real point is we can use this facet of Obama either way – if we get out of echo-chamber thinking and actually study what Cloward and Piven actually wrote in The Nation. They did not call for destroying the capitalist system in this paper; they called for destroying the welfare system.Destroy the welfare system!? That sounds rather Republican to me!In particular, Cloward and Piven wrote:

If this strategy were implemented, a political crisis would result that could lead to legislation for a guaranteed annual income and thus an end to poverty.

A guaranteed annual income is not the same as destroying the capitalist system. It isn’t socialism. It isn’t even welfare. It is replacing myriad  need-based welfare programs with the simple arrangement of just sending everyone the same amount of free money from the government. Do so and we can send 80+% of the welfare bureaucrats and social workers back into the private sector. (The only ones left would be those for running mental institutions and other venues for the truly disabled.) A guaranteed annual income is to welfare what school vouchers are to public education.I am not the first freedom lover to like the idea. Milton Friedman called for a guaranteed annual income in the form of a negative income tax. Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, calls for an even simpler guaranteed income in his book: In Our Hands. An income guarantee is an essential part of the Fair Tax proposal; i.e., “the prebate.”Play our cards right and we can have a sequel to the glory days of Gingrich, who got a chastised Bill Clinton to go along with a plan for welfare reform that exceeded anything Reagan was able to accomplish. Under Obama, we might eliminate the welfare state entirely, even unto Social Security, and expel thousands of bureaucrats from Washington in the process. We eliminate the marriage penalty for the poor, as well as the work penalty. We’ll be able to get those public housing dwellers to mow our golf courses instead of importing work ethic from Mexico. Come to think of it, we’ll be able to privatize those public housing complexes while we’re at it.

But some of you will be tempted to continue thinking of the Cloward-Piven Strategy as a socialist plot. After all, it was first published in The Nation, and the language is very lefty. But try to overlook the enemy rhetoric and focus on the goal: replacing welfare with a guaranteed income. We have one state that already has a (small) guaranteed income: Alaska, home of Sarah Palin. Is Sarah Palin some sort of crypto-socialist?

The Obama Disconnect: A Belated Response to Micah Sifry

Before the new year, Micah Sifry came out with a provocative, much-discussed piece on the failures of the Obama organizing model in government. At once, the piece is a surprising indictment of the Administration's modus operandi from one of its supporters, but the reasons the indictment came about are not surprising at all. Like 43 similar outfits before it, the Obama White House is essentially a top-down operation.

Indeed, it's easy to dismiss Sifry's ideal of autonomous, almost leaderless political movements as essentially incompatible with the work of government. The contrast between the populism of the Obama campaign and the unmet promises of the Obama Administration is an easy one to make, but I suspect there's a tad of inflated expectations at work, borne of a misunderstanding of the fundamental motives of Obama for America and the community organizing spirit that seem to lay behind it. Sifry is disappointed that the fervor and "bottom up" organizing of the campaign hasn't translated to the White House, but when has the excitement and lofty goals of a campaign ever translated fully into the drudgery of running the federal government? Is such a transference even possible?

Probably not. The job of a campaign is not to transform the ethos of governance. The job of the campaign is to win the campaign. The job of the Administration is to transform the ethos of governance. Whether one leads to the other is entirely extrinsic to the campaign since the White House involves a totally different set of actors, more likely to be experienced government hands like Rahm Emanuel than Alinskyite field organizers. We can discuss what is and is not personally important to Obama as a community organizer all we want. But the imperatives of governance are completely different than those of a campaign, as Obama learned taking office in an economic crisis and George Bush learned after 9/11. 

Rather than buck the tide of conventional "top-down" politics, the campaign's "bottom up" grassroots emphasis was actually top-down perfected for the Internet era -- a logical and sensible response by the campaign to Obama's celebrity. 

In the end, the campaign did not have to make any hard decisions that allowed supporters to organize in new ways. Rather, I would argue, the supporters made the decision on their own, as expressed in the tremendous and early self-organized action for Obama early on, and the campaign would have been brain dead not to play along. (Many campaigns are still blind to this, even today, but the default baseline position for a campaign at the national level is to play along when supporters start doing massive amounts of stuff on their own.) 

The campaign's decision to default to open is expressed in Obama campaign manager David Plouffe's book, The Audacity to Win. At the outset, it wasn't clear that Obama's campaign would be anything other than a traditional exercise. As Plouffe writes early on

We raised $4 million online, a significant amount but far less than our fund-raisers wanted. Our new media team were very careful about how often we asked people for money by e-mail. We wanted our online contributors to have a balanced experience with us, thinking that if they felt part of and connected to the whole campaign, they might be more generous over time. The fund-raisers, who felt the pressure I was putting on them to post a big number, wanted to ask for as much as possible, as often as possible, starting right away. These were some of the tensest disputes I had to navigate throughout the whole campaign, and they left a lingering sore spot that did not heal for over a year. The finance team really believed that the new media team was underperforming financially, and the new media team thought the finance team viewed them and our supporters as an ATM.

Though it's ultimately clear where the campaign came down at the end of the day, Plouffe doesn't really evince bold conviction that the new media guys were right from day one. Here we see the traditional top-down playbook lingering on within the Obama campaign. Now, if Obama the community organizer started out running a fairly traditional campaign catering to the donor class, and in fact, ran a fairly textbook Senate campaign in 2004, what changed in the heat of the campaign? Plouffe doesn't seem to indicate that there was any altruistic, philosophical instinct to buck the finance team's approach, beyond a general sense that what the online people were doing seemed to be working. If there was a sudden epiphany by Axelrod or Plouffe to buy into bottom up, community organizing methods, it was probably a transactional, reflex response to the 20,000 person crowds, the e-mail signups, and the online fundraising. When you have a candidate like Obama, "letting go" and being bottom up is not simply a noble, unconventional, damn-the-consequences move. It's pretty darn profitable, generating more signups, more activity, and more money to feed the top-down parts of the campaign.

Now, what happens when the campaign goes away? What happens when the enthusiasm inevitably ebbs and the hard work of governing begins? The immediate benefits of a bottom-up strategy become less clear. You revert to traditional instincts, where powerful obstacles stand in the way of getting things done -- even amongst your base, and the wielding of massive political machinery cannot be left to amateurs. Either way, the decision to go "bottom up" is a traditional reflex response by smart people who realize they can get more done with bottom-up than with top-down in a campaign. And the reversion to "top-down" is a similarly calculated response to the fact that the financial and organizational benefits of bottom-up do not seem to apply to an Administration. Plouffe admitted this much in his interview with Ari Melber in defending the decision to downgrade New Media in the White House. Now, this may be wrong, short-sighted, or ignoble, but BOTH the bottom-up Obama campaign and the top-down Obama Administration were calculated strategic decisions made in response to specific situations of the moment. Let's not kid ourselves that the community organizing rhetoric was how they actually intended to govern.

Self-Funders: The Next Front in the War on the GOP Establishment

The brewing conservative war on the Republican establishment has gotten a lot of ink lately, and we can only expect more of it with the rise and rise of Marco Rubio. 

The main front in this war is ideological: party leaders in Washington supporting moderates when a conservative can win. See: Crist vs. Rubio or Hoffman vs. Scozzafava.
 
But there's another front in this war that deserves just as much if not more attention: the tendency of gazillionaire self-funders to parachute into races with minimal political experience and a long list of liabilities, and get taken seriously by D.C. and local elites solely because they can plop down tens of millions of dollars on TV ads and a feeding trough of political consultants. 
 
Last year's Rebuild the Party platform which I co-wrote, and which was endorsed by a number of people in the political community including RNC Chairman Michael Steele, had this to say about the pervasive "money-first" culture of our campaigns: 

This means kick starting a generational transition to the new fundraising model. Right now, we cannot compete with the Democrats' scalable online fundraising machine and if this is not corrected our party will face a long-term financial deficit. A big part of this will be growing a millions-strong network of supporters and giving them something to rally around. Moreover, our candidate recruitment should focus less on a candidate's ability to collect $2,300 checks or to self-fund than on the strength of their message -- which will ultimately attract more small and high dollar donors online and off. Traditional fundraising is still important, but in modern campaigns, it's more like startup venture capital money than a long-term cash cow. 

In February, when the GOP was still in a fetal position after the drubbing they received at the hands of Obama's half-billion dollar online juggernaut, I expanded on this point: 


The lesson here is that fundraising is not an independent variable. Fundraising is a dependent variable and the independent variable is the message. There does not exist an innate ability to fundraise independent of a strong message -- unless the candidate is fabulously wealthy and can self-fund. And in cases where there might be, all the fundraising in the world cannot overcome a poor message. If a candidate is wealthy or has rich friends, but has no message, the GOP should run -- not walk -- away from that candidate.
My own experiences in the trenches this year suggest that establishment Republicans still haven't learned their lesson. They're still addicted to the size of a candidate's personal checkbook or overhyped end-of-quarter stories, and too often neglect building a grassroots organization or developing a strong, early, and authentic connection between the candidate direct to voters. 
 
Self-funders are particulary popular among money-addled political insiders for a few key reasons. First, their personal money takes the need for much party money off the table, or so it's thought. Second, they can afford to pay consultants, and lots of them, and for eye-popping amounts. Third, they will often refill the coffers of local parties in a wink and nod exchange for much-needed endorsements. 
 
But the record of self-funders in American politics is notoriously poor. In California alone, about a half dozen of them have spectacularly crashed on the rocks, from the campaign that gave us Arianna Huffington in 1994 to Al Checchi's $40 million gubernatorial campaign in 1998, Jane Harman's effort in the same primary, and Steve Westly's losing 2006 campaign for the Democratic nomination for Governor. 
 
This year, Jon Corzine was unable to put away Chris Christie with his vast personal fortune, ending one of the few self-funding success stories in American politics. And Michael Bloomberg spent $102 million in one city to eeke out a five point victory against bland party apparatchik Bill Thompson. The size of Bloomberg's bank account in reaching for a third term (for which term limits were repealed) was cited as a factor in the last minute closing of the race. 
 
At the federal level, ask Senator Pete Coors how well self-funding works. Or President Mitt Romney. 
 
It's not just that these candidates were running unwinnable races. Often they were way ahead after an early barrage of advertising. But they blew it, despite their money. 
 
The dollar signs dancing around in consultants' heads don't make up for the fact that most self-funders tend to be subpar candidates for important structural reasons. First, they're political dilettantes unfamiliar with the rigors of elected politics. They make rookie mistakes. They assume their records before their recent entries into politics aren't relevant or won't be scrutinized. They have less political acumen or knowledge than many of the people I follow on Twitter, or even most of them. 
 
And that's just when they start running. Once they do, they run overkill levels of TV, and often resort to slashing negative ads to dislodge better known competitors, which drives their own negatives up. (This was particularly true of the famous Checchi-Harman "murder-suicide" in 1998, opening the path for the underfunded Gray Davis to squeak through in the last two weeks.) The gaudiness of the campaign operation tends to infect media coverage late in the game, and that's when self-funders really get worked over by the traditional press corps, which tends to counter-balance the perceived buying of the election with uniquely skeptical coverage when voters are actually paying attention. And as any student of campaigns will tell you, earned media is far, far more valuable than paid media, even at inflated levels of spending. 
 
From an ideological perspective, self-funders are political chameleons. Since they're somewhat politically attuned, they're likely to have been a donor, but like most big donors, they're pragmatists who've played both sides. And it's not uncommon for these rich candidates to have made donations to fashionable lefty social crusades. The country-clubbers who have supported Focus on the Family or the National Rifle Association with their philanthrophic dollars are few and far between.
 
For conservatives, this trend is just as troubling as national party leaders seeking out moderates in states where a conservative can win. While we welcome recent converts, we always have a right to ask whether it's for the right reasons. Rich candidates tend to be disproportionately moderate themselves, and aren't as accountable to the conservative movement because they don't need our dollars.
 
And there's another element here that shouldn't be tolerated: corruption. To put it indelicately, when a mega-self-funder gets in, people get bought. Local parties are capitalized to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars with endorsements magically appearing shortly thereafter. People who couldn't afford to take salaries before can now take salaries. Others get put on the campaign payroll. Elected officials who've fought hard and risen through the ranks suddenly become fans of political "outsiders", leaving their own integrity and intellectual honesty open to question.  
 
In any system where money rules, conservatives lose. When endorsements and political support are rooted in money, not principle, that's just as great an insult as choosing a moderate over a conservative in a red state on electability grounds. This is not a matter of being a campaign finance zealot as it of avoiding bad and unreliable candidates who tend to lose at alarming rates. 
 
To be clear, I don't think everyone who's put in a dime of their own money to a race is the bad guy. We would have been much better off in NY-23 had we chosen that guy. There are many very good local businesspeople running for Congress who will put in some seed money to get started, but ultimately rely on a strong network of donors to get them over the top. The problem is those who pledge to spend at astronomical rates so they can defy the political laws of gravity, and in turn fool (or buy off) the political class who wrongly believe that lots of money can overcome an unknown candidate with a bad message. 

 

The Teapublican Moment

Why are we so shocked that a generic conservative third party called the "Tea Party" would come out ahead of the Republican Party in a poll?

The notion that there are lots of people on the right who consider themselves conservatives first and Republicans second is not new (though a national reporter once e-mailed me professing shock at hearing someone say this for the first time). What is different this time is that the tea parties lend some modicum of organization to the right's rabblerousing opposition, and the D.C. mandarins are busy trying to figure out if this power can be wielded electorally and whether that helps or hurts Republicans.

Rasmussen's question actually explains a lot. Like the fact that the national GOP is poised to pick up a bunch of seats while their numbers remain in the toilet.

Depending on the poll, approval of Congressional Republicans (and their leaders) is in the high teens or low twenties, close to the GOP number in today's survey. In the progressive blogosphere, this is the most common talking point against the notion that Republicans might win in 2010.

Though a curiosity, Congressional GOP approval is actually irrelevant to next year's election results. That's because a big chunk of the disapproval comes from the "Tea Party" that thinks the GOP is not doing enough fast enough. Combined, the Teapublicans get 41 percent of the vote to the Democrats' 36 percent. If I'm solely concerned with electoral strategy, I want people to be highly motivated to vote, because turnout is everything in a midterm. And the more Tea'd off these voters are, the better for Republicans. The good news for Democrats is that a mythical right-wing splinter party splits the base down the middle. The bad news is that they still vote Republican in a two-way, and the Tea Partiers are singlehandedly driving a massive enthusiasm gap over the left that renders a Republican victory even more likely. As we saw in 2006 and 2008, enthusiasm gaps matter.

The prevalence of the Tea Party movement does hold a cautionary note for the GOP -- if they win. The danger is that Republicans will interpret a victory as a sign that all is well in the party, and that they can go back to their old ways pre-2008. In other words, they'll confuse a Teapublican victory for an old-school Republican mandate.

However, the reason that Republicans are now at the mercy of the tea parties to drive their GOTV is because they drove spending through the roof (at least in pre-Obama terms) and agreed to the bailouts. The protests were as much a reaction to Republicans selling out as they were to the incipient Obama administration, though the passage of time has shifted the focus to the present Administration. The notion that the Tea Party  -- of all people -- will be unenthused about voting in November 2010 is wishful thinking, particularly when a clear opportunity exists to do damage to the left. The question is whether they'll abide the same Republican Party that set the bailouts in motion to begin with -- after the election.

Right now, the fact that the Tea Party is willing to hate on the GOP Congressional leadership but ultimately be their most enthusiastic foot soldiers is testament to the fact of the Republican Party's powerlessness on Capitol Hill. The party may suck, the reasoning goes, but that's irrelevant now because it can't actually shape policy. There is only one question in this election, and that is whether Congress can put the breaks on the left's unfettered rule. And if the GOP gets some measure of influence back, will it change?

GOP Revival: There's An App for That

What Ramesh Ponnuru has written about Tuesday's wins is right in so many ways:

More important, a few Republican candidates have demonstrated that it is possible to transcend the party's conservative-moderate divide. In Virginia, Robert McDonnell won a landslide — the first Republican win in a governor's race there in 12 years — by running as a problem solver. Social conservatives know he is one of them. But independent voters strongly backed him too. Voters as a whole trusted him more than his Democratic opponent on everything from fixing the roads to strengthening the economy. Once he had that trust, Democrats were unable to get voters to see him as frighteningly conservative, although they tried to make hay out of a hard-right master's thesis McDonnell wrote in 1989.

[Disclosure: I consulted for the McDonnell campaign, and these are my personal views on why he won.]

In the wake of McDonnell's landslide, many observers have pointed to his brand of "pragmatism" to make the case that McDonnell -- and not Hoffman in NY-23 -- is the way forward for conservatives in 2010.

But to point to McDonnell as a subrosa moderate profoundly misses the point. McDonnell is a strong conservative who early in the campaign put Deeds on the defensive by running against Obama and Pelosi's policies, most notably card check and cap-and-trade. There was never any doubt as to McDonnell's conservative bona fides.

But even though McDonnell was in fact a true conservative, there was no need to make the election about those credentials. McDonnell's conservatism spoke for itself.

What the campaign keyed in on very early is that most voters aren't ideological. In a time of crisis, they first and foremost want problems solved -- and specifically, the problems created by too much government meddling and taxes to go away.

Wait, not ideological? So Ruffini's saying we need to run moderates? No. That is precisely the opposite of what I am saying.

Because very few independents care about ideological name-checks, they won't be swayed by scare tactics trying to persuade them that Candidate X is the ideological second-coming of Attila the Hun. We saw this with the thesis attacks. Candidates have wide latitude to run as who they actually are, so long as they can persuade voters they'll deal with the bread and butter issues (which was McDonnell's calling card).

In a purple state like Virginia, you can win by running as a liberal and a problem-solver (Kaine), as a moderate and a problem-solver (Warner), and as a strong conservative and a problem-solver (McDonnell).

Faced with that choice, why wouldn't we choose to run the conservative every time? A non-ideological electorate gives us more leeway to run conservatives in blueish/purple states, not less. To get a flavor of this in action, just look at the closing slide of McDonnell's ads:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2600/4080658254_777a1c8cfd.jpg

The ubiquitous "Jobs Governor" branding and the spinning icons highlighting different issues is evocative of the desire for practical, clickable solutions to everyday problems shown in another recent marketing campaign.

Fixing Northern Virginia traffic? There's an app for that.

Jobs? There's an app for that.

Education? There's an app for that.

Essentially, whatever the issue was, Bob McDonnell wanted you he had the proverbial "app for that" -- a set of practical solutions not overtly branded as left, center, or right.

Considering the issue void that was the Creigh Deeds campaign, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Republicans in Virginia have struggled to make their prescriptions relevant to swing voters. Our issues in local elections have traditionally been issues like taxes and immigration that don't always lend themselves to policy heft. And a lack of policy heft has translated into an intangible sense that there's not enough "there there."

This was the central challenge facing the McDonnell campaign at its outset, and so it systematically sought to dismantle this critique by branding McDonnell as a practical problem solver without compromising his conservative principles.

Republicans can be specific, detailed, and confident in putting forward solutions relevant to the middle class, while also being more conservative than we have been in recent years (especially with the Bush era spending binge). There's not an either/or tradeoff between conservatism and a policy focus, something the McDonnell campaign proved in Virginia this year.

The lesson of the McDonnell campaign: Maintain your conservative principles, but make the election about policy. And whatever the issue, make sure you've got an app for that.

NY-23 Across America

What follows may be akin to one of those crazy ideas Dick Morris used to come up with in the Clinton White House, only one in ten of which turned out to be workable -- but when they worked, oh man, did they work.

The key fact that sticks out in my mind about Doug Hoffman's incredible momentum in NY-23 is that his election would not have been possible had he been the Republican nominee. The fact that we may be about to elect a non-squish from New York has everything to do with the fact that he is running as a third-party independent, and not a Republican (even if the Conservative Party is an auxiliary of the Republicans in most elections).

Hoffman as a Republican would have been too obvious a target and the subject of a relentless barrage of negative TV, websites, mail, and phones branding him as outside the mainstream, anti-choice, anti-worker, etc. But politically, Hoffman has managed to avoid all that until five days out, when it's now clear he's the frontrunner. And as Chris Cillizza points out this morning, Hoffman's success in the polls is built on the back among strong support among independents and (primarily) not Republican regulars disgusted at Scozzafava.

This got me thinking: How many points is an Independent party label worth, assuming you're able to vie for Republican votes in a general election? 5? 10? We know that in races with a plausible third party, that candidate automatically tends to earn more independent and moderate support even if they are ideologically indistinguishable from a Republican (Hoffman) or a Democrat (Chris Daggett in New Jersey).

We also know from Daggett's run in a strong-party, machine state that American politics is entering a phase of third party strength which we last saw in the early '90s with Ross Perot and culminating in the Republican Revolution of '94.

This led me to tweet the following this morning:

Brainstorm: what if Republicans were to withdraw from a series of hot Congressional races and run as conservative independents a la #ny23?

I am not one to believe that a situation exactly like Hoffman's is recreatable across the spectrum. Certainly, we would not want to have to take out every slightly wobbly Republican nominee (Scozzafava's problem was that she was very wobbly) with a third party conservative. With 435 House races on the ballot in 2010, the conservative movement won't have the energy to concentrate its Death Star gamma ray on hapless local establishments in every district.

But what if it were to happen peacefully? Or as a concerted strategy to gain votes?

What if you were to have promising Republican candidates running in Democratic-lean seats say, a few months out from the election, "Let me tell you something. I'm just as sick and tired of the Republicans as I am of the Democrats. So, from this moment forward, I'm running as a common-sense, Independent conservative for Congress."

From one perspective, this would not be helpful to efforts to tie the Republican brand to a broader sense of popular disgust at the Obama/Pelosi overreach. On the other hand, it might be a way for conservatives to invade the center, and thus control the high ground politically.

If you're a party person, don't dismiss this just yet. Say you're the NRCC and you haven't found a good recruit against a vulnerable House Democrat. Say the Republican nominee is a joke, or the incumbent is unopposed. Three months out, you go to your star recruit who turned you down a year ago and ask him to run as an independent. It's a three month campaign as opposed to an 18-month campaign. They don't have to quit their law practice or small business. They enter in the last few miles of the race, and you put serious pressure on the joke nominee to step aside, or put out word through local media and talk radio that this is the guy.

Now, I know one could raise myriad issues here. Ballot access for one. The reflexive aversion to third parties. The relative infrequency of unchallenged vulnerable Democrats, especially because 2010 won't be 2008 or 2006. And the prospect of bloody intra-party battles after the nomination has been settled.

All of these risks are arrayed against a few salient facts. First, the rising disgust at incumbent politicians that will play out over the next couple of years, accompanied by a "pox on both your houses" sentiment. Second, a proven history of entire party blocs picking up and moving to third parties when they need to (NY-23, or Joe Lieberman's 2006 re-election). There are two possibilities for an ideological third party candidate -- they can either flop and pose no serious threat (which happens the vast majority of the time because the candidates are nobodies) or dominate (if they are credible).

In a handful of races, perhaps in places where we can't win with the Republican label alone, it might be more useful for the general election to be a strong Independent versus a Democrat rather than a Republican versus a Democrat. At one extreme of the Cook PVI, let's stipulate that the general election against Charlie Rangel was waged with a Puerto Rican small business owner running on the No More Corrupt Politicians Party line with behind the scenes, logistical support from the GOP. At a minimum, that person would stand a better chance than a Republican in that district.

I'm a strong party guy, but I also believe in Sun Tzu's maxim that you do the unexpected to throw your opponent off balance. Strategically unleashing a swarm of conservative independents may be one such strategy for 2010.

The Left's Tenacious Advocacy for a Public Option

If the public option passes in some form, thank the liberal blogosphere who put pressure on Democratic members of Congress to publicly threaten to derail health care reform if it wasn't included in the final bill.

The specter of Democrats reverse-filibustering their own President's plan is what has kept the public option alive, even if one could argue that "alive" is akin to a persistent vegetative state.

Contrast this to yes-man approach of the Congressional GOP in the early Bush years, and I personally find a lot to like about the Democratic model of the Congressional party serving as a sort of whip against the political expediency that will be the norm in any White House.

In 2005, I thought it would have been a good idea for conservative Republican members to publicly threaten to oppose any Social Security bill that did not include private accounts. There were multiple problems with this, not the least of which that the Congressional leadership was too spineless to bring a bill out of committee. But another was that conservatives in the House and Senate, with no strategic prodding or muscle in the blogosphere and the activist groups, never made the threat that would have rendered a "compromise" bill dead on arrival.

How groups like Open Left and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are taking on the role of legislative strategy is very smart, and something we can learn from. How the right has fueled the tea party movement to feed into a sense of backlash in the country about the left's total control of government is also very smart, and may have the last laugh in 2010, but will it be enough to deal with the immediate task at hand, derailing a government takeover of health care? I'm not so sure.

Of course, this could all blow up in their faces. Having destroyed any possiblity of compromise, or at least defined "compromise" as something very, very close to an absolutist-left position on health care, the left-blogosphere has ensured that the only alternative to doing nothing at all is a very leftist final bill. And if that's the choice, doing nothing becomes a much, much more palatable option for the Blue Dogs. I'm personally unsure as to how they thread the needle of getting a public option passed with 60 votes.  

Still, it's valuable to understand what the left is doing and how it differs from the Congressional GOP "roll over" strategy on White House initiatives in the Bush years, in which we either actively collaborated on bad bills (Medicare Part D) or didn't make a serious push to make the good bills (tax cuts, Social Security) even stronger.

The Public Albatross

Whatever the outcome of the health care saga, it seems safe to conclude that the public option is dead. It is worth analyzing its impending demise for what it teaches us about American attitudes towards government, and how political battles are won.

The key fact here is that the public option is not some long-standing, highly pedigreed idea engrained in the liberal psyche, in the way that school choice or private Social Security accounts have been for the intellectual right. In fact, the idea of a public option is very new. It was first raised in 2007 by Berkeley economist Jacob Hacker, and popularized as a device that would "someday magically turn into single payer."

Continues Mark Schmitt at TAPPED:

Following Edwards' lead, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton picked up on the public option compromise. So what we have is Jacob Hacker's policy idea, but largely Hickey and Health Care for America Now's political strategy. It was a real high-wire act -- to convince the single-payer advocates, who were the only engaged health care constituency on the left, that they could live with the public option as a kind of stealth single-payer, thus transferring their energy and enthusiasm to this alternative. It had a very positive political effect: It got all the candidates except Kucinich onto basically the same health reform structure, unlike in 1992, when every Democrat had his or her own gimmick. And the public option/insurance exchange structure was ambitious.

The public option is an idea that was born, literally, in the last Presidential campaign. Even so, it was little discussed in 2008, when the main bone of contention was Hillary's individual mandate to purchase health insurance. A Google News search from the height of the Hillary-Obama primary battle shows two health care-related mentions of the "public option" in January 2008, zero in February, and two in March, one in April, and two in May and June.

That the public option was new and unfamiliar made it easily characterized as a ploy to introduce single-payer in miniature, which it was self-transparently was in the eyes of its originators.

Indeed, reading through the founding documents of the public option is about as damning as if one got ahold of a secret dossier of Milton Friedman's proclaiming school vouchers a necessary "compromise" that would eventually usher in the death of public education in America.

So, the public option was not serioiusly discussed in 2008. It was never seen as central to Democratic demands for health care until mid-2009. Since the failure of Hillarycare, Democrats have continually stressed that they would get to universal coverage by regulating and by building on the existing system. Indeed, for all that Hillarycare was being pilloried as socialized medicine, not even it contained as overt a nod to single-payer as a government-run health care "option."

Exactly like the Social Security fight in 2005, liberals hoped that by injecting more government into the health care system they could change the political culture, just as conservatives hoped private accounts would awaken more of us to the rich abundance of the free market.

However, as the economic crisis showed, the political system is only designed to tolerate sudden changes to America's economic model in a crisis atmosphere. We've seen more than a good bit of economic nationalization in recent years/months, but only as a response to a perceived crisis. Could health care in America be nationalized? Sure -- if the pandemic flu struck the United States and was well on its way to killing millions of Americans and private institutions were judged inadequate -- and even then, political leaders would caution that it was a temporary measure. Welcome to the "bailout" school of health care reform.

The problem for Obama is that after months of "crisis" after "crisis", the welcome mat has worn thin. Not unexpectedly, "emergency" moves toward socialism in the auto and financial sectors have sidelined elective moves towards the same in health care.

Prepare for a Blowout

I am a strong proponent of the idea that candidate recruitment is the ultimate futures market of elections. Collectively, the decisions made by candidates on both sides tell a lot about where politicos on the ground see the political environment headed in the next year to 18 months. It was not surprising that in 2006 and especially in 2008, candidate recruitment on our side sucked wind. Only one Senate race -- Louisiana -- was even remotely considered a Republican pickup opportunity in '08.

For 2010, the story is different. We are by and large getting our top-tier recruits in Senate races, and in more and more House races. And the White House is not getting theirs. The bumper crop of good candidates we had in the 2002 and 2004 cycles appears to have returned. 

Though it's early -- I don't think people thought 1994 could be a really big year until at least February of that year -- I do think we have to prepare for the idea that 2010 could be a big, big year that could put us back within striking distance in both the Senate and the House. Normally, I wouldn't want to raise expectations -- but going back to that candidate recruitment futures thing: if you are remotely thinking of running for office in the next few years, 2010 could be your best shot, and here's why:

  • The horrendous 2006 and 2008 cycles have depressed Republican totals in Congress to far below the historical mean. Though the fact that there were two successive 20+ seat losses in the House and 5+ seat losses in the Senate in the House is historically unique,  collectively they equal one 1980 or 1994-style wipeout -- after which Democrats finally began to recover.
  • The unique confluence of youth and African American turnout for Obama padded vote totals for Congressional Democrats by about 4 points -- and in a midterm -- I'm sorry -- those votes won't be there. We saw this pretty clearly in the Georgia Senate runoff. In 2012, however, those voters might be back -- making 2010 an opportune moment for a promising Congressional challenger to gain a foothold.
  • The Democrats are now clearly responsible for everything, and trying to blame Bush and the GOP wears thinner and thinner by the day. Even if the economy recovers somewhat, and with massive job losses still on the horizon, I don't see people feeling that recovery, let's remember that the economy was in a clear recovery by 1994 but that didn't help Clinton and Democrats.

On a micro-tactical level, Obama may be taking great pains to avoid Clinton's fate on health care, as Ezra Klein details in Sunday's Washington Postbut the broader optics are starting to converge for Obama and Clinton: young, energetic change agents who are being proven ineffective, overexposed, and prone to ADD (Clinton held 38 press conferences his first year, drawing this comparison to Obama's first few days in office).

In many ways, the proving ground for this hypothesis won't be Congress, but the states. There we have 50 distinct political cultures than run in parallel to Washington. And, as Michael Barone notes, the mood there seems to point in the direction of belt-tightening and more humble government, not grandiose new infrastructure or health care schemes.

Syndicate content