Category Archives: Politics

What exactly is the constituency of the Democratic Party?

Joe Conason has a piece at Salon repeating a piece of conventional wisdom that has been floating around since the 2008 election: even if Democrats suffer losses in the upcoming elections, unstoppable demographic trends (the rise of the ‘minority majority’ nation and the growth of the college-educated workforce) will ensure that Democrats have significant successes over the next twenty years.  The continuing decline of the percentage of the country that is white, Christian, and lacks a college education will doom the Republicans- whatever their short-term gains- to demographic irrelevancy as a regional party representing portions of the rural South and Midwest.

This line of reasoning takes for granted that demographic categories that currently favor Democrats over Republicans- such as Hispanic/Latino voters, African-Americans, and Asians- will continue to vote for Democrats.  Conason points out that failures to achieve Democratic goals over the next couple years could threaten the party’s mid-term dominance, but the argument seems to assume that if Democratic legislators can pass the legislation that they want, voters that are currently voting Democrat will continue to do so.  But is their hold on their voters as strong as the pundits think? Continue reading

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With Friends Like These…

John McCain is learning today the only thing more politically dangerous than being disliked by the right wing of his party is being supported by it. I happened to catch some of CNN’s coverage today of the dust-up involving Bill Cunningham’s controversial intro today. Basically, Cunningham- a Cincinnati area and syndicated talk radio host- railed on Obama today instead of introducing McCain, calling Obama a “hack” and repeatedly using his full name- Barack Hussein Obama. Nothing wrong with calling a man by his full name, but among the conservative conspiracy world, referring to Obama as “Hussein” has become a sort of code for asserting that he is a crypto-Muslim, or at least needlessly sympathetic to the Muslim world. If Bush’s use of the phrase “wonder-working power” was a signal to evangelical Christians that he was in their court, Cunningham’s invocation of “Hussein” was the same message, sent to rabid right-wing conspiracy theorists and racists of all stripe.

McCain repudiated Cunningham’s remarks- prompting a cranky response from Cunningham- in a later news conference. Unfortunately for McCain, in a general election between him and Obama, things are going to get worse before they get better. While the Republicans have been researching how far they can go without coming across as racist or sexist, the radical wing of the party has no such concerns. The dirty secret that Republicans have tried to conceal in building their “big tent” coalitions of social conservatives, religious conservatives, free market conservatives, and foreign policy hawks is that their party remains a last redoubt for racists and sexists of all stripes.

During the general election, McCain is going to have to work to constantly distance himself from “supporters” whose wild attacks on Obama will serve as a constant source of embarrassment. A constant drumbeat of ultraconservatives coming out of the woodwork to say, in effect, “I’m voting for McCain to keep a black guy/Muslim/guy with a funny name out of the Oval Office” are going to remain a liability to his campaign- particularly because McCain needs to seek the support of the more strident conservatives to shore up his support in the party.

For the next nine months, John McCain is going to have to endear himself to people like Bill Cunningham and his fans- while worrying every step of the way that a conservative pundit or official that just endorsed him or appeared with him is going to let slip a racist or xenophobic remark. Without these sorts of conservatives, McCain has no hope of mobilizing the Republican base for the general election. With them, he’s going to have to spend time and energy running damage control to keep moderates and independents from fleeing from the bigotry- overt and covert- that Obama’s candidacy draws out.

McCain may be in for a rough ride in the general election, if friends like Bill Cunningham keep lending their support.

Enter the Nader

Certain amount of sturm und drang among Democrats today with the news that Ralph Nader is again running for President. Most of the commentary has been devoted to revisiting Nader’s spoiler effect in the 2000 election. Nader is much less of a threat to the Democrats in this go-round, however. The 04 election showed that many of his supporters in 2000 have trickled away from him. The Green Party won’t be providing him with backing or organizational support. Finally, Barack Obama has done a better job than either Gore or Kerry of motivating the young, progressive voters who might have been inclined to support a Nader election.

The final fact that will be working against the possibility of Nader playing the spoiler is the change in attitudes among progressives. What hurt Gore more than anything in 2000, with respect to the Nader vote, was the feeling among the electorate that there wasn’t a great deal of difference between Bush and Gore. Gore was an un-personable technocrat. Bush was a malapropism spouting unknown quantity, who claimed to be a “compassionate conservative”. Support for both of them ran lukewarm, as neither was able to capture a significant number of independents or crossover voters. The result was the 50-50 split that saw Bush take the presidency despite a lower popular vote, thanks to the peculiarities of the electoral college.

This year, there is a much stronger feeling among Democratic and independent voters that their vote is a significant choice- particularly with Obama as the Democratic nominee. While there’s still some frustration with the two main stream parties among some independents, an Obama-McCain general election would would result in the independent and crossover votes that might have once gone to Nader being apportioned between McCain and Obama- with Obama taking the lions share, thanks to his appeal to both the more liberal Republicans who might vote for McCain, and the young, liberal Democrats who might have previously been tempted by Nader on the Green Party ticket. Conservative Democrats might split their vote, but that effect will be mollified by Obama by the fact that some hard-core conservatives might not turn out for a McCain election.

Interestingly, I think Nader plays a much bigger potential role in a run-off between Clinton and McCain. Both could inspire some antipathy among their own party members (particularly if there are any convention shenanigans that result in Hillary taking the nomination) that could push supporters towards a third-party candidate. In such a scenario, though, it’s difficult to state with any confidence what would happen to the protest vote- you might see more write-in votes for Obama than votes for Nader.

Looking Past the Convention

The Democratic primary race is still in full swing. But by the end of August, one candidate will be setting their eyes on the November general election, and the other will have to decide how their political career continues. Both Clinton and Obama have a few years left in their Senate terms; if they want it, they have a ready-made platform to use as a launching point for another run at the White House in 2012. But what happens on November 5th, 2008, as the loosing Democratic nominee takes a look at the shape of things for the next four years?

The first scenario to tackle is the one that Democrats least want to consider: John McCain captures the general election. If McCain is elected, both Obama and Clinton might see 2012 as their time to strike. Even if McCain were to perform well in office, by 2012 he’ll be 76, and health issues could easily prevent him from seeking a second term. Any McCain win in 08 will likely be narrow, and the Democrats will see an opportunity for an opening at the end of his first term. Look for a repeat of the 08 election; neither Clinton nor Obama is likely to give up their shot at the White House in the meantime. Obama will need to worry about his ability to recapture the momentum and effervescence that has characterized his candidacy to date; Clinton will have to find a way to re-tool her image and message in order to take a decisive win in the primary race. In this scenario, being the nominee in this years election is more or a handicap than a benefit. Obama would need to spend the next four years taking visible leadership roles on Senate issues to put to rest doubts about his achievements and leadership. Clinton would face a much harder task, needing to create new momentum and check her hawkish image with voters- there’s no way that she, or any other Democrat, could out-hawk McCain’s “perpetual war” stance while still keeping hold of Democratic voters.

If Obama or Clinton take the White House, I look for their rival to sit out the 2012 election. With a Democrat in the Oval Office, it will be much less appealing to either of them to join the field. A good performance by the Democratic president would cinch the nomination almost automatically. Poor performance would mean that a Republican would be more likely to take office, no matter who is running from the other side of the aisle. Both Obama and Clinton are savvy enough to avoid such a trap, and would focus instead on retaining their senate positions and rebuilding their campaigns for another run in 2o16.

What happens if Hillary Clinton takes the White House? One appealing prospect for Obama- and perhaps for Clinton as well- would be a cabinet position. Four or eight years removed from re-election concerns, and safely away from the Senate compromise votes that haunted John Kerry, a promised cabinet position would be an excellent way to bring together a Democratic party split over the nomination battle. Several years in the cabinet could put to rest for Obama any concerns about his age or experience. Having a dynamic future candidate in the cabinet could allow Clinton to name an older or less electable vice president without the need to worry about the party’s future in 2016.

Clinton, I think, would be less likely to accept such a deal; for her, a loss in August most likely means one thing only: the beginning of the next campaign. She’ll skip the 2012 presidential season and opt instead to retain her senate seat, and look towards 2016. In the meantime, she’ll work with the Democratic party to try and strengthen the party’s structure and organization to provide better support for the eventual nominee in 2016.

Obama was quick to realize after the previous convention that he was the man of the moment, and will be unwilling to turn loose of that momentum, no matter what the result in 2008. Meanwhile, Clinton is unlikely to waver in her ambition to become the first female president. Win or loose in August, look for both candidates to be back with gusto in 2012 or 2016.

Reading Iowa’s Entrails

The dust is settling in the Iowa Caucus, and it appears that Barack Obama has pulled off a win, dealing an early black eye to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in particular. While it’s too early to read a lot from the win, the most interesting thing about Iowa may not be which Democratic candidate won, but how he won. Clinton’s appeal, according to pundits, is to older voters and particularly women. She is supposed to be the Democrat capable of appealing to the rightmost edge of the party, voters who will supposedly be swayed by her credentials as a Democratic hawk and experienced political operator. The numbers in Iowa may reveal an on-the-ground weakness in the Clinton campaign not previously perceived; if any of Hillary’s key demographics (females, older voters, conservative Dems) are breaking more in Obama’s favor, Iowa could reveal what ultimately proves to be the unraveling of Hillary’s White House bid. It’s not necessary that Obama necessarily take a majority of any of those groups; he needs only to take more of Hillary’s thunder then was expected. Simply defying expectations in Iowa may be enough to put big cracks in the media narrative of Hillary as the “safe” candidate who appeals to the middle of the road.

Romney’s Mixed Message

Lots of discussion going on right now about Mitt Romney’s speech on his religious faith, and what exactly it says about him and his chances as a candidate. I have real doubts about the effectiveness of Romney’s speech. Most of the comparisons have focused on Kennedy’s speech in Texas about Catholicism, but the speech that Romney delivered presented a much more muddled message.

Kennedy delivered a speech where he clearly re-affirmed a fundamental belief in the separation of church and state. He was addressing an audience during a time when evangelicals were not a driving force in politics among Republicans or Democrats, and was running as a progressive candidate. By emphasizing the separation of religious matters and political ones, he was able to sway a wide variety of people: conservative Protestants viewed the separation of church and state as a way to keep Vatican meddling out of the White House, Catholics were reassured that Kennedy had neither abandoned his faith, nor would trigger an anti-Catholic backlash, and progressives were given a vision of an executive who would govern with respect to the Constitution and the mores of the time, rather than the commandments of a medieval authority.

Romney’s speech could only ever hope to appease one group: conservative evangelicals. His repeated references to weakening the separation of church and state gave a collective shudder to liberals and, perhaps more importantly, libertarian leaning voters within the Republican party. His comments on his views on Christianity and Jesus- which some commentators have indicated went astray from Mormon orthodoxy- might have given some thoughtful Mormons pause as to whether Romney is distorting or attempting to leverage his religious beliefs as a political tool.

Meanwhile, by discussing opposition to secularism, Romney has indicated that religious beliefs will be in play as part of the platform of a Romney presidency. He has, in essence, said the exact opposite of Kennedy: his religious beliefs will play a role in policy in his administration. The attempt in this speech was to convince evangelical voters that his beliefs were close enough to theirs that they should embrace his candidacy as a step in pushing their own beliefs back into the center of public life. But realistically, Romney said little or nothing that will really alter the basic beliefs of evangelical Christians, who widely see Mormonism as a distortion of Christian teachings, and possibly as a non-Christian cult.

Romney has rejected calls for him to discuss his religious beliefs more openly on the grounds that doing so would apply a ‘religious test’, of the sort banned by the founding fathers. But with a speech like this, Romney has essentially said that his religious beliefs are an aspect of his political views. The ‘religious test’ envisioned by the founding fathers was an attempt to deny government office to people on the basis of an affiliation with a church or sect, rather than their policy goals. When your policy is dictated by your religious faith, a ‘religious test’ is entirely appropriate; the candidate is already promising, in effect, to turn his own religion into government policy of some sort. If Romney wants people to separate his beliefs from his candidacy, he needs to start with himself. Speech’s like the one he gave this week invite more, not less, scrutiny of the beliefs of a man who has promised that religion will have a place in his administration.

Private Marriage

Good piece in the Times today regarding marriage, and why exactly it became the business of the state to decide who was and wasn’t married. The author, Stephanie Coontz, makes a good case for taking marriage back into the private sphere, and cutting the state out of the loop entirely. Doing so, presumably, would solve all debates regarding the state’s role in granting recognition to gay marriages. But would taking marriage private really end the debate?

Coontz’s version of private marriage seems to constitute what some gay couples have been doing independently (and expensively!) for years now. In place of the single, blanket marriage license that serves as short hand for a whole range of civil rights and responsibilities, couples would create specific, legally binding arrangements or contracts with their partner to cover specific rights or obligations. Want to give your SO power of attorney in the event of a medical emergency? Sign a directive. Want your partner to receive your pension or social security survivorship? Sign another directive. Want to be considered as a single household? Another form.

Two problems seem to represent themselves. First of all, there is a very wide range of eventualities that marriage currently covers. Anticipating all of the possible situations where marital status comes into play would require significant research, and a significant investment of time and, potentially, expensive expertise. The virtue of the current system- and the prospect of extending that system to gays and lesbians- is that it provides a pre-packaged set of exactly such arrangements. No single source anywhere in any particular state or municipality has to know all of what is entailed- indeed, it’s doubtful of anyone, possibly including divorce attorneys really has that sort of info at their fingertips. Thus the first problem is working out all of what marriage currently entails, and crafting agreements to cover all of them. Certainly not an unconquerable task, but one that could be much simplified by simply extending the current institution of marriage to anyone who wants it.

The second problem is one of recognition. The issue with gay marriage is that the state will not recognize that two people of the same sex are legally able to participate in an agreement between them and the state that is perfectly straightforward for two members of the opposite sex. What reason do we have to believe that the states- which ultimately will be the place where these agreements will be challenged and enforced through the court system- will be more amenable to recognizing these independent agreements? In areas of family law and responsibility, will state recognize these contracts and arrangements as binding, given that were they gathered together under the heading of ‘marriage’ they presumably would not be enforced or recognized in states not recognizing gay marriage.

Ultimately, proposals to replace marriage with a network of private arrangements suffers from the same weakness as civil unions; they are, ultimately, semantic attempt to circumvent opposition to gay marriage that should be met head on. Proponents of “traditional marriage” will be no more eager to countenance the removal of marriage from the public sphere than they will be to admit gay marriage. Marriage for gay Americans shouldn’t be snuck in as a legal technicality; as the example of Massachusetts and other states shows, it can be introduced openly and the consequences (or rather, the lack thereof) will speak for themselves.