Tuesday, April 26, 2005

When will we ever learn?

When we learn that fighting the fight on the battleground of the enemy’s choosing is a dumb idea?

Surely Sun Tzu or von Clausewitz or somebody pronounced this idea memorably enough for us to learn it. Grant? Lee? Patton? Ike? Anybody?

Today I read that my friends are fighting the culture wars staged by the Republicans. I think it has something to do with filibustering and judges. Maybe faith, too.

In any case, it is a classic case where we have taken their bait, hook, line and sinker. Maybe even the pole.

The sole discernible purpose of Justice Sunday (or whatever they called their revival meeting this past weekend) was to paint us as Godless, amoral and out of touch with real American values. And boy, have we risen to the occasion!

If I hear one more Air America personality/caller (Randi excepted, of course) whine about how the red-state evangelicals are crazy, I’ll scream. If I read one more post on Kos or Atrios about how the red-staters are crazy because they keep voting against their own interests, EVEN THOUGH WE HAVE PATIENTLY EXPLAINED THIS TO THEM 3,000 TIMES, I’ll scream.

The red-staters, evangelicals, blue-collar voters, etc. (let’s call them swing voters) are not following us because we are not leading. The only people pulling the lever for us are people who aren’t likely to vote for the other team no matter what. Except of course for the future swing voters who will swing away from us if we don’t start to lead.

Today, Kos wonders what’s wrong with the D-Brand of “Democrats are the party for people who work for a living.” In the ad biz, this would be positioned as a campaign tag, not an actual tag line. In other words, it’s the key insight for all our thinking about the brand, but not necessarily the framing that’ll be used in speaking with consumers.

My own view is that Kos’ line is too limiting. It also still resonates in a negative way with now-ancient-but-not-forgotten communist bashing. (Remember, the hatred spewed by the right will be ricocheting around our culture for decades!) I do, however, think the general direction is about right.

We need to come up with an even bigger idea. I’ve been thinking that the campaign tag line is something like “Community. Responsibility. Opportunity.” What’s missing is the emotional subtext to turn this into our equivalent of “smaller government” or “lower taxes.”

I think our framing must tap into our core strength, which is that we all believe that by collective action we can as a society improve our lives significantly. Which includes things besides letting market forces sort everything out. (Every time we try this market-rules-all approach, we get total crap. Like now.)

This is in contrast to the Republicans’ core strength, which is identifying and voicing all of the potential problems of our program for progress. We should never forget that this is a useful and important role, which deserves just as much credit and weight as our “change-or-die” approach. Our society works best when these two forces are in balance. And right now, we are terribly out of balance.

I suspect that the Republicans never dreamed they’d have the kind of success they’re having. In their general tirades about us, they touched on the nerve of taxes being too high. This, despite any evidence to that effect.

But plenty of swing voters bought into it, 100%. Of course, not based on any real evidence, but based solely on the reports of their own two eyes, gazing at their pay stubs every two weeks, with a seeming fortune going to the government. Hell, with that much money most of us could buy a car. (This anecdotal approach to analysis persists, flourishing, in our current society. Terry Schiavo, for example.)

Ben Franklin’s principal objection to a republican form of government was that it would collapse as soon as the people figured out they had the power to raid the treasury. It may be that the Republicans have unleashed that exact genie, never again to be returned.

For my part, I’m with the overwhelming majority of founding fathers who thought the constitution was not worth having for very long. I think many of them thought that whatever they crafted, time and changing circumstance would moot before too long. And I think they were unassailability right in this.

But instead of chucking it out every half century or so, we developed this fluid notion of what the constitution meant, and resorting to amendments from time to time. But as I read the current tea leaves, we are embarked, irrevocably I believe, on a course which will lead us to a new constitutional order.

Republicans (conservatives, really) object that we Democrats have stretched the constitution beyond all recognition in pursuit of our (worthy) goals. There may be truth in this. (There may not.) But I think the right has drawn fault lines in our country that will lead us to re-visit the basic deal on which our civil institutions rest.

We have had small-minded, bible-thumping intolerant jerks from the day after the Mayflower arrived. (By the sheer power of genealogical mathematics, I am a Mayflwer descendant. In a few more generations, every human will be.) They were in Massachusetts Bay colony (Rhode Island, any one?). They were present in Philadelphia in 1775-6. They were certainly around for abolition, and for temperance.

But we have had to, from time to time, re-visit our deal with these (American) folk. I live in New York, which from the start celebrated its diversity (OK, not when it jailed Quakers, but come on), and every day continues to show the inherent strength of the proposition that we are better together.

The time is nigh when we must once again re-new our deal: we let them have intolerant, closed communities where they feel sanctimoniously superior, they let us have the rest as an open, tolerant and secular society.

For us to be able to strike this deal anew, we need to be in touch with our own ideas. Tolerance. Secular government. And right now, we can barely remember these ideas.
So to begin our journey back to our roots, we need to re-visit first principles, convince each other of their continued value, then go about selling them to the swing voters. And all of that is likely to take some time. But to the extent that I am permitted a megaphone for cheerleading purposes (George Buch and Trent Lott, fellow Cheerleaders, of course in college), I urge us to develop a clean emotional pitch for our values. The formula is easy: authenticity + cultural relevance = emotional resonance. But filling in the equation’s values can be daunting. So we better get started.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Lead, dammit!

So, Mr. DeLay thinks we need to re-think judicial review, does he? Not too comfortable with judges having lifetime appointments? Wants to define “good behavior” (the condition of judges’ tenure) as “agrees with me,” does he?

Well, let’s of course unleash the full fury of the academy on him.

But as for a political response, I think this is clearly an instance where we should employ the “Don’t Take the Bait” strategy I’ve been advocating for quite some time.

What are supposed to do, argue in favor of judges ignoring the will of the people? Make the case that judges shouldn’t be concerned with the will of the majority? Once again, for the millionth time, argue in favor of the rights of the minorities?

Can’t we see this one coming and avoid it? Are we truly Wile E. Coyote?

Let’s launch the “sore losers” meme, if you will. But let’s put it in a frame that has broad, unassailable support. For example, when discussing Mr. DeLay’s ideas, we can say,

“Judicial review and independence is part of our shared traditions as Americans and we certainly want no part of meddling with the system of checks and balances that has served us so well for over two centuries. Just because things don't go your way is no reason to cry foul and try to change the well-settled rules that all Americans support.”
Now, was that so hard? And no matter what they say, just keep saying those words over and over. Let them explain Marbury to the American people.

At the same time, in the event there are other progressives who want to regain power, let me suggest that we need to demonstrate leadership on this. I’d like some enterprising politician out there (paging Democratic Congressmen, ambitious Democratic Congressmen) to propose a new federal initiative to adequately fund the courts in this country. After years of Republicans starving the courts, the time has arrived to provide the courts with the funding they need, for amongst other things, security. I believe we’ll have no trouble getting a whole gaggle of Republican judges on board this program. It should specify a large, inspiring amount of money ($5 billion, for example, over 3 years), and direct that the funds be used as directed by the US Judicial Conference, which is an administrative body within the judiciary. We should suggest that the funds be used of course to provide adequate security to all judges and judicial branch personnel, but also to allow for judges to study, to hold conferences, to get continuing judicial education, to hire and train adequate staff, and finally to computerize and open up technologically the US courts. Hell, I’d even mandate that we put cameras in the courts and make C-SPAN add C-SPAN IV. But that’s me – I actually like democracy.

If we got the Democratic machine on board, we could start to give reporters something to talk about besides how wonderful dear leader is. We could elevate judges at just the time the other side wants to reduce them formally to the role of lapdog. We could move off of the ridiculous “activist judges” meme, which is so ridiculous even I won’t bother explaining it again. At least not today.

Now there are potential pitfalls here. We might end up packing the federal courts with a whole bunch of newly created judgeships held by kooky Bushies. So be it. Isn’t that about where we are already? And when we regain control of the government, we can pack it right back. Truth is, judges are cheap in the scheme of things. We can always hire more.

So here’s the bottom line. Let the academy handle the defense of Marbury. They love that stuff. Democratic politicians should chastise Republicans for being sore losers and trying to re-write the rules that are part of our shared heritage thathas served us so well for over two hundred years. And some ambitious Democratic Congressmen should propose an initiative to save the judiciary by providing it with enough funding to Keep Our Judges Safe.

Easy, huh?

Friday, April 15, 2005

Another New Idea.

I have long advocated the need for Progressives to start controlling the agenda by proposing wholly new and original ideas. I’ve proposed advocating for a cap on CEO salaries, for example, or pushing for a real national pension system.

Here’s a new one.

Remember how the Repubs made so much hay from the idea of a “balanced budget amendment” years ago? Of course it was nutty from a policy perspective, but it enabled them to portray themselves as being in favor of fiscal restraint and discipline, and quite opposed to the free-spending Washington spenders (which were thought in those days to be Dems, since we controlled the Congress).

I have an idea for something similar. How about a constitutional amendment prohibiting any state from receiving more in federal benefits than it pays into the federal treasury in taxes?

This would allow us to portray ourselves as in favor of state-level fiscal responsibility, and against free-loading states whose grip on the federal treasury allows them to take advantage of the hard working folks of the states that pay their fair share.

Now, one problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t do much to bolster the confidence and stature of red-staters, given that the main point is to show these folks that without help from their blue state neighbors, they wouldn’t be able to afford stop signs. But I wonder if there’s a way to re-work this idea so that it would serve the purpose of showing how detrimental it would be to the Repubs’ base if they actually got their wish – a federal government that only spent on defense, and also of showing how re-distribution of wealth is not evil or inherently unfair (as we will no doubt be hearing when the Pres chucks Soc. Sec. “reform”/phase-out in favor of “tax refom”/middle class tax increases.

Just throwing this one out there.

Monday, April 11, 2005

A correspondent to Eric Alterman's blog says of Al Smith's 1928 run:

In 1928 Hoover carried 200 Southern counties for the first time in Republican history. The 1928 election showed that with the right cultural issue (Prohibition, anti-Catholicism, something along those lines) the GOP could court the white South.

In short 1928 marked a shift toward the urban/rural partisan split we see today.

I will therefore add anti-drinking and anti-Catholicism (reprised in 1960) to the the incredibly lengthy list of shibboleths the right has used to cajole people into voting against their own interests (states' rights, anti-ERA, bussing, school prayer, flag burning, pledge of allegiance, gay marriage, killing the brain dead, etc., etc., etc.). I'd love for someone to pull them altogether and just list them. I think the sheer fatuousness of the list would do some damage...
I recently posted a comment on Kos a post on Ed Kilgore's piece about the Civil War. I said

I think this piece speaks to our current situation today quit directly. This strain in our culture is very much alive in our current political debate. And for my money, we're not going to get power back until we acknowledge that people who cling to the romance of their lost cause do so because they are otherwise totally and utterly beaten. Fought a war for an evil cause. Fought bitterly, and won nothing but heartache. It reminds me too of some of the folks in Germany following WWI -- defeated, but not broken, nursing a wound.

We need to support and help our red-state brethern see that we share the same dreams and hopes for the future, and that the past is both glorious and terrible for us both.

I was asked if I meant the Civil War as an analogy or as an actual ongoing issue.

I think the Civil War riffs is no mere analogy but very much alive and at the heart of the division that still afflicts us. It is most emphatically NOT about getting people in the South (and parts of the West) to understand anything. It is about getting us Yankees to understand that the res states operate with a deeply ingrained inferiority complex. Where are the Academy Awards? Does J. Lo. live in Indiana? Where the hell is Harvard?

Red staters are trying to do nothing so much as make themselves feel better about their generally second-class status. To help our nation progress, the best thing we blue-staters can do is to first recognize that sense of inferiority (which fuels all the senseless lashing out -- at femininsts, secularists, judges, etc.) See, if your problems are everybody else's fault, you're probably just trying to protect yourself from the hard reality that the problems are mostly your own damn fault. So piling on, constantly pointing out what maroons and rubes these folks are is terribly
counter-productive. No one is going to join with someone who makes them feel even worse about themselves when they are already struggling.

So to the second thing we need to do. We need to help red staters see the wonderful
strengths they have, and we need to help them address their very real problems.

Finally, we need to convince them that we are on their side, that we want them to succeed, and that we harbor no animosity or condecension toward them whatsoever.

Easy, huh?