Why the Left Is Stronger Without the Democrats
(WARNING: Pretentious personal lede.)
A few months ago, on a reporting trip to London, I met up with the British historian and columnist Tim Stanley for a sad and bracing update on the fate of his country's conservative movement. The Conservative Party was in power, married for now to the Liberal Democrats in a rare national coalition. But the conservative movement was in poor shape. The Tories had bled most of their membership as the party moved left on gay marriage and environmentalism. The problem, said Stanley, was that there was no conservative movement—just the party.
I remembered that conversation after reading Adolph Reed Jr.'s cover essay in Harper's, a long criticism of the left for prioritizing the election of Democrats over ideology and results. Obama represented the worst of this, he writes: "Confusion and critical paralysis prompted by the racial imagery of Obama’s election prevented even sophisticated intellectuals like Žižek from concluding that Obama was only another Clintonite Democrat." Reed's advice:
We must create a constituency for a left program — and that cannot occur via MSNBC or blog posts or the New York Times. It requires painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves. Finally, admitting our absolute impotence can be politically liberating; acknowledging that as a left we have no influence on who gets nominated or elected, or what they do in office, should reduce the frenzied self-delusion that rivets attention to the quadrennial, biennial, and now seemingly permanent horse races.
Michelle Goldberg responded to this in the Nation, accusing Reed of falling back into the nihilism that allowed progressives to see no difference between Gore and Bush. The right, by contrast, "has simultaneously, over decades, systematically taken over the GOP from the bottom up, built a huge network of interlocking intellectual, legal and political institutions and mobilized every four years to try to elect a Republican president." Why can't the left do the same?
I'd argue that the left has already done much of that work—oh, and that Reed is still sort of right. Compare the Democratic Party that won in 2008 and 2012 with the one that lost in 2000. The party in 2000 had just undone Glass-Steagall and nominated a candidate who backed the first Gulf War. Its big idea on health care: prescription coverage as part of Medicare. Eight years later, no candidate who dreamed that small or was that uncritical of the banks could win a nomination.
What happened? A new left infrastructure had been built, including a think tank modeled on the right's AEI and Heritage Foundation (the Center for American Progress) and an aggressive "netroots" movement of writers and activists. You can track the development of the Democratic Party by tracking Al Gore, who started criticizing intervention in Iraq and backing single-payer within two years of losing the presidency. The Democratic Leadership Council, invented to move the party right, imploded at the start of the Obama years.
That's actually pretty impressive when you consider what the Democratic Party is. We don't have a social democratic, labor movement-rooted party in this country, like the U.K. does or like France does or like Germany does or like Brazil does, etc. and etc. The Democratic Party was, for more than a hundred years, a coalition of progressives, immigrants, and conservative Southern whites. Only pretty recently has it become clearly a party of the left, backed by labor but not led by it, adopting positions—gay marriage, immigration reform—after activists force it to. To some extent, Reed is burning a straw man.
What does he get right? Well, insofar as anyone actually thinks that "the left" is done when it elects charismatic Democrats, they should know better. (Reed hardly mentions Hillary Clinton, but this essay is of a piece with recent commentary that fears what'll happen if the Democrats re-embrace the Clintons, as the polls say they'll do.) Unless it's operating in the sort of state that can be changed by fiat*, a political movement will always, always be disappointed by the people it elects. It has to make those people respect and fear the movement.
Conservatives have figured this out, which is why they're on track to be "disappointed" in who wins in this year's primaries but end up with a GOP that refuses to cross them on most of their issues. The left has figured it out, too. Not completely. But more than Reed suggests.
*Venezuela, to pick an example that's not pretty right now.
Why Obama Got Russia Wrong (and Romney Got It Right)
To peer into the conservative media and blogosphere as it covers Russa's invasion of Crimea is to risk a fatal dose of schadenfreude. There are reports about how Sarah Palin totally called that Putin would invade Ukraine (she will be on Fox News tonight to remind us), about how Mitt Romney was unfairly mocked for calling Russia the greatest "geopolitical threat" to the United States, about Hillary Clinton's "reset button" gaffe. Even the Liberal New Republic (tm) has admitted that Mitt Romney was right about the Russians and their ambitions.
And he was. Why did Barack Obama blow it? Let's revisit the final 2012 presidential debate, the moment Romney explained himself and the president went for the lulz. Here's Obama.
Governor Romney, I'm glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida; you said Russia, in the 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years.
But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.
And here's Romney:
Russia I indicated is a geopolitical foe... and I said in the same -- in the same paragraph I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I'm certainly not going to say to him, I'll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election, he'll get more backbone.
Romney was right. Why was Obama wrong? Because, I think, he was willfully blurring the distinction between "geopolitical" and other sorts of threats. He was playing to the cheap seats. Voters do not fear Russia, or particularly care about its movements in its sad, cold sphere of influence. They do care a lot about terrorism. And Obama would use any chance he had, in 2012, to remind voters that he was president when Osama Bin Laden was killed.
So you see the politics—they reveal Obama as the player of a cheap trick. Of course al-Qaida isn't a "geopolitical threat" to the United States. It's a terrorist organization, untethered to states or geography. Obama himself (like George W. Bush before him) repeatedly claimed that the organization was on the run. How could al-Qaida be the greatest threat to America and a pathetic coalition of losers? It couldn't. Obama was spinning, hopefully faster than Romney could un-spin.
But I don't want to spin for Obama. Romney really did maintain a more cynical long-run view of Russia than Obama did. Obama saw Russia as a declining power that he could do business with, as he did with the New START treaty. Romney, as he laid out in his pre-campaign book No Apology, saw Russia as a recovering power. Its "rediscovered ambition for superpower status," he wrote, "is fueled by its massive energy reserves." This wasn't as sustainable as China's free-enterprise empire strategy, but it was an empire strategy, and that was enough to get spooked about.
The Populist War on Obama’s Regulators
If you ever doubted that an op-ed can change the world—a terrifying thought, to lose that power—get to know Ajit Pai. Appointed to the FCC in 2012, one of the Republicans nominated by Barack Obama, Pai grew disturbed by the organization's year-old Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs. As described by Pai, the project would snoop around newsrooms, making sure they adhered to political correctness though a series of codewords—"eight categories of 'critical information' such as the 'environment' and 'economic opportunities.' " Anyone could tell what this was: the return of the Fairness Doctrine.
"Should all stations follow MSNBC's example," snarked Pai, "and cut away from a discussion with a former congresswoman about the National Security Agency's collection of phone records to offer live coverage of Justin Bieber's bond hearing?"
The op-ed got results.
Eleven days after the op-ed ran, and the same day as Pai's interview on CNN, the FCC suspended the study while issuing a statement defending the theory behind it. A week later, the FCC officially announced that it wouldn't even try to conduct the study. Good timing: By then, Fox News was reporting on how the journalism schools received funding from George Soros. What more needed to be said? The devil's hands were all over this thing.
In isolation, the campaign to stop the FCC study would be interesting. But it wasn't isolated. At the same time that conservatives were hammering the study, they were soliciting public comments against proposed IRS rules to limit the activity of nonprofits in the 60 days before elections. FreedomWorks, Ron Paul's Campaign for Liberty, and multiple members of Congress pressed their activists (or constituents) to add public comments. The result: almost 140,000 public comments, most of which will surely oppose the rule.
90-Year-Old Man Wants to Keep Job So He Can Do Very Little With It
Rep. Ralph Hall is 90 years old, and running for re-election. This is just a little baffling to idle observers—if they know Hall at all, it's for his lost-looking demeanor at congressional hearings, or for the public services (a nice lake) named for him in East Texas. In endorsing his strongest opponent, John Ratcliffe, the Dallas Morning News noted that Hall had been pondering retirement since at least 1994. He didn't retire; he actually left the Democrats for the GOP 10 years later, when he was redistricted into unfriendlier territory.
Point is, he's running again, and this ad is supposed to save him.
Kind of a reductio ad absurdum of Republican campaign ads. He'll never vote to raise the debt limit—yes, a lot of luck he's had in preventing that happening.
The Temptation of Kyrsten Sinema
Twenty-three years ago, a county supervisor named Ed Pastor ran to replace the legendary Rep. Mo Udall in the House of Representatives. Pastor won, becoming—seriously, it took this long—the first Hispanic congressman from Arizona. He held the seat easily, rising in the Democratic ranks, making less and less news as his Phoenix-based district grew safer. In 2012 he didn't even attract a Republican challenger.
Last week, Pastor announced his retirement. Ambitious Democrats dogpiled into the race, led by Iraq War veteran and state Rep. Ruben Gallego, state Rep. Steve Gallardo, and Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox. No Democrat has won a Senate seat in Arizona since 1988, so a safe seat in Phoenix looks like a comfortable place to build from until the state becomes competitive again.
Enter Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. Elected narrowly in 2012, the first openly bisexual member of Congress sprang up immediately on the GOP's target list. Her current district borders on the Pastor seat. Her old legislative district overlapped here. It would be easy, theoretically, for her to switch races. Brahm Resnik has already scooped an email, circulating among Sinema's staff, setting up a meeting about her "options." Sinema has remained completely silent, publically, about whether she'll switch seats. Local Democrats are already fuming about a possible Sinema campaign.
With reason! Sinema's "the only one who can win" her current seat, according to Gallego, who has something of an interest here. That's partly because she's cast conservative votes, when necessary, to avoid looking too liberal. She was one of only nine Democrats who voted for the GOP's 2013 CR that would have delayed the individual mandate, angering the left; she joined a larger group of Democrats who voted for the "mini-CRs" designed to split the party by funding popular budget items. Just a month ago she joined the Blue Dog Democrats, that waning faction of sort-of-conservatives, clearly angling to win in an R-leaning district.
So what happens when Sinema takes that record into a safe blue seat that's only 40 percent white? Simple: She splits the party and probably loses.
"There are an entire nation of Democrats and progressive activists working hard to expand the map and take back the House in 2014," wrote Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Commieee, in an email. "Kyrsten Sinema should feel proud about winning her current seat for Democrats. But carpetbagging and turning that seat over to Republicans would contract the map and be the ultimate act of selfishness. She would invite the scorn of every one of her House Democratic colleagues -- in addition to Democratic leaders and activists across Arizona and the nation."
Democratic Senator: Crimea Crisis Is Happening Because America Looked Weak in Syria
Every year, a large sector of the Washington Convention Center is occupied and bedazzled for the AIPAC Policy Conference. It's an overwhelming event, with optics and booming Hollywood soundtracks that make other political conferences look like Aslyum movies. The scale of the thing tends to elevate what's said there. That happened yesterday, when Delaware Sen. Chris Coons (who's up for re-election this year but lacks a credible challenger) joined former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter for a discussion of foreign policy. It was Coons, a Democrat who holds the seat formerly filled by Joe Biden, who suggested that the Obama administration had shown weakness and invited new threats.
On Africa: "I frankly think we've lost some ground in the region because our vital allies don't believe that the United States has the will, the determination, the courage to act, after a red line was drawn, was crossed, and we didn't act in Syria."
On Ukraine: "I frankly think this is partly a result of our perceived weakness, because of our actions in Syria."
Both of those lines drew loud applause, which wasn't surprising in the least. The sort of people who donate to AIPAC and show up at these conferences saw an obvious case for intervening in Syria. When intervention didn't happen, well, of course that was going to lead to embarrassing tests of American resolve.
Not that Coons, or anyone else, knows how to pass those tests. Peter Baker's nut graf sums it up well:
“Create a democratic noose around Putin’s Russia,” urged Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “Revisit the missile defense shield,” suggested Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida. “Cancel Sochi,” argued Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who leads the Intelligence Committee, referring to the Group of 8 summit meeting to be hosted by President Vladimir V. Putin. Kick “him out of the G-8” altogether, said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip.
In the absence of a plan, there's plenty of room for speculation and trolling.
The Overrating of Rand Paul 2016
The punditocracy is in the grip of Rand Paul Fever. "Dismiss the Kentucky Senator as a fringe candidate at your peril," writes Chris Cillizza, who pronounces that "Rand Paul is winning" the GOP's 2016 invisible primary. "Rand Paul is the 2016 Republican frontrunner," writes Peter Beinart, arguing that "on issues from NSA surveillance to drug legalization to gay marriage, the GOP is moving in his direction."
Both Beinart and Cillizza warn "the media" not to under-rate Paul. Well, I'm never going to make that mistake—back in August 2009, before any polls showed Paul within striking distance of winning his Senate primary, I was talking to the candidate and profiling his race. (OK, at the time I was asking whether Paul would merely make life difficult for the GOP establishment's choice. Obviously he did.)
But I vividly remember a moment from that interview, and how it revealed something about Paul that pundits don't cover unless they're forced to. At the end of a short and friendly interview, I asked Paul whether the darker associations of Ron Paul, his father, could be used against him. If Republicans were looking to tar him, couldn't they bring up the racist newsletters published under Ron's name, or the donations from white supremacists that Paul never solicited but declined to give back?
It was like an arctic blast came through my receiver. I don't see how anyone could think that, Rand Paul said. That has nothing to do with this campaign.
In the short term, absolutely, Paul was right. He ran a brilliant primary campaign and a steady general election campaign, in exactly the right year. He only stumbled in a post-victory appearance on Rachel Maddow's show, in which the host socratically wore Paul down on whether he'd have backed the Civil Rights Act. Paul never forgave Maddow for that interview, and for years since then he's attacked the "mischaracterizations" inspired by it.
In August 2013, after reluctantly parting with his aide Jack Hunter, Paul sat for an interview with John Harwood. He bristled at questions about Hunter's days as a neo-Confederate radio shock jock. "Don't you have something better to read than a bunch of crap from people who don't like me?" he said. "I'm not going to go through an interview responding to every yahoo in the world who wants to say a canard."
These were isolated events in the rise of Rand Paul. Like his father, Paul is a happy mystery for the mainstream media—a libertarian who allies with the left on a few important, newsy topics. As long as he's in the Senate, there's little interest in taking him down over some old nasty associations. The same was true with his father—in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, the media only remembered that Paul's name appeared on racist newsletters when the candidate 1) broke fundraising records and 2) drew close to winning the Iowa caucuses. Ron Paul grew so irritated at newsletter questions that he curtly ended a CNN interview, removing his mic while the cameras rolled.
Here's my point. As long as Paul's in the Senate, as long as he's a fascinating, quotable, and potentially successful libertarian iconoclast, stories about his associations and his movement will be relegated to the think-piece pile. If he's a credible presidential candidate? The jackals run loose, and they know where to hunt. Years of experience and evidence tell us that Paul can be rattled by that. His potential opponents know this.
It's a latent and undiscussed problem, exacerbated when Paul criticizes Hillary Clinton because of her husband's infidelties with a White House intern. "In re-invoking Bill Clinton’s track record," writes Carl Cannon. "Paul seemed to serve notice that the checkered pasts of other (male) Democrats is fair game as well."
True. But the Clintons have put up with decades of reporting and embarrassment about their pasts. When Paul's received the same treatment, it hasn't gone very well.
How the Clinton White House Avoided Saying "If You Like Your Plan, You Can Keep It"
My colleague John Dickerson, who actually covered the Clinton presidency, is taking the lead on a story about the newly freed tranches of documents. So far, as windows into the soul of Hillary Clinton, they've been pretty fogged up. But as irony party favors, prescient criticism of the future Obama administration? They're aces. Igor Volsky, I think, spotted this gem first.
It's not like Obama made this mistake on his own. In her 2007-2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton repeatedly made the "you can keep your plan" pledge, to the general disinterest of the press corps. But having reported a bit on new White House counselor John Podesta and his advice that the White House pursue more executive actions, I was just as fixated on this memo.
There's no cheap lede in these memos. Just a lot of useful history.
Steve Stockman’s Senate Campaign Accused of Violating Campaign Finance Law
Five months ago, when he was clearing the decks for his quixotic U.S. Senate campaign, Texas Rep. Steve Stockman parted ways with his campaign treasurer. Jason Posey, who'd worked with Stockman since his first stint in Congress (1995 to 1997), had filed a false report, disguising his own donation (and that of a colleague, also working for Stockman), crediting it to a relative. Posey was out.
But he didn't vanish completely. Two months before leaving the Stockman camapign, Posey had incorporated a new group called the Center for the American Future. In a form submitted to the Texas secretary of state on Aug. 28, 2013, Posey was listed as the "registered agent" of the center, which didn't do much for the first months of its existence.
Stockman's primary got closer. The center sprang into action. Over the last month, Texas Republican voters started receiving unsolicited publications called "The Conservative News," full of negative information about Stockman's opponent, Sen. John Cornyn. Stockman's campaign denied having anything to do with the newspapers, though—funny enough—they resembled mailings voters had received in his previous races. The newspapers were coming from the Center for the American Future, which happened to be run by Stockman's former treasurer.
On Feb. 24, the Center put out a statement declaring that it supported no candidate and that its newsletters were not produced in coordination with any campaign. Nobody could prove otherwise. Days later, though, the Texas-based journalist Lee Stranahan noticed a security hole in the Center's website, an open window into the WordPress-based site's content. Brett Rogers, the manager of Senate candidate Dwayne Stovall's campaign, noticed that the accidentally public information included a few days of donor confirmations. Without violating the privacy of those donors, again, I can say how they were earmarked: "Stockman for Senate 2014 Donation."
I asked the Center and the Stockman campaign what could explain all of that. If I get a response, I'll post it. In the meantime, Stovall's campaign is preparing two FEC complaints against Stockman's campaign. One will argue that the CAF mailing was part of an effort to use a nonprofit with "direct ties to a political campaign" to send out campaign materials. Another will ask the FEC to look at "Asian Republicans of Harris County," an apparent shell organization (its website was registered 10 days ago) created to send pro-Stockman mail.
Charles Koch Explains It All
Democrats have come to refer to "the Koch brothers" as a unit, a sort of beast from forgotten mythos—two-headed, wealthy, malicious. But David Koch, the chairman of Americans for Prosperity, is a relatively quiet figure who (for reasons that still confuse me) jumped into the spotlight by becoming a 2012 Republican National Committee delegate. Charles Koch, who doesn't talk as much about electoral politics as his brother, has written much more about idelogy, and is generally more confident talking about how he has brought the beliefs of Friedrich Hayek into countless lives.
No surprise, then, that Charles Koch is the brother talking for 40 minutes to the Wichita Business Journal. Daniel McCoy talks to Koch about his business dreams (which isn't too interesting to us hacks) and about his politics, letting him expound pretty freely about what he thinks of his role.* This part seems to be key.
It’s like Lee Trevino used to say, somebody asked him how are you winning all these golf tournaments, and he said, “Well somebody has got to win them and it might as well be me.” That’s the way I am on this. There doesn’t seem to be any other large company trying to do this so it might as well be us. Somebody has got to work to save the country and preserve a system of opportunity. I think one of the biggest problems we have in the country is this rampant cronyism where all these large companies are into smash and grab, short-term profits, (saying) how do I get a regulation, we don’t want to export natural gas because of my raw materials ...
Well, you say you believe in free markets, but by your actions you obviously don’t. You believe in cronyism. And that’s true even at the local level. I mean, how does somebody get started if you have to pay $100,000 or $300,000 to get a medallion to drive a taxi cab? You have to go to school for two years to be a hairdresser. You name it, in every industry we have this. The successful companies try to keep the new entrants down. Now that’s great for a company like ours. We make more money that way because we have less competition and less innovation. But for the country as a whole, it’s horrible. And for disadvantaged people trying to get started, it’s unconscionable in my view. I think it’s in our long-term interest, in every American’s long-term interest, to fight against this cronyism.
This isn't new thinking, exactly. Two years ago, Koch used a Wall Street Journal op-ed to say basically the same thing: "By putting resources to less-efficient use, cronyism actually kills jobs rather than creating them. Put simply, cronyism is remaking American business to be more like government." It's coherent, and it's what he always says. Disappointingly, McCoy doesn't get a chance to push Koch on the politicking that his money actually pays for. In 2012 AFP was bombing the airwaves with Solyndra ads. That didn't un-elect any Democrats. So in 2013 and 2014, AFP has pivoted to nonstop anti-Obamacare ads. How does that further the War on Cronyism? Koch never says.
But he does say this:
I don’t know if you ever saw Michael Rowe’s show “Dirty Jobs.” We’re working with him and my foundation. His position is that pushing all these kids into four-year liberal arts (programs), they have all this debt, they don’t have the aptitude for it, so they end up driving cabs if they can get a medallion, or tending bar, or unemployed and living with their parents.
Rowe has started to become a conservative celebrity, largely because he thinks the left and media are forcing him into that role. The pigeonholing actually began with Rowe's campaign for Walmart, but before Rowe took that job he was starring at Charles Koch Institute events about vocational education.
*Correction, Feb. 28, 2014: This post originally misspelled Daniel McCoy's last name.