Tag Archives: John Kerry

Matt Bai Breaks Down the Democrats’ Rebuilding

 

Matt Bai chronicles the Democrats' return to political dominance in The Argument.

Matt Bai chronicles the Democrats’ return to political dominance in The Argument.

Life is good for the Democratic Party these days.

In firm control of all three branches of government for the first time in more than a generation, the Democrats have seen their ranks swell with the recent defection of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Specter’s switch gave the Democrats a near filibuster-proof majority of 59 senators – something that may come in handy during the upcoming nomination process of Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Barack Obama recently put forward to be the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice and the first Latina in the nation’s history to serve on the court.

The Democrats have had a string of successes since Obama’s inauguration in January, overseeing the passage of a $787 billion stimulus plan, starting to implement a withdrawal time line and process for the war in Iraq and moving both to close Guantanamo prison camp and repudiating the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies that many described as torture.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are struggling.  Mightily.

Each week seems to bring new headlines that suggest a party in disarray,  with an unclear voice, hierarchy or direction.  One week it’s Rush Limbaugh saying that Colin Powell is not actually a Republican. Another it’s Meghan McCain, daughter of the defeated presidential candidate, slamming conservative pundit Ann Coulter.

In this climate, it can be easy to forget that the political scene was completely reversed less than five years ago.

After Bush soundly defeated John Kerry in the November 2004 presidential election, the Democrats seemed to some to be poised on the brink of irrelevance, or, even worse, obscurity.  Bush’s victory,  which gave him the opportunity to later appoint two Supreme Court justices, was the seventh by a Republican in the previous 10 presidential contests.  Continued majorities in both the House and Senate accompanied his triumph.  

New York Times Magazine political reporter Matt Bai remembers this dry period in the Democrats’ history.

He traces the party’s path back from the political netherlands to reclaiming the House, the Senate and the majority of governorships, in The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.

The road to political redemption was a twisted one, with many engaging characters and twists along the way.

Bai begins the book with Kerry’s crushing, and apparently surprising, defeat in 2004. (I had had a strong feeling about the race’s outcome from the point that he did not respond forcefully to the Swift Boat attacks in August and thus I did not share the surprise of some of the sources Bai interviewed.  If anything, Kerry’s lack of response reminded me strongly of Michael Dukakis‘ failure to counter the Lee Atwater-conceived Willie Horton ads that had such a devastating effect on his candidacy.)

From the loss, Bai moves to explore the different level of change in party operation and vision that Democratic strategists and members felt were necessary.  Democracy Alliance founder Rob Steinn is shown as playing a key role in raising party awareness about the degree of organization the Republicans had fostered, thereby helping people understand what Democrats confronted. 

Bai spends a lot of time in the book talking about the ascending role of technology – a development that led to the surprisingly successful candidacy of Howard Dean and his later selection as party chairman, the emerging power of organizations like Eli Pariser’s MoveOn.org and the potency of bloggers like Markos Zuniga, creator of the wildly popular DailyKos.

Technology also is a lense through which one sees some of the major conflicts between, on the one hand, the 1990s Clinton-era establishment, which modernized and moved the party toward the political center and fashioned two presidential victories by traditional methods of fundraising and politicking, and, on the other hand, the more progressive and technologically-oriented new guard embodied by Zuniga and Pariser.

The resulting conflicts are often messy.

Bai describes one party gathering where the former president lost his temper when questioned about his wife Hillary’s vote to go to war in Iraq  and proceeded to rant about all kinds of right-leaning policies and directions he said were ascribed to him.  Bai also shows the ongoing and occasionally public struggles between current White House majordomo Rahm Emanuel and the then party chairman about Dean’s 50-state strategy – an approach which Emanuel felt diverted valuable resources from battleground states. 

In the end, the Democrats swept to victory. Each of the groups and people listed above and a host of others could claim some share of the triumph, if not the spoils. 

The inside argument about remaking Democratic politics is less clearly answered.  Bai ends the book with a lion in winter-like address from former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who reminds the exultant Democrats that, despite their smashing electoral victories, they still “have no big idea.” 

The Argument has a number of the strengths and weaknesses that characterize much of Bai’s work that appears in The New York Times magazine.  His intelligence, writing skills and thorough reporting are apparent throughout the work; and yet one often leaves his pieces, and, in this case, the book, feeling like she has not actually learned much new or different.

The Democrats’ need to articulate a vision greater than “We are not the Republicans” has been known for a long time, for example. So, too, has the Republicans’ superior ground level organizational capacity, forged during the late 70s and 80s by people like Richard Viguerie, strategist Grover Norquist and strengthened in the 90s by Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed.  Bai’s explanation of the rise of blogging is engaging but not particularly informative to the tens of millions of people who have clicked onto DailyKos during the past decade.

Bai does not explore the mixed legacy of the Clinton presidency as fully as he could, and Ned Lamont’s primary victory over Joe Lieberman, which Bai seems to herald as the triumph of the new way, seems a bit hollow given Lieberman’s ultimate triumph.  

One gets the sense while reading The Argument that Bai is writing for those people who were among Rob Stein’s target audience – Democrats who did not get why their party was being consistently clobbered in elections, yet did not think that drastic action or rethinking needed to be taken to stop the slide.  

Which brings us back to Obama and the Democrats’ current strong position. 

Obama appears in The Argument as a skilled writer who unsurprisingly adopts a both/and position toward traditional party stalwarts and the emerging online progressive movement.  He contributes a spirited articulation of his position in a lengthy blog post which urges people not to demonize Republicans, affirms the establishment’s importance and uses available technology to share his views.  

Written during the throes of Obama and Clinton’s fight for the Democratic nomination, the afterword includes the following somewhat prescient thought:

“Should Obama win the nomination, though, and perhaps even the White House, he will face a choice where the powerful progressives in his party are concerned: whether to attempt, through the power of his personality and argument, to lead the new movement away from the limited politics of hostility and toward some modern vision of liberalism, or whether to become, like so many political leaders before him, a reflection of the movement he inherits.  If Obama can’t change the trajectory of the new progressive movement, then the movement will very likely change him.”

Obama has not been president long enough to definitively answer the questions Bai or Cuomo pose, and the answers to those questions may go a long way toward predicting whether his victory is a blip on the screen of Republican dominance or augurs a new era in liberal thinking.

For posing those questions, and for providing an enjoyable read along the way, Bai deserves credit, even if The Argument does have a number of flaws.

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Pushing Through The Red State/Blue State Dichotomy

The idea of blue states and red states is a widely, if not universally, accepted concept in American politics.  

Every four years pundits and news anchors like Brian Williams – and before him the troika of the late Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather – stand in front of maps of the United States, projecting which states will turn Democratic blue and which will turn Republican red.

Many have commented about the political and cultural divide between blue states, which tend to be on the coasts and in part of the Midwest, and the red states, which have been everywhere else, particularly in the South and Southwest.

Others have contested that notion.

In his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention that contributed mightily toward launching him to political superstardom, then U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama declared, in one of many memorable phrases:

“The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

Obama’s point was that the blue and red distinctions do not really apply to people’s lives. Rather than thinking in these terms, Obama said, we would be better served to base our actions on the recognition that there is “a single American family.”

Since that speech, Obama has continued to advance that same message of national unity – and has been rewarded handsomely.  

The center of a meteoric rise that is arguably without precedent in American history, Obama shattered fund raising records on the way to winning a historic victory November 4 that will culminate officially in his inauguration just 10 days from today. 

As Obama’s time to govern approaches, he confronts no end of daunting problems. An economy teetering on the edge of catastrophe, two wars, and conflict in the Middle East possibly sparking a global conflagration top a very long list. 

Successfully tackling these challenges will require drawing on the commonality that Obama asserted exists throughout the country.

Obama may find this commonality in shorter supply than he would like, but not for the reasons he articulated in his 2004 keynote speech.

The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, an intriguing book by journalist and editor Bill Bishop with heavy research assistance from retired University of Texas at Austin sociology professor Robert Cushing, may hold the key to help Obama and other readers understand that resistance.

Drawing on an engaging blend of election and census data analysis,  psychology, shoe-leather reporting, and historical interpretation, Bishop argues that millions of Americans have, largely unconsciously, participated during the past 35 years in a national sorting process whereby they live in increasingly homogeneous communities.  

The consequences of this sorting have been profound, he says.  Bishop maintains that this homogeneity has led to the near disappearance of the political center, a diminished public discourse and an entitled populace who approach democracy as consumers, rather than participants.

The sorting has been driven by a number of factors, one of the most important of which has been the increased mobility in America during the past 30 decades. 

While acknowledging that America has seen massive migrations before – Bishop refers to the Second Great Migration of African Americans to northern urban centers like Chicago and Detroit in the 1950s – the migration from 1970 to 2000 differed from earlier versions because it was selective and based on personal characteristics, rather than broad demographic similarities.

The ability to choose to live in areas where other like-minded people have gathered before, Bishop says, has led to the formation of thousands of increasingly polarized communities divided along political, economic and cultural lines.

Bishop cites evidence from national elections to buttress his assertions.  His tracing of the decrease of political moderates from 1976 to the middle of this decade is particularly noteworthy, as are the maps which show the growing number of communities where one presidential candidate or another won a victory of at least 20 points over his opponent. 

Bishop’s book is far from a recitation of statistics. 

A fascinating section discusses the boarding houses in Washington, DC, where representatives from each major party stay. 

By staying in these houses until Thursday night, when they head back to their districts, these representatives have less contact and dialogue with people from the other party than they did in the past – a phenomenon, Bishop argues, that is a microcosm of what has happened in the nation as a whole.  

These sections and nuggets are among the book’s strongest. (His explanation for the reasons that led to the sorting, starting in what he describes as a watershed year of 1965, is more thought provoking than illuminating.) Bishop successfully employs the skills he plied as a projects reporter for the Austin American Statesman with Cushing’s data and other fields to point out divisions that have not previously identified. 

Bishop’s gloom about the democratic implications echo those raised about technology by recently appointed Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs chief and noted scholar Cass Sunstein in Republic 2.0.

As impressive as these attributes are, the book’s analysis seems more convincing in explaining the electoral map of 2004, when George W. Bush scored a narrow victory over John Kerry, than Obama’s triumph over John McCain in 2008. 

Just three states switched political allegiance from the bitterly contested 2000 race between Bush and then Vice President Al Gore to 2004. By contrast, Obama won nine more states and received more than 10 million more votes than Kerry had four years earlier.

The electoral and financial support of a candidate whose central message based on unity and possibility challenges, if not blatantly contradicts, Bishop’s argument.

To be fair, winning an election is not the same as debating and forging a collective legislative agenda. For his part, Bishop could conceivably argue that the increased political involvement by people of all political stripes in the presidential campaign demonstrates how far the American people had retreated from political life. 

Obama’s assumption of the presidency comes at a time of intense national adversity.  Such periods in the past, whether during the Great Depression, World War II, or, more recently, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, have coincided with periods of national unity. 

The ensuing months and years will tell whether the sorting Bishop ably describes is surmounted on the path to national unity and advancement or whether the excitement generated by the Obama campaign will be remembered as a temporary aberration in an increasingly divided nation.