Monthly Archives: November 2005

Galston on the Democrats

The graph to the right shows the popularity of the Democrats and Republicans as recorded in NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls. Note the decline for the GOP and the failure of the Democrats to budge upwards even a tick. In essence, Americans have gone from favoring the Republicans to favoring no one.

My boss, Bill Galston, is leaving us in January to go to the Brookings Institution. I don’t think any other academic in America has as much political influence on the Democratic Party. When he and Elaine Kamarck released their latest strategy paper recently (“The Politics of Polarization”), both The New York Times and The Washington Post ran news stories describing it. Bill and I very rarely talk about partisan or ideological politics, because our shared professional work is strictly non-partisan. However, he gave a public talk yesterday on his new paper, and I attended it.

We have intellectual freedom at the University of Maryland, so I reserve the right to disagree with my boss. Nevertheless, I’d like to emphasize part of the Kamarck-and-Galston argument that I particularly strongly endorse. This argument says that you can’t get people to vote for you unless you have a plausible and coherent answer to national problems. No amount of skillful leadership and rhetoric and “framing” can paper over incoherence. Between 1988 and 1992, the Democrats had big internal fights over welfare and macroeconomics. I’m not certain that the best side won, but there was a decisive conclusion. Bill Clinton took control of the national party and balanced budgets and reformed welfare. As a result, the public’s opinion of the Democrats on economic and social issues changed fundamentally and for the better.

However, the Democrats never resolved their profound disagreements over foreign policy. They won pluralities of the national vote in 1992, 1996, and 2000 without taking clear positions on difficult international and defense issues. They got away with that because foreign policy was less important between the end of the Cold War and 9/11/01 than at any time since Pearl Harbor. They cannot get away with it now. The Democratic Party includes genuine Peaceniks, John Murtha-style tough guys, Madeleine Albright internationalists who say “use it or lose it” about the US military, “bring America home” types, and everything in between. They will have to fight it out until one faction wins. They will then be able to present the public with a clear alternative to the Bush position.

Yesterday, Bill described John Kerry as the perfect representative of his party in 2004. Voting for the war and then against the bill to fund it put Kerry precisely at the median of the Democratic coalition. That is why he defeated primary opponents whose positions were more consistently pro- and anti-war. It is also a big reason why he lost in November.

The current unpopularity of the GOP means little. In 2006, they will be protected by the safety of congressional districts. In 2008, they will put up an entirely new face as their presidential candidate; he will probably criticize the Bush administration. The only thing that matters for the future of partisan politics is whether the Democrats can increase their support. Since the public is seriously concerned about foreign policy, the Democrats need a positive international vision with some detail and some bite.

Two competing visions might be considered:

1. Lower our international profile. Make concerted efforts to reduce dependence on mideast oil. Reduce defense spending over time and use the savings on domestic investments. Deal with issues like Israel-Palestine and the Korean peninsula only as part of coalitions. Disentangle from Iraq. Concentrate on remaining a major economic power that can afford a dominant but defensive military.

2. Aggressively pursue terrorists and rogue states. However, disentangle from Iraq, where too many of our troops are pinned down in unfavorable circumstances. Pursue Rumsfeld’s pre-9/11 military reforms and use a lighter, quicker, more flexible military in North Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and wherever the situation favors us.

options for Iraq

Nothing is more important than having concrete alternatives for America’s future in Iraq. There cannot be a useful–or even a barely dignified–debate until there are choices on the table. If the debate is only about whether Bush lied and whether the Democrats are cowards, then we are all guaranteed to lose.

The Murtha resolution has put a basket of general strategies on the table for our consideration:

Section 1. The deployment of United States forces in Iraq, by direction of Congress, is hereby terminated and the forces involved are to be redeployed at the earliest practicable date.

Section 2. A quick-reaction U.S. force and an over-the-horizon presence of U.S Marines shall be deployed in the region.

Section 3. The United States of America shall pursue security and stability in Iraq through diplomacy.

These ideas are separable, and each one is subject to interpretation. For instance, the “earliest practicable date” could be defined in many ways–from the moment when we can extract our forces safely (i.e., very soon) to the day when the Iraqi military is capable of ensuring order (i.e., maybe never).

The “quick-reaction” force could be deliberately located inside Iraq and deployed at the request of the Iraqi government (subject to US consent). Or it could be deliberately located outside of Iraq in order to signal that we have no ambitions to establish permanent bases there. It could be large or small, aggressive or basically just a deterrent force.

“Diplomacy” (mentioned in Section 3) is a good word, but a very vague one. With whom would we engage in dialogues and negotiations, and with what purpose? We could talk to the Iranians and Syrians about not supporting the insurgency; whether that would achieve anything depends on how important those countries are to the insurgents and whether they are open to negotiating. We could talk to the insurgents themselves, or persuade Iraq’s Shiite leaders to do so. We could talk to the Europeans about providing more military forces and reconstruction assistance. I’m not sure what incentive they have to comply in a serious way. It would be interesting, however, if leading Americans outside the administration could work out hypothetical plans with leading Europeans and leading Arabs for a joint response to the Iraqi mess. They could then advocate this response in public forums in their respective countries. (By the way, that is a very appropriate role for leading Democrats between now and 2008.)

In general, our citizens could talk to Iraqis and people from other Arab and Moslem countries outside of governmental channels. Such dialogues are surely desirable, but not likely to produce enormous benefits in the short term.

Finally, in principle, we could try to organize a Mideast summit that considered Iraq, Syria-Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, and the Kurds all together. That sounds like a herculean task, perhaps best undertaken after years of preliminary work. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem promising for the US to be the official convener.

civic opportunities

Two emails arrived over the weekend that advertised important civic work.

First, in hard-hit industrial northeastern Ohio, the Knight Foundation is supporting an elaborate process called “Voices and Choices.” Through this process, thousands of residents will help to set a new course for the region. The centerpiece of the project is a deliberative forum called a 21st Century Town Meeting, organized by the great people at AmericaSPEAKS. I’m from the Rust Belt myself (Syracuse), and I think nothing is more challenging and important than creating good jobs and a general sense of optimism in such places. On a visit to Youngstown, OH during the trial of former Rep. Jim Traficant, I was struck that civic problems may be partly responsible for the region’s economic deficits. Far too many Youngstown people were proud of Traficant as a colorful local character who had stuck his finger in the eye of the rich and powerful. But he had done nothing for Youngstown, and I thought his popularity was evidence of civic hopelessness and defeat. If the “Voices and Choices” process builds civic confidence and capacity, it will be enormously valuable.

Second, J-Lab, the Center for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland, is once again offering funds for “innovative citizen media projects.” I helped to pick the first round of projects in 2004; they were a fascinating mix of youth-media websites, community blogs and podcasting services, online civic databases, and other good ideas. Up to $17,000 is available for each project that receives New Voices funding from J-Lab.

Redeem the Vote: evangelical politics in a civic vein

I just had a good conversation with Randy Brinson, chairman of Redeem the Vote, with whom I’ve talked several times before. If you look at the Redeem the Vote website, you’ll see a strongly conservative political organization that questions evolution, favors Judge Alito, and otherwise takes positions consistent with the “Christian Right.” However, there is a huge difference between Redeem the Vote and some of the more partisan political groups on the religious right. It is the difference between principle and partisan expediency–a difference that also distinguishes groups on the left.

Redeem the Vote wants to help citizens solve what appear to them to be public problems. I disagree with some of the “problems” on the organization’s list. For example, I don’t think it’s bad when schools exclusively teach evolution. Nevertheless, I recognize genuine democratic problem-solving when I see it, and I believe it contributes to our civic life.

In practice, this means that …

1) Redeem the Vote registers young voters in all demographic groups and communities. As a result, a substantial proportion of their registrants are Democrats. They want people to vote “pro-life” and otherwise conservatively on social issues. They make conservative arguments while canvassing. But their approach is open-ended because they are willing to take the chance that they may register people who will vote on the other side, which happens a lot. This is an authentically democratic and civic approach. By the way, Redeem the Vote seems to have turned out a lot of new voters, a majority of whom supported Bush in the end, even though many chose to register as Democrats. That shows that when you give people an opportunity to make up their own minds, they tend to trust you and listen to your arguments–which is a lesson for activists on all sides.

2) Redeem the Vote works with strange bedfellows. For example, they have released a paper on the freedom to teach about religion in public schools. They distributed it jointly with the Alabama chapter of the National Education Association, normally seen as a bedrock liberal organization. The paper was originally written by my friends at the First Amendment Center, who are staunch civil libertarians. All agree that it is legal to teach about religion in schools. Redeem the Vote has also worked with anti-poverty groups to try to support economic supports for pregnant women that may lower the abortion rate.

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