Wednesday, August 9, 2006

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Noam Scheiber confuses me

My specialty is in international relations and not American politics, so maybe that explains why I don't completely understand Noam Scheiber's op-ed in the New York Times on the implications of the end of Joementum:

[T]here was a time when the support of key Democratic interest groups would have more than made up for such heresies. That he could not depend on that traditional lifeline this time should be alarming even for those who hoped for his defeat.

Consider the way Democratic politics has worked for most of the last 40 years. If you were a Democratic member of Congress, pretty much the only way to earn yourself a primary challenger was to oppose a powerful local interest group on an issue it deemed critical. If you represented a Rust Belt district, for example, you could all but count on winning your partyís nomination every two years as long as you voted with the local union on trade legislation.

Under this old model, Mr. Lieberman was an all-star. He was a reliable vote on what Connecticut liberals care about: defending the right to abortion, fighting oil drilling in the Alaskan Arctic, raising the minimum wage. When he did depart from Democratic orthodoxy, it usually involved attacking constituencies with little influence in his state, like Hollywood movie producers.

But over the last six years this old model has broken down. As anyone who hasnít been living in a cave knows, traditional Democratic interest groups have steadily lost ground to a more partisan, progressive movement skilled at using the Internet to communicate and raise money. The most visible faces of the new movement are the thousands of political bloggers ó and their millions of readers ó who delighted in panning Mr. Lieberman these last several months.

But the movement also consists of national fund-raising and advocacy groups like and Democracy for America (the current incarnation of Howard Deanís 2004 presidential campaign). Call them the counter-Bushies, after the president whose singular talent it is to drive them to paroxysms of rage.

What matters to the counter-Bushies is basically the opposite of what mattered to the traditional interest groups. The new gang doesnít care so much about any one issue; it wants Democrats to present a united, and generally liberal, front. (According to a Pew Research Center survey released last year, more than 80 percent of Democracy for America supporters consider themselves liberal, versus less than 30 percent of all Democrats.)

But to discuss the counter-Bushiesí approach strictly in terms of substance doesnít do them justice. Often they care as much about style as about issues ó they want Democrats to denounce Republicans loudly and stridently, and to block the administrationís agenda whenever possible.

Oddly, a party in which the counter-Bushies have replaced the traditional interests may even move rightward in particular cases. Under the new model, for example, our old Rust Belt congressman can probably buck the local union on trade. But the changes do make the party more liberal over all, because our congressman must now make up what he lost in labor backing with support from the counter-Bushies. He can only do that by stridently denouncing the Republican Party and racking up a more liberal voting record.

The flip side of this calculus for that Rust Belt congressman is that simply voting the right way on trade no longer suffices. Labor has lost the power to deliver him the nomination, just like itís lost the power to sandbag him.

Formally, Scheiber's argument has some logic -- if an interest group holds a veto over the nomination process, and they care only that their rep take position A* on issue A, then Congressman Smith can adopt any position on issues B-Z. If the netroots have veto power, Scheiber is arguing that Smith can adopt A' rather than A*, so long as he compensates by modifiying his positions on issues B-Z such that they conform to the base's preferences.

There's only one problem with this argument, and it's contained within Scheiber's op-ed: "they care as much about style as about issues ó they want Democrats to denounce Republicans loudly and stridently, and to block the administrationís agenda whenever possible." The netroots would not tolerate Congressman Smith adopting a free-trade position -- because that means cooperating with the Republicans. Indeed, since cooperation with the other party is more politically visible than one's ideological profile, this will matter a lot more.

The point is, I don't see the netroots generating more free-trade Democrats in the rust belt.

posted by Dan on 08.09.06 at 09:15 AM


it depends if the netroots people stand united on things like trade. McGovernite elements have historically had a difficult relation with labor, and both Reaganites like Barone and new dems like Clinton had McGovernite roots. OTOH the McGovernites historically did ally with certain left labor unions, like west coast longshore, drug and hospital workers, and even the UAW. Given the ferment in the labor movement its not clear how this plays out.

But as long as the focus is on Iraq, and on Bush, the net roots can paper over the divisions.

posted by: liberalhawk on 08.09.06 at 09:15 AM [permalink]

Since the 1970s, in both parties primary voters have taken a much stronger role in the nominating process. The result has been a significant sharpening of partisan differences, which includes sharpening the spirit of attack. This may have become more visible first on the Republican side in the 1990s but Democrats are now catching up.

Centrist voters will give a more radical party a chance to prove itself, as they did in 1994. But it may be the case that a strategy of polarization can only sustain itself (1) if a radicalized party can turn out more so-called base voters than the other party and (2) if a party that relies on polarizing the electorate is actually successful with its more radical language and program, not just at winning elections, but at governing.

The question about the Republicans today is whether a polarizing strategy has reached its natural limits in terms of both turning out base voters and governing. Centrists may or may not think it is time for a change. But if the Democrats are about to get a turn in office as the polarizing party, to succeed they will have to govern more effectively than their counterparts on the Republican side, and their base demographics will have to be strong enough now to give them an edge.

posted by: David Billington on 08.09.06 at 09:15 AM [permalink]

On the issue of trade specifically, I don't think it is as natural a partisan issue as you assume -- more of a sectional one. Across a large swathe of what I shall refer to as the manufacturing heartland -- I think Rust Belt is an outdated term -- the net result of free trade is that while your cost of living drops 20 percent, your earning power drops 40 percent because either your factory has been outsourced or relocated in the face of Wal-Mart and Target's power to drive down prices, or if you are a business owner the factory on which your customers depend for work has been outsourced. Both Republican-leaning manufacturing areas -- say, Downstate Illinois towns -- and Democratic-leaning ones -- say, Eastern Iowa -- are affected in this way, and their members of Congress notice. If people start to look at the earnings side of trade issues as well as the cost side, support for free trade is going to get even more tenuous that it already is, on both sides of the aisle. (On the flip side of the sectional issue, services-oriented areas, whether Republican-leaning Houston or Democratic-leaning New York, benefit from free trade earnings as well as lower costs.)

On the broader issue of the netroots and insurgent campaigns involving Democrats, what none of the MSM and especially the New Republic community can accept is that Lieberman has truly become out of touch on a wide range of issues -- but then again he was always better at adopting the other side's policies than he was at doing the Barack Obama thing of couching his own policies in language that recruited the other side (many partisan Republicans fail to realize that John McCain, for example, is far more of an Obama in this regard than a Lieberman).

I don't think any one interest group had a veto over anybody's nomination here -- the antiwar movement, although it spawned Ned Lamont's candidacy, did not single-handedly deliver his victory, and I don't expect other constituencies to single-handedly deliver at the Congressional level or above either. It only works in a very specific situation.

posted by: DB on 08.09.06 at 09:15 AM [permalink]

"The netroots would not tolerate Congressman Smith adopting a free-trade position -- because that means cooperating with the Republicans."

Are you implying that Republicans currently support free trade? As DB hinted above, I'm not sure that's the case. Would cooperating with Republicans improve U.S. trade policy? I'm not sure that's the case either.

posted by: yave begnet on 08.09.06 at 09:15 AM [permalink]

Without even getting into the [il]logic of Scheiber's article, it is worth noting that he is not quite correct about Lieberman's being a reliabvle "vote on what Connecticut liberals care about: defending the right to abortion, fighting oil drilling in the Alaskan Arctic...."

Lieberman was the only New England Democrat to vote for the energy bill, and his famous comment about "it's just a short ride to another hospital" for a woman denied an abortion at one hospital certainly did not endear him to many pro-choice voters.

I'll suggest a simpler explanation for why he lost: out of touch and arrogant. When Lamont started to get some support Lieberman's response was to attack not just Lamont but implicitly also those voting for him. The Washington Democratic establishment DLC punditocracy picked up this theme, and it totally pissed off a lot of CT voters (I speak personally here). I could tolerate Lieberman's politics, but once he and his supporters started trying to dictate how I should vote, and slurring a vote against him (talk about trying to impose rules of the game and spin), it was clear that Lieberman and his most vocal supporters believed that he had acquired some form of property right to his Senate seat.

The years of sanctimony were bad enough, but when you start directing it at voters whose sole deviation is that they don't agree with you and plan to vote for someone else, it's time for new blood.

posted by: Gene on 08.09.06 at 09:15 AM [permalink]

Are you implying that Republicans currently support free trade? As DB hinted above, I'm not sure that's the case.

Different areas are different, sure. But, all things being equal, Republicans support fair trade more often. The Senate provides a natural laboratory, two members with the same constituency. I've checked historic voting records on free trade, from CAFTA and before. Every time the two members from a state voted differently, the Republican was more free trade than the Democrat, or if the seat was represented by two from the same party, the more conservative Republican or more moderate Democrat was more pro-free trade. (Also, Southern Democrats who became Republicans while in the Senate were more likely to be anti-free trade.)

So while Rust Belt Republicans are more likely to be anti-free trade than Democrats in free trade areas, in a given area, the Republicans tend to be more free trade.

As far as the original article goes, I think it might boil down to a claim that the netroots tend to be wealthy and more pro-free trade than the blue-collar local Dems that they're supplanting in influence.

posted by: John Thacker on 08.09.06 at 09:15 AM [permalink]

Scheiber notes that the "anti-Bushies," as he terms them, "care as much about style as about issues," but he doesn't seem to understand why. Here's Krugman:

In his Jan. 15 radio address, President Bush made a startling claim: "According to the Social Security trustees, waiting just one year adds $600 billion to the cost of fixing Social Security." The $600 billion cost of each year's delay has become a standard administration talking point, repeated by countless conservative pundits - who have apparently not looked at what the trustees actually said.

In fact, the trustees never said that waiting a year to "fix" Social Security costs $600 billion.... [Interested readers can see for an explanation of this.]

But in his latest radio address, Mr. Bush - correctly, this time - attributed the $600 billion figure to a "Democrat leader." He was referring to Senator Joseph Lieberman, who, for some reason, repeated the party line - the Republican party line - the previous Sunday.

My guess is that Mr. Lieberman thought he was being centrist and bipartisan, reaching out to Republicans by showing that he shares their concerns. At a time when the Democrats can say, without exaggeration, that their opponents are making a dishonest case for policies that will increase the risks facing families, Mr. Lieberman gave the administration cover by endorsing its fake numbers.

It's not possible to have a serious debate if the other side gets to make up the facts rather than address reality. That's the core of the anti-Bushies' case against Lieberman: Lieberman was undercutting serious criticism of the Bush administration. It's one thing to work with Bush to get a bill signed into law. It's quite another to work with Bush in order to give Americans a distorted picture of reality. In the former case Lieberman is acting in a truely bipartisan fashion; in the latter he is acting like a Republican partisan. When Lieberman makes the case for bipartisanship, he misses this point.

I'm not convinced that Democratic politicians will have to cater to the people who, "want Democrats to denounce Republicans loudly and stridently, and to block the administration's agenda whenever possible." The opposition to Lieberman included people who feel that way, but the case against Lieberman was made on other grounds.

posted by: Kenneth Almquist on 08.09.06 at 09:15 AM [permalink]

I don't think that it's entirely clear that voting free trade is exactly equivalent to voting with the Republicans.

It's more fair to say that on most free trade votes 75% of Republicans go free trade. So it takes some (usually 20%) Dems to make it happen.

So it's not a partisan issue exactly, but does more or less mean cooperating with SOME Republicans.

All that said, NAFTA didn't kill the 94 Democrats from the left. And although the "corporatist" culture of the Democratic party as seen by the Naderites likely cost Gore the election I think that can be seen as a much larger picture of which NAFTA was a 7-year-old part.

Do you see people railing about CAFTA?

So I think on the issue of free trade in particular Democrats could vote free trade and not fear massive reprisal by progressives. Especially so if some progressive ideals were embodied in the deal (working standards, etc).

posted by: Tom on 08.09.06 at 09:15 AM [permalink]

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