Friday, May 25, 2007

Bill Clinton, Strategist in Chief

In New Role, Senator Clinton's Strategist in Chief was published in the New York Times on May 13, 2007. This article is interesting insofar as it reflects a widespread understanding of "strategy" that we have noticed all along. This is all the more interesting since this article presents Bill Clinton not only as a mere strategist, but as some sort of super strategist. Accordingly, one might be forgiven to expect to learn something about the long-term goals and big picture thinking of this super politician. But there is nothing of this sort. Instead, strategy is reduced to electoral strategy and, as is frequently the case, is being confused with tactics.

The following excerpts are supposed to illustrate this point:
Bill Clinton's connections, and his endless supply of chits, only begin to capture his singular role in his wife's presidential candidacy, advisers and friends of the couple say. He is the master strategist behind the scenes; the consigliere to the head of ''the family,'' as some Clinton aides refer to her operation; and a fund-raising machine who is steadily pulling in $100,000 or more at receptions.
So far, his roles have unfolded in private as he provides ideas to his wife and makes sure she paces herself, and as he acts as something of a field general with donors, instructing them on how to talk up Mrs. Clinton.
The Clintons mostly talk about strategy, not campaign management, advisers say. (my emphasis)
Now, when I read this sentence, I got excited, expecting to hear something about strategy; I was all the more disappointed when I read on to see how the paragraph continued:
He receives polling data from Mr. Penn, who was his pollster in 1996, and the two men speak regularly. He sometimes looks over drafts of Mrs. Clinton's major speeches, and he gives her feedback on her performances.
Advisers say his advice to her can be boiled down to a few broad themes. He urges her to remember that the biggest person gets elected (in other words, the one who rises above political pettiness) and that the most optimistic candidate wins. He has encouraged her to talk about average people who work hard and play by the rules, classic Clintonian language. And she has, using those phrases and other themes in talking, for example, about regular Americans who are ''invisible'' to the Bush administration. (Advisers say Mr. Clinton did not devise the invisible line.)
So apparently this is how the leading paper in the country understands strategy, essentially as polling, framing, and messaging. Interestingly enough, in a profile of Hillary Clinton's top strategist, Mark Penn, the other leading paper in this country, the Washington Post, exhibits a similar understanding of strategy. Clinton's PowerPointer: With Data and Slides, a Pollster Guides Campaign Strategy of April 30, 2007, appeared in the Post's series "The Gurus: The professionals who manage the machinery of American politics."

With the same pollster in charge of "strategy," a very similar network of advisers and a very similar platform, one should not be surprised to get with Hillary what the country got with Bill: Clintonism 2.0, the updated version. Not surprisingly, apparently one of the Clinton campaign's major concerns is whether the country is ready for yet another Clinton or whether there is still too much "Clinton fatigue" around.

One way for progressives further to the left to respond to this state of progressive "strategy" is to quote the great strategist Sun Tzu: "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." For indeed, the sad truth is that winning elections is the be all and end all of centrist strategy. Getting Clinton (or Obama, or ...) elected is the ultimate goal. By the way, it is rather sobering to contemplate that if Clinton got elected and re-elected, that would give us 28 years (almost three decades!) of uninterrupted rule by the two most powerful political machines in the country.

For more liberal progressives however, this state of affairs is precisely part of the problem, not part of the solution. For them, getting yet another centrist elected is "tactics without strategy," is "the noise before defeat," because this is not the way to significantly change the country. You win a battle, but you lose the war. Hence the urgent need to develop a strategy that allows us to win the war.

By necessity, this strategy goes far beyond election cycles. That seems to be one of the reasons why hardly anybody is thinking about it. What you find much more is something along those lines: 'Bush is so bad, we absolutely have to get a Democrat elected in 08! Now it is even more urgent than in 2004!! This must be our absolute priority!! Electability is everything!!!' -- And then what?

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

"Third Way is the Wrong Way"

This article by Guy T. Saperstein, a partner at the Democracy Alliance, which he describes as "a center-left organization that is attempting to build progressive political infrastructure," is a criticism of Third Way's strategy, an organization that calls itself "a strategy center for progressives."

His core argument is that centrism is a counterproductive and self-defeating strategy that undermines progressives' efforts. According to Saperstein, Third Way's political philosophy is best articulated in The Politics of Polarization, a report that was published in October 2005, and that was presented as a "new study of electorate [that] updates seminal work by Galston and Kamarck." It was written by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, with the assistance of Scott Winship. Kamarck and Galston also wrote The Politics of Evasion in 1989, which is said to have had a significant impact on Bill Clinton's campaign. Now similar things are being said about the new study's influence on Hillary Clinton's platform. Galston is a political theorist at the University of Maryland and at the Brookings Institution, and a co-editor (together with Stanley Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira) of The Democratic Strategist. Elaine Kamarck is a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government. Scott Winship is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, chief blogger of The Daily Strategist, and recently became Senior Policy Advisor at the Third Way. I only point this out to illustrate how tightly knit the centrist universe seems to be ...

In any case, according to Saperstein, Third Way's strategy
is predicated on one core premise - a premise that I think is not only utterly fallacious, but one which attempts to lead Democrats in the wrong political direction. The core premise of "The Politics of Polarization" is that more people self-identify as "conservatives" (32%) than "liberals" (20%), so polarizing the electorate favors Republicans, not Democrats. Thus, Democrats must trend toward the center and/or conservative positions to attract the "moderates," and avoid supporting clear, but polarizing, "liberal" positions.
Indeed, the writings of Galston and Kamarck emphasize this key premise again and again, and not only as a description of how things are, but also as a prescription of what progressives should do and what direction they should move in. The fact that more voters self-identify as conservatives rather than as liberals should come as no surprise, given the growing success of the conservative infrastructure in shaping the ideological climate according to their interests (which is precisely what the Democracy Alliance tries to counter by building progressive infrastructure). But since the center has thus significantly moved to the right, moving towards the center necessarily comes at the expense of more liberal positions and hence undermines the progressive agenda.

Instead of pandering to an elusive center by abandoning more liberal positions, progressives should do what conservatives have successfully done: Rather than accepting the status quo by essentially strengthening core conservative positions, they should challenge it in order to change the terms of the debate and its underlying assumptions. The way to do this is to unambiguously confront conservative positions by presenting clear progressive alternatives. It means mobilizing the base rather than pandering to moderates, which is precisely what Republicans have done, based on the advice of Matthew Dowd and Karl Rove. According to Saperstein, this is easier in ideological terms and more effective and sustainable in the long term.

Saperstein illustrates his argument with two examples, the Iraq War and public housing policy. On Iraq, Saperstein shows that by accepting "the fundamental assumptions that underlay Bush's war," Third Way "managed to lag behind the Democratic Party on Iraq," thereby adding to the public's confusion about where Democrats stood on Iraq. In short, by being too close to the center, Third Way "has been in the way, not leading the way."

On public housing policy, Saperstein refers to a presentation by Third Way's President, Jon Cowan, to the Democracy Alliance. In it, he emphasized that when he was at the Housing and Urban Development Department, he worked to "blow up public housing," and characterized it as "modernizing" progressive ideas. According to Saperstein, he failed to mention that much of what he blew up
was sitting on valuable urban land and was replaced, not by low-income housing, but by developments of mid and high-priced condominiums, while the poor were moved farther from cities, and that some of the blown up housing had been recently built and was in good condition. More significantly, Cowan failed to acknowledge that the number of replacement units did not match the number of housing units blown up and thousands of low-income tenants were left homeless by this "modernization." The next day, Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of Center for Community Change, an organization that works on behalf of low-income people, called this demolition of public housing, with the insufficient housing replacement, "immoral."

Blowing up public housing and leaving thousands homeless may be Third Way's idea of "modernization," it may even appeal to some Democratic real estate developers, but there is nothing progressive about it.
Saperstein concludes that the question for progressives is not whether but how to influence Democrats:
The question for progressives is not whether we want to influence the Democrats -- of course we do. The question is do we want to invest precious time and resources on inside-the-Beltway cautiousness, bad policy analysis that makes no waves, takes no chances and doesn't differentiate itself from the conservatives, or do we work to build something more real, vital, honest and progressive -- based on better policy -- ideas that change America because they change the terms of debate, not simply pander ineffectively to a mythological, out-dated concept of the "center." If we don't, if we think that type of ideological myopia is counterproductive, we better keep watch on Third Way.
This seems to be a step in the right direction; the question is, does it go far enough. According to Saperstein, the goal of the Democracy Alliance is to build progressive infrastructure in order to change the ideological climate and ultimately public policy in a more progressive direction. Again, as we do find ever so often, strategy in the final analysis is driven by the ultimate objectives it pursues, and varies according to them.

To put it differently, looking at the presidential elections, does it make a difference to "progressives" whether Hillary Clinton is elected, which most of the New Democrats, including Third Way, are said to support, or whether Barack Obama is elected, which some in the Democracy Alliance are said to be tempted to support? Or is perhaps John Edwards the most progressive candidate, at least among the electable ones? No doubt that Dennis Kucinich would be much more progressive, but of course he does not have any chance. Elections are prohibitively expensive, but progressive resources are notoriously and chronically scarce. Politics remains the art of the possible. Does that mean that progressives are necessarily stuck with no good options, only lesser evils? Depends on what you mean by "progressive;" that seems to be the crux of the matter.

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