Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Whence and Whither the Neocons?

Just came across this wonderful post from Billmon on the rising and falling fortunes of the neocon school within the GOP's foreign policy establishment. For me the essential line is this one: "Providing ideological world views to the ignorant is how the neocons have made their way in the world." Fundamentally, the neocons have triumphed, now as before, by filling a temporarily acute need for fresh ideological production on behalf of politicians possessed of strong attitudes about the world, but mostly bereft of their own detailed views about it.

As Billmon usefully clarifies in a subsequent post, the neocons are the producers of administration ideology, whereas those he calls the "senior management" -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld -- are best regarded as its consumers. What the neocons seem to have accomplished, in the heat of the post 9-11 moment, was to temporarily win the wholehearted confidence of a political team that more typically hedges its bets by tacking between the advice (and organizing metaphors) of both neocon and "realist" policy schools. This rings true to me.

The pattern was probably set when the GOP foreign policy establishment needed an ideology that would back up the ascendant conservative movement's sine qua non in foreign affairs -- opposition to detente and all other initiatives that similarly seemed to betray an insufficient regard for America's wounded post-Vietnam national pride (the Panama Canal Treaty notably among them). The ardently pro-war and anti-communist "Scoop Jackson Democrats" were there to fill the gap. Since then, neocon influence has waxed whenever the fundamental moral bankruptcy of Kissingerian realism became a political liability for the GOP, and waned each time the countervailing neocon zeal became a liability of its own. (Witness the cynical pro-Saddam tilt of the early eighties giving way to the fantasy of a grand alliance between Iranian "moderates" and Latin American "freedom fighters" that became, in turn, the Iran-Contra debacle.)

What Billmon sees as new in all this is the cementing of an alliance between the Christian theocrats and the neocon intellectuals -- largely though not exclusively over Middle East policy. This is no longer an alliance of convenience -- the neocons now have a real power base in the party, the masters of which are not men like Cheney and Rumsfeld but rather men like DeLay and Robertson. In other words they now have supporters as ideologically-driven and millenarian as they are. This leads Billmon to conclude that the neocon star, while fading now in the wake of the Iraq mess (per the usual pattern) is unlikely to disappear from the scene entirely, whether or not its persistence is politically convenient for "senior management."

In the past, the GOP has been able to profit politically from neocon agitprop (using it to appeal to swing voters such as the Reagan Democrats for example) and then pulled back when the follow-through on the full ideological program proved too alienating to its core constituency's essentially isolationist sensibilities. This time, however, a key constituency, indeed the party base itself, seems to be fully aligned with the most radical, the most theoretically-immodest aspects of the neocon vision. This constituency has reasons of its own to be so aligned, to be sure, but these reasons are no less absolute (no more negotiable or divisible) than those of the neocon intelligentsia.

If all this is right, then the administration's current, rather visible effort to cut its losses in Iraq is likely to fail. It would require a Nixonian/Kissingerian cynicism to cut Iraq loose without solving any of the fundamental problems we have unearthed and taken upon ourselves in destroying the Iraqi state and occupying the country. I am sure "senior management" is capable that level of cynicism -- but the neocons will be livid and, if Billmon is right, they may have a mass of angry, easily-mobilized, movement conservatives on their side.

It seems to me that this state of affairs presents an opportunity for Democrats who are politically bold and skillful enough to seize it: There is no perfect fit between either the realism of the traditional GOP foreign policy establishment or the isolationism of the traditional GOP rank and file, and the liberal internationalism that remains the core foreign policy tradition of the Democratic party. But the fit starts to look better, closer, the more the Republican party becomes the party of unending civilizational warfare. (There is an analogy here to the appeal Democratic economic policies may now hold for those Republicans who have some residual respect for balanced budgets as a sign of "fiscal conservatism.")

So far, Democrats have thought of foreign policy in connection with the next presidential election, if at all, as something on which they will mostly have to play good defense, while scoring their own points exclusively on domestic issues. But the saga of the neocons suggests that it may be otherwise. There may be an opportunity to do to the GOP now something of what was done to the Democrats in 1968 and 1972 -- namely, to exploit a fundamental schism that the party, for political reasons, is not equipped to resolve on its own. It goes against everything Democrats think of as political gospel but, handled properly, Iraq in particular, and foreign affairs in general, could be the wedge issue of the 2004 election.

Needless to say, perhaps, some candidates would be better positioned than others to drive such a wedge home.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

The News From Iraq (and From Camp Pendleton)

To state the obvious, today's announcement of the capture of Saddam Hussein is very good news indeed--especially since he was taken alive and can now be tried for his extensive record of political criminality. Where and under what authority that trial should be held, and what the charges should (and should not) be, are interesting questions for another day. For today it is enough to celebrate the fact that Slobodan Milsosevic will no longer be the only murderous ex-tyrant compelled to sit in the dock and face his accusers. It's a club that richly deserves expansion.

Unfortunately, it's probably also true, given incidents like today's deadly bombing of a police station in Khaldiya, that Michael Gordon is right in his analysis of the likely effects of Hussein's capture on the insurgency we are fighting in Iraq: It helps our troops' morale, and their standing in the eyes of most Iraqis, and it may lead to some increase in cooperation among those who, though inclined to it, feared above all that the occupier's incompetence or vacillation would somehow permit Hussein's return. But it is almost certainly not the beginning of the end of the insurgency.

Gordon's main points are hard to dispute: First, Hussein was pretty clearly not directing the insurgency from his hole in Ad Dwar; second, the Sunni insurgents have concrete reasons of their own for keeping up the fight--quite beyond any residual loyalty to Hussein or hope for his return; lastly, any foreign terrorists who have come to Iraq because it offers American targets of opportunity are even less likely to be discouraged, since they had no stake in Hussein's return to begin with, and since most would surely have looked upon the prospect with disgust, had they believed it even halfway plausible.

Given all this, the best Iraq news of the week, for my money, came in an earlier article of Gordon's, this one filed from Camp Pendleton, where he interviewed the commanders of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, whose 20,000 members will be heading to the Sunni Triangle in March, apparently to relieve the latest of several Army units that have rotated through the area without making much of a dent in the insurgency. The Marine commanding general, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, tries hard not to sound like he's saying that the Army doesn't know what it's doing in Iraq, but he pretty much ends up saying it anyway.

In particular, it appears that the First Marine Expeditionary has no intention of adopting such recent Army tactics as the wrapping whole villages in razor wire, the use of English-only identity cards, the detaining and pressuring of relatives of suspected insurgents, or the calling in of air and artillery strikes against suspected insurgent positions, even at the risk of civilian casualties. Instead, the Marines plan to bolster the Iraqi police, add MP units, back these up with rapid reaction squads, eschew heavy armor and artillery, and interact respectfully with the Iraqi's whose trust and support they need in order to find the guerrillas, and strike at them efficiently.

In other words, the Marines sound like they are getting ready to take their kind of war to the Sunni Triangle--a "small war," the kind for which they, like the Special Forces but unlike the Army main force units, have both a doctrine and an institutional predisposition, based on institutional memory. If they get a chance to follow through on this plan, it could make a huge difference on the ground.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Of the Need for Stereoscopic Political Analogizing

I had no intention of blogging this evening, but this bit of persuasive nonsense on the part of Michael Kinsley I could not let pass without comment. You know you're off to Circular Firing Squad Land when a "liberal" column begins with the insight that, "The only presidential candidate with a truly coherent position on President Bush's Iraq policy is President Bush." And no, despite Michael Kinsley's long familiarity and once-great facility with the device, he doesn't mean this ironically. Under this sign of "coherence," he proceeds to fortify the Bush entrapment of the Democratic candidates while claiming that those candidates actually entrapped themselves. What more could Rove ask for?

That this particular circular firing squad is designed by its author to leave Howard Dean standing is little comfort. Kinsley's horse may be left standing, but he's also left reeling and bloodied, for even he cannot dodge all the bullets: "There is a tiny question of why Dean bothers to have a 'seven-point plan' for Iraq instead of just one point: Bring the troops home." Precisely. (And Kinsley does mean "tiny" ironically.) The answer, of course, is that the Iraq trap was not set by the candidates for themselves but by Bush/Rove for all of them, and that this required trapping the country as well the candidates, and that, for both country and candidates, it is a much, much worse trap than Kinsley even begins to surmise.

It's endlessly astonishing to me how such sharp journalistic minds as Kinsley's can be so terribly dense when it comes to appreciating how seriously f**d the Democrats have been by the political machinations of this White House. They keep plinking away at this moral hobgoblinism -- as if a Democratic candidate has only to emerge who is entirely self-consistent in his public utterances to have the whole electorate beat a path to his door.

It's the sort of attitude that helps give Democratic primaries their faint aura of tragedy. I'm reminded of that affecting scene from The Two Towers when the rag-tag force of Rohirim is being pressed into service for the defense of Helm's Deep -- farmers, farriers and stable boys against ten thousand stomping mad Uruks. Where are Haldir's crack archers when you need them?

Mr. Kinsley's Use and Abuse of History

Michael Kinsley thinks that only Howard Dean has been consistent enough in his opposition to the Iraq war to use its deepening failure effectively as an issue against George Bush. If Iraq were Vietnam, he might have a point. But since Iraq is equal parts Vietnam and Korea, he is utterly mistaken. The best historical analogy to use here is a stereoscopic one, but Mr. Kinsley's is one-eyed. So too, as a result, is his picture of the candidates' strengths and weaknesses on the issue.

As in Vietnam, the U.S. initiated the Iraq war based on a wildly speculative geostrategic theory that elevated a worrisome problem into a vital strategic necessity. The speculative threat then was that the dominoes would fall if we did not act; this time it was that we would miss the chance to knock over the dominoes if we failed to act. In both instances we found ourselves locked into a bitter counter-insurgency for which we were ill prepared.

As in Korea, the U.S. took what could have been a model for confronting genuine threats to the international order and turned it into a high-risk crusade that betrayed our arrogance and lack of realism as much as the other side's villainy. In Korea the leap from sensible policy to stalled crusade was MacArthur's drive to the Yalu river, which brought China into the war; in Iraq it was Bush's insistence on short-circuiting the promising approach of intrusive inspections backed by the threat of force.

Like Vietnam (and unlike Korea initially) we got ourselves into this mess purely by choice. But like Korea after China's intervention (and unlike Vietnam at any point) it is probably the case that the threat to our national security has grown worse than before we got involved. Mr. Kinsley's claim that "Iraq is less of a threat to international order and its own citizens than when Saddam was in power" is Rovean nonsense. Civil war, regional war, humanitarian catastrophe, state failure, terrorist ascendancy -- all are now serious possibilities. Picture Afghanistan with Saudi-sized oil reserves and you get the idea.

Because Mr. Kinsley uses the wrong historical analogy -- or rather because he uses but one where (a minimum of) two would be more appropriate -- he gets his estimate of the effectiveness of the candidates' positions more-or-less backwards. At least this is so if we are talking about the general election; I'll concede that overly simple analogies seem to be selling well so far in the pre-primary season.

Mr. Kinsley maintains that, just as Howard Dean is the Democrat best positioned to take on President Bush over Iraq, Wesley Clark (Dean's fellow "outsider" and most likely serious competitor for the nomination) is "trailing the parade" on the Iraq issue. But Gen. Clark's position on Iraq, extensively spelled out in both House and Senate testimony in September of 2002 (and essentially unvarying since then, let the pundits say what they will) is entirely consistent with the terrible equivocality of this whole affair.

There was hard, internationalist work to be done in dealing with Iraq, WMD or no WMD. But it is a war we need not have started -- certainly not when we did, in the way we did. But having started it, and having removed the Iraqi state, it may well be one that we can not afford to lose, for reasons having little or nothing to do with the war's original rationale. To admit all this is hardly to concede that Bush was right. On the contrary, it is rather to acknowledge the full weight of the disaster he has brought on in being so very wrong.

Whatever the political saliency of the economy may turn out to be by next November, a good deal of Gen. Clark's support is rooted in the sense that the victor of Kosovo (a war that many liberals believe we were right to fight when we did, in the way we did -- in direct contrast to the present one) is the candidate best positioned to argue that he can "go to Iraq," and bring a tolerable end to that disaster.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Must We Destroy the Village in Order to Save It?

Try as I will to stay clear of Vietnam analogies (so overused and abused have they been since the end of the Cold War, by Right and Left alike), the Iraqi occupation just keeps making them all-but-unavoidable. This New York Times piece by Dexter Filkins is awash with echoes of the not-too-distant past. Consider the following excerpts:
As the guerrilla war against Iraqi insurgents intensifies, American soldiers have begun wrapping entire villages in barbed wire.
They have begun imprisoning the relatives of suspected guerrillas, in hopes of pressing the insurgents to turn themselves in.
So far, the new approach appears to be succeeding in diminishing the threat to American soldiers. But it appears to be coming at the cost of alienating many of the people the Americans are trying to win over. Abu Hishma is quiet now, but it is angry, too.
Underlying the new strategy, the Americans say, is the conviction that only a tougher approach will quell the insurgency and that the new strategy must punish not only the guerrillas but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating.
"You have to understand the Arab mind," Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, said as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. "The only thing they understand is force--force, pride and saving face."
"This fence is here for your protection," reads the sign posted in front of the barbed-wire fence. "Do not approach or try to cross, or you will be shot."
"With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them," Colonel Sassaman said.
But mostly, it is a loss of dignity that the villagers talk about.
"This is absolutely humiliating," said Yasin Mustafa, a 39-year-old primary school teacher. "We are like birds in a cage."
Colonel Sassaman said he would maintain the wire enclosure until the villagers turned over the six men who killed Sergeant Panchot, though he acknowledged they may have slipped far away.

Filkins is understandably most interested in the possible Israeli precedents, specifically the extent to which we are modeling our response on the tactics of the IDF in the Occupied Territories. This is a sensible emphasis, given its obvious saliency for the Iraqis themselves. As a man named Tariq angrily says in the article, "I see no difference between us and the Palestinians."

But it is impossible not to hear those older echoes too--echoes of earnest statements about the value of "strategic hamletization," confident disquisitions on the mysteries of "the Asian mind," equally-confident assurances about the efficacy of getting tough, unleashing our might, sending signals, and on and on.

It is the talk of an occupying power without a clue--an occupier desperate to find measures that will "pacify" the countryside whilst fitting neatly within the template of effort, sacrifice and risk it is predisposed to maintain. Once an occupying army gets going down this road, the madness of destroying a village in order to save it is unlikely to be far behind.

I fear that none of it will work. I fear that the only thing that even has a chance of working, is the kind of genuine counter-insurgency for which there is almost certainly not the political will and the necessary international legitimacy--even if the Pentagon were prepared to consider it, which they probably are not.

I am talking about the kind of war fought in the hamlet of Binh Nghia in 1966-7, by a combined platoon of Marines and Vietnamese militia, as chronicled in F.J. West, Jr.'s The Village. This is a war that, in Vietnam itself, less than one percent of American forces were engaged in fighting, but which, where it was tried, was largely successful in getting and keeping individual villages out of Viet Cong hands, and (just as important) safe from American bombs and artillery.

This kind of war has the same aim as the measures being used in Iraq now (separating the guerrillas from the people), but it proceeds entirely differently toward this goal--not by isolating and threatening the village but by becoming part of it, and defending it, from within, against any attempt by the insurgency to exploit it as a base of operations. In practice this means defending both the village's passive majority, as well as that portion of it willing to work openly with the foreign forces, against those within and without who make up the insurgency's local cadres--and doing so until enough of the villagers are both willing and able to defend themselves.

It is civil war on an intimate (sometimes even personal) scale, and it is anything but pretty. It seems, however, to be the only known way of keeping an insurgency from garnering ever more popular support, whether coerced or voluntary, in its struggle against a foreign army.

Compared to the population control tactics being employed now in Iraq, this kind of counter-insurgency is a high-contact, high-risk type of war. West makes the point in his introduction with characteristic economy: "Throughout Vietnam, one out of four hundred night patrols in the populated areas made contact; in this village, it was one out of two." In this kind of war, the more engagements, the better, because each one is a step toward the village being able to resume its independence from both the insurgency and its protector/occupier--provided the latter stays long enough to get the job done. But such success of course comes at a price.

The handful of Marines and Vietnamese militia who defended Binh Nghia were not subject to roadside ambush while in convey. They did not convoy. They stayed put, and patrolled in and around the village, and in so doing ambushed the enemy rather than being ambushed by him. As a result, they began to thwart the insurgents so completely that they made themselves the target of a concentrated counter-attack designed to remove what had became an intolerable impediment to guerrilla activities-and to permanently discourage its reestablishment. On the night of September 14th, 1966, five of the six Marines and six of the dozen Vietnamese militia defending the combined platoon's makeshift fort in Binh Nghia were killed in a massive assault by a combined force of eighty Viet Cong and sixty North Vietnamese commandoes.

But that is not how the story ends: The combined Marine-militia platoon was rebuilt, withstood one more main force assault (this one aborted because the defenders were too well prepared), and ultimately became an all-Vietnamese unit, as the village was effectively liberated from VC control. By living and fighting with (and simultaneously training) a local militia force to defend that militia's home village against the insurgents, a small band of Marine volunteers won their small corner of the Vietnam war.

Are we prepared to fight such a war in the Sunni Triangle? Are we prepared to fight such a war for the future of Iraq? We were certainly not led to believe that such a war would be necessary. But then we were not told we would be occupying a country and battling an insurgency. Liberation was supposed to be clean and cheap and quick. It has been anything but that. And now it increasingly looks as if we will have to choose between a kind of war we are not prepared to fight, and the kind of retreat that might well leave things worse than they were when we arrived.

How's that for a Vietnam analogy?

Sunday, December 07, 2003

I Smoked Your Uncle, Did You Know That?

Via Eric Alterman, in his secondary, but not unimportant role as resident music critic of the left-wing blogosphere:

The mere fact continues to puzzle the best minds of medical science but, somehow, Keith Richards is still alive and kicking. For this, we should all be greatful, not only because having the man who waxed so many of the most casually ferocious guitar licks in Rock history still walking the earth is an important connection to the music's illustrious past, but also because Keith remains perhaps the most profoundly human of Rock stars, as evinced by the fact that he's still capable of saying stuff like this (from an earlier Guardian profile) regarding the astonishing success that he and his bandmates experienced once they and the music they loved got packaged for consumption by the new mass youth audience:
You're 18 years old and you're trying to copy these hip Chicago bluesmen - what a joke! Then you get a chance to go into a recording studio and you have to make a pop record. Then it's Top of the Pops. And you think: 'Oh no. That means we've got to do this miming bullshit and wear these stupid black and white checked jackets.' But at the same time, 3,000 screaming chicks and £50 a week meant that we swallowed our idealistic, snobbish blues pride and said: 'OK, we're a rhythm & blues band. And we couldn't get laid last week.'
And the rest, as they say, is Rock & Roll history.

The Enigma of Bushism

Molly Ivins, who is probably as well-equipped as anyone to do it, takes a good whack at understanding what makes W so dangerous. To adopt a regionally-appropriate metaphor, I don't think she quite gets to the end-zone, but she does move the ball a good ways down the field. She identifies three Texas folkways that, in her view, combine with plain old-fashioned class prejudice to produce Bush's characteristic moral obtuseness in the face of social injustice. The three are religiosity, machismo and anti-intellectualism.

Of the three Texas factors, Ivins doesn't do much of anything with Bush's religiosity, except to grant that it might well be genuine. This is a shortcoming in her analysis, but I suspect that an investigation of the content of Bush's religious views, to the extent that they are discernable from his public utterances and the known facts of his biography, would largely reinforce the rest of Ivins' analysis.

The machismo she takes to be a pose -- an anxious cover for the rich white boy's lack of the kind of genuine self-confidence that can only come from fighting and winning your own battles.

The anti-intellectualism, however, is real enough. Ivins thinks that it is rooted in resentment over the disdain with which, in the 60's, southerners like Bush (obvious provincials even when accompanied by an Old Money pedigree) were received at the sort of Eastern schools where he picked up his elite credentials and cemented his elite connections. It's pretty clear that Ivins is speaking from personal experience here -- about the anti-southern prejudice of yesterday's Ivy League, if not about the resulting, resentment-feuled anti-intellectualism.

Most interesting is that Ivins shows how Bush's anti-intellectualism is entwined with his class prejudice. Bush, never a distinguished student, only made it to Andover and Yale and Harvard because he was -- well, a Bush. Yet he shows no signs of acknowledging this simple fact as an unearned advantage, any more than he has ever publicly acknowledged his enormous debt (it is practically total) to his father's friends for the dubious 'success' of his own business career (such as it is), or for his having sat out Vietnam in (and out) of the Texas Air National Guard.

Nor does Bush seem to think it ironic that, when he pictures the victims Eastern-elite prejudice, what he sees are the denizens of Midland, Texas, with its Petroleum Club and its population of oil industry executives. For Bush, all such dissonant social facts probably disappear in the palpable atmosphere of down-home benignity that, after all, he knows first hand to be genuine, having spent so much time hanging out with good-hearted folk just like himself.

Bush's Texas brand of anti-intellectualism, in other words, is the kind of pseudo-populism that is most concerned to defend the dignity and prerogatives of a local elite against the superior cultural reputation of a distant one. It not only has nothing to do with criticizing elitism as such, it is actually premised on the maintenance of a particularly rigid form of elite dominance.

Since Bush's days at Yale and Harvard, the old Eastern centers of elite culture have become ever more relentlessly meritocratic. Meanwhile, out in Texas, the old boy net, patterned as it is on the older Eastern model imported by men like his father, still works beautifully for semi-native sons like him. (It must be remembered, if only because he himself is unlikely, at bottom, ever to forget it, that the younger Bush is quite possibly the least accomplished man to win the White House in over a century). What is worse, one suspects, from the Midland perspective, is the fact that this same once-exclusive but now-meritocratic Eastern establishment has lately become a principle source of legitimacy for those corrosive ideas of fairness that force the local grandees to pretend interest in the politics of compassion, instead of letting such gestures remain safely in the (feminized) private and social worlds, where they belong.

Bush is no isolated phenomenon -- he represents the successful restoration of a Gilded Age style elite on a new provincial power base. What Ivins shows us are some of the cultural materials out of which that new base has been fashioned. And with that, it begins to make perfect sense why George W. Bush's views about what the social classes owe to one another are more in line with those of William Graham Sumner than with those of Prescott Bush. It is as if, in moving west, the Bush family has traveled backwards in social time. Unfortunately, it has not taken that journey alone.

The younger Bush's sheer moral obtuseness regarding the ABCs of social justice -- his basic incapacity to acknowledge the damage his policies have done and are doing to the lives of innumerable vulnerable others -- is hard to fathom only because we have not seen anything like it (or, rather, nothing like it has been willing to show its face) in the highest reaches of public life for a very, very long time. But we have in fact seen and heard nearly all of it before, if we think back far enough. Only the Texas twang is new.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Dean Supporters, Clark Supporters and the Electoral Math

I'm not exactly sure what path I took through the blogosphere to find my way to this post by DailyKos denizen folkbum, but once I read it, I couldn't let it go by without responding, given the grave doubts it expresses about the usefulness, or even the legitimacy, of concerning oneself with 'electoral math' -- and given my own obsessing over that very topic in my last couple of posts. And since this is also, inter alia, a Dean v. Clark thing, I had to say something about that too. So here's what I came up with, by way of an apologia:

Re: Electoral Math is for Losers

I admire your passionate commitment to the cause of Democratic victory folkbum, and I agree with what I take to be the overall thrust of your post -- that an exclusive concern with 'electability' could be a recipe for disaster if it drove us to support an inferior candidate who simply looks good 'on paper.' Elections are fought by flesh-and-blood candidates and their committed supporters, not by abstract bundles of electability attributes.

But I can't bring myself to agree with you about the irrelevance or perniciousness of attending to the electoral numbers. schwa is right -- the opposition you set up between faith or belief in one's chosen candidate and pragmatic evaluation of that candidate's chances of victory is a false one.

Concern with electoral math is simply a large-scale version of such nuts-and-bolts campaign tools as the canvass. Every campaign must, at some point, make hard choices about where best to invest scarce organizational and human resources. Only a campaign of fools would do this blindly, or on the basis of some a priori commitment to treating every state (or county or district) equally.

Nor is expressing a concern for such issues a backhanded way of implying, as you suggest, that certain candidates might not have the full support of the party. I think that, baring 1968 levels of intra-party warfare, the Democrats will support their nominee, whoever it is. But such support, by itself, gets us less than 40% of the vote. Whoever the Democratic nominee is, he will have to worry about pulling in the lion's share of independent voters, defending all the Democratic-leaning swing states and flipping at least some of the GOP-leaning ones. These are simply rock bottom facts of our present political condition, which it serves no purpose to deny.

Nor, I think, can we reasonably ask voters and volunteers to banish such pragmatic considerations as these from their minds when deciding which presidential candidate to support. The point of politics isn't only to win, but neither is it simply to be right in one's soul, and damn the consequences. What matters is not that we win, nor that we are right, but that the actual outcome of the election is the best one for the country. And this presumes both that we're right in our views (in believing, for example, that four more years of Bush would be a disaster) and that we actually win the election (and thereby avert that disaster).

Given all this, the best possible scenario is to be in a position to pick the candidate you believe will make the best president, and who you also think has the best chance of winning. Often, of course, these two judgments are at odds, forcing us to make a compromise choice -- but not always.

It's fairly obvious that the Dean v. Clark question is looming in the background here and I think this is understandable. The typical path to these candidates has probably tended to differ. Many Dean supporters no doubt rallied to him at first because they flat-out agreed with what he was saying about Bush, and how he was saying it. Many Clark supporters probably first considered their candidate because they were impressed by his resume and the speculative 'electoral math.' And I'm sure some supporters of both candidates never get past these initial impressions.

But I suspect this quickly changes for most people. There seem to be plenty of Dean supporters who feel that their man is both the best candidate in the race and the one best equipped to beat Bush in 2004. (Not an unreasonable claim, given that one of the great things about the Dean campaign, as all now recognize, is its highly innovative, first-rate organization.) I and others happen to feel the same way about Clark (believe me, the electoral math isn't what evokes the encomiums one hears so often among his supporters -- "a president we can be proud of," "the president we were promised," "not since Bobby," and so on).

As Democrats, I think we're lucky to have at least two candidates (perhaps there are others) who give us hope that a happy marriage of principle and pragmatic calculation may be possible this time around. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't debate which candidate is more electable, any more than we should refrain from trying to persuade one another which candidate would make the best president. Both questions are fair game, because both matter.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

All You Got to do is Swing

Speaking of swing states... just how likely is it that the Democrats can win enough of them to defeat Bush? To get a handle on this, I took DavidNYC's useful list of the 20 states (plus one Maine congressional district) in which the combined Gore and Nader vote and the combined Bush and Buchanan vote were separated by less than ten percentage points. Next, I sorted that list based on the size of the winning party's margin -- from smallest to largest. Finally, I added the electoral votes that will be at stake in each state in 2004. The result is the following breakdown:

StateDem MarginGOP MarginElectors
New Hampshiren/a- 2.17%4
Floridan/a- 1.3327
New Mexico3.38n/a5
West Virginian/a5.175
Maine, 2nd CD5.74n/a1

As you can see, things don't look too bad here. The first thing one notices, of course, is that the "winning" margin for the GOP was actually negative in the case of both New Hampshire and Florida, since the combined Gore and Nader vote total was larger in these states than the combined Bush and Buchanan total. Effectively, they lost the ideological vote while winning the partisan one. As far as swing state arithmetic is concerned, that makes New Hampshire and Florida states that a Democrat should be able to win simply by duplicating Gore's relative showing whilst picking up the erstwhile Nader voters. (Thanks again Saint Ralph!)

More fundamentally, the overall swing state arithmetic seems to break in the Democrats' favor. For instance, the GOP carried its swing states by much narrower margins than did the Democrats. Of the dozen closest contests here, nine went Republican. This indicates that Red swing states are significantly more vulnerable to being turned than are Blue ones. If we look at the comparative ranges by which swing states were won or lost, we see the same story: the GOP's winning margins run from a low of less-than-zero in New Hampshire (- 2.17%) to a high of 7.32% in Louisiana, while the Dems' tightest win was 2.11%, in Iowa, and their safest 9.43%, in Washington state. In short, the Democrats seem to have the more defensible position in the battle for swing state supremacy.

Taking into account the (2004) electoral votes just makes things look that much better for the Democrats. Taking all the battlegrounds together, the Democrats have 89 electoral votes at risk, while the GOP has 130 on the line. If we look only at states where the ideological margin was less than 5%, the Republican vulnerability is even more pronounced: 103 GOP electors at risk versus only 22 for the Democrats. Use a 3% cutoff and the picture deteriorates further for the GOP: 74 electors at risk to the Democrats' 7.

Does all of this mean the Democrats can relax in 2004? Not a bit. After all, it is an established fact that the GOP made large gains in partisan affiliation after 9/11, with much of that advance concentrated precisely in swing states like Florida and Michigan. Whoever the Democratic candidate is, he will almost certainly start in a significantly eroded position relative to the left-right margins that were used to conduct the above analysis. Should the Democrat inherit a slightly more advantageous starting position in the swing states, you can be sure that the GOP will try to make up in offensive zeal whatever they initially lack in defensible ideological ground. And just to make things that much harder for this hypothetical Democrat, there is always the possibility of Saint Ralph making another run at spoiler immortality.

So the swing state arithmetic should not, in any way, be regarded as an excuse for complacency about the outcome of the general election. On the other hand, it should at least give us hope that '04 need not be a replay of '72 -- increasingly disturbing historical parallelisms notwithstanding. The opportunity is there, in the battle for the swing states -- if the Democrats can but seize it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing

Ruy Teixeira at Donkey Rising supplies a useful corrective to what might otherwise have been undue pessimism afflicting all Democratic readers of this New York Times front pager, in which Katherine Seelye kindly reminds us (it must have been intended as a reminder because, as Teixeira points out, it sure as heck ain't news) that the Congressional reapportionment consequent upon the 2000 census will leave our hard-luck party with seven fewer electoral votes in the "Blue" states.

Teixeira's point is that the very forces (immigration, urbanization) driving rapid population growth (and hence electoral college gains) in certain "Red" states are the same ones that will tend to make those states more hospitable to Democratic candidates over time. In other words, many of these Red states have in fact become, or are in the process of becoming, swing states.

Exhibit A for Teixeira's argument is Arizona. Proud parent of two new electoral votes, the state also happens to boast two fast-growing, and increasingly Democratic-leaning, metro counties -- Pima and Maricopa. All the more reason (for any Democrat who hasn't already figured out its importance) to pay close attention to the results of this year's Arizona primary: It will be the first one held in a swing state that was an electoral college beneficiary of the 2000 census.

At this point you may be thinking -- "Arizona? But Arizona was ground zero for the conservative movement. Why, it's Barry Goldwater country!" Well sure. And whose country did California used to be called? Exactly. Teixeira's optimism may get ahead of the data sometimes, but there is no doubt about the soundness of his general claim: In the southwest at any rate, the times they are a-changin'.