Thursday, June 21, 2007


Definining Conservatism, Continued

In the latest round of my online conversation with Ric Caric, a progressive blogger from Kentucky, Ric responded to my detailed explanation of why I am not a conservative (and why that distinction matters) by saying he was unpersuaded.

After sorting through Ric's reasoning, I realize that pretty much nothing I say is going to sway him on this specific point -- he's pretty locked into his own definition of what a conservative is. But I still think this dialogue is worth continuing, largely because it is helping to tease out an existential argument that I believe Democrats need to openly engage in, and also because Ric seems like a good guy and I enjoy the give-and-take, no matter our disagreements.

So here goes Round 5. . .

Dear Ric:

Thanks for your last note. Sorry for not replying sooner, and sorry you are not feeling better.

I really appreciate your taking the time to read all of my blog posts and op-eds from this year and your candor in explaining why you were ultimately unmoved by my answers to your initial batch of questions. I won't bother to try to change your mind, but I would like to pick up on a few of the points you made (which I found quite revealing) and hone in on what I see as the real nub of our disagreement (which I believe has little to do with the actual definition of conservative).

Let me start by saying I am glad that you were glad to concede, based on the weighty evidence I provided about my values and issue positions, that I have a "liberal heart or liberal self." As far as I am concerned, that settles the primary argument we were having, which was a question of philosophy and ideology -- of what I actually believe. Everything else in your response goes to a totally separate (though related) argument, which is a question of politics and partisanship -- of how we say things.

Just consider the catalogue of my supposed offenses you cited, which boils down to the following: A) I don't attack conservatives vociferously and frequently enough in my writing; B) I am willing to commentate for media outlets the Netroots widely believe are conservative; and C) I am willing to say some positive things about some Republicans.

This would hardly constitute proof to most any dispassionate observer that I am myself a closet conservative -- especially given that even your thin associative arguments don't really hold up (more on that below). What it does show, beyond any reasonable doubt, is that in your eyes and to many in the Netroots I am a bad Democrat. Of course, I don't agree with that conclusion or the grounds for making it. But that at least is a legitimate argument to have, and I think we would all be better off if we acknowledged that is the real issue here.

The big tip-off here was this line in your response: "most people with Democratic Party perspectives would look on you as a conservative." There is no factual basis for making this claim, and I suspect it is demonstrably untrue -- I bet polling would show that the majority of average Democrats would use a more conventional, normative, ideological-based standard for judging what a conservative is, and you yourself admit that I clearly don't meet that definition. I am willing to concede, though, that most people in the Netroots would probably reach that conclusion, for the same self-referential reasons you seem to do -- if I don't detest conservatives and Republicans more broadly, publicly profess my hatred, and generally treat them as the enemy, then I am by extension must be one myself.

This lays bare why the argument over who is a conservative is such a red (or should I say blue in this case) herring -- your real complaint with Democrats like me is that we are not partisan enough. If you are willing to accept that, then we can have a healthy debate about the merits of that loyalty argument, and I can explain in more depth why I think the hardline approach that the Netroots tends to take on this point is destructive and ultimately self-defeating -- starting with this dangerous notion that good Democrats can't have good Republican friends.

In the meantime, let me offer a few more specific observations about your response.

First, as I alluded to above, I want to correct some of your assumptions about my associations you find so troubling.

A) I have appeared as a political analyst on MSNBC upwards of 30 times since the Lieberman campaign ended last fall, probably fives times more often than I have been on Fox in the same time period, and I would welcome the chance to go on CNN. Locally, I have also appeared frequently on NY1 (the New York cable news channel) and occasionally on WNBC-TV (the local NBC affiliate). So it's inaccurate to suggest there is an ideological or political bent to my TV commentary.

B) As I noted before, it's nothing more than a canard to say that The Politico has a conservative bias, and to be blunt, the Netroots are just making themselves look foolish by peddling this myth without any hard evidence. The fact is, just because a media outlet publishes stories that reflect poorly does not make it a conservative mouthpiece -- by that standard the New York Times, which ran thousands of column inches exploring various Clinton scandals, would be judged a right-wing rag.

C) When I write political commentary, as I did in the piece on Rudy Giuliani you cited, more often than not I am making dispassionate, strategic assessments, not acting as a partisan activist. In the case of the Rudy piece, I stressed his political strengths and crossover appeal to challenge a bit of conventional wisdom and support an argument about his electoral prospects -- that is a far cry from endorsing or advocating for him.

Second, while I have found most of your correspondence civil and respectful, I have to say I found your question about my support for gay rights ("I wonder if you would have stuck up for such "risky" liberal issues if your mother and sister weren't gay") a little bit of a cheap shot. I believe in gay rights for the same reasons I have always been an advocate for racial equality -- I place great faith in the American promise of equal opportunity and fundamental value of fairness. In fact, I supported Bill Bradley in the primary against Al Gore in part because I admired the guts and principle Bradley showed throughout his career in making race a central issue of his work in public life.

Now it's true that my sensitivities on gay rights have been deepened by having lesbian family members. But I have a hard time seeing how anyone could twist that into a negative. Ideally, I wish many more Americans could find themselves in a similar position -- we'd have a lot less ignorance and fear, and a lot more tolerance and progress.

Third, to your larger point about my "disappeared" liberal self, I thought I had addressed this in my answers to your questions, but I guess not clearly enough. This goes in part to the professional role I have carved out for myself. I am a strategist, not an activist, and I like to write about politics from a strategic and tactical perspective. Moreover, as I noted before, I am particularly interested in exploring ideas and arguments that challenge conventional wisdom instead of reinforcing it (which is a primary focus of the Netroots).

But it also goes to the question of what it means to be a good Democrat that I reference above. I believe that our party has some serious structural problems -- which have helped made it easier for the Republicans to gain and hold power -- and that we as a party must confront and fix those problems instead of denying their existence if we want to build a long-term majority coalition. That's why I have devoted a lot of my commentary to inside-the-family analysis and criticism.

The fact is, there are lots of smart, effective people like you taking on the flaws of the other side, and I am glad you are there to do that. But in my view there is not nearly enough thoughtful and candid conversation about our internal challenges, and I made a decision to do what I could to help fill that vacuum.

Hence the critiques I have made from time to time of the Netroots' excesses. As I have repeated ad nauseam, I don't view them as the enemy -- I just don't buy into the simplistic "with-us-or-against-us" construct that so many in the progressive blogosphere use. I do believe, though, that some of their conduct is damaging to the Democratic Party's interests and to our politics more broadly, and to ignore that would be bad for the causes that we both care about.

In this, I am doing just what Howard Dean did in his campaign throughout 2003. Dean's primary argument boiled down to a critique (or an attack, depending on your perspective) on the Democratic Party establishment. The only reason you don't think he was being disloyal or self-hating was that you agreed with Dean's assessment (as did I to some extent). So I welcome you to dispute my conclusions, about the Netroots's excesses and/or the party's direction, but would ask you to hold me to the same standard as Dean, and please stop questioning my motivations.

Now, I grant you, I have used some sharp language in challenging the Netroots on some things -- but hardly anywhere near as sharp as the rhetoric the Netroots typically use to challenge those they disagree with. So when I hear complaints like yours about some of the words I have used, I find it hard to get past the obvious double standard at work here. But as I said to you in my last note, I regret not being more balanced in some of my critiques, in particular not noting more of the positive contributions the Netroots have made to our party and our politics, and I am focused on being better about that going forward. I just hope some of your peers would be similarly self-reflective from time to time.

Lastly, let me say you are right in some sense in your final conclusion about my "relocation" efforts. It's not that I feel I have been untrue to myself or cynically hiding my progressive beliefs. It's just that I got kind of tired of being defined (and in some cases defiled) publicly by those who don't know me, and decided it would better to engage in this conversation and define myself. That's why I reachd out to you -- I thought you would be receptive -- and I have not been disappointed.

Thanks again for listening. Look forward to continuing this exchange to whatever extent you are interested.



Friday, June 15, 2007


The Anatomy Of A Dialogue

I recently came across a diary on MyDD about another blog-insult controversy that incidentally and without qualification labeled me a conservative. I thought that was particulary odd, because I can't imagine being judged a conservative by any reasonable or conventional standard. So just for the heck of it I sent a note to the author, a professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky named Ric Caric, and politely suggested he read my blog before jumping to that conclusion.

Ric was very cordial and respectful in his response, but he said he still tended to think I was a conservative after reading bits of my writings. To his credit, though, Ric indicated he would be open to hearing me out and asked several questions to start up a dialogue. I decided it would be a useful exercise to take him up on that offer and then post our exchange here -- I expect Ric to to the same on his own blog, Red State Impressions -- if for no other reason than to show a different side to these arguments and make a positive statement about online civility.

On 6/12/07 10:59 PM, "RIC NORTHUP CARIC" wrote:

Dear Dan,

Thank you very much for your e-mail. I sympathize with your broken
wrist. I myself have been stuck in allergy-bronchitis hell since early
May with my allergies reviving the bronchitis every time I venture
outside. As a result, the frequency and quality of my blogging at Red
State Impressions ( has suffered.

You'll be disappointed to learn that I still think of you as a
conservative after looking at your blog. The Lieberman connection, the
criticism of Larry Lessig for insulting Bush, the on-going bashing of
liberal bloggers, your association with Fox and the Politico--it all
reads as conservative to me. There are also some things that aren?t
there that signify a conservative Democrat to me?-almost nothing on
the war, nothing on the Bush administration?s efforts to set up a
series of extra-judicial penal colonies, nothing on racism, and no
suspicion of big business. You don?t seem to find of the right-wing as
being asmorally appalling or dangerous to American democracy as most
?Metropolitan? and Kentucky liberals I know either. Like a lot of
conservatives, you also seem to have significant resentments toward
the kind of liberal activists who worked against Joe Lieberman last
year. That seems to be why you flirted last year with leaving the
Democratic Party and becoming an independent. To be clear, I don't
mean conservative like Dick Cheney/ Tom DeLay/ Karl Rove but more in
the neo-liberal--Joe Klein--Mickey Kaus-- vein (though you?re not as
aggressive about it).

A caveat. I realize that you?re focused mostly on political tactics
as a political consultant. Perhaps that's why you don?t address some
of the issues I mention above. I should also acknowledge that you did
view employment rights for gays as a viable issue in 2008.

I do have some questions of you now that I have you here. These
aren't quite the kinds of questions about governing and policy that
you said you were willing to answer. But they are questions that
interest me. So . . .

1. Many liberal bloggers believe that figures like yourself and
Beltway pundits like Joe Klein view moving the Democratic Party in a
more conservative direction (on foreign policy, regulatory issues,
religion, and abortion for example) as the most important strategic
imperative for Democrats. To what extent do you agree with that or not?

2. Liberal bloggers like Glenn Greenwald and Matthew Yglesias believe
that the mainstream news media has embargoed war opponents and
Democratic Party liberals and generally kept them out of interviews
and off debate shows. To what extent would you agree that your own
appearances on Fox and affiliation with the Politico serve as an
example of how more conservative Democrats get air time while more
liberal and anti-war Democrats get excluded?

3. One of my own hypotheses is that consultants and commentators like
yourself think better of traditional or moderate Republicans than you
do of the liberal or activist wing of the Democratic Republicans. In
this sense, you would think more highly of Susan Collins of Maine or
David Iglesias than you would a Maxine Waters or Juan Cole the
anti-war blogger. To what extent would that be the case?

4. Another hypothesis of mine is that folks like yourself believe that
you represent the farthest left that a legitimate Democratic or
American politics could go? Thus you wouldn?t view those to the left
of you as fully viable or creditable? To what extent would you think
that would be the case or not?

If you decide to answer these questions, would you consider allowing
me to publish our correspondence on my blog and as a MyDD diary?

Yours sincerely,

Ric Caric

Date: Fri, 15 Jun 2007 12:37:09 -0400
Subject: Re: Reply to Your Message

Dear Ric:

I am glad to have a chance to engage on these questions, and appreciate your interest in my views. Please feel free to post my comments on your site, and I will do the same.

Let me start by saying I wish there were more openness to these kind of exchanges on all sides. We as Democrats must be able to have thoughtful debates, whether we are disagreeing on policy or tactics, if we are to keep adapting and growing. I don’t like it when anyone with something meaningful to say is getting shouted down, whether it is Howard Dean or the DLC.

This is why I am generally a big fan of the blogosphere — and sometimes a critic. It is such a dynamic, empowering, democratizing medium, with the potential to fundamentally transform our politics. But I am afraid that potential will be squandered if we as Democrats don’t work toward a more honest and less hostile discussion online. And I include myself in that “we” — there have been times when I have spoken too broadly and not respectfully enough about the Netroots. I regret that, and I am focused on being more balanced in my commentary going forward.

Now to the overarching issue of what and who is a conservative. It’s clear from your note that we come at this from dramatically different perspectives and that’s where the disagreement stems from (along with the assumption that I share 100 percent of Lieberman’s views).

On the one hand, I am applying what I consider a conventional and largely normative definition to a label that admittedly is somewhat of a moving target in the Bush era. (Let me preface the rest of my comments by saying I believe most common political labels today are obsolete to the point of being misleading — Bush and his acolytes are often more radical than classically conservative, and many self-proclaimed liberals are often more reactionary than truly progressive).

According to most dictionary entries, conservatism is defined by a reverence for tradition and a resistance to change. In the Goldwater-Reagan era of American politics, it has come to be more specifically defined as standing for limited government, hostility to regulation and the welfare state, low taxes, high military spending, family values, and, through the increasing influence of social conservatives, opposition to abortion rights.

By this general standard, there is just no logical way to conclude I am a conservative. To wit:
Now let’s look more specifically at where I stand on the Bush agenda. Other than No Child Left Behind, which I considered a flawed bill but an important paradigm shift in our national education policy, I have opposed pretty much every major Bush initiative and then some.
On the other hand, you mostly seem to be judging my place on the ideological spectrum relative to your own views and those of my critics in the progressive blogosphere (most of whom have no idea where I actually stand on issues and regrettably don’t seem to care). If I do not fully agree with the consensus Netroots position on a few benchmark issues or tactics; or if I commentate on media outlets the Netroots collectively don’t like; or, more tellingly, if I have not spoken to an issue you care about on my blog or not done so with the same vehemence other progressive bloggers do — then I am a de facto conservative.

Let’s break this down for a moment. You are suggesting I am conservative -- despite all the evidence on my blog and elsewhere that I disagree almost universally with the conservative agenda -- because: 1) I worked for Joe Lieberman; 2) I have criticized progressive bloggers; 3) I write for the Politico and appear occasionally on Fox News; and 4) I have not sufficiently attacked the Bush Administration on (among other things) torture and civil liberties and the war.

With all due respect, I have to say this argument hinges a lot on guilt by association, not on reason and logic, and speaks precisely to the concerns I have about the direction the Netroots are headed in.

First off, as I have made clear on my blog and elsewhere, while I greatly admire Joe Lieberman and am proud to have worked for him as long as I have, I am my own person with my own views (some of which diverge from Lieberman’s) and deserve to be judged accordingly. Now with that disclaimer out of the way, I still believe the underlying premise — that Lieberman and his defenders by extension are conservative — is fatally flawed. Barbara Boxer and Eleanor Holmes Norton (among others) strongly supported Lieberman in the primary and actively campaigned for him. I doubt you would suggest they were conservatives for doing so. Nor would they have come to Connecticut if they thought Lieberman was a conservative, regardless of his stance on Iraq.

Second, I don’t harbor resentments against the Netroots after the Lieberman campaign or feel the need to get even. I am professional who has worked in and around national politics for 14 years now, and I have approached every campaign I’ve been involved in just as I have a lifetime playing team sports: fight hard when the game is on, then shake hands and move on when it’s over. That’s what I did after my client Tom Suozzi lost a hard-hitting primary race to Eliot Spitzer for governor here in New York last September — I am now a proud supporter of Governor Spitzer’s reform agenda. And that’s what I did after Lieberman beat Lamont in the general election last November. If you doubt me, just ask Ned Lamont himself — Ned invited me to come speak to his seminar at the Kennedy School in April, and we had a very friendly and constructive conversation in and out of the classroom, in which I went out my way to praise Ned and his campaign for what they accomplished.

To me, this is really a fight about how to build a bigger Democratic Party and broader support for a progressive agenda. My fear is that many in the Netroots have learned the wrong lessons from the conservative movement's rise to power over the past quarter century and are bent on copying their mistakes as well as their successes. To be specific, I am concerned that the many Netroots activists are taking their admirable quest to bring more cohesion and discipline and infrastructural resources to the Democratic Party to an exclusive and self-defeating extreme. Again, you may disagree with this assessment, but I fail to see how raising this concern makes me a conservative. (FYI: You can find a fuller explanation of my views in these two blog posts: here and here.

Third, I go on Fox, just as Howard Dean does, because it reaches the largest audience of any cable news network by far and that audience is comprised of voters Democrats need to be speaking to to win elections. I can appreciate the arguments that you and some of my other progressive friends have made against legitimizing Fox by appearing on their air, although I obviously disagree. But to use this small part of my resume as a leading indicator that I am conservative — especially when the same standard is not applied to Dean or Chris Dodd or many other Democrats who go on Fox News -- seems pretty specious. (I won’t even get into the Politico piece of this argument — there is just no credible evidence that Politico has a conservative bias.)

Fourth, my reasons for blogging in different style than other Netroots writers do is not a function of my ideology, but my disposition. I made a conscious decision when I launched my site that: 1) I was going to write on a limited, quality-over-quantity basis, hence the mostly essay-ish posts; and 2) I was going to use my limited posting primarily to challenge conventional political wisdom and raise issues and questions and concerns that were not getting the attention I thought they deserved. So in some sense, it’s precisely because you and so many other progressive bloggers have been working overtime holding Bush and the corrupt, backward Republicans in Congress accountable that I have chosen to focus on other subjects that are of particular interest to me. (FYI: Here is the post I wrote explaining all this to launch the site.)

It’s fair to say that some of the issues progressive bloggers care most about and that I have not commented about are not as big of priorities to me, or that I may have more nuanced positions. For example, I disagree with the warrant-less wiretapping as practiced by this Administration, but I am not outraged by it like many progressives are. That’s because I believe that we have to be aggressive in collecting intelligence on potential terrorist threats, and while Bush drew the wrong line in the balance between liberty and security, I want the FBI listening to Al Qaeda through any lawful means.

Now, one could say that I am making a mistake in not taking this largely theoretical threat more seriously, and we could have a legitimate argument about that. But to suggest my lack of outrage, at the exclusion of my actual position, makes me a conservative seems totally illogical to me. If I am conservative because I don’t oppose wireless wiretapping loudly enough, what does that make those who vocally support it?

This gets to one of the biggest problems I have with what too often seems to be the Netroots’ prevailing approach to politics. It’s this rigidly binary, with-us-or-against-us mentality that narrowly defines what a Democrat or progressive is and lumps anyone who fails that litmus test into one or two enemy camps — either a DLC sellout or a Bush sympathizer.

Apply these exclusive standards to John Kennedy, who was a hawk by nature and dedicated tax-cutter, and he would assuredly have been deemed a bad Democrat. Apply them to voters today, more importantly, and we would assuredly get a smaller party and waste the opportunity we have now to cement a bond with the independents and Clinton Republicans who are now leaning our way.

All of which is to say I think we would all be better off if we stopped getting hung up on crude, empty labels and started engaging in serious arguments about big ideas for governing and effective strategies for persuading voters and winning elections.

Now to your more specific questions:

1) I would challenge the premise of this question. I am not seeking to move the party in a more “conservative” direction. I am seeking to move the party in a more strategic direction that puts us in a stronger position to win elections and build a sustainable majority. Let’s use abortion as an example. I don’t advocate Democrats compromising their principles or changing their positions. I do advocate, as Hillary Clinton has done, changing the way we talk about this issue to get off the defensive and show the Republicans are the ones who are out of touch. Thus, instead of falling into the pro-choice versus pro-life trap, we should be focusing on the one goal that most Americans agree on — reducing abortions and preventing women from ever having to make this difficult choice — and articulating a positive agenda for eliminating unwanted pregnancies and protecting women’s health. Then we can force the Republicans to explain how they can say they are for reducing abortions while at the same time blocking access to birth control.

2) Again, I would challenge the premise of the question. First off, nothing I do is going to influence Fox’s behavior — the only thing that is going to affect them is their audience and their ratings. Second, as I indicated above, it seems unfair to single me out for blame for Fox’s programming bent or booking habits when Howard Dean and many other prominent Democrats are going on their air and not getting the same kind of criticism. Heck, even Ned Lamont went on Fox News during last year’s campaign. Third, almost every time I am on Fox these days I am defending Democrats, and I believe we as a party are better off responding to baseless attacks on Fox or any other major outlet than ignoring them to make a symbolic point (as opposed to the Shrum approach to the Swift-boating campaign).

3) Let me clear up one thing up about my consultancy — I am not a political consultant in the traditional sense. I do advise some candidates here and there, but that’s not how I make my living. Most of my clients are non-profits and progressive advocacy groups who need strategic communications help in marketing ideas or winning debates. In terms of who I like better, liberal Democrats or moderate Republicans, I guess I just don’t think in those strictly partisan terms. All things being equal I will always support the Democrat over the Republican and I think it is more imperative now than ever for Democrats to be in control of our government. But at the same time I admire smart, principled, independent thinking leaders on both sides, especially those who know how to bring people together to get things done (hence the Lieberman connection). Two of my political heroes are Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy, who are to the left of me ideologically, but who I love for their conviction and respect for their ability to get Republicans to work with them to advance their causes. I cannot say the same for Maxine Waters. (FYI: My first paid gig as a political advisor was for Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Forum and techPresident, in his Net-driven race for Public Advocate here in New York City, which should give you some more indication about my belief in the positive power of online politics.)

4) I am just not sure this question has much relevance to today’s political arena. All my experience tells me most average voters don’t think like us political geeks -- which is to say, their primary barometer is not ideology or party or even a candidate’s stance on specific issues (outside of single issue voters like gun owners and pro-lifers). How else to explain Minnesota electing Wellstone and Rod Grams to the Senate at the same time, or New York Pat Moynihan and Al D’Amato, or Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden from Oregon? More often than not, as long as the candidates’ positions are within certain bounds, voters tend to look first at personal traits like character, values, likeability — along with their record if they are an incumbent. And then if they feel they can trust either or both of the candidates, they’ll give their ideas and agendas a listen. This is a test that Kerry failed — the Bush team did a highly effective job of disqualifying Kerry on cultural and character issues with a big bloc of swing voters, and largely as a result he never had a real chance to get a fair listen to his policies and plans. All of which is to say that, instead of getting bogged down in this unproductive and increasingly irrelevant left versus center fight, I would much rather field a diverse group of dynamic, authentic, and innovative-thinking Democratic candidates who can help us reframe the discussion about the past versus the future and convince voters we are the party that can meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

Thanks in advance for your consideration of my comments. Hope your bronchitis clears up soon.


Dan Gerstein

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


My Latest Politico Column

In my latest Politico column, which was posted earlier today, I flesh out an idea I first raised a couple weeks ago -- how Democrats can take advantage of the Republicans' regressive tendencies to begin building a Modern Majority.

A small clarification (which I just posted in the comment section for the column): A good friend of mine who went through the 1995 budget battle (on the losing side) points out that the Democratic mantra was mostly repeated as a quartet, not a triplet: "Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment." I should have been more precise in using that formulation.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?