Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Temporary Blogout

Just as I was getting back into the blogswing of things I went and broke my wrist playing basketball over the holiday weekend. That's going to put me on the disabled list for a little while -- typing with my off hand not really conducive to long-form blogging. But hope to be back waxing polemic in a couple weeks.

Monday, May 21, 2007


The Larry Lessig Lesson

One of the highlights of last Friday's Personal Democracy Forum Conference, which brings together many of the nation's most innovative thinkers and practitioners in online politics, was getting to hear Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig talk about his latest mission to make video of the presidential debates free to use for everyone over the Internet.

Lessig is regarded as one of the nation's leading public intellectuals, largely through his pioneering work in the complex field of digital copyright, and he did not disappoint at PDF. His presentation was nothing short of captivating -- he raised PowerPoint to an art form in exposing the absurdity of reducing everything in modern American politics to a series of "either or" choices.

But in spite of Lessig's brilliance, or maybe because of it, what was most striking about his talk was just how politically oblivious and ultimately ineffective it was as a piece of advocacy.

Here you had a preeminent legal scholar making a high-minded pitch for what he himself touts as a non-partisan idea -- the more access to candidate information the better for our democratic discourse -- yet he could not resist taking repeated, mocking potshots at President Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, and other Republicans. Nor for that matter did he notice that he had used a picture of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) in his slide to identify Hastert's short-lived predecessor, Bob Livingston (R-LA).

You don't have to be one of the nation's top 50 visionaries -- as Lessig was named by Scientific American -- to see that pissing on the uncoverted while preaching to the choir is hardly the way to construct a cross-cutting coalition necessary to advance a cause like this. Any Republican who might have been open to Lessig's compelling arguments would have tuned out long before Lessig could have finished building his case.

Now I am sure some will argue that because the PDF crowd skews overwhelmingly Democratic that Lessig was just playing to his audience, though that itself is a naive tact to take in the age of Google. The fact is, if you say something political to a public audience today -- particularly a roomful of online activists and bloggers -- you are really saying it to the world at large. So high-level advocates -- or candidates for that matter -- really don't have the luxury any more of speaking out of one side of their mouth one day and the other on another.

Besides, the PDF program prominently advertised that there were several leading Republican techno-politicos who would be speaking that day -- and who could have been helpful evangelists for free debate video if Lessig had not done so much to alienate them.

But I suspect that Lessig was not playing to his audience but embodying it -- and its worst self-defeating impulses. To him and his acolytes, the Republicans in the room were not invisible -- they were simply not worth addressing.

Indeed, the sharp disdain for Republicans that suffused Lessig's speech is not just a common characteristic of the progressive Netroots but a (and arguably the) defining norm. Much like the hard-core conservatives they despise, who came to view liberalism as a disease to be eradicated, the online left has come to consider the Party of Bush to be a form of evil to be destroyed, not merely beaten at the polls.

Now, as I have said on multiple occasions, the anger the Netroots feel towards Bush and his enablers in Congress is more than justified, and the work the liberal blogosphere has done to substantively reveal the Republican leadership in all their incompetent, intolerant, arrogant and corrupt glory has been beyond beneficial.

But where the Netroots have gone too far, I believe, is broadly transferring their anger at the Republican leaders in Washington to rank-and-file Republicans throughout the country and thus failing to make the distinction between those who have lost our trust and those whose votes we want to win.

This is not a matter of right or wrong, or fight between center and left, but a basic question of strategy and tactics. Much of the Netroots seems to subscribe to an even purer version of Karl Rove's base-rallying approach for winning elections, where independents are often deemed insignificant and Republican votes are not just expendable but execrable. But this divisive strategy proved corrosive for Republicans in relatively short-order -- they lost independents by 19 points in the 2006 midterms.

Moreover, it is a poor fit for progressives at the moment, with self-identifying conservatives still outnumbering liberals even six years into the Bush catastrophe, which means we don't have a big enough base to out-base the other side. Not least of all, it ignores the trendlines that show American growing more departisanalized while Democratic activists are growing more radicalized -- the fastest growing party affiliation as of last year was no party. For these voters, hyper-partisan appeals are not just ineffective, but more than likely repellent.

But my biggest concern about the hostile, snarky tone that the Netroots too often take -- and which Lessig's talk showed is leeching out across the Democratic landscape -- is its long-term impact.

The Bush regime has given Democrats a huge opening to not just win back the White House and add a few blue seats in the House and Senate next year, but to effect a structural realignment and lock-in a sustainable, FDR-like majority for the foreseeable future. However, if we are to capitalize on that opportunity, we can't afford to let our emotions cloud our judgment or drive our rhetoric. We are simply not going to persuade moderate Republicans to come to our side and stay there by reviling or insulting them just because they chose to join the other party at one point.

That doesn't mean we should not hit Bush and his enablers in Congress hard for all their misdeeds and draw a vivid contrast between Democratic and Republican priorities. I'm just saying we can do that without attacking or blaming the Republican voters we are courting -- particularly in the purple states -- for their leaders' damaging behavior. Which is to say, go ahead and hate the sinner, just not the sinner's extended family.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


My New Gig With The Politico

Just a quick note to let folks know that as of this week, I have signed on as a regular columnist for The Politico.

For those of you not familiar with it, The Politico is a Washington-based publication dedicated to covering national politics — from Capitol Hill to the White House to the presidential campaign trail — with “enterprise, style, and impact.”

Launched in January and led by some of the most talented journalists working inside the Beltway today, The Politico has quickly established itself as a respected and influential voice in the political world. I feel quite fortunate to have landed a place on their rising platform to share my views and observations about America’s circus politicus with a national audience.

My column -- which comes on the heels of three opinion pieces I wrote for The Politico over the past several weeks -- will appear twice a month in the “Ideas” section in the paper’s print edition and/or on the Politico website (

Here is my first column in my new role, which was posted online this morning.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


The Case for Rudy (continued)

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for the New York Post on Rudy Giuliani's presidential prospects, arguing that pundits and many of my fellow Democrats were making a mistake to automatically rule out the possibility of Rudy winning the Republican nomination next year just because of his liberal views on social issues.

Veteran political reporter Tom Edsall takes this argument to a whole other level in a must-read cover story in the new issue of The New Republic. Digging deep into the post-9/11 transformation of the Republican Party, as well as the details of Giuliani's record, Edsall marshalls a compelling amount of evidence to show that America's mayor may be a much better fit for the current mood of the GOP than most outside observers recognize.

This piece won't on its own make the understandable skepticism about a pro-choice candidate winning a nomination process dominated by pro-life voters evaporate. But it will open a lot of eyes and I suspect it may well open a lot of minds too.

Monday, May 14, 2007


Dangerous Thoughts on Fox

I was interviewed by Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot on Fox News' "Journal Editorial Report" over the weekend on the Netroots' rising power within the Democratic Party. If you are interested, you can find the transcript here.

Also, if you have a chance, I would highly recommend reading the New Republic cover story on the same subject (which I reference briefly in my interview with Gigot), as well as the responses from leading liberal bloggers that follow. Chait's piece is quite smart, especially in putting the rise of the Netroots in a larger historical context, and the blogger critiques are highly revealing.

Lastly, as some of you know, I appeared last week on Fox's "Hannity and Colmes" show to talk mostly about a fabricated controversy over a San Francisco water project that Nancy Pelosi helped get passed through the House. There's not much to see -- it's mostly Hannity interrupting me and Ann Coulter going off on weird tangents. But for the record, you can find the video (as well as an overly generous appraisal of my performance) over at the Fox watchdog site Newshounds.

Friday, May 11, 2007


Romney's Debate Non-Bounce

(Cross-posted from Political Insider. . .)

Many pundits proclaimed Mitt Romney the victor in last week's Republican debate cattle call at the Reagan Library, but it seems Romney's performance did not win over many primary voters.

A USA Today/Gallup Poll taken in the three days after the May 3rd debate and released Tuesday showed Romney claiming 7 percent of Republican voters, which is a two-point drop from the last Gallup survey on April 17.

Even worse, Romney was trailing not one but two non-candidates, Fred Thompson (13 percent) and Newt Gingrich (8 percent). With Gingrich not included in the sample, Romney did only slightly better, at 9 percent.

Perhaps the most troubling indicator for Romney's candidacy in the Gallup Poll were his favorability numbers. Over the last two months, Romney's favorability rating moved up just one point (from 23 percent to 24 percent), while his unfavorability rating went up three points (from 19 to 22).

One could argue it's still very early and Romney is still largely an unknown quantity. But in the past two months, Romney has gotten a fair amount of positive free press for winning the first quarter money race and standing out in the debate, and he's been up on the air with high gloss TV ads in a few of the early primary states. And yet the needle is hardly moving on the macro level.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


The Dangerstein Myth

As you may have noticed, I took a break from writing the last few weeks, mostly to deal with the social (and psychic) demands of my 40th birthday. The party is over, literally speaking, so it's back to the mindstone.

During my time off pondering my mortality, I enjoyed a fair measure of comedic relief from reading in the blogosphere about the latest transgressions of my fictional digital alter ego, commonly known as "Dangerstein."

If you are not familiar with this character, do a quick Google search, and you'll quickly find out what a obnoxious jerk he is. Or you can just check out this post to get a flavor for what my doppelgangerstein is all about and his most recent crimes against blog-humanity.

Not exactly typical chuckle-inducing stuff, I know, seeing your persona/reputation bent and distorted beyond all recognition in a world-wide electronic fun-house mirror. Maybe my sense of humor got similarly warped from a decade in Washington (and too many hours playing poker with some of my more humility-enforcing friends).

But all I can do is laugh at the absurdity of routinely being called a liar, a thug, a racist, and a (gasp) Republican by a group of people who A) have never met me; B) have next to no idea about my body of work or my political beliefs; and C) most tellingly, seem to go out of their way to ignore what I say and write, lest it interfere with their myth-making and enemy-creation.

Plus, being a lifelong Red Sox fan, fatalism comes naturally to me, and I have accepted that there is little I could do at this point to substantially change this weird dynamic. There's just been too much misinformation spread for too long, and self-reflection and intellectual honesty don't exactly seem to be the liberal blogosphere's strong suit.

But seeing as part of the blogger ethic is to engage, including with your critics, I thought it would be useful exercise (for posterity if nothing else) to take a moment to try to clear up some of the misimpressions left by the Dangerstein myth. Who knows, I might be pleasantly surprised and have a few of my blogger friends take a second look at some of their uncritical assumptions. So here goes:

1) I am a Democrat, and have been since I first registered to vote in Connecticut two decades ago (you can look it up). I thought about switching to being an independent last summer after some of my fellow Democrats tried to purge my former boss (and current client) Joe Lieberman from the party. But I decided instead, in the immortal words of Al Gore, to stay and fight. And last time I checked, Kos and company were not granted authority by the DNC to determine party membership criteria.

(FYI: I was identified as an "independent consultant" in tagline of a couple op-eds I did for the Wall Street Journal soon after going out on my own, but that simply meant I was free agent not affiliated with any firm. Since then, to avoid any confusion, I have done my best to identify myself as a "Democratic strategist" when commentating.)

2) I don't claim to broadly speak for other Democrats, though I do believe there are more than a few other party members who share my general views and my specific concerns about the excesses of the Netroots. I speak for myself, as a strategist, unless I indicate I am speaking on behalf of a client (Senator Lieberman or otherwise).

3) I am hardly a neo-con. I disagree almost across the board with George Bush's foreign policy -- especially his and Cheney's arrogant disdain and disregard for our alliances, which have been critical to our security in the post-World War II era. What's more, my blogger friends might be stunned to learn that I even disagree in some ways with Senator Lieberman's stance on Iraq. I was supportive of the use of force against Saddam in concept, but I believe the way that Bush went to war (without real diplomacy before the invasion, without nearly enough troops, without being honest about the war's cost) was a colossal mistake.

And like most Democrats, I am furious at Bush's enormously damaging mismanagement of the insurgency, and at how his rigid, hyperpartisan leadership style have poisoned our politics and deepened our divisions for years to come. I just don't believe the solution is to call for the President, no matter his failures, to be "tried and hung and shot," in the worst blog-mimicking words of Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello.

4) I don't have a "vendetta" against blogs or bloggers, nor am I "bitter" about the purge campaign some liberal bloggers waged against Senator Lieberman in the run-up to last summer's primary. The fact is, we won the campaign that counted last fall -- and in doing so, exposed the extremely limited effectiveness of the Netroots in influencing voters outside the choir to which they are used to preaching. So I don't believe I have anything to prove.

This vendetta canard, by the way, says far more about the prevailing attitude in the hardline quarters of the liberal blogosphere than anything else -- most of them unfortunately can't view any kind of disagreement or criticism outside the emotional prism of enemy destruction.

5) The truth is that I am a fan of blogs and blogging (which is one reason I started my own). I
read many political blogs on a regular basis and learn a lot. One of my favorites is Talking Points Memo, which has leveraged the unique power of the Internet and the sweat equity of its readers to pioneer a new brand of reporting called distributive journalism and create a new mechanism of accountability for our political leaders. Last year I invited TPM founder Josh Marshall to speak to a discussion group I run in New York about how this process works, and our members are still talking about it.

In addition, I have gone out of my way on this site and in other public forums -- for example, at Southern Connecticut State University and Hartford's Trinity College last fall during the Lieberman-Lamont campaign, and at Ned Lamont's seminar at the Kennedy School last month -- to extoll the promise of the blogosphere to empower average citizens and democratize our politics. I also do my best to preface any criticisms I make to reporters about the excecces of the Netroots by emphasizing these virtues (but they of course rarely make it into print).

6) I do not make my living or spend all my time attacking bloggers or other Democrats. Most of my work is for progressive advocacy groups, including several that are focused on closing the achievement gap in our inner-city public schools. What limited political work I have done (beyond Senator Lieberman) has been to help elect a diverse group of Democrats -- Andrew Rasiej for Public Advocate here in New York City, Kirsten Gillibrand for Congress in upstate New York, and now Mayor Eddie Perez in Hartford. (I also volunteered for the campaigns of Connecticut Congressman Jim Maloney in 1998 and Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu in 1996 while I was in the Lieberman office.) And the bulk of my political commentary -- especially on television -- has nothing to do with the Netroots or blogging.

Now, I have definitely delivered my fair share of tough love assessments of the Democratic Party since becoming a consultant, primarily because I don't believe you can solve problems by ignoring them. But more often than not I am on television defending Democrats. Pretty much every time I have gone on the Tucker Carlson show I have pushed back against the host's unfair attacks on Hillary Clinton. I recently went on MSNBC to defend Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria. And just last night I was on Fox News' Hannity and Colmes show to debunk a bogus controversy Republicans were trying to gin up about a San Francisco water project Pelosi supported.

7) I certainly don't raise concerns about the Netroots' conduct because it benefits me personally. I have lost business, strained relationships, and been routinely reviled before my peers (not to mention hundreds of thousands of readers) for my troubles. I am a big boy, and I can live with the consequences. But it defies logic to suggest I am somehow cashing in by having my reputation trashed on a regular basis in the community in which I work and associate.

I should also point out that reporters come to me on blog issues not because they necessarily believe I have anything insightful to say, though I like to think that I do, but because I am one of the few strategists within the party who are willing to say anything critical on the subject. A lot of my peers share my concerns, but they just don't want to deal with the insults and intimidation that many bloggers lob at anyone who challenges them, and I don't blame them at all for keeping quiet.

So why do I put up with the abuse and keep opening my mouth? Am I a masochist, as Garance Franke-Ruta, a semi-friendly blogger and American Prospect editor, recently asked on her site?

Well, as I told Garance, it's largely because I am already a marked man, thanks to my long association with Senator Lieberman. The Netroots have largely and sadly embraced the Bush doctrine -- either you are with them or against them -- and I will most likely be regarded for years to come as an enemy combantant for helping to re-elect their bete noire last fall.

But it's also because I believe the hardline elements of the liberal blogosphere are having a destructive impact on my party and the nation's politics, not to mention on the potential and growth of the medium itself. And as I stated above, I don't believe you can solve a problem by ignoring it.

The irony, of course, is that I left Washington for many of the same reasons that have driven liberal bloggers to rebell against the "establishment" (I always get a good laugh when they disdain me as an insider). I believe our political system is badly broken, that the culture within the Beltway has become perverted, and that as a result our government has ceased being an agent of economic and social progress. I just disagree with many liberal bloggers about how you go about fixing the situation.

In particular, I disagree with them about how we should go about disagreeing with each other -- as Democrats and as Americans. As I have said before, I like a good fight, and I am all for healthy partisanship -- I would not be a Democrat if I didn't think our party was better than the other side, and if I did not want to beat Republicans. But I did not sign up to be a Democrat to practice the same nasty, cynical, and intolerant politics that the worst elements of the conservative movement have promoted over the last two decades.

It's not just that smear and fear tactics are degrading and destructive to our public discourse -- all things being equal, they don't work in winning national elections or voter's long-term trust. Now, some will point to the Willie Horton and Swift Boat ads as evidence to the contrary, but the only reason they were effective at all was because we nominated weak candidates who would not defend themselves. A more revealing example is the impeachment vendetta the Republicans waged against Bill Clinton, the backlash from which not only saved the Clinton presidency but helped Democrats buck historical trends and pick up seats in Congress in the 1998 mid-terms.

My fear is that, as the current New Republic cover story suggests, 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 Netroots 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.

That of course is the subject of a much larger conversation -- which I hope my friends in the blogosphere will engage in on the merits and without the mythology.

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