Monday, May 1, 2006

How to Win

Two articles point out the strategy for the Democrats and how to win this November.

The first is on the local level in a state that has become both the battleground and the bellwether for the campaign. Ohio, with its shaky election system in the 2004 presidential race, a Republican governor who is polling practically in negative numbers after getting roiled in scandal, a weak economy taking jobs, and a growing feeling that the nation is on the wrong track, is making it look like the Democrats have a chance of not only winning in races once considered safe for the GOP in Ohio, but also sets the tone for other states such as Florida and Texas; two states that stand out in national politics as well.

SHADYSIDE, Ohio – Charlie Wilson needs a glossy, fold-out brochure to show Democrats how to send him to Congress. He needs only a couple of numbers to tell them why.

Eighty: The percentage of voters in this snaking Southeast Ohio district who, according to Mr. Wilson’s polling, believe the country is on the wrong track under Republican leadership.

And 500: The number of jobs lost in the most recent round of layoffs from one of the steel mills that used to power thriving economies here and in similar small towns up and down the Ohio River.

“This election is special in many ways,” Mr. Wilson, a state senator, told about 50 Shadyside residents and two Fox News cameramen who gathered on the cracked blacktop of the town basketball courts last week. “What I’m hearing from people everywhere I go is we need a guy who will go to Congress and stand up against jobs being exported out of our country.”

The 6th Congressional District election is special in other ways for Mr. Wilson – most notably, the signature-gathering problem that forced him to mount a million-dollar write-in campaign.

But his message rings familiar in three of the Democrats’ most crucial Ohio primaries: Democratic candidates are melding charges of Republican corruption with attacks on America’s trade policy in hopes of harnessing two rivers of voter unrest – and winning control of the U.S. House.

In an age where gerrymandering renders relatively few House seats truly competitive, Democrats must gain 15 of them in November to capture the chamber. To do that, analysts say, the party must defend its vulnerable seats, win most of the so-called “toss-up” races, and spend heavily to challenge in areas where its candidates historically failed.

Ohio’s congressional lines are largely drawn to favor one political party – the GOP. But analysts say as many as five seats could be up for grabs here this year.

Democrats smell opportunity in controversy surrounding indicted Republican fund-raiser and coin dealer Tom Noe – and in Ohio voters’ low opinions of Gov. Bob Taft and President Bush. They recruited potentially strong candidates for races against Reps. Deborah Pryce (R., Upper Arlington) and Steve Chabot (R., Cincinnati).

Ohio’s primary is tomorrow to set up the general election in the fall, and if the past foretells the future, this election, which is this administration’s last chance to do whatever voodoo they do to scare the crap out of the voters — sabre-rattle with Iran, land on carrier decks in flight suits, find a Swift Boat veteran or two who will say anything — will be the one where the Democrats and progressives can show what they’ve got — and what they’ve learned from the last twelve years. Josh Marshall at TPM has a warning.

On a battlefield there is a name for armies that spend all their time and energy planning and conditioning themselves to defend against their opponents’ attacks. They’re called defeated armies. You defend yourself when and where you must. But you do everything you can to maintain the initiative. And that pretty much always means bringing the attack to the other side.

This isn’t just a good way to win political fights. It’s also a window into the meta-message that often makes Republican attack politics so damaging for Democrats. If you think back to the Swift Boat debacle of 2004, the surface issue was John Kerry’s honesty and bravery as a sailor in Vietnam. Far more powerful, however, was the meta-message: George Bush slaps John Kerry around and Kerry either can’t or won’t hit back. For voters concerned with security and the toughness of their leaders, that’s a devastating message — and one that has little or nothing to do with the truth of the surface charges. Someone who can’t fight for himself certainly can’t fight for you. At the time I called it the “Republicans’ bitch-slap theory of electoral politics.”

With respect to what’s coming on Iran, what is in order is a little honesty, just as was the case with the Social Security debate a year ago. The only crisis with Iran is the crisis with the president’s public approval ratings. Period. End of story. The Iranians are years, probably as long as a decade away, and possibly even longer from creating even a limited yield nuclear weapon. Ergo, the only reason to ramp up a confrontation now is to help the president’s poll numbers.

This is a powerful message because it is an accurate message. We have many challenges overseas today. Chief among them, as one of the Democrats’ senate candidates puts it, is “refocusing America’s foreign and defense policies in a way that truly protects our national interests and seeks harmony where they are not threatened.” The period of peril the country is entering into isn’t tied to an Iranian bomb. It turns on how far a desperate president will go to avoid losing control of Congress.

Go to his heart. Go to his weaknesses. Though the realization of the fact is something of a lagging indicator, the man is a laughing stock, whose lies and failures are all catching up with him.

To the president the Democrats should be saying, Double or Nothing is Not a Foreign Policy.

The great bulk of the public doesn’t believe this president any more when he tries to gin up a phony crisis. They don’t believe he’d have much of an idea of how to deal with a real one. Enough of the lies. Enough of the incompetence and failure.

To wrap up the military metaphors (after all, I am a Quaker), there’s a great line in Patton:

Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

That pretty much sums up the plan for the Democrats. The Republicans are the ones who have to defend their policies and their candidates against six years of an administration that has raised the level of incompetence, jingoism, bloviation, homophobia, and sheer greed to dizzying heights and twelve years of a Congress that makes the Corleone family come across like the Happy Hollisters. The electorate is responding to the idea of holding the GOP responsible for their record and not settling for the lame excuses and fear-mongering that they’re offering as their campaign strategy.

It’s also a straw man argument for the Republicans to come back to the Democrats with “Well, where are your ideas? What are your big ideas?” It’s a nice way to change the subject and deflect the attention away from their own troubles. Since 2006 is the election at hand and since it’s not a presidential year, the Democrats really don’t need to have a national plan; the races are in 435 House seats and 33 Senate seats, not for the White House. There are plenty of ideas and progressive plans out there in each district and state, applicable to the local races and conditions. Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid can talk about nebulous ideas of common sense economics and a strong global image, but the only way to even get to the table and make headway is for the Democrats to win back control of the House and Senate and then start putting their plans into action. As long as the GOP is in the majority, all the Democratic ideas and strategies are just so many talking points on the Sunday talk shows. Listen to the local races in Florida or Texas or Ohio and you’ll hear the ideas from the next group of people who should be running this country. The election of 2008 can wait until we have seen who’s in charge in 2007.