Friday, December 12 2003
JUST SAY NO, DENNIS:
Dennis Kucinich is addicted to media coverage. It's true. This week ABC News decided to pull its producers from the Kucinich, Braun, and Sharpton campaigns and send them off to Iowa to start preparing ABC's coverage of the January 19 caucuses. Kucinich's campaign responded by saying:

"This appears to be another instance of what Kucinich criticized at the debate, namely the media trying to pick candidates, rather than letting the voters do so. In a democracy, it should be voters and not pundits or TV networks who narrow the field of candidates."

Note to Congressman Kucinich: you need to seek help immediately. The problem isn't that you're getting too little media attention but that you've already gotten too much. I'll let you in on a little secret shared by 97% of the public: you are not, nor have you ever been a legitimate candidate for President of the United States.

This fact not withstanding, over the past six months your candidacy has received a tremendously disproportionate amount of attention for someone polling at 3% nationally - including the comical and unpresidential "date with Dennis" thing the other day. No offense, Congressman, but my next-door neighbor could probably pull three percent nationally if he received the same kind of exposure.

All the media attention seems to have gone to your head and given you a grossly inflated sense of self-importance. Don't worry, help is on the way. ABC News was actually doing you a favor by pulling its producer, breaking the cycle of addiction and helping to put you on the road to recovery.

DICK'S IOWA BLUES: SurveyUSA's latest is a kick in the stomach for Gephardt. It's worth noting that seventy-eight percent of the interviews in this poll were taken after Gore endorsed Dean, so it's entirely possible the bump is only temporary. Then again maybe it isn't.

Either way, with less than six weeks until judgment day it's clear the trend line for Gephardt is not favorable. His support remains stuck in the low 20's and despite his best efforts for the last few months he simply has not found any issue or angle to move the needle in his favor.

Unless something dramatic happens in the next couple of weeks to fundamentally change the dynamic in this race (like a huge Dean gaffe or some sort of scandal) come January Gephardt is going to have to huddle up his team and call for the Hail Mary. - T. Bevan 9:44 am

Thursday, December 11 2003
A BIG LITTLE VICTORY:
It's probably the most provincial story I've ever posted on the site but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway.

John Stroger is the epitome of a political hack. He has spent a lifetime suckling the nipple of the legendary (if not legendarily corrupt) political machine here in Chicago, plying the trades of nepotism, patronage and payola. The result, of course, is that he has become one of the most influential and feared Democrats in Chicago.

For the last 10 years Stroger has been President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. This is no small matter. Cook is the second most populous county in the United States and its FY 2004 budget totals $3 billion dollars. That's about $200 million more than the GDP of Sierra Leone last year.

Sadly, its only a slight exaggeration to say that over the last decade the tiny West African nation may have done a better job of managing its fiscal government than Stroger has done running Cook County.

Stroger's tenure has been a toxic blend of the worst attributes of government: cushy contracts and jobs doled out to friends, monumental waste, gross mismanagement, and profligate spending. All coming, of course, at the expense of Cook County taxpayers. Fellow Commissioner and Democrat Forrest Claypool said last week that "Cook County government has raised taxes on people in this county by $500 million in the last decade."

Year after year the Cook County Board - most of whom were beholden to Stroger - rubber-stamped his budgets without so much as a peep. Not this year.

Facing a $100 million dollar shortfall, Stroger served up a 2004 budget laden with new taxes, including a 4 percent lease tax and a 0.25 percentage-point sales tax increase. Here's how the Chicago Sun-Times wrote up the outcome of the board meeting:

Hell froze over Tuesday.

“We did the impossible,” Cook County Board member Anthony Peraica beamed after Tuesday’s brief meeting. “Everyone said it could not be done when we were sworn in a year ago — we did it.”

It’s the first time in at least three decades the County Board said “no” to the administration’s budget. A threatened 4 percent tax on leased items appears dead.

Board President John Stroger canceled a vote on the $3 billion budget with lease and sales tax hikes when he realized he did not have the votes to pass it.

One Commissioner said: “A non-vote today was the most important vote we ever had.”

The sales tax increase may still pass a vote next week along with a $1 per pack tax increase on cigarettes. Still, the board's refusal to go along with Stroger is a big little victory, and hopefully the first baby step toward reviving some fiscal sanity and better management of the Cook County government. - T. Bevan 11:26 am

Wednesday, December 10 2003
SEEN ONE YOU'VE SEEN THEM ALL:
I only caught the final 10 minutes of last night's debate, but even that tiny little bit was enough to see that it was just more of the same pablum. It's almost as if the networks just keep rerunning the first debate over and over again.
Andrew Sullivan watched the whole thing and gives a brutally frank assessment of the field.

TOTALIZATION WITH MEXICO: Were you aware we are currently negotiating a "totalization" agreement with Mexico that would "allow millions of Mexicans to return home and still collect U.S. Social Security benefits?" I wasn't.

At first blush this sounds like another monumentally bad policy; a multimillion dollar giveaway that would actually encourage Social Security fraud and illegal immigration. It may end up being just that.

But before your blood boils, read the article all the way through. Anytime you see an expert at the Heritage Foundation saying "he's disappointed the proposed agreement with Mexico has been twisted into an emotional debate over U.S. immigration policy" and that immigration "shouldn't be part of the discussion in putting together a boring technical agreement between two countries" you can bet there's more to the argument than meets the eye.

ANOTHER ONE WORTH READING: Though I didn't put it up on the front page this morning, Byron York's weekly column in The Hill explains how the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee gained access to the Dem memos and wonders why the NY Times and Washington Post were so "incurious" about their contents. - T. Bevan 7:10 am

Tuesday, December 9 2003
COOK'S TAKE:
Another tidbit from Charlie Cook's weekly column:

Thus the role of New Hampshire looks as if it may be eclipsed by South Carolina (45 delegates) and the five other Feb. 3 states: Arizona (55 delegates), Delaware (15 delegates), Missouri (74 delegates), New Mexico (26 delegates), North Dakota (14 delegates), and Oklahoma (40 delegates). Increased importance also will be given the primaries in the three states the following week -- Michigan (128 delegates) and Washington (76 delegates) Feb. 7 and Maine (24 delegates) Feb. 8. What happens in New Hampshire is unlikely to materially affect what happens just a week later in states with so many delegates.

So what happens during that Feb. 3-8 period? If the anti-Dean vote is split and not solidified behind one candidate, one could easily see several candidates surviving these primaries, but ultimately never getting the momentum they need to up-end Dean.

The key then, is whether the opposition to Dean unifies behind one alternative before the Vermonter wraps up the nomination. Or does the opposition to Dean remain spread out while Dean cobbles together wins and second place finishes, continually accruing delegates while the others simply run out of money and are forced from the race?

Let me add a few more questions: Will Al Gore's endorsement of Dean impede the ability and/or dilute the potential impact of anti-Dean forces finding their guy? Will it be Gephardt, Clark or even...take a look at the latest Pew poll out of South Carolina before you laugh in my face...John Edwards? Finally, what sort of endorsements will be needed, if any, to legitimate one of these men as the anti-Dean standard bearer? Lots of questions left to be answered. - T. Bevan 3:20pm


WHO IS HOWARD DEAN? PART II:
Much has been made over the Dean campaign's use of the Internet. It's true that no campaign to date has done a better job of integrating the Internet into its national effort and using it as a tool for both fundraising and grassroots mobilization. That being said, however, Samantha Shapiro's fawning essay in the NY Times Magazine this past weekend leaves me with the impression that the Dean camp is vastly overestimating what they're doing and, more importantly, the effect it will have on next year's outcome should Dean win the nomination.

Part of this is Shapiro's angle, of course. She's out to show the messianic quality of the Dean campaign, to play up the power of "true believerism" among Dean's supporters. As Hugh Hewitt noted recently, this sort of thing exists in every campaign and while Dean may have tapped into a deeper well of true believers than his rivals, claims of a "Dean revolution" remain completely overblown.

What struck me most about Shapiro's piece was how much her description of Dean's campaign reminded me of an Internet startup circa 1997, complete with the unwaveringly optimistic C.E.O. and the 22 year old computer jockeys working 120 hours a week writing the code. It's the same mix of ebullience, arrogance, and excessive idealism that characterized so many of the now defunct dot coms of the 1990's:

"People at all levels of the Dean campaign will tell you that its purpose is not just to elect Howard Dean president. Just as significant, they say, the point is to give people something to believe in, and to connect those people to one another. The point is to get them out of their houses and bring them together at barbecues, rallies and voting booths... "

Teachout [the Dean campaign's director of Internet organizing], sitting at the very edge of her seat, tells me that ''the revolution,'' as she calls it, has three phases; the first is Howard Dean himself, the second is Meetup.com and the third is the software that Rosen, Johnson and Brooks work with: Get Local, DeanLink, DeanSpace. ''DeanSpace,'' Teachout says, ''is the revolution.''

"The effect that Teachout says she hopes the software will create sounds like the experience of being in a tight-knit community: seeing people you know, responding to them, being acknowledged. Teachout speaks about these ideas as if she is reinventing the concept. She says that Meetup.com, is emerging as the ''ritual'' element of the new Dean community. ''It's like church, the central place where people go to get inspired.''

Lofty and admirable goals, to be sure. But aside from helping raise money - which is a vital part of running a competitive campaign - how much is any of this going to help Howard Dean collect 270 electoral votes next year?

Let's check some facts. As of last month, there were an estimated 150 million people connected to the Internet. That's a little over half the total U.S. population. As you would expect, however, a great deal of Internet usage occurs in urban areas that already vote heavily Democratic (this list of the "most wired" cities in America, though a bit dated, demonstrates the point).

The following chart from a more recent Pew Center survey puts the problem in a larger geographical context:

Not only does Internet usage lag among important geographic boundaries like the South and the industrial Midwest, it also lags among vital demographic lines as well, especially among African-Americans.

In other words, the virtual community - excuse me, the "revolution" - Dean is creating exists only among the most affluent, most urban, most active Democrat voters. This is an accomplishment of some importance, but I'm skeptical of a revolution that leaves out huge chunks of the traditional Democrat-voting population.

This Fox News story suggests the Dean campaign is succeeding in creating community among its supporters, especially serving as a social club and a dating service for the 18-40 year old crowd. Again, predominantly white, predominantly urban. Very little help in winning West Virginia or Arkansas.

Conversely, this article in today's Washington Post shows that the Dean campaign's success in building a huge lead in New Hampshire has had very little to do with its Internet operation but instead has been based on a good old-fashioned ground game.

Replicating this type of effort in battleground states is what it's all about. As Mike Allen and Dan Balz reported recently, all the hoopla surrounding the Dean campaign has obscured the fact that whoever wins the nomination will be facing a Goliath next year.

In the end, it looks to me like the Dean Internet campaign is just a political mutation of the Internet bubble that burst a few years back. They harnessed the power of the Internet to shake the foundations of the traditional campaign model in America. Dean could not and would not be where he is today without the Internet.

But like so many companies who thought they had changed forever the way business was done, Trippi and Co. think they've created a new campaign structure that will revolutionize the way people interact, organize and support Howard Dean. Is the Dean campaign showing us a glimpse of the future of politics in America? Probably at some point, but that point isn't now.

The irony is that the Dean team may succeed in using the Internet to plant the seeds of a new, politically active progressive community, but right now smart money still says they are going to get their asses handed to them next November. It's the modern day, liberal version of a favorite conservative fable - with a twist. It's Goldwater.com. - T. Bevan 11:15 am

Monday, December 8 2003
WHO IS HOWARD DEAN? PART ONE:
There's been a lot of ink spilled already trying to answer this question, including a couple of pieces this weekend that are worth talking about.

The first is Jonathan Rauch's article suggesting Dean may be more like Bill Clinton than George McGovern. It's an interesting argument, but one that ultimately doesn't hold water. Rauch writes:

The Dean campaign may be set to the music of firebrand liberalism, but its words belie the notion that Dean has painted himself into a far-left corner. Even on Iraq -- his signature issue -- Dean has planted himself subtly but distinctly to the right of his supporters.

Rauch argues that Dean's support of an alternate war resolution (Biden-Lugar) gives him a centrist credibility for the general election. Rauch also claims that Dean is to the right of where Clinton was on fiscal matters and is "solidly" in the center of the Democrat party on healthcare.

All of these things may very well be true, but they hardly matter. Rauch's analysis ignores two of the immutable laws of politics. The first is that in political campaigns perception becomes reality. The details of a candidate's record are ultimately less important than the overall perception of the candidate with the public and who (either the candidate or his/her opponent) is better able to control the definition of that perception.

As Nick Kristof pointed out this weekend, Dean faces three inherent obstacles to his candidacy: geography, style, and biography. The Bush team will use all of these elements to control people's perception of Dean and paint him as an angry, Northeastern liberal elite.

Rule number two in politics is that if you're explaining, you're losing. Nuances are the deathknell of campaigns, especially at the national level. It's all big picture, big ideas, and small sound bytes.

On the big issues, Dean has staked out basic positions: against the war, for higher taxes, for gay marriage, against Medicare. At its core, this is what his candidacy stands for, the rest is nothing but noise. These positions aren't problematic with Democrat primary voters, but when it comes time to compete in the general election, Dean is going to have to spend a great deal of time explaining them to the rest of America.

And while Dean tries to walk voters in Michigan through the nuances of the Biden-Lugar amendment or explain to middle-class voters in Pennsylvania the complex argument that the tax rebate check they received in the mail last year is actually a tax increase on them, President Bush will be hammering the airwaves with some very simple messages: my administration hunts down and kills terrorists, lowers taxes and provides prescription drug benefits for seniors.

Howard Dean may not be George McGovern, but he certainly isn't Bill Clinton. Clinton was a master at controlling public perception and carefully packaged himself as a centrist (aka New Democrat) even though he was, in fact, much more of a progressive liberal.

Howard Dean started the race by doing the opposite, obscuring his moderate/conservative credentials in favor of hard-core liberal positions. The irony is that he's been so wildly successful in tapping into anger in the Dem base he's virtually locked up the nomination already and now wants to begin the process of walking back the cat and reemphasizing the more conservative points of his record.

The question is whether it's already too late. Whether the image he's created over the past year that everyone in America has seen literally hundreds of times (sleeves rolled up, face sometimes contorted with anger, etc) is the one that sticks in the public's mind or whether he can reshape and resell a softer, more moderate image to voters next year.

Tomorrow we'll talk about the internet portion of Dean's campaign and its implications on the race. -T. Bevan 8:47 am

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