Building a Strong Party

Over the past few days Matt Stoller and I have been having a bit of a back and forth (he writing at Open Left and me here at MyDD) about the Virginia Senate race and the ramifications of supporting candidates who may not be with us on all issues but who would help push the Democrats' numbers in the Senate to 60 members.

Responding yesterday to my post suggesting a value in seeking a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate even if that majority included some members who weren't terribly progressive, Stoller writes that I suggested that he believed "that Mark Warner or Jean Shaheen should lose their race to a Republican", and that thus I was using a "straw man that is often used to discredit so-called intolerant progressives." He also writes that I "believe that criticism of these Democrats is harmful to the party."

To begin, I think we should all agree to not put words in each others' mouths. I don't believe and am not saying that I think Stoller wants Warner and Shaheen to "lose their race to a Republican." And I think MyDD readers know that I would never hold back from criticizing a bad Democratic candidate. I'm someone who cares about the good of the progressive movement and works hard to elect Democrats -- two characteristics that I do not believe are in opposition and which, at least I would hope, don't make me a partisan hack bereft of ideals.

I do believe that a party is stronger if it holds a 60-seat majority in the Senate that includes a handful of members who defect occasionally or even often than it is if it only has 40 or 45 members in the Senate, regardless of whether they vote in unanimity the vast majority of the time. More broadly, I think a party is stronger when it enjoys the support of a large coalition than when it is relegated to minority status, however unified that minority is.

This isn't to say that I don't think it's important to have that core of 40 or 45 members in the Senate. Of course as a part of that 60-seat majority there will be an abundance of members who maintain the progressive ideal at all or most times, even if there is a small minority of the caucus willing to diverge from the progressive line at times. But in general I'd rather have a caucus comprosed of 45 solid progressives and 15 moderates or centrists than a caucus just comprised of those 45 solid progressives (and it's not even clear to me that there are, at this juncture, 45 solid progressives in the Senate today). (Remember, too, that even during times when great progressive pieces of legislation were enacted into law -- Social Security during the New Deal, Medicare during the Great Society -- there were conservatives within the Democratic caucus who were opposed to large parts of the party's agenda.)

To take one more step back, coalitions are not just about the top-level actors -- they're about the voters. As I've noted before, moderate voters already play a large and important role in the Democratic coalition. To take just a couple of examples, self-identifying moderate voters backed Democratic congressional candidates in 2006 by a 60 percent to 38 percent margin, which made a big difference in helping the Democrats secure the majority in the House and the Senate last fall. Even in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, which are home to the most core party members and are assumed to be made up of activists who are well to the left of the party mean, 43 percent of participants in 2004 self-identified as moderate or conservative.

Moreover, part and parcel of having a truly 50-state party is having members who have different bents, particularly as relates to their regional needs and political environments. Certainly there are cases in which there are members from traditionally conservative regions of the country who are able to deviate from this trend (i.e. red state members who vote like they are from blue states). Compare and contrast Birch and Evan Bayh, for example. Both represent or represented Indiana in the United States Senate, but the father (Birch) was significantly more progressive than the son (Evan). But generally, in order to run a truly 50-state party you are going to need to have a Ben Nelson in Nebraska, who is the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, or a Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. We could write off these states as unwinnable for Democrats. However, it's not clear to me that such a move would strengthen the party.

Assuming that a Democrat wins the presidency in 2008, I'd rather see a large Democratic majority that can move on truly progressive judicial nominees rather than a smaller Democratic majority that has trouble moving on even relatively left of center jurists -- let alone a Democratic minority, however unified, that did not have sufficient votes to even move on judicial nominations. I'd rather have a Democratic President be able to work with a Democratic majority that can actually move on his or her priorities rather than a Democratic President banging his or her head against the wall because a narrow Democratic majority or a Democratic minority cannot move that agenda through the Senate.

Finally, even as I believe in the importance of striving for a 60-seat majority in the Senate, I also believe in the importance of holding candidates' and elected officials' feet to the fire. If they do not hear from us when we are unhappy with them (or when we are happy with them, for that matter) then we will have little power to influence them. But holding our representatives' feet to the fire is not the same thing as knee-jerkedly labeling them as "bad Senators" even before they are elected (as Stoller does with Warner). And if we want to have credibility, we will need to make better arguments than that.

Tags: 50-State Strategy, Democratic Party, meta (all tags)



Everyone agrees:

"But in general I'd rather have a caucus comprised of 45 solid progressives and 15 moderates or centrists than a caucus just comprised of those 45 solid progressives."

Are you suggesting Stoller disagrees?

The question, to my mind, is this: "Would you rather have a Dem caucus comprised of 50 progressives and 10 moderates, or 55 progressives and no moderates?"

Obviously, being in the majority is the most important single issue. I believe that everyone agrees with that; chairing committees and setting agenda is more important that weighing the precise ratio of progressive to centrist.

But once that test is passed, the question changes. Would you rather have 60 Dems, some of whom won't actually use the power that come from having 60 votes, or 55 votes, and a unified progressive caucus?

That seems (at least to me) a pretty interesting question. Is it better to have more Dems, and absolutely no excuse for not enacting damn good legislation except the timidity or misplaced priorities of certain Democrats, or to have a solid block of Dems pushing hard as they can for the best possible solutions ... and falling short due to Republican obstruction?

Choice One: Progressive Democrats negotiate with centrist Dems, possibly enacting middling-okay legislation while moving the party rightward.

Choice Two: Progressive Democrats negotiate with 'centrist' Republicans, not enacting much of anything while moving the party leftward.

Or are my choices incorrect?

by BingoL 2007-09-18 06:19AM | 0 recs
Re: Who? Where?

In your second option you refer to negotiating with 'centrist' Repubs. Aren't they as gone as dodo birds and passenger pigeons, saber-toothed tigers and mastodons?

If those are our only two choices we're all an endanged species.

by Woody 2007-09-18 08:07PM | 0 recs
Re: Building a Strong Party

I take several factors into account whether to renounce a democrat and I do not think Warner is bad.

1 Is there a viable alternative in the local area in this or at least the very near future that can be pumped up by similar minded supporters ala Lamont to win the primary? And is this viable alternative going to give you any significantly superior progressive agenda? I do not see one in VA. Lamont was very viable in the General Election until the betrayal of our party leaders. Who is the alternative to Warner?

2. Is the candidate whose ideology you do not share a person who would bash progressives or is he someone who may not vote the same way on all issues, but he doesn't work to harm the progressive movement by strongarming fellow progressives in the party to change their vote?
My problem with Lieberman wasn't that he differed with me on ideology  but that he actively reinforced right wing hate narratives on progressives making the job harder for our kind to spread our agenda. I do not see Warner as a useful tool for the right.

3. Will a short term hit to our political numbers be beneficial in the next election in encouraging a new breed of leaders? I do not see that in VA.

I am going to support Warner .

But there are places where I do wish for a short term shakeup. I do think Landrieu should be jettisoned in Louisiana though. Nut because the Senate numbers being so marginal, she is not that awful enough yet to take a senate majority hit for the sake of spite. But we should be actively looking at getting rid of her at some point. I think the Democratic Party in Louisiana is rotten enough to wish for short term destruction by some of us. People like her and Blanco did nothing in the Jena 6 case. I will not shed a tear if Jindal wins the GOvernership there(not that I will support him).

by Pravin 2007-09-18 06:25AM | 0 recs
Re: Building a Strong Party

I agree with your comments.  If we can find a replacement that has a good shot at being elected to the Senate, we should field that person.  Not just for those who are more right-of-center (like Landrieu) but also to weed out bribery/scandal (Jefferson, again in LA, is a good example.)   But, generally, in deep red states we have no chance of winning over the population with far-left initiatives yet.  They just run away from us to embrace a GOPer, who may (given the left-tilt we have seen in the country) be running as a moderate.  They may even support a right-wing conservative if our candidate is too far removed from them.  In those areas we have to field moderates and trust that 90% of the time they vote with Progressives in Congress, enough to push through a progressive agenda.

by georgep 2007-09-18 06:36AM | 0 recs
Re: Building a Strong Party

There's some sense to what you're saying, but you've also got to watch out for rightwards creep. In cases where a moderate won't beat a rightwinger, there's a certain amount of logic in backing a proud progressive who can try to shift the Overton window back in our direction.

Obviously one has to take a little from both approaches, and I doubt any two people will ever agree upon which of the two approaches should be used in each individual case, but you'll never get a more progressive nation if there aren't progressive leaders to vote for.

by Englishlefty 2007-09-18 07:33AM | 0 recs
Re: Building a Strong Party

That is generally true, but the definition of progressive is a bit wishy-washy in the first place (seems to me.)  To some it is the war, so they would gladly vote for a Hagel, Ron Paul, et al, even though there is not a progressive bone in their body.

I believe this is illustrated well with Webb vs. Allen.  Generally speaking, we are much better off with Webb in the Senate than having one less Senate seat which would be occupied by George Allen, a right-winger.  Webb is likely to vote with progressives 85% to 90% of the time.  Allen would have voted with Progressives most likely 0% of the time.  Tester vs. Burns is a similar story.   The country has been experiencing a major left-lurch (and we are just in the middle of that pendulum swing towards our side) so even moderate Democrats are now a lot more "leftist" than their counterparts from 15, 20 years ago.  You'll be hard pressed to find a Zell Miller type in the bunch these days.  

But, I agree to two things:

If two candidates are running, one progressive, the other centrist, I support the more progressive one if that person has a decent shot to overtake the incumbent Republican.

And, where the race is out of reach anyway, support the progressive to push the window.  Who knows, a scandal (happens a lot with Republicans these days) could suddenly open a door that we may think of as shut.  

by georgep 2007-09-18 08:45AM | 0 recs

I don't think Matt wants Mark Warner to lose to a Republican, but what he does evidently want is a Democratic candidate for Virginia's seat in the U.S. Senate who is distinctly to the left of Warner.

I don't live in Virginia right now, but I've spent most of my life as a resident of the Commonwealth, and lately I've been living just across the Potomac in Maryland.  I've lived in northern Virginia, in Newport News, in Bristol in far southwest Virginia, and in Charlottesville.

I don't know who the Dems would potentially run in place of Warner, but I know this: you probably wouldn't have to go that far to his left for the odds of winning to drop off considerably.

Like it or not, wanting to run someone a bit less centrist DOES mean being willing to live with a much bigger risk of losing to a Republican.  (Hell, given Warner's popularity, running anyone besides Warner increases the risk greatly.)  I can't see that Matt's really addressing that risk, which IMHO gives validity to the charge that he'd almost rather see a Pubbie than Mark Warner in the Senate.  Because the hypothetical candidate of Matt's dreams - and mine - will likely lose to Tom Davis in the general election.

Warner and Webb representing Virginia in the Senate is probably about as good as we can do these days.  But having them there, year after year, hopefully term after term, will change how many Virginians think about Democrats.  I may not live long enough to see Virginia become a progressive Democratic state, but I think in the next 10 years, it could become a solidly centrist Dem state.  And that would be huge progress.

I'd like to see that change happen.  But the candidate of Matt's and my dreams is a lot less likely to help move the ball than Warner is.

by RT 2007-09-18 06:29AM | 0 recs
Stone Throwing

I wonder what good this is, lobbing stones back and forth, and as you say, putting words in one another's mouth. I think Stoller is intemperate in speech and politically unrealistic. If he thinks the state of Virginia is going to elect a more left leaning Democrat, he should think again.

by cmpnwtr 2007-09-18 06:39AM | 0 recs
Re: Stone Throwing

Stoller doesn't live in Virginia and has little clue about its politics, much less about Warner's performance as governor.  It's as though he thinks after trending red we should suddenly lurch to the left.  

by KimPossible 2007-09-18 06:55AM | 0 recs
The idealist and the pragmatist

You are both right. We should try to field and support progressive candidates but when that isn't possible and the options are losing an election or gaining a stronger majority the majority argument wins every time. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be idealists but we have to live in a reality based universe.

by DoIT 2007-09-18 06:47AM | 0 recs
The Virginia version of the light-bulb joke

How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb?

Three: one to change the bulb, and two to talk about how great the old one was.

by RT 2007-09-18 06:49AM | 0 recs
Lessons of the light-bulb joke

Barring major screwup, familiarity is almost always an advantage in politics.  But that's even more true in Virginia than elsewhere.  Virginians, as a group, approach change cautiously, and would just as soon do things the way they did them yesterday, unless it's obviously not working.

Mark Warner may be popular in Virginia now, but that's because he had a successful term as governor that didn't rock too many boats.  But neither he, nor Tim Kaine, nor Jim Webb, won their races by very much at all.  (And note that Kaine's LtG and AG running mates lost.)  And all three ran very, very good campaigns too.

That's where Virginia really is: a less-familiar version of Warner or Kaine who does everything right can beat a middlin' Republican by about 100,000 votes.  

You don't have to be very far at all to the left of Warner and Kaine to lose that margin, and with it the election.  Like I said, Virginians approach change cautiously.  They're not going to become a progressive-Dem sort of state anytime soon.  But we can sell them on being the sort of Dem that Warner is, because they already know him and like him, and because he's not that far a stretch for them.

I want to see us build a strong party.  The route to doing so in Virginia, right now, is to take advantage of Warner's popularity, and elect him to the Senate in order to keep selling Virginia on Democrats.  Far better to have a Virginia where the median voter is a Mark Warner Democrat than one where that voter is a John Warner Republican.

by RT 2007-09-18 07:16AM | 0 recs
Re: Lessons of the light-bulb joke

That's half the battle. The next step is to follow up on getting vorers accustomed to voting Democratic by beginning to build a more progressive farm team. Particularly when one considers that the big change in Virginia politics has been population growth in the north. Sure, Mark Warner may be popular in the Tidewater area now, but he was elected on the basis of Northern Virginia voters. On average Virginia is a moderate/conservative state, but where there are pockets of liberalism, as there are in the north, those should be fostered.

by Englishlefty 2007-09-18 07:38AM | 0 recs
Re: Building a Strong Party

Does Stoller think Mark Warner is a bad person?

I honestly don't know.

I know it doesn't matter in this conversation but I'm curious--though I shan't go to open left. Always liked Bowers but not that much.

by MNPundit 2007-09-18 07:21AM | 0 recs
Re: Democratic Effective Control of the Senate

Matt, you've shortchanged the other side of the equation. There's not a reason in the world to leave the filibuster threshhold at 60. Assuming Democrats keep control of the Senate in 08, they should, at least, lower it to 55, maybe replace it altogether with allowing a week of debate on critical issues.

SenateRepubs have rendered the filibuster inoperative when they're in control, particularly on court nominations. The Democrats should now build on this golden opportunity for their advantage.

by carter1 2007-09-18 07:50AM | 0 recs
Who defines progressive?

I don't know who is coming up with the official progressive stamp of approval, but if they don't think that Jeanne Shaheen is progressive, they don't know about her record as governor.  People are using the terms "progressive", "grass roots" and "net roots" without doing the research they should be doing. Just because someone on a blog site says, oh, so and so is not the progressive candidate, this other person is, doesn't make it so.

by nascardem 2007-09-18 07:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Who defines progressive?

Not to mention, using the terms "grassroots" and "netroots" without paying attention to the actual grassroots.

by Dave Sund 2007-09-18 08:00AM | 0 recs
Re: Building a Strong DEMOCRACY

We need a strong democracy, regardless of either political party.  We need legislators who listen to their constituents and act for the betterment of all.  The operating word throughout this rant is "ACT".

We've all suffered at the hands of a political party that walks in lockstep (goose-step?) within a particular "ideological" frame.  We need variety in our politicians to remind us that diversity is a good thing, to remind us that diversity prods us to consider sides of an issue that we might otherwise dimiss out of hand (and thereby suffer unseen consequences), and to remind us that diversity sensitizes us all to the needs of others about whom we know little.

Finally, we need legislators who act - who work to change bad into not-so-bad, and not-so-bad into good.  We need legislators who act with integrity and courage, and don't hide behind slippery rhetoric so that they can claim all sides of an arguement as it suits them.

by prophet 2007-09-18 08:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Building a Strong Party

nascardem, prophet and Dave Sund  bring to light the fact the we progressives do NOT have an identity.  WHAT have we agreed upon that is "progressive?"

CONServatives say "small govt., guns, flag and anti-gay".  They have many other buzz words, such as "free market", "free trade" and "privitization".

I suggest WE would do well to discuss WHAT IS PROGRESSIVE?

I offer "fair market and fair trade, with emphasis on the common or public good."  Further, "Strong public sector", highlighting the need for tax monies tobe wisely spend on the our common and public goals, such as good education, safety, health care and an energy policy.

Lastly, this conversation cannot devolve into positions, such as anti-NAFTA, pro gay marriage, pro solar energy, etc.

I am asking that we think critically about our vision of THE ROLE OF GOVT, as a philosophy, such as "stregthening the commons. common and public good".  Or, "The public good versus private greed", a "PG converstaion". :)

by dogenman 2007-09-18 10:01AM | 0 recs
Re: Building a Strong Party

Where exactly is the disagreement?  Both us would prefer to have larger Democratic majorities, both of us want big progressive caucuses.  Both of us would prefer to have Warner win in Virginia than the Republican, and that's true basically anywhere.

All I'm saying is that I have policy disagreements with Warner, that he should be pushed left, and that I think his race will be tougher than a 20 point blowout.  You're writing posts strenuously arguing for a strategy to get to 60 votes in the Senate, and pretending as if that's not my goal as well.  I mean, there are people in your comments bashing me as if I am saying that Warner shouldn't be the candidate and should lose, and you aren't bothering to correct even one of them.

Come on.

by Matt Stoller 2007-09-18 12:40PM | 0 recs
What Are They???

Policies disagreements are reasonable and if you have them with Warner then you should state them.  I think many of us would like to know what is so objectionable about Warner that he will be a "bad Senator" as you put it.  You have clearly hit a nerve here with many and would do yourself good to layout your issues with the man.  I know I'd be interested in hearing them because I haven't read much objectionable about him and he has done a ton to build the Dem brand in a state that hasn't voted for a Dem for President in over 40 yrs.

by John Mills 2007-09-18 12:58PM | 0 recs
Re: What Are They???

I think you nailed it.  If you don't like another Democrat's views, then critique them and, potentially, try to change them.  My problem with Matt's approach, at least at times, has always been his preference for quickly labeling politicians as "good" or "bad" or "with us" or "against us."  There are more constructive ways to apply presure and - respectfully - I am lost as to how labeling Warner as a likely "bad senator" before he's even settled into the race is helpful absent a thoughtful critique of his views.  

On the other hand, Matt got a lot of press from that statement and other similarly "provocative" attacks on other Democrats.  Almost makes you think he's intentionally inflammatory...

by HSTruman 2007-09-19 05:30PM | 0 recs
Re: Tossing Away Dems in Red States

The bloggers who would be quick to toss aside Democratic Senators and Members of Congress in red states who may not meet 100% of their litmus tests strike me as naive and unrealistic.  A "rejected" Sen. Landrieu would be replaced by an extreme right Republican who would be reelected for the next 24 - 30 years. We are very fortunate to be contemplating building a larger  Democratic Senate majority, only because we have Democrats hailing from red states like Louisiana, Nebraska, Arkansas, the Dakotas, who may not vote as we prefer on 100% of the issues, but who vote for a "D" for Majority Leader.  Even John Edwards could not be reelected to U.S. Senate from NC today.  He ran much more to the right when he won there years ago.

by pasuburbdem1 2007-09-18 12:50PM | 0 recs


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