Thoughts on Double Down

I plowed through Double Down, which I recommend if you are one of the relative few who belong both to the set of people who like politics and the set of people who are not put off by tittle-tattle and long-winded descriptions of a win-at-any-cost mentality. In additional to the tittle-tattle, however, the story of what it takes to win — or what the people who run campaigns believe it takes to win — emerges. This story does not depict a plague that afflicts both houses equally. The reader emerges dripping from the book’s muck wondering what on earth will happen to the GOP.

People have often accused the Republicans of voting themselves into doom by failing to appeal to young people or Hispanics. This is true. But what has been less addressed is how they lost the “basically sane” vote.

With a rare exception here and there, I would rather vote for a well-trained macaque than just about any Republican. Let us, however, rewind 10-15 years. I coulda been a Republican. Way back in the early aughts, I was concerned Democrats were scatty and impractical. Convinced by Kenneth Pollack/Thomas Friedman/The New Republic types, I was in favor of the war in Iraq (I know, I know…I’m not saying I was right, just saying where I was). I am also fairly moderate to conservative on some issues (and remain thus). I thought seriously about being a Republican.

In the end, I never changed my party registration, not even to “independent.” And now the very idea that “I thought seriously about becoming a Republican” seems absolutely incomprehensible, akin to “I thought seriously about becoming a JFK assassination conspiracy theorist.”

Reading Double Down crystallized a belief I had been slowly, amorphously forming. Congressional Democrats have been under fire for being less unified than Congressional Republicans and thus less effective. They are seen as impotent, whereas Republicans wield every ounce of power they have. But the national Democratic party has trumped the GOP in a far more important way. The Democrats have shed their lunatic fringe to a startlingly effective degree. Their most extreme elements are shunted carefully away.

Both Obama and Romney come across in Double Down as “likable enough,” as Obama might say. The difference in how they must run their campaigns, however, is instructive.

Obama clearly has some goals he would like to achieve. Providing access to health coverage seems to be a heartfelt belief. He had long been in favor of gay marriage and asked his aides to find the soonest possible time for him to come out of that closet. It is, of course, cynical that he cloaked his views for so long. But he clearly wanted to speak his mind, even though he was not entirely sure where the chips would fall. There is no point in the book where Obama is forced to pretend to hold a position in which he clearly does not believe.

What is motivating Romney to run is murky. The generally-held image of Romney as a man who simply wants to win for the sake of winning is not disabused in the book. His actual views never emerge from the pages. He is clearly terrified of being a “flip-flopper.” He will say anything to ensure that he does not appear to be abandoning his core principles. However, the core principles he is supposedly not abandoning, such as his hard line on immigration, seem far from sincere.

Some of his aides urge him to have a “Sister Souljah” moment, i.e., a moment where he risks the ire of his party by repudiating its most extreme elements. He ultimately cannot bring himself to do so. (Contrast with Obama, whose brave gay marriage moment involved embracing his party’s line.) One gets a whiff from Mitt Romney that he is indeed not “severely conservative.” One feels that there is some issue, perhaps even gay marriage, on which he would have been perfectly willing to take a stand. But. The Republican primaries remain controlled by Tea Party types. One cannot win without catering to them. At least Romney believed this, and possibly he was right.

Obama in Double Down seems liberated to be more liberal. His moments of honesty are about admitting he is more in line with, not the lunatic fringe of his party, but certainly its left flank. This is striking. Interestingly, it communicates the utter political failure of the left lunatic fringe. Republican candidates must be careful not to risk the ire of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, et al. Democratic candidates need do next to nothing to placate the editorial board of Mother Jones or the organizers of Occupy Wall Street.

It is always amusing to hear people on the right call Obama a socialist. I work in academia. I know socialists. They are friends of mine. Real socialists are not fans of either Obama or Obamacare. If you were involved in an Occupy Wall Street protest, chances are very good that you: despise Obama for rolling under to Larry Summers and giving the banks whatever they wanted, think he is a despot intent on gathering all your personal information, think he is a despot who covers up the tracks of his illegal civilian-killing drone wars, think he knuckled under to the right repeatedly and lost a chance for single-payer health care and serious environmental regulation. Real socialists do not like Obama.

But who cares? No one. This has not stopped Obama. These folks seem to have no political power whatsoever. No one need cater to them even in primary elections, much less general elections. The Democrats have managed to capture enough of the middle that they don’t need the lunatic left. That is a seriously impressive feat.

John Boehner can’t do much without the say-so of the Tea Party. Democrats are beholden to no one. At one point in Double Down, Jon Huntsman (who comes off as an ineffectual, insincere fame-seeker) considers running as a third party candidate. He wishes to moderate between the excesses of left and right. This is pointless. There are no excesses of the left anymore that have political consequences. The Democrats are the center.

This is, and will continue to be, a serious electoral advantage. Except for the possibility of Chris Christie. Christie is unafraid of Sister Souljah moments, to say the least, and that of course makes him far more likable to the middle. He is the man who hugged Obama, after all. Indeed, I find myself liking him quite a bit at moments like this. Some people thought the revelations in the book about Chris Christie are damaging. They are so vague, however, that they are not really damaging. Further, it is clearly to Christie’s advantage that anything damaging is revealed now, and not in primary season. Contrary to reports that leaking the information represents the anger of the Romney people toward Christie, I think it’s entirely in Christie’s interest that any bad news emerge now.

In the Republican primary, if (a) Christie holds to his more moderate views, and (b) wins anyway, the Republican party may not vanish into a regional band of impractical gun-owning ideologues. If Christie tells the Iowa caucus-goers what he thinks they want to hear, the party verges on doom.

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29 thoughts on “Thoughts on Double Down

  1. Re: Obama “admitting” he has sympathies with more lefty segments of the Democratic party. This is revelatory of the enduring triumph of the Clinton-era DLC, which in turn is revelatory of the power of corporate money. I’ve been flirting with the notion that the Clintons’ infusion of Big Corporate Money into the Democratic fold will be the most enduring effect of SCOTUS lifting restrictions on campaign finance in Citizens United and Obama’s cautious public posturing towards centrism is indicative of that.

    Re: Christie as the Great Moderate Savior of the GOP. Only time will tell for sure, of course, but part of what makes Christie as effective as he is in NJ is a combination of his appreciation of the landscape of possibility in that environment along with his ability to project an image to his “opposition” as a negotiating partner who wants to make the best deal he can — which means that he does in fact want to make a deal. Those, of course, are inherently part of governing — and a disproportionate number of people who vote in GOP primaries have no interest whatsoever in them.

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    • What you said about Christie is true. He is the last Republican pragmatist, and I really do wonder if he can win.

      Interesting about DLC and Citizens United. I don’t know very much about campaign finance. As I suggest in the above, I think the centrism, forced or otherwise, is a positive. Although I’ve also been more persuaded that Obama’s centrism or moderation is more or less genuine. He is not much more liberal than he appears to be.

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    • Jonathan Bernstein of Plain Blog About Politics describes the GOP as being post-policy, meaning that they basically don’t care about policy or governing anymore and just want to get elected because thats what political parties do. Except its very hard to govern without caring about policy.

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      • I think there’s some truth to some of that. They are uninterested in governance and policy. But I think what they are not about power for its own sake. They are about a series of ideals. What they, frighteningly, do not care about is how best to effect those ideals and when to compromise the ideals.

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      • I remember seeing polling data that showed more Democratic party members wanted their politicians to compromise. They held compromise as a virtue.

        Many Republican voters were the opposite. They did not hold compromise as a virtue and wanted their party to stick their guns. This is the old Barry Goldwater quote about extremism in the defense of liberty being no vice, and moderation being no virtue.

        If you sincerely believe that, you are not going to compromise at all or ever.

        Now I think some people on the right are starting to see that this is problematic including committed right-wingers like Rod Dreher.

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      • There are, of course, those types on the Left too (i.e., ideological purists). Democrats are lucky their numbers are so small.

        The question is, how did the Republicans get such a suicidal belief and can they rid themselves of it? How did the Democrats rid themselves of it almost entirely? Was it from the leadership down? Is it because of right-wing talk radio?

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      • I think it is religion. A large part of the GOP base is still Evangelicals/Christian Fundamentalists.

        Religion is the realm of the impossible. Politics is the realm of the possible.

        It is also the fact that they feel under siege by modernity and that they are constantly losing. They haven’t been able to turn back the clock since the 1960s. Abortion is still legal no matter how hard they try. Gay Bashing worked from 1996-2004 but then went radically on the decline in terms of electoral success.

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    • The American Prospect published an article this week theorizing that the next fights in the Democratic party will be about economics and not social issues.

      This is true and I’ve said it before. In a more sane era, Silicon Valley would be a boon for the Republican Party. They are almost classic Rockefeller Republicans. There are no more Rockefeller Republicans because of the hard-social right coming in and kicking out anyone to their left as a RINO. Linoln Chaffee was the last Rockefeller Republican. He was really popular in Rhode Island. He lost his reelection bid in 2006 because of his party affiliation and the voters told him that. “We like you, we don’t like your R.” So he became an independent and won the governor’s seat. Now he is in the Democratic Party.

      All 55 Senate Democrats voted for EDNA including those from states where it could still potentially be a liability like West Virginia and North Dakota.

      The Democratic Party is now fully socially liberal. The big issue will be between the Cory Booker’s and the Bill De Blasio’s.

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      • Maybe for now but we shall see.

        These things start from the level up and we are seeing more and more Democratic voters be seriously concerned about income inequality and the declining role of unions. De Blasio and the new Mayor of Boston won on unrepentantly populist campaigns. Now De Blasio also said he tempers his progressivism with realism but his economic platform was still substantially different from what we normally see in the technocratic circles.

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      • “In a more sane era, Silicon Valley would be a boon for the Republican Party.”

        In a more sane era, people under thirty would not be turning to The Daily Show for news and The Colbert Report for political commentary.

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      • The American Prospect published an article this week theorizing that the next fights in the Democratic party will be about economics and not social issues.

        If this actually happens, then the libertarians will have more in common with democrats than with republicans.

        I can’t help but suspect that the democrats will enjoy that relationship as much as the republicans did.

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      • Rose, definitely. There won’t be any real fight, because the economic platform of the Democrats is already barely discernable from that of moderate Republicans. If there is a fight within the party, it won’t be to make it more economically conservative.

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      • I’d argue that the Booker side has won for now. I don’t know how stable that is. Especially if the Republican Party fails to regain traction. The further from Bush-trauma a lot of liberals get, the less satisfied I think liberals are going to be by just defeating the Republicans. Either (a) liberals will start to realize (or start to think) that the Democratic Party doesn’t need to be as economically moderate as it is, or (b) The Republican Party will reverse course and start picking off some of the moderate influencers in the Dem tent.

        I agree with ND that there is likely to be a fair amount of push-and-pull, going forward.

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      • on the other hand, Steve whatshisface (the guy who replaced Chris Hayes on MSNBC weekend morning “Up” program) had a segment dedicated to Democratic party members (including Congressman Jerry Nadler, who was a guest on the panel) who wish to ‘expand the narrative’ as I think they labelled it.

        In this case, the specific issue was social security, where the current parameters of debate (in the segment’s estimation) are either cut/privatize on the one hand, and on the other hand, simply preserve (going back the Gore’s ‘lockbox’ comments, clips of which is how they introduced the clip. Nadler (and others) look like they are trying to alter the terms of the debate into *expanding* social security (hence the segment’s name ‘the expandables’). The initiative is based both on ideological grounds as well as tactical grounds – because as the show’s panelists made the obvious point that a compromise between a cut and no-cut is a smaller cut.

        And this was also tied into the Hillary Clinton ‘inevitability’. All of which is to say that there does appear to me to a move within the leftish but still main body of the Democratic party to actually conduct that fight to move that party to the left. *Especially* in the looming shadow of a Clintonista restoration and the continued civil war that the Republicans are having for their own souls. (I mean, if I were a leftish-leaning Democrat or just leftish leaning in general, I would be pushing *hard* to move the Overton window right now, with the economy slowly but steadily recovering, my main opposition in rather large disarray, the recent election of prominent potential allies, some intraparty non-allies starting to make noises favorable to leaning more left – including Booker and both Clintons – and lastly, learning the main lesson of the 2010 election, that the path to power starts on a road deep in the off year election cycle. That is, if I were a leftish Democrat :))

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      • @rose-woodhouse

        I think “for now” is the operative phrase. There are signs of this cracking though and it happened before Bill De Blasio is continuing apace:

        http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115509/elizabeth-warren-hillary-clintons-nightmare

        Matt Y had a good bit of his usual concern trolling today about how economic populism is fine as long as it doesn’t win elections. Meaning he is scarred that his neo-liberal dreams will be crushed by De Blasio.

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    • There is a very close parallel between Christie and B. Clinton/DLC. History never repeats, but Christie is very much in the Clinton position — IF he wins the nomination, it will mean the party has been retooled and will be competitve for the center. In electoral terms, Tea Party = Rainbow Coalition. They need to be subsumed and co-opted. I don’t think Christie can do it, but that is clearly the play, and one day someone will do it and we’ll have a vibrant GOP again, curse them.

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  2. My friends, and friends of friends, were Republicans. Some of them pretty serious sorts.
    Not anymore.

    What Burt says above is striking: The Statesmen have left the Republican party.
    At some point, governance became antithetical to the Republicans.

    I think this has to do with the Republicans getting more than half of their votes from
    authoritarians.

    Even the notion of “flipflopper” is tuned to them, and them alone. You tell most people,
    “Clinton changed his mind… again.” And they, being reasonable folks, ask “Um, why?”
    You respond, “He had a better idea… again.” And they nod along, and say, “Sounds good.
    Let’s hear the new plan”

    Only your authoritarian types want everything drawn up and held to “first principles” over
    the simple practicality of changing your view when new information emerges.

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    • “You tell most people,
      “Clinton changed his mind… again.” And they, being reasonable folks, ask “Um, why?”
      You respond, “He had a better idea… again.” ”

      And then they say “so what happened to the whole thing we heard about the last plan, about how it was the best plan ever and only an idiot would disagree with it and the country was doomed if we didn’t implement it in full, no questions asked, starting eight AM tomorrow morning?” And you respond “you must be one of those evangelical single-minded ideological-blinkered epistolic-closure Republicans. Why are you such a jerk all the time? There’s no use even talking to people like you.”

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  3. which I recommend if you are one of the relative few who belong both to the set of people who like politics and the set of people who are not put off by tittle-tattle and long-winded descriptions of a win-at-any-cost mentality.

    I am one of those people! And I liked Game Change (both the book and the HBO movie). (I also catch most the Bob Woodward books as they come out)

    But. But.

    I view most of the claims made in such books with some credulity. Especially when they make people look better behind the scenes than they were in the public eye*. So the what I would call ‘get me to yes on gay marriage’ that you describe in the post, I would take with a grain of salt. (but not, for instance, the statement that Obama’s desire for greater access to healthcare is heartfelt – as Obama been talking about *that* since the moment he launched his first Prez campaign in early 2007)

    *and also the converse (or maybe observe). The best example of what I am trying to say: the depiction of Sarah Palin in Game Change. While in all likelyhood, it had a great deal of ‘truthiness’, it was clearly sourced by Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace to make both of *them* look better and attempt to salvage their careers as political consultants.

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  4. Rose, I really appreciate this summary of your reaction to the book. I’m definitely one of those who mostly likes to think about politics at an abstract level but enjoys some scuttlebutt with his theorizing now and then. OTOH, I didn’t read Game Change, and I didn’t have any intention to pick up Double Down. With this, I don’t have to do that, but I can still get some of the dish! Thanks much!

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  5. The really unfortunate part of this is that, when it comes to long-term politics, the socialists who are being ignored by everyone are currently correct. :-(

    (These are very centrist socialists, socialists of the Clement Atlee variety, socialists who read Veblen; we seem to have completely lost the extremist Stalinists and Maoists even in academia.)

    The elimination from the political discussion of the only people who have a decent understanding of the economic and geopolitical situationn bodes poorly for the future of the US. The last time this happened was before the Civil War, when the abolitionists were considered “extremists” and shut out of the political discussion. This allowed things to get bad enough that we had a Civil War.

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    • I’m very much a fan of Clement Atlee and other designers of the great Social Democracies.

      I expect that their visions are considered quaint and possibly conservative/wrong by today’s left because the ethos of the Counter Culture is largely in charge in many ways. Clement Atlee and the 1945 Labor Party did many great things but there was no rock n’ roll in them and they largely had Victorian-influenced views on what society would look like.

      A society with events like Burning Man and a good chunk of the left seemingly looking to Burning Man type events and other pastoral/communes as a cure for “consumerist” culture is not going to see a need for men like Clement Atlee. The New Left is still largely in charge and they seem to want something more transformative on a deeply psychological level than Atlee and Nye Bevan ever imagined or felt like government could grant/give.

      Though plenty of people do seem to think Krugman is basically right and he does command a strong position as liberal/left economists go. But you are right that he is probably not being listened to in Washington, Silicon Valley, or much of academia. Is Krugman our Atlee?

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