Nancy Pelosi Is Not Giving Up Your E-mail Without a Fight

23 03 2013

Sometimes I swear Democrats are just as sleazy as Republicans. Not in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, though with senators like Robert Menendez in the news for possibly soliciting prostitutes and probably dealing out favors to a contributor, you do have to wonder. Liberals at least don’t waste time tilting at windmills with crusades against energy-efficient lightbulbs (Michele Bachmann), the United Nations’ plan to eliminate American golf courses (Ted Cruz) or creeping Sharia law (Bachmann again.) But when it comes to the little things — the tiny, everyday issues on which basic ethics are on display — Democrats aren’t pure as the driven snow either.

Like any good liberal who has ever innocently offered up her e-mail address in response to a plea to Help Defeat the Paul Ryan Budget! or Stand Up for Women’s Right’s Today!, my inbox is swamped with missives from everyone from Planned Parenthood to the DCCC to MoveOn. And like millions of other people, I am apparently on a first-name basis with the Obama folks, regularly receiving entreaties from “Jim” (as in Messina), “Anita” (as in Dunn) and Alixandria (no idea, but apparently she’s associated with the DNC) and being asked to “confirm” my “supporter record” (helpfully laid out in dollar terms) by kicking in $3 as soon as possible. Campaign-season metrics showed that the e-mails with the most banal subject lines — “Hey” or “Listen to this” — drew the best responses, but I have to say, anything that isn’t absolutely up-front with what it wants gets a one-way ticket into the trash bin. And the melodramatic hyperventilating that characterizes every NARAL e-mail I receive — is another doomed amendment to a random piece of legislation really going to end women’s rights as we know them? — doesn’t endear me to the cause either. For that reason, the automated Democratic response to an early-morning attempt to prune some of the biggest offenders from my Yahoo account particularly disappointed me.

Want to unsubscribe from the constant stream of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee e-mails? It’s not as easy as it looks. I didn’t expect to get away without a well-deserved guilt-trip; heck, of course I want to help elect liberals, and are a few quickly-deleted e-mail solicitations really such a high price to pay? (That said, has a DCCC e-mail ever actually prompted me to contribute? Nope. I gave at the website, thanks.) But the screen I was taken to when I clicked the “unsubscribe” link struck me as irritatingly disingenuous.


Did you catch the dodge? A casual observer might assume that, by clicking on the link in Nancy Pelosi’s morning grovel that claims to remove your e-mail address from the DCCC list, you’ll be directed to a site that allows you to . . . remove your e-mail address. But instead of re-entering your address to OK the deletion, you’re asked to only “receive our most urgent messages.” It’s only a small ethical step away from the spammers who trick you into “unsubscribing” in order to confirm that, yes, there is a live person at the other end of that Yahoo account. In both cases, the solicitations won’t stop. And in the DCCC’s case, I have to wonder how many “urgent” issues will pop up every day, or how many events will be billed as “BREAKING” news.

There is an option at the bottom to actually unsubscribe, but it’s one more step away, a step that an irritated supporter trying to clean out her work inbox before an 8:00 a.m. meeting could miss. Now, I know this is a standard practice for online outfits. Even charities are determined to preserve their backers’ priceless personal information at almost any cost. Complaining about it will get me nowhere. But is it too much to expect that the party that paints itself as better, more ethical and closer to the people than the GOP actually be better and more ethical? Granted, perhaps the donations the DCCC takes in from an expanded e-mail list outweigh any reputational benefit of dealing with supporters in a straightforward fashion. However, that doesn’t make it any less disappointing when the politicians I elect to represent me in Washington turn out to be no more principled than, uh, your average politician.

I almost feel guilty for complaining about how Democrats treat their supporters, as they certainly do better than the GOP on this front. The time I spent this fall volunteering for the Obama campaign was one of the best experiences of my life, and the campaign’s ability to reach out to literally anyone who walked through the door (from slightly unhinged women who offered us anchovies to high-level executives willing to make a few phone calls) and put them to work was one of the drivers of the president’s victory. I realize that politics is big business and that Obama succeeded in 2012 due in no small part to his campaign’s tech-savvy ability to capture e-mail addresses and mobilize supporters online. Indeed, one of the campaign’s most valuable assets is its vaunted e-mail list, which the GOP has been dismally unable to match. For this reason, I’m wary of being too critical about the Democrats’ online practices. Hey, they’ve worked pretty well so far. But sometimes you wish the people on your “team” would take the high road. Find some principles, stick to them, and occasionally stand up for them, even if it makes it slightly harder to hang onto those precious e-mail addresses.

Americans trust politicians so little and hate them so much that Congress’ approval ratings rarely make it out of the single digits. Surely Washington-hating citizens are thinking more about pork-barrel legislation and backroom horse-trading when they express distaste for the political class, but even the littlest incidents of sleaziness only contribute to the sense that our representatives will double-cross us at every turn, if given the chance. Ideally, politicians would eschew the biggest sins — giving preferential treatment to high-dollar donors, caving to special interests like the NRA — and receive a pass on the minor infractions. But it’s actually more realistic to hope for improvement on the little things. Often, as well, it’s the little things that cement a party’s reputation and come together to add up to an image that is either welcoming and honest or uncaring and shady. The GOP’s problems with Hispanics are rooted in its hostility to government and its history of opposition to anything that smacks of “amnesty,” but seemingly insignificant slights — their dogged use of the word “illegals,” Mitt Romney’s articulation of the party’s “self-deportation” philosophy — don’t help either. Likewise, the DCCC’s inability to produce an honest option to unsubscribe from its e-mail list sends the message to people that the party cares more about your money and your personal information than your trust.

Scoff at my naivete if you want, but I put in a lot of time to get Pelosi and Co. elected. If we’re friendly enough for her minions to address me as “Emily” and enthuse about “an incredible opportunity to meet Barack and Joe,” surely we’re friendly enough for her to at least pretend to treat me as a friend, not a cash cow. It may be an act, but in politics, image is everything. Every interaction is a chance for voters to decide whether their elected officials are basically honest, trustworthy emissaries to Washington or just another group of glad-handing opportunists. The little things count; they add up to big things. Aristotle once said that “we are what we repeatedly do.” To cite a less lofty source, H. Jackson Brown (the guy who wrote Life’s Little Instruction Book) quips that “character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”

It may not matter much to the DCCC, but if anyone’s listening: Hey, Nancy. I’m looking.


“Support” and “Oppose” Are Not the Same Thing

2 12 2011

Today’s award for lazy reporting goes to AP writers Tom Raum and Christopher Rugaber for two articles on the declining unemployment rate. Both mischaracterize the Republican position on extending the current payroll tax cut. Raum suggests that the GOP opposition to the tax cut (never though I’d write those words!) is based solely on how to offset the cost:

Republicans favor extending the tax cut, but have blocked Democratic attempts to do so by paying for it with a new tax on households with more than $1 million in annual taxable income.

Rugaber makes essentially the same statement:

Republicans and Democrats have supported an extension but differ on how to pay for it.

While it’s true that House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have expressed support for extending the cut, more GOP senators voted against their own party’s proposal than voted for it. McConnell predicted Republicans would support the measure, but as Politico writes, the 20-78 vote “dealt a rare but embarrassing blow to the Kentucky Republican, regarded as one of the smartest and most politically astute operatives on Capitol Hill.” This despite the fact that McConnell’s proposal extended a salary freeze for federal workers and shrunk the size of government. It’s a topsy-turvy world when Republicans vote against sticking it to public servants.

The through-the-looking-glass situation in which the GOP opposes a tax cut that Democrats favor stems from the Republican belief that the cut is “a band aid approach and takes money away from Social Security.” (It’s funny, then, that they don’t seem very concerned when Newt Gingrich talks up private Chilean-type retirement accounts or Rick Perry fulminates about the program’s unconstitutionality) In other words, the tax cut was voted down precisely because Republicans do not support its extension. McConnell offered them an alternative to the “millionaires’ surtax” that Democrats had proposed to offset the lost revenue. And they rejected it.

Of course, Democrats are painting the rejection of McConnell’s proposal as part of a hidden agenda to deny President Obama any election-year success. There may be something to this, as John Boehner is on record as saying his number-one goal is to make Obama a one-term president, but I’d guess that it’s more of a knee-jerk reaction to anything favored by Democrats. Admittedly, this sentiment goes both ways. If the GOP told me the sky is blue, I would insist that it’s green.

Whatever the motivation behind the Republicans’ hostility to the tax cut, it’s just not true to say the parties differ only over the method of paying for it. The Republican leadership in the Senate, including Whip Jon Kyl, voted against it. Members of the House are equally as skeptical. The Times quotes Representative Charles Boustany Jr. of Louisiana: “The leadership was hoping there would be broad acceptance of the package they presented, but there wasn’t.”

What the Left and Right Like

19 11 2011

Plenty of research organizations attempt to “score” brands, and most come up with predictable results: Americans love Apple, Coke and Starbucks; they hate Comcast, AT&T and pretty much any airline. More interesting is a set of lists just released by the polling firm YouGov, which ranks the favorite brands of Democrats and Republicans, respectively. The differences are fascinating, and hew closely enough to longtime stereotypes that you start to wonder whether the Red State/Blue State divide is more than just a convenient media trope. The lists also provide plenty of fodder for armchair psychologists.

Five brands make the Top Ten lists of both Democrats and Republicans: Cheerios, Johnson & Johnson, Clorox, the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. All are fairly non-controversial; who doesn’t like to be clean? The Discovery Channel is a bit unexpected, as I have a hard time imagining anyone, Democrat or Republican, tuning in for programs on whale sex and crocodile hunting. But whatever. The History Channel is ranked much higher by Republicans (#3) than Democrats (#8), which, if we’re sticking to stereotypes, doesn’t surprise me. For the past few years, the History Channel could more accurately be called the Conspiracy Channel, or the Nostradamus Channel, or maybe even the “Did Aliens Build the Pyramids?” Channel. In that respect, it’s a lot closer to the top two GOP brands, Fox News and Fox, both of which have a reputation for playing fast and loose with the facts. The #1 brand for Democrats is Google, followed by Amazon, which isn’t particularly interesting until one considers that neither brand appears anywhere on the Republican list. Are red-staters really the rural, technology-phobic hicks that populate New Yorker cartoons? That conclusion seems a bridge too far, but if I’m being particularly small-minded, I suppose I could gloat that liberals are more interested in finding information and asking questions. To add more fuel to the “how typical” fire, Craftsman tools and Lowe’s home improvement stores also make the conservative Top Ten, while PBS is #7 for Democrats . . . or at least it’s #7 for now, until Congress manages to defund public broadcasting altogether.

One striking difference between the lists is that nothing on the Democratic side is as transparently partisan as Fox News. MSNBC doesn’t make an appearance — though, to be fair, MSNBC doesn’t make much of an appearance in the Nielsen ratings either. The brand Republicans like most is one that positions itself as an antidote to the liberal media, a corrective to an out-of-whack national dialogue. Is that how conservatives feel about America — that they’ve been disenfranchised by the secular left? It’s difficult for me to understand how white Christians can see themselves as a threatened minority in a country where over 80% of the population believes in God, but Republicans would probably cite my very incomprehension as part of the problem.

Some of the other brands don’t seem to say much at all. M&M’s made the Republican list for the first time this year — but who doesn’t like M&M’s? Levi’s, which are American as apple pie, are #9 for liberals. I may be reaching here, but do Levi’s have some lingering patchouli stench left over from the 1960s? Whatever the differences, however, at least we can agree on Cheerios: Everybody loves those little o’s.

The War for Independents

30 09 2011

I have long thought that truly independent voters are about as real — and about as common — as Yeti. They’re rumored to exist, but nobody has managed to bag a Big Foot or Sasquatch and haul it back to the hunting lodge for verification. Show me an independent voter, and nine times out of ten I’ll show you an American who just doesn’t want to admit he’s as rigid and ideological as the rest of us. The independent label is attractive because it implies a refusal to stoop to partisan politics, an open-mindedness that does not slavishly hew to party line. Instead of parroting the talking heads on Fox News or MSNBC, independents draw their own conclusions and can’t be placed in anyone else’s box. It’s a nice idea, until you actually talk to these supposed independents, who insist they don’t pay attention to the little “D” or “R” that follows a candidate’s name — but, naturally, they’d never vote for one of those “baby-killers” or “conservative fascists.” Thirty years of identity politics have given us RINOs and DINOs; perhaps now it’s time to add “IINO” to the lexicon.

Pollsters and pundits would have us believe that “independent” voters are the Holy grail of the electorate — Americans unaligned and unimpressed with either party whose votes regularly determine which way an election will swing. Listen for too long to NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of the centrist coalition “No Labels,” and you’d think that the whole country is fed up with “excessive polarization and hyper-partisanship.” Disgusted as Americans may be with politics as usual, is there really a “majority of Americans left out of the current political debate“? While discontent with Washington is certainly at an all-time high, the idea of independents as a homogeneous, middle-of-the-road voting block is more myth than reality. It’s high time that someone punctured that myth; this week, a few writers, including Frank Rich at New York Magazine and Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, did just that. Rich takes on the sacred cow of bipartisanship, dismissing the theory that independents crave compromise and reward politicians that govern toward the middle. Sargent skewers columnists like Post colleague Matt Miller and the Times’ Thomas Friedman, who ramble on about third-party candidates and believe the moment is ripe for a leader who upends the tenets of both liberals and conservatives. He dismisses the high-minded language with which Friedman and company describe their supposedly radical new party as so much rhetoric. There are no easy answers, Sargent says, and promoting compromise as an end in itself will get us nowhere if the resulting solution is so watered-down and useless that even Americans hell-bent on voting for the person, not the party, reject it.

Independents are often thought of as a homogeneous voting block that occupies the unstable middle of the partisan divide. They live in swing states like Nevada and Colorado, where they “account for more than one-quarter of the U.S. electorate and are probably key to the 2012 presidential election,” according to Bloomberg News. Pollsters are hawk-like in their focus on these states, and when the numbers come out, the only percentages that really matter are those of independents. Helene Cooper of the Times, noting that President Obama’s approval rating among non-aligned voters dropped from 52 percent to 39 percent in a May poll, writes that the president’s jobs plan is designed to attract “the moderate and independent voters he so desperately needs in next year’s elections.”

Even the swingiest of states aren’t completely purple, however. Step a little closer to the map and that nice mauve color resolves into a granular jumble of reds and blues. Likewise, few independent voters really fit into the no-man’s-land of the truly moderate. Michael Tomasky, a columnist for The Daily Beast who also edits the left-leaning journal Democracy, confirms that independents “aren’t that monolithic.” Thirty-five percent of voters identify as independent, but “about two-thirds are basically Democrats or Republicans who just prefer calling themselves independent but whose votes are pretty reliable. That leaves maybe 10 to 15 percent of the electorate that is truly independent.” Frank Rich cites research by the Pew Research Center that goes even further, suggesting that the party faithful comprise nearly half of independents. The rest of the category is split between “doubting Democrats” (20 percent), “disaffected” voters who are “angry and populist rather than mildly centrist” (16 percent), and “disengaged” young people who don’t vote very often in the first place (17 percent). The takeaway from these findings? Rich writes:

There’s nothing about the makeup of any segment of these “all important independent voters” that suggests bipartisan civility has anything whatsoever to do with winning their support. To pursue this motley crew of the electorate as if it had a coherent political profile is nuts.

Yet pursue it politicians do. This myth of coherence is what drove President Obama to position himself as the adult in the room, above and removed from the dirty work of debt-ceiling negotiations and the legislative sausage-making that produced health care reform. The same myth provides the foundation of Mitt Romney’s campaign; he can appeal to the center, the argument goes, in a way that red-meat-throwing conservatives like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann cannot. There is a danger, however, in overestimating the homogeneity and moderation of this class of voters. In New York Magazine, Stanley B. Greenberg, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, pushes back against the “caricature [of] them as these better-educated, more ideologically moderate voters who sit back in their studies, read up on the issues, and come to considered judgments.” Nothing about independents suggests that they reward compromise or are particularly interested in bipartisanship. “Finding the position halfway is not necessarily the way to appeal to them,” Greenberg writes. During the Clinton administration, “there were swing voters and issues that were critical to them, like middle-class tax cuts and welfare reform, but they didn’t coincide with the center on the ideological spectrum.”

Frank Rich, writing in the same issue of New York, makes a spirited argument against the supposed merits of the center. He titles his article “In Praise of Extremism,” and though he doesn’t really have anything new to say, he does add to the growing backlash against what he calls “the glorification of bipartisanship as a political steroid.” The rise of the independent candidate is nothing new; Ross Perot was skating around the margins of the Republican party long before Michael Bloomberg cobbled together his not-a-party “No Labels” party. The anti-partisan bandwaggon is now more crowded than ever, with more Gangs of Seven or Twelve or Fourteen than you can shake a stick at. Meanwhile, Tom Friedman, the Times’ eminence grise of punditry, demands the establishment of a third party. Somehow he manages to keep a straight face as he stumps for Americans Elect, which he believes will create “a viable, centrist, third presidential ticket, elected by an Internet convention.” Friedman acknowledges that this sounds “gimmicky,” but maintains that the project has a noble goal: “to take a presidential nominating process now monopolized by the Republican and Democratic parties, which are beholden to their special interests, and blow it wide open.” Call me crazy, but I don’t think the solution to two stripes of corrupt politicians is to create a third.

Frank Rich and Michael Tomasky see more pernicious forces at work in the trendy enthusiasm for a third party. It’s intellectually dishonest to reject both parties as equally bone-headed and intractable, they say, challenging Friedman’s depiction of Democrats and Republicans as equally culpable co-conspirators. No matter how disgusted Americans may be with Washington as a whole, equating a party that calls for a “balanced approach” of spending cuts and tax increases with one that demands nothing but cuts, cuts, cuts is like saying that Bill Clinton’s lies were as bad as Richard Nixon’s. Neither president was a paragon of moral integrity, but it’s hard to make the case that the Lewinsky scandal was as damaging to the country as Watergate. “Calling for a third party is a quick and easy way to get yourself booked for a round of cable TV appearances,” Sargent writes. “But many of those calling for a third party are refusing to reckon with an inconvenient fact: One of the two parties already occupies the approximate ideological space that these commentators themselves are describing as the dream middle ground . . . . That party is known as the ‘Democratic Party,’ and it already holds many of the positions these commentators want a third party to espouse.”

Sargent suggests that it’s incorrect to split the blame for our political dysfunction down the middle. He claims that Friedman’s glorification of an independent third party is “founded on a dodge — a refusal to acknowledge that the Democratic Party is far closer than the GOP to occupying the fabled ideological middle.” Sargent ticks off the issues on which Democrats are aligned, in words if not always in actions, with the priorities of supposed independents: On health care, Democrats steered away from a “government option” and gave a big wet kiss to the private insurance industry. On entitlement reform, Obama offered up changes to Social Security and Medicare during the debt-ceiling debate. On taxes, Democrats have offered to preserve the Bush tax cuts for anyone making less than $200,000. “By contrast,” Sargent writes, “the other major party in America — the GOP — is not open to any kind of balance between tax hikes and spending cuts.”

Sargent makes a good case for the overlap between independent and Democratic positions. The problem remains, however, that the diverse and heterogeneous pool of voters grouped under the “independent” heading doesn’t necessarily see things that way. Pretending that everyone who calls himself an independent will respond to the same message is a losing battle, because it papers over the differences between fiscal conservatives and blue-collar populists, between people who care about politics and people who only vote every four years. It’s impossible to play to a center that doesn’t exist. A Bloomberg National Poll conducted in September shows that, while a majority of self-styled independents don’t believe Obama’s jobs bill will lower unemployment, they also “blame congressional Republicans more than Mr. Obama for the discord in Washington.” They believe Obama has mishandled the economy but are turned off by Republicans’ extremist positions on global warming and Medicare.

Given that these voters represent such a mixed bag, how can Obama — or any politician, for that matter — appeal to them? The Times notes that “Mr. Obama has been pursuing these voters for much of the past two years, and they have continued to drift away.” She quotes the director of the Pew Research Center as admitting that “independents don’t stand out as supporting any particular strategy to a great degree. So there’s no one thing he can say that’s going to set off a light bulb among independents.”

Rich, Sargent and Tomasky all offer the president unsolicited advice, but Rich isn’t particularly helpful. (Thus far, Rich hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype, or the hefty new pay package, that accompanied his move to New York Magazine.) He mostly recycles the liberal mantra about standing firm and using the bully pulpit “to ferociously define and defend the American values under siege by the revolutionaries at the capital’s gates.” Basically Rich calls for the sort of speech that Thomas Friedman himself would have penned for Obama in his pre-Americans Elect days, when he was inclined to construct imaginary scenarios in which the president promises to establish a “National Commission for American Renewal” that includes John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi (really) and Boehner promises that “everything will be on the table from our side — including tax reform that closes loopholes and eliminates wasteful subsidies, and, if need be, tax increases” (no, really). A nice idea, maybe, but about as useful and realistic as, oh, a third-party candidate landing in the White House.

Tomasky, on the other hand, presents a nuanced and well-reasoned argument for reevaluating the stereotype of the centrist independent voter. “Democrats often make a terrible mistake in thinking that base Democrats and independents have completely opposing interests,” he writes. “Democrats tend to think of independents as Republicans Lite” — or at least as Blue Dog Democrats, which are almost the same thing. Obama, a president already inclined to seek a middle way, buys into the myth of the silent moderate majority: He seems to think that independents will reward his efforts to compromise. The negotiations over the debt ceiling were an opportunity to demonstrate this bipartisan spirit, so he made a deal that gave Republicans $1 trillion in budget cuts in return for giving Democrats . . . nothing. Tomasky regards this approach as fundamentally flawed; he believes that Obama “lost about 8 points among independents who hated the deal because it symbolized dysfunction and because the president looked weak.”

Tomasky’s prescription is, as he puts it, “absurdly simple.” To be re-elected, Obama needs to win the votes of his liberal base as well as the hodgepodge of independents who propelled him into office in 2008. He “needs to accentuate the items on which the two groups more or less agree and fight hard for them,” because independents reward candidates who stand behind their beliefs. Those beliefs can’t be too left-wing — this is the difference between Tomasky’s suggestions and Rich’s — but they do need to be genuine. As long as the stances on which Obama refuses to budge are attractive to both liberals and independents — “protecting Social Security and being open to some defense cuts” are two examples Tomasky gives — voters who don’t identify with either party will begin to identify with Obama. Tomasky is convinced that strong leadership is the key to independent votes, a theory at odds with Jackie Calmes and Mark Landler of the Times, who stick to the traditional conflation of independents and centrists. They write, “[A]ppealing to independents will require some deft politics, since Mr. Obama’s recent switch to a more confrontational approach with Congressional Republicans could cost independent support even as he energizes Democratic voters.” Tomasky would argue the opposite: principled confrontation is not something Obama should back away from.

It’s not a fool-proof roadmap to re-election, and it admittedly involves more than “merely . . . thinking more about the similarities between Democrats and independents than about their differences.” But it’s at least a starting point for the president, who is otherwise getting nowhere fast with liberals or swing voters. More significantly, pundits like Tomasky and Sargent don’t pretend that independents are some unreachable, intellectually savvy group of free-thinkers. A lot of them are more Democratic than they realize — and those are the independents that will make or break the 2012 election.