Monday, November 22, 2010


Whenever I mention “developing a progressive approach that will work for Kansas,” the people I'm talking to look take on a facial expression much like Macauley Culkin looking at himself in the mirror. “Liberals can't win in Kansas,” they say. When I spoke to an experienced Democrat from the west of the state the first thing he said to me was “we have to moderate our message” before spending a lot of the phone call making sure I understood the importance of not letting liberals take over the state party.

Let me explain why I think this is wrong, and to do so I'm going to assume (for the sake of this argument) that we do indeed have to run as moderates in order to win. (Notice how I phrased that - “run as” moderates, not necessarily “be” moderates.)

Riddle me this: Is there a recent case where a winnable race was lost because the Democratic candidate ran as a liberal? Has there ever been a case of a race being lost because state committee people or county committee people were too liberal? Does anyone even care about that?

But there are two prominent recent examples of Democrats who lost races not despite their attempts to stake out moderate stances, but in large part because of them – Nancy Boyda and Raj Goyle. Nancy was so focused on distancing herself from the national party that she missed the Obama wave, and Raj was so intent on turning himself into Jean Schodorf that even the Eagle called him out for dissembling. There are three reasons why this approach doesn't really work:

  • it turns off the base
  • it indicates you don't have the courage of your convictions, and
  • if people want to vote for a Republican, they'll do so.

Let's contrast this with the most successful recent statewide Democrat – Kathleen Sebelius. All of us know that she's a liberal, our opponents know that she's a liberal, but she twice won statewide races (we're not talking piddling little legislative districts here). How was she able to pull of this electoral magic? Because she was a good candidate. Yes, she was able to run as a moderate, but that falls into the category of being a good politician – knowing how to talk to the people you're talking to. If people like our candidates, if they talk about the things people care about, if they're friendly and attractive, they'll be competitive, no matter what they privately believe about single payer healthcare.

A big part of what we need to do in preparation for the next cycle is to discover, cultivate, and raise the visibility of individual Democrats – statewide, in the congressional districts, and even in the legislative districts where possible. When we're doing this, we're not in any position to put litmus tests on potentially attractive Democratic candidates, liberal or moderate - nor should we. I think we need to stop even thinking in those terms; it's internally divisive and it causes us to miss good candidates where they might be available. We should be looking for people who are willing to and capable of running as Democrats – and let's leave the adjectives alone for a while.

(Would the focus on left/center Democratic unity damage the potential for center Democrat/center Republican unity? It's a good question. I would hate to give up what makes us Democrats for the sake of chasing after moderate Republicans – I think that's the mistake Kathleen made when she converted Morrison and Parkinson. Moderate Republicans are possible partners in alliance, but they're not the way to build the party. At this stage we need to be who we are the best we can be, rather than trying to figure out how to be more attractive to someone else. Let's put together a compelling message with competent candidates, and moderate Republicans will come to us - especially given the radical alternatives.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Spreading the blame around

In response to some of the conversations I've been having, and to some of the earlier blog posts, there are some people who feel that I've been too harsh on state Democratic Party chair Larry Gates - specifically, in my criticism that he couldn't find someone to run for governor until it was much too late. I've been told that he called over 100 Kansas Democrats before he found someone who was willing to get in front of Sam Brownback's oncoming train. Well, ok - I can accept that. But even if the candidate had to be Tom Holland, having him in place in early 2009 would have been better than what ended up happening - no candidate in early 2010, and the comedy of errors that led up to that, which I've already talked about, didn't have to happen. And don't tell me that Sebelius didn't declare until March or whatever of the year she ran - she was Insurance Commissioner at the time, and had already won statewide races.

But the mention of Sebelius reminds me that I have to take a moment to criticize the Great Kathleen and her handpicked successor, Mark Parkinson. First, Parkinson. I'm under the impression, though he denies it, that he promised Kathleen he would run for governor before he took the appointment as lieutenant governor, only to announce as soon as he succeeded her that he wasn't going to run. The nice way of looking at it is that he decided to pull himself out of the political fray in order to get the 1% sales tax increase that kept last year's state budget in balance and kept it from doing too much damage to social services. The idea being, if he were running for governor, the budget issue would have become a partisan free-for-all. And the budget was an impressive accomplishment in an anti-tax political environment, and he deserves credit for it.

A less clear "accomplishment" was his handling of the Holcomb coal plant issue, which he seems determined to force through before leaving office (and before new national EPA regs on the construction of new coal plant come on line in January). He cut the legs out of his Environment chief, Rod Bremby, and the people who had done incredible, winning organizational work on this issue, particularly GPACE. From a strictly partisan political point of view this is a mixed bag, because while Kansas greens are furious at the governor about this, the unions are for the plant (jobs) and it might maybe have had some political benefit in Western Kansas (jobs) - that is, it might have before it was stopped by Bremby. As I say, a mixed bag.

But this is a political blog, and I think it's safe to say that the Mark Parkinson, who is after all the Democratic governor of the state, never gave a fig about the fate of the Democratic Party in Kansas. I got a blog posting on my Google Reader in late October saying that he had endorsed the Democratic Attorney General candidate - that's mighty big of you, Mark. But did you see him on the campaign trail? Neither did I. And this was after the budget issue had already been settled, so his "I need to be above partisanship" jig was no longer an excuse.

But the real responsibility for the situation goes back to Kathleen Sebelius. She is after all the one who convinced Parkinson to convert to being a Democrat after a long career as a moderate Republican. (She also convinced former Attorney General Paul Morrison to convert, also with unhappy results.) She left him in charge here when she went off to Washington to save the world. She also didn't spend any time on the campaign trail here, which might have had some effect as she retains popularity in the state.

And, my friends, it was Kathleen Sebelius was who left the cupboard bare when it came to viable candidates in the Democratic Party in Kansas. She was the one who should have been calling prominent Democrats to get them to run, not Larry Gates. It is part of the job of the most prominent statewide politician to make sure that the party infrastructure is prepared for succession - organizationally, financially, and in terms of the talent pool. And she just didn't do that. And the result is what we saw on November 4.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

If he has to be obsessed, at least he's also incompetent

Kansas' new Secretary of State-elect, Kris Kobach, had a setback today when the California Supreme Court ruled that the state could offer in-state tuition to the qualified children of undocumented immigrants. As you know, Kobach has created quite a name for himself developing laws designed to make sure Hispanics vote for Democrats well into the 22nd century - er, that is, making sure that law enforcement officers harass Hispanics, legal or not - er, that is, suppressing the vote. Actually, it's all of those.

As this article points out, Kobach likes to parade his expertise as a constitutional lawyer, but the problem is that the laws he supports are found unconstitutional. That's why there's a Republican effort to change the constitution to further enable harassment of Hispanics.When in doubt, throw the Constitution out - that's their motto.

The California case will probably be appealed to the Supreme Court, and it's an open question whether it will succeed there, given the current court's devil-may-care attitude toward the Consitution. But some things are clear:

1) this has nothing to do with Kansas,
2) Kris Kobach won't pay much attention to his job here in Kansas if there's anti-immigrant hay to be made in Arizona, California or anywhere else, and
3) he won't let a little thing like the job description of the job he's been elected to constrict his activiites.

An interesting wrinkle to all this is that Governor-elect Brownback has a mixed record on immigration reform - that is, he doesn't have the 100% anti-immigrant bona fides of Kobach and some of his other Republican colleagues:
I have also called for a comprehensive solution to the current immigration problem, which includes border and interior enforcement first, removing criminal immigrants, reducing chain migration, creating sufficient legal paths for controlled immigration, while providing an opportunity for immigrants with clean records who are employed, learn English, pay fines, and pay back-taxes to assimilate.
Hmmm, "comprehensive solution"? sounds like "amnesty" to some who like to make anti-immigration hay:
Senator Sam Brownback actively encourages more illegal immigration to our country and is in our opinion a threat to this nation. We cannot give Sam Brownback our seal of approval. 
A "threat to this nation"? Wow - I didn't know Sam had it in him.

One of the first bills likely to be passed by the new legislature is a requirement that voters carry photo IDs, and that's likely to be only the first of many similar bills - in-state tuition most decidedly among them. Given that Republicans statewide are likely to look at Kobach's election as a green-light to use this as a wedge issue, it will be interesting to see if Brownback chooses to stand on his much-publicized principles on this issue, or if he will cave to the anti-immigration sentiment. Personally, I don't think principle will get very far.

h/t Kansas Free Press

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Kansas Republican Party

A pretty little piece of bigotry, from the Topeka Capitol-Journal:

Rep. Joe Seiwert, a Pretty Prairie Republican re-elected this month to another two-year term, sent an e-mail recently to about 40 people indicating Muslims couldn't be considered U.S. patriots because they owed their allegiance to Islam....

When asked about the Muslims living in Reno County, Seiwert said: "Sure, there's murderers. There's tax evasion people. There's all kinds of people" living in his district." ... 
The e-mail, apparently part of an essay written by someone else but passed along by Seiwert, said Muslims "cannot be both 'good' Muslims and good Americans. Call it what you wish, it's still the truth. You had better believe it. The more who understand this, the better it will be for our country and our future."

Unfortunately, anti-Muslim prejudice is par for the course these days, as the rather exhausted response from the representative of CAIR in Washington makes clear. But, aside from coming from an elected official who's supposed to be representing all of his constituents (even the 1% who are listed as "Asian" or "other" on his district's demographic data), is his bewildered response when called on his obvious racism:

"Everybody has an opinion, and with the right to freedom of speech or whatever, we should be able to say whatever we want to without having to be worried about what we say.

"Actually, it's an insult to me that you're trying to make something out of this deal, because I have the right to freedom of speech no different, no different than anybody else does," Seiwert said. "All I did is forward it on."
It would be quite a surprise to George Allen, say, or Carl Paladino, that a politician "should be able to say whatever we want to without having to be worried about what we say." You can say what you want, Assemblyman, but you should expect to be held accountable for it - by the press, and hopefully, eventually, from your voters.  
"Are you trying to make a political issue out of this because I'm a politician?" he asked.
Ah, finally he said something sensible.

h/t @ksdems

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How we got here - Part 2

The results of the elections in Kansas were similar to the results in a lot of other states, particularly in the south, the midwest and the "rust belt" states, where Democrats took a beating. The conventional wisdom from the Beltway pundits - a "wisdom" rightwingers are happy to parrot and promote - is that President Obama governed too much from the left, and that his reliance on "big government" solutions got away from what the country wanted when they voted him and the Democratic Congress into power two years ago.

Well, I used a certain epithet in my last posting, so I won't use it again here, but I don't agree with this line of thinking at all. When you look at it from with some perspective I think it's pretty clear that Obama and the Democratic Congress did a damn good job for the past two years. A healthcare overhaul - necessary and long overdue - passed for the first time in history; financial reform; a stimulus package that paid attention to dire, long-needed infrastructure needs in this country. Even the auto bailout seems to have worked. Like a lot of progressives, I have my criticisms of what President Obama - which I'll get to in a moment - but he and the outgoing Congress have a heck of a lot to be proud of.

I also remember that in 1994 - the midterms of Bill Clinton's first term - the Democrats were running on a healthcare proposal that didn't get out of committee and a deficit reduction package that was criticized by both left and right but that set the stage for the prosperity of the rest of that decade - and got creamed then too. I don't think anyone today would say that Clinton was governing from too far to the left, but they sure as hell said it then. When you make an omelet, the people who's eggs you're breaking will do what they can to stop you.

So if that's so, what did cause this bloodletting? I'm sure you have cable TV and/or access to the internet, so you don't really need my dime-store punditry. But this is my blog, so I'll give it to you anyway:
  • the economy, the economy, the economy and the economy. A lot of people who were inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Obama started to doubt him when the stimulus didn't magically turn economic water into wine. I don't think there's any question that if unemployment were at 5 or 6% and the economic growth rate were at 3 or 4 percent, the Democrats would still have the House and maybe some of the governors' mansions besides.
  •  Obama seemed to lose control of the process in Washington. His refusal to guide the formulation of the various healthcare bills that wended their way through Congress - or at least, to weigh in on them publicly - led to the impression that Congress was in charge, with all the sausage-making metaphors that that implies. The same is probably true of the stimulus package and financial reform. 
  • The "vast rightwing conspiracy" that Hilary Clinton named is far more powerful than it was even back in her husband's time. There is an endless supply of rightwing attack dogs on the radio, and of course they have their own dedicated propaganda outlet on cable TV. The Citizens United decision opened the door for unlimited corporate interference in the electoral process, as we saw in the last election - which heavily committed rightwinger used to their advantage. 
  • The combination of a ginned up conservative base and a lacklaster turnout from the Obama's 2008 coalition led to what we saw last week.
I said I had some criticism of Obama, and I think these factors had something to do with last week as well: Obama seems so interested in compromise that he keeps giving away chips before they are asked for - the public option being a prime example. He also ignored or backburnered a lot of the issues that progressives care most about - carbon, DADT, ending the wars, civil liberties, the DREAM Act, etc. Obviously you can't do everything, but the feeling in the left precincts is that he did a lot for the insurance industry and for Wall Street, but not so much for the middle and working classes. This seems like a chronic condition in the Democratic Party these days (Bill Clinton suffered from it too), and it'll have to be dealt with if the Democrats are to build their electoral majority again.This will only get worse if, as seems possible or even likely, Obama caves on the Bush tax cuts.

Add to this Obama's unwillingness to tap into populist discontent towards bankers and Wall Street, leaving the field to rightwingers whose only criticism is of government. That is, they're mad at the government for bailing out the bankers, but if you try to go after the bankers, then you're anti-business. A little "give 'em hell" would have gone a long way towards making people feel that the government understood what they were going through, but Obama's too cool for that - to his and our detriment. 

Another aspect of this that has significance for us here in Kansas is that Obama was elected, not as the outgrowth of many years of organization, but as a sort of Knight in shining armor. It wasn't about a movement, or about what the Democratic Party stands for - it was about Obama. That's in part a result of our system and our media lending themselves to personality politics. But without an ongoing organization, electoral success is lightning in a bottle cannot be replicated and politicians who wonder too far from their promises cannot be reined in from the left - only from the right. Is there any question that Democrats are completely dependent in 2012 on Obama getting his mojo back? Is that really how we want things to be?

Let's compare this to the Republicans. Republicans have spent the past 30 years developing bullet points that can be recited in any situation - smaller government, lower taxes, blah blah blah. It doesn't matter that they never do these things when they're in power - what matters is that they have a whole infrastructure of media, think tanks and activists dedicated to implanting these bullet points deep into the American psyche.

And what do we Democrats have? Once in a while, we have a charismatic candidate. As we can see in the current infighting between Blue Dogs and Progressives in the House caucus, we can't even agree on basic principles!

The reason this resonates in Kansas is that in the last few years the statewide success of the party was largely dependent on one single individual - Kathleen Sebelius. When she went away, the whole thing fell apart. Again - is this really how we want things to be?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How we got here - Part 1

Before we get to the "where do we go from here" part, we have to take a moment to look at the "how did we get here" part. Let's start by looking at the Kansas piece.

Look, this was a national wave, there's no question about it. If you look at the people who lost their races in other parts of the region this election - the Ike Skeltons and the Russ Feingolds and the Blanche Lincolns -- there's no question that most of these folks would have won in almost any other electoral atmosphere. So it's certainly not untrue to say that what happened in Kansas was part and parcel of what happened everywhere else in the country that isn't on the east or west coasts.   

But is that all there is to it? What I'm hearing from the county committee meetings taking place now is that they are pretty much in agreement with Party Chair Larry Gates' comments right after the election:
“We start out every (election) cycle with a head wind against us, and we know that going in,” Gates said. “And there was a huge gale coming in from Washington. You try to think of what you could have done better … there was not a darn thing I could have done.”
To which I say - bullshit. Rationalizing, self-pitying, pathetic bullshit. This whole two-year cycle that began with the 2008 election has been a nightmare from the point of view of anyone who cares about the Democratic Party in Kansas - a train wreck in slow motion, easily foreseeable, and clearly foreseen, by anyone who has any sense.

Let's start with candidate recruitment, shall we?  Remember: we knew all along that Brownback was going to be the GOP candidate, and we needed a strong candidate to stand against him. Governor Parkinson said from the beginning that he wasn't going to run. Yet throughout 2009 there was no gubernatorial candidate; Gates himself cleared the decks for a run before suddenly announcing in October of that year that he wasn't going to. Nice. Then he came up with Tom Wiggans, who had returned to Kansas after a career in California and promptly crashed and burned within a month of his announcement. Even nicer. So 2009 turned into 2010 and there was still no Democratic candidate for the most important position in the state.

How much of that is the national mood responsible for, Larry?  Like I say - pathetic.

Look, it's perfectly possible - I would even say probable - that Jesus Christ himself couldn't have won as a Democratic candidate for governor of Kansas in 2010. Tom Holland - the state senator who eventually took on the thankless task - did a decent enough job, for a guy who started out late and from nothing. But 15 lost assembly seats was not preordained. Losing all but one seat in Johnson County was not preordained. These were failures of organization, failures of hard work, failures of candidate recruitment, and failures of messaging. And these things are not preordained.

I guess the nicest way to put this is that we appreciate the efforts the current state party officials put in under difficult circumstances- not forgetting that some of those circumstances were of their own making. It's time to let someone else give it a shot.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What I'd like this blog to be

In the wake of the destruction of the Democrats in Kansas that took place last Tuesday, I believe there is an opportunity now to take a step back and ask ourselves, What do we want the Democratic Party to stand for, and fight for, in the next few years?

Related to that is the question, What does it mean to be a progressive in Kansas. What would it take to build a progressivism that would work, as policy and as politics, in our red, prairie state?

I keep asking leading Democrats (well, any I can find) this question, and they're really not interested in dealing with it, for reasons I will explore in future posts. But the word "progressive" scares a lot of people, and I'm not sure why. To me it's clear that a Kansas brand of progressivism would look different from a Massachusetts or California brand. And anyway, giving away our brand - the very thing we have to offer - or treating it as radioactive, is self-defeating: it won't help our future electoral prospects, or help us build an infrastructure, or help us to work, or fight, for what we believe in.

To me, we have to start from the slogan I've taken for this blog: "Fighting for the right while we fight against the Right." This means that our mission and our message must be two-fold: developing effective and convincing policy solutions to the issues that face the people of Kansas, while we use every means available to us to oppose the truly devastating policies soon to be visited upon us by the extremist cabal empowered in Topeka. 

So the fundamental questions this blog will deal with are: What does it mean to be a prairie progressive? How can we develop a homegrown progressivism that can be successful in terms of both policy and politics? and how do we build a party that depends less on the star power of statewide candidates and more on a) good policy proposals - well thought-out, factually supportable and helpful to the people of the state - and b) great grassroots organizing?

I hope that this blog will be an opportunity for progressives throughout the state to help me think through these issues. I have ideas but I certainly don't have the experience or the wisdom to do more than offer my opinions. I hope you will take the opportunity to weigh in on what I have to say and offer ideas and opinions of your own.

Because, my friends, it is only together that we will be able to get through this coming period of darkness and get to the light on the other side.