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Beginning in 2003, Democrat Artur Davis represented Alabama’s 7th District for four terms in Congress. Following a defeat in Alabama’s 2010 gubernatorial primary, he retired from politics. Late last year, Davis left the Democratic Party and became an independent.
Davis is currently a Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. This conversation took place in his IOP office on February 15th.
MATT BIEBER: It’s been clear for a while now that the Republicans and Democrats in Congress are less able to get along and work together than they did in decades past. It also seems like they like each other less. Is that right? What did your day-to-day encounters with Republican colleagues look like?
ARTUR DAVIS: Well, there was a big difference in the level of bipartisan engagement…over the eight years that I served in Congress.
When I got in Congress in 2003, it was a very different political environment from the one that exists today or the one that existed during my last years in Congress. As hard as it is to reconstruct today, President Bush was extremely popular at that time, had a 60+% approval rating. Congress had done a number of bipartisan initiatives from No Child Left Behind to the Sarbanes-Oxley financial reform bill. A significant number of Democrats had voted for the Bush tax cuts, and there was almost unanimous support in early 2003 for President Bush’s policies on terror [and] the PATRIOT Act. There was even a significant amount of Democratic support for the war in Iraq, but that was a much more controversial proposition.
So, when I arrived in Congress, it was during a time when Democrats and Republicans regularly shared the same political views on important issues, when they regularly worked together even on issues that were deeply controversial, like healthcare. There was a bipartisan coalition of Ted Kennedy, John Edwards and John McCain who were pushing for something that [is now] long-forgotten, called the Patient’s Bill of Rights. That was thought to be a very important area of improving the quality of healthcare ten years ago. And you had John McCain and John Edwards leading the floor fight from both sides of the aisle. Campaign finance reform, for that matter – McCain-Feingold united Republicans and Democrats.
By the time I left Congress, there was no significant bipartisan legislative activity – none. We went from a time that produced a number of bipartisan [bills] to a time in which there were virtually none.
When I first came to the House, most members of Congress went back to their districts and routinely touted the relationships that they’d built across the aisle. It was considered to be good politics for Democrats to go back home and say, “I work with Republicans to get things done,” and vice versa. By the time I left, the best politics was members going back to their districts and saying, “I’m standing there fighting the Republicans” or “I’m standing there fighting the Democrats.”
This campaign cycle, the Democratic members of Congress facing primaries are not going around talking about the Republicans they work with. They’re talking about how they’re standing and fighting with Barack Obama to save Medicare and Social Security. The Republicans who are facing primaries are not going back to their districts and talking about the relationships they have with Democrats. They’re talking about their efforts to repeal Obamacare and stop Democratic spending.
So, there’s been a change in how members describe their work. There’s been a change in how members perceive what voters want them to do and be, and it’s created a much more hyper-partisan environment. An important thing to point out, there were 63 new Republicans in 2010, and there were about 80 races that were competitive.
It sounds like a lot until you realize that there are 435 districts. Now I will certainly trust you do the math better than me, but subtract 80 from 435 and you’re left with in the upper threes – that’s the number of districts that were not competitive in one of the most fractious, volatile cycles we’ve ever seen, and a cycle where Republicans gained more seats than their party had gained since the 1930s.
Most people don’t know that, or they know it but never thought about the significance of it. When 350-some seats are not contested, that means that first of all, for the given member of Congress, they’re not terribly worried about the Democrat or Republican. They’re worried about the person who may be building to challenge them in the primary. If you’re a Democrat, you’re worried about the guy who is active in Organizing for America, who’s out there moving around the grassroots and who’s arguing that you’re not doing enough to fight Republicans. If you’re a Republican, you’re [worried about] the young Republican Tea Party activist who’s going around saying, “We need a fighter, someone who will hold the line on spending and not someone who’s working with those people.” So, it causes both sides to structure their politics in a way that’s very oriented toward their political base.
MB: How did that shift affect the way that you worked together on a day-to-day basis? I’ve read that, say, 40 or 50 years ago, members knew that their friends in Congress would have to go out and say rough stuff about them during campaign season, but that members didn’t take it too personally. Now that things have gotten so much more fiercely partisan, has that willingness to forgive ebbed at all?
AD: You know, when members perceive there’s a political advantage in working across the aisle, it’s very easy for members to build social relationships with people across the aisle. That’s just human nature and it’s good politics. If you believe that you’re going to need to work with this person on your committee to get a bill done, you think it’s in your political interest to do that, and you think that the political process is conducive to a bipartisan bill movement, it makes it a lot easier to spend time chatting with someone across the aisle or to say to a member, “Let’s go and grab lunch,” in the member’s dining room or to run into a member as they’re leaving the floor at eight o’clock at night and say, “Look, I’m starving. Let me go get something to eat.” Typically in the political world, politics drives social relationships and not the other way around. People often form social relationships with people they work with.
So, as the place became more polarizing and there was less space and less interest in things happening on a bipartisan basis, it cut away some of that interest that members have in developing relationships.
In my experience, there’s always a surface cordiality that exists. That was the case in 2010 as much as in 2003. Members regularly run into each other in the airport, on planes, and often sit next to each other, so it’s not uncommon for there to be a level of cordiality. But I did notice that there seemed to be fewer constructive, meaningful relationships across party lines.
And frankly, over the period of time that I was there, I would say that members seemed to develop more of a mindset that their friends were people who are also are in their political caucus, and even often people who thought like they did. You would kind of notice that the Blue Dogs hang out together, that people in the Progressive Caucus hang out together, that the black and Latino members have their relationships. And I suspect the same kind of thing, to some degree, happens on the Republican side. Relationships would form more within your political identity.
I don’t know if that’s a new phenomenon or not, but it was something that was very pronounced about the Democratic caucus that I observed. Sure, you have people who’ve been there for years and built alliances, but as you move toward the newer generation of members, their friendships and alliances tended to be with people who were their year or people who were kind of a similar ideology or people who had a similar political profile, and it became more of a narrow-casting than I think some people would expect.
MB: This insight – that the work drives the social relationships, rather than the other way around – suggests to me that the fractiousness we see in Congress won’t get better until the general political climate becomes more favorable to bipartisanship.
AD: Until the political climate realigns itself in a way that Congress is expected to produce, you’re not going to get a significant difference. Until the political climate realigns itself in a way that voters are demanding action on particular fronts, you’re not going to see much of a change. I often say to people, whatever political outcome happens in 2012, it is very hard to make a case that any of it will produce a significant amount of legislative activity.
Let’s say best case for Democrats, Barack Obama wins by 8-10 points, Democrats retake the House, Democrats strengthen their hold on the Senate. It’s questionable whether anything other than repealing the Bush tax cuts on millionaires would happen. People ask the question: Well, if you have an easy Obama win, Democrats take the House and consolidate their strength in the Senate, what agenda items would move? Well, let’s look at the two years when Democrats controlled the Congress and had a Democratic president. Cap and trade still didn’t move. It’s not likely that that would change.
Let’s say the Republican nominee wins [and] Republicans keep the House and take the Senate. It’s not clear what would happen. There is no single legislative item that you can say with certainty would happen in the first 90 or 120 days or the first year of the kind of Republican alignment I described, because there’s no consensus in either party on the next direction for the country.
There’s consensus in the Democratic ranks about raising taxes on millionaires. There’s consensus in Republican ranks about repealing Obamacare, but no consensus on what to replace it with, no consensus on whether the politics of the moment would permit a straightforward repeal without a replace strategy, no consensus on what the replace vehicle would look like, no consensus on whether elements of the healthcare bill – like the exchanges or pre-existing illness conditions –ought to be included within the Republican reform; there’s vast disagreement over that. So, again, even if Republicans were to get exactly what they want, it is hard to make the case that you would get substantive legislative action.
So, whenever people say that the reason we’re not getting things done in Washington is because there’s political gridlock and if either side breaks the gridlock – well, the reality is that today, there’s so little consensus in either party on what the next steps ought to be that I think you would see very little legislative proactivity regardless of what happens this year.
MB: You mentioned Democrats’ unanimity around the goal of repealing the tax cuts on millionaires. Obviously, that would leave intact the tax cuts in place for everyone else, and that’s what the president has said he favors.
AD: Yeah, there’s unanimity on that. Obviously, that is about the only major policy item today on which I think there is unanimity from the Democrat caucuses.
MB: Let me ask about that in particular. You recently wrote in the National Review that “an Obama sweep would, for the first time in 76 years, institute government-centered, redistributionist economics as the country’s central governing philosophy.” That seems like an awfully big claim. If the Democrats’ ambitions don’t run beyond restoring the tax rates on millionaires to Clinton-era levels, say, and maybe – if they’re lucky – fiddling with capital gains or carried interest, that doesn’t seem like such a wild change.
AD: That’s a fair point, but here’s the difference: most presidents who’ve won election – in fact, I would submit that every President who’s won election in the modern era on the Democratic side – has pretty much won as a centrist, or they’ve won in such a way that their political agenda was muted. When Jack Kennedy won in 1960, he didn’t win as a liberal hero; he won as the guy who was going to deal with the missile gap. Lyndon Johnson in ’64 honestly won as the guy who wasn’t that crazy Barry Goldwater. Jimmy Carter won as the guy who was going to fix Washington and bring honesty in the process and never lie to the American people; that’s not an ideological agenda. Bill Clinton won in ’92 as a nontraditional Democrat who was not going to follow Democrat politics as usual.
Barack Obama won as the guy who was going to turn the page, as the guy who was going to alter the political environment. Barack Obama did not run on the healthcare bill, you know. That was not a major thing that Obama talked about, except for the debates where Hillary pressed him on it. Obama was the last candidate to actually introduce a healthcare proposal—which if you go back and look at what he proposed in ’07, it’s much different from the law as actually enacted.
If Obama were to win this year and if Democrats were to win the House this year, the belief in the Democratic Party would be that that kind of ratified a certified notion of activist government, a certain notion of an agenda that was focused on redistribution, and that would be the governing philosophy within the party. Now, would that philosophy translate into legislative action? For the reasons I mentioned, it’s arguable that it would not – in fact, it’s probable that it would not. But all politics is not about Congress. What the agencies do, what the regulators do, is enormously important. The political mood that’s set is important, and what the courts do is very important.
This is what’s at stake in this election: If Democrats have the kind of sweep that it appears possible that they could have, that would introduce as the dominant political philosophy, a notion of a powerful government-centric approach, a notion of redistribution as an important economic strategy in a way that no previous election really since the 1930’s has done. That is a big deal for Democrats who value that view of the world and it’s a threat for Republicans who don’t value that view of the world. That’s not an ideological point; it’s a description of what we’re facing.
That’s why there’s a lot at stake in this election. This election, more than most, is about ratifying a particular notion of government. That even if the legislative process can’t rise to that notion, there are many other levels of government that can rise to it. It also sets a political mood that will shape state governors’ races. It creates a political mood that will drive politics all across the county and up and down the spectrum.
That’s what makes this election significant for both sides. If Republicans lose this election the way I described, the notion will be that the Republican notion of deregulation, the Republican anti-government notion – the Republican defense, if you will, of the status quo in our economy – the perception will be that that vision and that philosophy was crushed.
When Artur G. Davis ’90 graduated from Harvard as a government concentrator, he says he never imagined that 13 years later he would be an Alabama congressman.
“I never really expected to be a politician,” Davis says. “When I was [at Harvard], I wanted to be a journalist.”
Yet in his junior year, he realized that, without having worked on any of the campus papers, it was unlikely that he could pursue a career in journalism.
“I finally did what all the other people who are undecided in Harvard elected to do,” Davis says, “and that’s go to law school.”
Of the seven fellows at the Institute of Politics this semester, three graduated from one of the schools at Harvard University: Davis, Farai N. Chideya ’90, and Steven P. Schrage, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 2004.
The at-times unpredictable career trajectories of these individuals—from Harvard students to Harvard IOP fellows—reveal a common theme: being flexible and embracing unexpected opportunities can open many doors.
Davis first became interested in politics in elementary school, when he moved on from comic book super heroes to historical figures.
“When I was first interested in history, I saw historical figures as these kinds of heroic individuals who had done in real life the things people did in Greek mythology and comic books,” he says with a smile. “I was always fascinated by the fact that the people who matter…faced a lot of setbacks and were people who had to evolve and become the personalities and personas that we attach to them now.”
Yet while Davis studied government and history at the College, he was uncertain about his future career path.
“The Harvard tradition is if you don’t quite know what you want to do senior year, you go to law school to keep your options open,” he said.
Davis saw a law degree as very applicable to a range of disciplines. He notes that many of his friends ultimately practiced law even after pursuing medical or business degrees.
Chideya, a professional journalist and author, says that she agrees it is not unusual or problematic to go through several careers in a lifetime.
“It’s not a bad idea to do something then jump into something else,” she said. “I have many friends who have law degrees who don’t practice—some are in tech, some in journalism, some in marketing.”
Chideya says she knew she wanted to be a fiction writer, but she was less certain about journalism.
“I was not entirely sure that I wanted to be a journalist—so it was a really great process of being organically introduced to the business, learning from great people who have often been in the business for 20 to 40 years.”
Chideya concentrated in English at the College, studying Shakespeare and the modern novel, an education that she says shaped the way she looked at politics.
She also wrote for The Harvard Independent but says she was not “a hardcore journalism person.” Her turning point was a summer internship with Newsweek, which evolved into a job during the semester.
At Newsweek, her boss let her take interesting assignments, including reporting at a women’s prison and covering a same-sex custody battle.
“I got to do some really interesting work, and that’s what got me into doing [journalism],” Chideya says.
Citing shifts in interest like Chideya’s, Davis notes that students’ most challenging choice is not deciding what to do decades down the road but rather organizing the first five years of their post-undergraduate life.
“It’s the first time for a lot of Harvard students to not have an obvious next step, because for many students the next step after high school was Harvard,” Davis explains.
FIRST STEPS, FIRST JOBS
When Schrage graduated from Duke University, he knew he wanted to travel the world before moving on with his career goals.
After attending bartending school and managing a restaurant to save money, Schrage embarked on a series of global adventures. He talked with students in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident, rode camels alongside smugglers on the India-Pakistan border, motorcycled in the Golden Triangle area in Southeast Asia, slept on rooftops in Old Jerusalem, and traveled on third-class trains across Indonesia.
“It really gave me a way to experience the world…and see how people lived, how they dealt with issues, so that really sparked my curiosity in terms of the international dimension,” he says.
After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, Schrage began work at the State Department Legal Adviser’s Office, which inspired his political career.
“This was at the time when the control of Congress switched for the first time in 40 years,” he says. “I saw it as an opportunity to get involved, make a difference in changing some of the institutions, taking policies into a new direction—young people could make a difference in that.”
CAREERS IN TRANSITION
For Davis, the move towards a career in political office began with a lost election.
“The core question you need to ask is: Do you really want to do the job, and would you do a good job?” he says. “I felt quite frankly that I could be a good congressman.”
Dissatisfied with the incumbent’s abilities, Davis set up a campaign for a position in the House of Representatives as an unknown with no history in politics, no connections, and no donors or campaign workers.
“I put together about as much of a shoe-string campaign as one could conceive,” Davis says. “And I learned that $1.4 million goes way further than $70,000.”
Despite losing the election, Davis decided that politics was a route through which he could make a tangible difference, and he ran for the same position again two years later in 2002.
“I felt that I had done well enough and made enough connections to do it again,” Davis says. “And there was nothing else I wanted to do more, no other path that struck me as a more fulfilling one.”
He won and went on to be a four-term congressman.
Chideya’s career also reached a memorable turning point. After publishing “Don’t Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African Americans” in 1995, she received an offer from CNN to be a political analyst. She soon shifted to radio and pioneering in online websites.
She says that having control over her own work was an appealing aspect of writing, which helps explain why she did not choose a more “traditional,” structured job.
“If you write a book, you ultimately are responsible for what’s on the page, and I like that,” she says.
Schrage says he feels the risks and sacrifices involved in transitioning out of previous jobs have ultimately been rewarding.
When he was Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank, he received an offer from Senator Scott Brown to be his chief of staff. “It was a tough decision, because I had a job I loved very much,” Schrage said. “But I felt that Scott Brown had a very unique opportunity in policy during his first year to bridge the gaps in Washington.”
MANY WAYS TO GET INVOLVED
Davis feels that learning about the history behind political decision is crucial for anyone interested in pursuing a career in politics.
“A lot of people who walk into politics have no real sense of history—they don’t have a real sense of the continuity of problems and arguments we are currently having,” he says.
Davis also believes many students underestimate the influence they can have through politics.
“Handing out signs in New Hampshire is not for everyone…working at phone banks is not for everyone,” he says. “If you’re not going to do it well or with enthusiasm, you’re better off not doing it.”
However, he emphasizes that there are many ways to get involved in politics beyond these traditional activities.
“I feel that Harvard students are reluctant to get involved in politics unless it’s electing the next president of the United States, but there’s a lot of [local] opportunities out there,” he said. “If you get involved in campaigns at a local level, it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn more of politics and see how it plays out on a day in and day out basis. Don’t be afraid to help out.”
For the many students who are uncertain about their future paths, Chideya emphasizes the importance of simply making decisions and taking risks.
“If you don’t know what you want to do, experiment,” she says. “Get a job you think you’ll like…make decisions, and realize they won’t always be perfect. It’s a hard thing for Harvard students to hear, but it’s okay to be not perfect.”
—Staff writer David Song can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As originally published in POLITICO’s The Arena: JFK revisionism is always jarring, but no longer surprises. The disdain toward John Kennedy in conservative intellectual circles seems borne out of contempt that he was what the right suspects about Barack Obama – unaccomplished, stylistic rather than substantive, a media darling who rose on the wings of a star-struck press.
In my college years, it was the left-wing that was just as fierce – to them, Kennedy was a cold warrior who dug our grave in Vietnam and almost postured and bluffed into a nuclear war. To younger African American intellectuals, he was too passive on civil rights, too much of a follower to deserve the spot on the wall next to Dr. King in the grandparent’s living room.
There is something that is meaner, though, in this week’s round of coverage of Mimi Alford’s tell-all regarding an affair between herself and Kennedy during her stint as a White House intern. Timothy Noah, at the New Republic, tops it off with a headline, “JFK: Monster”. But he only goes where others have gone this week: a condemnation of Kennedy as a psychological torturer, a crude user of a 19-year-old, and a voyeur.
One point ought to be offered, perhaps not in Jack Kennedy’s defense, but in defense of those of us who still have not defined our view of him downward. I think that the theory that Noah articulates, that the president’s moral authority is further compromised, is just wrong. Kennedy’s moral dimensions never really drew on the shape of his private life: the sixties were too full of faithful men who burned crosses after church services, and shadowed men like Strom Thurmond, who defiled young black women while passing on dirt on Martin Luther King, for a conventional moral cloak to have meant much during that time.
Instead, the moral gloss that was Kennedy’s was the aura of a man brave enough to defend civil rights as a spiritually clear, compelling force. The night he went on TV and promoted integration that way, and queried if a white could bear to live the conditions of a black, Jack Kennedy did a moral thing. How he might have spent the rest of that night does not diminish it.
Kennedy was equally moral when he stood on a wall in Berlin and described capitalism and democracy as flawed instruments that still never had to stoop to build walls to keep their people in. That is the insight of someone offering the world a case for freedom that rested on dignity and not power or dogma – another word for that inspiration is morality. The same goes for the American University speech that embraced the seeds of detente as the need of a human race that “breathed the same air” and was equally at risk from missiles.
The fact is that Kennedy lived in the twilight between a time when politicians made no major pretensions of moral authority and a time when they over-did it, and their family portraits started obscuring the thinness of their records. His public morality seems gauzy, now, for two reasons: the tedium of the public debate today makes us forgetful about a more elevated era; and the term “morality” has been limited, and folded and stuffed in a box that the dullest of politicians can own (or profess to own).
What Jack Kennedy did with, and to Mimi Alford, is fodder for stone casters with no blemishes. When the couple of them get through, Kennedy will have some chinks. The moral authority will still be there.
You could have gotten a decent bet ten years ago that Rick Santorum would emerge as a finalist for the Republican presidential nomination circa 2012: He had the telegenic presence, the savvy required to dislodge incumbents in a fiercely competitive environment like Pennsylvania, and a reliably conservative record that was middle-class-friendly. Then the 2006 midterm intervened and Santorum’s fortunes seemed destroyed.
It wasn’t just that Santorum lost in 2006; that year was lethal for many Republican officeholders. It was the size of the loss — almost 20 points — and the trail of baggage from the race: a clumsy response to attacks that he had “gone Washington” and was barely in the state; impolitic comments on homosexuality; and a poorly run campaign that never seemed combat-ready. Instead of being offered a sinecure in the middle tier of the Bush White House, or getting a head start on the next governor’s race, Santorum faded into the oblivion of lobbying and consulting that is Washington’s graveyard.
That he has been resurrected, and has a genuine pathway to his party’s nomination, is equal parts perseverance and the unintended consequence of a weak, flawed field. The perseverance part is no small thing: Occupying the afterthought slot, and making the most of ten-attendee campaign events, is a demeaning kind of existence that can make a man choke on the “when I am president” line. But the larger part of the saga is that there is a vacuum in the top ranks of the GOP, and circumstances are requiring Republicans to fill that vacuum quickly.
Liberals are convinced that the Republican party is a captive of social conservatives who pine for a reconstitution of the early Sixties. The reality is that the elected Republicans who prioritize social issues tend to be buried in state legislatures or on the congressional back-benches. In contrast, the party’s congressional and presidential-caliber elite have been fixated for a generation on an economic agenda, and typically regard the values debate as a distraction. The party has not nominated a candidate since Reagan who made repeal of Roe v. Wade a point of focus (and it was his taped voice, not his actual presence, that anti-Roe demonstrators in D.C. received every January during the Eighties). Republican ideological enforcers, from Grover Norquist to the Tea Party, are free-market crusaders bent on limiting government, not growing its capacity to shape the culture.
That history explains why an open Republican nomination fight did not produce a top-tier social conservative. It clarifies why the conservative case against Barack Obama was, for most of 2011, a predominately economic one tied to Obamacare and big spending, and why the rare ventures into cultural territory — Gingrich on judges, Perry on school prayer — were fleeting and ineffectual.
But 2012 is taking on a different coloring. The economy is hardly robust, but is not cratering, either. An administration that assiduously dodged the culture wars for three years has plunged headfirst into a fight over contraception and Catholic hospitals. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling on gay marriage prefigures a Supreme Court ruling on the issue. One of the nation’s largest abortion providers, Planned Parenthood, just routed a respected, mainstream breast-cancer charity in a fight that left pro-life forces looking marginalized.
The upshot is that the 40 percent of Republicans who are evangelicals, many of whom fear that their values are under siege, are stirring. Their votes are more crucial than ever for Republican candidates, who can’t count on the economy to defeat Obama. The void that is left by Romney’s history of social moderation, and the chaos in Gingrich’s past, is the one Santorum, an unmitigated values conservative, is beginning to fill.
The conventional wisdom on Santorum’s revival is that Romney is simply inspiring buyer’s remorse, or that Bain Capital and a month of gaffes on his wealth are taking their toll. These are indeed factors, but in addition, social conservatives’ stakes in this election grow stronger by the week. A culture that has historically preserved conscience as a safe haven from majoritarian sentiment is now degrading conscience as “dogma,” or bigotry, deserving of being slapped down. Religious orthodoxy is being reconceived as another special interest that has to stand in line in the public square bidding for approval.
I’ve observed before in these pages that Santorum’s brand of conservatism may be too demanding for the section of the independent electorate that leans right on social issues but is not preoccupied with them. No one seriously questions that pocketbooks first, and national security second, have decided every election in our times. But it’s worth noting that this year, conservative candidates need to take up the classic liberal challenge of asking just what kind of country, and what kind of people, we claim to be. For all of Romney’s rhetoric about the “soul of America” being at issue, his history is one of managing systems. In his one stint in power, his triumph was not changing the culture of Massachusetts, but bending its edges just enough to get by.
An argument can be made that Romney’s approach is safer, and that it might be better suited to addressing problems in a country that is not about to surrender its entitlement programs or regulations. But I will venture a guess that communities of faith, and the integrity of religious associations, may require a sterner defense — and that a brief against big government has to also address the overreach of Washington’s pronouncing church doctrine dead. Conservatives must sense that making this case is not Romney’s strong suit.
In the early months of the election year, a polarizing president with a lackluster approval rating bided his time as the opposition party unraveled. Its nominating fight dissolved into chaos as the establishment front-runner collapsed, and an insurgent with a talent for galvanizing his party’s base surged, despite persistent fears about his electoral appeal beyond the party’s hardcore. A protracted primary fight ensued, with the insurgent and the party’s resistant establishment eviscerating each other for months; by the time it ran its course, a president who seemed imminently beatable was ahead by double digits. The story ends with that same president winning by an historic margin over a party that rejected its recent past in favor of a dangerously uncertain future.
This much should be said in defense of Americans Elect, the ambitious new venture to place a third party on the presidential ballot in 50 states: It at least defends the idea that there is a vibrant center remaining in American politics. That’s no small thing in a season where both parties have based their strategies on mobilizing the Left and Right respectively, and when the most energetic grassroots forces in the last several years — the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street — denigrate the center as feckless and dishonest.
But virtues aside, Americans Elect is just a decently capitalized start-up that still hasn’t raised enough cash to compete in a California governor’s race, much less a nationwide election. It is ostensibly free from the interest-group matrix that dominates each party, but because its donors don’t have to be disclosed under federal tax law, it’s less transparent than any presidential campaign operation in the modern era. It has constructed a state-of-the-art formula for a virtual online convention to pick a nominee, but has apparently shopped its nomination to every retired or retiring self-described moderate who has done a few terms in the Senate. It is a movement of the “responsible center” whose online followers track Ron Paul — the avatar of a politics that stitches the extreme Right and extreme Left together — more than any other political figure.
If Americans Elect amounts to nothing more than a footnote, its failure will be attributed to the obstacles third parties encounter in American politics. But its shortcomings also hint at something deeper: the elite centrism embodied by Americans Elect doesn’t address the fault-lines that are dividing the country, and, as a result, does not resonate with the actual middle ground that, according to Gallup, may comprise as much as 40 percent of the electorate.To the extent an agenda can be gleaned from the impeccably credentialed insiders who form the vanguard for Americans Elect, from Tom Friedman to Mark McKinnon to Christie Todd Whitman, it is a Beltway/Wall Street–approved sensibility more than a program — a consensus of an affluent, cosmopolitan establishment that contentious social issues should be de-emphasized, that the Tea Party’s priorities have too much weight in the Republican party, and that President Obama has failed to summon the nation to an appropriately bold national challenge. The critique of Washington is descriptive — too many pledges, too many organized interests — but weak on details and actual proposals.
As a result, this version of elite centrism has been cryptically ambiguous on a range of policy disputes, from the merits or flaws of more government intervention in the health-care sector, to the balance between individual responsibility and entitlement, to the shape of immigration policy in a strained job market. This centrism is confident of what it doesn’t like — willful indifference to the science of climate change; flat-out refusals to raise taxes — but vague in its response to the erosion of the manufacturing sector and the wage stagnation of blue-collar workers. If elite centrism is troubled by the toll domestic regulations impose in a globally wired economy, or the weight of red tape on small businesses, it doesn’t say so.
On social issues, the silence is even more acute. Should a sweeping judge-made vision of equal protection trump federalism, and the prerogatives of states and communities to promote their own visions of the common good? It’s arguably the pivotal social question after a generation of constitutional rights expanding by non-democratic means, in a society roughly split on touchstones like abortion and gay marriage, but it’s a debate that elite centrism deliberately avoids.
It is not surprising, if Politico’s extensive story last week is to be believed, that Americans Elect has spent so much energy trying to draft either Evan Bayh, Bob Kerrey, Joe Lieberman, Lamar Alexander, or Chuck Hagel — all well-regarded Beltway personalities who are on the record denouncing hyper-partisanship and the collapse of bonhomie in the congressional cloakrooms. But their only major commonalities are an ambidextrous political profile and substantial time spent at a metro-D.C. address. The fact that they are equally appealing to Americans Elect is decisive proof that the organization’s convictions run broad not deep.
Americans Elect probably regards its lack of definition as a strategic asset. It may even be a necessity for an entity that is raising money around the value of an alternative voice, not around what that voice should actually say. But the carefully modulated, nuanced moderation that it embodies, the favored tone in the Acela corridor between New York and Washington, is probably the weakest possible catalyst for dynamic change.
Too much of the elite center was on retainer or in the boardroom when exotic financial instruments were distorting capital markets and Fannie and Freddie were collaborating to take the risk out of lending. Too many of them are immersed in a worldview that is famously tolerant and cosmopolitan, but tone-deaf about the anxieties of blue-collar Catholics and rural evangelicals, who fret that their social and economic moralities are under siege at the same time their communities are becoming poorer. The elite centrists are meritocrats whose children exercise every option of abundance, and are therefore too disconnected from places where ambition and work are not rewarded. Because power has been so good and so stable for them, they have only a thin understanding of how powerlessness and alienation are changing America’s civic culture.
The elite centrists are invariably charming, worldly people. But, to channel a line from Barack Obama channeling Alice Walker, if we want an upheaval, they are not the people we have been waiting for.
— Artur Davis served four terms in Congress representing Alabama’s 7th district.
Former U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, will return to his alma mater as a resident fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
Harvard University announced the seven resident fellows for the spring semester last week.
“Their public service experience throughout local, state and federal government and in journalism and international politics should create strong interest among students, faculty and the entire University community,” said Harvard’s Institute of Politics Director Trey Grayson.
The others are:
Farai Chideya, author, online journalist and host, National Public Radio’s News and Notes program (2006-09)
Margaret McKenna, president, Walmart Foundation (2007-11); president of Lesley University (1985-2007); former deputy under secretary of education and deputy White House counsel to President Jimmy Carter
George Nethercutt, U.S. representative (WA-5, R; 1995-2005)
Steven Schrage, former chief of staff, U.S. senator Scott Brown (R-MA); 2008 foreign policy and trade director, Romney for President campaign; former senior State Department, White House/USTR and G8 official
Ted Strickland, governor of Ohio (2007-11); U.S. representative (OH-6, D; 1993-95 and 1997-2007)
Kathy Taylor, mayor of Tulsa, OK (2006-09); Oklahoma secretary of commerce (2003-06)
The institute is part of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and its “mission is to unite and engage students, particularly undergraduates, with academics, politicians, activists, and policymakers on a non-partisan basis to inspire them to consider careers in politics and public service,” according to the Institute’s website.
Davis had been working in Washington D.C. as an attorney since his unsuccessful run for governor of Alabama in 2010.
Source: Daily Caller
Video footage of undercover reporters obtaining New Hampshire primary ballots intended for people who have died may appear shocking, but it is no surprise to Artur Davis, a former Democratic congressman and vocal advocate against voter ID fraud.
The way to prevent this kind of fraud, he told The Daily Caller, is simple: Require identification at the polls. The activists depicted in the film, released exclusively to TheDC on Wednesday, did not bring any proof of identification to polling places. (RELATED: VIDEO: NH poll workers shown handing out ballots in dead peoples’ names)
“Voter fraud is common in many jurisdictions,” David told TheDC. “I’m struck by the people who forcibly argue there’s no such thing, that it never happens. Many jurisdictions are slow to purge their rolls, so people who have been dead for a number of years can still be on those rolls, and people who have died more recently are certainly on them.” (RELATED: Democrat Artur Davis speaks out [VIDEO])
A law requiring voters to present ID, he continued, “is just one more step in the transparency process.”
“You can’t cash a check, enter a lot of private buildings in Washington, D.C. and New York City without one. It’s just not a serious impediment in peoples’ lives.”
When asked if videos such as the one obtained by TheDC will contribute to changing minds about voter fraud, Davis was skeptical. He was, however, positive about the overall chance of passing voter ID laws despite the opposition.
“In my experience, most people who are exposed to voter ID would not change their opinion if someone walked in front of them and admitted they committed voter ID fraud yesterday — they have their heels dug in. A number of people opposed to voter ID are opposed for political reasons, for reasons that don’t have substance.”
“People plead guilty to fraud,” he said, “and that doesn’t seem to move the opinions of some of those opposed.”
Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson’s announcement that he is retiring from the Senate can be seen in three different ways. One is that he simply confronted poor poll numbers, coupled with the politics of a state red enough that Barack Obama is guaranteed to lose it.
Second, Nelson’s demise can be seen as a final verdict on a maneuver that transpired almost exactly two years ago. In case you forgot, Nelson and his Arkansas counterpart, Blanche Lincoln, are the two conservative Democrats who saved the health-care overhaul in late December 2009. Had these two senators stuck to their criticisms of the bill, it would have died in the Senate in late 2009. The bill likely would have been downsized to a modest expansion of Medicaid and some tighter rules for pre-existing illness exclusions. Instead, both senators, reluctant to be blamed for the failure of a 63-year-old Democratic-agenda piece and fearing nationally funded primary opposition from the left, swallowed hard and voted yes.
Neither Lincoln nor Nelson recovered. Lincoln lost in 2010. For Nelson, a significant infusion of off-year independent ad expenditures and relentless attention to Nebraska-based concerns failed to rescue his numbers from the depths they reached after the health-care vote. In Nelson’s case, the failure must be especially galling — given that he traded his vote for a provision that pumped extra federal Medicaid dollars into his state. The “Nebraska compromise” was never honored, and it was a trade Nebraskans never liked anyway, given their resistance to the rest of the law and, perhaps, their indifference as residents of a low-poverty state to a poverty-based program like Medicaid.
In a less polarized time, the Nelson/Lincoln strategy might have worked. But instead, their states’ heavily conservative voters more or less dismissed the senators as disingenuous poseurs who were trumpeting their independence while obediently serving the interests of their party.
There is one final way to see Nelson’s fall: as one more piece of proof that for the first time in the 150-year history of the two-party alignment, there really is a monolithically conservative party and a just as exclusively liberal party. The ranks of Democratic moderates in both congressional chambers are small now, and their centrism is based more on a demeanor and a skeptical brow than a voting record. Democratic-party-line voting in both chambers is at one of its highest points since FDR’s first term.
That’s a development worth lamenting even if you are a conservative who relishes the likelihood that Nelson’s seat will fall into Republican hands. Obama is still a slight favorite to win reelection, and moderate Democrats have had an unmistakable role in checking his policy ambitions. The fact is that without the resistance of Nelson and Lincoln, as well as Joe Lieberman, the health-care law probably would have contained an even more expensive component, the “public option,” which would have simultaneously ratcheted private premiums even higher.
Not surprisingly, then, some Democrats don’t mind the new shape of things. One more vanished moderate means one less restraint against growing government. The party’s ruling class seems fully prepared to sacrifice whole sections of the country, from the South to the Midwest farm belt, on the theory that inexorable demographic trends will more than make up the losses. It’s all weirdly reminiscent of the projections of strategists in the early Seventies who thought that a surge of new young voters, a rise in minorities, and an explosion of educated suburban professionals meant a sustained Democratic majority. They calculated wrong, and lost three consecutive presidential elections as a result. It’s a risky thing, this business of breaking sharply left in a center-right country.
We never stop fretting over race and politics, largely because neither side of the political divide will let the subject go. Most Democrats I know are convinced that Barack Obama’s struggles are related partly to his race and anxieties over the rise of a multi-cultural power base. The accusations that Herman Cain harassed or aggressively propositioned at least four white women have stirred a new tempest, with conservative defenders of Cain suspecting race is at the bottom of the uproar, and liberals assuming that in the words of one pundit, “the layer of black sexuality” is what will kill off Cain with Republicans
Powerful stuff in a climate that was supposed to be “post-racial”. It’s a vexing enough subject that absurdities are flourishing on both sides: attributing Obama’s slide to race rather than the economy ignores the color-blindness descendants of Confederate soldiers displayed In Virginia and North Carolina in voting for Obama in 2008, or for that matter, the 50% plus approval ratings Obama enjoyed in Alabama and Mississippi in the spring of 09. Is the theory that they just didn’t look hard enough at Obama’s photos? Similarly, asserting that Cain is in a predicament because of race assumes Mitt Romney would get a pass if it was discovered that multiple women at Bain Capital had accused him of harassment and that Bain had paid money to resolve the claims.
There are obvious straw-men at work here who are pretty easy to knock down. I generally agree with Ross Douthat of the New York Times, a smart, thoughtful center right columnist, who writes this week that in politics, ”race matters, but ideology matters much, much more.” But I do find myself agreeing with one argument in circulation and it is worth addressing because it will matter long after Cain is done and collecting lecture fees.
Yes, Cain does inspire a special kind of loathing on the left for reasons that have something to do with his skin color. Full disclosure: I’ve been through a few of these fires, as the only black congressman who opposed Obamacare, as the rare African American politician who supports voter ID laws. I’ve seen it up close–there is a predisposition in some liberal circles to think that a black politician who deviates from the liberal line is “inauthentic” and dishonest, that he is deceptively trying to curry favor with white conservatives at the expense of his own. There is also a perverse kind of resentment that the “strategy” may work, that a black who can win conservative support can cut in line and therefore advance more quickly, that such a candidate will be spared the need to court certain power-brokers.
It’s that second point, that there is resentment at the line of advancement being unfairly cut, that touches some nerves. I will venture some observations that bite, but are hard to dispute if you are a realist. An African American former CEO who has never held elected office and has no minority support base would be a non-starter in Democratic presidential politics. Similarly, in the Democratic universe, there would be no Tim Scott or Allen West: a black politician like Scott running for Congress in a 75% white Deep South district would not make the credibility cut with Democratic donors and operatives; a new-comer like West, running in a district in a state he moved to four years earlier, would be fatally suspect with Democrats: too few “community” roots, no history with the party’s activists.
These are breakthroughs that attract notice, and the inevitability is that they will either be viewed as illegitimate or inspirational. To most liberals, they are deeply suspect: in a Politico interview, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party caustically observed of Scott that “he’s someone they can roll out who is a Tea Party African American. How rare are they”? The same observation is frequently cited among Democrats as the source of Cain’s ascension. Isn’t he being dangled to prove that Tea Partiers are no racists?
My guess is that Cain perplexes liberals partly because he is such an unvarnished, unapologetic conservative who revels in gems like attributing a lack of wealth to lack of will. But my guess is that he also rankles because he refutes some hard convictions about race and politics. Not so deep down, many liberals and many African Americans suspect conservatives are racist at their core: these liberals and blacks are convinced that a black can never become a governor or senator in the South for that reason, and they assume that enthusiasm for Cain cannot be genuine. His fall, therefore, would be a basis for the purest kind of glee–relief that one was right after all.
I’ve always wished Colin Powell had sought the presidency in 1996 or 2000 to test the sentiments of countless conservative whites who cite him as a leadership model and a genuine national hero. In the same fashion, I wish blacks had to judgethe national rise of a relatively conservative black man who would have made no special promise to expand entitlements or to grow the safety net. As much as Obama’s election meant to the country’s psyche, form has reverted too easily: a liberal black politician whom white conservatives can too conveniently despise and whom blacks and liberals can too conveniently embrace.
In that way, the return to traditional battle corners, the country’s mood looks anything but post-racial: it looks like America at our heated, polarized worst. So Obama is shrunk and the debate over the national direction is simplified to “us” versus “them”; Cain, an amiable man who is unlikely to be remembered ten years from now, is artificially enlarged to the size of aprotagonist in a racial/historical passion play.
But make no mistake: the conversation and the reasons for the fever pitch do matter. After Cain disappears, there is still astrong likelihood that more young aspiring African Americans, especially in the one party South, will run as Republicans. A lot of smart people in South Carolina prophesy that Tim Scott will run for governor eventually and run very well. Will Scott and the people who emulate him be ridiculed or treated as a sign of progress? The answer will probably tell us just how “post-racial” we have gotten.