Right wing’s worst nightmare: The master stroke that turns red states blue

Our divisions are phony: There's broad agreement on more issues. Here's how we convert the Tea Party

Topics: Media Criticism, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Editor's Picks,

Right wing's worst nightmare: The master stroke that turns red states blueMichele Bachmann, Ted Cruz (Credit: AP/Chris Carlson/Molly Riley/Photo collage by Salon)

Elizabeth Warren’s rock star reception at Netroots Nation came as a surprise to absolutely no one, but not so her popularity as a draw for red state Democrats running for Senate, like West Virginia’s Natalie Tennant or Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Yet, there shouldn’t be anything surprising about Warren’s broad economic populist appeal. It was, after all, the foundation of Democratic Party power from 1932 through 1968, a period in which Democrats won seven of nine presidential elections and controlled both houses of Congress continuously with only two brief blips in 1946 and 1952. It was a period of single-party dominance unmatched by any other in U.S. history, except for the First Party System, which the Democratic Republicans dominated so thoroughly from 1800 on that the opposition Federalist Party eventually just disappeared. The New Deal era may have been a long time ago, but its political basics remain as popular as ever — as seen in programs like Social Security and Medicare, which even conservative Republicans think we’re spending too little on. What’s been lacking in recent years is the political leadership and infrastructure to tap into that popular sentiment, which is just where Elizabeth Warren comes in.

Indeed, while 2016 is still a long way off, there’s good reason to believe that having Warren on the ticket could be the key to a Democratic victory that would finally break through the logjam of Republican obstructionism — despite a mountain of conventional wisdom to the contrary, which claims that it simply can’t be done, that what is now must forever be. In a recent piece for the National Journal, “Half of America,” Ronald Brownstein did a particularly adept job at laying out the conventional wisdom case for inevitable structural gridlock. Whichever president from whichever party, he argued, the pattern remains the same:

In one key respect, each president’s tenure has followed a similar arc. Each initially sought the White House promising to bridge the nation’s widening partisan divide. Clinton pledged to transcend “brain-dead policies in both parties” with his “New Democrat” agenda. Bush declared himself a “compassionate conservative” who would govern as “a uniter, not a divider.” Obama emerged with his stirring 2004 Democratic convention speech, evoking the shared aspirations of red and blue America, and took office embodying convergence and reconciliation.

But by this point in their respective second terms, each man faced the stark reality that the country was more divided than it was when he took office.

Of course there are obvious differences that Brownstein ignores, beyond the fact that Clinton and Obama both won their elections, while Bush won a lawsuit instead. Most notably, both Clinton and Obama really did try to reach out to Republicans — and were both soundly rebuffed for their troubles. Neither enjoyed the traditional presidential honeymoon period. Bush, on the other hand, was more moderate in style than in substance, as shown by his out-of-the-gate insistence on massive tax cuts, passed at the cost of losing the Republicans their majority control of the Senate, as it helped precipitate Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords’ departure from the party — a fitting testament to Bush’s alleged moderation. But blindness to such differences is par for the course, the entry fee for punditocracy membership.

Brownstein goes on to describe the problem as “persistent polarization” due to “structural forces” creating “an environment in which presidents now find it almost impossible to sustain public or legislative support beyond their core coalition.” And in turn, he argues that this goes back to “institutional changes” turning Congress into “a quasi-parliamentary institution” and an underlying “deeper divide in the public itself” between rival non-overlapping voter coalitions, “younger, racially diverse, more secular, and heavily urbanized” on the Democratic side, and “older, more religiously devout, largely nonurban, and preponderantly white” on the Republican side. All this is quite familiar, and much of it is even true — as far as it goes. But its evenhanded treatment consistently glosses over at least two fundamental asymmetries, beyond the differences already noted.

First, the Democratic coalition is larger than the GOP coalition — Republicans have won just one presidential election since 1988 with more than 50 percent, Bush’s reelection in 2004 … the closest reelection since Woodrow Wilson’s in 1916. Their current House majority is built on pure gerrymandering — House Democrats got half a million more votes than Republicans did in the last election. Republicans can keep up only by keeping Democratic voters down. They cannot compete on a level playing field. Voter suppression, political intimidation, mud-slinging that turns people off to politics completely, these are overwhelmingly Republican weapons of choice, because the two coalitions are not equally balanced. Smaller, off-year electorates favor Republicans. If everyone votes, Democrats win consistently. That’s not a sign of two equally large political coalitions.

Second, the Republicans are more ideologically extreme, dogmatic and uncompromising, as well as being far more reliant on long-range deep-pocket funding to shape the political landscape/battlefield. This combination makes them tactically strong, at the cost of being strategically vulnerable, but only if Democrats are willing to challenge and change the way that politics is played. The Democrats’ numerically dominant big-tent, loose coalition, on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand approach makes it child’s play for the Republicans to engage in tactical divide-and-conquer games, primarily because Democrats have taken their eyes off the ball, the underlying populist economic vision that appeals to virtually all elements in their coalition—and many Republicans as well.

Putting Warren on the ticket in 2016 — either in the top spot or as vice president — would help Democrats take maximum advantage of the first asymmetry, and overcome the disadvantage of the second one. And that’s not just my own pet theory. We have a solid set of polling data from 2008 to support this view (presented and analyzed here), polling data showing John Edwards — the most populist candidate in the field — giving candidate Obama a substantial boost from the V.P. slot against any of the GOP tickets he was tested against, a boost unmatched by any other V.P. candidate tested. Indeed, the boost was so significant that based on polling data in early July, an Obama/Edwards ticket put Georgia, Texas, both Carolinas and Mississippi into the toss-up category, while putting Montana and North Dakota into “lean Obama.” You want a “map-changer”? Edwards was the very definition of one — and Warren could be one, too. Perhaps most dramatically, Edwards expanded Obama’s lead in safe state electoral votes from just over 2-1 (207-90) to over 5-1 (286-52) , an electoral map change so profound it could not help having profound implications for House and Senate races as well.

The data I’m referring to derives from a series of polls conducted by Survey USA after both party primaries were over, in which they paired Obama and McCain with a wide range of potential V.P. nominees. Sarah Palin was not included, but Michael Bloomberg was, on both sides of the contest. SUSA did its polling in two main rounds, with a different mix of V.P. candidate in each. Edwards was part of the first round, featuring stronger candidates on both sides. It’s particularly instructive to compare how he did with “popular son” candidates — like Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, Jim Webb of Virginia and Bill Richardson of New Mexico — as well as looking at his performance in bellwether states like Iowa and Ohio.

In Iowa, John Edwards gave Obama almost a 10 percent average advantage over all the McCain-headed tickets (Huckabee, Lieberman, Pawlenty, Romney) he was polled against. The only other Democrat to help Obama at all was James Webb, who added about 1 percent. Bloomberg lost Obama less than 1 percent, while McCaskill lost him more than 4 percent, Hagel lost him almost 7 percent, and Sebelius and Ed Rendell lost him 10 percent.

In Ohio, Edwards helped Obama by an average of just under 5 percent — the only V.P. candidate to do so. Ed Rendell — former governor of the neighboring state of Pennsylvania, lost almost 7 percent on average.

Speaking of Pennsylvania, in that state Obama was beating McCain by 8 points, while Edwards helped him add an average of 5.5 percent. Favorite son Ed Rendell only added 1.25 percent.

In Missouri, Obama’s lead in one round became a deficit in the next. Looking only within rounds, Edwards helped Obama by an average of 4.5 points, while favorite daughter Claire McCaskill only helped him by .66 points against a much weaker V.P. field.

In New Mexico, Richardson had by far the strongest favorite son showing. He helped Obama by adding a very respectable average of 4 points. Edwards did 50 percent better — he added an average 6 points, against a much stronger V.P. field.

In New York, Edwards added 6 points, Bloomberg added nothing (against a weaker V.P. field), and everyone else lost ground — anywhere from 5 to 9 points.

In Virginia, Edwards added 6 points to Obama’s margin, while Virginia Sen. Jim Webb added just over 2 points, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine added nothing.

I selected these states for obvious reasons. But Edwards was even more impressive in some other states. In Minnesota, for example, Edwards was the only V.P. candidate to help Obama, rather than harm him, even helping Obama by 2 percent facing McCain paired with favorite son Tim Pawlenty.

In the end, of course, Edwards turned out to be a deeply flawed individual, much less a deeply flawed candidate. But that’s not what these poll figures were about. They were about the resonance of his populist “Two Americas” campaign theme — a resonance that only grew more intense after the Wall Street crash that September.

In one broad measure of how much impact Edwards had, I looked at all the variance in the different poll matchups as providing a measure of the potential swing in each state. I then looked at how well Obama did with Edwards in each state. Looking at a 15-state average, Edwards reduced the swing by 14 percent — and he cut Obama’s worst performance in each state by the same 14 percent average, raising the floor, as it were. That figure never fell into single digits for any of the states, a strong indication of how consistent and broad-based his populist impact was.

I also looked at how much Edwards helped with specific sub-groups in various states. In Ohio, for example, Obama had a 6-point lead among white males, but with Edwards on the ticket his lead ranged from 10 to 23 points. Among Virginia white females, Obama trailed by 6 points, but with Edwards on the ticket, he won by 5 to 14 points. Among New Mexico seniors, Obama trailed by 4 points, but with Edwards, he only lost by 1 point against a single V.P. pairing, and won the demographic with three other pairings, up to a high of 12 points. These are just a few samples showing how Edwards helped Obama in a range of states with groups that aren’t part of the traditional liberal core.

Finally, in early July, I looked at how Edwards would help Obama nationwide, using the average bump he provided in each state SUSA had polled, and the average of all his state averages for all other states. I used a simple poll-averaging model from my Open Left blog mate Chris Bowers as my baseline, which showed Obama leading McCain in electoral votes by almost 100, 293-194 (with 51 toss-ups), and a popular vote lead of 48,3 percent to 43.8 percent. In solid states — those with a margin of 9 points or more — Obama led McCain by more than 2-1, 207-90. But with Edwards on the ticket, Obama’s electoral vote lead expanded to over 250, 344-90 (with 104 toss-ups), and a popular vote lead of 51.5 percent to 40.0 percent. In solid states, Obama’s lead soared to over 5-1, 286-52.

In short, with Edwards on the ticket, Obama was ahead in a map-changing avalanche. And all the data supporting this conclusion comes from months before the Wall Street crash. There’s every reason to believe that Warren would have a similar, if not greater impact in 2016 — it’s just that no one has bothered to gather the relevant data, at least not yet.

There’s a strong probability that Hillary Clinton will be elected president in 2016. The GOP field is a mess, and the media’s desperate attempts to revive corpses like Chris Christie and Rick Perry only makes the picture even clearer. But the attacks on Clinton will surely escalate exponentially, putting the prospects of a landslide in doubt, no matter how inadequate the GOP candidate turns out to be. The Edwards record from 2008 strongly suggests that Warren as V.P. could help to ensure that landslide — and with it, a workable Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, even despite the intense GOP gerrymandering that currently has the House paralyzed.

What happens after that will be crucial, of course. If, like Obama and her husband before her, Clinton tries to “move to the center” and spurn her party base, then the 2018 midterms will be yet another disaster, and political gridlock and dysfunction will continue in the years ahead. The Ron Brownsteins of the world will be “vindicated.” But if Elizabeth Warren does have some influence, if Clinton does learn from past Democratic mistakes, then maybe, just maybe, we could see America break with its recent history of almost 50 years dominated by divided government and return to a more traditional, more functional political pattern, in which one party — and its vision — dominates for a period of decades, and the other party survives by adapting to the world that the dominant party has created.

The raw numbers tell us this is the direction America wants to go in. Elizabeth Warren could be the key to getting us there. Otherwise, it’s endless deadlock, as far as the eye can see.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...