Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Gangs of Nevada

I want to spend time here talking about swing state politics, focusing on the stuff that happens between elections. I grew up in Nevada and  I’ve spent a lot of time as an adult helping folks turn it blue( as a political data guy in far away DC). Nevada is a different kind of blue; the state has a frustrating anti-tax, libertarian streak that brings self-inflicted wounds. I applaud all my friends who still live there  fighting the good fight…

Nevada is beset by gang violence. It’s not youths on street corners wielding stolen handguns, but the damage is just as palpable. Nevada is under siege from The Old Ways Are The Best Ways Boys (TOWATBWBs hereafter). They aren’t hip  enough to spell “boys” with a “Z. They are Nevada's Archie Bunkers, future-phobes sitting in their comfy chairs railing against a brave new world.

TOWATBWBs hate taxes. With no state income tax, Nevada relies on a gaming tax, which tanked in the recession, cratering the state's budget. While revenues are recovering, real long term growth in gaming is unlikely. Americans are  focused more on paying down mountains of credit card debt than playing craps.  Plans for a modest tax on the state's uber-profitable mining industry (that pulls massive riches from under public lands) were scuttled by the TOWATBWB in the state legislature.

When Clark County teachers saw their 2012-2013 pay raises rescinded mid-year amidst Nevada’s budget chaos, the TOWATBWB popped the champagne corks. It reminded me of one of my first political experiences in Nevada, phone banking for a modest library bond that failed, as caller after caller retorted "we don't need no stinkin' books." TOWATBWB. They have met the enemy, and it is smart people.

TOWATBWB scoff at economic diversification. Senator Harry Reid’s efforts in bringing modest-sized solar power plants to Boulder City (Nevada Solar One) and Tonopah (Crescent Dunes) were greeted with derision.  The United States is a world leader in wind energy, with over 60,000 megawatts of capacity, ranking 2nd in the world behind China.  States are cashing in with clean energy and jobs. Texas sports 12,212 megawatts of wind, and California 5,549. Washington, Oregon and even Oklahoma are building windmills like crazed Dutchmen, with about 3,000 megawatts of capacity each. Nevada?  One puny 152 megawatt wind farm. Renewable energy accounts for 12% of US electrical generation and will likely grow to well beyond 20% by 2020. Meanwhile, TOWATBWB sit home listening to Rush Limbaugh, who assures them that clean energy is just a big commie plot.

TOWATBWB thwart mass transit construction, blithely ignoring an increasingly volatile crude oil market. When oil prices spike, the flow of tourists on Interstate 15, which links Las Vegas to Los Angeles, slows. Gaming revenue depends in part on cheap oil.  Mass transit is sprouting in the West (with over a dozen light rail lines under construction in Salt Lake City, Houston, Los Angeles, and Dallas alone) while Nevada clings desperately to the car. Plans for high speed rail to Los Angeles are proceeding at a glacial pace. Las Vegas hired its first full time employee to pursue a rail link to LA in the 1970's, but the federal government will not pay all the freight, states need matching funds and TOWATBWB  refuse to pony up the cash.

TOWATBWB long for federal sequestration, but Nevada relies heavily on Federal largesse. Nellis Air Force Base, which provides over 20,000 Civilian and Military jobs in Las Vegas, is the home of the manned fighter pilot. In the brave new world of drones, significant cuts at Nellis are becoming increasingly likely, especially with the abysmal performance of the new F35 fighter jet.  Long term budget  negotiations would help save jobs, but sequestration slashes the Pentagon’s wrists, making radical cuts at Nellis in the coming months more likely. 

While most metropolitan areas feverishly invest in universities, Nevada cuts class. UNLV and UNR are hundreds of millions of dollars short of becoming real research universities, and simply cannot compete in attracting industries that require highly educated employees.

TOWATBWB pooh-pooh climate change while meteorologists warn that the severe drought conditions of recent years may in fact be the new normal. In the coming water wars with the political juggernaut that is California, Nevada may well whither of thirst in the desert.

While progressives delivered Nevada for President Obama, they folded in the Congressionals, sending arch-conservative Dean Heller to the Senate and Representative Joe Heck to the House.

The calendar says “2013”, but  TOWATBWB are content to double down on 1950. Nevada’s boom has turned largely to bust, but it remains unclear if that will sweep this Gang from power. Progressives concerned about the state's future are going to need to bring the battle down from the Presidential level and tirelessly tangle with  Msrs. Heller and Heck and a host of arch-conservative state lawmakers.Nevada is painted blue on the map of Presidential states. Behind the curtain progressives too are decidedly blue, but for profoundly sadder reasons.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The "L" Word

You are  a professor. Your Dean has changed your class schedule and you don’t like it. Which of the following would you do:

       A)    Walk in and say “You are an a**hat with the administrative skills of a dung beetle." You then write a letter to the student newspaper calling your Dean a “Fascist Tyrant Who Would Make Hitler Proud”.

      B)    Thank the Dean for letting you teach a new course you’ve been wanting to teach. Make the case that you will have more time to interact with students and do research if you could move one of your courses to later in the day.

Yes, it’s a stupid scenario, but when we lobby Congress, we are stupid. Basically, we choose “A”. Mouthing off online is easy and fun; effective lobbying is more akin to completing The New York Times Sunday crossword, in pen, with no strikeouts. The Internet has taken our collective political rhetoric back to eighth grade, and what "works" on Facebook (generating "likes" or comments) generally doesn't work when you are talking to a Member of Congress or (more likely) his or her staff.

If you want to amaze your friends and influence Congress, log off the Internet. No one writes snail mail letters any longer, which makes them unique and garners a lot more attention than “signing” a 15 word online petition “demanding” something or other.

Your audience is almost certainly an underpaid, overworked partisan 21 year old who is expected to spend 65 hours a week in a pressure cooker. That staffer spends countless hours sifting through a ton of online and offline mail for something interesting to bring to a staff meeting in part to make a good impression; help him and help yourself. If you are targeting a Republican, and your missive is full of partisan froth, they’ll dismiss you as a lunatic enemy in a New York Millisecond.

So, what is to be done?

1--Do your homework and read real news stories and level-headed, issue-orieinted web sites about the issue or proposed legislation. Don’t pull your talking points off a frothy, partisan DailyKos piece.       

2-- If your target is a Democrat, mention your party affiliation: "as a fellow Democrat…"   If said Democrat lives in a place where “liberal” is equated with “idiot” by most voters, be sympathetic. “I understand that in our District this is a difficult vote to cast.” It’s easy to praise a guy like Bernie Sanders for being “brave” and “speaking the truth.” He lives in Vermont, where a conservative is someone who thinks Marx went a tad too far, but was still a keen fellow. Being liberal in Vermont isn’t brave, it’s expected. A lot of Democratic House members reside in far more hostile turf, and barely defeat bona fide knuckle dragging troglodytes. Congressional staff will give your letter more weight if you acknowledge the political realities in the district. Empathy is effective, so feel their pain.

3--If your target is a Republican, do not wear your progressive ideology on your sleeve. A staff member will take you far more seriously if it seems that you might actually vote for their boss. We may not like that, but it is true.

4--Get in the head of your Congressman. That will be a wacky place if your senator is Rand Paul or Mitch McConnell, but it's useful. Peek at their web site press releases, and lift a quote or two. Speak in their language:


“I believe in the sanctity of the American family, and I believe we must move forward to require background checks on gun purchases and place limits on ammunition clips to keep our children safe. Newtown, Connecticut is a stain on American freedom and we must act so that it never happens again. We can respect the Second Amendment without contributing to the slaughter of our children.”

DO NOT WRITE (actual quote here from a real letter):

Get out of the sack with your rich pals and big oil and the gun nuts and Teabaggers and do something so innocent kids don’t get slaughtered.

This brings up another cogent pont…

5--Keep it to one issue. Conflating a bunch of issues weakens your argument. On the Internet, bloggers decry any politician who doesn’t sign on to a huge agenda. But that doesn’t fly in the real world. You are trying to convince one human being to vote your way on one issue. Fuggedabout everything else, and stay focused.

6-- Be polite. This is the deep dark secret of professional lobbyists, left and right. Start with a compliment. Representative Eric Cantor, whose very name brings bursts of profanity from me and a big swath of my friends, gave a speech on the role of House members in the civil rights struggle. To wit:

"Today, I am proud to serve with 44 black colleagues. As Reverend King said, 'the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.' “

“In your moving speech on civil rights you said: "Today, I am proud to serve with 44 black colleagues. As Reverend King said, 'the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.'". Today, the arc of justice threatens to bend away from black children. Too many are felled by gun violence. We must act today to restore the arc of justice and stop the senseless violence.

Call the office and say “Tell you boss, Mr. Cancer, that he is a f***wit who deserves to burn in hell.”

If you sound like a supporter of the Congressman, your letter carries far more weight. This isn't disingenuous, it's just smart. You want to get your representative to focus on the issue from his moral compass. If they are a "capital C" Christian, try this: "as a Christian, I am sure you understand the need for compassion in society. Gun violence is destroying that compassion."

7--Ask for the "favor of a written reply".

“This issue is extremely important to me. I would like to request the favor of a written reply; I am very interested in your comments and views.”

Then, if they write you back, you have opened the door to a longer dialog. If they don't write you back, you can write again and ask again for a reply.

No, none of this will convince a right-wing congressman to support abortion rights, gay marriage and taxing the 1%, but it might move a moderate Republican once in a while.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Marc Antony's Internet

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears, I come to damn the Internet, not to praise it. The Net helps win elections but when it comes to lobbying Congress, it knifes us in the back. Et Tu, Facebook? Then fall, liberal.

What’s up with the disconnect? I think it’s simple. Political campaigns live on vitriol, hype, and honestly, a whole lotta lying. And, we focus, for the most part, on getting the choir revved up and voting.  Badmouthing the other team is effective.

Lobbying is tougher; we have to persuade someone, usually a (sort of) moderate Republican or Red State Democrat, to vote for something they are not so keen on.  But we can’t change reality: the GOP controls the House, and it takes 60 votes to shut off debate in the Senate, ergo, no law is passed without Republican support. Lobbying requires subtle, rational rhetoric, and while the Internet is many things, subtle and rational aren't among them..

So, what does the Internet get wrong?

1)      The Facebook Meme. You know the meme: those 15 word smart mouthed political cartoons folks share on Facebook. Behavioral psychologists find posting a Facebook meme makes us feel better, makes us feel like we are making a difference. But we aren’t.  Only our friends (who mostly agree with us) and our gun nut cousin (who will serve nicely as a troll for the comment feed) see the meme. Its impact in the real world is absolute zero. The more we post memes, the less likely we are to take real action. Can we please retire that meme with Gene Wilder from Willy Wonka? The first one was cute. The 10,535th was asinine.

2)      The Addiction to Online Petitions. Newsflash: no one in Congress reads them any longer. Congress gets thousands of them every year.  It’s overkill, and we need to grow up and…well…move on.

The biggest problem with the Internet petition is the messenger. Consider: Representative Nancy Pelosi wakes up tomorrow confronting a petition from the Christian Coalition or the Tea Party telling her she will burn in hell if she doesn’t renounce her stand on abortion. Will she become pro life, and call a televised press conference to recant her evil ways, or dismiss the petition as the fruit bat blathering of the opposition and get on with her day?            

Conversely, Speaker Boehner is unlikely to care when 1,000 MoveOn members call him a knuckle dragging troglodyte who must immediately support gun control or, well, we will log into Facebook and have Gene Wilder call him names.

It’s Marshall McLuhan with a twist: the sponsor of the petition IS the message, and Mr. Boehner will not be moved by “MoveOn” any more than Ms. Pelosi will swayed by the “Tea Party” or the  “Christian Coalition.”

3)      The Internet Makes us Solipsistic. We want every issue to be about OUR IMMEDIATE NEEDS, DAMNIT. But when we are trying to persuade someone who disagrees with us, we will be far more effective by taking a step back and considering how THEY view the world. Start where they are.

4)      Using Talking Points That Aren’t True. For every fact on the Internet there are 999 corresponding pieces of utter garbage. Congressional staffers know the issues, and when we feed them a load of bull, they know.

5)      Engaging in Pointless Political Arguments in Comment Threads. This is not just a colossal waste of time, it is scientifically proven that we generally wind up making our opponents strengthen their views.  The issue is “motivated reasoning” which, simply put, means that we use our emotions as well as our “rational brains” when considering facts. When facts run contrary to some deeply held belief, we tend to ignore the facts and run with the emotion.  Both Democrats and Republicans do this, so we cannot get all snotty about how progressives are smarter, because we are not. Conservatives deny climate change and liberals believe vaccines cause autism or that the 2004 election was stolen.

6)      Taking strong stands on issues on which our knowledge falls in the realm halfway between “jack” and “s***.” A general litmus test: if your knowledge of an issue is derived entirely from online sources, mostly 5 paragraphs in length  or shorter, and those august words reside on web sites where no journalist has ever pulled a paycheck, assume you are an idiot and get thee to a library.

We really can do better. Confession: I moved to DC to take a job as a lobbyist. I worked on higher education issues, and pushed for more graduate student grants and fewer loans. I made the transition from campaign staff loud mouth to a guy capable of something far more subtle. So can you. In the next post, ideas of how to lobby, correctly and… egad… effectively.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


In the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, gun control is again fashionable on the left. The Internet meme is simple but hackneyed: all we need to do is stay true blue liberal and make a lot of noise and we will get everything we want. If only it were that simple; comparing the hurdles the Brady Law had to clear is instructive because we face many of those same hurdles today.  We are in for a long, hard fight.

Modern gun control has its roots in the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, in which press secretary James Brady was grievously wounded. John Hinckley, Reagan’s would-be assassin, had purchased the gun used in the assault from a Texas pawn shop using an expired driver's license, a classic case of “lie and buy.” The incident led to a cry for background checks, and a check on Hinckley’s would have proved  revealing:  he had a history of mental illness and had a previous arrest  for attempting to carry three handguns aboard an American Airlines flight in Nashville.  Even President Reagan was moved to support background checks. Still, early attempts to tighten laws failed. Jim Brady and his wife Sarah entered the fray in 1985, when, frustrated with Congressional inaction, Sarah joined the board of directors of Handgun Control, Inc.  Even so, it was not until 1993 that a Democratic Congress in the first Clinton Administration, with bipartisan support, passed the Brady Law and an assault weapons ban.

And then came the backlash.

Even though the Brady Law was passed when the nation’s crime rate was stratospherically high, it was virulently unpopular across middle America. In the 1994 midterm election, Democrats lost 54 seats and the GOP took control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954. Gun control was not the only, or even the most important issue that year, but it nonetheless played a major role in defeating a dozen House Democrats in the heartland, as President Clinton points out in his memoir, My Life:

 “After the [1994 midterm] election  I had to face the fact that the law enforcement groups and other supporters of responsible gun legislation, though they represented the majority of Americans, simply could not protect their friends in Congress from the NRA. The gun lobby outspent, outorganized, outfought, and outdemagogued them.” [Clinton: My Life 630]

What almost everyone forgets is that the LEFT also abandoned gun control.  In 2004, Americans for Jobs, HealthCare, and Progressive Values, a Democratic 527 Independent Expenditure political organization, ran the following television ad during the primary campaign:

“…two men have been given top grades by the National Rifle Association. One is George Bush. The other might surprise you. It's Howard Dean.”

In our fond memories of the guy who represented the “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party” we remember Dean's willingness to take tough stands. But we forget that on gun control, Dean's strategy was to back pedal from the Democratic Party position on gun control in hopes of reaching beyond the progressive base to build a bridge to “Reagan Democrats”. On the campaign trail, Governor Dean often boasted of his A grades from the National Rifle Association while Governor of Vermont.  Most progressives approved; after suffering through Bush’s first term, the left was hungry to recapture the White House and didn’t give gun control a second thought. In 2013, it’s easy to call Democratic leaders of the time cowards, and easy to forget the crop of House Democrats dispatched to the unemployment lines by the NRA’s vicious campaign machine over the past 15 years.  But that ignores history.

Once the Democrats abandoned gun control, it languished and the assault weapons ban expired with little fanfare. In the aftermath of Newtown, we need to learn the lessons of the past: the Brady Law required high-powered bi-partisan support (from the likes of Ronald Reagan!), and the NRA is enraged and well-poised to unseat Congressional Democrats.

But isn't it different this time? Hasn't Newtown changed the political landscape?


I’m not calling for surrender on the issue, but we need to be realistic. This will be VERY hard. We need to lobby with tools exponentially more powerful than email-based petitions that targeted lawmakers don't read and we need to understand that passing around clever little meme cartoons on Facebook that make us feel righteous are just an impotent waste of time. Seriously, how many swing legislators hang out on your Home Page? We cannot expect the President and Congress to do all the work for us and we cannot expect elected officials to ignore the threat the NRA represents at the ballot box. We WILL need bipartisan support; we will not convince every red state Democrat to vote for new gun control measures. Sure, this is irksome, but that does not make it any less true.

It took twelve years after the Reagan assassination to get the first round of legislation, and we are facing similar hurdles:

Support for gun control plummeted when President Obama took office, even as the issue was little discussed.  Since Newtown, support for more regulation is back, at least temporarily, with recent Gallup poll showing 91% support for background checks and 89% in the latest Washington Post Poll. But President Obama has served as a polarizing influence on the issue. The same Washington Post Poll found 72% of Republicans disapproved of President Obama's gun control plan. So, they support the measures but hate the messenger, making comprehensive reform very difficult to enact.

The demographic distribution of conservative and liberal voters hurts. While we pile up in the big cities (President Obama carried the 630,000 residents of DC in 2012 with 93% of the vote) conservative majorities of 2 or 3 or 5 percent prevail in a great many US House Districts in the American heartland. We  have the majority of public opinion on our side but that public opinion resides in a decidedly minority number of US House Districts. If you drive from New York City to Los Angeles, you'll pass through a couple of wildly Democratic House Districts but dozens of Districts where conservatives consistently win, if by narrow margins.

In the Senate, the rural red states will pose a host of problems. Senator Harry Reid, staring down a slew of Democratic Senate retirements, and in fear of losing the Senate to the GOP, appears unwilling to even bring an assault weapons ban to the floor. Again, before we cast stones at Senator Reid, we need to take a long, hard, adult look at the “whip count.” Currently, Reid can expect "no" votes on a weapons ban from Democrats in states where guns are thought of as more fun than frightening: Mark Begich (Alaska), Max Baucus  and Jon Tester (Montana), Heidi Heidtkamp (North Dakota), Angus King (Maine), Joe Manchin III (West Virginia), and moderate Republican, Susan Collins (Maine). To pass a law in the Senate you don’t need 50 votes, you really need 60--even without the filibuster, the chances of mustering 51 Democrats is grim. And that is in the Democratically controlled Senate. A whip count in the GOP House portends far more dismal returns.

Prepare for a fight that will likely last a lot longer than a couple of months! In my next post, I'll lay out what I think could be the start of a successful lobbying campaign.