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Same Goal, Different Tack

This column was written by Garance Franke-Ruta.
One of the great delusions of political movements is that politicians have to present themselves in the exact fashion a movement activist would in order to achieve the movement's goals. Often the exact opposite is the case. Activists want recognition and affirmation of their outlooks, but politicians know that the public affirmation of positions held by activist minorities can sometimes make achieving the movement's goals impossible.

Three recent instances where there is a gap between movement activists and politicians raise interesting questions about how change is actually accomplished.

The Nomination Of Harriet Miers To The Supreme Court

Conservative reactions to Miers have been swift and negative, while Democrats have been amused and pleased, which means that Miers could get even more Democratic support than Roberts did. Roberts was judicially qualified, to be sure, but the Democratic reaction to Roberts also had a great deal to do with his moderate manner and mainstream pedigree, and the fact that he was personable, courteous, and normal-seeming became a kind of proxy for knowledge of his political beliefs or likely judicial stances. Because Roberts was not a florid conservative social activist with a law degree from a third-tier university who'd spent his life in a backwater state, he scanned as "one of us" to the Ivy League-educated lawyers on the Hill.

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Miers may be less culturally in sync with either Republicans or Democrats on the Hill, but Stanley Kurtz was quite right to note on The Corner that her lack of connections to movement conservatives could be a boon. "This could turn into our ultimate stealth triumph," he wrote. On Marvin Olasky's blog (via The Hotline on Call), Miers' onetime companion Nathan Hecht said that she is, despite how little she's expressed herself on such matters, in sync with the general philosophies of the fundamentalist churches on marriage and other social issues:

Miers has been a member of Valley View Christian Church in Dallas for 25 years, where Hecht has been an elder. He calls it a "conservative evangelical church … in the vernacular, fundamentalist, but the media have used that word to tar us." He says she was on the missions committee for ten years, taught children in Sunday School, made coffee, brought donuts: "Nothing she's asked to do in church is beneath her." On abortion, choosing his words carefully for an on-the-record statement, he says "her personal views are consistent with that of evangelical Christians ... . You can tell a lot about her from her decade of service in a conservative church."

Further, writes Olasky, "Hecht and Miers 'went to two or three pro-life dinners in the late 80s or early 90s.'" (Though who knows what that means; it could just be a reflection of living in Texas.)

I think it's a little fast for Democrats to start rejoicing over her nomination, though. Roberts and Miers, despite not being fervent movement conservatives, could just as easily issue opinions that dramatically curtail reproductive rights as could individuals who are more adored by James Dobson.

Movement conservatives may want transparency and authenticity from the president's Supreme Court nominees in the form of strong movement conservative credentials, but from a political perspective, the best thing George W. Bush could do is appoint two surprisingly moderate-seeming conservatives who sail onto the Court without too much scrutiny or controversy — and then proceed to undo over the next two decades much of what liberals hold dear. That, to me, seems a much more realistic scenario than the idea that Bush might secretly be pro-choice, or is now selling out the social traditionalists.

Hillary And Iraq

As Matt Bai made clear to a broader audience in his New York Times Magazine story over the weekend, a fair number of bloggers and liberal activists have started to go after New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for not articulating what they believe about how and when the United States should get out of Iraq:

"I think people are looking for leadership from Hillary Clinton, and she's not showing any leadership on anything," says Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, one of the new movement's leading blogs. Even in Hollywood, where the Clintons have been royalty for more than a decade, patience for bipartisanship is running low. Last month in Beverly Hills, I talked about Clinton with Norman Lear, the television and film producer who founded the liberal organization People for the American Way. "I love her," he told me. "But as terrific as I think she is, my concern is that we need someone who will tell the truth as they see it all of the time. She, like all of them, is not somebody who does that."

The problem with telling the truth all of the time — at least if you're a Democrat — is that eventually you wind up in the Howard Dean box, so picked apart by the reaction to your truth telling that you're unable to do the one thing politicians have to do in order for any of that truth telling to have real-world impact: win elections. Now, as far as I know, Clinton has genuine differences with the "Kossaks" on foreign-policy questions, so this isn't a simple question of her holding her tongue. Yet the idea that a leader's speech alone can transform the world and lead to desired policy outcomes is simply not accurate.

If Clinton became the standard-bearer for the new activist left now, in 2005, by the time 2008 rolled around she'd have been chewed up and destroyed by the right-wing media machine, and possibly even rejected by the activists themselves. Already bloggers are increasingly critical of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, their hero just one year ago.

In order to even have a shot at winning in '08, and thence enacting an agenda the activists would greatly prefer to another Republican presidency, Clinton can't afford to be boxed in as their mouthpiece or make certain moves too soon in the political cycle. The public affirmation the activists crave for their positions may simply not be compatible with the demands of winning elections. In this, it is especially telling that no major candidate who has been the darling of the netroots has yet won election. Dean, Gen. Wesley Clark, Sen. John Edwards — even Iraq-war veteran Paul Hackett — were all defeated, as were the Kos Dozen candidates the blogs funneled money to, as was, eventually, Sen. John Kerry himself. The 2006 elections may yet break this losing streak, but the verdict on whether bloggers can help candidates win, and not just fund raise, is still out.

The Kaine Race In Virginia

While Democratic Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine is closing the gap with Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, one issue that comes up frequently in talking to Democrats about that race is the question of the death penalty and Kilgore's tough-on-crime, tough-on-gangs stance. Kaine, unlike Governor Mark Warner and Bill Clinton, is opposed to the death penalty. This was a big issue early in the race, when Kilgore aides pointed out that Kaine is the first anti-death-penalty gubernatorial candidate since 1976, and has come up again in recent debates. Kaine, for his part, tried to defuse the issue and wrote: "As governor, I will enforce capital sentences just as other governors have done. My personal feelings have never and will never interfere with my sworn duty to the citizens of Virginia."

In short, Kaine is running on the platform of not having the courage of his convictions, and doing nothing to oppose the death penalty once in office. Activist opponents of the death penalty may be pleased with the authenticity of Kaine's stated beliefs on the issue — he is, after all, a Catholic, and hence understandably opposed to capital punishment — but the point of being against the death penalty, when his stated position is also that he plans to enforce it and oversee executions, is unclear. At that point, opposing the death penalty hardly seems worth the political grief.

Contrast that with the approach taken by Republican Governor George Ryan of Illinois, who vocally supported capital punishment but nonetheless imposed a moratorium on executions in his state while the circumstances regarding how the ultimate penalty was meted out were reviewed. Net result: The pro-death-penalty governor ended executions in his state and emptied out death row. Today, debate over the death penalty still rages in Illinois, and men are still being sentenced to death &3151 but not one has been executed in the past five years. Current Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich has maintained Ryan's moratorium.

The lesson here is that sometimes the way forward for politicians looks nothing like what activists might want it to look like — and doesn't sound like it, either. Other times, when activists get what they want in terms of affirmation, their elected representatives (or would-be representatives) can lose so much power that eventually the activists wind up losing on substance. Successful politicians routinely pursue ends through means that might not affirm activists' worldviews. That doesn't always mean that the activists aren't getting their way.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.

Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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