Friday, June 15, 2007

Dan Gerstein, Political Consultant, Replies to RSI

In my June 12 MyDD diary and RSI post on Mudcat Saunders and Regional Stereotyping, I characterized Dan Gerstein as a conservative along with Mickey Kaus and Saunders himself. Surprisingly enough, I got an e-mail reply from Dan Gerstein disagreeing with my characterization of him as a conservative, inviting me to read his blog, and also inviting me to ask him some questions about politics and policy.

Having taken him up on those invitations, I defended my characterization of Gerstein as a conservative and posed four questions for him which he answered today at some length.

I thought that RSI readers would be interested in hearing from a political consultant who worked on the Lieberman/Lamont senatorial campaign as well as a gubernatorial campaigns in New York. So, I’m reprinting the whole exchange below. The only significant editorial change I made was to place my questions immediately before his answers so people could better keep the questions in mind as Gerstein replied.

I'll post my reply to Gerstein's most recent thoughts tomorrow.

Dan Gerstein:
Hi Ric. I came across your post on Mudcat, and enjoyed your perspective. But have to say I was surprised to see you labeled me a conservative.

I’d appreciate it if you would take a moment to read my blog before going further with that assumption. You can find it at: Http:// In particular, you might want to read this post I did partly in response to the Greenwald piece you linked to We may disagree on some issues, and we most likely disagree a lot on tactics, but think you will see I am hardly a conservative. If you have any question as to my stand on issues or approach to governing, I’d be happy to answer them.

Dan Gerstein

Dear Dan, Thank you very much for your e-mail. I sympathize with your broken wrist. I myself have been stuck in allergy-bronchitis hell since early May with my allergies reviving the bronchitis every time I venture outside.

You'll be disappointed to learn that I still think of you as a conservative after looking at your blog. The Lieberman connection, the criticism of Larry Lessig for insulting Bush, the on-going bashing of liberal bloggers, your association with Fox and the Politico--it all reads as conservative to me. There are also some things that aren?t there that signify a conservative Democrat to me--almost nothing on the war, nothing on the Bush administration?s efforts to set up a series of extra-judicial penal colonies, nothing on racism, and no suspicion of big business. You don't seem to find of the right-wing as being asmorally appalling or dangerous to American democracy as most Metropolitan and Kentucky liberals I know either. Like a lot of conservatives, you also seem to have significant resentments toward the kind of liberal activists who worked against Joe Lieberman last year. That seems to be why you flirted last year with leaving the Democratic Party and becoming an independent. To be clear, I don't mean conservative like Dick Cheney/ Tom DeLay/ Karl Rove but more in the neo-liberal--Joe Klein--Mickey Kaus-- vein (though you're not as ggressive about it).

A caveat. I realize that you?re focused mostly on political tactics as a political consultant. Perhaps that's why you don?t address some of the issues I mention above. I should also acknowledge that you did view employment rights for gays as a viable issue in 2008.

Dear Ric:

I am glad to have a chance to engage on these questions, and appreciate your interest in my views. Please feel free to post my comments on your site, and I will do the same.Let me start by saying I wish there were more openness to these kind of exchanges on all sides. We as Democrats must be able to have thoughtful debates, whether we are disagreeing on policy or tactics, if we are to keep adapting and growing. I don’t like it when anyone with something meaningful to say is getting shouted down, whether it is Howard Dean or the DLC.This is why I am generally a big fan of the blogosphere — and sometimes a critic. It is such a dynamic, empowering, democratizing medium, with the potential to fundamentally transform our politics.

But I am afraid that potential will be squandered if we as Democrats don’t work toward a more
honest and less hostile discussion online. And I include myself in that “we” — there have been times when I have spoken too broadly and not respectfully enough about the Netroots. I regret that, and I am focused on being more balanced in my commentary going forward.Now to the overarching issue of what and who is a conservative. It’s clear from your note that we come at this from dramatically different perspectives and that’s where the disagreement stems from (along with the assumption that I share 100 percent of Lieberman’s views).

On the one hand, I am applying what I consider a conventional and largely normative definition to a label that admittedly is somewhat of a moving target in the Bush era. (Let me preface the rest of my comments by saying I believe most common political labels today are obsolete to the point of being misleading — Bush and his acolytes are often more radical than classically conservative, and many self-proclaimed liberals are often more reactionary than truly progressive).According to most dictionary entries, conservatism is defined by a reverence for tradition and a resistance to change. In the Goldwater-Reagan era of American politics, it has come to be more specifically defined as standing for limited government, hostility to regulation and the welfare state, low taxes, high military spending, family values, and, through the increasing influence of social conservatives, opposition to abortion rights ( this general standard, there is just no logical way to conclude I am a conservative. To wit:

· I am disdainful of tradition for tradition’s sake and embrace social, economic, and technological change.
· I am a contrarian by nature, constantly questioning authority and conventional wisdom (on both the left and the right).
· I believe the federal government can and should be an agent of social and economic progress.
· I believe the federal government has a fundamental responsibility to regulate markets to protect consumers and investors and the environment, as well as to guarantee transparency and efficiency.
· I believe that the federal government was right to establish a national social safety net to protect the most vulnerable in our society and that Social Security and Medicare were two of the greatest governmental successes in modern history.
· I have believed for some time that we spend too much of our federal budget on defense and with far too little scrutiny.
· I am pro-gay rights, including gay marriage, and pro-choice.
Now let’s look more specifically at where I stand on the Bush agenda. Other than No Child Left Behind, which I considered a flawed bill but an important paradigm shift in our national education policy, I have opposed pretty much every major Bush initiative and then some.
· I oppose Bush’s tax cuts, which I consider not only fiscally reckless but the fundamentally wrong approach to growing the economy and spreading opportunity in the Information Age.
· I oppose Bush’s broad, across-the-board assault on environmental standards.
· I oppose Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security.
· I oppose Bush’s special-interest driven Medicare prescription drug plan.
· I oppose Bush’s Federal Marriage Amendment and his partial birth abortion ban.
· I oppose Bush’s allowance for the use of torture.
· I oppose the FBI’s warrant-less wiretapping program.
· I broadly oppose Bush’s unilateralist, arrogant foreign policy.
· I oppose in particular Bush’s unilateral decisions to pull out of the Kyoto talks on global warming and the International Criminal Court and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
· I opposed John Bolton’s nomination to be U.N. Ambassador.
· I am offended by Bush’s bravado-ist, inflammatory rhetoric on national security (e.g. “Axis of Evil,” “bring it on,” etc.)
· I oppose Bush’s extra-constitutional use of signing statements to defy the will of Congress and subvert the law as it is written.
· And of most importance to you and many of your peers, I oppose the way we went to war in Iraq and Bush’s rigid, incompetent handling of the reconstruction and the insurgency.

On the other hand, you mostly seem to be judging my place on the ideological spectrum relative to your own views and those of my critics in the progressive blogosphere (most of whom have no idea where I actually stand on issues and regrettably don’t seem to care). If I do not fully agree with the consensus Netroots position on a few benchmark issues or tactics; or if I commentate on media outlets the Netroots collectively don’t like; or, more tellingly, if I have not spoken to an issue you care about on my blog or not done so with the same vehemence other progressive bloggers do — then I am a de facto conservative.

Let’s break this down for a moment. You are suggesting I am conservative -- despite all the evidence on my blog and elsewhere that I disagree almost universally with the conservative agenda -- because: 1) I worked for Joe Lieberman; 2) I have criticized progressive bloggers; 3) I write for the Politico and appear occasionally on Fox News; and 4) I have not sufficiently attacked the Bush Administration on (among other things) torture and civil liberties and the war.

With all due respect, I have to say this argument hinges a lot on guilt by association, not on reason and logic, and speaks precisely to the concerns I have about the direction the Netroots are headed in.First off, as I have made clear on my blog and elsewhere, while I greatly admire Joe Lieberman and am proud to have worked for him as long as I have, I am my own person with my own views (some of which diverge from Lieberman’s) and deserve to be judged accordingly. Now with that disclaimer out of the way, I still believe the underlying premise — that Lieberman and his defenders by extension are conservative — is fatally flawed. Barbara Boxer and Eleanor Holmes Norton (among others) strongly supported Lieberman in the primary and actively campaigned for him. I doubt you would suggest they were conservatives for doing so. Nor would they have come to Connecticut if they thought Lieberman was a conservative, regardless of his stance on Iraq.

Second, I don’t harbor resentments against the Netroots after the Lieberman campaign or feel the need to get even. I am professional who has worked in and around national politics for 14 years now, and I have approached every campaign I’ve been involved in just as I have a lifetime playing team sports: fight hard when the game is on, then shake hands and move on when it’s over. That’s what I did after my client Tom Suozzi lost a hard-hitting primary race to Eliot Spitzer for governor here in New York last September — I am now a proud supporter of Governor Spitzer’s reform agenda. And that’s what I did after Lieberman beat Lamont in the general election last November. If you doubt me, just ask Ned Lamont himself — Ned invited me to come speak to his seminar at the Kennedy School in April, and we had a very friendly and constructive conversation in and out of the classroom, in which I went out my way to praise Ned and his campaign for what they accomplished.

To me, this is really a fight about how to build a bigger Democratic Party and broader support for a progressive agenda. My fear is that many in the Netroots have learned the wrong lessons from the conservative movement's rise to power over the past quarter century and are bent on copying their mistakes as well as their successes. To be specific, I am concerned that the many Netroots activists are taking their admirable quest to bring more cohesion and discipline and infrastructural resources to the Democratic Party to an exclusive and self-defeating extreme. Again, you may disagree with this assessment, but I fail to see how raising this concern makes me a conservative. (FYI: You can find a fuller explanation of my views in these two blog posts:;

Third, I go on Fox, just as Howard Dean does, because it reaches the largest audience of any cable news network by far and that audience is comprised of voters Democrats need to be speaking to to win elections. I can appreciate the arguments that you and some of my other progressive friends have made against legitimizing Fox by appearing on their air, although I obviously disagree ( But to use this small part of my resume as a leading indicator that I am conservative — especially when the same standard is not applied to Dean or Chris Dodd or many other Democrats who go on Fox News -- seems pretty specious. (I won’t even get into the Politico piece of this argument — there is just no credible evidence that Politico has a conservative bias.)Fourth, my reasons for blogging in different style than other Netroots writers do is not a function of my ideology, but my disposition. I made a conscious decision when I launched my site that: 1) I was going to write on a limited, quality-over-quantity basis, hence the mostly essay-ish posts; and 2) I was going to use my limited posting primarily to challenge conventional political wisdom and raise issues and questions and concerns that were not getting the attention I thought they deserved.

So in some sense, it’s precisely because you and so many other progressive bloggers have been working overtime holding Bush and the corrupt, backward Republicans in Congress accountable that I have chosen to focus on other subjects that are of particular interest to me. (FYI: Here is the post I wrote explaining all this to launch the site:’s fair to say that some of the issues progressive bloggers care most about and that I have not commented about are not as big of priorities to me, or that I may have more nuanced positions. For example, I disagree with the warrant-less wiretapping as practiced by this Administration, but I am not outraged by it like many progressives are. That’s because I believe that we have to be aggressive in collecting intelligence on potential terrorist threats, and while Bush drew the wrong line in the balance between liberty and security, I want the FBI listening to Al Qaeda through any lawful means.Now, one could say that I am making a mistake in not taking this largely theoretical threat more seriously, and we could have a legitimate argument about that. But to suggest my lack of outrage, at the exclusion of my actual position, makes me a conservative seems totally illogical to me. If I am conservative because I don’t oppose wireless wiretapping loudly enough, what does that make those who vocally support it?

This gets to one of the biggest problems I have with what too often seems to be the Netroots’ prevailing approach to politics. It’s this rigidly binary, with-us-or-against-us mentality that narrowly defines what a Democrat or progressive is and lumps anyone who fails that litmus test into one or two enemy camps — either a DLC sellout or a Bush sympathizer. Apply these exclusive standards to John Kennedy, who was a hawk by nature and dedicated tax-cutter, and he would assuredly have been deemed a bad Democrat. Apply them to voters today, more importantly, and we would assuredly get a smaller party and waste the opportunity we have now to cement a bond with the independents and Clinton Republicans who are now leaning our way.All of which is to say I think we would all be better off if we stopped getting hung up on crude, empty labels and started engaging in serious arguments about big ideas for governing and effective strategies for persuading voters and winning elections.Now to your more specific questions [Caric’s questions will be re-stated, followed by Gerstein’s answers]:

1) [Caric] Many liberal bloggers believe that figures like yourself and Beltway pundits like Joe Klein view moving the Democratic Party in a > more conservative direction (on foreign policy, regulatory issues, religion, and abortion for example) as the most important strategic imperative for Democrats. To what extent do you agree with that or not?

[Gerstein] I would challenge the premise of this question. I am not seeking to move the party in a more “conservative” direction. I am seeking to move the party in a more strategic direction that puts us in a stronger position to win elections and build a sustainable majority. Let’s use abortion as an example. I don’t advocate Democrats compromising their principles or changing their positions. I do advocate, as Hillary Clinton has done (, changing the way we talk about this issue to get off the defensive and show the Republicans are the ones who are out of touch. Thus, instead of falling into the pro-choice versus pro-life trap, we should be focusing on the one goal that most Americans agree on — reducing abortions and preventing women from ever having to make this difficult choice — and articulating a positive agenda for eliminating unwanted pregnancies and protecting women’s health. Then we can force the Republicans to explain how they can say they are for reducing abortions while at the same time blocking access to birth control.

2) [Caric] Liberal bloggers like Glenn Greenwald and Matthew Yglesias believe that the mainstream news media has embargoed war opponents and Democratic Party liberals and generally kept them out of interviews and off debate shows. To what extent would you agree that your own > appearances on Fox and affiliation with the Politico serve as an example of how more conservative Democrats get air time while more liberal and anti-war Democrats get excluded?

[Gerstein] Again, I would challenge the premise of the question. First off, nothing I do is going to influence Fox’s behavior — the only thing that is going to affect them is their audience and their ratings. Second, as I indicated above, it seems unfair to single me out for blame for Fox’s programming bent or booking habits when Howard Dean and many other prominent Democrats are going on their air and not getting the same kind of criticism. Heck, even Ned Lamont went on Fox News during last year’s campaign. Third, almost every time I am on Fox these days I am defending Democrats, and I believe we as a party are better off responding to baseless attacks on Fox or any other major outlet than ignoring them to make a symbolic point (as opposed to the Shrum approach to the Swift-boating campaign).

3) [Caric] One of my own hypotheses is that consultants and commentators like yourself think better of traditional or moderate Republicans than you do of the liberal or activist wing of the Democratic Republicans. In this sense, you would think more highly of Susan Collins of Maine or David Iglesias than you would a Maxine Waters or Juan Cole the anti-war blogger. To what extent would that be the case?

[Gerstein] Let me clear up one thing up about my consultancy — I am not a political consultant in the traditional sense. I do advise some candidates here and there, but that’s not how I make my living. Most of my clients are non-profits and progressive advocacy groups who need strategic communications help in marketing ideas or winning debates ( In terms of who I like better, liberal Democrats or moderate Republicans, I guess I just don’t think in those strictly partisan terms. All things being equal I will always support the Democrat over the Republican and I think it is more imperative now than ever for Democrats to be in control of our government. But at the same time I admire smart, principled, independent thinking leaders on both sides, especially those who know how to bring people together to get things done (hence the Lieberman connection). Two of my political heroes are Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy, who are to the left of me ideologically, but who I love for their conviction and respect for their ability to get Republicans to work with them to advance their causes. I cannot say the same for Maxine Waters. (FYI: My first paid gig as a political advisor was for Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Forum and techPresident, in his Net-driven race for Public Advocate here in New York City, which should give you some more indication about my belief in the positive power of online politics.)

4) [Caric] Another hypothesis of mine is that folks like yourself believe that you represent the farthest left that a legitimate Democratic or American politics could go? Thus you wouldn?t view those to the left > of you as fully viable or creditable? To what extent would you think that would be the case or not?

[Gerstein] I am just not sure this question has much relevance to today’s political arena. All my experience tells me most average voters don’t think like us political geeks -- which is to say, their primary barometer is not ideology or party or even a candidate’s stance on specific issues (outside of single issue voters like gun owners and pro-lifers). How else to explain Minnesota electing Wellstone and Rod Grams to the Senate at the same time, or New York Pat Moynihan and Al D’Amato, or Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden from Oregon? More often than not, as long as the candidates’ positions are within certain bounds, voters tend to look first at personal traits like character, values, likeability — along with their record if they are an incumbent. And then if they feel they can trust either or both of the candidates, they’ll give their ideas and agendas a listen. This is a test that Kerry failed — the Bush team did a highly effective job of disqualifying Kerry on cultural and character issues with a big bloc of swing voters, and largely as a result he never had a real chance to get a fair listen to his policies and plans. All of which is to say that, instead of getting bogged down in this unproductive and increasingly irrelevant left versus center fight, I would much rather field a diverse group of dynamic, authentic, and innovative-thinking Democratic candidates who can help us reframe the discussion about the past versus the future and convince voters we are the party that can meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

Thanks in advance for your consideration of my comments. Hope your bronchitis clears up soon.

Dan Gerstein

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