Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Enough With the Negativity - The Ben Nelson Ideal

by Kyle Michaelis
As unfair as I believe the Anonymous criticism I've received this week has been, there is one point with which I must agree: I have been too damn negative lately, focusing on the worst in Nebraska politics (particularly Nebraska Democratic politics) at the expense of some truly positive developments that - while not as high profile as Ben Nelson's voting record - may be even more important to the future of our state.

In the next few days, I hope to shine a light on the positive, but - first - my final word on the debate below.

It's easy to be a critic. It's easy to point fingers, pass judgment, and make bold declarations of betrayal that don't do a damn thing to push us forward as a society. What's far more difficult - and important - is actually advancing a progressive political agenda and defending its 100 year legacy from attack.

I recognize that. I always have. Though there have been some ominous signs the last few weeks that have discouraged and dismayed many faithful Nebraska Demcrats, we cannot give in to our weaknesses of the moment. Although we should not refrain from criticism of our own - when it is warranted, when it is fair - we must also be careful to avoid political cannibalism that would sacrifice the well-being of our nation and the future of our state in the name of vague goals of long-term partisan glory grounded in dream and conjecture.

The dream is a beautiful thing. Keep it in your heart - never lose it. But a dream it is and a dream it shall remain if we can not break ourselves from slavish service to ideology divorced from our personal and political reality.

I respect the opinions of those who question whether the independent (almost unidentifiable) brand of Democratic politician represented by Ben Nelson truly serves the interests of the Democratic Party, but I reject the idea that Ben Nelson hurts Nebraska Democrats or our Democratic candidates.

Let's be serious here. Talk as much as we want about the liberal base Nelson's record of proven conservatism might alienate, that is a small, harely hypothetical population that cannot possibly out-weigh the potential for reaching new voters made possible by Nelson's stereotype-shattering style of leadership.

I can disagree with Ben Nelson without turning my back on him. I can believe him out-of-step with some Democratic Party principles without questioning that he is a Democrat and that we are lucky to have him. The Nebraska Democratic Party cannot and should not refashion itself in the likeness of Ben Nelson - or endorse his every action - but when those differences arise they need not divide.

Nelson is not an albatross wrapped around our necks. Other candidates can stand on their own two feet, and the Democratic Party can benefit from the diversity of ideas and approaches they bring to the table. We are not the party of dogma. We are the party of getting things done and doing them right.

Therein lies our greatest strength. Therein lies our greatest opportunity to win back the voters of Nebraska. We need to prove our competence, win their confidence, and - from there - the progress we make possible and the principles to which we hold true will take care of the rest by proving ours is the better way.

The Nebraska Democratic Party is not hurt by Ben Nelson - not by his impressive record as governor, not by his remarkable popularity as a United States Senator, not by the resources he's newly (and thankfully) seen fit to direct towards rebuilding the NDP.

Nelson is an opportunity - more than just a foot in the door to political influence, he is a well-respected man with a proven record who voters know and trust. While some of his positions pose a challenge to our desire for a single Democratic identity or an appealing Democratic narrative, that challenge can be overcome by our party and its other candidates crafting their own messages with the same independence, creativity, and common sense to which Nelson has, himself, so long laid claim.

There is a powerful idea here somewhere - Ben Nelson the political figure vs. Ben Nelson as an idea to which we should all aspire. Not knowing the man personally, I can't say how closely the two meet in reality, but those who would have us forsake our independence of thought and criticism in the name of raw partisan allegiance ask us to forsake that which is most enviable about Nelson and the example he has set.

In unity is strength. In independence is truth. I don't know if Ben Nelson, the man, cares at all for discovering the path by which these ideals can be reconciled, but I believe he can and does help serve that purpose, while making America a better place, whether or not that is truly the star that guides him.


Anonymous Frankie said...

"The dream is a beautiful thing. Keep it in your heart - never lose it. But a dream it is and a dream it shall remain if we can not break ourselves from slavish service to ideology divorced from our personal and political reality."

Such a depressing thought, do the ends justify the means? I don't know... it depends on how valuable the means are.

However, it is a lucid critisism that I know many of my liberal Nebraskan friends would benefit from. Being a liberal in Nebraska is so damn polarizing--there is so much to rail against. It becomes so easy to get disorientated and alienated in all of it. I imagine most Nebraskans share the same basic values, we are just so completely lost in the jargon (death tax, etc).

Compromises can be made. The ends *can* justify the means.

Should the NDP compromise by toeing the republican line and furthering the "death tax" jargon? As a Nebraskan Democrat, do I find that acceptable?

Dreams aside, no, I don't.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyle - if ou are looking for jargon to rail against look no further than Pete Ricketts' new ads. All the buzz words are included - abortion, Kennedy, Clinton, taxes hikes, liberal judges. It's a disgrace. The only words missing from Ricketts' war on Democrats are "Ben Nelson." Dont think for a second that if Ben Nelson hadn't vote the way he did on the estate tax that Ricketts wouldn't have used the "death tax" jargon against him. then we'd have blood drinking, foaming at the mouth Republicans turning out in droves to replace a level-headed moderate thinking conservative Democrat wth one of their blood spitters in Ricketts.
The great thing about Nelson - and Kos and others have said this - is he does what he does without trying to force the Democratic Party to change to conform to his beliefs. Its exactly what the DP is about - big tent, alternatiave ideas. Nelson isn't a Republican because they don't allow free thought - even Hagel has to pretend to be a "maverick" and then constantly apologize to his base by pointing to his "100% ACU voting record." the NDP and Ben Nelson are both in survuval mode right now. Sure, we could stick by Howard Dean's platform but that would give the NDP exactly five months left to live. I'm glad you are focusing on the positive - Ben Nelson is too - look at his ads - they tout his record. Pete Ricketts on the other hand is usng the same old tired scare tactics that failed for Don Stenberg. the NEGOP should be embarassed.

Anonymous Zoomie said...

Lots of discussion, but the bottom line realism is that (per last SUSA poll I've seen) only four states have high positive ratings for George W. Bush than Nebraska. So for a Democrat to be successfully elected and reelected, well, you do what you've got to do!

And bottom line - if it gets us 51 Democratic Senators come November (be it 2006 or 2008), so be it! Better a Ben Nelson than a Pete "I Can Buy A Senate Seat" Ricketts anyday!

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


Saw Ricketts' new ad last night on the nightly news - pretty damn pathetic. Still, I have to ask that you politely give up spinning the "death tax" issue to defend Ben Nelson's vote for repeal.

The readers of this site, at least, know better. With the facts on our side, Ricketts' "death tax jargon" was nothing to fear - it should have been welcomed and challenged head-on. This was an issue for which the only thing required was the courage to make a stand and to speak the truth. The voters of Nebraska would have listened to Ben, but he never gave them the chance.

Of course, those Chamber of Commerce and big business endorsements do carry some pull - and, here, they exacted their price. I'll move on, but I won't allow the final word to be that Nelson was only doing what he had to do or that the Nebraska Democratic Party was doing the same.

The language of the "death tax" deceives. The issue of the "death tax" divides. It is class warfare, plain and simple.

I welcome a substantive retort explaining how real Nebraskans benefit from Estate Tax repeal. Barring that, however, it would bring me no pleasure, but I'm ready to carry on this fight for as long as you're willing to force the issue.

Anonymous anonymous 2 said...

Kyle, the ad that mentions the "death tax" mentions it because it resonates with Nebraskans. Not because they specifically benefit from repeal, but because they hope to. It's the same reason why the class-warfare rhetoric failed so miserably for Gore and Shrum in 2000. People might be middle class; people might be poor; but every man believes he's a rich man or he might be a rich man someday. That hope is what Senator Nelson is resonating with, and that hope is what you are criticizing him for appealing to.

I'd love to see Senator Nelson vote against eliminating it; frankly, I'd love to see him vote for increasing it. But the reality is in Nebraska the framing of the tax issue is ingrained. So Nelson could have fought a losing battle to redefine the fight, or he can say, "You know what? Nebraska Democrats are going to cut your taxes, and I have a record to prove it." And then we can move on to issues like renewable fuels and social security where Nelson is "right" for the 15 liberal bloggers in Lincoln and Omaha you seem to think he should represent.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyle - just for the record - I am not the same anonymous that posted last week defending Nelson and the NDP. (I posted on this column regarding Rickett's ad - not the same person that posted previously (and not anonymous 2 either)

Blogger Dave said...

I deleted the Daily Kos diary you linked to, as it sort of degenerated into little more than a pissing contest between me and a couple of other people. A little bit of self-censorship on my own part after I feel I stepped over the line.

Am I disillusioned? You bet. But Ben Nelson has done something that no other statewide candidate in the last 10 years has done: win. Our goals are the same, but I think our methods of getting there are different.

The Democratic Party was running in place for so long. I should be thrilled to see the progress we are seeing this year.

The actual problem is that Ben Nelson is the only Democrat in the state with any influence. So, how does that get fixed? Build up the party so we can elect more Democrats! As much as I disagree with Ben Nelson, I'm willing to see if he can't help make that happen.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Anonymoux (Anonymii? Anonymice?) -

One trillion dollars in tax cuts benefitting only the richest 3 (or 5) estates in one thousand at a time when our nation is approaching $9 trillion in debt - I don't see how that's an argument you lose on if you're just willing to challenge the "death tax" rhetoric.

But, it seems, that's where we depart. You don't think that's a battle we can win, while I don't think this is a battle we can afford (economically or morally) not to fight. Heaven help us if we're both right.

Nelson could be on the opposite side of this issue and - seriously - what could Ricketts honestly say with his standing to personally gain tens of millions of dollars from repeal? It would be an open declaration of fiscal recklessness for the sake of lining his own pockets. You think that would fly with Nebraska voters?

If so, I really don't know the people of Nebraska. If so, I really have no place commenting on Nebraska politics, and I owe you ALL a grave apology.

Blogger Dave said...

Not to mention the fact that Ricketts is using "abortion" in his ads... despite the fairly obvious fact that Nelson has a solidly pro-life voting record. Ricketts has used the "death tax" language before, and will use it again. Like Kyle, my main concern is that Nelson is using the market-tested frame of Republicans. When we allow them to set the terms of the debate, they have the upper hand.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ricketts is a shameless opportunist who would not let the chance to demonize Nelson pass. I have no doubt at all that he would be using "death tax" every chance he got if nelson was not in favor of full repeal. Regardless of Ricketts' personal wealth, he'd still use it. He did all the time during the primary and he does in campaign literature now. the difference is that he can only say he's also for it as opposed to saying that "nelson wants to destroy family farms and small businesses". Nelson has successfully innoculated himself - those smart politics at work.

sure we could all be noble losers and comfort ourself with our purity by trying to "educate" the voters (most of whom thing they're pretty educated now and get pretty darn offended when Democrats suggest otherwise, no matter how wrong they are or how right we are), or we could win.

I choose "win".

Blogger Dave said...

So, we allow the Republicans to set the terms of the debate, then? Instead of saying:

This is a misrepresentation of the facts, using test-marketed phrases meant to warp reality. The estate tax is only a tax on the wealthiest of estates. Repealing the estate tax would increase the tax burden on average Americans, including family farmers.

Intellectual dishonesty runs amok in this country in part because we're too afraid to call anybody on it.

Anonymous anonymous 2 said...

Kyle, you don't get it. Ricketts would hammer Senator Nelson all the way until November if Nelson had voted for the estate tax regardless of Ricketts' own personal gain. Not to mention having a primo issue for nasty attack ads by the Club For Growth, the NRSC, and every other DC conservative group.

And think about this...name a Nebraska political reporter that would ask Ricketts if the only reason he's for repeal of the estate tax is because he'd get more money, and then write a story about it after he denied it.

He wouldn't be called on it, and you and I both know that.

Blogger Dave said...

Yeah, you're probably right, but it's not because the media isn't calling him on it - that never happens anyway. It'd be because the Democrats won't call him on it.

Now, your scenario assumes Nelson voted against the repeal, which - of course - he did not. The problem is that he made it a point to mention it in his ads, using test-marketed Republican language. His vote upsets me, yes, but that's not what I'm concerned about. He didn't need to go in his ad and mention the "death tax," his vote ensured that he would not be beaten by that issue.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

I really had intended to tap out on this one, but just when I think I'm out they pull me back in.

We're now pretty far afield from the issue itself - where my interest and disappointment lie. The fact that a vote brings heat is not necessarily a negative. I'd take the argument that Nelson voted for repeal to secure the support of the business lobby over his being afraid of the attack ads that would otherwise result.

Give me calculation over cowardice any day of the week (though they so often run together).

And, since we are now in the realm of the hypothetical, I refuse to concede that no Nebraska reporter would write about the fortune Ricketts' stands to personally gain from estate tax repeal. If it were an issue on which he really attacked Ben Nelson - and an issue that posed a true contrast between their candidacies - I don't have a doubt in my mind that the Nebraska media would have reported on the simple economics of the situation.

Would that have been enough to counteract Ricketts' attacks. Probably not. But, there are issues upon which all you have to do is get the idea out there and the rest will take care of itself. Ricketts' attempt to enter a new American aristocracy, free to inherit his father's kingdom without any obligation to society, is not an issue on which we lose. In fact, it would be a message with which some of us - the Nelson campaign included - could have had a lot of fun and found a lot of success.

That is, if it were an issue at all. It's not. I guess we'll just have to find our kicks elsewhere and hope that by conceding too many battles we haven't already lost the war.

Anonymous David D. said...

Kyle and all - I've been reading along with great delight to see that something Ben Nelson did has sparked so much debate.

In any other race Kyle - you'd be 100% correct. this is a great issue to demagogue when you have the majoriy on your side. Blue state dems and Red State Repubs win on this issue. but what of Red State Dems? an entirely different political animal.

Look carefully at the campaign Pete Ricketts is waging. He calls himself a "Reagan Republican". He talks about judges and abortion in his ads. He invokes Kennedy and Clinton. He outright says he'd be a "republican Senator".

He's not going after a single moderate or liberal or democrat vote. He doesn't need them. He has no use for "earned media". The reporters in NE can barely get him on the phone never mind ask a direct question of the man.
He's running his campaign in 30 second intervals - on TV and radio. his audience is the majority of the GOP registered voters. He doesn't needa single Democrat to win. His ads will ignore his own wealth and attack Nelson for being rich and out of touch. He will argue that voting for a Republican is "change" in Washington where the republicans have controlled everything since Nelson got there. He would attack Ben Nelson on the estate tax given any opportunity - and he probably will anyway because you don't have to have facts in your commercials for them to be effective.

there will be no accountability for Pete Ricketts. Even the OWH is doing its best to undermine Ben Nelson's message for him - see that rediculous story on Monday about their personal finances. They developed this graphic that implied Pete Ricketts is already elected.

You want Ben Nelson to win the war of ideas - he could if he tried, but getting every demoratic vote and half of the independents gets him into the Senate Alum club.
Nelson actually beleives the death tax is bad for NE. He says that people bring it up all the time. He is representing NEBRASKA - just like he said he would do in 2000.

Ricketts is saying he will represent NEBRASKA REPUBLICANS. He doesn't care about you or anyone else who is not GOP. the people of NE - who claim to be more populist than partisan - need to get a wake up call. If Pete Ricketts is elected, he will not have the time of day for any of us - he's promised that.
Why can't we focus on Ricketts - no matter how much you disagree with Nelson, the times you might agree with him far outnumber the times you might agree with Ricketts.

I encourage you to continue to fight for the Party to reflect your values. Ben Nelson has been involved with the NDP for thirty years. this is his time. It makes sense that the party would support him. He's keeping it alive, growing it, so the next generation of leaders - like you all, can take over and return the Party to its former greatness. Ben has never asked the NDP to become "slavish" to his ideology. the Party shouldn't ask it of him. They should ask for his support and help. He's giving it. Death tax or not, he deserves our support for the support he gave before any of us arrived on the scene.

Thank you.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Hmmmm.....that's going to be a difficult one to top, Mr. D. The problem now becomes how do I write about the Nelson/Ricketts race over the next 5 months without committing wholesale plagiarism?

Ricketts' ad certainly should be a wake-up call for every progressive-minded person in this state. He's playing to win, and the facts aren't going to get in the way of that.

Still, blogs exist for this sort of debate. I don't regret it - and, though perhaps something of a distraction - I don't think it's destructive so long as we're all doing our part in the real world - backing up our ideals with our deeds and our candidates with our cash.

Thanks for the discussion, all. You humble me with your passions and your ideas, every bit as honest and often more reasonable than my own.


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