Tuesday, February 25, 2014

5 Nuggets from Today's Siena Poll

Siena College released a poll of New York voters this morning, just as Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino is warming up his very underdog campaign against popular Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Here's what I found interesting:

1. Ghost of Mario- Andrew Cuomo has fully exorcised the ghost of Mario and shaken the political baggage with moderate voters that could come from being the son of one of the country's most eloquent liberal voices.  61% of all New York voters call Cuomo a moderate or conservative.  But avoiding the caricature of a big government progressive carries a price with some elements of the Democratic base- 13% of Democrats call Andrew Cuomo a conservative, including 24% of African-American voters.  But a primary from the left against Cuomo is a fool's errand, Astorino is taking hard right positions on social issues and left-of-center voters will stick with the pro-choice, pro-gun control incumbent.  Cuomo has deftly kept himself popular and in the center, maximizing his leverage with Democratic interest groups in Albany while remaining a palatable moderate with whom Republican voters permit their senators to do business.

2. Nobama- But Cuomo's relationship with moderate and conservative voters could go south quickly if he bear hugs President Obama.  Obama is a massive political liability upstate, where voters disapprove of him by a 58% to 39% margin.  Even in the suburbs- which Obama won handily in 2012- voters are evenly divided on the President's performance, with 48% rating Obama unfavorably compared with 47% viewing him favorably. Expect Astorino and NY Senate Republicans to try to nationalize their campaigns with messages blasting Obamacare, while Cuomo and state Democrats try to keep the conversation about New York.  Cuomo, by virtue of being a governor, will win this argument, but it spells trouble for Democrats running for Congress (see #3).

3.House of Bad Cards- Democrats need to hold congressional seats like the one Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney wrested from Hudson Valley Republican Nan Hayworth in 2012.  This poll is not only a clear warning sign for Maloney, but also shows obstacles for Sean Eldridge's attempt to knock of GOP Rep. Chris Gibson and should cause pause by Congresswoman Nita Lowey.  The bloom is off the Obama rose in the Hudson Valley.  Maloney needs to distance himself from the President to get re-elected while raising records amount of cash from uber-liberal donors.  Expect Hayworth to plaster the northern portions of this district with pictures of Maloney and the President.  Eldridge, whose Facebook-founder husband Chris Hughes ran Obama's digital campaign in 2008, faces an uphill battle to knock off Rep. Chris Gibson, who has styled himself as moderate in the radical GOP house and tended to the local concerns of his sprawling 11-county district. Eldridge's bio makes no mention of his partisan leanings and refers to him as an "independent." Lowey is facing an ideologically charged challenge from Chris Day, an Army vet whose father was just elected the Rockland County Executive.  Day, like Hayworth and Gibson, will also attempt to link his Democratic opponent to the damaged-Obama brand.  He'll add a harsh critique of the President's Israel policy that can resonate with this district's hawkishly pro-Israel voters.  Lowey is well-liked and favored to win, but she needs to gird for battle. Her campaign website hasn't been updated since August 2013.

4. Maybe I Inhaled too Deeply- Last week, I looked at a Quinnipiac College poll that showed NY Democrats favoring legal marijuana by a 65 to 31 margin and predicted legalization by 2016.  Today's poll shows Democrats opposed 49 to 46.  I think that is mostly because of the way the questions were worded: last week's poll referred to legalizing "small amounts" of weed and generated wide support while today's poll put no limit on the quantity and revealed markedly less enthusiasm.  While Siena shows independent voters favoring legal weed by 10 points, the mixed data demonstrates why Cuomo and other state leaders are reluctant to enter the haze on the issue.  Maybe Hillary doesn't need to light a pipe after all.

5. Downballot Democratic Blues- Eric Schneiderman has landed multiple front-pages as New York's attorney general, leading the national conversation on foreclosure settlements and presiding over high-profile drug busts. Nonetheless, he remains a total unknown to many voters, including 63% of voters in the politically crucial suburbs.  Both Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom Dinapoli, the other statewide official seeking re-election this year, received favorable ratings only in the high-20s.  The New York Times recently profiled Schneiderman's clash with Cuomo and DiNapoli and the governor have tangled as well.  But neither official appears able to stand on their own as a statewide candidate in a year with ear-ringing political noise and both will swallow their pride and hoist hands with Cuomo to smooth their way to victory.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hillary Needs to Inhale

If she wants to win, Hillary needs to inhale.

22 years after Bill Clinton famously explained away his marijuana use at Oxford by saying "I didn't inhale", Quinnipiac College released a poll yesterday showing that Democrats in the home state he adopted with Hillary favor legalizing small amounts of recreational pot by an overwhelming 65%-31% margin.

The margin among New York voters aged 18 to 29?  83% to 14%.

With some already wondering aloud if the 66-year old former First Lady is too old to mount a presidential campaign in 2016, the glass ceiling crasher's frontrunner status could evaporate quickly if younger voters find her on the wrong side of a clear generational divide on a high-profile issue.

The Clintons saw that movie in 2008 when young voters favored hip Barack Obama (and his well documented pot smoking) over Hillary by 20 percentage points,  delivering him both the Democratic Party's nomination and the presidency.  Hillary's high profile hoisting of a shot of whiskey at Bronko's Restaurant and Lounge in Crown Point, Indiana snagged her a one point win in that state's primary but she lost voters there under 40 by 19 points.   The Clintons don't make the same mistake twice.

Obama was never as much of the edgy cultural leader as his supporters dreamed him to be- witness his painful "evolution" on gay marriage-- but on legal weed the President has become positively nonchalant.  He told the New Yorker's David Remnick last month that smoking pot was a vice no different than cigarettes or alcohol.  The Democratic Party's leader clearly doesn't think law enforcement should be wasting its time policing adults getting high; his administration just permitted banks to maintain accounts for marijuana dispensaries.

So any Democrat looking to generate buzz with the 14% of  Democratic voters that the Pew Poll says are under 30 can stand out from the crowd by endorsing legalized marijuana, now.  It's a particularly appealing tactic for Hillary, who can make it clear she's not running for grandmother-in-chief with one decisive policy stance.

But the marijuana debate is not just a generational rift; it has a strong racial dimensions as well.

According to the FBI, blacks are three to four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite toking at the same rate.  The racial disparity in the enforcement of marijuana laws is serious and inescapable; in fact, it is only a matter of time before the courts could find it a discriminatory violation of the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

The leading cause of disruption in the black community today is a prison system that holds too many African-American men for too long.  Leaders increasingly discuss how the community's progress is stunted because of the more limited employment opportunities for men with arrest records for possession of a small amount of weed.

If Hillary doesn't back legalization, she will nonetheless need to squarely address the impact of current drug policy on the black community and offer alternatives of her own.  But modest, federal criminal justice reforms will not break through the noise from the legalization movement or meaningfully reduce the state prison incarceration rate for those arrested.
The Clintons have worked tirelessly since 2008 to repair strained relationships with some black leaders from their epic battle with the country's first black president. Reopening the wound would be politically fatal to the Clinton campaign.  Blacks are 19% of the Democratic primary electorate and much more likely than whites to favor legalizing marijuana, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

A majority of Latinos support legalization too, even though a 2013 Pew study said they are less likely than either whites or blacks to have tried the drug.

Of course, the winner of the Democratic Primary still needs to pass through November on the way to The White House.  A CNN poll found only 36% of Republicans support legalization.  But 59% of politically independent swing voters nationwide back legal weed, suggesting it won't be a major issue for a Democrat in the general election.  And voters of all parties can quickly become keen to the tax revenue that would be generated by legal pot.

So far, Hillary has shown little interest in puffing her way to the presidency and neither have her rivals.  Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, another potential candidate, was dubbed "buzzkill in chief"by the Huffington Post last month for calling marijuana a gateway that leads to the abuse of other drugs.  56% of New York Democrats polled disagree with him, including 68% of all voters under 29.
But as Hillary hits the speaking circuit, lines up fundraisers and ponders her presidential pursuits, she should also turn on some music, pack a bowl and post the picture to Instagram.

You can't make history if you are on the wrong side of it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Earthquake in Albany, Tremor in Jerusalem

There was a political earthquake in Albany yesterday and its tremors reached Jerusalem.

A bill to penalize organizations at New York universities that participate in academic boycotts of Israel was yanked from consideration by the State Assembly’s Committee on Higher Education at the last minute.  When I served in the Assembly, bills were rarely placed on committee agendas unless they were certain to pass; even when we discovered technical errors, the bills would often be passed in committee and amended later on.
But this bill is different: it had already passed the state senate 56-4, directed its ire at enemies of Israel in a state where Jews are 10% of the population and was sponsored by the Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, who wields an absolute veto over what bills the chamber considers.
Bills opposed by the Speaker never see the light of a legislative day; bills sponsored by the Speaker pass easily and never receive the sunlight of scrutiny.
But this bill, which had already been watered down from a tougher draft that would have financially penalized the universities rather than just the groups aiding the boycotts, disappeared from consideration under pressure from the state teacher’s union and two left-wing legal groups.
Capitol watchers were stunned because of what it might say about the Speaker’s influence over the committee (no change- it remains intact).  But supporters of Israel are floored because of what it says about the state of Middle East policy in American politics. And it says a lot.
Disappearing Albany bill shows shift in support for Israel

When Israeli officials speak about fighting attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state through academic and economic boycotts, they hardly think they need to start with New York’s Democratic Party.  Most Democrats, in New York and across the nation, are pro-Israel.  They support military and foreign aid.  They roundly and genuinely condemn terrorist attacks.  They sign on to congressional letters circulated by the influential American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). 
And many Democrats regularly support symbolic bills, like Silver’s anti-boycott legislation, which has more impact in declaring the state’s affinity for Israel than in depriving publicity-hungry anti-Israel campus groups of meaningful funding.  Almost every Democrat in the State Senate backed the bill.
But on the flashpoints in the Middle East debate today—academic and economic boycotts of the Jewish state and harsher sanctions on Iran to stop its march to nuclearization—there is an unmistakable and growing divide.  Democrats and the interest groups that fire the party’s base and fill its coffers are moving away from global pro-Israel talking points.
The political shift is dramatic and consequential.

Bill and the Bubbe express

In 1992, Jewish voters and other strong supporters of Israel flocked to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign after the then-Secretary of State Jim Baker snarkily told a congressional panel that Israel’s prime minister should “call him” if he was serious about peace.  Republican candidates for Congress, already tied to the floundering first Bush administration, spent the campaign distancing themselves from Baker’s testimony. 

In 2000, the Bubba express turned into the Bubbe express, as legions of Jewish grandmothers flooded Florida polling sites to support Al Gore and running mate Joe Lieberman, the first Jew nominated on a major party ticket and an observant one to boot (we know how that turned out).  There was no shortage of pro-Israel speeches at the party convention that year; we feasted on an endless supply of LA’s best kosher deli in Lieberman’s private skybox at the Staples Center.  It was such a proud Jewish moment, I called my mother.  Joe took the phone to accept her “mazal tov.” 
A few months prior, I had helped organize a private coffee for Jewish women who were reluctant to support Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate bid after her infamous kiss with Yasser Arafat’s wife.  If elected, she pledged to be “the pro-Israel leader” in the Senate.  And she kept her word. If there was daylight between Senator Clinton and the pro-Israel agenda during her eight years in office, I never found any.
But the center of gravity in the Democratic Party on American policy in the Middle East is shifting- and fast.

How a little move can become a movement
Today, Hillary Clinton is backing President Obama’sopposition to new Iran sanctions, to the delight of more liberal Democratic primary voters and the consternation of many pro-Israel Democrats who believe the Iranian regime will never cease its efforts to acquire nuclear arms to use against the Jewish state.  Bill DeBlasio, New York’s new progressive mayor and a pro-Israel stalwart, is under fire from some Democratic party activists for telling AIPAC activists that “part of my job description
is to be a defender of Israel.”
Support for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was dropped from the 2012 Democratic platform by the Obama Administration and restored by a staged voice vote from the party’s convention floor that no one seriously believes pro-Israel forces won. 

Two years ago, when Israel strategically bombed Gazan military targets in response to ceaseless rocket fire from Hamas terrorists, 74% of Republican voters polled supported the Jewish state’s self-defense.  Only 40% of Democrats backed Israel. 
And yesterday in New York, the teacher’s union- one of the Democratic party’s largest donors- publicly stood up to one of the most powerful legislative leaders in America on anti-boycott legislation, raising questions about academic freedom even though the bill would have zero impact on academics.  The union’s statement opposing Silver’s bill even justified academic boycotts for “issues of public concern” and contained not a single word of support for Israel’s universities, the most academically free in the Middle East and among the most open institutions in the world.
I support Palestinian statehood.  I am among the many Jews anxious to end a military administration of the West Bank that places Israeli soldiers in dens of terror, sometimes forcing ugly choices between survival and humanity.  But I also know that the Israeli people have repeatedly sued for peace and received a verdict of terrorism, hatred and isolation from the Arab world.  Global Jewish memory is still keen to the intellectual and social boycotts in 1930s Germany that ripened the windows for Kristallnacht.
Democrats seeking nomination for President in 2016 can enhance the chance for peace by strongly making the case for America’s enduring partnership with Israel.  Its trade unions, nationalized health care and strong environmental laws mirror what we Democrats seek for our own country. 
Or Oval Office aspirants can echo the rhetoric of our party’s extreme elements and slowly retreat into the boycott-laden double-standards of Israel’s adversaries.
Israel’s government can either cling to an outdated fantasy of robust bipartisan support or make Israel’s case to liberal Democrats who are identifying more strongly with Palestinian aspirations than Israel’s multiethnic resilience and embracing a narrative that sees Israel as a permanent Goliath rather than an imperfect democracy struggling to retain its values in the Middle East's quicksand of terrorism and political disintegration.
Otherwise, Democratic voters’ support for Israel can disappear as quickly as Silver’s anti-boycott bill, and one small vote in Albany will look like a giant step forward for Israel’s enemies.