Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Lessons for Obama from the Artur Davis Train Wreck

Artur Davis, once considered a shining light in the Democratic Party, suffered a precipitous fall from grace when he lost badly in last week's primary election for governor of Alabama.

Considering that Davis has been seen as a Southern version of Barack Obama, here is a question worth pondering: Should Obama examine the Davis debacle for lessons that could help keep his presidency from falling into an abyss?

In an intriguing piece at OpEd News, veteran lawyer and journalist Andrew Kreig says the answer is yes. Kreig, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Justice Integrity Project, points to key factors that led to the implosion of the Davis campaign--and offers them as possible warning signs to the Obama administration.

How stunning was the Davis collapse? Kreig provides perspective:

Little-known Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks ran to the left of the better-funded Davis and trounced him by a 62-38 margin.

This is even though Davis was his state's senior Democratic congressman and enjoyed a close relationship with President Obama, whose Harvard Law School studies overlapped by a year.

Kreig says the White House has decided "it should recruit Republican-lite careerists like Davis for open seats in conservative or swing districts." But that strategy did not work so well in the Alabama governor's race:

In one of the reddest of the red states, Sparks ran an issue-oriented campaign that offered solutions to the hopes and fears of voters threatened by further job loss and inadequate health care. Voters were enticed by Sparks advocacy of gambling as a job-creator and source of government funding. And, most recently, many feared the horror of the BP's oil drilling catastrophe.

Furthermore, significant segments of the Democratic base suspected Davis of making self-serving deals with their Republican enemies to help his own career.

Sparks is white and Davis is black, but race did not determine the outcome, Kreig reports. Sparks beat Davis in many heavily African-American districts. So where did Davis go wrong? For one thing, he was seen as having bailed out on prominent Democrats who were victimized by the Bush Department of Justice:

Davis was too clever by a half in turning his back on Alabama's most recent Democratic governor, Don Siegelman, after Siegelman was framed by the Bush Justice Department on corruption charges in 2006.

Last summer, I received a tip from a reliable source that Davis, with encouragement from party leaders in Washington, worked out a deal to keep Bush-appointed U.S. attorney Leura Canary running the Middle District office that prosecuted Siegelman. In return, Davis received support for his campaign from her husband Bill Canary, CEO of the Business Council of Alabama (BCA).

Kreig goes on to focus on six Whopper-sized mistakes that the seemingly astute Davis committed:

1. He's arrogant and took black voters for granted.

2. He abandoned Siegelman and quit the House Judiciary Committee. Siegelman is still a hero to black voters.

3. He took money, $4,500, from BCA Leader Billy Canary. Lobbyists have said for two years that Artur would let Leura stay in office until she could get her federal retirement in exchange for a BCA endorsement. Now, Leura is launching new indictments aimed at Democratic officeholders in seats where Republicans may be able to take over. Most Democrats see this as Artur's fault.

4. Late in the campaign, he was accused of keeping the Middle District U.S. Attorney's seat open for himself.

5. He didn't campaign much and sent a flock of young white kids to the Jefferson-Jackson Day event instead of showing up.

6. His rejection of the Health Care bill and its reconciliation companion were shocking to his base.

Perhaps most devastating was Davis' decision to turn his back on victims of the Bush DOJ. Writes Kreig:

This is not just Siegelman, his co-defendants and their families. I've received advanced notice of a forthcoming study of more than 1,000 official corruption targets during the Bush administration will show that 46 percent of them nationwide were African-Americans.

In short, Davis tried to win over black voters by turning his back on black office holders. Should we be surprised that this didn't work out so well?

Signs of Davis' arrogance were everywhere. Kreig illustrates it by borrowing from the work of Huffington Post's Sam Stein, who interviewed CNN analyst Roland Martin:

Davis lost, Martin told Huffington Post, because:

He was arrogant as hell.

Davis pointedly refused to do black media. He turned my TV One show down six times; he didn't do Tom Joyner's show, with 8 million listeners--TJ is a Tuskegee native; he turned down dozens of requests from Joe Madison of Sirius/XM; and he didn't do many others. He assumed because of his skin blacks would flock to his campaign. Sparks outhustled him and worked black voters in a major way.

Any smart politician knows to shore up their base. He was advised by top Democratic strategists, from the White House on down, to solidify his base. He never did that.

In the wake of last week's thrashing, Davis said his political career is over, that he has no interest in running for public office again. What should Obama and other prominent Democrats learn from this? Kreig sums it up:

A larger lesson developing from all this is that political leaders in the national Democratic Party and the pundits who cover them should understand that the Davis debacle in Alabama illustrates how hungry the public is for real change that helps people.

Democratic leaders who take the base for granted do so at their peril, as House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said last summer to the Progressive Democrats of America. My blog quoted the longtime Democrat from Detroit as predicting a one-term Presidency for his friend Obama unless he adopted harder-hitting and more progressive measures on such issues as health care.

If Obama and others ignore these lessons, it could be to their great peril. Writes Kreig:

Last week, Davis was the face of a failed, top-down, "moderate" strategy fostered during recent years by the White House and Democratic National Committee.

Who's next?

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