Westward Bound

In the more than two years since I last posted to this site, I have had the privilege of working with some of the smartest people in D.C., at National Journal and at our parent company, Atlantic Media. I have been part of a small and dedicated leadership team charged with reinventing National Journal for the digital age, while preserving its core integrity as the most intelligent source for reporting and analysis on politics and policy in Washington. I have also worked in a newsroom full of sharp, ambitious, and incredibly fun reporters, who have made my job rewarding beyond what I could have hoped. It has been an honor, a joy, and an adventure.

But now a new adventure calls. After more than two years with National Journal and almost four years in D.C., I am leaving both and heading west to Denver, Colorado. It was not an easy decision to make, but it was a life decision, and ultimately mountains and matters of the heart carried the day.

Once I get to Denver, I hope to bring my communications experience to another innovative company or organization that deserves to have its story better told. For anyone who is interested in my professional bio, resume, etc., please visit http://about.me/TaylorWest – and feel free to share it far and wide.

I could not have asked for better than my job and my co-workers at National Journal, and I will miss them immensely. But I will continue to be a believer in – and promoter of – the excellent work they do, even from 2,000 miles away.

A New Direction

I’m excited to announce that on August 9th I will be starting a new job as the Communications Director of the National Journal Group at Atlantic Media.  In that role, I will be handling strategic communications and media relations for all of National Journal Group’s print and online publications, including National Journal Magazine, the Hotline, Congress Daily, and others.

As folks may know, there are big changes underway at the National Journal Group, and I’m thrilled to be joining the stellar team of people who are leading those efforts.  That includes new National Journal Editor-in-Chief Ron Fournier, as well as Hotline’s new Editor-in-Chief Reid Wilson and Executive Editor Josh Kraushaar.  I’m also very lucky to be working directly with Atlantic Media VP and Head of Strategic Communications Linda Douglass, a veteran of ABC News, National Journal, the Obama campaign, and the White House.

This will be a new direction for me in more ways than one.  For the first time since 2002, I’ll be fully stepping away from partisan political work.  (Though my consulting work wasn’t expressly defined by party lines, I still largely worked – and appeared on television – as a “Democratic strategist.”)

In my work for Atlantic Media and National Journal, I’ll no longer be advocating for policy positions or political candidates.  I’ll still be advocating – but it will be for smart journalists, thoughtful writing, and insightful analysis.  (In case it isn’t clear from the job title, I am being hired on the business side, NOT the editorial side.  My role isn’t to produce journalistic content – it’s to get National Journal’s writers, reporting, and analysis the visibility and recognition they deserve.)

Though I’m stepping away from political work, I’ll still be thoroughly immersed in the political world, working with the National Journal team as they make their new operation the smartest, most insightful stop in political and policy news.

Despite my excitement about this new opportunity, it will still be incredibly hard to leave my friends and co-workers at New Partners, where I’ve been beyond fortunate to have a home for the last year and a half.  Going to work at New Partners was the best thing that could have happened to me after several years on the campaign trail, and I will miss being there immensely.

Now seems like a good time to say how incredibly grateful I am for all the people and experiences that have shaped my career so far.  It is because of them that I can take this next step and look forward to what the future holds.

The (Journalism) World Is Flat

[Cross-posted at Huffington Post.]

Last week, I had the pleasure of serving as a panelist at the 2010 Schuneman Symposium on Photojournalism and New Media at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.  It was a fantastic experience, and professors, panelists, and students alike provided a lot of genuinely thought-provoking conversations.  Nowhere are people wrestling more intensely with the future of news media than in the classrooms doing their best to prepare the next generation of journalists.

My panel was about the impact of new media on political journalism, and our conversation ranged far and wide.  One of the points I tried to make in my closing was that, for all the challenges that the internet poses (largely to journalism’s business model), it also provides emerging journalists with unprecedented opportunities to be heard.  Barriers to entry are now almost nil, and with the explosion of social media, a good piece of work – no matter who writes or publishes it – can take off across the internet in the time it takes readers to hit a “Retweet” button.

Just ask Mike Huckabee.

The former Arkansas Governor, current Fox News host, and once and future presidential candidate gave an interview last week to The Perspective, an on-campus magazine published by students at The College of New Jersey.  In the interview, Huckabee likened homosexuality to drug use, incest, and polygamy, and suggested that same-sex adoption was a politically motivated “experiment” that shouldn’t be allowed because “children are not puppies.”  (For good measure, he also took swipes at both RNC Chair Michael Steele and GOP presidential rival Mitt Romney.)

In a world not so very long ago, The Perspective would have published its story, some students at The College of New Jersey would have read it and been rightfully horrified, some strongly worded Letters to the Editor would have been printed, and Perspective editor-in-chief M.E. Tracey would have come away with a great clip for his portfolio when he went out to look for a “real” journalism job.  Meanwhile, Huckabee’s press staff would have taken time out from planning a “Staying on Message” refresher course to thank the heavens it was “only” an interview with a college magazine.

But there is no “only” anymore.  In a world of keyword searches, Google alerts, and news aggregators, Huckabee’s incendiary comments made it from obscure campus publication to the A-wire of the Associated Press in a matter of days.  (The real surprise is actually that it took that long.)  Huckabee himself issued a remarkably snide and defensive non-denial on his PAC’s blog, taking a shot at Tracey in the process.  Tracey responded with a statement of his own, as well as the trump card of any journalist – a recording of Huckabee speaking the quotes in question.

That a major presidential contender is now caught up in a very public back-and-forth with a college senior goes to show what a very flat media world it has become.

It should be encouraging to the up-and-coming journalists I met at the Schuneman Symposium.  In a flat world, smart writing, insightful opinions, and hard-nosed, news-making interviews can come from anywhere, to be read by everyone.  Increasingly, they do.  That change carries a lot of risks – pay attention in those journalistic ethics classes, please, kids – but it also means that hard work and a quality product can become a lot more than its own reward.

Just ask Mike Huckabee.

A Tale of Two Chairmen

[Cross-posted at Huffington Post.]

RNC Chairman Michael Steele has become a recurring nightmare for his party.  A comically consistent series of gaffes have kept the RNC in the news for all the worst reasons, and as Sam Stein reports, Republican donors and strategists are having a hard time hiding their disdain.  The latest scandals – revolving around absurd expenditures on nightclubs, swank hotels, private jets, and limo services – are only solidifying Steele’s reputation as both an ineffective manager and an ego-driven loose cannon only interested in using the Chairman’s position to live high and promote his own interests.

When Steele was elected, many Republican strategists breathed a sigh of relief.  His main competitor, Katon Dawson, was a South Carolinian with a good ol’ boy streak a mile wide and a membership in a whites-only golf club just to drive the point home.  For a GOP reeling from two disastrous election cycles and facing demographic trends that threatened slow-motion extinction, there were many in the party who believed a charismatic, energetic, and yes, non-white Chairman would help set a new tone for the party heading into 2009.  (As a Democratic strategist, I agreed with them, and couldn’t help but be disappointed when Dawson lost out in the end.)

A little over a year later, as the unforced errors, prima donna moments, and wild message detours have mounted, Steele has been at best a distraction and at worst a true detriment to the committee’s most important roles: driving a consistent Republican narrative and raising money to support the party’s 2010 candidates.

Compare that disastrous record to Steele’s counterpart on the other side of the aisle – DNC Chairman Tim Kaine.  Where Steele has been a rogue agent, a self-promoter, and a faux-pas factory, Kaine has been all consistency, effectiveness, and message discipline, even as the environment has turned dramatically tougher for Democrats.

Don’t look now, but under Tim Kaine, the DNC has raised more money than ever under the current campaign finance laws, making them directly competitive with the RNC for the first time in recent memory.  Despite tough losses in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, Democrats have won five special elections – often a purer test of party organization and effectiveness than higher-profile general contests – including ones in Republican-leaning districts.  And after a long, hard year, it turns out that we’ve accomplished an historic Democratic agenda.

Through it all, Governor Kaine has been one of the Democrats’ most reliable surrogate voices, both publicly and privately, with nary a message misstep to his name.

When the President named Kaine to the Chairman’s job, there was an element of the unexpected to it.  Kaine was serving his final year as Virginia’s governor, and despite his convincing 2005 victory in deeply purple Virginia, he wasn’t typically thought of as a political operator.  But those who have worked with him (as I was fortunate to have in that 2005 campaign) know that he combines genuine conviction and substance with a sharp competitive instinct and a willingness to throw the smart punch.

Just as importantly, Governor Kaine embodies the “No Drama” motto that carried the day in the Obama campaign and, arguably, in the end-game of the health care reform debate.

It’s the kind of solid, un-flashy performance that often flies under the radar.  Indeed, there are those who have complained that Kaine is too “boring” for the high-profile chairman’s role.  But as we watch Michael Steele’s RNC going through its latest fire drill, I’d bet there are a whole lot of Republicans who’d be happy to make a trade.

Reviving the Senate?

[Cross-posted at The Arena.]

The Washington Post‘s Paul Kane has an interesting story this weekend about “a band of Senate Democratic newcomers [who] are vowing to change the way the world’s greatest deliberative body does business.”  Kane calls them “young turks,” though he immediately acknowledges just how relative the term “young” is in the context of the U.S. Senate.

This group of Democrats – Kane specifically mentions Tom Udall (NM), Mark Warner (VA), Michael Bennet (CO), Claire McCaskill (MO), and Sherrod Brown (OH), with an assist from liberal independent Bernie Sanders (VT) – stand across the generational divide from the Senate’s old bulls, and it appears they’re ready to take on some sacred cows.

It’s no secret that the Senate has become increasingly paralyzed by procedure.  Kane’s story outlines the way arcane rules from another era have morphed into often insurmountable roadblocks they were never intended to be.  Adding to the chorus, the White House just released a memo detailing the “unprecedented level of obstruction” that has nearly ground the nomination process to a halt.

And even as the use of procedural road-blocking has grown increasingly common, the culture of the Senate that historically helped overcome it has dissolved.  For better or for worse, the days when those “old bulls” would work out their partisan differences over cigars and scotch in a Georgetown salon are pretty well gone.  It’s no surprise that when Kane went looking for Senators to defend the chamber’s esoteric ways, he found 92-year-old Robert Byrd as their primary champion.  There’s another fantastic moment in which Trent Lott – also not exactly known for his forward-thinking ways – calls those pushing for Senate reform “young and hot-blooded.”

I’m not sure this new generation of Democrats would really take offense at the characterization.  Nor should they.  If the Senate is intended to be the brakes to the House’s accelerator, it’s well past time to install some anti-lock mechanisms.

From a message perspective, it doesn’t get much better than the image these “young turks” are putting forward.  As Kane points out, many of them come from other worlds – business, executive offices – where cutting red tape is a point of pride.  And when the vast majority of Americans see Congress as hopelessly broken, taking on ossified, counterintuitive rules is a political winner – especially for incumbents looking to boost their “outsider” credentials.

But what I like about this group – and what stood out to me in Kane’s story – is that their mission doesn’t actually seem driven by political expediency.  (And it’s probably just as well, since no matter how valuable it is as a brand-builder, Senate procedural reform isn’t likely to be much of a vote-mover in and of itself.)  No, this is a group of Senate Democrats with big ambition, pragmatic underpinnings, and thinning patience for the hidebound traditions of the chamber that are standing in their way.

There is a risk, to be sure – no one observing the ever-increasing speed with which we cycle through political moments can feel confident they’ll be in the majority forever, and most of the rules they seek to change currently strengthen the hand of the opposition.

But on balance, it’s a risk I’m glad to see them taking.  The old lions of the Democratic Senate are increasingly disappearing, and it’s time to see who will emerge as the leaders in our next generation of Democrats.  These “young turks” seem ready and willing.

As a post-script, it’s worth noting that there’s some overlap between the players in this story and those featured in an August 2008 column by David Broder on the field of Democratic Senate candidates.  Though Broder’s predictions of a resurgence of bipartisanship already seem sadly quaint, he notes that Democratic Senate newcomers like Warner and the Udalls (both Tom and his brother Mark, for whom I was working at the time the column was published) were likely to shake things up in a world long dominated by the likes of Byrd and Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Broder called them “A Slate to Revive the Senate,” and it seems maybe we’re seeing some steps toward fulfilling that promise.

A Fascinating Legal Redux in Georgia

There is a fascinating drama unfolding in Georgia right now, where the Republican Governor Sonny Perdue is trying to run an end-around on the Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker, who has refused to join the lawsuit challenging the newly passed health care reform.  According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Governor Perdue has announced that he will appoint a “special Attorney General” to pursue the lawsuit, since Baker will not.

Leaving aside the can’t-make-it-up irony of challenging the constitutionality of a law using what would seem to be an unconstitutional (or at least extra-constitutional) maneuver, the dynamic here is charged with recent history.  [Biographical note: I began my political career in Georgia in 2003, working at the Democratic Party of Georgia, which is why this story immediately rang a bell with me.]

In 2002, when Governor Perdue was elected in a shocking victory over the Democratic incumbent Roy Barnes, Attorney General Baker was elected to his second term.  During his first term, Baker had begun pursuing litigation regarding the state’s redistricting scheme.  (The exact details of the case elude me at the moment, but it had to do with whether the legislature’s redistricting after the 2000 census conformed to Voting Rights Act requirements.)  The case was into the appeals process when Governor Perdue took office, and the new Governor ordered Baker to stop pursuing appeals and let the case drop.  The Attorney General refused.

Thus began a legal drama that extended all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court (Perdue v. Baker), the central question of which was:

Who has ultimate power over litigation on behalf of the state of Georgia – the Governor or the Attorney General?

In 2003, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor Attorney General Baker, confirming that his authority to pursue litigation was independent of the Governor’s wishes.  I won’t pretend to offer a sophisticated legal analysis of the decision, but the layman’s understanding at the end of the case was that the Attorney General was an independent actor, NOT as a subordinate of the Governor.  (For legal types, you can actually read the full opinion HERE.)

Now, it is entirely possible that there are legal considerations that make Governor Perdue’s claim about a “special A.G.” this time around different from his failed attempt to control the Attorney General’s activities in 2003.

It is nonetheless amazing to see these two men potentially heading right back into the same kind of stand-off with which they began their time in office together.

The GOP Loses Control

Much has been written (and much more likely will be) about the so-called “Tea Party” movement.  It’s not clear how much light has truly been shed on the phenomenon and what long-term implications (or not) it will have for America’s political scene.  Is it an uprising of grassroots political power, or a mob whipped up by corporate interests and media cheerleaders?  Is it a group with identifiable political aims and goals, or just a collective expression of vitriol and insecurity by people who fear a world becoming less and less “like them” every day?  Do they represent a fundamental political shift in America, or are they a supernova, burning hot and fast for a moment in time, but disappearing when they run out of fuel?

Though I’m inclined towards the latter answer in all three questions, time will tell.  What isn’t in dispute right now, however, is who among the Tea Partiers is controlling the spotlight.

Racist epithets, homophobic taunts, spitting, and shouting on Capitol Hill last weekend as the House moved toward a final health care vote.  A cut gas line at Rep. Tom Perriello’s brother’s home (mistakenly identified online by a local Tea Partier as the Congressman’s home).  A coffin planted on Rep. Russ Carnahan’s lawn.  Enough legitimate threats to justify increased security for ten Members of Congress.

That it has come to this is outrageous, unacceptable, and nearly unbelievable.  But it’s also a message disaster for the Republican Party.

Stories about this spike in violent rhetoric and action led the national news on all three broadcast networks tonight.  At the very moment when President Obama and Congressional Democrats are seizing a message of historic achievement, the opposition to that achievement is showing itself at its extremist, alienating worst.

How many independent American voters, uncertain about the latest developments and looking for cues, are going to be reassured by these explosions of violence, hostility, and vitriol?  Especially when the alternative is the President’s message of action, achievement, and progress?

That Republicans have suddenly found themselves saddled with such an image disaster is no one’s fault but their own.  With few exceptions, the leaders in their party have opportunistically embraced and stoked the fear and anger driving these attacks, relying on rage to provide the energy for their base that an agenda based entirely on “no” could not.

In the last week, Republicans have seen their all-or-nothing bet on health care obstructionism break bad in a major way.  But what started as a bad beat has evolved into a full-fledged catastrophe.  Republican leaders, so eager to fan the flames of anger and opposition, have now utterly lost control.  With it, they have lost a critical moment to appeal to the independent voters so obviously up for grabs this year.