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MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Gephardt is only the most visible casualty so far in what’s been a post-election Democratic reassessment and blame game. On election night, the House Democratic Whip, Nancy Pelosi of California, a contender for Gephardt’s leadership job, said the Democrats “should have found a way to criticize Republicans more strongly. I do think it behooves the national party to be clear enough about the distinction between the two parties, and we may not have been strong enough with our message.”
But today, her chief rival for Minority Leader, Democratic caucus chairman Martin Frost of Texas, when asked about Pelosi’s candidacy, warned Democrats not to move too sharply to the left and said if the Democrats want to win, they are going to still have to appeal to some of the same swing and conservative districts that the president has been winning.
MARGARET WARNER: Here now to discuss and debate where the Democrats go from here are Robert Borosage, the co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, who’s advised progressive candidates like the late Senator Paul Wellstone and Jesse Jackson.
Al From, founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council, which has led the fight to reposition the Democrats in the center.
And Wendy Kaminer, an author and critic, and a former correspondent with “The American Prospect” Magazine. Her latest book is “Free For All: Defending Liberty in America Today.”
We had also hoped to be joined by Representative Harold Ford, Jr., of Tennessee. He’s a member of the new Democrat coalition, a moderate centrist group, but unfortunately, he’s been delayed in traffic. Welcome to you all.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Robert Borosage, beginning with you, what do the Democrats do to pick up the pieces here and to reposition themselves, if they want to win?
ROBERT BOROSAGE: Well, they’ve got to of course elect a new leadership, they’ve got to decide what vision they want to take to the country, and they particularly have to decide what they want to fight for.
We’re in opposition now. Republicans forced this agenda. The first issue that the country faces is how to get this economy going and Democrats are going to have to stand up and fight for working people against a Republican Party that is rather shamelessly indentured to the business lobbies and the large corporations.
MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying it needs to project perhaps a more liberal, a more progressive, whatever label you’d like to choose, than it has in recent years?
ROBERT BOROSAGE: Well, in the last election, the problem was it really chose not to have a message, and it… you know, when the discussion finally turned to the economy, Democrats had nothing to say, so the problem wasn’t left, right or center; the problem was simply choosing not to have a message at all.
And I think Nancy Pelosi is exactly right. You’ve got it draw bright-line distinctions about where you want to take this country. And it’s particularly important against this administration, which really has a set of interests that don’t deal with the large concerns that working people struggle with every day.
MARGARET WARNER: Al From, what’s your prescription?
AL FROM: Well, I think the first thing that the Democrats have to do is we have to figure out what we stand for, and we have to make a strong case, and that case ought to be the case of why we should fire George Bush.
After all, we’re really into the presidential season now. In many ways, that’s much more important than what goes on in the debate in Congress over the next two years — why we’ve got to fire George Bush and why we ought to hire us — one of our people.
And I think I’d agree with Bob Borosage that we need some bold ideas. But I think those bold ideas ought to be in the progressive center. We ought to make a case on how we’re going to create opportunity the way we did in the Clinton years, grow the economy, why we can keep this country safer than the Republicans, how we can deal with some big issues like retirement security, modernizing health care, long-term health care; I think there’s a big challenge on energy.
There are plenty of things that we can talk about. But we have to remember that if we’re going to be a majority party in this country, we don’t just have to appeal to Democrats. I hope we get every Democratic vote, but a third of the country is Democrat, a third is Republican and another third’s independent and more than half — about half the electorate identifies as moderates.
So we have to win our Democratic base, but we have to win those critical swing voters that in too many states, on last Tuesday, the Republicans won.
MARGARET WARNER: Wendy Kaminer, how do you see it in terms of how the Democrats should position themselves now, what sort of image and message they should be promoting?
WENDY KAMINER: They should begin by acting on their convictions and not their fear of losing votes. They need to be unafraid to critique this president aggressively. They need to be unintimidated by his approval ratings.
I think they should start with the very basic problem of domestic security. They need to let people know how little the administration has done to protect them in the last year and a half. There have been minimal improvements in airport security. The nation’s ports, railways, trucks are still not secure, there’s no local preparedness for bio-terrorism.
People have given up a great deal of liberty in the last year, they’ve had a lot of liberty taken from them in the last year and they’ve gotten no security in return. Democrats need to stand up for liberty.
MARGARET WARNER: But let me ask you this: The fact is that the president’s going to set the agenda because he’s the president and because his party controls both Houses of Congress.
Now, he said today, “I want to homeland security bill passed.” As you know, the Democrats had opposed that, at least the Democrats in the Senate, because it didn’t give civil service protection to the employees, and this was something the labor unions very much wanted. What would be your counsel to the Democrats now when they come back in that lame duck session on that issue, for instance?
WENDY KAMINER: I would encourage them to continue to stand up for the rights of working people. It’s the rights of support staff I think, that we’re talking about here in terms of civil service protections. And while they’re talking about the homeland security bill, they can talk about all the failures, the real failures of homeland security in the last year.
One of the reasons that the Democrats did so badly in this last election is that people are terrified, they need to believe in the president, they need to believe that he’s protecting them, and the Democrats need to disabuse them of those illusions.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But, Al From, the president went out there on this homeland security bill and went all the around the country saying essentially the Democrats in the Senate cared more about the labor unions than they did about Americans’ personal security. Can the Democrats continue to hold up the Department, as the president at least sketches this out, or portrays it, on that issue?
AL FROM: Well, first of all, the president’s portrayal is probably not exactly right. I mean it’s just ludicrous to think that Democrats don’t care about homeland security. There are a lot of things that we can do on homeland security. And one of them would be to improve the intelligence communities, to have better, you know, to have much better communication among law enforcement, to deal with our public health systems. There are a lot of different things.
MARGARET WARNER: But I mean they’re going to be put on the spot and I’m putting you on the spot on this.
AL FROM: We also have, in that same bill, an impasse over an independent commission to find out– sponsored by Senators McCain and Lieberman — to find out what happened on… what were the causes of 9/11.
And the president is holding that up for his own partisan reasons. So, look, you know, I think we ought to put the polarization, the partisanship aside, get that bill. We can do it in a way that protects workers and deals with homeland security. There was a compromise on the table, the president, before the election, the president chose not to take it.
MARGARET WARNER: Robert Borosage, let me ask you about tactics in general with the president because the president said today, “I really want to work with Democrats.” He said it four or five times.
On the other hand, a one-time advisor to President Clinton, Chris LaHane, said, I think yesterday, that now that the Democrats are in the minority, they need to: “disavow their politics of appeasement” and take a page out of Newt Gingrich’s playbook from when they were in the opposition, sort of waging what he called guerrilla warfare, in other words, picking fights and really picking fights with the president. What’s your view of this?
ROBERT BOROSAGE: I don’t think you have to pick fights with this president. This president’s policy is my way or the highway and he comes in with what he wants and he says he wants cooperation, but in fact he wants you to roll over.
And the problem is that his way is always tied to these very special interests that are the base of the Republican Party. He’s going to come in with a growth agenda, some kind of a stimulus plan, which is going to feature corporate giveaways not connected to new jobs. And the Democrats have no choice but to fight that and they should fight it. That’s not picking a fight; that’s taking on a fight that we should enjoy having.
MARGARET WARNER: So you would have the Democrats really take him on, on the tax cuts. Would you have them push to roll back…
ROBERT BOROSAGE: I’m not talking about the tax cuts that come seven years from now. We’re talking about… the real problem people have right now, how do we get this economy going and how do we create jobs now.
The president’s going to come in with a stimulus plan that’s another round of corporate giveaways, tax giveaways that don’t work; they’re not tied to new jobs. And Democrats ought to be putting forth a very aggressive agenda of middle- and low-income tax relief and investments directly in things like school construction that put people to work. We win that argument, and it’s an argument we should have.
MARGARET WARNER: But what if they don’t have the votes?
AL FROM: Well, first of all, you know, the… as Bob says, we don’t have to pick fights with this president. We have plenty of differences. We have to tell the American people, not only what we’d do, but we — we have a pretty strong case against President Bush that we didn’t make very well in this campaign.
I mean if you think about it, you know, the job machine of the 1990s has stopped. Unemployment is up. The stock market has tanked. Surpluses have been turned into deficits, which means it’s much harder to find funds to make the kind of investments we need to do to grow the economy. Poverty is up, crime is up, you know… if we just tackle him on his leadership for the country, we’ll do just fine.
MARGARET WARNER: Wendy Kaminer, do you hear a prescription here at this table for a successful strategy, I’m talking about here now on the Hill, when you have the president setting the agenda?
WENDY KAMINER: I think the Democrats have to accept the fact that they’re going to be reacting for the next two years. They have to embrace partisanship. There’s nothing wrong with partisanship.
That’s why we have two parties. There are enough Republicans out there yessing the president. That’s not the Democrats’ job. And so they have to be able to stand up when the president accuses them of being obstructionist.
The president’s going to take that case to the people. The Democrats have to try to take their case to the people. They’re going to have to fight him, I think, every step of the way on his candidates for the federal judiciary. There’s a lot at stake in these battles over judges.
We need to have people on the federal bench for the next 30 or 40 years who care about reproductive choice, who care about the Bill of Rights, who care about the rights of individuals, not just the rights of corporations. We need to have people on the federal bench who care about the things that Democrats were sent to Washington to care about.
Democrats are going to lose a lot of these congressional battles. The president’s going to get a lot of the judges he wants; he’s going to get a lot of the legislation that he wants. But the Democrats have to continue making their case over the next two years. Otherwise, they’ll just lose again in 2008 — 2004, I mean.
AL FROM: I don’t buy the premise that the president is automatically going to set the agenda. He will try to set the agenda in Congress, but if we come up in our candidates for president… and our candidates for president come up with compelling strategies to grow the economy, a compelling energy policy, compelling ideas on health care and retirement, we can turn the agenda.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just interrupt you. You’re saying do it, not necessarily through the debates on the hill? But through your…
AL FROM: Well, I think if we do everything through the debates on the hill, we’ll be playing only on his turf. Now, in 1990 and 1991 and 1992, when President Clinton put together his campaign, not one of the major issues that we made the agenda for the ’92 campaign, from welfare reform to national service, to community policing, to reinventing government, to his strategies for growing the economy, not one of them were being debated on the Hill.
They came from America. One of the silver linings for Democrats on Tuesday was we elected, in the heartland of America and in the plains and even in the West governors who are going to give… help us develop common-sense solutions and focus on the problems that Americans really care about.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you Al From, Robert Borosage and Wendy Kaminer, thank you all.