TOPICS > Politics

The Future of the Democratic Party

November 18, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: The Democratic Party today. When Bill Clinton won the White House just 12 years ago, Democrats controlled the House and Senate as well. Today, the Republicans control all three, and the 2004 election actually increased their margins in the Senate and House. The Republicans also hold more governorships, state Senates, and state legislatures than the Democrats. The bottom line: Democrats haven’t been so clearly a minority party since the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

What does the party need to do to reverse this? For a little soul-searching on that question, we’re joined by four party activists. Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow Coalition, ran for the presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. Elaine Kamarck, a policy advisor in the Clinton administration and the 2000 Gore campaign, is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, first elected in 2002, is the youngest Democrat in the House of Representatives. And Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, retiring after 18 years, was one of the founding members of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

And welcome to you all, and Elaine Kamarck, let me start with you. What is the single most important thing that the Democratic Party has to do to regain majority status?

ELAINE KAMARCK: The Democrats have to stand for something, and we have to stand for something clearly and unequivocally. One of the problems that we had, we saw it in the 2002 election, we saw it in the 2004 elections, is the Democrats have never come to grips with the need for a coherent foreign policy in a post-9/11 world. In 2002 there were consultants who fooled the Democrats into thinking they could run on prescription drugs when 9/11 was fresh in everyone’s minds, and in 2004 frankly we delivered a completely muddled message to the American people about Iraq and about terrorism.

We need clarity on foreign policy. Bill Clinton was probably the only president in the century who had — who could run without saying a lot about foreign policy because we had that wonderful decade of the ’90s where we didn’t seem to have any big threats left in the world because the Soviet Union had failed. That era has ended, and we need to have a clear and coherent position about what we do in the world.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Reverend Jackson, it’s your turn for your prescription. Do you agree it needs to be a clear and consistent message and what about?

JESSE JACKSON: It needs to be that, but we ran a 17-state Electoral College campaign rather than a 50-state national campaign. The result is that three states were left out of the mix. Mr. Kerry ended up with $15 million in surplus and Tom Daschle lost a Senate seat in South Dakota. Denise Majette got 39 percent of the vote in Georgia and didn’t have $1 million to run for a Senate seat which she perhaps could have won.

We cannot write the South off. You mentioned the years of Bill Clinton. Clinton and Carter took on in the most profound way, the challenge of the South, all the economic needs but the cultural identity, that is to say that in the South, if African Americans are voting in great numbers, it seems that Bill Clinton must be able to deliver Arkansas and Gore Tennessee and Breaux Louisiana and Bill Richardson must be able to deliver New Mexico, so if each of us pull our weight together, we’ll have the numbers to win.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Breaux, you’re from the South. Your party lost your Senate state and four others just two weeks ago. I assume you agree with Jesse Jackson that the party needs to talk to the South but how and about what?

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: Let me just say that on the issues of education and environment, welfare, health care, I think that we as Democrats had a good message. In fact, most of the people prefer the Democratic message on those issues than the message of President Bush’s campaign, but we got beat by guns, gays and God. I mean, we allowed those cards to be played which trumped all these issues that I thought would normally get people to vote Democratic. We had a lot of white poor Democrats who thought that our position on those issues were the right issues, right positions, but were concerned about the gun, gays and God issues that were thrown at them and we never could overcome it. Neither party’s base is large enough to create a majority. We have to do what Bill Clinton just talked about, and that’s bridging the gap and creating bridges between party base, keep loyal to them but expand it in order to create a majority.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Ryan from the state of Ohio that Kerry so famously lost but you won, how does the party do that? What’s the prescription for doing that?

REP. TIM RYAN: Well, I think what Sen. Breaux just said rings true in Ohio. I mean, we got our base out. Our base got out like gangbusters in Ohio, but we just need to find that center ground, and I think like Sen, Breaux said it’s those cultural issues, so the Democratic Party has to be a little more inclusive to issues like abortion, not that we want to all of a sudden go out and overturn Roe V. Wade, but issues like partial-birth abortion or the Unborn Victims Bill. It’s hard to argue to a woman or a man in Ohio that a pregnant woman getting murdered is not a double homicide. That’s a tough sell in Ohio, and until we begin to realize that, we’re going to have a difficult time.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying not — let me just follow up for a minute with the congressman here. So you’re saying, Congressman, it’s not a matter of learning to talk as Bill Clinton always did successfully in the language of faith or values or cultural concerns, but you actually think the party needs to mitigate its positions on some of these issues?

REP. TIM RYAN: I think the party needs to be more inclusive of people who may differ on a couple of these social issues. I mean, you look at the South as Rev. Jackson was saying. The red states got redder and part of it is because we didn’t spend the money there, so what we need to do in the House of Representatives and state Senate and House candidates is go down there and find people who identify. It’s an identity problem. These people do not identify themselves with the Democratic Party.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me go to Elaine Kamarck next because I’m wondering if Elaine Kamarck is going to disagree at least on the question of the party’s positions on some of these social issues which have been real litmus tests, at least for certain wings of the Democratic Party.

ELAINE KAMARCK: Well, I’m going to agree slightly, and in the following way. The fact of the matter is that we didn’t lose just people who were against abortion. We didn’t lose just the very religious. We lost people who were a little bit religious, who were — who went to church less than once a week. We lost women.

We lost in categories we shouldn’t have been losing in, and I think that obviously guns, gays and God plays a part of that morals basket, but frankly there’s a lot that goes into that basket that stems from the fact that the Democratic Party didn’t look like it knew what it believed in when it came to big important issues like our role in the world, and so I wouldn’t like to see the Democrats kind of now pandering in a different direction and making themselves look even more opportunistic when in fact what we really need is to stand for things whether they be in terms of morals or whether they be in terms of our role in the world or what our economic policy is.


ELAINE KAMARCK: The utter confusion that the Democrats presented to the public this year I think is at the root of some of the doubts about the party.

MARGARET WARNER: Rev. Jackson, follow up on that and take into account something you and I actually talked about election night up in Boston, that Kerry even lost ground among African American voters and among Latino voters. Were these social and cultural issues part of that, do you think, and do you think the party needs to, as Congressman Ryan is saying, not only talk in a different language but maybe talk a slightly different talk about some of them?

JESSE JACKSON: Well, in some measure if the Republicans lay out the issue for the need for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage which is just a red herring, another constitutional change so Schwarzenegger can run for president, we should be fighting for the constitutional right to vote.

We have 50 states, separate and unequal elections, and within those states the richer counties have a better opportunity to vote than poorer counties. We do not have in America the constitutional right to vote. That’s a rare fundamental — you can win, as they did in 2000, and votes do not count. Once and for all the Democrats have solved that issue in everybody’s national interest.

I think secondly in the South we should not be afraid to run in the South. That is to say that the South has profound economic needs, the most working poor people, the most uninsured — that means that southern politicians must be willing to go to the Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Methodists have to go to the National Baptist Convention – reach out and challenge the cultural identity crisis divide. That takes courage, the kind that John Kennedy used as a Catholic in the 1960, we must have policies that we are not afraid to take on the South economically, culturally and theologically.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Sen. Breaux, you are leaving the Senate but what is your advice to Democrats who are going to be in the minority, which they were in the first term, but even in a deeper minority that’s an incorrect term but a worse minority, both in the Senate and in the House, how do they play this opposition game? Should they be opposing President Bush on most of his economic and war and social agenda? Should they try to compromise? What’s your view of that?

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: We’ve got to offer better ideas. It’s not just a question of being in opposition and opposing everything that comes down the pike, but it’s a question of being able to offer alternatives and good ideas that make sense and appeal to the base of the party but also you’ve got to expand the base with ideas that can expand the base. I think that’s critically important.

MARGARET WARNER: Can I interrupt you just for a minute, though, but as you know, given the rules, certainly in the House and even the Senate where they’re going to have 55 votes, I mean, the Republicans are, it’s going to be really hard for you all, for Democrats, to even present alternatives or get them to the floor?

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: Oh, no, I disagree with that. They still have to have 60 votes in order to pass anything, and I think that with moderate Republicans, they will have to deal with Democrats. We certainly will be able to have the opportunity to do more than just oppose but rather to offer solid, good ideas; ideas is the most powerful weapon we have, and we can offer good ideas like Bill Clinton did, he kept the base. He was loyal to the base, but he expanded the heck out of the base and he built those bridges. That’s the key to coming back.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Just briefly, because I want to get on to Congressman Ryan, let’s take private accounts in Social Security. Is that something, I mean, during the campaign John Kerry simply said what he was opposed to. He did not want to go there and discuss what changes needed to be made. What do you think the Democrats should do when the president comes up with that bill?

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: I think we ought to say that you can offer private accounts and create a safety net and if anyone falls below that safety net, we’re going to protect and guarantee that they would get at least as much as they would get under the Social Security program but perhaps a lot more if their accounts work but create a safety net that says in no case will their income drop below what they would get under regular Social Security, that’s talking about ideas and they do make a difference.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Congressman Ryan, what’s your view overall on whether you’re a fighting opposition party or whether you’re one that’s trying to show that you can still govern and that can you work with Republicans?

REP. TIM RYAN: We’ve got to do a little bit of both. We’ve got to fight and not give up our core principles, and then we have to do what Sen. Breaux said. I hate to repeat again, but come up with the new ideas. When they offer private savings account for Social Security, we have an alternative like he just said. When they say we want private accounts for health care, we should be there as Democrats saying is the government going to put money into a private health care account for people living in poverty because that’s the people we want to advocate for, so let’s take what they are going to offer and try to make it better, a little more palatable and fairer to our constituents.

MARGARET WARNER: How about… go ahead, Reverend.

JESSE JACKSON: While some fight for privatizing a part of Social Security, we must be affirmative on fighting for raising minimum wage for working people, from Appalachia to Alabama. We must — President Bush is not allowed to make overtime pay for overtime work illegal. Forty-five million Americans have no health insurance. We must fight for an equal high quality public healthcare for all Americans. There’s some big theme ideas that we should embrace that are affirmative.

REP. TIM RYAN: And I agree with Rev. Jackson. We do need to fight for those things but in the limited capacity we have this the chamber of the United States Congress we have to react in a certain way to their ideas, so all I’m saying is when they present something, we have to make sure that we’re advocating to make that better for those people we traditionally stand up for, the poor in our society and the middle class.

JESSE JACKSON: We must protect our gains. We cannot compromise workers’ rights to organize; we cannot compromise the need for comprehensive health care for 45 million Americans who have no health insurance. They’re in Louisiana; they’re in Ohio; they’re in Georgia. We must fight for working people’s needs and values.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Elaine Kamarck back in here. And I want to turn a slight corner. There are plenty of states, more than 20, where Democrats still hold the governorships, the statehouse and the state legislature. In some states, say California, a ballot referendum passed setting up a stem cell research operation. Could the states be a better incubator, a better laboratory, for a so-called progressive agenda for Democrats, a place where they can show what they can do, and if so what should that agenda be?

ELAINE KAMARCK: Well, I think that the California stem cell research initiative was really very interesting on so many levels. First of all, it was a statement of the principles of the people who live in California. Secondly, it’s an enormous, enormous economic boom to the state of California. They are going to have research scientists and enormous economic value from conducting this research.

MARGARET WARNER: My question… is this something.


MARGARET WARNER: Is this a practical thing that can be done, say Colorado or Montana where they captured the governorship?

ELAINE KAMARCK: Absolutely. I think states can start going out on their own on their own initiative when it comes to healthcare, when it comes to offering healthcare to children, which a lot of states were doing, even before the Clinton administration passed the S-CHIP program. I think that there’s a lot of ways in which governors will begin to become more activist as the federal government begins to withdraw from doing social policy, which I think they have been doing in the first Bush term and will do in the second Bush term, so I think it’s actually very interesting in some ways to see what some of these blue state governors will do now.

MARGARET WARNER: And there are also — Democrats hold power in some red states. Sen. Breaux, do you see any opportunities for that kind of advancing of progressive agenda in the South?

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: Oh, I think — I mean, my state of Louisiana, for instance, is the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, right down the line, are all Democratic elected officials. You don’t have to be in the Congress to run for president and successfully. We have to remember that John Kennedy was the last successful senator that was elected, so I think we’re going to be looking the next time outside just Washington, DC for viable candidates who have run administrations, who have run states that have been elected statewide because they have good ideas. I keep going back to the point — I mean, I think we have to understand that the base of our party is not large enough to win. The base of the Republican Party is not large enough to win. The party that can keep the base and expand it into the largest fastest group of Americans who consider themselves independents are the ones that are going to be successful in national elections.

JESSE JACKSON: The Rainbow PUSH is going to establish some lines ballots in states across the South, an independent line, looking for these independent lines and initiatives like raising minimum wage for working people, like healthcare for people who do not have healthcare, like equal adequate public education, like the right to vote for all Americans. We’re going to put some lines, some independent lines on ballots right across the South and challenge economically and culturally and theologically. We are going to expand the base in that way.

SEN. JOHN BREAUX: Well, Jesse, how does that expand the base in the people for that are already for the Democratic candidates?

JESSE JACKSON: Well, you had the situation this time, Sen. Breaux, where you had people voting cultural security and identity over their economic interests so you who are in that mix, you and Senator — ex-President Clinton and Al Gore, you have a real challenge to challenge the Southern Baptists and the Southern Methodists. You must go to their churches and go to their people — you must convince your constituencies to choose economic interest over cultural identity. That’s a great challenge of our allies in the Democratic Party.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen. I want to give the congressman a brief final word.

REP. TIM RYAN: Well, the Republicans do this much better than the Democrats. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican, takes the stem cell issue and runs with it in California during their convention. They have Rudy Giuliani and Schwarzenegger and McCain, the moderates of their party. Democrats need to find those issues where we can cross over and reach that center, and until we do that we’re going to be in the minority.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, guests all, thank you very much.