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Democrats Aim to Heal Divisions and Confront GOP Challengers

August 25, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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As the Democratic National Convention kicks off, party members are seeking to heal wounds left over from the primaries and create a united front against GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain. Pundits discuss the Democratic Party's efforts to unify.

GWEN IFILL: Good evening. And thanks, Jim.

As the convention week kicks off, Democrats are hoping to be able to tell their story. But, first, they must put some lingering resentments to rest.

Hillary Clinton plans to release her delegates and vote for Obama when the roll is called, but many delegates say party healing is still a work in progress.

Here to talk about that challenge are three prominent Democrats: Representative Artur Davis from Alabama, an Obama campaign co-chair; Maria Echaveste, a former Clinton White House adviser, a vigorous Hillary Clinton supporter who now backs Obama; and Geoffrey Garin, a strategist who ran Clinton’s campaign.

We heard Hillary Clinton, Geoff Garin, describe this as a great family reunion. To what degree is this family dysfunctional?

GEOFF GARIN, Former Clinton Campaign Strategist: Not very much at all, compared to other families, including compared to the Republican family, where the conservatives and the moderates hate each other.

There are some disappointed voters left over who supported Hillary Clinton very avidly, but the vast majority of the people who are here as delegates for Hillary Clinton will go out enthusiastically from Denver and support Barack Obama, really, at the leadership of Hillary Clinton.

She’s been, from June 7th on, she has been avid in her support and sincere in her support, working hard. She was in Florida last week. The reports from that trip were — couldn’t have been better.

So, look, are there a few unhappy Clinton supporters? Yes, there are. But the candidate herself is ready to get on and ready to elect Barack Obama.

GWEN IFILL: Maria Echaveste, as someone who supported Hillary Clinton, right until the moment she dropped out from the race, is the grumbling overstated?

MARIA ECHAVESTE, Former Clinton White House Adviser: I think the grumbling is overstated. She spoke this morning before the Hispanic Caucus of the Democratic Party. And there was a very warm reception for her, but she could not have been clearer in urging every single delegate there to be supportive, to be united, and to win.

And as I milled around the crowd after she had spoken, you could really see people kind of sort of squaring their shoulders and saying, “OK, I get it. We have to work together, and we have to win in November.”

And I think that it starts at the top. Her leadership is just without question. She’s done everything possible. She’s got donors who have given money to Obama. And we’ve got Obama supporters who are helping retire her debt. So it is a family reunion.

Party divide

Rep. Artur Davis
Clinton supporters who are struggling or are in desperate economic straits right now are not going to find their way to a candidate who needs to read a book this summer and learn about the economy.

GWEN IFILL: Representative Davis, we have seen polls which show that roughly a quarter of Clinton voters are saying they don't know what they're going to do. They're still divided at this stage, even as the Democrats get ready to nominate Barack Obama.

What does the Obama campaign have to do to speak to them?

REP. ARTUR DAVIS (D), Alabama: Tell people about John McCain's record. Frankly, John McCain is living off a reputation as a maverick that he had earned the first time he ran for president. He had earned it, frankly, in 2003 and 2004.

But if you look at John McCain and how aggressively he moved toward the far right of his party to win the nomination, he's not the maverick he once was. Now, unfortunately, sometimes information takes a while to catch up facts in American politics.

So because of that, a lot of people still believe that John McCain, for example, is pro-choice. There are people who believe that John McCain has a consistent record of voting against the Bush administration. It's a 90 percent loyalty record the last few years.

As the Democratic Party tells that story, beginning this week and running up to November, John McCain will lose that gloss. And I guarantee you that women in this country who are pro-choice are not going to vote for an anti-choice candidate like McCain.

Clinton supporters who are struggling or are in desperate economic straits right now are not going to find their way to a candidate who needs to read a book this summer and learn about the economy.

GWEN IFILL: Geoff Garin, we heard what Maria Echaveste said about what Hillary Clinton said today at the Hispanic Caucus. To what degree are people kind of waiting for signals from both she and her husband in these speeches this week?

GEOFF GARIN: Well, I think the speeches are important, but I want to be clear about one thing. This is Hillary Clinton's campaign. The people who are feeling most disappointed are looking to her more than anyone else. And so that I think she is the one who is most important.

President Clinton's speech on Wednesday is, I think, is of great significance. I think people will be eager to hear what he has to say. I'm sure he's going to express support for Senator Obama and enthusiastic support.

But this is really about Hillary Clinton. She was the candidate. She was the person to whom people -- in whom people invested their hopes and their effort. And it's really about her, and she's the one who's really taken this leadership role to rally her troops to Senator Obama's cause.

GWEN IFILL: There's seems to be almost different sets of audiences here. There's an audience outside of this convention, which, of course, this convention is designed for. There is the audience inside, the rank-and-file Democrats, many of whom are disappointed about Hillary Clinton. And then there's the audience that Barack Obama has to appeal to in November.

How do you straddle all that? And does it have to be all on Hillary Clinton to do it? Or is there something Barack Obama has to do?

MARIA ECHAVESTE: Oh, I think there's plenty of work for both to do. I think, Senator Obama has already made tremendous strides in talking to people about their economic issues, about what's at stake, about foreign policy, and really understanding, communicating that he is up to the challenges that are facing this country.

Yet the fact is, is there are a good number of people outside of this arena who are just now tuning in. It's hard to believe that there might be people who haven't been paying attention to this longest campaign.

And so he has an opportunity to really make his case. His selection of Joe Biden is terrific. And I think together, with surrogates like Senator Clinton and others campaigning on the stump, talking to people, we'll be able to get the message across.

Biden to fill gap?

Maria Echaveste
University of California, Berkeley
I think they'll find that, with Joe Biden, they'll understand that right next to Senator Obama, soon to be, hopefully, President Obama, there will be someone who totally understands and can help guide the next administration.

GWEN IFILL: How does Joe Biden help with these voters that we're talking about who are still holding back?

MARIA ECHAVESTE: Well, he is tremendously -- he's a very strong pro-choice. He's good on civil rights. He's working -- he stands up for working people.

So those sort of working-class folks who are struggling economically who somehow felt that Senator Obama wasn't speaking to them, I think they'll find that, with Joe Biden, they'll understand that right next to Senator Obama, soon to be, hopefully, President Obama, there will be someone who totally understands and can help guide the next administration.

GWEN IFILL: Representative Davis, you said that one of the things that this campaign has to be about is John McCain, not so much about Barack Obama. It sounded to me like that's what you said.

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: Well, McCain is going to be brought to the narrative. Now, frankly, the Republican Party wants to make this an attack on Barack Obama for four months. And, frankly, the Democratic Party cannot let them get away with that.

GWEN IFILL: But isn't a Democratic convention talking about the nominee, rather than about the potential opponent?

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: We're going to talk about the choices facing the American people. There's a sense of urgency in this country. And when you have a candidate in John McCain who says, "I've got to get a book by Alan Greenspan or read it this summer, learn about the economy," that candidate is not ready for primetime.

When you have someone whose answer to every foreign crisis in the last decade has been, "Let's fight somebody to invade or some way to use force," that candidate is not ready to lead us to a new foreign policy.

This convention is going to make the case about the urgency of the choice. And to go back to the Democratic side, one point needs to be made.

Clinton-Obama was not an ideological struggle. Carter-Kennedy was an ideological struggle, Humphrey-McGovern, even Hart-Mondale had an ideological character.

Obama and Clinton agreed on 90 percent of the public policy questions facing this country. There were personality differences and stylistic differences. But it's a lot easier to unify when they're together ideologically.

GWEN IFILL: Finally, I'll go briefly to each of you, when this is over, are there still going to be people who are not going to -- who are just going to stay home, rather than vote for McCain, just not show up? Will it depress turnout?

GEOFF GARIN: Will there be some? Yes. But would I trade places with the Republicans? Not for a second.

Look, John McCain, you know, floated the trial balloon of Tom Ridge for vice president. The right wing of his party said, "No, you're not allowed to do that." This is a party -- the Republican Party has far deeper problems, far more serious fissures. John McCain is a captive -- has become a captive of the right wing of his party.

So will we have a few disaffected Democrats? Yes. The Republicans are in far worse shape.

GWEN IFILL: Briefly?

MARIA ECHAVESTE: I think that the Obama campaign and all of us are going to be working really hard to make that number as small as possible. And there will be a few, but I really do believe that it's going to be a lot fewer that people are thinking right this second.

GWEN IFILL: Maria Echaveste, Congressman Artur Davis, and Geoffrey Garin of the Clinton campaign, thank you all very much.

Back to you, Jim.

Defining Obama

David Brooks
The New York Times
If they can get a sense of who Barack Obama is, and large parts of the country do not know -- Obama does not fit into the categories which they use to judge people they don't know. They're not quite sure about the guy.

JIM LEHRER: Well, thank you, Gwen. And back to Mark Shields and David Brooks.

David, do you think that the -- particularly the theme stated by Congressman Davis is going to work, in other words, make an agenda item McCain and his -- what he stands for, as much as unity and how we're wonderful as Democrats?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: There was certainly a belief that the Kerry convention of four years ago did not go after President Bush hard enough. And they're going to go much harder after John McCain than they did four years ago. So this is going to be a much more confrontational convention than the one we saw before.

I'm not sure that's the key here. The key here is Barack Obama. The country wants to make the change. If they can get a sense of who Barack Obama is, and large parts of the country do not know -- Obama does not fit into the categories which they use to judge people they don't know. They're not quite sure about the guy.

And so there are -- of the splits in the party, there's a group of sort of upper-middle-class feminists who will be won over when they hear arguments that John McCain is pro-life.

But there are a whole group of people, mostly white working-class people, who have no idea who Obama is. They're not sure what to make of community organizer, Harvard Law Review, living in Hyde Park. They're just -- they're not hostile to the guy. They just don't know him.

And so that's not a question of what Hillary Clinton says. That's whether Barack Obama can define an identity that they haven't seen before that they can grasp onto.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, it's more about Obama than McCain?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don't. I think the way they're going to get to know Obama -- and I think David's right -- there's a problem that -- I was with a dozen Latino voters today here in Colorado in a focus group. I was able to listen to them. And what David...

JIM LEHRER: What kind of focus group?

MARK SHIELDS: A focus group run by Peter Hart for the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, and they brought together a focus group of Latino Colorado voters. They were -- some of them were several generations, others fairly new, all citizens, all very much engaged in the election.

All, I'd say, overwhelmingly -- two or three were for McCain -- leaning toward Obama, but they don't know him. They don't have a feel for him personally. I think that's important at this convention.

But I think it's also important that you get to know somebody through where he stands and you define the differences that way. I mean, because that really does reflect who a person is, is where he's expended his energy, his time, and his efforts, and his political fights, and where he's stood on them.

I thought Congressman Davis was pretty -- he was very articulate, as he is, but it was pretty transparent he was making the case essentially to the group David was talking about who are women and trying to drive home the fact that John McCain is not the moderate, is not the reasonable person that he's oftentimes portrayed, that he isn't ardently pro-choice, as obviously Obama is.

So that -- I think that was pretty obvious. And the point, I think, that is central is that this was not a fight about the heart and soul of the Democratic Party the way 1968 was in Vietnam or 1972 with George -- or 1980 with Ted...

JIM LEHRER: So you agree with Congressman Davis on that, too?

MARK SHIELDS: I do, but I don't think the fight is any less bitter, even though there's not ideological differences, and sometimes, when the stakes get higher, when it's just a personal and personality fight.

Setting the tone of the election

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
When it's about whether we ought to have the single-sex marriage or whatever else, or gays in the military, Democrats find themselves on the defensive.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that it's not ideology, but it's hardball personality on...

DAVID BROOKS: Right, I do agree. And there are a certain number of feminists or women who believe that Hillary Clinton was really cheated out of the nomination by people using sexist tactics. And that engendered a lot of bad feeling.

I do think that is sort of the fight within the hall. But, again, I go back to the people who are watching, who might vote in a Democratic primary or would never vote in a primary, but who are the people preventing Obama from getting 50 percent. And those people really have to know one theme about the guy.

And to me, when they make differentiations with the Republican Party, to me, the core is, do those differentiates identify who Obama is? And to me, the problem -- the key of Obama is, he's a young man, he's the future, he's not the past. And if you start making the conflict rich-poor, to me, that muddies the water, which is the crucial argument of this convention should future-past, future-past.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree.


MARK SHIELDS: I really do. I think Democrats want to make this a cultural election. They've -- an economic election. They have lost cultural elections.

When it's about whether we ought to have the single-sex marriage or whatever else, or gays in the military, Democrats find themselves on the defensive. I mean, I think the voters David is talking about, those white, working-class voters in Pennsylvania, in Ohio and Michigan, they want to know that somebody's on their side and not on the side of the politically powerful and the economically powerful who have been indifferent, that supported policies that their factories have closed and their jobs have left.

They want somebody that says, "Hey, wait a minute. I'm angry by this," exhibits anger, doesn't say he's angry, but proves that. And I don't think that's a generational...

DAVID BROOKS: You can make that very generational. You can say, "The free-market policies of Ronald Reagan worked in the '80s. It's not working anymore, so we're moving to something else."

JIM LEHRER: OK, all right.