TOPICS > Politics

Party Politics

November 13, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: The meeting which began today is the annual convention of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group formed in the mid 1980’s to try to move the Democratic Party away from big government liberalism. That DLC game plan became more complicated when the Republicans took control of Congress in January. Ever since that Republican takeover, President Clinton and the Democrats on Capitol Hill have been trying to fashion a response. Often, they have not been the same. Capitol Hill Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, have attacked the Republican agenda as heartless extremism. The President has followed a different course. He has opposed the most radical Republican legislation, but he has embraced such common goals as balancing the budget, reducing the federal bureaucracy, making savings in Medicare, and reforming welfare. Mr. Clinton also has conceded publicly that he took too liberal a tact during his first two years in the White House. This self-criticism surfaced at a fund-raiser in Houston last month.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: (October 17) Probably people in this room are still mad at me at that budget because you think I raised your taxes too much. Well, it might surprise you to know that I think I raised ’em too much too.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Clinton went into greater in a recent telephone conversation with neoconservative writer Ben Wattenberg.

BEN WATTENBERG, Neoconservative: (November 3) He said that he–that he made some mistakes, and that he had drifted sort of off message, lost the language of the pro-values, no more something for nothing Democratic Leadership Council type Democrats, and the subtext that I was–he didn’t say this–but was that he sure wasn’t going to let the Republicans walk away with, with those issues, and that he was, in fact, I thought, kind of kicking himself for allowing to be perceived of as a Democratic liberal.

MARGARET WARNER: This morning in Washington, the President addressed the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group he helped form in the mid 1980’s. The President reaffirmed his allegiance to the vision he said he and DLC members had always shared.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: We knew that to keep America strong the old ways of governing would have to be abandoned. We wanted a government committed to standing up for the values and interests of ordinary Americans, a government that offers more opportunity with less bureaucracy, that insists on responsibility from all its citizens, that strengthens our sense of community, the idea that we are all in this together, and that everyone counts.

MARGARET WARNER: What should the Democratic President and his party stand for today in the face of the Republican juggernaut on Capitol Hill? We debate that now with Al From, the President of the Democratic Leadership Council, and Robert Kuttner, the editor of the “American Prospect.” Bob Kuttner, do you think the Democratic Party has done what it needs to do to overcome the factors that led to its defeat in the ’94 election?

ROBERT KUTTNER, Editor, “The American Prospect”: Well, I think the great debate here is whether the Democratic Party needs to become more like the Republicans or less like the Republicans, and I think the problem, as Dick Gephardt has said, is that the Democratic Party often speaks out of both sides of its mouth. Sometimes it sounds like a champion of ordinary working people, and sometimes it sounds like its only problem is that it’s not quite close enough to the Republican Party. Listening to the earlier segments of this program, however, I’m tempted to minimize my differences with Al From, because I think both of us have a lot more in common with each other and with Bill Clinton than either of us has with Newt Gingrich. And I think a lot of our differences are tactical. I guess the point is Democrats need to be progressive on pocket book issues. They need to deliver the goods for ordinary working people who are the heart and soul of the party. It’s only when you do that that you can also gain a hearing on the tolerance issues that are sometimes controversial. So I think if you move to the middle of the road on some of these divisive social issues without delivering the goods on the economic issues, that’s not going to help.

MARGARET WARNER: Because that’s not what the prescription–go ahead, I’m sorry.

MR. KUTTNER: And if you do deliver the goods economically, then ordinary people are going to be more willing to give you a hearing on some of the more controversial civil liberties and civil rights questions.

MARGARET WARNER: Al From, what do you think of that? Does that sound like a prescription to you?

AL FROM, Democratic Leadership Council: Well, I think that Bob Kuttner and I do probably agree on a lot more than we disagree. I think there are three frustrations that are driving the American people and that have hurt the Democratic Party. The first is the one Bob just talked about. The American dream to too many Americans is slipping away. And we have to be the party of opportunity and upward mobility again. Secondly, I think Americans are very concerned about sort of disorder in society, whether it’s breakdown of families, crime. 42 percent of the American people told the “New York Times” recently that they’re afraid to walk in their own neighborhoods at night. That’s something that our party has to deal with; we have to address that. And the third thing is I think we need to do what the President was talking about in the film clip you just had. We need to fix government. We don’t have to be like the Republicans. We don’t want to abandon public responsibility. But the American people are frustrated because some of the basic systems of government, education, law enforcement, welfare, don’t seem to work very well. What we need to do is have a different kind of government, an activist government but one that I call an enabling government, that equips people to solve their own problems, doesn’t try necessarily to have bureaucrats in Washington tell them how to solve those problems.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But I want to ask you both, even though you’d like to agree on these prescriptions, how well you grade the men and women in power from your party now. I mean, President Clinton has been in office nearly three years, and you’ve got a Democratic Congress trying to respond to the Republicans. How do you think–let’s take the President first–how do you think he’s done on this whole set of issues that you say he has to address?

MR. KUTTNER: Who would you like to address that first.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Kuttner, I’m sorry.

MR. KUTTNER: That’s okay.

MARGARET WARNER: I was looking at you, but you couldn’t tell that.

MR. KUTTNER: That’s right. Well, you know, when Bill Clinton ran for the nomination, I was kind of bullish on him and I said to a lot of people, anybody who can get Al From and me both to agree that he’s a good guy is either a real leader or a chameleon. And I think some of the time Clinton has been some of each. I think for the last week or two he’s really looked like a leader. It’s almost like he planned it this way, that, that for about a year he sent the Republicans a signal that he could be rolled and then when the Republicans overreached, Clinton said, enough, I’m going to draw a line in the sand, and lo and behold, it’s revealed for all the world to see that the Republican program is not nearly as popular as they think it is. And they’ve been caught up in their own propaganda. Now, as far as how Clinton is doing, I think the big missing issue that’s on the minds of a lot of Americans but has not been addressed adequately by either party is the issue of living standards. Since Roosevelt, the Democratic Party has been a majority party a lot of the time because the ordinary voter feels that the Democratic Party speaks for his or her interest when it comes to raising living standards, defending living standards, defending ordinary people against the ravages of a pure, heartless free market system, and balancing the market with citizenship and public programs like Medicare and Social Security in public schools. I think the Democrats have not been as clear as they could be getting out that message and signaling what they’re going to do for the economic concerns of ordinary people. On the other hand, when you compare them with the Republicans, in the defense of Social Security, of Medicare, of EITC, public schools, Democrats are doing a heck of a good job.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Al From, is that where Democrats have to make their stand on, as Bob Kuttner just said, standing up for average working men and women against the ravages of capitalism?

MR. FROM: Well, I–

MARGARET WARNER: Or is that old Democrat thinking?

MR. FROM: I wouldn’t put it quite that way.

MR. KUTTNER: I didn’t really put it quite that way either.

MR. FROM: And I agree with that.

MARGARET WARNER: You heard him.

MR. FROM: But I do think Democrats have to make a good part of their stand on helping ordinary working people get ahead. I think the most important thing our party understand is that we aren’t going to rebuild, we aren’t going to revitalize our party on Republican failures. Right now, the harshness, the intolerance of the Republicans is coming clear, and that helps Democrats in the short-term, but that’s not the basis for long-term revival of our party. The basis for long-term revival of our party is to come up with a pragmatic, progressive reform alternative to what Newt Gingrich and the Republicans are offering.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you hear that from either President Clinton or Democrats on the Hill now?

MR. FROM: Well, I think that I hear it more from President Clinton, frankly, than from Democrats on the Hill. But I think it’s pretty–our party hasn’t been quite clear enough. One of the things we’re doing in the Democratic Leadership Council is we have a project is we have a project we call the Third Way Project. And the idea is to develop a progressive reform agenda that is an alternative to the Republicans but it’s very different than the old bureaucratic status quo that a lot of Democrats support.

MR. KUTTNER: This is where I think Al and I disagree. I don’t think you gain anything as a Democrat by repudiating the Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson tradition. Why does there need to be a third way? Why does there need to be the kind of triangulation strategy that Dickie Morris, who’s a sometime Republican, sometimes Democrat, is telling to the Clinton White House? Why can’t we say the Republicans have this idealized view with a free market where ordinary people are expendable, and Democrats have a more humane view that, that requires the markets to be tempered by government, that, yes, we want to be efficient, and those are the contending philosophies. What good does it do as a Democrat to have a third way?

MR. FROM: Bob, the reason we need a third way is because the country has changed. It doesn’t mean we give up our principles. If you had listened to my speech this morning, what you would have heard is me say that progressive, the progressive philosophy of the Democratic Party has been responsible for most of the social and economic progress in this century.

MR. KUTTNER: Well, I’ll drink to that.

MR. FROM: We ought to be proud of that.


MR. FROM: But we have to modernize it.

MR. KUTTNER: Well, and I, and Al–

MR. FROM: A bureaucratic government is not the way, bureaucratic government is not the way to modernize it.

MR. KUTTNER: Well, and I would agree with that, and I think–I think most people who are good card carrying Democrats would say that nobody likes big bureaucracies for their own sake, that you have to be as nimble and as inventive in the public sector as the private sector is and maybe even more so, so I think we can agree on that.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you, do either of you–

MR. FROM: The point is–

MARGARET WARNER: –think, though, that you can make that case to the voters with any credibility?

MR. FROM: Of course, we can.

MR. KUTTNER: Sure. I mean, Medicare–

MARGARET WARNER: This case for activist government. Do you think the voters are still interested in hearing that message?

MR. KUTTNER: Look, most of–most of “activist government” is bread and butter programs that defend the living standards of ordinary people like Medicare and Social Security and public schools. And yeah, those programs have to be revised with time. But they don’t need to be thrown in the garbage.


MR. FROM: I think we can meet the case very effectively. First of all, on economic issues, look where we are right now. Seven and a half million new jobs created in the last three years. Inflation down, interest rates down. The economy is much better than it was when President Clinton took over. All private sector jobs, the bureaucracy is 200,000 people less than it was when this President took over.

MR. KUTTNER: I think what we need to do and I think Bob and I probably would agree on a lot of this is we need to take a hard look at the public systems which are trying–which should be providing opportunity for our people that aren’t working very well. I think we need fundamental reform in the public schools. I personally would like to see a situation where by the year 2000, 2005, every parent in this country, whether rich or poor, has a choice of where he or she will send her kids to school.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But can you endorse–could you endorse a position like that and still keep your old liberal base, as well as appeal to these moderates and independents that you’re aiming toward?

MR. FROM: Well, I think so.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Kuttner, do you think it’s possible to marry these two?

MR. KUTTNER: I do, but I think we’ve got to stop beating up on each other and in order for this not to be too much of a love feast, let me mention one area that I think is an area of difference. I am not in favor of kicking Al out of the party. I think sometimes Al and his friends have been much too hard on the labor movement. I think some of the DLC people have demonized the labor movement. I think the election of Sweeney two weeks ago–

MARGARET WARNER: John Sweeney, the new head of AFL-CIO.

MR. KUTTNER: The head of the AFL-CIO. The commitment to organize people like nursing home workers and other low-wage workers is one of the most exciting, hopeful things in American progressivism and in the Democratic Party, and I, I think it’s a big tent, the party’s been a big tent ever since Roosevelt. I think there ought to be room for a strong, vibrant labor movement, rather than seeing big labor so called as an albatross. I think this is a great source of strength. This is the party’s grass roots, its ground troops, and I hope Al would agree with me on that, just as I would agree with him that we need to revitalize big public systems.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with him on that?

MR. FROM: I agree that we need a strong, vibrant labor movement, and it ought to be part of the Democratic Party, because we are the party of working people. But I’m not sure that the future of organized labor or the Democratic Party is simply in organizing low-income workers. If I were Mr. Sweeney, the first thing I’d do is create AFL-CIO University and have regional training centers all over the country and make a commitment that every worker in America and every member of a labor union is going to have world class skills, so we can compete for high-wage jobs and unions can move back into those industries.

MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, I’m sorry. We’re going to have to leave it there. We’ll be back again, I’m sure. Thanks.

MR. KUTTNER: Thank you.