August 15, 2000
JIM LEHRER: Some further perspective now on who are the Democrats and to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: And for that we turn to our NewsHour regulars, Historian Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin and author and journalist Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is historian Richard Norton Smith. He has written biographies of George Washington, Thomas Dewey and Herbert Hoover and is the director of the Gerald R. Ford presidential museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Well, we just heard Walter Mondale describe the party as unified and integrated political party. One, is that true, Doris and, if so, what is it that essentially makes a Democrat that connects all these disparate strains we've seen on display as well this week?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think it's true as far as the social issues go that the liberals are integrated with the new Democrats as far as things like welfare, perhaps, as far as things like defense and certainly crime. I think they feel Clinton has done a brilliant job in taking the exposure away from the Democratic Party that the Republicans were able to run on. But I'm not so sure that the liberals feel really integrated in the feeling that economic justice is not the centerpiece of what this campaign, one would hope as a liberal were about. I mean, that is what has really steeled Democrats for such a long time, the dispossess worrying about it. If this isn't a moment for universal health care, a plank in the Democratic party since Harry Truman, when is? If this isn't a moment to say forget the national debt, let's really do something on child care and health care and education, I think liberals feel that there's a sense of sort of smushing the issues down a little bit to win an election.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the liberal activists in the party have a reason to be unhappy with the ticket and the way the party is or do you think they feel part of it?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think they feel part of it but Doris is right. If you look at history for instance in 1965, Lyndon Johnson had some choice. What he said and it's fascinating because Bill Clinton referred last night to the fact that Lyndon Johnson used that great prosperity of the mid-60s. Johnson could have said, here's the prosperity, you know, I want to make the Democratic Party the majority party. Stay at this center. Let's not risk that with things like Voting Rights Act or Medicare or these other social programs. Instead he said if there's not a moment .. if there's a moment in history when we can do this, this is it. I want to spend that prosperity even if it means my party may not necessarily be the majority in the next election - as it was not in 1968.
MARGARET WARNER: And that has been the Clinton argument, hasn't it, Haynes, that you can have maybe a slightly more centrist agenda or get some of the benefits from that, but then to try to use it still for older causes...
HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely. And this sort of centralizing moving to the center of the party, what Doris was saying is very interesting. This party, if you look at that floor, and Mondale was wonderful mellow, it's sort of a mellowing. They feel pretty contented. But underneath it all is a disconnect because this party has lost. And in 13 elections since 1952, they've only won the White House five times and only once over 50% of the votes. And they've lost in the last eight years of Clinton, they've lost the Congress, they've lost the Senate, the state houses, the state legislators in danger of it and are not reaching out to the greater population that lies beyond this hall. That's the problem they face is how do they sort of reach out to that and energize it with the old values that Walter Mondale talked about and Doris and Michael have talked about.
MARGARET WARNER: But how successfully did Clinton move this party to the center? Or did he at all?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, it's interesting. It's going to be a while to discover whether he has moved this party to the center. That's why all of this talk about the Clinton legacy is so premature. A lot depends on who is elected in November. If Al Gore is elected and successful governs as a "new Democrat" it will define that term, it will define this party; it will institutionalize what may be temporary about the last eight years, and it will in fact give Bill Clinton a historical claim to a legacy that right now is entirely speculative.
The other point I would make is you cannot overemphasize the fact the political party is a living thing. It has a head. It has a heart. Sometimes they're not always in sync. I think you're going to see tonight you're going to see tonight is all about heart. Tonight is back to the future. Everyone says this is an election about the future. Every party says it is an election about the future. But a convention is an amalgam of nostalgia and anticipation. Tonight is nostalgia but there is a question that a party who has seen itself as a voice for the voiceless, a vehicle for the disenfranchised. Are these people in fact connected with the people outside this hall who feel not only disenfranchised but indifferent?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: The party has a head, a heart - it also has a soul.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And a conscience.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And a conscience.
MARGARET WARNER: Then what does it tell you that the liberal warhorses of the party are going to have the prime speaking engagements tonight - I mean, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, labor leaders - I mean, some of these people were kept out of prime time four years ago.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It tells you that Al Gore has problems holding the Democratic base that bill Clinton did not have in 1996. The reason why the first night of the 1996 convention was devoted to people like Christopher Reeve was because Democrats were going to vote for Bill Clinton. He could afford to put on a show. Instead, al Gore is using tonight to say I realize that we do have a liberal inheritance; Ted Kennedy is going to be rolled in to attract the liberals who might have some doubts about supporting the Democrats this year. Final point though, if al Gore loses this fall, you're going to see a war over that soul of the Democratic Party that Doris is talking about and that's what happens in history.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And the key to this is the turnout. The Democrats have been losing because voters are not turning out. And they say to the party, the majority party and so forth, the fact is unless they energize those people outside the hall to come in to the regular base of the Democratic Party, they are going to lose to the Republicans because that party is unified and motivated.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And you know, as grateful as people feel about the prosperity. Prosperity is not a traditional Democratic issue. Hoover ran in 1928 saying let's keep the prosperity we've got. It's not an accident -- the chicken in every pot. Those were all Republican slogans. The Democrats have always used those moments traditionally at least in this century to say let's use these moments to help those not benefiting from this. It's the trickle-up rather than the trickle-down theory.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And contrast tonight to what didn't happen in Philadelphia. Each party has a core of true believers, ideologically fervent folks who believe that politics is about causes and values and ideas, and yes even ideology. At Philadelphia they made a bargain, some would say a Faustian bargain to stay away from the television camera. They were not on the podium. That tells you it is not George Bush who united the republican party, it's bill Clinton.
MARGARET WARNER: Wanting to win.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Tonight you're going to see Al Gore doesn't have the luxury of telling those people to wait in the wings. He needs them.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael explain something to me. Al Gore uses more populist rhetoric against big soil, the big interest than Bill Clinton ever did. Why does he not have the same level of passionate commitment from that whole wing of the party that Bill Clinton has?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Because as a Vice President from the Clinton administration, he is seen as a new Democrat, but he doesn't have Bill Clinton's political skills that allowed Clinton to expand that kind of constituency. So if Al Gore wins this fall, then in a way, he is giant in Clinton's political footsteps because he's managed to keep this party what it was during the last eight years which most of us would never have imagined during the 1990s which is a fairly centrist, in certain ways, Presidential majority party.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You have to remember it is a party that has not won the Congress in the last years. That's why Richard's point is central. Whatever happens in the next election determines everything about the past for Clinton's memory.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think part of Gore's problem is his personal style? He doesn't connect in the same way emotionally.
HAYNES JOHNSON: He hasn't so far.
MARGARET WARNER: If we go to Richard's point that it is about heart and soul.
HAYNES JOHNSON: He hasn't so far but I also think we don't know yet how he will campaign as the candidate. That's up to him to do it. But he's got to make the case. There is a great deal of disconnect and discontent in this country right now economically amid the contrast and Hollywood times. That's a traditional Democratic issue. How you marry those two is going to be the ultimate test of him as a politician.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Speaking of marriage, I mean, Bill Clinton managed the unlikely feat of marrying charisma and wonkery. Al Gore has yet to show us both of those.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you all four very much.