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Week of 1.18.08

Transcript: Democrats Divided 2008

BRANCACCIO: We're back on a whistle-stop, on track to learn more about a rebellion going on inside the Democratic Party.

The middle-of-the-road policies shaped by Bill Clinton and embraced by many current party leaders are under attack.

The challenge is coming from aggressive progressives whose skills in getting out their message and raising money first came to the floor during Howard Dean's presidential campaign back in 2004. But it was during the election of 2006 that these renegades broke through, when two of their senate candidates scored upset wins, flipping control of that body to the Democrats.

Now they've turned their attention to the party establishment, mounting primary challenges against otherwise safe incumbents in an effort to shift the party to the left. Our Adventures in Democracy 2008 start out in Maryland with Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Kathleen Hughes.

There you go. Wynn's gonna win

HINOJOSA: Listen closely and you'll hear the sounds of democracy in action.

Gimme a W, W! Gimme a Y, Y! Gimme an N!

HINOJOSA: It's debate night in Maryland's 4th Congressional District... A collection of suburbs that adjoin Washington, D.C. The area includes the country's largest African-American middle class community and it's solidly—70 percent—Democratic.

Who's gonna win! Wynn's gonna win!

HINOJOSA: The cheering is for this man, Al Wynn, an eight term incumbent. Over his fifteen years in Congress he's supported civil rights and labor unions. He's for gun control and he's pro choice....

Wynn: How you doing? I'm hanging in here.

HINOJOSA: By anybody's definition, Wynn is a liberal Democrat, well matched to his district. But on primary night, in just three short weeks, he faces a threat...not from the right, but from the left. Meet social activist Donna Edwards.

EDWARDS: I've heard the Congressman say that he still believes in preemptive war.

CONGRESSMAN AL WYNN: Now, as for Miss Edwards' comments about preventive war, I would only ask that she not make up quotes from me.

EDWARDS: Seventy percent of Democrats got it right on Iraq. But our Congressman got it wrong.

HINOJOSA: Wynn may be a liberal, but Edwards says he's not liberal enough. All evening, she hammers away at his vote to give President Bush war powers in Iraq.

EDWARDS: He voted with George Bush to get us in Iraq...

HINOJOSA: She accuses him of being too cozy with big business and too willing to compromise with Republicans.

EDWARDS: —a package that benefits insurance companies at the expense of regular people. And that's what the Congressman did, and he was one of—only a handful of Democrats on that. (APPLAUSE)

CONGRESSMAN AL WYNN: Now, Miss Edwards jumps up and she starts talking about steamrolling and bankrolling. Well, now, what am I doing? Am I helping them with a bankroll, or I'm rolling over them with the steamroller?

HINOJOSA: This may feel like a local squabble between Democrats, but it's the cusp of a much bigger story—one that is all about the future of the Democratic Party. Partisans from outside District four are trying to push Democrats to the left. In the audience is Matt Stoller, an influential liberal blogger.

STOLLER: Al Wynn is experienced. And he has been successful at delivering for—energy lobbyists, and for Telecom lobbyists. And he did vote for the war. And he was effective at getting a war started. I mean, I think it's true that experience helps you do things. It's not true that experience helps you do good things.

HINOJOSA: Stoller writes for the website He's wired into a nation-wide community of on-line progressives who are turning the old campaign model upside down. They are using the web to drum up support for Donna Edwards and several other self-described "progressive" democrats who are taking on the party establishment.

Nancy Pelosi: February 12th we have to work very hard in the next few months so we can give a rousing victory to all win and return him to congress... [APPLAUSE]

HINOJOSA: Last fall when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi turned out for a fund-raiser for Al Wynn, a coalition of online progressives, led by Matt Stoller, decided to let the party know they were not happy.

STOLLER: it was a slap in the face to Democrats and to activists who were frustrated with conservative Democrats like Al Wynn who enable Republican policies.

HINOJOSA: So Stoller put out the word on the web - a call for nation wide support for Donna Edwards.

STOLLER: We—we did a fund raiser online for Donna. And raised her about $100,000 from a couple thousands donors—as a way of—of sending a signal to Speaker Pelosi and Democratic leadership that we really expect them to do a better job than they have been doing.

(Edwards online commercial)

Donna Edwards: I'm Donna Edwards and I'm running to bring change to Congress...

HINOJOSA: Since then online campaign commercials have shot across the web. People from all over the country—many of whom had never heard of District 4—have poured more than 300 thousand dollars into Edwards' campaign.

Donna Edwards: I mean with Democrats like Al Wynn, who needs Republicans?

HINOJOSA: Hollywood personalities like Barbara Streisand and Danny Glover have endorsed Edwards and just this week, issued an "action alert" calling for progressives to raise 90,000 dollars more so that this anti-Al Wynn campaign commercial can get on television.

COMMERCIAL: Vote February 12th...

Donna Edwards: Hi I'm Donna Edwards I'm running for Congress...

All this is taking the local out of local politics.

EDWARDS: Well, I think you know, what folks around the country want is to know that there's a voice in the United States Congress that's willing to take on both the Democratic Party when it's appropriate to do that, and also take on special interests. And it doesn't matter whether you come from Idaho or Iowa or Kansas or right here in the state of Maryland in the Fourth Congressional district.

HINOJOSA: Before running for Congress, Donna Edwards headed up the Arca Foundation, which gives out millions of dollars in grants each year in support of progressive causes like media reform and human rights.

Donna Edwards: Good morning I'm Donna Edwards and I'm running for Congress, how are you?

HINOJOSA: Her campaign motto is "Leadership that Listens." She says her background proves that she is the true liberal.

Donna Edwards: Good morning I'm Donna Edwards and I'm running for Congress, thank you

EDWARDS: I've spent my years fighting for the public interest. Fighting in the public interest. Working to the—improve the lives of you know, of ordinary folks. And—

MARIA: Al Wynn might say I'm—he's done the same thing.

EDWARDS: You know?

MARIA: He's a Democrat.

EDWARDS: But you can't say that you're standing on the side of ordinary people when you vote to give tax subsidies—billion of dollars, $14.5 billion dollars of tax breaks to oil and gas companies.

HINOJOSA: Al Wynn's campaign has raised at least 600,000 dollars. According to open, about half of that money comes from political action committees and the majority of those PACS represent the interests of big businesses. But Wynn insists that PAC money does not keep him from voting his conscience.

Man: Representative Al Wynn...

WYNN: I think there's too much money in politics, but I don't write the rules. What I do say to voters is, "look, you can look at my record, both on the contributions side and on the votes side. And I can show you instances where I have voted against the people who've give me contributions."

HINOJOSA: Al Wynn has also raised a significant amount of money from individuals. We attended a holiday party for his supporters last month.

Most of the people in this room seem willing to forgive Wynn for his vote authorizing the President to declare war in Iraq.

FEMALE VOICE: Why are you gonna hold him to a different standard, than are holding the people who are running for the president of the United States?

FEMALE VOICE2 : We're supposed to learn from our errors and our mistakes, and that is supposed to prove to us and make us a better person.

HINOJOSA: Al Wynn says he has learned from his mistakes. He now sits on the congressional "Out of Iraq" Caucus. He has spent most of his professional career in politics and says he's always worked hard for his constituents. Part of politics he argues- and part of being a good Democrat—is negotiating with the opposition.

CONGRESSMAN WYNN: You know we deal in numbers. You have to have 218 votes to pass a measure. You have to have a certain number of votes to override a veto. You have to have a certain number of votes—to block a fil—or overcome a filibuster. Those are the realities of—of politics.

HINOJOSA: Case in point: Al Wynn cast a vote in favor of the 2005 Energy Bill that gave billions of dollars in subsidies to oil, gas and nuclear industries. Progressive bloggers haven't forgiven him or the many other Democrats who signed on. But Wynn says he had a solid strategy for the vote, given the Republican majority at the time.

CONGRESSMAN WYNN: I didn't like the bill. It was a Republican—bill. But I wanted to get some help, especially as we were approaching some very difficult winters, for poor people. So we got—I worked with some of my colleagues across the aisle to get a three billion dollar increase—in the authorization for low income home heating assistance from two billion up to—to five billion. And I was very pleased with that. There were other aspects of the bill I did not like at all, such as oil and gas tax breaks, but they were part of—of the bill. However, now that we're in the majority I have voted to naturally introduce legislation to roll back those tax breaks.

HINOJOSA: But that legislation has gone nowhere. In fact even though they now hold a slim majority the Democratic leadership failed to take the reigns from Republicans during the last Congress.

The President's veto pen and the Senate's filibuster procedures have killed or watered down Democratic initiatives on everything from the war to domestic spending to taxes.

STOLLER: This Democratic Congress has done more to enable Bush than the Republican Congress has before him.

HINOJOSA: Like many progressives, blogger Matt Stoller believes that compromise with Republicans, no matter what the ultimate objective, is a strategy that's taking the country in the wrong direction.

STOLLER: I mean, if you're willing to compromise on core values, then—with people who operate in bad faith, then you will always be ruled. You just will never get anything done

HINOJOSA: And what Stoller thinks matters. On his website he keeps track of Democrats he calls Bush Dogs, who Stoller says voted the wrong way on key pieces legislation in recent years. So far four Democratic incumbents, including Al Wynn, are being challenged this season.

BAI: Primaries are—are just very dangerous things for—even for popular incumbents.

HINOJOSA: New York Times magazine writer Matt Bai spent three years documenting the internal battle for the soul of the democratic party. His book is called: "The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics." He says primary challenges are part of a new progressive playbook.

BAI: You have a—a congressman who's been in power a long time, who's voted with the establishment in Washington, and—and here comes—you know—people in the progressive movement being very strategic, looking around and saying, "we want to find places to challenge this establishment. We want to take out some of these democrats who aren't voting like we think Democrats should vote, but we don't want to lose seats, right? So they choose a seat like Maryland's fourth district where, ultimately, that's going to be a Democratic seat. But it is a place where you can make a stand in the primary and say, "this is the kind—you know—Edwards represents the kind of Democratic Party we want to have. Wynn represents the kind of Democratic Party that's existed.

Dean! Dean! Dean! Dean!

HINOJOSA: So when did these progressive Democrats start making such a ruckus?

Howard Dean: You've already got the picture here!

HINOJOSA: It was Presidential Candidate Howard Dean who breathed new life into the party's progressive wing in 2004.

BAI: What really fascinated me at that time and—and caught me up short were the crowds. It was the size of the crowds. It was the age disparity, the different backgrounds. And the deep well of emotion that people had. This sort of pent up fury. Not just at Republican conservative government but at what they saw as their own party's inability to do anything about it.

HINOJOSA: Dean had risen to the top of the pile through a surprise internet campaign. On-line organizations like were able to gather millions of dollars in support for Dean and galvanize a population that had largely opted out of the political system.

BAI: The ethos that Dean represented—although he never came out and said it directly, was a backlash against Clintonism. It—it was really—what Dean really ran against was the Clintonian establishment of the Democratic party.

Bill Clinton: It will be a hard fight and I expect to be there with all of you every step of the way.

HINOJOSA: Many of Dean's supporters, Matt Bai says, had spent the 1990s frustrated by Bill Clinton's efforts to move his party toward the center as a way of drawing conservative voters into the tent. For these progressives, Clintonism became synonymous with appeasing Republicans in order to win.

And it was a Clintonian Democrat who voted with Republicans on the War in Iraq who would become the progressive movement's first well publicized target.

Joe Lieberman: Team Connecticut is going to surge forward to victory in November! [APPLAUSE]

HINOJOSA: In 2006 long time incumbent Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, one of Capitol Hill's most powerful Democrats, was challenged in the primary by a wealthy, but unknown businessman named Ned Lamont. Lamont ran on a single issue—the Iraq War.

Ned Lamont: And I say it's high time we bring them home to the hero's welcome! [APPLAUSE]

HINOJOSA: Matt Stoller was one of the many progressive activists who worked on Lamont's campaign.

STOLLER: Our challenge was to—try to get the Democrats to focus on the Iraq War. Insider Democratic decision makers didn't believe that the country was against the war.

HINOJOSA: The party establishment was shocked when Lamont won the primary. Lieberman only survived by running as an independent. He gained support from Republicans and that November he defeated Lamont in the general election.

STOLLER: We lost in the general. But because of that defeat in the primary, then narrative changed. The way that Democrats, Democratic senators, Democratic candidates were talking about Iraq changed because they realized after that that they couldn't avoid being against the war.

BAI: Sure, Lieberman ultimately retained his seat, but you don't have to win elections to be—win primaries to be powerful. You just have to scare people to death. There's no Democrat in Washington who wants to face what Joe Lieberman faced in 2006. And this Maryland Four race, is—which is an—an example of the same thing.

HINOJOSA: Wynn actually has gotten very high approval ratings from some kind of grassroots organizations. NARAL, for example, civil rights—so—people would say, well, he looks like a—a good Democrat.

BAI: Well, ideology here is very hard to—to—to—to parse out, but—these progressives, they're focused on—they're focused on—on a method of governing. That is, are you working with Republicans, or are you voting the party line every time? Are you stopping everything Republicans tried to do, or are you making compromises? And if you tried to work out an agreement, or if you voted—against—outside the party ranks, they consider that a betrayal.

HINOJOSA: This whole movement, this progressive movement, how much of an impact will they have in this presidential campaign?

BAI: I think you've already seen an impact in the conversation around this campaign.

HINOJOSA: As they race from primary to primary, all three major Democratic Candidates are making sure that Progressives know they're being heard.

Hillary Clinton: Too many have been invisible for too long. Well you're not invisible to me.

Barack Obama: We are ready to take this country in a fundamentally new direction.

John Edwards: Join us in this grassroots campaign...

BAI: All of these candidates are influenced by the emergence of this Progressive Movement and the direction which it's taken its party. That influence is already there.

HINOJOSA: Maybe nowhere is that influence more tangible than in local primaries.

HINOJOSA: So it seems as if you're saying that the Progressives can also play dirty politics? I mean scaring people? Scaring members of their own—their own Democratic party to move left?

BAI: You know I don't think there's anything dirty about it. I mean they—they're citizens. They—they have a right to run candidates.

MARIA: This is what politics—

BAI: Politics.

MARIA:—looks like?

BAI: You have a right to challenge your party. You have a right to run candidates. I think that's healthy for Democracy and it's healthy for a party.

HINOJOSA: Back in Maryland, there are about three frantic weeks left till the primary and both campaigns are working to get out the vote.

Al Wynn is confident his experience and bi-partisan approach to governing will win the day.

CONGRESSMAN WYNN: Getting things done, rounding up votes, persuading people—to see your point of view and to, you know—vote for a certain—position, that's what real leadership involves and that's what really counts.

Donna Edwards: Hey! Hi!

But Donna Edwards is drawing pretty large crowds these days....

Donna Edwards: Hello Montgomery County!

HINOJOSA: As they attempt to shake up the old regime....can these upstarts successfully articulate a new vision for the party?

Donna Edwards:...we're going to create a unified district...

BAI: What your argument is going to be for the future will determine whether you can build longstanding power or a longstanding majority—and more important, and this is what matters to me and a lot of other people who don't consider themselves a red-team person or a blue-team person, are you going to solve the problems that people have?

BRANCACCIO: Now let's look at the opinion polls for a second... immigration, the economy, the war, health care. Those are all issues that Americans say will have a major influence on how they vote in November. But what about Global Warming?

Should voters being paying more attention to the candidates' positions on climate change, and why aren't they?

Captain Dan Kipnis is more than a skipper of a fishing boat. He's a major player in both the national and the Florida Wildlife Federations, and most days he's out there talking Global Warming with everybody from crusty fisherman to politicians.

BRANCACCIO: Captain Kipnis, thanks for this.

KIPNIS: Well, it's my pleasure to be here, David.

BRANCACCIO: Well, it's one thing to go into a food co-op where they're buyin' granola by the half-kilo and talk about climate change. But tell me about the tougher crowds that you preach to about Global Warming.

KIPNIS: The tougher crowds are the crowds I like to go talk to, because they're the ones who will really make the change. The guy who's eatin' the granola already understands what the issue is. But you go into a coastal community, say in South Carolina, and you talk to a bunch of shrimpers there, and coastal fishermen and commercial fishermen who live on that coastline their whole life, and they're very skeptical about it.

But once you show 'em what's gonna happen to them, and you take a map and show them what sea level rise could do to them, they start to get the real idea of what impacts could happen. And then they start to listen. And once these people get motivated, I think we—we can start moving 'em right along, trying to mitigate this situation.

BRANCACCIO: We're here in Florida. You're a Florida guy. What's gonna happen to Florida?

KIPNIS: We have major issues. Florida is Ground Zero for this. Much of our coastal area is within one to three feet of—of the ocean, as it stands right now. So a five foot sea level rise, for instance, would inundate—most of coastal Florida. And in Miami-Dade County, in particular, we'd lose the whole county at five feet.

BRANCACCIO: And what was I reading about like drinking water as an issue here in Florida.

KIPNIS: How about no drinking water. If you cover the Everglades, which is where our aquifer, our fresh water is, you cover it with salt water, we have no—we have no fresh water.

BRANCACCIO: We've got less than 300 days until the presidential election. What do you hear the candidates saying about this issue of climate change?

KIPNIS: I don't hear 'em saying anything. I mean (CHUCKLES) they—they ac—they all have policies on it.

BRANCACCIO: Well, you can go on their websites.

KIPNIS: You go on the websites.


KIPNIS: And I've been on the websites 'cause I don't hear 'em saying anything, David. Nothing. All right. But I go to their website and they all say the same thing. And it's basically—well, by 2050 we're gonna reduce our carbon to—80 percent of 1990 levels. // But they basically don't say how they're gonna do it. They don't say what their short-term plan is for doing it. This is a long-term plan by 2050. And let me tell ya, the situation—we're at a tipping point. If we don't start moving now, there's no way they can do it. They can't do it.

BRANCACCIO: But if you don't hear the candidates speaking loudly and often about this, which is what you're hearing, what are the chances that this is gonna be the Primo Issue once the person comes into power.

KIPNIS: The changes are slim to none that it's not gonna be the Primo Issue. It's going to take a real disaster, and I don't mean a Katrina. But it's gonna take a real disaster like Miami-Dade County going under water 20 years from now. And in hindsight we said, oh, we should have tried to do something. It will be too late then.

BRANCACCIO: At a time when you don't hear the candidates talking enough about this, there are some people talking about—climate change. You have—when you pick up a newspaper you see these big fat ads from National Association of Manufactures, for instance. And they're talking about the Energy Bill which does have some conservation requirements—

KIPNIS: Right.

BRANCACCIO:—investment in alternative energy sources. Not new taxes from Congress. And you got another one here—over here.

KIPNIS: Not new taxes from Congress. I noticed something down here at the bottom of the sheet.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, who—who—who's—

KIPNIS: The people of America's Oil & Natural Gas Industry paid for this. Well, if I was them, too, I would be fighting it like crazy, because they don't wanna change what they're doing. They're making more money than they ever made. All the money these oil companies and coal companies are making right now will come back to haunt us. Because they should be spending that money and that's what was in this bill. Spending that money to find new technologies and to promote new technologies to reduce the amount of CO2 we're puttin' in the atmosphere. The non-greenhouse gases we're putting there.

BRANCACCIO: But here the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce talk about the Energy Bill as—layoffs. That it's a job killer.

KIPNIS: It can't be a job killer. The Energy Bill—look. Anything that we do to change the way we have to live is gonna produce more jobs, more money, new technology. It's gonna open new avenues for us.

BRANCACCIO: So if the candidate's don't speak out loudly and often about this issue, and a new administration comes to power that doesn't do much with global warming, what does your state—the State of Florida look like for your grand children?

KIPNIS: Ha, well, they won't be living at my house in Miami Beach, that's for sure, 'cause it'll be gone. And they won't be living—

BRANCACCIO: It will be under water.

KIPNIS: Under water. And they won't be living—for my grandchildren, Okay. And they will not be living in South Florida. That will be under water also. Their life's gonna be very different. I don't think it's gonna be a fun place to live in. Because we haven't met the challenge. This is the challenge of all mankind. This is it. There's been many extinctions on this earth. Many mass extinctions over millions of years. Whole populations of animals have disappeared. The earth has cleaned itself up and got back to making other species again. I'm afraid we're gonna end up being one of the mass extinctions if we don't do something about this. And that would be a real shame. Especially a species that's as smart as we are.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Captain Kipnis, thank you very much.

KIPNIS: Thank you, sir.

BRANCACCIO: Captain Dan Kipnis is a fisheries conservationist and a Global Warming activist.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. At the whistle-stop here, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.