GLASTRIS: What do Democrats want? Aside from universal health care, it seems the only thing Democrats publicly talk about is an agenda for not losing the things they already havethe right to choose, Medicare, Social Security, regulations already on the books. The New Deal, which built up the modern government we have now, stopped working for Democrats politically and arguably stopped advancing things for the country in many ways. I believe that under Bill Clinton, we saw the makings of something new. I haven’t seen it since.
We know, I think the public knows, what the Republicans would do when they have the power. I don’t think we know what the Democrats want to do next other than defend what they already have. Am I wrong?
KILGORE: Democratic members of Congress who are treated like serfs right noweven before this electionthink of themselves as a shadow government that is waiting to get back in and return to business as usual. That’s why Paul’s question is so important. If we can’t make it clear what we would do, and we’re not really willing to challenge government itself, then what does it mean to be a progressive anymore?
DIONNE: If you go back to the progressive tradition, broadly speaking, the GI Bill was as nearly perfect an idea as progressives have come up with because it combined responsibility with help for Americans to rise up in our society. It encouraged service and also said that people who are at the bottom of our society can rise up with a little bit of help, notably to go to college, to buy homes. It seems the GI Bill model, which Clinton talked about at times, is still the best model to unite values with affirmative government on behalf of the people who are trying to rise up.
GLASTRIS: What the Democrats would never say, but I think the smarter ones believe is: We want to move the country somewhat closer to the social safety net you have in Canada and Europe, but to do it in American fashion. Which means being more focused and more market-oriented, but where these extra added programs and benefits don’t suppress innovation, don’t suppress the urge to take risks, don’t suppress the work ethic. Public policy over the last 30 years has gotten very good at crafting these policies that don’t have these negative effects. Europe socialized too early. In America, we’ve always had a reactionary, conservative drag on our progressivism, so we didn’t go that far. And God bless us, because we first had to figure out how to create a social safety net that is also consonant with American valuesthings like welfare reform, which offered a lot of incentives to get off welfare. I think that’s what Democrats ought to talk about.
SHAPIRO: Perhaps the Democrats’ problem is that there are multiple Democratic parties, and they don’t really cohere: There is the party of cultural tolerance, the party of gay marriage, the party of protecting a woman’s right to choose. There is the antiwar party. There is the party of economic justice that wants to bring better health care to all Americans and enact a more progressive tax system. And there is the status quo Democratic Party that Paul alluded to. The problem right now is that the Democrats stand for a lot, but those values may be somewhat in contradiction to one another.
GLASTRIS: Why shouldn’t the Democrats become the party of federalism and smoke out the truth about how federal tax dollars flow from blue to red states? We could say, Look, for years Washington has pushed mandates on states without paying for those mandates; the president did that with No Child Left Behind. We don’t mind federal leadership, but states are underfunded. We’re going to deliver back to the states half of all federal tax revenues that are not for Social Security and defense. Or we could run as the party that opposes political gerrymandering. Can one think of 10 or 20 of those things and even if we can’t think of them now, is that the right way to go?
DIONNE: I think we need to talk very explicitly about how the blue states finance a lot of the programs that go to red states. It is really important to call the bluff of the people who claim to be opposed to government but are eager to get as many benefits to them as they can. Exposing this unbalanced system, not as a genuinely conservative agenda, but as a kind of pork agenda for the conservative states could be part of a reform model.
KILGORE: We could also start with electoral reforms: Let’s not wait four years for another nightmare that we just averted. Let’s at least have a level playing field for how people register to vote, how they vote, how they get their votes counted. We also need to take another run at campaign finance reform. We all know that Republicans’ K Street strategy is corporate cronyism to the nth degree. Democrats aren’t implicated in that kind of corporate largesse anymore [because the firms now funnel the bulk of their campaign donations to the GOP anyway], and we should go after it. On tax reform, we can look at the regressive nature of the payroll tax, how it shifts the tax burden from wealth to work. And there’s budget reformwe’re now the party of fiscal responsibilitythey handed it to us. We have a huge budget mess that’s going to disable the public sector for many years to come, making it very difficult to depend on our social insurance system. It’s not an exclusive list, but I think the basic idea is clear.
GLASTRIS: Almost everyone would concede Karl Rove ran a phenomenal race, but in recent Republican history there have been a lot of great Republican strategists: Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes, James Baker, Ralph Reed, Michael Deaver. Aside from James Carville and Paul Begala, it is hard to think of a single Democratic strategist who is in the same league as these Republicans. Why is that, and what can be done about it?
TOMASKY: I think in general, Republican political professionals are much smarter about how to frame their campaigns. Democrats think in terms of issues while Republicans think in terms of narrative. When a Democrat sets out to run for president, his pollster tells him, Senator, the people agree with you on health care; they agree with you on this issue and on that issue because most polls show that majorities of people tend to support the progressive position on a series of issues. So Democratic political professionals assume all you have to do is talk about those issues. Meanwhile, on the Republican side strategists think more in terms of narrative. They tell a story about their candidate, and about where their candidate is going to take the country; conversely, they tell a story about the Democratic candidateit’s not always a true story, but it is a narrative that drives the conversation. A Democrat’s position on health care can’t compete with that. This is a big problem for the Democratic political professional class as a whole.
PINKERTON: I think it’s a mistake for Democrats to focus on narrative at the expense of issues. I got involved in Republican politics in 1979 because I was extremely excited by the Kemp-Roth tax cut [cut marginal tax rates by 25 percent across the board]. That wasn’t a narrative; that was an issue, an idea, a concept.
SHAPIRO: Since Ronald Reagan in 1980, Republicans have been confident in what they believe, while Democrats have been in a fetal crouch. And every gambit of the Democrats is designed to say, Don’t kick me there. You nominate a war hero in John Kerry so you won’t get kicked on national security. You nominate a Southerner so that you won’t get kicked on values. You run on competence when you’re Michael Dukakis in 1988 as a don’t kick me there because you are almost sure to lose on ideology.
The best campaign consultants are not necessarily brilliant. They are simply in tandem with their candidates. The best consultants come up with their candidate, like Carville with Bill Clinton in ’92, Rove with George Bush in 2000, or Hamilton Jordan with Jimmy Carter in 1976. The best consultants are the people you haven’t heard of yet: Joe Trippi was one. What he did with Howard Dean should not be underestimated; it was one of the great strategic moments in American politics even if it ultimately fell short.
PINKERTON: I’d like to differ slightly on this. I worked for Lee Atwater for seven years, I’ve known Roger Ailes for 20 years. The residual Republican in me should say, It’s been my privilege to know some of these guys, they’re like the 1927 Yankees, a Murderer’s Row, and nobody’s going to beat them. However, I think there is another story. That crop of Republicans are like the West Point class of 1915, the so-called Class the Stars Fell On. It was just their fortune, from a military point of view, to come into the beginning of World War I and to be alive for World War II, and so they all became generals: Eisenhower, Patton, Omar Bradley. These Republicans similarly came of age when a new intellectual model was being born. The Democrats had won seven of the nine presidential elections from 1932 to 1964 because in the view of the voter they had a better modelthe New Deal, unions, redistribution. But the Republicans came up with a counter model, and it worked well in the eyes of most voters. I think seven of the last 10 presidential elections have been won by the Republicans. That is a strong model, and I think it is stronger than consultants, it is stronger than spin, it is just a basic thing.
KILGORE: We do need a new generation of consultants and pollsters; there hasn’t been a lot of turnover in a long, long time. Also, as some have already said, we have got to get away from these strategies based on changing the issue terrain instead of speaking directly about what the American people think. Because not only does it not work, but it also expresses contempt for what the American people believe is important. And that reinforces a lot of our party’s problems.
Democratic pollsters and political consultants are forever trying to change the subject from things that voters don’t agree with them, to things that voters agree with them. In 2004, the Kerry campaign got an enormous amount of advice to concede national security, that’s Bush’s issue, and bring it back to the economy, that’s our issue. The argument was that we need to campaign on our own turf. Basically, telling the American people, You stupid crackers, stop thinking about the moral order of the universe and chow down on this prescription drug benefit. That is the attitude the Democratic Party projects, and I think it turns off voters.
SULLIVAN: Republicans have won at least since 1968 by being divisive. We dance around this and hesitate to say it out-loud, but the fact is that they won this election in large part by tapping into and exploiting homophobia. That doesn’t mean the Republican Party is motivated by homophobia. But they recognize that it exists, and they have figured out how to use it, just like they figured out how to use racism.
They’ve set the stage so that this frame of divisionof us vs. themdefines most political conversations. That’s why Democrats need to be careful as they learn how to talk about religion. They can and should critique the kind of religion that is so destructive to political debate. But they should be careful not to use such broad strokes that they’re seen as attacking religion in general. That feeds directly into the Republican strategy to paint Democrats as intolerant of and hostile to religion. Criticism of fundamentalist, divisive religion can be leveled correctly, but it’s a very tight needle to thread.
KILGORE: We did have one other great strategist: His name was Bill Clinton. His gift was for message, which is a little different than narrativemaybe it’s a little bit closer to what Jim was talking about. Message is a basic sense of how specific proposals add up to a philosophy of how to best organize the public sector to protect Americans, improve their welfare, unite the country, and accomplish the whole list of things people want government to do. I think we had a message under Bill Clinton, or at least we had it until 1998 when our momentum faded away for reasons we all remember.
Democrats run into problems when we don’t have a clear message, particularly when the opposition has invested billions of dollars creating a stereotype about our candidate and about our party. If we don’t have a clear message for changing government, then that stereotype is what the public defaults to. That’s exactly what happened to John Kerry this year. You have to address where you’re getting kicked before people will listen to the positive message you have. And I think Clinton proved that in 1996 when he neutralized a lot of the values issues we’re talking about, and the election turned on Democratic issues. It was the last successful model we had.
KILGORE: I tore my hair out all through the campaign wondering why we couldn’t get Democratic candidates for Congress to act like outsiders, to remind people who runs the city these days. In fact, the whole big government liberal attack on Kerry, much of it was code for: These are the same people that you can put them back in, and they will spend like crazy. We’re going to go back to the 1950s; the not so subliminal message was that this is the pre-Clinton Democratic Party come back to lifeit’s big, it’s scary, it’s tall, it has a long face, and it’s from Massachusetts.
SULLIVAN: The Democrats went out of their way not to make this election a referendum on Republicans. At the Democratic convention, you hardly ever heard blame being laid at the feet of the Republicans. Only once throughout the three debates did Kerry say anything about Republicans in Congress. As Ed and I have discussed before, a frightening percentage of Americans don’t even know which party controls Congress. So if they’re unhappy with things, they don’t know who to blame. Democrats have to change that, they have to attack the status quo, or they’ll continue to get punished by voters who are reflexively anti-Washington.
DIONNE: The notion that the Democrats couldn’t run against an all-Republican government in Washington is distressing. After all, this Republican campaign was based on the old. Old is tax cuts. Old is opposition to gay marriage. Old is Cold War rhetoric about Kerry being weak. There was nothing innovative about this Republican campaign except their view of the electorate where they understood the potential gains they could make in the outer suburbs and in rural areas by bumping up the vote.
KILGORE: It’s time that the Democrats become an insurgency that challenges the power that actually exists in Washington, which is not ours anymore. It will help us enormously to communicate our values to people outside the context of Washington.
TOMASKY: Is the congressional Democratic Party prepared to be an insurgency? I don’t know how aggressive they’ll be willing to be. If you look at the map of Senate elections in 2006, a handful of Democratic senators from red states will be in vulnerable positions, and they won’t want to risk what they inevitably interpret as what happened to Tom Daschle: He was obstructionist, and he lost. So I’m not sure that could happen.
Also, when Nancy Pelosi compiled a list of Democratic reform ideas, harkening back to Newt Gingrich’s idea of a Contract With America, it was absurd. It didn’t come with a legislative agenda that Democrats would enact if they won the Congress. And the reason it didn’t come with a legislative agenda is because congressional Democrats couldn’t agree on one. That tells you the Democrats don’t have the capability of nationalizing elections, at least as they are presently constituted.
KILGORE: Something really dramatic happened in the Republican Party between Newt Gingrich and where we are today. Not only have they abandoned fiscal responsibility but implicitly have also embraced the starve the beast theory, which I call the political equivalent of a bottomless crack pipe for the Republicans: It enables them to oppose big government in the abstract but support big government in the particular, including subsidies for corporations, farmers, for states, for anyone. They hope that in the end their fiscal policies will force government to shrink automatically.
For Democrats, this means that if we want to have an active public sector, if we want to maintain a 21st century social safety net, if we want to maintain an intergenerational social compact, we have to be for reforming government. And we ought to be because they are conceding that issue to us. They’re not trying to reform government best I can tell. The more they run government the less they will.
DIONNE: I think an opposition party finds its voice in oppositionin challenging the status quo that the other side has created. That’s how Newt Gingrich found his voice. He began when Republicans were out of power. The Contract with America was the last act of the Gingrich push, not the first strike. I do think that there are opportunities today for the opposition to challenge GOP pork, to challenge their fiscal policy, to challenge particular approaches to Social Security reform.
That’s not as exciting as saying we need 110 new ideas, but Karl Rove had many new ideas about mobilizing new voters but not a whole lot of new ideas in policy.
GLASTRIS: On national security, few Democrats who have spoken to the public in 30 years gave a sense of assurance, certainty, and power of message. What is our intellectual model? Until you have that, you are not going to have the strategists who can help elect a president because they are going to be as much at sea as the candidate. I believe that national security is the single biggest hurdle for Democrats to get over if they want to win.
TOMASKY: This panel has often wandered from national security. I think it’s probably indicative of the problem within the Democratic Party itself. I agree with you 100 percent. National security is the biggest issue that they have to grapple with in order to define what a new progressivism is, to define themselves as the opposition party.
I always thought it was a wasted opportunity after 9/11, when the Democratic congressional leaders did not seize that moment to say, O.K. this is a permanent part of the political landscape for the foreseeable future, and we must right now redefine ourselves as a party. We must begin to have serious conversations right now to come up with a set of principles that can be a credible response to the world we find ourselves in. There are actually solid Democratic national security thinkers. I get the impression sometimes that, with a couple of exceptions, most Democratic politicians don’t know that they exist and don’t read anything that they write.
GLASTRIS: We’ve actually written about this in a cover story two years ago by Heather Hurlbert. The problem is not that there aren’t any serious Democratic thinkers on national security. It’s that they are hived off in back offices, hauled out in times of national security emergency to give advice, and then put back in their cubicles again.
Democratic elected officials, for the most part, are more comfortable with national security than the senior staff around them. Today’s Democratic political operatives, most of whom came up in the late 1960s to early 1970s and were essentially anti-war, have never been comfortable with national security. They don’t think that’s an issue that can win for them. There’s not a lot of intense thinking on it. Now, on the Republican side, there are plenty of arm-chair pudgy Republican operatives who’ve never shot a gun in their life, but they know it’s an important issue for them. They are comfortable talking about it. And I think until there is a change of guard, of the political operative community that runs the Democratic Party, you are going to continue to run into this problem of a lack of seriousness.
PINKERTON: At the famous press conference in March 2002, when the president said, I truly am not that concerned about [bin Laden], where was the Democratic rapid response to say, hey, bin Laden killed three thousand of our citizens? The only thing I’ve heard Democrats talking much about lately is, Gee, those prisoners in Guantanamo Bay aren’t treated well.
DIONNE: On national security, to paraphrase Yogi Berra: We lost because we made the wrong mistakes. In fairness, I don’t think that the Democrats are now where they were in 2002 when the Democrats completely ran away from national security. In 2004, Kerry engaged on national security. Indeed, the whole last week of the campaign was about national security. There’s much more of a sense now that this is a central question.
KILGORE: The security gap is one thing we’ve got to deal with. I agree with Mike. There’s more of a consensus among Democratic thinkers about how to keep America safe and the war on terror than you might expect.
I watched John Kerry very closely each time he spoke on national security during the campaign. He always said the same thing. He always said we need to rebuild our alliances, rebuild multilateral organizations, rebuild trust in America around the world, and we need to keep you safe. More often than not, the pronouncements about multilateralism, alliances, and the softer side of foreign policy came first. Imagine if every time he spoke on national security, he had first said, I will do whatever is necessary to protect you before explaining how we must bring in the world to save us from the mess that George Bush has created in Iraq. I think it might have made a crucial difference.