Democrats Seek a Return to Power

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Democrats would like to regain the control over the U.S. government that they enjoyed during LBJ's landslide victory in the 1960s. Pollster Stanley Greenberg and historian Robert Dallek offer their thoughts on how that might happen in an era of political alienation.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, remembering those who donated their bodies to medical science.

But first, next week a Senate vote is expected to decide whether filibusters will ever again be allowed to foil nominees to the federal bench. Many Republicans see the issue as how to prevent a minority from frustrating the will of an elected majority. Many Democrats see the debate as a test of how to prevent a congressional majority from steamrolling a minority party. Now what's decided during the session may have repercussions for years to come, maybe even when the two parties may switch positions in the House and Senate.

Last Saturday, Linda Wertheimer interviewed two experts about Republican aspirations to try to regain the influence they enjoyed in the years of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. This week, we're talking about Democratic hopes to win back some of the influence their party held in the early 1960s when the Lyndon Johnson landslide claimed the House, the Senate and the White House. Robert Dallek is a historian who's written books about Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. He joins us in our studios.

Thanks for being back with us.

Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Historian): It's my pleasure.

SIMON: And Stanley Greenberg is a Democratic pollster and strategist and author of "The Two Americas." He also joins us in our studios.

And thank you for being with us.

Mr. STANLEY GREENBERG (Author, "The Two Americas"): I'm delighted.

SIMON: Bob Dallek, let's start with you. The Democratic Party, coalition party for many years, and it used to have some very unstable elements. You would have African-American congressmen from New York and Chicago in the same political coalition as segregationist Southern senators...

Mr. DALLEK: Yeah.

SIMON: ...from North Carolina and Georgia.

Mr. DALLEK: Yeah.

SIMON: What made that coalition work?

Mr. DALLEK: Yeah. Well, first of all, what made it work, Scott, was, of course, the great Depression, and Franklin Roosevelt, who knit together the New Deal coalition, brought the South and the North, the East, the West, the whole country under one tent, so to speak. And then, of course, the Second World War, which was a moment of great national sentiment. And then, of course, what you continued to have was a Democratic Party that presided over what Roosevelt thought of as the humanization of the American industrial system.

The Democratic Party wasn't simply a party that reached out to the poor, to the underprivileged, but it put in place all sorts of things that served the middle class, like Social Security, like wages and hours. So it was a party that enjoyed enormous popular appeal to the great mass of middle-class Americans.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. At the same time, Stan Greenberg, who are the Democrats today?

Mr. GREENBERG: Well, that's the challenge. Voters don't know. The question is: What is the mission that Democrats have in a period of income stagnation, increased inequality, different kinds of security issues globally 'cause it's not going to reclaim its position as a majority party until it is clear what its mission is? But their ideas on how we go forward, I think, could be very much centered on how we make a more secure retirement, how we raise living standards, how we address the health-care problems.

SIMON: Can any party reclaim that kind of dominance in an environment where more and more Americans identify themselves as Independents?

Mr. GREENBERG: Neither party is the majority party right now. The Republicans...

Mr. DALLEK: Yeah.

Mr. GREENBERG: ...may control the institutions, but right now these two parties are very evenly matched. When they go into an election, each party can expect to get pretty close to half the vote. Now the question is: How does either party break beyond this? That's the challenge of mission for the Democrats.

SIMON: Go ahead, Bob Dallek. Yeah.

Mr. DALLEK: Well, the trend in the country, it seems to me, has been toward non-voting. You know, in recent years you are lucky to get roughly 50 percent, a little above 50 percent of the electorate to turn out to vote. So there's a lot of movement toward alienation from either party or both parties, and what we haven't mentioned is the importance of a charismatic leader. The two most popular presidents, I think, since Roosevelt in the public mind now are Kennedy and Reagan and both of them highly charismatic figures, and if the Democrats find someone to run next time around, then it could make the decisive difference in the contest.

SIMON: Bob Dallek, I wanted to ask you--the FDR legacy and Social Security. How important is this to the Democratic Party, what it is, what it chooses to fight for?

Mr. DALLEK: Absolutely central, because the two programs--social programs, I think, that have the most enduring hold on the public's imagination in this country are Social Security and Medicare. And again, it comes back to the point that they reach across the whole spectrum of classes.

SIMON: Stan Greenberg?

Mr. GREENBERG: Well, I think it's actually the heart of the challenge right now for Democrats going forward, and the issue is, you know, do people--after a lifetime of work, do they have some kind of guaranteed income? And retirement is now a much more complicated question. It's Social Security, but it's a broader other set of issues related to private pensions and 401(k)s and health-care costs.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. GREENBERG: How is it the Democrats address those broad middle-class issues?

Mr. DALLEK: And that, you see, also becomes a kind of moral concern, and what the Democrats have to do is appropriate that moral concern, take it away from the Republicans, so to speak. They've been hammering on family values and matters of that kind, but Social Security, a modern retirement system, a modern system of providing health insurance to the great mass of Americans, is more than simply an economic issue, and when the Democratic Party has succeeded, as it did under Woodrow Wilson, as it did with Franklin Roosevelt, as it did with Lyndon Johnson, it was in significant part because they could make the case for their virtue fighting for civil rights. That had become an issue--as Everett Dirksen said, it was an issue whose time had come. And now I would think a big issue that the Democrats can seize upon is articulating an exit strategy from the war in Iraq, because the disillusionment over this is becoming quite substantial.

SIMON: But is Iraq, to the American people, necessarily the same issue as national security, because you look at the polls and there is great anxiety over the commitment in Iraq and even disillusionment and disenchantment. But at the same time, at least according to the results of the last election, many voters seemed to think that if the US were attacked, they didn't doubt that a Republican president would, you know, punch Osama bin Laden in the nose if that's what it came to, but that the Democrats haven't been as successful at saying, `We'll do that, too.'

Mr. DALLEK: Well, what the Democrats need to do, I think, is articulate a strategy that will convince people that the exit strategy from Iraq will help to serve the larger purpose of fighting this war against terrorism.

Mr. GREENBERG: And you can certainly critique the White House on what it's done to the military, overstretched the military, the security issues that have not been addressed because of the way we've dealt with Iraq, and so there's room for a very strong security critique of the president.

SIMON: Stanley Greenberg, Democratic pollster and strategist, author of "The Two Americas," and historian Robert Dallek, who's written more biographies than we have the time to count.

Thank you very much.

Mr. DALLEK: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

Mr. GREENBERG: My pleasure.

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