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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Whether you blame it on Katrina, the war in Iraq, gas prices or the whiff of scandal here in Washington, approval ratings are way down for President Bush and for the Republican-led Congress, which should be a golden opportunity for Democrats to demand change and lay out their political agenda for 2006 and beyond. So far, though, most party leaders have been content to criticize Republican missteps from the sidelines rather than lay out alternatives, and part of the reason is that there are fundamental disagreements about what to do. Some Democrats want to send more troops to Iraq, for example, while others want to set a date to withdraw.

Republicans seized power with a clear message in 1994--low taxes, small government, strong defense, family values--while Democrats aren't so easy to categorize. Some say Democrats have allowed Republicans to set the terms of the debate, that the problem is semantics. Others argue that the Democrats organize themselves around a coalition of interest groups and don't share a clearly defined vision. Some want to pull the party to the left; others to the center.

Later in the program, the NBA goes business casual in an effort to clean up its image. But first, the search for a Democratic identity. What message do you want to hear from the Democratic Party? Who should define it, and how? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

To begin, we turn to Matt Bai, who writes about national politics for the The New York Times Magazine. He joins us here in Studio 3A.

Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. MATT BAI (The New York Times Magazine): Great to be here, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: Analysts suspect that this may be a critical, a pivotal moment for Democrats. Help put this in perspective. What is their opportunity here, and how important is it?

Mr. BAI: Well, I guess I would break it down very quickly into short-term and medium-term and long-term issues, 'cause they're different. There's a short-term issue, as you pointed out in your introduction, which is--I just saw a poll on the way in here, and the president's approval rating was at 41 percent, and it's a good poll. And I think the Republicans have a whole world of problems, and worse for them, the problems occurring now are sort of along a continuum that run on similar themes about integrity and the ability to handle crises in the country, and that's--certainly there's a short-term--a very powerful opportunity for Democrats.

In the medium term, you know, we're talking about we're a year out from an election, and so great as that opportunity is, there are Democrats, as you point out, who are going to say or who are already saying, in fact, you know, `Let's sit there and watch their house burn. Why should we, you know, flag attention to what we're building over here? Let the house burn. That's how you win elections.' I like to believe that politics is about more than the other guy being bad, and I think ultimately they're seeing in the poll numbers that that may not carry them through. And there's plenty of time for Republicans to do what they've done in recent history, which is to get some stability underneath them. I mean, we're--unfortunately for Democrats you're not six months before an election; you're over a year out.

But then there's this long-term issue, which I don't go into great detail here, but we can and--which is, you know, the more fundamental economic transformation of the country. And, you know, what--we're really talking about a bottom, if you peel this back to its core discussion. We're really talking about the historical sweep of these two parties and a Democratic century, the industrial century, which was tremendously successful in which Democrats achieved really an unrivaled array of legislative victories. I mean, there might be a few ancient Romans who disagree, but I don't think there's anything in history quite like it--and a party that now finds itself in a vastly transformed world, trying to figure out how that vision adapts to the future and not doing an especially good job of even beginning the process of saying, `We need to be different. We need to be futuristic. What we used to do doesn't--won't work for the future.'

CONAN: Not only can we campaign on `We're not them,' we have to campaign on `We're not us anymore, either. We have new ideas, a new agenda.'

Mr. BAI: Well, I think that's exactly right. I mean--and, again, there are a lot of Democrats who don't believe--part of what's happened here, if you read between the lines, is that Democrats believe--a lot of partisan Democrats believe Republicans are so devoid of virtue and campaign on such divisive and negative issues. The fact that Republicans have won the last few elections have left a lot of Democrats sitting around going, `Well, clearly campaigns aren't about substance, 'cause if they were, we'd have won. Therefore, since campaigns are entirely tactical, all we have to worry about are tactics. Don't talk to me about new ideas, don't talk to me about new agendas. If Republicans can win with what they're doing, we've got to win by being equally mean and equally ruthless in all of this.'

And actually it was Senator Barack Obama who interestingly went to the blogs a few weeks ago to take on this point of view and say, `You know what? That's not good enough. You can't just slash and burn. That's not where Americans are.' And I agree with him. I think I'm ultimately--you know, politics are about ideas. Sometimes they're not about the idea this year or next year. But they're about large, overarching ideas that define large periods of time, and if Democrats want to win, pick up seats in Congress, I think they can do that next year. If Democrats want to win a presidential election, I suppose they can do that in 2008. I think those are largely crapshoots, actually, that come down to a lot of personality. But if you want governing majorities and consensus and the kind of mandate you need to affect the kind of change you want, then I think it requires a more cohesive, positive identity and agenda for who you are and where you want to take the country.

CONAN: Republicans, as you know, would argue also that the Democrats are bereft of ideas and that, in fact, one of the central problems with the party is that there is no comparable ideological fervor. Republicans know what they're about. Democrats are about a whole bunch of things.

Mr. BAI: Well, here's--I think the problem is, in my estimation--It's my humble estimation, 'cause you can get 10 people in this room and they'll give you 10 different answers, but...

CONAN: And they're probably all Democrats.

Mr. BAI: And they're probably Democrats, and they're probably all right to some extent, but, you know, here is my estimation of the problem, which is that you have principles and you have programs. And the problem is that the Democratic Party to a certain extent has conflated these two things. They know what they're about, but instead of being about the principle of retirement security, instead of being about the principle of a healthy, prosperous country, the principle of a middle class that continues to evolve and prosper, they have become about programs. They have become about Social Security, they've become about Medicare, they've become about certain tax code, a payroll tax that they're married to.

There are legislative instruments that Democrats put in place over that last half of the last century that were outstanding solutions, creative and flexible, for the crises of the times but may not be as perfectly tailored to the crises of the future. And that doesn't mean the principles underlying them are any less relevant than they were then. However, I think you have to recognize that if you were to sit down and design an agenda and a government today to tackle the 21st century as, say, the New Dealers or the architects of the Great Society did in the 20th, you would find that your problems, your priorities, your resources, your vision would have to be markedly different.

CONAN: We want to get listeners involved in the conversation. How do you want the Democrats to define themselves? Should it be a single, coherent message? Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And let's begin with Jenna, and Jenna's calling us from Rockford, Illinois.

JENNA (Caller): Yes, hello. I appreciate you taking my call. I think the Democratic Party would be best served by trying to stop courting the conservative vote. The Republican Party has that interest wrapped up in pocket. I think if the Democratic Party returned to those constituents who have consistently put them into office--that is, the elderly, minorities and unions--I think that would serve them best as well as look for a leader who would really be a cohesive person to draw that party together.

CONAN: Jenna, some people would answer your question by saying look at the numbers. Union membership is down, more people self-identify as conservatives than as liberals. Well, let me put that to...

JENNA: Union membership might be down. However, the benefits that have been brought about in the, you know, last 100 years by, you know, traditional union values--you know, eight-hour days, that kind of thing--does still appeal to the working class. I don't think that that's changed.

CONAN: Matt?

Mr. BAI: Well, Jenna, I understand exactly what you're saying. You make a good point, and I understand the frustration that a lot of Democrats feel with a party that feels more beholden to corporate donors than it does to the people who traditionally have been the base of the party.

I have to say, when we talk about the numbers, this to me is the cold, hard reality of what faces democratic politics. For 60, 70 years in this country, with very few interruptions, Democrats ruled the federal level of this country with tremendous strength in numbers and were able to enact the vast majority of programs, as I mentioned before. During all of that time, the numbers would tell you that--the best demographers will tell you that they did so by getting a third of self-described conservatives to vote Democratic. And those conservatives were largely in the South, and they were largely segregationists, by the way. This was a coalition of interests, some people who didn't agree on a lot of very basic things.

But the point here is, I think for Democrats to look realistically at the future, you're going to have to accept the notion that there never really was a liberal majority in this country. It doesn't mean there can never be one. Doesn't mean there have been strong periods of liberal and progressive government, but Democrats never won elections in this country based solely on a liberal base of voters. And I don't think there's a whole lot of reason--in fact, I think there's less reason than ever to believe that that's going to be an eventuality anytime soon.

CONAN: Just to reinforce that point, I mean, it was conventional wisdom for many, many years that the more people you brought out to the polls, the more Democrats you brought out to the polls. High turnout meant good things for Democrats. One interpretation of the last presidential election was that is no longer true. The more people you bring out to the polls, the more conservatives you bring out to the polls.

Mr. BAI: Well, I mean, that was largely--to a large extent, that was my interpretation, and a lot of people don't like it, but I do think what the numbers of the last election--there was a lot of carping after the election about you didn't turn out enough of our base. We lost black voters, we lost union voters, we didn't do well enough in the urban turnout. I mean, look, those numbers are spectacular, and they exceeded most goals. The reality is there was a time not that long ago in this country where Democrats could turn out all of their voters and that included--as I was just discussing, a lot of folks who have basically conservative values and they'd win elections.

JENNA: How do you comment toward the party's seemingly courting that conservative vote?

Mr. BAI: Well, I think--I don't know how you're using--I mean, words like `conservative' and `liberal,' `left' and `center'--I think they've either changed in meaning or have less meaning than ever before, and I'm not sure what we mean by conservative. I mean, if we're talking about hard-core...

JENNA: Religious right.

Mr. BAI: Right. If you're not with the religious right, I don't see many Democrats courting that vote. I really don't. But if we're talking about people of basically conservative values who live in ex-urban or suburban communities in America who are not aligned politically, they're not hard-core Republicans, they're certainly not Democrats, they want someone who connects with their values, they are not committed Republicans but they've trended Republican in the last several elections, yeah, I think there are Democrats interested in getting those votes. And I think numerically and morally, by the way, it's critical to do so, because the reality is, regardless of what your beliefs may be, you know, if you want to govern a country based on consensus and not on polarization, you're going to have to build a broader consensus than what we currently have.

CONAN: Jenna, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

JENNA: I appreciate it. Thank you.

CONAN: We're going to take a short break now. When we come back, we'll talk with two Democrats who--Well, surprise, surprise--have been thinking a lot about their future and disagree. Congressman Rahm Emanuel and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich will join us to talk about their visions for the Democratic Party. If you'd like to join us, the number is (800) 989-8255. The e-mail address, totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the direction of the Democratic Party. What message do you want to hear from the Democrats? Is this a time to present their vision of a future to the American public? Our number here is (800) 989-8255. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Our guest is Matt Bai. He writes on national politics for The New York Time Magazine, and the midterm elections in 2006 are very much on the minds of Democrats these days. To get a better sense of what message Democrats will be sending to voters, we turn now to Congressman Rahm Emanuel, Democrat from Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and he's with us by phone from his office here in Washington.

Congressman, nice of you to be with us today.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): Thank you, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

Rep. EMANUEL: Good.

CONAN: Analysts say the Democrats have focused on what Republicans have been doing wrong and that they have not been taking the time to express their own ideas, their own vision.

Rep. EMANUEL: Well, first of all, I mean, like in any process, not just in campaign but in governing, I mean, the good news is, you clearly make choices here, and we haven't just focused on what's wrong, but I do think it's worth reminding people, we're on the 11-year anniversary of the Contract With America. Republicans promised, A, be careful with the public's dollar; B, clean up the swamp of Washington of special interests, and C, shrink the size of government. So I think it's worthy of reminding people, number one, we've added $3 trillion to the nation's debt in less than five years. Two, the special interests are closer to running the government than ever before. And three, the size of government has expanded, the largest since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So in my view, they're in a breach of contract, and I think that's worthy of being reminded.

We have an obligation to tell the public of what we would do and where we would do it differently. I believe it's a basic concept of what I say is putting people first, re-putting people first and putting our fiscal house in order and investing in health care, education and energy. I laid out--and other Democrats have had different ideas about things that would work in that area.

One, 21st century, making college education as universal and acceptable as what a high school education was in the 20th century. Two, is convene a budget summit that would deal with bringing our budget back into balance as well as dealing with the additional $3 trillion of debt that's been run up. Third is on energy--is set a goal over 10 years, cut our energy consumption in half of foreign oil by making it a hybrid economy. Fourth is establish a national institute of science and engineering to do for science and engineering what the National Institute of Health has done in the areas of health and pharmaceutical industry and medical care in the United States and made us the leader in those fields. And fifth and finally, over the next 10 years, establish a goal that if you work, you have health care in this country, and that is a proper investment. And that's what we would do as Democrats.

There are other areas, things that we would do. I mean, we can talk about the issues of Iraq and where I think our differences are, but noting the differences between parties is a good thing rather than a thing to be ashamed of. But we have to have a proactive agenda and a contrasting--because I think, to tell you the truth, the country is not happy with the direction the Republican Party is taking us.

CONAN: Well, the polls show that the country's not particularly happy, at least at the moment, and polls are polls and headlines are headlines and things can change, but the polls show that the country is not happy, but it doesn't show that they're turning to the Democrats and saying, `We like your ideas better.'

Rep. EMANUEL: Right. Well, first of all, the Republican Party is in charge. Yes, they're unhappy. B, those so imposed--even though they're not content and nor should they yet be with what the Democrats have laid out, they have said that given the choice, by over 9 points--and I don't want to get into a debate about polling here...

CONAN: Right.

Rep. EMANUEL: ...but over 9 points, they pick a Democrat for Congress over a Republican for Congress. They clearly had some semblance that when it comes to health care, education, fiscal discipline, that our party and our ideas are better in line with what they want than where the Republicans are. And I do believe that there's a sense out there, and appropriately so, that what--they basically gave the Republicans control of the House, the Senate and the presidency, and the American people are furious at the direction the country's taken and are not optimistic that the future's going to be better than what they've got. We do offer a change to the status quo. We offer a new set of priorities to the same old policies and most importantly, that we're going to bring a balance to this system. Things are out of whack, whether that's on the budget front or investment front, in the areas of health care and education, that--we're going to bring a balance and that too much concentration of power in one party has actually, in their view, led to a lot of things that are out of balance.

CONAN: Eleven years ago, people were furious with the Democrats as well, and you could say a lot about the Contract With America, but one thing it projected was a simple, optimistic vision of the future. Do Democrats have anything that will compare to that?

Rep. EMANUEL: Well, I think just maybe there are times I feel like I talk to myself. I think I just laid out a pretty optimistic view of how to invest in America's future. And I think--look, Neal, when you step back, the fundamental issue, whether it's a GM worker, today a Delphi worker, United Airline workers and company in my district, whether it's Intel (unintelligible) whether it's the farmer and the family, whether it's a worker at Wal-Mart, the question we're dealing with today is how does that American and America compete in a globalized economy, constant pressure and change, OK?

You know, and so therefore, what the Republicans are telling you is we're going to cut your taxes, or cut taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent of America, and you get to challenge all 1.2 billion Chinese on your own. What we're saying is if you want America to win and individual Americans to win, we've got to make an investment in this country and the individuals of this country. That is in the area of education, which is why I said in the 21st century a college education...

CONAN: Right.

Rep. EMANUEL: ...is as universally accepted as a high school was to the 20th, which was a key ingredient to making the 20th century the American century. Two, we had, until up to this point, a critical edge in the areas of science and engineering. We're losing that. That's why we want to create a national institute of science and engineering to marvel what the NIH's done. NIH, 1981, budget was $9 billion. Today it's $28 billion. We're the leaders in the pharmaceutical field ...(unintelligible). There was a reason for that. National Federation of Science, $5 billion in 1981; today's it's $5 billion. We've held it steady and we see our leadership around the world starting to erode. Make--double up our investments. Get it up to where the NIH is so that critical area of new technology, America does not leave or walk away from its leadership position.

Third is the area of health care. What constantly comes under pressure is people's benefits and the notion of providing health-care benefits. And we're saying if you work, you're going to get health care.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. This is Roger, Roger calling us from San Francisco.

ROGER (Caller): Yes, thank you very much.

Rep. EMANUEL: Is it Roger you said?

CONAN: Yes. Roger.

Rep. EMANUEL: OK.

ROGER: Yes. Thank you. I'd like to make out two points. The Democratic Party was very powerful in this country. They were very progressive. They established our space program. They did Social Security, Medicare, all the things that made this country and the people in this country much better off. But let me point out something that I think--the Democrats are simply not picking up on obvious things that they could use. They're trying to be too much like Republicans.

This is the example I'd like to give. We're turning into a Vietnam paradigm. People are saying we just can't get out. Well, let me give you an example of this. A battalion is composed of 750 people. That's about as many people the Iraqis say they have capable of fighting in Iraq, defending their own country. We have been training them for two years. It takes 16 weeks to train a Marine from boot camp to combat infantry training so he's up and running and ready for combat. The point I'm trying to make is, like in Vietnam, the Iraqis are not going to fight as long as we're willing to fight for them. And the Democrats are simply not seeing this. They're trying to...

CONAN: So, Roger, I think is focusing on the issue of Iraq, which a lot of Democrats would also focus on, Rahm Emanuel, as the critical issue and it's one on which Democrats do not agree.

Rep. EMANUEL: Well, you know, my own view is I think that--on Iraq, first of all, I don't think Republicans agree, and I know that out here, both on the leadership level and also in the country, and that's true also about Democrats. But I would add, because we've got ourselves in a position based on what's happened that has different people's attitudes.

But let me say this: I don't believe the choices in front of us are one between leaving and staying and doing the same and getting different results. 'Cause what the president's offered you, is, I think a false choice. It isn't those two choices. Senator Levin, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, in fact, I think has the right based policy, which is a performance-based foreign policy.

Now Roger's right about one thing, and that is, you can't spend $445 billion, lose nearly 2,000 American lives over 10,000 fellow citizens are wounded and you have one Iraqi battalion to show for it. And the day that this administration is going to basically just get a free reign without having to report every quarter we're going on the development of their local police force, where we're going on the training of an Iraqi-based army, where we're going on different--on the process of getting the economy, the basic infrastructure of energy, you know, utilities, etc., running, where we're going on the health-care system, where we're going on the transportation system, where we are in the political process, that we're going to have a measurement process for every quarter, every six months, every year and that over the next two years, they're going to have to meet certain goalposts and guideposts and have successfully accomplished that. Because to say that we're now there a little over two years, close to three years and we have one Iraqi trained battalion ready to go, to get all ...(unintelligible)

CONAN: Successfully meet these guideposts...

Rep. EMANUEL: ...is unacceptable.

CONAN: ...or what?

Rep. EMANUEL: Or what? I mean, well, first of all, I mean, Neal, the point is I, you know--Or what? The fact is you set a series of goals over the next few years...

CONAN: And if you don't meet them? I mean, the Bush administration set goals, too, and they have not met them.

Rep. EMANUEL: Well, I hate to tell you the truth, that's where I disagree with you. They haven't. I don't--maybe you have access and we don't in Congress, Neal, but we have not seen to date--here's how--we've had the secretary of State come up and say there's 135,000 people trained when, in fact, the Army comes up and says one battalion is ready.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Rep. EMANUEL: What I'm saying is you say over the next two years, every measurement that has to be laid out--the only area the president's been willing and his administration's been willing to lay them out is here's where the election's going to be, here are the actual dates for the election. Well, we haven't done that on schools. We haven't done that on energy and the utilities. We have--so they can have basically an up-and-running economy, and we haven't done it from a security standpoint. And I think that we're going to have a performance-based foreign policy, so over the next two years, we are ready to stand down and they are ready to stand up.

CONAN: Matt Bai, there is considerable disagreement as to, fair enough, Congressman Emanuel says in both parties on these is--particularly on the issue of the war. But is this message that you're hearing something that you think is going to energize the Democratic Party?

Rep. EMANUEL: Are you asking me that or...

CONAN: I was asking Matt Bai that, our other guest.

Rep. EMANUEL: Oh, OK.

Mr. BAI: Sorry, Congressman. This one's for me. No.

Rep. EMANUEL: No, go ahead. I just--I couldn't understand whether he was saying `Matt asked this'...

CONAN: Ah, anyway...

Mr. BAI: That's fine. You know, I actually disagree that--and I think Congressman Emanuel might, too--that these are huge substantive differences in the Democratic Party. I don't hear a lot of fundamental differences over Iraq. I hear differences about time lines and should it be an immediate withdrawal. And there was a disagreement, obviously, over voting for the war a while back, but I think the differences are, you know, fairly minor there, actually. You know, in terms of energizing the party, I mean, look, I think the congressman laid out a lot of ideas that I think most Americans would agree with are good ideas.

I don't know that when Democrats talk about health care, energy independence, etc., fiscal responsi--I don't know that they have a tremendous amount of credibility with the voters about that, because these are, you know, really putting people first, as the congressman says. I mean, these are phrases that voters have been hearing for a long time without the results they would have liked to see from either party. And I think, you know, what the congressman won't say and what very few Democrats in Washington will say is that they are hamstrung in trying to be more bold and thoughtful about these issues by their own constituency groups, by their own base, that there is an unwillingness to change and an inflexibility among groups that have tremendous power in the Democratic Party and, therefore, quietly, elected officials in the Democratic Party will tell you that to try to innovate, to try to question old presumptions or to say, `Look, we need to look at education differently; we need to look at health care differently. Maybe it's not the company's fault that workers are in this plight in a lot of cases.' To try and do that is almost impossible in the environment that they're in within their own constituencies.

CONAN: Congressman Emanuel, we're going to give you a chance to reply and then we're going to bring Robert Reich into the conversation.

Rep. EMANUEL: All right. First of all, I mean, I don't know. I personally think an institute on science and engineering to ensure that we have our investments, setting a goal on health care, making college education as universal in the 21st century as the 20th, I would not call them--maybe they're not bold to Matt. I personally think they are--set the right type of goals and steer you on. But I will say this. The notion of putting your fiscal house in order and investing in education, health care and energy independence--i.e, putting people first--not only worked in the--not only was the idea of the '90s and was successful for the Democrats, but it's also successful for the American people, because it broke China, so to say, and we did break away from interest group control on our party.

But I get back to--that's our agenda, that's what we're going to talk about, but I will mention the fact is that for what you want to say about the Democrats, it's multiply true about the fact that people have walked away from the Republican Party.

CONAN: Rahm Emanuel...

Rep. EMANUEL: They have walked away...

CONAN: I'm afraid we're up against the time, Congressman.

Rep. EMANUEL: Thank you.

CONAN: But thank you very much for being with us.

Rep. EMANUEL: You got it.

CONAN: Rahm Emanuel, Democrat from Illinois, also chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, joined us by phone from his office in Washington.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And now for another perspective, we turn to Robert Reich, co-founder of The American Prospect magazine, former secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. He joins us from the studios of member station WXEL in West Palm Beach, Florida.

And thanks very much for being with us.

Professor ROBERT REICH (Brandeis University; Former Labor Secretary): And, Neal, nice to see you. Nice to talk to you, rather.

CONAN: Nice to talk to you again. OK. In your mind--I know you were listening to Rahm Emanuel as he was talking there. Those ideas, I think, as Matt Bai was saying, a lot of Democrats could agree on, is the kind of message that is going to turn into electoral victories, is going to get credibility with those voters that Matt was talking about.

Prof. REICH: Well, certainly, Neal, the Democrats have a reputation for doing well by health care, education, jobs--not only the number of jobs, but also wages. These are the bread-and-butter issues that are absolutely central to the Democratic Party and on which the Democrats have run. And let's face it, during Bill Clinton's years, the economy did well and most people did extremely well by contrast to what we've had over the last five.

But back to basics. I mean, the Democrats have traditionally represented the little guy, the average working man or woman, against the forces of evermore concentrated wealth and power in our society. They--the Democrats put forward and have represented a vision of the common good, by contrast to Republican vision, which looks at the good of the nation as the sum total of individual goods.

So I would add to what Congressman Emanuel was saying. I think a lot of the ideas that he put forward were exactly right, but they need to be talked about in the--I think in the frame in which Democrats have a great deal of credibility. Right now we have, for example, chief executives who are earning 500 times what the average worker is earning. We have an inequality of income to the extent that the top 1 percent in this country now own as much of America as the bottom 90 percent put together. We haven't seen anything like this since the robber baron era of the Gilded Age. And not to talk about that, I think, is a failure. I think people need to understand what's happening in this country. Democrats have got to say, `Look, rather than trickle-down economics, which is something that was sold to you by Republicans--tax breaks for the rich, everything else trickles down to the bottom--we ought to have bottom-up economics. We invest in people because people--their education, their job training, their health care--when people are more productive, they can actually make the economy more productive and more equitable.'

CONAN: We'll have...

Prof. REICH: That's a Democratic message.

CONAN: We'll be back with more with Robert Reich and from Matt Bai and more of your calls after a short break. If you'd like to join us, it's (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is totn@npr.org. We'll also be talking about new rules for NBA players, a dress code.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the other stories NPR News is following today. Saddam Hussein pleaded innocent to charges of murder and torture today as his long-awaited trial opened in Baghdad. The session lasted about three hours. The judge ordered an adjournment until November 28th.

And Hurricane Wilma has become the fiercest Atlantic hurricane ever seen as it churns toward western Cuba and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The storm is expected to make landfall in Florida this weekend. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, a new biography is the most detailed to date of Mao Tse-tung and his achievement as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. It's a portrait surprising in its chillingness and ruthlessness. "Mao: The Unknown Story" tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today, we're talking about the direction of the Democratic Party. Our guests are Matt Bai, who writes on national politics for The New York Times Magazine, and Robert Reich, professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University, former secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255. E-mail is totn@npr.org.

And let's get some callers on the line, Chris. Chris is in Lafayette, Indiana.

Mr. CHRIS WITNELL(ph) (Caller): Hi. This is Chris Witnell. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. WITNELL: I'm a party-line Republican. (Technical difficulties) I believe in a woman's choice. I believe in immigration opportunities for those who are willing to work. But I don't think that the Democratic Party puts that in a flavor that I'm willing to buy. What I see mainly is a party that basically represents opposition to bankruptcy reform, represents, oh, the Teamsters union, for example, who have inflated wages, or the UAW. Where do I go? Where's a guy like me--and there's a lot of guys like me out here that are conservative, but they just don't see a reason to switch.

CONAN: Robert Reich, I think Chris is saying the Democratic Party has special interests of its own.

Prof. REICH: Chris, undoubtedly, the Democratic Party has special interests. If you consider the union movement as special interest, well, then it does. But you know, unionized workers represent a vast segment--although not nearly as many as they did before. They represent American workers, American work force. They want better wages; they want more secure jobs. I think you want exactly the same thing.

And I think the--what we've got to acknowledge--this is something Matt Bai talked about initially--that the 20th century was the industrial century, the Democratic century. There have to be new solutions now, because we are in a globalized environment. We are in a high-technology world. But that doesn't mean--and here's the critical point--that doesn't mean we've got to give up on the middle class. The kinds of initiatives--and I think that Rahm Emanuel was right, but I think they ought to be put in a more--with a great deal of conviction and in a way that people can understand them.

I mean, if you're talking about reforming K-through-12 or K-through-14 education, making college accessible to people, and making--transforming from, say, an unemployment insurance system to a re-employment employment system, you're talking about giving people the tools they need to succeed in a very different world. This isn't about redistribution, Chris. This is about giving people the power to be productive in a very, very different economy. This is not trickle-down Republican economics. That doesn't work; it's a cruel hoax. The rich have got richer; most people have gone nowhere. We're talking about investing in people. This was the initial Bill Clinton--and I think very important, Bill Clinton campaign theme in 1993. He ran into a buzz saw with a huge budget deficit, never could do very much on it, but it's critically important that the Democrats pick it up again.

CONAN: Matt Bai, Chris is the kind of voter that Democrats have to appeal to if they hope to win enough seats in the House of Representatives, to regain control in the Senate and to win presidential elections.

Mr. BAI: Chris is exactly the kind of voter, Neal. Chris is a demographic unto himself. I mean, he--you know, the--this is exactly the kind of voter--and by the way, these voters--I'm sure Chris would tell you this--these are not hard-line, hard-core registered Republican voters. These are the people who voted for Schwarzenegger in California and Jesse Ventura before that and Ross Perot before that. These are not party-line people. Fewer and fewer voters consider themselves hard-core devotees of either party. And, in fact, the longer that Democrats are unable to convince voters like Chris that they are a viable alternative, I think the closer they move to a place in this country where someone will come along to create another alternative for them. I don't think we're that far off from that day, because parties matter less and less. The values and visions do matter to voters. Most voters are somewhere in the middle, somewhere in between these visions, and they're looking for answers to a very confusing and very threatening era.

CONAN: Chris, what would you want to hear that would get you to switch to that other party? I think Chris' battery may have run out on his cell phone. It was causing him some problems there and we, frankly, left on a...

Prof. REICH: Chris may have dropped out of politics.

CONAN: That's also true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Joe, and Joe is calling us from Oak Bluffs in Massachusetts.

JOE (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today?

CONAN: OK.

JOE: What I've been doing for the last about two years now is I've been researching the Democratic Party and what I think its future is going to be. This was my senior thesis in college; I just graduated in May.

Mr. BAI: Can I have that thesis?

JOE: And my main contention was that if the party doesn't moderate under some sort of solid, united leadership, something not totally unlike the 1994 Republican Contract With America, then there is no way they're going to win in Congress. And I think it's going to be necessary to find someone like Bill Clinton, a fairly moderate Southern Democrat, to run for president in what would hopefully be not a horrible, ugly primary battle when it comes to 2008. I think if we can do these two things, not only will the Democrats retake Congress in '06, but we can take the presidency back in '08 and combine those two things and finally get the Republicans out of office.

CONAN: Joe, you're talking, I think, a lot of tactics here. What about the ideas that have to animate these campaigns?

JOE: Well, basically, we have to keep the message moderate. Say, you know, `I want to do things for health care,' not argue something like a Canadian-style health-care system; just try to improve and lower costs, but not do anything overly drastic. The same thing with education, try to add some funding to education, but not start arguing that everyone should go to college for free.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JOE: That would cost too much, and that's going to scare away moderate voters. Yeah, it's going to energize the far left, but the far left is way too small to do anything productive.

CONAN: Robert Reich, is that a prescription for success?

Prof. REICH: Well, I don't think so entirely. I mean, you're talking, Joe, about moderation, and everybody's in favor of moderation. Every politician in modern history has run from the center, or at least said he or she was a centrist. But the point is you've got to run with conviction and run with passion. You've got to tell the country a true story about what's happened to average working people. So, yes, I agree with you. Policies do have to sound reasonable and commonsensical, but there also has to be a very clear and compelling reason why Democrats have got to be back in power.

And let me just say, Matt is absolutely right. Most people don't consider themselves Democrats or Republicans. They are going to be voting for the person. But it is an opportunity now--just like in 1994 was an opportunity for Republicans--for the Democrats to run a national campaign for this midterm election by setting forth a set of principles and ideas. We've talked about some of them on this program...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. REICH: ...minimum health care--kind of a minimum health-care wage would be another one. And I could get through a lot of them, but the most important issue here is that Americans understand that there are people, there are Democrats on their side. There's no reason, there's no excuse for the economy to do well, but most people not to do well. Corporate welfare is out of control, executives that command huge salaries and lay off a third of their work force. Americans don't want this. These are values that run absolutely contrary to American fundamental economic values.

CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call.

And before we wrap up, Matt Bai, I did want to ask you a question sort of about process, which is that normally, these ideas are forged in the crucible of presidential primary campaigns, and this is the way the Democratic Party arrives sometimes, as Joe was mentioning, in bruising fashion to a consensus about what the party stands for at that particular moment. Is this a moment where the Democratic Party needs to work out some of these ideas in advance?

Mr. BAI: Well, I think it's very hard to do that, and these are very long-term questions. And, in fact, you know, I don't think they really get worked out in 2008, let alone for 2006. And the party has a way of really focusing on presidential campaigns, and I think that, to some extent, obscures the larger issue, which is how you build governing majorities, how you protect these endangered seats in the Senate and in Congress so the Democratic Party can be viable for a long way forward, you know.

And pertaining to your question, I just want to say before we wrap--because I was interested in what Joe was saying. Look, just look at this a different way. We live in this world, in the post-cable news world where everybody's an analyst; everybody talks tactics. I sat in a focus group last year where they said to the guy, `Oh, I wouldn't--that candidate can't win. He's not polling well.' Well, he was supposed to be, and this was a polling group. So we're living in this sort of meta-world where everybody's a political consultant then. And so when you use words like `moderate' and `centrist' and all--and it instantly becomes a tactical issue. You know, it's this--how do we...

CONAN: It's a ...(unintelligible), yeah.

Mr. BAI: Right. `How do we sound this way or sound that way? What's our message?'

And I agree with, you know, something--I think Secretary Reich was saying this basically, which is that I don't think you need to be compromising to be moderate. I think that the boldest solution any Democrat could come up with today I think would be to stand up and say, `We know the entitlement system as it exists is unsustainable. We know it wouldn't be designed this way for the 21st century as it was designed in the 20th. We know we can't fix the problems we're talking about in any kind of fiscally realistic way until we identify and grapple with the long-term systemic budget problems in this country that our constituencies don't want us to grapple with.' That's the boldest and most centrist thing that anybody could do in this country. I'm still waiting, and I think we're going to be waiting for a while.

Prof. REICH: Matt, if I may just say one quick thing, and that is that in the 1990s, Bill Clinton did balance the budget. Now we grappled--we in his Cabinet and Bill Clinton himself, grappled with exactly the constituencies and the challenges you're talking about, and we did restore fiscal responsibility in this country. Don't forget that.

Mr. BAI: I don't. I actually don't. And I--the point is well taken, Secretary Reich. But I think long term, if we're looking at the next 30, 40, 50 years, you would agree there are systemic issues looming...

Prof. REICH: Oh, of course.

Mr. BAI: ...on the horizon that just simply have to be dealt with, and that would be the boldest and most honest thing I think either political party could start to talk about.

CONAN: And we'll hope to have that conversation when it gets under way. Secretary Reich, thank you very much for being with us today.

Prof. REICH: Thanks, Neal. And, Matt, good to talk with you.

Mr. BAI: You, too. Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Robert Reich, professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University, co-founder of The American Prospect, a liberal magazine. And he joined us from the studios of member station WXEL in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Matt Bai was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A in Washington. He writes about national politics for The New York Times Magazine. He's also working on a book about changes in the Democratic Party as it looks ahead.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. BAI: Thank you, Neal. Any time.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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