STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The leader of Democratic efforts to win the House came by our Chicago studios the other day. Congressman Rahm Emanuel was leaning a bit too close to the microphone as we started an interview. So we asked him to back away.
Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): You understand I came in on the red eye last night?
INSKEEP: Oh, so you're going to be slumping forward?
Rep. EMANUEL: I am so tired, I'm leaning - I'm not standing near it. I'm sleeping on it right now.
INSKEEP: Rahm Emanuel is traveling to dozens of states this fall. He's a former aide to President Clinton who now heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And he is the second in our conversations this week on the political parties: what they stand for, and how they try to win.
Rep. EMANUEL: We have a nationalized election around whether you want a new direction Democrat versus a stay-the-course Republican.
INSKEEP: Why do you think that some voters at this juncture have trouble imagining what that new direction would be if Democrats captured one or both Houses of Congress?
Rep. EMANUEL: I don't buy the premise of the question, Steve. First of all, although we have things that we have to do on an affirmative argument about us as a party, on issue after issue - if you look at research not only nationalized but also what I look at in districts - from traditional issues like strengthening Social Security, healthcare and education, not only are Democrats are growing in increasing their advantages over Republicans, we are now - our party seems better at the stewardship of the economy, sharing your values, fighting for the right type of tax cuts, and even on terrorism and Iraq.
The premise of your question was people don't know who you are, what you believe, etc., and I don't buy that premise.
INSKEEP: Well, the premise that if you go out and interview people - and this seems to have been true over the last several years - you will find people who are unhappy with President Bush, but do not necessarily like or even know what Democrats would do differently.
Rep. EMANUEL: Right. Well, that's true. There's two parts answer to that question. Okay?
Rep. EMANUEL: First part is a historic one. We've gone from 2000-2004 in those two presidentials, which are big branding opportunities for our party without really branding. It's been almost 10 years since our party, in ‘96, stood up and said here are our values, here are our ideas, and here's the way we want to move forward. Those two presidentials were more biographical about the candidate than they were about a vision.
The second part is to talk about not just what we oppose about the president's policies, but what we propose to do different.
INSKEEP: How and why were those branding opportunities missed in past years?
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Rep. EMANUEL: I want to talk about the future. You want to talk about the past. They were missed because although they - each - and I support Senator Kerry and I support Vice President Gore, and they've done a good job. But we as a party need to be lay out our vision of what it takes to build for the future of this country. And I always believe if you give the American people a choice, they'll make the right decision. And I don't think we were firm enough in - and I want - and that's why I believe we are doing it this time, is the choice. You could stay the course here that the Republicans are providing, both on Iraq and the economy. Or you can choose a new direction: the Democrats.
INSKEEP: Well, you've mentioned some issues. Let me raise a few others, if I might. Mark Halperin of ABC News wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times recently. And this is an excerpt of what he said. He said, if Democrats in Congress took a secret ballot, there would be overwhelming support for a timely withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, a tax increase for the wealthy, universal healthcare, and increased rights for homosexuals. And yet, Halperin writes, most Democrats will not openly espouse such policies, concerned that backing them could hurt their chances.
Is any of that true?
Rep. EMANUEL: Well, let's go through. First of all, no and yes, and yes and no. Here's what - look, Democrats believe in tax reform. I and Senator Wyden have proposed a comprehensive reform to simplify the code. We have legislation to that effect.
INSKEEP: Is that a tax increase?
Rep. EMANUEL: No, because it simplifies the code. In fact, for 85 percent of the American people, it's a tax cut - specifically for the middle class.
INSKEEP: And the other 15 percent, would get an increase?
Rep. EMANUEL: No, it would be a simplification. And we'd eliminate the AMT, which is hitting 19 million families.
INSKEEP: The Alternative Minimum Tax.
Rep. EMANUEL: The Alternative Minimum Tax. On Iraq, Democrats have said consistently that we need a new direction. And now, belatedly, with only four weeks left to the elections, Senator Warner - the ranking Republican, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee - says clearly Iraq's moving sideways. Well, for a lot of us, we've known that for a long time. And that's why Senator Biden has offered - five months ago - I thought, a very forward-thinking idea about dividing that country.
INSKEEP: Even though Democrats have made some proposals, as you point out…
Rep. EMANUEL: Right.
INSKEEP: …do you think that…
Rep. EMANUEL: Consistently, Steve.
INSKEEP: …but do you think that many…
Rep. EMANUEL: Steve. Steve. Steve. Steve.
INSKEEP: …but proposals about…
Rep. EMANUEL: Steve. Steve.
INSKEEP: …proposals about tactics, do you think that they are Democrats who have trimmed the sails a little bit on strategic change, because…
Rep. EMANUEL: No. No. I don't buy it…
INSKEEP: …of political concerns?
Rep. EMANUEL: Steve. Steve, I don't buy that. Are you suggesting the peace that Senator Biden has offered is a tactical change? It was an idea of how you get a strategic change to the policy so we have a victory here of something. Take a step back: three and half years, $330 billion, 20,000 wounded. Now you tell me, following this policy, how next year will be different than this year?
INSKEEP: When Democratic activists, bloggers and so forth…
Rep. EMANUEL: Yeah.
INSKEEP: …in your party are perceived as pushing the party toward the left, going after figures like Senator Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, and also by implication criticizing your former boss, Bill Clinton, who was seen as more of a moderate - are they helping the party?
Rep. EMANUEL: Well, I think, you know, discussion's a good thing. I'm for it. I'm not interested in whether an idea has a stamp on the left or the center. I'm interested in whether that idea moves us forward or doesn't.
INSKEEP: You say that you don't care. But isn't it true there are significant groups of activists who do care, quite passionately, whether an idea fits with their ideology or not?
Rep. EMANUEL: It is. And I think it's a good thing that they care. I'm glad there's a group of people that care about the future of their country. I don't believe in straight jacketing our party. I think it's good that there's a debate in our party. My test is does the idea move forward, not whether it's from the left or the center.
And so, to me, that's the paradigm. And I'm not into this ideological firing squad in the circle routine that both some in our party and the press love to debate.
INSKEEP: Is the anger among Democratic activists right now entirely a good thing?
Rep. EMANUEL: Is anger…I don't know. You're describing something - I want to make sure I'm answering you correctly. Why don't you describe what you think is the anger, and I'll…
INSKEEP: What I think is the anger?
Rep. EMANUEL: Yeah.
INSKEEP: People who are deeply upset with the Bush administration.
Rep. EMANUEL: There's a lot to be upset with. I mean…
INSKEEP: And who are also deeply skeptical of the centrism that you were part of when you worked for Bill Clinton.
Rep. EMANUEL: No. They're skeptical of my centrism now, which is fine. I mean, look, I have - let me try to answer it this way…
INSKEEP: I'll even put it this way - who feel that the Democratic Party sold them out over the last several years. You were far too kind to the Bush administration.
Rep. EMANUEL: No. Well, look. There's a discussion about that that's longer than - I can have discussion about what happened, and there will be history books about what happened after 9/11 that both, I think, a lot of people bear responsibility - including your profession and mine - that I think gave way too much latitude in - but that's a whole longer discussion, Steve. One that I want to be more awake for. That said, I don't - I think there's a lot to be upset about.
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INSKEEP: Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. You can hear his view on bloggers at npr.org.
Our conversations on the political parties continue tomorrow with strategists who compare selling a political party to promoting Appleby's.
Unidentified Man: What happens with politicians - it's interesting. Just like what happens with a business, is that you establish - a successful ones establish a gut-level, sort of a brand connection with people.
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