Liberalism and the Democratic Party
ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
In many areas, `liberal' has become a dirty word. Republicans control the White House, Congress and have successfully filled one vacancy on the Supreme Court with another pending. Though the president's approval rating has recently slumped, Democrats still find themselves on the defensive. On our show last week, Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters said many liberals are either softening their views or lowering their voices to win back mainstream America.
(Soundbite of September 28 program)
Representative MAXINE WATERS (Democrat, California): Liberals and the Democratic Party have tried to fashion themselves more as centrists, not criticize too much, not ask for too much money, not drive home the issues of need in this country enough.
GORDON: Here to discuss this state of liberalism in the Democratic Party are David Corn, Washington, DC, editor of The Nation magazine. He's in our Washington headquarters. And Donna Brazile, Democratic political strategist and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics." You can, of course, often hear her on our Political Corner here with Juan Williams.
I thank you both for joining us.
Donna, let me start with you. You heard Maxine Waters there. What's your thought?
Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Former Campaign Manager, Al Gore, 2000): Well, she's absolutely right. Liberals must come out of this linguistic retreat that we've been on for so many years. We know what we value. We know the core principles of liberalism. Yet because the Republicans have done such a terrific job of demonizing liberalisms and liberals in general with vicious character attacks, with the electioneering that borders on, you know, stupidity, where they accuse liberals of being unpatriotic anti-God powers, it's time for liberals to redefine themselves and to send out a stronger message to the American people of what we value in our governing philosophy. Until we defend liberalism and we come back into vogue, it will be difficult for us to put forward ideas and a vision that would help us compete effectively against conservatism and Republicans in general.
GORDON: David Corn, how much of this is `Be careful what you wish for'? After a resounding defeat in 1984, Democrats, some, established the Democratic Leadership Council, which really did as much as they could do to move the party from the far left to the center.
Mr. DAVID CORN (The Nation): Well, let's be careful about our language. I don't want to use the term `liberal' and `Democrat' interchangeably, because there are many liberals and many Democratic liberals who are, indeed, doing what Donna suggests: They're fighting hard and, you know, they proudly are liberals. There are--60 percent of the House Democrats voted not to give Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq. Forty percent of Democratic senators did the same thing. They were ahead of the curve, so to speak, on popular opinion now that most of the public believes the war was a mistake, but there are, you know--there's always been this rift within the Democratic Party between the more, you know, traditional wing, maybe the more liberal wing, and Southern Democrats or centrist Democrats.
And I do think that in some ways, you know, the centrists, the DLC crowd, have gone out of the way to make that rift more pointed and more edgier than it need be. I mean, I think it's quite clear, the way that a conservative candidate like George Bush had to draw some votes from the middle, any liberal candidate on the Democratic side would have to draw some votes from the middle, too. And let's remember, you know, the last election was a 51-49 split. So Democrats, liberals, whatever you want to call them, you know, are not in this deep, dark hole in the minority in terms of the voting electorate overall. The electoral map...
Mr. CORN: ...is to their disadvantage and there are other institutional barriers they have to overcome.
GORDON: Donna, would you concede, though, behind closed doors? You're there often. There is a move, if you will, to make sure that the far left side of the Democratic Party is kept, at best degree, quiet, if not mute with the idea. We saw how Al Sharpton was spanked and rebuked because he decided not to stick to the line that John Kerry wanted to ride, albeit his convention, the idea of closing out the voice of that far left wing.
Ms. BRAZILE: Of course. I've seen that during a number of political cycles, starting with 1984, when the Mondale campaign went out of its way to distance themselves from the Jackson campaign, especially in the closing months of the campaign, when Reverend Jackson sought to have input on the platform. We see this rift each and every electoral cycle, when liberals or those with more progressive views and ideas are told basically to shut up and to, you know, basically come together with whatever centrist, moderate, you know, person that we can find.
Look, at some point, we're going to have to resolve this inner conflict. It's one of our perennial exercises inside the Democratic Party, the fight between so-called liberals and centrists. I had to deal with it during the Gore campaign, and even last year during the Kerry campaign we had internal fights. Some of it was around the Iraq War, but most of it, it was around just the policies and the vision that we were outlining to get people excited about the Democratic nominee.
It's time that we, as I said, step up and to define our core principle and values. And if we continue to allow the right wing and Republicans and even so-called centrist Democrats to define liberalism out of existence, then shame on us.
Mr. CORN: But, you know, I don't think liberalism is in such ill repute as some people tend to believe. If we look at Katrina, if we look at, you know, health-care crises, you know, the American public does realize that these are profound issues that require government actions and not privatization, not laissez-faire policies. I think with liberals, they have to sort of figure out how to talk to Americans who may not share their rhetoric or their ideology, but who do share some of their values or do want some of the same things. And so I think there's been a tremendous communication problem on the part of the Democrats.
And I think in some ways--I mean, I have--if you--you know, I've gone to DLC conferences and I've sat there and listened to them spout their policy ideas. And about 80 percent of them are things that a good liberal can say yes to. I mean, you know, there are some things that they can't and there are some real differences on trade and welfare reform and sometimes on foreign policy, but, I mean, I think in some ways, the party has to fix--those battles are not going to be resolved policywise one way or the other. The party has to find a way to send overarching messages that envelop both wings of the party and come up with convincing candidates to carry them.
I mean, listen, I think it's quite clear that if John Kerry had had a little more talent just as a campaigner, you know, put aside this split between right and left within the Democratic Party, he would have, you know, probably beaten George W. Bush, but that wasn't there.
GORDON: Donna, isn't part of the issue here, though, the idea--and David Corn spoke of this earlier--the definition of what we see not only as liberal moderate, centrist, etc. but the idea of the true definition of a Democrat that's always been hard to nail down? And you think of a new generation of Democrats, African-American Democrats, in particular, they are not cut of the same mold. I think of someone like Harold Ford or Artur Davis, who are clearly more moderate than their predecessors.
Ms. BRAZILE: They sound moderate, but if you look at their voting record, clearly they are within the mainstream or even the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, although I would consider them on paper to be moderate Democrats because that's the way they have tried to define themselves. I really do believe--and I totally agree with what David said in his previous remarks--but I believe that during this hour, when we have over a million and a half people dispersed all over the country, it's important that liberals and progressives join together and speak with one voice in terms of how we respond to the crisis that impacted the Gulf region, on what programs, what ideas that we offer to help rebuild those communities.
I think this is a great moment for liberals and progressives to speak out about fairness, about a government that serves the needs of everyone, not just the special interests. And if we can make that case to the American people, I think more Americans will identify themselves as liberal. That's--when I talk about a decline of liberalism, it's not at the ballot box. It's in self-identification. Over the last 20 years--I mean, I've polled in every election cycle--we've gone from 34 percent of the population to less than 21 percent. So that's where the decline is coming, self-identification, but I think in terms of vision and values, most Americans would agree with us that government should serve all of the people and not just the special interests.
GORDON: David Corn, there's an old African proverb that says, `It's not what you call me. It's what I answer to.' Many people will suggest that that's the problem that the Democrats are having, that they've allowed the Republicans to co-opt what is moral and immoral and they're answering that call.
Mr. CORN: Well, I think that's true. That's a wonderful proverb. I'm going to write that one down. The--I mean, I think in some ways the Republican, you know, strategy over the last 20 years was to use terms to discredit liberalism, and they did it, I think, in a not very fair way, but unfortunately, politics is not fair. I wrote a book called "The Lies Of George W. Bush." I do believe if you're unencumbered by truth, it makes it easier for you to win often in a political forum. And, you know, I think the Democrats--terminology aside, I mean, Donna's exactly right, that self-identification on liberal is way down, but terminology aside, the Democrats just need to--however they talk about it--talk about issues that register with the public and that motivate them to show people that the conservative answers, what's called conservatism--is that what you really want?
And, like, sort of the big elephant--gorilla in the room is that, you know, when it comes to the national ticket--I still think this is what happened last election, may happen next election, that the issue of commander in chief, who's best able to be tough and be a firm commander in chief, is what motivates most voters when it comes to picking the president in the post-9/11 world. And the Republicans have done a good job of equating liberalism with weakness and they go back to Vietnam and all sorts of things. I think the case is fatuous, but, you know, Democrats are going to have to figure out a way to show that they're fair, that they care and that they're also tough.
Mr. CORN: And that's a difficult task.
GORDON: Donna, with less than a minute before I let you go, the $64,000 question that you and I have talked about on many, many occasions--and that is for African-Americans in particular there is a sense, though, still, of the definition. There was an alliance, an allegiance to the Democratic Party for years because there was a true belief that they were being reached out to. That is no longer the case.
Ms. BRAZILE: I think Democrats have a real tough job ahead, and as well as the progressive community in general, of convincing large segments of the African-American community that we're still with them, that we're standing up, we're fighting for their values, and that we've included them in the discussions of how we move forward as a nation. If Democrats are able to do that, I believe that the party will continue to reap political capital at the ballot box. Now in terms of the progressive community, we've seen...
Ms. BRAZILE: ...with the selection of Mr. Roberts and now Ms. Miers...
Ms. BRAZILE: ...that people are coming together. They are finding their one single voice, but again, I think as we move forward, we've got to include progressive voices...
GORDON: All right.
Ms. BRAZILE: ...that are people of color to be part of the leadership and part of the communication apparatus that tells the American people what we stand for.
Ms. BRAZILE: If progressives are just white middle class speaking on behalf of the poor, that's not...
GORDON: Got to...
Ms. BRAZILE: ...going to attract much black support in the future.
GORDON: Got to stop you there. Donna Brazile, Democratic political strategist, and David Corn, the Washington, DC, editor of The Nation magazine, I thank you both for joining us.
Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you.
Mr. CORN: Thank you.
GORDON: This is NPR News.
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