What Is the Future of the Democratic Party? Democrats campaigned on a platform of change, and last week, voters responded. Now, Democrats need to find their own course. Guests discuss what can be expected from the Democrats as they look toward the 2008 elections.
NPR logo

What Is the Future of the Democratic Party?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6486523/6486524" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Is the Future of the Democratic Party?

What Is the Future of the Democratic Party?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6486523/6486524" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Lynn Neary in Washington filling in for Neal Conan. When Democrat Jon Tester, an organic farmer with a flattop haircut, was elected to be Montana's new senator, it sent a strong message to the rest of the country that the new batch of Democrats cropping up in fly-over country and elsewhere are not your daddy's Democrats.

Some, like Senator-Elect Bob Casey from Pennsylvania, are anti-abortion. Others, like Tester and Senator-Elect Jim Webb from Virginia, are pro-gun rights. They want a balanced budget and a strong national defense.

But it remains to be seen how much the freshmen Democrats will differ from the party's establishment in Washington or whether they'll push the party in a new direction. Even party insiders agree that this election was a vote against Republican leadership and an unpopular war. The Democratic Party has only two years before the presidential elections in 2008 to convince voters that they are worth voting for.

Later, if you're still not satisfied with the new Congress, you can always play Fantasy Congress, and next week, our focus will be on the future of the Republican Party.

But today, who is the new Democratic Party and where is it headed? If you're a Democrat or an independent that voted Democratic in this election, what do you want to see from the Democratic Party in the 110th Congress and beyond? Do you want them to shift their political compass to the middle or the left? Give us a call. Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Joining us now by phone from Washington is Gabrielle Giffords, one of the newly elected Democrats. She will represent the 8th District of Arizona in the next Congress. Thanks so much for being with us.

Representative GABRIELLE GIFFORDS (Democrat, Arizona): Thank you for having me on.

NEARY: And welcome to Washington.

Rep. GIFFORDS: It's great being here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: So, do you think that this new batch of Democrats, including yourself, do you think that it really does signify some kind of change in the Democratic Party, those who got elected?

Rep. GIFFORDS: You know, there's about 50 new members. Obviously, the majority are Democrats. There are some Republicans, as well. For me, this new group of people, I mean the 110th group of individuals coming together to swear to uphold the Constitution and work to represent our districts is really just about change. It's about a new direction, about new leadership, and I think it's a lot less about partisanship and more about campaigning on getting the job done and stopping the divisiveness and the bickering and just working for the American people.

NEARY: Well, there are some who say the new Democrats are Republican Light. What do you say to that?

Rep. GIFFORDS: Well, in my district, Southern Arizona, President Bush won that district twice yet Governor Napolitano and Attorney General Goddard, both moderate Democrats, won the district four years ago and just last week.

So, Congressman Kolbe represented this district for 22 years, a Republican. I am a Democrat, but I am a middle-of-the-road. I am a strong, small-businesswoman, I understand that immigration is a critical issue for Southern Arizona because we're right on the border. I support Senator John McCain and other Republicans when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform, but also I'm very passionate about our public-education system and also very committed to pulling our dependency off of foreign oil.

So, I can't really say that those are partisan issues. I think they're issues, really, about putting Americans first.

NEARY: Have you always been a Democrat, and what does it mean to you to be a Democrat?

Rep. GIFFORDS: Well, I first registered to vote when I wasn't quite 18. I did register as a Republican. Arizona used to be a pretty Republican state. After coming back to Tucson to run my family's tire and automotive business, when I first decided to run for office in 2000, I realized that the Republican leadership was just too conservative for my values, and I changed my party affiliation knowing that I was going to be running in a Republican-leaning district and going into a state legislature that was controlled by Republicans. But, I didn't feel like those values truly reflected me, and here I am now representing Southern Arizona in Congress.

NEARY: How much does the fact that you are a woman - did that affect your decision on what party you wanted to be part of? Because, so many women have been elected to Congress this year - there's going to be a lot of you up there - and that's going to play into all this, as well.

Rep. GIFFORDS: You know, it actually didn't play into it at all. The state of Arizona is unique. We have the first state to have an elected woman governor succeed another elected woman governor, Governor Jane Hull succeeded by Governor Napolitano, now re-elected just earlier - well, last week.

So for me, that wasn't a key decision. Arizona's one of the highest states in terms of women in the state legislature, and my hometown of Tucson actually has a majority, a woman-controlled city council as of last November. But our state has only sent three women to Congress in our entire history.

So, you know, there's a real disconnect between women representing the public at the state level and the federal level, but I think people voted for me for who I am, not because I'm a woman.

NEARY: Well, you've said that this was a vote for change that you believe that you're the kind of Democrat who can work with the other party, that it's going to be important to work with the other party. But don't the Democrats have to come up with a vision of their own articulated vision that people will understand this is what the Democrats offer us? And if you were to be asked what is that vision, what would you say?

Rep. GIFFORDS: Well, first and foremost, it's changing the direction in many ways: ethics reform, banning lobbyist trips and gifts, raising the minimum wage. We just did that in Arizona on Tuesday, and nationally this is a priority for the Democratic Party.

When it comes to our troops in Iraq, we need the government to set an agenda, and we also need the Iraqi government to take responsibility for their country, so real accountability and a real plan for Iraq is going to be important.

Pulling our dependency off of foreign oil. This Congress has given so many tax breaks and tax credits to the oil and gas companies. They're making record profits. We need to focus on our country not being dependent on unstable regimes, Middle Eastern oil, because it's not good for our security. But also, we're experiencing climate change, and when it comes to emissions of greenhouse gases and our current energy policies, they're just - they're not good for our country, both from an international level and a domestic side as well.

So I mean, those are some very strong areas that I think Democrats across the country campaigned on. Those are certainly my priorities. Immigration reform, a comprehensive solution to immigration, as well.

NEARY: Do you think that Republicans and Democrats can find common ground on those kinds of issues, tough issues like immigration?

Rep. GIFFORDS: You know, later this week - excuse me, earlier this week, I had a chance to speak with Senator John McCain, and he has been a strong advocate for comprehensive reform on our immigration laws. Last night, we had a reception at the White House with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and certainly during his State of the Union just last year, President Bush talked about a comprehensive immigration reform.

We need high-tech security, we need employer sanctions for those employers who are knowingly hiring people here illegally, and we need a guest-worker program so people can come and work legally, safely, and return home.

NEARY: Do you think that the Democrats will give up some issues that have been very close to their hearts for a number of years in order to achieve the kind of bi-partisan cooperation that you're talking about?

Rep. GIFFORDS: Could you be more specific about which types of issues?

NEARY: Well, let's think - well, they're going to go after a minimum wage, increasing the minimum wage, and do you think that's going to be a tough fight, for instance?

Rep. GIFFORDS: I don't think so. I mean, the state of Arizona, for example, considered a moderate to conservative state, we overwhelmingly passed the minimum-wage increase and really didn't have a lot of groups coming out to oppose it, even the small-business owners. Most small businesses pay more than minimum wage, and $5.15 is simply not enough.

It's been 10 years since Congress has raised the minimum wage, yet in those 10 years they have raised their salaries over $30,000. American people understand it. They understand that when it comes to cost of food and housing and gas, that costs have gone up, and the average person is suffering.

So, when it comes to understanding that families are being squeezed right now in Congress, again, I don't see that as a Democratic issue. I think that Republican families understand that, as well, and that's why they voted for change on Tuesday.

NEARY: And just one more question: Are you satisfied with what you're hearing from Democratic leaders so far on the issue of Iraq?

Rep. GIFFORDS: We haven't heard enough. I mean, you know, I just got here yesterday, so I'm looking forward to talking with leadership, making sure that Democrats and Republicans are moving together in the right direction. We need a real plan. We need real accountability for Iraq.

In my district, there are two very large military bases, one just outside of the district, and understanding that our troops deserve to have real accountability is important, and Iraqi government needs to step up as well. So there's a lot going on. We just got here. I'm so excited about rolling up my sleeves and getting to work.

NEARY: All right. Well thanks so much for joining us today.

Rep. GIFFORDS: Thank you.

NEARY: Congresswoman-Elect Gabrielle Giffords - she's a Democrat from Arizona. She joined us by phone from Washington, D.C. And we turn now to Matt Bai. He is working on a book about the Democratic Party. He covers national politics for the New York Times, and he is with me here in Studio 3A. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. MATT BAI (New York Times Magazine): Sure. Let me just say, the New York Times Magazine.

NEARY: The New York Times Magazine.

Mr. BAI: We draw a certain distinction there.

NEARY: Sorry. Well, how would you describe this group of freshmen Democrats coming in and the influence they're going to have on the party?

Mr. BAI: Well, you know, here's what's happening - just to put this in a little context - in the last week or so since this has all occurred. You have various factions who, at a time of sort of a vacuum of ideology or unity in the Democratic Party over the last couple of years, have been putting forth theories of how you should win elections - you should go to the left, you should go the center, you should be more abashedly progressive, you should talk about abortion and guns in a different way. And since this election, and Democrats having pulled off quite a stark and impressive victory, everybody now is looking to fit the results into their theory so that they can tell you -they can say see, we were right. Democrats need to do this. Democrats need to do that. Everyone's parsing the data.

The reality, I think is that this was essentially a protest vote. And you have this whole new class of people coming in now, who are really quite diverse, ideologically, and who were chosen primarily because they were very strong alternatives to a party in trouble.

Some of them are, you know, as - like Senator-Elect Casey are pro-life. Some of them are like Jon Tester - pro-gun. Some of them ran very much to the left. It depends on where they ran. It depends on who they are, what they believe, and that's both a sign that I think both the traditional ideological lines are breaking down to some extent. And as you start out saying this is not your father's Democratic Party, and you can't really talk about left and center, moderate, liberal quite the way you could ten or 20 years ago.

NEARY: But, you can't characterize them all as conservative, though.

Mr. BAI: But you also can't draw - no, I don't think you can draw any ideological conclusion one way or the other about where this group is, and I think that's going to be their challenge. There's a cost to campaigning essentially as alternatives, and that is that you don't define where your agenda and where your heart is going to be.

NEARY: Can Rahm Emanuel, though, take credit for having, you know, pushed good candidates or found good candidates?

Mr. BAI: Absolutely. I mean, elections...

NEARY: Weren't they moderate candidates that he decided to go after?

Mr. BAI: Primarily. Not entirely - primarily. But you know, elections don't win themselves. I mean, you absolutely, no matter how unpopular a party is or incumbent, you've got to go out and recruit strong candidates. They did that very, very well.

NEARY: All right. We're going to continue this discussion about the future of the Democratic Party when we return from a short break. The number is 800-989-TALK. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We are talking about the new batch of Democrats coming to Washington, D.C. and the 110th Congress and about the future of the Democratic Party. You can read analysis from NPR reporters on a broad spectrum of issues on the Democratic agenda, from Iraq to the environment. That's at our website, npr.org. And join us next week when we'll focus on the future of the Republican Party but today, the Democrats. Our guest is Matt Bai and he writes on national politics for the New York Times Magazine.

And we want to hear from you. If you voted Democratic in this election, do you want them to shift their political compass? What do you want to see out of the 110th Congress and beyond? Give us a call: 800-989-TALK. And of course you can send an e-mail to talk@npr.org. And we're going to take a call now from Brian(ph). He's calling from Indiana. Hey Brian, go ahead.

BRIAN (Caller): Yes. As one that would unrealistically like to see all parties disbanded, one thing I think I saw even before this protest voice was the Republican Party was starting to implode. At first they were, you know, tight everybody follows the line, but between the pro-business, the Libertarian and then the moral part of the party, they started to interfight(ph) in some of the issues such as - border issues, I think, kind of caused the split, and I think it would have gone ever farther, even without the war. And my question is with these new diverse opinions within the Democratic Party, can they keep up the fundamental things that they have followed all throughout the years or are they going to start imploding, too?

NEARY: All right. Thanks for the call, Brian. Matt Bai?

Mr. BAI: Well Brian, I'm with you on the party front. I don't - you know, I think it's a little early to start talking about whether they're going to implode or not. They should probably get sworn in first, have a couple of votes. But I think it's very hard to find the ideological divide in the party that people keep assuming is there. You know, we still talk about Democratic politics and politics in general as left and center and right, but there's very little substantive debate on core issues inside the Democratic Party. There's mostly a lot of tactical debate.

And what you see, even in the agenda items they're talking about bringing forward, you see a primarily reactive agenda that really - I mean, the question is, you know, can they, you know - and maybe this is the question of whether they implode or not - is can they transition to a larger governing agenda? I mean you spoke with Congresswoman-elect Giffords about the minimum wage, which I think is an excellent example. I mean the minimum wage is probably a great piece of legislation. I think a lot of people would agree it's far overdue to raise it. It would help a lot of people in the country, but it's a little like having your house sinking into the mud because your foundation is sinking and you say well, I got mud all over my windows, I better replace the windows.

I mean, clearly, we have a problem with the minimum wage, but we also have the entire employer-based healthcare system unraveling before our eyes. The manufacturing job base is essentially gone. The service industries have no market regulation. The pay is low, the benefits are poor. Retirement security can no longer be counted on in any significant way from employers. And so then the question becomes, you know, who's got the next paradigm? Who's got an idea for what to do on a larger level, and if you can't find that then I think it's very difficult to prove to people that you can govern in a new era and to really, you know, build a longer-term majority.

NEARY: Let's get another view in here now. Joining us now, Tom Schaller. He's the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. He's also a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and he's with us here in Studio 3A. What do you think about what the point that caller was making, are the Democrats going to implode? As Matt was saying, we should give them some time, but do they really know what they stand for at this point, and where are they moving? What - there's a shift shaping - a shape shifting going on here.

Professor TOM SCHALLER (Political Science, University of Maryland): Well I think, you know, the caller reflects this internalized view of sort of loser down at the Democrats over the last six years - sort of internalized. And that's kind of unfortunate, and I actually agree with Matt. I think, you know, for the most part the party is unified on a lot of issues, and I think the big exception, obviously, Iraq and foreign policy, and you see Democrats sort of waiting with as much anticipation for the Iraq study group as the Republicans are because I don't think there's really any unified voice on whether you should redeploy or have a tripartite solution or immediate withdrawal or phase withdrawal, and so I think Democrats are sort of punting on that. And then on the security issue they're going to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. So again, sort of leaning toward a commission there.

I think on the domestic agenda they're going to be a little bit more aggressive, and I think a little more forceful. The vast majority of the candidates who ran, whether they won or lost in the competitive races for Senate and House this year, they were for the minimum wage obviously. They're against privatizing Social Security. They're for stem-cell research as sort of a wedge issue. I think the wedge issues are now starting to brake for the Democrats instead of the Republicans as they move away from gay marriage and maybe on to stem cells.

And so, maybe some of it will be small bore, but maybe at this point that's sort of how you get your training wheels going is to start with some small victories before you try to reform the healthcare system out of the gate as they tried to do in 1992 and they won the presidency.

NEARY: Now in your book you argue that the Democrats should abandon the South, shouldn't go after the South. Why?

Prof. SCHALLER: Well, I say they should de-prioritize, not abandon it completely. But, you know, politics is about economics. It's about spending scarce resources where you best can win, and if you look at what happened on Tuesday, I think the argument that I've been writing for two years has been borne out. I mean, five out of six Senate seats outside the south, five out of six governors outside the south, 24 of 29 are 83 percent of the House seats they picked up. So far there's a couple of recounts outside the South. You know, the Democrats actually won the Congressional elections in 2004 outside the south, despite losing the presidency, and the vast majority of the state legislative seats they won this cycle were outside the South, and they actually won the state legislative races in 2004 because of gains outside the South.

And what you see here is in the last four presidential elections, Lynn, Bill Clinton getting to 270 non-Southern electoral votes both times. He won some southern states but they were above the surplus he needed. And Al Gore, but for 72 hundred votes in New Hampshire, got 270 while losing the popular vote in 2000. And John Kerry, but for the flip of 59,000 Ohioans, would have gotten 270 non-Southern electoral votes while losing the popular vote. So people who say this can't be done aren't paying attention to history.

And one last little point here - for the first time in a half of a century -since Eisenhower's first term and his first Congress - the 83rd Congress of 1953, '54 - the minority party in the South - the Republicans - in both chambers, okay, is - excuse me, the minority party in the South - the Democrats - is the majority party in Congress. That hasn't happened in a half a century.

NEARY: Okay. Let's take a call now. We're going to go to Jack, and he's calling from New Hampshire. Jack, go ahead.

JACK (Caller): How you doing?

NEARY: Good.

JACK: I would definitely like to see the Democrats moderate. I'm originally from Massachusetts and, you know, certainly they're not moderate down there, but the reason I called in is, you know, you (unintelligible) Bob Casey. They wouldn't let his dad speak at the '92 convention because he wanted to talk about abortion, and personally I think the plank in the party platform that supports abortion is a killer and I think they're better off just being neutral on it. I mean you look at Bob Casey - he went in, in my home state, a number of Congressman: Richie Neal, the guy from south Boston there whose name escapes me - they're pro-life and I think abortion over the years has been a loser for them.

NEARY: All right, interesting point. What do you think about that, Tom Schaller?

Prof. SCHALLER: Well, that's - I'm sorry, that's just a complete fiction. I mean, the pro-choice position is supported by a majority of Americans. In fact, according to the SurveyUSA, there are five southern states where more people self describe as pro-choice than pro-life: Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Texas. And as a region, the South is actually plus six pro-choice over pro-life. So the notion that Democrats have to cave on an issue that they're winning is sort of reaffirms this notion that the Democrats are inherently wrong on all these issues when in fact, they are not wrong and do not have the least popular positions.

And yeah, Bob Casey won and there are some other pro-life candidates like Heath Shuler, and to listen to the media for the last week you would think that's all the candidates that won, when they're an extreme minority of the winners on Tuesday. They are the exceptions, not the rule.

NEARY: But didn't the Democrats win back the Catholic vote this time, and how significant was that and what Catholics are we talking about? Matt Bai?

Mr. BAI: Yes, I heard that, and I don't know which Catholics we're talking about. I haven't gone out and talked to them individually, but...

NEARY: But, you know, I mean, some of the Catholic vote would be pro-life, some would be pro-choice. I mean...

Prof. SCHALLER: And younger voters tend to be more pro-choice.

Mr. BAI: Yeah, I - in my - I disagree with Tom about a lot of this, not least of which is that I think - and he and I have talked about this - but not least of which is that I think politics may be about the art of allocating scarce resources, but governance is not. And running a party in the great - in the large worldly pursuit of gaining 270 electoral votes is not to my mind what a great party should do.

But I'll say, you know, what I think you hear from Tom is really the bulk of the new rift inside Democratic politics, and it's not left and center as much as it is confrontational and unapologetic outside Washington. And the inside Washington establishment which has tended to try to meliorate its positions and work on its language and its positioning in terms of, you know, trying to soften some of the traditional party stances. You're seeing this play out now in the House leadership election this week, which we can talk about it if you want.

But I think, you know, to the extent that you want to talk about where's the rift in the party. I don't think it's ideological. I think it is tactical and rhetorical, to a large extent. And I think Tom, whether he means to or not - I can't speak for him - but I think he is articulating one piece of that argument, which is, you know, Democrats should stand up and say, we're Democrats this is what we believe and this is always what we believed in. If you don't like it, don't be a Democrat.

NEARY: Yeah. Well let's bring another voice in. We have Jonathan Cowan, he the president of a Third Way, a progressive think tank here in Washington and he's also with us in the studio. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. JONATHAN COWAN (President, Third Way): Glad to be here.

NEARY: Where do you stand on this? What do the Democrats need to do to retain the majority that they just won?

Mr. COWAN: A couple of things, Lynn. First of all, just to be very clear, Democrats should be rejoicing right now. I mean Chuck Schumer, Rahm Emmanuel, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi pulled off something quite, quite stunning. For years we've been hearing, and there have been all kinds of books written, that the Republican lock was unbreakable and that it was going to lead to a long-term majority.

And while there were factors outside of Democrats' control - Chuck Schumer himself said - 75 percent of this is Republicans. A win is a win is a win. And so, Democrats should be rejoicing and listeners who are sympathetic to the Democrats should be rejoicing before we figure out where we go from here.

On the question of where we go from here, I agree with Matt that it is in the end not so much an ideological divide. In many ways those labels are old 20th century labels. It's more a question of reimagining and reinventing. The Democratic Party that existed and dominated for a lot of the 20th century, its core ideas are not going to fit in every instance in the 21st century. So let me just give a couple of examples.

On national security: it's very clear and all the data shows it, while voters wanted us to change this strategy in Iraq and ultimately get out of Iraq, that's not all they believe in. They want us to defeat the terrorists and they want Democrats to have an aggressive offensive strategy to defeat the terrorists.

So, in the 20th century, those that fight in the Democratic Party, whether we were pacifists or whether we were hawks. That isn't an ideological fight. That's a fight over actually substantive ideas about how you beat terrorists. Give you another example on abortion that came up.

I don't think the choices about shading our position on abortion. I think the Democratic Party's position for a long time on abortion has been flat-out wrong. We have made abortion strictly about the right to have an abortion, and I happen to be an ardent pro-choice Democrat who would not give up that right.

But there's more to the debate than that. We also have to be a party that's committed to dramatically reducing the number of abortions in America, 1.3 million abortions in America is wrong. And we've got to have a public policy position to solve that problem.

Lastly on economics, on economics the questions not are you free trade and protectionist, are you for middle-class tax cuts or are you for raising the minimum wage. The larger question is we've got a huge middle class in the United States that feels like the systems of government that serves them are outdated for the world that we're entering.

You have a system of social security that in the long run is not going to be adequate to provide for retirement. As Matt says, you got a health care system that doesn't fit current needs. You can go down a long list of things. So, I'm all for raising the minimum wage and Third Way backs that. But the minimum wage covers about 3 percent of the hourly workforce in the United States.

NEARY: Well, what would you be emphasizing then. If not minimum wage and healthcare, which are huge issues for voters, the American public.

Mr. COWAN: Well, on economics, for example, we'd be emphasizing, we would recommend to candidates is actually much of what Tom said, which is you can't -Democrats do not yet have the trust to go out and advocate really big paradigm-shifting ideas. As Matt said, they're going to have to do that. That's the only way to get a long-term realignment. But in the shorter run to get momentum and to start to regain trust, Democrats have to go out and articulate things that speak directly to the needs of the middle class.

So for example, a middle class tax cut that helps send more of your kids - make it easier to send your kid to college - it's something people need. It's a real problem people are facing and it will resonate with them. Those are not the long-term paradigm shifts. But on economics, if Democrats can't speak directly to the middle class and not just towards social justice issues of poverty and people trying to make it in the middle class, you can't get a long-term realignment.

NEARY: All right. We're talking about the future of the Democratic Party. The number to call is 800-989-8255. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we're going to take a call form Scott, and he's calling from Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT (Caller): Hey, good afternoon.

NEARY: Go ahead.

SCOTT: Okay. I just want to make a quick comment that - let me see - last week and two years ago I voted Democrat, even though I've been Republican lifelong, namely due to discontent with the Bush administration. However, I feel that the Democrats have a very good chance of gaining the White House if they'll be more moderate, middle of the road. And like what your current speaker was talking about, to help the middle class. Not so much the fringe groups. What I call the fringe groups are the far left groups.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Scott. I'm going to see if our guest can respond to you now, Scott, because we don't have too much time left in this segment. First of all, Tom Schaller. Thanks for your call, Scott.

Prof. SCHALLER: Well, I think the caller is tapping into something that Matt has written about correctly and so forth. Is that the Democrats have for too long sort of been held hostage by their sort of interest group base. And it's not been a coalition. It's been a loose confederation of various groups with their agendas.

And I think we started to see the end of that in 2004 when all the interest groups didn't say to Kerry, listen, you got to fill out our 20-question form. And if you don't get 19 or 20 out of 20, we're not going to endorse you. I mean you really saw the real panoply of the center-left interest groups sort of lay down their arms and say, look, we want to be this president and we're going to rally behind Kerry.

In fact, it ultimately perhaps came back to haunt because they rallied behind Kerry so quickly that they maybe didn't give him a proper vetting in terms of some of this stuff. And the primary was essentially over after Iowa, within hours of Iowa.

So I think the Democratic coalition, because they want to win, because of what Scott says, you know, have a chance here, is going to lay down its arms a little bit. And I think in part that what they will do is be able to find the unifying issues that will appeal to that larger middle class which has watched as the Bush administration, six years, the country's mean income has gone up. But the median income has gone down, which means half of the country is making less than when Bush took office. It's a phenomenal trend.

NEARY: Matt, what do you think the Democratic Party should stand for? What do you think - I mean at this point, I'm hearing so much - people are saying we want them to moderate. But I'm not hearing anything real specific about what people really want this party for stand for.

Mr. BAI: Well, I could neither answer that question by capacity nor profession. So, you know, nobody's paying me to run any campaigns. But I'll tell you this, because it's related, it's very much related to what you're asking. You know, Scott him on something I think very, very important in the beginning part of his call. Which is that people don't think of this as a red team-blue team thing anymore. Here in Washington we all think of it that way. The blue team won this week, the red team is close behind - 2008, the red team and the blue team will take the field again.

Americans increasingly over the last 20 years - you can see this statistically and you can see it anecdotally. They don't think about the red team beating the blue team. They don't identify themselves as part of a team. It's a trend throughout society but particularly in politics where people simply don't see themselves as - they're not members. This is much more individual decision and they're willing to cross party lines. And this is why, you know, the Republican base that had been so dominant eroded so quickly because so many of these people were independent. Those people want to see the kind of shift that John mentioned that I talked about, about, you know, serious answers to 21st century problems instead of 20th century answers.

NEARY: All right. We need to take a short break right now. Matt is going to stay with us. Thanks to Tom Schaller and Jonathan Cowan for being with us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Matt Bai is still with us, and he writes on national politics for the New York Times Magazine. And we're going to wrap up our conversation about the future of the Democratic Party and the new wave of Democrats in Congress. And let's take a call. We're going to go to Chad. And he is calling from Alabama. Hi, Chad.

CHAD (Caller): Hi. I just would like to make the comment about the Democratic Party and, you know, everyone seems to be focused on where we're headed. And I think that a good word to sum it all up is statesmen. And a lot of what we've seen in the past as far as, you know, politics as people supporting a particular view of, you know, some kind of political party and not necessarily a view of servitude to the people. And that is, in my mind, what statement is. Someone who puts themselves in the service of people above service of business and this and that. Because business is part of the people but it's not the people.

NEARY: All right. So you also want Democrats to sort of get rid of ideology and to put the public's interests ahead of the party's interests. Is that what you're saying?

CHAD: Absolutely. Because the government, I guess, was established not as, you know, kind of this watchdog but as a support group. And just like a community cannot do anything without the support of every single one of its members, I think we've seen kind of a division between those who have the money to support the government and those who are being called upon to support the government who might not be in the place where they can presently. But that doesn't mean we can't listen to a place where we're all viable citizens.

NEARY: Okay. Thanks for your call, Chad.

CHAD: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Matt Bai, let me ask you about the way the Democratic leadership is shaping up. Nancy Pelosi is likely to become speaker of the House. Already running into a little bit of trouble because of her support for John Murtha. Are the Democrats already heading into trouble over those kinds of issues or is that just a minor flap?

Mr. BAI: Well, this is a fascinating thing that's played out over the last 48 hours. Because it, as I say, I think it gets to the heart of the new rift that we're going to see in Democratic politics, and it's not really ideological. In other words, John Murtha is pro-life, pro-gun, has been a very establishment Washington politician for his career in Congress. He's been under a cloud of ethics at several points of his career. He is not what one would think of as a progressive icon.

Steny Hoyer, also a moderate - these are the two candidates for majority leader. And Steny Hoyer, a Maryland congressman, also a moderate, - done a very good job in the leadership by all accounts in the Congress.

Now, you know, Murtha becomes the candidate not only of Nancy Pelosi - she wrote a letter on his behalf yesterday and has been close to him. But of the net roots, you know, it's running something like 80 to 20 percent. If you're online, and blogs or MoveOn.org - Murtha's a very, very popular figure among the activist base of the party.

Why? Because he came out and opposed the war after supporting. He started out more of an adamant supporter than most people. And then turned around and was the first person of (unintelligible) and the Washington establishment told him, John Murtha, shut up. You're getting in the way of our message. You're going to cost us in 2006. And Murtha said, I don't care. This war is wrong and I'm going against it.

This debate now with sort of the activist base really prefers Murtha and Hoyer who's sort of the inside guy for the moderates, might look like a left (unintelligible) but it's really not. There's not an ounce of daylight between them on most important issues.

This is about how confrontational you are going to be toward the president and the Republicans and how much you're willing to stand up and sort of fight the Washington establishment and a lot of the people who have embraced John Murtha have very little in common with him except for the fact that this is the guy who stood up and showed courage and conviction and opposed the war and this is again and again, I would guess, not to be predicted, because that always makes you look dumb in the end but I would guess that as we see intraparty fights play out over the next year or so, this will again and again be the theme that emerges. What kind of Democrat, tactically, rhetorically, strategically you want to be.

NEARY: But, you know, if it's all about tactics, which seems to be what you're saying, or what we've heard.

Mr. BAI: That's what I've been saying for years, Lynn, it's just that no one really listens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Yeah. Okay, but if it's all about tactics, then you do end up wondering what they stand for. I mean, you continue to ask - I'm repeating my question, but...

Mr. BAI: Well, you're only repeating the question I've repeated ad nauseam for, you know, years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAI: And you know, really, look. Voters like, you know, Chad(ph), who just called in. He's from Alabama, right? I mean, voters, they get this. They get that this is not the 1990s, in the way that the 1990s felt a lot like the 1980s. They get that something fundamental is changing, that their communities have changed, that their job bases have changed, that the opportunities for their children are markedly different than they thought they were going to be.

They've been hearing for, you know, a decade or two - they've been hearing Republicans tell them you know why? It's this guy's fault, it's the black people's fault, it's the immigrants' fault, it's the woman who wants to work's fault. And they've been hearing Democrats for 20 years, tell them, no, no, no, everything's fine. It's going to stay just the way it is. Put us in power, and all the factories will blossom out of the soil like weeds.

The truth of the matter is, they know neither of those answers are sufficient. They know they need answers for a new century. And the question of what you stand for really is the question of whether you're ready to address those questions or not. And right now, I don't think either party is.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BAI: Any time.

NEARY: Matt Bai writes on national politics for the New York Times Magazine, and he is working on a book about changes in the Democratic Party.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.