Thursday, July 29, 2004
# Posted 6:38 PM by Patrick Belton
Thanks for sitting down with us. Our readership is fairly strong in the political center, and we and our readers will be very eager to hear what's new in the DLC orbit, what ideas have been rising in your neck of the woods over the past four years, and what insights we could gain from you about the role New Democratic ideas might have in a Kerry administration.
Well, there's a stereotype of the young as Howard Dean-type leftists, broadly sceptical of American power, resolutely anti-interventionist, wary. of America throwing its weight around or using its power.
Yup, that's us.
It's nice to see there are people in the generation coming out of grad school and law school that's willing to think about updating the Democratic set of beliefs to confront new security challenges. The left, you know, has this wonderful view of us as all-powerful, which is hilarious given that we have an $8 million budget and about 50 staffers. The Village Voice was just recently complaining about how we're driving the party.
So since you're running things, is Kerry a Bush I-style realist?
As a progressive internationalist--for whom the expansion of democracies is a strategic imperative--this is a matter of great concern to me personally. I checked it out, and I was told not to put too much stock in these press reports of his purported realism. It's a response to Bush adopting democracy promotion to undergird the Iraq war when the WMD rationale collapsed. Kerry believes that democracy sets the bar too high for short-term success in Iraq, that while it's clearly the goal you need more immediate benchmarks for along the way.
Since then, at least one speech has made it clear Kerry considers as a national interest the spread of political and economic freedom, which plays an important role in a tough-minded foreign policy. This extends obviously to the Greater Middle East, to change conditions that breed terrorism. He's not in the Scowcroft or Kissinger realpolitik tradition. Instead, he's in that of the postwar Wise Men, Kennedy, Truman, Acheson. Among Democrats at the moment, the mood is so anti-Bush, that there's a temptation to decry everything he's doing as bad. That's how I understand it. We have a Democratic tradition of democracy promotion as well--Kerry used the language of progressive internationalism at least once, in a speech he gave at Georgetown, which, to make full disclosure, I should admit I had a hand in shaping.
He supported the liberal interventions of the 1990s, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti, which demonstrate that he's not a resolute dove, an ardent non-interventionist. He present arguments of attenuated national interest combined with humanitarian rationales. So I think his record supports the claim that he's a progressive internationalist, in the way that we in the DLC use the term.
You're in touch with centre-left officials and policy thinkers in Britain and the Continent. What do you tell people when they ask you what's going to change, and what's going to stay the same, under a Kerry administration?
First of all, all the centre-left people we talk to are desperate for a Kerry victory--they're not comfortable, whether they're publics or elites, with the current estrangement from the United States, with the possible exception of the French. I assure them that the atmospherics of the transatlantic relationship will improve immediately, with a new cast of people on the U.S. side bringing a breath of fresh air, but John Kerry will also challenge our European friends to join us in a concerted effort in the war on terror, to finish the job in Iraq, to establish a strong central government in Afghanistan, and to shut down the North Korean nuclear program. Where U.S. national interests lie - and Europe's too, especially since after Madrid, it's increasingly hard to sustain the argument that Europeans can avoid terrorism simply by detaching themselves from the United States. So our message has to be both to reassure and to challenge our allies.
You all have particularly close ties with New Labour. So is this an ideational expression of the Anglo-American special relationship? Are you sharing ideas still, as part of a Third Way?
In 1992, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown went to see how Clinton succeeded in salvaging his party from the wilderness, and they went back and applied the lessons, backed as they were by the strength of Parliamentary confidence. Now that they've been in office while we've been in turn in the wilderness, we've now been looking to them, and their ideas of an education trust fund and a lifetime savings account. Bob Kerrey endorsed something quite similar here. They gave us a briefing on the London congestion policy. In general, the balance of intellectual payments have shifted.
So you and Al From have described how you go about changing a party. Have you done it? Have you all won?
I've never accepted the idea that we've won - maybe I'm congenitally pessimistic. The evidence that there's still work to do begins as early as the Gore campaign. The template for Democratic success was cast aside entirely by Gore, in a way that mystified us. Dean was equally critical of the Clintonite legacy, but Iowa and New Hampshire didn't vote for him in the end. There's a sizeable community on the left who think that we require a counterweight. Which is hilarious given our size. Should Kerry win, you'll see a resurfacing of tensions that have been submerged in this remarkably unified campaign. There's no question that Kerry and Edwards represent a victory of Clintonism, that they've explicitly embraced Clintonism, and a third way agenda. There's no question they don't want to embrace the Gore policies or rhetoric of 2000. In 1999, we published an influential, controversial tract - the Politics of Evasion - where we said there were three deficits in public trust of the Democratic party, which Democrats were slow to acknowledge. First, people didn't trust us with their tax dollars. Second, people doubted whether we shared their cultural values of work, opportunity, and community responsibility. Third, people were suspicious of our ability to keep America safe with strong, resolute national leadership, both at home and in international crises.
Clinton made remarkable progress on the first two. He didn't have to address the third as much, largely because threats seemed to recede, security migrated to the extremes of the political consciousness, and his chief focus was on the first two points. What I argue is that Kerry has the chance to do on national security what Clinton did on finance and cultural values - show the Democrats have changed, and can grapple with these issues. He can close the national security confidence gap substantially, and has every reason to because that is after all what this election will hinge on.
Anger at outsourcing has been a theme at the convention. It seems like this is a magnificent opportunity for the DLC to offer new ideas about trade adjustment assistance and worker retraining programs, to create a broader constituency for free trade - and, by extension, for the centrist wing of the party.
We've got a bunch of ideas aimed at doing just that. Tough: we were one of the first to call for extending TAAs to service workers. Transitional tax credits, permitting workers to carry health insurance between jobs. Retraining, new economy training programs. This set of policy proposals go by the term of 'expanding the winners' circle' at PPI. Lots of Democrats are opposed to technological change, and the disruption it brings. They're not impressed these are going to be serious worker training moves. They say, it sounds to us like funeral insurance - you remove our sense of security, but you don't make us more secure. It's not compelling to tell the rust belt freer trade is somehow something we can insulate you for. We have proposed a lot of ideas, to help build a broader consensus for trade, and broader international engagement.
How are your relations with congressional Democrats?
Well, first of all we have our allies in each house. We have New Democrat caucuses numbering about 70 in the House and 20 in the Senate, and we work well with them. Increasingly, we have good relations with some of the others as well; some of the old ideological fissures seem to be at least temporarily closed. In the article by me and Bob Kutner, Politics of Evasion, I wrote with a consistent critic of us, but we were able to get together. I'm struck by the degree of convergence on some issues, though not all. Foreign policy is of course the sticking point.
There's a flurry of interest in 527s, and the money flowing into these groups, energising the left, all of which is true. But I'm struck by how important the media thinks this is. It's important up to a point, but the media does tend to understate the role of ideas, while overstating campaign mechanics. There's also the confusion about who are the 'real Democrats'. Dean frequently makes the slap at New Democrats that he represents the 'Democratic wing' of the Democratic party, a Wellstonian view of ideological purity which he lodges against Clintonites. This is a bit odd given his fairly centrist record as governor of Vermont. This leads to a confusion about the philosophical cast of mind of most people who vote Democrats. Who defines the core Democratic agenda - the activists and interest groups, or the people who govern when the party is in office? I think it's the latter.
Any surprises at the convention?
There have been surprisingly good speeches - Clinton, Obama were great. Ron Reagan, obviously. The amount of applause and interest attracted by the stem cell issue surprises me - a lot of people have had family members who were ill, and place a great deal of hope in stem cell research to create cures for what their relatives suffered from. The salient characteristic of this convention is the improbable outbreak of harmony - there's been no tension, no fights, no drama - the poor press is set around looking for a story. The whole convention is increasingly empty - raising the question, how do you turn this thing off? Now it's just an orgy for soft money.
We've been hearing a great deal in the last years about the neo-conservatives' intellectual development, from the City College of New York on. What we haven't heard is how Clintonites' ideas have evolved during their time in the wilderness. We've touched on security, but how else have the ideas of New Democrats evolved since last we met them in 2000?
Our thinking has really evolved on health care - on the amount of money involved, cost control, and how to adapt health insurance to the changing practice of medicine, which is becoming preventive rather than centered around catastrophic, acute care, generally in a hospital. Also, how to make sure that what you're paying for corresponds to healthier people. Another area where our thought has developed is energy independence - a new field for us, particularly at the intersection of energy and environmental work. There's also been a great deal of work done on cultural politics--the 2000 elections divided the country more along cultural than class lines, and we'd like to think of ways New Democrats can help to remedy that increasing cultural alienation between the two halves of America. On international economics and trade, the role of government has changed. When we started, it was around lines of an understanding of globalization in which the state should play a small role; now we have a new understanding of what drives growth in a knowledge-centred economy - innovation, knowledge, and other areas in which government can play a role to foster.
The cultural divide between coasts and heartland is pronounced, and is generally treated as a fact of political nature. How can it be bridged?
In Blueprint magazine, we analysed the 2000 election in greater detail than the first responses - 'it's the culture, stupid'. The solution we ended up with was that Democrats should be conscientious objectors in the culture wars. Clinton could see moral validity in more than one sides. The formulation 'safe, legal, and rare' for abortion is an example - it reflected that the country was morally conflicted about abortion. Contrast that, for instance, with the message that 'we're for choice, and they're extremists who want to blow up abortion clinics.' There are cultural swing voters, and they can be brought over with carefully crafted arguments.
Another example is the movement Americans for Gun Safety. Gore and Democrats running for Congress were crushed by the gun issue in 2000. Gun owners respond favorably to a rhetoric of rights and responsibilities - of the vast number of American gun owners, only a small number are NRA members who regard any restriction on guns as unacceptable, and the rest are happy to respond to arguments of reasonableness and responsibilities that recognises, on the other hand, their Constitutional right under the second amendment. You can convince most gun owners to accept assault rifle bans, trigger locks, and waiting periods,m as long as you treat with respect their decision to own guns, and don't treat them as unfortunate rednecks.
Silence is not golden - don't think you can avoid being damaged by the cultural wars simply by changing the subject. It's important to make an attempt to redefine 'values' to target Democratic strengths, such as stewardship of the environment and concern for opportunity.
Centrism seems at the moment to be the strong trend of the Democratic party, but the unfortunate remaining Rockefeller Republicans are seeing their position declining in their party. Why have political fortunes been so much better for Democratic centrists than Republicans?
It's the final realization of Nixon's Southern strategy- you could use race and religion as wedge issues to steal the South away from Democrats. We allowed our position to be defined by arch-secularity, and a hostility to religion. Political change happens over long cycles, over generations, not the short term. The flip of the South has made Republicans much more conservative. A strong plurality, perhaps a majority of Republicans are conservative. The sunbelt and South are much more ideologically coherent as a result. Ask Democratic voters, and roughly 40 percent self-identify as moderate, around 1/3 as liberal, and the rest as conservative. So we're a more naturally moderate party, they are more conservative. They can rally their conservative base, which is bigger than our liberal base, to reelect Bush. This is why they've done nothing to put flesh on the bones of compassionate conservatism, put forth a second term agenda, or present domestic reform ideas. We are, and always have been, a more heterogeneous party. (0) opinions -- Add your opinion
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