Q&Amp;A: 'Democrats Do Have A Prayer'

The Democratic Leadership Council bills itself as a movement that seeks to "go beyond the old left-right debate." Its philosophy embraces centrist ideals such as fiscal discipline, economic growth and welfare reform--in short, the so-called Third Way adopted by Bill Clinton.

Recently, however, the DLC has come under fire from members of its own party for warning liberal Dems not to stray from those middle-of-the road principles.

Al From, the DLC's founder and CEO, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Christina B. Gillham about the battle within his party, how Democrats can win the presidency in 2004--and about Wesley Clark's entry into the White House race. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Your warnings to Democrats not to turn too far to the left has been interpreted as a jab at candidate Howard Dean. Many liberals have also accused the DLC and the New Democrats of selling their souls to centrism. Your response?

Al From: I think it's wrong. The New Democrat philosophy is the modernization of progressive politics in America. We take the traditional values of the Democratic Party, and we offer new ways to further them. That was the whole key to the success to the Clinton presidency. I just don't see how anybody can look at the progress and the success we had with New Democrat ideas in the Clinton administration and say that it's anything but progressive.

But the Third Way was what drove some Democrats to Ralph Nader in 2000. Some would argue that the feeling that there was no distinction between Al Gore and George Bush may have lost Gore the election.

I don't think that's right. The Democratic Party's great success was grounded on three main principles: that we are the party of opportunity, the party of economic growth and that we were the party of national strength and antitotalitarianism [from] the New Deal era on through. But it was when we veered [away from] those principles and became a more liberal, pro-government party that we got into trouble. It is wrong to say that there's no difference between a Republican economic policy that has always been trickle-down and a Democratic economic policy which essentially, in the Clinton years, was built on fiscal discipline. Ralph Nader's economic policies were out of the '60s. What you need is a modern economic policy.

National security is going to be a big issue in 2004. Why have Democrats not been able to portray themselves as tough on that front?

The first reason is you've got to talk about it. Fighting terrorists and security became a threshold issue in the 2002 elections. And the Democrats, for whatever reason, made the judgment that we were going to win the '02 election on prescription drugs and Social Security and really never engaged the [national security] debate. For all of Bush's talk about the decline of the military during the Clinton years, it was the Clinton military and its modernization that produced the kind of military that was able to do so well in the initial combats in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats have a tradition and a record on that, yet we never talk about it.

Do think having opposed the war in Iraq is still a political liability for a candidate?

I think two things: people are unhappy about the way the peace has been carried out and that Bush has had very few plans [about] what we were going to do post-Saddam. It is certainly legitimate and right for [Democrats] to say we could do a better job, because we could. But I still think people believe in the basic premise of the war. I don't think it's just a matter of weapons of mass destruction. I think most people probably believe, whether it's correct or not, that Saddam was tied to terrorism and that the world is probably safer having him taken out. The second thing is: it really depends on whether or not our nominee can convince the American people that he or she can fit the role of commander in chief and be trusted with the security of the country. I think it's probably harder to do that if you opposed the war, but not impossible.

Now that Wesley Clark is in the race, could he be the person who can beat George Bush?

I think we'll find out in the next four or five months. Wes Clark is a very, very talented guy. He's done stuff with the DLC. He's a very, very smart guy. But he's not ever gone through anything like a political campaign. The question for Wes Clark is, when he gets into a very different world, how is he going to do? I don't think we know the answer to that. But he clearly has expertise in military affairs and foreign policy, which is something that is important to the Democratic Party. I've talked to him a little bit about domestic policy. He seems to have a pretty good grasp of issues.

Is it too late for him to get in the race?

It's never too late. Bill Clinton got into the 1992 race on Oct. 3, 1991.

What kind of impact will Clark's candidacy have for the other nine candidates?

When you have somebody who has star qualities get into the race, it will change the dynamic, and it's going to have some impact. I can speculate various scenarios, but that's all it would be. I think he will displace water and it will lift some and overwhelm others, probably.

Clinton recently spoke in praise of Clark. Some took that as an endorsement. Do you agree?

I haven't talked to Clinton about Wes recently. People real close to Clinton are helping Wes, but there are a lot of people close to Clinton that are helping other candidates, too. But I don't think it [was] really an endorsement. Clinton has said nice things about most of the candidates at various times during the race. I would guess that he's not going to endorse. But he can give a lot of good advice and every one of them ought to listen to him because [he is the] only Democrat who's won the White House and been reelected to a second term in six decades.

What should Clinton's role be in 2004, especially given the contention in 2000 over whether he was a liability for the Democratic Party.

It's up to the candidate, but I think Bill Clinton is terrific asset. I'm biased of course, but if I was the candidate I'd want him out there campaigning and I sure would want his advice--particularly his strategic advice and how to frame issues and how to define a political vision. There's nobody better.

Besides Dean and now perhaps Wes Clark, why can't any of the other eight contenders seem to get anyone to pay attention to them? A lot of them have little name recognition, or people are saying they're all the same. How can they change that?

First of all, nobody's voted yet. We should keep that in mind. Part of the thing about Dean, to his credit, is that he's very good at tapping the anger against Bush--and there's a lot of it--and you know where he was on the war, so that's sort of given him a definition. The problem with the other [candidates] is, it's hard to get a definition of them now. In the last six weeks, Joe Lieberman has sort of tried to define himself as a moderate.

But there's something to say for excitement and Dean has really created that. The question is how broad that is in the party. If you look at the polling that we've done, the numbers show that about 33-36 percent of Democrats are self-identified liberals, the rest are moderates and conservatives. The challenge is to energize the bigger block, the less-active block, and the less-inclined-to-vote-in-the-primary Democrats.

How do you balance the liberal wing of the party with the moderates?

You have to have an inclusive message that talks to people on the left and to core voters. But it also has to be a message that is inclusive enough to go beyond just those voters. We were [once] told that by being for welfare reform, we would lose a lot of core Democrats. As it turned out, welfare reform was wildly popular. The way you win the White House is not [just] to press your advantages or the things all your supporters get all hot and bothered about, but to eliminate obstacles that keep people from voting for you in the first place. You don't have to change your position on guns or choice or other cultural issues, but you have talk about things that don't automatically push anybody who disagrees with you into the other camp, because there are too many people who disagree with you. It doesn't have to be a cultural conservatism, but it has to be a cultural inclusion. You can be pro-choice without making people [who are pro-life] for reasons of good conscience--even if we disagree with them--feel inferior. You can't just instinctively go with what interest groups wants you to do.

Are candidates like Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton helping to put certain issues on the agenda, or do centrist groups like the DLC wish they'd go away?

I think they've performed reasonably well during the debates, but I think over the long haul the party is best served when we get down to the serious candidates who have the best chance to win. Sharpton's actually been very restrained, but he does carry a terrible negative image that probably over the long run doesn't do us a lot of good.

Does the DLC play a role in picking a candidate?

The DLC can't get directly involved in the campaign, but what we can do is suggest political strategy, talk about ideas the candidate ought to pursue and talk about political messages that we think would work. It will be different circumstances [than in 1992] because there is not just one DLC candidate in this race. So we're making a major effort to get ideas to any candidate who will listen and a whole slew of them are. Bruce [Reed, DLC president] and I, in our memos and daily commentary, are trying to be a beacon to shine the light on a direction that we think could help the Democratic Party's nominee, no matter who he or she is, win.

What happens if, before next November, postwar operations become much better, the economy picks up. Do Democrats have a prayer?

What happens if we have utopian America, right? [Laughs] It is always tough, even when the circumstances are bad for the incumbent, to beat an incumbent president. Democrats do have a prayer, though. I think this will be a pretty tight election. [But] even if the Bush record improves, and I hope it does because it's good for the country, he still has a lot of vulnerabilities. We've got to tell them how we're going to grow the economy and make sure everyone benefits in ways [they] won't [under Bush]. What we also have to do to beat Bush is to grab the mantle of reform. And there are plenty of areas, from health care to education reform to energy, that go beyond just the security and economic issues, where Bush is going to be vulnerable.