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Manning Marable vs. Donna Brazile on the Future of the Democratic Party

StoryDecember 17, 2004
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As controversy continues to rage over the 2004 presidential elections and challenges to the legitimacy of the vote in the crucial state of Ohio continue to move forward, another battle is heating up, this one over the future of the Democratic Party. We host a debate with Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s campaign manager in the 2000 election and a longtime Democratic Party activist and Manning Marable, a professor at Columbia University and one of America’s most influential and widely read scholars. [includes rush transcript]

As controversy continues to rage over the 2004 presidential elections and challenges to the legitimacy of the vote in the crucial state of Ohio continue to move forward, another battle is heating up. This one over the future of the Democratic Party.

Last week, sparked a controversy when it sent an email out to its massive list-serve saying it had a message for what it called the “professional election losers” who run the Democratic Party. Pointing to the $300 million raised by MoveOn and other individual contributors, the group’s founder Eli Pariser said of the Democratic party, “We bought it, we own it, we’re going to take it back.” The email targeted outgoing Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe as a tool of corporate donors who alienated both traditional and progressive Democrats. The email charged that, for years, the party has been led by elite Washington insiders who are closer to corporate lobbyists than they are to the Democratic base

Meanwhile, Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has sparked an impassioned debate by announcing his intention to run for chair of the powerful Democratic National Committee. This weekend Dean and other prospective candidates vying for the position will speak at a Democratic Party event in Orlando, Florida.

Among the names being tossed around are: US Representative Martin Frost of Texas; former Michigan governor James Blanchard; former Denver mayor Wellington Webb;former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk; former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes; businessman Leo Hindery Jr.and Donnie Fowler, a Democratic strategist and Silicon Valley veteran. Democrats will vote at their February meeting in Washington on a successor to Terry McAuliffe. Many see that election as one of the strongest indicators of the direction the Democratic party will take over the next 4 years.

  • Manning Marable, one of America’s most influential and widely read scholars. He is Professor of History and Political Science and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and founding Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. His latest books include “The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life and “Freedom on My Mind: The Columbia Documentary History of the African American Experience.”
  • Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s campaign manager in the 2000 election and a longtime Democratic Party activist. She is author of the book “Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Manning Marable, Professor of History and Political Science and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He is one of America’s most influential and widely read scholars. He is founder of the — Director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies. His latest books include, The Great Wells Of Democracy: The Meaning Of Race In American Life and Freedom On My Mind, the Columbia University history of the African American experience. On the phone with us is Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s campaign manager in the 2000 election, a long-time Democratic Party activist, author of the book, Cooking With Grease: Stirring The Pots In American Politics. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Donna Brazile, let’s begin with you. Can you talk about where you see the Democratic Party going right now, and the situation it is in?

DONNA BRAZILE: Well, first of all, it’s good to be on the show with Dr. Marable whom I admire and respect. The Democratic Party, right now is in the throes of being — It’s under construction. It’s under new management. We’re looking for leaders now who are willing to take the helm and to expand this party to return it to its grassroots, to its great promise of being a national party, and not just an 18-state party. Last week in Orlando, we heard from all of the prospective candidates. It was a very important meeting. I thought that, you know, three or four of them will probably emerge as frontrunners over the next two to three weeks. But as a member of the D.N.C., an “at large” member, I’m very eager to hear from the candidates on how they intend to expand the base of the Democratic Party, to reach out to more voters, including swing voters, persuadable voters, but how to really, become the loyal opposition party so that we’re not faced with two Republican parties in the future.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the lessons learned from this election, for that — for looking at that future, certainly, the criticism cannot be laid to the Democratic Party that did not mobilize the voters, because there was a greater participation by democratic voters, although still much less so in the major cities, where democrats have a base, than in the suburbs and the ex-urbs, but what are the lessons learned from this election?

DONNA BRAZILE: There’s no question that democrats have to come up with a clear, concise message of who we are, what we stand for, our values. We are a party of strong convictions as well. We are a party that believes in the freedom of all Americans, the right to choose, equality for all citizens, education, health care, and yet, the majority of Americans who voted against John Kerry didn’t know exactly what John Kerry and the Democratic Party stood for. One of the things that struck me following the election is that 37% of the American people were identified as conservative, 37% as liberals or moderates, and now, you know, a month after the election, democrats have lost ground. In the new Gallup poll, 37% continue to identify themselves as republicans or conservatives, but now for democrats or liberals or moderates, it’s down to 32%. So, clearly, people don’t know who we are. It’s important as we go forward, not just the Democratic Party but all of our progressive allies understand that we have to take our message, not only to the inner cities but the suburbs and ex-urbs so people know exactly what we stand for and why we are fighting for their values and their convictions up on capitol hill and in the state houses across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Manning Marable, your response.

MANNING MARABLE: It’s a pleasure to be on Democracy Now! this morning and especially with Donna Brazile. Many things that Donna has said this morning I agree with. I think that clearly mainstream democrats represent, both ideologically and in terms of public policy, positions that are clearly centrist and relatively speaking to the left of the Republican Party. Unfortunately, it’s not very hard to be to the left of the Republican Party these days. I think that two things concern me. One: Voter mobilization, or the lack of it, in 2004 in central cities. Any veteran voter organizer knows the five-touch rule. You have got to individually touch — and Donna, I’m sure, knows this, a prospective voter five times with literature, face-to-face contact, to insure that that voter is truly motivated to turn out at the polls. And despite the left’s mobilization of voters in central cities, and unprecedented voter mobilizations and as Juan says correctly, in certain suburban areas, in our central cities, we did not adequately see the Democratic Party put major resources, sufficiently to insure that those who are — have less than high school education, those who are unemployed, those who are immigrants or recent immigrants, racialized minorities, Latinos and Blacks, truly have the turnout rates we needed to have in order to win this election. Secondly, I think that the media’s done a disservice not just to the Democratic Party, but more broadly to working Americans by making the case that the right wing somehow has a magical mandate in 2004. It just isn’t so. If you had a switch of 150,000 votes in Ohio. You will have President Kerry right now. Now, we don’t have a real democracy in the United States because we still have an electoral college, and constitutionally, it’s going to be extremely difficult to get rid of it. But I would argue vigorously that the way to go, in thinking about the Democratic Party is the way the extreme right wing thought about the Republican Party 30 years ago. How did Richard Vigary, how did the extreme right in the Republican Party, a party that did have liberal republicans, how did they swing the ideological and political base of that party to the right? The way they did it was organizing inside and outside. I have preached this for 25 years. I think that people like Bill Fletcher, the head of TransAfrica and actor/activist Danny Glover, have been talking recently about the need for a “neo-rainbow” strategy. I agree with that. We need to build political capacity for the democratic left outside of the Democratic Party to leverage that party to move toward policy positions that clearly address the needs of the American people. We cannot look to the Democratic Party to do the work of progressives who are pushing for issues like full employment, universal health care, a discourse that has disappeared inside of the Democratic Party. We have to build capacity to the left of it. Just like Vigary and the direct-mail ideological right and the Christian Coalition, built an infrastructure outside of the republicans to their right, to take them over.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, would you consider the efforts that have been done by some groups like as part of that process, or do you think even new efforts must begin?

MANNING MARABLE: I respect I think that they have done a terrific job, but I believe that one of the things I have learned over the years in political organizing is that if Latinos and black people are not at the table at the beginning of a process, it is very hard to bring them in and to get them involved in large numbers as the process is well down the road. The reason that I have suggested something like a neo-rainbow approach is that the strength of what the rainbow was 20 years ago was a Black and Latino-led movement that assumed an electoral form, very much like the Harold Washington campaign. It came out of the anti-racist mobilization in Chicago in 1982 and 1983, building upon a long tradition of community-based civic engagement and activism. Politics that comes from the social movements, not imposed from the top down on them is really what I’m talking about. That kind of discussion has to take place in order for us to move the Democratic Party to the left, but more than that, I think that we also have to emphasize that it’s not just going to be enough to shake up the Democratic Party, and even win a national election for the presidency, in order to get the kind of policies we want to see in the country. We have to actually change the rules of the electoral game very much like, for example, in San Francisco, this past year, where you had a modified version of instant run-off voting that determined the City Supervisors elections. That kind of thing, of changing how we vote, making a more democratic process in the electoral system is how we can insure greater democracy in American democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Donna Brazile, what do you think of what Manning Marable has put forward? Do you think, do you blame John Kerry for what took place, and what do you think of the idea of a neo-rainbow coalition?

DONNA BRAZILE: Let me first say I totally endorse the notion of a neo-rainbow coalition. It’s long overdue. Part of the problem that we have is — as an activist, I have been both inside and outside, so I have done both. I have done a little bit of the organizing that takes place among progressives in building capacity as well as enlarging the electorate and of course I have been an inside player as well. The republicans replenish their rank and file every two years. Democrats re-invent themselves. Part of our strategic problem is that we go out there every two years, trying to present ourselves as something new, something different, and we lose touch with the base of the Democratic Party. But Marable is absolutely correct. Often our approach to inner city politics and inner city leaders and inner city mobilization is to put that on hold until the last three or four weeks of the election. Which in my judgment hurts us. It hurts our ability to reach a larger audience and to have a greater mobilization. This year, African-Americans and Latinos performed at extraordinary numbers in all of the battleground states. But that’s the problem. In battleground states. In Illinois, where Barrack Obama won his election by a landslide, African-American and Latino turnout actually was below the national average because there was no mobilization in the non-battleground states where there was a senatorial candidate. The leadership of the progressive community, I believe must sit back after the election, analyze their own involvement, but begin to encourage their members and their rank and file to run for the national — I mean, run for public office, and become the voice of not just the progressive forces in our country, but also the voice of the Democratic Party. If we don’t do that, if we don’t begin to replenish the leadership right now, of what I call the old guard, we will not have long term, a real party to build on, a real party that can compete effectively against these republicans who by the way, are pretty entrenched right now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the issue, though, that Professor Marable raises about the kind of resources that the Democratic Party devoted to the inner cities. For instance, I’m looking at Ohio, where I spent a lot of time examining the vote there, and then while turnout in Ohio was 70% of registered voters in places like Cuyahoga County, it was over 60%, in Cleveland within Cuyahoga County, the overall turnout was 49%. It may have been excellent compared to past presidential elections, but it still clearly was way below the overall turnout in other areas of the state. So, that would either indicate that those voters were not sufficiently mobilized to begin to turn out in numbers, and we’re talking about registered voters now, to the same degree that the Bush supporters were in their record numbers out in the suburbs.

DONNA BRAZILE: Well, let’s put something on the table, and I said it publicly and I have written about it. Karl Rove and the republicans had one focus, and that was to energize and to enlarge their base. That was the key to their success. They understood the electorate was deeply polarized and that the goal was to insure that they — you know, got their base out. The democrats had a different approach. If you look at how the money was spent, both at the 527’s, the, the Democratic Party the formula was the same. And the formula was to reach 'tweens, persuadables, independents. Base voters, and I saw it — Move On did ads in the last two months of the campaign, the Kerry people did them, the last two, the 527's, they didn’t go after the base, two, three months out. They went after the base, you know, just a couple of weeks out. That was a strategic error on the party of the Kerry Campaign, and I have criticized them for having leftover money, money that could have been used to reach people. You know, you reach them where they live, where they eat, where they play and where they pray. You reach them multiple times. But In the inner cities, as I said some months ago, Send my dad a bumper sticker! We don’t do it, and that’s a strategic flaw in the Democratic party and that’s why this fight for the party chair is a very important strategic struggle for the left and for progressive forces. And I am not going to allow the D.L.C. and the more centrist conservative leadership to determine and dictate who the next chair will be based on the fact that they want somebody who can go out and speak on Sunday shows. I want somebody who can go out and organize in the inner cities as well as the suburbs and ex-urbs, and go out and enlarge our base and to be able to make our party more competitive across the — across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Donna Brazile, you said D.L.C., Democratic Leadership Council. Who do you mean by the D.L.C.? DONNA BRAZIL: What I mean by that — because I have seen several stories written, and often when democrats lose, I saw this in 2000 and 2002 and some other years, they constantly blame it on the — you know, the party focused too much time on the base. That’s ludicrous. Look at the money. I have run a presidential campaign, so I can speak from experience. 85% of the resources in a presidential campaign is spent on persuadables, of swing voters which is — they’re important, don’t get me wrong, but I often believe we need a parallel strategy. We also have to mobilize in a large debate, and although we spent considerable resources, you know, based on what I have heard and learned from the 527’s on base mobilization, we didn’t spend enough money to really do the job that had to be done in order to defeat and offset what Karl Rove was doing in the ex-urbs and other parts of the country.


MANNING MARABLE: I think that there is a reason why the bulk of the leadership of the Democratic Party focused primarily on so-called swing voters, especially that 10% of the American population that is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly middle to upper middle class, or upper class, as opposed to blacks, Latinos and the working poor. And that is, they don’t want us at the table generally, when the decisions are being made. Let’s be very honest about this. I think that, you know, years ago, sociologists and political scientists Fran Piven and Richard Cloward talked about the hole in the American electorate. If you look the how people vote based on their income and educational levels, people with a high — with a college education turn out or register to vote at something like 80%. People with a high school education, it’s about 50%. People who have less than a high school education, who are — who are unemployed is about 40%, and so on. So, that you can kind of predict who’s going to be turning out by socioeconomic profile. Well, if there is way that we could mobilize those who are the most disadvantaged, racialized minorities, working women, poor folk, and really get them at the table. This is what I’m talking about, a neo-rainbow approach, and really put money into that, and not just dump literature on a street corner and expect — or one bumper sticker that occasionally drives by in our neighborhoods, but rather actually putting millions of dollars and tens of thousands of campaign workers on the ground into the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and working with, and — with community-based organizations, around and focusing on issues of real concern in people’s daily lives. Then you will get a turnout, but the kind of turnout, and the kind of Democratic Party that would be produced is something that the party oligarchs are fearful of, because the mass democratic base mobilized from below, would shift the discourse at the top. And that is what they don’t want. They would rather lose a presidential election than have a true Democratic Party be truly democratic.

AMY GOODMAN: Donna Brazile, would you accept being Chair of the Democratic Party?

DONNA BRAZILE: I’m sorry, you can say that again?

AMY GOODMAN: Would you accept being Chair of the Democratic Party? DONNA BRAZIL: No, I decline the opportunity to run. I have spent almost four straight years on the road helping the party rebuild itself after the 2000 victory that we didn’t actually get a chance to serve because of the Supreme Court, and I wanted to go back and train a new generation of activists. I’m going to continue to did that, but I don’t —- I’m not interested in -—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the recount should happen in Ohio? Do you think there should be an overall recount? DONNA BRAZIL: Absolutely. I support it strongly. Finally after three weeks of a lot of phone calls and a lot of lobbying got the Democratic Party to engage. As you know, the Green Party and Libertarian Party went out there ahead, and —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, we’re going to have to wrap up the show. I want to thank you very much Donna Brazil and Professor Manning Marable for being with us.

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