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Has the Democratic Party Lost Its Way?

Aired March 12, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: They lost the White House and the Congress. Have they also lost their direction? Tonight: Is the Democratic Party dead? And if so, who's to blame?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak.

In the CROSSFIRE, Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota and Democratic Congressman Charles Stenholm of Texas.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE. The Democratic Party is stone-dead, dead as a door nail. That's the diagnosis from former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, writing in "The Washington Post" this past weekend.

Not all Democrats agree with Reich's assessment, of course, but many are beginning to ask tough questions about their party's future, beginning with: who will lead, now that Bill Clinton is gone? And is Bill Clinton really gone? His final, scandal-filled days in office are still reverberating through the news. His best friend, Terry McAuliffe, is running the Democratic National Committee.

Does the Democratic Party stand for Clintonism? If not, what does it stand for? Are there any honest liberals left? Apart, of course, from Bill Press. Do they have a voice? It's a full-blown Democratic identity crisis. You can't have too many. Let the soul searching begin -- Bill.

PRESS: I think all liberals are honest, to tell the truth, and one of them is Senator Paul Wellstone. Good evening.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE (D), MINNESOTA: You know, Tucker -- he enjoyed raising that question, didn't he?

PRESS: Oh, he did, indeed.

Senator Wellstone, one of my favorite liberals, one of my favorite members of the Senate. I've seen some pretty lame ways that people use to get their names in the paper. I think Bob Reich used the lamest of all.

I mean, let's look: Over the past few years, clearly, Democrats suffered badly in 1994, but in '96 they got back eight votes in the House, '98 they regained five votes in the House. Last year, picked up two more seats in the House, didn't take control, picked up two more seats. In the Senate Democrats picked up five seats and now we're tied 50/50. And Al Gore got more votes for president than anybody else except Ronald Reagan in the history of this country.

I mean, you don't believe this baloney that the party is dead, do you?

WELLSTONE: Well, I don't believe the party is dead, but what I think what Bob, or Secretary Reich, is really saying, Bill, is: look, you win, but what do you win for?

And I think this is kind of the moment of truth for the Democratic Party. You have on the one hand, President Bush with Robin-Hood-in-reverse tax cuts, you know, with over 40 percent going to the top one percent of the population. And I think Democrats should talk about fair taxation. We probably agree on that, Charlie.

But, to me, the question that Bob Reich, or Secretary Reich, is raising is this: What happened to Democrats' politics? Can't the Democrats say: as opposed to Robin-Hood-in-reverse tax cuts going to the top, we want to invest in affordable prescription drug costs for people? Or we want to invest in a good education for every child. Or we want to expand health-care coverage for people.

And, frankly, if Democrats just jump on this tax-cutting bandwagon and no longer talk about how it is you respond to the bread- and-butter economic concerns of families for good jobs, good health care, good education, then I think we have lost some of our politics, Bill. I think that's what Bob was trying to say in his piece, and I think part of what he is said is true.

PRESS: But I think he's dead wrong. I think he's got his numbers...


WELLSTONE: Well, I know you do, but you asked me what I thought.


PRESS: I know, but I'm suggesting that maybe you've got your numbers wrong. I mean, one senator, Zell Miller, has supported the Bush tax-cut plan. There are five Republican senators, Senator, who have jumped ship from George Bush and said this is an irresponsible tax cut. And, I mean, the Democrats -- you talked about prescription drugs. I've heard the Democrats talk about that. I've heard them talk about education.

WELLSTONE: No, no. That's not...

PRESS: What are you saying?

WELLSTONE: Wait a minute. No, no, it's not a foregone conclusion what will happen. I'm just saying that Secretary Reich is trying to raise the question. It's sort of in the words of Rabbi Hill: If not now, when, Democrats? It's time to speak out. It's time to have passionate principled debate and you need to be not so timid on the bread-and-butter economic issues. That's what I think he's saying.

I don't disagree with you about the numbers. I told you at the beginning I don't think the party's dead. I don't feel dead, I feel very much alive. But that, I'm sure, Charlie would say the same thing.

But I'll tell you something: It is important for the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party to reemerge.


CARLSON: Now, Congressman, let's talk about Bill Clinton -- just because it's fun -- but it's also important. Now, Bill Clinton is no longer president, we can say a prayer of thanks, but he is still the head of your party. So you have the Democratic Party with this crazed, scandal-ridden character behind the wheel, and I guess the question is when are the Democrats going to get a designated driver to take over the party? And who, specifically, is he going to be?

REP. CHARLES STENHOLM (D), TEXAS: Well, following up on the previous conversation -- I think there is entirely too much being made of ex-President Clinton right now. I think he will work his problems out in due time and I do not believe that that is going to have any long-lasting effect on the Democratic Party, as it is, not today.

From the standpoint of leadership in the Democratic Party, we have ample leadership. We have it in Tom Daschle in the Senate and Dick Gephardt in the House, and then we have other leaders beginning to come forward with different messages.

And that's what this business of Secretary Reich declaring our party brain-dead, I have to respectfully disagree with that, because I think we've always been a party of ideas, we've always been an umbrella party. There has always been room for conservatives and liberals and honest debate within the party, and I think that those who underestimate where we're going to end up coming out this year are going to be very surprised.

CARLSON: Well, let's just talk about one Democratic leader, Al Gore. You hear a lot of whining about how Gore was actually elected president. But Gore's not acting like a president, he's acting like a college journalism professor, which is technically, what he is right now. If he's such a leader, where is he? You haven't seen him at all. He's been hiding. I mean, he's not acting like a leader.

STENHOLM: I happen to agree that that is a perfectly logic strategy, and a helpful strategy right now because of the -- as you mentioned, the closeness of the last race and the controversy surrounding it. I don't think it would be very good at all to be out criticizing the president. In fact, I don't think it is -- behooves any of us right now...

CARLSON: Or even to be standing up and showing leadership and saying: Democrats, this is where we ought to go from here, instead of hiding?

STENHOLM: In due time, you're going to see that the contest for leadership within our party, but I think it is not necessary that that happen in the first 100 days of a new administration.

I think, quite frankly, the people are tired of this gotcha politics, and I think the people are tired of the question that you just asked me, of being the foremost question all Democrats are asked. Let's get on with looking at the issues of this year.

WELLSTONE: And I -- if I could say this: I agree with what Charlie said. The other thing, though, Tucker, is that I think the question of where the leaders are -- in some ways I think we make a mistake when we think of single-person leadership or a few people at the top.

One of reasons I think the Democratic Party is in trouble, one of the reasons I think the Republican Party is in trouble, parties are trouble, is they become parties without a base. Where are all the grassroots leaders? Where are all the grassroots heroes and heroines in our states?

I think we have to do a better job (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Democrats, of connecting back to people in the states, back in the communities. And I will tell you something: one of the things that's hurt the Democratic Party, to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the debate on campaign finance reform next week, is the money chase has diluted the policy performance of the Democratic party. Where's the call for antitrust action? When do we take on some of these economic interests? Where's the economic populism? Where's the party of the people for the people? I think we're weak on that.

PRESS: Well, Senator, you had a chance, with all due respect, to speak out on that last year. And both you and Bob Reich supported Bill Bradley. You said this is where the party ought to go. He didn't win one primary. Didn't you get the message that maybe that's not where the party ought to go or is going to go?

WELLSTONE: Well, first of all, you're right, I didn't say it. Holy, I must have said something to get into trouble here.


WELLSTONE: I -- I'm proud to support Bill Bradley and Bob Duval (ph). Now, you know, Bill and I didn't agree on a lot of issues -- on global economics we didn't agree, I -- ideas for a health security, a somewhat different proposal.

The economics that I think make sense is a much more of a populous progressive economics. I think people are in that mood. And really, I think people, more than anything else, want to be able to earn a decent standard of living, support their children, good jobs, civilized working conditions, right to organize, decent price (UNINTELLIGIBLE), affordable child care, good health care, good education. And for some reason, for some reason, the Democratic Party has become too timid on those issues, and frankly, the biggest problem is the huge hole in the electorate. All the people don't care about politics.

PRESS: Well, let me mention something that I've noticed. You know, under -- the last eight years under Bill Clinton -- Democrat in the White House -- there was all this friction up on Capitol Hill between the black caucus and the liberals in the House and the Blue Dog Democrats, like my good friend Congressman Stenholm, here.

And last week we saw, with the Bush tax cut on the floor, it was the liberal Democrats and the Blue Dog Democrats who joined forces to fight that tax cut. I mean that, to me, shows the Democratic Party united as we haven't seen it in a long time.


STENHOLM: But to fight the tax cut, we were fighting it to saying budget first, and I think that is the kind of political message that will resonate with the people. I have not found anyone as -- well, that's an overstatement, there'll always be somebody that will disagree -- but, you know, here again, the day that Paul begins to join with some of our Blue Dog politics is the day we're going to begin to resonate as a Democratic Party again, because...

PRESS: And the day the party is stronger. Senator, right? I mean, doesn't that show some strength? Again, refute Bob Reich's ridiculous op-ed piece.

WELLSTONE: It's not a ridiculous op-ed piece and I like -- some of my best friends are Blue Dogs. I like what the Blue Dog...


STENHOLM: We did not have a penalty last year, we gained.


WELLSTONE: And I like your focus on fiscal responsibility, but here's -- here's the point: Bob's talking about something a little different. I think what he's saying is where is the larger purpose. I mean, you govern for what? You win for what reason? I mean, I've had -- I've been in too many discussions where the discussion is we've got to be able to figure out how to communicate better.

The question is, do we have an agenda worth communicating about? And I think our politics has become too downsized, too tippy-toe, too timid. Where is the boldness? Where is the politics that people can dream about? How do you call on people to be their own best selves? And I think that's what Bob is saying, and I don't think he is all wrong at all.

STENHOLM: Paying down the debt and creating 22 million new jobs in the last eight years is not a failure, and that is something we ought to be talking more positively about -- Democrats -- instead of Bob Reich starting to somehow say that that's been a failure.


WELLSTONE: We can do better, how about that, how about that?

STENHOLM: Well, I think we can agree on that.

CARLSON: You can do a lot better, actually, judging by -- listen to this, now, the senator asked a question, win for what purpose? That assumes you win at all. I want to read a one of the quotes that is not contestable out the Reich op-ed, he says: "Consider the past eight years. We've lost the presidency, both Houses of Congress, almost all the majorities in state legislatures, most governorships. We will lose additional House seats in the next re-districting. Most of the Supreme Court Justices were appointed by Republicans."

There is no argument: clearly, the Democrats have been doing something that the American people don't like, because they have been voting for the other team. What have they been doing?

STENHOLM: Well, you can argue with one part of that, is that we are going to lose in the 2002 elections, that's a little bit premature, and there, again, I think if we do as good a job recruiting candidates as we did -- and you have to remember, and our more liberal colleagues in the party need to remember -- that if we're going to take the House, it has to be in marginal districts. You're not going to win any more liberal seats, because they're already held by liberals.

The battle for control of the Congress is in the center right, I argue. Paul, perhaps, argues center left, but to me it's center right, and we didn't do a bad job as Blue Dogs this last year, picking up six Blue Puppies, and those were -- taking back some of those Republican seats.

CARLSON: But wait a second...

PRESS: Are they new members of the Blue Dog caucus, Blue Puppies?

STENHOLM: Yes, yes, absolutely.

PRESS: I just wanted to know...

CARLSON: And handsome puppies they are, but look: I think you can make a fairly...


CARLSON: But look, you can make the argument that Clinton governed from the center right. He was no wild-eyed liberal, and it hasn't worked. You've lost control of the federal government. So, the question is, what did you do wrong? Don't you have to you start there before you can start winning again?

STENHOLM: Absolutely. CARLSON: So, what did you do wrong?

STENHOLM: Well, that's always a good question, what we did wrong? I prefer to look forward to what we need to do right. We think last week, for example, the point that the Blue Dogs made, and was our Democratic position in the House was -- budget first.

We are not opposed to tax cuts. How can you -- we are for tax cuts. The question is, what kind of tax cuts, and how many can we afford without going back into deficit spending. We think it's a pretty good message. I happen to think it's good economics as well as good politics.

That was the argument last week, but again, I think this is what the challenge is to the Democrats, and that's what our nation is all about politically -- two-party system in which we're competing with ideas, you are going to see some ideas.

PRESS: Congressman and senator, we have to take a break here. When we come back, the Democratic Party is still alive, so who will lead it in the future and will that person lead from the left, from the right, or from the center?

More CROSSFIRE coming up, and I want to tell you that Congressman Stenholm is going to stay around and jump -- and join us in our chat room right after the show. Get your questions ready for the congressman.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Last time, Democrats were out of power, it was the Democratic Leadership Council and its president, Bill Clinton, who brought the party back, governing from the center.

But where's the party to go now? To the left? To the right? Or try to stay smack dab in the middle of the road? Assuming, of course, there is any life left in the party at all.

Two Democrats tonight debate the party's future direction. Congressman Charles Stenholm from Texas and senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota -- Tucker.

CARLSON: Congressman Stenholm, I hate to keep torturing you with these Robert Reich quotes, but they are so deeply true. And I just want you to listen to this one and get your response to it, he says: "The Democratic Leadership Council stands for nothing. Nada, zero, except it's anti-union, no grass-roots, no troops, no one in American cares about the DLC. It says it's centrist, but centrism is whatever the polls say most Americans are. It's unprincipled. Centrism doesn't lead, it follows. Centrism is Dick Morris. Centrism is nowhere."

Now, I mean, in some sense, this is true. Centrism isn't an ideology, it's a mirror held up to the majority, and moreover, I can't think of a single political revolution that started -- Reagan wasn't a centrist, the '94 Republicans weren't centrists. How can you hope to take back the federal government, you Democrats, on centrism?

STENHOLM: Well, first off, I respectfully disagree with Secretary Reich's comments regarding this also, but you have to understand, he is coming from the ultra-left of our party. That's where he honestly is, and I respect honest liberals, as I do honest conservatives. He is arguing that perspective.

I think it is grossly unfair to suggest the DLC has not contributed to ideas. Look at welfare reform, for example. To say that our welfare reform effort was not a success? Could it have been better? Absolutely, but did we get there without having some radical ideas in the radical center that did irritate folks on the left in our party, that felt we went too far, but it also irritated folks on the right.

So, the Blue Dog philosophy is, we are not dead meat in the center, we are radical centrists, we are going to be radically talking about this, and there are ideas -- in fact, I would challenge anyone to ever show where America has done better by going to the extreme right or the extreme left for very long.


CARLSON: Well, I just -- you know, in attempting to find the center, don't you undermine the principles that allow you to make the argument? Take tax cuts, for example. Democrats, by and large, are saying, yeah, we are for tax cuts too, and in so doing, they've giving up any hope to a principled argument against them, so they say mean things about the rich, they complain about the CBO estimates, but they don't really argue with the principle behind the tax cut, and therefore, they are going to lose.

STENHOLM: Well, just to the contrary. For example, I have an idea on tax cuts that haven't been discussed as yet, and I'm disappointed the president didn't put it in his package, because I happen to believe we have an energy crisis in this country. You look at California -- is a real crisis, and if you are going to deal with the real problems of this country, why don't we have some discussion of something we can do in the area of tax cutting for those in the energy -- the oil and gas business and the alternative fuels.

Why are we not having that kind of a debate? This hasn't happened yet, but that was the big argument we had last week on the floor. Those are the kind of arguments, or discussions, or debates, that the legislative process is about, but as long as you have a leadership in the House that says, thanks but no thanks, we are going to put this idea out, you got to wait until your time comes.

WELLSTONE: Can I try -- real quickly, on the ultra left and all the labels -- can I do it real quickly, because there's something I disagree with here?

First of all, welfare by the way, Charlie. The verdict is not in. The roles have been reduced by 50 percent, we know that. We also know that most of the people are still poor. The idea was for people not to be poor. We also know that many people have lost their health care coverage. We also know that there's been a 25 to 30 percent drop in food stamp participation, more than there should be.

STENHOLM: But we don't know what that really means...

WELLSTONE: But we know it's not been a reduction of poverty alone, and we also know that the child care situation is very problematical and that shouldn't be.

Here's my point: this left-right center and -- talking about Bob as ultra left -- I think is a little bit of a sterile debate. I never had anybody come up to me in any coffee shop in Minnesota and say, Paul, are you left, right or center? That's not the way people talk.

People talk about concrete issues that affect their lives. I think Democrats will do well and our country will do well when we govern in the center, does that sound good to you?

STENHOLM: Absolutely.

WELLSTONE: The center of people's lives. What is the center of people's lives? Again, people want to have a job they can support the family on, they want to be able to afford good child care, they want a good education, they want health security, they would like to have some of the big money out of politics and they'd like to get back into politics.

You know what else? They would like to have us stand up for them. People don't like all the big insurance companies, all the big banks, all the big conglomerates, all the big that sort of keeps taking over. They want to know where the politicians on our side? That's the center of people's lives.

STENHOLM: But senator...

WELLSTONE: That's where the Democrats have been weak. Democrats are supposed to be the party of the people.

PRESS: I just want to jump in with one...

WELLSTONE: And Republicans have been horrible.

PRESS: question. Tucker says nobody ever won from the center. Bill Clinton won from the center in '92. Bill Clinton was never a liberal. Bill Clinton won in the center...


WELLSTONE: Bill Clinton talked about jobs.

PRESS: Senator, people knew where he was, they knew he was a centrist. He won in 1996. Al Gore, in the center, won in 2000. Wouldn't you have to be honest and admit, however -- and as much as I love you as a liberal -- that you or I could never get elected president because we are too far left?

WELLSTONE: Are you kidding me? With my height, my brains, my looks, I would win it without a problem. What are you talking about? (LAUGHTER)

My heavens!

Now, a serious point. It has nothing to do with the individual. It has to do with, are you a representative of politics that speaks to people and includes people? I think both parties are weak on that.

STENHOLM: How do...

CARLSON: Congressman Stenholm and Senator Wellstone, we have to end this here, despite the announcement of the presidential bid. Bill Press and I will be back. Bill will try to revive the Democrats. I, of course, will kick them while they're down during our closing comments. We'll be back in a moment on CROSSFIRE.


CARLSON: Bill, I just can't believe this disarray Bill Clinton left your party in. I mean, it's like the morning after a particularly raucous event: the furniture is overturned, there are cigarette butts ground out in the carpet, it smells like stale beer. I mean, the Democrats don't control anything now, thanks to him. It's kind of sad. I feel sad.

PRESS: If you believe Robert Reich, you are in bad shape...

CARLSON: I believe the numbers.

PRESS: You know what this proves? It proves how out of touch how some Cambridge professors can be. Nothing unites a party more so than having an opponent in the White House and nothing unites a country more than having a recession. A Bush recession is what we're in. The Democrats are strong. Watch out!

CARLSON: They're huge in Madison, Wisconsin and Berkeley, California.

PRESS: No, no. Look at the leaders. You have John Kerry, you have Bob Kerrey, you've got John Edwards and Al Gore, and you have Joe Lieberman. Name them.

CARLSON: There huge in Cambridge. Massive in Cambridge!


PRESS: Bob Reich is crazy. From the left, I'm Bill Press, a proud Democrat. See you tonight in THE SPIN ROOM at 10:30 with this guy.

CARLSON: And Haley Barbour. I'm Tucker Carlson, from the right. Good night from CROSSFIRE.



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