Democrats debate future, past of party


If the discussion on Tuesday night was any indication, the Democratic Party has some thinking to do. Out of the Oval Office for the first time in eight years, the party is trying to grapple with both its past and its future in its effort to recapture glory.

This week’s panel discussion, held before a large HLS crowd, focused on forming consensus on the future of the Democratic Party. Moderated by David Gergen ’67, a former advisor to four U.S. Presidents, the panel was comprised of Democratic Party heavyweights. The panelists included Elaine Kamarck, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government and former senior advisor to Vice-President Al Gore; Warren Tolman, a Massachusetts State Senator who will be running for governor in 2002; Byron Rushing, who serves in the Massachusetts House of Representatives; and Marc Landy, a presidential scholar and professor at Boston College.

Kamarck described the Democratic Party as “ironically quite strong,” despite having lost its grip on the White House and being the minority party in both houses of Congress. Yet Kamarck was quick to point out the drag of the Clinton years on Democrats nationwide. The former president, who “led the country through a national soap opera,” according to Kamarck, has continued to dominate headlines his controversial exercise of the pardon power. This has made “the American public forget that they barely elected [President] George W. Bush,” she said.

The solution, as far as Kamarck is concerned, is to “get rid of Bill Clinton and make sure that Hillary Clinton is busy bringing home the bacon to Buffalo and [upstate New York].” Responding to this candid remark, Gergen expressed pleasure at seeing Kamarck abandon her former cautiousness in matters concerning Democratic politics, now that she is no longer encumbered by ties to an elected official. “It was so wonderful to see [Kamarck] recover her voice,” said Gergen.

Landy observed that Democrats will necessarily be reactive to certain Republican moves. Yet he cautioned liberals. “Don’t give the other side all the good symbols,” Landy said. He pointed specifically to the ethnically diverse cabinet of President Bush, which he said was “rife” with powerful symbolism.

Democrats must take a two-pronged approach to Republican initiatives, according to Landy, balancing patience and aggressiveness, as required by the situation. Landy said, for example, that an overt attack on programs like “faith-based” charities would be counterproductive. Patience must be used with conservative programs that resonate with the public lest the Democrats be painted as the “Anti-God” party, Landy said.

On the other hand, Landy said that the Bush tax cut proposal should be attacked aggressively. “This is still Jefferson’s party,” Landy said. “It’s still the party that’s against the fat cats.” To drive home this point, Democrats must immediately do one thing. “Fire Terry McAuliffe,” Landy implored, alluding to the recently appointed Democratic National Committee Chairman. McAuliffe, who refers to himself as the “Mack,” rose to power on the merits of his fundraising prowess.

Rushing began his remarks on a strident note. “This whole discussion of political parties has to begin with an understanding that this country wasn’t a democracy until 35 years ago,” he said. Rushing spoke of a history of political parties for the “few, not the many.”

The Democratic Party, according to Rushing, is really a conglomeration of several smaller parties that solidify every four years during the election for president. This creates a vacuum, Rushing said. “Why bother having political parties?” he asked.

The answer is ideology. “I believe that parties should have an ideology,” Rushing said. He pointed to the Massachussets State House as a negative example, the embodiment of a “one-party system.” Rushing said that the Democratic Party is so dominant in Massachusetts that any conservative who wishes to get elected must run as a Democrat. “Our ideology is our name,” Rushing said of the Democrats.

Tolman, who spoke last, likened his mission to that of Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh husband. “I know what I’m supposed to do,” he said, “but I’m just not sure how to make it interesting.”

For Tolman, the single biggest issue in politics is the influence of money on the process. The presence of huge dollar figures drives “cynicism and discontent” with the political system. Campaign finance reform is needed to address what Tolman sees as a long-term crisis in politics, one that repels young voters from the idea of serving in government.

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