BY PETER LEROE-MUNOZ
“The Democratic party is comatose.” So began a speech by Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, at the Democratic Law Students Convention held this past weekend. Reich was one of a series of speakers who addressed the state of the Democratic Party, and the focus of his talk centered on the inability of Democrats to create an enduring party identity. “Republicans have a party. Democrats do not,” railed Reich. “We have a collection of candidates and a series of issues. There is no on-going movement. We [Democrats] have no means of keeping young people engaged between elections.”
The former Secretary continued by comparing the respective electoral strategies of the Democratic and Republican parties. He noted that Democrats have relied on outdated political ideas, much to their detriment. One such strategy is the “40-40-20 rule.” Reich described the principle as the idea that approximately 40 percent of the electorate will support a Democratic candidate by virtue of party identification alone, and that another 40 percent will support a Republican candidate on the same basis. The remaining 20 percent of the electorate are swing voters who could vote for either party candidate. Traditional logic dictates that candidates should direct their efforts at the swing voters, and Democrats have consistently based their campaigns around this principle.
Reich noted that Republicans abandoned this strategy in the 1980s, deciding instead to promote a set of core political beliefs. In so doing, said Reich, Republicans established a coherent and unified party identity. In time, voters who saw Republican candidates as having the courage of their convictions rewarded that party with votes and contributions.
Reich also criticized the Democratic Party’s inability to retain its populist voice. He spoke of a recent Republican rally in which the majority of attendees were local blue-collar workers. Reich asserted that Democrats have failed to clearly articulate the ways in which their party is more supportive of working class interests than the Republicans. One example he noted was the recent tax cut. “Republicans claim that the tax cuts have given an average rebate of $1,000 per taxpayer,” said Reich. “By that logic, Shaquille O’Neal and I have an average height of six-foot-two,” joked the diminutive speaker.
To regain the support of the working class, Reich suggested that Democrats focus on the regressive tax implications of the corporate and upper-class tax structure, as well as the erosion of health care, social security and education programs.
Despite his criticism of the party, Reich asserted that politics is still a worthy pursuit for left-leaning students and activists. “The worst thing in politics is not an avoidance of problems or escapism: it’s resignation and cynicism.” He cited the example of his own son, a college senior who, despite significant participation in community service, is disillusioned with politics. On that theme, he challenged young Democrats to seek out cynicism, to eliminate it, and to stake out an activist position in politics.
In addition to the presentation by Reich, the Democratic Law Students Convention hosted speeches by Congressman Harold Ford of Tennessee, Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman, and Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank. Among the most unique events of the convention was a panel that addressed issues surrounding a young Democrat’s run for elected office. The presentation, moderated by former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, served as a mini-tutorial on campaigning, fundraising and policy preparation for potential candidates. The panel consisted of community and policy activists Samara Barend and Stefan C. Friedman, as well as Massachusetts State Senator Jarrett Barrios.
Among the common themes presented by the panelists was the idea that success in politics is based upon commitment to public service, and an ability to convey sincerity regarding the concerns of citizens. Said panelist Stefan C. Friedman, “Know yourself and why you are running for office. Equally important, convey that story of who you are to voters, and how you can address their needs.”
Senator Barrios echoed the advice. “Successful elected officials are those who are interested in doing, not in being. You have to be passionate about an issue or an ideal, and you need to be moved by the idea that your actions can make a positive difference for the community.”
In addition to presenting suggestions for potential candidates, the panelists addressed common misconceptions about holding elected offices. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t run for office because of fundraising,” said Dukakis. The former governor noted that he had collected small donations from over 70,000 contributors, each of whom was energized to campaign on his behalf. Dukakis also dispelled the myth that an elected official cannot have a family life. “I had two rules when I was in office,” said the former Governor. “First, I was always home for dinner at the same time every night. Second, Sunday was set aside for my family: no politics.”
The presentation ended with all of the panelists encouraging attendees to seriously consider running for office at some point in their careers. The message was well received: a straw poll revealed that nearly half of the students already had ambitions of running for elective office within the next ten years.