Democrats Discuss Future of Party at HLS


The Harvard Law School Democrats held their second annual conference this week, with a theme of “Rebuilding the Democratic Party and the Left”. Featuring prominent Democrats as speakers and guests, the weeklong conference explored ways for Democrats to regain power and score electoral victories.

Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania opened the conference with his keynote address, where he discussed his belief that two key issues prevented the Democrats from winning the White House in the last election: organization and communication of values.

“There’s no question that in the last election one of the reasons we lost is that the Republicans have a better infrastructure in place,” said Gov. Rendell. “[The] Bush campaign got up to ten percent more votes [in red counties] than in the last election,” said Rendell, noting, “it happened because the Republicans were organized.”

“We don’t do much in between [elections]. We lose elections because of that.” Rendell recognized that although many Democrats began preparing for the election fifteen or sixteen months before November, Republicans had been preparing ever since Bush v. Gore was decided. “We have to take a chapter out of their book,” said Rendell. “We can’t stop-cause they don’t. They don’t stop for a minute.”

Gov. Rendell also emphasized the need to build campaigns from the ground up, focusing not just on national elections but on local ones as well. “We need all our activists at every level to understand that a school board election…a city council election…are incredibly important to what happens in a presidential election.”

One way to garner more support according to Gov. Rendell is to communicate the issues better so that voters can see a clear difference between Democrats and Republicans. “On every issue that people care about, they believe the Democratic Party is better suited to making progress.” Rendell pointed to polls that indicate majority support for Democratic policies and questioned why Democrats still lose elections when their positions receive more support. Rendell postulated that Democrats fail to frame issues properly, leaving voters uncertain as to what differentiates a particular candidate from another.

Framing issues is another tactic Democrats failed to employ properly, according to Gov. Rendell. Listing abortion as an example, Rendell pointed out that Democrats are often declared to be “pro-abortion”. Suggesting Democrats take a page from Hilary Clinton, who recently distanced herself from such a label, Rendell noted that instead of “pro-abortion” a Democrat could acknowledge a desire to see a reduction in abortions but still hold themselves out as being “pro-woman’s right to choose”. “We have to repackage our message,” said Rendell.

Another example Gov. Rendell listed of improper framing is in the debate over values. Rendell pointed out that although the Christian Bible says little about abortion or gay-marriage, these have come to be the defining issues in the “values” debate. Meanwhile, concern for the poor, which is discussed more frequently in the Bible, is often overlooked. “It’s our primary obligation to take care of the most vulnerable of our citizens,” said Rendell.

Gov. Rendell concluded by urging Democrats to take a stand. “Their policies are morally bankrupt, but we don’t say that,” said Rendell. “If we’re going to lose-stand for something.”

Following Gov. Rendell’s speech on Monday was a panel discussion on the role of the internet in building the Democratic Party. John Palfrey, Executive Director of the Berkman Center here at HLS, moderated a discussion that featured Jerome Armstrong, a prominent blogger from MyDD, Amanda Michel, the communications coordinator at the Berkman Center, Matt Stoller, a consultant and activist, and Joe Trippi, former Campaign Manager of the Howard Dean presidential campaign.

Tuesday featured two panels, one on how Democrats can better convey their vision and principles, and a subsequent one on how to sustain field operations beyond the current election. Both were panel discussions featuring a range of speakers, including Mary Beth Cahill, former campaign manager of the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

Wednesday included a panel on the creation of new ideas to revitalize the Democratic Party. Moderated by Jamie Sabino, Board Chair of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, the panel continued the themes first elaborated upon by Gov. Rendell and featured throughout the week. The panelists included Chuck Cooper, Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee, John Halpin, Senior Adviser at the Center for American Progress, and Gary Orfield, Director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Gary Orfield began the panel by lamenting the failure of progressives to communicate their ideas in recent years. Pointing out that liberals had prevailed in communicating their ideas during the two last major shifts in American history-the New Deal and the civil rights era-Orfield believes a similarly strong presence to be lacking in the modern day. “The progressive voice just isn’t there,” said Orfield.

John Halpin suggested communication might be the problem. “Once we have the ideas, how do we communicate them? How do we frame them?” Echoing Gov. Rendell’s comments earlier in the week, Halpin urged a focus on better organizing and communication. “We need to build the infrastructure so that it endures…the American people have to know what a Democrat stands for.”

Halpin also followed up on Orfield’s comments about why progressives, who had dominated previous major debates, were now losing ground. “The movement that governed American policy throughout the 20th century is perceived to be bankrupt of ideas,” said Halpin, noting that Republicans have now come to be viewed as the party of ideas. Halpin urged for greater examination into how such a change had taken place.

Chuck Cooper suggested the answer might lie in reminding the public about the progressive track record. “What it is to be American is what we’ve accomplished over the past century…we need to be proud of this,” said Cooper.

The conference continues Thursday, with panels on the media, community building, and the identification of future candidates.

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