What’s Next for Democrats?


John Hall speaks at HLS.

On Monday, an eager crowd gathered in Pound Hall to hear former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen and Congressman-elect John Hall share their views on the midterm elections and how the Democratic Party can best capitalize on their national, state, and local victories. The discussion, entitled “What Should Democrats Do Next?” drew over 80 people, many of whom had volunteered on various House and Senate races in the recent campaign cycle.

Governor Shaheen is currently the director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. In 1996, she became the first female governor of New Hampshire, and was the first Democrat elected to the governorship in 16 years. After losing a close Senate race to John Sununu in 2002, Shaheen has been a fellow at the Kennedy School and at Tufts. She was the national chair of the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004.

HLS students may know newly-elected Congressman John Hall as a founding member of the band Orleans (“Still The One,” “Dance With Me”) or from his two recent appearances on the Colbert Report. As an ardent Democrat, Hall protested the Bush campaign’s use of “Still The One” at its campaign events without having asked for permission; after hearing of his complaint, the campaign agreed not to play the song again. Beyond his pop-culture prominence, Hall has also been an ardent environmental and anti-nuclear activist, and served on the Ulster County Legislature and the Saugerties Board of Education before his Congressional run.

While Shaheen and Hall are at different points on the Democratic spectrum, they agreed on many of the things that Democrats did well to succeed in the midterms as well as on what the party needs to do to stay in favor and in power. Both expressed that the untold story of the elections was really at the local level. Shaheen said that with all the focus on the House and Senate changing hands, the stories about Democratic victories in governorships and state legislatures – giving them the majority in both areas – were lost. Hall followed up by agreeing with DNC Chair Howard Dean’s statement that the basic level of democracy is the school board, and that putting candidates in these “seemingly unimportant” posts is how Karl Rove had planned to set up a “permanent Republican majority.” Hall felt that these elections showed that this Republican plan had hopefully been derailed. Both felt that the Democratic Party becoming a “big tent” and attracting many independent voters was good news for its political future.

When asked how the Democrats can maintain majorities in 2008, both said that the Democrats have to deal with issues that people care about, such as health, jobs, and the minimum wage. The candidates who won did so by running on an agenda that made sense and appealed to Americans, and the party must stay true to the reforms that they have prioritized. When the Republicans swept into power in 1994, they then did not pursue any of the reforms on which they ran, leading to a loss of support. The Democrats are determined to learn from the mistakes that the other party made. One audience member asked, more pointedly, whether the Democrats could find a candidate to win Sununu’s New Hampshire Senate seat in ’08. Shaheen coyly replied that it had not escaped her notice that Sununu is one of the few senators whose approval rating is less than 50%.

Hall and Shaheen asserted that the freshman class of legislators is very independent, and will be able to withstand pressure and not cave in to the “culture of corruption” in DC that so many have criticized. In closing, Shaheen declared that “one of the best things about Election Day was…that I felt like it was not just a victory for Democrats, but for democracy.”

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