Democratic Leadership Council Founder and CEO Al From on Why the Democrats Lost the Election
Friday, Jan. 26, 2001; 2 p.m. EST
A renewed war is underway over why former vice president Gore did not win the election and where the Democratic Party should go from here.
Al From represents the Democrat who believes Gore lost the election because he wasn't centrist enough. Other Democrats oppose this view saying that in fact, Gore didn't embrace more liberal views often enough in the campaign.
From is founder and chief executive officer of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and publisher of the DLC's new policy journal, Blueprint: Ideas for a New Century. A veteran Capitol Hill and White House aide, From helped form the DLC in 1985 and played a prominent role in the 1992 election of President Bill Clinton. He will join washingtonpost.com Friday, Jan. 26; 2 p.m. EST to discuss the recently released report, Why Gore Lost, And How Democrats Can Come Back.
The transcript follows.
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Good afternoon Mr. From and welcome. There is a lot of speculation out there on why former vice president Gore lost the election? What are your thoughts?
Al From: To begin, Vice President Gore won the popular vote. But regardless of how we feel about the election, the reality is that George Bush was elected according to our constitutional process. Our analysis shows that the Vice President won on most of the specific issues, but President Bush won on the big themes. Bush's ability to paint Gore as a big government liberal, which was reinforced by the Vice President's populist message, proved decisive. As a result, Gore ran poorly among a key group of swing voters - men who live in the suburbs, work in the new economy, and have moderate political views. In addition, the vice president did not run strongly enough among self identified moderate voters to win the election.
What will happen to the Democratic Party leadership given the results of the election?
How will the DLC members of Congress work with the Bush administration on such issues as healthcare?
Al From: I think the Democratic Party will be a constructive opposition to President Bush. I hope DLC members and all Democrats will work with the President on issues where we can be true to our values and principles. And, I hope Democrats will challenge the President with ideas of our own. A good example is the DLC-New Democrat education bill introduced this week by Senator Lieberman, Senator Bayh and a host of New Democrats in the House and Senate. That bill which furthers Democratic values can be the basis for a compromise education bill with President Bush - if he is willing to compromise on items like vouchers, which most Democrats oppose.
Can you explain the difference between a "New Democrat" and an "Old Democrat?"
Al From: A New Democrat believe in furthering the first principles of the Democratic Party with modern means. So New Democrats and so-called old Democrats agree on the underlying principles of our party. New Democrats want to offer ideas for furthering them that our in tune with a fast changing America in the information age. Let me give you an example: the first principle of the Democratic Party since the days of Andrew Jackson has been equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none. New Democrats believe that the best way to stand for opportunity in the 21st century is to support policies that foster private sector economic growth. That's why we support fiscal discipline (balancing the budget and paying off the debt), expanded trade, and investment in education, training, etc., all things that help the private economy grow. That was the Clinton-New Democrat economic policy and it resulted in the best economy of our lifetime, created 22 million new jobs, saw incomes up and poverty and welfare down.
South Bend, Ind.:
Didn't Gore lose because of Clinton? Isn't that really the answer?
Al From: I think on balance, the record of the Clinton-Gore Administration helped the Vice President's campaign much more than the Clinton problems hurt it. If it hadn't been for the Clinton record on the economy, crime, welfare, etc - what we call the fundamentals - my belief is Gore would not have been as close as he was. In the end, Gore could have run on the Clinton-Gore record and at the same time separated himself from Monica Lewinsky and other Clinton behavior problems. Had he done so I think he would have won the election. In the end, Clinton's approval ratings were higher than any other president at the end of his term since polling began.
Hi Al, I'm a DLC member from Florida, but I've grown increasingly disturbed by the anger of the infighting in the Democratic Party, between new Democrats and old Democrats. Can we further our debate without such harshness?
Al From: You need to be careful not to confuse differences over political strategy with angry infighting. When a party loses the White House, and divisions exist in the party, it can paper over those differences or can have angry exchanges in the press. Or it can discuss those real differences in a civil forum, like we did earlier this week. I don't consider that angry infighting, but a constructive process to build for the future. Think about it like we were selling a product - and sales went down. We could pretend that didn't happen or we could do market research and try to figure out what we need to do to increase sales. That latter is what I hope we will do. If we try to paper over real strategic differences instead of trying to talk them out, we will pay a big price on election day two or four years from now.
Do you think there is a danger for Democrats in constantly repeating the mantra "Gore won the popular vote" for the next 4 years? It seems to me that it makes it more difficult to do some serious introspection to make any substantive adjustments. What do you think?
Al From: I absolutely agree. Whether we like it or not George Bush is sitting in the White House, elected and inaugurated according to our constitutional process. We won't change that by pretending it isn't so. We need to analyze why we lost an election we should have won comfortably and then go about correcting what went wrong.
Santa Barbara, Calif.:
What is the DLC doing to build the New Democrat movement at the state and local levels?
Al From: The DLC is making an extensive effort to nurture and build the New Democrat movement all across the country. We now have a network of thousands of state and local officials in all 50 states who receive daily commentary and talking points on our Web site, are engaged with us in shaping New Democrat ideas, and work with us to put New Democrat ideas into action. If you go to our Web page www.ndol.org and click on the New Democrat Magazine and check out our convention issue, you'll an indication of the breath and quality of our network. That magazine features 100 rising New Democrat stars from all across America. In addition, we do extensive training of state and local officials on how to practice value-based, idea-based New Democrat politics - and in a number of states, like California, we have DLC-New Democrat caucuses in the legislature. You can find out more on our Web site.
How did you first start in politics?
Al From: After earning a master's degree in journalism, I went to work for Sargent Shriver in President Johnson's war on poverty. I decided that rather than writing about issues like poverty, I wanted to do something about them. When President Nixon was elected, I was not convinced of his commitment to the war and poverty and went to work in the U.S. Senate as a staffer from Sen. Joe Tydings of Maryland and a subcommittee staff director for Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine. I spent two year in the Carter White House and four years as director of the House Democratic Caucus, before starting the DLC in 1985. I got in to politics - not through campaigns -- but through my commitment to issues and getting things done.
Hello Mr. From. What do you feel will be the role of our youth (including myself) in the Democratic Party and the DLC in the future? Thank you.
Al From: I believe young people have a critical role in the DLC, the Democratic Party, and American politics. Not only are you our future leaders, but young people are always brimming with new ideas - and our politics needs new ideas and intellectual dynamism. We started the DLC to put ideas and idealism back into politics -- we also thought that was a winning political formula -- and we must never lose the zest for idealism and new approaches that young people have. I hope you'll visit our Web site and get involved in the DLC.
Al, it's Carl Lingenfelter from Chicago.
I agree that we need to make sure the Democratic message appeals to the new economy voters, but we also need to do a much better job explaining to our core democratic base that those new economy policies will benefit them as well.
How can we marry New Democratic themes, such as open trade, to the education and social needs of old economy Democrats?
Al From: Carl, good to hear from you. Hope things are going well for you in Chicago. I believe that to build a majority Democratic coalition we need to win the support of both new economy voters and our core constituencies. And, I think, as President Clinton showed, the New Democrat philosophy of opportunity for all, responsibility from all, and community of all is the best way to put that coalition together. Both new economy voters and working class voters want a strong economy with better jobs and higher incomes. Both want to replace welfare with work. Both want to see our streets safe. Both believe in John Kennedy's ethic of mutual responsibility - the idea that we don't just take from our country but that we give something back. Both believe in a modern, not bureaucratic, government that equips people with the tools they need to get ahead. Policies that work toward those ends will unite and enlarge our coalition.
Liberals like to point out that Al Gore's strongest showing in the polls came after his convention, when he was stressing populist themes. What is your response to that view?
Al From: Our polling shows that Bush came back by painting Al Gore as a big government liberal - and that, in the end, that was decisive. It further shows that the voters who went to Bush in the last month - in other words the voters most accessible to Al Gore -- were not responsive to the populist message and would have responded better to the Clinton message of opportunity, responsibility, community. In the end, those Bush swings - the voters who came to Bush in the last month - decided the election.
Is it not true that the DLC formula for success assumes that the left has nowhere else to go, thereby allowing the DLC to shift the policy debate to the right.
Al From: The DLC is not about shifting the debate to the right. It is about modernizing progressivism so people will vote for it again. Because we often challenge old assumptions and old programs, we are accused of moving to the right. But what we really are about is furthering enduring principles, not clinging to old programs. For example, we are often said to be conservative because we wanted to end the old welfare system and replace it with a work system. But the old welfare system was hardly progressive. It kept millions of poor Americans trapped in a separate economy, offering them a small dole. We believe that we need social policies that bring poor Americans into the social and economic mainstream. That's was the DLC pushed the expanded earned income tax credit so that no American who worked full time to support a family had a income under the poverty level. And, it's why we pushed to end welfare and replace it with a work system to help people become self-sufficient. I think anyone who looks at the outcome of millions of Americans moving from welfare to work and into the social and economic mainstream would have to say our approach is more progressive than the old system.
Will the DLC help the Democratic Party push a leader who will become an attack dog to pull the party solidly to the center (which is more in line with the feelings that the country is expressing anyway)? Do you see a "Newt Gingrich"-type democrat who can play this role?
Al From: The DLC will work to develop a modern, progressive, centrist governing agenda to counter the Republicans. People won't vote for us because we can attack the Republicans; they'll vote for us because we have good ideas that are good for the country and that they can support.
The Post says that the Democratic Party is falling apart. In your opinion is this true? If the party moves from a center position to a left position, they will not win the next election. Your thoughts?
"Recriminations.com" By E.J. Dionne (The Washington Post, Jan. 26)
"Democratic Soul Searching Begins" By Charles Babington (The Washington Post, Jan. 24)
Al From: I don't think the Democratic Party is falling apart. We are simply assessing why George Bush won the Presidency and what strategy we need to follow to win it back. That's hardly destructive; it's constructive and we'd be derelict in our roles as party leaders if didn't do it.
New York, N.Y.:
It seems to me that the fact that Gore won the popular vote and that polls consistently show that Bush is way out of step with most Americans on social and other issues (the environment, tax policy and women's issues, among others) provides a lot of raw material for our side for both the 2002 elections and for 2004. How can we best use it?
Al From: The best thing Democrats can do to win in 2002 and 2004 is to offer an agenda that is compelling to most voters. Of course, we should take advantage of Bush's mistakes and of issues on which he is out of the mainstream, but we need to deliver a message of our own that is compelling and in tune with the times. Being right on the individual issues may not be enough. We also have to have the right big themes to connect with voters. In this election, for example, Gore won on the individual issues, but Bush won on the big themes by painting Gore, fairly or not, as a big government liberal. In the end, the big themes won out.
San Antonio, Tex.:
Why didn't Mr. Gore allow President Clinton to campaign for him, especially in the final weeks when it was obvious this was a very close election?
Al From: The leadership of the Gore campaign clearly felt that having the President campaign would hurt rather than help. That was their call. But a lot of Democrats, including myself, believe that the President could have helped.
Thank you all for participating in this chat.
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