Saving the Democrats from Themselves

Can progressives win the battle for the party’s future?

John Nichols

Zbigniew Brzezinski tours the Afghan border with Pakistan’s minister of defense in 1979.
When Rep. Marcy Kaptur briefly mounted a populist, reform-oriented campaign to lead House Democrats, Washington reporters rushed to figure out whether the Ohio congresswoman’s candidacy posed a serious threat to the leadership juggernaut of House Whip Nancy Pelosi. The answer they got was blunt and unequivocal: Kaptur’s crusade on behalf of what she called “the non-money wing of the Democratic Party” would go nowhere.

“Marcy’s from outer space,” grumbled a senior aide to a powerful liberal Democratic committee chairman. “She lives in another world. She doesn’t speak the same language that the Democrats speak here.”

The visceral reaction to Kaptur’s candidacy—and, more precisely, to her pledge to remake the Democratic Party as a progressive populist force—wasn’t just mouthed by the corrupt corporatists of the Democratic Leadership Council and the New Democrat Network that serves as its congressional wing. It also was echoed by labor-linked liberals and social progressives who had worked side-by-side with Kaptur on the most critical policy issues of the past two decades. Behind the scenes and off the record, House Democrats and their aides were quick to confide the generally held view that Kaptur was crazy to suggest that the Democratic Party might want to hold a few less $5,000-a-head fundraisers and a few more bake sales and fish fries. “Bake sales!” exclaimed an exasperated committee chair. “What the hell planet is Marcy Kaptur living on?”

What most congressional Democrats failed to recognize was that Kaptur did not come from another planet, but from the grassroots of the party. One of the few genuinely working-class members of Congress—she still lives in the neighborhood where she grew up and donates her congressional pay raises to charity—nothing that she proposed was out-of-sync with the ideals or the practical solutions being proposed and applauded in the union halls, neighborhood bars, coffee shops and campaign offices where Democrats gather.

The disconnect between the elected Democrats of Washington and the grassroots Democrats of America offers stark evidence of the crisis within the Democratic Party as it enters the most critical stage of its existence since the mid-1920s. Following a series of devastating electoral defeats, and facing new battles on an increasingly unfriendly political landscape, the party must decide how it will compete for power. Will it argue that it can better manage the implementation of a conservative agenda? Or that it seeks power in order to reject that agenda and chart a new direction for the nation?


In the aftermath of the 2002 election debacle—in which Democrats lost hundreds of races at the federal, state and local levels that political history and a reasonable analysis of polling data suggested they should have won—the party was given little opportunity to practice the healthy bloodletting that follows electoral mishaps in other lands. In Britain, Germany, France, Israel, India, Canada or Australia, devastating defeats are followed by rituals of resignation and reform that set losing parties on new and often radically different courses.

In the United States, however, the failure of Democrats to hold the Senate, take the House, gain a majority of governorships or retain control of the majority of state legislative seats led to little in the way of real change. Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, a man whose every appearance on national television pushes his party to a lower rung on the ladder of public esteem, clung to his post like an indicted CEO trying to right the course of a sinking corporation. (Despite the loss of Congress and the vast majority of high-profile contests from Minnesota and Massachusetts to Texas and Florida, McAuliffe presented a “market-share” defense that noted 52 percent of Americans woke up on November 6 in states controlled by Democratic governors.) In the Senate, soon-to-be-former Majority Leader Tom Daschle surveyed his dramatically diminished domain and declared that what really ailed Democrats was not a lack of message or meaning—but Rush Limbaugh.

Only in the House and in the jockeying of potential 2004 presidential candidates was the prospect of a different course entertained with a minimum of seriousness. And the key word here is “minimum.” Of all the senior Democrats who have attempted pronouncements regarding the party’s direction, only Kaptur has articulated a vision that echoes grassroots sentiment. “To win our party must adopt a reform paradigm,” explains Kaptur. “We will never raise more money than the Republicans—never. We must elevate the non-money wing of the Democratic Party and create populist symbols to convey our message.”

To folks in Washington this may have sounded crazy. But to folks in Keokuk, Sioux Falls, Las Cruces, Buffalo and Lansing, where Democrats have seen congressional campaigns collapse—not for lack of money, but for lack of message and messengers—it’s a rare dose of common sense. Democratic activists know that their candidates did not lose because of a massive shift in voter sentiments, but rather because of a dramatic decline in turnout among base voters who are having more and more trouble figuring out why it matters to vote Democratic. “When I talk to Democratic activists, they always tell me the same thing: Let’s stop playing to the special interests and start appealing to the people who have just stopped voting,” says Barbara Lawton, the new lieutenant governor of Wisconsin.

Lawton was outspent 3-to-1 in a Democratic primary but still beat the party establishment with a campaign pledging to fight for universal health care, public campaign financing and protection of reproductive rights. “Democrats in the county parties and the union locals and the pro-choice groups know that they don’t have to raise the same amount of money as the Republicans,” she says. “We can be outspent, so long as we speak to people about fundamental issues. But when our leaders chase after the big money, they weaken the message, and we lose.”

Kaptur, who won her first campaign for Congress in 1982 after being outspent 2-to-1 by a Republican incumbent, actually raises money with bake sales and fish fries in Toledo and surrounding towns. And she still spends a lot of her time encouraging her constituents to get involved not just with her campaigns, but with broader policy issues. Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition activist Steve Miller got a call at home in October from Kaptur, who has been an ardent foe of war with Iraq. “She called to thank me for what we’re doing,” he recalls. “I was surprised. I don’t normally get calls from congresspeople when I’m sitting around my kitchen, but she’s saying the same things we’ve been saying.”

Kaptur thinks that members of Congress and their constituents ought to be saying a lot of the same things—not just about issues of war and peace, but also about what opposition to the Bush administration and conservative Republican policies should look like. The senior Democratic woman in the House and a member who inspires intense loyalty among the labor and progressive farm groups for which she has been the leading congressional champion of fair trade policies, Kaptur argues that Democrats must reject tepid reforms and quick fixes. “You have to turn the whole structure of the Democratic Party upside down,” she says, challenging the party to make a clear break from corporate special interests, to stop “skimming money off the top with $5,000-per-person dinners” and start campaigning for “economic populism.”


The point here is not to suggest, as Republican spinmeisters and Democratic hysterics have, that Nancy Pelosi is already a failure. Pelosi, a well-intentioned liberal with a solid record on labor, environmental and human rights issues, is speaking with more clarity than did Dick Gephardt about the need to “draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and the extreme policies put forward by Republicans.”

But even as she seized the leadership of a party sorely in need of direction, Pelosi was fuzzing her message with talk of seeking “common ground” with Republicans in the White House and Congress. Pelosi chose to eschew populism in order to keep the peace in a caucus where a handful of conservative southern Democrats exercise disproportional influence and in hopes of maintaining her ability to raise the massive amounts of campaign money she guided into the coffers of Democratic congressional contenders during the 2002 campaign.

Pelosi’s fall vote against launching a unilateral war with Iraq earned her “opposition leader” credibility that Gephardt and Daschle lack. But so far Pelosi is offering Democrats little in the way of the clean break with corrupt and corrosive strategies that they got from William Jennings Bryan in 1896, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 or the House and Senate “Watergate babies” of the 1970s.

Pelosi—who is still struggling to define a proper opposition stance for the caucus—would do well to borrow a page from Kaptur. She could start by asking herself whether there are any Democrats outside the House Minority Caucus who disagree with Kaptur’s argument that, “I want our Caucus to be a deliberating body, not a cheerleading body. We should get the influence of big money out of Congress and construct a progressive economic agenda for America.”

Cognizant of the failure of congressional Democrats to seize upon the Enron scandal, Kaptur says Democrats need to recognize that they will never be able to present themselves as an alternative to big-money Republican politics until they make their own break from the special interests. Rather than competing for corporate campaign money, she says, Democrats “should hold up key Republican fundraisers, such as Jack Welch and Kenneth Lay, as the poster boys for the failed GOP economic strategy. Yes, we should hold the Republicans’ feet to the fire on rising bank fees, skyrocketing insurance rates, tax breaks skewed to the richest Americans and a failed deregulation strategy.”

Freed from the constraints of big-money, Kaptur suggests, Democrats could do far more than criticize: They could begin to “articulate an alternative for America’s families and workers.”

“We should work with Democratic governors and state legislatures to push prescription-drug initiatives,” she continues. “We should propose a federal national health insurance plan for small businesses. We should propose a counter-cyclical economic stimulus plan that includes visionary projects such as high-speed rail to get our country out of recession. And we should champion an energy independence plan that would liberate our foreign policy and help solve our balance of payments problem.

“We should stand up not only for the steel industry, but also the textile workers in the Southeast, the auto-parts industry in the Midwest, and small businesses such as the tool-and-die shop owner and the family farmer all around the country. They’re all in trouble, and nobody’s standing up for them because they’re not giant multinational corporations pumping money into the political system.”


Kaptur will not be in a leadership position in the House, but she will continue to be heard. She has visited Iowa and New Hampshire to test presidential waters, earning a particularly warm reception from farmers who delighted in her critique of corporate agribusiness. She probably won’t seek the presidency, but one of her allies in the House, fellow Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, is likely to do so. Kucinich, the chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says that if he seeks the presidency, he will mount a campaign that speaks to many of the same issues that Kaptur addressed in her brief House leadership run. The difference, of course, will be that while Kaptur was trying to convince Washington insiders to change their ways, Kucinich will be speaking directly to grassroots Democrats in primary and caucus states.

Intriguingly, Kucinich may face some competition for control of the reform message from an unlikely source: Al Gore. While Gore may be lacking in the credibility department, he appears determined to present himself as a dramatically different kind of Democrat than the Al Gore who carried the party’s banner in 2000.

Gore probably won’t take many hard-core progressive populist voters away from Kucinich, a former mayor of Cleveland whose record on issues of corporate power, civil liberties and foreign affairs is dramatically better than that of all but a handful of congressional Democrats. But with his recent embrace of single-payer health care, his moderately anti-war statements and his bashing of the consultants and pollsters who have guided Democrats into the abyss, Gore seems to be signaling that he knows something a lot of Washington Democrats do not: That to win the confidence of the party’s core constituencies, those who would lead the party will have to offer a lot more than a tepid managerial message.

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John Nichols is a fellow with The Nation Institute who writes The Beat column and covers national politics for The Nation. He is also an associate editor for the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin and a regular contributor to In These Times and The Progressive. He is the author, most recently, of Jews for Buchanan: Did You Hear the One About the Theft of the American Presidency?
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