Fighting for the Soul of the Democratic Party
Progressive Democrats Prepare for 2000 Campaign
By Jim Cullen
When the Democratic Leadership Council recently previewed candidates for
president heading into the 2000 election cycle, none of the rhetoric would
make a regular Democrat's heart go a-flutter, much less raise alarms on
Vice President Al Gore offered the business-oriented centrists at the DLC
his brand of "practical idealism," as opposed to the "compassionate
conservatism" offered by Republicans such as Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska lectured on the benefits of partial privatization
of Social Security to offset his support for national health insurance.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts sought to shake the "liberal"
label by challenging the teacher unions with a proposal to expand choice
within the public school system. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of
Missouri advocated progressive tax reform.
Conspicuously absent from the December 2 DLC cattle-call of potential candidates
were progressive Democrats Jesse Jackson and Paul Wellstone and neoliberal
Bill Bradley. In announcing the formation of his exploratory committee,
Bradley spoke of the need to bring America to its full potential, noting
problems of child poverty and the millions of Americans lacking health insurance,
but Bradley, although he is well-regarded by the D.C. elite, has stump skills
that are every bit as wooden as Gore's.
Bradley, a Missouri native and basketball star at Princeton and with the
New York Knicks, developed a reputation as a sober thinker on public policy
issues as a senator from New Jersey from 1978 to 1996. He generally fits
the neoliberal label--liberal on social issues but centrist on economic
issues, including support for free trade issues such as NAFTA. And he's
boring. As one observer said, "Bradley would give us the Clinton administration
without the sex."
Jackson and Wellstone, on the other hand, are populists who look to shake
up the race but get little respect from the media elite or the corporate
campaign financiers. Jackson, who in 1988 won seven million primary votes
and finished first in 13 states and territories, is considering another
race. In a speech at the National Press Club in December, Jackson said he
would make a decision after Christmas, but he said his test for any presidential
candidate is whether they would improve the lives of poor Americans such
as the ones he visited in Appalachia in April. (See his column on that theme
on page 17.)
Wellstone was in Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Florida the first
week in December, seeking support for a possible campaign. In Iowa, he warmed
up the rhetoric, saying that the federal government needs to break up large
agribusinesses that are running family farmers out of business. Eventually,
he said, the concentration of meatpacking and other commodities will result
in higher prices for consumers once the small producers are forced out of
business. If he runs, Wellstone said, "I'm going to be like Teddy Roosevelt.
I'm going to be talking about trust busting," the Des Moines Register
reported. "Too few people have too much power," Wellstone added,
and "too many people have been left out" of American prosperity.
If he makes the race, Wellstone said, he also would talk about the growing
consolidations in the telecommunications, insurance, health care and financial
service industries. Wellstone said he would run a "very populist, downright
anti-establishment race" with a campaign that would champion "grassroots,
labor-intensive politics." He added, "I'm not running to come
in second ... I'll be running to win."
Wellstone has trumped the odds just to get this far. The son of a Russian
immigrant, he wrestled at 126 pounds at the University of North Carolina
and he was a political science professor at Carleton College when he challenged
Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz in 1990. Wellstone toured the state
in a battered green school bus and aired humorous ads created by the consultant
who went on to design Jesse Ventura's ads this past year. He won by 2 percentage
Running for re-election in 1996 in a rematch with Boschwitz, Wellstone showed
he could raise money ($7 million, mainly in small amounts) as well as maintain
a grassroots organization, when Republicans targeted him for defeat. The
GOP pounded his vote against the welfare repeal bill and his support for
the 1993 deficit-reduction package, which raised taxes on the wealthiest
Americans, as proof he was "embarrassingly liberal," but it turned
out that Minnesotans respected Wellstone for standing on principle on welfare--and
they didn't mind taxing the rich, either. His campaign was making 12,000
get-out-the-vote calls per hour at its height and the effort helped turn
out nearly 70% of registered voters, 20 points above the national turnout.
He got 51% of that vote in a three-way race (nine points ahead of Boschwitz).
This year Wellstone has visited more than 20 states (including Appalachia,
retracing the steps of Robert Kennedy 30 years ago) and he has spoken at
hundreds of political events. His exploratory campaign reportedly had raised
$600,000 in early December, which is not a lot by big-time standards [CNN
pundit William Schneider scoffed to the Minneapolis Star Tribune
that a half-million dollars "will buy you one day of television in
California"], but it provides the seed money to launch a low-budget
grassroots campaign such as the one that propelled him to the Senate in
1990. Wellstone has set up campaign offices in Minneapolis and Washington,
D.C., and reportedly signed up Pete D'Alesandro, the field organizer for
Iowa Gov.-elect Tom Vilsack's upstart campaign, as his Iowa coordinator.
At press time Wellstone reportedly was ready to offer jobs to prospective
staffers in New Hampshire and Florida.
"Things really crystallized for me in Iowa," Wellstone told the
Minneapolis Star Tribune when asked to consider the positive parts
of a campaign. "I got up early and said 'This is inside me because
I want to drive big money out of politics and drive people in. It's inside
me because I want to put universal health coverage back on the table. This
campaign is inside me because I want to restore the Democratic wing of the
Wellstone was expected to make a final decision over the holidays. Since
he wants to run, Bill Salisbury of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press reported,
"what he must decide is whether he can 'really make a difference, even
if it's against the odds.'''
Dan Lucas, manager of Wellstone's exploratory campaign in Washington, D.C.,
said the response so far has been encouraging. Although many of the Democratic
Party officials are committed to Gore, Lucas said, "when it comes to
the regular Democrats, they're not committed."
Wellstone also has found a lot of enthusiasm from local union leaders, although
many of them are waiting to see which way their international union presidents
go. But Lucas, who was political director for the Service Employees International
Union for nearly six years, noted that unions have problems with the Clinton
administration's trade policy, which Gore supports, as well as some of the
environmental initiatives Gore has promoted. That gives Wellstone hope that
the union support will be up for grabs.
David Nyhan of the Boston Globe identified Wellstone as a potential
firebrand in a December 11 column. "Vice President Al Gore is the prohibitive
favorite; all the Republican insiders I talk to are convinced Gore will
be their quarry. Senators or former senators much taller than Wellstone
with combat medals (Bob Kerrey and John Kerry) or Olympic medals (Bill Bradley)
paw the turf in Iowa and New Hampshire. Wellstone, reelected to a second
term with barely 51 percent of the vote, is probably the weakest on paper.
But his earnest prairie populism, dogged bread-and-butter politics, prudent
and penny-pinching guerrilla campaign style, will appeal to the young and
the sandal-wearers, two Democratic constituencies not to be sneezed at in
Nyhan added, "Washington and the big media will be the last to get
the word on Wellstone: too earnest, too short, too Jewish, too sincere;
a real hair shirt who's always whining about the poor and left-behind when
the others want to talk about the Dow Jones hurdling 9,000 and the shrimp
at Barbra Streisand's house.
"But there are farm families in Iowa who'll succumb to the same pitch
he's used to woo votes in Minnesota's Iron Range. There are voters in New
Hampshire now who don't yet know his name who'll be holding Wellstone signs
a year from today."
To Run or Not to Run
Another question is whether progressive Democrats want Jackson and/or Wellstone
to try to make that difference in a crucial election year. Democrats are
within striking range of taking back the U.S. House of Representatives and
possibly the Senate in 2000. State legislators elected in 2000 will reapportion
election districts that will determine which party has an advantage during
the following decade. A strong Democratic candidate for president could
help turn out the vote not only to keep the White House but also to retake
Congress and re-establish Democratic majorities in the legislatures.
Democrats have to ask themselves if Gore's "practical idealism"
has the makings of a strong Democratic campaign theme, or if a debate over
who best represents the middle of the road is going to inspire the Democratic
faithful in November 2000. After all, this past November's elections showed
that a campaign that identifies issues that are important to core Democratic
voters, such as Social Security, education, health care and the environment,
not only brings those Democrats out to vote but also attracts independent
voters and beats Republicans. That casts doubt on the centrist New Democrats'
strategy that the future of the Democratic Party lay in appealing to conservative
One of the skeptics of a progressive campaign is Mark Steitz, a former policy
adviser to Jackson who later was communications and political director at
the Democratic National Committee. Now a communications consultant who is
largely out of politics, Steitz said it was "almost impossible to imagine
a candidate to the progressive side of Gore becoming president, having beaten
Gore in the primaries."
"Gore is the presumptive incumbent," Steitz said. "Somebody
who takes on the incumbent in the primaries creates such division in the
party that you end up losing in the general election."
Almost by definition, a progressive candidate must attack Gore, he said.
"A progressive candidate is never going to be running a standard, well-financed
campaign. You're going to be running a campaign based on a message that
can excite people in the field. If you're slightly more progressive candidate
than Gore ... why bother?"
Jackson is probably in the best position, should he choose to run, Steitz
said, "but you're still running against [Gore]. Let's not kid ourselves.
You're saying 'vote for me, not him.' It's not a rolling issues forum. If
you're not aiming to win ... in order to get college students off their
asses to work for him, Wellstone's gotta convince them that they're going
to win and he's got to beat up on Gore to do it."
But Steitz reiterated, "Running a harsh campaign against Gore with
the expectation of winning the presidency is a long-shot, if not impossible.
... The dilemma somebody faces if they do things to bloody Gore, are they
contributing to George Bush Jr. becoming president and if so, how bad is
On the other hand, a progressive challenge might be worth it even if the
progressive failed to get the nomination and exposed Gore's weakness.
"Newt Gingrich in 1990 as an out-of-power, demoralized conservative,
trashed George Bush [after Bush agreed with the Democratic Congress on a
tax increase] in the name of conservatism. His revolt contributed to Bush's
defeat in 1992 but it helped put [Gingrich] in the position where in 1994
[the Republicans] took back the House. ...
"If progressives challenge Gore in the primaries, that's the possible
price tag for their action. I don't rule out that it might be worth it."
Survival of the Fittest
Bob Borosage, another former Jackson campaign advisor and founder of the
Campaign for America's Future, is encouraging both Jackson and Wellstone
to run. [See his column on page 15.] He agreed that there would be a lot
of pressure on progressives to rally behind Gore. "The Democrats are
terrified that they'll lose the Presidency, the White House and Congress
and then the Republicans will go after the unions and affirmative action
and do a lot of damage. The argument will go that with Jackson, you didn't
get much last time and you're just wasting votes ..."
But Borosage added, "The reality is that Gore is very weak. He's saddled
with Clinton's global economic policy that just doesn't work for working
people and will become more of a drag on him if the economy weakens in the
next two years, which I think is very likely. You've got to get a progressive
candidate out there to show that there is an alternative. The horror would
be if all the Democrats unite behind Gore and there's no challenger to get
him to toughen his act or move him to the left in the primaries. Then he
runs in the general election against a Republican who is able to put out
a populist message with the economy in decline."
Jesse Ventura's upset victory as the Reform Party candidate in the Minnesota
governor's race shows that even in a state at the height of the business
cycle with the economy looking good, people are looking for alternatives.
"It certainly shows the potential problem of a Gore candidacy--a boring
centrist who is incredibly vulnerable from people who are looking for something
new," Borosage said.
Borosage acknowledged that Wellstone and Jackson might help each other if
they showed strength in different regions. Although the conventional wisdom
is that the more white guys in the field, the better off Jackson is, Borosage
said a "tag-team" approach is an interesting possibility.
Another consideration for the value of insurgent campaigns is they tend
to draw energetic young people into politics. "The smart people in
the Clinton campaign cut their eyeteeth in the McGovern campaign,"
Borosage, who was involved in Jackson's campaigns in 1984 and 1988, said
Wellstone must establish name identification and build a base of supporters
that Jackson already has.
"A progressive candidate needs time to lay out the issues and build
an organization and let people know about him or her and give them a sense
of what the candidate stands for," Borosage said, adding that the "front
loading" of primaries in the first few weeks of March 2000, ostensibly
to give larger states more of a role in the nominating process, actually
reduces the ability of candidates to mount an insurgent grassroots campaign.
"This front loading is an enormous disservice to the country and for
progressives in particular, since progressives almost by definition don't
have the financial resources to go out and buy media time," he said.
Jackson in 1988 was able to raise $10 million and get his progressive message
out to a national audience because the campaign wasn't decided until New
York's primary in April. This time the New York and California primaries
are set for March 7. "This year the campaign is a snapshot. Then it
was an open process, and this year Gore has all the advantages of incumbency."
Still, Borosage said, "I always think it's important" to run progressive
campaigns. "There are very few times people pay any attention to politics
and this is a situation where you can lay out an agenda of progressive political
ideas and get matching money to make your political argument," he said.
"Jackson did it in 1988--he took a progressive message and he let people
hear and who never heard anything like that before."
A progressive candidate needs to reach out and give progressives hope, lay
out his or her message and attract supporters, Borosage said. "I think
it's a wonderful time for a progressive campaign, but it's like they've
tilted the playing field toward incumbents and those who sell out to corporate
But candidates need to start now to be in a position to campaign in January
2000. "The conventional wisdom is that to be a serious candidate you
need to raise $25 million by January 2000. With a populist campaign you
can run with a lot less money but it's still going to be very tough with
the front-loading of the primaries," Borosage said. "In Iowa and
New Hampshire, Paul can excel but then immediately you're into the New York
and California primaries the next week, just when people are getting to
know you, and that requires a massive media buy to get your message out.
And the week after that is Super Tuesday. How are you going to survive that
onslaught, particularly against a sitting vice president?"
Borosage concluded, "My own sense is that the only way to do it is
you have to be in the field by June of '99--not just fundraising and getting
your staff together, but out in the political process. You've got to figure
out your message and the mode of organization and raise your funds right
now and it's not an easy task. [The media] only think [candidates] are serious
when they win a primary. Jackson was laughed out of the box until he came
in first or second on Super Tuesday and then all of a sudden the political
commentators woke up and started paying attention to what he was saying."
Lucas, with the Wellstone campaign, said he also would encourage Jackson
to run. "I believe Reverend Jackson is a great leader and a resource
for this nation and as far as the race goes, the more people that are in
it, the better." He noted that Jackson and Wellstone have different
constituencies to which they could appeal.
"The party insiders, in my opinion, have really rigged this schedule
and does this benefit the Vice President? Well, yeah! But when you start
fooling around with the system like this, the law of unintended consequences
always takes place and the political climate that exists right now [as the
House prepares to vote for impeachment] is going to be completely different
12 months from now." ...
"The bottom line of our campaign is, come what may, we would provide
the Democratic voters and the nation with a clear choice of between what
Paul stands for and what the Vice President and the Democratic Leadership
Council stands for."
Lucas also noted that it will be up to progressives to fuel the Wellstone
campaign, with their time as well as money, but at least the contributions
will be matchable under federal election law. "We're not going into
debt. Paul Wellstone and his wife--let me put it this way, if he doesn't
get paid every two weeks he's got problems. There's no family fortune and
there are no stock funds ... this is a guy who's as close to regular people
as we're going to see running for president."
Lucas labeled the idea that Gore should be handed the nomination as "preposterous.
... This is the Democratic nomination for president. You don't get this
without a fight ... It doesn't come to you on a silver platter."
"This is worth fighting for. We're going to be very aggressive. This
will be a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party."
Bill Bradley Presidential Exploratory Committee: toll-free 888-643-9799;
e-mail: email@example.com; web site: www.billbradley.com.
Jesse Jackson has not set up a campaign committee but he can be reached
c/o the Rainbow Coalition, 1002 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 2000;
Paul Wellstone's Presidential Exploratory Committee, P.O. Box 26395, Minneapolis,
MN 55426; phone 202-547-0320.
For more information, see the Progressive Populist web site: www.populist.com.
News | Current Issue
| Back Issues | Essays
About the Progressive Populist | How
to Subscribe | How to Contact Us
Copyright © 1999 The Progressive Populist