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 Wall Street.

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 points.

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 Democratic Party."

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 early states."

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 suburban voters.

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 that?"

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," Steitz noted.

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 interests."

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:; web site:

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; phone 202-728-1180.

Paul Wellstone's Presidential Exploratory Committee, P.O. Box 26395, Minneapolis, MN 55426; phone 202-547-0320.

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