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The Democrats' Direction


The midterm elections are just over two months away, and Democrats are enthused - all sorts of Democrats, judging by primaries and special elections so far. There's Conor Lamb, a pro-gun Marine veteran who won a House special election in Pennsylvania this spring, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist who unseated a 10-term incumbent in her New York primary this summer. And it's not just marines and socialists. In Ohio, Senator Sherrod Brown is seeking re-election as an outspoken progressive who is cheering President Trump's tough stance on trade with China. We're joined now by two Democratic strategists who we hope can tell us where the party is heading and what it stands for - Jeff Weaver, who managed Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. Good morning.

JEFF WEAVER: Good morning. How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm great. And Jennifer Palmieri, who headed the communications for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, welcome to you.

JENNIFER PALMIERI: Thank you. Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So are these midterm elections, as much as you'd like to make them about jobs and health care, simply a referendum on President Trump? I'm going to start with you, Jennifer.

PALMIERI: I think it's all of it. I think that Trump is sort of baked into how voters are looking at the midterms and what you see in the campaigns. And I think this is - you know, the right thing to do is to focus on issues. And you're going to see a class come in that is really energized to make a difference on actual issues that affect people's lives.

WEAVER: Well, I mean, I do agree with Jen. Look. There is a unity on the Democratic side against this disastrous administration, which has, you know, ripped children from their mothers, which has, at every opportunity, stabbed working-class people of all races in the back. These are the people that Trump promised to champion. And we have candidates who have got to articulate a bold vision about where we go. They need to be clear with voters about what they want to accomplish. You know, they have got to be bold in presenting the type of alternative which the American people can rally around, which will then lead to Democratic success in 2020.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was just listening to a piece from NPR's Wade Goodwyn on Beto O'Rourke's campaign in Texas. He's the Democrat challenging Ted Cruz. And this soundbite from former Texas Ag commissioner Jim Hightower stood out to me.


JIM HIGHTOWER: You've got a Democratic constituency that are fed up not just with Trump but with the centrist, mealymouthed, do-nothing Democratic establishment. And they're looking for some real change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So if that's the sentiment in Texas, should the party be leaning further left?

PALMIERI: So when I look at the results, the primary results, it's encouraging for Democrats in that I see the people who ran the best campaigns, ran on issues that were core to them and important to their districts. And they won. We try to find other patterns - well, that means that people aren't moving to the left. You know, it's better to be a woman, which is, you know, the first time in American politics has ever been better to be a woman in terms of your chances of winning - but glad to see that. And I think that it's something simpler than that. I don't think most voters look at candidates even in primaries to think - to look at in an ideological way. I think...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there is a division between - in the party, writ large. There is a sort of struggle over what the Democratic Party means. And, sure, at this point, you're positioning yourself as a huge tent, not just a big tent. You're trying to be all things to all people. But at some point - and I've certainly talked to Democratic voters about that.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: They wonder what exactly you stand for.

PALMIERI: But, see, it's different. It's not as if there's a Democratic Party, which are nine people, sitting in an office on Capitol Hill and deciding what we're all for - right? That is not what's happening. What is happening, which is what you want to see in a party, is a revitalization that is coming from the grass roots up.

WEAVER: Even if you look at the candidates who were not the most progressive in the race, you are seeing candidates who are much more progressive than the quote, unquote, "center" of last time. Conor Lamb ran unabashedly against the Republican tax plan. You know, Democratic centrists of past eras would have run in favor of that plan. You know, the nominee in - for governor of Michigan is for a $15 minimum wage. So what you're seeing is that the party itself, the whole center of gravity in the party has moved in a more progressive direction. And I think we will come out a stronger, more united party that is capable not only of competing with Trump but in defeating him in 2020.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Could the Democratic Party go much farther left than mainstream Democrats are comfortable with in the same way that some Republicans feel that the Republican Party has gone too far into supporting President Trump than they're comfortable with in his policies?

WEAVER: There is a coalition of the Democratic Party. There are a variety of viewpoints. I think the center of that party is moving to the left. Will it be ultimately more left than some people on the right side of the Democratic Party think is appropriate or the donor class thinks is appropriate? That's certainly possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question. Jeff, I'm going to the start with you. Let's say the Democrats take back the House, as many models suggest. Who should the speaker be, and what should the first three pieces of legislation be?

WEAVER: Well, look. I - who the speaker should be, that's up for the people in the House to decide. In terms of legislation, I think, clearly, we have got to move forward on health care. We've got to - obviously, it's not going to go anywhere with this president, but we should put forward a bold solution to America's health care problems.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say that you mean single-payer.

WEAVER: Well, yes. I mean, a majority of the House Democrats support single-payer. We've also got to tackle the issue of immigration in this country. We need comprehensive immigration reform. We need a path to citizenship for 11 million people who are in the country. We need to make sure that families are never ripped apart at the border again. And I do think that Democrats should put forward a bold jobs/infrastructure program that would put millions and millions of people back to work all across this country, rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and show that electing Democrats, in fact, will enhance the economic life of every person in this country and every zip code. And when we do that, we need to make sure that that package includes appropriate protections so that communities that have previously been left out receive their fair share of the benefits.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should note that we're at historic lows for unemployment. But, Jennifer...

WEAVER: Yes, but wages have not gone up. And wealth...


WEAVER: ...Inequality continues to escalate in this country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just noting. Jennifer, same question to you. Democrats take back the House, who's the speaker? And legislation?

PALMIERI: It's up to them decide their leadership. I know they're doing that in December. I know that Leader Pelosi believes she has the votes to win that, and it wouldn't surprise me if she did. And I do say she's the most effective leader in the better part of the century in Congress. And I think that's why she's been attacked. So I think that list of issues that Jeff articulated is right, and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Single-payer health care?

PALMIERI: Single-payer is not my preference, but I do think that the Democrats in the House are going to have to come together to figure out which proposal they think is best and put that forward. And they should do the same on immigration. And they should do the same on wages. But alongside these issues have got to be serious accountability of the administration. And that is going to be a place where they can make an enormous difference and they can do that right away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jennifer Palmieri, formerly of the Clinton campaign, and Jeff Weaver of the Sanders campaign, thank you both so very much.

PALMIERI: Pleasure.

WEAVER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.