Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's moral principles and political leadership -- and what the era of Lincoln can teach us about the state of our democracy today.
Guest Host: Katty Kay
The manager of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, David Plouffe, talks with guest host Katty Kay about the challenges facing Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections.
- David Plouffe Managed Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and serves as a key strategist for the Democrats 2010 midterm elections. He's the author of "The Audacity to Win: How Obama Won and How We Can Beat the Party of Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin."
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is recovering from voice treatment. Yesterday on the show we talked about Republican chances in November's elections and their plans should they win a majority in one or both Houses of Congress. Today, we're going to look at the challenges facing the Democrats in the midterms. David Plouffe helped design Barack Obama's presidential campaign. He's now a key strategist for the Democrats' 2010 campaigns. David Plouffe joins us in the studio. David, thanks so much for coming in.
MR. DAVID PLOUFFEThanks for having me, Katty.
KAYThe phone number here is 1-800-433-8850. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us on Twitter and on Facebook as well. Send us a question there. We'll be opening the phones in just a while. David Plouffe, are you replacing David Axelrod after the midterm elections?
PLOUFFEI know there's a lot of intrigue about all this. Listen, the president's got a great team. They've served the country well. They've served him well. And, you know, we'll figure all that out at the appropriate time. And, I think, all of us are out there right now in the closing weeks of the election trying to do what we can to make sure we continue to move forward and not go back.
KAYBut it is perfectly normal at this stage in a presidential term to have a change of personnel? People are very tired. Bringing in new blood would not be unexpected.
PLOUFFEWell, if you look historically, that's true. I think that, you know, these are grueling jobs, particularly for people who are on the campaign, which is actually...
KAYYou look very well rested, I have to say.
PLOUFFEWell, that's right. Much to the envy of my colleagues, I have a much more normal life than they do, those that went into the White House. So, you know -- but it's normal. These are grueling jobs. And, you know, people have to make an assessment. And many people will stay. Some will stay the whole eight years, and some will leave after two. So we'll see how all that shakes out. The important thing is, I think, there -- my view of this, and I write about this in my book a little bit -- is there tends to be a lot -- too much attention paid to people like me. I think it was Charles de Gaulle who said that cemeteries are filled with indispensable men. And what matters is, you know, the president and the campaign, the candidate, what they want to say, and we're all there just to execute as well as we can that strategy and the tactics that support it. And so I understand it's interesting to talk about all this, but what really matters is, you know, the president's leadership and the direction he's trying to take the country.
KAYSomething that's not indispensable is the title of your book, and I was very remiss in not mentioning it. It is "The Audacity to Win: How Obama Won and How We Can Beat the Party of Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin." That is your new book, David. What is your role in the midterm elections?
PLOUFFEWell, I'm helping out. As I said, I'm not in the White House. I had a young child born right after the elections, so the president was nice enough to give me a kind of a two-year sabbatical, maybe a little bit more -- we'll see. But I'm helping out the White House, the DNC. You know, I was in Ohio with Governor Strickland this week. I'll be doing a fundraiser night. So I'm just helping as I can to help make sure that we have the right theory about how we can be helpful. The DNC is spending a lot of time on turnout. A lot of Democratic voters out there, some first-time voters from '08, some just historically sporadic voters who aren't yet sure they're going to vote. And in most states and districts, there's more Democrats than Republicans, not all. So -- but this is one piece of the coin. You know, there's persuadable voters -- many of them independents -- that our candidates are trying to convince to vote for them, but the other side is turnout. And the shape of the electorate, the composition of it, really will determine, I think, this election as it does many.
PLOUFFEAnd so we're spending a lot of time trying to talk to those people about the stakes in the election, what the Republican agenda is, which is actually -- you know, now that Boehner and McConnell are forced to answer questions they don't like to -- but when they're asked about what they do, they basically say, we're going to do what we did before, which were the policies that led us on the brink of a Great Depression. I don't think many people want that. We've got to remind people. But you do see this new element in the Republican Party. It is kind of the Palin, Limbaugh, Beck, Wayne. That is even more dangerous than that, you know. They don't just want to privatize social security. They want to eliminate it.
PLOUFFESo, you know, if the Republicans gain back power or a lot more power, I think, you know, it's not going to be good for the country. And I think most Democrats don't want that. So we've got to go out there and talk to them and say, there's big stakes in this election. Now, this is treated outside, you know, as if this is a new phenomenon. How come you're having, you know, all these people who voted in the presidential election -- aren't yet saying they're going to vote? This happens every, you know, every four years in an off-year, and so it's a challenge. And we have 20 million new voters that came out for President Obama that don't have any voting history. And so we've got to work really, really hard to try to convince them that this is an election worth participating. And what I'm seeing in the last couple of weeks is some encouraging signs that, you know, their intensity is starting to pick up.
KAYRight. As you say, it's a challenge, and it happens every midterms. All of those of people who got so excited don't actually turn out when there isn't a presidential candidate on the ballot. But 2008 was different, as you know, and I went to those rallies. You went to those rallies. And the level of enthusiasm was extraordinary. I haven't seen it before. I've covered four American elections. That was the first time I had seen anything like it, particularly from young people. Were you surprised? Have you been surprised at how much that enthusiasm has kind of fallen off the cliff? I mean, the number of young people you speak to who say, I thought it was going to be different. I thought he was going to be different. I thought our country was going to be different. And it's not.
PLOUFFEWell, you know, I obviously look at this from a sort of data and research perspective. And also, you know, I'm spending a lot of time out and talking to a lot of people who helped us win in '08. As I've said, I was in Ohio this past week, Tuesday, and saw a lot of people who helped us. And so, you know, there is a lot of intensity. Listen, we've had 5 million people volunteer on things like health care, financial reform. Every week, you know, we're having more and more people go out there and knock doors for Democratic candidates.
PLOUFFESo it's a volunteerism level that we have not seen in off-year election before. It's unfair to compare it to a presidential election. And I think for the most part, a lot of those voters -- and there's always exceptions to this. But for the most part, the voters that right now supported the president, who might not have reliable voting history in off-years or voted for the first time in '08, believe very strongly in him. And so the challenge is to make the connection to these elections, that in fact all the things we talked about in '08 that we needed to turn the page and bring about change, the policies we wanted to change from -- if the Republicans are successful -- are going to be right back.
PLOUFFEAnd, that, in fact, let's just -- I find it very helpful to remind people that, you know, for 700 days on the campaign, he went out there and talked about certain things. And he's either done them, tried to do them -- stayed faithful to that. And, you know, in this media environment sometimes it's hard to really penetrate, and that's why I think the best way to get some of these voters to vote is going to be someone knocking on their door or making a phone call who lives in their neighborhood and just sort of talks to them...
PLOUFFE...and convinces them that, you know, this is an election that they need to participate in.
KAYThis week, the president has been out himself. We saw that big rally in Madison, Wis.
PLOUFFEA lot of enthusiasm there.
KAYSome 26,000 people turned out. Is that making a big difference for you? How many of those 26,000 who turned out to see him are actually going to go and cast their ballots, you reckon?
PLOUFFEWell, hopefully, most of those will, but again, you know, this is not -- you know, the president's not on the ballot. And so -- listen, from the outside, it might have seemed getting all those young voters, historical African-American turnout was easy 'cause it was Barack Obama. It was the hardest thing we did, to create the kind of turnout and change the composition of the electorate. So if it was hard under those circumstances, you can imagine how hard it is now. But we're making progress, and I think the important thing is to, in every way possible, through rallies like that, through door knocking, through Internet, through candidates themselves, making the case and that -- this is an important point.
PLOUFFEI think by the election it's going to be clear to most of the people who participated in '08 that the president believes this is an important election. They ought to vote. You won't be successful if the candidates themselves have not reached out to these voters and also given them some rationale to support them. You know, that sort of sells voters short. You know, to get them out the door, to cast an absentee ballot, they have to say, you know what -- you know, whether it's Joe Sestak or Harry Reid or Patty Murray, you know -- I really feel strongly about them.
PLOUFFEAnd I think our candidates are doing a good job with that, but you have to have both. And if these voters understand that the president really thinks it's important, our organization has reached out to them. And then the campaign's done it. Then I think we can -- and we're not talking about -- no one's talking about replicating '08. If we can get just turnout a little bit higher than historical patterns in terms of sporadic voting Democrats, some of these first time voters will turn some races. We would lose 51-49 in the 51-49 wins and -- 'cause the Republicans are going to have strong turnout. And every poll out there right now, I think, basically models a very negative electorate for us -- meaning, Republicans at super high turnout, ours at lower. And the reason you're starting to see some better poll numbers is Democrats are starting to say they're going to vote in higher numbers. And if we -- so we've got, you know, four-and-a-half weeks. We've got to continue to make slow and steady progress. If we do that, I think we're going to have a much better night than a lot of people think.
KAYDavid, you say that when you remind people of the reasons they voted for Barack Obama and the fact of what he has done, that he has fulfilled his promises from the 2008 campaign, they are more motivated to vote. What about that group of Americans in the middle, the so-called independent voters, who polls suggest actually have been turned off by some of the president's policies? And far from reminding them being a good thing and getting them out to vote from your perspective, it might actually be a negative thing from the Democrats' perspective.
PLOUFFEWell, first of all, you know, all elections are in districts or in states, and so a lot of these polls that are talked about are independents nationally. And, you know, if you look at independents in certain states or districts, actually, you know, our candidates are winning them. There's no doubt that, you know, we won independents nationally by nine points in 2008. Now this independent electorate compared to '08 is more conservative. You've got Republicans who are no longer Republicans but now affiliate with no party, and obviously you've just got a more conservative, independent electorate than you might have in a presidential...
KAYBut you don't think any of this is disappointment with the President's...
KAY...policies per se?
PLOUFFEI think -- listen, I think independent voters, like all voters, rightfully are frustrated by the economy, by the pace of change in Washington. They actually do want less partisanship and more -- their leaders acting like adults in solving problems. So -- but what you're seeing is, I think, in the last couple weeks, independents are starting to focus on the choice. Before that, it was, you know, I'm frustrated. The Democrats are in charge federally. Now in cases where you have Republican governors, they're also facing a real problem with independents. Look at Rick Perry in Texas who's in a dead heat in Texas because he is the incumbent during a tough economic time. So -- but now they're starting to focus on the choice, and, you know, I was out running the Senate race in '94. This isn't '94. Ninety-four voters basically said, hey, you know, the Republicans are kind of a blank slate. We haven't given them a chance in a while congressionally, and I'm just frustrated.
PLOUFFEVoters right now are very interested in hearing from Democratic candidates and also hearing about the Republicans because the Republican experiment that was a colossal failure wasn't too long ago, so the huge deficits, the economic collapse, the complete fealty to large corporate special interests, like the health insurers and the oil companies -- you know, this is not like rolling a boulder uphill. You know, people believe this about the Republicans, and so they're starting to focus on, wow, that wouldn't be so great. So I think we have a chance to do a little bit better with independents than we might have seen in August. And that's important. It's two sides of the coin in an election. Can we improve our persuasion with independents a little bit? And can we improve the turnout patterns? And if we do those two things, and we -- in the last two weeks, we've seen some progress -- we'll have a better election.
KAYDavid Plouffe is the author of "The Audacity to Win: How Obama Won and How We Can Beat the Party of Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin." The phone number is 1-800-433-8850. We'll be taking your calls for David Plouffe in just a moment. I'm Katty Kay. Stay listening.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined our program on the Democrat strategy in the midterm elections. I'm joined in the studio by David Plouffe. He managed Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. He's a key strategist for the Democrats' midterm elections. He is also the author of "The Audacity to Win: How Obama Won and How We Can Beat the Party of Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin." I didn't say the title of his book at the beginning of the program, so I'm really making it up for it now, David. The Democrats have a plan, we are being told by POLITICO this morning, as per an aide, senior Democratic strategists are launching a plan to more starkly and specifically define John Boehner as the symbol of the Republican Party beholden to the old ways of Washington. I wonder whether many people around the country aren't thinking, John who?
PLOUFFEWell, I think that's probably right although I do think -- I mean, Boehner is a symbol of what you're going to get if the Republicans take over the House or Congress. It's the same economic policies that led the country to a Great Depression, unprecedented, really, assault on the middle class in terms of what that policies meant. They were handed a surplus and turned it into record deficits. They are running around promising Wall Street, the oil companies, the health insurers, that, you know, if we go back in power, you guys are going to be just okay. We've seen that movie before. And the notion that John Boehner would reform Congress -- I mean, this is a guy who was handing out checks on the House floor from tobacco companies -- so his entire political network is D.C. lobbyists.
PLOUFFESo, listen, if the Republicans take over control, middle class people won't be part of the discussion. It's going to be the lobbyists and the big special interests who are going to be sitting in the office up there on Capitol Hill, making all the decisions and doing things to protect them. So, you know, I think that Boehner is just a symbol of what you're going to see here. I mean, listen, what I'm really surprised by -- and I'm not in the business of giving Republicans advice, nor should they listen to me -- but had they come out at some point in the last year and a half and said, okay, we get it. You know, we lost big elections in '06 and '08. You know, here -- we're kind of the new Republican Party. Here are some of our new ideas. Here's how we're going to depart from the past, kind of like how Tony Blair, you know, operated with New Labour back in the day.
PLOUFFEHad they done that and improved their standing -- 'cause, listen, voters right now, they're not some budding love affair in the offing with, you know, Sarah Palin and John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. You know, their ratings are as low as they were in '08. So -- and I think they could have done something to fix that. And, you know, when I talk to voters out there and see research, you know, there is a sense that these guys don't get it, that -- what people don't really want is just to return. No one's satisfied with where we are today, and I think the message we have to get to voters is, do you want to go back? And that's not, you know, a distortion. That's what they're saying. They think those policies, remarkably, that led the country to the brink of a Great Depression, should be brought back. Or do you want to move forward? And we're on the right direction here. And so I think -- but I think Boehner is someone that, you know, needs to be front and center here because...
PLOUFFE...if they win, he's the Speaker. And people ought to know that, again, he's just a symbol of it. But this is what you're going to get if the Republicans take over control.
KAYBut, David, a lot of people don't believe we are in the right direction. They look at the unemployment rate, which is not coming down -- in fact, it's creeping up again -- and they don't see it coming down for a long time. And they are impatient. They've been going through this recession for two years. Yes, the White House says, and many economists will say, the policies we have taken have been the right policies. They will produce results, but the results are not there yet. And American voters are saying, true, we might not love the Republicans. This is not about wanting to vote in our Republican candidate. It's just about wanting to get rid -- to vote -- have a check, to have a check on the spending that we see and have better jobs, and we're not seeing them from the party that's in power at the moment.
PLOUFFEWell, listen. You know, the president approached what he did on the economy and some of the longer term challenges like health care, energy, education -- not through the prism of politics. It was through -- we are in a really deep hole here, but we also have some great opportunities that Washington has refused to deal with. And we're going to try and do the right things, and so, yeah, when unemployment is that high, when people are that concerned about the economy, of course, the politics are going to be tough when you're in charge. But, you know, we're in election season now, and elections are choices. And I think that -- and these are pretty dramatic choices.
PLOUFFEAnd so, again, I say no one's -- we're not out there saying, listen, everything is hunky dory. We're saying, we can either continue on this path -- and, of course, the recovery has been too slow. The job growth is not what anyone would like, but we do have eight straight months of jobs versus 22 straight months of job loss prior to that in the private sector. And, again, if the Republicans were to be successful this November, we need to let people know exactly what that means. It means the big health insurers and the big oil companies and the Wall Street banks are calling the shots, that the middle class is going to be absent from the discussion and the same policies -- I mean, what's remarkable is, this would be like Herbert Hoover in 1936 saying, you know, let's go back and try what I tried.
PLOUFFEYou know, these guys, they act -- the Republicans act like they were innocent bystanders to the economic collapse. They were chief contributors to it, and yet they want to be given the keys again. And so I think we have to make that argument, but I also think it's -- you're right. I mean, we can't go out there and say, everything's great because there's a lot of people struggling. And I don't think that's what the president or candidates are doing. And, again, we'll see, but I do think that the Republican Party have done a disservice to the country, but probably to their electoral prospects -- certainly in the long-term -- but I'm beginning to think even in the short-term because they've not been a constructive part of -- everybody understands the severity of the crisis we find ourselves in. And they really haven't been a party to try and -- to move the country forward.
KAYDavid, is there anything you wish the White House had done differently over the last 19 months to improve Democrats' fortunes in these elections?
PLOUFFEWell, first of all, you know, I'm obviously a political person. But I don't view this through the prism of politics. I really believed what we said in the campaign, which is, you know, we are at kind of a momentous moment. We found ourselves with an economic crisis only rivaled by the Great Depression. And if the president hadn't done some tough things like the Recovery Act, saving the American automotive industry and all of its workers -- millions of jobs direct and indirect -- you know, we would be in a Great Depression. Most economists agree with that. That was the right thing to do even though the politics were tough, taking on health care that our country has tried to do for 100 years and succeeding because it's going to be good for the long-term of this country. That's real leadership.
PLOUFFEAnd I think a lot of times -- and, listen. I'll be out talking to Democrats sometimes around the country. And they'll pose the question that way, which is, yeah, we like all the accomplishments, but the politics are tough. And I say, listen, you know, we don't deserve to win elections if we're not willing to lead because if you always do the safe political thing -- that's really what the president ran against, which is -- listen, we keep ducking these tough problems -- reform of Wall Street, energy, jobs and new industry, health care, education reform -- which is kicking it down the field. The whole MO is, not now, not this session, not before the next election, and that's one of the reasons the country found itself in tough -- such a tough hole. So I'm proud of the leadership, and I'm proud of those Democrats in the House and Senate and governors throughout the country who've done tough things.
PLOUFFEAnd, listen, you know, we are very clear-eyed about this. With the economy as bad as it is, you know, the politics are going to be tough. But imagine if we hadn't done the things -- what if we did -- well, you know, the polling on the auto rescue was, you know, 20 percent favor, 80 opposed. Recovery Act was never, politically, a weapon. It was always going to be tough. But imagine if we hadn't done those things, and we'd sit in a Great Depression. You know, our election would be catastrophic. But more important than the election is you got to do what's right for the country. And I think, as I write in my book, you know, this is going to be a tough election. I think it's going to be a little bit better than people think and better than it looked a few months ago, but I think the politics eventually will follow because we've led. And the benefits of that leadership are going to be very clear over the years to come.
KAYSo there's nothing you wish the White House had done differently?
PLOUFFENo. I'm proud of the leadership. I mean, I think that he's tackled tough problems. He's done it first through the prism of what's right for the country, not through the prism of politics. And so, you know, I'm really -- I'm proud of that.
KAYYou wrote an op-ed in January, and you said the Democrats needed to do a few general things to strengthen their hands in November. What were those things? What were your recommendations back then? And are the Democrats fulfilling them?
PLOUFFEWell, I said, first of all, you know, let's not be in the fetal position. Let's go out there and sort of proudly and defiantly talk about what we've done, frame it, what the Republicans are against, to go out there and talk about the benefits of health care. You know, get out of the 30,000-foot discussion about health care reform and talk about, you know, the fact that the Republicans are okay with health insurers targeting women diagnosed with breast cancer and trying to get them kicked off their plan, denial of people with pre-existing conditions. You're going to have 4 or 5 million small businesses get a middle class -- tax cut for health care, tens of millions of Americans. They're against that. I mean -- you know, and I'm -- that we need to defiantly take these on, and that we need to keep talking about changing Washington because, you know, this is sometimes derided in Washington as kind of a process argument. People are hungry for a change here: less influence of special interests, less influence of lobbyists, more transparency.
PLOUFFEAnd again, this election is a choice. And if you're an American voter listening to this program, and you're concerned about the influence of special interests, you -- the -- what the Republicans are going to bring is going to be like something we've never seen before because they are being supported financially. But what's new is, all these shadowy groups out there that are spending tens of millions of dollars -- you know, there was a report today. WellPoint, the big health insurers, poured about a million dollars in one of these shadowy groups. So they're betting on the Republicans because they want them in charge. So if you're a middle class person out there or someone trying to get in the middle class or stay in the middle class, you are not going to be a factor in the Republican decision-making. It's going to be these big corporate special interests as it was when they were in control last time. But it's even going to be worse because these big corporate special interests are writing million, two, $3 million checks to these big organizations.
KAYYou mentioned health care. And in your book, you write that health care reform will play a major role in the elections in 2010, 2012 and beyond. Is it playing the role, though, that you expected it would play? Because, actually, look at the polling. It seems to be that health care is a negative for Democrats when it comes to these midterm elections.
PLOUFFEWell, again, you know, it depends on -- the individual components of health care are quite popular. You know, the truth is most of the health care benefits have not kicked in yet. Some of the consumer protections, the old Patient Bill of Right argument -- you know, we actually now have passed that, and so kids can stay on their parents' health care plan until 26. You cannot be denied coverage based on pre-existing conditions. So, you know, as you know, the health care plan rolls out over a series of years. And ultimately, how people view health care won't be based on what somebody like I said. We're all health care consumers. We'll be able to determine whether it worked or not. I have a high degree of confidence down the road people are going to be very positive about it. But in this election, I think some of our candidates are doing a good job of saying, you know, on pre-existing conditions, on tax cuts, for the middle class and small businesses so they can afford health care, on some of the insurance company abuses that were ended, that's what my vote was about and my Republican opponent is okay with all that continuing...
KAYBut some Democrats are voting -- are running, saying, I voted against health care.
PLOUFFESome are. Some are. Most Democrats voted for it, so -- but here is the thing. If you roll back the clock to when health care passed back in the spring, you know, the Republican Party basically said, our entire campaign is going to be about health care. You know, they're not so full-throated anymore. By the way, this is something -- you know, a lot of these Republican candidates are now talking about repeal and replace health care. That's not going to happen. So I wonder what the grassroots base out there is going to say next year when they say, hey, you guys told us you were going to deliver on this. I think there's a coming sort of civil war between some of these candidates that are running in the grassroots base. But, no, I think that done properly in a lot of districts and states, the health care argument can be a very powerful weapon for us.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And if you'd like to join the program, please do call 1-800-433-8850, or send us an e-mail to email@example.com. You can also send us a tweet or find us on Facebook as well. And actually, Jennifer has written a question in from Facebook. She says, "Many of my Democratic friends are sitting out this year. Why? Because they feel the White House is more concerned with trying to be bipartisan with the result of dropping the agenda President Obama was elected to pursue."
PLOUFFEWell, I would encourage Jennifer and her friends to understand, one, the choice here, which is the policies that motivated so many people to get out in '08 to change are exactly what the Republicans are going to bring to bear, and that if you look at what the president talked about in '08, that we need to pass fundamental health care reform, we did that. We need to end combat -- our operations in Iraq. We did that. We need to try and build a new energy economy -- making batteries for electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines -- remarkable progress on that. Change our relationship with the rest of the world so we can solve common problems and lead in a strong but more cooperative way. All that is happening.
PLOUFFESo every voter out there who supported us is going to have some things that they wish had been done more quickly or differently. But if you look at the body of what the president promised -- and aside from the individual issues -- the thread was, listen, I'm going to not, you know, just play politics. I'm going to take on tough fights, and I'm going to lead. And that's what he has done with the middle class firmly. Listen, the student loan reform package. I find this very effective with young voters. You know, $60 billion dollars that would have gone in the big banks is now going to go to kids and make college more affordable. And so we've done a lot of things here that were consistent with '08. The process is always messy. You know, it's not as elegant as a campaign.
PLOUFFEBut if you look at the results, and more important than the individual count, so to speak, is what is the thread that I'm going to take on tough fights, not just play short term politics. And I'm going to have the middle class and people trying to be in the middle class firmly in my sights as I make these decisions, and he's done that. And so I would encourage them to look at the whole record, review the campaign, so they understand that there's been a remarkable consistency but also look at the contrast. And, listen, the former mayor of Boston, Kevin White, had a great line around election time. The vice president has used this, which is, you know, don't compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative. And this alternative is frightening. The American people cannot afford to go back to the same policies that lead us to this terrible place that we found ourselves in it at the beginning of 2009.
KAYOkay. Let's go to Frank in Dallas, Texas. Frank, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
FRANKWell, hello. Good morning.
KAYGood morning. You have a question for David.
FRANKI want to understand why the Democrats seemed to be ineffective there in their PR in countering the stuff Sarah Palin and the rest of the guys are putting out. And, you know, for example, you know, regarding the Bush tax cuts and whether they should stop or not, I hear a lot that that would hurt small business if those tax cuts were allowed to expire. When in fact, you know, if the increase would only be on the amount -- if there was an increase, it will only be on the amount over $250,000 for those few small businesses who earn that category and that only 3 percent of those small businesses are actually small businesses. Most of them are individuals who are rich and call themselves small businesses. But I don't see soundbites like that at 8th grade level that anybody can understand and relate to regarding that issue as well as health care and others. And I don't understand why the Democrats aren't putting those ads out during the -- in a football game.
KAYFrank has a point.
PLOUFFEWell, I would say, you know, broadly, that, you know, you can always communicate better. But I think that, you know, the communications, I think, as you see, we're beginning to see some improvement out there as people focus on the choice in this election. On taxes, I actually think, first of all, we have the right argument for the country. But we're winning this political argument because I do think that the argument has been simple. The president has talked about this. A lot of Democrats are talking about this. You know, I was in Ohio with Gov. Strickland on Tuesday, and he was talking about this, which is -- listen, what the Republicans want to do is, in a sense, borrow $700 billion from the Chinese to give tax cuts in perpetuity for millionaires and billionaires.
PLOUFFEThe president and most Democrats want to cut taxes for everybody. And by the way, this would be a Republican tax hike if we don't extend it. These -- all these tax cuts for the middle class and everybody else expire at the end of this year, so we're trying to stop a Republican tax hike. But we want to cut taxes for every American up to $250,000. They want to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires, and the small businesses they're talking about protecting are, you know, the little media empires or big media empires of Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity. And so we need to, on this tax cut, take it on.
KAYDavid Plouffe managed Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. He's here talking about the Democrat strategy. We're going to take a quick break. Stay with us.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined in the studio by David Plouffe. His new book is "The Audacity to Win: How Obama Won and How We Can Beat the Party of Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin." He's a strategist for the Democrats' 2010 midterm elections. We have an e-mail here from Larry Miller who writes to us in Pineville, N.C. Larry writes, "At age 73, two years ago, I ran up and down countless staircases to garner votes for Obama. I'm not so motivated now. I respect that the president believes in discourse and platonic dialogue, but the opposition believes in being a bully. So it's not a fair fight. Can't the president use his elbows some more? Can't he stop worrying with -- about fouling out? Can't he raise the stakes instead of compromising?"
PLOUFFEWell, again, I -- you have to respect people's opinions. That's not my view of it at all. I mean, if you talk about, not just trying to do health care but succeeding on health care, even after we lost that Massachusetts special election when almost every observer including a lot of Democrats thought we should just give up. You know, that was absolute steely leadership. You know, winding down the Iraq war, pushing more on energy and education reform. These are -- you know, Wall Street Reform, which is something that's going to be a huge benefit to consumers in the years to come and protect them against a lot of the Wall Street abuses that led to the economic collapse. You know, these are remarkable things. And I think that the president does believe that for the long-term good of the country, to rebuild public trust, you know, our leader should try and be a little bit more civil and find common areas of opportunity. Now, in financial reform, on the recovery act, we actually did get a few Republican Senators to vote for that. But -- and so I think he's always going to use that approach, which is to try and lower the, you know, vitriol a little bit.
PLOUFFEBut if you can't find common ground, then move forward, and that's what we did on health care. And so -- and listen, in the Senate right now, there's a little mathematical inconvenience that we don't have 60 senators. So, you know, to get legislation done, you're going to have to have some Republican support. But, you know, I think this is a really important part of his presidency, which is, you know, he did not get elected president, you know, as -- you know, people didn't view him as the head of the Democratic Party. He is, but they elected him president to try and lead and to try and solve tough problems and to try and, you know, change Washington. And that's going to be hard because Washington doesn't like changing. But I do think that the easy thing to do is just to be smart and snarky, just to attack the other side, to never sit down and try and find if you have common ground. And he's always going to try and do that, but again, when you can't find common ground, that's not an excuse for not proceeding. And obviously, we passed health care with all Democratic votes because it was the right thing to do for the country.
PLOUFFESo again, I would remind people, like your e-mailer, that if you look at the things that have been accomplished, the willingness to take on tough fights, the -- having the middle class at the center of all these discussions, that, you know, it's been remarkably consistent with which he offered in the campaign. The process in Washington is messy. There's no question about that. But I do think that the results have been very consistent with what we offered in the campaign, and again, the alternative here is a scary alternative.
KAYLet's go to John in Tampa, Fla. John, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show" to speak to David Plouffe.
JOHNHi, it's a great show as always. Several months ago, Robert Gibbs, the president's press secretary -- which as far as I am concerned, he speaks for the president -- insulted the progressive left in a very deep and damaging way. He said, professional left -- first of all, the professional left should be drug tested. They won't be happy until there's no Pentagon, and we have Canadian health care as if it was a slur.
JOHNNow, I'm not politically naïve, and I understand everything as far as political reality your guest is speaking about. But I -- as a progressive person who's trying to make a dent in the world, I can no longer support Barack Obama. I waited for Barack Obama. I sent him a little bit of money, and I did work for him. But I -- I'm finished with that. I can't -- I mean, to me, I was, you know, deeply insulted. I waited for several days for, you know, the president to catch that and say, hey, go out there and, you know, and make up, say you were just -- I mean, he was responding to some liberal barbs that he had received, and I understand that, too. But there was no apology several days later, and I feel deeply disenfranchised. And I'm not the only one. I mean, people did hear that. I would like your guest's response to that. And thank you so much.
KAYJohn, thank you.
PLOUFFEWell, I, you know, I think Robert, afterwards, said he regretted that term obviously. And I think he said -- and something we all agree with, which is -- you know, we need to try and, you know, link arms here and focus on the common goal, which is moving the country in the right direction.
KAYDo you think...
PLOUFFEAnd from an electoral standpoint, the common goal of trying to elect Democrats (unintelligible).
KAYBut I've had people from the left of the party say just to me this week, when the president says that Democrats should buck up and uses language like that, and the vice president says they should buck up. And the message from the White House is, stop whining. I don't know about you, David, but when I tell my kids to buck up and stop whining, it doesn't have much impact. In fact, all it does is makes them pissed off with me.
PLOUFFEYeah, well, listen, I think the point...
KAYIs that the right language to rally the base?
PLOUFFEWell, the point is that this is -- the alternative here of the Republicans gaining back control of Congress or more influence in Congress is a frightening one for, I think, all progressives and a lot of the people who were involved in the '08 campaign. And so -- and that's the message here, which is that, first of all, we should be proud of what we've done. You know, and I tell people, you know, who've -- who in '08 -- you know, I will sometimes be on people, say, well, I wish we had done, you know, a single-payer health care plan, or I'm upset about Afghanistan. Now, I respect those positions. But the notion that somehow the president said one thing in '08 and did another thing as president is just fundamentally untrue. So if you are upset about those positions now, you should have been upset in '08 because there's great consistency in terms of his approach on these major issues.
PLOUFFESo the point is, we should respect people who may be upset or frustrated with a certain issue or two or an approach, but the fact is, we have elections right in front of us. And if you want to have the Republican Party who is going to be completely slave to the big corporate special interest, who want issues like climate change, you know, tolerance issues, civil rights issues, you know, viewing the middle class as the main part of the economy instead of the big Wall Street bankers. I mean, we know what's going to happen here. Okay. So the things that we believe so strongly in -- you know, more equity out there so that the economy grows for everybody, that people have more access to good schools K-12 and the ability to go to college, that we really try and build a new energy economy, that we undertake fundamental education reform that's going to serve our kids -- go on and on and on. That we -- and I think, you know, obviously, our foreign policy's been different in many ways. That -- you know, all of that is going to be put at risk, and the stakes here are really, really big.
PLOUFFEAnd these are not -- you know, the Republicans are not -- you know, these are not going to benign people. They're going to come in here, and they're going to try and undo a lot of the things that, you know, progressives and Democrats believe are worthwhile to do. But they're all -- they're going to go further than that.
KAYBut aren't you frustrated -- as clearly the president is, otherwise, he wouldn't be using language like, buck up, when he talks to Democrats -- that the president is now caught from anger on the left of his party and from independents? Nobody's very happy.
PLOUFFEWell, I wouldn't say that. I mean, I think that there's a lot of people happy with his leadership.
KAYOkay. So you...
PLOUFFEAnd here's the thing, you know...
KAYBut you have frustration from both ends of the party.
PLOUFFEYeah, and, you know, his support level amongst Democrats is astronomical. So there are some exceptions to that, you know. Your caller was one of them. But the vast majority of the Democratic Party -- and a lot of the independents that were part of our campaign who volunteered -- believe in his leadership. And so, you know, we just have to -- I guess the point is, we can either sit out this election and allow the Republicans to do the things to the country they're going to do, or, you know, we can get together here and try and have as good enough election as we can so that we can continue to move the country forward in the right direction.
KAYLet's go to Howard who joins us from Baltimore, Md. Howard, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
HOWARDThank you. I've heard a lot about what the GOP will do if they take over the Congress. And I've heard a lot of platitudes about how the Democrats want to rebuild the middle class. What's really the Democratic agenda if they maintain control of Congress, (unintelligible), cap and trade, government industrial policy that picks winners and losers, more money for Fannie and Freddie, the position of the insane 1099 requirements and the health care bill? I mean, what is really on the Democratic table? And don't you think most voters this time around just want gridlocks? We don't like either party's agenda at this point. I'll take my question off the air.
PLOUFFEWell, I think the focus is going to be -- first of all, squarely on the middle class, so to continue to give tax relief to the middle class, to continue to do things to allow students to go to college. We see how important that is. The unemployment rate for college graduates is much, much lower than those without, to really continue to build a new energy economy. I mean, listen, if this country is strong economically in 2020 or 2025, it's because we're leading the world in new energy technology and manufacture. And we've got some countries like China and India that are profound competitors in that regard.
PLOUFFEYou know, to continue to do things in health care, to make sure health care reform is implemented in a way that lowers cost and provides good care and coverage, we obviously have some more work to do as it relates to energy, as I said. Obviously, immigration reform is something that continues to bedevil the country. Listen, if we had two or three Republican senators willing to do the right thing, we could have passed immigration reform in a way that both was very tough on enforcement and border security but also provided a pathway.
KAYAnd which had been supported by Republicans in years past.
PLOUFFEBy many Republicans. Listen, whether it's the debt and deficit commission, immigration, even Don't Ask, Don't Tell. You have all sorts of Republicans that have lifelong support for these things that are willing to put their principles in the drawer for the short -- what they perceive to be short-term political gain -- and ultimately, I don't think that is good for the country. But I don't think it's good for them long-term.
KAYWe have an e-mail from Katherine who writes, "Mr. Plouffe is a rational person using reason to the election in November, especially in that the alternative is going to be terrible for middle America and the country. But the majority of Americans vote emotionally. They are angry and will not be voting rationally." How did -- this is really -- what Katherine writes and what we've got from a lot of e-mailers, is really what you're up against. That you can lay out the alternative, you can lay out the choice -- which is clearly what the president wants this to be, a choice between Republicans and Democrats -- but people are angry, and they're voting on their anger.
PLOUFFEWell, people are angry, and I -- you know, I think they're right to be. You know, the president has said, you know, they're right to be angry and frustrated because when you can't find work or your wages have been stagnant, you can't afford health care, you can't have your child go to college -- you have every right to be angry and frustrated. And so what we have to do is make clear what we're trying to do to alleviate some of those problems but also make sure people understand that the alternative here is going to make these problems worse. And so -- you know, and I think we can do that with passion. The president certainly has been very passionate. There are -- a lot of our candidates are. As I mentioned, I was with Governor Strickland this week, and he was very passionate about, you know, if -- you know, my -- if, in this case, his opponent were to win, if the Republicans were to gain back more control, you know, people are going to be a heck of a lot more angry. Because the same policies that led us to this point are going to be put back in place, and, you know, the recovery then is going to be completely, you know, put in jeopardy.
PLOUFFEAnd, you know, again, I think -- listen, many people out there are angry about the fact that they still believe that lobbyists, the corporate special interests, have too much influence. The president has tried to really work on that, and I think with some success. But, listen, if the Republicans win back Congress, the big banks, the big insurers, the big oil companies, they're going to be calling all the shots. And middle class people are going to get really harmed in the balance.
KAYI'm Katty Kay. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Yesterday, we focused on the Republican agenda for the midterm elections and beyond. Today, we are talking about the challenges facing the Democrats and their agenda as well. I'm joined in the studio by David Plouffe. If you'd like to have a question for David, do call 1-800-433-8850. Send us an e-mail as well to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's go to George in McLean, Va. George, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
GEORGEYes. David, you made a very good point. People are angry and frustrated. You got to show them what the root cause of that anger and frustration is. I was at a rally with Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of HHS, at the University of Maryland campus. There was maybe a hundred people, tops, in that -- you know, there should have been four, five times that many. She gave a very good speech. We had a very wonderful presentation by the president in Wisconsin broadcast on this closed-circuit webcam kind of presentation. Great speech -- really rallied the troops in Wisconsin. How do you get that out and address some of the issues? I mean, Obama was addressing some of the lies, basically, that are presented constantly and the hypocrisy constantly presented by the Republicans -- you know, the quarter-truths, half-truths and outright lies. You got to hit 'em hard, buddy. You're not doing it. You got to do it more.
PLOUFFEWell, listen, I think...
KAYThanks for your call, George.
PLOUFFEYeah, George, I think we have to take every opportunity. So the president, when it's appropriate -- obviously, he's the president first -- but when he's out there talking about the election as he sees it, you know, that's a very powerful thing. Our candidates and their advertising and their speeches every day and the debates need to do it. I think the most important way we're going to reach people and explain to them the choice in this election, why their participation is so important, is at the grassroots volunteer level. So those hundred people can go out there and talk to 10 or 15, 20 people every day in the next 32 days and make an enormous impact on this election.
PLOUFFEIn 2008, the most likely reason that a lot of people who never participated in politics voted was because someone in their neighborhood or in their family talked to them. It's the world we're living in. Human contact is so important. And that's what I'm really encouraged by, is across the country we're seeing Democratic volunteers and numbers really increase in the past few weeks. So they can go out and talk to people and have a discussion. And even for people who are frustrated or may -- you know, and say I'm not sure I'm going to vote. A lot of times that kind of discussion will be very healthy, and then they'll focus on, okay, I do need to go out and vote for candidate X or candidate Y.
PLOUFFESo we have to take every opportunity to do that. And the president obviously has a powerful platform to do that. Our candidates do through the campaigns they're running and the advertising they're doing, but it is going to be old-fashioned person to person that I think will make the biggest difference here. And candidates who are -- and campaigns that are focusing on that, I think will be rewarded for it.
KAYOkay. David, we just have a minute or so left on the program. Prediction time, how are you going to do? Nov. 2, what kind of a night is it going to be? You're going to keep the House, and…
PLOUFFEI do not engage in predictions. I learned a long time ago. Remember the New Hampshire primary? That was given to us, and that didn't work out that way. So I would say this. I think that we have a very good opportunity to hold the House. I think that we're strengthening. We need to continue to strengthen. I wouldn't be comfortable if the election were held today, but I think we're on a good path here. So I think we can maintain control of the House. I think their pathway to control the Senate is next to impossible, particularly with what happened in Delaware with O'Donnell. It looks like our -- some of our western candidates like Senator Murray and Senator Boxer are strengthening. So my view is, let's just let the election play out. But I think we'll do a lot better than some of the pundits you might have on your show would offer in their predictions.
KAYOkay. We'll have to get you back after the midterms. David Plouffe, thank you very much for coming in to join us.
PLOUFFEThank you, Katty.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you so much for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is email@example.com, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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