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Political Parties Recalibrate Strategies


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, with Renee Montagne.

The Democratic Party chairman, Howard Dean, drew criticism several months ago for a public statement that began, `I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for.' The rest of Dean's statement got less attention, even though it's at least as interesting. As he recalls it, Dean said that he disliked Republicans...

Dr. HOWARD DEAN (Democratic Party Chairman): `But I admire their business model for running campaigns,' something like that.

INSKEEP: In an interview, Howard Dean said he wants to return his party to power, partly by learning from the party that took it. Though the next election may seem far away, strategists in both parties are racing for an advantage that could influence this country's future. In this part of the program we'll hear some of what they're planning. When Dean considers the future, he's not afraid to pick up pointers from the competition.

Dr. DEAN: They have tremendous ability to identify people with demographic data, which we have but we don't--our system's not as good as theirs, but it's gonna get better. They have ability to give a message that is not always accurate, but is very effective. But we need to talk differently to people. We just do a lousy job getting out our message, and we equivocate, and we're afraid to say what we mean. I think if we say what we mean we're gonna win.

INSKEEP: The Democratic chairman wants to peel away voters who favored President Bush in 2004. One of the president's political advisers, Matthew Dowd, wants his fellow Republicans to know that could happen.

Mr. MATTHEW DOWD (Bush Political Adviser): Part of the thing when you look at--in these campaigns is--and I've been involved in as many winning ones as losing ones--and you actually learn better lessons from the losing ones than the winning ones. And I think in the aftermath of a winning one, people have a tendency to think they did everything right, and we did a lot of things very well, but there were some things that we could do better.

INSKEEP: When we spoke to leaders in both parties, we could sense the competition. Howard Dean is traveling to so many states that he hasn't even moved into a home here in Washington. He met us during a relatively rare day in his office at Democratic headquarters just before starting a cross-country trip from Georgia to California. One of Dean's goals is to recapture the blue-collar workers who increasingly favor Republicans.

Dr. DEAN: These are people who are afraid of what's coming through the television at them, they're afraid because the sheriff found a methamphetamine lab two counties over and they know that's coming into their kids' schools. They're worried about how to raise a moral child in an ambivalent environment. As Democrats, we need to embrace that. We haven't done a good job of that. However, this is not about gay marriage and abortion; those are Republican issues. They talk about that all the time. The Democrats are not a party of gay marriage. The Democrats certainly aren't a party of abortion, which we've allowed the Republicans to label us as. This is about moral values, and I think if you match the Democratic Party against the Republican Party, we win on moral values every single time.

INSKEEP: You said you're not the party of gay marriage and not the party of abortion. Wouldn't it be accurate, though, to say that you are a party where many leaders agree with gay marriage and you're a party that strongly favors abortion rights?

Dr. DEAN: We are a party that believes that the principal difference between us and the Republicans is not that we all in the Democratic side think abortion is a wonderful thing. I don't know anybody who thinks abortion is a wonderful thing, and I think the task of society is to make sure that everybody gets treated fairly.

INSKEEP: Did you speak about moral values in precisely the same way when you were a presidential candidate before the 2004 election and the way that you speak right now?

Dr. DEAN: Not as clearly.

INSKEEP: Like many Democrats, Howard Dean contends that Republican rhetoric has distracted working Americans. He says so-called values issues kept voters from embracing Democratic efforts to improve their jobs or their lives. What's surprising is that Republican strategist Matthew Dowd offers a similar analysis.

Mr. DOWD: People, I think, have a tendency to think that voters vote in their self-interest, and I think that was some people's assumption about blue-collar voters, that people thought, `Well, the economy's not as good as it should be, and it could be better under a Democrat,' but people were weighing things for the national interest and what they thought was in the best interest nationally or for their state. It's much more about national interest.

INSKEEP: The author Thomas Frank got a lot of attention last year by pointing out that many Americans seem to be, as he put it, `voting against their own economic self-interest.' He thought that was a bad thing. I assume you don't. But it sounds like you would agree with it.

Mr. DOWD: Yeah. I agree with people voted against their own self-interest, but I actually think it's a very good thing.

INSKEEP: Republicans hope to persuade more voters to accept their view of the world. And for that reason, the Republican national chairman is traveling as constantly as his Democratic counterpart. When we spoke to him this week, Ken Mehlman was about to go to the airport. He was on his way to meet Latino voters in California. The Republican has also been courting African-Americans, who gave President Bush only 11 percent of their votes last year.

Mr. KEN MEHLMAN (Republican National Chairman): I think we have a tremendous opportunity with African-Americans. We have a tremendous opportunity to continue the growth we've had with Latino voters. I think it was 88 percent of the country agrees that `under God' ought to be included in the pledge of allegiance and were offended by the fact that it will be removed from the pledge of allegiance. That strikes me as a lot of potential voters.

INSKEEP: You mentioned African-American voters. What's an issue that you can use to peel away significant numbers of African-Americans, if it can be done?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, I think there are a number of issues. One is equal opportunity and education. If folks aren't happy with the schools their children attend and don't think their children are getting an equal education, then we have a plan to make sure that there is equal opportunity in education. Another one is personal retirement accounts. Forty percent of African-Americans, who are 65 years and older, live entirely on their Social Security paycheck.

INSKEEP: Despite Mehlman's efforts, public opinion surveys showed that African-Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of President Bush's Social Security plans. But to veteran Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, the point is that Mehlman is trying.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Democratic Strategist): Just recently he converted a black city council member to the Republican Party. He's reaching out, he's raising money, and I thought by now Ken's ability to try to reach out would have faded and he would be onto something else, but, no, he was down in Richmond, just last week, once again, reaching out to garner the support of African-Americans.

INSKEEP: At the same time, the Democratic chairman, Howard Dean, is appealing to voters who were assumed to be solidly Republican.

Is there a slice of the electorate that's comparable that you're going after...

Dr. DEAN: Yeah. We'd like to get some evangelical Christians and we'd like a big chunk of the Catholic vote back.


Dr. DEAN: Well, what people want to know is: Do you have a soul, or do you have some deep convictions? Do you care about what they're doing? Does it matter to you? Do you respect them? I think we've been dismissive of deeply religious people, more so than we should have been. And our values, I think, are more in sync with most evangelicals than the president's values. I've had some of them call me up--they're very conservative, more conservative, certainly, than I am, but they also share a lot of values of the Democratic Party that are not Republican values. The Democrats are about reaching out to those who have been left behind. We're about welcoming different kinds of people. If you had a list of strong Christian values up on the wall, I think you'd find those values that are more predominantly Democrat than they are Republican.

INSKEEP: There is one more group of voters that both parties think about as they consider the future. It's the voters who are the future. Republican Matthew Dowd notes that this is the only age group that voted against President Bush in 2004.

Mr. DOWD: We didn't do as well as we wanted to do among younger voters, voters under 25 years old. Any little incremental change in how you do among constituencies will be helpful. And you don't build these things in big swaths where you don't say, `OK, we doubled our percentage.' You build it 2 percentage or a half a percentage at a time, and then, over a series of a couple of elections, you've built yourself at a position where you're tough to beat.

INSKEEP: That's the work that leaders of both parties want to accomplish now, long before most of us even begin to think about the next election.

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INSKEEP: As their party chairmen continue to consider the future, members of Congress are working through the brutal politics of today, and this morning a newspaper story gives a Republican political scandal a more bipartisan look. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay faces widespread criticism for his ethical conduct. For example, Democrat Howard Dean said DeLay maybe ought to be serving in jail. DeLay is linked to a lobbyist who faces federal and state investigations for the way that he represented Indian tribes. This morning, The Washington Post says that lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, didn't just arrange campaign contributions for Republicans. His firm included Democratic lobbyists, and the tribes represented by that firm also contributed to Democrats, including the former Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, and the current Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid. Democratic lawmakers say they never worked with Abramoff directly.

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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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