The New Democratic Story

Anita Dunn
Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who are shaping American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talks with Democratic strategist Anita Dunn about the political landscape and her party's chances in 2008. Anita, by this time in the 2000 cycle, the Bush team had set a clear direction for the coming campaign using phrases like "compassionate conservative" and "the soft bigotry of low expectations," and "restoring honor and dignity to the White House." Have any of the candidates this year, in your view, come up with anything as memorable?

Anita Dunn: Well [Giuliani's] "12 Commitments" I don't think is quite akin go the Four Freedoms. You know, the invisible middle class, while it's a useful construct for [Hillary], I don't think it has the same resonance.

I mean, if you really wanted to look at it, you would have to say that nobody to date has come up with anything quite as defined as where Bush was in June of '99, which is when he officially announced his candidacy. Yeah, and "invisible middle class" sounds strangely like Bill Clinton's "forgotten middle class."

Anita Dunn: Slightly. But, you know, "people who work hard and play by the rules" has also made a comeback this year. You've seen Democrats fail to win two Presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2000 that many people believed were challenging but winnable. What are the key lessons you would draw from those two races that you think should be applied to 2008?

Anita Dunn: Well, they were two very different races, and in defense of the 2000 candidate and 2000 campaign, I would point out that we won the popular vote.

But it is difficult, even at a time of peace and relative economic prosperity, for a vice president to win following two terms of a president. Because, as I think Vice President Gore's campaign in 2000 illustrated painfully at times, a vice president has to move along a continuum from loyalty to leadership in the course of their campaign.

They can't be disloyal to the president they have served, but they need to establish their own leadership credentials. And I think especially given the challenges of the second Clinton term, the impeachment of the president, that that continuum proved to be a very difficult path, and that he never attained his own leadership the way he has since he lost the campaign.

And 2004 is very different. You know, it was arguably an election where the change element was very strong by then, the change element that ultimately, in 2006, we saw sweep the Republicans out.

I think one of the things that Republicans do in presidential campaigns is, rather than go at their opponents' weaknesses, they actually start by going at their opponents' strengths -- feeling if you can take away their strength, then all they're left with are their weaknesses. And I think that the decision by the Republicans to go frontally after a key rationale of the Kerry electability argument, which was his military service, was something the Democrats didn't expect.

So, I think there were a couple of lessons here.

One of the key dynamics you saw for both 2000 and 2004 was strong leadership, and at the end of the day, George Bush being seen as the strong leader, and the Democrat being seen as not as strong a leader for very different reasons. The second piece that I think is critical is the strength of your conviction piece. And Vice President Gore and Senator Kerry are people who have very strong convictions and very strong beliefs. Witness how strongly they've been advocates for those beliefs since they lost the Presidency.

We have the strongest field of Democratic candidates that we've had in my adult lifetime, and each one of them is running for a reason; and I think that communicating those reasons why they're running is a critical piece to victory. Speaking of convictions, the John Edwards campaign seems to believe that poverty is not only a policy area in which he'd like to make progress, but also a window, as it were, into his soul -- and into his personal strength and into his character.

Do you think that they're taking a risk by arguably moving so far on an issue that's perceived as kind of hard left, believing that the character that is revealed when he talks about poverty is more powerful than the ideology it may represent?

Anita Dunn: Well, I once had a candidate who was being attacked for being a single-issue candidate; and at the time, I said to her, "You know, better to have one issue than no issues," which is the way most candidates are perceived. Hey, if you're being attacked for being a single-issue candidate who cares about something a great deal, you're ahead of most people.

You know, the three Democratic candidates seen as being the top-tier candidates, are three extraordinarily different candidates who are taking three very different paths, and each one is the best path for them; and that's one of the reasons this race is so interesting.

You don't have a lot of "me-too-ism" when you get to the top three. They are very distinct candidacies. You know, I believe that the lesson that Senator Edwards clearly took out of 2003/2004, and he's talked about this, is to show people what you care about. Be honest with them; and that is the path he has chosen.

Much of his rhetoric and much of what he talks about has a great tradition, frankly, in Southern populism and Southern economics. That is the way Democrats still win down there, is with a very kind of populist argument

But there's no non-risky strategy out there. And I think his is informed by experience, and you have to respect that. He's a very smart politician. But do you personally believe that Democrats are sufficiently past getting tagged as too liberal, so that when Edwards talks about, reducing the deficit doesn't matter as much as increasing spending -- and casting himself as very willing to raise taxes and not just on the very wealthy -- isn't there a particular risk that the Democrats get burned in an area in which they've been burned so many times before?

Anita Dunn: Every election has its own dynamics, and it's played out against the context of where the country is at that time. So, this is not the 1990s. It's not the 1980s. It is 2007, 2008, and the country and the world are in very different places than they were in the past, and the American people will make that decision.

But having said that, the flip side of the risk, of course, is the honesty and the fact that he doesn't sound as though he's over-promising. And, you know, just as you say the Democrats are vulnerable to being seen as too liberal still, I will argue that the Republicans have far more of a vulnerability, I believe, in this election, to be too conservative, too rigid, too ideological, because of their definitional character in the White House.

People are going to be willing to take a look at Democrats, even Democrats who are saying some things that 20 years ago would've lost them elections, because they are so anxious for a change.