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Who Will Lead the Democratic Party?

This is a partial transcript from The Beltway Boys, November 23, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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MORT KONDRACKE, CO-HOST: Joining us to talk about the Democratic Party's struggle to find a new message and a new messenger after its election day losses is Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, a magazine that Fred and I both used to work for.

And I might say, Peter, congratulations on what you're doing over there. I think you're, you're doing a great job with our old publication.

PETER BEINART, EDITOR, THE NEW REPUBLIC: Thank you, I'm following in great footsteps.

KONDRACKE: Yes. Now, The New Republic and you were deeply critical of Al Gore's attack on Bush Iraq policy. But I wonder whether that extends to the rest of, of Gore's act, that is, you know, saying that he was going to run a people-versus-the-powerful populist campaign, criticizing Bush for demolishing civil liberties, you know, advocating a single-payer health plan, and the rest of that.

What do, what do you think about the rest of Gore's act?

BEINART: Well, you know, one of the reasons that a magazine supported Gore over the years was, was the sense that he was more of a sincere New Democrat than a lot of other people in the field. The noise that he's been making most recently wouldn't suggest that. It's still very early although  it's worth noting that he actually, as far as I can tell, is one of the few Democrats who still hasn't called for the repeal of the Bush tax cut.

So there's a certain amount of ambiguity in the position he's taking.  But one of the things that I think is problematic in this idea that we have a new authentic Gore is that I always thought the authentic Gore, and the Gore that we really liked, was the guy who was really more hawkish and, and more centrist than a lot of other people in his party.

So far, he's not, he's not proving that.

KONDRACKE: So you, you're going to wait on an endorsement this time?  I mean, your boss, the publisher of The New Republic, is an old associate of Gore's, and, and endorsed him right out of the box the last time he ran.

You're going to wait, I take it.

BEINART: Sure. Well, we waited, you know, we endorse sometime around, as I remember, you know, February, March. We'll wait till the heat of the campaign. We endorsed, if you went back and read that editorial, based on his ideological differences with Bill Bradley and their record. And Gore was clearly running as the more centrist candidate.

I hope that Al Gore will kind of pick up that mantle again. But it's very, very early on.

FRED BARNES, CO-HOST: Yes, it's hard to imagine anybody being less centrist than Al Gore at the moment.

But I wanted to ask you about something else, and that's someone that you have, you know, criticized very strongly in The New Republic, Nancy Pelosi, the new leader of Democrats in the House of Representatives. What, what's your problem with, with her?

BEINART: I think twofold. First of all, I think that Nancy Pelosi, even though she's now trying to appear as more of a moderate, was really elected by a House Democratic caucus that has moved to the left, and specifically wanted to elect someone as a repudiation of Dick Gephardt's pro-war stance.

And we very firmly believe that if the Democratic Party becomes the anti-war-with-Iraq party, the kind of soft-on-war-on- terrorism party, we really will no longer have a 50-50 nation, we'll have a 60-40 Republican nation. The Democrats will be in a kind of McGovernite wilderness for a generation.

The other concern we have is that even though Nancy Pelosi seems to want to appeal to the center, I would compare her to Tom DeLay. As a politician, you have to have an instinct for how things are going to play in the larger country, and you only hone that instinct by spending time around people who differ from you.

Tom DeLay doesn't understand that because he hasn't spent a lot of time around centrists in his district in Texas. Nancy Pelosi has the same problem, growing up, you know, growing up as politician in San Francisco.

I fear she doesn't have the right instincts.

BARNES: Let me read you something that the South Carolina Democratic Party chair, Dick Harpootlian, said after the election and after the choice of, of Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic leader in the House.

He said, "We're going to spend a considerable amount of time explaining to moderates and swing voters why we picked one of the most liberal legislators in the country to head our, our office. It's a distraction at the minimum and a huge problem at the maximum."

He's particularly talking about Southern white swing voters and Democrats. Isn't Nancy Pelosi likely to drive many of them, of them toward the Republican Party?

BEINART: Yes, I fear that's, that's true. And I actually think we, as centrist Democrats, need to take some responsibility for that, because in the center, the centrist wing of the Democratic Party did not put up a compelling alternative. Harold Ford came into the race late, but really didn't have a lot of specifics. Martin Frost, who was the previous candidate, was really seen as an inside tactician.

It's the centrist wing of the Democratic Party which needs to think big if it's going to try to reclaim the party, which I fear is going in a very wrong direction.

BARNES: Yes, Peter, in a recent column, you endorsed an idea that I think there were only three journalists in Washington have also still talked up, and they're all conservatives, Bob Novak, George Will, and myself, and that's term limits for congressional members. What drove you to that idea?

BEINART: Well, what drove me to it was, was frustration. You know, particularly frustration with liberals, because a lot of liberals, and I consider myself one, griped a lot, I think rightly, about how little competition there was in these last elections, particularly in the House, the fact that most Americans really had no choice at all in a, in a vote for their, their member of Congress.

And I think the question is, what do liberals want to do about that?  And, and term limits, although I think it does have some problems, would at least offer some alternative, a chance to really recreate competition in a lot of House races. It's done that in a lot of governors' races, and that's why I suggested that some liberals should take a new look at it.

KONDRACKE: Peter, I was going to have you handicap the, the, the Democratic presidential field, but, but we don't have time. So let me just ask you one question. Why doesn't The New Republic just write an editorial saying that Joe Lieberman should repudiate his pledge not to run if, if Al Gore does?

BEINART: Well, I mean, I, you know, Lieberman took that, took that pledge, and I take him, he seems to be worth taking at his word as someone who believes it would be wrong to dot hat to Al Gore, given that Gore had given him his big break. So I don't think it's in our, our position to kind of say that.

Certainly we think that a lot of what Lieberman has stood for, The New Republic agrees with, and if he doesn't run, I really hope that somebody else, whether it be Kerry or Edwards or even Gore himself, really takes up the mantle for a really aggressive Democratic vision on the war on terrorism.

BARNES: Thanks a lot, Peter.

BEINART: Thanks a lot.

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