Democrats Struggle to Define Voice Ahead of 2004 Election

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This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, June 17, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: In all, nine Democrats are making the rounds, staking out their positions and looking for support.

Simon Rosenberg is president of the New Democrat Network (search) and today's big question is what will it take for Democrats to beat President Bush, Simon?

SIMON ROSENBERG, PRESIDENT, NEW DEMOCRAT NETWORK: John, thanks for letting me come here today. I think we have to have a positive, optimistic agenda for the country. We released today at our event — hundreds of people from across the country gathered here in Washington — six things that we feel are going to be critical for Democrats to stand for in the next couple of years.

First, expanding prosperity and opportunity. Second is protecting the homeland. Third is acting on responsible global leadership. Fourth is a set of policies that strengthen families and communities. Fifth, modernizing health care. And, sixth, leaving behind a more beautiful America to our children.

I think if we have the capacity to have a positive, optimistic agenda in 2004 that can unite Democrats, independents, and disaffected Republicans, then we're going to do just fine. That is the most important thing we have to do.

GIBSON: Simon, we're very clear what President Bush wants, what he stands for. It's not a mystery to anybody.


GIBSON: But it is a bit unclear what the Democrats are, in part because there's so many of them and they have some differing ideas. Is there a cohesive, coherent Democratic stand on a dozen or so different issues?

ROSENBERG: Listen, clearly when a party is out of power it is harder to have a unified voice. But I think we have to be clear about one thing. What is more important for the president is not for him to be clear, but for him to be right. And I think on the critical issues facing the country, the president is clearly offering solutions that are not as good as other solutions that can be offered to the American people. Being clear doesn't matter.

What matters is doing the right thing for regular people in this country. I think Democrats will have a unified voice once we have a nominee next year. I think the American people should realize until our primary process works its way through, there's going to be a lot of different voices competing to be the big dog in our party. And I think until the spring of next year, we're not going to know who the nominee is going to be.

GIBSON: Let me show you a quote from former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (search). This is about education policy, and he says that, "The No Child Left Behind Act is a big unfounded mandate, and it's bad education policy. It's punitive. It's inefficient and it's impractical." It may all those things, who knows, but it doesn't say what he would do and it seems a little vague. Is there a kind of standard one-size-fits-all Democratic policy on education?

ROSENBERG: Well, I think Democrats are united around the ideas in the No Child Left Behind Act, which are greater standards, more accountability, more competition, more choices for parents. But, frankly, the president's own budget has $6 billion less money in it then he committed to the Democrats when we cut this bipartisan deal two years ago. He is not living up to his word. He has not kept his word about what he was going to do for America's children in the No Child Left Behind Act (search).

GIBSON: Take a look at this. This is another Dean quote. And this one is about partial-birth abortion. Now, he says, "I believe the notion of partial-birth abortion is nonsense. The debate over partial-birth abortion is simply a cynical example of political grandstanding."

Now, Simon, a lot of people don't agree with that at all. They may actually be in favor of abortion, but they don't like that particular procedure. Is that the Democrat's position?

ROSENBERG: The best line I think that I've ever heard about what our aspirations should be as our country is to make abortion safe, legal and rare. I think that is a position that's unified the Democrats over the last decade. It's what president Clinton tried to do when he was in office. And, John, as I'm sure you know — because you're a smart guy and have a good show here — is that teenage pregnancy rates and abortion rates plummeted under the Clinton presidency. No president has done more to actually reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies than a Democratic president, President Clinton in the '90s. I think our party is unified around the notion of making abortions safe, legal, and rare.

GIBSON: Are you saying you're also unified around the notion of somehow concocting another President Clinton?

ROSENBERG: President Clinton was a remarkable leader for his time. But clearly we've got new people vying for the leadership of our party. I think this is exciting. Democrats are regenerating. We're having a big debate. I'm a free market Democrat. I believe that competitive primaries are going to yield the best candidate. I think we are going to have a strong candidacy. I'm optimistic about us beating Bush in 2004. I wouldn't want to be running on his economic record, I wouldn't want to be betting the farm ...

GIBSON: The economy is turning around. You can see it before your very eyes if you watch the stock market. And it appears that the Americans support his policy in Iraq and his general war on terror. You think he's vulnerable?

ROSENBERG: I think he is absolutely vulnerable. The market may have had a good couple of weeks, but unemployment rates continue to rise, the global economy is not doing well. This administration is going to be running on some very big bets they've made. If their economic strategy creates growth and prosperity, if their strategy in Iraq is creating a safer world, then they are going to deserve to be re-elected in 2004. But I personally wouldn't want to be running, as this president is, on two very shaky propositions. And I think we have a long way between now and next November. I think we're going to be in good shape. I think we're going to win in 2004.

GIBSON: But Simon, you've got this problem. You can't tell me today where the Democratic Party stands because there are nine voices vying to define that.

ROSENBERG: Right. Right.

GIBSON: You have to wait a long time before you come up with what Democrats are.

ROSENBERG: …We're trying to fill the void. I travel all over the country. What I hear from Democrats is, "I want to go to work now. I don't want to wait until we have a nominee next spring."

We're giving Democrats through our Web site at the opportunity to really participate in fighting for a more positive, optimistic agenda for the country. We had a great day today. We had a lot of very powerful voices. And I think what I'm confident about, John, is that we are going to have a very strong message, a very strong nominee in 2004. And I think we're going to have a real chance to win.

GIBSON: Simon, we're going to keep checking in with you. Simon Rosenberg, the president of the New Democratic Network. Simon, thanks very much.

ROSENBERG: John, I appreciate it very much.

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