My Interview with CAP President John Podesta

Jonathan Singer

This morning I had the chance to speak with John Podesta from his office in Washington, DC. Podesta is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for American Progressa and previously served as Chief of Staff to President William J. Clinton from October 1998 until January 2001.

Jonathan Singer: Thank you for joining me this morning. I very much appreciate it. You're speaking to me today from the Center for American Progress, which of course is your creation of a think tank to represent the left. When you go up against Heritage and Cato and just a handful -- more than a handful, even -- of right wing think tanks, how can you compete in this world where there's just not a balance?

John Podesta: I think there's no question that, to start with the other guys, that the right has put a tremendous amount of resources into building up big institutions that have both generated ideas for the radically conservative brand of politics we see in Washington these days and also been pretty effective at selling it to the American public.

I think we started the Center because we saw a need for a counterpoint to that, both from the prospective of doing analysis and critique, as well being able to communicate publicly about what was really going on in the country and put forward a set of better ideas to take the country in a better direction.

Your question is how can we compete against them? I think that while we're out resourced, if you will -- while there's more money on their side -- I think that what we've been able to do is put together both a good group of scholars and analysts and people who aggressively want to make the case to the American public. I'll let you be the judge of how we're doing in that regard. But we've been around for a little over a year and I think we at least are beginning to right the balance between what's coming out of these right wing think tanks and some ideas and, as I said, some critique and analysis coming from our side.

Singer: The signature issue right now, of course, is Social Security. There's really a lot of vitriol and just hatred coming from the right. You look at USA Next, for instance, attacking AARP with just outrageous claims in the attempt to create this kind of right-left dynamic that they're the voice of the right making AARP the voice of the left. Is there a way to get around such blatantly -- just silly rhetoric that there's always a right and a left, that there's a real truth...

Podesta: Just a couple of things. Ultimately I think what people care about, particularly on an issue like Social Security, is not really what's right and what's left but what's right and what's wrong. They want to hear facts, they want to hear the truth, they want a real analysis of what proposals like the President's are going to cost, they want to know what it's going to mean in terms of benefit reductions, they want to know what it's going in terms of borrowing and what that'll do to the federal balance sheet. So I think it's important to communicate with the people in terms of what the real facts are on these proposals and try to have a discussion and a dialogue that gives people information. I think they're hungry for that rather than just political rhetoric.

On the other hand, you raised the particular example of going after AARP and trying to demonize AARP using these Swift Boat Veteran advertising techniques. And it seems to me that that can't go unchallenged. We can't assume that nobody will believe that or it's so hot and so over the top that it can simply be ignored. Perhaps particularly the crowd that is behind those advertisements in the campaign against AARP have refined -- it used be the politics of personal destruction, now it's the politics of institutional destruction, I guess -- to try to cow and intimidate people and to silence them, really. I think if you don't push back against that and expose that, that's a mistake, too.

So I think you have to do both things. You have to provide the public with good analysis and a factual record upon which they can judge the quality of the President's proposal against other alternatives. But I also think you can't just lay back and be silent in the face of those kinds of intimidation techniques.

Singer: Well it seems like, at least polling would indicate that the Democrats are getting their message across and the more people hear about the Social Security debate, the less they approve of the President's plan. That having been said, I think in the latest Pew Poll, the Democrats in Congress still have a lower rating on Social Security than President Bush, and they don't seem to be gaining very much traction on the issue. This is a signature issue for the Democratic Party -- Social Security -- and they're not able to raise their approval ratings. What can be done aside from winning the issue?

Podesta: I think you can quibble a little bit with the numbers. I think if you look at yesterday's New York Times poll, particularly when you judge Democrats in Congress versus the Republicans in Congress, people put a little more faith, or even a little more than a little more faith in the Democrats in Congress.

But I think what you're referencing and what the Pew Poll and the Democracy Corps Poll that Stan Greenberg does shows -- and maybe the 2004 election is a pretty good example of this, too -- is that if you're just a critic and you have failed to put forward a vision of how you would, in fact, both protect Social Security and strengthen retirement security for Americans, you can take the other guy down but it doesn't ultimately inure to your political benefit.

Over the course of the next several months, I think the challenge for Democrats on Capitol Hill is to make sure they not only provide an effective critique of the President, which I think is important, but they also provide a good sense of direction of where they would go if they had the reins of power in this country. That doesn't necessarily mean they have to have an explicit proposal that they put forward that all Democrats sign up to, but I think they need to throw some ideas out that, at least directionally, point the way forward.

Our think tank, for example, has put out a paper that one of our fellows, Gene Sperling, put forward on how to create a universal 401K account for low-wage workers. We recently put out a tax reform proposal that both strengthened the finances of Social Security and at the same time strengthened the private pension system by creating a 25% refundable tax credit. I may be talking gobbledygook to you.

Both: [Laughter]

Singer: That's OK.

Podesta: I think that people have to have to have a sense of what ideas are one the progressive side, the Democratic side in order ultimately to be effective in the political world.

Singer: I know you have to run. Do you mind just a couple more questions?

Podesta: Go ahead.

Singer: The first is with the ideas you're forwarding and also looking at someone like Rahm Emanuel now running the DCCC -- I think I got all three C's in there -- and also with Hillary appearing to be the front runner right now, it seems like the Clinton faction of the Party, the Clinton wing of the Party, shall we call it, has moved back into a role of power within the Party that might not have been at least in the last election cycle. Does this mean that your faction will dominate in the next two to four years?

Podesta: That's an interesting question and it's a question sort of depending on what you mean by the Clinton wing of the Party. Some people read into that a kind of centrist, DLC perspective. In fact, I think that Governor Clinton, when he was running, and President Clinton, when he was serving, actually governed with a wide range of advisors and a perspective that blended the best of ideas from the center and the left.

First and foremost, when I think of him -- I'm prejudiced; I worked for the guy for six and a half years -- when I think of him, I think of him first and foremost as an idea politician. He's a guy who when he ran in 1992 under the umbrella of putting people first actually put forward a serious economic program that actually was intended to create job and opportunity and income growth for people at all ends of the economic spectrum and indeed, I think, governed from that perspective. He's somebody who valued work, and was constantly -- whether it was education or healthcare, etc. -- was constantly looking for ideas to move the country in a progressive direction.

If that's your definition of the Clinton faction, then I think that that seems to be in ascendancy. That might include a guy like John Edwards, who's just starting this new center in Chapel Hill to deal with issues of poverty and work. There are people who kind of gravitate towards running politics based on new ideas and issues, and that was what the secret was for Clinton. It wasn't just his performance art. It was that actually he had views and ideas that people gravitated towards, partly because they had success; people could feel it in their pocketbooks and in sending their kids to college.

Singer: Just looking forward to 2006, 2008 and, of course, beyond, because that's what your Center looks towards, do the Democrats have a real shot at retaking Congress in the next two years, or, especially with the House, will it take a redistricting effort? The situation doesn't look to bleak right now, but just the same, it doesn't look to optimistic.

Podesta: If you ask the people who are professional political analysts, they would say that the way redistricting has worked, that the Republicans have something of a lock on the House until a redistricting occurs after 2010, particularly as a result of what DeLay did in Texas. Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but maybe you would imagine that he'll get snared up in this criminal case that's going on in Texas as a result. That's sort of what the political analysts would argue. That there aren't enough competitive districts to see the Democrats picking up the House in 2006.

I'm a little bit more optimistic, in part because I think that the President has made so many bad choices, particularly on the economic front, that I think he's kind of branded his party with a set of economics that doesn't work at all for the middle class and has led the country into a circumstance where not only has the debt soared in recent years, but now interest rates are going up, important investments are being cut in parts of the federal budget process. I think people are really going to feel that very hard and associate it with not only the President's prescription for America but they associate it with one party control in Washington.

So I think in those circumstances, there's some potential that you could see a big pendulum swing like 1994, which people you thought weren't vulnerable all of the sudden get in trouble. Obviously, they're going to fight to do everything they can to hold on to power, but I think there come moments in the country where the unbridled power to move the country in a direction that doesn't seem to be working for people ends up costing people at the polls. It would take a big pendulum swing, but that's a real possibility, even in 2006 or 2008.

Singer: So the Democrats, on the heels of Texas and now Georgia redistricting, don't need to go to Illinois and Louisiana and New Mexico and start redistricting also?

Podesta: I think there's a lot of ferment in the whole electoral reform and redistricting process. But what's still being debated is, should there be a generic approach to reform, if you will. One that levels the playing field, one that attacks the abuse of power that's in Texas, or whether you try to do what you're suggesting, which is pick up a seat here and a seat there in places where there's legislative control by the Democratic Party.

My guess is that what people are ultimately going to conclude is the former rather than the latter. I think you could see redistricting being an issue, electoral reform being an issue, but my guess is that it will take a more generic -- when I say generic, I mean a more unified call for real reform in the process, to give people a shot at Democratic participation. That's probably where the heart of the grassroots is and probably where the issue goes, but right now it's still a little bit early to tell.

Singer: Thank you so much for your insight. I very much appreciate speaking with you, and good luck with everything at the Center for American Progress.

Podesta: How's the blog?

Singer: It's always interesting. I get to speak with people like Walter Mondale and Gary Hart and people who I otherwise would -- and yourself -- who I wouldn't--

Podesta: Do you mostly politics?

Singer: Mostly politics. Mostly national, although some Oregon politics, because that's where I'm from.

It's a lot of fun. It gives me an opportunity to follow politics much more intently and intensively than I normally would. But it's also nice to have three hours a day, or whatever it is, that I have to do every day. It's very addictive.

Podesta: That's great. Well, check out our blog,

Singer: Terrific. I will. And I'll put up a link to it as well on my site. It was great talking to you.

Podesta: Good talking with you, too.

This interview also appeared in my blog Basie!

  • (Show?)

    What is that Podesta guy thinking! The last thing we need is more numbers, proposals, plans, and fact-finders confusing and boring people while republicans run around calling the AARP terrorists. If we are ever going to achieve anything, we've got to communicate better, and that means ideas, values, rhetoric, not facts, numbers, papers. If you get the people behind your ideas, they'll like your numbers.

    We need someone with charisma who will stand up and say "Bush is wrong for America and he will steal from you and give your money to bankrupt corporations." Not someone who will say "We can save you $X money and he will cost you $Y and the number of jobs we lose from him is A and the number of jobs we gain with us is B." What does that even mean?! No one cares in the voting public. They want action and hope and charisma.

    Jon Podesta and other establishment Democrats who are too weak or asleep to fight back are ruining this country every bit as much as Jarvis, USA Next, and the Right. I'm tired of getting burned up while our firefighters stand around debating how big the fire is and how fast the wind is blowing and how many more firefighters we should get out here before we let the hoses go. The time is now.

  • (Show?)

    I don't think it's a mutually exclusive thing Cody... the right has both the falmethrowers and the think-tanks, so I think it's high time we started laying some infrastructure out there. CAP is a very important piece of the puzzle for long term strategy and messaging, but definitely not the only answer.

  • (Show?)

    You're right, it's not mutually exclusive. I just want to know who is in charge of rhetoric. Lakoff is just the beginning, and he's not everything anyway. What upsets me about Podesta and the other establishment Democrats in Washington is that even the think tankers should know that numbers are less important than ideas.

    When Podesta was asked about USA Next, he responded:

    They want to hear facts, they want to hear the truth, they want a real analysis of what proposals like the President's are going to cost, they want to know what it's going to mean in terms of benefit reductions, they want to know what it's going in terms of borrowing and what that'll do to the federal balance sheet. So I think it's important to communicate with the people in terms of what the real facts are on these proposals and try to have a discussion and a dialogue that gives people information. I think they're hungry for that rather than just political rhetoric.

    I'm just saying that that analysis is completely wrong. Policy wonks are great to have in your cadre as President, and Podesta's a good man to have on the team, but when it comes to our leaders, our thinkers, our innovators, we need more than numbers and proposals, we need ideas and rhetoric.

    We need leaders who know where progressives want to go and who are ready to use the rhetoric to get us there. The policy people follow: they flesh it all out, make it happen, make it make sense in real-world terms. When we hit a situation where we really don't know what we want to do, then the policy people give us our options. But the ideas people call the shots and make the waves. And right now, I feel like the national leadership is leaving us in still waters.

  • Randy2 (unverified)

    His ideas sound good to those of us who invest thought and heart in what America can be, but I have to agree that unless we can distill those visions into simple sound bites, the Republican pandering to fear is going to be a formidable tsunami to overcome. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that people are so focused on their immediate needs -- keeping a job, keeping their families safe -- that short pricks to people's insecurities will more often get support than reasoned and thoughtful policies.

    Of course, I may simply becoming more cynical.

  • Chris (unverified)

    I respectfully agree and disagree wholeheartedly with Cody's comments.

    First, I agree that the power is in the ideas, and that those ideas need to be distilled into soundbites.

    I disagree with the idea that some of the rhetoric should include bashing for the sake of bashing. Americans arent stupid. If there isn't substance behind the rhetoric then Democrats come off as whiners. Saying things like "Bush will steal your money and give it to bankrupt corporations" is not only factually incorrect, but it doesn't resonate with a middle of the spectrum voter (who might have voted for Bush). In fact, it probably turns them off. Our leaders need to sound credible to win back the heartland.

    We need to convert swing voters. The Bush administration is doing its part in making a mess of the economy. Now we need to do our part in offering sound, intelligent, and marketable ideas. And they need to be delivered by people with inspiring charisma.

    Old-school fear rhetoric plays to the staunch party base; those passionate about Democratic ideals, not the swing voters where elections are won or lost.

  • (Show?)

    Definitely. Scare tactics and Bush-bashing alone won't accomplish much. One of the prime problems with the national Democratic party is that it is the party of "No." Don't change Social Security. Don't continue the war in Iraq. Don't vote for Bush. Don't let these judges get on the bench.

    While a good deal of nay-saying is the only thing the minority party can do in many situations, the key to the future lies in a positive plan for the future. So far, I haven't heard much about what Democrats would really change if they were in office. There may be ideas, but they're not getting out. Democrats need to step up with a proactive vision of change - if it comes across as too similar to what's happening now, it won't be good enough to win. So what we need to say is "We'll put more money in your pocket, create more jobs in your town, and restore values to this nation."

    Combining scare tactics and a brave vision for the future, we can come back. But the key is in the ideas and the framing and the media, not the numbers, the spreadsheets, and the fact charts.

  • (Show?)

    The evidence is clear, even if it's horrifying to progressives. There is a huge percentage of the population that doesn't use critical thinking or analysis of any kind to decide their postitions. The majority of these people vote based on how they feel about the person or group that's pushing the idea.

    The Republican strategists got this a long time ago and a very few progressives are just now starting to get it. If you want to teach people how to think, you'd better start in the K-12 time of their lives. Good hearted efforts to educate the voters will never work. People who choose their beer based on the preferences of the Swedish Bikini Team, are not going to wake up one morning and start internalizing reasonable progressive arguments. We, who pride ourselves on being reality based, need to get real about how they decide issues, instead of expecting our target audience to change their entire mode of thought.

    Most of us are pretty excited about Lakoff, framing, etcetera, and these things are really important, but again we should look to winners to plot a winning strategy.

    Frank Luntz, inventor of terms like "Blue Skies Initiative", "Death Tax", etcetera has just come out with a new template for Republican wins in '06. You can download it here. I think that Podesta "gets it" to some degree and his reasearch through the think tank has been a really useful source of info for over a year now. His observations regarding playing catch up are dead on.


    Last week on the Daily show they were running a sketch about how to set up your own blog. They mentioned that if you're a right winger, you want a name that indicates power, certainty, and resolve. If you're a progressive, you want to look thoughtful and educated. Funny and true, but the Right wingers are playing into emotions and we're playing into reason. If we persist in that approach, we'll get screwed every time.

  • Chris (unverified)

    I'm laughing about the Daily Show blog bit. It is so true. I just recently started my own blog where I attempt to be reason-based and educated about what I say and have attempted to steer clear of the smug arrogance of the conservatice blogs I have perused.

    I agree that emotion wins. That's why advertising is such a huge industry.

    What I am advocating is for Democrats to market hard, but to shift/refocus their message. "Bush sucks, Bush sucks!" won't get us far. For every far right wacko there is a far left wacko who also isn't very in touch with reality. But the far left is more vocal than the pragmatic left; just as the far right is more vocal than the pragmatic right. But the pragmatic middle decides elections.

    But Bush in 2000 won as a moderate. He later showed his colors as being farther right. 9/11 allowed him to do that.

    To win, I think Dems need to market market market. And the message has to be saleable to the middle of the road swing voter. We need converts. Presenting ourselves as the "reasonable alternative" (meaning not too much of a stretch for moderates values) to broken government, will take us far toward success.

    And government is broken. And we can show Americans that. A lot of conservatives will respond emotionally to the FACT that goverment is getting bigger and more intrusive, that government is living off of borrowed money, that wages aren't keeping up with the cost of living and the economy is precarious at best (well maybe not the economy one - it isn't emotional enough).

    And finally we need likeable messengers. Leaders who connect.

    Great debate by the way!

  • allehseya (unverified)

    the Right wingers are playing into emotions and we're playing into reason. If we persist in that approach, we'll get screwed every time.

    I concur and yet -- reason doth haveth virtues -- we can slap truth into "the huge percentage of the population that doesn't use critical thinking or analysis of any kind to decide their postitions."

    Play on their emotions by getting them angry for being mis-informed -- for being lied to -- for being decieved -- made civically impetent through distraction -- and rendered mere puppets.

  • Ken Spice (unverified)

    "First, I agree that the power is in the ideas, and that those ideas need to be distilled into soundbites."

    Riiight! Beat 'em at their own game! Even if the "game" is marketing. You will always lose playing it that way. You come off looking like a wannabe. Why elect the wannabe when the real thing is in office?

    <h2>Soundbites are the problem, not the solution.</h2>

connect with blueoregon