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© Frank


The Democratic Party & The DNC

by Elaine Kamarck
March 15, 2020

This interview with Elaine C. Kamarck, a Senior Fellow in the Governance Studies program as well as the Director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

She is an expert on American electoral politics and government innovation and reform in the United States, OECD nations, and developing countries. She focuses her research on the presidential nomination system and American politics and has worked in many American presidential campaigns. Kamarck is the author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates” and Why Presidents Fail And How They Can Succeed Again.

She started at the Kennedy School in 1997 after a career in politics and government. She has been a member of the Democratic National Committee and the DNC’s Rules Committee since 1997. She has participated actively in four presidential campaigns and in ten nominating conventions—including two Republican conventions—and has served as a superdelegate to five Democratic conventions. In the 1980s, she was one of the founders of the New Democrat movement that helped elect Bill Clinton president. She served in the White House from 1993 to 1997, where she created and managed the Clinton Administration's National Performance Review, also known as the “reinventing government initiative.” 

frank | How are you today Elaine?

Elaine Kamarck | Just fine. Thanks. How about you?

I'm doing well, thank you. We pre-discussed a bit, but we're looking at the history of the two primary parties in the US, and I want to talk about the transitions in party ideology since you've been active in working within the democratic party. What is your history with the party?

I went to work out of graduate school for the Democratic National Committee many, many years ago as the research director for a commission that was writing a rule for the 1980 Democratic convention. I worked for the DNC for many years. I worked in presidential politics for many years.

I finally finished my doctoral dissertation and went to work for a Think Tank. Again, a democratic leaning think tank. And then Bill Clinton won the presidency. I went into the White House and worked for him. When I left there, I went up to Harvard where I stayed for 15 years being a professor.

And then I came down here to Brookings where I write about politics and public policy and government.

You obviously have a very close look at the Democratic Party both through the DNC and the White House. Can you see a change in the party? Have things shifted, or has there been a consistent line of ideas and ideals?

It's probably more consistent than people realize. Let's take healthcare, which is one of the big issues. The Democratic Party first called for universal healthcare in 1948 in it's platform. So, that's been around for a long, long time. The Democratic Party's been quite consistent in terms of supporting laws that allow for union organizing. That's been decades and decades. The party has changed a little bit. There's many issues the party's been quite consistent on. The party has been pro choice for many years. On all the big ones, there's actually great stability in the party itself, and there's been some stability between the parties.

Now, there are issues where there's been changes.

The party under Bill Clinton was basically more pro- trade than it was either before or after.

And that frankly happened to the Republican party as well, but more dramatically. They were very much a free trade party. And now under Trump they very much are not.

Obviously, the foreign policy issues change. Nuclear treaties with the old Soviet Union were a big issue in the 1984 presidential election. We don't talk about them as much anymore even though, frankly, they're still important. There's a lot of continuity within the parties and between the parties over the years, more than people think when they're looking at the issues in the heat of the moment.

Could you talk about the Clinton administration's position on trade and how that transitioned to what we're seeing now from democratic candidates currently running for president?

During the Clinton administration there were several big trade treaties passed and put into effect. The first one, of course, NAFTA. China MFN was also a big one opening up trade to China. The Clinton administration had a lot of free trade policies. And at the time it was thought that if you passed a trade treaty, you would have some dislocation, but that if you also passed it with trade adjustment assistance to retrain people, etc. that it would work.

You wouldn't be hurting anybody. There would be the normal disruptions in an economy. A lot of people in the Clinton administration, myself included, now think that trade adjustment assistance didn't do the job. There were field workers who had no interest in becoming X-ray technicians, for instance. It's a good example because heavy manufacturing has decreased, but of course, a lot of good jobs have increased over this period of time in healthcare. But there were a lot of people, men especially, who didn't want to work in healthcare, and didn't want to make those sorts of transitions, or couldn't make those transitions for whatever reason.

People who were stuck in their homes and had mortgages, and couldn't move, and couldn't sell their houses once manufacturing picked up and moved to China or Indonesia or somewhere else. I think that in the Clinton administration, we underestimated the difficulty of these economic transitions. That's why a couple years ago Bill Clinton came here to Brookings and gave a speech, he said, "I couldn't pass a trade bill today."

We all, as a society, and public policy experts, underestimated the damage this was happening in communities across the country, that have really never come back from the international competition that lost their jobs.

Is the transition away from this trade policy because of the unintended consequences, or has the principle shifted? 

I think it's more general than that. Too many people, in too many communities, have been hurt by globalization and therefore the rush to do new trade agreements is in fact very, very much slowed down. Trump did a renegotiation of NAFTA, which passed, which made some changes.

It’s frankly not as dramatic as, of course, he would have us believe. We still have trade architecture we had 20 years ago. It's just that so many people are suspicious of trade deals now, that you can't see any new ones happening in the near future.

You mentioned universal healthcare has been at the forefront of Dem policy since 1948. There is still this big, very contentious debate about healthcare. Has the conversation actually shifted or is it repetitive?

No. The conversation has actually shifted. The conversation, up until about 2017 was, "How do we take this system we have of private health insurance, where most people have private health insurance, and old people and poor people have public health insurance, how do we standardize that and control costs and make sure that no one is left behind?"

What happened is the idea of single payer, which is obviously the system in most other democratic countries, got great popularity with this notion of Medicare for All. But, as I'm fond of saying to my students, there's this really weird technical term called transition cost, and it is the killer of revolutions and it's a killer of big ideas, particularly in stable democracies. And the transition costs refer to the dollar cost and the upheaval cost in moving from one large system to a completely different large system.

So, in the Bernie Sanders plan for Medicare for All, he would in fact get rid of private health insurance. That may not be a bad idea. I’m no fan of private health insurance. The problem is the transition costs to that are astronomical.

You have immediately hundreds of thousands of people out of work. You have chaos. You have people who don't know what their new plan is going to look like. You have to set up an entirely new system before that happens.

It's a jarring jolt to the economy and to people's lives, which is why by the way, it is losing popularity for people. Think about it. On the other hand, if you put in a public option into Obamacare, what will happen is that eventually private health insurers will either go out of business or they'll have to get competitive with a public system.

Eventually, we will have a public system because frankly, one of the things the government turns out to be very good at is paying bills. Paying bills for your doctors, for the old people's doctors in Medicare. If you notice, with the exception of Warren and Sanders, all the other democratic candidates got behind this idea of a public option, because in the public option people can keep their private health insurance and then as this new system gets working, they can say, "Oh, okay. It's pretty good after all, and it's cheaper."

That might be cheaper than your private health insurance. And you will transition in a much more gradual way, and one that lets people have choice and people feel that they have choice. That's kind of the debate. It's sort of a sudden shift, to a more gradual shift.

You described the transition cost as the killer of revolution and of big ideas in stable democracies, and Sanders’ plan as this serious jolt to the economy. Are there examples of massive transitions to new systems that worked, or that were inevitable? 

We had a big transition to a big system in 1936 when Roosevelt started the social security system, and that's an interesting example of how these things do cause jolts. In 1935 and '36 the United States was actually coming out of the Great Depression. Jobs were picking up, etc. And then, two things happened in 1936 / 37. Payroll deductions started coming out of people's income to fund this new social security system. That was the first year it was ever done. And the federal reserve board made a pull back on the money supply. That wasn't related to this. That was just inexperience with Keynesian economics. But those two things at once put the United States back into the Great Depression.

The economic historians call it the Double Dip.

There was a double dip. The first Great Depression, it started to alleviate, and then, there was another big one. And we didn't come out of the second dip until we started work production for the Second World War.

When you start a big new system like this, it shakes the economy. There's all sorts of things falling out from those decisions, which is why now with a bigger and more robust social safety net, and some better knowledge of how macroeconomics works, every time you look at one of these great big ideas, you've got to ask yourself, "What's going to happen? What are the transition costs going to be from getting from one system to another? And can we afford to alleviate them so that people aren't hurt in the transition?"

Obviously, social security still exists and is something a lot of people would argue was necessary. The double dip might have been necessary. Short term pain, long term support and security.

Right, right.

Is that a fair argument to make now?

I think what you ask yourself is, "Is there a better way to do this?

Is there a better way to get to universal healthcare?" And that, of course, is the appeal of the public option. Is that it is less disruptive than putting in place something called Medicare for All, and then suddenly having private health insurance prohibited.

If there's a less painful option or an option where the true transition costs are easier, obviously that's the prudent thing to do.

I want to talk about the DNC and the role of the DNC in democratic politics. Can you explain at a basic level what the function of the DNC is?

The DNC first of all does very little policy. Let's get that straight, okay. They really don't dictate any kind of policy.

Policy positions are established by presidential candidates. The winning candidate writes the platform. Policy is established by incumbent presidents in terms of what they do. And it's established by the democratic caucus in the house and the democratic caucus in the Senate. They're the ones that set policy on these very big questions. The DNC has two functions. One is to elect Democrats all the way up and down the ballot. Tom Perez, the current chairman of the DNC, can brag justifiably about all the state democratic legislative seats that have been won since 2016, 2017 when he took over. That's their first goal, is winning elections and gathering up enough money, and then distributing that money in ways that help win elections. There's a lot of evidence that the DNC was very, very helpful in winning back a bunch of gubernatorial seats in 2018, and a bunch of state legislative seats. 

The second thing the DNC does is it has the responsibility for setting the rules for the presidential nomination system. These rules for this coming year were set in a meeting in Chicago in 2018. Before we had a full slate of candidates. The DNC is the arbiter of those rules. They set up the rules of the road for the convention. And then of course, they have to put on the convention. That's a massive logistical operation as you can imagine. And that's the responsibility of the DNC. 

Finally, once there is the presidential candidate, the DNC tries to raise as much money as they possibly can and use it in key states for get-out-the vote efforts for all the Democratic office holders, from president down to County commissioner.

What do the 2020 guidelines look like? The lingering thing right now within democratic politics is this idea of neither front runner getting enough delegates. What happens then?

The rules that the party passes for delegate selection, it governs things like when states can have their primary. The rules set out the first four early states, that we saw happen. And then, after that states can do what they want to do in terms of the date of their primary.

It sets rules for awarding delegates. You've probably heard of the 15% rule, where a candidate has to get more than 15% of the vote in order to be awarded any delegates. It sets out how you select your at large delegates, whether or not you're going to have superdelegates, whether they are voting on the first ballot or the second ballot only, which is the rule for 2020. They set out the rules of the road. 

The second piece that the party passes is the call to the convention. And the call to the convention sets out the rules for the actual convention, what happens when you get there. The current rule, and it has been the rule for many, many, many years, is that you have to have a majority of the delegates when you arrive at the convention, or you have to have a majority of delegates on the first ballot in order to be nominated.

If you wanted to change that, you would have to go through the Rules Committee and have a minority report and get a vote to change the rules, which has happened. It's possible to do. But look at it this way, if you come into the convention with a plurality and you want to change the rule to a majority, but you only have a plurality, you're probably going to lose that fight. Both parties have used majority for many, many years. When Franklin Roosevelt got nominated you had to get a two thirds vote.

It's been a majority for a long time. It's never been a plurality in either party, and I can't imagine that delegates would vote to change that.

The person with the majority of the delegate vote carries the nomination.

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

There was a debate question at the end of the last debate that asked all of the candidates on stage, "If we get to the DNC in July and no one has a clear majority of delegates, how would you proceed?" Everybody except for Sanders said, “you let the system work it out.” Sanders said it should go to the person with the most votes. 

Maybe Sanders was talking about the rules. But I think what he was probably referring to is that if the primaries in June he has the plurality, he would encourage other people to join him. In other words, to leave their candidates and support him instead because he would have momentum, he would have a certain claim on having won the most votes, and therefore he should get the nomination.

I think that's more what he was talking about than an actual change in the game. Remember that there's this period from the first week in June to the opening of the convention on July, 13th where if no one has the magic number, there will be a lot of persuasion going on. There'll be a lot of phone calls and meetings with delegates for other candidates, trying to get them to come over and make a majority. I would assume that if somebody has a plurality and it's a pretty hefty one, they probably would end up getting the nomination by the time we go into the convention.

The DNC in the last few years has gotten a lot of criticism about their role in democratic politics. And I think the criticism stems from where they [DNC] align within this split in the party – between moderate and progressive candidates. Do you feel like that criticism is fair?

Well, there's two ways to answer that. If you work for a political party, whether it's the Democratic or Republican party, your primary interest is not factional. It is not aligned for this group or that group. Your primary interest is, how do we win? And in that situation,  you find a lot of people at the DNC looking at things through the lens of, "What is the best way for us to win?" as opposed to any sort of ideology. The second thing I'd say about that is that the DNC controls very little of what it takes to win.

The DNC does not give candidates in primaries money, all right? It didn't give Hillary Clinton any money. It hasn't given anybody in the current race any money. It doesn't do endorsements in primaries. It simply sets the rules of the game and it doesn't change the rules of the game.

The rules of the game for 2016 were set in 2014 before Senator Sanders ever got into the race. They were not changed between 2014 and 2016. Similarly, the rules for this year were set in 2018. They were not changed between 2018 and 2020. So while individuals, as we saw in the WikiLeaks releases from 2016, at the DNC may have their own preferences, there's very little the party can actually do to influence a nomination race. All you have to do is look at the Republicans in 2016. Believe me, if you think that those couple emails from WikiLeaks criticizing Senator Sanders were bad, imagine what the RNC staffers were saying about Donald Trump in 2015. Okay.

Expect it was awful. And in fact, even though there was great deal of consternation among the Republican party regulars about the Trump candidacy, they were in the end, helpless to stop his candidacy because the power in the nomination system is all now in the hands of primary voters.

And that's a good thing to you?

Well, I'm not sure it's a good thing actually. I'm not sure it's a good thing because in fact it gives you people like Donald Trump, who are authoritarians and demagogues, and clearly not suited to be president. He's a dangerous person to democracy. That's my own point of view.

I'm worried frankly, about this primary system, which by the way works the same in both parties. I've had this conversation with my Democratic friends so often who say, "Oh, we would never have nominated Donald Trump." What? How do you know? We could, because the system is the same where basically all the allocations of delegates fall to the primary voters. We could as easily have a Democratic demagogue as we do currently a Republican demagogue, and they could get elected.

When did the rules give primary voters the majority power in electing the candidate?

It was after 1968 and it was somewhat of a gradual process. And for most of the history after 1968, the primary voters basically chose the same sorts of candidates that the old fashioned party bosses and elected officials would have chosen. 2016 was the first time we saw somebody who would never have been chosen by a Republican office holder.

We had Donald Trump elected. Forget these policies, right? A lot of people think he and the way he thinks, and the way he is trying to undermine the judiciary and other parts of the government, is a danger to democracy.

Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, nobody thinks that on that dimension they would've been Donald Trump's.

They were very critical during the election, and then transitioned to support. Does that support of President Trump from people within the party, the acceptance of a new type of president, who does undermine Democratic norms, make you nervous about who can and will be elected in the future?

Oh, absolutely.

You've got to look at what's happened to people like Lindsey Graham, who called Donald Trump downright crazy and was very, very critical of Trump, and now is his lapdog. It does make you worry.

On the other hand, I will say that under the surface, the Republican Senate, as much as it is publicly in lapdog mode, has in fact done some things to keep Donald Trump from his worst instincts. They did pass the Russian sanctions bill early on. They have passed restrictions on Trump's behavior in Yemen and in Iran. They reigned him in a little bit, but certainly not as much as we would like to see. Trump's most recent attacks on the judiciary are just downright terrifying given that for over 200 years we've had a system of equality between the branches of government.

Does it worry you about what could happen on the Democratic side as well? Does this attraction to the cult of personality make you nervous? Can you even return to “norms” after a President Trump?

It makes me nervous for both sides. The same dynamics that gave us Trump could easily give us a Democratic version of Trump at some point in the future. I can't tell yet. There's other people who study the presidency as I do, and we've all had the following conversation.

We don't know how much of this executive overreach goes away with Donald Trump whenever he leaves office, and how much of this will permanently change the office of the presidency. I think it's a little bit hard to say at this point.

Trump, unlike some other would-be dictators around the world, like Erdoğan in Turkey or like the president of Hungary, Trump has not managed to change any laws to give him more power, but he has managed to exercise presidential powers in ways that are pretty unprecedented.

It's a little bit tough to say at this point. I think we can say that there's probably no permanent damage done, but there certainly has been damage done to our expectations of how a president should behave.

I'm so curious about, even if he is beat in November, what he means for future presidencies.


Once things change it's hard to go back. Maybe it just pivots into a different direction, but it's fascinating to me.

As it should be.