TAP Talks to Rep. Artur Davis

Ezra Klein: One of the things that's very striking about the Obama campaign is that, less so for Carter but certainly for Clinton, there was a tension between the presidential campaign and the party itself. That had to do with the times, certainly, and the toxicity of the issue environment. But also, I don't want to get into the whole triangulation argument, but even in 1992 when he's a New Democrat, and sort of keeping it at arms length, "I'm a little bit different," and "there were reforms that needed to happen." That hasn't so much been the operating mode of the Obama campaign.

Artur Davis: Obama has juxtaposed himself against the political structure and the interest group-oriented structure in Washington. He has been careful not to juxtapose himself against the Democratic party structure. That is a signal difference from the campaign that Clinton ran in '91 and '92, and that may mean that Barack Obama finds a much more welcoming Democratic caucus in both the House and Senate than Gov. Clinton found in '91 and '92.

EK: What do you think of those stories about both Carter sort of running directly into the appropriations chairs to say, "No, no, you're not going to tell me I can't have my water project!" And what Clinton did, where it wasn't quite so direct, but a lot of those early mistakes came from a severe misunderstanding about the congressional process, and the difference between having Mack McLarty, the sort of old Arkansas hand as your first chief of staff, and Sen. Daschle as your first chief of staff.

AD: The Clinton administration seemed to believe that it could impose an agenda on Congress, and the budget package was essentially imposed on Congress. They said, "We've made the calculations on what we need to do to short up confidence in the markets and to reduce the deficit, and we're going to hand it to you, and you can take it or leave it." And the Clinton administration made a calculus that "we have the notion how we're going to do health care reform," and Ira Magaziner and Sen. Clinton (Mrs. Clinton) came up with that, and they in fact came to Congress and said, "Do it this way. Do it any other way, the thing will just be nitpicked to death. Do it this way." Even on NAFTA, they said that "this is going to be the trade agenda, take it or leave it." And that alienated the Democrats in Congress.

I don't see Obama making those same mistakes. Because even when Clinton got a success, because he passed his budget, he passed NAFTA, but even those successes didn't translate into goodwill that helped him on health care or led to other things happening. Because the consistent, from what people who were here at the time tell me, the consistent belief was that the Clinton administration was imposing an agenda and saying "take it or leave it", and sometimes they took it, and sometimes they didn't. But, and Carter, I think, made some of the same mistakes.

I see an Obama presidency trying to very much absorb Congress into the decision-making strategy. The Bush administration was not only indifferent to, they were hostile to Congressional input, even when they ran the show. You know they had a vast internal debate over what Congress' views were on torture, the only problem was they never bothered to consult Congress, even Specter or Sensenbrenner, who are loyal Republicans. So if your view of the executive-legislative relationship is "we won't even consult Congress to ask them what they meant in a statute," there's a lot of pent-up resentment of that kind of an approach. And I think what Obama will do is, frankly, kind of meld Congress into the decision-making process, so that when he moves on the international front or on the domestic front, I think he's going to try to incorporate Congress' input on the front end, so there's a sense of shared responsibility. Frankly, the Clinton administration didn't do that, the Carter administration didn't do it, and the Bush administration has made a mockery of the concept.

EK: That makes sense on the ideological level, but also on the vaguely crass political level. One of the interesting things about the Obama campaign is that it's running something of a down-ticket presidential race. They've, almost in an ostentatious way, been talking about spending money in Texas, not even for this election, but in order to influence a 2010 redistricting, they've been talking about a 50-state strategy.

AD: Absolutely, that's been all over the country, the 50-state strategy…

EK: That seems very different to me.

AD: It's not about competing in every state this year. The Obama campaign knows full well they're not going to win Texas and South Carolina. [Laughs.] But what they do realize is that they can change the voter profile in numerous states around this country, including my state of Alabama, and if you change the voter profile by bringing an exodus of unregistered, unengaged voters into the process, you have created an environment for Democrats to win in all kinds of places in the country where it's been inconceivable for Democrats to win. That may be the biggest legacy that the Obama campaign leaves in the Democratic party. Because we've lost ground, under Carter and Clinton, as a party. The Democratic party lost President Carter. The Democratic party lost the Congress under Clinton. So Obama's trying to reverse that, Obama's trying to strengthen the party, to make it more cohesive, and to give it a chance to win elections in previously inhospitable environments.

EK: Do you think it's a specific party project for him or is it larger?

AD: No, I think he perceives it as something larger than him, I think he's correct in perceiving it that way. I think Barack Obama is making a very strategic assessment of the kind of political leader and kind of president he wants to be. I think that he recognizes that successful presidents build stronger party structures, successful presidents ignite grassroots movements, successful presidents create their own political identity that others can adopt or attach themselves to. That's a hallmark of FDR, it's a hallmark of Ronald Reagan, it's a hallmark of Abraham Lincoln -- hallmark of Andrew Jackson. Many of our presidents who've been successful from a standpoint of winning elections and building a majority for their party, that's been a hallmark. They build a particular presidential identity that other politicians for generations could attach themselves to, Jacksonian democrats, Lincoln republicans, Roosevelt democrats, Reagan republicans. Heck, Ronald Reagan is still the best brand in the Republican party.

This year you had literally a debate in the Ronald Reagan library and all the candidates were asked the question by an intelligent moderator "Compare yourself to Ronald Reagan and tell why you're more like him than the guy next to you." That says something, that says even now, a number of years after his presidency, that there is an identification with his presidency that is cultural, that is ideological, that is political, and an individual that creates that will have been a transformational figure. I think Obama recognizes that.

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