In This Episode
How did we get here? The history of the Democratic Party, from its birth in the 1820s through the election of Barack Obama. Learn more: www.thewildernesspodcast.com
The Wilderness is a documentary from Crooked Media and Two-Up about the history and future of the Democratic Party. Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau tells the story of a party finding its way out of the political wilderness through conversations with strategists, historians, policy experts, organizers, and voters. In fifteen chapters, the series explores issues like inequality, race, immigration, sexism, foreign policy, media strategy, and how Democrats can build a winning majority that lasts.
Jon Favreau: You ever say something on national television you wish you could take back?
[TV clip] So we have, we have a very special guest today. I’m very excited about it. He’s President Obama’s speechwriter for eight years. Please welcome, Jon Favreau. [applause] So can you tell me what your thoughts are, on Trump are? Are you—what’s your situation?
[TV clip: Jon Favreau] I am not a fan of Donald Trump.
[TV clip] What do you have to say for—what do you, what’s going on? Is his going to win?
[TV clip: Jon Favreau] He’s not going to win.
[TV clip] He’s not going to win.
[TV clip: Jon Favreau] He’s not going to win.
[TV clip] He’s not going to win everybody. [applause] We have to make sure that doesn’t happen.
[TV clip: Jon Favreau] No, I mean, that, that’s—the majority that twice elected the first Black president is not going to elect Donald Trump as president. [sound echoes and distorts]
Jon Favreau: Huh. At least I wasn’t the only one.
[voice clip] I think that man will be president of the United States right about the time that space ships come down filled with dinosaurs in red capes.
[voice clip] Product matters here, and he’s a flawed product. I mean, that’s again, where my confidence comes in. This guy, in my view, is not going to be elected president.
[voice clip] Well, the bottom line is she’s the most qualified.
[voice clip] I think she’s got about a 95% chance in this election.
[voice clip] My projection is pretty confident that you’re going to see 303 electoral votes for Hillary Clinton.
[voice clip] Clinton will be our first woman president.
[clip of President Obama] President Obama will go down as perhaps the worst president in the history of the United States, exclamation point at real Donald Trump. Well, at real Donald Trump, at least I will go down as a president. [cheers]
Jon Favreau: Election night, 2016 was supposed to be the end of the Republican Party as we knew it.
[voice clip] Trump is headed for a historic defeat.
[voice clip] I think that she’s going to have a very good night.
[voice clip] So the technical term for that, if she’s anywhere near your prediction, would be blowout.
[voice clip] Landslide.
[voice clip] Mmmmm, I’ve give a landsli—I don’t know.
[voice clip] We call that a landslide.
[voice clip] Magnitude of the electoral catastrophe for Republicans that is upon them just really can’t be overstated.
[voice clip] Might be a wakeup call to those Republicans who have existed in this little thought bubble of their own, that this isn’t a winning form of politics.
Jon Favreau: We were all very, very wrong.
[NBC news clip] And here we go. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Decision Night in America here at NBC’s Democracy Plaza. Whatever happens tonight, history is going to be made.
[NBC news clip] It just may be she has a bigger base.
[NBC news clip] And just her record—Ohio is too close to call. Florida too close to call. Pennsylvania too early to call—
[news clip] They believe it is going to go down to the wire.
[voice clip] Everybody just take a deep breath. It’s going to be OK.
[NBC news clip] But come on, something’s got to be making you nervous right now. What is it?
[NBC news clip] Well, I mean, Michigan always makes me nervous.
[news clip] Brace for impact: The New York Times now saying the chance of a Trump presidency is 92%.
[clip of Fox News] This is a Fox News election alert. Pennsylvania goes to Donald Trump. Donald Trump is the president of the United States.
[clip of CNN] The business tycoon, a TV personality, capping his improbable political journey with an astounding upset—
[voice clip] —unlikely, impossible is now reality.
Jon Favreau: November 8th, 2016, was a fucking nightmare. And some days it feels like we still haven’t woken up.
[news clip] We’re learning more about President Trump’s executive order suspending immigration from Muslim-majority—
[voice clip] The program, known as DACA, is being rescinded.
[news clip] President Trump keeping his word, putting America first, by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord.
[news clip] Virginia State Police declared a local emergency in Charlottesville, Virginia, Saturday—
[voice clip] The President ultimately said: I think there’s blame on both sides.
[voice clip] A 40% cut to the corporate tax rate.
[clip of CNN] Once again, the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality.
[news clip] China says it is not afraid of a trade war with the US.
[news clip] Thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents.
[news clip] Children effectively are being put into dog cages.
[news clip] The president today has praised the leader of North Korea, and he has attacked Canada.
[news clip] None of this is normal, none of this is acceptable, none of this is, frankly, stable behavior.
Jon Favreau: How did we get here? How do we lose to this guy? And how did we end up with fewer Democrats in office than at any time in decades?
[voice clip] Since Barack Obama first took office, the Democrats, when you count state legislators, governors, House, Senate and the presidency, they lost 900 seats. Nine hundred.
[voice clip] This the biggest turnover since 1948. And what’s more, it went deep into the liberal states.
[voice clip] It was a bad night for incumbents, most especially if you were a Democrat. Washington lost a combined 317 years of experience.
[voice clip] Ask yourself what have Democrats done to so offend Americans that they only have 11 governorships, that they’ve lost control of the Senate, they’ve lost control of the House, they lost 900 legislative seats over the past six to eight years. It’s something much, much bigger. It wasn’t fake news.
Jon Favreau: This is a story about a party that’s finding its way out of the political wilderness. It’s about solving the mystery of why Democrats have so little power and appeal right now, even as Trump and the Republicans are even more unpopular. I don’t want to wallow in the past here, but I also know the Democrats have to learn from it, because if you think we’re fucked now, just imagine how much worse things could get if we lose again in 2018, or God help us, 2020. When Mitt Romney lost in 2012, the Republican National Committee released a pretty honest and brutal assessment about what went wrong and how to fix it. That became known as the Republican autopsy report. The Democratic Party didn’t do this after 2016. And on Pod Save America, we don’t get to talk about the state of the party as much as we should, because there’s so much other crazy shit to cover every week. So I started this podcast. In the last eight months, I’ve talked to more than 100 people about the state of the Democratic Party. I interviewed the party’s critics and defenders, strategists and organizers. I talked to historians, data nerds, policy wonks and a few politicians. I also made sure to get a wide variety of viewpoints that span the left side of the political spectrum. And most importantly, I talked to voters.
Jon Favreau: I approached this project with one fairly obvious bias: I’m a Democrat. I’ve been a Democrat for as long as I can remember. I was the head speechwriter on a long-shot presidential campaign that defeated the party’s establishment candidate. I became part of that establishment when I worked in Obama’s White House. And I spent 2016 doing whatever I could to elect Hillary Clinton president. That didn’t pan out. And ever since, I’ve wanted to find answers that I clearly didn’t have, answers that I hoped would test my assumptions about Democrats and politics in general. This show is about that journey. For the next 15 episodes, I’m going to walk you through what got us to November 8th, 2016, and how we might avoid repeating that nightmare. Some of the show is about what we’ve done wrong, but a lot of it is about what we’re doing right, about the Democrats who are starting to win again, and the new movement that’s teaching them how. Here’s what this podcast isn’t: it’s not a show about the Republican Party, it’s not a show about him. It’s a show about the party that needs to beat him. It’s a show about us, about being honest with ourselves as Democrats. If Democrats want to keep winning, we have a lot to learn and a shitload of work to do. I’m Jon Favreau and you’re listening to The Wilderness.
Jon Favreau: Before we can figure out where we need to go, we need to figure out how we got here. So the next three episodes are a crash course in the history of the Democratic Party: the good, the bad and the ‘what the fuck were they thinking?’ We’re going all the way back to the beginning and we have a few very smart people as our guts.
Theda Skocpol: I’m Theda Skocpol. I’m the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University.
Jon Favreau: And:
Michael Kazin: The name is Michael Kazin. I’m a professor of history at Georgetown University. Well, the party’s got a long history, it really has been around as a mass party since the 1820s. So it’s been through lots of changes. But certainly one of the most important values was democracy with a small D. In fact, the party was originally called the Democracy, capital D, to make sure everyone understood that. And people who became Democrats, they were insistent that ordinary white men—I underline white men—should all have the right to vote no matter whether they had property or not. And that was a pretty radical idea back in the 1820s, because in no country did the majority of the male population have the right to vote regardless of whether they had property or not.
Jon Favreau: In 1828, this radical idea led to a landslide victory for the very first Democratic president, Andrew Jackson. Quick sidebar here: Jackson’s slogan was ‘Let the People Rule’ which led his opponents to give him the nickname ‘Jackass’ because they thought that letting the people rule was no better than letting a bunch of jackasses run the country. Jackson actually embraced the nickname and started using a donkey on his campaign posters. Two hundred years later, our party has decided that symbol is perfect, and cannot be improved upon. Jackson was definitely a jackass, and worse. He was a slaveholder who oversaw the forced removal of Native Americans, and his Democrats would be unrecognizable to our—a party that was all about small government, and freedom for everyone who wasn’t a woman or person of color.
Michael Kazin: It was very much a white man’s party, and most male Democrats were not eager for women to have the vote. They were quite willing for whites in the South generally to own slaves. And in fact, most Democrats opposed the Emancipation Proclamation and many even opposed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
Jon Favreau: After the Supreme Court’s terrible 1857 Dred Scott decision, which declared that people of African ancestry could never become citizens, the issue of slavery finally splits the party. Two Democratic candidates, a pro-slavery Southerner and a more moderate northerner who wanted to leave the matter up to the states, run against the brand new anti-slavery Republican Party headed by Illinois’ Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln wins, the Civil War begins, and the Democratic Party finds itself on the wrong side of history. After Lincoln’s Republicans end slavery, democrats not only become the party of the southern white man, but the political backbone of white supremacy throughout the South.
Theda Skocpol: After the Civil War, the Democrats were not as often in national power as the Republicans, and they were a party of states’ rights. They definitely tried to reinforce the exclusion of African-Americans from civic and political life. They were strong in the post-Confederate South.
Jon Favreau: Outside the South, things went pretty badly for the Democrats. From 1869 to 1932, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson are the only two Democratic presidents. But by the end of the 19th century, the party begins to change.
Michael Kazin: You know, the 1890s is an interesting watershed in the history of the Democratic Party because up until that point, you can argue that the Democrats were, at least on economic issues, very much the conservative party in American politics. But that changes in the 1890s, partly because so many ordinary white people, white farmers and workers were hurting very badly in this Great Depression of the 1890s, and the people’s party, the capital P Populists, were pushing the Democrats to take a much more interventionist stand on the economy.
Jon Favreau: President Grover Cleveland and his Democrats got the blame for the depression, leading to another rift in the Democratic Party, with one side representing eastern business elites and the other representing the farmers and workers of the south and west. The populist movement was born out of this growing inequality, and it pushed the Democratic Party to the left on economic issues. William Jennings Bryan, nicknamed the Great Commoner, ran as a populist Democrat in 1896, 1900 and 1908.
[clip of William Jennings Bryan] The man who is employed for wages, is as much a business man as his employer.
Michael Kazin: William Jennings Bryan really begins to move the Democrats towards a party which believes in government having a role in ensuring that people have decent jobs and economic opportunities and that there’s crop subsidies for farmers and, you know, much more of a regulated marketplace. And that’s an important change.
Jon Favreau: Bryan loses all three elections, but by the turn of the 20th century, Democrats have become the party of workers and progressives. While Republicans have become the party of business interests. And this is the political dynamic when the United States enters the Great Depression under the watch of the Republican Party—a dynamic that leads to the 1932 election of Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
[clip of President Franklin Roosevelt] This nation is asking for action and action now. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work.
Michael Kazin: In 1932, after almost three years of a Great Depression, the worst depression the U.S. had ever faced, the Democrats took over control of the entire government and most of the state governments as well.
Theda Skocpol: The Democratic Party, as we’ve known it since the mid-20th century, was born. Franklin Roosevelt talked about much more positive uses of government, tried to put together a coalition of working class people in the north with the still racially-segregated Southern Democratic Party.
Michael Kazin: Most American voters were willing to let Franklin Roosevelt and Democratic majorities have their way, at least for a while, and see what they could do to help Americans.
[clip of President Franklin Roosevelt] It has been wonderful to me to catch the note of confidence from all over the country. I can never be sufficiently grateful to the people for the loyal support they have given me in their acceptance of the judgment that has dictated our cause.
Jon Favreau: FDR pledged a new deal for the American people, and he was able to pass a slew of programs that were centered around what historians refer to as the three R’s: relief for the unemployed and the poor, recovery of the economy, and reform of the financial sector. The government regulates the banks and provides a jobs guarantee program, Social Security, electricity in rural areas, and discounted tuition to World War Two veterans. Basically, the Democrats become the party we recognize today with one major and shameful exception: civil rights. Fast forward to 1960, when a young Democratic senator from Massachusetts steps onto the scene.
David Axelrod: I was five years old and John F. Kennedy was running for president of the United States.
Jon Favreau: That’s David Axelrod, chief strategist for President Barack Obama and the founder and director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.
David Axelrod: And he came to New York City to campaign. One of the stops he made was in the place where I grew up, called Stuyvesant Town in New York, which was a housing development that was built for returning war veterans and that’s where my family lived. And when my mother was at work, there was this woman who took care of me named Jesse Barre, who is an African-American woman who came up from the south, kind of your classic story, took care of other people’s kids to take care of her own. And she took me out to 20th Street where JFK was going to speak and put me on a mailbox so I could see. And the scene was transfixing. The street is always is a huge boulevard filled with cars—now there’s no cars, all these people, this guy jumps up on a platform and he starts speaking and his voice is booming off of the buildings. And it seemed really, really important.
[clip of John F. Kennedy] A negro baby is born there and a white baby born next door—that negro’s baby chance of finishing high school is about 60% of that baby’s. His chance of getting through college is about a third of that baby’s. His chance of being unemployed is 4x that baby’s. His chance of owning a house is one third as much, his chance of educating his children is how much? His chance of being a federal district judge is non-existent, because there aren’t any.
David Axelrod: There were social movements which were pushing the Democrats to do a lot of things that Democrats were able to do. In the 60s, of course, the most important movement was the Black freedom movement and its supporters.
[clip of Rev. Martin L. King] We shall overcome. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome. [singing]. How long, not long . . . arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. [singing].
[voice clip] We’re willing to be beaten for democracy. And you misuse democracy in the street. You beat people bloody in order that they will not have the privilege to vote. You’ve beaten [in the side], and then hide your blows. [singing]
[clip of John F. Kennedy] If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed, and stand in his place?
Jon Favreau: President Kennedy spoke the language of the civil rights movement and his heart may have been with the activists, but he was notoriously cautious when it came to pushing for laws that would advance the cause. He used judicial appointments and executive actions where he could, and told friends that he was waiting for the right time to really take on civil rights. John F. Kennedy never got that chance.
[news clip] From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2:00 Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.
Jon Favreau: Lyndon Baines Johnson, the white Southerner from Texas who succeeded Kennedy, may have seemed like an unlikely champion of civil rights, but the man used every last ounce of his political capital to enshrine the goals of the movement into law.
[clip of President Johnson] At times, history and fate meet at a single time, in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life have awakened the conscience of this nation.
Jon Favreau: For a brief window, Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic Party had massive majorities in Congress, and they used them to pass an avalanche of new laws and policies that rivaled FDR’s New Deal: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; Medicare, which guarantees care for the elderly; Medicaid, which guarantees care for the poor and those with disabilities; an expansion of food stamps and Social Security—all under the banner of Johnson’s War on Poverty. But the Democratic Party’s decision to stand firmly on the side of civil rights would transform the political landscape in ways that we’re still dealing with today. Coming up after the break, more of The Wilderness, presented by Honey.
Jon Favreau: Before LBJ, the only reason that the Democratic Party was able to win the presidency and a large majority in Congress, was because it was the party of Southern segregationists. That base of support ended with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But the party’s political problems didn’t end with losing the South.
[sounds of helicopters, machine guns, yelling]
Jon Favreau: By the late 1960s, America was in turmoil. The Vietnam War was raging, and so were the protests against it.
[voice clip] I got Silver Star, a Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, 8 air medals, National Defense and the rest of this garbage. It doesn’t mean a thing.
[chants] Hell no, we won’t go!
[voice clip] Was pulled off and flogged, and then I was dragged through the paddy wagon, and clubbed again.
Jon Favreau: Of course, it wasn’t just the war. The struggle for civil rights didn’t end with the passage of legislation, and neither did the backlash, as race riots erupted in cities across America.
[voice clip] [gun shots, sirens] Several hundred rounds squeezed off. No all of sudden it’s silent.
[voice clip] We’re fighting one war now in Vietnam, we lose as a [unclear]. I mean, why should we come back here and fight a war among ourselves?
[voice clip] Because our Black brothers and sisters are not I’m not getting the—
[voice clip] As governor of the state of Michigan, I do hereby officially request the immediate deployment of federal troops into Michigan, to assist state and local authorities—
Jon Favreau: Then on April 4th, 1968:
[news clip] Good evening, Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee . . .
Jon Favreau: The week following Dr. King’s murder saw riots and over 125 cities nationwide. The National Guard was ordered to help stop the violence, but not before 39 people were killed, over 2,600 were injured, and 21,000 were arrested. This was followed two months later by the assassination of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
[voice clip] Senator Kennedy has been shot. Is that possible? It that possible? [yelling] Senator Kennedy—oh, my God—Senator Kennedy has been shot. And another man—
Jon Favreau: For many Americans, the tragedy and turmoil of the late 60s created an atmosphere of cynicism and fear, which Republicans began exploiting in order to convince Americans, especially white Americans, the Democrats weren’t for them.
[clip of Richard Nixon] As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame, we hear sirens in the night, we see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish: did we come all this way for this? Did American boys die in Normandy, in Korea and in Valley Forge for this? Listen to the answer to those questions. It is another voice. It is the quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators. The first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence, and that right must be guaranteed in this country. And to those who say that law and order is a code word for racism, there and here is the reply: our goal is justice, justice for every American.
Jon Favreau: Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968. For all but four of the next 24 years, a Republican president would sit in the White House. In 1984, Ronald Reagan carried 49 states and received 525 of the 538 Electoral College votes, the highest total ever received by a presidential candidate.
[news clip] As you see, except for that, the math is entirely, totally red for Reagan.
David Axelrod: The 80s were really a wilderness for the Democratic Party.
Jon Favreau: David Axelrod, again.
David Axelrod: There was a sense of orthodoxy about the Democratic Party, a sense of staleness. It was viewed as a kind of soft on crime, identity politics party with no kind of overarching theme that reached out to all corners of the country. And I think there was a sense that the Democratic Party was essentially about preserving the things that had already been done, rather than updating them, renewing them. My thing was, how do you take the values and the commitment of the Democratic Party and update it for modern times?
[clip of Bill Clinton] This is a new choice Democrats can ride to victory on.
Jon Favreau: Bill Clinton in 1991, before the Democratic Leadership Council.
[clip of Bill Clinton] Opportunity, responsibility, choice, a government that works, a belief in community. It’s what I’ve just said to you, liberal or conservative. The truth is it’s both and it’s different.
Jon Favreau: The Democratic Leadership Council, known as the DLC, is an organization created in the mid-80s that begins to argue that the Democratic Party should move to the center in order to win back the white voters it had lost over the last few decades. Bill Clinton is one of its earliest leaders while he’s governor of Arkansas. And when he runs for president in 1992, he places himself to the right of the party on issues like crime, abortion, welfare and the death penalty.
Michael Kazin: The Republicans, ever since late 60s has sort of controlled the dialog.
Jon Favreau: Historian Michael Kazin.
Michael Kazin: Conservatism was the surging movement, surging ideology, that Americans didn’t think big government could do anything right. And so politically, I think Clinton pretty much had to move to the right, at least rhetorically.
Jon Favreau: While Clinton ran to the right rhetorically on cultural issues, he was more of a populist on economic issues.
[clip of Bill Clinton] I am tired of seeing the American people kill themselves every day in the factory and the business on the farm and be punished for it. And if you will give us a chance, we’ll turn this country around.
Jon Favreau: Robert Reich had a front row seat in the Clinton administration as Secretary of Labor.
[clip of Robert Reich] Bill Clinton ran a quite populist campaign in 1992, if we define populism as being on the side of average working people and—not exactly antagonistic to big business—but the way Bill Clinton in 1992 finessed that divide was not to be a class warrior. It was to talk about the importance of investing in American workers: in their education, their training, the infrastructure that would bind them, connect them together. So it was populist, but it was actually populist in a way that much of the Democratic Leadership Council, even much of American business, could sympathize with.
Jon Favreau: When he first takes office, Clinton tries to govern as more of a progressive populist. He quickly passes a tax increase on the rich and corporations. After that, he tries to do what presidents and Congresses had failed to do for most of the century: pass universal health care. That didn’t go so well.
[voice clip] People walk up to us everywhere and say: kill it! I mean, the idea of a conference committee writing a health bill, you know, strikes fear in the hearts of normal Americans who say they don’t want a left wing liberal bill.
Jon Favreau: The Republicans and insurance industry lobbyists run a massive advertising campaign that succeeds in depicting the Clinton health care plan, or ‘Hillary care’ as they affectionately named it, as a big government bureaucratic nightmare that would destroy people’s health care.
[TV ad] Things are changing and not all for the better. The government may force us to pick from a few health care plans designed by government bureaucrats. “Having choices we don’t like is no choice at all.” “They choose” “We move.”
Jon Favreau: In late summer 1994, Clinton’s health care plan dies in Congress.
[voice clip] Even though Republicans are a minority in the Congress, they’re a minority with a veto. They have the ability to block legislation and they have done so on health care reform.
Michael Kazin: After that, Republicans take control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
[news clip] Conventional wisdom holds the party of a sitting president loses seats in the midterm elections, but this was a political earthquake with the fault line running right through Capitol Hill. Democrats lost the House they’d controlled for all but four years since 1932. They lost the Senate they controlled for all but six of the previous 40 years. Not a single Republican incumbent lost a congressional or gubernatorial race.
Michael Kazin: So I think Clinton’s presidency has to be seen as a very defensive presidency. In some ways. He was the Democratic Eisenhower. That Eisenhower was president, fairly popular president during a period of liberal ascendancy and dominance. And Clinton was president to a period of conservative ascendancy and dominance. And I think that explains a lot of the positions he took.
[clip of Robert Reich] By the midterm election of 1994, so much had gone wrong for Bill Clinton. Dick Morris, the Republican pollster, came in in January of 1995 and said to Bill Clinton: you have got to move to the middle, you’ve got to move to the right, you’ve got to be tough on crime, you’ve got to be tough on welfare, you’ve got to be very tough on the budget deficits, you’ve got to take the Republican issues away from them.
Heather McGhee: My name is Heather McGhee. I’m the president of Demos Action and Demos.
Jon Favreau: Heather started in politics as an intern at the Democratic Leadership Council. Today, she’s one of the progressive movement’s most passionate activists and policy experts.
Heather McGhee: Once the sort of shellacking of the health care bill kind of clipped Clinton’s sails, you really did begin to see the march to the right and the courting of the corporate base, the sort of fetishization of the white moderate, the repudiation of Sister Souljah, the creation of the sort of welfare mom, and the end of welfare as we know, the end of big government.
[clip of President Clinton] For so long, government has failed us, and one of its worst failures has been welfare. I have a plan to end welfare as we know it, to break the cycle . . . when this bill is law, three strikes and you’re out will be the law of the land. The penalty for killing a law enforcement officer will be death . . . The era of big government is over.
[clip of Robert Reich] Here’s the problem, the typical American worker had not had a raise since the late 1970s. Wages had flattened out. Most of the economic gains were going to the very top. And by the 1990s, this was starting to become an issue. You began to see the stirrings of populism. And when I say the stirrings of populism, I’m talking about anti-establishment populism . . . Bill Clinton, by not addressing clearly and squarely the underlying structural problems of American economy: flat wages, widening inequality, most of the income and wealth gains going to the top—set up the Democrats for a reckoning . . . I remember saying this in 1995 and people thought I should never say something like this publicly, but I said: if we don’t do something about widening inequality and job insecurity and the concentration of wealth, there will be eventually a demagogue and that demagogue will channel the nation’s anger into very poisonous kind of resentment against immigrants and Blacks and anybody else who can be labeled as the other.
Heather McGhee: By, I would say, the end of the Clinton era it was very clear in my mind and around, you know, the kitchen table I grew up around, that Clinton had done some pretty serious damage to the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.
Jon Favreau: The 2000 election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George Bush was one of the closest in American history. Initially, the results in the state of Florida were too close to call, leading to weeks of recounts and drama. Finally, on December 12th, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that halted the recount and awarded the election to Bush, who defeated Gore in Florida by just 537 votes—a state where Ralph Nader, a left-wing Green Party candidate, received 97,421 votes. As Bush’s term began, it seemed as if the cultural and economic battles that had defined politics in the Democratic Party for the last few decades would continue in a country that was as divided as ever. And they did right up until September 11, 2001.
[clip of President George W. Bush] Tonight, we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. And our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution, whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
Jon Favreau: In the days after the attack, Bush’s approval rating jumped to 90% and stayed high for months. Every Democrat in Congress but one voted for the war in Afghanistan. Many Democrats voted for the Patriot Act, which gave the federal government sweeping new power to spy on and detain suspected terrorists. And one month before the 2002 midterm elections, most Democrats voted for an open ended authorization to use military force in Iraq. Here is:
Ben Rhodes: Ben Rhodes, I was deputy national security adviser for President Obama.
Jon Favreau: Before that, Ben coauthored the 9/11 Commission report, and in the Iraq Study Group report.
Ben Rhodes: I don’t think Democrats—and to this day—have ever gotten over the 2002 midterm elections, when after 9/11, Republicans beat them over the head with terrorism. The world changed on 9/11 and the Republicans, because they were in power, really got to define both the policy and political response to 9/11 in a way that put Democrats on the defensive. And so they turned themselves into Republican-lite. You know, I’m a little uncomfortable about Guantanamo, but I don’t want to close it. Or I don’t like open ended wars, but I don’t quite want to go as far as saying we should just bring our troops home from Afghanistan. Instead of being confident in proposing an alternative to Republicans, to be credible on national security, Democrats sometimes feel like they just have to make themselves appear to look like Republicans, albeit a little bit more inclined towards diplomacy. And the problem with that politically is you’re always going to lose that way.
Jon Favreau: War on terrorism dominated the 2002 midterms, and the 2004 presidential election.
[voice clip] The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating.
[voice clip] He betrayed us in the past, how could we be loyal to him now?
[voice clip] I actually did vote for the 87 billion dollars, before I voted against it.
Jon Favreau: Democrats lost both.
[ABC news clip] ABC News has learned that Senator John Kerry will concede the presidential election of 2004.
Jon Favreau: By 2006, though, George W. Bush’s presidency was in crisis, giving Democrats an opening.
[news clip] A short time ago, the president announced plans for dealing with Hurricane Katrina.
[voice clip] President Bush don’t need to be the president no more. Because President Bush ain’t doing his job. We got the whole coastline destroyed—.
[TV clip] I want to move now to the story of Jack Abramoff. In the 90s, the Washington lobbyists began showering gifts on lawmakers . . .
[clip of Jon Stewart] Obviously, the war in Iraq still rages. The president just went back to Congress to request an additional 65.3 billion dollars on top of the 250 billion that’s already been spent. Where is the money going?
[voice clip] To date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance and its own hubris.
Rahm Emanuel: Do I have to respect you in this show?
Jon Favreau: No, you not.
Rahm Emanuel: Oh, OK. Ok
Jon Favreau: At all. Yeah, it would, it’s going to be better audio if you don’t
Jon Favreau: This is Rahm Emanuel, Chief of Staff for President Obama, and former congressman from Illinois.
Jon Favreau: I want to ask about 2006. You were the chairman when we took back the House. What was, what was the strategy? Walk us through the strategy in recruitment and message.
Rahm Emanuel: And if I told you I’d have to kill you.
Jon Favreau: [laughs] We’re desperate. We need help.
Rahm Emanuel: [laughs] We were going to win seats. Nobody knew how much. There was enough going on both in Iraq and Katrina, that corruption could become a overall thing, and then that became the way to metaphorically drive our message. We were the change party.
[clip from Washington Week] Washington turned upside down. The Democrats in Rumsfeld out. Tonight on Washington Week.
[clip of President George W. Bush] If we look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping.
Jon Favreau: The 2006 midterms were a sign of what was to come. After eight long years, people wanted change. And it wasn’t just a change from Bush or the Republican Party, it was a change from all the bullshit politics in Washington that left a lot of people cynical and disappointed in their government.
[interview clip] Three years ago, you were a state legislator here in Springfield. Why are you in such a hurry?
[clip of Barack Obama] We have no window to solve some of the problems that we face.
[news clip] But here it is: Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, the junior senator from Illinois, has won the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic caucuses.
[CNN news clip] A huge, huge victory for Barack Obama right now in Iowa. Let’s take a look.
[clip of Barack Obama] Because of you, tonight, I can stand here and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for the President of the United States of America. [cheering]
[CBS news clip] This is a CBS News special report. We have breaking news, momentous news, really. CBS projects that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois will be the next President of the United States, a century and a half after the Constitution abolished slavery and guaranteed Blacks the right to vote, four decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, voters have chosen our first African-American—
Jon Favreau: For Democrats, it seemed like a new era. The party won because of a grassroots movement, a diverse coalition: of young people, women, African-Americans, Latinos and white working class voters who placed their hopes in a Black man from Chicago named Barack Hussein Obama. It felt like the fulfillment of an old promise, a multiracial, progressive revolution that the party had been trying and failing to build since the end of the civil rights era. But of course, we were wrong.
Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media, it’s produced by Zach Akers and Skip Bronkie of Two-Up, and Ruth Lichtman. Tanya Somanader of Crooked Media is our co-producer. Andrea B. Scott is our editor, and David Fox is our assistant editor. Our archival producer is Rebecca Kent, and our archival researcher is Gianna Jefferson. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Joel Robie. Tracy Lien is our lead interviewee researcher. Additional writing from Zach Akers and Andrea B. Scott. John Maynard and Dan Kelly were our recording engineers. Fact checking by Anna Altman. Promo segment editing from Alison Grasso. Agency services from Ben Davis at WME. Legal services from Dean Bahat at Ziffren Brittenham and Chad Russo at Ramo Law. Clearance counsel is Kathryn Alimohammadi from Donaldson + Califf. Thanks for listening.