E.J. Dionne Interview

Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of RevengeE. J. Dionne, Jr., discusses Stand Up Fight Back, an effort to rally Democrats in an election year.

Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post, sat down for an interview prior to a public event at Book Passage on June 23, 2004.

In Stand Up Fight Back, Dionne reviews how conservatives have often set the terms of debate over the past 25 years. And he describes Democratic centrists and liberals as being on the defensive, especially since September 11, 2001.

Dionne urges a toughness similar to that of the New Deal era. He proposes a "progressive patriotism" that would reward military service and look out for all Americans' well-being, economic and otherwise.

The author sees more assertiveness lately from leading Democrats. But I asked Dionne whether from his point of view, Senator John Kerry had been sufficiently critical of President Bush in light of recent developments.

Grant Howard: I want to ask you first about news that has happened since you wrote this book...especially the prisoner abuse scandal and the 9/11 Commission saying there is no real connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Do you think Kerry is being aggressive enough. I mean, there is an opening there somehow. But should he be doing more than he is doing, or is it about right?

E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Well, there is an old maxim in war, and I guess in politics, that when your enemy is in trouble or destroying himself you don't try to interfere. And I think that's been the theory of the Kerry campaign, that President Bush's popularity has come down a lot from the beginning of the year. Not so much in response to anything that the Democrats have done, but because the country and in particular the middle of the country, the independents and moderate Republicans, have asked a lot of questions about this policy [in Iraq] and whether it made sense, whether the promises made about it have come to fruition. The fact that they haven't.

It hasn't been easy. We weren't greeted for very long as liberators; the president probably should have listened to General Shinseki and sent a lot more troops at the beginnning, and so on. So I think on balance, this election is primarily about President Bush and whether people want to rehire him or fire him.

I think Kerry cannot continue on a laid-back path for the rest of the election. I think there has to come a point when he does give some definition to himself--if only because, in order to be that acceptable alternative to the electorate, they will have to sense something in him that they are willing to vote for to throw Bush out. But I still think this election is primarily about people's attitudes toward President Bush.

GH: And do you think that foreign policy is the biggest issue?

Dionne: Yes. Let's put it this way. And this really is an idea my friend Tom Mann at the Brookings Institution has been talking about the last couple of weeks: Imagine President Bush's reelection without the Iraq war. Imagine that we hadn't gone to war with Iraq. I don't think the president would be in the kind of trouble he is in now.

I think a lot of the negative reaction to the president comes from this middle of the electorate, which wasn't really comfortable about this war in the first place--and went along with the war because the President said it was a good idea, and because obviously Saddam Hussein is a very bad guy.

But it still had its qualms, and now the qualms of that doubtful middle are being realized. The very things they were worried about are being realized. So I think the war is what has put President Bush in jeopardy.

I think that other issues are obviously in play. There are plenty of people who are going to vote on the economy, on health care, on domestic issues. The core Democrats were against Bush even before the war started, so those issues are very important. But I think Iraq set the tone of this election at the beginning of the year.

It's worth noting that Kerry himself--I think the decisive stump-speech line that helped Kerry win the nomination was his statement that if President Bush wants to make national security the central issue in this election, "I say bring it on." And that rallied a lot of Democrats, including some of the pro-Dean Democrats--who decided that they loved what Dean had done, but that Kerry might be the better person to carry if not exactly Dean's message, then certainly a message critical of Bush.

GH: Well, you do talk about Howard Dean in the book. And you actually trace the beginning of increased toughness lately to the runoff election in Louisiana, right?

Dionne: Right. I sort of describe, if you will, a trinity of characters. The first is Max Cleland--senator from Georgia, Vietnam veteran, lost three limbs in Vietnam. The advertisements that implied questions about his patriotism, his devotion to national security, enraged Democrats. These ads showed pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, which is guilt by association with a vengeance.

Then the second character is [Senator] Mary Landreau, a moderate Democrat who was in the peculiar situation that Louisiana creates for candidates. Under Louisiana law, if you don't get a majority in the first round you have to go into a runoff. She won the first round but well short of a majority.

And in the second round, she was the only Democrat who had a chance to look back on what had happened in the [2002] election and reflect on what it meant for her campaign. And then in the second round she became much, much tougher on President Bush. And it turned out that that toughness helped to rally the Democratic Party, helped her win the election. And she was extremely angry, as somebody who had thought she had been a very pro-Bush Democrat, being under such assault from the Republican Party. I interviewed her afterward, and this very moderate Democrat was very, very angry.

Howard Dean, the third person in the trinity, is the person who picked up on this rage in the party. And I don't think it was just that Howard Dean opposed the Iraq war, although that was clearly essential for a lot of his supporters. I think it was more broadly that he was willing to speak up and, if I can use the phrase, stand up and fight back.

And in the end I think Howard Dean--if it's not disrespectful to use a religious metaphor--is kind of the John the Baptist of the Democratic Party; he set a tone that all the other Democrats picked up on. He set a tone in two respects. One is that he was much tougher than Democrats had been in 2002. I think there was a real feeling in the party that Democrats had not been tough enough against the president in that election. But also he set the tone in this broadly based fund-raising that he did through the Web.

I think this year is going to be very interesting. It may be the year when we really begin to democratize fund-raising. The amount of work being done by average people--often fund-raising tends to be done by slightly-better-than-average people. We're not talking about the usual suspects who are very, very rich. You have got a pretty broad base. And Kerry just picked up where Dean left off, and he has raised a staggering amount of money--through the Web, through house parties, all that sort of thing. And so I think that if the Democrats win this election, they will owe a debt to Howard Dean.

GH: You say in the book that what is really needed is a center-left coalition, a solidarity. It's not there yet. Is that really potentially going to happen? Because it hasn't happened in so long for the Democrats.

Dionne: As of this date [June 23], right now you do have a coalition that includes a vast majority of Democrats, a substantial number of independents and now some moderate Republicans. In the book I argue that there is not a left majority in the United States all by itself. But there is a center-left majority. And I argue that that is a natural alliance, because the conservatives have really been trying to push the country well to the right of center.

I think what the center and left share in common is a belief that government can be used to solve some basic problems. And that saying the government is always the enemy and always the problem is just not where a majority of Americans are. I think Republicans know that. They would not have passed this big prescription drug benefit if they didn't sort of concede that--even though the benefit they passed was flawed.

To take an example: The center and left may disagree on exactly how we should achieve universal health coverage. The center may be more market-oriented, the left may be oriented more toward a Canadian-style system. But they both agree that this is a problem that public policy and the government has to grapple with. And I think you can go down a long list of issues like that--child care, helping more kids go to college at a moment when tuitions even at state universities are going way up. There are a series of problems that both the center and left would like to solve.

And so I think this is a natural alliance. And the center is very uneasy with the drift to the right. A lot of moderate voters are uneasy with that drift. And so I think it's very possible. And as a practical matter, if John Kerry wins, it's very likely that at least one house of Congress will remain Republican--and that in order to govern he is going to have to encourage, entice, persuade some moderate Republicans to work with the Democrats if he is going to get anything done.

And I think Jim Jeffords' defection in 2001 may yet be a very important event in our politics, because a lot of moderate Republicans are frustrated with the direction of the Republican Party. Jeffords was one person, but I think he spoke for a lot of people who have been Republicans. And so I think there is an opportunity for Kerry to reach out to those moderates and say, "We agree on fiscal responsibility. We agree on a significant-- limited but significant--role for government. There is a lot we agree on. Let's try to figure out how we can work together to get something done." That may be the only way to get something done.

GH: There is a quote from your book that I wrote down: "Democrats and liberals have lost the will to make the case for government as a vehicle through which the rights of individuals and communities can be enforced and enhanced." Is that will coming back? Do you sense that from your reporting and your analysis?

Dionne: I still think there is a fear in the Democratic Party of being accused of supporting big government. The Democrats sometimes seem to feel obligated to give speeches that include a series of "nots" as in, "I'm not for big government, I'm not for high taxes, I'm not weak on defense, I'm not against traditional values." And if voters have too many "nots" they start asking, "What are you really for?"

On the other hand, I think that when you looked at the primaries, there was a willingness across the board to say, "President Bush's tax cuts went too far and were too tilted toward the very wealthy. Those have to be rolled back." There was a will to say that we need to take serious action, if not to achieve universal coverage then surely to give health care coverage to a whole lot more Americans. There was a will to talk more about child care and other areas where government could act affirmatively.

So I think it is slowly breaking down. I thing what has really happened is that the sense of solidarity created by opposition to President Bush is leading a lot of Democrats--and increasingly moderate Republicans--to sit down and say, "How can we be more affirmative and not simply tell people who we're not."

GH: In terms of President Bush, I got the sense from the book that you disagreed with him strongly but that you were trying not to personalize it. Do you think that he is just overly narrow-minded or simple-minded, or is he more devious and manipulative. Which way does it go for you?

Dionne: Now there's a choice: Is he narrow-minded or is he devious? I think he has a set of convictions shaped by the way he grew up. Some of his commitments in business. Some of it is his particular view of his religious convictions.

I think it is some ways a very old-fashioned, conservative country-club Republicanism. And there are a lot of perfectly good people in country clubs. But that's where I think he comes from. And I think he is someone who once he sets a course, he doesn't question it or deviate from it.

I think in the days and months immediately after 9/11, that was viewed as an asset by a lot of Americans. I think now, given that a lot of Americans wish he had asked more questions--about Iraq, for example--what had been an asset has become a liability.

I have always said it is crazy for Democrats and liberals to say George Bush is stupid. For one thing, I say, if he is stupid what does that make us? But secondly, I think it's tactically foolish because, as the president himself once said, he has always been "misunderestimated". Being underestimated has been one of his great calling cards in politics.

And thirdly, I don't think the issue is stupidity, I don't think he is stupid. I think it is rather this tendency to never question a course once he gets on it. And I think a lot of Americans are now uneasy about it. That's sufficient for me.

In the book I describe myself as a political liberal and a temperamental moderate. Even though I think Democrats should be much tougher--and I have a lot of tough things to say about Bush in terms of his policies and what he's done--I didn't like it when the right personalized politics in the way they did under President Clinton. And in the world I'd like to create, we wouldn't be as personal about politics in general.

GH: Well, speaking of Clinton, during that presidency you describe what happened with the media and some of the things with the conservative think tanks--things that were already in motion before Clinton came along. But particularly with the media, the conservative voices grew stronger and Clinton gave them some material to work with.

Dionne: It's a real paradox that Clinton did end up strengthening conservative forces in the media that were already on their way up. With Clinton's book coming out now, I think other than Bill Clinton--given the sales of the book--no one is happier than the right-wing talk show hosts, who have truly missed bashing Bill Clinton. They have Bill Clinton to kick around again and they are ecstatic.

But I think the shift of the media is a very long-term matter. The conservatives were very shrewd in going after all media institutions--whether they were liberal or not--as liberal. I think they engaged in a two-pronged strategy. They tried to push what you might call the mainstream media to the right. And at the same time, they set up their own alternative media institutions. They colonized large parts of the AM radio dial with right-wing talk. Fox News had a substantial effect on the other cable news outlets.

And so you have a situation where, I think contrary to what conservatives say, you do not have a liberal media. If anything you have a media that tilts to the right. Because if you think of talk radio as one major component, it tilts right. If you look at cable television, I think it has drifted right. And if you look at the mainstream outlets, they have responded to pressure from the conservatives; they are certainly a whole lot less liberal than they were during the Goldwater campaign. I'm perfectly prepared to agree with conservatives that the press was biased against Barry Goldwater, but that was 40 years ago. And they have managed to live off that very effectively for 40 years.

In the book I am very critical of the right. I am very frustrated at their successes, but I also take the right very seriously. And I think that liberals should look with some admiration at what the right achieved and then say to themselves, "How can we effectively fight back? How can we organize to counter this?"

And I think you are seeing a lot of energy right now on the liberal and left side of politics. Because of the Bush years, people have woken up and said, "All right, we need to get in the trenches the way the conservatives got in the trenches."

GH: In terms of the advantage that the conservatives have in the media, all of the advantages that you just described where the so-called mainstream media--the older television networks and the established newspapers--are almost hypersensitive to criticism. I mean, is that a permanent state of affairs, that advantage that they have?

Dionne: No, I don't think it is permanent. Several factors. One, I do think there was a little letting-up on President Bush after 9/11. Even I--I write an opinionated column, I have been very critical of Bush most of the time. Not because anybody put any pressure on me, but I felt in those months immediately after 9/11, I too wanted him to succeed.

I think all of us had a fundamentally patriotic reaction. Which is why so many of us reacted so negatively when the president turned around and used some of the very issues on which we were willing to lend him some support and used them for such partisan purposes. I wrote a column on why I thought progressives should support the war in Afghanistan. I thought it was a legitimate and just war. Lots of people on the left and on the liberal side said the same sort of thing. So I think there was a period when there was a kind of pulling-back altogether. And it took a while before the press' natural critical instincts to ask a lot of questions and to probe deeply--it took a while for that process to resume its normal course.

I think now, the press has become much more critical. I think there are real issues to discuss and explore. And I think the press has been much more aggressive on: What was Abu Ghraib about? Why were there not weapons of mass destruction? Is there really a link, as the administration has claimed, between Saddam and Al Qaeda, and therefore to 9/11? And so I think there has been a toughening, a natural toughening.

And I also think that the press finally is coming under criticism not only from the right but also from the left. I have noticed it in my own email, where you are hearing a lot more from both sides. I still get a lot of negative email from conservatives when I write critically of President Bush. And that's fine, that's their right. But I am now getting not only supportive email when I write critically, but email from people to my left who say I am not tough enough on Bush. And I actually welcome all of that, because I think the best way to keep the media honest is to have balanced criticism, and I think it is starting to happen.

GH: You argue that President Bush really squandered an opportunity after 9/11 and became overly partisan. And you say that instead, a more healthy approach for the country, in the world we live in now where we are worried about terrorism and so on--that there should be more creativity like what happened after World War II.

Dionne: Right. One of the things I argue in the book is that after 9/11, among some conservatives there was an argument that the United States is under siege, our values are under siege--and that only by being willing to act alone can the United States protect itself in the world. Well, I am perfectly prepared to believe that there are occasions when the United States needs to act alone. But I think the world was in fact moving in our direction and has been for some time.

The 20th century ended with the world moving in the direction of democracy, economic freedom, personal freedom. And the world rallied to us after 9/11; nobody made that up. Even those French and Germans who came under so much criticism from conservatives because of Iraq--the French newspapers had headlines such as, "We are all Americans." And so I think that by being excessively pessimistic about where the world stands right now...

GH: Paranoid, even.

Dionne: Yes. We might call forth the very reaction that we are trying to prevent. And so I think we need more optimism about the possibility of building international institutions in the same way that Harry Truman after World War II was so successful. Truman and Acheson and Republicans like Arthur Vandenburg said, "We can build institutions that can promote global prosperity, keep the peace, and can contain Soviet power." Those institutions worked.

And I think there is an opportunity now for the same kind of creativity. I doesn't just have to be defensive, it doesn't just have to be military. I think this is an opening for Democrats and all those moderate Republicans I keep talking about--to offer an alternative that's not soft. This is not about looking at the world through rose-colored glasses; it's about looking at the world as it is and seeing what possibilities we have to make it safer and better.

GH: Well, speaking of soft, you identify a lot of words that are conservative words that liberals have kind of gone along with. And they are not asserting themselves and defining their own terms. From the Democratic or liberal point of view, what would be advantageous, instead of always having to deal with "morality" and "are you tough on crime or soft on crime" and all of these kinds of things?

Dionne: I think that people left of center should not be afraid of the word "morality". In fact, I think one of their great failings is that they have acted in a way and spoken in a way that lead a lot of people to believe that morality lives solely on the right. That's not the progressive tradition at all. What was the civil rights movement except a moral crusade? What was the progressive movement except a moral crusade, both to reform politics and to begin to do more to lift up the poor in our country? These, too, are moral issues.

I think there has been a real reluctance to talk in moral terms, partly because it's seen as soft-headed 60's squishy liberalism--and partly because liberals have sort of felt obligated to adopt the language of the other side, including reducing every public issue to something having to do with the economic market. Well, the economic market is fine in its place, but it does not explain all of human life. And the market does not solve all problems by itself.

In the book I quote Ann Lewis, a very distinguished Democratic activist who once said, "We used to talk about immunizing little children against disease. Now we call for investments in human capital." And she was saying that tongue-in-cheek in a self-mocking way. And the point is that if liberals can't even stand up for immunizing little children against disease, what can they possibly stand up for?

GH: Well, you actually say that "investment" is a useful word when you are talking about the potential of a new GI Bill. Then it's appropriate to use "investment" as a word, right?

Dionne: Right. I have nothing against using the word "investment". I think people become cynical about it when every single bit of public expenditure you are for is "investment". I don't mind conservatives making fun of liberals for that. But there are public expenditures that really are investments.

I close the book talking about the need for a "progressive patriotism". And I think that in this period especially, a lot of people who are progressive got very angry at the notion that we somehow weren't patriotic-- that the flag somehow didn't belong to us.

I tell the story in the book of my son and I driving back from New York, stopping at a gas station. And the two Indian immigrants who were working at the gas station sort of looked at my son and gave him an American flag as a gift, which he immediately put on the back of our old Saturn. The flag is ours as much as it is anyone else's. And it seems to me a progressive patriotism asserts that we are all in this together, which is an old-fashioned idea that is also I think a bold challenge to this status quo that is dividing and failing us.

And I think GI Bill politics is essential because what it says is, we honor two things at least. We honor service to country and community and say that that's important. And then by rewarding service to country and community, we assert that government has the capacity to help lift people up. The GI Bill helped millions to go to college who could never have gone, and millions to buy homes who couldn't have bought them.

Liberalism has been derided, and liberals have given up their definition of their own word to the other side. I basically define being a liberal as thinking that the government's priority should be to help people who are trying to work their way up, rather than try to help people who are already up. And I think by that definition an awful lot of Americans are liberal.

GH: [And what] about Humphrey Bogart?

Dionne: On this softness/toughness business, I do assert that liberalism has never been the same since Humphrey Bogart was replaced as a symbol of what it meant to be a liberal by Woody Allen or Alan Alda. I like movies by Woody Allen and Alan Alda--nothing against them. But Humphrey Bogart represented a kind of tough liberalism that was rooted in a deep sense of solidarity, that sense of solidarity you got out of "Casablanca".

And I think solidarity is a stronger virtue on which to base liberalism. And here I am borrowing from Robert Reich--I quote him in the book. Solidarity is a stronger basis for liberalism than merely a kind of conciliation or an avoidance of conflict. And so I think we could use a little bit more Humphrey Bogart liberalism. I once wrote a piece on this; it was illustrated by a whole bunch of Democrats wearing trench coats and fedoras, with Humphrey Bogart cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.