Can the Democratic Party Be Saved?

NewCo Shift Forum 2018

Two rising stars talk politics, Trump, and how to win in a post truth era

Continuing our tour through the political conversations at Shift Forum 2018, John Heilemann interviews Rachel Payne, running for a hotly contested congressional seat in southern California, and Jason Kander, one of the youngest elected officials in the history of his state. Below is an edited transcript and the full video interview.

John Heilemann: We have two bright, rising stars in the Democratic Party here today. Rachel Payne, who is a perfect person for this crowd, a CEO in the tech sector, is also one of many, abundant, like 500, Democrats who are running for Congress in the 48th District in California, down in Orange County, running against Dana Rohrabacher.

Rachel, why don’t you come up right now. And Jason Kandler, who is a veteran of our military, also the former Secretary of State of Missouri. The first millennial, I believe, ever elected to state-wide office and now the head of a group called Let America Vote which deals with voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other things that make it harder for people to vote and have their votes count. Lady, gentleman, good to see you.

Rachel Payne: Thank you.

Jason Kandler: Thanks for having us.

[applause]

John: I’m happy to see you guys because so many panels that we do in the world of conferences that talk to Democrats and Republicans, and I’m talking to people who are incredibly familiar faces, who everyone knows who they are.

They’re old and tired, and they don’t speak to the future. I’m interested in speaking to the future of this party for a particular reason.

I don’t know. Let me actually take a show of hands. How many Democrats do we have in the room right now? Hands in the air if you’re a Democrat? OK. Hands in the air if you’re a Republican? OK.

That’s one person back there. By the standards of the Bay Area, this is a very ideologically diverse crowd.

[laughter]

John: The one Republican back there, I’ll have security come and help you when you’re on your way out.

[laughter]

John: There’s a lot of Democrats in the room and probably some people aren’t Democrats but are generally, socially liberal and interested in progressive causes. The Democratic Party has two fundamental truths about it right now. One of them is that at this moment heading into the mid-terms all of the energy is with your party.

You look at the off-year elections. You look at special elections. You look at everything going on right now. All the energy in the world is with the Democratic Party. That’s against the backdrop in which the party is a massive failure. Just a gargantuan failure right now. In the 30 years or so that I’ve been doing this, the party’s never been weaker around the country.

Doesn’t control the House. Doesn’t control the Senate. Doesn’t control the majority of governorships, state legislatures, local, state, federal, every level of government. The Democratic Party is at its low ebb right now which it means great because you guys got nowhere to go but up. The question is what now?

Part of the reason why the party, right now, has all the energy is because a lot of people are unhappy with the Trump Administration. It’s clearly the case that a lot of Democrats are going to run against Donald Trump in 2018.

My question for you guys, and now I will stop talking. I’ll start with you, Rachel. Beyond being against Donald Trump and his policies and politics, what should the Democratic Party stand for?

Rachel: This year, we’ve seen an energy, as you’ve mentioned, that we’ve never seen before in Orange County among Democrats and progressives. There’s a resurgence in believing that it takes all of us to do something about this administration.

I’ve been part of the resistance from the very beginning. Just this weekend at the San Diego Democratic Convention, I spoke about how we need to move beyond resistance. We need to stand for something.

As a party, we need to articulate a vision that is much more inclusive and that allows people who might be, traditionally, Republican or no party preference to buy into it and believe it. To believe that we can deliver it.

One area, in particular, that we didn’t do a very good job of over the last several years is owning the issue of jobs and jobs of the future. And income growth, and really speaking the language of the economy. Making sure that people understand that we see them.

They’re being left behind. There’s a lot of anxiety. As the Democratic Party and, by the way, a party that believes in climate change, we could actually be way out front leading the narrative of jobs of the future.

While we’re at it, healthcare. This is not just shoring up the ACA, but obviously, in California, there’s SB 562 which is now being taken to the floor of the Assembly. There’s an opportunity to talk more broadly about healthcare.

Another area, of course, when you’re talking about climate change is thinking about how do we make sure that we have the right policy framework that is encouraging business, rather than what we have right now, which is chaos.

It makes it difficult for businesses to make long-term investments knowing that there’s a lot of things that are unknown. Instead, rewarding the industries of the past, rather than helping create a framework for the industries of the future.

John: Jason.

Jason: The Democratic Party is about making it so that your family can be happy, healthy, safe and nearby. We did a show of hands earlier. Raise your hand if you live here in San Francisco, but you’re not from here. You’re from somewhere else. Keep them up.

Everybody look around. That’s a lot of people, which is not a surprise. You’re probably very talented people. You’re all from places that are missing out on your talents. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty or anything like that but I’m from Kansas City.

What I believe, my parties about, why I’m a part of it, is I think it’s about making sure that people can find success, can find prosperity, can find happiness without having to move.

You’ve name the policy that the Democratic Party stands for and I can tell you why that’s what it’s about. College affordability is about making sure that folks can afford to go home. They’re not so steep in debt. They can go home. Minimum wage is about making sure that all the wages in their community are high enough that folks can afford to go home.

We all just want our kids’ lives to be an upgrade over our lives. If we can get that, we’d really like it if our kids can afford to come home and live where we raised them so that our grand kids can be with them. My son is four and a half. When he goes to college, he has no idea that I’m going with him.

[laughter]

Jason: I don’t want to be away from the kid. That’s what unites all of us, no matter where you live in the country. I believe that my party makes it much more possible with what we want to do for you to be able to find success without having to move away.

John: I’ve laid out a basic postulate here which is the energies with the Democratic Party, the president’s incredibly unpopular, both parts of the electorate that normally don’t vote in midterm elections that seem to be ready to vote.

We look at millennial voters. We look at African-American women seeing these incredible things like in Alabama, in Virginia, New Jersey last year. If I ask you what you thought — Jason I’ll stay with you — if you thought what can Democrats have a way to figure out how to screw stuff up?

If you think about one of the pitfalls, what’s one of the things that the Democrats have to look out for, between now and November that would be the stumbling blocks that would keep the party from achieving what it should be able to achieve given the prevailing political climate?

Jason: I’ll give you two things. The first is failing to make our argument with courage and everybody. Being a Democrat is about the fact that’s best for everybody. I don’t think there’s some voters that do well and others don’t. Rich or poor, city or country, man or woman, whatever, I think that we want to do is best.

We have to never again make the mistake of making our argument only to certain folks. Now, what I’m not saying is that we have to moderate our views. We know what we believe in and we have to passionately make our argument. People appreciate that.

The second is you’re right. There’s this incredible energy right now. Everybody says, “How do we harness it?” The answer is, we harness it like we don’t just ask people to call their member Congress six days a week.

That’s super important. Don’t get me wrong. At some point people are going, “My member of Congress knows what I think. What else can I do?” In my organization, we are a boots-on-the-ground-based organization.

Let America vote, for instance in the Virginia election, we knocked on over 194,000 doors. We gave people a chance to get out there, make phone calls, knock on doors. If we keep doing that, people will see it is worth their time and I’ll continue to put in the work.

John: Rachel.

Rachel: There is a divide right now in the party where some camps are taking hard line positions. I’m not sure we can afford that right now. We need to be able to compromise not our core values but on policy details.

Given the context of the current environment, it’s very difficult for someone who’s running for office to be able to be elected, if there are too far on one side or the other, when you’re trying to appeal to a larger base of voters.

Having hard line views that can really alienate the vast majority of the electorate wouldn’t be very smart when you’re trying to win in the midterms and flip the house for example.

There is fragmentation also because so many people are under attack and feel that their rights — this is rightfully — they feel that their rights are being infringed upon. There’s the risk that we could be further divided and fragmented.

What we really need to do is remember that we have to stand together as people, not just as a party but as people and defend each other’s rights. We are on the front lines right now of a very scary moment in our political history.

John: Here’s a question for you in your primary that you’re facing at in June. There’s a dozen of you, maybe more, who are running to try to unseat Dana Robacher.

That’s a seat that should be a seat that Democrats gets vulnerable seat. It’s a seat where Hillary Clinton won in the presidential voting 2016, and Dana Robacher who’s been there forever, quite popular, managed to hold on.

These are some of the districts people are most looking at right now or district where Clinton won that are held by Republicans currently. You’re going to have a lot of competition to try to get as far to the left as possible in your district.

In one of the places where that’s going to be true, I predicted it’s not already true, is on the question of whether or not you’re going to be for the notion of trying to impeach the president.

That discussion of impeachment is going to come up more and more as we get closer and closer to fall, because for a lot of people now it’s clear that a republican congress is unlikely to do that. A democratic congress will at least be open to doing that.

Is that a potential problem? As you think about how that issue’s going to play out, tell me whether you think that that’s a good discussion for democrats to be having. Should you be talking about whether the president should be impeached or not or it’d be better for democrats to try to stay away from that topic, because it’s sort of polarizing?

Rachel: We have to defend the institutions within our democracy. If there has been, and there has been, sufficient evidence from several federal agencies that there has been hostile foreign intervention in our democratic process, we need to take action.

I will not run in on a platform of impeachment, but it starts in the house and we need the political will to get there. I’m not sure that that’s the platform to run on.

I will say that in my district, this is a uniquely relevant issue because just this week Dana Rohrabacher was named as the congressman who was in the meeting in 2013 with Manafort. There’s a doubling down in this investigation.

Interestingly, this tossup election in the 48th district became even more of a tossup, because the incumbent of 30 years could be the biggest wildcard in the race and he is actively under investigation. We don’t know what’s going to happen before June 5th, and that would also change all the dynamics of the race.

As you may have seen in other Orange County districts, several of the incumbents have retired, they may run in other races, but that has also created a [laughs] lot of dynamism. When they call it a jungle primary, they mean it right now.

John: It’s a jungle out there. If the full campaign becomes a referendum on impeachment, is that a good thing for democrats because of the energy that it will inspire, or is that a bad thing for democrats because there are a lot of voters in the middle who will not want to head down that path?

Jason: I don’t know, but the reason that I don’t know is because I’m not a strategist. I don’t know the answer to your question as to whether it’s good or bad. What I can say is that…

John: You could tell me whether that possibility which I think it’s quite likely.

Jason: Probably if the entire election’s about impeachment, I’m not sure that’s where the country should have its discussion, but I don’t think that’s probably good for the guy who’s actually president. [laughs] It seems like not a great metric of your success so far.

What I would say is just that there are about a million reasons why we should want to take the house. First of which is just to stop really bad things from happening. The second has got to be to make sure that you’re able to look into stuff that has been going on. Whatever flows from that, flows from that.

John: You’re a veteran, right? This last week has been incredible in the wake of Parkland, and this moment that we’re seeing right now where it seems like two people — even people are jaded and cynical about the politics of guns.

People are think that if something real happening here, someone that has to do with the passion of a lot of young activists. Someone that has to do with the way in which business is suddenly stepping in to devoid the politics has left.

You’re seeing companies backing away from the NRA or seeing discussions about a black rock in other places about investment decisions and in stocks of many gun manufacturers and ammunition manufacturers.

As you look it, do you think that this is a tectonic shift in the discussion about guns in the country, or is this just going to be another of these things like we saw after Newtown and so often where people get upset for a couple weeks and then nothing happens and we’re back to where we were before.

Jason: It’s definitely different and that’s a good thing that it’s different. It’s noticeable. What stands out to me about it right now is that it’s helpful to remember that just because congress hasn’t acted, that doesn’t mean that those of us who want comments and reforms haven’t won the argument.

We have to not fall into that trap. People will say things like, “Well, maybe we should talk about it this way. Maybe we…” Those are worthwhile conversations to have, but it’s important to remember that the vast majority of Americans want something done.

What we have is a congress that is controlled by a bunch of folks who frankly don’t have the moral courage to stand up to the NRA and do what I think they know is right, second, what the American people want them to do.

We start with that and then to get to the other part of your question, I encourage everybody, business, individuals, whoever, when you know something is right and you have an opportunity to try and convince somebody on it, you have to use your platform.

That’s a really important part of the shift here. You see companies stepping up and doing that. I think that it’s connected to the other part of your question, which is you talked about this generation whether it’s the millennial generation or this other rising generation. I think it’s Z, we call it, whatever.

One of the things about it that people knock is they’ll say it’s entitled when people want the company that signs their paycheck to match up to their personal identity of who they are. I don’t think that’s entitled, I think that’s patriotic.

I think these kids standing up, it’s patriotic. I think that folks demanding that where their products or who signs their paycheck, behaves a certain way in its corporate responsibility, I don’t think that’s entitled, I think it’s patriotic.

It’s not just this issue where we’re going to see this. We’re going to continue to see it on a whole bunch of others and I think that’s a great thing for the country.

John: I want to ask you Rachel because I want to cover a few more topics. Do you think about big social movements in this cycle that are happening? This is obviously one and very fresh.

The other one that’s happening simultaneously and we’re seeing all across the country — You’re an example of it to some extent — is this incredible wave of women candidates who are running for office at every level.

Mostly the Democratic Party, but not exclusively and to some extent at least, this may not be true for you specifically, but broadly it seems to be an outgrowth of the “me-too times up” moment that we’re having in American societies.

Just talk a little bit about what you think it means for the Democratic Party that there is this unprecedented wave of women who are getting into electoral politics who might have never considered doing so before.

Rachel: First of all, just by way of numbers, I want to let the audience know that on average we get about 4,000 or so women running nationwide. We’re now at around 24,000.

[applause]

Rachel: It’s a huge…Yeah.

A lot of people are calling 2018 the year of the woman, but what we have to remember is we have to move beyond the women’s march, talking about supporting women and we have to literally put our money where our mouth is.

We have to literally vote for women if we actually want to see women in office. That is still a big gap. In fact, this weekend at the California Democratic Party Convention, it was unfortunate that no women were endorsed. What does that say about the California Democratic Party?

It makes you wonder just how much harder do we have to fight as women to be able to hold elected office at all levels. Speaking as a woman from TAC, where I’ve been for 20 years, I understand what it’s like to be in an environment. We are in a minority.

With the role of money in these elections in the way that people tend to give the benefit of the doubt to men automatically especially if they look the part and tend to discount women’s experience automatically — there’s a lot of research around this.

It tells you that not only is that funding gap much larger, but the credibility gap is also really large. I’ve been the CEO multiple times, I’ve been in tech, I was an executive at Google and I can tell you how many times I was told in this race, “Why don’t you wait your turn?” It’s my turn and I’m reclaiming my time.

[laughter]

John: I want to talk a little bit about letting America vote. Just because…

Jason: Thanks. That’s cool I appreciate it. Yes, thank you.

John: …it’s important. There’s obviously the question of voter access and voter suppression. That’s obviously part of what you were when you started this organization part of what you are trying to address. There is that issue which continues to be incredibly important.

There’s also now a parallel issue that people are super focused on because of what we saw in 2016, which is the question of voter integrity and how do we keep the nations electoral system hardened against plagiarist intrusions, foreign actors would they be Russians or somebody else.

Just talk a little bit about what your group is doing and the extent to which in addition to its original mandate or inspiration, you’ve had to start to think also about some of those other issues that again are front and center for a lot of people right now in terms of 2018 and what’s going to happen on election day.

Jason: Let me work backwards to the questions. Starting with the issue foreign interference it actually belongs right within the conversation about voter suppression. Because, if you look one of the most common objectives of a lot of the Russian campaign, was to get certain voters to stay home. That’s voter suppression and so it’s another tactic for it.

It’s consistent with photo identification laws with purging of the roles, with moving the polling places around, scaling back early voting hours, you name it. There’s a whole bunch of different voter suppression strategies, but that’s one of them.

What we do is, we create political consequences for voter suppression. The Republican party has decided that they’re going to in about almost 20 years now, the voter suppression would be a political strategy of the party.

I say it that way to point out that while they pretended that this is a policy difference between the parties, they pretend that this is like taxes or health care and we just disagree. That isn’t what it is.

This is a strategy no different than when they decide which channels to run TV ads on, or which doors to knock on. They do this in order to win elections, period. There’s not another reason.

They pretend to church it up with language it’s the same. It’s all it is, it’s the same. For years we fought back against that in the courts, still extremely important. When you have Jeff Sessions in charge of the department of justice, it means that the DOJ literally switches sides in these cases.

They brought the cases and they are like, “We are over there now. We are on the other side of the courtroom.” Then you have president Trump both appointing the judges but also lying and saying there were three to five million illegal voters in the election undermining faith in the American democracy.

All a long way of saying, we have to expand the argument beyond the court of law and also into the court of public opinion. We do that by beating people in elections, who’ve made it harder to vote. When they find that it is harder to win when they do it they’ll quit doing it. That’s what we do.

John: That’s good. Badass strategy.

[applause]

Jason: Thank you.

John: I want to hear that opposing course, I want to take some questions from the audience because we didn’t ask any for the last panel. I know one of you guys at least has to go soon. If anybody has a question please run up to the microphones and ask it.

There’s got to be someone out here with the question. If you don’t have one I’m going to consider you all weak and sad and abuse you from the podium up here. Yes, sir.

Audience Member: Sir, I’ve rescued you from sadness.

John: Thank you.

Audience Member: Stupid me it didn’t occur to me that whether your prior position on impeachment would be a criterion. It sounds to me so much like campaigning on lock her up, and it’s just the inverse.

In game theory there is an idea for tit for tat strategy which says that if somebody has screwed you, you screw them back until they show willingness to pay you back. Their political history, you got that?

Jason: I am trying. I’m with you.

Audience Member: By the way, I totally agree on the voters’ suppression, if they had a position that could be democratically chosen, they wouldn’t have to suppress voters. That’s how it works.

There are political historians who say that this ratcheting up of partisanship actually goes back to the Robert Bork candidacy, and partisanship has gotten…Everybody, each side screws the other depending on how much power they have at the time.

My question is, is there any room for a democratic strategy that says it’s time to stop that? It’s time to reenact one man one vote, it’s time to get money out of politics and try make Congress work for the country. That that would be not democratically partisan, honestly. It would be for the country.

Are any Democrats going to run on that? I don’t know anything about getting votes except my own, but would that work?

Rachel: I really appreciate the question and to your point be given the stakes that were dealing with right now that is political brinkmanship and it’s dangerous. Because we really are dealing with a situation where our democracy is undermined and people have lost a lot of faith in our democratic institutions.

Importantly — and I know this matters a lot to you and your business — they’ve lost faith in the fourth estate, the media. Without a short objective reality, it’s hard to have a conversation, because then fact itself is disputed. How do you collaborate across the aisle? I come from a background where I believe in collaboration and the diversity of opinion actually gets you to a better outcome.

My hope is that in districts like mine, which are very complex and have basically a 40, 30, 20 something you know breakdown in terms of the electorate, if you can’t only run on one party platform you really have to appeal to the MBP’s which in my district are about 24 percent. That’s a no party preference. People in that group don’t want to hear about party politics. They’re sick of it.

They want to know that you’ve got a vision, that you can make things happen, that you can be effective in the job and that you aren’t going to play the tit for tat. I think it’s a critical question right now because we need to really uphold who we are as a country. We need to make sure that we don’t allow hostile foreign actors to take control which is what’s happening right now.

Jason: I get a version of this question all the time and it’s asking a bunch of different ways with a bunch of different prescriptions. I think of this is as sort of the how do we crack the code question. Like what’s the secret sauce sort of thing? Will this work?

Here’s my deal with this. I’m a progressive from a state that president Trump won by 19. I outperformed at front of the ticket by 16. I lost by a little less than three points. I’m pretty progressive. 220,000 folks voted for me and voted for Donald Trump. We don’t really agree on hardly anything.

I understand he’s not a fan of sharks, I don’t really like sharks I guess we’re together on that. And really not a lot of other stuff. My point here is that voters are not looking…they don’t have like a spreadsheet that they go down and they’re looking for a certain set of things that you’re for.

Voters are looking at this and what they want to know is that you really believe the stuff you’re saying, and that you believe it because you care about them. They’re OK you can reach a conclusion that’s different than them. They want to know that you’re telling them, that you are for real. That’s what this is all about.

My answer to your question is that, if what you just outlined is something that somebody truly believes in a heart, that’s what they ought to run on. Because I promise you, voters can tell the difference. You could say every dang thing you said you only know your vote. I don’t know exactly what you believe in, but I could figure it out maybe. Somebody tell me and I can say everything that I think they said you believe in.

You’re going to know that I am full of it. What I should do instead is do the same thing that we do like when we talk to our friends which is we should talk about what we believe and why we believe it and make an argument. Nobody I know has ever actually convinced anyone else they know of something by convincing them that they have the same position as them.

No, you are like here’s what I believe and here’s why. Sometimes they go, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Sometimes they don’t. But that’s how you win votes. You don’t win them all, but that’s how you get more.

John: We’ve got time for one I think. right now. Sir, please.

Audience Member: Over the past few years, we’ve seen a battle playing out within the democratic party on ideological spectrums.

I think you have some folks who feel like certainly the systems that we have in place are functional we just need to make some adjustments and another segment which thinks we need much more underlying structural reform and distance to be a generational shift as well within the people still in the ladder.

I’m curious both how you see that playing out in the years ahead? If you could control it how you would like it to play out?

Jason: You’re doing sort of how hard do we sort of take hold of where we’re going and say let’s try and take advantage of it take hold of this now and make big shifts not little tiny course corrections.

Audience Member: I think Hillary, Bernie, some of the new…

Jason: I’m a big believer in whether you’re talking about politics or anything else it is helpful to sometimes ask the question like, what if we started from scratch? What would something look like?

Look at the healthcare system. I’m somebody who believe in single parents. I know not everybody does. I definitely feel that if you were to start from scratch you probably wouldn’t start with like the hodgepodge system that we have.

Look at the way the campaign finance system works, look at the way redistricting works, like you wouldn’t say like let’s design the idea of systems and then come out with what we have. In general, yeah I absolutely believe that it’s really helpful to have these large philosophical conversations. I think it’s a good thing that this generation’s going to force it.

John: Rachel, last word.

Rachel: One of the areas that I of course trying to advance is making women’s priorities, legislative priorities. That’s been absent. If I could restructure a number of these things I would definitely look at it also from the vantage point of women. That’s professional women, families, stay-at-home mothers, the whole diversity and range.

Because we’ve been silenced by legislation that does not serve us. In fact, further strains the burden that we hold in society.

One of the areas in particular is looking at the gender of poverty, and also looking at how so many middle-class families are now moving into working-class status because they’re not able to get ahead increasing indebtedness, cost of education college of course but the inability to get an income increase and to hold on a job.

There’s all these chronic economic anxieties that are symptomatic of a larger structural problem. If you’re trying to solve for what women need in society, you actually do end up solving for what families and other people need. It’s not by introducing bias, it’s about being holistic.

I’m looking at how can we actually help address the issue that families are struggling and often women are right at the center of that. They’re trying to figure everything out because we have so many single parent households in this country and that strain is real. I think we’ve lost out on not having that perspective at the table.

If there was one structural fix I would make, it would be to bring a more that holistic perspective into a policy-making to understand how do some of these decisions affect more people across the country.

John: Rachel Payne, Jason Kandler. Thank you guys so much.


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