Behind the Democratic debate

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Lanny Davis
Former Special Counsel to President Clinton
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      Lanny Davis

      Lanny J. Davis counsels individuals, corporations and government contractors, and those under congressional scrutiny, on crisis management and legal issues by developing legal, media and legislative strategies that are designed to best produce a successful result for the client. He has experience in securities fraud and SEC investigations as well, and has found that utilizing such an integrated legal/media/lobbying approach can lead to quicker and less expensive settlements or even successfully litigated outcomes. Senior officials of public companies have also hired Lanny and his crisis group to defend themselves successfully against "short and distort" attacks and other market manipulations. For 25 years prior to 1996, before his tenure as special counsel to President Clinton, Lanny was a commercial, antitrust, government contracts and False Claims Act litigator (both in defense as well as plaintiff). He has argued numerous appellate cases in the U.S. courts of appeals.

      In June 2005, President Bush appointed Lanny to serve on the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by the U.S. Congress as part of the 2005 Intelligence Reform Act. In that capacity, he received the highest level security clearances so that he could be fully briefed and "read in" to the various anti-terrorist surveillance and financial tracking programs at the highest classified level. From 1996 to 1998, Lanny served as special counsel to the president in the White House and was a spokesperson for the president and the White House on matters concerning campaign finance investigations and other legal issues. Lanny has participated in national, state and local politics for almost 30 years. He has served three terms (1980 to 1992) on the Democratic National Committee representing the state of Maryland, and during that period he served on the DNC Executive Committee and as chairman of the Eastern Region Caucus. In Montgomery County, Maryland, he served as chairman of the Washington Suburban Transit Commission.

      Lanny has authored several books and lectured throughout the United States and Europe on various political issues. Between 1990 and 1996, Lanny was a bimonthly commentator on Maryland politics for WAMU-88.5/FM, a Washington, D.C. local affiliate of National Public Radio. He has been a regular television commentator and has been a political and legal analyst for MSNBC, CNN, Fox Cable, CNBC and network TV news programs. He has published numerous op-ed/analysis pieces in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, he Washington Post and other national publications.

      Lanny graduated from Yale Law School, where he won the prestigious Thurman Arnold Moot Court prize and served on the Yale Law Journal. A graduate of Yale University, Lanny served as chairman of the Yale Daily News.

      Lanny is admitted to practice in the District of Columbia and Connecticut and before the Supreme Court of the United States and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Make no mistake: The debate within the Democratic Party is an important one, but it’s about tactics and strategy, not about support for the president and his policies.

To oversimplify somewhat, the disagreement is between two strategic approaches to victory — the first I shall call the “turn-out-the-base” strategy; the second, the “coalition-centrist” strategy.

This is not a new tactical disagreement. It can be traced back as long ago as the 1972 contest for the Democratic nomination between Maine’s Sen. Edmund Muskie and South Dakota Sen. George McGovern. As I wrote in a book published in 1973 about this contest between two liberals for the nomination to oppose Richard Nixon (I was a Muskie supporter):

As the story of the Muskie-McGovern clash unfolds, it will become clear that the very reasons Muskie seemed to be in the best position to build such a broad coalition and defeat President Nixon were also the reasons why he was doomed as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination under the circumstances that prevailed in the Democratic Party in 1972. And, conversely, the same reasons which permitted Sen. McGovern to convert his narrow purist New Politics base into a majority of the delegates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention were also responsible for his doomed candidacy against President Nixon in November.

It is this possible conflict between a nomination versus general-election strategy that those of us in the “coalition-centrist” strategic camp most fear.

We are concerned that while attacking Romney and depending on populist, tax-the-wealthy messages will energize our liberal Democratic Party base, even maximum turnout of the base won’t be enough to re-elect President Obama. Every national public opinion poll, including those recently conducted in key battleground states, shows consistently that about 10 to 15 percent of the electorate is “undecided.” And most of these are self-described independents or unaffiliated voters.

These are the voters who will decide the election. And those in the “coalition-centrist” camp believe they need a message different from the energizing-base message that seems to be the current focus of the Obama campaign.

That message isn’t a mystery. It was tested and proven successful by the only Democratic president to be re-elected to a second term since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936: Bill Clinton.

Clinton’s “New Democrat” was a unique ideological hybrid just about perfect for these independent swing voters — fiscal conservatism (recall that Clinton took a $300 billion deficit in the beginning of his first term and ended with a $1 trillion-plus surplus); pro-private sector economic growth policies (that resulted in the creation of 23 million new jobs by the end of his second term); a leaner, more effective government — with the total number in the federal workforce reduced over his eight years; but a government committed to progressive goals, civil rights and social justice and active government programs to help the middle class and the poor and dispossessed.

Most of all, Bill Clinton always focused on new ideas and the future, and that is what he, and many others in the coalition-centrist camp, are urging Obama to do, rather than emphasize negativity and attack messages. Obama has a good story to tell — but he needs to tell it more effectively. He should contrast his solution-oriented ideas with Mitt Romney’s. His ideas, I believe, are better — and more likely to persuade the 10 to 15 percent of undecided voters than are Romney’s.

It isn’t clear who is right in this debate. Both sides make good arguments and in good faith. But one thing should be 100 percent clear: When someone described as a “ranking administration official” last week told a reporter that Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker is “dead to us,” imputing his motives to political ambition, because of his comments on “Meet the Press,” that was beyond stupid. It was despicable.

President Obama knows that in an election likely to be close, it makes no sense to depict friends as enemies just because they have good-faith tactical disagreements with campaign strategy. And the president is too good a person to tolerate this level of bile and intolerance within his own campaign.

Lanny Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2006-07). He currently serves as Special Counsel to Dilworth Paxson. He is the author of the book “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” and the forthcoming book, “Crisis Tales – Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life,” to be published by Simon & Schuster.