Politics as Usual…

Politics as Usual…

Photo credit: Courtesy of Annapolis Film Festival

According to Democrat political operative Al From, Campaign 2016 isn’t the only year for nasty politics. Crashing the Party, directed by David Sigal, will hold its World Premiere at this year’s Annapolis Film Festival on Saturday, April 2 at 2:15 PM at St. Anne’s Parish House in Maryland and you’ll be surprised at the similarities.

After three crushing defeats in the presidential campaigns of the 1980s, the Democratic Party was brought back from the brink of extinction with the candidacy and election of a then little-known Governor Bill Clinton. Featuring exclusive interviews with President Clinton, Al From, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Haley Barbour, Dick Gephardt, Tom Brokaw, Paul Begala, and many others, this is the riveting inside story of the exceptional people and transformative ideas that revived the Democratic Party.


Al From is the founder and former CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council. His ideas and political strategies during the past quarter century played a central role in the resurgence of the modern Democratic Party.

Here’s what From told Hollywood on the Potomac:

“I think you’ll find through history that there have been pretty nasty campaigns. I heard Doris Kearns Goodwin talk about how fist fights broke out on a regular basis in 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt challenged William Howard Taft, but I do think there’s a difference. What our movie is about is a campaign that was based on ideas because essentially what had happened to the Democrats in the 1980’s is that we were out of touch, out of ideas, and as a result out of power. In the 1980’s we had the three worst consecutive elections in terms of electoral college votes, one percentage of electoral college votes won, that any party has ever had in American history.”

“There are some parallels,” he pointed out. “Both parties today are going through internal struggles and divisions, and maybe the Republicans are more like we were back in the 80’s because they haven’t had the White House in a while. But basically, the debate inside the parties is pretty continuous and when you look at this movie, the first scene is Walter Mondale making a statement in 1984 that Bernie Sanders could make today about this type of party concerning us as a country of the people, by the people and for the people. And today we have a government that’s of the rich, by the rich and for the rich and we better change that.”


President Bill Clinton salutes as Al From looks on at a 2000 DLC conference in San Jose, California. (Reuters)

“We basically had to change the message, modernize the message, make it relevant, make Democratic principles relevant to, in that case the 1990’s, and that’s what we did,” he noted. “The difference today is there’s a lot less emphasis on ideas. I think part of it is the new kinds of media, the 24 hour cable, which thrives on conflict – social media, which is essentially un-screened. I mean, at one point, as bad as they are, the political parties were mediators at disputes, there were screens that sometimes candidates had to go through. Now there’s none of that, and particularly in a case like we have this year where we have a candidate in Donald Trump, who is a master at using celebrity, has no regard really for the truth. He tweets and makes statements every minute that contradict what he said the last minute and it doesn’t seem to affect him. He’s so good on the social media, and he’s been able to sort of control the debate when he gets interviewed on cable TV. It’s a lot easier to roll in the dirt because he runs personal campaigns. This movie is about a campaign that was based on ideas, that’s a very different idea.”

“Social media didn’t turn up till the last ten years. The 1992 campaign was the least real pre-internet campaign. But there’s a difference between using celebrities, having celebrities appear on your behalf and support you, that’s a staple in politics. But Trump uses it in a different way; he uses it as if he were on his reality TV show. He is the celebrity, he knows how to manage, manipulate media using celebrity. That’s a different deal,” From emphasized.


 Sen.Tom Carper, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Al From

“I didn’t support President Reagan, but President Reagan, like President Clinton, ran on an idea campaign. Reagan ran on an agenda that was designed to change the Republican party and he did and he won. And now the challenge for the Republicans is to get beyond Reaganism in a sense. We ran on a set of ideas that are discussed in this film that we’re going to change the Democratic party, make it more acceptable to ordinary voters, make us competitive again in presidential elections. President Clinton of course did a lot of things, like played the saxophone on television and knew how to use the media of his time, but that’s a different deal than what we’re talking about, in my view anyway, what we’re talking about is the use of celebrity in this campaign by Donald Trump.

We asked him if he thought the Republican party was going to do something like the Democratic council did? Are they going to totally revamp, do you think, after this election? “I think if this election turns out the way I think a lot of people expect it to, and it’s a big Democratic landslide, then I think the party will be much more ready to sort of reexamine itself and maybe it’ll have some organization like the Democratic Leadership Council was on their side. But when you’re close in presidential elections, you sort of get the feeling ‘Well you know if I just take her a little bit here, fundamentally okay, if we just do a little bit difference, a few minor changes, take her here, there a little bit, we’ll be okay, we can win’. But the problem is, right now the way the demographics are in the country, unless they make some changes, they can’t win. They can come close, but a landslide loss makes you more open to change. We went through that … we lost 49 states in 1972, because of Watergate we won in 1976, so a lot of people thought that things were doing better. But the underlying patterns were really not any different. So when Carter lost badly in 1980 we sort of came back with his Vice President in 1984, he loses 49 states, but still, a lot of people thought it was because of Reagan; but it was because of a lot of other reasons, and we never looked at ourselves.”


Reuters Photographer – U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks in San Jose

“After we lost an election that we should’ve won, that people expected us to win, and lost it badly in 1988, we saw an opening to really push to change the party. And a lot of the resistance was last; there’s still plenty of resistance because people in charge of the party don’t like to change. A lot of people would rather be in control of a party that loses than a smaller part of a party that wins. But especially, as we did at that point control the Congress. The Republicans, I think, will take a good look if Trump or Cruz is the nominee and they get beat by 10, 12, 15 points, get clobbered in the Electoral College. I think then they’ll be much more open to an insurgent like we were, trying to reshape their party.

We asked him to talk about political ads – how effective they are.  How much do you think those can be a jolt in making or breaking a presidential candidate, specifically looking at this battle going on between Cruz and Trump, and ads about their specific spouses.


The Daisy ad changed politics forever

“I think the flower ad for LBJ, for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 against Goldwater, was probably pretty effective, but don’t forget television was new then in political campaigns. As for the Dukakis campaign, and we go into this in our film, it wasn’t the Bush ads that beat Dukakis, it was Dukakis’ failure to define himself – so he allowed Bush to define him. The ads complimented that but  the facts on the ground were such that Dukakis didn’t really lay out an agenda, he basically said ‘I’m for competence not ideology.’ And Bush would in part by his ads, in part by what he did at the convention and by his personal appearances define Dukakis in a way that was unflattering to Dukakis. The Willie Horton ad did hammer home a point, and sure it was an effective ad. But it was also effective because of the truth on the ground. Willie Horton was out on a furlough when he committed that heinous crime. The ad probably that had the most impact on that campaign, ironically, was the Dukakis ad itself. In order to show his commitment to the military, the campaign put him in a tank and as Tom Brokaw says in this movie, sort of looked like Snoopy.

Michael Dukakis

Michael Dukakis

It sort of had exactly the opposite result that they had hoped. But I think campaign ads are always important, but diminishing importance in a campaign like this. Since I’m not involved everyday and I’ve had more time to watch some cable television, I mean every time a candidate sneezes it’s on television and that’s crazy. The ads were a way you used to have to introduce candidates to the voters; now every thing every candidate does every day is on two or three cable channels or more – plus all the social media, so the ads are still probably important but there are a lot of things that have sort of surpassed them in ways that candidates communicate with the voters. I don’t think it’s the same as when LBJ ran against Barry Goldwater in 1964.

We ask Al to respond as an outside observer talking about the candidates today.  Can you give us one sentence that wraps on your thoughts on each one of them?

“Well I think Hillary Clinton would be a great president, she’s well prepared, she knows what she’s doing, she has a set of good ideas that actually could make this country a more prosperous and safer place. I think Donald Trump would be, in my view, a disaster for the country. I think we’d survive Trump domestically, but I’d be afraid that he’d say something crazy that would get us into a war the first day he’s in the White House. He doesn’t campaign with the respect for the White House that I think a presidential candidate should. It’s not a game, it’s serious business. I think Ted Cruz is, in my view, pretty much a religious right wing zealot. In many ways he’s scarier to me than, or as scary to me as Trump. John Kasich is very conservative but he isn’t a good Governor. I love that he claims to have balanced the budget in Washington which happens to be the Clinton budget that he balanced when he was in the Senate budget committee. Bernie Sanders, very nice man. But, his ideas are unrealistic. The truth is, America does not want to be like a small European country. The most important thing that I think the presidential candidate has to do is understand how to grow the economy, because if we don’t grow the economy, you never get the revenue to do any of the good things you want to do, and that’s what’s missing in Bernie Sanders agenda. You can yell and scream at all the bad guys all you want, but if you really want to be a candidate of opportunity you have to grow the private economy so we can create wealth and create jobs and raise incomes and have some money.”