A New Political Playbook
Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, said she used to think of young voters as the topping on the political ice cream, a little something extra. But no longer. “You’re the cone,” she told a Tufts audience on February 19. “You’re it. And it’s time to take your seats at the table and begin to find your path to public service.”
Young people are the largest group of American voters, said the longtime political strategist, and they need to be more aware of their political power. “We can’t win without you,” she said. Yet as much as she craves their votes, she values their civic involvement even more.
“Young people are engaged, whether it is the Parkland students down in Florida or what I’m seeing on college campuses,” she said. “And you need to be engaged. If you want to change the world, don’t wait until you’re fifty, don’t wait until you’re forty. Do it now.”
Brazile was at Tufts this week as part of Tisch College’s Distinguished Speaker Series. In a wide-ranging conversation with Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and former U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra, Brazile discussed her life in politics, including stories from her most recent book For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics.
Brazile grew up on the bayou in Louisiana, one of nine children. Her mother was a maid and her father was a janitor. “We saw our mother early in the morning; we saw our father late at night,” she said. “They worked all the time. But as a result of their hard work, eight out of nine of us have graduated from college.”
Her first campaign was at the age of nine, when she helped elect a local candidate who promised to build a playground in her neighborhood. In her early twenties, she campaigned to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, helping collect seven million signatures and building a broad-based coalition of supporters. “I got every student I could find to sign those petitions,” she said. “We made it happen.”
She remembers being in the room when President Ronald Reagan, who had initially opposed the bill, signed it into law. He wore a brown suit, she noted.
Brazile went on to work on the presidential campaigns of several Democrats, including Jesse Jackson in 1984, Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, Dick Gephardt in the 1988, and, in 2000, Al Gore, becoming the first African-American woman to run a presidential campaign.
The 2016 election caused the Democratic Party to do a lot of soul searching, she said. “We’ve been on our knees for two years. We went into the wilderness, we started praying. And you know what? We decided we needed a new playbook.”
In addition to empowering young people, the new strategy will include treating every state as a battleground state and coming up with a consistent narrative. “We were out-messaged in 2016,” she acknowledged.
She said she is excited by the number of Democratic presidential candidates have announced they will run in 2020. “We now have more candidates than lanes to run in,” she said. “That’s going to allows us to see the full drift of the Democratic Party.”
Naming U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders—who have all declared they will run—she said she is not worried. “I can sit back and feel like we’re going to hear about real substantive issues,” she said. “I believe Democrats are well poised to not only win the popular vote in 2020 but also the electoral college—because you know we’ve been having little problems with that.”
Might Brazile herself run for office, Solomont asked? “No,” she replied, “I run my mouth too much.”
To those who feel her party is leaning too far to the left, she defended goals like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, addressing climate change, making health care more affordable and accessible, and fixing broken bridges and tunnels.
People have accused newly elected firebrand U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) of moving too fast, she said, but they said the same thing about a twenty-six-year-old named Martin Luther King, Jr. “Martin Luther King was a millennial when he organized the Montgomery bus boycott. Did he give up? Did he say, ‘Oh my God, now that Rosa Parks can sit anywhere on the bus I can go back to preaching?’ That was the beginning. Because the next step was voting rights. So once you get in, you stay in until you achieve your goals.”
It’s time for another generation to get in and lead the battle, she said. She would be happy to mentor them. But “do not mess with my social security, my Medicare,” she said. “I will come back from whatever rocking chair and fight you.”
Julie Flaherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.