CNN’s senior political analyst and HKS Professor David Gergen dissects the Democratic presidential primaries as of February 2020. The day of this call marks the ninth debate among Democratic candidates.
Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Good day, everyone. I am Mari Megias in the Office of Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard Kennedy School, and I’m delighted to welcome you to this Wiener Conference Call. Today we are joined by David Gergen, who is professor of public service and founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School. In addition, he serves a senior political analyst for CNN and works actively with a rising generation of new leaders. In the past he has served as a White House advisor to four U.S. presidents of both parties, Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton.
In the 1980s he began a career in journalism starting with the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour in 1984. He’s been a regular commentator on public affairs for some 30 years, plus he has been a member of election coverage teams that have won Peabody awards, and he has contributed to two Emmy-award winning political analysis teams. He’s an honors graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School and has been awarded 27 honorary degrees. We’re so fortunate that David has returned to share his expertise with us today. So, let’s get started. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the political landscape for 2020?
Sure. I’d be happy to, but first of all, thank you for sponsoring these events. And I’ve heard good reports from that it’s good feedback. Most of all, I want to thank Malcolm Wiener for his continuing support and generosity with regard to the School. I understand, Malcolm, you may be on the line at this moment and if so, welcome. I’d love to talk to you in person. But the Wiener Center and the Wiener Lecture on International Political Economy and all the other things he supports, he and his family. We’re very fortunate indeed.
Now, on to some mostly darker subjects. Let me preface my remarks by saying that as someone ... I think it’s a privilege to work in the White House, and I’ve been quadruply blessed and having a chance to work in four White Houses. And one of the things you find is, when you work in that place you become very dedicated to the success of the president and the success of the office of the presidency. And I think it’s almost our secular center in the White House and the Oval Office, and all the trappings that go with it.
So that when Donald Trump was elected, even though I disagreed with him on much and I was very concerned about his character, I still wanted him to succeed. And I hope that when he can do things such criminal justice with the other side, that’s a plus for the country and I hope more of that will follow. Having said all that, of course, I’m extremely disappointed by where we are and I share the alarm and the concern that many people have now about where this is going, and what may come. Two things. One, what may happen in the reelect campaign, and secondly is what happens if Trump isn’t reelected, after Trump does leave office. Does it survive? Does it continue? Do we come out of this? Do we heal?
I think those are serious questions now and for the first time in, I think, our lives, most of us on this call never imagined that our democracy itself would be under threat. And yet, we do feel that today. So, I have to say if the election were held today I think Donald Trump would win, and possibly win big.
This is going to be a tough race to win for the Democrats in any event. We’ve had now ... Since 1980 we’ve had five presidents. Of those five, four won reelection. Only one lost reelection. So, the pendulum has swung in that direction pretty heavily.
And then, because the president has a lot of individual power and perks that he can do ... And we’ve seen this president, I think, there are many steps he’s taken in the last few weeks which are all directed and aimed at reelect. Be it from the small things like going to Daytona with his car and everything like that, to the big things like taking out Suleimani. And the new announcement of the Mideast peace plan that Jared Kushner put together and the like. So, he does have that authority and he will play it.
And he still has the continuing ear for the anger, and frustrations, and disappointments of the country and what’s been coming out of Washington over the last few decades. And he has a built-in advantage in the Electoral College that we all know. Democrats, sophisticated Democrats, tell me you almost have to get 52, 53 percent of the vote on the Democratic side in order to win the Electoral College. So, those are big numbers to climb for anybody. But what is interesting right now is there are a lot of Republicans and especially a lot of independents who are in the search to ask the question, “Is there anybody else other than Trump that I could support?”
And that’s the fight that’s now going on. Is there somebody who will emerge from the Democratic pack who the other independent voters and some Republicans might rally behind? And so far, I don’t think they’ve seen that candidate. It’s going to evolve, the perspectives on candidates can change. But right now the Democrats are mired more in their own infighting than they are in trying to figure out exactly how to beat Trump, and get united behind a program of the economy and on health care and on the other issues that are going to make a big difference.
I think the debate tonight will be fascinating and probably the most interesting of all the debates we’ve had other than just the first couple. And as Bloomberg says now that he’s finally entered the ring, there has been a lot of advertising. He has been defined by his ads not by who he is. This is an opportunity for him. If he could punch through tonight, if he can connect with the voters, there could be a serious break. This could change the whole dynamic of the race. On the other hand, if he bums tonight or if he’s flat, or he doesn’t communicate very well, then that pushes the pressure back to who is the moderate that’s going to dominate?
They’ve got to get a candidate to go up against Sanders/Warren, and so far they’ve been searching. I don’t think they’ve found that right person. My own sense is that Bloomberg has ... His people are downplaying his capacity. He hasn’t done this for a long time, he’s never really been in this situation and five or six people may pile up on him. And therefore, they’re downplaying his chances. My hunch is he’ll do a lot better than people think. He’s a smart guy, and he’s pretty quick with ... He could be a quick ... He can be very quick in a response and he can be a little sharp at times. But he has a lot of managerial experience.
I think he’s risen in the polls and it’s not simply because of the ads, but people also recognize this is a big, substantial person. He’s done a big job. Having been mayor of New York is no easy thing and he got elected three times. Plus he built an empire, a personal empire. This is a guy who ... He didn’t come out of money, he didn’t inherit it as Trump did. He was parking cars when he was in college. So, I think that Bloomberg will be better and that will shake up the race, but if he does not, Biden has to come in number two, and if it got to be a close race between Sanders and ... Biden has to come in number two in Nevada, and I think he has a good shot at doing that but he has to do that.
The one I’m keeping an eye on is Amy Klobuchar. I don’t ... The reports from last night’s town hall about Amy are not glowing, but she’s been very, very good in these debates, nowhere more so than the last one. I think she’s earned her way to the top of the ticket to be vice president. On any short list you’ve got to put Amy Klobuchar at the top of the list. But she has the capacity perhaps to go beyond that. She’s been strengthening steadily through this campaign. She is the one who has shown the most growth of any of the candidates during the campaign, and maybe she can catch fire.
I do think that the moderate wing of the party is going to be extremely distressed, if not panicked, if Bernie sweeps Nevada by 10 points and carries a 10-point lead into Super Tuesday. Bernie Sanders has many, many good qualities and it’s striking how the younger generation is going to him. But when you get down ... But the Republicans have been intentionally not going after him very heavily on his proposals for the future. They know there’s a lot of ammunition in there and they would be gleeful to start unloading that ammunition at Bernie somewhere along the way here.
So, a lot here is still to be determined. But we do know the stakes for this election are extraordinarily high. I think we’re beginning to see ... After there was some question about turnout we’re beginning to see higher turnout numbers certainly in New Hampshire and in the early first voting in Nevada. I think Americans are awakening to the issue that this is big-time stuff and we haven’t seen an election like this before and it’s a test of our democracy. So, the important things.
The important thing is that a place like the Kennedy School … the scholars, members of the faculty are really very, very caught up these days with questions about the future of democracy. Let me stop there. Let’s go to the floor, so to speak.
Q: What will happen with Bernie Sanders’ supporters if he does not win the nomination? Will they bail? Can you discuss the left-center split in the Democratic Party and how this will affect their chances in November?
Well, listen, there is a danger of that a lot of Bernie’s people could stay home. The last time around in the last election when Hillary ran, there was great anger on the part of Hillary’s people that Bernie was not more supportive personally of her candidacy and that he didn’t rally his troops. And they felt, I think with some justification, the Hillary people felt with some justification at the end of the day he really hurt her chances to be president. Now, will that happen again? I don’t know. Because he’s four years older he’s closer to leaving a legacy than he was four years ago. He’s closer to having his reputation depend on how this all comes out.
And I do think he knows that if he loses the nomination and is bitter about it and withdraws his support, that he would go down in the history books as a very sore loser and one who is not truly a Democrat but was exploiting the party in order to push his agenda.
Q: How worried should we be that there appears to be no Democrats who can successfully compete with the billion-dollar disinformation campaign run by Trump’s operations?
Well, look. I think this is one of the ... It’s like dark money. There is something sinister afoot here and the way that the Russians and others for certain have disinformation campaigns. We’re already finding that they’re coming in pretty heavily and that we don’t know the degree of cooperation that may be ... Or for those of you who are familiar with collusion, that may be underway here. What is very upsetting and alarming is that with very, very few exceptions in terms of who runs this administration, there are complacencies or the unwillingness to face up to the urgent ... What may be an urgent problem a few months from now.
It’s stunning. I do not understand why the administration hasn’t at least given the appearance of ... They’re not even trying. But to block out this disinformation, to work with the high-tech people, the big tech people, and what things they ... Often what is not permissible and to recognize that this is an outside group of people, one whose main policies ... Putin’s main policy is to turn the United States upside down, to divide us as a people, and he’s succeeding. And yet we have a White House that sort of said ... Treats it as ho-hum.
Q: I’m from North Carolina. David was my advisor when I was there but ... I don’t know who else is on the call, but as a second grader in the South I remember hiding under the desk during the Cuban missile crisis. I didn’t know as a seven-year-old that there was such a crisis, but as a seven-year-old and a Southerner, in those days we did what our teachers told us to do. And so, since that time ... You heard stories like Khrushchev had put poison in the snow. All kinds of rumors that a young person would tend to believe. Because I was tuned into Walter Cronkite but not as much as my grandmother was. But as the ... passed on, and I took physics, I learned that hiding under a desk wasn’t going to save us. That the Russians had nuclear missiles 30 miles outside of the country and there was a real threat. And since that time I’ve always been cautious about the Russians. I don’t know what Putin’s motives are, but I can tell from listening to David he’s concerned, but ... And I’ve asked some people ... Because I live near Fort Bragg, I’ve asked some of the military guys, “How concerned are you about a threat?” Because if we ever have a nuclear war a lot of us are just not going to make it. So, to get to my question, I’m concerned that the country is not concerned about the relationship our president has with Russia. And I think most of us should be concerned about it.
Well, I’m glad you raised the question. I share your sentiments. I also share some of your experiences growing up. I grew up on a dirt road in North Carolina, and well remember those days when we had to be under a desk because the bombs might be coming. I remember even more distinctly because I was in college at the time during the Cuban missile crisis. It scared the dickens out of us. I was studying in New Haven, and a group of us who had a car we were going to head for Canada until they turned that thing around, so we wanted to get out of harm’s way.
And look. I think the most sinister thing we’re facing right now is the disinformation and the hacking that’s going on, and we know it’s happening. And our intelligence community, to a person, people in our intelligence community who are leaders in the intelligence community have all argued that this is serious, it’s ongoing, and we ought to take it very, very seriously. But I want to go to the second point, and that is, how close are we to a potential nuclear threat again? And it’s interesting. There’s this group of businesses who keep a Doomsday Clock, a so-called Doomsday Clock, about how close are we to midnight. And they make that judgment once a year. And these past few months their annual judgment came down, we’re closer now that at any time they’ve measured since the start of the Doomsday Clock, and I think that has to do partly with the Iranians and the Iran Agreement. It also has to do with the North Koreans and the ... It’s a failure to be able to relate and get a hold of either one of these problems. We don’t hear about them these days, but these are serious gaping holes. And for the Doomsday Clock to be moved that perilously close to midnight, it ought to be a wake-up call that international security, national security, and what the Belfer Center folks do so well at the Kennedy School, should be of top concern along with the disinformation and hacking.
Q: Hi, David. Thanks to you for you for your time. It’s great to have you. Thank you. I know this is officially about the Democratic primary, but this question extends a little bit past it and maybe it’s a little bit of a two-parter. One is the accusations that have been leaked out with Bloomberg, the sexism issues and some race issues. Does that undermine ... If you were to be the nominee, the Democratic party’s ... The Democratic nominee’s ability to counter or go after Trump on those two issues also. And linked maybe at a deeper level, it seems like in 2016 one characterization of Hillary was, “Trump’s terrible, so I’m the right person.” And it didn’t work. And it seems like Bloomberg is trying to raise himself above the Democratic primary by just attacking Trump. So, he might be taking that same tack. It didn’t work in 2016. What are your thoughts about its potential effectiveness in 2020?
Yeah. All these questions ... And by the way, for everybody else here who’s on the call, please know that this is wide open. Any question you want to ask. This is about more than the Democratic primaries and it’s really about your experience about ... And I’m sure you have great questions. I’m not sure I have good answers. But nonetheless, listen. I think that the allegations about sexism and racism attached to Bloomberg and the early attacks, they are going to be very meaningful in the Democratic party. The Democratic party is nothing if not extremely sensitive to issues of race and issues of sexual orientation. And who ... Issues of where women stand more generally in our society, and I think that if you get the nomination, that path, you have to have shown that you have the concern for it. I do think Bloomberg has helped himself by ... Especially on stop and frisk, by apologizing. And he might well have done that earlier.
There are many people who are not going to be forgiving of him, period, whatever he says. But he did the right thing. He apologized. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an apology come out of our president. He doesn’t believe in apologizing. But very importantly I want to ... The caller asked compared to Hillary’s campaign, and there was a sense in which I thought the Hillary campaign was too much about attacking the other side and too little about fresh ideas for the future. Most of the ideas that she was promoting were sort of old chestnuts within the Democratic party, and they seemed a little stale, frankly.
And what’s been interesting with Bloomberg is he’s starting now to gear up with position papers that are attracting positive attention. Just take ... Now it’s two or three days that David Leonhardt of The New York Times, well-respected journalist. He did come out of Yale, I might add now. But he had a really interesting column on one of Bloomberg’s first entrees into the policy prescription field, which was on paying for college. And he did it in some very skillful and interesting ways. It wasn’t free college for everybody. It was to put a real emphasis upon people getting money who are doing things preparing for jobs. And it wasn’t the healthy elite.
And by the way, he’s also put out a plan to raise taxes on himself as well as other very rich people. And so, I think that Bloomberg is laying the foundation for a future-looking campaign if he were the nominee. You have to say that Elizabeth Warren I think has done the most comprehensive work than any candidate in preparing plans. But sadly in her case she tripped up on the Medicare for All plan, when she said basically ... What she started with and she seemed too hard over that she wasn’t going to compromise. And then here comes Buttigieg saying, “No, it ought to be Medicare plus a choice.” And that’s a very popular position, whereas her position is very unpopular.
And then just in the last few days one of her top campaign people, I think it was AOC, said, “Well, we may have to compromise.” Well, Elizabeth then started beating up on everybody who didn’t want to compromise, Buttigieg and others, and then along comes AOC, and that caused frankly some anger on the Democratic side. I think this question is going to be true of whoever runs against Trump. The country mostly knows about who he is, and his character, and the flaws, and you’ve got to remind them of that periodically.
But the most important thing is to run ... To state what you’re for in the future, how you’re going to shape things differently and not just having a negative campaign. Hillary lost I think in part because she didn’t do that.
Well, thank you for that. We do have another caller on the line. If you could please let us know who you are and let us know your question?
Q: Thank you, Professor Gergen. I’m a Class of 2003 graduate from the Law School and the Kennedy School. It’s a pleasure talking on the phone with you. You actually just addressed what I was about to ask about, so let me ask a slightly more probing question with regard to this notion of there being a referendum on Trump or going negative. You mentioned Hillary. And Hillary certainly went negative on Trump. She ... I think that to borrow your phrase or the equivalent, she did have some canned notions with regard to policy. Is it possible that she, along with the other cast of Democratic candidates, are going negative perhaps in the wrong way? One thing that Trump understands is people. Being a TV personality, understanding the collective consciousness of enough people, speaking to them. In other words, walking with a common clutch, irrespective of how common that clutch is. I have to wonder if the cast of Democratic candidates are speaking perhaps above, over, or around the heads of the American people with regard to how they go negative on Trump. Mentioning actually what he’s done, you can run down each of the 16 or 17,000 lies that he’s told, but doing it in a formal purpose or fashion, going along with the beams or the concepts of the candidates’ campaign, framing them for lack of a better terminology. Wouldn’t that be the better way to go? If it’s an us versus them kind of campaign, then framing who we are as far as us however defined, that seems to be the more important way to go instead of the negative. I’ll stop right there.
It is ... They’re very good questions, and I’m glad you had the chance to go to the Law School plus the Kennedy School. You’re right that Hillary may have gone about her negative campaign in the wrong way and how do you do it better? Well, a couple of things I think are pertinent here. One is that I believe the Democrats ought to use far more humor. There’s a way to speak to make their opponent the laughingstock, and so that when he comes out and repeats himself and does things that outrage, we can always say, “I think people are exhausted with the outrage.” And so, if there’s a question, you come up with something like humor, which has always been very, very positive.
And I do think the person who runs for the Democratic side ought to be someone with a very positive, bright outlook on life in general, someone who will cheer us up, in fact, which I think is possible to do. The other part of going negative and doing it in a way that works better, is to do it more cleverly. To find people ... And I think Trump has hired a woman who was a progressive coming out of the film industry and knows how to get a message across on advertising. And I gather she’s quite good. I don’t know her name, I’m sorry to say. I just heard about her the other day because I was asking about these ads.
He’s got a couple of good ads out there and he clearly likes to communicate that way. So, yeah, I think, to go to your question, the more imaginative the Democrats can be, the more likely they’re going to succeed. They have to ... I don’t think the country can last six or eight more months, night after night after night pounding away at each other. It does seem to me people at some point are going to tune out, just as I think they’ve tuned out on a lot of the debates so far. There are just so many of them and so they come at rat-a-tat-tat. So, it’s important now to maybe do a little less but be more effective with it. Does that help?
Q: Hi. I’m a MPA from 2005. Actually, I started as a teaching assistant to Professor Gergen, and thank you so much for taking the time to come out. I had a question regarding the ... I guess the motivation behind the people and what we’ve seen so far moving from 2016 to 2018 in terms of the people that have been targeted by Donald Trump, and specific immigrants, and Latinos, LGBTQ. Are we seeing that these folks are now being extra motivated as they see themselves as being targeted by the president? Do we have any quantifiable evidence of any extra motivation in folks coming out to vote in the elections, the 2016 primaries, the 2016 general, the 2018 primaries we’ve had so far? I’m sorry, the 2020 primaries we’ve had so far? I was wondering if the folks who have been targeted by the president have been motivated to come out against him.
Yeah. We have ... I do think that we’re seeing some in the Latino community. This is the first year that there will be more eligible Latinos ... more Latinos eligible to vote than there will be blacks. The turnout rate among Latinos has historically been lower than that for blacks, but I do think that there is some evidence that the Latino community is very angry. You got people like Jorge Ramos who’s been stirring people up. You see that in Florida. But you also, in talking to Latinos, I find that even though some are attracted to AOC, the fact is that a lot of Latinos they’re coming from Cuba and some other countries, have had their fill of socialist governments.
They look at what happened to Venezuela and they worry that we’re going to go the way of Venezuela if we’re not careful, but that’s why they attach to Bernie Sanders. Some of them may be motivated to go the other way or at least find a different Democrat. But I will tell you, my bigger fear is what’s been happening in Europe and in the United States, and that is a scapegoating of immigrants as a way of blaming them for whatever disappointments in life people are experiencing. And Donald Trump is clearly trying to play the immigration card again in this campaign because he thinks it’s helping him.
And certainly in, say, Western Europe, it certainly helped the anti-immigration forces there. Look at what happened to Angela Merkel, for goodness sakes. She lost a lot of authority when she did what was the moral thing and allowing all those immigrants to come into Germany. That was the right call but she paid one hell of a price for it.
Q: Good morning. I’m calling from Tucson, Arizona. A graduate of the Kennedy School, ’18. Took Professor Gergen’s class the fall of ’17. I’m wondering how much money do you think it’s going to take to actually defeat Trump, and if the candidates that can’t self-fund a multibillion dollar campaign are going to have a realistic chance of doing so.
That’s a very, very, very good question. I don’t think we know the answer. What we do know right now is that Bloomberg has the pockets to take on the Republican side, and that will even it up. But if you look as a general ... And Bloomberg to his credit ... Let’s put this on the line, to his credit has said, “If I pull out ... If I lose and I pull out, I will devote the money I was going to devote to my campaign, I will devote it to the Democratic party and to the nominee.”
One of the reasons, as I think you may well know, why he’s been able to hire so many strong volunteers or people who are going to be field workers for the campaign, is he’s making a promise to them. “If you come to work this is going to be a year-long proposition, and if I drop out after five or six months you’re going to get to have the salary for the rest of the year. And if you go to work for the opposition, we will help to pay for that. That’s very attractive to young people because it’s like a no-lose proposition financially.
So, I think a lot of it depends on whether Bloomberg is in the race. If Bloomberg is out, and right now he’s actually not a favorite, then I ... The Democrats have not done as well as they should have done in scaling up their fundraising capacity. And they’ve got ... It’s going to be really very important for the Democrats, if you think you’re going to win the White House, be damned sure ... You’ve got to put a lot of money into the Senate races, because if you want to govern you want the next person to govern ... If that person’s a Democrat it’s essential to have both chambers. Even then it’s hard, as Obama discovered.
But it’s ... So, the Senate races, we haven’t talked very much about around the country but they’re actually pretty darn important. When I ask the experts, “Is there any possibility the Democrats could lose the House?” That seems quite remote. They think they’ve got ... They pretty well got a lot going on, and it’s not ... Certainly anything can happen these days, but if they’ve got the House and they can get the White House, they darn near need the Senate and that’s going to be pretty important. So, cranking up the money machine is going to be very, very important here in the months ahead.
Bernie, you have to give Bernie a lot of credit for how many people he’s brought out and are contributing to his campaign. He has run a grassroots campaign that has been very, very effective and nobody else has touched him on that. I’m not a great Bernie fan, but I do take my hat off to him how people have rallied to him and how he’s done that.
Q: Good afternoon, David. I was Class of ’86 mid-career. I live up on the Canadian border. If this doesn’t work out well I can be out of the country in 10 minutes. My question is, if the day after the election if the new president, the Democrat president elect, he or she calls you and says, “David, you’re the best. You’re hired and you can’t say no. Give me the five things that I should do between now and Inauguration Day to help heal this country.”
Ha. A very good question. I think they’re calling the wrong person. A very good question. I think the first thing I would do is to go back into my bookshelves and find anything Richard Neustadt wrote, because he was by far and away the best judge while he was here at the Kennedy School at Harvard, about transitions. As you know, President Kennedy relied heavily upon Dick Neustadt and he was a dear man. One of the reasons I came to the Kennedy School was Dick Neustadt. So, what advice? Listen.
I know that the Democrats won’t accept this, but if that person was a Democratic candidate, I think I would urge them, make it pretty clear that this is a one-term proposition. That you’re here to save the country and not push a party. Invite some serious people from the other side, try to run a much more bipartisan government, give it everything you’ve got for two or three years. Make it clear you’re grooming other Democrats to run in 2024. Have a cabinet with people like Buttigieg and others who ... The seasoning would be very helpful to Pete. And do everything you can to leave a healed country.
Not that you have to pass every major legislative bill. This is about restoring our civic culture, and that to me is ... We’re not going to get these other bills passed until we have a healthier civic culture. So, I would put the emphasis there, it would be unorthodox. But listen, if we elect somebody who’s in their 70s, you don’t want to have somebody run for reelection when they’re hitting 80 years old. That’s not ... We have got a deeper bank of young people who really ought to be recognized now, and younger candidates, and it’s their time.
So, I would make it a one-time deal but do it in a way that you really want to do something special for the country, because we so need to come back together and invite the Republicans and independents to come and work with you to make it happen.
Q: Hi. Class of 2002, and it’s just wonderful to hear everyone’s questions. It’s like being back in the classroom which is super for these calls. So, I have a bigger picture party question and then a smaller, more local question, which is about my being in South Carolina at the moment. But I’ll start with the bigger one, which is, you talked about at the beginning of the call, the infighting in the Democratic party, and what I’m wondering is, who is actually going to step up and take a leadership role in the DNC, given Perez and the lack of that leadership and the failures of the early primaries? And would President Obama, perhaps be able to ... for that role? Not the formal role, but sort of helping us to unite, the far left and the more moderate of us?
Listen, President Obama is intentionally withholding fire now. He doesn’t want to get in the middle of it, and doesn’t want to show partisanship or favoritism toward one candidate or another. The truth of the matter is everybody knows that Michelle is at the top of the ticket. She with be a ... She would transform this whole race, but that’s not going to happen. So, I think that President Obama and Michelle together can do a very good job of healing, and I think they really ought to ask Bill Clinton and others from the Democratic past to do that.
But what’s important is to get people from across the span of the party, and independents who would want to join in to help unite the party. And so, I think that’s going to be pretty darn important. This may well come back down to a two-person fight over time. This field is still bigger than you would normally have. And very, very importantly when it is resolved and those two people are the first ones we have to look to to put down their swords and stand united. That would be ... And that’s going to be a very, very important moment in our politics when there’s a reconciliation, hopefully, between the two candidates.
And that’s again why it’s so important that this ... We don’t have this disinformation campaign that turns political rivalries into political enemies, political rivals into enemies. And if Bernie Sanders comes out of the ... Say Bernie Sanders loses the nomination and he comes out and thinks it’s been stolen from him, or vice versa, then it’s going to be darn hard to put the party together. The Bernie fans would just be up in arms if they think that’s happening. The Russians can see. If you can exploit that you can make it somehow look like the whole thing was fixed one way or the other. That really makes a difference.
One of the reasons Bernie went to the sidelines angry the last time was that he thought it was stacked against him. I don’t know. Tom Perez has got a big challenge ahead among other things. I wasn’t sure he would survive Iowa. He did, but still it’s not clear where the party is going and how they’re going to have a really successful convention.
Q: Okay. My question is, if you were advising Bernie, what would you have him do?
Well, in fact I’m probably the worst person in the world to ask that question to. I would have him calm down a little bit, frankly. I think he has the capacity to attract an even bigger following than he has now, but he’s been in this mode of shouting his way through most of his speeches and they sound ... And I think he could lighten up little bit at a time. But I think he could show a sense of humor, which would greatly ... And I think he has one, would greatly help him. He does have to, I think, release his medical records.
This is going to be an issue that’s going to grow in importance just as Donald Trump’s tax records grew in importance. Bloomberg is going to have to release his tax records. And I think the earlier Bernie gets on with that is better. He does not want to look like he’s trying to hide that. It’s a sensitive issue when you’re that age, and frankly the country deserves to know. And we shouldn’t have a letter from a doctor and let that suffice.
Q: Hi. I was mid-career Class of 2014, and I see David Gergen on CNN all the time. My question is this. I saw a clip of our National Security Advisor. I think it was either last night or the night before, responding to a question about the million Syrian refugees who are being displaced in Idlib and trying to get out of Syria and not being allowed by Turkey, who’s closed the borders. He looked puzzled and he said, “What do you want me to do? Parachute in and hold up a stop sign?” Please. I’m asking you, hasn’t he ever heard of diplomacy? And what can America do to help those poor Syrians?
Ah! This is heartbreaking. And you’re right about that. I think there’s a widespread view in the national security community outside the White House, not inside the White House but outside, that it was a mistake to give Erdogan and Turkey sort of carte blanche to march in and go after people in Syria. And there are a lot of innocent civilians who’ve been killed and we’ve turned our eye away from them. We’re averting our gaze to say, “Who? Us?” And we do bear some responsibility here.
We were ... We did, in the eyes of the people who live there we’ve betrayed our friends who were fighting with us, the Kurds, on ISIS. I must confess to you, I don’t know ... I don’t understand the latest exact details of what’s happened, so I may be overlooking something that I shouldn’t be talking about. But as a general proposition, I don’t think that we can just walk away after our long involvement and after our commitments to various friends just to walk away.
Because that’s what, A, it’s immoral, and B, it’s what gives you a reputation on reliability, and reliability of the American government has been critical to the quality of our national security policies over the last 30 or 40 years. We built up friendships that go back a long, long way and because people think they can trust us. And I think to allow us ... If Syrians are simply slaughtered, that is something we ought to be raising hell about and trying to figure out ways to stop it through the U.N. and through other ... With other allies. It’s a terrible problem. I’m surprised, by the way, nobody has asked about the climate.
Q: Let me ask you about the climate. What about the climate?
Well, you know, one of the things that is interesting in the last few days is we’re seeing more pushback from the civilian sector about things that concern people because they feel that the government is not addressing them properly, or that the government is handling them improperly. And I think there are two things just in the last few days. One was those 2,000 alumni of the Department of Justice all signed the same letter, an open letter, calling for Barr to resign, saying, “We understand ... You probably won’t but here are the things that must be done.” Objecting to the president reaching in in ways that are unprecedented on criminal cases.
So, there was real pushback. That was serious pushback and I think it sent a message to the people inside the department, many of them are probably Harvard School graduates and graduates of the Law School, that it matters how the Department of Justice has to be run in a professional way. And there are rules in the Department of Justice, that the president ... That you cannot have political figures reaching in on criminal cases to influence the outcomes. That is the way of an authoritarian state. That’s the way of a banana republic.
And George H. W. Bush, the deputy secretary of ... deputy attorney general would come out and say ... “This looks like a banana republic.” I thought it was meaningful. So, that ... The point is, just a few days later when the climate is being treated so dismissively by our government, here comes Jeff Bezos with $10 billion to say, “We want to push the research on this and we want to push awareness on it. And we’re going to work with the outside world.”
But we are ... I think the Kennedy School ought to be going to be those folks and saying, “Here are three things we can do, and we want to make a difference here. We care about the climate, and we have some terrific people in this faculty who care about climate and they write about it.” We don’t have a school ... We don’t have an environmental school, just as Yale has an environmental school, and Duke has an environmental school. But if you talk to academics, you’re often better off if you don’t have an environmental school for this, because you then have professors across interdisciplinary areas who can work together.
And you really get top-flight people who would do that. And that’s been Harvard’s approach to it and so far I think it’s worked very, very well. But to have Bezos come in with $10 billion, says there’s going to be others out there that ... Eventually the pendulum is going to swing. We’re not going to be in this dark place forever. I happen to be a short-term pessimist. I think the next few years are not going to be great, but I’m a long-term optimist, and I think you’re going to see our civic culture and the pendulum will swing back to a much more positive direction.
Q: Hi. I’m a mid-career Class of 2018. Thank you for your time. I agree with your premise that we’re at a crisis of democracy, which includes massive disinformation campaigns. It seems to me that the core threat to our democracy, though, is plutocracy. The battle between democracy and plutocracy has maybe never been so clear as it is in this campaign, which I think is one of the reasons why Sanders is doing so well. And on the one hand, we can argue I believe the most democratic presidential campaign in recent U.S. history is being funded purely by diverse working class, grassroots donors. That’s Bernie’s campaign. He’s raising more money than the candidates being funded by billionaires. And many of his policy positions are aligned with public opinion. On the other hand, we have a billionaire real estate tycoon in the White House. But furthermore, speaking of disinformation we now have a billionaire Wall Street tycoon running one of the biggest propaganda campaigns in history, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to bombard Americans with nonstop ads to clean up his horrible image and his horrible record. So, I’m curious, why aren’t you celebrating the Sanders campaign for revitalizing our democracy, and why do you think Democrats would turn out to support an old, racist republican oligarch named Bloomberg against an old, racist Republican oligarch named Trump.
Look, I think that Bernie Sanders is performing a public service running for office. I think he’s brought a lot of young people out. I think they are pushing for change. I do not go ... I part company with you saying that people who have made money in this country, the billionaires, are all trying to rip us off and take us down the road to hell. I do not see it as a plutocracy in the way you do, and that word is pretty strong because it has a lot of sinister and negative connotations, as you well know.
What I see, and the links ... The top 1 percent ... And there are many, many instances when they have, I think, gone way over the line. But the truth is there are one hell of a lot of people who have signed the Giving Pledge and the number of those people have supported the Kennedy School. And they’re very generous with their funds. Jeff Bezos put $10 billion in. You act as if this is some kind of ... Jeff Bezos is to be condemned. What are we talking about here? We’re going to tear ourselves apart if we don’t recognize the generosity of some people who are trying to make it a better country.
Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. What has he been doing with it? Well, he’s turned it into one of the top newspapers in the country again, and they work with the ... They’re in competition against the New York Times, has been one of the only checks and balances we’ve had in our system to hold Donald Trump in check. So, I think it’s shortsighted to go after anybody who’s rich as if they had somehow done something crooked. If they’ve earned their way up and built companies we ought to just let them.
Should we tax them heavily? Yes, we should. Do we avoid them plundering society? Yes, we should. But Biz Roundtable has just signed up for a new day. Should we dismiss them? I think we ought to be trying to see if we could make a better reality. We are never going to get this country back into shape if we treat everybody who’s not like us, as somehow they’re either unclean or they have unclean hands. They haven’t done anything right. You say that Bloomberg has a miserable record. Well, I think that’s a very debatable point.
You tell me some of other mayor of major, major, major city who’s been elected three times and drew a lot of plaudits. And then turn around and try to help other cities. He’s using his money to help others train other cities. We have a big grant from Bloomberg here at the Kennedy School to work with mayors and others. And that’s been one of the most popular programs we have. It really is very, very positive. And I would say to you, if you think you want to make us ungovernable, just keep going after the rich and the people who are successful, and instead of inviting them to the table and making them partners and try to make everybody get ahead.
Q: Hi. MPP from 1991. The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats significantly decrease their odds of beating Trump if they nominate a candidate too far to the left. So, is that something you agree with, with regard to Bernie Sanders, and if so, who is the candidate who you think matches up best against Trump and is most likely to be able to beat him?
I think it’s too early to tell, mainly because look how rapidly, Charlie, the ... That Biden for month, after month, after month, was seen as the most electable against Trump, and how quickly it changed with Iowa and then with New Hampshire. So, I think we need to get through Super Tuesday and we’ll be in a better place to judge who has staying strength across the country and who could run well against him. We also don’t ... Going back to this, we don’t know how Bloomberg will perform in the public stage.
His ads make him look like an attractive person, but going back to Jeff’s criticism, the ads alone are not sufficient for judging him, and we need to see him in the full light of day, just as we need to see his tax returns. We need to see if he’s beholden to anybody, just as we need to see Bernie’s tax returns and his health returns. And those things are very, very important. As a general proposition, what we do know from recent American history is that this country is and remains center-right. That you can elect people on the center-left, but it’s much harder to elect people who are seen and painted as far left.
And I would give you the examples of McGovern in 1972, and then again you look at a Mondale and you look at Dukakis. These people were for better or for worse, and for worse in my judgment, they were painted as far left. And they couldn’t get the presidency. The reason Bill Clinton ran in ’92 and the way he did was that there had been two previous leftist candidates who had the nomination of the Democratic party and both went down. And then Clinton ran as a middle of the road with a ... He was looking for the best ideas on the left and the right. Tony Blair shared that approach to politics, and it worked for Blair coming out of the left and for Clinton coming out of the left.
They weren’t that far left, so I do believe that socialism unfortunately has historically had a bad odor in the United States. We are the only major country coming out of the Depression that did not have a socialist party. The United States is in a unique position in that respect. We’ve had socialist candidates but they’ve never done very well. And the Republicans now are just waiting to nail Sanders on the socialism stuff, and that’s an issue. And you’ve got to be willing to deal with that.
You’ve got to also look at the Sanders platform. If you get into what he actually is proposing, and The Economist had a big package on this in the last couple of weeks on the Democratic party and what he’s proposing, it’s pretty eye-opening for the business community. And I do think that the Democratic party should not be the party of the elites. It has to be much more broad based than that, but I think the Democratic party also doesn’t want to chase all the elites away. I think that’s the road to defeat.
If the question is, how do we unite people of different backgrounds and different classes into standing up for the country that can actually self-govern and we can put down our differences and not call each other names.
Great. Well, thank you very much, David, for such a great call. And thank you to everyone who dialed in for today’s Wiener Conference Call.
Yeah. And thank you. I enjoyed talking to you and your terrific questions. Thank you.