Democrats are fighting from the back bench in Congress as well as the minority of statehouses across the country. How to rebuild the party? We visit with a trio of national democrats on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, October 13 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.   

Yepsen: The November 2016 elections not only blew a hole through the Democratic Party's rust belt firewall, the results exposed a decisive shift in Midwest states. Results in conservative Texas were closer than the republican wins in Iowa, Missouri, even Kansas. Democrats are still regrouping and searching how to patch together that Midwest coalition once again. We've gathered a trio of party leaders from across the country. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius served as Kansas Governor before joining the Obama administration in 2009. Congressman John Delaney of Maryland has presidential ambitions. And former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander caught the hearts and minds of democrats in a narrow loss for the U.S. Senate in 2016. I want to welcome all of you to Iowa Press. It's good to have you with us. I want to remind our viewers you were in Iowa for a meeting of the New Democracy Conference, a group that calls itself a centrist and progressive group, so we appreciate you taking time. Across the table, Kathie Obradovich is Political Columnist for the Des Moines Register and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: I want to open the questions with a very simple one. What is the problem here? Didn't you lose the 2016 election because Hillary Clinton was such a flawed candidate? She had incredibly high negatives and ran a poor campaign. So, Secretary Sebelius, what is the problem?

Sebelius: Well, the problem is we need to win some races and I'm not just talking about a presidential race in 2020, my sights are set in the immediate future. I'm interested in states like Kansas and Iowa, reclaiming the Governor's Office, looking at legislative seats. And we're beginning to find a formula in Kansas, we had more democratic legislative pickups in Kansas last election cycle than any state in the country, so I think that's very good news. And I'm a democrat who won in the Heartland and I think that model can be replicated.

Yepsen: Mr. Kander, didn't Hillary Clinton really just blow it?

Kander: Well look, you don't win arguments you don't make. And if you look back it's not just the presidential race, you look back at several races over the years you'll get democratic candidates up and down the ballot and there has been a real habit of not really leaning in and making an argument for what we believe in. If you look at the amazing work that Secretary Sebelius did along with President Obama and a democratic Congress to save millions of lives, to extend health care to millions of people. And then what happened? Democrats across the country, too many of them just sort of stood back and failed to defend it, didn't say hey we're proud of this. As a member of the party I was proud that it happened. And then a lot of people were shocked when it wasn't very popular, something that no one made the argument was great, people didn't like it as much. Then what happened was President Trump won the White House, then you had republican control all the way up and down, and I have a friend who likes to say courage is the lack of options, everyone leaned into it, made the argument for a few months, became very popular. That is the habit we need to get into, say what we believe.

Yepsen: Congressman, what's your take?

Delaney: You win elections by talking to people about what they care about, not necessarily what you care about. And I think the Democratic Party, we too often talk to people about what we care about and to some extent we're the party of a thousand flowers blooming, we have a lot of things that we care about, most of which are incredibly important. But what the American people really care about is, in many ways, pretty simple. They care about their job, their pay, opportunities for their kids, the dignity of work. And I think every time we're not talking about that as a party it's a missed opportunity. And I think 2016 was to some extent an animation of that.

Henderson: Congressman, you represent D.C. suburbs that are in the state of Maryland and some rural area of the state. There are many rural Americans who think that the democrats consider them part of the basket of deplorables that Hillary Clinton described. How do you convince rural voters that democrats are on their side?

Delaney: Well, first of all, I think one of the problems with politics in general is the party has basically talked to the American people as if half the population is entirely wrong about everything they believe. We know that's not true. This wouldn't be the kind of amazing, exceptional country it is if half the population were wrong about all their core beliefs. So we've got to break from that. And I think the Democratic Party should actually be the party that wants to restore civility to politics and actually start bringing us together. We're the party who believes government can and should do some transformative things. So we need to become the party of good government, bringing people together, getting things done on a bipartisan basis. So I think the way we should talk to all Americans is like that. We shouldn't come to the table thinking about their world view is wrong. People live, this is an amazingly diverse country in so many ways, including how people live and how economies work and how communities are shaped and we just have to be more respectful and focus on the things we agree with people on as opposed to always talking about the things we don't agree with people on.

Henderson: Governor Sebelius, a lot of rural Americans think that democrats believe them to be hayseeds. How do you address that?

Sebelius: Again, I'm a democrat in a red state and I know that showing up matters. I campaigned in all 105 counties, I was on the ballot statewide four times, successful four times, but you can't seed territory, you can't just say well I'll only campaign in the seven urban counties where 70% of the vote comes from. So you start there. And I think the Congressman is right, people want to know you're more like them than different than them. They want to know what you're going to do that is going to make a difference in their lives. And I am so interested that government play a valuable role and that we defend that role as opposed to being back on our heels. So we're in the midst of hurricane season, everybody wants the government to show up faster, more, better. That's government, that's a perfect role. Government plays an incredible role in health care. We shouldn't back away from that. Nobody wants the private insurance companies to make up their own rules or the drug companies to charge whatever they want. We need more government oversight and intervention, not less. So I think we have to start explaining what that means, break down the talking points of republicans saying less government intervention and saying, okay then you're at the mercy of insurance companies. Do you want that? Most people say no.

Henderson: You're shaking your head, Mr. Kander.

Kander: Look, I think what unites all of us, we're all city, man, woman, whatever, we all want the same thing. We want our kids to do better than we've done and we'd really like it if our kids could move home and live near where we raised them and then raise their kids there. That's what it is to be an American. And I think that when you look at what democrats stand for whether it is making college more affordable, which makes it a whole lot more likely that kids can come home to the town where they're from, or whether it is health care or raising wages or something outside the economic message like criminal justice reform. All of that is about making it so that your family can be happy, can be healthy, can be safe and can be nearby. That is what I think the party stands for and that’s an argument that I've always been proud to take into rural areas and urban areas.

Obradovich: One of the things we saw in 2016 was a fight within the Democratic Party about who was the true progressive. And I think we're seeing some of that discussion carry into the next cycle. The new democracy group is talking about not having litmus tests for candidates, but when centrist folks talk about that, what Bernie Sanders people hear is they want me to shut up. Are you telling Bernie Sanders people to shut up when you say cool it on the litmus tests?

Kander: Not at all. In fact, I opened my speech this morning by saying, I'm a progressive, I'm here as a progressive and it's important that we're all talking to each other. And what I think on all this stuff, I think the idea that there's this binary choice, these two ways to go, what I think we're missing is that voters, what they want, they don't want to be pandered to or tricked. They want to know that you really believe what you're saying.  And I think that progressives, we really believe that health care should be treated like a right. We really believe these things. Now, different people have different ways to get there. I'm a progressive, I proudly make that argument. But the most important thing is that nobody is trying to crack a code politically. And I tell democratic politicians all the time, don't crack the code. People can tell if you have taken a position and you're acting. Don't act, go out and just say what you believe.

Obradovich: Congressman, is there one message that can unite the Democratic Party?

Delaney: Well, I just want to comment on something Jason said because I agree with him. We can't let our party be divided because in reality I think all democrats are actually really close to each other on the big issues. Every democrat I serve with in the Congress thinks every American should have health care. Every democrat I serve with in the Congress thinks climate change is a problem, human behavior is contributing to it and we should do something about it. Our republican colleagues, they're just in another universe on these issues. So we're actually really well aligned on our goals. What we should be having is a really good debate as to the best way of achieving these goals. So that is what I think is important. But in terms of the messages what I said in the beginning, I think at the end of the day what most Americans really care about is their job, their pay, the dignity that comes from that job and contributing to their community and the opportunity for their children. 60% of kids in this country live in a county where there is no demonstrated upward economic mobility. That means the American dream is really not alive in those places. They care about that kind of stuff and that is what our message should be focused on.

Obradovich: Secretary Sebelius, the health care and in particular single payer health care, has already started being kind of a litmus test among democrats here in Iowa. We've already seen republicans kind of licking their chops saying, okay, let's see democrats divide themselves over this issue. What do you say to democrats about that particular issue and also about how to talk about health care in the next election?

Sebelius: Well, I think the most important thing, as the Congressman and Jason have said, I think shared widely by democrats is we believe in health care. We believe in health care as a right. We believe in universal care. That is the goal. How you get there, who pays what amount of money I think is a valuable debate. All of us want to pay less, not more. All of us think that there are some excesses in the system. And all of us frankly want to be healthier. We have still mediocre health results, I saw the obesity report today where we are once again leading the world in obesity, and one out of our four children are overweight or obese. That is a terrifying profile for a country. So that is where I think we need to focus attention. I'm delighted to have a discussion around Medicare for all, for instance, but Medicare right now, 53 million beneficiaries, widely supported by Americans. Some of it is run by private sector companies, some of it is run by the government. Low overhead, we need government regulation, government oversight and a package of benefits that people can count on. To me that is good news.

Obradovich: The President is in the process of dismantling the Affordable Care Act using the power of the pen. But there's a lot of people in the Heartland who don't like the Affordable Care Act. So how do democrats respond to that? How do you respond to what the President did?

Sebelius: Well, first of all, I think it's very clear republicans do not have a goal. Do they want more people insured or less? Do they want to save money for the federal government, shifting those costs to states and people or not? That was clear in their legislation. People don't like the Affordable Care Act because frankly I still believe they don't know what it is or what it does. If you say to people, should insurance companies get to pick and choose who gets coverage? Absolutely not. Do you like having your 26 year old on your family plan? You bet. Should women pay double what mean pay? No. Should we have access to a package of benefits and make insurance companies compete for price and service? Yes. Well, that's the Affordable Care Act.

Obradovich: Congressman, is there any way that democrats can actually come together with the White House? There's one theory is this executive order and not paying for the insurance subsidies is basically a way to bring people to the table. Can democrats come to the table?

Delaney: People are going to die literally to get people to the table. I think there's a better way to get people to the table. The problem with working with the White House on this issue is their goal is different. We'd like to fix the Affordable Care Act. Health care is one-sixth of the U.S. economy. You don't try to reform it in a substantial way and assume you got it right the first time. You should wake up the next day and start fixing it and fixing it and fixing it. That's what the democrats want to do. What the republicans are trying to do is basically repeal the Affordable Care Act to get some money for tax reform. We should be very clear what their intentions are here, which is actually not to improve health care, but to get money for tax reform. But I think, just one quick, I think what's really important in health care when we have a debate as a party, health care is three things. It's access, it's quality and it's cost. The entire debate about health care has been about access. We should clearly have universal access in this country. Everyone should have health care as a right. But we have to make sure we're talking about cost and quality at the same time.

Yepsen: I want to combine two issues there in front of the American electorate right now. Guns and immigration. Hot button issues. They cost democrats votes, lots of blue collar Americans. How do democrats deal with those two issues?

Kander: Honestly. That's what it's about. We have to honestly say what we're about.

Yepsen: Excuse me, but you're kissing off a lot of voters who are pro-gun and don't like all this immigration.

Kander: See, this is the assumption that I think exists in sort of American, when people play pundit, and I'm not trying to, this is what everyone does. And everybody says, well you go to a certain place where you think voters are and then they sign up. No, voters will forgive you for holding a position and believing something that they don't believe. What they care about is they want to know if you really believe it. And they also care about whether or not you believe it because you care about them. You know what, I believe that we need background checks. I believe we need common sense laws when it comes to guns. I believe that because I've got a four year old. I believe that because I serve in Afghanistan, I was in the United States Army. I know that, I was taught that my rifle is something to be used and respected. I was taught how to use it and respect it. So that's what I believe.

Yepsen: Congressman, how do you balance what I know the views are in Maryland about gun issues with what they are in Iowa?

Delaney: Well, my district is interesting because, as was said, I represent the most rural part of Maryland as well as the suburbs. So very different views on this issue. I think the democratic position on gun safety with which Jason just articulated perfectly, and he by the way had the best ad anyone has ever seen on this issue, so we all defer to him on this. But our position, which is background checks and certain limitations on extraordinarily powerful rifles. The majority of the American people support those positions. My sense is the majority of NRA members actually support those positions. So I think what the Democratic Party should do is just stay focused on those positions because it has been clearly determined by the court that those positions are consistent with the Second Amendment, which I'm sure everyone at this table completely supports, and we should stick to that position. When we get off the position, we start talking about you don't need all those guns and stuff like that, that's when we get into trouble.

Yepsen: Governor?

Sebelius: Well, I think Kansas has a very strong connection with gun history, everything from cowboys to lots of hunters, and I think respecting that, talking about that. I always oppose conceal and carry largely because all the law enforcement officers I knew and who supported me opposed conceal and carry. I think there is a way to deal with issues. I got elected and re-elected in Kansas. Immigration, we had actually a Dreamer Act in Kansas since 2005 because our Board of Higher Education and the business community recognized it was great for our state to unlock talent. We wanted people to live and stay there. We wanted people to pay in-state tuition. So I, in a very conservative state like Kansas, those are two issues which people understood, they got, they supported and they continue to support.

Yepsen: Too many issues and not enough time.

Kander: Can I add one thing real quick on guns, which is this. It's that when, this is sort of introduced as the American people are here and the democrats are here. That is just not true. That is not true. The reason that it is perceived that way is because we have a Congress that is so heavily gerrymandered and you have a whole bunch of republicans in charge who are scared to death of the NRA. But they're not scared of NRA members, they're scared of NRA leadership who are bankrolled by gun companies whose sole desire is to sell as many guns as possible. So what that comes down to is, is that you have 80%, 90% of Americans who are convinced, who agree with us on this, and then you have a Congress that would rather hang onto their job than save lives. That's what is really happening.

Henderson: Governor Sebelius, let's shift to education. Your colleague, Mr. Kander, said that people want affordable college so their kids can get an education and move home. Usually what happens is kids get an education and they move away. How do you address the real fear in rural America that my kid is going to get an education and move away because there are no jobs here? How do you balance that because your party is now in a debate about free college?

Sebelius: Well, it's I think a good point. It isn't access to education that is a problem. 21st century jobs demand post high school education regardless of -- you can't drive a combine on a Kansas farm unless you can read a GPS system, unless you can program that computer. You have fewer production workers now because of technology. So the notion somehow that rural America doesn't require different kinds of skills than it did in the past is not accurate. And frankly I think we have an opportunity in rural America to be service workers in this technological age. You can be in a call center anywhere. You can be in a lower cost service delivery area anywhere. We just haven't taken great advantage of that. And frankly the conversation about trade, I am dismayed as an agricultural state democrat that we don't say trade is actually very good for rural communities. We want to export farm products and farm machinery. We want to export airport parts from Kansas. And we've got to learn to talk about some of those issues in ways that bring jobs back to the state.

Henderson: Congressman, you've been talking about a tectonic shift in the workforce that is not being discussed by your party or the other.

Delaney: So, the world is changing. If you go outside of politics and you go to business or academia all they're talking about is technology, automation, machine learning and how it's fundamentally changing everything, society, work, jobs, security.

Henderson: And when rural people hear that they think urban, suburban, they don't think rural.

Delaney: Well, actually what is happening I think creates a lot of opportunities for rural America. But we have to actually invest in rural America. The problem with our decision to become part of a global economy was not the decision to become part of this large global economy. Of course we had to do that. The problem was we didn't do anything for the places that we knew or should have known were left behind. We've done nothing for decades. And the cost of doing nothing is not nothing. We're paying a huge cost because these communities have been massively underinvested in. Technology actually creates opportunities to bring jobs back into these communities that have left them because the way it is automated and how we can communicate and if you think about the next wave of technological innovation it is actually bringing technology to a lot of established industries and a lot of that is more in some of these communities.

Yepsen: Mr. Kander, how do you address the problem, and it's centered around education, that this college versus non-college voters. Democrats did quite well with voters with college educations and not so well with voters with non-college educations. So how do you address that divide?

Kander: Well, first of all you start by not thinking of them as voters, just as Americans. We have an equal responsibility to all of those people.

Yepsen: But ---

Kander: So I guess I don't understand your question.

Yepsen: You lost non-college voters.

Kander: Okay, so there's plenty that we need to do for every American. So what the Congressman is talking about, for instance, when you look at green jobs and the opportunity that that presents, we are -- when you look at President Trump pulling out of Paris and deciding we're not going to care about climate anymore, I'm kind of tired of us sending money to the people who are trying to kill us. It's the main way ISIS funds itself is through oil. But on top of that, how about the fact that we're now I guess going to let China get ahead of us on solar? They've gotten ahead of us on a bunch of things. There's huge opportunities for solar jobs, for green jobs.

Obradovich: Secretary Sebelius, a lot of the economic message we heard in 2016 was about raising the minimum wage and taxing the rich. What I'm hearing today is first of all more complicated but also perhaps more realistic. So what is the baseline economic message that democrats bring?

Sebelius: Well, I think unfortunately, as you say, too much of it was presented as we're going to take your money and give it to this person and not surprisingly a lot of people said, no you're not, I don't like that at all. Democrats I think believe in growing the economy for everybody, growing the opportunity for everybody, having multiple pathways to how you're going to live a successful, productive life and raise your kids, recognizing that everybody actually needs post-secondary education. But in a state like Kansas we know that growing the economy, I was a pro-growth democrat, it means strong businesses and a strong labor force. That is a message that people hear, I'm included in that, not income inequality, which often means I'm going to take your money and give it to them.

Yepsen: Excuse me, we've only got about two minutes left so I want to cut to the chase. This is Iowa. The caucuses are here. The presidential race starts here. Governor, is Iowa a good place to start this given the fact that democrats are winning elections elsewhere and not here? Or is it a great place to start because you've got to fashion a rural message? How do you feel about Iowa being first?

Sebelius: I think Iowa should be right where it is, as first, but I think I'm tired of us leaping to 2020. I want to talk about 2018. Seriously, I think we have to have pathways to the White House long before we talk about the White House.

Yepsen: I know, Governor, but we in Iowa never get tired of talking about the caucuses. Mr. Kander?

Kander: I agree. I think it works just the way it is. But, again, 2018 is where we need to focus. We have a lot of good people that we need to elect.

Yepsen: I know, Congressman, 2018 is where you should focus. But what about the caucuses in 2020?

Delaney: I think the Democratic Party is a turnaround and you can't conclude anything else if you look at our election results. And I think Iowa voters take their job really seriously so we have to have a really important conversation about the future of our party and I think this is a great place to start it.

Obradovich: Mr. Kander, Congressman Delaney is already out in terms of running but you keep getting mentioned as well. Are you thinking about running for President?

Kander: It's very flattering that people mention that. I'm really focused on making sure we still hold elections in this country right now and maybe one day I'll be in one. But that's why I'm so focused on let America vote. I'm tired of voter suppression being pushed by republicans.

Henderson: We have 10 seconds. What is the bumper sticker, Mr. Kander, for democrats to run on in 2018?

Kander: Make sure your kids can come home. Make sure your community is safe. I guess, a bumper sticker? Forward. I don't do bumper stickers.

Yepsen: And I'm out of time. I want to thank all three of you for taking the time to be with us here today. And thanks for joining our latest edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back next week with another program when our guest is Senator Joni Ernst. Catch us Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday at Noon on our main IPTV channel with a rebroadcast on our .3 World channel Saturday morning at 8:30. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.