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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : David Wilhelm : Charting a Permanent Campaign for a Changing Democratic Party

March 07, 1993|Jacob Weisberg | Jacob Weisberg is deputy editor of the New Republic

WASHINGTON — This year's election of a new head of the Democratic National Committee represents more than just the usual post-election changing of the guard. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more dramatic difference in political style and method than that which distinguishes the outgoing chairman, Ronald H. Brown, from the incoming David Wilhelm.

Brown was a polished, prosperous, Washington operator. He stayed out of the party's ideological quarrels and focused on raising big money for the 1992 contest. Wilhelm, by contrast, is a rumpled, homespun outsider who never looks quite comfortable is a suit and tie. Their common allegiance to Bill Clinton conceals a significant shift from plutocracy to populism at party headquarters.

Wilhelm grew up in Athens, Ohio, and attended Ohio University. After earning a master's in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he moved to Washington, where he worked on the staff of his senator, Howard M. Metzenbaum, then at the AFL-CIO and Citizens for Tax Justice, a group that lobbies for progressive tax reform. Wilhelm went on to become a successful campaign manager for Sens. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), and for Richard M. Daley, whom he helped elect mayor of Chicago in 1989. He retains a strong connection to Midwestern politics--Wilhelm prides himself on still being a precinct captain in Chicago's 44th Ward.

After his successful management of Daley's 1991 reelection, Wilhelm was hired by Clinton as his campaign manager. His approach was characterized by an emphasis on localism and public participation--many of the campaign's most effective events, such as the cross-country bus tours and town-hall meetings, bore his signature.

Wilhelm's ideas for the DNC have been called a fusion of Ross Perot and Richie Daley. He emphasizes the use of modern techniques, like "fax trees" and infomercials, in pursuit of an old goal: building a grass-roots base for the party.

At 36, Wilhelm is the youngest chairman the DNC has had, and also the one with the most pronounced Midwestern accent. He spoke while sitting in the DNC's office, where newly hired staffers are still scrambling for the good desks.

Question: Has President Clinton gotten off to a rocky start?

Answer: There were a couple of speed bumps along the way, but I think (in the last two weeks) Bill Clinton took the first step toward breaking gridlock. The speech before the joint session of Congress really was Clinton at his best, I think, because he appealed to the best in all of us--the sense that we're all in this together, that if we pitch in together, we can do something important not just for ourselves and our narrow self-interest, but something important for our country.

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Q: Clinton gave his economic plan an effective presentation in his speech. What is the DNC doing to build support?

A: We're in the process of contacting a million people. We have sent out a half-million pieces of mail; we're on the phones to another half-million. We're encouraging them to get engaged in the debate, call their congresspeople, call radio talk shows, write letters to the editor, to help make a reality what the campaign was all about--which was fundamental economic change. Every piece of evidence we have is that people are excited to be part of it, enthused about their chance to create a stronger economy. The past two weeks have been good.

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Q: There are two sides to the selling job. One is selling it to the public. The other is selling it to Congress. Can you give me some idea how you do each of those things?

A: Well, I think it's one in the same thing. The people have hired Bill Clinton to be their President. They're hired their local congressmen to represent them in their districts. The key to this is popular support. The one thing clear from these last weeks is that Bill Clinton understands that if he does not have the support of the people, the special interests might prevail, and this plan could go down. So what we need to do, and what he is doing, is taking the case directly to the people who are going to talk to Congress. . . Those are the folks who ultimately will determine the success or failure of this economic package.

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Q: When you talk about grass-roots initiatives, is that what you mean?

A: Yes. And in fact generally, I think the way to build a party--the party, the Democratic Party--is to organize around ideas. People don't get involved in campaigns or in politics for the greater glory of the party, or even for the greater glory of the candidates. They do it if the party is saying something that is relevant to their everyday lives. . . . The vision of building a party that is truly a party of the people has to be associated with the promotion of ideas. If not, the party is a pretty dry and uninteresting place.

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Q: You describe a political process that sounds a lot like the campaign we just had.

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