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Bringing the People Along: An Interview with Presidential Advisor Stanley Greenberg

Stan Greenberg has advised former President Clinton, former UK PM Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, Israel’s Ehud Barak, and others. He is one of those political lions inspired during the Bobby Kennedy era to join politics and who provides a lot of wisdom for the taking if you are willing to listen. His new book Dispatches from the War Room was released last week in the UK. We caught up before his speech to the group Democrats Abroad in the UK in London for afternoon tea (OK, in the interests of journalistic integrity, we both had coffee).


Readers here hear enough from me, so here are the first 10 questions and Stan’s replies.

You have a fairly famous long-term house guest. What’s it like to have the White House Chief of Staff (Rahm Emanuel) crashing in the room off your exercise room?

Greenberg: (Laughing) Well don’t forget my wife is also a fairly powerful member of Congress (Rep. Rosa DeLauro – D-Connecticutt, who called during our interview from the floor of House following PM Brown’s speech to Congress). Rahm is a long-time friend. Most people don’t get how much of a family man he really is. When he was in Congress every weekend he was out of here. He was crashing, now this is a little more of a full-time job so he’s looking for a place. But he’s a pal.

Why is Rahm that rare species in DC who tells it like it is?

Greenberg: Rahm is passionate, full of integrity, willing to take risks, tough, relentless. He stays with it. But has also carried a coterie of friends with him through his life that are a part of his network. So he’s very effective but also knows when to push. People used to say he was brazen when he was younger but that brazenness is important too. He’s willing to fight for what he believes in.

Why does Washington not accept the concepts of trying and failing?

Greenberg: Obama is game changing in every possible way. I think he tries new things, his Cabinet is spectacular and I sit back in awe. He’s taken on everything. He said they are all linked together and he’s now taking it on. I don’t know if he’s going to get it all, but he’s doing well and we’ll see.

What did President Clinton do that was different?

Greenberg: Clinton went to tradtional party leaders Inside the Beltway and followed conventional wisdom at the time. Obama found that when he went Outside the Beltway, to America, he was able to force support Inside. Business supported him and it was only in Washington you had this locked-in game. So he went outside and changed the rules and I think that will be essential.

How does this relate to your book?

Greenberg: This book is about leaders essentially trying to bring people along with them. All the leaders I profile do it successfully to varying degrees but President Obama may be the best yet.

How do you translate the work you did with Tony Blair and New Labour to the situation Gordon Brown currently faces?

Greenberg: Nothing translates. There are all kinds of new forces at work and what separates these leaders, the way you succeed politically, is that you understand THIS moment. That you are then able to crystallise the moment, voice the critique and show what your leadership can offer that is right for this moment.

That’s partly why Labour didn’t sustain itself, even though Tony Blair won a third term (by a reduced majority of 36%), it was a bit of a dispirited run because they never defined what New Labour was that gave people a reason to engage. They had a reason to turn away from the Tories in ‘97. I think New Labour failed. They changed the party, helped modernise the country but they didn’t offer a new choice, a new way of thinking about the problems.

We’re now in this extraordinary economic crisis and Labour in an odd way has a chance to win again because I think people will take this election very seriously. There is a new look on how you deal with this economy, with fairness. What kind of a society can you fashion?

I don’t think the Tories have much to say on this. I think they’ve essentially said, “we’ll do the same things in key areas and we’ll be nicer and a little bit more persistent,” but they’ve basically not offered very much as an alternative.

So oddly there is an opportunity for Gordon Brown… but not to go back to New Labour. The opportunity it to understand this moment and offer both a new stage for Labour and a new stage for Britain, which it clearly needs. It needs to find a basis for its own prosperity, a basis for growth and its own values.

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Are the Tories trying to model themselves after Obama? We’ll be younger and more hip?

Greenberg: Look, people want change. Even without this moment people think those in power for a long time need to be recycled. What the Tories have basically said is, “we’re not threatening, we’re not going to increase the risk, we’ll maintain the public spending, we want the same things that Labour does, we just haven’t been around as long, we’ll have fresh faces and we’ll look at it in new ways.”

It’s a reasonable strategy for winning an election if Labour doesn’t adapt pretty boldly or offer a new way.

Democratic Pollster Stan Greenberg with wife Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)

Democratic Pollster Stan Greenberg with wife Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)

Does Gordon Brown then run as the steady hand on the tiller?

Greenberg: It’s possible, The Tories numbers are not that strong it’s nothing like the lead Labour had going into the ’97 election. I don’t know, it all depends on where the economy goes, this economy has to make a turn and if it does in the next 12 months who knows?

It seems all parties have hunkered down for the long run of the campaign:

Greenberg: At least Labour’s position is they know their fate is tied up with their performance. They know what they have to do. They will do whatever they think needs to get done to make this economy successful. That’s then the time to make the case. This is not a moment for communication; this is a moment for getting the job done.

How does this compare to working with Bill Clinton when Democrats lost control of Congress to Republicans during the Gingrich Revolution?

Greenberg: Bill Clinton defined the Democratic Party. He did not change it really. Without him, though, there would be no campaign for either Hillary or Obama. His focus was the forgotten middle class. His time was spent addressing the economy. I was there because I came out of the Robert F. Kennedy campaign. 1968 was a defining year. RFK was the leader who won ethnic, Catholic, white working class and Afro-American votes. RFK was the future.

Bill was there to overcome the racial barriers of the South. So he was coming from a different place than the party. The result was he did not win the middle class, white male, blue collar voters, but what he did do was make the case for diversity.

He changed affirmative action, moved on welfare reform and the last two years was very focused on America as multi-cultured and diverse. Our diversity is our strength and we are the only country in the world that has been able to make that a success and that was part of his persona.

So that made it easier for Obama?

r Zone.)

Greenberg: That made for a change in coalitions. 25% of the voters for Obama were Latino plus all the other ethnic groups. This created a sustainable majority. The future Democratic Party started with Bill Clinton and this was kind of a post modern entity open to diversity and tolerance. That laid the groundwork for Obama’s success.


Denis Campbell

(In Part 2 of the interview next week, we’ll look at Stanley Greenberg’s work with Nelson Mandela, Ehud Barak and the book, Dispatches from the Wa

Denis Campbell

Denis Campbell is a US journalist based in the United Kingdom. He contributes to newspapers and magazines, is a BBC Radio election commentator and publishes the daily e-magazine The Vadimus Post from the Latin Quo Vadimus – where are we headed and do we know why?