At a time when Democrats are having a splintering, soul-searching debate about the wisdom of replacing longtime leaders like Nancy Pelosi with a new generation, Donna Shalala’s campaign for an open House seat in the Miami area is as much about the Democratic Party’s future as it is about its past.
Ms. Shalala, 77, was the secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton. That was the heyday of the “New Democrat” — a nearly extinct political species that took an accommodating approach to working with Republicans on issues like trade, welfare reform and gay rights.
Her opponents in the Democratic primary — Matt Haggman and State Rep. David Richardson — have tried to hang that on her, arguing that she is out of step with the party’s progressive roots. In some ways, she may be. She says she is uncomfortable, for instance, with loose talk from some Democrats about impeaching President Trump. But at the same time she likes the concept of guaranteed income and wants to significantly expand the social safety net.
She insists that as times change, so does one’s political perspective. And nothing put this midterm election into perspective, she says, like the Trump administration’s policies.
Ms. Shalala talked with The New York Times ahead of her primary, which is taking place on Tuesday in one of the districts Democrats are best positioned to pick up from Republicans this year. The incumbent, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is retiring.
The following is an edited and condensed version of her interview with The Times.
Q. Looking at your career, you’ve been in the White House, you’ve been president of a major university …
A. Three. [She was president of Hunter College in New York, then chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then president of the University of Miami.]
I’m sorry, three. So why on earth would you want to go and be a freshman member of Congress?
First of all, I’ll never be a freshman or rookie. I just am angry at what’s going on in Washington. And I think with my experience I can hit the ground running, and I can really help improve policy and stop bad things from happening because I do understand government, and I do bring fresh ideas. Over a long period of time you change your ideas.
Certainly the Democratic Party that you served in the ’90s is not the same party today. Looking back on the Clinton-era policies like cuts to welfare, more centrist positions that the current Democratic Party totally rejects, do you look back on that and think there were some mistakes that were made?
Well, at the time I thought we were making a mistake, if you check your background very carefully, I thought that we were not putting enough money into child care or transportation or housing for welfare recipients. We eventually, in the second term, added more resources to support welfare recipients. The changes in welfare were consensus changes, not simply between the Democrats and the Republicans. But the Democrats themselves felt that the welfare system needed to be an opportunity to people to transition into work.
We tried to do everything we could to build a support system for low-income people that went to work. We need to do much more than that now. As the economy is transitioning, I believe we need to look at guaranteed income. But we also need to think about mobile benefits: health care, child care, vacation time, family leave. There are a lot of things that every employer is not going to build in. These ought to move with you.
This is certainly no longer Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party. And when you say something like “guaranteed income” people will inevitably say, “Well that sounds like socialism.”
It’s not socialism. It’s very far from socialism. Progressive Republicans and progressive Democrats are all talking about this kind of thing, and it’s not socialism.
But certainly there are elements of the Democratic Party right now that are embracing socialism. Is that a mistake?
The Democratic Party has always had a big tent, and has always had people to the left, people to the right and people to the center. Whether there are more or less in each of these camps depends on what year you’re talking about. The most important thing is to come together on the things that will improve the lives of Americans.
You, of course, are somebody who’s recently started advocating impeachment. Will that bring Americans together?
No, I have not. I have not. [In an exchange posted on her campaign website, she recently told a South Florida news outlet, “If we have the opportunity, would I vote to impeach the president? Absolutely.”] I have said I will vote for impeachment if the evidence is there. I have not said we should impeach the president right now. I have said when the evidence is presented, if there is evidence that the president has committed impeachable offenses — just because he’s done a whole bunch of things I hate is not necessarily an impeachable offense.
Would you support the beginning of impeachment proceedings?
Only if the legal evidence is there that justifies the inquiry. I believe in the rule of law, and I believe that Democrats have to be extremely careful not to politicize the process.
You did go through this. You saw what it did to the country during the Clinton impeachment.
I did. And I saw how they [Republicans] politicized the process. I’m worried about that happening. Because this administration has undermined the rule of law. The attacks on the Justice Department, on the F.B.I., on judges, and we have to be careful that we don’t join in those attacks. Democrats must be very rigorous, as we were, by the way, in the process for impeaching Richard Nixon.
All right, thank you. I think you gave me everything that I needed.
You don’t have any other questions about substance?
I think impeachment is a substantive topic, don’t you?
Exactly. I recently had a conversation with Liz Holtzman [a prominent member of the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment]. She described the process to me. And I think it’s very important that we support evidence in making decisions of all kinds. Whether it’s scientific evidence about climate change or whether it’s evidence about whether kids should get vaccines. I’m just a person that wants to see the evidence. I don’t like the corruption that’s going on in Washington. But we’ve got to keep our eyes on what the rule of law is.