Prof. Simon Rosenberg on career, the Democratic Party’s past and future battles

Political strategist Simon Rosenberg gives a speech for his organization, NDN on Nov. 14, 2005. (Wikimedia Commons)

“If the polls are right and Hillary Clinton wins on Nov. 8, Democrats will have won more votes in six of the past seven presidential elections,” Simon Rosenberg (LA ’85) wrote in an Oct. 20 U.S. News opinion column.

While the polls have fluctuated more significantly over the past few weeks, many Clinton supporters might believe that her success and the Democratic Party‘s relative successes over the past few decades have been a happy accident. However, Rosenberg, a member of the Jonathan M. Tisch College for Civic Life Advisory Board and a current Tufts professor, has dedicated his life to helping the party get to where it is now.

“It’s a historic achievement and I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to make that happen, starting with the [Bill] Clinton campaign,” Rosenberg said. “The Republicans are facing an existential threat — and this didn’t happen by accident.”

Despite his dedication to Democratic politics, Rosenberg did not initially intend to go into the field. He graduated from Tufts in 1985 with a degree in English, immediately securing a job in network television with ABC News thanks to fellow Tufts graduate and former Executive Vice President of ABC News David Burke (A ’57).

Burke hired a graduating senior from Tufts every year to come work for him at ABC News … I think that if I hadn’t gotten that, I probably would have gone off to Cape Cod to write the great American novel,” Rosenberg said. “But I moved to New York and started a career in the news business.”

Rosenberg maintains a significant media presence in the political world through his weekly column in U.S. News and frequent appearances on national television shows. He is also the president and founder of the New Democrat Network (NDN), a think tank supporting center-left Democratic candidates and policies. However, a great deal of his work is done behind the scenes.

“A lot of what I do is not seen publicly,” he said. “I work with politicians and staff and do an enormous amount of work with the White House, Congress, USTR [United States Trade Representative] and the Department of Homeland Security.”

Rosenberg worked on his first presidential campaign in the fall of 1987, joining other former Tufts classmates in support of the 1988 Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. He returned to network television after the campaign ended, yet was drawn back into politics within a few years.

“I joined the [Bill] Clinton campaign in New Hampshire in January of 1992 full-time and have been in politics for 24 years since,” Rosenberg said.

During the Clinton presidential campaign, Rosenberg worked in the famous “war room,” an operation that popularized the rapid-response media monitoring tactics now common in modern campaigns. Rosenberg said his experience with the campaign inspired him to found the NDN.

“I believed that … we needed to invest in a new generation of political leaders who were more grounded in the sort of modern arguments that the Bill Clinton Democrats were making,” Rosenberg said. “In its original form, the New Democrat Network was a PAC that invested in hundreds of emerging political leaders all around the country … we were an ideological PAC.”

In 2005, Rosenberg ran for chairman of the Democratic National Committee. While he lost the bid to former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Rosenberg said that at his final debate for the campaign, a group of students from Tufts Democrats showed up to support him, knowing he was an alum.

“There were six debates that were nationally televised during the chair’s race,” Rosenberg said. “The last one was in New York City, and 20 college Democrats from Tufts drove all night and came down and surprised me.”

This surprise appearance inspired him to find his way back to Tufts. He smiled as he reflected on the support Tufts students offered him at that debate.

“I had the largest cheering section of any of the candidates,” he said. “It was a very gratifying moment. So those students got me reengaged in campus.”

Today, Rosenberg teaches a course for Tufts undergraduates titled “Topics in American Politics: Changing America, Changing Politics,” a political science class cosponsored by the Tisch College for Civic Life. He said the course focuses heavily on writing, requiring students to submit a short 300-word essay every week.

“A lot of what I did in the beginning was trying to explain to people that in the real world, you have to write short,” Rosenberg said. “You can’t use big words. You have to have a title.”

He explained that his class attempts to close the gap between students’ academic experience and the political world, to push away from academic English and toward “real-world” writing.

“The truth is, politics is spoken English,” Rosenberg said. “At the end of the day, the unit of our business is the politician making a pitch to the voter.”

He expressed pride in his students’ work so far, saying he has been impressed with the clarity of their writing.

“I tell everybody who thinks that writing is on the decline in the United States, ‘Not based on the students I see here,’” Rosenberg said. “It’s one of the reasons why getting a weekly essay has not been a bummer. It’s something I look forward to.”

Having witnessed Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign from the perspective of the “war room,” Rosenberg has seen significant changes in the way presidential campaigns were run then versus now.

“They’re bigger,” he said. “Hillary’s enterprise will raise and spend over a billion dollars this cycle. But when you have more money, it means that you can touch more voters … So the good news is that I think the additional money is allowing more people into the campaign.”

Rosenberg elaborated, saying that while the increase of money in politics may allow for more voter contact, fewer states today are actively engaged in the presidential campaign than have been in the past. There are fewer undecided voters, he said, and therefore fewer efforts to sway voters. 

“In the 1992 campaign there were 31 targeted states, and now there’s you know, 13, 14,” he said. “If you’ve lived in California, you haven’t voted in a competitive race for the Senate, the president or the governorship since the 1980s … You’re not actually giving your consent to the political system.”

Nevertheless, Rosenberg expressed an overwhelming optimism for the future of American politics and said he felt fulfilled in the work he has done to promote the Democratic Party.

“There are several hundred of us that have spent a generation trying to create a more effective center-left in the United States. I look back at this and say [that] I think I’ve been a major part of this, and I’m very proud of the work we’ve done,” Rosenberg said.

He did not hesitate to express confidence in the ability of millennials to carry on this legacy.

“This country is going to be in good hands with you guys,” Rosenberg said. “The millennial generation is a socially-minded, conscious, can-do generation, ‘yes we can’ kind of generation. Being here at Tufts is always very affirming to me.”