The Democrats' brewing civil war
Deans, Greens and liberals say the party needs to scream the anti-Bush truth at the American people. New-Democratic centrists say Americans just aren't that left-leaning. The schism is wide, and it's going to get wider.
July 12, 2003 | Joe Trippi is managing Howard Dean's presidential campaign, and when you ask him about the Democratic Leadership Council, a group representing the establishment wing of the party, his voice quickly starts to rise. "Every time the DLC attacks us we get stronger," he says, almost shouting into the phone. "We get more people who sign up with us, more people who contribute, more people who join the campaign. We intend to build the greatest grass-roots campaign of the modern era, and hundreds of thousands of people are joining us. That would bother me a lot if I was in the DLC."
The DLC, to be sure, does not seem terribly bothered. The group has openly attacked Dean's followers, circulating a memo in May, reprised in an L.A. Times Op-Ed on July 3. "The fact is," the Op-Ed sneered, "'the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,' as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean likes to call it, is an aberration, a modern-day version of the old McGovern wing of the party, defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist interest-group liberalism at home."
Goaded by a notice on Dean's Web site, his followers responded by deluging the DLC with thousands of denunciations. "I hate what you folks are doing almost as much as what Bush does," said one. "I haven't contributed to the Democratic party this year and I won't. I have however, sent around $700 to Howard Dean ... which is way beyond any previous political contribution I've ever made." Warned another: "We all know that YOU, the DLC, represent the party's 'elite.' And now it is the rank-and-file that's giving you this wake-up call. Do not think you can ram your hand-picked candidate down the throats of the American people!"
It's been that kind of year in the Democratic Party, which clearly is still struggling to regroup from the 2000 presidential election and the setbacks in the 2002 congressional elections. But the progressive-moderate schism exposed by Ralph Nader's Green Party presidential campaign, far from being healed, is already showing signs of being an active liability for 2004. Earlier this week, Matt Drudge's Internet news mill reported that Dean had threatened to replace DLC ally Terry McAuliffe as the party chairman if he wins the presidential nomination.
Trippi vehemently denies the story. Yet it's clear that the Dean camp and the DLC are fighting an increasingly acrimonious civil war. Even as the Democratic Party seeks to unite against George W. Bush, many of its grass-roots activists are in mutiny. The rift is less about issues than an argument about the way politics works in America and the role of passion and anger in stirring the electorate, and its resolution will determine the Democratic strategy in 2004 and the direction of the party thereafter.
Tired of running toward a center that has moved sharply right since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, many in the party's left wing want a candidate who can mobilize the party's base and inspire non-voters to join. The DLC rejects this approach -- and sometimes seems to mock it. Noting that liberals are a small minority in America, its Web site says: "No matter how excited, energized, stoked and psyched you are, you only get to vote once."
Whether the DLC's analysis is true or not, its tone has fueled the ascent of the former Vermont governor. Dean's brawl with the DLC has tapped into a deep well of resentment within the party. At the recent Take Back America conference in Washington -- a historic gathering of progressive activists from across the country -- the DLC was an object of derision second only to the president and his cronies. Liberal Democratic Web sites like Buzzflash.com and CommonDreams.org attack the group almost daily, blaming it for their party's reticence in the face of Bush's radicalism.
Founded in 1985, the DLC is the nerve center of the New Democrat wing of the party, which seeks to distance itself from big-government liberalism, emphasizing free-market solutions to social problems. "Since its inception," the Web site says, "the DLC has championed policies from spurring private sector economic growth, fiscal discipline and community policing to work based welfare reform, expanded international trade, and national service." Its chairs have included Bill Clinton and presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, and DLC president Bruce Reed is advising candidate John Edwards.
Many grass-roots Democrats are convinced that the DLC's middle-of-the-road strategy led the party to defeat in the 2002 midterms. "Over the last 22 years that we've been following this poll-and-move-right-plan, we've lost the governorships, lost the Senate, lost the House, and lost the presidency," says Trippi. "We used to control 40 of the state Legislatures. Now Republicans control 40 of the state Legislatures."
The fight between the two sides isn't so much ideological as tactical. Howard Dean, after all, isn't really a leftist, or even a traditional liberal. He's the most fiscally conservative of the nine candidates running for the Democratic nomination and supports gun rights and the death penalty. Certainly, his antiwar stance has won him a great deal of liberal support, but his pugnacious style has been almost equally as important.
"On one hand he's appealing to angry liberal voters," says John Zobgy, president of the polling firm Zogby International. "He's antiwar, populist on the economy and so on, but at the same time, he's also the straight-talking McCain guy, and to a lesser degree the straight-talking Ross Perot, saying: 'There's no spin here -- you might not like what I have to say, but always be assured I'm going to call it like I see it.'"
The DLC's message, meanwhile, is more than just Republican lite, despite the claims of its detractors. It supported the Iraq war, but opposes Bush's broader unilateralism and policy of preemption. It champions universal healthcare and excoriates Bush's economic policies. Yet it's extremely wary of demonizing Bush. "It is important to understand that a majority of the American people do not and will not share the sort of reflexive belief that the president and his administration are stupid or evil," says Ed Kilgore, policy director of the DLC. "I happen to think centrist Democrats and 'liberals' do share the same basic values and a lot of the same basic policy goals. Where we tend to disagree is on means."
That translates into a disagreement about which voters to court. Grass-roots members of the party are tired of compromising their values in the hope of winning the swing voters that the DLC covets, and hope to recruit non-voters instead. The DLC dismisses this strategy as naive fantasy.
"Every two years at election time, the party goes through an agony of self-reflection and recently self-reproach," says Robert Reich, a prominent progressive who served as Clinton's secretary of labor. "They ask: Should we move right and get more of the so-called suburban swing voter or should we have the courage of our progressive convictions and generate more enthusiasm among the base? What's left out of the debate is an acknowledgment that half of adult Americans who are qualified to vote no longer do so. The only way to get them into the voting booths is to give them something to vote for, a real choice, real ideals and a strong and bold vision of where the country is and where it should be going."
Kilgore is withering in response. "I think Secretary Reich frankly doesn't know what he's talking about on that subject," he says. "This is an ancient myth of the left and the right, that non-voters are more extreme than voters."
The constituency that really matters, Kilgore says, is independents. "Independents are close to 30 percent of the electorate, and there's a lot of evidence that they are turned off by highly polarized campaigns of the left and right. When you energize somebody to vote for you who is already convinced you're right, you pick up one vote. Maybe you don't even pick up one net vote, because if you're energizing voters with a lot of polarizing language, you're probably going to help energize the other party's base, too. A lot of evidence over the years shows that when you turn a swing voter, you pick up two votes. You pick up one for yourself and you deny your opponent one. It's a basic law of mathematics that's kind of important."
Zogby says the DLC is right -- going after non-voters isn't a winning strategy. "You've got a lot of registered voters who registered via 'motor voter,' and they don't even know they're registered to vote. They're at best on the periphery of American politics. And so that is not a winner. What is a winner is finding a center. People used to say you win the Democratic primary on the left and the general election in the center."
The DLC cites Clinton as proof of this, but liberals call that revisionist history. "They paint Clinton as ... a person who could reach out to moderates," says Borosage. "When Clinton ran in 1992, he ran on the most populist agenda we've seen since Harry Truman. In that election, he got probably the same percentage of the vote Mike Dukakis got, the same voters Mike Dukakis got. He won because of Ross Perot. The job then was to forge a new consensus and a new majority. The DLC gets Clinton wrong in 1992, both how he ran and how he won. They pretend he was this great uniter of independent and Republican voters. It's not true. He won because lightning struck."
Of course, this reading actually gives some credence to the DLC view, since it suggests that under ordinary circumstances, Clinton couldn't have won by running as a liberal, and that he won in 1996 by doing exactly what the DLC espouses. But the point Borosage and other progressives make is that Clinton's combination of luck and charisma were unique, and that his success doesn't prove anything about the need to co-opt the center. Trippi actually insists that the former president's incredible skill as a communicator masked the flaws in the DLC's strategy.
Democrats on the left see Republicans winning by catering to their right-wing base and taking positions that are to the right of American public opinion, and they wonder why their party can't do the same instead of playing to focus groups. Why, they wonder, shouldn't their party coddle them in the same way that Republicans indulge the religious right?
The problem is that Democrats and Republicans aren't simply mirror images of each other. "When you give people the option of identifying as liberal, moderate or conservative, a majority of Republicans identify themselves as conservatives," says Kilgore. Liberals, though, make up only a slice of the Democratic Party. Kilgore quotes a Gallup poll showing that only 33 percent of Democrats say they're liberals, while 43 percent are moderate and 23 percent conservative.
No one really represents liberals, which many of them find intolerable. That's why there was an exodus to the Green Party, and that's why there's now so much talk among leftish Democrats of "taking back" the party. Even if Dean doesn't share all their views, he courts liberals rather than trying to marginalize them.
While the DLC sees the ghost of McGovern in this strategy, liberals have a different analogy -- Ronald Reagan.
"Elections create what is acceptable or what is the center," says Borosage. "When Ronald Reagan started running in 1980, he was widely dismissed even among Republicans as a nutcase. But he changed politics in America and created the conservative era we've been living in ever since. I don't think these things are a given. They are forged. The DLC tends to think polls are written in stone and people have specific ideas that can't be overcome."
Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Institute, actually agrees with parts of Borosage's analysis.
In the short run, he says, liberal rage is good news for Bush. "In the long run it may not be bad news for Bush," Franc says, "but it might be bad news for a successor. The [Democratic] Party, in order to realign itself in the right direction, may need to undergo some self-examination and a reorientation of what it's all about. Republicans reacted very, very well to their 1964 loss to Lyndon Johnson. Even though Johnson beat Goldwater by an enormous margin, Goldwater had more people out on the streets working for him. It was an early indication of a nascent conservative resurgence that was possible with right kind of nurturing and direction.
"This conservative movement really grew out of that," he continues. "It took a while -- first we had Nixon to deal with -- but it finally led to Reagan's election in 1980. There was kind of a 16-year walk in the wilderness, where people who worked on the Goldwater campaign hung together and formed organizations, formed magazines and journals and helped develop foundations for what was to come."
Liberals, he says, are now walking in their own wilderness. "Getting the most passionate members of the party to do something about that is either going to be a death wish or the beginning of a resurgence, depending on how effectively they deal with themselves."
This isn't much comfort for those who believe that four more years of Bush will irrevocably damage the nation. Kilgore calls it the "death with dignity" strategy -- a kind of extension of the line the Greens took in 2000. Some liberals, he says, "think we're going to lose, so we might as well go out yelling."
Of course, liberals don't accept that their strategy is a losing one in 2004. They believe they can lead America to the left and win rather than follow it to the center. They believe that if most people knew the truth about George W. Bush, they wouldn't vote for him.
"The typical American shares the values of most liberal activists and progressives," says Reich, "but the typical American has been fed a nonstop diet of lies and angry, snide, resentful, bitter diatribes by right-wing radio talk-show hosts and right-wing TV talk-show hosts. The typical American doesn't know what the facts are. He believes that the typical family is getting a $1,000 tax cut. He believes Saddam Hussein was somehow responsible for 9/11. He doesn't know that Afghanistan is falling apart, he doesn't know that we're completely unprepared for a terrorist attack. He hasn't been told that most of the corporate scandals of 2002 could happen again because most of the legislation never went anywhere."
Reich is careful not to denigrate such Americans. "These are very intelligent people," he says, "but if you're fed nothing but lies and resentment mixed in with the sort of targets that have nothing to do with the reasons your finances and prospects are poor, you are probably going to buy some of this Orwellian trash. You may be quite thoughtful, but you're not superhuman. Unless or until the Democrats tell it like it is and also stand up for what they believe, America is not going to wake up."
Reich's comment gets to the heart of the debate. There's a sense among activist Democrats that many voters are asleep and that only a blunt, uncompromising message can rouse them. The DLC, meanwhile, is convinced that liberals are a minority not because most Americans don't understand them, but because they disagree with them.
If you start from the premise that Americans have been duped, you can sound like you're "telling people they're stupid for not understanding what we understand," says the DLC's Kilgore. "There's a certain tone of condescension."
But declining to challenge voters also can be a kind of condescension. "I think it's important to keep a sense of humor and be upbeat and even optimistic, but we've got to tell it like it is and also talk about our values," says Reich. "We can't be defensive. We can't assume, as the DLC does, that somehow we're out of step with average Americans."
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