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Democrats Feud as Bush Falters

By Sam Parry
August 13, 2003

Just as George W. Bush is starting to look vulnerable, the Democratic Party is showing signs of splintering. Oddly, the break is less about policy than about which wing of the party is most likely to doom the Democrats to defeat next year.

Progressive Democrats call their centrist rivals Bush-Lite sell-outs who would re-run the disastrous 2002 campaign. In this view, the centrists would follow the losing strategy of cowering before Bush as the strong leader in the "war on terror" while trying to pitch a few moderate domestic policies to lure away voters.

To the centrists, the progressives are juvenile purists who invite replays of the 1972 and 1984 electoral disasters by offending swing voters with unpopular policies. In recent weeks, this name-calling has picked up with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and its presidential favorite, Sen. Joe Lieberman, lashing out at former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and other Democrats who opposed the Iraq War.

On Sunday, appearing on Fox News, Lieberman went so far as to say that Democrats don’t "deserve" to win if they resist past lessons about voter aversion to big government, higher taxes and softness on defense. Earlier, Lieberman, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, had said the progressives are buying the party a "ticket to nowhere."

The DLC, which claims credit for crafting the pragmatic messages that helped Bill Clinton win the White House in 1992 and 1996, has justified its alarming rhetoric by citing a recent poll that the DLC commissioned. The poll purports to show that swing voters, especially white men, will not support a candidate who isn’t perceived as strong on national security issues.

Only by addressing this "security gap" can the Democratic nominee hope to defeat Bush, the DLC report argued. "Democrats must be strong on security to be heard on the economy," wrote pollster Mark J. Penn.

A Cautionary Tale

The poll is indeed a cautionary tale for Democrats. It shows that the American people, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, are worried about national security. The poll also gives the Republicans a 35-point advantage on this issue, indicating that the Democrats will need to demonstrate some measure of toughness in foreign policy if they hope to succeed in 2004.

But the poll offers little guidance on how the Democrats can best address this disparity. Other numbers in the poll suggest that the public is leery of the Democrats, in part, because of the muddled positions that the party has taken on these life-and-death questions.

One finding is that the Democrats score worse on a question about their lacking "a clear vision of where to lead this country" than they do on lacking the toughness to "take on the problem of national security and keep America safe." While respondents were evenly split on whether the Democrats were "tough enough" (48-48), a plurality felt the party lacked "a clear vision" on leading the country (49-45).

In other words, the impression of fuzzy leadership may be a bigger problem for the Democrats than how big a military budget to endorse or how aggressive to make U.S. foreign policy.

The poll also doesn’t address other complex questions, such as whether simply supporting Bush in his "war on terror" will convince Americans that the Democrats really are "strong on security" – or simply leave the impression that they don’t have the guts to say what they think.

Citing the poll’s findings, centrists have accused liberals of failing to learn lessons from the past. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, the DLC’s chairman, said the Democratic Party was "at risk of being taken over by the far left," a step which he compared to "assisted suicide."

Some of the DLC’s poll results support these concerns. Among all respondents, only 19 percent said they "most likely" would vote for a liberal presidential candidate, compared with 36 percent for a moderate and 34 percent for a conservative.

Liberals also have a serious problem with men, the poll said. By a 61-28 percent margin, men had a favorable opinion of moderate Democrats compared with only a 36-56 favorable rating for liberal Democrats.

Lessons Learned

However, there are significant findings in the poll that signal more agreement on the issues between centrist and liberal Democrats than the recent angry rhetoric would suggest. The numbers indicate that liberal Democrats do appear to have learned many of the lessons that the DLC warns are being ignored.

For instance, the poll shows that majorities of liberal Democrats have embraced the need for fiscal responsibility and that the public accepts this Democratic change of heart from the free-spending days of the Great Society.

According to the DLC poll, Americans agree that "the Democratic Party is the party of economic growth and opportunity" (57-37); that "the Democratic Party understands the future" (57-38); and that "the Democratic Party is fiscally responsible" (56-37). These majorities hold up, though in somewhat lower numbers, for "swing men," one of the target voting groups that is at the center of the DLC’s concerns.

The poll also shows that liberal Democrats overwhelmingly agree with most principles espoused by the DLC, including the need for citizens to accept greater responsibility. Indeed, liberal Democrats answered more in line with the DLC’s principles than did the general public.

When asked to respond to the DLC principle that "we ought to expand opportunity, not government," 71 percent of liberal Democrats agreed, compared with 65 percent of all respondents. To the statement, "fiscal discipline is fundamental to sustained economic growth as well as responsible government," 70 percent of liberal Democrats agreed, compared with 60 percent of all respondents.

Indeed, liberal Democrats could be counted as the strongest supporters of the DLC’s principles, according to the poll. After listing 13 of the DLC’s "new Democrat" principles, the poll asked whether the respondents would be more or less likely to support a Democratic candidate embracing these positions. While overall 81 percent of poll respondents said yes, 91 percent of liberal Democrats said yes.

So, although the DLC has cited this poll to back up its apocalyptic rhetoric about liberal Democrats driving the party off a cliff, the poll numbers suggest an alternative – and less alarming – interpretation. By whopping margins, liberal Democrats favor a strategy of limited and responsible government. Rather than two sides deeply at odds, the DLC’s poll finds large swaths of common ground.

While liberal Democrats may be angrier with Bush over issues ranging from the stolen 2000 election to the continuing violence in Iraq, the liberals agree with the DLC on many policies. Both favor expanded social programs, such as national health insurance, within a government that exercises fiscal discipline.

Even as Dean absorbs the brunt of the DLC’s attacks, his candidacy could be seen as reflecting this surprising commonality. As governor of Vermont, Dean acted as a restraint on many of the more progressive ideas coming from the state legislature. Though Vermont is the only state in the Union that doesn’t require a balanced budget, Dean balanced the state budget 11 straight times.

Far from being a leftist firebrand, Dean actually holds generally moderate positions on domestic issues not far from the DLC’s own stances. He is to the right of other contenders, such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a point that is being hotly debated among Democratic activists on the Internet.

The Iraq Divide

So, the growing Democratic schism appears to be, in part, rhetorical – from Dean’s boast that he represents the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" to Lieberman’s warnings that Democrats don’t "deserve" to win if they don’t listen to him. The schism also appears to be part turf war, since the DLC was stung when a recent conference attracted no presidential contenders auditioning for the group’s endorsement.

But there also is substance to the bitter split, most dramatically over the Iraq War and over how to confront Bush. Lieberman strongly supported the war and Dean opposed it. Several other Democratic hopefuls sought middle ground, including Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John Edwards, who voted for the war resolution while criticizing Bush for failing to use that authority to rally U.S. allies to a common front on Iraq.

Such divisions are nothing new within the Democratic Party. They have been at or near the surface for at least a generation and have contributed to the party’s slippage from the status as the nation’s majority party. During the 1960s, the war in Vietnam and the national civil rights agenda divided the party in ways that have still not been resolved. Many of the neo-conservatives, now in the forefront of Bush’s unilateralist foreign policy, are former Democrats who bolted the party when it turned against the Vietnam War.

Between 1968 and 1992, with the Democrats divided, Republicans dominated national presidential politics winning five out of six elections and serving in the White House 20 out of 24 years. Jimmy Carter’s one term following the Watergate scandal was the only interruption.

Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, but only two years later, with the conservative media growing in power and Clinton on the defensive, Democrats were swept from the majority in both the House and the Senate for the first time in a generation. Since 1994, Democrats have managed to stay close to the Republicans in Congress, but have not been able to achieve an electoral break-through.

The recent clashes between centrists and progressives are a reminder, too, that Clinton’s two-term presidency, despite its accomplishments and its promise, failed to put the Democratic divisions to rest. Indeed, Democratic infighting intensified during the 1990s as the party split over free trade, welfare reform, national health insurance and Clinton’s reliance on wealthy donors, a dependence that many grassroots party activists said made the party beholden to big business.

The Nader Candidacy

In 2000, many progressives vowed to teach the Democrats a lesson over Clinton’s moderate policies by voting for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Even as most Democrats stayed loyal to Al Gore – giving him more votes than any Democratic candidate has ever won – enough liberal activists voted for Nader to give Bush New Hampshire and put him in position to strong-arm his way to victory in Florida. The electoral votes of either state would have put Gore in the White House.

The internal Democratic divisions continued after the election. Some centrist Democrats blamed Gore for running too far to the left and squandering the advantages of relative peace and record prosperity. At the same time, political observers on the left blamed Gore for not mobilizing the Democratic base enough.

That debate reemerged briefly a year ago as Gore was flirting with a rematch against Bush. The intra-party dissension hit the headlines when Gore’s running mate, Joe Lieberman, complained that the lesson of the 2000 election was that the party should move toward the political center.

Gore responded in the New York Times defending his campaign message. "Standing up for the people, not the powerful, was the right choice in 2000," Gore wrote. "In fact, it is the ground of the Democratic Party's being, our meaning and our mission." [NYT, Aug. 4, 2002]

When two candidates on the same ticket can’t agree on the message, no wonder the national party is having trouble.

The Democrats also are hurt by the lack of any significant media apparatus to compare with pro-Republican outlets, such as Fox News, Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio, Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. This formidable right-wing news apparatus gives the Republicans the option of sticking with a solidly conservative message that can reach and rally the base.

A Power Grab

Finding themselves outgunned in the media, Democratic leaders have shied away from open battles with Bush, even after he snatched the presidency away from Gore in 2000. Bush, who lost the national popular vote by more than a half million ballots and was in danger of losing a Florida recount, got five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the counting of votes in Florida and effectively hand him the White House.

Instead of fighting this power grab, the national Democrats seemed determined to demonstrate their "responsibility" by bending over backwards to accept Bush’s legitimacy. The Democrats bought the Washington Establishment line that it was time to heal the nation’s wounds after a hard-fought campaign.

For their political generosity, the Democrats got nothing. Bush spurned suggestions that he govern from the center, choosing instead to stake out hard-right positions, from his environmental policies and his court selections to his tax cuts and his foreign policy.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Democratic leaders had a new reason not to challenge Bush as his popularity soared to nearly 90 percent and the nation rallied around the commander in chief in a time of crisis.

Going into the 2002 mid-term elections, Democratic strategists disagreed on the best campaign strategy. Most Democratic pollsters counseled against a challenge to Bush on national security while highlighting differences on social programs, such as a prescription drug plan for the elderly.

For his part, Bush chose to nationalize the congressional elections precisely around the issues of homeland security and his demand for authority to oust Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq.

Bush’s exaggerations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the alleged links between Saddam and al-Qaeda played a dual role in the White House strategy. Not only was Bush hyping the case for war. He also was using the bogus assertions about Iraq to shove the Democrats into a corner during the congressional elections.

If the Democrats had challenged the U.S. intelligence reporting at the time, they would have been broad-brushed as soft on Saddam. Yet, by agreeing with Bush’s extreme allegations, they implicitly endorsed his leadership.

Bush’s use of the war as a wedge issue worked wonders as the Democratic Party split in two. Lieberman, then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and then-House Minority Leader Gephardt along with other pro-war Democrats ensured that Bush got the congressional resolution that he demanded and the Democratic base was left fuming and demoralized.

Once again, despite the crucial bipartisan support for his war resolution, Bush showed the congressional Democrats no gratitude. In speeches, he argued that the Senate, then run by Democrats, was "not interested in the security of the American people."

Bush personally campaigned in swing states like Missouri, Colorado, Georgia and New Hampshire. Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., a triple amputee from combat in Vietnam, was compared with Osama bin Laden in political TV commercials and pilloried as someone who didn’t care about protecting the nation from its enemies.

On election night, Democrats absorbed body blows across the electoral map, giving the Republicans back control of the Senate, along with the House.

Historical Verdict

The historical record is now clear that Bush lied repeatedly to the American people about both the Iraqi al-Qaeda links and Iraq’s possession of trigger-ready WMD. No credible evidence has emerged linking Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. forces also have found none of the alleged vast supplies of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons.

Not only was the nation manipulated to war, but the election was manipulated to solidify Republican power.

This background of Democratic leaders repeatedly getting suckered by Bush and the Republicans helps explain the intensity of feeling within the Democratic base about challenging Bush aggressively in 2004. The anger has thrust Dean into prominence because he opposed the Iraq War from the outset and underwent intense media criticism after April 9 when U.S. forces appeared to have won the war with relative ease.

In the glow of victory, Lieberman, Kerry and Edwards, who all voted for the war resolution, appeared to have played a smart hand. But the odds shifted when Bush’s WMD assertions were exposed as lies and his May 1 declaration of "mission accomplished" proved equally false as guerrilla ambushes claimed the lives of scores of American soldiers. While Kerry and Edwards defended their votes more narrowly, Lieberman and other DLC Democrats became more strident in justifying their pro-war positions.

Lieberman now has taken the lead in condemning Dean and the anti-war Democrats as extremists who will alienate many Americans, especially white men, and guarantee Bush a second term. On the other side, Dean and the war critics contend that voters expect candidates to speak their minds and tell the truth on issues as important as sending soldiers to fight and die. In that view, trying to finesse the war issue again is a prescription for another electoral rout.

The core of this bitter debate is that each side is accusing the other of inviting electoral disaster. To the centrists’ taunts of "1972" and "1984" comes the liberals’ reply "2002." Yet, whatever the merits of the arguments, these harsh exchanges don’t portend the unity that many Democratic strategists say is vital for the party to have any hope of defeating Bush.

Yet, for fundamental Democratic policies, the urgency of next year’s election could not be greater. At stake are many of the policies that have been at the heart of the Democratic Party over the past century.

With national deficits setting new records and with the Baby Boom generation nearing retirement age, the federal government's ability to fund basic New Deal and Great Society programs is in jeopardy. Abroad, the future of Wilson's and Roosevelt's vision of international order through diplomacy and peace has been damaged by the first Bush term and could be destroyed if Bush’s policies are reaffirmed in an electoral landslide.

The question for Democrats now is whether they can wage a vigorous campaign for the party’s presidential nomination without leaving so much bitterness that this bigger picture is lost.

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