WASHINGTON — After soaring in prestige under former President Clinton, the centrist "New Democrat" movement is struggling to maintain its influence in the party as the 2004 presidential race accelerates.
In recent months, New Democrat leaders have engaged in escalating confrontations with more liberal party elements — battles that could help determine whether Democrats largely follow Clinton's centrist course or tilt to the left in their challenge to President Bush next year.
The New Democrat movement has scuffled with the left over the party's direction for nearly 20 years. The moderates, working mainly through the Democratic Leadership Council, provided an important source of ideas and support for Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and Al Gore in 2000. But the movement has splintered in the 2004 contest, with its key figures dividing among the party's leading presidential contenders.
Now the DLC finds itself under fire from a range of Democrats for a blistering attack it issued last month on two of the most liberal 2004 candidates — Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Dean has shot back, accusing the DLC of blurring the differences between Democrats and Republicans.
These sharp exchanges underscore the ideological fissures reopening as Democrats try to set their post-Clinton course.
Some of the New Democratic ideas that Clinton advanced — such as reforming welfare and taking a tougher stance against crime — have become consensus positions within the party. But the uneasy agreements he forged on other fronts are crumbling, particularly on the importance of balancing the federal budget and projecting strength abroad.
While Dean and many left-leaning activists are calling for Democrats to sharpen their differences with Republicans, DLC leaders worry that this demand will translate into a reversion to pre-Clinton liberal positions. Such positions, the moderates argue, will alienate swing voters — those without strong allegiance to any party — and push them toward Bush.
"It is a matter of arithmetic: If we are going to win, we have to win not only the Democratic faithful, we have to win swing voters," said Al From, founder and chief executive of the DLC. "Somebody has to remind this party that the real prize is winning the White House and not just winning the nomination."
The problem facing the DLC is that even some Democrats sympathetic to the group fear it may be hurting the party's chances of capturing the White House by launching such pointed attacks on some of the party's '04 candidates.
"It is divisive and does not help us one iota in raising a dime or doing anything that is moderately productive," said an advisor to one of the contenders the DLC has not criticized.
Used to Controversy
By becoming such a source of controversy, the DLC finds itself in a familiar role.
The organization was founded by From and a group of mostly Southern and Western Democratic officeholders following President Reagan's landslide victory over Walter Mondale in 1984. From the start, the DLC's aim was to move the party toward the center, in large part by diminishing the influence of left-leaning interest groups, such as organized labor, feminists and liberal social welfare organizations.
The DLC hit its stride after the Democrats lost the 1988 presidential race. It produced compelling strategy memos arguing that Democrats could not regain the White House solely by mobilizing their traditional base but needed to recapture swing voters who, for the most part, had been backing GOP presidential candidates since the 1960s.
The Progressive Policy Institute, the group's think tank, churned out a series of domestic proposals that attempted to advance historic Democratic goals in new ways, such as expanding services for welfare recipients but requiring them to find work. In 1990, From convinced Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, to serve as the group's chairman.
Throughout this period, the DLC served as a bete noire for liberals; the Rev. Jesse Jackson, accusing the group of abandoning the poor, derided it as "Democrats for the Leisure Class."
The conflict between the DLC and the Democratic left was never entirely resolved. But it receded under Clinton. Although he drew more heavily on the DLC than any other source for his 1992 campaign strategy and issue agenda, he also tapped liberal advisors and ideas. He performed the same balancing act through his presidency.
The old conflicts, smoldering even through the Clinton years, reignited once he left the White House.
In 2000, DLC leaders privately fumed that Gore was abandoning Clinton's centrist formula during his campaign and moving too far left. This year, the DLC raised the volume of the intraparty debate with a series of sharply worded open memos to the party written by From and Bruce Reed, Clinton's chief domestic policy advisor, who now serves as DLC president.
One recent memo charged that Gephardt had succumbed to "the pander virus" by proposing a health-care plan whose cost could exceed $2.5 trillion over the next decade.
In another memo, From and Reed fired with both barrels at Dean's frequent declaration that he intends to represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
"What activists like Dean call the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party is an aberration defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home," they wrote.
Reed and From could not have incited a more intense reaction if they walked into a bar outside Boston's Fenway Park wearing Yankee caps.
Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, said that within days of the attack, the candidate received some 10,000 e-mails of support — and $50,000 in contributions. Dean supporters also bombarded the DLC with critical e-mails.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe also called From to complain. "I said I thought it was over the top; it's not helpful [in the effort] to beat George Bush," McAuliffe said.
Even some activists in the DLC orbit considered the attack a blunder. That dissent received a subtle public airing last week when the New Democrat Network, the political action committee associated with the movement, invited Gephardt and Dean to speak at its annual meeting. After Dean addressed the group with a prerecorded video, Simon Rosenberg, the network's president, pointedly praised him to the crowd.
"While we don't agree with Dean on every single issue, you have to acknowledge he has run a remarkable campaign," Rosenberg said.
No Clear Candidate
Part of the DLC's difficulty in this campaign is that the group seems more certain about who it opposes than who it supports. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a former DLC chairman, is closest to the organization ideologically and probably has the most support in its circles. But Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina are being backed by some New Democrat leaders.
Reflecting this division, the DLC has not put its stamp on any candidate's agenda as clearly as it did Clinton's. This has caused some of the group's influential members to conclude it may never regain the clout it wielded during the Clinton years.
"There was a greater receptivity to the critique of the old liberalism then because Democrats had been in the political wilderness for so long," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute. "And in Clinton you had someone who agreed with our analysis of where the party had gone wrong and agreed with most of the ideas we developed to try to identify the party with change and reform."
Marshall added: "What happened in 1992 may have been once in a lifetime."
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times