As Democrats Gather, Liberal Positions Gaining in Popularity

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McClatchy Newspapers

As Democrats Gather, Liberal Positions Gaining in Popularity

by
Steven Thomma

DENVER - As they meet for their national convention Monday throughThursday, Democrats are poised to shift their party’s course - and thecountry’s.They’re turning to the left - deeply against the war in Iraq,ready to use tax policy to take from the rich and give to the poor andmiddle class, and growing hungry, after years of centrist politics, forbig-government solutions, such as a health-care overhaul, to steer thenation through a time of sweeping economic change.

They are, in short, more liberal than at any time in a generationand eager to end the Reagan era, which dominated not just the otherparty, but also their own, for nearly three decades.

“Every generation . . . there are changes in people’s relationshipwith government,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. This, he said, issuch a time.

The shift of the party also reflects a change in much of thepopulation - evidenced in the policy positions advocated byrank-and-file voters as well as the party’s presumptive presidentialnominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

“Government SHOULD do more, especially when you’re spending tens ofbillions of dollars in Iraq protecting the interests of millionaires,”said Rebecca Washington, a Democrat and an accountant from ClevelandHeights, Ohio.

“We’ve got to revoke the tax cuts for the wealthy,” said VickiBalzer, a Democrat and retired teacher from the Cleveland suburb ofBerea. “We definitely need to do something more for the economicallydisadvantaged. . . . We’ve allowed big corporations to take millionsfor corporate leaders while workers get nothing.”

Nationally, 40 percent of Democrats in the 2006 midterm electionscalled themselves liberal, the highest since the American NationalElection Studies program started asking in 1972.

At the same time, the number of Democrats who support a governmentsafety net for the poor - such as guaranteeing food and shelter for theneedy and spending to help them even if it means more debt - jumped by14 percentage points from 1994 to 2007, according to the Pew ResearchCenter.

Support for that safety net also rose by 15 points among independents and 9 points among Republicans.

That’s a remarkable change since the mid-’90s, the decade whencentrist Bill Clinton dominated the Democratic Party, signed a welfareoverhaul into law that forced recipients to work, expanded free tradeagainst the wishes of organized labor and famously declared the era ofbig government to be over.

“During the era when Bill Clinton was president, there was a clearre-centering of the party,” said Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius ofKansas.

Today, she added, “there is a growing understanding that government can play a positive role in investing in our country.”

What changed? Several things:

* The Iraq war lasted longer, cost more lives and money, and proveddeeply unpopular. A few years ago, Obama was a rare voice in the partyopposing the war; today he’s one of a chorus.

* Anxiety about a slowing economy resurrected fears about Americanjobs and paychecks in the global economy. Promises to change tradedeals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement punctuated theDemocratic primaries.

Also, Obama promises a dramatically different tax policy, one thatwould raise taxes on the wealthy, cut taxes for the middle class andoffer new “refundable” tax credits to the working poor that would wipeout tax liabilities and deliver anything left over in the form ofchecks.

He also wants to tax oil companies and use the money to give checks to the poor to pay for high fuel costs, or anything else.

* Many Americans recoiled at the weak federal government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

* Republican George W. Bush turned into one of the most unpopularpresidents in modern history. Just as American revulsion at DemocratJimmy Carter in 1980 helped usher in the Reagan era, rejection of theBush era could help swing the pendulum the other way.

At the same time, the party has new power centers in liberal groupssuch as Moveon.org and blogs such as dailykos.com, where antiwar feverand anti-Bush anger are magnified.

They helped propel Howard Dean to an early lead for the 2004Democratic nomination, lost, then regrouped to help defeat pro-warDemocratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut in a 2006 primary,though he went on to win re-election as an independent.

“Enormous dissatisfaction with the Republican Party has brought outthe base more,” said Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

Ever more vocal and influential heading into this year’s election,that base fed the sense that the party should “return to its corevalues,” Richardson said. “The rise of the Internet and bloggers havemade the party more progressive.”

Schumer also thinks that it’s all part of a historic cycle in American politics - or at least he hopes it is.

He said Americans encouraged and grew accustomed to an activistfederal government during the Great Depression of the 1930s, one thatDemocrat Franklin Roosevelt delivered and Democrat Lyndon Johnsonaccelerated in the 1960s.

They grew disenchanted with that big government by the 1970s, agovernment seen as corrupt in the Nixon days, unable to stop oil crisesor runaway inflation, and unable to rescue Americans whom Iran hadtaken hostage.

“By 1980, the average person said, ‘I don’t need government anymore. I’m fine on my own,’ ” Schumer said.

That sentiment drove U.S. politics for years, helping Republicanswin five out of seven presidential elections and giving the Democratstwo victories only when they nominated a Southern centrist in Clinton.

This year, however, Democrats rejected Hillary Clinton, who, whilearguably more liberal than her husband, was to the right of Obama onbig issues such as tax policy and had a history of being more hawkishon national security.

Perhaps it’s because Obama was simply a more appealing candidate. But it also might be because times are changing.

Now, Schumer said, Americans feel shaken by big forces such asglobalization, terrorism and a sputtering economy. “The whole worldchanges, and people feel a little bit at sea, and they need help,”Schumer said.

Whether the country will turn to a resurgent-liberal DemocraticParty to navigate that less-certain world won’t be known untilNovember. But for Democrats watching their national convention, it’sclear they want something very different.

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