CHICAGO - The Democratic Party is growing more liberal for the first time in a generation.
It's more antiwar than at any time since 1972. Support is growing for such traditionally liberal values as using the federal government to help the poor. And 40 percent of Democrats now call themselves liberal, the highest in more than three decades and twice the low-water mark recorded as the conservative Reagan revolution swept the country in the early 1980s.
While politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama shun the liberal label, they're rushing to court new power brokers who wear it proudly and constituencies that could barely win a nod from party leaders just a few years ago. For example, the top Democratic presidential candidates all planned to attend the YearlyKos convention of liberal bloggers in Chicago this weekend and a Human Rights Campaign debate this week in Los Angeles on gay, lesbian and transgender issues.
They all skipped an annual gathering of the Democratic Leadership Council last week in Nashville, Tenn. The DLC is the centrist group that pushed for welfare overhaul and a pro-business agenda in the 1990s, helped launch Bill Clinton to the presidency and stood by centrist Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., when liberals attacked him for supporting the Iraq war and he effectively was drummed out of the party in a primary last year.
"There is greater liberalism today, both on economic issues and in opposition to the war," said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal group that saw attendance at its June "Take Back America" meeting swell to several thousand from just a few dozen six years ago. "The conservative era is ending."
The Democrats' shift to the left carries some risk, but probably much less than it would have in years past. That's because independent voters - the ones who swing back and forth and thus decide elections - also have turned against the war and in favor of many more liberal approaches to government.
"There is greater support for the social safety net, more concern for inequality of income," said Andy Kohut, the president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. "More people are falling into the liberal category based on their values."
The most noteworthy shift is opposition to the war in Iraq.
Rank-and-file Democrats turned against the war first, many as early as 2003, when they helped upstart presidential candidate Howard Dean amass early support. Many party leaders waited much longer, with most of the 2008 candidates not pushing until this year to get U.S. troops out of Iraq by a firm early deadline.
Today every major Democratic presidential candidate wants to get American troops out of Iraq. They're presenting the most vocal and unified opposition to a war since George McGovern won the party's nomination in 1972.
While their stand mirrors a solid majority of voters, according to polls, at least some Democrats think there's still political danger in adopting a McGovern-like image.
"One area where the party has unfortunately moved left is on national security," said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic strategist who once advised Lieberman. "There is a real danger that, in voicing our opposition to the war in Iraq, it will come across as weakness on fighting terror."
Some Democratic candidates are hedging their opposition to the war with other signals of strength, such as Obama's speech last week suggesting that he'd take military action in Pakistan if necessary to get terrorists who are hiding there. Yet even such hypothetical posturing is aimed more at voters outside the party than in.
Fewer than half of Democrats now agree with the adage that military strength is the best way to secure peace, a drop of 16 percentage points in the last decade, according to a series of polls by the Pew Research Center.
Independents also lost faith in the value of military strength over the same period, though their support dropped by only half as much as Democrats' did. Republicans' trust in military strength increased by 7 percentage points.
Another measure: The ranks of Democrats who think that the federal government should guarantee food and shelter to the needy rose by 12 percentage points in the last 10 years, outstripping rising support from independents and Republicans.
Then there's the eye-catching fact that 40 percent of Democrats in last year's elections called themselves liberal, according to the American National Election Studies, a research project supported by the National Science Foundation. That's the highest since the survey began in 1972.
The party also is turning against free trade, as Democrats in Congress put the brakes on new trade agreements out of fear that they're displacing too many American jobs and driving down wages and benefits.
Rank-and-file Democrats, particularly union members and leaders, had long opposed unrestricted free trade. But the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement, helped establish the World Trade Organization, which polices global trade, and made expanding trade virtually everywhere a cornerstone of his legacy.
The shift against trade and the renewed alliance with labor unions is one thing that makes the new liberalism different from the brand that McGovern symbolized by the early '70s.
Liberal Democrats by then were deeply antiwar, but their liberalism also was grounded in social issues of civil rights and women's rights. Union members, a foundation of the liberal coalition from the '30s through the mid-'60s, were blue-collar, cultural conservatives and supporters of the war in Vietnam. That fissure began to break the Democratic coalition apart in 1968, and even more in the 1970s.
Many blue-collar Democrats left the party altogether - becoming so-called Reagan Democrats by the '80s - and those who stayed lost clout in the Carter and Clinton eras.
Now, unions are in harmony with the new liberalism, and their pocketbook issues are helping to drive the party's agenda.
"On economic questions, they seem to be moving more and more to the left,'' said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University in California. "More Democratic candidates are asserting traditional liberal positions on bread and butter issues, like health care. It augurs ideas of big government and safety net programs."
© 2007 McClatchy Newspapers