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
dont "deserve" to win if they resist past lessons about voter aversion to
big government, higher taxes and softness on defense. Earlier, Lieberman, the partys
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 isnt 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
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
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
The poll also doesnt 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 dont have the guts to say what they think.
Citing the polls findings, centrists have accused liberals of failing to learn
lessons from the past. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, the DLCs 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 DLCs 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.
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
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 DLCs 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
DLCs principles, according to the poll. After listing 13 of the DLCs "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 DLCs 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 DLCs 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 doesnt 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 DLCs 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
Deans boast that he represents the "Democratic wing of the Democratic
Party" to Liebermans warnings that Democrats dont "deserve" to
win if they dont 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 groups 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 partys slippage
from the status as the nations 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 Bushs unilateralist
foreign policy, are former Democrats who bolted the party when it turned against the
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 Carters one term following the Watergate scandal was the only
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
Clintons 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
Clintons 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 Clintons
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 Gores 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 cant 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 Limbaughs talk radio, Rev. Sun
Myung Moons Washington Times and the Wall Street Journals 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
Bushs legitimacy. The Democrats bought the Washington Establishment line that it was
time to heal the nations 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
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 Husseins
government in Iraq.
Bushs exaggerations about Iraqs 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 Bushs extreme
allegations, they implicitly endorsed his leadership.
Bushs 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 didnt
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.
The historical record is now clear that Bush lied repeatedly to the American people
about both the Iraqi al-Qaeda links and Iraqs 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 Bushs
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
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 dont 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 years 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 Bushs policies are reaffirmed in an electoral landslide.
The question for Democrats now is whether they can wage a vigorous campaign for the
partys presidential nomination without leaving so much bitterness that this bigger
picture is lost.