- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

News Analysis

The ideological war between leftist Democrats and centrist New Democrats got a lot hotter last week, threatening to further split the party and undermine its chances in the 2004 presidential elections.

At the core of the conflict is the party’s posture on national security issues, including the war that ended Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and homeland defense. The centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which helped catapult Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992, says the Democrats cannot win next year if the party does not stake out an unequivocal, hard-line position on U.S. security.

But antiwar activists want their party’s presidential nominee to run all-out as a critic of the war, U.S. occupation of Iraq and President Bush’s pre-emptive military strategy against rogue nations that harbor terrorists.

Until now, their voices of protest have been muted or sidelined by the success of the Iraq war and its aftermath. But last week, they showed renewed strength at a three-day campaign-strategy conference in Washington sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future, a leftist advocacy group.

To the enthusiastic cheers and applause of more than a thousand liberal activists who packed the Omni Shoreham’s biggest ballroom, a slate of antiwar crusaders angrily denounced Mr. Bush as a warmonger and military dictator. They called U.S. policy in Iraq reckless, immoral and illegal, and blamed the United States for much of what is wrong in the world.

“It’s not for Bush or the U.S. to give [the Iraqi] people their rights,” said Benjamin Barber of the antiwar group the Democracy Collaborative. “America is a nation beset by fear,” and the president “uses fear to make the case for war,” he said.

Bernice Powell Jackson, another antiwar leader with the Justice and Witness Ministries, condemned the United States, which she said had “lost its moral compass. We must accept our responsibility for what is wrong with the world, for racism and colonialism.”

That kind of antiwar, blame-America-first rhetoric sent tremors through DLC headquarters, which sent an open letter to the conference’s liberal leaders.

The party “cannot regain the White House if we raise new doubts in Americans’ minds about Democrats,” the DLC said. “Too many Americans don’t much trust us to protect them against terrorists and other threats to our national security.”

The DLC warning was rejected by Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage, who said liberals are tired of the party leadership’s weak-kneed responses to Mr. Bush’s defense policies.

“We’re going to take the gloves off,” Mr. Borosage said. “Those Democrats that tuck their tails and bite their tongues are simply wrong about where the country is.”

This was an audience of rank-and-file labor union members, feminists, environmentalists and antiwar protesters who were ready for some liberal red meat. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is seeking his party’s nomination for president, did not disappoint them.

“The best way to beat the Republicans is not to be like them. Stand up and fight,” he told the crowd, which cheered his call for the party to stick to its liberal beliefs.

As for the DLC’s strategy to move the party to the middle, Mr. Dean said he wants no part of it. “We’re going to put our flag in the middle of where people ought to be and bring people to us,” he said.

In an attempt to transcend the Democrats’ divisions, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, another presidential contender, had a message carefully crafted to please both wings of his party.

“We need to speak out for a strong America. We need to convince Americans that we will keep them safe, that we will make this country stronger and more secure,” Mr. Kerry said in remarks on national defense that did not elicit much response from the audience.

But in a bid to please the liberal activists who packed the hall, Mr. Kerry also said, “We need to move from destructive weapons to helping the impoverished. We should not be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them in New York City.”

The ideological gulf between liberals and New Democrats has widened since President Clinton left office, and the intraparty charges and countercharges have become more heated, Democratic strategists say.

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