Ailing party diagnosis

A centrist-leaning cadre of Democratic intellectual foot soldiers has declared all-out war on its liberal base, saying it needs to be transformed, if not pulled out by the roots, before the party can win again.

In a bitter soul-searching debate over their party’s future, and what needs to be done to halt its decline, no postelection self-analysis has triggered more political buzz among Democrats than a New Republic magazine critique that calls for ending the influence wielded the party’s leftist, antiwar wing in its presidential-selection process.

“[John] Kerry was a flawed candidate, but he was not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem was the party’s liberal base,” said New Republic editor Peter Beinart in a scathing attack on left-wing activists who oppose President Bush’s war on terror. “The challenge for Democrats today is not to find a different kind of presidential candidate. It is to transform the party at its grass roots so that a different kind of presidential candidate can emerge,” Mr. Beinart wrote in the Dec. 13 New Republic.

In a sobering diagnosis of the overriding influence of the radical left in the party’s 2004 campaign, he singled out two as the most powerful of all: “Fahrenheit 9/11” filmmaker Michael Moore and the Internet activist group MoveOn.org, whom he compared with the party’s Henry Wallace wing in the late 1940s “who saw communists as allies in the fight for domestic and international progress.”

But most disturbing of all to establishment party leaders was Mr. Beinart’s proposed cure for the leftist illness that afflicts his party. Its problems cannot be fixed by polite, unifying dialogue and a public relations campaign. The enemy was the antiwar, pacifist left and it would to take a divisive civil war to effectively excommunicate them from the party, he said.

A viable Democratic majority requires “abandoning the unity-at-all-costs ethos that governed American liberalism in 2004. And it requires a sustained battle to wrest the Democratic Party from the heirs of Henry Wallace,” he said.

Mr. Beinart’s blistering broadside urged rank-and-file Democrats to embrace a military call to arms against terrorism and “Islamist totalitarianism” that he said “threatens the United States and the aspirations of millions across the world. And, as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism’s north star.”

It hasn’t received much media attention, but many Democratic foreign-policy analysts are just as disturbed by the party’s increasingly leftward turn on national-security issues. They are starting to speak out much more forcefully than in the past.

“I agree with Beinart as far as he went. He’s a politics guy and he’s smart. A lot of Democrats know that we are getting our clocks cleaned on national security,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior defense analyst at the Brookings Institution and a Democratic adviser. “Some Democrats are allergic to the use of force. They still have a powerful influence on the party. That’s certainly a problem,” Mr. O’Hanlon told me.

The Democratic Leadership Council, formed in the 1980s to pull the party away from its leftist orthodoxy, also heavily weighed in on Mr. Beinart’s side in an article in its Blueprint magazine by founder Al From and president Bruce Reed.

“First and foremost, we need to bridge the trust gap on national security by spelling out our own offense against terrorism and clearly rejecting our antiwar wing, so that Republicans can no longer portray us as the antiwar party in the war on terrorism,” they wrote. “We must leave no doubt that Michael Moore neither represents, nor defines our party.”

But if you think the party’s liberal leadership has learned anything from its last defeat, or was persuaded by Mr. Beinart’s cogent analysis, think again.

On the contrary, his critique led to an outpouring of angry counterattacks from liberal antiwar Democrats, some of whom — incredibly — argued he had not proven his point that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups were a serious danger to the United States.

Kevin Drum, writing in the Political Animal blog on washingtonmonthly.com,said “compared to fascism and communism, Islamic totalitarianism seems like pretty thin beer to many. It’s not fundamentally expansionist, and its power to kill people isn’t even remotely in the same league.”

Texas Rep. Martin Frost, who lost his House seat and is now campaigning for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship, flatly rejects Mr. Beinart’s argument that Democrats came across as weak on terrorism, insisting, “The Republican [pre-emptive war] approach is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous.”

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