- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

The backroom buzz in some political circles here is the whiff of a rift between the Democratic Leadership Council and its political offshoot, the New Democrat Network.

If the split exists, it raises a question: Who are the real New Democrats who truly want to abandon the party’s old left-wing orthodoxies and move it in an entirely new direction?

The argument apparently began when the DLC declared war on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean early last year and helped defeat him. The NDN eventually embraced Mr. Dean, despite his antiwar, pro-tax-hike, trade protectionist agenda.

The DLC, founded by longtime Democratic activist Al From, has been at the forefront of the centrist-leaning movement in the wake of a several Democratic presidential candidates who were killing the party: George McGovern in 1972, Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000. All were committed liberals, and most went down to humiliating defeat on a platform of higher taxes and more government, and a perceived weakness on national security issues.

It took time to develop an alternative agenda that would appeal to rank-and-file Democrats who were tired of losing elections, but Mr. From and his chief strategists put together a new political covenant: broaden economic opportunity, strengthen national defense, reform welfare and expand free trade. After some initial stumbles, From picked a then little-known Arkansas governor to head the DLC. Bill Clinton rode their agenda straight into the White House.

One of Mr. From’s younger proteges was Simon Rosenberg, who went off to form the New Democrat Network, a political action committee that raised money for its party’s candidates.

The difference between them is their ideological approaches. Mr. From was viscerally combative, declaring all-out war on his party’s dominant liberal wing. Mr. Rosenberg was more accommodating, seeking to bring the disparate sides together over common ground and willing to embrace candidates who broke with the New Democratic agenda.

Mr. Dean’s insurgency, seen by most New Democrat strategists as the anti-Clinton candidacy, was what split the two groups apart. “A serious rift has opened between the two groups,” political pundit Joe Klein wrote in Time last week.

Mr. Rosenberg seemed to agree with that view. “There’s a debate in the New Democratic world about where we are going,” he told Mr. Klein. “And if it’s true that the NDN and DLC are no longer aligned, it’s a sign of health and maturity.”

But that’s not what Mr. Rosenberg told me last week as he sought to play down their differences. “There’s no rift. We’re one big happy family,” he said, pointing to his speech before the NDN earlier this month, praising Mr. From and the DLC.

As for Al From, the issue of being for Dean or opposing Dean was the crucial dividing line for New Democrats. “Simon jumped on the Dean bandwagon and abandoned the New Democratic movement because he wanted to be a player,” Mr. From said. “Dean didn’t work out, and now I guess he’s trying the next thing.”

At the time he embraced Mr. Dean late last year, Mr. Rosenberg told me he did not agree with all of Mr. Dean’s views, but believed the Vermonter was taking the party in an “exciting new direction” and had even crafted a compelling message that resonated with the Democratic Party’s base.

Mr. From didn’t think so, and he was proven right in the end. It turned out there was little behind Mr. Dean except anger and anguish, and when he collapsed in the early primaries Mr. Rosenberg was without a candidate.

Nevertheless, the NDN has grown and expanded, posing a challenge to Mr. From’s leadership. Sen. Hillary Clinton spoke to the NDN about health-care reform — not her disastrous government-run proposal, but the kind of tax credits President Bush and John Kerry have proposed.

A major NDN Hispanic-outreach TV ad campaign has become one of the party’s biggest grass-roots initiatives. But Mr. Rosenberg has continued reaching out to the party’s liberal base, too, including the ultra-left-wing group MoveOn.org at the heart of Mr. Dean’s meteoric political ascent.

To his credit, Mr. Rosenberg is brutally honest when discussing his party’s present problems.

“Our standing as a party today is objectively much weaker than when we began this [New Democrat] reinvention 20 years ago,” he told a recent NDN conference. “The Republicans have more political control today than any time since the 1920s. They control the presidency, the Senate, the House, more governorships, more state legislative chambers and more legislative seats.

“And our standing with the American people has continued a several generations-long decline,” he said. When President Kennedy was elected in 1960, nearly half of all voters “considered themselves to be Democrats. In the last year, in one poll more Americans identified themselves as Republicans — 33 percent to 32 percent. This means that since 1960 we’ve lost 1 out of every 6 Americans from the party.”

Maybe this means New Democrats like Mr. From and Mr. Rosenberg need to go back to the drawing board — because after two decades, they have little to show for their efforts.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated.

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