- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

The paradox in Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean is that he embraced an agenda that is the opposite of what he and Bill Clinton ran on in 1992.

The Clinton-Gore campaign focused on three big issues that helped them win back the White House for the Democrats: middle-class tax cuts, trade expansion to sell more American products in the global economy, and a strong defense posture to reassure voters on national security.

But Mr. Dean is not running on the agenda that helped Mr. Clinton become the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win election to two terms in the White House.

Instead, the feisty former Vermont governor is running on an anti-Clinton agenda: repeal the Bush tax cuts, including the lower tax rates aimed at middle-class families earning $40,000 a year or less; restrict free trade by demanding trade partners follow the same labor and environmental protections we have here; and a dovish national security posture championing the peace movement’s opposition to the war in Iraq.

Thus Mr. Gore, who has been shifting further leftward since his fateful 2000 campaign, has not only broken completely with Mr. Clinton’s centrist-leaning agenda, but wants his party to abandon it, too. And therein lies the much deeper tale about the bitter, behind-the-scenes battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.

Mr. Clinton’s political legacy is the New Democrat agenda that changed the face of his party by moderating its old-time liberal religion to make it more appealing to independent and swing voters who usually vote Republican.

Still bitter over the Clinton White House scandals that he believes cost him the election, Mr. Gore has abandoned all pretense of political moderation. He thinks Mr. Bush lied to the American people about Saddam Hussein’s weaponry to justify toppling the Iraqi mass murderer. He thinks the Patriot Act, enacted to root out terrorists in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, endangers our freedoms and should be repealed. He finds nothing wrong with Mr. Dean’s call for re-regulating utilities, energy firms and the communications industry. He sees in Mr. Dean the kind of brash, combative, angry candidate he wishes he had been in the beginning.

So, Mr. Gore has broken with Mr. Clinton’s middle way, abandoned Joe Lieberman, his former running mate (the most conservative candidate in the Democratic pack) and stiffed the Democratic Leadership Council that has spent 20 years trying to rid their party of the old-time liberalism that Mr. Gore and Mr. Dean want to bring back.

Bill Clinton has grave doubts about Mr. Dean’s electability. According to Democrats who are close to the former president, he sees the Vermont liberal as the antithesis of everything he fought to change in his party. He worries that Mr. Dean, who bashed loyal Democrats for supporting the Iraq war resolution, will be irretrievably defined as weak on protecting national security.

“We can’t win if people think we’re too liberal,” Mr. Clinton told American Prospect magazine, the bible of liberal Democrats, earlier this year. “I don’t believe that either side should be saying, ‘I’m a real Democrat, and the other one’s not.’ ” The remark was aimed directly at Mr. Dean, who brings cheering Democrats to their feet when he says, “I’m Howard Dean and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Mr. Clinton is content to remain publicly neutral for the time being, privately warning Democratic leaders about the looming dangers of running an unabashedly liberal presidential campaign. Some of his former associates, like former chief of staff Leon Panetta, have also spoken of their concerns and doubts about Mr. Dean (as I reported in a recent column), making no effort to disguise the fact that they were expressing Mr. Clinton’s views as well.

What is disturbing is that other New Democrats seem to be coming on board the Dean wagon in the wake of Mr. Gore’s endorsement, Clintonites say. Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network and a self-identified Clintonite, seems surprisingly open to Mr. Dean’s brand of liberalism.

“I think every election is about trying something brand new. We have to learn from the past, we can’t keep repeating it. What you are seeing is a very new and dynamic party being born in this election,” Mr. Rosenberg told me. “You are seeing fresh blood in the party, a new approach in the way Dean is running his campaign by getting hundreds of thousands of people involved. Our party got a little bit tired, and was growing old. To say we have to be the same as in 1996 doesn’t work. We have to apply to new circumstances.”

Thus, while the national news media focuses on the horse race for the Democratic nomination, key insiders worry about the intraparty battle over what the party will stand for next year. As things are shaping up now, it will not be what Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore campaigned for in 1992.

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

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