- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

Just 10 months before their presidential primary contests begin, the Democrats are bitterly split over warring with Iraq and the Rev. Al Sharpton's brand of racially polarizing politics.
The Democrats' long-dormant anti-war forces have been reawakened by President Bush's drive to topple Saddam Hussein. This renewed opposition is splitting the party in two. Ultra-liberal presidential contenders like Mr. Sharpton, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich are beating the anti-war drums, in the belief the issue can lead to the nomination, as it did for Sen. George McGovern in 1972 in the midst of the Vietnam War.
At least for now, the remaining party contenders appear to be backing Mr. Bush's moves to disarm Saddam Hussein, though they continue to criticize what they are inaccurately calling his "unilateral, go-it-alone" war policies. This is the great straddle that Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Bob Graham of Florida hope will satisfy their party's rising anti-war contingent, which forms a large part of their party's base and votes in disproportionately large numbers in key primaries.
At stake here is the party's image for being soft on defense and national security. The Democratic Leadership Council and other party centrists warned last week that Democrats risked defeat in 2004 if their nominees do not forge strong positions on Iraq and national security.
"The doubts Democrats worked so hard to dispel in the 1990s that they loved government and taxes too much, and cared about (national) security and values too little have returned," the DLC lectured its party's White House hopefuls in a memorandum this month.
But their candidates have already begun attacking one another on the war issue in what could develop into an intra-party blood feud.
At a candidate forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday, Dean took some early swings at Mr. Kerry, the present front-runner in New Hampshire. "What we can't have is somebody who says to you in Iowa the Iraq war is bad, goes back and votes in favor of the [Senate war] resolution and then comes back and tells you at your county dinners why it's not a good thing," Mr. Dean said.
War with Iraq is not the only issue threatening to tear the party apart. Mr. Sharpton's fiery, race-conscious campaign road show is frightening the Democrats' centrist rank-and-file, who fear he could become the party's worst nightmare.
Complaints about Mr. Sharpton's checkered past (his conviction for defaming a public official, his eviction from his offices for failing to pay his rent, the Tawana Brawley rape scandal, his conviction for tax evasion) are not coming from Republican spinmeisters, but from Democratic-leaning journals of opinion that say he could wreck the party's chances in 2004 if he emerges as the leader of the black civil rights movement.
"On national security, and now increasingly on race, the Democratic Party has returned to the 1980s," opined the New Republic magazine. "And the lesson of that decade is that the party will not return from the wilderness until it confronts the internal forces that have put it there."
That force is Mr. Sharpton, "a man who knows nothing, and has done nothing, beyond race," according to a recent issue of the magazine.
"Well aware of the havoc wreaked by the bomb-throwing reverend in many a New York election, party strategists are exceedingly nervous about Mr. Sharpton taking his racialist political theater to the national stage," the liberal journal said in a separate story about the civil rights activist. "Many fear that, if not shown the proper obeisance by the party and its eventual nominee, he will use his oratorical gifts and trademark grievance politics to convince minority voters that they might as well stay home on Election Day."
In separate broadside against Mr. Sharpton last week, the far left American Prospect magazine raised similar fears. "A recent poll among Democratic [New York City] voters found Sharpton remains extremely polarizing racially, with a 65 percent unfavorable rating among whites, and a mirror-image 65 percent favorable rating among African-Americans."
Interviews with key Democratic advisers and strategists revealed that few if any of them wanted to talk frankly about Mr. Sharpton on the record. "There is a lot of fear out there about the harm he could do to our party," a Democratic official told me.
But others call the latest reaction to Mr. Sharpton, who is not going to be the party's nominee, over the top and hysterical. Veteran Democratic strategist Harold Ickes says black voters will "not want to throw their vote away and will vote for a candidate who can win the nomination and the election."
"It's a little premature to be judging Sharpton's antics, if you want to call them that," said Chung Seto, the New York Democratic Party's executive director.
Whichever way the Iraq war and Mr. Sharpton's candidacy play out in the weeks and months to come, it is clear that both are driving a deep wedge into the party's political base. And at this point there appears to be no unifying Democratic leader who is capable of bridging the party's widening ideological gulf.

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


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