- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

PHILADELPHIA. — The Democrats’ presidential primary war between diehard liberal activists and pragmatic party centrists intensified this week at the Democratic Leadership Council’s meeting here.

While none of the presidential contenders attended the two-day event, the talk in closed-door strategy sessions and in hotel corridors was all about the threat posed to their party by the insurgency of Howard Dean, the left-wing, antiwar, anti-tax-cut candidate from tiny Vermont.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, the DLC’s chairman, fired off the first round at the beginning of Monday’s session, declaring the party was “at risk of being taken over by the far left.” Mr. Bayh’s question to the party’s liberal base: “Do we want to vent or do we want to govern?”

DLC founder Al From reminded the New Democrat elected officials who packed the hotel ballroom how Walter Mondale called for tax increases at the 1984 convention to the cheers of liberal delegates. “We lost 49 states” to Ronald Reagan, he said.

And Democratic pollster Mark Penn, who polled for Bill Clinton, warned of a huge “security gap” among voters who trust President Bush and the GOP to do a better job than the Democrats to safeguard national security in the war on terrorism. “If Democrats can’t close the security gap, then they can’t be competitive in the next election,” he said.

All of them warned that the party would lose next year’s elections if it did not match the president’s toughness on national defense.

None of them specifically mentioned Mr. Dean, but they made it clear that’s who they were talking about in interviews with reporters.

Who can stop Mr. Dean? The big unreported story at the DLC’s meeting is that Mr. From is positioning his influential DLC network to back Mr. Dean’s chief rival for the presidential nomination, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

Mr. Kerry voted for the congressional war resolution to send forces into Iraq, but he has also been sharply critical of Mr. Bush’s failure to build a much stronger coalition for the war and for his handling of postwar operations.

Still, Mr. From points to Mr. Kerry’s centrism on issues such as free trade, his support for welfare reform, and hints that school choice vouchers may be worth trying on an experimental basis.

“I think Kerry could be a very effective nominee. I think Kerry could run as a New Democrat [in the general election],” Mr. From told me in an interview.

The DLC does not endorse candidates, but Will Marshall, who runs the DLC’s Progressive Policy Institute, has been advising Mr. Kerry. And Al From’s embrace of Mr. Kerry is the closest he has come to publicly backing a candidate. Notably, he mentioned no one else in the Democratic pack.

What worries Mr. From most is the party’s weakness on defense in an age of terrorism. “The problem with [the Democrats] is that we’re not in the debate on national security,” he said.

“We’re at a time when our country is in peril. The Democratic nominee for president in 2004 has to first cross the threshold on national security so that voters will listen to him on the economy. If we do that we’ll have a chance of winning. If we don’t, we won’t,” he said.

In its attempt to reshape the party’s image, the DLC showcased seven New Democrat governors, including Govs. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Mark Warner of Virginia, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Jim McGreevey of New Jersey. All told how they balanced their budgets without raising broad-based taxes and in some cases by cutting taxes.

One of them, though, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who has cut state income taxes across-the-board, devoted much of his speech to national security. Democrats “have to be able to use force when diplomacy fails and our national security is being threatened,” he said.

But it was Mr. Penn’s sobering polling data that had the most effect on DLC Democrats.

The Democratic Party “is hurt by current perceptions that Democrats stand for big government, want to raise taxes too high, are too liberal, and are beholden to special interest groups,” he said.

“Half a century ago, a near majority of voters identified themselves as a part of the Democratic Party. Today that number has declined to roughly one-third of all voters,” he said.

Republicans held especially strong leads among white male voters, as well as married men and women with children. Now, “Democrats only lead among the lowest income category, voters who earn less than $20,000 per year,” he said.

The Democrats’ decline among middle-class, suburban voters will continue “unless the Democratic Party broadens its appeal,” he said.

Mr. From sent the DLC delegates home with an emotional plea to “go out and sell the the New Democrats’ message.”

But grass-roots Democrats say the party’s energy and anger right now is all on the antiwar, activist left which is fueling Mr. Dean’s headlong drive for the nomination. The DLC had its day with Bill Clinton’s skillful political use of centrist-leaning triangulation. Now, say Mr. Dean’s supporters, “it’s our turn.”

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

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