- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

The Democratic Leadership Council, founded in the mid-1980s to drive the looney left from the party, is worried that the liberal activists may be taking over again.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, running on an ultra-liberal, anti-war platform that has re-energized the party’s left wing, is running neck-and-neck in New Hampshire with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who has a voting record that is nearly identical to that of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s.

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri is running on a huge, big government, universal health care plan that will cost trillions in higher taxes and that the centrist-leaning DLC says won’t work.

Among the second tier candidates, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio is bringing rank-and-file labor union members to their feet with a call to take the profit out of the health care industry and turn it over to the government, lock, stock and barrel.

At a candidate forum Saturday sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes in Des Moines, a focus group of AFSME members gave Mr. Kucinich — who doesn’t draw a blip in the national polls — their highest approval score.

Fearing that the party’s large, left-wing, activist base is in its ascendency in the post-Clinton era, the DLC sent out a blistering memo last week that not only attacked liberals like Mr. Dean, Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Kucinich, but the party’s liberal special interest groups as well.

“What activists like Dean” stood for was the old “McGovern-Mondale wing [of the party], defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home,” the memo charged.

“That’s the wing that lost 49 states in two elections (1972 and 1984), and transformed Democrats from a strong national party into a much weaker regional one,” DLC founder Al From and President Bruce Reed reminded Democratic leaders.

Mr. Dean may be flying high in New Hampshire, where he has made more than 80 campaign visits, but he is in the single digits in most national polls. He is not going to be the nominee. Still, his anti-Iraq war message and a call for a more robust social welfare policy has wetted his party’s appetite for a true left-wing agenda after years of going along with Bill Clinton’s triangulation.

Alarmed by the left’s ascendency, the DLC memo — titled “The Real Soul of the Democratic Party” — launched a frontal attack on the party’s activist base, charging that it does not represent what Democrats really stand for.

“The real tradition of the Democratic Party is grounded in expanding opportunity and economic growth, increasing trade, standing up for a strong national defense and for America’s interests in the world, and strengthening community at home,” said Mr. From and Mr. Reed.

“Not only is the activist wing out of line with Democratic tradition, but it is badly out of touch with the Democratic rank-and-file,” they said.

To underscore their case that the party’s liberal activists have very littlle in common with party regulars, they pointed to a 1996 Washington Post survey that compared the views of Democratic convention delegates to those of registered Democratic voters. The differences were astonishing.

“Democratic delegates were nearly five times more likely than Democratic rank-and-file to have incomes over $75,000, three times more likely to have a college degree, and over five times more likely to have done postgraduate work,” they said.

More importantly, on most of the issues “Democratic activists and rank-and-file might as well have come from different parties. On every social and economic issue, registered Democrats’ views were closer to those of all registered voters than to those of Democratic delegates,” the memo said.

For example, nearly two-thirds of the convention delegates wanted to cut defense spending, while most Democrats did not; a majority of the delegates opposed a five-year time limit for welfare benefits, while two-thirds of Democratic voters backed it.

This is why warning flags went up when DLC leaders saw the results of Democratic pollster Celinda Lake’s focus group at the AFSME candidate forum.

(Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut were not there and sent a video presentation instead.

After first place finisher Mr. Kucinich, the most liberal candidate in the nine member pack, civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton came in a close second on AFSME’s score card. Mr. Gephardt was third. Mr. Dean was fourth, followed by Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida and former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinnois.

The candidates who did best before this group were those who had pandered to them the most and therein lies the biggest danger the party faces in 2004.

“Democrats who champion the mainstream values, national pride and economic aspirations of middle-class and working people are the real soul of the Democratic Party, not activists and interest groups with narrow agendas,” Mr. From and Mr. Reed wrote in their memo to party leaders.

But no matter how much the DLC abhors the enormous influence of its party’s powerful special interests, one cold, hard fact remains unchanged: Liberal activist armies — made up of unions, feminists, environmentalists and anti-war protesters — are going to dominate the Democratic caucuses and primaries in 2004.

With Bill Clinton out of the political picture, the liberals are clearly back in charge and hungrier than ever to nominate one of their own.

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

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