- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Democrats head toward the presidential campaign’s summer season with their party at war with itself, but with high hopes that a stubbornly weak economy could help them win back the White House in the 2004 election.

With nearly seven months to go before the presidential-nominating primaries begin in January, Democratic leaders acknowledge that beating President Bush next year will be a huge challenge for a party that has grown weaker in the past decade and has elected only two presidents in the past 30 years.

“Democrats have a mountain to climb in 2004 — not only because President Bush is popular, but because our national party has seriously regressed in the past two years,” says Al From, chief executive and founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

The Democrats are still reeling from their severe setbacks in the 2002 midterm elections, in which they lost control of the Senate, suffered further erosion in the House and saw their long-held majority among the state legislatures disappear. Although Democrats picked up some governorships, particularly in the Midwest, Republicans still control a majority of the statehouses.

“When you lose political power, it’s because of a reason, and we have yet to come to terms with the answer to that,” said a veteran Democratic Party adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We’ve lost the presidency and lost Congress, and it’s harder to come back from that position.”

A growing number of Democrats now worry that the party is too closely tied to liberal special interests and that it will lose next year if its presidential nominee is seen as too liberal and too often pandering to those interest groups.

“The Democratic Party always struggles with whether or not they are going to repeat the mistakes of the past, whether we are going to stand for a narrow cause, regardless of whether we win or lose, or whether we are smart enough to appeal to all Americans and have a better chance of winning,” said Leon Panetta, former chief of staff in the Clinton White House.

“If each special interest decides they are going to require the candidate to pay a price, that candidate will find himself literally torn apart when it comes to appealing to the broad band of voters out there who will decide who wins,” Mr. Panetta said.

“If the voters think our candidate is being whiplashed by all the special interests, that’s going to be real trouble. This is a fundamental choice, no question in my mind. The party has to put aside special-interest concerns and unify the country. That’s the key to this” election, he said.

A party divided

But the Democrats’ internal debate over the role and influence of its left-wing special-interest constituencies — labor, environmentalists, feminists and social-welfare activists — shows no sign of ending any time soon. In fact, it has all the earmarks of turning into a civil war that threatens party unity.

In a memo to Democratic leaders last week, Mr. From and DLC President Bruce Reed attacked the party’s liberal, activist base, which they said was “defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home.”

“That’s the wing that lost 49 states in two elections [in 1972 and 1984], and transformed Democrats from a strong national party into a much weaker regional one,” they said.

The DLC, which helped catapult Bill Clinton to the presidency on its centrist agenda, is not only declaring war on its party’s liberal wing, but lashing out at some of its presidential candidates, including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

The grass-roots party group charged that Mr. Gephardt’s $2.5 trillion universal health care plan “underscores the folly of appealing to Democratic activists instead of the Democratic rank and file.”

“When activists think big, they always do so with the rank and file’s money,” it said.

The former House Democratic leader’s plan was a perfect example of a candidate who has caught “the pander virus,” the DLC charged.

But the DLC leveled its fiercest attack against Mr. Dean, whom the Almanac of American Politics said was one of the most liberal governors in the country. He is right out of “the McGovern-Mondale wing” of the party that has led Democrats down the road to defeat too many times, the memo said.

The party’s liberal wing, however, has struck back with a vengeance, saying the attack on its activist base threatened a civil war within the party.

“The DLC is playing with fire in trying to foment a war between the factions of the Democratic Party,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group based in the District.

“I thought that the splits in the party had gone a long way to being healed recently, so I find the DLC memo disturbing,” Mr. Hickey said.

“I was appalled by the DLC’s attack on our activist base. It was a low blow. It is a dumb debate crafted to help the Republicans,” complained Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.

Liberals flex muscles

In a show of political force by the party’s liberal wing designed to influence the Democrats’ message in the upcoming campaign, Mr. Hickey’s group plans to hold a high-level, three-day “Take Back America” conference in the District from June 4 to 6. The conference is expected to draw some 1,000 liberal activists representing more than two dozen political organizations.

“You are going to see a strong response to the DLC’s attack at that conference,” a party adviser said.

Billed as “the largest gathering of progressive advocates in at least 20 years,” it will feature several Democratic presidential candidates, including two of its liberal stars, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Mr. Dean.

In addition to the ideological battle raging among Democrats, party officials are frustrated that none of its nine presidential candidates appears to have caught on with the electorate at large. A New York Times/CBS News poll in early May found that two-thirds of Americans polled could not name one of the Democratic hopefuls.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2000, leads all of his rivals in the national polls with 29 percent, largely because of his strong name recognition. But he runs poorly in most primary state polls, and his fund raising has been dismal.

Mr. Gephardt, who is second in the national polls with 19 percent, has widened his lead in the Iowa caucuses, which he won in 1988 during his previous presidential run. Mr. Kerry is in third place nationally, though he has the edge in New Hampshire, with Mr. Dean a close second. All the other candidates are running in the low single digits or show very little support at all.

A popular president

Mr. Bush, who has a 60 percent job-approval rating in the polls, not only leads all of his potential challengers in national matchups, but also beats his chief rivals in their home states, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in late April.

“The reality of this campaign is that Bush has enjoyed the longest sustained job-approval poll numbers of any president in the post-Watergate era,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.

“The guy has got phenomenal numbers from Republicans. Since he became president, he’s never been below 85 percent in his party. In my lifetime, there has never been a president who has this kind of sustained approval level from his political base,” Mr. McInturff said.

“It means that going into a presidential election, he has the luxury of being able to think about how to appeal to independents and swing voters,” he said.

Still, with the economy growing by an anemic 1.6 percent in the first three months of this year, unemployment rising to 6 percent and other economic indicators sending weak or mixed signals, Mr. Bush is vulnerable if the economic climate worsens and the jobless rate continues to climb.

To some extent, Mr. Bush has been able to blunt the bad economic news with an aggressive public lobbying campaign for his tax-cut stimulus plan. “He is being seen working hard to pass a plan to get the economy growing faster and create jobs, and that trumps the attacks by his opponents,” said a White House adviser.

Despite the sluggish economy, by early May 52 percent majority of Americans said they approved of the way Mr. Bush was handling the economy, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

But analysts say that Mr. Bush remains vulnerable on the economy, which has not received the strong post-Iraq war bounce that some administration officials had predicted. “If you are at only 52 percent on the economy in the afterglow of the Iraq war, then you are not necessarily well-positioned in the election,” said pollster John Zogby.

However, the president’s job-approval ratings on fighting the war on terrorism and protecting national security were still high, in the 70s in most polls, in sharp contrast to much lower scores that the Democrats are getting on this pivotal election issue.

“The Democrats are in a hole right now. In addition to running against a popular president, they are perceived as lacking on defense, homeland security and even integrity, a carryover from the Clinton years,” Mr. Zogby said.

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Mr. Kerry and some of their fellow candidates have tried to repair their party’s weak poll numbers on national security issues by attacking Mr. Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism in the aftermath of the terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia.

But Mr. Panetta says that if the Democrats’ campaign on national security and economic issues was “all negative and how bad Bush is and how terrible things are, that candidate and that party is going to lose.”

“Liberal or conservative, people care about ideas,” he said. “George Bush doesn’t want to see homeland security fail, and I think we ought to say that. We ought to say we want to help Bush do better. We’ve got to have a positive message. Americans really want to hear how life is going to be better for them.”

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