Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Former President Bill Clinton says that the Democratic presidential candidates cannot win the White House if voters think they are too far to the left, according to an interview published this week.

“We can’t win if people think we’re too liberal. But we can’t get our own folks out if people think we have no convictions. So the trick is to get them both,” Mr. Clinton told the American Prospect, a monthly magazine devoted to political liberalism.

In the interview, conducted last month in his Harlem office in New York, Mr. Clinton also admonished Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, without specifically naming him, for saying that he alone represents “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Calling on the party’s liberal and centrist wings to stop their ideological warfare, Mr. Clinton said he had “no objection in this primary season [to] Candidate X saying, ‘I’m for that,’ and Candidate Y saying, ‘I’m against it.’ You’ve got to have a little of that.”

“But I don’t believe that either side should be saying, ‘I’m a real Democrat and the other one’s not,’ or, ‘I’m a winning Democrat and the other one’s not,’” he said.

Throughout his campaign, Mr. Dean, an antiwar liberal who has attacked his chief rivals for the party’s nomination for supporting the war in Iraq, has brought Democrats to their feet, cheering, with the line: “I’m Howard Dean and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

That claim, which has become the mantra of the former Vermont governor’s insurgent campaign, drew a sharp rebuke in May from the Democratic Leadership Council, which Mr. Clinton chaired for two years before he won the presidency. DLC founder Al From and its president, Bruce Reed, attacked Mr. Dean as a member of the “McGovern-Mondale wing” of the party, the “wing that lost 49 states in two elections and transformed Democrats from a strong national party into a much weaker regional one.”

Mr. Clinton and Mr. From remain close allies and they confer regularly about party strategies. The former president’s blunt warning about shifting too far to the left comes at a time when no clear Democratic front-runner has emerged and the centrist-leaning DLC is locked in battle with liberals for political dominance of the party.

Mr. Clinton’s remarks also followed his own behind-the-scenes activities to urge Wesley Clark to enter the presidential primaries. The move has stirred speculation that Mr. Clark may be a stalking horse for Mr. Clinton’s wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, to jump into the race if no candidate emerges as a strong contender by year’s end.

Mr. Clinton offered plenty of advice to his party’s declared candidates on how they could run a winning campaign, urging them to follow his own centrist playbook that won him the presidency in 1992 with a plurality of the vote in a three-way race.

“The public is operationally progressive and rhetorically conservative. The more they believe that you’re careful with tax money and responsible in the way you run the programs and require responsibility from citizens, the more the public in general is willing to be liberal in the expenditure of tax money,” he said.

“The more the public believes the Democrats can be trusted with the national security of America, to protect and defend the country against terror and weapons of mass destruction, the more free they are emotionally to think about the other issues.

“Therefore, I think it is highly counterproductive to spend a great deal of time trying to identify the wings of the party and [having] each wing criticize the other,” he said.

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