- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2004

The contest for the Democratic presidential nomination is also a political power struggle about who will control the party apparatus and its agenda, and the liberals are winning it, Democratic strategists said yesterday.

Over the last two decades, Democrats have been embroiled in a bitter ideological fight about what their party should stand for — with liberals on one side and the centrist-leaning Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) on the other. The party’s left-wing championed higher taxes, trade protectionism and bigger social-welfare spending programs. The DLC or so-called “New Democrats” promoted middle-class tax relief, free trade and spending restraint.

Those issues are again at the center of the Democrats’ presidential-primary debates. The DLC agenda, championed by Bill Clinton, put the White House in Democratic hands in the 1990s, only to see the Democrats lose the presidency in 2000 when Vice President Al Gore abandoned Mr. Clinton’s DLC politics and turned the party sharply leftward. Now the liberals appear poised to retake control of their party with former Gov. Howard Dean as their leader.

“The DLC is losing and Dean and the liberals are clearly winning,” said a veteran Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“If Dean wins, the DLC won’t be happy, and they’ll have to be quiet for a while,” another party strategist said.

Other Democrats interviewed last week denied there was an ideological struggle going on for the soul of the party. Instead, they characterized the presidential-primary race as a political fight that occurs every four years, with Democrats uniting behind their standard-bearer in the fall.

“There has always been that debate in our party,” said Barbara K. Allen, North Carolina Democratic Party chairman. “The word liberal and conservative have been so misused. In the end, we will all come together behind our nominee.”

But Mrs. Allen also said that she does not “see Dean winning in the South.”

“Whoever is the nominee is going to have to run a more centrist campaign and Dean doesn’t look like much of a centrist to me,” she said.

Mr. Dean has to a large degree rejected the Clinton-DLC agenda. He has called for repealing all of President Bush’s $1.7 trillion in tax cuts, even those aimed at lower- and middle-income workers and two-earner families with children. He wants to place new restrictions on U.S. trading partners and “a comprehensive ‘re-regulation’ of American business.” He has proposed major new spending initiatives for health insurance, education and other domestic programs.

Mr. Dean’s proposals have triggered bitter dissent from party centrists.

“Our goal should be to find new ways to make markets work for everyone, not go back to the old ways of centralized bureaucratic regulation,” the DLC said.

Even the liberal advocacy groups who have championed Mr. Dean’s candidacy from the beginning deny that the party’s nominating battle has anything to do with political ideology, and they shrink from using the word “liberal.”

“They are attacking him mostly on grounds of style. I don’t think there is a big ideological gulf between the candidates,” said Roger Hickey, co-chairman of Campaign for America’s Future, a leftist advocacy group.

But when Sen. Joe Lieberman’s fierce criticism of Mr. Dean is raised, Mr. Hickey says that’s a different matter entirely.

“The big ideological gulf, if there is one, is between Lieberman and the rest of the pack. He’s the one who is making the big deal of free trade. He’s the one arguing who is the toughest on foreign policy and national security. He’s the DLC’s candidate and he’s not doing well,” he said.

But some DLC Democrats say that the party will unite behind the eventual nominee, even if it is Mr. Dean. “That’s the way it is with Democrats. They will always fight each other, but I don’t think the Democratic Party is being split asunder,” said Phil Noble, who heads the South Carolina DLC.

“We fight, but we’re not suicidal,” he said.

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