- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Sen. Hillary Clinton couldn’t have picked a better time this week to call for a cease-fire in the Democratic Party’s ideological war with itself.

While she was delivering her plea for a truce at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council’s annual summer convention in Columbus, Ohio, the AFL-CIO, one of her party’s richest and most powerful forces, was coming apart at the seams as two of its biggest unions defected, possibly joined by two or three more. Some have called for a more bipartisan relationship with Republicans and the Bush White House.

At the same time, Democrats in Congress were becoming increasingly divided over a long list of policy issues, from the anti-terrorist Patriot Act to the energy bill, from Supreme Court nominee John Roberts Jr. to the war in Iraq. It doesn’t make the nightly news, but anywhere from 25 percent to 70 percent of the House Democratic caucus have voted for major GOP bills over the past six months (nearly one-fourth last week for the Patriot Act’s reauthorization).

Fissures were evident elsewhere among the party’s grass-roots this week. Mr. Bush held another meeting with black church, business and civic leaders, who praised his outreach efforts, increased aid to Africa and the racial diversity of his administration. Republican Chairman Ken Mehlman was peddling the GOP’s ownership agenda to 3,500 voters at Houston’s African Methodist Episcopal Church convention in Houston.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton, who plans to run for president in 2008 with the guidance of the smartest campaign strategist on the planet, her husband Bill Clinton, continued to pursue her extreme makeover, repositioning herself as a party centrist — at least rhetorically.

I say rhetorically, because despite her now-famous speech calling for “common ground” in the debate over abortion and staking out a tougher posture on national security, her liberal voting record score remains about 95 percent, according to Americans for Democratic Action.

And, despite her softer, centrist-sounding tone on abortion, she has not changed her position or her votes on a single right-to-life issue.

Nevertheless, she stepped up as the DLC’s star attraction this week, declaring that the Democrats’ ideological divisions were undermining their ability to expand its base and win elections.

“We Democrats have not yet succeeded in isolating and defeating the far right, in part because we have allowed ourselves to be split between left, right and center,” she said.

The DLC, once chaired by her husband, appointed her to a new post to reach out to the nation’s political middle, something it would never have done in the 1990s when she was considered the White House’s knee-jerk liberal and an enemy of everything the DLC stood for. She proved that when she came up with a big government health care reform plan the DLC helped to kill.

But if she thinks just talking tough on national security is going to paper over her party’s weakness on this pivotal issue, she better think again. Talk is cheap. Votes count.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a former DLC chairman and governor who knows how to win the heartland, told the DLC the Democrats have a high hurdle to clear before the public trusts them to keep the country safe in the war on terrorism. Mr. Bayh said: “Too many of our fellow countrymen out here in the heartland have concluded — inappropriately, but they’ve concluded nonetheless — that we don’t have the spine or the backbone to use force even in the face of the most compelling circumstances. And that must change.”

But that perception was reinforced last week when 156 House Democrats voted against reauthorizing the Patriot Act, which gives the government the investigative tools needed to prevent another terrorist attack on our homeland.

Mrs. Clinton sees herself as the one Democrat who can pull her party back together again, but as she delivered her cease-fire speech in Ohio, the party’s labor leaders were engaged in all-out war with one another. At the core of that fight, the Teamsters and the service employees union, representing 3 million members, were bolting the AFL-CIO and taking $20 million in union dues with them.

Their biggest beef: The AFL-CIO spends too much money on political campaigns and not enough on union-organizing and membership drives. “Their idea is to keep throwing money at politicians,” said Teamsters’ boss James P. Hoffa.

The continuing breakup of labor is the latest and most damaging blow to the Democrats’ future viability. It means the AFL-CIO will have less money to spend on political campaigns and that will hurt the Democrats and help the Republicans, who already attract more than a third of the union vote.

The late Republican campaign strategist Lee Atwater used to invoke the Napoleonic rule that states: “Don’t interfere with the enemy when it is in the process of defeating itself.”

A good rule to follow as Democrats continued their headlong descent into permanent minority status.

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

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