Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Veteran Democratic strategist Leon Panetta fears his party is going to be torn apart in the 2004 elections if it does not break the bad habit of pandering to its special interests.

The former House member, budget director and White House chief of staff to President Clinton is one of his party’s most respected advisers, but he doesn’t like what’s going on in the Democrats’ march-up to next year’s presidential elections.

In a word, it is pandering to the left-wing groups that make up the party’s political base — unions, feminists, antiwar protesters, environmentalists, to name only a few. More than two dozen of these and other groups were here in a show of force this week, backed by the Campaign for America’s Future. One of the presidential candidates scheduled to address the group was the party’s front-runner, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who boasts a liberal voting score in the 90s, according to the Americans for Democratic Action which keeps track of ideological leanings in Congress.

The conference’s title is “Take Back America,” but a key participant told me its real purpose is “to take back our party.”

The gathering posed the kind of problem that sets Mr. Panetta’s teeth on edge, one that raises this troubling question for the Democrats: Are they going to be the party that does the bidding of special interests with narrow agendas or are they going to appeal to the broader national electorate?

“The Democratic Party always struggles with whether or not they are going to repeat the mistakes of the past where it is decided 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,” Mr. Panetta said in an interview.

“If each special interest decides they are going to require the [partys] 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.

“We are a broad party, we have a number of voices in our party, and if everybody tries to fight for their own particular interest, instead of keeping their eye on the larger goal and unifying the country behind a candidate,” then the Democrats next year are going to “drown in a sea of special-interest voices,” he said.

“If they [the voters] think our candidate is being whiplashed by the special interests, that’s going to be real trouble for our party.”

Mr. Panetta is a lonely voice in a party that has become a Tower of Babel of competing demands, divisions and complaints. We saw new evidence of this in just the past two weeks at the Democratic National Committee where DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe was beseiged by attacks from black and Hispanic leaders who say he has not been sensitive enough to their interests.

A plan to reduce the DNC’s payroll to cut expenses blew up when it was learned that all of those who were losing their jobs were black. That triggered an explosion of outrage from the Congressional Black Caucus and one of the DNC’s top advisers and black outreach specialists, Donna Brazile, who condemned the plan. Mr. McAuliffe insisted he knew nothing of the plan and blamed his staff, and indeed a DNC insider told me: “Terry is not being well served by his staff. There needs to be major changes here.”

If that was not embarrassing enough, Mr. McAuliffe was hit again this week by charges from party Hispanic leaders that the DNC had dropped a new party-building program aimed at Hispanic voters and candidate recruitment.

“There is obviously a problem in the party with Hispanic and Latino issues,” Alvaro Cifuentes, the DNC Hispanic caucus chairman, told The Washington Times.

These staff and program revisions are due in part to reduced funding as a result of the soft money ban and the usual pre-election husbanding of resources in preparation for the elections.

But the ill-timed spotlight on divisive racial issues within the party’s two largest ethnic groups further illuminated what Mr. Panetta and a few others in the party are complaining about.

The Democratic Leadership Council sent out a memo to party leaders last month, charging that some of its most liberal presidential contenders, particularly Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, had caught “the pander virus.” Feeding the virus was an exhaustive schedule of presidential candidate forums sponsored by a Who’s Who of liberal interest groups. The DNC is trying to curb the forums to one a month, but with little success.

However, it’s going to take something much more powerful than this to kill the pander virus. “It’s going to take a candidate who is good enough to build a world of ideas that encompasses both liberal and conservative views,” Mr. Panetta told me.

Mr. Clinton was the only candidate in 20 years to accomplish this feat. But if the Democrats’ growing divisions are a sign of what lies ahead, he may be the last for sometime to come.

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

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