Rocky Democratic road

Posted: Nov 28, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Two architects of the last decade's Clinton political ascendancy are privately predicting "losses of historic proportion" in 2004 if the Democratic Party "moves left" after this year's defeats. Their prescription includes medicine that may make party activists gag: closing "the cultural gap" on abortion and guns. Al From, founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and Clinton White House policy chief Bruce Reed, currently the DLC president, have prepared a draft "memorandum to our fellow Democrats" marked "confidential." The paper, "The Road Ahead," advises, "stop pretending that we can win a majority simply by energizing our base." The Democratic base, they say, is way too small. This admonition will enrage most Democrats in Congress. The party's most visible face today is newly installed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the prototypical San Francisco Democrat. The campaign against her for leader by moderate Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, warning of her leftward lurch, was abandoned after 24 hours for lack of support. Surviving House Democrats, most from safe districts, insist on the old-time liberal religion. The Democratic road ahead looks rocky. In private sessions with moderate House colleagues, Pelosi gives a passable imitation of legendary Democratic centrist Robert S. Strauss. But that is not what Pelosi's supporters in Congress confidently expect from her. They were furious that her predecessor, Rep. Richard Gephardt, voted for President Bush's Iraq resolution. Returning in triumph to San Francisco last weekend, Pelosi promised to attack Republicans -- most recently for not extending jobless pay benefits. While the From-Reed paper does not mention Pelosi by name, they clearly see her kind of Democrat as the problem. "Nothing else we do will matter," they contend, if Democrats continue to seem "not tough enough" in confronting terrorism. From and Reed sharply dissent from Pelosi, ex-DLC leader Al Gore and most other prominent Democrats when they advise: "We should press for regime change in Iraq and a full-scale assault on bin Laden and al Qaeda." Their most startling departure from conventional Democratic thinking, however, comes in social policy. While Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle last week welcomed a chance to "showcase" differences between the parties, From and Reed go in the opposite direction. "Close the cultural gap that, left unchecked, will give Republicans back a virtual lock on the Electoral College and doom any chance of Democrats taking back the Congress," they urge. How? "Half that battle is simply respecting the values of mainstream America in the first place. We will never be the party that loves guns most, but we can respect law-abiding citizens' rights to own them. We will never be the pro-life party, but we can show that we want abortion to be rare as well as legal." At the heart of the From-Reed analysis is basic disagreement with "The Emerging Democratic Majority" by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Published a few weeks before the mid-term elections, it reassured Democrats that demographic changes are leading to a natural Democratic majority. From and Reed respond: "The harsh reality is that the Democratic base just isn't big enough to win: there are more conservatives than liberals (and more moderates than either), more independents than either Democrats or Republicans, more suburbanites than big city dwellers, more whites than minorities, more non-union workers than union workers." In the face of this reality, they add, "Democrats have once again forgotten the 'forgotten middle class.'" The paper rejects long-standing Democratic attempts to win the middle class by bribing it. "Today, Democrats aren't winning the middle class for a simple reason: Too many Americans don't trust us to keep their taxes down or spend their money well." Al From and Bruce Reed are bold, daring and surely obnoxious to Democratic House members who sit comfortably in gerrymandered districts. But like Bill Clinton, these Clinton advisers reject the inseparability of tax cuts. They bemoan "Democrats' failure to take on the Bush tax cut and inability to pose a clear alternative." In the highly unlikely event that the party would accept the New Democrat agenda, it would still not appreciate, as John F. Kennedy did, the wisdom of reduction for all who pay income taxes.