News & Politics

Power Play

The battle for the “soul of the Democratic Party” has begun, with the opening skirmishes over Howard Dean and reproductive rights.
The aftermath of an electoral defeat is never pretty. In 2004, all elements of the Democratic Party – moderates, old-fashioned liberals, progressives – came together to help John Kerry defeat George Bush. When that quest ended in ashes on Nov. 2, there were plenty of recriminations, and a whole lot of finger pointing. With the second consecutive loss for Democrats, it was bound to raise deeper questions about the party’s ideology and a larger struggle between starkly different visions for the future. This appears to be one of those times.

As the Democratic National Committee (DNC) gears up to select a new chairman on Feb. 10, the party finds itself caught up in a powerful tug-of-war over its principles and its platform.

On one side are the progressives, pushing for a bold new approach that includes adopting a populist agenda, a clear anti-war message and a real commitment to the grassroots. On the other side are members of the Beltway establishment – mostly represented by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) – who are clamoring for a more centrist/conservative platform that would embrace an aggressive, hawkish position toward the "clear and present danger” posed by global terrorism, while moving away from the party’s long-term commitment to a progressive social issues agenda, especially on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

The battle is being played out inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C., with articles in leading opinion journals being served up and volleyed like balls in a tennis match. The debate is beginning to escalate, and soon one can expect the media pundits to begin talking incessantly about "the struggle for the soul of the Democratic party."

They may actually be right on this one.

"The Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party"

There are two flashpoints in the current battle: one is the consideration of Howard Dean as DNC chairman and the other is whether the party will shift its platform on abortion, given the growing role of male anti-abortion politicians among the party leadership.

Despite being an incredibly good soldier during the election campaign, offering energetic and unfailing support for John Kerry’s candidacy, Howard Dean still sends shudders down the spine of some pundits and politicos. Ever since his brief but blazing presidential run, Dean is seen by some as a wild-eyed lefty.

Bob Kerrey, a former senator from Nebraska and president of the New School University in New York, is supporting Leo J. Hindery Jr., the telecommunications executive, for DNC chair. Speaking of Dean, Kerrey told the New York Times “…..if he runs he's going to have some 'splaining' to do, as Ricky Ricardo used to say… People remember him saying, 'I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party' – which means the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

''Which Howard Dean are we talking about?'' Kerrey asked. ''If we're talking about the Howard Dean who was governor of Vermont, I would say ‘Fine.’ But if it's presidential candidate Dean, I would say probably ‘No.’ The committee has got to figure out how to keep people like me in it. If he's firing people up and he's saying we've got to swing to the left – it's harder to swing along with him. And hell, I live in New York City. I don't live in Nebraska anymore.''

What Kerrey sees as left-liberal, Dean sees as a wake-up call for the party not to go rightward. ''Here in Washington, it seems that after every losing election, there's a consensus reached among decision-makers in the Democratic Party that the way to win is to be more like Republicans,'' Dean said in his first major post-election address. “If we accept that philosophy this time around, another Democrat will be standing here in four years giving this same speech. We cannot win by being Republican-lite.''

The role of anti-choice politicians and their influence on the abortion question is also proving very divisive. Peter Wallsten and Mary Curtius write in the L.A. Times: "After long defining itself as an undisputed defender of abortion rights, the Democratic Party is suddenly locked in an internal struggle over whether to redefine its position to appeal to a broader array of voters." The topic came to the fore when former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, an abortion foe, emerged as a candidate for the DNC chairman job at the urging of none other than House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has not endorsed him, but who liked that he could symbolize a more open, big-tent Democratic Party. Speaking on abortion, Roemer told the Los Angeles Times that the party "cannot rebound from its losses in the November election unless it shows more tolerance on one of society's most emotional conflicts." Also contributing to the controversy was the fact that John Kerry told an AFL-CIO gathering that he had met many union members who were also abortion opponents during campaign trips through Pennsylvania and that the party needed to "rethink how it could appeal to those voters."

The glaring flaw in this line of reasoning is of course the fact that Kerry and the Democrats did not lose the election because of social issues and abortion or even gay rights. Much of the media hype surrounding "moral values" after the election was sparked by a poorly worded and discredited exit poll question that produced a very small plurality for moral issues voters. Those union members in Pennsylvania may have been against abortion, but for the most part it is not the issue that determined their vote. In the end, Bush won because the Republicans had a far superior political operation, a real grassroots network and effectively played the fear card. Mark Danner’s illuminating article in the New York Review of Books, also posted on TomDispatch) summed up the secret of GOP success:
The emphasis placed on Bush's much-promoted personal strengths – decisiveness, determination, reliability, transparency – served to base his candidacy at once on "moral values" and on "national security," in effect making possession of the first essential to protect the second. Bush's decisiveness was put forward as the flip side of Kerry's dangerous vacillation, the answer to the threat of weakness Kerry was alleged to pose. This equation was dramatized, perfected, and repeated, with much discipline and persistence, in thousands of advertisements, speeches, and "talking heads" discussion programs on conservative networks, especially Fox. Despite all the talk about "moral values," the 2004 election turned on a fulcrum of fear.
No one is against the Democratic Party having the proverbial big tent. But there is no indication that the party has been particularly hostile against anti-abortion politicians, be it Harry Reid, the new Senate minority leader and a Mormon from Utah, or Dennis Kucinich, one of the most liberal members of Congress who was strongly opposed to abortion virtually his entire career until very recently. And with the looming threat of Bush Supreme Court nominations reversing Roe v. Wade, opening up an internal debate about abortion is bound to raise hackles among many liberal Democrats.

The question of access to an abortion is undeniably a political minefield, fraught with anxiety and often hysteria and disinformation. The differences over abortion often invoke morally purist positions on both sides with little hope of reaching common ground. It isn’t a position on which most voters will change their mind.

But what is crucial for the Democratic Party is not to run away from the principle on the issue, but to free itself from the no-win, pro-abortion frame that has proved a trap. The problem with the whole abortion discussion is that it’s played out in the context of an either/or debate favored by the most radical advocates and the corporate media, which thrives as always on conflict. The reality is that most people, Democrats and Republicans alike, are not "for" abortion. Yet in the media, the Democrats are consistently portrayed as being in "favor" of abortion, and the Republicans against it. Such positioning hurts the party because even though a majority of Americans support the rights of women to have abortions, they don’t "want" women to have them. The "choice" frame makes abortions sound frivolous – a take them or leave them kind of decision – that is simply untrue.

Rather than flirting with abortion foes, the party needs to restate its principle in a clear and simple fashion. Democrats are for healthy families and mothers. Democrats do not support coerced childbirth. The health of the mother is also a primary concern and Democrats recognize the many consequences of abortion restrictions, including the birth of unwanted children. But by sacrificing principles to pander to swing voters, Democrats may well end up alienating many Americans who prefer people who stick to their principles even when they disagree with them.

Linguist George Lakoff argues that when Democrats move to the center, two negative things happen: They lose the passion of their base and they trigger the more conservative frame in undecided voters, reminding them why they should be sticking with those who believe more strongly in the issue, confirming Harry S Truman’s famous observation: "When given the choice, people will vote for the real Republican over the fake one every time.”

It is good to have a healthy and open discussion about the future of the Democratic Party, but such a debate should include the participation of the many thousands of people who made major investments of time and money in the 2004 election. When it comes to abortion, it should be the many women who have worked hard and long for the principle and for the party who participate as well. It shouldn’t just be a Nancy Pelosi political tactic or 441 people who get to choose the new DNC chair. This runs the risk of alienating the rank-and-file Democratic voters with a top-down process that ignores their concerns.

The DNC Election and the Larger Context

The current struggle within the DNC over party leadership has a much larger context than Howard Dean and reproductive health. Also coming into play are fundamental issues like Iraq, security from terrorism and economic policy – in essence, a conflict about the Democratic Party and its very identity.

One battle is organizational – where the push to spread out across the land, echoing some of the themes of the Dean campaign, decentralizing resources, organizing a base, making heavy use of the Internet, comes up against the centrist and conservative elements in the party, centralized in D.C. and heavily influenced by the DLC.

But another strain is economic with populist themes again bubbling up from opinion-shapers like Thomas Frank and Jim Hightower. In a taste of what’s to come, David Sirota, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, denounced a "corporate sponsored" DLC as committed to ideas on trade, taxes and business regulation that help its "wealthy cronies" and abandon the Democrats' historic working-class base while "pulling the party further and further out of the mainstream."

A second controversy bubbled up in late December when New Republic editor Peter Beinart attacked the progressive core of the party on the issue of terrorism. As Ron Brownstein reported in the L.A. Times on Jan. 3, “Beinart urged Democrats to 'take back their movement' from anti-war elements in the party that he called 'softs,' a group that included filmmaker Michael Moore and MoveOn.org, the giant online liberal advocacy group that led opposition to the Iraq war." MoveOn founders Wes Boyd and Joan Blades responded by describing Beinart’s article as "strategic advice to wind the clock back to the dawn of the cold war and adopt a simplistic us-versus-them mentality that would put a life-or-death struggle with 'totalitarian Islam' at the center of the Democratic worldview."

The MoveOn founders added: "The future of liberalism depends not on identifying and vilifying an enemy and manipulating the American public, but on espousing a positive vision for the future around which a movement, a party, and an American consensus can be built."

Clearly, the struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party is in full bloom. The big question is: Will these battles doom the party to long-term internecine struggle, undermining the chances of future success, or will they produce clarity leading to framing a clear message that voters can identify with?

If you are a progressive, a populist Democrat, someone who thinks moving the party to the center is a dead end in this political debate, then it may be time to step up and make yourself heard. Not doing so may very well leave the fate of the party in the hands of the “Democratic Establishment” – the consultants, lobbyists, and corporate-funded talking heads and spinners. As the debate for the “soul of the party” heats up, we may yet see a very different Democratic Party emerging from the ashes of 2004.
Don Hazen is the Executive Editor of AlterNet.