Recent articles printed in the conservative Democratic Leadership Council’s (DLC) Blueprint Magazine articulate more bluntly then ever before a strategy of moving the Democratic Party even further to the right, or the “center” as they like to call it. According to the DLC, then and only then can Democrats again become a majority party in the United States.
We have heard this before. The DLC has been preaching the gospel of centrism since its founding after the 1984 defeat of Walter Mondale and their position won considerable additional support following the defeat of Michael Dukakis in 1988. Their first and only significant success story goes by the name Bill Clinton, a former DLC chair and self described “new Democrat” we are all very familiar with. That success story comes with two significant asterisks, however. The first is Ross Perot, without whom a second George Bush Sr. term would have been all but certain. The second is the failure of Clinton’s centrist tendencies to ever earn him more than 50% of the vote.
Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory was followed by the Democrat’s earthshaking 1994 defeat and 10 years of failed efforts to regain the majority in Congress. While Al Gore technically won the presidency in 2000, the fact he didn’t assume the office renders Gore’s victory meaningless. Furthermore, Gore again failed to carry enough of the popular vote to claim more than 50%, though this time it was a challenger from the left that denied it to him.
So to sum up, in the 12 years since the DLC’s ascendancy within the Democratic Party only Clinton’s initial victory in 1992 and the maintenance of a Democratic majority in the both the House and Senate that accompanied it and Clinton’s 1996 reelection can be counted as significant wins for the Democratic Party nationally. It is reasonable for those of us on the left to ask just how long we should be expected to wait for the centrist approach to begin to place wins in the “D” column.
Based on what prominent leaders within the DLC are saying, they apparently believe we need to give their strategy at least a bit more time. In fact, it is not their strategy that has failed, but the left wing of the Democratic Party that is to blame. We deal with the left wing the DLC argues, particularly the anti-war faction and individuals like Michael Moore, and the centrists will finally succeed in taking back Congress and the White House for the Democrats. One wonders if Michael Moore and anti-war activists were also to blame for losing Congress in 1994, though at the time few knew who Moore was and their was no war to oppose.
Here is what founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council Al From had to say in a recent piece for his organization’s publication:
We can't let those hearts [cultural conservatives] be closed to us again. First and foremost, we need to bridge the trust gap on national security by spelling out our own offense against terrorism and clearly rejecting our anti-war wing, so that Republicans can no longer portray us as the anti-war party in the war on terrorism. We must leave no doubt that Michael Moore neither represents nor defines our party. Blueprint Magazine, Dec. 13, 2004 (Emphasis added)
Mr. From also advises against forming a circular firing squad within the Democratic Party, but given the shots he takes at Moore and those of us opposed to the war he obviously does not follow his own advice.
From is not alone within the DLC. In the very same issue of Blueprint in which From urges the Democratic Party to “clearly” reject “our anti-war wing” Will Marshall, the President of the DLC’s think tank (the “Progressive” Policy Institute) even goes so far as to openly ridicule those of us that believe Mr. Bush went into Iraq, at least in part, because it had significant oil reserves or that the ongoing war in Iraq is an example of American imperialism. Here is what he has to say.
Most rank-and-file Democrats, of course, are just as patriotic and zealous about vindicating our national honor as any Republican. But let's be honest: Cultural elites with influence in the party often give off more than a whiff of fashionable anti-Americanism. They tend to equate patriotism with jingoism, see America more as a global bully than as a victim of a terrorist conspiracy, haul out the tired Vietnam metaphor anytime U.S. troops encounter difficulty abroad, and are as hypercritical of America's faults as they are forgiving of those of our adversaries.
Take Iraq. It's one thing to say, as many thoughtful Democrats do, that the war in Iraq was a mistake. But it's quite another to depict it as the _expression of a new U.S. imperialism, or as a Bush family vendetta, or as a plot to grab Middle East oil, or, most ludicrously of all, as a pretext to enrich Halliburton. What leftish elites smugly imagine is a sophisticated view of their country's flaws strikes much of America as a false and malicious cartoon. And while heartland voters may be too reluctant to hear reasoned criticism of U.S. policies, they are essentially right in believing that America has mostly been an indispensable force for good in the world. So let the glitterati in Hollywood and Cannes fawn over Michael Moore; Democrats should have no truck with the rancid anti-Americanism of the conspiracy-mongering left. Blueprint Magazine, Dec. 13, 2004
Apparently Mr. Marshall has not read the “Statement of Principles” published by the Project for A New American Century, a statement signed by Jeb Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfawitz among others. Included in the list of “principles” they embrace is the following: “we need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.” (Emphasis added) The “Progressive” Policy Institute, DLC and other conservative Democrats may mock those that call this imperialism, but one can easily imagine Augustus, King George III or Napoleon saying something very similar.
But really, any damage Mr. Marshall, Al From and their ilk do to the left and future Democratic prospects does not stem from the merits, or lack thereof of their attacks on the left, Michael Moore, or so called “Hollywood values”. The DLC is dangerous to the continued survival of our party because it validates the right’s claims we are elitists that don’t respect working class values, that Michael Moore is the left’s official or unofficial spokesperson, that respect for the First Amendment amounts to an embrace of “Hollywood values”, that there is such a thing as a “war on terrorism” in the first place (as if we can fight a war against a tactic as opposed to a group or nation or Congress ever fulfilled its duty to declare war), and that the anti-war movement essentially amounts to an anti-American movement which the Democrats would do well to dismiss. These men are not the Democrat’s answer to Ann Coulter, they are the Democrat’s version of her.
To answer the question whether the key to future Democratic success lies in moving to the center (i.e., further to the right) we can look to the Republicans for an answer, though not in the way Al From and others look to them. As the DLC readily admits, George Bush did not run a centrist campaign. George Bush ran to his base appealing to core principles embraced by a significant part of the electorate, particularly evangelicals and free market/small government Republicans. The fact that his policies often don’t reflect the core values of these groups is beside the point. In politics perception is reality, and Bush appeared solid on fundamental right wing issues, particularly social issues.
Kerry on the other hand, ran to the center in spite of what all would agree is one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate. While the DLC argues it was his left wing voting record that was the problem, Bush’s success in spite of ignoring the center points to an electorate hungry for a leader willing to stand up and fight for what he/she believes. Indeed, in virtually every poll leading up to the election and immediately following it Bush’s appeal was more the perception of him as a solid leader with qualities such as constancy and integrity that appealed most to voters. Kerry’s image as a liberal flip flopper that voted one way but talked another while running for president (an accurate portrayal in many respects) is what killed him. Had he been a bit more like Dennis Kucinich or Howard Dean and demonstrated a willingness to speak out against the war, admitting in the process had he known then what he knows now he never would have supported the Iraq resolution in the first place, things would probably have turned out quite differently.
Though From and Marshall don’t acknowledge it in their articles, other prominent conservative Democrats like former Congressman, member of the 9/11 Commission and now candidate for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairmanship Tim Roemer are also arguing we back away from or “tone down” the rhetoric on choice and gay rights. Democrats need to be “more tolerant” of men like Roemer who are not all that thrilled women have achieved at least a degree of equal rights with men when it comes to control over their bodies. This, along with dismissing the 80% or so of Democrats that don’t support the war will successfully “broaden our appeal” and enable us to win again. It seems these people believe the only way to save the “big tent” of the Democratic Party is to throw most of the people in it out into the cold.
Well, it is true the left values tolerance. But we have our limits (at least I sincerely hope we do). The time has clearly come to get over any squeamishness we might have about playing hard ball. While we are somewhat handicapped by the fact we must now fight conservative wing nuts within our own party as well as within the Republican Party, the fact remains our professed values run contrary to tolerating the kind of nonsense these men (they are mostly men) are spewing. While we will fight for your right to express your opinion Mr. From, et al., the Constitution does not grant you the right to say it within the Democratic Party and you have cost us enough elections already, thank you very much.
The progressive organizations emerging in 2004 represent one of the very few bright spots currently existing within American politics. These organizations must unite and work to challenge ANY state party chair or other member of the Democratic National Committee that supports Tim Roemer or any other candidate willing to embrace the DLC strategy. In addition, any member of Congress willing to endorse their approach, including the hugely disappointing Nancy Pelosi, should be threatened with the prospect of a Democratic challenge for the nomination in 2006 if she or others like her persists in backing away from an aggressive progressive agenda to counter the aggressive right wing agenda advanced by Republicans.
Over the years liberals have compromised, compromised and compromised some more in the name of allowing conservative Democrats the opportunity to prove moving to the center would win elections. We have received nothing but defeat and labels such as “flip floppers”, “liberal elite”, or “anti-American” in exchange. These labels were bad enough when offered by the Republicans, but to be validated by so called “Democrats” from within our own party is too much. Mr. From, you may argue you don’t want to see Democrats form a circular firing squad, but in calling for the Democratic Party to dismiss our opinions and values you fired the first shot and we will not back down this time.
Craig Axford is Co-Chair of the Utah Democratic Progressive Caucus. He can be reached at: Craig4076@msn.com.