Among Democrats, The Energy Seems To Be on the Left

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2003; Page A01

Ten years after Bill Clinton proclaimed a centrist "New Democrat" revolution, the left is once again a driving force in the party.

They do not call themselves "liberals" anymore; the preferred term today is "progressives." But in other ways, they are much the same slice of the electorate that dominated the Democratic Party from 1972 to the late 1980s: antiwar, pro-environment, suspicious of corporations and supportive of federal social services.

In recent weeks, the progressive left has: lifted a one-time dark-horse presidential candidate, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, into near-front-runner status; dominated the first serious Internet "primary"; and convened the largest gathering of liberal activists in decades.

The liberal MoveOn.org is the fastest-growing political action committee in the Democratic Party. Left-leaning labor leaders, such as Andrew L. Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, are taking a more assertive part in mapping the all-important union role in party operations.

In a sense, it was all foreshadowed by the shake-up of the House leadership after the Democrats' dismal showing at the polls last November. Liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) easily defeated several more conservative Democrats to become the new minority leader.

"There is a coming together of forces to try to resurrect the Democratic Party in the progressive realm," said political strategist Eric Hauser, who helped to organize the recent Take Back America conference of left-leaning activists. "What the Democratic Party stands for hasn't really been looked at for a while. The issues that people care about seem pretty clearly to be solid progressive issues."

In a party that seemed almost comatose after November's poor showing at the polls, any energy at all might be welcome by Democrats, no matter where it comes from. And the progressives themselves certainly do not feel as though they are weighing in from the margin. "We are the base," said veteran organizer Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future.

But for Democrats who remember the Republican landslides of 1972 and 1984, when liberal Democrats George McGovern and Walter F. Mondale led the party to humiliating defeats, the prominence of the left this year is an omen.

"We can't just talk to the true believers; we can't just stoke their anger at George Bush," said Will Marshall, director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate think tank. "We have to persuade swing voters who right now may not be planning to vote for a Democrat."

Whether the invigorated left is a good or bad thing depends, for many Democratic leaders, on how recent history is interpreted. Indeed, the issue can be boiled down to a single question: What actually happened in the 2000 presidential election?

One school of thought says that former president Bill Clinton, by supporting welfare reform, the death penalty and deficit-cutting economics, had set the stage for Democrats to reclaim their status as America's majority party. Unfortunately, the theory goes, former vice president Al Gore squandered a huge advantage by not bragging enough about the accomplishments of the Clinton years -- instead, he ran on a populist theme of "the people versus the powerful."

The left looks at the same result and sees things quite differently: Gore won the popular vote with his populist, environmentalist campaign, and would have been elected easily if he had been stronger on those themes. As it was, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader challenged Gore from the left and kept the election close enough for it to be decided (the left says "stolen") by the U.S. Supreme Court.

If Gore had gotten his votes and Nader's votes, he would have won with "the largest number of progressive votes since 1964," said Borosage -- a clear majority of the electorate. The lesson he draws: Democrats do not need to silence the left to win; they need to energize it.

Much of the credit for the left's revival goes to President Bush, whose policies and personality seem to touch the nerves of hard-core Democrats like a dental drill. The war in Iraq was a catalytic event, drawing hundreds of thousands of readers to anti-Bush Web sites and filling the sails of the Dean campaign. But this is not just about the war.

Senate Democrats, led by Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), have rallied behind an unprecedented filibuster of Bush judicial nominees. Civil liberties groups are up in arms about the Bush administration's domestic war on terrorism. Environmentalists are rallying against Bush policies on logging in national forests.

The result: Activists who are normally prone to infighting -- "the Democratic Party is Yugoslavia," in the words of one party veteran, recalling years of internecine squabbles -- are instead trying to pool their energy to present a clear alternative to the man they despise.

But the left's energy is also a reflection of discontent with the party's Clinton-era leadership. Off the record, many on the left agree with one Democratic organizer who mused recently: "In some ways, Bill Clinton was the worst thing that could have happened to the Democratic Party" because he largely silenced the party's left and enervated efforts to build the party's base.

That sentiment is manifesting itself in a barrage of criticism aimed at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which was closely associated with Clinton's 1992 election. For years, DLC founder Al From and his associates have preached that "Old Democrat" liberalism equals landslide defeats. "The New Democrat formula is the only one to win in three decades," From said recently. Earlier this year, he and DLC President Bruce Reed -- who served as Clinton's chief domestic policy adviser for eight years -- fired off a broadside accusing Dean of being an "elitist" from the "McGovern-Mondale wing" of the party and warning that he would lead the party to disaster if he wins the nomination.

Instead of sinking, Dean surged.

On leftward Web sites, and in the most liberal campaigns, the DLC has become Democratic enemy number two, trailing only Bush. "The DLC strategy of waffling GOP-lite centrism has been a near total failure for the Democratic Party," said Jeff Cohen, a longtime media critic and spokesman for Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), whose long-shot presidential campaign is gaining strength on the left. "I say 'near' total because of Clinton. Take away the unique charisma of that one politician, and the DLC strategy is a total failure."

"We have this debate almost every election cycle," the DLC's Reed said. "There is always going to be someone who wants to preach the old-time religion." But later in the same interview, he said that Clinton's "New Democrat" approach was "the most successful political and governing strategy in our lifetime. We shouldn't even be having this argument over basic party principles."

Riled-up Democrats on the left blame the sail-trimming and poll-watching of the Clinton years for the party's recent lassitude. Clinton could win this way because he was a skilled campaigner, they say, but subtract his skills, and the party is left with mush. The energized left faults centrist Democrats for caving in to conservatives on welfare, health care, civil liberties, taxes -- and, worst of all, war.

This is the attitude that has fueled the emergence of Howard Dean.

Dean's record as governor is hard to categorize: liberal on such issues as gay civil unions, conservative on guns and fiscal matters. But the juice in his campaign -- the reason he has thousands of volunteers nationwide gathering for monthly "meetups" and millions of dollars in small contributions pouring in to his Web site -- is that he has aggressively criticized Bush and heaped scorn on Democrats who have gone along with Bush's war plans and tax cuts.

Borrowing from the left's most recent fallen hero, the late senator Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), Dean said he speaks for "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" -- in other words, not the "New Democrats." Writing on Buzzflash.com, a Web site for the Democratic left, Stuart Finkel of Austin said Dean's supporters "have been energized by the willingness of Howard Dean to do what the DLC and the Democratic leaders in Washington have been so unwilling to do: match George W. Bush word for word, and call every lie he tells a lie."

And while Dean surges, the two candidates in the race most closely associated with the DLC -- Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) and John Edwards (N.C.) -- are struggling to avoid the perception that their campaigns have stalled.

Jeff Blodgett is a Minnesota Democrat who managed Wellstone's campaigns. Now he serves as director of Wellstone Action, a nonprofit group created by Wellstone's two sons to train a new generation of liberal activists. "The reaction has been extraordinary," he said. The first two "Camp Wellstone" training sessions filled immediately -- 110 people in each session. "We've had 10,000 people either become founding members or sign up for our e-mail action list since mid-March.

"The Democratic Party," Blodgett said, "is perceived as having lost its moorings, as being disconnected from the big values and the big vision of where to take this country and hasn't been projecting that. It turns out there is a large number of people around the country who are looking for ways to participate in the rebuilding of progressive politics."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company