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Repairing the Democratic Tent

By Tim Roemer
Thursday, February 10, 2005; Page A23

November's presidential election has caused Democrats to do some soul-searching. The cold, hard facts call for bold conversation and new ideas within our party.

According to the National Committee for an Effective Congress, Democrats lost 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in America. The National Election Pool's exit data show that between the elections of 2000 and 2004 we lost ground with a wide array of voting groups, including Catholics, Latinos, African Americans and married voters. Four weeks ago I entered the race for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship to address these disturbing trends and to talk about the issues that affected voters' choice between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry.

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National security concerns were the primary cause for Kerry's defeat. Democrats failed to convince voters that our vision for American security was better than Bush's failed policies. The world is different after Sept. 11, 2001, and if we Democrats cannot make Americans feel safe, we will not win future elections.

As a member of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the Sept. 11 commission), I sincerely hoped to have a conversation with Democrats about our challenges in communicating a national security message and about how we come together to talk about the many values issues that unite us as Democrats and that also figured in the 2004 election.

Unfortunately, instead of these important issues getting the attention they deserved, the abortion issue dominated much of the discussion of my campaign for the DNC chairmanship. The reason was that I am "pro-life," holding a different personal view from many Democrats. Opposition to my candidacy (which I ended this week) from the Democratic "choice" constituency was vigorous and unrelenting. Fair enough -- we disagree. But let's take a look at the current politics of abortion and its effect on how voters view the Democratic Party.

During the past four years Karl Rove and the Republicans have effectively manipulated the political dialogue and votes in Congress to label Democrats as supporters of "partial birth" abortion and "abortion on demand." They have painted all Democrats with the same broad brush as being "pro-abortion," rather than "pro-choice." This is hurting us with churchgoing African American, Latino, Catholic, rural and suburban voters.

Meanwhile Bush campaigned throughout the country with former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, two moderate pro-choice Republicans. This Republican two-pronged approach was again apparent in early January, when the new Republican National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman, appointed JoAnn Davidson -- who is pro-choice -- as co-chairman of the RNC.

We Democrats are long overdue for an open discussion of this vitally important issue. While many Democrats may not want to have this discussion right now, some of our leaders are stepping forward. Just two weeks ago Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said that when it comes to abortion, "people of good faith should try to find more common ground." Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts urged DNC members not to apply a "litmus test" to me as a pro-life candidate for the DNC post.

Despite differing views on abortion within our party, we need to focus our attention on where we agree. We can agree that abortion is a difficult and heart-wrenching decision for any woman and that every woman respects life. We can agree that abortions should be extremely rare, and we should work hard to reduce their number by supporting family planning programs, funding for the Women, Infants and Children program, and adoption tax credits. During the Clinton administration, we reduced abortions by 11 percent by focusing on such efforts. And I would hope we could eventually find agreement on wider Democratic support for banning late-term abortions and supporting parental notification for young teenagers.

We need to be inclusive and respect different views on abortion -- and other issues -- within our party. Democrats will not make up the difference of seven seats in the Senate or 17 in the House if we apply litmus tests to Democrats on individual issues.

We Democrats are famous for having lively debates inside our party. Our proud tradition is that we represent the full breadth of the American experience and that we welcome clashes in perspective that ultimately lead to greater understanding. Think back to the mid-20th century, when a young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, had the courage to stir a backlash from the entrenched party leadership. He ultimately brought the party -- and the nation -- to a new era of civil rights and social justice.

Now we are faced with a choice. Will the party open its tent to people of differing views -- be they views on abortion or other pressing national issues -- or will it exclude those who may have different views but agree with us on many of our core principles? I believe that, to be successful, we must focus not on what divides us but what unites us. When we unite around our common Democratic values and welcome more Americans to our fold, we will be better -- and stronger -- for the effort.

The writer, a former Democratic representative from Indiana, is president of the Center for National Policy, a public policy research organization.

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