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Democrats' Grass Roots Shift the Power

Activists Energized Fundraising, but Some Worry They Could Push Party to Left

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page A04

The bloggers have been busy on the Democratic National Committee Web site since Howard Dean was elected party chairman a week ago.

"Paul in OC" and "Steviemo in MN" wrote that they had made their first-ever contributions to the national committee. Someone identified as "J" pleaded with Dean to come to Florida, "home of Baby Bush," to "heal the irritating red and help us become a cool blue state again." "Donna in Evanston" wrote, "It's sad, but it is up to the grassroots to set the example for our representatives in Washington. Howard gets it. Maybe some day the beltway bunch will get it too."

Howard Dean, new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has called for "bottom-up reform." (Greg Wahl-Stephens -- AP)

Those sentiments square neatly with Dean's call for "bottom-up reform" of the Democratic Party and the further empowerment of grass-roots activists who flexed their political muscle in his unsuccessful presidential campaign. They later became the backbone of organizing and fundraising efforts by John F. Kerry's campaign and the DNC's election-year efforts.

But the rising of this grass-roots force also signals a shift in the balance of power within the party, one that raises questions about its ultimate impact on a Democratic Party searching for direction and identity after losses in 2002 and 2004.

At a minimum, say party strategists, the shift will mean a more confrontational Democratic Party in battles with President Bush and the Republicans. But some strategists worry that the influence of grass-roots activists could push the party even further to the left, particularly on national security, reinforcing a weakness that Bush exploited in his reelection campaign.

It was Dean during the presidential primaries who argued that it was time for the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" to reassert itself, an implicit criticism of strategies that guided President Bill Clinton in his battles with Republicans in the 1990s. Clinton recently warned Democrats not to assume that the policies he pursued are incompatible with a vibrant, progressive wing of the party.

As Dean takes the helm as party chairman, Democrats now face a competition between what might be called the Dean model and the Clinton model, between confrontation and triangulation. This amounts to a contest between a bold reassertion of the party's traditional philosophy that fits the polarized environment of the Bush presidency vs. a less provocative effort to balance core values with centrist ideas that proved successful in the 1990s but has since produced a backlash within the party.

Dean recognizes the difficult job ahead as he tries to welcome a cadre of political outsiders, many of them turned off by the party's recent leadership, into the institutional party he now heads. His first steps have sought to bridge the ideological divisions with a call for a party that is fiscally responsible and socially progressive.

Tom Ochs, a top Dean adviser, said the challenge is less about ideology than the political culture of the audiences to whom Dean is speaking. "It's clearly an insider-outsider thing that I think crosses ideological terrain, where there are people who haven't been involved who want to be involved and see in Governor Dean someone who wasn't part of an existing enterprise," he said. "I'm very optimistic about our ability to do what a lot of people think will be hard to do, which is to get a lot of people involved, regardless of their ideology, to get Democrats elected."

But other Democrats, a number of whom declined to be quoted by name because they wanted to be more candid about the problems they see, said there are ideological overtones to the growing significance of the grass roots. They said the belief by some of those activists that Democrats can solve their problems by playing more directly to their core constituents ignores several realities, particularly the question of whether voters see Democrats as strong enough to win the war on terrorism. One strategist called that the "one scab" where differences may be difficult to resolve.

Another Democrat, firmly in the party's centrist camp, said, "It's striking to me how reluctant the party is to come to terms with the fact that we have a painfully obvious national security threshold that we're going to have to cross if we're going to rule this country again."

It is no surprise that Democratic leaders are paying much closer attention to grass-roots activists. In 2003 and 2004, those activists became prodigious contributors to the Democratic Party, to Kerry and to Dean, who first tapped into their potential through the Internet during his campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show that in 2003 and 2004, the DNC raised $171 million in contributions of less than $250. That represented 42 percent of the $404.5 million raised from all sources by the committee. Four years ago, before large soft-money contributions were banned by the new campaign finance reform law, the DNC raised a total of $260 million from all sources. Kerry's campaign raised an additional $84 million in contributions under $250.

In the 1980s, Democrats courted corporate interests for political contributions, and that marriage helped influence party policy on economic and tax issues. But it also produced complaints by liberal Democrats that the party was selling out its principles for campaign cash. Gauging the ideological complexion of the small donors who opened their wallets in 2004 is much harder, but their participation in the process has diminished the power of business interests within the party and likely will produce some shift in the party's ideology as well.

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