Democrats Criticize Their Own -- and Bush
Centrists Say Party Must Welcome Religious Belief; President Accused of Lurching Right
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2001; Page A04
INDIANAPOLIS, July 16 -- Leaders of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) criticized their party here today for often appearing hostile toward people with strong religious beliefs and said the Democrats need to make people of faith welcome if they hope to expand their political support nationally.
"We have too often dismissed and disparaged the importance of faith in American life and made the faithful feel unwelcome in our party, particularly if they are open and outspoken about their religion," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Lieberman, a past chairman of the DLC, recounted his own experience last year as the first Jewish American nominated to run for vice president. He said that although his deep religious faith was celebrated initially, he later found even fellow Democrats uncomfortable with his public expressions of faith.
"Many of my fellow Democrats asked me to keep my prayers quiet and my belief in the importance of religion to our past and to our future to myself," he said. "I did not and I will not and neither should any of you, my fellow Democrats, who feel the same way."
Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), the DLC chairman, argued that Democrats find themselves on the wrong side of a "cultural divide" in the country. "There is no good reason why seven out of every 10 people who go to church every Sunday don't feel comfortable with the Democratic Party," he said.
Lieberman and Bayh were part of a roster of national Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who spoke to the opening session of the DLC's summer meeting.
All challenged President Bush to live up to the centrist rhetoric of his campaign, accusing the president of lurching so far to the right that bipartisan consensus is virtually impossible.
"There is a huge difference between the rhetoric of the center and the governing of the center," Daschle said. "There is a difference between making the right speeches and pursuing the right policy."
The Democrats reiterated their criticism of Bush's tax cut, saying it threatened future surpluses. Bayh said he was considering reintroducing, with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a proposal to tie future tax cuts to the size of available surpluses.
Clinton said, "The new administration has missed such an opportunity to build, with variations of course, on what has worked. Instead they have chosen a very different direction. I hope it's just a temporary detour and that we get back on the track to positive, idea-driven policies."
Lieberman sent a strong warning to Bush on one of the president's signature issues, his initiative to provide federal support for religious groups involved in social welfare activity. "I've about reached the point where I want to try to put together our own Democratic Party faith-based initiative," he said.
The Connecticut senator said reports that the administration had discussed with the Salvation Army a regulation overriding state or local prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation had further undermined Democratic support for the Bush initiative. If the House does not produce a centrist bill, he said, "I intend to introduce my own proposal" in the Senate.
The DLC conference is devoted to a discussion of values and how Democrats can regain the trust of more Americans on cultural issues, which many DLC leaders see as a principal reason Al Gore lost the presidential race to Bush.
Immediately after the election, the DLC issued a sharply critical analysis of Gore for running a campaign that abandoned centrist themes for populist rhetoric. Today a number of Democratic elected officials, including Lieberman, joined in that critique.
"I think we could have given a larger voice to these concerns in the last election," Bayh said. "Some of the class warfare rhetoric is something we might have done differently."
Asked about the DLC's criticism of his and Gore's campaign, Lieberman replied that the two had run "a very New Democrat campaign." But he said that phrases like "the people versus the powerful," which was the main Gore message through much of the general election, "were too subject to misunderstanding by the public."
Clinton, in an interview, said she agreed with that assessment. "At times the rhetoric obscured the New Democrat agenda that was at the heart of the campaign," she said.
Lieberman said the Democrats must do on cultural issues today what they did on fiscal issues during the 1990s. "Just as we regained the public's confidence during the '90s on questions of fiscal responsibility and economic growth, so, too, in this decade we must earn back the people's trust on matters of values, culture and faith."
Bayh said Democrats should be concerned that they lost overwhelmingly not only among voters who go to church regularly but also among members of the military and gun owners. "We didn't get it when it comes to their concerns," he said.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Democrats must find ways to neutralize many of those issues if they hope to compete in more states in the 2004 election. "Al Gore targeted 17 states," McAuliffe said. "In the next election, we should be targeting 27 or 37 states."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company