The Democrats Reassess

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

This is idea week for the Democratic Party.

On Monday, three veteran party strategists -- William Galston, Stan Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira -- launched a Web site ( http://www.thedemocraticstrategist.org ) with the goal of generating fact-based, empirically tested theories that might help Democrats resolve their policy differences and win more elections.

Yesterday saw another launch party, this time for Democracy, a quarterly journal that also will be available online ( http://www.democracyjournal.org ). The magazine will be edited by Andrei Cherny and Kenneth Baer, two younger veterans of recent party wars. Their goal is do for the Democrats what journals such as Public Interest did for conservatives and Republicans decades ago, which is to bring forward big ideas to challenge what they regard as the tired thinking that grips Democratic politicians.

On Thursday, NDN (formerly the New Democrat Network) will convene its annual conference. NDN, founded by Simon Rosenberg, has recently been in the forefront of moving beyond differences between centrists, liberals and the new world of blogs and net-roots activists, all with an eye toward tipping the political balance back in a Democratic direction.

Those in the middle of these events share a similar conviction, which is that for too long Republicans have been winning the battle of ideas (and often campaign strategy) in American politics, in part because conservatives invested in what is now a well-funded infrastructure of organizations that have produced ideas, thinkers, publications, strategists, and politicians who now control the White House, Congress and increasingly the federal judiciary.

There is also a belief shared at least by some of the participants that Democrats have ridden for too long on what are the fumes of the New Deal and the Great Society, which sustained Democrats for half a century. The first issue of Democracy offers articles on rethinking how to finance the health-care system, the economic and security challenges posed by differing birthrates around the world, and alternatives to redistribution to reduce inequality. The Democratic Strategist provides essays on competence as a campaign theme, protecting voting rights and demography's impact on politics.

Doug Hattaway, a Democratic communications consultant who worked for Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, recalled a moment of epiphany during a focus group of Democratic operatives and marketing professionals he attended last year. The participants were asked to say what Democratic accomplishments they were most proud of. Their responses filled several pages on a flip chart set up in the focus group facility. "We all realized there was nothing there within the past 30 years," Hattaway said.

Many Democratic politicians are still tied to past glory and what worries some of the progressives trying to generate new ideas is that elected officials are divorced from what is a lively debate-in-the-making on national security and domestic challenges. "Somehow or another this conversation does not really make its way to Democratic politicians very much," said Michael Tomasky, editor of the liberal American Prospect.

The lone exception he cited was Bill Clinton and his presidency.

Baer offered a sharper critique of the politicians, criticizing as poll-driven and uninspired the 2006 campaign agenda issued by congressional Democrats. "You could go through it line by line and write the poll questions that generated each line," he said.

The people in the middle of the Democrats' idea week seem to agree on another point, which is that the two-decade-old battle between party centrists and liberals may have run its course. "I think the old centrist-liberal debate in the party is to some extent dead," Teixeira said. "I think people have lost interest in that."

Galston noted that, while he is a charter member of the centrist movement, he split with many of his friends at the Democratic Leadership Council by opposing the war in Iraq. Rosenberg has been looking for fusion between center and left, between old strategist and new bloggers. On everything from fighting terrorism to assuring economic security in a time of globalization, many of these activists believe, the party will have to put aside left-right battles of the past and come up with fresh ideas.

It was left to some conservatives to offer Democrats comfort. Historian Francis Fukuyama, who has broken with other neo conservatives over Iraq, said the conservative era may be ending. "It does seem to me that the country is way overdue for one of those big pendulum swings back," he said.

William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, also reminded the progressives that internecine battles can be constructive, recalling vicious fights over the years that he said resulted in stronger conservative movement. "It's a big mistake when people lament that, gee, there's too much infighting on our side," he said.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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