Choosing a Candidate, and More

Following a campaign stop in Ames, Iowa, The Post's Dan Balz asks John Edwards how his candidacy would shape the future of the Democratic Party.Video by Ed O'Keefe/
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008

DES MOINES, Jan. 2 -- So far, the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign has little of the tone of past battles, such as the 1984 fight between Walter F. Mondale and Gary Hart, or even Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign to rebrand the party with his New Democrat label. There are no echoes of the 1972 nomination battle, which resulted in George McGovern's divisive nomination and left the party in tatters.

Instead, the candidacies of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards represent a set of choices about the tone, style and generational image that Democrats, hungry to return to power, conclude will put them in the best position to wage a general-election campaign.

"What Democratic voters are really working through is what style of leadership they want," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey D. Garin. "Stability on the one hand, and transformational change or the hope of real change on the other."

Standing at the center of the debate over the party's future are Hillary Clinton and her husband, the only Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win two terms in the White House. Over the next weeks, Democrats will either reaffirm their belief in the Clintons and Clintonism or reject them.

But Democratic strategists argue that even if Clinton loses the nomination, the outcome will not signal a significant ideological shift in the party. Democrats have embraced many elements of the former president's agenda, and to the extent they have moved on issues, Hillary Clinton has moved with the rest of the party.

"She is very much her own leader, with her own policies for a new future, but Democrats also think President Clinton did a fabulous job, and that is a help out there," said Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn.

Two Democrats who do not always see eye to eye on issues agree that there is substantial unity in the party on the big questions.

"The big arguments of the last years have been won by progressives, partly in response to the populist outrage against Bush," said Robert L. Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future.

He noted that no candidate is running as a defender of the Iraq war, that all support universal health care -- a shift from where the candidates were four years ago -- and all have moved away from the Clinton administration's free-trade policies, including both Clintons.

Ron Klain, who was chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore in the Clinton White House, agreed that President Bush has helped unify Democrats but added: "I also think some of the credit goes to President Clinton for having governed very successfully for eight years, and having put in place a policy framework that by and large is a framework that our party still embraces today."

Klain described the framework as one that embraces fiscal responsibility, a pragmatic foreign policy and what he called centrist social policies. He noted that all the Democratic presidential candidates support that framework.

Klain also credited the progressive grass roots and the "Net roots" of the party for helping to give candidates cover on a more ambitious agenda for restructuring the nation's health-care system.

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