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.
"This is a place where the progressive wing of our party -- everything from progressive groups like the labor unions, progressive think tanks, progressive blogs like [Daily] Kos -- is seen within our party," he said. "They've collectively been saying to the candidates: 'Look, you can be more courageous, you can step out on these issues, you can have strong, robust proposals on these programs and there will be support for it.' "
At the beginning of last year, the party appeared to be headed for a potentially divisive fight over Iraq, largely because Clinton refused to renounce her 2002 vote for the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war. But the longer the campaign has gone on, the more this potentially serious battle has dissipated, in part because of reduced violence in Iraq and because the candidates agree on the need to start withdrawing troops as soon as possible.
Some Republicans believe the Democrats' consensus on issues could make them vulnerable in the fall, despite the GOP's problems. They see Democrats united behind raising taxes by letting Bush's tax cuts expire, enacting a health-care plan that Republicans will describe as giving too much control to the federal government, and advocating national security policies that underestimate the continuing threat of terrorism.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman said he sees the consensus in the Democratic Party as a reversion to the past, compounded by a congressional leadership that has produced less than promised and has left Congress with low approval ratings.
"Over the course of the last 40 years, two Democrats have been elected, both because they could appeal beyond the Democratic base and ran in some sense as New Democrats," he said, referring to Clinton and Jimmy Carter. "One of the most interesting questions is, where do Democrats stand on that approach to things, and if that's not still necessary, are we back to kind of the old model?"
Many Democrats take issue with that view, arguing that the country is moving with them and that even independents have shifted to the left in reaction to the Bush years. But the eventual nominee, some strategists say, must preserve flexibility for the general election, particularly on national security.
Edwards's populist candidacy, which targets the Washington establishment and the cozy relationship between corporate power and the political parties, would seem to represent a clear ideological rebuke to Clintonism. But Edwards rejects that interpretation of his candidacy.
"I don't think it's ideological," he said in an interview Monday. "I think it's about having a party that is truly representative of a cross section of Americans and working people, and saying no to these entrenched interests. . . . I honestly don't believe this is ideological."
Obama has openly talked about turning the page on the fights that have raged since the Clinton years. But he has never sought to distance himself from the former president and has differed only marginally with Hillary Clinton on policy.
The closest Obama and Clinton have come to a major policy disagreement is over health care. In her proposal, Clinton has included a mandate that all Americans have health insurance and he has not, putting her to the left of Obama. "What's striking to me about this contest is the unwillingness of Clinton and Obama to draw bright red lines philosophically," Garin said.
The Democrats won the 2006 midterm elections on the strength of an anti-Bush message and dissatisfaction with the Republicans in power in Washington. The vote represented a rejection of Republicans, not an affirmation of the Democratic Party.
What Democrats will now decide is which candidate is best suited to gain the confidence of the electorate in November, one who can keep the progressive base energized and at the same time reassure independents and swing voters that the party is once again ready to govern.