The Persian Gulf War cast a long and troubling shadow over a meeting of nearly 500 Democratic partisans who gathered in unexpectedly large numbers in Chantilly yesterday to revive liberal and progressive strategies for the 1992 elections.
At its first meeting, the Coalition for Democratic Values drew together representatives from 27 states, all intensely committed to refocusing public attention on domestic issues and the recession-hit economy and to pressing the Democratic Party to move toward a more liberal, economically populist stand.
In terms of attendance, the opening shot from the Democratic left appeared to have produced a strong counter within the party to the already established Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate-centrist party organization.
But the looming war issue restricted the new group's ability to focus on such issues as tax fairness, health care and campaign-finance reform while seeking to invigorate a "Democratic Party that had become muted and bland by pastel politics," in the words of Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (Ohio), the coalition chairman.
Instead, the politics of war brought out conflicts between elected officials staking out cautious positions and peace advocates willing to challenge the administration, and between liberal blacks opposed to the war and some liberal Jews who see the conflict as "a just war."
The sharpest dispute surfaced after Jesse L. Jackson received a warm reception, telling the audience that he was on his way to the anti-war protests in downtown Washington and that "bold leadership is not afraid to stand up for peace."
"We support the troops," he said. "How can it be that those of us who want to bring them home safe and walking in their shoes and not in body bags support them less than those who do?"
Hyman Bookbinder, Washington representative-emeritus of the American Jewish Committee, later took the floor angrily to warn that "the news tonight and tomorrow will be that two anti-war demonstrations were held today," one in Washington, the other in Chantilly. "This is a just war," he said.
Metzenbaum countered by noting that most Democratic elected officials speaking at the meeting had supported the effort for continued economic sanctions.
The Bookbinder-Jackson-Metzenbaum conflict was the most dramatic part in a much more complex struggle within the party for a foothold in a national debate dominated by the war and by a Republican president whose approval ratings have soared.
Some of those speaking yesterday sought to address values and racial issues that have plagued the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Harvey Gantt, the defeated black candidate for U.S. Senate in North Carolina, contended the party must directly address the issues of affirmative action and quotas. Asked how he would do this, he said Democrats must demonstrate there is not an "epidemic" of reverse discrimination and that all efforts must be made to bring minorities into the work force to be internationally competitive.
Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) said, "We liberals, we progressives have to learn" how to demonstrate a commitment to "hard work, responsibility, thrift, family -- we have to weave this into everything we say."
Only once did the gathering take on the character of past Democratic issue discussions. Molly Yard, head of the National Organization for Women, denounced the all-male composition of the first panel, pointing her finger at Metzenbaum and saying, "How could you? I really am enraged."
Metzenbaum later said that Yard is "so anxious to speak, she doesn't examine the facts." He noted that women were to appear on other panels during the day.
Ronald H. Brown, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, sought to shift public attention from the gulf debate by arguing that President Bush's advocacy of a capital-gains tax cut would prove enormously beneficial to the affluent who hold stock in defense companies. But "if your contribution is building a Patriot missile, then you get nothing," he said.
Asked about Jackson's anti-war efforts, Brown said, "I don't criticize protests. They have a right to protest. But I think that, as a nation, you have to send a unified message to Saddam Hussein."
Brown and many other Democrats who had supported continued resort to sanctions argued that, although they now support U.S. troops in the gulf region, the next major step on the national agenda should be ascertaining that jobs, a fair tax system and decent health care will be available for returning service personnel.
"We speak as one in support of our troops," said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.). "The debate is behind us, the battle is upon us and victory is before us." Gephardt had helped to lead the floor fight against the congressional resolution granting Bush authority to make war.
Now, Gephardt said, "we owe it to those young heroes to bring them home to an America that fights as hard for them at home as they fought for us abroad."
Conflict emerged over taxes, an issue that has been damaging to Democrats. Sen. Paul Simon (Ill.) said he advocates a "pay-as-you-go war" that would include raising taxes.
Gephardt replied, "I think Americans are now taxed very highly."