Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) called Monday for a cease-fire among warring factions of the Democratic Party, arguing that a united front is needed to reverse the party's recent electoral defeats and halt the advance of conservative Republican ideology.
Clinton was the marquee attraction among a procession of prospective 2008 Democratic presidential candidates who spoke at the annual summer meeting of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) -- a group that was a springboard for Bill Clinton's first White House bid 13 years ago. She announced that she had taken a new position with the group aimed at winning back heartland voters.
All the prospective candidates emphasized that opposition to President Bush's policies alone will not put the Democrats back in the White House, but it was Clinton who forcefully argued that the Democrats no longer can afford internal strife and must bridge long-standing divisions to regain power.
"We Democrats have not yet succeeded in isolating and defeating the far right, in part because we have allowed ourselves to be split between left, right and center," she said. Noting that the DLC had often been in the forefront of those intraparty battles, she said all Democrats should agree to a truce and unite around shared values, "values violated every day in Washington by the ideologues of the Republican right."
Bill Clinton used his chairmanship of the DLC in the early 1990s to engage in some of those intraparty fights, urging a break from traditional liberalism and emphasizing "New Democrat" themes that foreshadowed his 1992 campaign. But in taking on a central role with the DLC, the New York senator suggested she would use her position less to create intellectual friction in the party than to serve as a voice around whom all Democrats can rally. "It is vital that we bring everyone's positive Democratic progressive ideas to the table," she said.
Although the next presidential campaign is three years away, Monday's session had clear overtones of that coming race. Three other Democrats actively considering running in 2008 -- Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the newly named DLC chairman; Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), the outgoing DLC chairman; and Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, who just concluded a year as chairman of the National Governors Association -- competed with Clinton for attention.
Warner, Vilsack and Bayh -- all current or former governors -- used the meeting to introduce themselves to the delegates as potential national candidates, each testing new themes in carefully crafted speeches. Implicit in all three speeches was the suggestion that they have records demonstrating how to win and govern in places, such as the South and the rural Midwest, where Democrats have faltered in recent presidential elections -- a boast that Hillary Clinton cannot make for herself.
Attendees gave all four prospective candidates good reviews, but the mob scene that surrounded Clinton afterward showed she retains a special position within the party, one that for now seems to transcend the party's ideological camps.
In her speech, Clinton accused Republicans of reversing the course established by Democrats in the 1990s. "They turned our bridge to the 21st century into a tunnel back to the 19th century," she said. Then, with a time-machine metaphor, she offered an idealized vision of America in 2020 after other, presumably Democratic, policies had been put in place.
That America included a more protected homeland, a better-equipped and trained military, and diplomatic reengagement abroad as well as refocused attention on domestic problems such as health care, the budget deficit and strains on families.
Clinton drew a rebuke from the Republican National Committee, where a spokeswoman said her new DLC role could not hide the fact that she has a liberal record in the Senate and before.
Bayh said Democrats should put aside the doubt and denial that has plagued the party since Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) lost to Bush last November. He also said internal party debates about the semantics and framing of messages is largely irrelevant to the real challenge of adapting party principles to the 21st century.
Democrats, he argued, must win public trust on security issues. While there is a right time and a wrong time to use military force, Bayh lamented: "We don't even get to have that discussion because too many of our fellow countrymen out here in the heartland have concluded -- inappropriately, but they've concluded nonetheless -- that we don't have the spine or the backbone to use force even in the face of the most compelling circumstances. And that must change."
Vilsack criticized Bush for misleading the nation before going to war in Iraq and for failing, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to promote a shared sacrifice among all Americans. Noting the sacrifice paid by those who have lost their lives in battle, and their families, he asked: "Is it right, is it fair, is it the American way, to ask a small sliver of our society to bear full responsibility? Is that really affording a sense of community? I think not, and I think it's time for change."
Warner accused Republicans in Washington of being out of touch with the priorities of the rest of the country. "In today's Washington," he said, "politicians work deep into the night to write laws to interfere with the family of Terri Schiavo, but ignore the fact that 45 million Americans have no health care."
He said those kinds of actions have alienated independent and moderate Republican voters, and argued that these voters could be won by Democrats if they back the right policies. Warner, who made a fortune before politics as a telecommunications entrepreneur, said Democrats must show voters they understand the realities of the global economy and how technology has affected America's competitive position in the world.
These realities mean that the "solutions we offered in the 1990s aren't enough," he said. "Sometimes defending the same programs, thinking they're going to get us new results, makes no sense. We need leaders who can see a bit farther down the road."