The public tug of war among Democrats this week over the Supreme Court nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. underscores the conflicting pressures facing Democratic leaders as they try to satisfy a growing cadre of activists anxious to battle President Bush while avoiding the appearance of being captives of their most vocal constituencies.
The debate over what to do about Roberts is the latest in a series of disagreements over the past three years pitting the party's Washington-based leaders against traditional liberal advocacy groups or the newer world of grass-roots activists stitched together through e-mail and Web logs.
The disputes reflect the frustration and uncertainty of a party that has been routed from power in all three branches of government during the Bush years. There have been disagreements over policy, with widespread anger among activists at Democrats who backed Bush's tax cuts and voted for the war in Iraq.
There are also abiding tensions over what political strategy might be most effective in carrying the party back to power. Some elected officials, according to critics, have been slow to appreciate how the power balance in the Democratic coalition has shifted -- away from established interests and toward citizen activists who tend toward a more aggressive brand of politics.
Party leaders in Washington trying to manage this unruly alliance as they prepare for Roberts's confirmation hearings face a delicate choice, according to party strategists and other analysts. They can risk heading into the 2006 midterm elections with a demoralized base. Or they could potentially turn off swing voters, who may view Bush's nominee in less ideological terms and could recoil at a party they perceive as driven by die-hard activists.
Rank-and-file Democrats "want the Washington party to fight every day on every issue and to fight more effectively and better," said Simon Rosenberg, co-founder of the New Politics Institute, a think tank for progressive politics and new technology. "The truth is, it's going to be hard to fight and win every battle. . . . It's finding that right balance that's going to be the art of keeping our coalition together over the next few years."
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said signs of passivity among Democratic elected leaders on Roberts's nomination are causing genuine distress among activists. "Swing voters aren't very focused on the court," she said, "but contributors and activists are, and think it's an issue that doesn't play a prominent enough role." Sizable Democratic support for Roberts's confirmation, she added, would be "very detrimental" for party morale.
Senate leaders initially adopted a go-slow approach toward Roberts's nomination. That reflected a strategic decision by Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) that kept lawmakers publicly neutral on the nomination but that, as more information about Roberts's record became known, caused considerable unhappiness within the party.
After representatives of several liberal advocacy groups complained Tuesday about what they regarded as a flaccid strategy, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the party's longtime liberal leader, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, issued blistering statements criticizing Roberts's record. They said it is so conservative that it is far outside the ideological mainstream.
Yesterday, conservative interest groups and some Republican leaders condemned Kennedy and Leahy, saying they were letting the groups lead the party. "Someone needs to remind Senators Kennedy and Leahy that their constituents are the American people, not far-left third-party groups in Washington," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said in remarks prepared for delivery in West Virginia and released by his office in Washington.
The divide between the Washington Democratic establishment and the party's activists first manifested itself in 2002, when the activists angrily denounced congressional Democrats for refusing to make Bush's tax cuts an issue in that year's midterm campaigns.
Democratic leaders feared that a campaign to roll back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans could hamper their efforts to win House seats in more rural or conservative districts. But activists saw it as a betrayal of the party's traditional positions on fiscal responsibility and tax fairness.
The fissure became a chasm after the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to go to war against Iraq -- supported by many congressional Democrats but opposed by many grass-roots activists. The disgust with what was seen as a submissive Washington-based leadership helped launch the presidential campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean and first signaled the growing strength of an Internet-based movement of activists who intended to make their voices heard in Washington.
Earlier this month, another quarrel broke out over the party's tactics in a special House election in Ohio, in which Democrat Paul Hackett came within 5,000 votes of upsetting Republican Jean Schmidt in an overwhelmingly GOP district. Hackett enjoyed strong support from progressive bloggers, who helped him raise more than $400,000, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not put money into the race until the final weekend. Some grass-roots activists complained bitterly that the DCCC had missed an opportunity to score a stunning upset.
The worlds of the bloggers and of the liberal advocacy groups are different, but both share concerns that the Washington-based leadership's strategy may condemn Democrats to permanent minority status.
There are several theories explaining why Reid chose the strategy he did on Roberts. The most prevalent is that because Reid had warned Bush against nominating several judges with more ideologically conservative records than Roberts, he felt hamstrung when the president selected Roberts, whose record was far less distinctive. Another is that because Reid opposes abortion, he has been reluctant to lead a fight against Roberts. Reid spokesman Jim Manley rejected those suggestions, saying Roberts will not get a free ride from Senate Democrats. "It's ridiculous to suggest that anyone is going to get an easy time," he said.
Some activists said they hope next month's showdown over Roberts will prove Manley correct. Ben Brandzel, advocacy director for MoveOn.org's political action committee, predicted: "Ultimately, I think the case is going to be pretty clear and compelling, and there's going to be an opportunity for Democrats to show where they stand."