The liberals' hope that Democrats can win back the presidency by drawing sharp ideological contrasts and energizing the partisan base is a fantasy that could cripple the party's efforts to return to power, according to a new study by two prominent Democratic analysts.
In the latest shot in a long-running war over the party's direction -- an argument turned more passionate after Democrat John F. Kerry's loss to President Bush last year -- two intellectuals who have been aligned with former president Bill Clinton warn that the only way back to victory is down the center.
Democrats must "admit that they cannot simply grow themselves out of their electoral dilemmas," wrote William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck, in a report released yesterday. "The groups that were supposed to constitute the new Democratic majority in 2004 simply failed to materialize in sufficient number to overcome the right-center coalition of the Republican Party."
Since Kerry's defeat, some Democrats have urged that the party adopt a political strategy more like one pursued by Bush and his senior adviser, Karl Rove -- which emphasized robust turnout of the party base rather than relentless, Clinton-style tending to "swing voters."
But Galston and Kamarck, both of whom served in the Clinton White House, said there are simply not enough left-leaning voters to make this a workable strategy. In one of their more potentially controversial findings, the authors argue that the rising numbers and influence of well-educated, socially liberal voters in the Democratic Party are pulling the party further from most Americans.
On defense and social issues, "liberals espouse views diverging not only from those of other Democrats, but from Americans as a whole. To the extent that liberals now constitute both the largest bloc within the Democratic coalition and the public face of the party, Democratic candidates for national office will be running uphill."
Galston and Kamarck -- whose work was sponsored by Third Way, a group working with Senate Democrats on centrist policy ideas -- are critical of three other core liberal arguments:
* They warn against overreliance on a strategy of solving political problems by "reframing" the language by which they present their ideas, as advocated by linguist George Lakoff of the University of California at Berkeley: "The best rhetoric will fail if the public rejects the substance of a candidate's agenda or entertains doubts about his integrity."
* They say liberals who count on rising numbers of Hispanic voters fail to recognize the growing strength of the GOP among Hispanics, as well as the growing weakness of Democrats with white Catholics and married women.
* They contend that Democrats who hope the party's relative advantages on health care and education can vault them back to power "fail the test of political reality in the post-9/11 world." Security issues have become "threshold" questions for many voters, and cultural issues have become "a prism of candidates' individual character and family life," Galston and Kamarck argue.
Their basic thesis is that the number of solidly conservative Republican voters is substantially larger that the reliably Democratic liberal voter base. To win, the argument goes, Democrats must make much larger inroads among moderates than the GOP.
Galston, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, and Kamarck, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, in 1989 wrote the influential paper, "The Politics of Evasion," which helped set the stage for Clinton's presidential bid and the prominent role of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. In some ways, the report released yesterday showed how difficult the debate is to resolve.
Their recommendations are much less specific than their detailed analysis of the difficulties facing the Democratic Party.
They suggest that Democratic presidential candidates replicate Clinton's tactics in 1992, when he broke with the party's liberal base by approving the execution of a semi-retarded prisoner, by challenging liberal icon Jesse L. Jackson and by calling for an end to welfare "as we know it."