Partisan salvos are being fired across the country, while divisions in America’s oldest political party strain its cohesion. As the national opposition party during most of the past three decades, the Democrats’ liberal catechism has drifted further and further from its earlier majoritarian base.
Although Jimmy Carter won a single term as president following Watergate, the only truly successful recent Democrat has been Bill Clinton. Mr. Clinton broke from liberal orthodoxy to campaign and govern from the political center from 1993 to 2001. His vice president, Al Gore, was nominated to succeed him, but campaigned to the left, and lost.
These are not ordinary times. The nation is, and has been since September 11, at war. There was a clear consensus to conduct a military operation in Afghanistan to punish the perpetrators of the attack against the United States. A worldwide contagion of terrorism continued, and military action was conducted in Iraq. As in Afghanistan, the military campaign went very well and quickly, and compared to previous American military actions since 1917, the casualties were limited. Because the terrorist enemy is a transnational outlaw force, however, the postmilitary occupations have been problematic, casualties have continued and public support has become somewhat ambivalent.
Throughout this same period, the American economy has been in a moderate recession with relatively severe unemployment. Just as President Clinton inherited a nascent recovering economy in 1993, President Bush inherited an exhausted bubble economy sinking into a much-needed correction. The economic woes of the country, however, seemed subordinated to the international crisis facing the country in the first three years of the Bush administration, and the president’s popularity, mostly due to his role as commander in chief, soared. By mid-2003, however, the Democrats sensed that the problems in Iraq, together with the still-ailing economy, had made the president vulnerable. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean not only had opposed action in Iraq from the outset, but he adopted the class-warfare rhetoric of the populist left. With innovative use of the Internet, Mr. Dean rose from obscurity and took the lead among his rivals.
The Democratic Party is composed of three general groups — the populist left, the liberals and the centrists. All three groups were furious about the 2000 presidential election and share an intense hatred for Mr. Bush. But some of the liberals and most of the centrists do not share the antibusiness and isolationist views of the liberal party base. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), have been at the center of new thinking in the party, and were the source of many of Mr. Clinton’s policy ideas inthe1990s.These moderates and centrists have little common ground with the party’s populists. Having urged military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq before Mr. Bush took action, these centrist Democrats find the isolationists defeatist and unacceptable. It is hard to imagine how these groups within the Democratic Party can coexist when the party holds its convention in Boston next July. The DLC, Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Evan Bayh of Indiana and other moderates have already put forward a new Democratic foreignpolicycalled progressive internationalism, a third way between the left isolationists and the Bush pre-emptivists. Whether or not it is a better doctrine than Mr. Bush’s, it is clearly a confrontation with the Democratic left.
The New York Times recently reported in a front-page story that Democratic strategists have concluded that current economic arguments against the Bush administration may seem weak next year, when the economy may be recovering and unemployment falling. A shift to attack the administration on its performance in Iraq, some strategists are reported to have decided, is now necessary.
However unhappy many Americans are at the continued casualties in Iraq and the temporary inability to contain guerrilla terrorists, there is no evidence yet that Americans are willing to pull out of Iraq, conceding our dead and wounded have been spent for nothing. This would invite terrorists to renew their assault on the world’s democracies.
Furthermore, there remain many Democrats who strongly support the American actions abroad, and the goals of defeating terrorism now before it regroups and strikes again. In recent weeks, DLC leaders and other Democrats have advocated new party approaches to gun control, abortion and reaching out to Americans of religious faith. Seventeen Democratic senators voted for the bill outlawing partial-birth abortion. Retiring Democratic Sen. Zell Miller has just published a serious book damning his party’s off-center public policies.
The three groups in the Democratic Party are polarizing now into two groups, and their takes on the world are fundamentally at odds. Perhaps one of the presidential candidates can yet resolve these differences and unite the party in and after Boston. If not, it’s going to get uglier than the mere incivility of the campaign rhetoric so far. As in 1860, the Democratic Party could split in two over deep national issues, and make the election result foregone. Watch out for large shipments of tea through Boston Harbor next July.
-This article originally appeared in The Washington Times on November 16th, 2003.