Past Tense

The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party convenes here today at a national conference sponsored by the liberal Campaign for America's Future. The gathering comes not a moment too soon, not only because the party's progressive base needs to assert and renew its principles, but also because it has come under assault lately from its intra-party adversaries.

In a recent memo addressed to "Leading Democrats," Al From and Bruce Reed, the leaders of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, have all but read the party's activists out of the human race. Purporting to dispel some noxious myths about the Democrats, they write, "Real Democrats are real people, not activist elites."

When exactly party activists ceased to be real people they do not specify. It's easier to identify when the DLC began to demonize the Democrats' foot soldiers: That began in 1985, in the wake of Walter Mondale's overwhelming defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan.

That the Democrats needed some midcourse corrections in the 1980s is beyond dispute. But From and Reed seem determined to keep saving the party from woolly-headed lefty purists of yore -- whether or not their caricature bears the slightest resemblance to today's liberals. Purporting to shatter "dangerous myths," they actually spin a couple of their own.

First, they argue, Democrats only lose when they fail to appeal to the center of the spectrum. Actually, Democrats have perfected myriad ways to lose. Just as they estranged moderate voters in 1972, when George McGovern went down to a resounding defeat, they also failed to rally their core supporters in the debacles of 1994 and 2002, the first of which turned Congress over to the Republicans, the second of which gave it to them again. In 1994, the backlash against the Democrats' failure to enact health insurance was augmented by union members' discontent with the Democrats' success at enacting NAFTA. Union household voting declined to a scant 14 percent share of the electorate. In 2002, the Los Angeles Times exit polls and precinct analyses made clear that African Americans and Latinos constituted a smaller share of the electorate than they had in years. The fact that the Democrats had no message whatever, that they had failed to draw clear lines of distinction between themselves and a radical-right Republican regime, doubtless contributed to the collapse of the Democratic base. As Lear told Cordelia, "Nothing will come of nothing" -- and it did.

Reed and From don't argue, of course, that Democrats advocate nothing, but they do take umbrage when Democrats advocate something. In their memo, they excoriate Dick Gephardt for proposing a big-ticket health care plan.

Ironically, Gephardt's plan, which would expand the current system's coverage, is nowhere so radical as Bill Clinton's, which would have supplanted it. The DLC often chooses to forget that in 1992, Clinton (then as now the DLC's favorite son) ran not only to differentiate himself from some traditional Democratic positions, such as support for welfare, but also to renew and expand others, among them health care and an economic stimulus program. This year, the Democrats can only benefit from offering voters a major program that will make health care more attainable, affordable and secure.

The DLC leaders also believe that liberals would rather have a candidate who's right (that is, left) than a president. But this myth is based on a spuriously narrow concept of electability and a willful misreading of what today's liberals actually believe. If Joe Lieberman is the only major Democratic presidential candidate whom liberals really don't want to see nominated, that's not only a function of philosophical differences but also because they see Lieberman as an Election Day loser. Lieberman is the only candidate who has forsworn all populism, and for whom the very notion of playing class politics -- even against an administration that has unceasingly waged class politics in behalf of the rich to the detriment of everyone else -- is anathema.

In their zeal to demonize liberals, though, From and Reed miss the pragmatism that informs today's movement. On health care, the Campaign for America's Future manifesto argues that "the most sensible strategy [for a Democratic candidate] is to ask voters for a mandate for affordable care, vowing to put the leaders of both parties into a room until they emerge with a plan that addresses prices and guaranteed affordable care to all."

What the DLC duo misses above all is the degree to which the radicalism of the current administration has concentrated the liberal mind on the need to unseating Bush in next year's election. Greens are even talking about lining up behind the Democrat. If From and Reed weren't so bent on fighting yesterday's wars, they would understand that the party's Democratic wing and its electable wing are really one and the same.

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the Prospect.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

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