The Democratic Winter Forum: The Split Goes Public


I had my doubts when Howard Dean accepted the chair of the Democratic National Committee. When he took it over, it was a largely ceremonial/administrative position with little public exposure and even less real power. I thought it was at least possible that he was burying himself in a meaningless position so he could work on his pet project: netizenship.

In retrospect, I should have known better. It’s beginning to look now as if he had nothing less in mind than using the DNC as a platform from which to push the Democrats back to their populist roots and re-make it as the Party of the People.

I can’t prove it and I haven’t seen it anywhere else yet, but I suspect that it is Dean who’s behind the emerging bi-polarity of the Democratic Party. For that reason, and for convenience, I will call the two sides the “DNC wing” (center-left) and the “DLC wing” (center-right). The outlines of the split began coming into focus yesterday at a Party forum arranged by Dean’s DNC. Six candiates – the two in the top tier, one from the second level, and three others who barely register on the radar yet – were the first to speak (there will be more today), and between them they marked the boundaries of the split as clearly as dogs pissing on trees.

Hillary got most of the attention, of course – and no doubt will get most of the press – but she didn’t lead off as might have been expected. In a brilliant piece of political positioning, Dean put relative unknown – at least on the national stage – Chris Dodd front and center.

Y’all probably don’t know Chris Dodd but in New England we know him. He’s been around representing Connecticut for 30 years, first in the House and then as a Senator. Nationally, he’s kept a pretty low profile, but he was instrumental more than once in saving HeadStart from the Gingrich/Clinton chopping blocks in the 90’s, and his was one of the few Democratic voices raised against Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” package. When maverick liberal Republican Lowell Weicker was smashed by the Gingrich ideology machine and Lee Atwater’s dirty tricks during Poppy Bush’s ugly 1988 campaign, Dodd stepped up and took his place as the icon of the center-left in Connecticut. He’s tough, honest, and about as progressive as Democrats are allowed to get under the DLC’s massive thumb – he’s too senior, too powerful, to just step on.

The last few years he’s taken a slightly higher public profile, making numerous appearances on the Sunday talk shows discussing everything from Iraq to children’s issues to the budget. He doesn’t mince words much, as this excerpt from his speech yesterday demonstrates.

Dodd, the leadoff speaker, demanded that Democrats, who now control Congress, do more than pass a nonbinding resolution on Iraq that is soon to be up for debate.

“Frankly, I am disappointed that we can’t find a way to do more than send a meaningless message to the White House — a White House, I would add, that has said it will ignore anything that we have to say about the war in Iraq,” Dodd said. “The American people sent us a message this past November; the voters were clear. They want a change in the policy in Iraq.”

That’s Dodd all over. If he ever gets any traction, watch out. He’s the kind of candidate the base could get behind – if they knew who he was….

John Edwards, the Straddler, spoke next. Edwards is the only candidate who keeps a foot in both camps while trying to carve out a message that is clealy more in tune with the DNC than the DLC. It’s a highwire balancing act Edwards is engaged in, bowing to party (DLC) discipline as VP candidate in ’04 yet forging his own attack based on his “Two Americas” theme – an uncomfortable one for the DLC, which has to keep explaining “he doesn’t mean it” to their corporate donors.

Edwards, like Hillary, has a little “war” problem: he supported it after saying he wouldn’t. I suspect that was the DLC enforcing discipline again. If there’s one thing that terrifies the DLC, it’s a Democrat willing to stand up to Bush. Edwards, unfortunately, folded, but he managed nevertheless to maintain some independence from the Republican-Lite policies of the DLC wing. Maybe that was the deal they cut: “Support the war and we’ll let you talk about corporate control of the country – a little – and that ‘Two Americas’ stuff about how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Then, during the campaign itself, they made sure he was buried on the back page while Good Soldier Kerry was up front pushing all the DLC talking points.

But whoever was responsible for Edwards’ capitulation, he has used it to position himself as a compromise candidate acceptable to both sides. If indeed the DNC is getting to a place where it can challenge the hegemony of the DLC, Edwards could, likely would, be the one both sides go to to break the stalemate. Smack in the middle of the two, his message resonates with the base while avoiding outright confrontation with the Blue Dog corporate wing represented by the DLC and those all-important, if mythical, swing voters whose unending vacillation is the source of their power. In American politics, it’s the people who can’t decide that make all the decisions.

Next to Obama, Edwards is probably the most charismatic speaker in the Democratic Party, and he was, by all accounts, in fine form yesterday.

Edwards, who made no reference to his initial support for the war while he was in the Senate, called for Democrats to block the troop buildup, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words during the Vietnam War that “silence is betrayal.” But he said the White House is counting on Democrats not to fight the new deployments.

“They don’t think we have the backbone and courage to stand up to them,” he said. “They don’t think we are in this to stop the escalation of this war and to bring our men and women home from Iraq. They’re counting on us to be weak, to be political and to be careful. This is not the time for political calculation.”

This challenge, echoing Dodd’s, was followed in short order by a direct slap at Clinton and the DLC.

We have always been the party of promise who stood with the working man and woman, the party of hope who stood with the needy, the party of compassion who stood with the young and the old and the frail. It is who we are. In times like these, we don’t need to redefine the Democratic Party; we need to reclaim the Democratic Party!

You can watch the speech – and it’s worth it – at Edwards’ blog.

Hillary was next and, as you might expect, she was all about winning – that patented DLC “I’m applying for a job and here’s my resume and why you should hire me” corporate-style approach to campaigning that worked soooo-ooo well its last two trips out.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York presented herself as a tough, experienced pragmatist.

***

Addressing the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting, Clinton put further distance between herself and President Bush on Iraq. “I want to be very clear about this,” she said. “If I had been president in October of 2002, I would not have started this war. . . . If we in Congress don’t end this war before January 2009, as president, I will.”

Maybe she wouldn’t have started it but she sure did support the guy who did. That’s not going to be easy to roll around. There’s a sizable chunk of the activist base that has neither forgiven nor forgotten her shameful role in convincing her Democratic colleagues that voting their consciences was “impractical”. As it turned out, voting their consciences would not only have been the right thing to do but the politically smart thing to do, and Hillary was wrong again. She often is.

Her main message to the Democratic faithful was “I know how to win.” You couldn’t prove it by me. She beat Al D’Amato when he was at his weakest and could have been beaten by a hedgehog as long as he could prove he wasn’t corrupt. Then she beat the single lamest candidate the NY Republican Party has ever put up for US Senator, a man known only to Pub activists and who had lost every other election he’d ever run in. This is not all that strong a record. The seat for NY’s US Senator was the safest seat she could have chased, which is why she moved them to NY to run for it, and her wins don’t prove a goddamn thing. Given the number of times she’s been wrong about such things, her assurances ring kind of hollow.

As a Founder and ranking member of the DLC, she must bear some of the responsibility for helping to forge strategies and tactics for Gore and Kerry that failed miserably. That she is obviously planning to repeat those failed strategies in her own campaign (“Let the Conversation Begin”, gimme a break) is disheartening at best and disingenuous at worst. How many times do these people have to lose before they figure out what that they’re doing doesn’t work?

Barack Obama, who so far as I can tell seems to be running less for President than for DLC Poster Boy, appears to have been somewhat less inspiring than usual yesterday. Maybe he was all worn out after the whirlwind that followed his announcement that he was going to be advocating for a specific date for troop withdrawl – March 31, 2008, 13 months from now. It was a gutsy call and a good political move in the current atmosphere but something of a stage show: there’s little or no chance that such a resolution could actually pass, even in the House, and as a mere campaign ploy it’s unlikely to get much long-term attention unless he makes it the centerpiece (and maybe not then).

In any case, if the WaPo reporting is correct, he tripped over his own tongue yesterday.

Obama, who called this week for combat troops to be out of Iraq by March 31, 2008, said criticism of the president alone is no longer a sufficient strategy for Democrats. “It was enough to run against George Bush during this past congressional election,” he said. “It will not be enough now. . . . Every candidate for office in the next election should put forward in clear, unambiguous, uncertain terms exactly how they plan to get out of Iraq.”

Um, “uncertain terms”? That isn’t what you meant to say, surely. You can’t be suggesting that Democrats ought to be uncertain about what to do, can you?

I’m sure it was a slip, and it may not mean anything except that he was tired. But then, a presidential campaign that starts 2 years before the actual election is a grueling, exhaustion-producing marathon that few who begin it survive. Obama is young and inexperienced, leaving the potential for rampant foot-in-mouth a constant concern.

The last two speakers were Wes Clark and Dennis Kucinich. The first is largely an unknown quantity and the latter has already lost. Dennis has been right about almost everything from the beginning, and that’s the kiss of death. Worse, he refuses to toady the DLC even a little bit, so he has zero support in the party. That Dean put him on at all was probably due to his candidacy – if he hadn’t announced already, I doubt he would have been there. It’s a testament to Dean’s fairness, if nothing else: if the DLC had been running the show, Dennis would have been locked in a closet, candidacy or no.

What we can take away from all this is that the battle lines in the Democratic Party are being drawn even as we speak. At the moment, of those on the stage yesterday, we have four viable, even strong, candidates: one representing the DNC populist wing, two representing the DLC corporate wing, and one fence-sitter waiting for an opening.

Quite a difference from the recent past. At the very least, one is justified in hoping that the DLC will get knocked off its rocking horse and cut down to a size more suitable for a group of Democrats who would really rather be Republicans if only they weren’t so slimy.

7 responses to “The Democratic Winter Forum: The Split Goes Public

  1. RE: Hillary and D’Amato —

    Geez, dude, you gotta keep your corrupt and amoral New York Republicans straight! (I know, I know, there are so damn many of them. It’s tough, honestly. )

    Hillary didn’t run against Senator Pothole in ’98; that was Chuck Schumer, who beat the snot out of D’Amato 55% to 44%. The corrupt and amoral Republican she personally defeated for her Senate seat was Rick Lazio, who stood in for Rudy Giuliani, another corrupt and amoral Republican whose amoral ways came back to haunt him in the form of prostate cancer. (Now, the man who dumped his first wife so he could use his second, Donna Hanover, to advance his career — she was a big NYC TV personality — then dumped her for a string of mistresses while booting his second wife and their kids out of Gracie Mansion, is no longer able to get it up even with a crane. Awwww.)

    Here’s how to tell them apart: Al is bald and wears glasses in public, Rudy is bald and does not, and Ricky has a full head of hair and no glasses yet. There!

  2. Of course it was Lazio. Now I remember. He was the one who offered her an Altoid at a debate, or something.

    Geez, dude, you gotta keep your corrupt and amoral New York Republicans straight!

    I know, I know. I sort of have the excuse that I don’t live in NY, but then I live in Mass and have the same trouble keeping my corrupt and amoral Mass Rep/Dems straight. (It’s very confusing here because everybody’s a Dem in name even if they vote with the Pubs and would be a Pub if they thought they could get elected that way. But they can’t, so the Dems are Democrats and so are the Republicans.)

    Maybe I should concentrate on NY instead. It sounds easier – and more fun!

  3. It is true, though, that Hillary probably first got the idea that she could Win Big when she went around campaigning with Schumer in 1998 — the message being: “Hey, do you want the Republicans to STFU about my husband and the wench who was tube-steaking him? I sure do, and you probably do, too. Then why not get rid of the assclown who’s been hollering the loudest about it in the Senate — Al D’Amato!” Worked a treat, it did. (And I say this as a person who is not particularly fond of the DLC Diva.)

    I’m in Minnesota, where while our exurbs and some rural areas are pretty conservative (though we just got a pretty good guy in Tim Walz in the First CD), the Metro area is as blue as blue can be, so that Republicans have the same problem as do yours — they have to run as Democrats to get anywhere. (Norm Coleman won the mayor’s office in St. Paul as a Democrat, then turned coats and ran for Congress, then the Senate. He’s ripe for picking off in 2008.)

    Oh, and if there is still a democratic America in two hundred years from now, future historians will look to Howard Dean as The Man Who Saved Our Collective Bacon. I backed him for president, but I really think that he’s much better off where he is right now, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. He has performed the brilliant ju-jitsu move of taking the state orgs away from the DC insiders, by the simple expedients of 1) letting them keep some of their own money, and 2) helping them to make more of it. That, and his backing (along with his brother Jim over at DFA) of the Clean Elections movement (www.PublicCampaign.org) will be what finally rips control away from the corporate goons in time to save us all from extinction.

  4. …if there is still a democratic America in two hundred years from now…

    I’m not convinced there’s a democratic America NOW.

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