Activists Are Out of Step

Al From is the founder and chief executive of the Democratic Leadership Council and Bruce Reed is its president.

These days, Democrats act as if they’re so far gone they’ve forgotten where they’re from.

Every weekend, yet another special-interest group hosts a candidate forum to pressure the presidential candidates into praising its agenda. Some of the candidates seem intent on running applause-meter campaigns, measuring success by how many times they tell the party faithful what they want to hear.

There’s one big problem with this strategy: Most of those party activists the candidates are trying so hard to please are wildly out of touch not only with middle America but with the Democratic rank and file. The great myth of the campaign is the misguided notion that the hopes and dreams of party activists and single-issue groups represent the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. They don’t.


The fact is, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean likes to call it, is an aberration, a modern-day version of the old McGovern wing of the party, defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist interest-group liberalism at home. That wing lost the party 49 states in two elections and turned a powerful national organization into a much weaker, regional one.

The great Democratic tradition is not one of ambivalence and disengagement abroad and reflexive outrage at home. The tradition of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Clinton is built on hope, not fear. Those presidents defined the Democratic Party’s mission not simply by what we’re against but by what we’re for.

Ironically, party activists are out of line not only with their party’s historic tradition but with their fellow Democrats. In 1996, a survey by the Washington Post compared the views of delegates to the Democratic convention with those of ordinary registered Democratic voters. They might as well have come from different parties. On every single social and economic issue, the views of the registered Democrats were closer to those of all registered voters than to those of Democratic delegates.

Almost two-thirds of Democratic delegates wanted to cut defense spending; most registered Democrats did not. A majority of Democratic delegates opposed a five-year time limit for welfare benefits; two-thirds of registered Democrats supported it. Democratic delegates were split on the death penalty; registered Democrats favored it by a margin of more than 2 to 1. These weren’t delegates to the Green Party convention; they were delegates committed to reelecting Bill Clinton, who had sided with rank-and-file Democrats on each of those issues.

Clinton understood what some now seem to forget: Real Democrats aren’t ideologues. They don’t vote to make a statement; they vote hoping to get things done. They want social progress, but they’re not on a social crusade. Most Democrats don’t think they know better than everyone else; they are everyone else.

At its best, the Democratic Party has called America to a higher purpose. FDR saved the world from fascism and saved capitalism from itself. Roosevelt and Truman helped build the largest middle class in history with the GI Bill. JFK got America moving again with challenges, not promises. Clinton expanded opportunity and demanded responsibility in return.

Fortunately, there’s still time for the presidential candidates to build on those great traditions. Six months from now, real voters -- not just activists -- will start voting in real primaries. They won’t be looking for applause lines and promises; they’ll be looking for what Bill Clinton pledged in 1992: “real answers to the real problems of real people.”

We won’t win back the White House by promising to put our special interests first, as this president has promised his, or by telling some people in our party everything they want to hear, instead of challenging all Americans to do more and giving them the chance to do better. Once again, it’s time for the party that built the middle class to step forward as its champion.