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Democrats Seek to Outmaneuver Republicans by Imitating Their Strategy

For inspiration, Democrats these days appear to be looking more to Newt Gingrich than to Dick Gephardt, more to Bill Kristol than to Al From, and more to George W. Bush than Bill Clinton.

Democrats aren’t taking ideological cues from these Republican leaders. It’s their tactics and political strategy that’s attracting Democrats.

Over roughly the last 15 years -- but especially since Bush’s election in 2000 -- Republicans have imposed a level of order and unified direction on their party unmatched in recent history. Recovering from the drift and division that crippled George H.W. Bush’s presidency, Republicans have molded themselves into a party with a common conservative ideology that largely follows central direction from the White House and congressional leadership and punishes dissent on its top priorities, like tax cuts.

The systems of control aren’t absolute, as the congressional hesitation about Bush’s proposal to restructure Social Security demonstrates. But the party has constructed powerful levers to encourage loyalty. The House leadership has discouraged defection by forcing competition for chairmanships and seats on prized committees. The conservative Club for Growth has reinforced that discipline by running primary campaigns against incumbent Republicans who wavered on Bush’s proposals. Bush has provided more glue by restricting his agenda to ideas (with rare exceptions, such as immigration reform) broadly popular among Republicans.

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All this has severely suppressed dissent. During Bush’s first term, about 90% of House and Senate Republicans sided with the majority of their party on key votes, according to Congressional Quarterly. That far exceeds the level of loyalty displayed by congressional Democrats in Clinton’s first years -- or even Republicans during President Reagan’s first term.

Traditionally, U.S. political parties have operated as diffuse, disputatious confederacies. The GOP today more resembles the tightly regimented parties in a parliamentary system like Britain’s.

“I think we’re going to look back and say what we’re seeing in the Republican Party today is a different kind of party -- something completely new,” said Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek.

Democrats, traditionally as easy to discipline as cats, aren’t nearly so close to such a synchronized system. But increasingly that appears their goal.

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After Bush won reelection and helped the GOP gain Senate and House seats in the red states, many analysts thought moderate Democrats from those conservative areas would sue for a separate peace by breaking from the party to cooperate with him.

Bush did split Democrats last week on legislation restricting class-action lawsuits -- 18 Senate Democrats joined with Republicans to pass the bill. But mostly, Democrats have unified behind a fervent resistance to Bush, which discourages internal dissent and aims more at mobilizing their core supporters than converting swing voters.

That direction is evident from the near-unanimous opposition among Democrats to Bush’s Social Security and budget plans and the selection Saturday of Howard Dean, the left’s great hope of the 2004 presidential campaign, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

In each particular, the emerging Democratic strategy draws more on GOP precedents than the Democrats’ own tactics during the 1990s.

Those Democrats urging scorched-earth opposition to Bush’s central proposals cite the relentless attacks by Gingrich, then the House minority whip, against the Democratic congressional majority through the early 1990s and the successful efforts by GOP strategist Kristol to deter Republicans from cooperating with Clinton on healthcare reform.

To discourage dissent, Democrats are also adapting Republican techniques. Though still not as tough as the GOP, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is moving more forcefully than Gephardt, her predecessor, to threaten Democrats who back Bush with the loss of prized committee seats.

Privately, Democratic interest groups have discussed the creation of a liberal equivalent to the Club for Growth that would campaign against defecting Democrats. The online liberal behemoth MoveOn.org is already targeting ads at the one House Democrat -- Florida’s Allen Boyd -- backing Bush on Social Security.

Any Democrats who support Bush’s Social Security proposals will “face real consequences from the base of the party,” warns Robert Borosage, co-

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director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future.

More fundamentally, Bush’s success is provoking more Democrats to challenge the party’s central electoral assumption of the 1990s. Clinton and his allies in the “New Democrat” movement (like From, the founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council) argued Democrats could win only by devising an agenda that appealed both to their base and moderate swing voters.

But Bush led a GOP 2004 sweep while pursuing a staunchly ideological agenda that polls showed many moderates resisted. He remained competitive with centrist voters -- by stressing leadership and strength -- and won mostly by generating enormous turnout from his base.

That model has led more Democrats to question whether the Clintonite focus on the center remains the best strategy.

“Is this what got Bush elected?” one Dean supporter wrote recently on a pro-Dean website. Are “Bush ... and others in this administration soft-spoken and middle of the road?”

Plenty of Democrats still worry that this drive for greater unity and ideological consistency, if it becomes a lurch left, could hurt the party by repelling voters in red states whom the next nominee will need to win the White House. For now, these doubters are reassuring each other that a presidential candidate determined to court the center (paging Sen. Hillary Clinton!) can redirect the party in 2008.

Maybe. But right now, the loudest voices in the Democratic Party belong to those clamoring less for another Clinton than for their own Bush.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.

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