Democrats Split Again Over Party’s Agenda

Times Staff Writer

The truce appears to be expiring among Democrats in Washington.

In the immediate aftermath of Sen. John F. Kerry’s loss to President Bush in November, Democrats notably avoided the postelection squabbling that’s consumed the party after almost all recent presidential races -- even those it won.

But as the new year begins, a series of high-profile articles in leading liberal journals is suddenly reopening old divisions.


On one front, a liberal operative at a top think tank has accused the Democratic Leadership Council, the principal organization of party centrists, of pushing the party toward a pro-corporate agenda “that sells out America’s working class -- the demographic that used to be the party’s base.”

In equally combative terms, a leading young centrist commentator published a manifesto in the New Republic magazine accusing the Democratic left of slighting the struggle against Islamic terrorism and undermining the party’s image on security -- an argument instantly embraced and promoted by the Democratic Leadership Council.

In the near-term, the Democratic desire to unify in opposition to almost all of Bush’s agenda is likely to take the edge off these disagreements.

But these twin firefights, which have inspired volleys of responses, Web postings and e-mails, reflect enduring divisions over strategy, message and policy that could influence the race for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee next month and are certain to loom over the contest for the presidential nomination in 2008.

“There is a big fight about the direction of the Democratic Party still going on, and these are big documents in that fight,” says Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future.

For Democrats struggling to recover after an election that saw Bush reelected and Republicans gain greater control of the House and Senate, these two disputes highlight the most basic choices facing the party on domestic and foreign issues.

These disputes follow an election in which the party largely avoided factional discord. Although former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s bid for the nomination divided liberals and centrists early in 2004, the burning desire to oust Bush united them behind Kerry during the general election.

“We were all working for the same causes,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council.

Democrats have now moved back to the barricades, at least in their intellectual circles. The lines of battle evident in these disputes also could resurface in the race for the DNC chairmanship, which will pit liberals Dean and party operative Harold M. Ickes against centrists such as former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer and Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist New Democrat Network.

The domestic squabble extends a long-standing dispute about how heavily Democrats should rely on anti-corporate and anti-free-trade economic populism in their message.

During the 1990s, many liberals felt that Clinton abandoned class-conscious themes by supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement and a balanced federal budget. Conversely, in 2000, centrists charged that Al Gore fissured Clinton’s winning coalition by reverting to a populist message that they believe drove away affluent social moderates.

Liberal essayist Thomas Frank gave that old controversy new fuel this year with his bestselling book “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.”

In that book and a pair of articles immediately after the election, Frank insisted that undiluted populism built on opposition to free trade and denunciations of corporate power offered Democrats their best hope of regaining ground among culturally conservative voters drawn to Republican positions on social issues like gun control and gay marriage.

In the last month, David Sirota, an aggressive young party operative, echoed that message in a pair of pugilistic articles in the American Prospect and the Nation. Economic populism, Sirota wrote, represented “the Democrats’ very own Da Vinci Code -- a road map to political divinity.”

Sirota was previously best known for deluging reporters with e-mails criticizing Republicans. He sent those first as a spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee and then as director of strategic communications for the Center for American Progress, a new Democratic think tank.

But his two articles were perhaps most striking for the intensity of their attacks on centrist Democrats. Like Frank, but with even more ferocity, Sirota condemned the Democratic Leadership Council, which was founded to promote centrist policies after Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984.

Sirota denounced the council as “corporate sponsored” and committed to ideas on trade, taxes and business regulation that help its “wealthy cronies” and abandon the Democrats’ historic working-class base while “pulling the party further and further out of the mainstream.”

More explicitly than most liberal critics, Sirota also criticized Bill Clinton, whose “New Democrat” agenda was heavily influenced by the council’s thinking. Clinton’s “embrace of a big-business agenda arguably did as much long-term damage to the Democratic Party’s moral platform as any of [his] ... sex scandals or the battles over social issues,” Sirota wrote.

That turned heads because the Center for American Progress, where Sirota now serves as a fellow, was founded by John Podesta, Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, with a substantial assist from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Sirota’s broadside inspired plenty of return fire.

Matthew Yglesias, a writer at the liberal American Prospect, accused Sirota of misrepresenting the Democratic Leadership Council’s positions on a range of issues.

Ed Kilgore, the council’s policy director, wrote a lengthy response arguing that economic populism wasn’t a “silver bullet” to recapture voters who doubt the party’s positions on social and national security issues.

Marshall, in an interview, said the populism promoted by Sirota, Frank and like-minded liberals doesn’t even meet the economic agenda of middle-income voters.

“The problem is that turning up the heat on corporate malefactors works with ... upscale Democrats, professionals, the academic class,” he said. “It doesn’t work for the audience the left thinks will be swayed by it, working middle-class families who aspire to better lives and want to know what Democratic policies will help them achieve it.”

While this argument has been smoldering, Peter Beinart, editor of the New Republic, opened another front in the party’s ideological conflict. His cover piece in the Dec. 13 issue urged Democrats to strike a much more hawkish stance in the war against terrorism.

Most provocatively, Beinart urged Democrats to “take back their movement” from antiwar elements in the party that he called “softs,” a group that included filmmaker Michael Moore and, the giant online liberal advocacy group that led opposition to the Iraq war.

Beinart’s cri de coeur drew applause from the Democratic Leadership Council, which raised similar arguments in the December issue of its Blueprint magazine.

But it inspired a firm response from MoveOn, whose two founders wrote in the most recent New Republic that Beinart was proposing “a wholesale embrace of the neoconservative ideology.”

With Iraq still in turmoil, both liberals and centrists believe this fight over foreign policy could be even more divisive for Democrats in 2005 than the disputes over economic policy and populism.

“What Beinart is saying is we need to purge from the party the people who got the war in Iraq right,” charged Borosage, of the Campaign for America’s Future. “That is not going to happen, but the [attempt] to make it happen, which the [Democratic Leadership Council] has now embraced, will be a brutal fight.”