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Clinton’s New Job: Defining the Center

Times Staff Writer

The Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of influential party moderates, on Monday named Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to direct a new initiative to define a party agenda for the 2006 and 2008 elections.

The appointment solidified the identification of Clinton -- once considered a champion of the party’s left -- with the centrist movement that helped propel her husband to the White House in 1992. It also continued her effort, which has accelerated in recent months, to present herself as a moderate on issues such as national security, immigration and abortion.

In her speech at the group’s annual summer meeting, Clinton signaled a desire to retain her independence from any party faction. She called for a truce between the DLC and liberal elements of the party, which have engaged in a ferocious war of words over the Democrats’ direction since President Bush won reelection last year.

“Now, I know the DLC has taken some shots from some within our party, and that it has returned fire too,” she told the gathering in Columbus. “Well, I think it’s high time for a cease-fire -- time for all Democrats to work together based on the fundamental values we all share.”

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The DLC has been struggling to maintain the influence in the party it wielded when Bill Clinton held the White House. Leading party centrists formed the DLC after President Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984 over Walter F. Mondale, who was allied with the most liberal Democratic interest groups.

Clinton assumed her role as head of the DLC’s “American Dream Initiative” at a meeting that drew three other centrist Democrats considered possible 2008 contenders and highlighted the maneuvering already underway for the next presidential race.

Besides Clinton, about 500 elected officials and DLC supporters heard from Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), the group’s outgoing chairman; Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who replaced Bayh this month; and Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner.

The session amounted to one of the first multi-candidate “cattle calls” for potential 2008 contenders. “I thought I was at a New Hampshire J-J dinner,” joked Warner, in a reference to the Jefferson-Jackson Day party dinners that are frequent platforms for Democratic presidential contenders.

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Each of the potential candidates delivered campaign-style speeches that blended criticism of the Bush administration with calls for Democrats to pursue centrist policies on issues such as national defense, energy and the federal budget.

Clinton’s speech was built around an elaborate portrayal of what the country might look like -- on issues from healthcare to domestic security -- to a similar gathering in Ohio 15 years from now. Clinton envisioned a more prosperous and secure future, presumably under Democratic policies. And she charged that President Bush’s agenda was leading America away from that day.

“After more than four years of Republican control, our government has not only gone off track, it has reversed course. They turned our bridge to the 21st century into a tunnel back to the 19th century,” she said in a reference to the central metaphor of her husband’s 1996 reelection campaign.

Vilsack focused on restoring a greater sense of community and “shared sacrifice” among citizens. Bayh emphasized the need to convince Americans that Democrats could effectively safeguard national security, and Warner stressed the economic competition with rising nations such as China and India. “The race is on for the future,” he declared.

Those in the audience generally liked what they heard. “We are going to be able to field an A-team in 2008,” said Louis Magazzu, a New Jersey Democratic official.

Clinton’s appointment to the DLC position underscores her complex role in the party. During the early years of her husband’s presidency, she was widely seen as a champion of the left, especially after she developed the administration’s unsuccessful plan to guarantee universal healthcare in 1993.

As a senator, she has generally stressed more centrist themes -- for instance, by calling for increased border security. That has raised some eyebrows on the left, though it has not yet precipitated much public criticism. Even so, Clinton remains a lightning rod for conservatives, many of whom believe she would inspire a large backlash vote on the right if she wins the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

Despite the calls for unity from Clinton, Bayh and other speakers, the day underscored continuing divisions among Democrats about how to rebuild at a time when Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress.

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Although many liberal activists insist the party’s highest priority must be to block Bush’s initiatives, DLC officials argue that Democrats would not rebound until they detail their own agenda.

“I think the nation fully understands what we are against,” Vilsack said in an interview. “I think it is incumbent now to show what we are for.”

The DLC helped formulate key “New Democrat” ideas for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, such as welfare reform and national service. Clinton was the group’s chairman from 1990 through 1991 and brought many figures involved with it into his two administrations.

Since Clinton left office, a broad array of liberal activists, many of them clustered around left-leaning websites such as the Daily Kos, have accused the DLC of weakening the party by advocating positions they say have blurred distinctions with the GOP. These include support for the Iraq war and free-trade policies.

David Sirota, a Democratic consultant who has his own liberal Web log, responded to news of the “American Dream Initiative” by warning that Democrats would be doomed to “permanent minority status” if they followed the DLC direction.

“The fact is, the Democratic Party has to make a choice: Is it going to continue to follow the DLC, be a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America, and lose elections for the infinite future,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Or is it going to go back to its roots of really representing the middle class and standing up for ordinary people’s economic rights?”

Clinton, emphasizing her links to groups across the party, said that she would reach out not only to centrists, but “progressive people from all perspectives” to prepare her blueprint, which is due in one year. But the remarks from Sirota show the challenge of devising a program that attracts broad support across the party.

Indeed, Al From, the DLC founder, said in an interview that the plan was not intended to “be a lowest common denominator agenda,” assembled simply by compromising among elements of the party.

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All this suggests strains could develop between Clinton’s desire, as a potential 2008 contender, to write a plan popular with as wide an array of Democrats as possible and the DLC’s hope of crafting a sharply focused, centrist political roadmap.


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