December 08, 2004

Al From or Howard Dean?

DLC leaders Al From and Bruce Reed describe where they'd like to take the Democrats in an op-ed piece in today's Wall Street Journal ($$ or 2004 WL-WSJ 98743742 if you have Westlaw). Coincidentally, former Vermont governor Howard Dean delivered a major speech today outlining his own vision for the party. It's easy to see after comparing these two statements that the Democrats have a real choice to make.

It is ironic if nothing else that From and Reed would announce their agenda on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. Their solution to the electoral woes of the Democrats consists, predictably, of quickly moving to occupy the still-warm spot on the political spectrum so recently vacated by the Republicans, before that party made their most recent shift to the right.* This "DLC shuffle" has become such a frequent feature of our political experience that it's almost become a caricature--almost. According to From and Reed, the Democrats need to "come to terms with the main reason we lost the red states: too many Americans doubt whether Democrats will be tough enough in the war on terror."

If that's true, the solution would seem to be for the Democrats to find more effective ways of persuading people that fighting to preserve civil rights, and upholding the rule of law, is a grittier and more courageous response to terrorism than unilateral war in Iraq and authoritarian secrecy at home. Despite From and Reed's quite sensible suggestion that the Democrats "put the same muscle into persuasion that we put into turnout," these DLC mavens seem to have forgotten that "persuasion" can't be an end in itself. First, you must believe in what you're trying to persuade people of. The DLC and Bill Clinton have defined the Democrats as the party that stands for nothing. Their only ideal is the electoral strategy of "triangulation," where the Democrats win the Presidency at the expense of their principles. (NAFTA? DADT? "End welfare as we know it?" Pardon Marc Rich?)

The Republicans have courted their base and have persuaded the country from the strength of their convictions to follow them further and further to the right. Al From and Bruce Reed seem to miss the lesson. The only people they seem to dislike more than Republicans is their own base: "to be a grass-roots national party again, we have to realize that grass won't grow in the desert."

The Democrats would do better to listen to Howard Dean:

What I want to know is at what point did it become a radical notion to stand up for what we believe?

Over fifty years ago, Harry Truman said, "We are not going to get anywhere by trimming or appeasing. And we don't need to try it." Yet here we are still making the same mistakes.

Let me tell you something: there's only one thing Republican power brokers want more than for us to lurch to the left -- and that's for us to lurch to the right. What they fear most is that we may really begin fighting for what we believe -- the fiscally responsible, socially progressive values for which Democrats have always stood and fought. . . .

It is time for the Democratic Party to start framing the debate. We have to learn to punch our way off the ropes. We have to set the agenda.

Nothing could be more clear than that the Democrats will never "set the agenda" so long as people like Al From lead the party. He and his DLC brethren have overstayed their welcome; they should be politely escorted off the stage and into retirement as soon as possible. Perhaps they could bend their powers of persuasion toward getting the Wall Street Journal to offer them a regular columnist spot. Who knows. They'd do far less damage to the Democrats if their right-wing criticism came from outside the party.

The Democrats will not miss them. The party has a wealth of potential leaders, not least among them Howard Dean. Dean has a track record, you may remember, of setting the agenda. He championed universal health care in Vermont for years. He still champions it now. Dean was the only major Democratic candidate in the primaries to unambiguously oppose the war in Iraq. That's what it means to set the agenda. Dean is not the only person who can lead a rejuvenated Democratic party, but he is a good example of the kind of person the party badly needs at the helm. Al From and Bruce Reed may be great people, but they are not the kind of people who lead the Democrats out of the wilderness.

Before the Democrats can win back the country, they have to win back their party.

*Ignoring for the moment that Bush is far more radical than he is conservative.

Posted by Carey at December 8, 2004 10:58 PM