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August 22, 2005
The Coming Democratic Split?

While the media has focused on the low polling numbers for George Bush in recent weeks and have their analysts working overtime talking about how that could result in election setbacks in 2006 and 2008, scant attnetion has been cast on the Democrats and their inability to take advantage of the situation. Two articles in two different newspapers explain why the opposition cannot gain traction on Republican setbacks, as the Democrats continue to struggle through a ferocious power struggle fed by their DNC chief and the radical activists that back him. The Washington Post and the New York Times picks up on this battle, but look at it superficially in terms of specific issues rather than as the gestalt of the party itself.

Both articles get headlines that start, "Democrats Split," but the Post looks at the war while the Times analyzes Democratic strategy on the Roberts nomination. The Post notes that the war has given the Democrats an opportunity to gain strength at Bush's expense, but that the radicals and the centrists cannot agree on a strategy to do so:

Democrats say a long-standing rift in the party over the Iraq war has grown increasingly raw in recent days, as stay-the-course elected leaders who voted for the war three years ago confront rising impatience from activists and strategists who want to challenge President Bush aggressively to withdraw troops.

Amid rising casualties and falling public support for the war, Democrats of all stripes have grown more vocal this summer in criticizing Bush's handling of the war. A growing chorus of Democrats, however, has said this criticism should be harnessed to a consistent message and alternative policy -- something most Democratic lawmakers have refused to offer. ...

The internal disarray, according to many Democrats, reflects more than a near-term tactical debate. Some say it reveals a fundamental identity crisis in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world for a party that struggled to move beyond the antiwar legacy of the 1960s and 1970s to reinvent itself as tougher on national security in the 1990s.

But historic fault lines in the party run deep.

Make no mistake -- this radical movement that gets its support from well-funded organizations like MoveOn have threatened to rip the Democrats in half. Their radical wing had mostly found itself marginalized during the 1990s when the Clintons took over the party and the centrist DLC provided them with their power base. While national-security issues took a back seat to economics, the radicals had little to fuel their steam. The invasion of Afghanistan brought them back with a vengeance after 9/11, but the real boost to their fortunes came with the ascension of Howard Dean and his Internet campaign. For the first time since the Viet Nam War, the radical fringe showed real power through its support of Dean and MoveOn and found a deep-pockets sponsor in George Soros.

The DLC has found itself on the ropes ever since. The centrists have tried mightily to maintain some distance from the radicals but cannot afford to lose them or their fundraising abilities, regardless of how the Republicans fare in the polls. This has led to a complete abandonment of message, as the two cannot agree on strategies for a single, coherent Party stance on issues. As the Times points out, that applies to domestic issues as well, especially on the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. Roberts should have been a slam-dunk for the GOP and a pass for the Democrats, most of whom knew that Roberts represented the best they could expect from George Bush: a non-political straight shooter who would be conservative but not an idealogue. However, the fringe would not sit still for anyone nominated by the man who won the election:

The party's liberal base, whose contributions during judicial confirmation fights earlier this year have helped the Senate Democratic campaign fund amass twice as much as its Republican rival, is pressing for another vigorous fight against Judge Roberts as documents from the Reagan administration clarify his conservative credentials.

But as Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and other liberal stalwarts on the Judiciary Committee step up their criticism of Judge Roberts's record, other Democrats are reluctant to join them.

"I am turned off by senators trying to act like they have already found the guy out and they know what he is like," said Senator Russell D. Feingold, a Democratic committee member from Wisconsin who spent last week focused instead on calling for a pullout from Iraq. "I am not part of any Democratic effort to 'set the table' " for the hearings by laying the groundwork to criticize Judge Roberts, he said.

Several Democratic senators said the hearings on Judge Roberts were shaping up as a risky balancing act. Failing to press him could look weak to their liberal base. But attacking too hard could draw Democrats into a losing battle on the treacherous turf of abortion, race and religion at a time when Republicans appear vulnerable on other fronts.

John Breaux, the Louisiana centrist Democrat who recently retired from the Senate, notes that holding the base isn't going to win the Democrats elections, arguing against going to war over Roberts. Breaux misses the other part of the paradox in his advice, however. Losing the base will doom the Democrats just as surely as the radical fringe's efforts to antagonize the center.

The essential Catch-22 of the Democrats consists of the central question set up by the successes of the Clintons in expanding the Democrats' voter base in the 1990s combined with the debacle of national security issues during their tenure, which has become even more apparent in the past few weeks. No one trusts national security to the cut-and-run Democrats, which limit the party's options in Iraq. Centrists cannot understand the rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth objections to Roberts and find themselves appalled and exasperated at the smear tactics of NARAL and others in their efforts to defeat him. Yet the few from the party with common sense to address these issues get swamped out by the radical wing, assisted by a media sympathetic to their cause, making any middle ground an impossibility.

If this continues, expect the Democrats to lose more Senate seats in 2006 and field another John Kerry-like candidate in 2008 -- one who has to waffle his or her way through every issue in order to hold the Democrats together. Eventually, if the Party cannot come together on key philosophy and policy, either the radical wing will depart, perhaps to the Greens, or the centrists will bolt to the GOP, perhaps to support a Giuliani bid in 2008.

UPDATE: Michael Crowley at Talking Points Memo notices the same problem, and comes to a similar analysis.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 22, 2005 6:15 AM

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