The Democrats' Deepening Dilemma

For '04, they'll have to bridge the gap between liberals and New Democrats

As a disappointing Election '02 winds down with nary a hanging chad in sight, Democrats have few obvious villains to blame for their fall fade-out. Instead, party factions are girding for a familiar ritual: the morning-after round of back-biting and recriminations.

Some of the loudest complaints emanate from the party's left, where advocates of unapologetic government activism believe the main reason Democratic candidates failed to fire up core voters on Nov. 5 was the party's embrace of warmed-over Bushism. Their prescription: a damn-the-deficit stimulus plan that commits a flood of federal dollars to fighting economic stagnation--most targeted at the working class.

Naturally, moderate New Democrats see things differently. For starters, they're uncomfortable with class-based appeals. And they worry that Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle's ties to Big Labor pushed him to obstruct too many Bush initiatives, a stance that backfired with swing voters. Finally, centrists think the party's mixed message on fiscal restraint weakened what could have been an effective economic assault on George W. Bush's Republicans.

Call it the Agenda Gap. By failing to develop a pro-growth alternative to Bushonomics, Dems were forced to fall back on shop-worn vows "to preserve and protect" Social Security and Medicare from real and imaginary attack. "Democrats are now hard-wired to just talk about Social Security and Medicare," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate think tank. Many of the party's New Dems agree. "Any ad you saw from us this year could have been run 10 years ago," sighs Democratic consultant Kenneth Baer. "Bill Clinton provided a vision for how government could work, and so did George Bush. What Democrats pushed in 2002 was intellectually tired."

As this internal left vs. right debate rages, about the only thing all can agree on is that both the Democrats' message and messengers in 2002 were woefully ineffective. Democrats "weren't on target with any message," concludes Costco Wholesale Corp. CEO James D. Sinegal, a party supporter. "I think it's a reflection of the lack of leadership in the Democratic Party."

That's a key reason Democratic centrists want to look past Washington entirely, hoping to find leadership among such newly elected moderate governors as Michigan's Jennifer M. Granholm and Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell. "The most important thing Democrats can do is break the grip of Washington and the congressional wing," says Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

In reality, not even the most sizzling freshman governor can step up to counter Presidential stardust. In all likelihood, that means the party's internal tensions will remain unresolved until 2004, when it nominates a standard-bearer to challenge Bush. "We're wandering around in a woozy period just like the one Republicans encountered after Ronald Reagan," says Democratic consultant Joe Trippi. "There's no one around to fill Bill Clinton's big shoes."

That's not to say that the election aftermath won't prompt a bevy of Clinton wannabes to try. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri is relinquishing his leadership post to free up time for an expected run at the Presidency, attempting a Clinton-style fusion campaign that blends business tax breaks with an assertive foreign policy. Al Gore, who campaigned hard for his party in Florida's gubernatorial race and elsewhere, will accelerate the pace of his "major policy addresses," a move meant to signal his imminent Presidential bid. Elsewhere, a crop of candidates ranging from centrist North Carolina Senator John Edwards to Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, a harsh Bush war critic, are blitzing New Hampshire and Iowa trying to fire up the faithful.

All that's missing, some glum Democratic insiders lament, is a Clinton-style policy synthesizer and a Clinton-style communicator, and a...well, you get the idea.

By Lee Walczak, with Alexandra Starr and Howard Gleckman, in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.