The Washington Times

The Bush administration is getting a massive break from political divisions among Democrats. The conflicts in thinking within the party, which were reconcilable when a Democratic president was doing battle with a Republican Congress, have so far turned out to be debilitating in opposition. The center-left is not holding, and Republicans haven’t had so much wind at their back since the heady days of 1995 (when, to be sure, that wind was actually blowing them into Bill Clinton’s perfect storm).

The essential question for Democrats is where to set the left pole of the debate, and the problem is that the party has two factions with different answers to the question. The centrists of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) would stake the party’s future on an appeal to the middle of the electorate, essentially seeking to build a coalition from the center out. The party’s liberal base, on the other hand, wants the party to seek its fortune from the left outward. With the party oscillating between the two poles, there is no fixed position on which Democrats unite to challenge the Republican administration and Congress.

The ongoing argument among Democrats over Al Gore’s failure to win the White House is illustrative. Each camp has an explanation that is consistent with its general outlook, naturally. Thus for the centrists, Mr. Gore’s principal failure was his inability to connect himself with the centrist policy successes of the Clinton administration, instead turning to populist rhetoric that aligned him with the party’s liberal wing, about which the national electorate is dubious. In the left-leaning analysis, Mr. Gore’s mushy centrism was holding him back, and he only began to gain in the polls when he cranked up the populism.

In truth, they’re both right. The problem was that Mr. Gore was himself a rash of contradiction, by turns centrist and left. What, finally, was the soul of the Gore campaign? It is very difficult, looking back now, to say. It seems to me that Mr. Gore (and Democrats generally) were relying on the assumption that he had inherited the “New Democrat” mantle of Bill Clinton, that respectable centrism of the DLC, and that he therefore need not campaign full-time as a centrist in order to be regarded as such. He could speak the language that would fire up the party’s base without jeopardizing his hold on the center. This turned out to be a highly dubious assumption. But Mr. Clinton was able to pull it off, no? Ah, the great one, the master politician of the Democratic Party, a singularity for better and for worse. In truth, though, that is not what Mr. Clinton pulled off.

In 1992, Mr. Clinton ran relentlessly as and won as a centrist. Then what happened? The tension between the centrists and the left in the Democratic Party, now in control of the White House and Congress for the first time since Jimmy Carter, A) nearly destroyed the Clinton administration and B) led to the 1994 loss of Democratic control of Congress.

It was only after Republicans gained majorities in Congress that Mr. Clinton emerged as the master uniter of Democrats – which is to say, only after the competing intraparty power bases in Congress once held by the left wing had been eliminated by GOP control. There was no longer any effective competition for Mr. Clinton’s centrism within the party. But that did not mean the dispute between the centrists and the progressives had resulted either in a synthesis or in a permanent victory of one over the other. Nor, for that matter, were Democrats themselves content with the conditions underlying Mr. Clinton’s supposed genius for uniting the party – the congressional minorities ushered in in 1994.

It’s interesting that Mr. Clinton spent so much of his second term fighting off what his supporters saw as a nakedly partisan effort to oust him from office. Many observers have lamented the policy opportunities lost to the impeachment fight. One wonders, though. What exactly would Mr. Clinton have otherwise pursued, and at what price with regard to the party unity? The left wing was happy to be on board with him against the GOP attack. But that same left had been distressed over the end to the welfare entitlement over which Mr. Clinton presided, and likewise had no great enthusiasm for the tax cuts to which he agreed in reaching a balanced-budget deal with the GOP-controlled Congress. What conceivable policy initiative could a Democratic president undertake with a GOP-controlled Congress that would both be successful legislatively and unite the president’s party?

It is quite possible, in short, that the seeming “New Democrat” ascendancy in the party was possible only under certain conditions, namely, relatively strong party leadership based in the White House and a weak Democratic caucus in Congress. Without the former, and with the latter in principle unacceptable to the Democratic congressional leadership, everything is up for grabs.

Coming out of Florida as well as the loss of the popular vote, George W. Bush didn’t have a very good hand when he got to Washington. He’s played it well. But he’s had the immense advantage of playing it against an opposition whose longstanding internal contradictions have re-emerged with a vengeance.