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Democrats' Bugbear: Who Are We, Anyway?

By Kurt ShillingerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 1996


The world's oldest existing political party faces an identity crisis as it gathers this week in Chicago.

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True, Bill Clinton could become only the third Democrat to be reelected as president this century, and his party might even take back control of the US House of Representatives.

But Democrats are deeply divided over how to redefine themselves and hold together an increasingly fragile base. In an era of smaller government, they are struggling to find a new ideological home somewhere between the New Deal model of Washington as big and benevolent and the Republican ideal of business-led prosperity and individual self-reliance.

Democrats' Identity Crisis

No issue illustrates the Democrats' problem better than welfare. After twice vetoing similar legislation, President Clinton last week signed into law a Republican bill ending the guarantee of federal aid to the nation's poorest children.

Moderates hailed the move as a step toward defining a new Democratic vision of smaller government. Others, including party leaders in Congress, bemoaned it as a betrayal of everything Democrats have stood for since the New Deal.

In fact, the welfare signing reflects the party's central dilemma. To a public increasingly suspicious of Washington, welfare had come to represent the arrogance and ineffectiveness of big government. Had he vetoed reform a third time, Clinton not only would have risked appearing to break a 1992 campaign pledge to "change welfare as we know it," but he might also have been seen as clinging to a shrinking pro-government liberal wing.

Yet by abandoning such core Democratic programs in favor of GOP-drawn reforms, in essence trying to compete with the Republicans on their turf, Clinton is also walking a fine line. He risks losing the distinctions between the parties - and possibly the center of the electorate to either the GOP or a third party.

"Too much is made of Bill Clinton's waffling," says historian Herbert Parmet, author of "The Democrats: The Years After FDR." "Clinton is a bellwether of what is happening to the Democratic movement. The party faces its most significant crisis [in modern times], and he is simply reflecting the sensitivities of a shifting ... base. His signing of the welfare bill indicates the exhaustion of the soul of the party."

How did the Democrats arrive at this predicament? The road starts in 1964 at the party's convention in Atlantic City, N.J.

When Franklin Roosevelt initiated the New Deal to pull the country out of the Depression in the early 1930s, he cobbled together a coalition of northern liberals, southern whites, and labor interests. That base helped prop up the party for 30 years. But when a small band of blacks known as the Mississippi Free Democratic Party demanded seats on the convention floor in Atlantic City, the coalition began to crack.

Roots of the party's discontent

In 1964, the Democratic Party in Mississippi, as in most of the deep South, was dominated by segregationists. They opposed including blacks in their convention delegation. The Free Democrats were equally determined, however, and enlisted the help of Joseph Rauh, head of the Democratic Party in Washington and general counsel to the United Automobile Workers.

Mr. Rauh's involvement ultimately forced the White House to seek a compromise. Working through his likely running mate, Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D) of Minnesota, President Johnson proposed seating two Free Democrats as "at large" delegates, along with a pledge that all southern delegations integrate in the future.

"It is here, in Mississippi, that our story begins," writes Ronald Radosh in "Divided They Fell," "for it was the civil rights movement that launched the Democratic Party on a trajectory that ended in disaster."

The compromise was a watershed, not because it was accepted, but because it was rejected by both sides. Mr. Johnson's bid planted seeds of scorn among southern Democrats.The result, over the next 30 years, was a gradual migration of southern Democrats to the Republican Party - one of the most important electoral shifts of this century.

The Mississippi dispute also gave rise to the "New Left," a web of radical students, black moderates and militants, white liberals, Northeastern Jews, and Communists.