Democrats' Values Moving to Suburbs

Clinton leads toward center, but fight over NAFTA expansion this fall could split party.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last week the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee talked tough to his own liberals.

"The Left has been the conscience, the core, of the Democratic Party," said Democratic Leadership Council chief Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado in a home state speech. "But the business of politics is getting votes.... The Democratic Party has moved to the critical center."

Translation: Beads and bongos are out. Minivans and split-levels are in. Henceforth the defining Democratic wing will not be traditional economic leftists, but "suburban values" voters more interested in safe streets than social justice.

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Is this true? Maybe. There's some evidence that six years after his rise to national prominence, Bill Clinton has remade the Democrats into a centrist party in his own self-professed image.

But it's a transformation that's still fluid. Upcoming issues - notably President Clinton's planned fall push to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - could yet rip the party apart. And some experts contend there's no long-term future in turning the party of FDR into a sort of GOP Lite.

"It does leave them open to the question of just what the party stands for," says senior fellow David Mason of the Heritage Foundation.

Democrats aren't the only ones fighting over the soul of their political organization. At last weekend's Republican conference in Indiana, former Vice President Dan Quayle complained that the GOP's Washington leaders have stopped acting like real conservatives.

Such struggle is double-sensitive for Democrats, however, because it involves both party image and the likely legacy of the current Oval Office occupant. Mr. Clinton is the first Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to win reelection. Without a war to win or a depression to banish, Clinton's place in history may hinge on whether he shapes his own party as powerfully as did the patriarch of Hyde Park.

That means a push towards the center. For decades, Republican candidates have pummeled Democrats with variants of the phrase "tax-and-spend-liberal." If Clinton and his allies have their way, those words will seem positively quaint by the 2000 election.

By one crude measure, Clinton has already led his party further right - at least on fiscal matters - than it has been in decades. Fully 80 percent of House and Senate Democrats voted for the recent balanced-budget deal struck by the White House and GOP leaders.

And these elected officials may be moving toward ground already occupied by the Democratic rank-and-file. A new survey by Clinton's pollster, Mark Penn, contends that most Democratic voters are self-proclaimed moderates.

Two kinds of centrists, added together, now make up a majority of Democrats, according to the Penn poll. They're Suburban Values voters, who are most interested in better schools, safer streets, and stronger families; and New Economy Dems, who strongly support free trade and US moves into the global marketplace.

By way of contrast, poll figures claim that traditional economic liberals now make up only 10 percent of the party.

"The vital center here is not the province just of independents. It really reaches down deep into the Democratic Party," says Al From, president of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.

Other experts say it's true that Democrats are more centrist than they used to be - but that the overall picture is perhaps more complicated than the president's polling firm makes it out to be.

The left wing of the Democratic Party has indeed atrophied in recent years, says Gary Jacobson, a congressional scholar at the University of California, San Diego. But so has the conservative wing, the Dixiecrats of yore.

"They've gone Republican," Mr. Jacobson points out.

That's cut into Democratic electoral strength, particularly in the South.

Meanwhile, as the party moves toward the center, it also becomes less distinguishable. Democratic candidates can differentiate themselves via personal appeal, but the Democratic Party as a whole may be beginning to look a lot like the GOP on many issues.

Nor is that likely to change any time soon. In an era of declining voter turnout and party loyalty, Democrats and Republicans are elbowing each other as they race to the political center to capture as many voters as possible.

"It would take some large national event or issue to redefine US politics" along more ideologically partisan lines, says Paul Brace, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.

One issue that's at least large enough to open a wedge among Democrats is fast approaching: free trade. When he returns from vacation, Clinton will open a fall campaign to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement to include other Western Hemisphere nations. It's an issue that a significant number of congressional Democrats, including presidential hopeful Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, have vowed to fight.

And free trade may be one place where the centrist Democratic consensus dissolves. According to the Penn poll, most Democrats reject "protectionism" - but two-thirds also agree that US markets are already too open to goods from other countries.

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