WASHINGTON — The Democrats are in the midst of an ideological battle - for the soul of the party - that will go on and on. It spells trouble for the Democrats in 2004.
The conflict is between the liberals and the New Democrats. Following the disastrous results of the midterm elections, both groups are in agreement on this: The party failed to get out the vote simply because its candidates weren't providing a clear message.
The "right" message, as framed by the liberals, is old political medicine, first prescribed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that seeks to cure the nation's ills with federal spending.
The New Democrats move toward a more conservative approach. President Clinton revived politically when he proclaimed himself a New Democrat after the big Republican gains in Congress in the 1994 elections. That was when Mr. Clinton abandoned healthcare legislative plans, accepted GOP welfare reform, and placed a balanced budget at the top of his agenda. Indeed, it was at a Monitor lunch not long after his midterm losses that Clinton announced that this country had seen "the end of big government spending."
And so it was with that ideological conflict being fought among Democratic policymakers that the party failed to send a clear message in this month's elections. Yes, they spent a lot of money telling voters how bad the recession was - and that George W. was responsible for the mess. But they came up with no answers for the economic problem. That's because liberals and New Democrats don't agree on cures. Indeed, many Democrats in Congress voted for Bush's tax cut which he has pushed as an antirecession measure.
And so it was, too, that the Democrats fell into disarray. David Broder of The Washington Post - a columnist often referred to by colleagues and academics as the fairest-minded in Washington - writes that what happened on Nov. 5 is possibly the prelude to long-term Republican dominance.
It's the first time since the Eisenhower administration that the Republicans have held both the Senate and the House along with the presidency. It's clear that the Democrats need to adopt a single message. They seem to think that the presidential candidate they choose will lead them in that direction. But in what direction?
Al From, a New Democratic leader, believes that if Al Gore had stuck firmly to the more conservative approach embraced by Clinton early in his administration, he'd have won a decisive victory in 2000. But no, Mr. Gore, starting at the convention, made his main pitch to the liberals, even indicating that the well-worn rich vs. poor, class-warfare issue was at the heart of his political philosophy. And now if he runs? He's already stating flatly that the main issue should be that of the rich against the poor.
Well, if Gore runs, and I think he will, and if he gets the nomination, and I think he will, can he find the way to the White House by making, once again, this appeal to liberals?
Perhaps. With a clear message he certainly will once again energize the liberal-base voters. And that was enough for a popular-vote win last time.
But there are a lot of Democratic leaders in Congress and around the country who think the voters have gravitated to the right where a Democratic candidate, while certainly stopping short of becoming a Republican or abandoning the liberals, must move away from the "liberal" label that stirs up the GOP's conservative backers and impels them to throw millions into the campaign and make efforts that get out the vote in droves.
One thing is sure. It looks as if whoever the Democratic candidate is will be running against a popular war president. So that candidate better come up with a clear, appealing message. He or she had better get that right.