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Democrats find a defiant voice

Dean's rise to party chair bolsters ties to activist networks on the left.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 2005


Faced with the challenge of transforming themselves from a minority to majority party, Democrats are increasingly showing more defiance than doubt - and are now moving aggressively to challenge President Bush's agenda, with the party's public face becoming more dominated, for now, by figures on the left.

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This weekend, Democrats are poised to elect as their party chairman former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose full-throated opposition to Mr. Bush's policies - particularly the Iraq war - shot him to the top of the presidential primary heap before his candidacy flamed out with the now-infamous scream.

Dr. Dean will join a chorus of aggressive Bush critics - from Sen. Barbara Boxer of California to Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts - who lately have grabbed the spotlight while the overall party faces something of a leadership vacuum, with no presidential nominee to set the tone.

Strategists say Dean's reemergence does not necessarily point to an ideological repositioning of the party as a whole. For one thing, the former governor has said he'll take his cues on policy and message from the congressional leadership, and his supporters say he may present a more moderate face than the image that emerged during his primary campaign.

At the same time, other prominent Democrats, such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, have made noticeable shifts toward the center of late, softening their rhetoric, if not position, on issues such as abortion.

But Dean's ascent, despite uneasiness among some in his party, does indicate the extent to which Democrats are finding themselves defined - and even united - by the demands of opposition.

Although Democrats may still face fissures over issues such as the Iraq war, and how better to appeal to mainstream American values, they are more immediately engaged in major battles with the Bush administration over issues such as Social Security - and may not have the luxury of internecine fighting over the direction of the party.

Still, some say the party will eventually need to think more about the ways in which it's delivering its message - and the messengers it puts forward. While an aggressive stance may help Democrats fire up their activist base and raise money, it is unlikely to help them reach out to the red-state voters they need to expand their party and win back the White House in 2008.

"George Bush has given us a lot to oppose, so we're spending a lot of time opposing him," says Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist Democratic group that was highly critical of Dean during the presidential primary process, though it was neutral during the race for party chair. "But many Democrats are also trying to learn from this past election, and set the record straight on what Democrats stand for," he adds. "Everyone recognizes that our challenge is to win the argument with voters in states where too often of late we have lost it."

The challenge

Unlike the beginning of Bush's first term, when Democrats faced real rifts over whether Al Gore had run too populist a campaign, strategists this time around say the challenge lies primarily in the communication, rather than the substance, of the party's message.