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

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.

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.

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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.

Certainly, exit polls showing that values were a top concern for voters who backed Bush have raised some debate within the party. But most Democrats say the solution lies in better anchoring the party's positions and beliefs in the language of values, rather than actually shifting its positions on social issues such as abortion.

Whether Dean, as the new party chair, will add to or detract from this effort to expand the party's appeal remains to be seen. Certainly, supporters and critics agree, he's likely to inspire Democrats and offer a staunch voice of opposition. Many cite Dean's ability to raise large sums of money over the Internet during his presidential run, and note that he has a clear ability to inspire grass-roots activists.

"We all witnessed this extraordinary revolution on the Internet, which is only going to continue," says Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who worked on Dean's campaign. "The fact that [he] can continue to motivate and activate this extraordinary small-giver base is just a fantastic thing for the party."

But others caution that Dean's success may ultimately depend on how he defines his new role - and whether he puts the emphasis on fundraising and organizing or on becoming a party spokesman.

"If he puts his persona out as the face of the Democratic Party, I think there are going to be some people, particularly in red states, who are going to be uncomfortable with that," says one Democratic strategist.

Dean's star power alone may guarantee more media attention than previous party chairs have garnered, making it unlikely he'd remain a mostly behind-the-scenes player. Supporters say this could work to the party's benefit, bringing more attention to the party and its message. Dean's ability to project authenticity and candor, they say, could also provide the party with a refreshing new image.

Possible downsides

But critics worry that a constant media spotlight trained on one of the party's most prominent critics of the Iraq war - and one whose public image, fairly or not, is as a staunch liberal - could reinforce a perception of Democrats as soft on defense. Some also say that Dean represents an elite, secular ethos that could alienate heartland voters and make it difficult for him to help Democratic candidates in certain regions of the country.

Still, most stress that Dean is simply becoming Democratic National Committee chair - a position that is supposed to appeal to activists - and point out that the presidential nominee will ultimately have a far greater say in setting the direction of the party. Indeed, Dean's ability to continue representing a strong face of liberal opposition could allow the eventual nominee - someone like Senator Clinton - to pivot more toward the center, picking deliberate points of disagreement with him.

"The party's going to have about 28 different faces until we have a nominee," says Mr. Maslin. "He'll be just one of many voices, and I think that's fine."

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