LOOKING conspicuous in a tweed jacket with elbow patches, Daniel Burnham pokes his way through a crowd of "new" Democrats. He mixes. He mingles. But mostly, he listens.
"I came here to get a sense of where the party is going," the New Hampshire state representative explains between sips of tomato juice. "All of this is new to me. I'm a liberal."
Mr. Burnham's decision to attend this month's Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) convention is a small breakthrough. Before last November's electoral drubbing, few liberal Democrats would have dreamt of setting foot in a roomful of party conservatives.
But today, with their popularity at its lowest ebb in a half-century, work-a-day Democrats of all ideological persuasions are coming together, in forums like this, to build a modern coalition. As Republicans continue to dismantle much of their New Deal legacy, every missed connection threatens to push the party of Andrew Jackson deeper into the past.
"It's time to come to grips," Burnham says. "Old Democratic liberalism is dead in the water. We need to seek out a new intellectual base."
Indeed, time and demographics have eroded much of what the Democratic Party used to represent. Today's electorate is more educated, more affluent, more suburban, and less unionized than ever before. In addition, the number of Americans who consider themselves Democrats has dropped by half since 1955, while the percentage of Republicans has held steady.
But the most salient factor for Democrats is the surge in the ranks of independents, now approaching 36 percent. "The defining characteristic of the political order we are about to enter is an emerging group of politically homeless in the center," says DLC President Al From. "How those voters align themselves ... will determine the future of American politics."
Without exception, lawmakers here described their own campaigns as battles for the political center. Among recent candidates, many elected earlier this month, the consensus was this: Even in conservative districts, Democrats can win with a message of practical government.
James McGreevey, mayor of Woodbridge, N.J., says rather than advocating less government, the 100,000 residents of Woodbridge are "yearning for demonstrative proof that government can work."
On the local level, he says, politicians are most often judged by how well services are delivered, not by their overarching political philosophies. His popularity soared, he says, after he managed to trim the city's work force, merge some municipal services with other cities, and control property taxes.
"As mayor, you either pick up the garbage, or you don't," he says. "You have to be innovative."
Other DLC adherents, like Washington State Rep. David Quall, agree that ideology is often less important in local races, in part because traditional constituencies are disappearing.
In his Olympia, Wash., district, he notes, voters are equally interested in protecting the environment and protecting property rights. "These days, you might have a blue-collar union guy who wants to keep his gun, who might be pro-life," he says. "The constituencies you could count on, you can't count on anymore."
The solution, Representative Quall says, is not to "crowd to the right" like Republicans, but to advocate a combination of stands that cross traditional ideological lines. "While it might look slippery," he says, "you can win with mixed viewpoints."
Joan Fitz-Gerald, a Democratic county clerk in Jefferson County, Colo., recently won reelection in a traditionally conservative suburban Denver district. The reason, she believes, is that the Republican grass-roots machine tends to support dyed-in-the-wool, government-slashing conservatives more often than moderates.
Consequently, she contends, conservative Democrats can win with the message that "government is what you make it. Government is you and me."
Yet even if Democrats rally around the pole of pragmatism, the rifts between liberals and conservatives inside the party are still deep. Right-leaning Democrats blame liberals, and their longtime stewardship of Congress, for recent failures.
"Look at what happened to President Clinton," says Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota who is active in the DLC. "In order to get anything done, he had to play ball with the leaders in Congress who were yesterday's news, who weren't terribly excited about change."
Representative Penny adds, only half-jokingly, that perhaps the Democrats shouldn't recapture Congress in 1996 at all. If they do, he explains, the same ranking members - many of whom are traditional urban liberals - could incite another, more lasting, Republican rout.
"What's the point of retaining the majority," he asks, "if we give power back to the same people who led us over a cliff?"
While such statements may sound like fighting words, they are longtime staples of the DLC. Established in 1985 as a dissident group bent on ending the GOP lock on the White House, the DLC scored its first coup with the election of its former chairman, President Clinton. Not only is DLC the last hope for conservative Democrats who might otherwise switch parties, members say, but it represents the best approximation of the party's future.
A 'third way'
In recent years, the DLC has supported a work-first welfare plan, an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a "GI Bill" for training American workers, a national service program, cutbacks in the government work force, charter schools, community policing, and global trade agreements.
Critics call it "Republican lite."
But according to Mr. From, the DLC's underlying philosophy is not liberal or conservative, but "progressive." Its members, he says, seek a "third way" between the Reagan-era ethic of "every man for himself," and the Democratic message that "if you don't make it, the government will do it for you."
If attendance is any measure of the message, then the DLC's popularity is booming: This year's convention attracted a record 1,500 activists.
"It was a healthy dialogue," Penny says of the proceedings. "So often when you go to Democratic meetings, you feel like you will be shown the door if you say anything that's not accepted dogma. Those days are over."