Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
As Democrats struggle to fill the leadership void left by President Clinton, the left wing has a clear opening to wrest the party from its centrist moorings, back to a more progressive agenda. With a base of activists that is still angry about the contested Florida count, and a Republican administration that is pushing a huge tax-cut plan, liberal Democrats might be expected to lead the charge in opposition.
Instead, they're proceeding with caution. Today's liberals have clearly internalized the lessons of the Clinton years - especially the importance of maintaining the mantle of fiscal responsibility. No one is calling for running budgets into the red for big new social programs. Or a guaranteed income for all Americans (a feature of the 1972 Democratic platform.)
"The move to frame issues in moderate ways - the Clinton approach - will continue to have a strong voice," says Sen. Jon Corzine (D) of New Jersey. "But there are more voices for a progressive agenda in the freshman class. We need to press forward on these issues and do it in a way that doesn't seem threatening,"
So far, though, the right mixture is eluding both the far left and the centrists in the party. By all accounts, Democrats are scrambling for a response to President Bush's juggernaut agenda.
"There is a struggle going on for control of the Democratic Party, and it may take until 2004 to sort it out," says Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and a former Democratic leader in the House of Representatives.
Centrists, who directed the party during the Clinton years, say that the way back to power is still the middle road. They criticize the Gore campaign for veering too close to populist themes.
But the left wing of the party insists that these are precisely the issues that will get Democrats back to power in Congress and the White House.
"Most polls showed that the public liked the issues of Gore and Nader, but they didn't like Gore," says John Cavanagh, executive director of the Washington-based Institute of Policy Studies. "That leads progressives to believe that we actually can achieve a great deal on some issues, if we pick our battles carefully,"
Those battles begin in earnest next week, when Congress gets its first look at an outline of the Bush budget. Liberal Democrats on the Hill say their best shot at injecting their views into Democratic strategy could be in the expected fight over the administration's tax-cut plan.
Democrats have struggled with how to respond to the proposed $1.6 trillion cut. After initially opposing the need for a big cut, Democrats now say the country could afford $900 billion. During the presidential campaign, they backed Al Gore's smaller plan for targeted tax cuts to working families - a plan Republicans criticized for being too complicated and leaving out many taxpayers.
But now, the 55-member Progressive Caucus on Capitol Hill is proposing a $300 tax rebate for every person in the US. (For a family of four, that would be $1,200.) "We've done exactly what Republicans said should be done: Everybody gets a tax cut. But our plan isn't slanted to the rich," says Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York, who developed this proposal for the Progressive Caucus.
He and other "progressives" insist that they do not want to break with other Democrats over this issue - or to jeopardize the party's reputation for fiscal responsibility. Progressives say their tax cut will amount to no more than the $900 billion that the Democratic leadership is already proposing.
"Everyone realizes we will get nowhere if we are at war with each other," says Representative Nadler. "We're trying to bring Democrats to positions that are popular, progressive, and politically winning - and won't be coopted or blurred by Republicans."
Meanwhile, liberal activists across the US - fresh from a campaign to defeat the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general - are regrouping to fight the Bush tax cut. Groups such as People for the American Way say this could become the largest coalition ever to oppose a piece of legislation.
"The Florida vote, the Ashcroft nomination, and environmental issues are all areas where people at the base have become quite a lot more energized," says James Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin.
Liberals say they can also make a stand on issues such as the environment and Bush's plan to extend free trade in South America. Democrats on the left defeated proposals to give the president new authority to negotiate trade agreements on a "fast track."
Ironically, they say, losing the White House has boosted prospects for defeating new free-trade initiatives, since they no longer stand in opposition to the Clinton White House on the issue.
"On issues like trade, a lot of Democrats went with a moderate Democratic president. They won't with a Republican president," says Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio.
Democratic moderates who supported the Clinton White House on free trade are already signaling that they will insist on higher labor and environmental standards in future trade negotiations.
Finally, liberals say proposals to reform the electoral system after the Florida recount could mobilize the Democratic base.
"I think we have to be careful that the Democratic Party does not become an imitation Republican Party. Some of us believe that the lines increasingly are blurred and that we have to include the voices of the loyal base of the Democratic Party," says Rep. Maxine Waters (D) of California, who will head a new Democratic Caucus Special Committee on Election Reform.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society