At this week's meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in New York, a number of potential 2004 presidential candidates struggled to strike a convincing balance: attacking corporate greed and what they see as the Bush administration's inadequate response to it, while still presenting themselves as pro-business and pro-economic growth.
The recent surge of anticorporate sentiment and economic uncertainty has energized Democrats and given them a potentially strong campaign issue for this fall's elections. But many in the party are also looking ahead to the 2004 contest and worrying that too much populist rhetoric now could prove a fatal mistake later on, alienating the business community and key suburban voters.
Many Democrats also seem to recognize that the force of the issue may not last beyond this fall's campaign. At the conference, most presidential hopefuls including Sens. Joseph Lieberman, John Kerry, and John Edwards; majority leader Tom Daschle; and House minority leader Richard Gephardt notably broadened their critiques of President Bush to other issues such as the tax cut and even foreign policy.
Still, corporate responsibility was the primary focus for all. Bruce Reed, president of the DLC, says that the scandals help make the case for "why the country needs pro-business Democrats." Unlike Republicans, he says, they're willing to use government to make and enforce the rules. But they also won't "throw the baby out with the bath water."
Most 2004 hopefuls appearing before the gathering of moderate Democrats carefully positioned themselves along these lines. Senator Daschle reminded the group that "even at this time of justifiable criticism of corporate wrongdoing, we Democrats have not forgotten that government doesn't create jobs businesses create jobs."
Mr. Gephardt, whose stands on issues such as trade have often put him to the left of the DLC, also railed against corporate abuses, but praised the majority of businesspeople as "responsible." He joked that when he addressed another DLC gathering recently, some members responded: "Didn't you used to be a labor guy?"
While Senator Lieberman came down hard on unscrupulous chief executives in his speech, he drew more attention from comments made the night before, when he suggested to reporters that Al Gore's "people versus the powerful" message during the 2000 campaign had been overly populist and turned off moderate swing voters.
Lieberman wasn't the only one offering up critiques of the Gore campaign. Indeed, hanging over the entire two-day conference were the ghosts of campaigns past Bill Clinton's two successful presidential runs and Mr. Gore's unsuccessful one. With Democratic hopefuls looking to avoid whatever mistakes Gore might have made, many are focusing now on his use of "class-warfare rhetoric," which, according to Democratic pollster Mark Penn, Mr. Clinton deliberately rejected as part of his winning 1996 strategy.
Mr. Penn highlighted two key groups that Democrats must win in order to take the White House: the now-famous "soccer moms," and their husbands a group he calls "office-park dads." Clinton managed to win both groups, but in 2000, office-park dads broke for Mr. Bush, in part because "centrism took a back seat to populism" in the Gore campaign, he said.
Both Clinton and Gore have long histories with the DLC, but neither spoke at the general session (Clinton met privately with the attendees, though not with the press; Gore did not attend the conference, citing a scheduling conflict).
But it was clear where the loyalties and affections of most attendees lay. The speaker who generated the loudest applause and the most enthusiasm from the crowd was Sen. Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that she has said she will not run for the 2004 nomination (though her speech generated a buzz of speculation that she might change her mind). And many of the speeches included long paeans to the Clinton administration's policies an indication that the eventual Democratic nominee may run on a strategy of comparing the Clinton years with the Bush years.
Says Al From, founder of the DLC: "What we're doing by going back to Bill Clinton is reminding people that when we were in charge, things were a lot better than they are now."