THE Democratic Party is at one of those defining moments: Will it run in 2004 against President Bush from the center, urging moderate solutions to the nation's domestic problems and a less-dovish stand on national defense? Or will it wage class warfare at home while opposing war abroad - arguing that Mr. Bush's policies benefit the rich at others' expense and decrying a foreign policy that most Americans support?
The Democrats' dilemma was on full display in Washington last weekend as the cast of would-be presidential nominees trouped before a meeting of the Democratic National Committee. The DNC activists enthusiastically applauded the hard-hitting liberal rhetoric of former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who - like the Rev. Al Sharpton and two newly declared candidates, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio - gave a rousing antiwar address.
But many of the nation's Democratic governors, in town for the National Governors' Association meeting, had a different reaction. More focused on electability and governing, they prefer the centrist tack of presidential candidates Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts, both senators. Like fellow candidates Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the two New Englanders supported the congressional resolution authorizing war against Iraq.
The governors are concerned the party and its candidates will adopt a strategy of criticizing Bush from the hard left while offering few acceptable alternatives. They worry that some candidates' criticism of the president - especially on Iraq - could backfire. They know that, for now, the president is popular and the public tired of militant partisanship.
The party out of power, Democrat or Republican, often faces the same challenge: The current primary system ensures that GOP presidential hopefuls must run to the right and Democrats to the left in order to please the partisan hard-liners who make up the majority of primary voters. The candidate, having won the nomination, is then forced to high-tail it back toward the center, where most of the votes are. More than one presidential nominee has regretted statements made during primary season.
Another problem: It's too early to capture voters' attention. What may be a hot issue now could barely register in 12 months. What will an antiwar candidate do, for example, if there is no war, or the war is over?
Activists' applause may boost party morale, bring in campaign funds, and even help win primaries. But it's of little use in the general election. Over the next few months, the Democrats must prove they understand that.