With their eye on midterm elections, Democrats are divided. Exhibit A: The Connecticut primary Aug. 8. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, once safe as a centrist Democrat, faces a revolt by antiwar liberals. Some in the party lament the disunity. Should they?
It's not as if they're the only party struggling to present a united front. Republicans are also at odds over such hot-button issues as immigration reform, federal spending, and, yes, even the war in Iraq. And looking beyond this fall's midterm elections to the presidential race in 2008, it's not at all clear what direction the GOP will take, especially with no obvious successor to President Bush.
But back to the Democrats. The disagreement runs deep and is falling along centrist-liberal lines. It includes a debate over strategy, with liberals convinced of the need to build their blue and dark-blue base across the country, while Clinton-era centrists prefer a more targeted effort and a message that resonates beyond the base to moderate Republicans and independents.
And while Democrats have come together over such unifying themes as raising the minimum wage and lowering the cost of college education, heavy-duty issues also divide them.
One is globalization. Should the party focus on how to prepare Americans so they can better compete internationally (the centrist approach)? Or should it emphasize tax redistribution and government programs (a more liberal view)? Meanwhile, some abortion rights activists worry that a move toward middle ground (a greater emphasis on prevention and some restrictions) will erode and perhaps reverse abortion rights.
And then there's the overarching question of what to do about Iraq. Democrats disagreed on that in recent votes in the Senate. Now Senator Lieberman, who campaigns as strong on security and still committed to US forces in Iraq, suddenly finds himself in a statistical dead heat with political novice Ned Lamont, an antiwar businessman who favors withdrawal within a year.
Democrats need not wring their hands over disagreement. For one thing, Americans themselves can't agree on what to do about Iraq. Gallup finds that 41 percent of the public thinks the US should withdraw but take as many years as needed. Others favor withdrawal soon, either immediately (17 percent), or in a year (33 percent). And 8 percent say send more troops. These opinions have remained steady for months.
At the same time, while disunity feels uncomfortable, it tends to go with the territory when a party is in the political wilderness, arguing over how best to return to power. Elections help sort out positions; and power, especially if it resides in the White House, can refocus the mind.
As for a centrist vs. liberal message, it would be regrettable if polarization driven by the wings of the parties dominates the November and 2008 elections. Some are now trying to counter this trend, especially on the Internet: Political operatives from both parties are coming together to stimulate cool-headed debate (Hotsoup.com), and others are trying to draft a centrist presidential third-party ticket (Unity08.com). Extreme politics is not what the country wants, or needs, at this point.