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How the 'Radicals' can save the Democrats

This is a wonderful article.

How the 'Radicals' Can Save the Democrats


TARRYTOWN, N.Y. A battle for the soul of the Democratic Party has broken out, pitting a predominantly liberal field of presidential hopefuls against moderate party leaders and political strategists. While Howard Dean and John Kerry have been stirring up crowds plainly eager to have at President Bush, Democratic officials have been trying to tamp the fervor down, warning that "extremists" will take the party back to the dark ages of 1972 and 1984.

True, with Mr. Bush looking formidable and the Republicans in control of Congress, the urge toward moderation may seem sensible. But it ignores a glaring fact: Republicans have repeatedly won elections in recent decades largely by taking the opposite approach: giving free rein to their raucous base and choosing candidates who excite the party's rank and file. And isn't that, after all, what political parties are supposed to do?

Certainly, none of the top Democratic contenders are truly radical. Mr. Kerry, who happens to be the wealthiest member of the Senate, perhaps went overboard when he read aloud the pay packages of several business executives at an A.F.L.-C.I.O. event the other day. But if he's an extremist, so was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who railed against "unscrupulous money changers" in 1933. And to exaggerate the threat of an imminent "far left" takeover of the party as Senator Evan Bayh, head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, recently did really implies a repudiation of much of the party's traditional beliefs.

Besides, it is not at all clear that far-left ideology was the cause of past Democratic defeats or that ideology plays a truly decisive role in presidential elections. While political strategists and pundits tend think in terms of sharply delineated issues, most voters do not. "The American Voter," the landmark study by University of Michigan researchers published in 1960 and still a very useful guide to its subject, found that only one-fourth of the electorate held a clear opinion on most issues and identified those positions with one party or the other. A mere 2 percent could be classified as holding a consistently "ideological" position on overall policy.

And to judge from recent elections, little has changed. In the 1980's the public supported the anti-Soviet, anti-government views of Ronald Reagan. In the 1990's the same public favored the globalist, pro-government politics of Bill Clinton. And neither president was held to the bar of consistency, whether it was the conservative Mr. Reagan creating huge deficits or the liberal Mr. Clinton dismantling welfare.

So, too, with President Bush, who now seems a small-government conservative (tax cuts for the rich), now a big-government liberal (prescription drug benefits), now a social liberal (favoring some types of affirmative action), now a social conservative (opposed to gay marriage).

But if abstract ideology plays a limited role in presidential races, the importance of ideologues and extremists that is, of people who cling to strong beliefs can't be overstated. It is they who bring passion and energy to politics, as Dr. Dean's Web-linked legions are now doing. Without these "radicals," parties can lose their way.

The Republican establishment learned this lesson almost despite itself in the 1964 election. Democrats would do well to study that campaign, too, since its circumstances were remarkably similar to those unfolding today.

Back then, of course, the positions were reversed. A strong Democratic incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, was buoyed by a national crisis that rallied the public behind him: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Republican Party chieftains, facing almost certain defeat, wanted to anoint a moderate candidate like Nelson Rockefeller or William Scranton, who could at least make a respectable showing.

But the party rank and file, tired of me-too politics and demanding "a choice, not an echo," ardently backed the conservative Barry Goldwater. Party moderates, sounding just like today's worried Democrats, warned that Goldwater was an extremist whose nomination might marginalize the party for decades to come. They mounted a last-minute offensive to stop him, but Goldwater squeaked through, shocking his adversaries (and thrilling his followers) when he declared in his acceptance speech: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. . . . Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." After that, most agreed, he was finished. And indeed he was trounced by Johnson.

But for Republicans this was not the devastating setback it appeared. On the contrary, it was the crucial first step toward a historic victory. Goldwater's "extremism" turned out, on closer inspection, to be a form of idealism that revitalized the conservative movement in the years ahead. Youthful veterans of the Goldwater movement including Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation and Howard Phillips, head of the Conservative Caucus help set a new policy agenda. Richard Viguerie, a member of the pro-Goldwater group Young Americans for Freedom, became an innovative fund-raiser. Patrick Buchanan, another Goldwaterite, helped formulate the more conservative components of Richard Nixon's agenda as a White House speechwriter.

Over time the party shed its "me too" approach and developed a more sophisticated ideological style, which culminated in Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory. Today it is Lyndon Johnson's big-government heirs whom centrist Democrats say are on the fringes, while the Goldwater-influenced conservatives plausibly claim to occupy the mainstream.

The Republican Party would never again underestimate the uses of zeal and continues to exploit it. In fact, even as the Democratic Leadership Council sounded its alarm in Philadelphia, some 1,000 young right-wing firebrands assembled at the Republican college convention in Washington. They excitedly discussed Ann Coulter's new book "Treason," which depicts liberals as the enemy within, and heard from a prominent lobbyist who described Democrats as "the ascension of evil, the bad guys, the Bolsheviks." Other highlights were speeches by Tom DeLay, the vociferous House majority leader, and Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's political maestro, who looked delighted by the enthusiasm of these extremists.

Our two major parties seem to have swapped identities. The Republican establishment, presumably allied with the rich and privileged, embraces its populist core of hard-edged activists, while the Democratic elite, supposed champions of "the people," evidently fears them. Only one party has learned the lesson of 1964 that extremists should not be lectured to but listened to, because they may have something important to say.

Sam Tanenhaus, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.

Originally article

Here are the comments on the above piece - For Democrats, 'Lite' Won't Win (6 Letters) on the above piece.

To the Editor:

Re "How the 'Radicals' Can Save the Democrats," by Sam Tanenhaus (Op-Ed, Aug. 11):

Many of us haven't gotten over the theft of the White House in 2000. The Democrats in office thought that they could just go along with the war in Iraq and make it go away. Now we are spending almost $4 billion a month there that could be spent here on roads, schools, technology, local police and, most important, protecting our borders and coasts.

I knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and now the Democratic politicians act like foolish schoolchildren, claiming that they were tricked. They have allowed President Bush to saddle our future generations with astronomical debt.

Is it any wonder we are enamored of Howard Dean, a fresh face in the crowd?
Bridgewater, N.J., Aug. 11, 2003

To the Editor:

Sam Tanenhaus (Op-Ed, Aug. 11) doesn't mention the true "radical" in the field of Democrats: Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio. Mr. Kucinich is firing up crowds wherever he goes.

As an Iowan, I'm particularly concerned that too many local Democrats are taking the party leadership's warnings to heart. We are in danger of giving a boost to some middle-of-the-road candidate who will, in all likelihood, make a respectable showing in the general election but ultimately lose.

I'm tired of candidates who tell me that I have to compromise my ideals to the so-called political realities. Most people would probably agree that a vote for a person they believe in trumps a vote against someone they despise.
Coralville, Iowa, Aug. 11, 2003

To the Editor:

Sam Tanenhaus (Op-Ed, Aug. 11) is right: the Democratic Leadership Council seems to speak for the wrong side. There is no way to win a battle without a fight, and we must fight hard to save our constitutional democracy from further assaults.

Democrats needn't be rude and insulting to make their points; leave ugliness to the other side. The facts are horrendous enough. Simply state the facts and their implications in a loud, clear voice. The passion will be there in the words.
Bass River, Mass., Aug. 11, 2003

To the Editor:

Sam Tanenhaus (Op-Ed, Aug. 11) points out that Republican leaders play to their fervent base, while Democratic leaders seem to fear the fervor of their own followers.

While Senators Evan Bayh and Joseph I. Lieberman claim that a liberal cannot win the presidency, they neglect the fact that by pursuing "Republican lite" policies, their wing of the party has lost Congress.

The reckless foreign and domestic policies of the Bush administration cry out for investigations that will never take place with Republicans in control of the House and the Senate.
Jefferson, N.Y., Aug. 11, 2003

To the Editor:

Re "The Art of False Impression," by Bob Herbert (column, Aug. 11): Al Gore's speech reminded me why Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief after 9/11 that George W. Bush won the election.

President Bush gave us "straight talk" in a time of crisis and brought our nation together. Mr. Gore gives us innuendo, insinuation and half truths to bring his party together at a time when our country is engaged in a worldwide war on terrorism.
Dallas, Aug. 11, 2003

To the Editor:

Re "The Art of False Impression," by Bob Herbert (column, Aug. 11): I watched Al Gore's address. I wish that more Democrats would emphasize the accumulation of deceptions from the Bush administration and its harm to our country and others. We have become more shallow and cruel with President Bush's example.

Even the rise in "reality" TV is an example of the administration's attitudes with its "win at any cost" rules. Honor is only for losers is the current creed. ANN MACDONALD
Joliet, Ill., Aug. 11, 2003

Moral Citizen: evil-barry on Aug 13, 03 | 4:20 pm | Profile
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Yeah. There's no doubt that the Democratic Party is in the beginning stages of a grass roots revival that will sweep away much of their current leadership. I think everyone who cares and dislikes the current adminsitration acknowledges that to run a Republican-lite candidate is a lose if you win, lose if you lose strategy. The DLC will scream like stuck pigs, but their influence is quickly ebbing.

Posted by: Slothrop on Aug 14, 03 | 10:52 am

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