San Diego Union Tribune

July 26, 2005

Clinton urges Democratic unity

By George E. Condon Jr.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Democratic centrists moved aggressively yesterday to reassert themselves in a brewing battle with liberal groups, putting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in charge of a national campaign to lay out centrist positions they hope can reclaim the White House in 2008.

That fight for the soul of the Democratic Party shared the stage here with an early glimpse of the next presidential campaign as Clinton – already the likely Democratic front-runner for 2008 – and at least three other possible contenders delivered speeches designed to woo the influential members of the Democratic Leadership Council.

The DLC was widely credited with being a key to the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, and it would like to play a similar role again.

"We've got to make it very clear that Michael Moore doesn't speak for us," said DLC founder Al From, stating that the controversial filmmaker was too closely identified with the party last year when his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" came out. But From said the message he got from the movie was that Moore "doesn't like America very much, and that's wrong."

From said the DLC, with its large membership of centrist governors, senators and local officials, is far more important than Moore or his allies in groups such as

"Groups like MoveOn have great capacity to get people signed up on the Internet. And they can raise money," From said. "But in the end, our party will rise and fall on what we are and what we stand for. And if we take positions that might be able to generate a lot of heat on the Internet but go against the grain of a majority of American voters, we're going to lose."

Liberal groups who rode their mastery of Internet fundraising to prominence in 2004 are determined to counter the DLC's centrist tug with a more forceful push to the political left.

"They don't have a heart; they just have 'white papers,' " Ohio Democratic strategist Jerry Austin said of the DLC.

And Toby Chaudhuri, communications director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future, attacked all the centrist talk that came out of the DLC's two-day meeting here.

"The DLC is old news," he said. "They dominated the party in the 1990s, but now they're creating widespread confusion around the core Democratic message. The DLC is stuck in the past and struggling to hold on to their influence."

With the battle threatening to heat up, two of the possible presidential contenders used their time in Columbus to appeal to both sides to cool down and lower the rhetoric.

"I think it's high time for a cease-fire," said Clinton, her appeal bringing immediate applause. "Time for all Democrats to work together based on the fundamental values we all share."

The New York senator said Democrats have failed to counter "the far right" in part "because all too often we have allowed ourselves to be split between the left, right and center."

She added, "We can and should differ with one another on this or that detail of politics and ideas. After all, we are thinking Democrats, not lock-step Republicans." But she said those differences are minor compared with "the Grand Canyon gap between us and the Republican Party."

She vowed to use her new role as head of the DLC's "American Dream Initiative" to come up with fresh ideas for a positive agenda that can appeal to all wings of the party. The initiative is a yearlong project to travel the country and solicit ideas for the agenda.

Clinton, who is up for re-election next year, was appointed to that post by a potential rival in 2008, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Vilsack joined her in calling for a cease-fire.

"When you are completely out of power the way we are, you don't have the luxury of having these differences if you want to get back in power," he said in an interview. "I think it is incumbent upon Democrats to work together to try to get behind a unifying set of values and a unifying message."

Other possible candidates to speak here were Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. Warner's reception was second only to Clinton's as he hammered home the message that the only way the party can regain power is to aim at voters in the middle.

"We as Democrats neglect the heartland at our own peril," said Warner, who appealed across party lines in his largely Republican state. "We saw it in 2004 when the electoral map was a sea of red, with a few blue edges. So if the Democratic Party believes it is OK to continue to rely on a strategy of winning 16 states and then somehow hitting a triple bank shot to win a 17th, we're making a huge mistake."

Jenny Backus, a longtime Democratic operative, said the party needs to find a way to take the best of both MoveOn and the DLC. "The face of the party is not MoveOn. But there are elements of what MoveOn is doing that are good for the party. I don't think the face of the party is all DLC but there are definitely elements of the DLC that are good for the party," she said.

"The face of the Democratic Party is somewhere in the middle of that," Backus. "What we need is an optimistic message that is also tough. It doesn't have to be either/or."

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