Exploding Democrats

May 12, 1991

The Democratic Party is imploding, one political commentator says. That means "bursting inward." If only it were true. If only the elements on the party's perimeter were moving together toward the center. The fact is, the opposite is happening. The party is exploding, with segments bursting off in opposite directions. The conservatives are moving right and the liberals are moving left.

Over last weekend, the right-of-center elements in the party -- the Democratic Leadership Council -- met in Cleveland to discuss abandoning certain positions long associated with the party. The leaders of the DLC are especially concerned about Democrats being known as the party of quotas, the party of the poor and the party of the dependent. Meanwhile, in Des Moines, liberal members of the Coalition for Democratic Values convened to fight back. Or, as Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin put it, "To fire a warning shot across the bow of those who want to lead us in a Republican direction."

Yet that is exactly what the Democratic Party needs to do -- move in the direction of the Republican Party.

After all, the Republican Party has won five of the last six elections -- in large part because it has been attracting many traditional Democrats to its candidates and platforms. The trick for the Democrats is to go just far enough in the Republican direction to win back those voters, without going so far as to be on the same course as the Republicans.

Liberal Democrats are right when they say the country doesn't need two Republican parties. But the Democrats don't need two Democratic parties, either, which is what there may be if the Democratic left and right wings keep moving away from each other. Two Democratic parties would be the functional equivalent of none. Neither's presidential nominee could expect to get a third of the popular vote, which would mean disaster down the line -- costing the party seats in Congress and the states.

It is time for the party's left to tell the moderates and conservatives, "All right, let's try it your way." This is not purely an ideological or philosophical decision on our part. It is a practical one. Liberal Democrats have controlled the party's presidential nominating and platform-writing process for a generation. It has availed the party little. What's in it for liberal Democrats if a conservative Democrat is president? How about attorney general, secretaries of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Labor, control of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a couple of Supreme Court justices.

Senator Harkin and his liberal colleagues in the party would have a lot more influence on such appointments and on hundreds of lesser but important ones with, say, a President Nunn or a President Bentsen or a President Wilder than with any Republican president.

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