Democrats Right and Center

July 12, 1992

We reject both the do-nothing government of the last twelve years as well as the big government theory that says we can hamstring business and tax and spend our way to prosperity.-- Democratic Party Platform, 1992 This remarkable statement, which is due for formal approval at the Democratic National Convention this week, shows how much the party is shedding old liberal orthodoxies and moving right and center with the nomination of Bill Clinton for president and Al Gore for vice president.

Both men are fortysomething Southerners who have been heavy hitters in the Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate-conservative group that has emerged triumphantly as what Governor Clinton calls the "ideas wing" of his party. Formed after the Mondale debacle in 1984, the DLC was ridiculed early on by Jesse Jackson as "Democrats for a Leisure Class." Mario Cuomo called its members "warmed-over Republicans."

But in New York this week, the faction of the party it represents will be in control of both ends of the party ticket, the convention, the campaign and, most important, the ideological thrust of the party. The contrast with 1984 and the "San Francisco Democrats" could hardly be greater. While Clinton-Gore & Co. will lash out joyfully at Bush-Quayle & Co., the subplot is the reduced influence of traditional liberal constituencies.

This seismic shift in the Democratic Party was obscured somewhat by Paul Tsongas' blitz from the economic right during primary season, an attack that caused Mr. Clinton to shift leftward. Once the Arkansas governor had the nomination well in hand, he quickly steered the party in DLC directions. His advisers saw the wisdom of this course confirmed in the collapse of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's old-line Democratic candidacy.

Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, Mr. Clinton's successor as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, put the new mood in blunt language recently. "If we follow the same old same old," he said, "we're going to lose again. Many of the programs of the 1930s and 1960s are simply wrong."

Hence, we find Bill Clinton's convention putting its emphasis on economic growth rather than wealth redistribution, mainstream values such as personal responsibility and the work ethic, service to country, strong defense and internationalism, free trade rather than protectionism, individual empowerment and the availability of choices.

If the latter sounds like a retooling of Jack Kemp's ideas on the fringes of the Bush administration, DLC president Al From responds that the innovative wings of both parties need to get into a debate reminiscent of the Teddy Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson competition for the progressive mantle of 80 years ago. The Clinton-Gore convention may show the Democrats are ready. Their not-so-hidden worry is that Ross Perot may pre-empt their bid to be the agents of change.

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