Broadening the tent

February 11, 2005

FORMER VERMONT Gov. Howard Dean, best known for a populist presidential campaign that ended in a primal scream, is expected to be chosen tomorrow to take over a deeply disheartened Democratic Party.

Ten years out of power on Capitol Hill, and shell-shocked from defeat in two successive White House contests, many Democrats seem at a loss to know how to respond to a Republican juggernaut based at least as much on boldness and bluff as on the popularity of its ideas.

Dr. Dean can help spare the Democrats a long-term languish in minority status by encouraging the fledgling signs of cooperation on abortion and other hot-button issues. He can also contribute by persuading his colleagues in Congress to oppose Republican initiatives more creatively than just saying no.

The Vermonter is due congratulations for his anticipated victory, a comeback story come true because of hard work against long odds. His election was opposed by party leaders who favored candidates they thought would be less controversial.

The most important task facing the new Democratic National Committee leader is rebuilding the party in the South and Midwest, where it is in danger of becoming extinct. Democrats are losing ground in these communities in part because Republicans use issues such as abortion and gay marriage to appeal to voters on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Thus, Dr. Dean's new job will be to broaden the party tent. He has already endorsed the notion of making a home in the party for "pro-life Democrats." Party activists don't seem to have gotten that message yet. Former Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana was literally hissed out of the race for chairman because he opposes abortion. But the climate appears to be changing among those with a broader view.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York created a stir recently by suggesting that people on all sides of the abortion issue should join together to find "common ground," such as preventing unwanted pregnancies. Senate Democrats have already moved in that direction by choosing Harry Reid of Nevada, an abortion opponent, to be their leader.

Cooperation with Republicans is considered traitorous by House Democrats. But the best way to combat Bush initiatives on Social Security, budget cuts and other issues is by offering reasonable alternatives. Dr. Dean, who was viewed as a moderate governor, should draw on that experience to help his party develop a positive, inclusive platform.

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