WASHINGTON — At a meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, party activists were hoping to hear one of their leaders denounce President Bush’s Iraq policy.
One rose to the occasion, electrifying the crowd by asking: “What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq?”
That question, in February of 2003, helped make Howard Dean the frontrunner for his party’s presidential nomination.
The DNC executive committee met this past weekend, again in Washington, and again Iraq was on the minds of party activists.
At a time when opinion polls show increasing public uneasiness about President Bush’s Iraq policy, no Democratic leader — not even Dean himself — has unleashed the kind of rousing rhetoric Dean used two-and-a-half years ago.
A former Democrat, now a Republican, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, called Sunday for a timetable for withdrawing Americans troops from Iraq. Jones's congressional district includes Camp Lejeune, a major Marine Corps base.
Also Sunday, a new Gallup poll found that 59 percent of those interviewed wanted a full or partial withdrawal of United States forces from Iraq. Gallup found that among self-identified Democrats, 72 percent said the United States should withdraw all or some of its troops.
Gallup's sample of 1,002 adults, aged 18 and older, was conducted from June 6 through June 8.
'Backed into a corner'
“I think Democrats have largely been backed into a corner on Iraq,” said Judith Hope, a DNC executive committee member from New York. “While most of us believe we should never have gone in there in the first place, many of us believe that now that we’re there, we have no choice but to finish the job. It would be both immoral and dangerous to bail out of that part of the world, given what we know today.”
She added that the day may come when “the political leadership of this country has to say, ‘Not only was it a mistake to go in there, it’s a failure, and we’ve got to get out,’ but I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Another DNC member, Karen Marchioro, the former co-chair of Dean’s campaign in Washington state, said, “Once we’ve gotten ourselves into a mess like this, I’m not sure what I think we should do — and I was opposed to this thing from the get-go. I don’t think it’s a fair question to ask of people who opposed this war to figure out how to get out of it.”
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If a 2008 Democratic presidential contender proposes a plan to withdraw American forces by a specific date, “God knows we’ll be united behind such an idea. Whoever does it, is going to get a leg up” on clinching the party’s 2008 nomination, said Marchioro.
Dean, who is now the DNC chairman, didn’t speak about Iraq at this weekend’s meeting. He did say Democrats will appeal to voters as the party that will provide universal health insurance, build “national defense based on international cooperation,” and buttress parents’ moral authority.
“We’re going to make it easier for parents to teach their kids right from wrong,” Dean said.
Likewise, Hope suggested that the party must address voters’ anxiety about their children. “The wife is working, the husband is working, the junior high school kid is home at 3 o’clock and there is no one home to supervise that young person,” Hope said.
Alliance with faith-based voters?
“Can we find common ground with faith-based voters around the issue of violence in the media?” Hope asked DNC pollster Cornell Belcher. “Is that an issue that we should be looking at more seriously?”
Hope said she wanted the Democratic Party to create a task force on “violence and sexual immorality which has permeated our entertainment industry.”
“The party needs to talk about a return to morality in the media,” she said. “This is clearly an area of concern where we can find common ground with Southern voters, with Christian voters, with Jewish voters, with women voters.”
Dean voiced optimism at the DNC gathering about the demographic trends that he sees as assuring Democratic dominance in the decades ahead.
Looking at the DNC executive committee with its mix of blacks, whites, Latinos, women and gays, Dean said, “The future of this country is the people in this room. In 2050, America is going to look like this. There will be no majority. In California right now there is no such thing as a majority, there are some big minorities: Anglos, Asia-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans.”
To bolster support for the party from Latinos, blacks, and women, Dean announced Saturday what he called “an enormous outreach project” to woo such voters. “These are in many ways the pillars of the Democratic Party,” Dean said.
Although he said “the American people don’t know where we stand on a lot of issues, because we have not campaigned in 50 states,” Dean added that “people want us to fight and we are here to fight.”
Winning on Social Security
Unlike Iraq — the issue on which leading Democrats are not fighting Bush’s policy — they are fighting him on Social Security and, for now, they seem to be winning, by blocking his effort to persuade Congress to enact private retirement accounts.
“The Democrats have managed to change the playing field over the past six months by being unified on Social Security, and by saying that the Democratic Party is about government assuring a decent standard of life for all Americans,” said James Roosevelt, a DNC member from Cambridge, Mass. and also a grandson of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Democratic leaders are confident about next year’s elections. If the Democrats win a few Senate races and recapture the governorships of some of the competitive states such as New York, Ohio, California, Colorado, and Florida, some pundits will conclude the Democrats have revived.
Dean's DNC can play an important role in congressional races by paying for grass-roots organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts. The DNC can also use independent expenditures, made without a candidate’s cooperation or consent, to pay for ads attacking his Republican opponent.
According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, as of the end of April, the DNC had raised nearly $21 million, less than half the amount raised by the Republican National Committee.
Lots of options for donors
Under the rules set by the McCain-Feingold law, as interpreted by the Federal Election Commission, donors have a range of vehicles for investing their political contributions.
A donor could give the maximum of $26,700 to the DNC for the 2005-2006 election cycle, then chip in another $26,700 to the the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee which recruits and funds Senate candidates.
The Democratic-allied groups, such as American Coming Together and the Media Fund, financed by mega-donors such as George Soros and labor unions, are likely to play an important role in the 2006 and 2008 elections unless Congress enacts a law to crack down on them. A donor can give an unlimited amount to such groups.
As the pace of the 2006 campaign quickens, the focus of the news media and the party faithful will be less on Dean, and more on Senate candidates such as Bob Casey in Pennsylvania and gubernatorial candidates such as Phil Angelides or Steve Westly in California.
Then, the morning after the 2006 elections the attention will immediately pivot to the 2008 presidential contest.
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