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The Democrats' dilemma

It’s not an ideological rift,  but a “narrative” of independence versus capitulation. By Howard Fineman.

If I am hearing Simon Rosenberg right (and he is worth listening to), a nasty civil war is brewing within the Democratic Party, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton – the party’s presumptive 2008 nominee – needs to avoid getting caught in the middle of it.

“It’s not a fight between liberals and conservatives,” Rosenberg told me the other day. “It’s between our ‘governing class’ here and activists everywhere else.”

In other words, it’s The Beltway versus The Blogosphere.

What’s interesting is that Rosenberg is himself a Beltway creature, a preternaturally self-assured young insider with a cherubic face and a cold smile. He heads a group called the New Democratic Network and ran his own campaign for DNC chair. But the names he utters with reverence are net-based: organizers such as Eli Pariser and bloggers such as Daily Kos and Atrios.

Rosenberg rejects that notion that the bloggers represent a new “Internet Left.” It’s not an ideological rift, he says, but a “narrative” of independence versus capitulation: too many Democrats here are too yielding to George W. Bush on the war in Iraq, on tax policy, you name it. “What the blogs have developed is a narrative,” he told me the other day,” and the narrative is that the official Washington party has become like Vichy France.”

The birth of the DLC
In the 1980s, he said, a generation of Democratic strategists reacted to the rise of Ronald Reagan by looking for ways to co-exist with his brand of conservatism. The result was the Democratic Leadership Council, founded in 1985, which mixed cultural traditionalism with pro-market economics and hawkish foreign policy. It worked: Bill Clinton became chairman of the DLC in 1990, and used it as a launching pad to the presidency.

But, in the view of the Blogosphere, the DLC model is outmoded and dangerously accomodationist, in the manner of the allegedly independent, but in reality pro-Nazi, regime of wartime of France.

Rosenberg, who has, and can move easily in establishment circles, somewhat self-mockingly declares his own allegiance to the “narrative.” “I feel like I’ve joined the Resistance!” he says.

The First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas, if you insist) in this civil war occurred in 2003 and early 2004, when party insiders, the Mainstream Media and a network of long-time “funders” anointed Sen. John Kerry, only to see him get chewed up in the early going by Gov. Howard Dean.

But even though Kerry eventually outlasted the Rebs, and even though Dean (for some weird reason) decided to become chair of the Democratic National Committee, the civil war didn’t end. It just went underground.

The first sign of its reemergence was Cindy Sheehan (remember her?) on the national stage. Beltway Democrats avoided her like the plague; the Blogosphere embraced her as a heroine of the grassroots. It wasn’t so much the content of what she said; she was, after all, claiming mostly to be asking questions. It was the WAY she came to prominence – quickly, virally, seemingly from out of nowhere – and her stubbornly confrontational tone.

In Rosenberg’s view, that’s the tone Democrats need to adopt now, especially after Hurricane Katrina. Too many “governing” Democrats, he says, wrongly assume that their party’s traditional vision of “competent, benevolent government” has been rejected by the voters. It hasn’t, he says.

There is no need, Rosenberg says, to wander in the desert in search of a new theoretical synthesis, the way conservatives did a generation ago. What the Democrats need, he says, is an unforgiving toughness and a mastery of new means of communications – and all of this is more likely to be accomplished in the Blogosphere than inside the Beltway.

Why does any of this matter?
Well, for one, it could affect Hillary Rodham Clinton’s run for the White House. The consensus, among the insiders and in the early national polls, is that the 2008 nomination is hers to lose. But Clinton, by virtue of her DLC family roots and her role in the U.S. Senate – not to mention the job her husband used to have – has no choice but to “inherit the leadership of the Washington governing class.”  Not to mention the fact that she is a Baby Boomer of an almost grandmotherly age.

Strategically, Clinton has no higher priority than reaching out to what Rosenberg calls “the emerging activist class” and word is that, through aides and advisors, she is doing just that: they have set up meetings with key bloggers.

I am waiting to see which, if any, of the crop of likely Democratic challengers tries to make himself the avatar of the “emerging activist class.” Dean did it without even knowing he was doing it. I don’t think Cindy Sheehan is running. Who will it be? Unless somehow it turns out to be Hillary – who voted for the pre-war resolution on Iraq and in other ways has tried to burnish her “moderate” credentials.

But if Rosenberg is right, the key is not ideological purity but combativeness, and an appreciation of the power and tone of the internet. Hillary must adapt – she has to “join the Resistance” – and her history has shown that she is nothing if not adaptable.