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Dean errs in battling the New Democrats

WITH THE Democratic front-runner in High Howard mode, his gaffe-a-week campaign is giving his party pause and his opponents ammunition. So much so that Dean, after having spent a year unfairly flaying his rivals as craven cave-ins to George W. Bush, is now crying foul because they are finally returning fire. And issuing not so oblique threats that if he's not made the nominee, he'll take his supporters and go home.

 

Troubling as Dean's regular stumbles are, what's even more disconcerting is the battle the former Vermont governor seems to want to wage with a winning Democratic philosophy.

Dean -- who has appropriated as his own rallying cry the late senator Paul Wellstone's declaration that he hails from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party -- recently labeled the Democratic Leadership Council the "Republican wing of the Democratic Party."

Perhaps Dean meant to say the intellectual wing of the Democratic Party, for it is the DLC that laid the philosophical foundation for the Clinton administration. Paul Tsongas used to point out that Democrats couldn't love jobs but hate employers. It's just as true that Democrats can't love the Clinton years but hate the DLC.

That's why it surprised Al From, the DLC's founder and CEO, to see Dean seem to suggest in a recent speech that the Clinton administration was more about limiting the damage Republicans inflicted on working families than real progress. Actually, as From points out, Clinton, who chaired the DLC before he resigned the post to run for president, realized many traditional Democratic objectives by pragmatic means.

An emphasis on fiscal discipline -- achieved without a middle-class tax hike -- helped set the stage for a long run of economic prosperity. An expansion of the earned income tax credit provided a huge boon for the working poor.

Although the view here is that the welfare reform Bill Clinton signed was too Draconian in imposing a five-year lifetime limit for recipients, that legislation has been widely judged a success. And it's true that by imposing a work requirement as a condition of receiving welfare, that law underscored the idea of reciprocal responsibility while largely eliminating complaints about welfare as a government giveaway. Meanwhile, the charter school movement has given families a welcome array of educational options, while AmeriCorps, the Clintonian national-service program, has helped undergird the idea of civic responsibility espoused by JFK.

"You would hope that the Democratic nominee in 2004, whether it is Howard Dean or somebody else, would want to build on that approach," says From.

Certainly it's hard to argue with the New Democrat success at the presidential level -- particularly given what had come before. Founded in 1985, a year after the Democrats nominated Walter Mondale and suffered a devastating defeat with a candidate who proved less than the sum of his interest group parts, the DLC picked up electoral steam after the party nominated another liberal -- and lost again -- in 1988.

Clinton's legacy as the first successful Democratic president since JFK should have put any lingering resentment about the DLC to rest. But this year the doctrinaire left has persuaded itself that a new, solipsistic paradigm obtains: One can win merely by energizing the base.

Actually, that's an old, discredited theory, the same argument once offered as a quadrennial losers' lament: The nominee could have won if only he had sailed more resolutely to port. The only difference is that this year, that argument is proffered not to defend an unwillingness to change course but as an excuse to revert to form.

Now, in this year's fractured Democratic field, tacking left may be the easiest path to the nomination. But neither history nor logic suggests it is a winning course for the general election, a contest where swing voters will prove as important as ever. This election will be won -- or lost -- among moderate, independent-minded members of the middle class, a group defined less by anger toward the current administration than anxiety about the future.

"If we allow Bush to take the conservatives and a good part of the middle, then he will win," says From.

And in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the middle, the DLC should be considered not a suspect group of crypto-Republicans but as wise and savvy allies who long ago proved both worth and wisdom.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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