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irregular times logoConservative Democrats, Running Scared

As America nears the presidential primary season, conservative insiders at the Democratic Leadership Council are in a panic. The unlikely source of this panic: A middle-of-the-road Democrat is likely to get the presidential nomination!

These Democratic conservatives, out of touch with the Democratic rank and file yet hanging onto the leadership they gained at the Democratic National Committee during the days of Clinton and Gore, occupy themselves in two ways: 1) Finding ways to help Republican politicians, and 2) Devising strategies to undermine Democrats who attempt to challenge Republican politicians.

Members of the Democratic Leadership Council justify their attacks on Democratic leaders by claiming that Democrats who speak up about issues that Democrats care about are incapable of winning any national election. Here they are, career politicians who claim to be at the moral center of the Democratic Party, claiming that Democrats can only win by pretending to be Republicans!

There's an logical strategic flaw with this kind of thinking: Democrats cannot defeat the Republicans by becoming Republicans. The conservatives at the Democratic Leadership Council, by pushing for Democrats to act like Republicans, are only furthering the Republican cause. The DLC seems not to understand the basic idea that the struggle between Democrats and Republicans is not just a sport in which the main point is for a bunch of people playing under one name try to defeat a bunch of people playing under another name, with nothing distinguishing the two groups of people other than their uniforms. The struggle between Democrats and Republicans is a struggle over ideas, and when Democrats push to replace Democratic ideals with Republican causes, they're betraying the Democratic cause even when they get conservative Democrats elected. Elections aren't the point. What everyone outside the DLC understands is that voters care about principles, not political labels.

There's also an historical flaw with the arguments of the Democratic Leadership Council. The presidential election of 2000 was lost not just because of Ralph Nader, and not just because of the votes from Florida were not counted. The only reason that such small obstacles were able to make such a big difference is that the conservatives at the Democratic Leadership Council failed miserably to convince even hard core Democrats to vote for their candidates. The plain truth is that Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, both members of the Democratic Leadership Council at the time, made such an effort to appeal to conservative Republican voters that they made Democrats feel betrayed. As a result, Democratic voter turnout was low, and many Democrats didn't even vote for the Democratic candidate. Yes, Ralph Nader was a self-centered twit. Yes, the Green Party took away votes that the Democrats should have had. The more important point, however, is that Nader and the Green Party could not have done so if Democratic voters had not been so angry at the conservative pandering of Gore and Lieberman.

Al Gore appears to have learned from this experience. He has embraced Howard Dean because of the obvious strength that Dean has in appealing to Democratic voters. Gore has finally realized that in order for a Democratic candidate to win, that candidate first has to gain the support of Democrats and then reach out to undecided voters. What politicians like Joseph Lieberman, who still runs with the Democratic Leadership Council, cannot comprehend is that Democratic candidates who spend all their time praising and collaborating with Republicans will never gain enough Democratic support to even bother talking to political independents.

Even more striking is the clear empirical proof that conservative Democrats like Senator Lieberman are less likely to win the general election than strong, mainstream candidates like Howard Dean. Let's cut out the speculation and accusations that Lieberman likes to throw around and look at the numbers that two recent polls give us:

A Harris poll from December, 2003 asks the following questions: "Which of the following Democratic presidential candidates have you heard of?" "Which one of these would you prefer to be the Democratic candidate?" Basically, the poll measures voters' familiarity with political candidates and the degree to which they prefer those candidates. Here are the results, for Howard Dean and Joseph Lieberman:

Howard Dean: Recognized by 76 percent. Has the preference of 21 percent.
Lieberman: Recognized by 85 percent. Has the preference of 10 percent.

What's really telling is that the participants of this poll were registered Democrats and registered voters who are not Democrats yet tend to lean toward the Democrats. In other words, this poll is not just reflective of the core Democrats that form the foundation of any Democratic electoral victory, but also the so-called "swing voters" that Lieberman claims he appeals to most.

This poll proves Joseph Lieberman wrong. Although he is more familiar to Democrats and independent voters, he is preferred by less than half. The voters that a Democratic candidate needs to win know Senator Lieberman, and they just don't like him. Of course, this poll doesn't tell us why Democrats and independent voters can't stand Joseph Lieberman, but we suspect that Senator Lieberman's history in helping the Republicans impeach Bill Clinton and cozying up to George W. Bush since 2000 doesn't help.

The politicos at the Democratic Leadership Council try to deny the obvious implications of polls like these by saying that once the competition against Dean gets narrowed down to just one or two, the Democratic voters will rally behind a more conservative candidate, like Joseph Lieberman or Wesley Clark.

Oops, they did it again. When the Democratic Leadership Council makes claims like this, they ignore the clear evidence that's already available. When Americans are provided with such a scenario, they vote for the mainstream Democrat, Howard Dean, and pass over the conservative option.

In another Harris poll conducted at the end of December, Democrats and independent voters who lean towards the Democrats were asked how they would vote if most of the candidates were eliminated from the Democratic primary race and only Howard Dean and one other candidate remained. The following results emerged:

When the contest was whittled down to Howard Dean vs. Wesley Clark, Dean wins 46 percent to 32 percent.

When Howard Dean was put up against Joseph Lieberman alone, Dean did even better, getting 50 percent to Lieberman's 32 percent.

What these polls show is that neither Democrats nor independent voters are clamoring for a Democratic candidate who will merely repeat whatever George W. Bush and the Republican leadership says. Republicans may prefer Joseph Lieberman, but they're already taken with Bush. In 2004, the contest will clearly be between the Republican vision and the Democratic vision for America. American voters are asking for a clear choice. They just disagree about what that clear choice should be.

Naturally, this situation alarms the conservatives at the Democratic Leadership Council. They're not alarmed for the sake of the Democratic Party, however. They're alarmed for themselves. The Democratic Leadership Council has run the Democratic Party into the ground for the last 4 years, and their only hope at retaining power is to get one of their own, like Senator Lieberman, the presidential nomination. If Lieberman doesn't get the nomination, no one is going to pay attention to the Democratic Leadership Council anymore.

It's about time.



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