Howard Dean has his work cut out for him as he takes on the challenge of rebuilding the Democratic Party. Dean's grassroots organization, left over from the presidential campaign, overwhelmed the Washington pros who tried to install a centrist insider such as former Rep. Tim Roemer as chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Ryan Lizza writes in The New Republic (2/14/05) that the DNC chair race "exposed deep fissures within the Democratic Party. Some of these are ideological, but the real story of the race is the diffusion of power away from Washington and to new people and entities that have rushed to fill the power vacuum at the top of the party. When the Democrats control the White House, the president can simply pick the chair of the party. But, even when out of power, Democratic pooh-bahs traditionally rally around a consensus figure and present him to the DNC members as a fait accompli."
This time, however, the grassroots Democrats made their move. And the pros are grumbling. James Carville said, "Somebody should have fixed this damn thing in November" to avoid the embarrassment of a party looking disorganized. But, Lizza explains, "every attempt to rig the race failed, revealing that the levers of power in the Democratic Party have shifted out of Washington's hands."
Many top Democrats dreaded a Dean victory, fearing the former Vermont governor would be a lightning rod for GOP attacks, eclipsing other voices and emphasizing the elements of the party that weeks of postelection soul-searching had determined the Democrats needed to play down, such as its liberal stance on cultural issues and its weakness on national security, Lizza wrote.
Lizza noted that the 447 members of the DNC are generally local party operatives and activists who are frequently frustrated that the national party gives their states neither the time nor the money they deserve. Dean promised to send money to state parties and compete against the Republicans everywhere. As Lizza wrote, "Guess which approach spoke to the local-minded DNC members more?"
Dean plans to make the Democrats a party of reform. In that he nominally agrees with the pro-business Democratic Leadership Council, which advises the party to take away the reform mantle from the GOP, and Carville, who also has been pushing a reform agenda. But there is a difference between reform and revolution, and the pros fear that revolutionary rhetoric will reinforce the stereotype of Democrats as radicals.
A friend confessed that he was not looking forward to more replays of Dean's infamous Scream on right-wing talk shows. But the right-wingers and their media allies will ridicule anyone who speaks truth to power, so don't expect an even break from them. Also remember that, the caricatures notwithstanding, the Scream after the Iowa caucuses was one of defiance. The Democratic Party needs that kind of passion today. We think Dean is the right man for the job.
Some "pro-choice" Democrats were nervous when Sen. Hillary Clinton called on family planning advocates to try to find "common ground" with pro-life groups on issues such as emergency contraception, more funding for prenatal care and other ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Clinton said abortion is often "a failure of our system of education, health care and preventive services." She also noted that abortions declined during her husband's administration, when assistance was available for low-income families, but abortions have risen in the past four years as George W. Bush responded to a recession with cuts to child care and welfare.
What's up? Democrats must regain their appeal to mainstream churchgoers -- particularly Catholics, whose hierarchy pursues a hard line against abortion.
A poll sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, released in early February, found that while John Kerry managed the best showing in decades for a Democratic presidential candidate among mainline Protestants, splitting that vote with Bush, Roman Catholics gave Bush his narrow margin of victory. As the AP's Richard Ostling reported, "A onetime Democratic mainstay, Catholics gave Bush an overall edge of 53% to Kerry's 47%." There goes Ohio.
Among non-Hispanic Catholics, Kerry won the support of 69% of those with liberal or "modernist'' beliefs, while 72% of "traditionalists'' favored Bush. But importantly, 55% of the key swing group of "centrists'' picked Bush over Kerry, who was criticized by bishops for his support of abortion rights.
Joe Feuerherd, Washington correspondent for the liberal National Catholic Reporter, noted at NCRonline.org Jan. 27 that other Democrats are seeking to soften rhetoric on abortion. Soon after his defeat, Sen. John Kerry told Democrats that the party's take-no-prisoners abortion-rights position was an electoral loser. Then on Jan. 12 Sen. Ted Kennedy told a National Press Club audience that "a woman has the constitutional right to make her own reproductive decisions, and I support that right wholeheartedly." But, he continued, "If we are serious about reducing the number of abortions, we must be serious about reducing unwanted pregnancy. We must adopt policies with a proven track record of reducing abortion."
Dean also has said "we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats."
Nancy Keenan, the new president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the nation's leading reproductive rights advocacy group, applauded Clinton's speech, telling the San Francisco Chronicle the message should be "folks, you have got to talk about (pregnancy) prevention ... and we have been trying to talk about prevention for years.''
But officials of the National Right to Life Committee, which is practically an adjunct of the Republican Party, rebuffed the Democratic initiative.
"I don't know anybody in the pro-life movement who gives two hoots about what Kennedy or Clinton say," an unidentified "leading Washington-based pro-lifer" told Feuerherd.
This sort of reaction marks NRLC as the pro-birth wing of the pro-life movement, interested in a fetus only until it is born. The pro-birthers hope this year to make it a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines to seek an abortion. Another measure would require abortion clinics to inform women seeking late-turn abortions that the fetus will feel pain during the procedure.
NRLC has not, to our knowledge, mounted an outcry against Republican budget cuts to programs that helped low-income parents and their children find adequate food, housing, education and health care. So it is hard to take seriously NRLC's claim as defenders of the "right to life."
At least the Catholic bishops -- much maligned on the Left -- are consistent in their support for social welfare programs. In addition to the right to birth, the bishops declared in 2003, "Each person also has a right to the conditions for living a decent life -- faith and family life, food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing. We also have a duty to secure and respect these rights not only for ourselves, but for others, and to fulfill our responsibilities to our families, to each other, and to the larger society." (See www.usccb.org.)
If the battle is over abortion, Catholics will side with the bishops and Democrats will lose. If the battle is over the right to a full and decent life, some bishops will still pitch in with the GOP but the priests, sisters and the rank and file might be persuaded to come home to the Democrats. -- JMC