Center Stage

Considering that he is the Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) "New Democrat of the Week," it should come as no surprise that St. Petersburg, Fla., City Councilman Rick Kriseman has endorsed Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), and that there is one Democrat he'd have a hard time supporting.

"I don't agree a lot with [Rep.] Dennis Kucinich [D-Ohio]," said Kriseman, a 41-year-old lawyer serving his first full four-year term on the council.

Former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.)? Well, if he got nominated, "I really hope he would move a little bit toward the center," Kriseman said. But if he did, Kriseman would have no trouble supporting him against George W. Bush.

The political center, where Dean feels most comfortable, is precisely where he intends to move, and though one city councilman hardly speaks for all moderate Democrats, a random check of centrist Democrats indicates that Kriseman is not alone. The results ought to provide some comfort to Democrats old enough to be haunted by the specter of 1972, when so many of their southern conservative colleagues refused to support George McGovern.

This apparition reappeared last week after The New Republic endorsed Lieberman because he offers "the clearest, bravest alternative" to "Dean's vision," which combines "an excessive faith in multilateralism and an insufficient faith in the moral potential of U.S. power."

Coming as Lieberman's prospects fade, the endorsement raised the question of whether its real purpose was to provide intellectual cover for Democrats who might want to sit out the general election campaign.

Only the editors know for sure, but if that was it, they have less fertile fields to cultivate than did the anti-McGovernites. In 1972, there were 88 non-Hispanic white Democrats in Congress from the political South (the Confederacy plus Kentucky, Missouri and Oklahoma). Today, with more southerners in Congress, there are but 33.

This is hardly good news for Democrats. It means they are weaker. What they get in return for diminished power is enhanced harmony. There won't be many conservative southern Democrats deserting the national ticket this year because there simply aren't many conservative southern Democrats. If they haven't become Republicans by now, they've been beaten by one. Coincidentally but significantly, last week was also when 12-term Democratic Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas' Red River Valley announced he'd run for re-election as a Republican.

It isn't that there are no conservative Democrats left in office. Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi's Gulf Coast isn't likely to campaign for Howard Dean, or for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) or, for that matter, Joe Lieberman, either. But today's Democratic officeholders do not disagree with one another nearly as much as they disagree with Republicans. Whatever their label, almost all Democratic officials are real Democrats.

So are the leaders of the DLC, the headquarters of party centrism and supposedly of whatever "stop Dean" movement there may be. "I intend to support the Democratic nominee," DLC CEO Al From said last week. From made no effort to hide his hope that the candidate would be someone other than Dean. But neither does the DLC try to hide its conviction that it prefers any of the plausible Democrats to Bush.

There are conservative Democratic rank-and-file voters, too, but their conservatism is cultural. They oppose abortion, gay rights and gun control. Obviously this is not what bothers the editors of The New Republic, who favor all three. Their antipathy toward Dean is based on his foreign-policy stance, which they assert lies outside the Democratic Party's "hawkish liberal tradition."

But if Lieberman is that tradition's champion, it seems to be the choice of precious few Democrats, illustrating another difference between 1972 and 2004. Anti-McGovern party bigwigs were representing their constituents; dismay over the nominee percolated up from the folks. So far, rank-and-file Democrats have shown no comparable discomfort with Dean. This stop-Dean effort is a think-tank movement.

It is also cultural, often just another way of saying tribal: Voters who oppose gun control really don't mind gun control as much as they dislike gun-control advocates, and vice versa. Similarly, what separates liberal from not-so-liberal Democrats usually does not turn out to be major public-policy differences but exasperation over how those other folks strut their stuff.

Suppose, for instance, a reversal of the present shoe-foot configuration. Suppose Lieberman were the front-runner. Would Democrats on the left be grumbling?

They are anyway. One liberal writer called Lieberman a "neo-Republican," and several have used a variant of "Republican in Democratic clothing." This to describe a senator whose voting record is as liberal as Kerry's or Kucinich's. Yes, Lieberman voted for the Iraq War and for free trade. But so did Kerry, and nobody calls him a neo-Republican. Lieberman is not the conservative in the race as much as he is the curmudgeon.

Likewise, Dean is not the appeaser TNR's editors describe. His political hero is Harry Truman, and one of his foreign-policy models is Madeleine Albright. Selectively culling Howard Dean's own words, one could conclude that he was a foreign-policy naïf, but only if one were committed to that conclusion from the outset. The cause of that commitment, then, would seem to be driven by something other than dispassionate policy analysis. Understandably, some Democrats find Dean and his supporters smug and irritating. But their reaction is to become smug and petulant themselves.

The question is whether petulance is sufficient basis for a politically significant internal Democratic rebellion should Dean win the nomination. Probably not, at least if Dean, through his choice of a running mate and the words of his acceptance speech, can assure voters that he is in the foreign-policy mainstream.

He is, so this shouldn't be hard for him, but he does have a penchant for the self-inflicted wound. Why on earth did he decide to annoy the DLC leaders by calling them "the Republican wing of the Democratic Party"?

Only he knows, but his use of the term was not spontaneous creativity. It's how liberal Democrats in Vermont regularly described their governor throughout the 1990s.

Jon Margolis, a former national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964.