Bury It

When reading news stories about the Democratic presidential hopefuls, and about the Democratic condition generally, I often find myself conducting the Rove test. This is our era's political version of the Rorschach test and consists of one question: What does the information herein look like to the president's guru and amanuensis?

That is to say, is Karl Rove -- whose goal is not merely to re-elect (er, elect) George W. Bush but to realign American politics for the foreseeable future -- nervously bouncing his knee or tapping his fingers as he reads a news item about Democratic goings on? Is he filing it away as something to keep an eye on or assign a minion to monitor? Or is he, as I often dolefully conclude, chortling away?

Two recent documents, I suspect, left Rove high-fiving his associates and popping the champagne. Exhibit A was the Democratic Leadership Council's attack two weeks ago on Howard Dean. The DLC, firing its cannonade across the party's portside bow, averred that Dean was straight out of the "McGovern-Mondale" wing of the party, a label that requires no further description. In a larger sense, the attack was aimed at Democratic interest groups (labor in particular) that the DLC has long sought to stigmatize.

Exhibit B was the portside riposte, by Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future, the DLC's liberal counterpart, published in the June 9 issue of The Nation. To Borosage, the DLC is a cadre of "poisonous sectarians" -- a loaded phrase with a presumably intentional whiff of ideological line-in-the-sand-drawing that calls to mind the City College cafeteria in the 1930s -- out to crush progressive politics.

I'm in the unusual -- I suppose some would say untenable -- position of liking and respecting both Borosage and Al From, founder of the DLC. From, on trips to New York, has often sought to touch base and keep me up on things, and though I part company with him and the DLC on a number of issues, I don't doubt his sincerity. Moreover, I appreciate that he has a background that includes writing pro-integration editorials at a southern newspaper in the 1960s.

Borosage fights the good fight but has taken a bit of a pounding over the years from his left flank for counseling accommodation with a Democratic Party that many on the left foolishly impugn as indistinguishable from the GOP. (Who can still say that with a straight face after these last two and a half years?). I once watched Borosage gamely endure many a catcall at a Nation party in advance of the 1992 Democratic convention as he explained why people ought to vote for Bill Clinton.

So I think I have some grasp of where each is coming from and what each is trying to do. Honestly and honorably, they have very different ideas about what the Democratic Party should be and where it should go. They should present those ideas to voters in a competitive fashion. But they should not be providing fodder, and entertainment, for Karl Rove.

The ideological scrimmage within the Democratic Party dates to the DLC's formation by From and others after the Walter Mondale debacle. Say what you will of the DLC, but no one should try to deny for a second what a mess the 1984 election was, and the Democratic Party could not have continued down that path and ever hoped to gain 51 percent of any national vote. The social base for the party that gave birth to the Mondales and Frank Churches and Phil Harts -- great as those Democrats are in memory -- began drying up then and is now essentially gone. American society is a different -- less unionized, more atomized and consumerist -- thing now, and the party had to adapt to that.

So the DLC has a point when it argues, as it did in the anti-Dean memo two weeks ago, that the kind of activists who attend party conferences and caucuses don't necessarily represent the views of less politicized, rank-and-file Democrats or unaffiliated voters. The DLC cited members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who gave their highest score to Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). There are things to admire in the boy mayor, but I hope we all agree that he should not be the party's presidential candidate.

However, the liberals are right about something, too: There do need to be some well-chosen bright lines that divide the parties and give voters a clear distinction. It seems to me they should have to do with health care, the environment and the argument -- which few Democrats have the courage to make these days -- that citizens cannot take their tax cuts and use them to clean rivers or build highways. But whatever the bright lines are, they do need to exist. A politics that consists primarily of blurring distinctions is as sure a recipe for marginalization as a politics that demands all bright lines, all the time.

Or put another way: The Democratic Party is not an ideological party. It should not strive to be. The Republican Party is ideologically homogeneous because the conservative movement has taken ownership of it. But the Democratic Party is, and will remain for a while, a heterogeneous party. In the current schema, with the center-left bickering that has characterized the party for years, that heterogeneity has been a weakness. But why can't it become a strength?

It can, in theory. But first the two factions have to behave less like factions and more like people who are fighting a common enemy. I would wager that Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean agree on more things than they disagree on. Specifically, the case could easily be made that Dean, a pro-gun budget balancer, has his centrist credentials, and that Lieberman has his liberal ones. After all, the Connecticut senator's 2000 Americans for Democratic Action score was a respectable 75, his League of Conservation Voters rating an 86, and he has proposed what strikes me as a sensible and progressive energy-independence plan.

So the feuding, then, is a willed stance that highlights points of difference, which are important but comparatively few, rather than points of commonality, which are in fact greater in number. There are reasons for this that are lodged deep in the liberal psyche, but there's no room to go into that here. And more to the point, there's no time for it anymore. It's time to take the hatchet and bury it -- at least cosmetically and until December 2004. A second Bush term, combined with continued control of the House and a larger GOP margin in the Senate -- and if you don't think that's going to happen you haven't looked at which senators are up for re-election in 2004 -- means disaster from the point of view of either faction.

Another thing about the liberal psyche is that it refuses to fully come to terms with what it's up against. Liberals, both centrists and left-leaners, just can't quite believe that people can be as unremittingly partisan as today's right-wingers are.

Well, try this on for size: The Denver Post's Washington bureau chief, John Aloysius Farrell, filed a piece on May 26 examining the recent redistricting fights in Texas and Colorado and explaining, with helpful quotes from GOP Leninist Grover Norquist, that the GOP is intentionally trying to extend partisan rancor to the statehouses ("turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship," Norquist was quoted as saying). The Republicans, Farrell wrote, are also trying to destroy the districts of Democratic centrists in the South and the Mountain States so that moderate Democrats will disappear and, according to Norquist, "no Texan need grow up thinking that being a Democrat is acceptable behavior." The unifying concept, as Norquist put it, is, "Bipartisanship is another name for date rape."

Surely the Democrats' two factions can find a way to make common cause against a mind-set like that. Either they will, or Norquist, Rove and Bush will be doing lots of chortling.

Michael Tomasky's column appears every Wednesday at TAP Online.