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Will Democrats Abandon the Middle?

By Kimberley Strassel

"They'll find their way back to the middle. And if they don't, they won't win." So says a blunt Harold Ford Jr., chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, of his party's current crop of presidential candidates. The question is just how many would-be Democratic presidents recognize the wisdom of his words.

Mr. Ford is in a feisty mood throughout our chat, as well he might be given the shelling his group has recently endured at the keyboards of the far left. Skip back 15 years, and the DLC stood as the proud architect of Bill Clinton's "New Democrat" campaign victory. Liberals derided the outfit's goals of nosing the party back toward the political center, but Mr. Clinton understood the perils of running as Jimmy Carter. He took the DLC's advice, talked up "opportunity, responsibility, community" and won.

Today, the DLC is again battling for the souls of those Democrats who would occupy the White House, urging them toward a centrist agenda that will seek to convince the broad middle that Democrats can be trusted on national security, values and fiscal responsibility. Mr. Ford's colleague, DLC founder Al From, thinks the stakes are giant, and that the public's unease over the war, health care and the economy has created the "first time in modern political history" that his party has the opportunity to "build an enduring majority in the progressive center."

That is, if his party doesn't blow it. And Mr. From's problem is that a whole lot of folks still think him a heretic, and this time they're louder, ruder and more coordinated. The far left has found something to unify it--hatred of George W. Bush. Technology has given it the means to organize; what the right found in talk radio, liberals have found in the "netroots" Internet, from MoveOn.org to Daily Kos. Its activism has of late overshadowed groups like the DLC, which still believe in such creaky notions as ideas. Even Mr. Ford, who took over the DLC chairmanship in January, is willing to admit his outfit has been eclipsed: "The DLC and other moderate groups have struggled a bit to find not only our voice, but a way to be heard."

Making it harder is that this newly energized left is directing inordinate firepower on the DLC itself, in a crazed, purist drive to purge any group that would exert a moderating influence on the Democratic Party. New Republic scribe Noam Scheiber let loose a few weeks back in a New York Times hit piece, calling the DLC "radioactive" and "quaint," gloating that its "fading influence was good news for the entire party," and arguing that it should just get lost. Markos Moulitsas, chief flogger-blogger on the Daily Kos, this week slammed the DLC as a group that wants to "blur distinctions with the GOP," and reveling that Democrats had won in 2006 because liberals like himself had "forced" Americans to pick sides.

The real target audience for these pronouncements is the Democratic presidential field, and the threat is clear: Touch the DLC, and you will be (to use a favorite, medieval Kos word) "punished." At least a few activists danced a victory lap, too, a few weeks back when every last Democratic candidate spurned the DLC's annual convention in Nashville, instead turning up at Mr. Moulitsas's YearlyKos event in Chicago.

Messrs. Ford and From, in their usual optimistic way, insist that backslapping is premature. It's primary season, they note, and that means the candidates are catering to the left. None of the front-runners bothered to show up to the DLC event in 2003, either, though nominee John Kerry was pitching to the group come the summer of 2004. "In the primaries you play on one end of the field, but you have to play on the whole field in the general," says Mr. From.

Yes, though what's also clear is that so far it has been the netroots calling out the plays from the sidelines. Congress alone should be cause for the DLC's concern. Nancy Pelosi shrewdly presented her party as more centrist in last year's election, yet upon winning tossed the gavel to her liberal wing. Egged on by activists, Congressional Democrats have spent eight months fighting for surrender in Iraq, tanking trade pacts with Latin America and South Korea, and maneuvering to institute backdoor socialized health care. This undoubtedly has something to do with Congress's approval rating, which now stands below that of even President Bush.

And the presidential candidates? Mr. From says he's happy that none of the front-runners have so far "gone off the deep end," but this might be considered faint praise. The one grown-up on national security has been Sen. Joe Biden, who barely registers in Democratic polls. Hillary Clinton has come out against even a South Korean trade deal; this from the wife of the DLCer whose own free-trade impulses (at least his first term) delivered Nafta and GATT. Barack Obama produced a little shiver among his party's fiscal disciplinarians when he recently blurted out (at the Kos event, in case you were wondering), that he'd be happy to run up deficits in the name of greater domestic spending.

No doubt the ultimate nominee will backpedal and finesse these points for the broader national audience. Just how much finessing goes on--just how far the candidates come back to Mr. Ford's "middle"--will be the ultimate test of whether groups like the DLC have a role in the future of the Democratic Party. Mr. Ford, for his part, has dark warnings for those activists selling the line that last year's election is proof that their liberal ideas are now "mainstream," or that Democrats' reputation on national security and the economy is so secure that the candidates run no risk going left. "That's called short-term memory," he says, with a few references to Carter, Mondale and other ghosts of failed Democrats past.

As he does his convincing, Mr. Ford is going to be holding up a few key facts, ones that no belligerent blogger has yet been able to refute. The party's most impressive gains last year all came from politicians straight out of the DLC cast. Four governors spoke at the DLC convention this year; all four had beat Republicans. The vast majority of the pick-ups in the House came from DLCers in red states in the South and Midwest. The Senate wouldn't be in Democratic hands were it not for Montana's Jon Tester.

"The reality is, without the DLC, and without candidates who subscribe to our platform, Democrats wouldn't be in the majority today. If we abandon that group, we will lose the majority and we will lose the White House," says Mr. Ford.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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