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Finding Neverland

Ted Kennedy: "We cannot become Republican clones. If we do, we will lose again, and deserve to lose."

Issue: "Abortion: Delta force," Jan. 22, 2005

Will the Democrats ever grow up? With George W. Bush about to take the oath of office for a second time, some party leaders are saying it's time to depart the political Neverland of high taxes, big government, and abortion on demand.

But not if the Lost Boys can help it. Two of the Democrats' leading liberals weighed in last week, telling the faithful, in effect, that the party's light could be rekindled if only they would clap their hands loudly and really, really believe.

"We cannot move our party or our nation forward under pale colors and timid voices," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in a Jan. 12 speech at the National Press Club in Washington. "We cannot become Republican clones. If we do, we will lose again, and deserve to lose."

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To avoid the cloning process, Mr. Kennedy recommended a sweeping new liberal agenda, including federally mandated sick leave for every worker, guaranteed college tuition for every high-school graduate, and full Medicare benefits for every citizen, from birth to death.

The speech, billed as a major address on the future of the party, also touched on the values questions that have troubled Democrats for years. Indeed, he mentioned the V-word 16 times, urging Democratic candidates to "speak more directly to the issues of deep conscience." But on sacrosanct issues like abortion, he suggested, the party must not allow retreat. "In this land that cherishes individual rights and liberties," he said, "a woman has the constitutional right to make her own reproductive decisions, and I support that right wholeheartedly."

He's hardly the only one. One day before the Kennedy speech, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, one of the Democrats' most liberal voices on social issues, officially announced his candidacy to chair the party's central committee. "The Democratic Party will not win election or build a lasting majority solely by changing its rhetoric, nor will we win by adopting the other side's positions," he wrote in a letter to members of the Democratic National Committee, who will choose their leader in February.

Mr. Dean's entry into the chairman's race complicates the efforts of moderates like former Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana, who believes Democrats could soften their abortion-on-demand position. Mr. Roemer's candidacy has won praise from the Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate, who watched their numbers dwindle in the latest election.

But Mr. Dean warned against trying to appease so-called values voters. "That word-'values'-has lately become a code word for appeasement of the right-wing fringe," he said. "But when political calculations make us soften our opposition to bigotry, or sign on to policies that add to the burden of ordinary Americans, we have abandoned our true values.

"We can win elections only by standing up for what we believe," he concluded. A little fairy dust might not hurt, either.

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