Can Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh lead his fellow Democrats out of their left-wing political wilderness and into the center of the political spectrum?
Some political observers think that Mr. Bayh, or some presidential candidate of his centrist views, needs to do so. Otherwise the Democrats won't be able to break a losing streak that has shut them out of the White House and is keeping them in the minority in Congress.
But shifting a political party across the political spectrum is more challenging than merely winning a presidential nomination. If Republican Party history is any guide, it takes perhaps a generation, or about 25 years, to accomplish.
The Democrats, of course, don't want to wait that long to win back the White House. That's why some prominent party figures are beginning to call for a move to the center-at least in word, if not in deed.
One scenario is for a moderate or centrist candidate to maneuver his way to the nomination as several liberal candidates split the rest of the party's vote. The dominant liberal wing of the party might be persuaded to endure a moderate candidate, such as Mr. Bayh, in order to win the election as long as he made no real change in party doctrine on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, or foreign policy.
Another scenario would be true realignment, or an actual shift to the center. Realignment would probably include an influx of moderate delegates to the national convention and changes to the party platform, including opposition to partial-birth abortion and stronger foreign-policy positions.
Next week's election of a party chairman may signal whether enough Democrats want a shift of any kind. Representing the centrist wing of the party is former U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer, who compiled a pro-life voting record in Congress and repeatedly won reelection in Bush country in northern Indiana. But Mr. Roemer has several competitors, including former presidential candidate Howard Dean.
The outcome of the DNC contest won't necessarily affect the presidential nomination contest in 2008. But it might provide an early sign that the party is ready to move to the middle. Additional signs could come later this year and next, especially if some sort of consensus emerges for a middle-of-the-road centrist candidate, such as Mr. Bayh or Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato thinks the party may be ready for such a shift-but it won't be easy. "The challenge for Evan Bayh and others like him in the Democratic Party is to do two things simultaneously," he said. "They need to bring more moderate voters into the caucuses and primaries in the 2008 race and nominate a moderate candidate in order to win in November. If they do only one of the two, they will fail."
But a shift of this kind will require some new blood in the party at the grassroots level. Notre Dame Prof. Robert Schmul points to the Republican Party experience for some lessons. After Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential race as a well-defined conservative, the Republicans moved toward the middle in 1968 with Richard Nixon, only to wind up in shambles because of Watergate. While Republicans were losing congressional seats in 1974 and then the presidency in 1976, conservative activists were remaking the party, building a foundation for Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980 and eventually the 1994 takeover of Congress.
"The whole period of time becomes important in terms of your evangelical Christians and your conservative think tanks and the whole apparatus that has grown up surrounding the conservative movement," Mr. Schmul says. "It's pretty remarkable for a party that was, after Watergate, on life support."
Mr. Schmul, however, does not see lots of evidence of similar movement in the Democratic Party. "The Democratic Leadership Council has been trying to move the party to the center over the past several years," he says. "Except for [the DLC], it is difficult to see others who are engaged in this same practice."
With moderates in short supply, a tough primary between numerous liberal candidates could create another dark horse like Jimmy Carter. "In 1976 Jimmy Carter got 28 percent of the vote in Iowa and 29 percent in New Hampshire," Mr. Sabato says. "He won the nomination because he was running against five liberals, including, oddly enough, Birch Bayh," then a senator from Indiana and the father of Evan Bayh.
But sneaking past a bunch of liberals won't be enough to win the election. "A candidate like Bayh must motivate moderates to come in," Mr. Sabato says. A centrist nominee will need to broaden the party platform to include pro-life gestures, such as opposition to partial-birth abortion and support for parental notification for abortion for a teen.
"They better have pro-lifers in," Mr. Sabato said. "They better do something about their gay-rights stance. They better make sure that voters understand there will be no gun control under Democratic control. Otherwise they won't win."
Mr. Bayh's personal political journey could provide a sort of roadmap for his party. He grew up to be more moderate than his liberal father, who lost his Senate seat to Dan Quayle in 1980. Evan Bayh ran his father's campaign in 1980 and became aware of the growing network of conservative activists who were taking over the Republican Party in the Midwest. He ran for secretary of state of Indiana in 1986, and then in 1988 led the Democrats in Indiana out of a political wilderness to their first control of the governor's office in 20 years.
While in Indianapolis, he did not govern as a self-identified conservative or liberal. But some of his policies had a decidedly conservative slant: He cracked down on crime, refused to increase taxes, and overruled officials of the state park system who wanted to ban Gideon Bibles from inns and lodges. In the Senate he has portrayed himself as stronger on defense than most of the rest of his party, and he offered only lukewarm support for John Kerry in the presidential campaign.
Mr. Bayh's potential competitors from the moderate wing of the party include vice presidential nominee John Edwards and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. Of the two, Mr. Edwards may have a harder time staying in the public eye, with his Senate seat lost to a Republican and his state going to President Bush in 2004.
On the other hand, with a cellular-phone fortune of some $200 million, Mr. Warner has plenty of money to spend on a presidential campaign. Though limited to a single term as governor, he could run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2006 against Sen. George Allen, himself a possible candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.
But can any moderate candidate win the nomination-much less the presidency-in a left-wing party? Plenty of Democrats, especially in Bush states like Virginia or Indiana, are more moderate than the party platform. One example is John Gregg, the former Speaker of the Indiana House, who calls himself a "gun-toting, Bible-quoting Democrat." He's being heavily recruited to run against Republican John Hostettler, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives. Polls show Mr. Hostettler should be vulnerable to a Democratic challenger, but he keeps winning close races with the help of a grassroots network of church-going evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.
With his folksy, friendly manner, Mr. Gregg can speak the Red State language, and national Democratic leaders don't seem to mind. "If they weren't interested in trying to attract moderate and conservative Democrats, they wouldn't be talking to me," he says. "They know I'm pro-life, pro-death penalty. I'm against homosexual marriages. That's why they're coming after me."
In the midst of the debate among the Democrats, even some more traditional liberals seem to be trying to reach for the middle. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, for example, is staking out a more restrictive position on immigration. And Howard Dean supporters are claiming he was a fairly moderate, pro-death penalty governor whose liberal reputation stems largely from his views on the war in Iraq.
Still, in his race for DNC chairman, Mr. Dean is clearly the darling of the party's liberal wing, and his success or failure could forecast the future of Mr. Bayh or Mr. Warner. "What happens with the DNC election will tell us a lot about whether the Democratic Party is going to change," says Mr. Schmul. "If Tim Roemer is elected, that is a sign of political change. If Howard Dean is elected, we are looking at a continuation of the status quo."