Wilderness wanderers

Politics | Shifting political ideology for Democrats will be more challenging than winning the White House

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

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.

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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.


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