Dem Activists Debate Battle Tactics

After failing to defeat President Bush in the 2004 election and losing even more seats to the Republicans in the House and Senate, Democrats are finding themselves following different paths to get the party back on track.

Moderate Democratic activists who pride themselves on getting Bill Clinton elected to the presidency say they want to take a more soul-searching approach — expand out from the base, reconfigure the message to give it broader appeal and explain why Democrats embody the values of the American populace.

"Democrats like to believe that we have the right message and our problem is one of communication — of getting our message out more effectively. ... But after losing two presidential and three congressional elections in a row — all of which Democrats thought they would win — maybe it's time to think hard about what we say, not just how loudly we say it," Democratic Leadership Council (search) President Bruce Reed and DLC founder and CEO Al From, purveyors of "New Democrat" centrism, wrote in a recent issue of Blueprint, the DLC's magazine.

They added that "a party that has averaged 44.5 percent of the vote in the last 10 presidential elections and has only won a majority of the popular vote for president twice in six decades" has to start working on broad appeal, not just looking at the base.

But suggestions such as those by Reed and From have sparked a firestorm on liberal blogs, where the "netroots" have taken umbrage with charges that they are dragging the party to the left, opening it to ridicule.

The netroots (search) — the new technologically driven grassroots — say self-styled moderates have doomed the party to failure by constantly harping on the party's internal factions. These Democratic supporters say they prefer the approach taken by new Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean (search), the man they backed in the Democratic presidential primary for his outspoken and unapologetic defense of his positions.

"Any accommodation is going to be viewed as weakness, and it’s going to hurt us in the long-run if we appear to be standing for nothing," said blogger Oliver Willis, who works for a Democratic media outlet and operates his own Web blog. Willis said moderates ought to try supporting Dean's approach for fighting Republicans rather than usurping Republican-proven methods of defeating Democrats.

"They would be better-served working with us than against us," Willis said.

The Dean Effect

The netroots movement prides itself on its outside-the-Beltway diversity and a strategy of rapid-fire information and response as well as aggressive fund-raising and vocal opposition to the Republican and conservative body politic.

Dave Johnson, a video game designer, comic strip artist and Washington state resident who blogs on, said the netroots are doing exactly what centrists have failed to do — take Republican policies head-on and say no to "Washington dinner party conventional wisdom" that liberals are at fault for everything.

Utilizing the Internet and the grassroots network already established at the state and local levels during the primary campaign, many netroots take credit for Dean's successful election to the chairmanship of the DNC, even though they aren't affiliated with party operations in any official capacity.

But while liberal grassroots say they are certain Dean will have a positive impact on the party's directions, moderates who have congratulated Dean also warn him that as head of the DNC, he is not in a position to fix some basic issues within the party.

"A party gets only one chance every four years to define itself for the voters. That comes in the presidential nominating process, and that definition is determined by the party's presidential nominee and what he or she stands for. Ironically, the best thing a party chairman can do is to keep his head down and his nose to the grindstone, and give potential candidates a clear field to have that debate," From and Reed wrote in their article.

Dean's task will ultimately require reconciling the party's internal struggles, not the least of which is proving that he can help Democratic candidates in 2006 in what are now Republican red states. Johnson said he doesn't think it will be as difficult as it appears now.

"I don’t think the Washington people need to worry about Howard Dean," Johnson said. "He’s a centrist who comes out of the blog movement because he’s active; he’s more aggressive."

DNC Press Secretary Tony Welch told that whatever differences the party has on approach, they are, in fact, united in making sure that American voters are well-served.

"Americans want a party that is going to be strong for them, not stifle different opinions within our party," Welch said. "Our interest is to embrace the ideas among the grassroots, not direct it from the top down. This is why the incredible big tent of the Democratic Party is successful, because there are different people with different ideas."

Struggle Over Tactics, Not Ideology

Democratic media consultant Tom King said that public, rhetorical attacks between mainstream moderates and 'Net bloggers are unfortunate, but part of the process. He said the netroots have the right instincts for aggressively attacking Republican positions and that is happening today, particularly on the Social Security front.

"If you look at the recent poll numbers, Democrats are winning this fight," he said. "I think it’s too early to be kicking the brains out of the Democratic leadership."

"Whenever I have directed my ire against the DLC, it has been because I have felt their message, not their policies, help to defeat Democrats," writes Chris Bowers, who blogs on "Our problem is not ideological, but that they consistently bash Democrats, Democratic positions and publicly proclaim that the Democratic Party has it wrong on a regular basis."

But not all bloggers even agree on the best approach to help the party. Jonathan P. Schwartz of Philadelphia, who helped out the Democratic Party at the county level in the 2004 election and frequents liberal Web sites, said many liberal bloggers are advocating a losing strategy.

"Many of the far leftists that generally populate the netroots have become convinced that the solution to the party’s problems is to move more unabashedly to the left in order to mobilize our own base," he told Doing so, he said, will lead to Democrats catering mainly to the fringe and leaving the swing voters in Republican hands.

Though Dean has yet to stamp his approval on one particular plan to win over voters in 2006, Johnson said he sees benefits in airing the dirty laundry now. Settling the disputes will allow the Democratic Party to transform itself before the critical upcoming elections of 2006 and 2008.

"What my gut tells me is you will see a hybrid of the best parts of the Dean model and the best parts of the DLC model," he said. "That’s what I see happening."