WASHINGTON – Scornfully branded "George Bush Lite," by political foes, leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council (search) and the "New Democrat" movement say their centrist agenda will ultimately buy them the last laugh on Capitol Hill and in the 2004 election.
"We all know that at the end of the day, that whoever the [Democratic] nominee is, he will sound an awful lot like a New Democrat," said Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of the New Democrat Network (search), which is a political action arm of the DLC.
"We're not trying to pull the party to the right, we're trying to pull it forward — updating progressive politics for a more modern era," he added.
Founded in 1985 as a think tank for moderate Democratic ideals — fiscal conservatism, with a more liberal approach to social issues — the DLC says it has already produced one president, Bill Clinton, chairman of the DLC from 1990-1991.
Clinton embodied the New Democrat ideals, otherwise known as the "third way," say observers, and spawned a generation of like candidates in his wake.
NDN has helped elect 50 candidates to the House and Senate since 1996, said Rosenberg. Seventy-four members now belong to the House New Democrat Coalition and 20 members participate on the Senate side.
The New Democrats raised $4.4 million for candidates across the country in 2002 and count some of the most powerful leaders on the Hill as allies.
They include a number of prominent senators, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., John Breaux, D-La., and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., the DLC chairman. House New Democrats include Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Jim Davis, D-Fla., and Ron Kind, D-Wis., who co-chair the House caucus.
Possibly the most familiar names on the New Democrat honor roll are Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Bob Graham, D-Fla. Both are running for president in 2004.
But the struggle for New Democrats to generate a moderate message among the din of anti-Bush rhetoric has been tough.
While Lieberman has topped the most recent national poll on the Democratic primary, he has been largely upstaged by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who claims he represents "the democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
Dean appears averse to labels, but supporters say he espouses the bedrock liberal ideals of the party. They add that Lieberman and Graham, with their moderate appeals, just aren't resonating with Democrats.
"In terms of the heart and soul of the party, and in terms of the current issues that are being debated by the party, they are going nowhere," said Roger Hickey, head of the Campaign for America's Future (search), a network of liberal organizations, including labor unions, civil rights and environmental activists, most of which have coalesced around a anti-war, anti-Bush drumbeat.
"The DLC's approach is to write off the base of the party — the nuts and bolts," Hickey said, noting that the centrists have been largely silent on the war in Iraq. "When we had our conference last month, there was palpable dislike for George Bush and all he stands for."
New Democrats say Hickey's activists don't represent the rank and file, and that spouting angry epithets about Bush is not going to attract the necessary swing votes in 2004.
Even former President Clinton, in a recent television talk show appearance, warned that Democrats ought to tone down their angry rhetoric about the recent State of the Union speech flap and Bush's Iraq policy.
Ed Kilgore, the Democratic Leadership Council's policy director, said Hickey's activists are drawing the wrong kind of attention to themselves, underscoring the public's mistrust of Democrats on national defense issues.
"[Dean] has managed to capitalize on an angry minority resentment in the Democratic Party that almost seems to want to make noise rather than win," said Kilgore.
Rep. Joe Hoeffel, R-Pa., a member of the New Democrat caucus in the House who is running for Senate in 2004, said fiscal responsibility is a much stronger issue on which to criticize the president.
"Our fiscal house is in disorder now, and that is the message for 2004," he said.
Rosenberg said if the party wants to go anywhere in 2004, it will need to capture the so-called independent swing vote.
"This mild revival [of the liberal wing of the party] is a necessary, but not a sufficient enough, step to win in 2004," he noted.
Both sides agree that a coming together needs to occur in order to maximize votes in the general election. While the more liberal grassroots are key to getting voters out for the primary, experts say, the New Democrat agenda has more broad appeal for the general election.
Until then, the two sides will have to knock heads during the primary to see whose message for 2004 gains primacy.
"We believe there is a healthy debate and it's a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness, within the party," said Rosenberg.