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Democrats at the Crossroads

Two factions of Democrats with sharply divergent ideas are fighting to lead the party. Will they resolve their differences? Or will it be Republicans who cross Clinton's "bridge to the 21st century"?

An "eerie unity" is how one Democratic activist describes the discipline Democrats showed during the 1996 election campaign. "What Newt Gingrich did to this party," the activist explains, "is what no Democrat could do. He unified it."

But with Bill Clinton safely re-elected and Gingrich's revolutionaries in partial retreat, that unity is already beginning to fray. Democrats have fought their way back to the brink of building a new majority -- only to find themselves deeply divided on how to proceed. "New Democrats," led by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), call for moving the party to the right to find market-based compromises with the GOP. Meanwhile, a group of "populist" Democrats, fueled by a reinvigorated labor movement, argues for taking the Republicans head-on by offering solutions to protect workers and the middle class from unfettered markets and widening inequality.

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How will Democratic leaders respond to this split? Will Clinton, Gore, and their fellow Democrats find a way to bring these factions together and build a new national majority -- one that can counter the still-potent Republican combination of corporate cash, bold ideas, and grassroots activism? Or will the president drift ever rightward in a quest for bipartisan "compromise," jettisoning Democratic accomplishments and constituencies each step of the way? In short, will the Democratic Party make it across Clinton's "bridge to the 21st century," or will it tear apart, leaving conservative Republicans to dominate American politics well into the future?

The Split

As Clinton's second term begins, both New Democrats and populists are maneuvering furiously to influence the White House and shape future party strategies. The DLC is using its close personal ties to Clinton, Gore, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and other White House staffers to push proposals for "reinventing government," such as privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and reforming education.

New Democrats are delighted by the commanding Clinton-Gore victory in November -- but at the same time they can hardly hide their glee that the AFL-CIO's campaign fell short of putting the Democrats back in charge of the House of Representatives. They fear and dislike "big labor," of course. But another factor may also be at work. The DLC has always cared most about presidential politics, while its congressional ties have been primarily to Southern Democrats -- and these are a fast-disappearing breed. Many Southern DLC politicians are now former members of Congress, defeated or replaced by Republicans. Not incidentally, perhaps, DLC leaders are suddenly talking about "bipartisan" solutions, above and beyond mere "party politics."

For the DLC, there is a real irony here. Since its founding in the wake of the Walter Mondale debacle, the DLC has helped reshape the agenda and rhetoric of the Democratic Party. And not just in presidential politics. After all, the 1996 Democratic congressional campaign was run on a "Families First" agenda that closely follows a DLC script. But nothing the congressional Democrats do seems to make DLC leaders like them any better. Just as many Democrats are adopting key DLC themes, the DLC itself is giving up on party loyalty.

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