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Fighting for the Soul of the Democrats

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In Washington last week, it seemed like 1993 all over again. Hillary Clinton was talking to a bunch of New Democrats about health care. There were, however, a few modifications. Senator Clinton was no longer talking about a sweeping plan to force employers to provide insurance for their workers. Indeed, she favors John Kerry's approach of providing less intrusive tax credits to the uninsured. And the New Democrats she was talking to weren't the usual suspects either: not the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which provided the intellectual muscle for Bill Clinton's presidency but a younger, newer group, the New Democrat Network, which has emerged as a significant force in Democratic politics, home to a more moderate form of moderation.

The Democratic Leadership Council is, famously, a centrist organization but, infamously, not a very moderate one. Al From created it in 1985 to transcend the smug, knee-jerk rigidity that overwhelmed the Dems after Vietnam. From was convinced that a new political deal was possible, that liberal ends could be achieved through conservative means. Fiscal responsibility (and free trade) could produce economic growth. Tough-minded welfare reform could reduce poverty. A dose of entrepreneurship would improve American education, health care and environmental protection. The DLC gleefully assaulted the reactionary left—the trade unions and bureaucrats who had a stake in the old system.

Twenty years later, many of From's battles have been won—even within the most leeward precincts of the Democratic Party—and others have been supplanted by new concerns. The biggest new concern is the presidency of George W. Bush, which has united Democrats across the spectrum and changed the zeitgeist of the party. The internecine battles of the past, however entertaining, have been put aside (for the moment) by all Democratic factions except Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC opened the current presidential campaign by supporting the war in Iraq, not reluctantly as John Kerry did, but with neoconservative gusto. In typical From fashion, the DLC blasted what he views as the Kumbaya wing of the Democratic Party for being weak-kneed on defense. From and DLC president Bruce Reed then attacked the candidacy of Howard Dean (who, ironically, was something of an Al From doppelgńnger—chesty, mouthy and combative). From, never very popular with mainstream Dems, gradually became toxic.

Enter the New Democrat Network, which began life in 1996 as a political action committee—that is, a group able to raise money and donate it to candidates. It was led by a From and Joe Lieberman protege named Simon Rosenberg who, at age 40, is a generation younger than From and markedly less combative. Until this year, the ndn was regarded, accurately, as a DLC clone. But a serious rift has opened between the two groups. "There's a debate in the New Democratic world about where we are going," Rosenberg told me diplomatically. "And if it's true that the ndn and DLC are no longer 100% aligned, it's a sign of health and maturity."

Rosenberg says the rift is more style than substance. From says it's about Howard Dean. "Simon jumped on the Dean bandwagon and abandoned the New Democratic movement because he wanted to be a player," From says, making the dispute public for the first time. "Dean didn't work out and now I guess he's trying the next thing."

"I didn't support Dean's candidacy or agree with him on many issues," Rosenberg says, "but I appreciated how he did what he did. I also thought it was time for New Democrats to declare victory in the intellectual wars and make peace with the party infrastructure." In fact, Rosenberg's group continues to give financial support to New Democratic candidates in places like Oklahoma and South Dakota, where the traditional Democratic message doesn't work very well. But he has also reached out to the more adventurous liberals in the mainstream party—groups like MoveOn.org and bloggers like Daily Kos—finding common ground on new campaign technologies, if not always on substance. Rosenberg has also violated an unspoken DLC no-no by helping the Hispanic Caucus (From opposes the Democrats' ethnic fragmentation) with a series of Spanish-language political-advocacy ads. The ndn spots are totally unlike the dark, Bush-bashing ads favored by liberal groups. They are optimistic, sun-splashed and "target Latino aspirations," notes Hispanic Caucus chair Representative Bob Menendez. "The New Democrat Network really gets where we are at."

All of which has endeared Rosenberg to the Democratic establishment. "The NDN is spectacular, very cutting edge," says a party leader. "The DLC is a pain in the ass." For his part, Al From accurately points out that John Kerry has adopted New Dem positions on many issues—positions that became acceptable to liberal Democrats only after the DLC fought for them. And there is a certain sadness in seeing so creative a battler as Al From marginalized. The Democratic Party needs him. But perhaps not this year.