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THE Democratic Party is on the verge of selling its soul. Facing rejection in five of the last six Presidential elections, the Democrats have been scurrying about trying to develop a new national identity for the last decade.
But the identity finally emerging from many of the party's rising stars provides reason to fear that in the process of regaining the White House, the Democrats who run for the presidency will essentially be Republicans.
With this shift, the Democrats will cease to represent the concerns of the poor and of minorities (to the extent that they ever did)--effectively removing these groups from the political scene. In addition, America may lose a "market-place of ideas" on issues such as the death penalty, Social Security and taxation.
Of course, the Democratic Party was never perfect. Many Democrats supported the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and, more recently, President Ronald W. Reagan's tax breaks for the wealthy.
But what began with Franklin D. Roosevelt's massive coalition of the poor, minorities and urban residents eventually gave the less advantaged in this country an institutionalized voice. A Democratic voice that--despite its faults--led to tremendous advances in civil rights, social services and environmental protection.
L. Douglas Wilder, the popular Virginia governor who has obviously been suggesting himself as a presidential candidate in 1992 despite public denials, typifies this new type of Democrat. Wilder, who spoke two weeks ago at the Kennedy School of Government as part of a recent spate of stumping, has given a name to the new Democratic agenda--the "New Mainstream."
Most of the policy recommendations of the New Mainstream are not new at all. Without even bothering to create new metaphors, Wilder talks of "cutting the fat out of the budget" and of eliminating "pork barrels." He makes the same trite (though admittedly salient) attacks on members of Congress for not being responsive to constituents. And he waxes patriotic on how America made Europe and Japan what they are today.
Today's "new" Democrats--typified by Wilder--sound like Reagan (or at least Bush) Republicans. Underpinning this New Mainstream is a centrist agenda through which the first elected Black governor hopes to achieve Democratic control of the White House. The agenda compromises former Democratic beliefs on many issues.
Capital punishment. After the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty constitutional in the late 1970s, many Democrats fought the ruling by staying executions. Now party members from California to Florida are strongly in favor of capital punishment.
Government spending. The "New Mainstream" stresses "fiscal responsibility," which appears to mean slashing all sorts of spending programs (none of the Democrats are specific about which programs will be cut). And unlike the Democratic Party of old, which sensibly fought much of the Reagan defense buildup, the "New Mainstream" does not call for a preponderance of these budget reductions to come from the Pentagon's coffers. Wilder himself has never explicitly called for cuts in the Strategic Defense Initiative.
These rising Democrats have also stifled the party's once eloquent concerns for the poor. Now these concerns are seen as promoting tax-and-spend policies grounded in class warfare. Wilder calls for a class-blind election in 1992 and confines his economic proposals to vague utterances about "rooting out waste" and the failure of "Sununu economics."
Issues of race. By largely ignoring the concerns of Blacks and other minorities and appealing to a white middle class, the New Mainstreamers hope to distance themselves from the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. The failure of the Civil Rights Act of 1990 is the first casualty of this "forward looking" element of the party. Few Democrats pushed strongly for the bill's passage; many allowed it to be falsely characterized as a quota bill.
Foreign policy. The Democratic Party once had knowledgeable and progressive thinkers in foreign affairs. But the days of leaders such as Arkansas' J. William Fulbright are over. Many Democrats who could make a successful Presidential bid have become equivocal on foreign policy. Only three votes were cast in Congress against the American deployment of troops to Saudi Arabia.
WILDER is not alone in this call for a centrist agenda in the Democratic Party. Promising state-elected Democrats including Ann Richards of Texas, Dianne Feinstein of California and Andrew Young of Georgia have all embraced at least some of these centrist ideas. In addition, more established Democrats such as Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, probable 1992 hopeful Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas and Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin have made their careers by standing firmly in the center and ringing the bell for moderation.
Yes, Democrats have stayed true to certain key issues such as abortion and the environment. But now many Republicans like Pete Wilson of California (Feinstein's opponent) and William F. Weld '66 support abortion rights. Furthermore, George Bush called himself the "environmental President" in a partially successful attempt to co-opt the traditionally Democratic environmental vote.
Some argue that the Democrats need to reach moderate voters to retake the White House. But even those who support the ideas of the New Mainstream must worry that the result will be two parties with different names but the same face. Political wrangling and policy debates have long been the life-blood of democracies. Losing lively political discourse (always a danger with a two-party system) can only lead to more apathy and lower voter turnouts.
A turn to the middle may well put a Democratic name on the doors of the Oval Office. But with the two parties becoming so similar, what difference will it make?
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