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Abandoning the Democratic Ship

By Jonathan S. Cohn

PRESIDENT Bush may be Washington's most notorious wimp, but these days it looks like the Democratic Party is the one with no spine.

All but locked out of the presidency for the last 22 years, the Democrats have watched Republican chief executives systematically dismantle their long-standing progressive programs, furthering an agenda that has ultimately served only the nation's most powerful and wealthy. In the meantime, the Democrats have sat back quietly, too impotent--or too scared--to do or even say anything about it.

And now, the Democratic Party is facing a new threat, mounted by none other than its most ardent supporters.

TWO WEEKS ago, National Organization for Women (NOW) President Molly Yard announced the formation of the Commission for Responsive Democracy, a 40-member body aimed at exploring "possibilities for political realignment."

NOW and several other groups are fed up with the lack of governmental attention to the issues concerning them, Yard says. As proof that the current two-party system is "leaving too many citizens out," members of these special interest groups point to the consistently low voter turnout in this country--most often these non-voters are the nation's underprivelged.

So the Commission, with representatives for everyone from the environmentalists to the peace movement, has set out to hold hearings nationwide on how to make institutional changes. Most likely, the Commission will propose election reforms to ensure greater voter turnout and more accurate representation for those voters.

But the Commission is also considering another, increasingly attractive possibility: forming its own national political party.

Were NOW and the other groups actually to take that plunge, they could pose a formidable threat in many local and state campaigns. NOW has already flexed its muscles in the state legislatures, frustrating attempts to toughen abortion laws following recent Supreme Court decisions. Joined together with other liberal groups, NOW could very well launch credible--if not successful--runs at national office, even the presidency.

Of course, doing so might jeaopordize the Democrats, who rely on groups like NOW for much of their support. But Yard says the new party could still endorse Democratic candidates, so long as those candidates had demonstrated a loyalty to the issues NOW and other liberal groups care about.

IF THIS sounds familiar, that's because it is. The Republican Party, it will be remembered, began in precisely the same way back in the 1840s and '50s.

Originally, the Republicans presented themselves as a third-party alternative to the two dominant national parties, the Democrats and the dying Whigs. The Republicans wanted to stop the expansion of slavery, a platform the Democrats opposed and the Whigs were too timid to champion.

The Republicans failed in their early attempts to capture the White House. However, disenchantment with progress ultimately spelled doom for the era's "liberal" party--the Whigs--and the Republicans emerged to pick up the pieces.

Today, NOW officials speak in the same tongue, lamenting that the nation's "progressive" party is too timid to fight for real social justice.

As far as women's issues go, Yard says the Democrats claim to "be supportive of women's rights but they do precious little about it." Indeed, by shying away from strong stances on issues like civil rights, education and health care, the Democrats have ignored their bread and butter constituency: America's underprivileged.

So a massive--albeit unmobilized--constituency lies waiting for leadership. "It might," Yard said in an interview, "be another situation like the one that prevailed at the time of the Civil War." And NOW, it seems, is more than up to the challenge.

OF COURSE, comparisons between today's Democrats and yesterday's Whigs may be a bit premature. After all, the Democrats still hold a sizeable majority in Congress.

And the Democratic corpse has shown signs of resurrection in recent weeks. The push against tougher state abortion laws and the proposed constitutional amendment on flag burning could be the beginning of a Democratic resurgence.

But the formation of NOW's commission is a sign that the natives are restless. If the Democrats hope to remain this nation's majority party, they had better heed the warning: stand up for the liberal constituency, or pass the gavel to somebody else.

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