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DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION '96

Cracks Appear in Democrats' Unity Facade

Ideology: Divisions between old, new run deep, experts agree. They see a postelection fight over party's direction that could be influenced by the economy.

August 26, 1996|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

CHICAGO — "No political party is of any use to the people nor is any politician if he does not stand for definite principles," declared John F. Kennedy as he campaigned for the presidency in 1960. "And the principles I stand for are the same principles . . . which Franklin Roosevelt stood for in 1932 and which President Truman campaigned on in 1948."

But as the leaders of the Democratic Party gather here to renominate Bill Clinton, they no longer define their principles by what their past icons believed. It is far more difficult to tell what their party stands for than when JFK was urging Americans on to a New Frontier--a point underlined last week by Clinton's signing into law a welfare overhaul that fundamentally alters a cornerstone of the Democratic Party's creed.

This ambiguity is an issue that most party leaders are trying hard not to face this week out of fear of marring the harmony deemed essential to victory this fall.

Even so, fissures in the facade of unity are already emerging, threatening a postelection outbreak of hostilities. And the outcome of that battle not only could ultimately define the Democrats, but go a long way to determining how this country is governed.

"The Democrats are much more deeply divided than they appear on the surface," said Walter Dean Burnham, a University of Texas professor and authority on political parties. "Somehow, they are all going to hold their noses and support Clinton because they fear the alternative so much--and for very good reason."

But, Burnham added, "that's not a really good basis" for holding the party together over the long run.

"There is going to be a fight" over the party's direction, said Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, and author of a new book on the Democratic future, "The Party's Not Over."

Faux predicted that the Democratic differences will boil over as a result of the ebb and flow of the economic cycle. Faux anticipates the next economic downturn will come before the 1998 congressional elections, and he warned that it will be particularly severe "because it will hit people before they have gotten back to where they were before the last recession."

Traditional Democratic constituencies will be galvanized by the shock, Faux said, forcing Vice President Al Gore and other contenders for the party's presidential nomination in 2000 to consider a shift from Clinton's budget-balancing policies. Those vying to lead the party "will have to decide whether the government has to spend more money to put people back to work. It will be the moment of truth," he said.

Regardless of whether that scenario comes to pass, the fault lines that set the major factions apart are impossible to disguise. At one pole are the so-called new Democrats. Represented by the Democratic Leadership Council, they spearheaded the party's departure from its liberal moorings and are pleased with their handiwork, so far.

"There is an ideological transformation taking place in this party," said Al From, the Leadership Council's president. "We changed from the party that supported big government programs for everything to the party that declared the era of big government is over. Now we stand for growth and opportunity."

But that is also what the Republicans claim to stand for, say the liberals on the other side of the Democratic debate. New Democrats "don't stand for anything except being saner than Republicans," said economic analyst Ruy Teixeira. The party's message, he said, boils down to: "Even if we can't solve your problems today, we won't make them worse."

The dissonance is loud and clear on a number of fronts. From exulted that, in his view, the party has changed from one that "worried more about police brutality than fighting crime" to one that, under Clinton, pushed to get 100,000 more cops on the streets of America's cities.

On the other side of the fence stands Andy Stern, president of the 1.2-million member Service Employees International Union, a major voice in a labor movement that long supplied the Democrats' heart, soul and muscle. Stern deplored Clinton's failure to do more to boost living standards for middle- and working-class Americans.

"I think the party needs to do a lot more to stand on the side of working families," Stern said. "Our members are stressed, pinched, hurting."

In a joking reference to Clinton's frequent mention of the number of new jobs created under his watch, Stern said: "Some of our people say, 'I know there are 10 million new jobs--I got three of them.' "

No issue dramatizes the divisions among Democrats in their year of supposed unity as well as Clinton's decision to sign the welfare reform bill. Liberals complained about the new law's deep cuts in food stamps and aid to legal immigrants; half the Democrats in the House and more than a score of Democrats in the Senate voted against it--including the two top party leaders in both houses.

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