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THE NATION | DEMOCRATS

It's Never too Early to Plan for Campaign 2000

March 16, 1997|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — Last year, a political miracle happened. For the first time in 60 years, the Democratic Party was united. But will it last? There are serious divisions among Democrats just beneath the surface, waiting to erupt as soon as things go bad for the Clinton administration.

Well, things may be beginning to go bad. And the contest for the next Democratic nomination is beginning to look like it might get interesting.

How divided could Democrats get? Look at last year's vote on welfare reform. In the House, 98 Democrats voted for reform and 98 voted against it. A few weeks later, 23 Democratic senators voted for it and 23 voted against it.

The division on welfare reform symbolizes the split between Old and New Democrats. It is an article of faith for New Democrats that the era of big government is over. Their hero? President Bill Clinton. "We have created a vital new center," the president told the Democratic Leadership Council, "not the lukewarm midpoint between overheated liberalism and chilly conservatism."

Their candidate for 2000? Clinton's designated successor. Ever the New Democrat, Vice President Al Gore announced last month, "We are a full two years ahead of schedule in the downsizing of the government." Last month, Gore looked inevitable. But this month, after reports about his phone calls to contributors, he looks vulnerable. Are there other New Democrats out there?

Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska proclaims his independence--not just from the Democratic Party, but from the Clinton administration. "I do not take my instructions from the Democratic caucus," Kerrey said. "I do not take my instructions from the president. I do not take into account whether this will help or hurt the Democratic Party. Nor do I take into consideration the traditional Democratic view." This from the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley went one step farther and proclaimed his independence from Congress. But not without taking a swipe at his party. "Democrats distrust the market, preach government is the answer to our problems and prefer the bureaucrat they know to the consumer they can't control," Bradley said in 1995, when he announced his decision not to run for another term. For New Democrats, now is the time for all good men to pick a good fight with their party.

What do Old Democrats believe in? The safety net. They stuck with Clinton because he promised to protect Medicare, Social Security, the minimum wage and jobs. Their hero? Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. "If we care about helping the working poor, then we must support an increase in the minimum wage," Kennedy said last year. "If we want to help women, minorities and single parents, then we must raise the minimum wage for all workers." Keep the faith, baby.

Old Democrats split with the administration on two big issues. One is welfare reform. Old Democrats are against it. "[This] isn't welfare reform at all," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said. "It is, in fact, a dangerous step in the wrong direction."

The party also split over the North American Free Trade Agreement. New Democrats are for it. Gore is their point man. But Old Democrats are against it. Gephardt opposed NAFTA in 1993, and he opposes the administration's effort to expand it. Gephardt even took a day trip to Mexico to dramatize the exploitation of workers and the failure of environmental safeguards.

Now there's a new fight brewing over Mexico. The administration has announced a decision to certify Mexico as cooperating with the United States in the war on drugs. Congress is moving to reverse that decision. One of the leaders of the effort in Congress? Gephardt.

Old Democrats are pinning their hopes on Gephardt, the favorite son of labor liberals. Gephardt doesn't talk about the wonders of globalization and the information highway. He talks about jobs and the safety net. If there's a recession between now and 2000, many Democrats will want to hear about jobs and the safety net.

But Gephardt doesn't have the Democratic left to himself. There are still a few limousine liberals around. Unreconstructed 1960s liberals whose great concern is rights--abortion rights, civil rights, children's rights, human rights. Their hero? Clinton. No, not him. Her. The heroine of health-care reform.

But do they have a candidate for 2000? Sen. Paul Wellstone, a former professor with a history of political activism, is rumored to be considering a run. "We have a wonderful tradition in Minnesota," Wellstone said. "It's a progressive tradition. It's a Hubert Humphrey progressive liberal tradition. It's all about education and kids. It's all about jobs at decent wages. It's all about decent health care. It's all about being on the side of working families. And I am very much a part of that tradition."

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