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Democrats Seize the Center at Summit

Culture: Party leaders meet in Indianapolis to plan the wooing of values-conscious voters.


INDIANAPOLIS — In 1985, a group of despairing Democrats set out to revamp their beleaguered party and move it from the ineffectual margin into the political mainstream.

The success of the so-called New Democrat movement was evidenced by the two terms co-founder Bill Clinton served in the White House, during which time he helped moderate the party's image on issues from crime to welfare to a balanced budget.

But Clinton also left a blot on the Democratic Party, and the scandal that engulfed much of his second term blunted some of his accomplishments and may well have cost Al Gore the presidency.

So on Monday, the same centrist group launched a new project, an effort to recast the party's image on cultural issues and win back the churchgoing, gun-owning, married-with-children voters who abandoned Gore in November and put George W. Bush in the White House.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut issued the call to more than 600 adherents of the Democratic Leadership Council, gathered for a two-day policy conference in this heartland capital.

"Just as we regained the public's confidence during the 1990s on questions of fiscal responsibility and economic growth, so, too, in this decade must we earn back the people's trust on matters of values and culture and faith," said Lieberman, who served last year as Gore's vice presidential running mate.

Now eyeing his own bid for president in 2004, Lieberman urged greater acceptance of the religiously devout and an increased willingness by Democratic leaders to "draw lines between right and wrong." As part of his summons, Lieberman again singled out the entertainment industry for criticism, condemning the marketing of violent fare to young and impressionable audiences.

Democrats have "sometimes seemed too worried about offending our friends in Hollywood, when they do not seem worried enough about offending our values and harming our children," Lieberman said to sustained applause.

The Democratic Leadership Council, holding its fifth annual summit this year, nurtured not just the party's last two presidential nominees, but also many of the ideas that produced the economic and social policy successes of the Clinton-Gore administration.

Nevertheless, exit polls last November showed Bush beating Gore overwhelmingly among regular churchgoers, gun owners, married couples and those who rated moral and ethical values their highest priorities.

"We must overcome this cultural gap, and we can," Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), the conference host and head of the leadership council, said in a keynote address. "We have done so in the past by putting 100,000 cops on the beat, by reforming welfare and insisting upon the V-chip" to tune out violent television programming.

"And we can do it again," Bayh went on, "with an emphasis on promoting responsible fatherhood, supporting faith-based efforts to address society's ills with appropriate safeguards and continuing to take firm stands on crime and national defense."

Democratic leaders were careful to show deference to the past president, if not the incumbent. Clinton's wife, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is among those embracing the New Democrat label, and she attended Monday's opening session.

In a warmly received speech, she lashed the Bush administration for a "fiscally irresponsible tax cut," misguided foreign policy and "repeated attacks on the environment and public health."

Clinton declined to meet with reporters, but at a press conference beforehand Lieberman was asked whether it was easier for Democrats to talk about values and morality now that her husband was gone from office. Lieberman demurred. He said President Clinton's successes were based on values as well, the values of opportunity, responsibility and community. "We move on now," he added.

But that sentiment was conveyed even more eloquently by the poster board that greeted delegates arriving for Monday's speeches. It was a blown-up cover from the latest edition of Blueprint, the DLC's magazine manifesto. Paraphrasing the most famous line from Clinton's first presidential campaign, it offered a decidedly post-Clintonian twist, signaling the new direction--and separation--the party hopes to achieve from the immediate past.

Said the cover: "It's the culture, stupid!"

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