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Some Democrats Unfurl a Map for a Middle Road

THE NATION

Pocketbook issues form the core of a Leadership Council centrist plan to produce party members who are more "practical" and "accepting."

July 25, 2006|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Centrist Democrats, led by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, unveiled a policy manifesto Monday aimed at winning Congress and the White House and distancing the party from its clamorous left wing.

The prescription, directed at middle-class voters and focused on economic issues, capped a three-day meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council, another installment in the party's search for itself.

Highlights included proposals to make college tuition and home-buying more accessible, expand the availability of healthcare, and provide greater retirement security -- all leavened with a smidgen of Bush-bashing.

Clinton wielded a red-white-and-blue bound copy of the group's initiative and used a measured tone to paint a grim portrait of the last five years under President Bush. "Americans are earning less while the costs of a middle-class life have soared," she said. "College costs, up 50% in the five years. Healthcare, 73%. Gasoline, more than 100%."

The idea of the policy statement, Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff said at an opening news conference, is to "give folks something not to shoot at, but to shoot for."

The Democratic Leadership Council, which helped lay much of the intellectual groundwork for President Clinton's two terms, has a reputation for being more substantive than slashing.

Over three days of workshops and panel discussions, there was much sober talk of pension portability, regional skill alliances, performance-based governing and the like. The war in Iraq, the fulcrum for angry splits between liberals and centrists in several notable races nationwide, was scarcely mentioned.

But politics was never far removed electorally or philosophically.

Four likely Democratic White House contenders made the trek to the Rocky Mountains to speak to and network with roughly 400 elected leaders, mainly from the state and local levels. Clinton, who was charged last year with drafting the agenda unveiled Monday, had a featured speaking slot, along with the group's chairman, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, and his predecessor, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson joined in a panel discussion; former Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner telephoned his regrets from a long-planned family vacation in Europe.

The Democratic Leadership Council has produced both energy and agitation within the party since its creation, after President Reagan's 1984 reelection landslide.

With a stated mission of moving the party toward the center, the organization has been derided as "Democrats for the Leisure Class" by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and as the "Republican wing of the Democratic Party" by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee. (The council said Dean had been invited to Denver; a party spokeswoman said the invitation was never received but there were no hard feelings.)

Lately, the attacks have been taken up on the left side of the blogosphere, where the council has been branded an enemy of true Democrats and where the council's acolytes -- chief among them Sen. Clinton -- have been declared sellouts.

Vilsack alluded to those sentiments in his opening speech Monday. He called the council "a problem-solving organization, a creative-thinking organization," not a grass-roots or so-called net-roots (Web-based) organization. Although all are elemental to the party's success, he said, what the council produces is "practical Democrats."

But there were underlying tensions even among those who traveled to Denver. At more than one session, participants suggested the party had gone too far to woo centrist and swing voters.

On Sunday, Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) led a workshop on Democrats and cultural issues and urged his party peers not to condescend to people of faith. "We've got to find a way to be more accepting of other people's point of view," he said.

Not long after, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, Clarence Davis, delivered a diatribe against Republican "fascists" and Bush that lighted up the small hotel ballroom in which he spoke. The Democratic Party, Davis said, has allowed "self-serving, draft-dodging idiots to claim America ... and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves."

Monday's general session proved far more subdued, as speakers focused mainly on rolling out the council's policy plan. Its proposals include directing more federal money to states to lower the costs of college; expanding the home-mortgage deduction; providing universal health coverage for children; and establishing a "baby bond" program for low- and middle-income families that would provide each child with a $500 savings bond at birth and another 10 years later.

The plan did not call for any broad-based or across-the-board tax increases. The council suggested its programs could be financed by closing tax loopholes, ending corporate subsidies and squeezing inefficiencies from the government.

There also were repeated calls Monday for a tough-minded foreign policy. Sen. Bayh said national security was a threshold issue for voters: "If they don't trust us with their lives, they're unlikely to trust us with anything else."

Sen. Clinton said a Democratic-run Congress would investigate no-bid contracts, "the role oil companies are playing in Iraq," and supply problems that have plagued U.S. combat troops.

"We will not let the president and the Republicans off the hook for the mistakes they've made and the disastrous policies they have followed abroad," she said. "We'll hold them accountable every bit as much for national security and homeland security as for their failure to provide Americans with economic security."

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