Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Democrats are in an all-too-familiar posture: soul searching.
Recovering from their loss to President Bush (this one without an asterisk), they have revived an old debate about party direction.
That means a fight for new leadership, involving one old name - Clinton, as in Hillary Rodham Clinton - as well as a raft of other faces eager to seek the presidency in four years.
While they have various views on how to proceed, many Democrats agree that the biggest challenge is what voters called their top issue: values. And those can range from the abortion debate to gun rights to the very nature of religious faith.
"Democrats have got to find a way to speak to and listen to middle class American voters on social and cultural values," said Paul Begala, a former aide to President Bill Clinton.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., the only Democratic Senate candidate in the South to win on November 2, said voters expect officials to discuss values. "Democrats do have to become more comfortable speaking out about their faith," she said.
Democrats took some comfort in turnout machines that gave John Kerry nearly 56.4 million votes, the second highest total in presidential history. The trick now is to convert some of Bush's 59.8 million votes into the Democratic column, starting with the 2006 congressional elections.
"Turnout strategies are important, but they're not good enough. We've got to remember that ideas are important," said Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
But which ideas?
As party members thrash this out in speeches, books and magazine articles, those who want to shift the party to the right said Democrats should address worries about the nation's cultural and moral drift.
Religious values are fine, said other Democrats, but not to the point where the party abandons its commitment to equal rights for gay and reproductive rights for women.
Some of these Democrats said the party should pivot left and re-commit to government action on national health care, education funding and livable wages. These too are "values issues," Democrats said.
The problem there, said more conservative Democrats, is that voters have frequently registered their disdain for "big government."
Democratic consultant Donna Brazile said the party does not have to become "Republican Lite" but should explain "why we fight for our values" to voters also concerned with social justice.
"They're buying your values," she said. "They're buying your story."
Most of the votes are in the center, said other Democrats, and prospective candidates should emulate President Clinton's "Third Way" between liberalism and conservatism. But they added that it's easier to say than do, as the Democratic Party struggles to forge an identity.
The former president himself weighed in this week during a speech at Hamilton College, noting, "I do not believe either party has a monopoly on morality or truth." Clinton added, "I do not believe that the Democrats can seek to be a national party unless we feel comfortable talking about our convictions."
One piece of advice Democrats have for each other: Take a deep breath.
The election proved that it's hard to dislodge an incumbent, especially in wartime, some Democrats said. They cited polling evidence that voters agree with them on most issues, particularly the economy.
If John Kerry had carried Ohio, which he lost by fewer than 140,000 votes, the Democrats would be making transition plans today while Republicans would be wondering what went wrong.
They would also be cursing the Electoral College; Bush won the popular vote by 3.4 million votes, and several Democrats called that the operative number.
"You can't deny reality," said former Clinton campaign consultant James Carville. "Close doesn't get you (anything) in this business."
Carville said the party is good on individual issues but needs to develop an over-arching narrative. "We could elect somebody from Beverly Hills if they had a compelling message," he said.
Ruy Teixeira, author of "The Emerging Democratic Majority," said the nation's demographic trends still favor the Democrats. But he added, "they have to at least talk about values."
"You want to run candidates who don't have a hard time getting in the door with those culturally conservative, working-class families," Teixeira said.
Others said that, in this media-driven age, the messenger is more important than the message. And there is no shortage of potential applicants for the job, and many of them have strategic implications.
Given the importance of values, some Democrats want to go to the South, the heart of cultural conservatism. That means continuing interest in 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards, or perhaps a governor, like Mark Warner of Virginia.
Others said the Democrats should consider abandoning the South and concentrate on the Midwest and Southwest. Governors Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Bill Richardson of New Mexico are among those mentioned, with Richardson having the added cachet of being Hispanic.
Perhaps the party's highest profile candidate hails originally from the Midwest (Illinois), lived many years in the South (Arkansas), and is now a senator from New York: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
And Kerry hasn't ruled out another presidential bid.
But while the Democrats have three years to choose their next standard-bearer, they have things to discuss in the meantime.
Said former Clinton administration political director Doug Sosnik: "We as a party are going to go through a lengthy public discussion about our future."
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