Away From the Center
Saturday in Orlando, Fla., at a meeting of state party chairs,
a parade of potential candidates are going to be making the
case for why they should be the next chair of the Democratic
I don’t have a candidate. But I do have a litmus test: Anyone
raising the idea that the party needs to “move to the middle”
should immediately be escorted out of the building. Better
yet, a trap door should open beneath them, sending them plummeting
down an endless chute into electoral purgatory—which is exactly
where the party will be permanently headquartered if it continues
to adopt such a strategy.
Among those eyeing the position are Howard Dean, former White
House aide Harold Ickes, former Texas Rep. Marty Frost, former
Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk,
New Democrat Network founder Simon Rosenberg, political strategist
Donnie Fowler, and telecom exec Leo Hindery.
Although fewer than 450 people will ultimately decide who
becomes the next party chair, when the DNC votes on Feb. 12
the outcome will have a profound effect on shaping the party’s
future. Will Democrats continue to toe the strategy line of
the “centrist” Democratic Leadership Council that has brought
them to the brink of permanent minority-party status? Or will
they finally return to the party’s roots and recapture its
lost political soul—and the White House and Congress with
Welcome to the Great Democratic Party Identity Crisis of 2005.
Ever since the election, Democratic leaders have been crawling
over each other in a mad scramble to the middle. Indeed, this
is the worst case of midriff bulge since Kirstie Alley stopped
by Sizzler’s all-you-can-eat buffet.
are accomplished in the middle. We have to work toward the
middle. And I think that that’s clear.” That was new Senate
Minority Leader Harry Reid on Meet the Press this weekend.
He didn’t elaborate on what good was “clearly accomplished”
in the middle over the past four years, but perhaps he was
referring to the invasion of Iraq. Almost makes you long for
the spineless bleating of Tom Daschle, doesn’t it?
Last week’s meeting of the 21-strong Democratic Governors
Association was similarly an orgy of centrist groping, best
summed up by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who said, “This,
for us, is our moment to push an agenda . . . that is centrist
and that speaks to where most people are.”
If Gov. Granholm, a rising star in the party, really thinks
the center is where the majority of people were located this
past election, the Democrats are in even worse trouble than
we think. Have these people learned nothing from 2000, 2002
and 2004? How many more concession speeches do they have to
give—from “the center”—before they realize it’s not a very
Putting aside for a moment the question of the party’s soul
and focusing entirely on hardball politics, running to the
middle has been proven to be the single stupidest strategy
the Democrats can pursue.
As cognitive psychologist George Lakoff told me: “Democrats
moving to the middle is a double disaster that alienates the
party’s progressive base while simultaneously sending a message
to swing voters that the other side is where the good ideas
are.” It unconsciously locks in the notion that the other
side’s positions are worth moving toward, while your side’s
positions are the ones to move away from. Plus every time
you move to the center, the right just moves further to the
And if middle-of-the-roadism is such a great vote-getter,
why don’t we see Republicans moving there? In fact, framing
the political debate in right-left terms is so old, so tired,
and so wrong that we need to resist all temptation to do so.
There is nothing left-wing about wanting corporations to pay
their fair share rather than hide their profits in PO boxes
in Bermuda, or in ensuring access to health care now rather
than paying the bill at the emergency room later.
That’s why the DNC race is so important. The party needs a
chairman able to drive a stake through the heart of its bankrupt
GOP-lite strategy and champion the populist economic agenda
that has already proven potent at the ballot box in many conservative
parts of the country. Just how potent is revealed in “The
Democrats’ Da Vinci Code,” a brilliant upcoming American
Prospect cover story by David Sirota that shows how a
growing number of Democrats in some of the reddest regions
in America have racked up impressive, against-the-grain wins
by framing a progressive economic platform in terms of values
and right vs. wrong. These are not “left” ideas; they are
writes Sirota, “is not the traditional (and often condescending)
Democratic pandering about the need for a nanny government
to provide for the masses. It is us-versus-them red meat,
straight talk about how the system is working against ordinary
Americans.” These red-state progressives have brought the
Democratic Party back to its true calling and delivered, according
to Sirota, “as powerful a statement about morality and authenticity
as any of the GOP’s demagoguery on ‘guns, God, and gays.’
This strategy of economic populism coincides perfectly with
what is the most significant shift in Democratic politics
in a generation: the astounding growth of a grassroots donor
base. Thanks in no small part to the Internet, the Kerry campaign
and the DNC raised between them over $300 million from grassroots
donors. Kerry alone raised over $71 million from donors who
contributed $200 or less. What’s more, the DNC experienced
a sevenfold increase in donors—skyrocketing from 400,000 in
2000 to the 2.7 million who contributed in 2004.
This reallocation of power away from lobbyists and big corporate
donors will finally allow Democrats to stop taking policy
dictation from their corporate financiers and start offering
up an alternative vision to compete with George Bush’s. But
only if the will is there—which means only if the next DNC
chair understands and embraces this tectonic shift.
And only if he promises, at all costs, to stop playing in
the middle of the road.
Ariana Huffington can be found at Arianaonline.com.