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Centrist Democrats Search for Direction

As former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean assumes the post of chairman of the Democratic National Committee, renewed attention is being focused on the party’s New Democrat faction, with some observers suggesting that the movement is undergoing something of an identity crisis.

While Dean’s ascendancy at the DNC raises hopes of grass-roots Democrats outside the Beltway and provokes concern among more tradition-minded Members on Capitol Hill, the New Democrat movement — seen by many as a potential savior for a party that needs to make inroads in “red states” — is being roiled by strategic differences and personality conflicts.

In the House, the New Democrat Coalition is struggling to define who belongs in its ranks and why, and how its participants will raise money in the 2006 campaign cycle.

At the same time, off the Hill, a feud between leading figures in the centrist Democratic universe — Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council and Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network — continues to simmer, with some questioning whether this split could make the future difficult for all Democratic moderates in Congress.

Although Senators in the New Democrat mold, such as Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), are expected to play high-profile roles in the upcoming Congressional fights over Social Security and taxes, their House counterparts haven’t fared nearly as well.

The NDC, which last week chose Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) as its chairwoman, is cutting its own size in half, from its current roughly 70 Democrats to what the group considers a more manageable, and more dedicated, 30 or 40 lawmakers, according to those in charge of the organization. The group will do that by setting a higher bar for participation, such as minimum campaign donations and attendance at meetings.

Tauscher said her mission is to “revitalize, refocus and rebuild” the coalition, which has lost much of its clout since then-President Bill Clinton left the White House and leading New Democrats such as former Reps. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.) and Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) retired from office.

The NDC is also establishing its own PAC to help elect like-minded candidates to Congress — a sign that access to traditional money sources is becoming more limited for moderate or centrist Democrats.

“We need to be more forward-thinking and get the ‘reform’ mantle back” from the Republicans, said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a leading New Democrat.

Davis said the Democratic Party is losing to Republicans on social issues in the South “and on foreign policy, everywhere else.” The party, he said, must regain its appeal to the American public quickly to combat the effective political machine built by President Bush and the Republican Congressional leadership.

What is hampering New Democrats, however, is that the two leading groups involved in honing the middle-of-the-road message — the Democratic Leadership Council and New Democrat Network — are under fire, both from the left wing of the party, which seeks greater ideological purity from all Democrats, as well as from each other.

Al From, the founder and CEO of the DLC, and Simon Rosenberg, a one-time From protege who created the NDN in 1996, have been feuding for months, and despite claims from the two men to the contrary, there is evidence that the relationship isn’t improving.

Rosenberg backed Dean for the Democratic presidential nod during the 2004 primaries, leading From to suggest publicly that Rosenberg only did so in order to boost his own power within the party if Dean won.

“Simon jumped on the Dean bandwagon and abandoned the New Democratic movement because he wanted to be a player,” From told Time magazine in May 2004.

The dispute between From and Rosenberg has flared on and off ever since, with Rosenberg clearly more popular among the Democratic activist faction, while From, who has long been disliked by Democratic purists, finds his base of support with Democratic lobbyists and party strategists.

In the latest chapter in the ongoing saga, Rosenberg circulated an e-mail Tuesday that included an article that had been posted on the Web log Daily Kos — an attack on From and the DLC by a Democratic blogger. While Rosenberg insisted that he only did so as part of the “ongoing conversation” on the future of the party, From’s allies were angered by the move, although they declined to respond directly.

Rosenberg challenged Dean for the DNC chairmanship despite his early support for Dean’s White House run, but dropped out of the race after attracting little support from state Democratic leaders. He is credited with being a strong fundraiser and organizer; NDN raised nearly $14 million during the 2003-04 cycle.

But much of that money — $6 million — went into an outreach effort targeted at reaching Hispanic voters. While Rosenberg won high marks for the quality of that campaign from Democratic strategists, a number of Congressional Democrats, as well as others within the New Democrat movement, claim that NDN has lost its focus.

The NDN, through its federal PAC, gave $206,000 to Democratic Congressional candidates and lawmakers last cycle. This was down noticeably from the $297,000 it donated during the 1999-2000 cycle, and the $236,000 it steered toward Democratic coffers in the 2001-02 period. The decrease comes despite changes in campaign finance law that doubled hard-money contribution limits at the start of the 2003-04 cycle.

Such changes have attracted significant attention on Capitol Hill.

“There is a feeling among NDC members that Rosenberg has abandoned the core purpose of the New Democrat movement and [that] the political arm has lost its relevance,” said one senior Democratic aide. “In response, the new leadership of the NDC has been forced to go its own way with the recent creation of its own separate PAC.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who will serve as the head of the NDC’s political action committee, echoed that assessment, although he also offered praise for Rosenberg.

“The relationship between NDN and Members of Congress has suffered over the last three years,” said Smith. “They were trying to be effective in a new direction.”

Rosenberg said NDN has shifted its focus to national advocacy from the more narrow attention it once gave to fundraising for House candidates. Joe Andrew, the former DNC chairman who took over as chairman of NDN’s advisory board in January, said the evolution of NDN’s fundraising was to be expected, given that control of the White House and Senate was closely contested last cycle, whereas the outlook for a Democratic takeover in the House was more remote.

“It’s not the total quantity of money that matters,” said Andrew. “Obviously, incumbent New Democratic Members got less money because Simon and the NDN were brave enough to direct those dollars to the challenger’s races, where you might have a chance to actually pick up seats. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it is, more importantly, where the donor community wanted to go as well. … Ultimately, incumbents are always upset if they don’t get as much money out of an organization as before.”

Rosenberg, however, didn’t help himself or the NDN either when he was accused of being behind an op-ed piece that ran in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 11. The article, by Dan Gerstein, a Democratic consultant with close ties to Lieberman, included a line that infuriated both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“We chose as our House and Senate leaders (and thus the public face of the party) Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid — two honorable, decent people who nevertheless have done little to inspire confidence that they could successfully fight a parking ticket, let alone the war against terrorism,” Gerstein wrote.

Although both Gerstein and Rosenberg denied that Rosenberg had anything to do with the article — indeed, Rosenberg stated that he had urged Gerstein not to run it because of the comments on Pelosi and Reid — some Congressional Democrats talked privately about retaliating against NDN by going to its corporate donors and suggesting that the two leaders did not appreciate it when their firms gave to NDN.

Despite weeks of rumors on Capitol Hill, it is unclear whether a large-scale campaign to cut off funding to NDN ever got under way.

Regardless of the controversies, Rosenberg said NDN’s future is brighter than ever, and declared that the group — especially through its Hispanic outreach program — will remain a force in Democratic politics.

“NDN is stronger than it has ever been,” said Rosenberg in an interview last week. “We’ve endorsed and supported dozens of federal candidates with our PAC. We’ve also helped hundreds and hundreds of state and local candidates throughout the country, in 48 different states. We’ve become much more than what we were when we started back in 1996, ’97.”

Despite his unsuccessful challenge to Dean, Rosenberg insisted he can work closely with the former Vermont governor.

“Dean’s job is to represent all Democrats,” said Rosenberg. “I have a very strong relationship with Gov. Dean and I expect to continue to have one. I endorsed him with great vigor [before the DNC election]. I think Dean is going to do what he says, which is to fight for the whole party and not just part of the party.”

Rosenberg also downplayed talk of a feud with From or anyone else within the party.

“I’m tired of fighting with other Democrats. We’re all on the same team,” said Rosenberg. “I want to fight with George Bush and Karl Rove.”

The DLC’s From could not be reached for comment for this article. Ed Kilgore, DLC’s vice president for policy, said his organization and NDN “were in different lines of business,” with the DLC focusing more on policy development and legislative issues while NDN is moving more into national advocacy and party-building activities.

Kilgore also suggested that Dean’s takeover of the DNC would be ultimately beneficial for his organization.

“As far as the Democratic Party goes, our [DLC] history is to find a way for Democrats to expand into hostile territory, and that sure as hell is a challenge we face right now,” said Kilgore. “We’ve got to become credible on issues where the people don’t trust us, like national security, culture and the role of government. … The party is sort of asking for what we want to work on.”