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The Democratic Right Shows It Knows How To Squabble, Too


Washington Outlook

THE DEMOCRATIC RIGHT SHOWS IT KNOWS HOW TO SQUABBLE, TOO

For six years, the Democratic Leadership Council has been the bridesmaid of politics. Born after Walter F. Mondale's 1984 Presidential thrashing, the right-of-center DLC has attracted hundreds of outspoken politicians eager to take the party's reins. The DLC, declares President Alvin From, "is the hottest political movement in the country." But the group is having a hard time prying mainstream Democrats away from their tax-and-spend ways. And the DLC's ultimate goal of putting one of its own into the White House seems as far away as ever.

The group's first national convention, May 5-7 in Cleveland, will be a cotillion for Presidential hopefuls. Waltzing down the runway will be the only declared candidate, former Massachusetts Senator Paul E. Tsongas; one almost-declared, Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder; and a flock of undeclareds, including Senator Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.), Representative Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. But the weakness of this field highlights the DLC's problem. Says the DLC's vice-chairman, Representative Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.): "I am not sure we Democrats are any closer to electing a President in 1992--or `96 for that matter."

BITTER SPLIT. The high point of the organization's brief history came in 1986, when seven DLC members were among the 11 Democrats whose victories allowed their party to recapture the Senate. Two years later, DLC leaders seemed well positioned to shape the choice of a Presidential nominee. But their effort in organizing simultaneous Super Tuesday primaries in 10 Southern states boosted liberal candidates.

Things haven't gotten much better. Earlier this year, the Persian Gulf war bitterly divided the DLC. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a founding member, shocked fellow DLC-ers by opposing the use of force in Kuwait. In an attempt to paper over the split, Nunn will offer a resolution in Cleveland declaring that Democrats are willing to use force overseas.

The DLC also is having a bit of trouble with its attack on the Democratic Establishment for being too beholden to interest groups. Most of the organization's $2.5 million annual budget comes from Big Business, including defense, insurance, energy, and tobacco companies--and even the National Rifle Assn. The DLC's business connection "is embarrassing for me as a Democrat," says Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), a DLC foe. Replies From: "When people give us money, they're not buying anything. There's no quid pro quo."

The DLC has always claimed that it was designed to deliver ideas, not win elections. But the group is having trouble selling its concepts to Congress. Nunn, for example, wants to create a voluntary national service program for young people. Last year, however, powerful Democratic committee chairmen reduced the idea to a study commission. "Change isn't easy," concedes From.

Nor is the DLC's Cleveland platform likely to endear it to party liberals. Members will be asked to vote on resolutions that would cap federal spending, oppose hiring quotas, and allow parents to choose schools. Peter L. Harris of Doak & Shrum, a Democratic consulting firm, says these planks "show that some Democrats believe the propaganda of the Republican Party."

DLC stalwarts won't let Democratic orthodoxy stand in the way of what they think are good ideas. What began as a rump group, says Nunn, has become the brains of the party: "We've traveled from one end of the donkey to the other." No one questions the DLC's braininess, but many wonder just when its ideas will be translated into action.EDITED BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM Paula Dwyer


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