Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Will the Real Democratic Party Please Stand Up

Luis Lugo


September 30, 1996

As Democrats grow increasingly confident about not only reelecting President Clinton but also re-capturing the Congress from the Republicans, divisions within the party that were submerged during the last two years are beginning to resurface. One sign is the recent launching of the Campaign for America's Future, a research group set up to counter the centrist approach of the Democratic Leadership Council. Another sign is the increased outspokenness of the ranking Democratic members of key congressional committees in support of reviving an activist role for the federal government. If the Democrats sweep the elections, a fierce fight to define the policy agenda will almost certainly break out.

For now the party's public stance remains steadfastly centrist as members unite behind Bill Clinton and its congressional leadership's decidedly modest "Families First" agenda. The party's leader in the House, Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), promises that the Democrats have learned their lesson and will return as a chastened majority with a more moderate agenda than the one voters rejected in 1994. "We are all 'new Democrats' now," he says. Indeed, if the president and the Democratic leadership deliver on their promises of middle-class tax cuts, carrying through on welfare reform, and a balanced budget, a new centrist Democratic Party could well become a reality.

The House Democratic caucus has different ideas. Not at all taken in by the rhetoric that "the era of big government is over," it calls instead for a major expansion of job-creation programs, a halt to further tax cuts, and a significant reduction in defense expenditures. Whether these Democrats will have their way in the event of an electoral victory is another matter. The prospects for a more activist approach will depend on several factors, not least on which kind of Democrat Bill Clinton turns out to be after the election: the centrist, new Democrat of the last two presidential campaigns and the post-1994 period, or the more liberal Clinton of the tax hike and national health care plan of his first two years in office. Ironically, the best hope for centrist Democrats might well lie in a strong Republican minority in Congress that can shield them and the president from their party's more liberal wing.

The bottom line is that American voters really won't know which Democratic party they will be putting into power. They also lack any assurance that a Democratic victory will end divided government. It would be no different, of course, if the Republicans were to win, since they too are torn by internal divisions on all sides, with supply siders and deficit hawks, libertarians and social conservatives, isolationists and internationalists, to name only a few.

Obviously, America lacks strong, disciplined political parties. Gephardt can talk all he wants about "the Democratic team," but the fact is that since members are elected independently they have every incentive to carve out their own individual domains, even at the expense of the party. The consequence is weak, "big tent" parties that cannot be held accountable for how they govern, a fact which only feeds the disenchantment of the American public with our electoral system.

Here then is a modest proposal: any and all efforts aimed at political reform should henceforth be measured by the simple standard of whether they help strengthen our political parties as genuinely representative and disciplined teams. We can start by making sure that all efforts at campaign finance reform enhance rather than further dilute this role of the parties.

—Luis E. Lugo, Associate Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”