Democratic House Moderates Hope To Make More Suburban Inroads
By Jeffrey L. Katz, CQ Staff Writer
Freshman Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, D-Calif., worked as an investment banker, founded three companies and speaks the lingo of business fluently. So she compares the challenge of promoting moderate Democrats such as herself to marketing a brand name.
She talks excitedly about "the 'branding' of New Democrats to people who are pro-business, pro-growth, pro-family."
Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., also worked as an investment banker, but has spent most of the past two decades in elected office. He has no illusions about the difficulty of making this particular sale.
"There is something a little bit boring about being a moderate," Moran acknowledged.
Here in a nutshell is the big problem for the House's New Democrat Coalition, the year-old, 41-member group of which Moran is a co-chairman: How do you sell pragmatic politics in a way that excites voters -- including traditional Democrats and the lawmakers who represent them?
Control of Congress
The outcome of this marketing strategy may determine which party controls Congress. The New Democrats' moderate philosophy is tailored to the growing suburban districts that many of them represent. If Democrats have any hope of retaking the House, they must retain the suburban seats they now hold and win more of them.
The reason is simple: There are no longer enough city-based, liberal-oriented districts for Democrats to build a majority. Even party stalwarts concede that Democrats must broaden their membership to keep up with the movement of voters from cities to suburbs -- or banish themselves to permanent minority status in a Republican Congress.
"Everyone knows that we're in this boat together," said a House Democratic leadership aide. "We cannot afford the luxury of not taking into account the views of suburban people and rural people."
The coalition will also play an important role in determining whether President Clinton leaves a lasting imprint on his party by moving it toward the political center.
Since taking office in 1993, Clinton has tried to push the party rightward, backing initiatives -- a balanced budget, welfare overhaul, fast-track trade authority and others -- that have frequently antagonized the liberal-leaning core of his party in the House. It is unclear whether the centrist momentum will last after Clinton leaves office.
Clinton's success in developing a political philosophy that rejects the orthodoxy of the right and left is "his ultimate legacy," said Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), an organization formed in 1985 to promote a centrist Democratic agenda. By changing the party's image on government spending, trade, welfare and crime, From said, "he's made it possible for Democrats to expand out from what has been a decreasing base into suburban areas that are the growing areas in the country."
But the fledgling movement of centrists depends heavily on Clinton -- perhaps too much so. He is the intellectual engine for the policies that define it, and he gives a fairly bland movement a charismatic leader. What power the centrists hold derives largely from their ability to line up with a popular, legislatively deft president. Without Clinton -- whose standing may yet suffer from the controversy surrounding his alleged affair with a former White House intern -- Democratic centrists are little more than a minority within a minority.
Looking for More Clout
Leaders hope to increase the New Dem ocrats' clout within the House Democratic Caucus, but their prospects seem iffy. Cal Dooley, D-Calif., a coalition co-chairman, is considering running for the chairmanship of the caucus, the third-ranking spot behind minority leader and minority whip. But given the caucus' current ideological makeup, Dooley appears to be a long shot.
In the view of some veterans, the group would be better positioned to influence policy by gaining seats on key committees such as Appropriations and Ways and Means. Right now the coalition can count just six members on those panels: four on Appropriations (Moran, Robert E. "Bud" Cramer of Alabama, Norm Dicks of Washington and David E. Price of North Carolina) and two on Ways and Means (Robert T. Matsui of California and John Tanner of Tennessee).
Still, the centrists are making the most of the clout they have. Legislatively, the coalition has already gained a measure of respect. It provided crucial early support for such bipartisan efforts as balancing the budget, cutting taxes and enhancing free trade.
For instance, when Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and other House Democratic leaders blasted the balanced-budget agreement (HConRes84) last spring, conservative and moderate Democrats quickly embraced it. That helped give credibility to a measure that eventually gained broad bipartisan support.
But expanding their efforts further and forging a revolution from the middle will be tough. Devising a set of proposals targeted at suburban America does not easily stir passions -- especially when the party's base remains liberal and more oriented to labor.
While Democrats want to expand the number of moderates in their midst in order to retake the House, they do not necessarily want the New Democrats to wield more influence. Otherwise, said Barbara Sinclair, a political science professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, "you're letting the tail wag the dog."
A Coherent Philosophy?
Part of the difficulty centrists face in trying to expand their influence is that their coalition is actually a loose collection of members with common interests who do not always vote in a bloc.
Its diverse membership includes Democratic veterans such as Dicks, Matsui and Charles W. Stenholm of Texas -- better known as a key member of the more-conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats -- in addition to a large number of freshmen.
"We don't have any litmus tests," Moran said of the coalition, which meets each Tuesday afternoon when the House is in session.
What distinguishes the group is their strong inclination to boost business interests. Their priorities include easing restrictions on the export of data-scrambling technology, revamping the patent system, continuing China's trade privileges and boosting the International Monetary Fund.
Some outsiders are skeptical that the group has any coherent view. "I'm not sure I understand, when I look at the group's makeup, what exactly their ideology is," said Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a strong labor ally who does not belong to the coalition.
Ideology is overrated, countered Debbie Stabenow, a freshman New Democrat from central Michigan. "What I hear from people back home is, 'Forget the ideology. What are you doing to make government work in a way that helps my family every day?' " A good example, she said, was a new law that makes it easier to develop prescription drugs by streamlining the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory process (PL 105-115).
Ideology is also less important to another freshman, Harold E. Ford Jr., D-Tenn., than it was to his father, who held the Memphis-based seat for 22 years.
The elder Ford rarely wavered from the liberal line. His son -- at 27, the youngest member of the House -- said he became a New Democrat to help shape a political philosophy that could appeal to a younger generation. "They're pro-growth and they're unafraid of change," Ford said of the New Democrats.
Tauscher embodies many of the coalition's characteristics. She is a freshman, represents suburbs east of San Francisco, and has had what she calls cross-cutting "life experiences."
"I'm genetically a Democrat," she said, referring to her Irish Catholic upbringing in New Jersey, where her father served as a local officeholder. But she fits a Republican profile as well, with her entrepreneurial background andthe distinction of having been one of the first women to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.
"I was in male-dominated businesses all my life," she said. "I'm used to being independent and thinking for myself."
Her 1996 upset victory over two-term GOP Rep. Bill Baker, for whom the district had been drawn, was a textbook example of how moderate, pro-business Democrats hope to prevail in the suburbs: She painted Baker as a social extremist, linked him to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and hammered away at his opposition to gun control and abortion rights. She said her constituents "want someone who's going to protect their pocketbook, but someone who's a social moderate."
Boll Weevils' Descendants
In a way, Tauscher and other new centrists are updated versions of the conservative Democrats who have been a thorn in the side of liberal House Democratic leaders for years.
Conservative Democrats lost much of their influence in the House when liberals solidified their hold on the Democratic caucus in the mid-1970s. Conservatives enjoyed a brief resurgence in 1981, during Ronald Reagan's first year as president. Known as the "Boll Weevils," this group of about 40 right-wing Democrats, mostly from the South and West, were key supporters of Reagan's tax and spending cuts and his massive defense buildup.
Their successors, now known as the Blue Dogs, have dwindled to only about two dozen members, some of whom also belong to the New Democrat Coalition. They generally have been upstaged in numbers and influence by the New Democrats.
The moderates' rise may have prompted Gephardt's remarks in a Dec. 2 speech at Harvard University in which he said some New Democrats lack "core values" and "too often market a political strategy masquerading as policy."
Leaders of the New Democrat Coalition protested that Gephardt's "name-calling" was "insulting" and divisive. The minority leader responded that his criticism was not aimed at them, but at outsiders such as DLC President From, who he felt were overly critical of congressional Democrats. While the centrists were clearly stung, the differences were "papered over," Stenholm said.
No matter their intraparty difficulties, though, the moderates' most serious challenges in the short run are electoral. The coalition's members include some of the party's most vulnerable incumbents. Many of them represent marginal districts where neither party has a natural advantage and Republicans are highly competitive. In addition, nearly half of them -- 20 of the 41 -- are freshmen, and a member's first re-election bid is often the toughest.
Their efforts are being buttressed by a new political action committee determined to strengthen the ranks of Democratic moderates. One of the PAC's top goals is to raise more campaign contributions from businesses.
The New Democrat Network political action committee was created in 1996 in recognition that promoting a new outlook for the party would require new sources of campaign money.
"Our challenge is to elect more moderates," said Simon Rosenberg, the network's executive director. "It's the only way we'll win the House back."
Founded by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John B. Breaux of Louisiana, the PAC hopes to raise about $1.4 million in the 1998 election cycle, of which about $600,000 would be contributed to candidates. The rest would go for overhead and ongoing organizational support to New Democrats.
The difficulty is that business generally shifted its contributions to Republicans once the GOP seized control of Congress in 1994.
New Democrats are having some success in turning that around. Emerging high-tech industries seem most fruitful. For example, the PAC raised about $75,000 last August at a Silicon Valley event hosted by John Doerr, a prominent venture capitalist, and Steve Perlman, chief executive officer of WebTV Networks Inc.
But whatever the New Democrat Network raises will be dwarfed by labor PAC expenditures to Democrats, which amounted to $45 million in the 1996 election cycle.
Michael J. Malbin, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Albany, said, "No one political action committee can add up to the many under the labor umbrella."
But Malbin added that the New Democrat Network can have an impact with even modest amounts of money if its endorsements serve as a catalyst for other contributors -- much as EMILY's List leverages donations to women candidates who support abortion rights, and the Council for a Livable World identifies candidates who oppose nuclear weapons.
Dooley believes that businesses will be more generous to Democrats if they see centrists exerting more influence within the caucus. Otherwise, he said, "It's going to result in further shrinking a base of support and even compound our challenge of raising money from the business community."
But as a minority, there are limits to how much the New Democrats can moderate the caucus' message. "They can't redefine the majority" of the caucus, said veteran liberal Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "They can get the ability to define themselves as part of a Democratic majority that has room for them."
The marketing of New Democrats to other Democrats, it seems, still has a ways to go.
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.