By Rick Klein, Globe Staff July 25, 2006
DENVER -- Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton joined centrist Democrats yesterday in unveiling a new agenda designed to boost the prospects of the middle class, calling for easier access to college education, universal healthcare for children, and requiring nearly all employers to set up retirement accounts for their workers.
Clinton, a New York Democrat who helped develop the proposals for the Democratic Leadership Council -- the organization that helped propel her husband to the White House in 1992 -- said the ``American Dream Initiative" is a platform that can unite Democrats in this year's congressional elections.
``To paraphrase the historic 1992 campaign, `It's the American dream, stupid,' " Clinton told attendees of the DLC's annual meeting in Denver, referencing the ``It's the economy, stupid" theme of former President Bill Clinton's first national campaign. ``There is a better way. It's time for Democrats to show how an agenda for change can turn this country around, and bring the American dream back within reach."
The platform is filled with concepts few Democrats would argue with, including education tax credits and government-provided savings bonds for newborns. Leadership council organizers said the plan is at least a partial answer to the oft-repeated criticism that Democrats lack a positive agenda.
``We can replace trickle-down economics with rise-up economics, and we can make sure that everybody has a chance to rise up and fulfill their dreams for the future," Clinton said. ``We have the ideas and we have the will. That's what this new opportunity agenda stands for. Now all we have to do is win elections."
Yet as a platform for Democrats, the initiative is notably silent on what could be the overarching issue of the 2006 elections: the Iraq war. Clinton said the omission was deliberate, since the plan focuses on domestic policy and expanding and strengthening the middle class.
But the war remains a deeply divisive issue among Democrats, one that Republicans are eagerly exploiting. By steering clear of Iraq and controversial economic issues such as international free-trade agreements, the DLC is ignoring the very issues that could give Democrats a huge boost this fall, said David Sirota, a Democratic activist and author who has been critical of the DLC.
``It's time to lead on those issues," said Sirota, whose recent book, ``Hostile Takeover," accuses both major parties of being beholden to corporate interests. ``Their omissions are admissions of the unpopularity of the positions they've staked their name on in the past."
Senator Clinton was one of four Democratic presidential hopefuls who used the DLC meeting to hone stump speeches and court state and local elected officials. She was joined by Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico -- all of whom are building their ambitions on mainstream messages.
They're looking to follow a path blazed by President Clinton, who used his DLC leadership when he was governor of Arkansas in the early 1990s to boost his political profile.
Yet whether the centrist strategy the DLC prefers is the best choice for Democrats in 2006 and 2008 is the subject of a raging party debate. Other presidential contenders -- including Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin -- are charting a more liberal course, based largely on their strong opposition to the Iraq war.
The party's ideological differences are on display in Connecticut, where Senator Joseph I. Lieberman -- a three-term incumbent and the Democrats' 2000 vice-presidential nominee -- is locked in a surprisingly tough primary battle; his opponent is capitalizing on voter anger over Lieberman's support for the war and President Bush's foreign policy.
Yesterday, former President Clinton campaigned with Lieberman -- a former DLC chairman -- a few hours after Senator Clinton delivered the most anticipated speech of the three-day DLC ``National Conversation."
Al From, the DLC's founder, delivered a veiled jab at liberal bloggers and others who want moderates to boldly attack Bush and the GOP. He told attendees in Denver that this year's election will be ``an argument, not a shouting match" between Democrats and Republicans.
``We need to grow our party, not shrink it," From said. ``We need to persuade more voters to vote Democratic, not fewer. . . . We need to be a party of ideas, not a party of anger."
Vilsack struck a similar tone, encouraging Democrats to win elections with constructive ideas rather than attacks on the president. ``It seems to me that everybody in the country understands what this administration has done wrong," said Vilsack, the DLC's current chairman. ``It is important now for this country to understand what we need to do that's right."
Senator Clinton said Democrats will focus on Bush administration mistakes in foreign policy, but she made no mention of Iraq. Clinton voted for the war and has said she does not regret her vote, though she has been harshly critical of the administration's war conduct.
``We will not let the president and the Republicans off the hook for the mistakes they've made and the disastrous policies they have followed abroad," Clinton said. ``We'll hold them accountable every bit as much for national security and homeland security as for their failures to provide Americans with economic security."
Bayh exhorted Democrats to push back when Republicans try to paint Democrats as weak on national security. Though he didn't advocate a specific message on Iraq, Bayh said the party should be aggressive, pointing out Bush administration missteps that have contributed to violence in the Middle East and have failed to contain emerging nuclear threats. ``We've got to take this issue on," Bayh said. ``If [voters] don't trust us with our lives, they're unlikely to trust us with anything else."
Few Democrats would quarrel with the DLC's agenda -- even those who have been skeptical of stances the group has taken in the past, said Robert Borosage, codirector of the liberal Campaign for America's Future. That's an encouraging sign for those who want to promote party unity in a crucial election year, he said. ``It reflects the growing strength of the progressive wing of the party, rather than the money wing of the party," Borosage said.