The intensity of the party's inner turmoil was on display when more than 650 Democrats gathered at the Tacoma Sheraton on Sunday, June 29, to hear from state party leaders and presidential candidate Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Kerry, a domestic policy liberal and foreign policy centrist, bills himself as a unifier with something to offer both liberal and moderate Democrats. Judging from the evening's preceding speeches, he has his work cut out for him.
When Tacoma's mayor, Bill Baarsma, host of the proceedings, called on U.S. Representatives Jim McDermott of Seattle and Adam Smith of Tacoma to share the stage, Smith demurred. McDermott is a fiery, liberal who garnered national attention--then largely negative--with a visit to Baghdad last year, during which he articulated his view that the president was exaggerating the threat posed by the Iraq regime; Smith is a measured centrist who supported the Iraq invasion and co-chairs the New Democrat Network, an influential group of moderate congressmen and senators.
As Smith stood just offstage, McDermott delivered a passionate oration attacking inside-the-Beltway centrist Democrats for hijacking the party. He arguec that the party should stake its presidential hopes on making its differences with the Republican Party starkly apparent. The party "will not win if we try to be Republican lite," McDermott said, adding that if Democrats tried to run "in the middle of the road," all they would find there is "a yellow line and a dead armadillo."
Smith followed, delivering a short speech in which he acknowledged "a lot of differences of opinion" within the party, but contended that the overriding need to beat Bush demanded that Democrats come together. Smith said Kerry was the party's best hope of accomplishing that task.
The clear differences between McDermott and Smith echo the central rivalry of the presidential race, where former Vermont governor Howard Dean, running an Internet-driven, grassroots liberal revivalist campaign that belies his moderate record, has built tremendous momentum by attacking the war and casting party insiders like Kerry as latter-day Neville Chamberlains for green-lighting the invasion. "We can't beat Bush with Bush lite" is a Dean signature line.
Asked the next day if his speech signaled support for Dean, McDermott would say only that he was "watching closely to see who lays out the principles I'm looking for." Asked about Kerry, McDermott said the senator "would make a fine president if he could get elected."
Katherine Lister, Smith's spokesperson, said Smith's decision not to share the stage with McDermott was not intended as a slight of his colleague. "Adam really wanted to get five minutes alone to make his pitch" for Kerry, Lister said. "He appreciates his long working relationship with Jim."
In a mirror image of Dean, Kerry has built his campaign on underplaying his strongly liberal voting record, instead emphasizing his Vietnam War service and his extensive foreign policy credentials.
His speech in Tacoma was no exception. While expressing "enormous respect" for McDermott, Kerry, citing new realities post-9/11, called for the party to be "strong and right," as opposed to the Bush administration, which was "strong and wrong" in its approach to international relations.
At the outset of the race, the conventional wisdom was that the Kerry tack of moving to the center was the only hope Democrats had to retake the presidency.
But that approach has not resonated on the campaign trail. By tapping the anger of liberal activists--the very people who might otherwise have supported Kerry--the uncompromising Dean has vaulted from marginal outsider to near-frontrunner status. In the latest surprise of an already surprising campaign, second-quarter fundraising results will show Dean outpacing the rest of the Democratic field. Dean's campaign raised $7.5 million for the three-month period. Kerry is expected to report about $5 million raised.