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Why The Center Can't Hold

The New Democrats bite the hand that feeds them

By Peter Beinart/Washington

Time cover

(TIME, November 24) -- One year into Bill Clinton's second term, and one week after he lost the fight over fast track, it is finally possible to answer a question that has dogged his presidency: Has Clinton created a new centrism within the Democratic Party, or has he killed off the last vestiges of the old centrism he inherited? The answer is yes to both questions.

When Clinton took office, the Democratic Party already had a centrist wing, and it looked like Martin Lancaster, Congressman from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Lancaster spent his childhood on a tobacco farm and his adulthood in the naval reserves. In so doing, he embodied the two economic pillars of many rural districts throughout the South: agriculture and the military. In Congress he lovingly cared for eastern Carolina's Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune. And he defended subsidies for tobacco, peanuts and hogs (one of the district's biggest exporters was called Carolina Oink Express).

Eastern Carolina had one more export: conservative Democrats. It had been sending them to Washington since the Blue defeated the Gray, and Lancaster was no different. He backed the death penalty; he supported Star Wars; he voted to ban federal money for obscene art. But Lancaster also supported Clinton's tax increase in 1993 and his crime bill the year after, and in 1994 an upstart Republican bombarded the Carolina coast with pictures of Lancaster jogging with a President everyone despised. Lancaster and dozens of moderate Democrats like him went down to defeat. It was death by Clinton.

But if Clinton had not become President, Ellen Tauscher's political career could never have been born. California Congresswoman Tauscher represents a district that until 1992 did not exist, a swath of Bay Area suburbia that only decades ago was empty grassland. Not long ago, upscale, sun-drenched suburbs like hers were solid Republican territory. But that was before the religious right colonized the G.O.P. So the well-educated secularites of the suburban Bay began in the '80s to lean Democratic and were ripe for the wonkish Clinton. He was fiscally disciplined, culturally tolerant and enthusiastic about the high-tech industries on which their prosperity was built. Tauscher followed in his wake. A millionaire former stockbroker and businesswoman, she looked, at first glance, like a Rockefeller Republican. Her husband actually was a Republican. In 1996 Tauscher took on an incumbent Republican, attacked him for opposing abortion and gun control, and won a seat in Congress.

The evolution of the Democratic center from Lancasterism to Tauscherism has not been adequately appreciated. Most of the ink evaluating moderate Democrats in Congress has been spilled on the Blue Dogs, an alliance of mostly Southern, mostly rural, mostly socially conservative House Democrats founded in early 1995. But the Blue Dogs are--pardon the expression--a dying breed. They gained six new members in 1997 but lost nine to retirement, defeat and party switching. Their membership totals 24.

Tauscher joined the lesser-known New Democrat Coalition. By contrast with the Blue Dogs, the NDC's members hail not from rural districts but from suburban ones. While the Blue Dogs represent old industries, the New Dogs, as they are called, talk about the high-tech economy. They get excited about things like encryption law. Their constituents are essentially contented, libertarian and relativistic. While the Blue Dogs barely survived Clinton, the New Dogs pattern themselves in his image. They were his key allies behind enemy lines when he squared off against Richard Gephardt on the 1997 balanced-budget agreement. And unlike the Blue Dogs, their numbers are growing. The NDC boasts 41 members, almost half of whom are freshmen.

There's just one problem: money. It's all well and good to be a suburban, pro-business Democrat, but since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, business hasn't been donating that much to Democrats, pro-business or not. After all, every additional New Dog in Congress is a step toward corporate America's nightmare of nightmares: a Democratic House majority and Speaker Gephardt. The Democratic National Committee can't make up the shortfall because it's flat broke. That leaves the tender New Dog pups facing their first re-election next year dependent on labor. And that's why half the NDC opposed the President on fast-track trade authority last week, even though support for expanded free trade is supposed to be one of the group's core principles. If they had all supported it, fast track would have passed.

So Clinton has killed one brand of Democratic centrism, nurtured another, watched it bear fruit, and now has seen his ideological offspring turn on their maker. Not bad for one presidency.

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