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SCOT LEHIGH

The mood for moderation

WITH DEMOCRATS gleeful over the Republican woes in Washington, Al From, founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council, is sounding a cautionary note as he tries to lay the groundwork for a repeat of 1992.

That year, Bill Clinton swept into the opening created when more prominent Democrats judged the incumbent Republican president too formidable to beat -- and proved them wrong.

The DLC was important in that victory. Clinton, who served as DLC chairman in 1990-91, had long been involved with the centrist group, and from that involvement came many of the themes and ideas that informed his first national run.

These days, Republican rule in Washington looks more and more like an ideological train wreck. George W. Bush is mired well down in the polls, his momentum sapped, his agenda stalled. An indictment has forced Tom DeLay to step aside, at least temporarily, as House majority leader, while Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist faces an SEC investigation of a suspiciously timed stock sale.

Still, Republicans' problems alone are unlikely to carry Democrats back to the presidency, From warns.

''Bush is in trouble, but Democrats can't depend on Bush's failures," he said in an interview during a recent trip to Boston. ''We need a positive agenda if we are going to take advantage of it."

His reality check: Over the last 40 years, Democrats have slipped from a two-to-one advantage in party identification to basic parity with Republicans. Only 21 percent of the electorate now considers itself liberal, as opposed to 34 percent who call themselves conservatives. Forty-five percent say they are moderates.

The reason Bush is bogged down is that he's losing moderate Republicans and getting clobbered among independents. But in the absence of an appealing mainstream message, anti-Bush sentiment alone won't necessarily bring enough voters to the Democratic Party to retake the White House.

''There is no natural Democratic majority," From declares. ''You have to earn it."

That, at least, should be a self-evident proposition for Democrats. But earn it how?

At the thematic level, From says, that means persuading voters that Democrats are credible on national security, will provide economic opportunity, care about values of responsibility and family, and are committed to reform.

Here, however, is a key question: Are Democrats still in the mood for moderation?

In 1992, a party sick of losing was ready to turn away from time-honored stances in favor of nostrums with more mainstream appeal. After last year's loss with the overly tactical John Kerry, however, the Democratic left now seems convinced that full-throated liberalism is the proper political prescription. Howard Dean, the personification of that idea, is now the Democratic National Committee chairman, and if an anti-Bush backlash leads to significant Democratic gains in the 2006 midterms, Dean and his followers will no doubt adduce that as evidence that their way marks the path to victory.

From is already peering around the next corner. Regardless of the midterms, the 2008 presidential campaign is unlikely to be a referendum on Bush, he says. After all, neither the incumbent nor, in all likelihood, his VP will be on the ballot.

And here's where he's been shrewd. The DLC has recruited Iowa's Tom Vilsack, the nation's longest-serving Democratic governor, as its new chairman, and Hillary Clinton, the party's early frontrunner for 2008, to lead its ''American Dream Initiative," an effort to develop a new Democratic agenda.

It's too early to say exactly where that effort will go, but Clinton's role in particular should guarantee that the DLC will play an important role in shaping the debate.

As for the left's enduring hostility toward From's organization? Well, let's give the last word to a happy warrior who has experienced that animus up close: ''I was amazed by some of the criticisms of the DLC from the Democratic left, who accused us of being closet Republicans, and from some members of the political press. . . . When we didn't fit neatly in their ossified Democratic box, they said we didn't believe in anything. The proof was that we wanted to win national elections, something Democrats apparently weren't supposed to do."

From? No, actually, that's Bill Clinton, in his autobiography ''My Life."

With DLC centrism as his compass, Clinton became the first Democrat to win the presidency in 16 years -- and, four years later, the first Democrat to win two terms since FDR.

That history alone makes the DLC worth listening to.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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