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A Party of Courage and Conscience
November 11, 2002
By Monica Friedlander

In the wake of the November 5 election debacle, activists everywhere pounded their fists on the table demanding that the Democratic Party stand up to the GOP and go back to its "liberal roots." That, the new common wisdom says, will empower Democrats to succeed where they now "failed." The new rhetoric sounds so convincing, it's almost persuasive.

There's only one problem with it: It's probably wrong. There's not a shred of evidence to support it. The voter swing to the right in the last 48 hours before the election happened among independents and southerners who are hostile to a far-left agenda. Pushing the party further to the left is as good as pushing it over the cliff.

The fallacy of the argument lies in the assumption that courage is a virtue only of the liberal wing of the party. It's an easy trap to fall in, since the most outspoken Democrats in recent years have tended to be liberal. And it's especially tempting to adhere to that school of thought in the wake of the tragic death of Senator Paul Wellstone -- now a true icon not just to liberals, but to everyone left of center.

But what endeared Wellstone to so many beyond his core constituency was not his liberalism, but his passion, his conviction, his humanity, and his unwillingness to compromise principle for political expediency. People recognize these extraordinary qualities when they see them, and that's what they long for. Not a leftist stand, but simply a stand.

If you look at the Democratic Party, embattled as it may be, you'll find men and women of conscience across the ideological spectrum. Take Senator Robert Byrd, for example. No one can tag a liberal label on him. But over the last year he, more than anyone, has been the conscience of the U.S. Senate. It was Byrd who spoke out against the encroachment of our civil liberties. It was Byrd who cried foul when Bush's branded all opposition as unpatriotic. And it was Byrd who turned out to be one of the most vocal opponents of the Iraq war. But he wasn't the first one.

Two Democrats beat him to it: Ted Kennedy and Al Gore. Kennedy is an icon of liberalism, just like Wellstone. But once again, his most noble virtue is not his ideology but his conviction. Love him or hate him, but you always know where Ted Kennedy stands. It's a rare quality in today's world, right or left. And Al Gore may not have the liberal record of a Ted Kennedy, but he took a big chance as the first Democrat to raise his voice against the war. Give credit where credit is due.

So ultimately, what the Democratic Party needs (other than a voice in today's right-wing media) is more fire in its belly; more courage to stand up to the most right-wing administration in more than a century, if not ever; more people like Wellstone and Kennedy and Byrd. Simply passing the baton of leadership to the far-left wing of the party will not, in itself, light the fire in Democratic bellies. And it would most certainly not endear Democrats to the middle-of-the-road constituencies it desperately needs in order to win.

As Senator Byrd demonstrated, such fire and conviction is not a liberal value -- it's a human value.

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