Roemer: Moderates Will Look to Congress, States

Posted February 18, 2005 at 5:39pm

Former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) says he is still determined to extend the ideological breadth and appeal of the Democratic Party. He’s just not sure the party committee is the place to do it.

Instead, one week after a chastening defeat in his bid for party chairman, Roemer said he and other moderates will have to build from the outside, through the ideas and innovations of Democratic governors and other party leaders who are blazing new directions in the states and in Congress.

“That’s the real venue for change,” Roemer said in an interview last week. “It’s not the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee.”

Roemer took himself out of the race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee days before the Feb. 12 vote, when it became apparent that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had locked up victory in the contest.

Roemer, who opposes abortion, blames his failure to break through to delegates on the influence brought to bear on the proceedings by NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group.

“I was not surprised that there were some who disagreed with my views on the issue of abortion,” Roemer said. “But I was somewhat astounded by the unrelenting nature, resources and scope of their campaign against me.

“The abortion issue,” he continued, “hung around my neck like a radioactive anvil.”

Roemer nevertheless was able to claim at least tacit support for his bid initially from both Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is held in especially high esteem by pro-abortion rights forces in the party.

NARAL President Nancy Keenan hailed the delegates decision to reject an anti-abortion candidate for party leader.

“The chair’s race proved that the pro-choice message is a winning message,” she said in a statement. “It refuted the notion that choice was a liability in the last election. The majority of Americans are pro-choice.”

A NARAL spokesman, Ted Miller, said the organization never directly opposed Roemer, however. Instead, the group delivered a petition to the DNC reinforcing the need for a chairman who supported abortion rights, Miller said.

In fact, there is some ambiguity about whether the tactics employed against Roemer can be traced back directly to NARAL.

Over the course of several weeks, delegates and activists were bombarded with anonymous faxes and fliers that warned of the dangers posed by the former Indiana lawmaker’s candidacy.

These could have come from any number of sources — beginning with the campaigns of the other candidates.

Roemer used his role on the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a springboard for his candidacy, arguing that Democrats need to build credibility on national security issues if they are to once again become a majority party.

The problem with the party’s outlook on national security, Roemer said, is that it has tended to be limited to Iraq. He said the Democrats need to articulate a broader perspective on security based on economic assistance and building alliances.

On top of that message, Roemer sought to use his candidacy to cajole party activists on the need for a more “inclusive” attitude toward moderates. That meant, among other things, that Democrats must not cede the territory of “values” to the GOP, he said.

“The DNC is one place to have this conversation,” Roemer said. “But we must have it in the broader Democratic Party.”

Roemer was one of the founding Members and leaders of the moderate New Democrat Coalition that evolved as a counterweight to Caucus liberals who sought, after Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, to take the party further left.

His role in the NDC established him as something of an agitator for a party leadership that was focused on building unity. But he remained politically unpredictable — as when he provided critical support to Pelosi’s bid for party Whip in the weeks before her election.

Other key members of the NDC, including former Rep. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.) and the coalition’s new chairwoman, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), threw their support to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), citing a need for ideological diversity in the leadership.

Congressional Democrats acknowledge the role of abortion in the party’s internal debate but downplay NARAL’s influence as a deciding factor in Roemer’s bid for party chairman.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who is regarded as one of the Caucus’ most conservative members, said Roemer’s problem was not so much his moderate ideology as it was his late entry into the race. That kept Roemer from being able to make an appeal to the grass-roots activists who form the base of the party.

“The grass-roots support is very important for Democrats,” Peterson said. “You saw it with [former Sen. Paul] Wellstone,” the late Minnesota Democrat who emerged from the activist core of the party to win his Senate seat.

“Howard did his homework, and that’s part of getting across the finish line,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said, echoing Peterson.

Pascrell, a one-time party organizer who has argued that Democrats need to demonstrate greater openness to disagreement within their ranks, said Roemer nonetheless is correct in suggesting that too few groups control too much of the party apparatus.

Pascrell recalled the Democrats’ decision under pressure to prevent the late Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey (D), who opposed abortion rights, from addressing the Democratic convention in 1992 — a decision that Pascrell believes has left a lasting scar on the party.

Now, Senate Democratic leaders are trying to recruit Casey’s son, Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D), who also opposes abortion rights, for a 2006 Keystone State Senate bid.