New Democrats Look to Carve Out Policy Niche

Posted April 5, 2005 at 6:35pm

Less than two months into a major restructuring, the House New Democrat Coalition has put in place a two-pronged mission: increase its political role in electing centrist candidates and become a go-to organization on key policy initiatives.

NDC leaders acknowledge that they are setting lofty goals for the next cycle, but they add that they must set the bar high to re-establish the group within the Democratic Party. As a minority of centrists within the minority party, the NDC has been struggling for several Congresses to find its voice and wield influence.

“There is tremendous enthusiasm for the fact we are back,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), the new chairwoman of the NDC.

The 41-member organization reorganized Feb. 9, a move that included the paring of its membership by nearly half and the establishment of new requirements for its members to participate and give money to the NDC’s new political action committee.

Tauscher said the New Democrat Coalition is “working to make sure our voice is heard,” an effort that required major changes within the organization. She said the group is currently meeting to try to narrow its agenda to three or four policy areas in which it “can make a difference” within the House Democratic Caucus and the larger Democratic Party.

Much like the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who have become specialists among the party on budget and fiscal matters, the NDC hopes to carve out a niche in several key areas.

New Democrats are still poring through ideas, but sources said the group is likely to focus its initiatives on technology, national security, Social Security and trade. The group plans to formalize its agenda this month following its retreat.

They hope the larger party will ultimately view the NDC as an expert on major portions of the party’s agenda and use it to devise message and strategy.

“We have a locus of expertise and a pedigree of information and ideas for Democrats,” Tauscher said. “We want to be an idea-generator of policy for Democrats that we think fair-minded people of all stripes should support.”

As part of this process, Tauscher has formed six New Democrat policy working groups to begin charting a message and putting together ideas on issues including financial services, technology, trade, security, education and personal responsibility.

“We’re creating an ideas currency for public policy so we can put together strong alternatives to the majority party, but also so we can have a message to run on in 2006 and an agenda to present,” Tauscher said.

The group’s leadership said the second aspect of building influence is ensuring that New Democrat incumbents get re-elected and that centrist candidates are elected. Tauscher said moderate Democrats hold the key to larger Democratic gains.

That means New Democrats will be more active political players and will work to raise money for the first time through their own PAC to elect like-minded Members, she said.

“We will support our incumbents vigorously,” Tauscher said. “And we will widen our winners circle in the challenger seats and open seats.”

Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), who chairs the new NDC PAC, said the Democratic Party is growing in energy to mount a “more serious opposition to the conservative movement.” He said if the New Democrats want to be part of that, they must play a larger political role heading into 2006 — which means raising and giving money to help candidates who support them.

“The niche we want to fill is to be the reform part of our party,” Smith said. “We want to be the new ideas part. … We have to beat [the Republicans] with new and better ideas and compete on a political playing field.”

Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), who joins Tauscher as a new leader of the New Democrats, said the group’s goal is to become “a major dynamic in the Democratic Caucus.” He added that there is “an idea vacuum in our party” and the New Democrats are going to try to fill it.

“We need to take the next step and put new ideas on the table,” Davis said. “Rightly or wrongly, we’re not seen as the party of reform. We’ve got to adjust to the 21st century. That’s what Ellen [Tauscher] understands, and that’s the goal: Turn the New Democrats into a policy force in the party.”

The NDC, formed in 1997 during the administration of self-styled New Democrat President Bill Clinton, enjoyed an early stretch of influence and policy victories within the House Democratic Caucus. But centrist ideas lost ground in recent Congresses, especially after Clinton left office.

New Democrat leaders acknowledge they have a lot of work ahead of them and face the challenge of generating new ideas, presenting them and being heard. It’s not easy to change the debate, they acknowledge, especially when the Republican Party controls all aspects of government.

“The conditions are not ideal to do this rebuilding and rejuvenating,” Tauscher said. “But that’s the challenge. It’s an opportunity for growth to the majority. We are Democrats fundamentally and we’re interested in having our party in the majority and in the White House.”