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Social Democrats, in New Turn,
Urge Democrats Toward the Right

By Ira Stoll - New York Sun, May 19, 2003

WASHINGTON - A small but potentially significant groups of political activists gathered here this weekend and urged the Democratic Party to back vigorously the spread of freedom and democracy abroad and labor unions at home.

The meeting of Social Democrats, USA attracted Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager, Donna Brazile; a former president of the AFL-CIO, Thomas Donahue; a veteran labor and civil rights leader, Velma Hill, and a Clinton administration official, Penn Kemble.

The group has roots in the socialist political party of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas, but includes many who supported the presidential campaign of Senator Henry M. 'Scoop' Jackson, a Democrat who ran in 1972 and 1976, and President Reagan, the Republican elected in 1980 and 1984.

With the Democratic Party suffering from electoral defeats and what some participants here called a lack of leadership, the Social Democrats are offering some suggestions of how the party might build a winning platform for 2004.

They're hardly the only faction doing so. But the free trade union movement led by Mr. Donahue and Lane Kirkland - whose widow, Irena, and biographer, Arch Puddington, made appearances at the meeting - played a key role in winning the Cold War.

So despite the relatively low profile the Social Democrats have kept, the group has standing as the Democratic presidential field takes shape in the middle of the war on terrorism.

'It is important that we not cede national security to the Republican Party,' Ms. Brazile said Saturday in a speech at the meeting, urging the party not to 'be afraid' of the 'peace wing.'

She said that to reach a majority, Democrats need to talk about national security and sound like they mean it. September 11, she said, 'has really altered American politics.'

'We need someone as chairman of the party who can enunciate some vision,' Ms. Brazile said, calling the Democratic Party's current leaders 'just place-holders.'

Another speaker at the conference, Jeffrey Herf, who is a professor at the University of Maryland, said, 'if the Democratic Party cannot convince the American electorate that, faced with the threat of Saddaam Hussein, it would have gone to war and won the war, then it's not going to win elections for a long time to come.'

'It's as simple as that,' Mr. Herf said, cautioning Democrats who would take a softer line that the terrorists 'won't respond to 'confidence-building measures' and Euro-speak.'

Mr. Herf suggested that Democrats should speak more about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a member of that party who led the nation in World War II.

Mr. Kemble, who helped organize the conference and spoke at it, said that the agenda of a stronger labor movement in America and a strengthened American commitment to democracy abroad is about far more than the Democratic Party's chances in the 2004 election. 'This isn't about the Democratic Party, and if you cast it in those terms, then you'd really diminish it,' he told the group, holding out the possibility that Republicans might embrace elements of the Social Democratic program. 'We're not committed to the Democratic Party,' he told The New York Sun afterward, pointing out that he had voted for Ronald Reagan and that other Scoop Jackson Democrats had become Republicans. He said that Bush administration figures such as the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, were in tune with the Social Democrat agenda of promoting freedom and democracy abroad.

A discussion paper prepared for the meeting suggested that one source of support for strengthening American labor unions could be 'conservatives who recognize the dangers of unchecked power and value of mediating institutions.'

The discussion paper also made a significant leap for a group with socialist roots. 'In our conception, social democracy is not an adversary to capitalism that seeks, however gradually, to do away with it,' the paper said. 'Social democracy can complement and even strengthen capitalism.'

A labor union organizing consultant who spoke at the event, Richard Bensinger, said that unless more private sector workers join unions, 'we are going to be relegated to being a quasi-public-sector labor movement.'

'I don't think that everyone does need a union,' he said, acknowledging that there are some good employers out there. 'One reason we don't organize in this country is workers are happy. As organizers we hate that. Knock on someone's door: 'Uh oh, they're happy."

How to explain all this to young people, for whom Social Democrats might be mistaken for Democrats who aren't shy about shaking hands at cocktail parties? It will take some time. Says the discussion paper: 'Building an effective movement of the kind we envision will be the work of a generation.'

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