The Democrats are screwed. Royally. But I mean that in a good way.

Maybe I should rephrase that to say, “The so-called Democrats are screwed.” I say “so-called,” because although politicians like John Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman call themselves “Democrats,” in truth they’re little more than centrist Republicans.

A little history lesson -- back in the early 1990’s, a group called the “Democratic Leadership Council” was formed to push the “third way” agenda of a new crop of Democrats called “New Democrats.” Leading the charge was Bill Clinton. The idea was that a Democrat could never get elected President by catering to the left-wing of the party, that only a “centrist,” “moderate” approach would get them elected. In effect, the New Democrats discarded the progressive social issues that defined the party in a cynical attempt for power. What did they stand for? Well, better go check the focus groups.

This worked as a tactic until the Republicans wised up and plotted a counter-strategy. They too would dress up in “moderate” clothing (“compassionate conservatism,” anyone?), but unlike the Dems, the Republicans supported the moderate facade with some serious right-wing ideology. Although their demeanor was that of centrist moderation, they clearly had a strong radical agenda. In comparison, the Democrats looked flaccid. Without any ideas to back up their stances -- and cowardly refusing to criticize Bush on policy that doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny -- they suffered enormous losses in the 2002 mid-term elections. Not because the country suddenly turned Republican, but because the Democratic base just didn’t vote.

Enter Howard Dean. I first read about him and his initial interest in seeking the Democratic presidential nomination back in early 2002. Unlike the other Democratic presidential hopefuls, Dean offered a clear vision and criticism of the Republicans. As word of Dean began to spread, the Democratic establishment -- particularly New Democrat types -- tried to pass Dean off as a “second tier” candidate and “too liberal.” When Dean criticized the war, they said he’d just killed his chances as a national candidate. Yet, Dean’s grassroots support grew, while the “top tier” candidates had only withering success.

When Dean raised $7 million -- much more than his “top tier” rivals -- the Democratic leadership elite was shocked and puzzled. How was it possible that Howard Dean -- a “bottom tier” candidate -- could raise $7 million, mostly from individual donors who had never given to a political candidate before? How could this happen?

The answer is that Dean caters to the Democratic base, which -- despite what the Democratic Leadership Council would have us believe -- constitutes the majority of the voters who turn out for Democratic primaries. Dean has a message that is not inconsistent with the historical platform of the Democratic Party, but the party leadership is so busy worrying about how they can pretend to be more like Republicans that they’ve forgotten what it is they are supposed to stand for.

Howard Dean hasn’t forgotten. Now, whether he really feels strongly about core Democratic values or is merely cynically exploiting them for his own purposes is up for grabs. I really don’t know the answer to that. But the fact remains, he now speaks for a growing majority in the Democratic Party that is frustrated with the Bush administration and is furious at the party establishment for caving to the Republicans.

We are in the midst of a major cultural civil war that began with the Clarence Thomas hearings and saw its first major battles during the Clinton scandals. The Republicans are keen to take control of the government and use it to further a radical right-wing agenda that marries entitlements to the wealthy to Christian fundamentalism. Before accusations of “paranoia” and “conspiracy theories” start flying, please keep in mind this is a matter of public record. When asked, Republicans are more than happy to say that yes -- they want to dominate American politics for their constituencies.

But the next major battle in the culture wars is not between Democrats and Republicans -- it is instead between traditional Democrats and the milquetoast centrists of the New Democrat movement. The question is: What role does the Democratic Party want to play? Do the Dems want to be a weak minority party, or do they want to be a major player in national politics?

You can’t be a major player by mimicking your enemies. You can’t do it by offering an agenda that is note-for-note identical to what the Republicans are offering. You have to do it by taking a stand -- by taking off the gloves and brawling with the other guy.

We are in the midst of a conflict over what America in the 21st Century will be. Will we be a nation that offers opportunity for all, or will we be a corporate feudal state where the top 1 percent control 90 percent of the wealth? Where a religious minority -- evangelical Christians -- infuse the state with their own brand of moral extremism?

The Democratic Party now has a chance to decide whether it will take on the Republicans, or die. People say that Howard Dean is not electable -- that we need a “moderate” like John Kerry. But Kerry is a guaranteed loser -- he offers a position that is nothing other than Bush-lite. When offered a choice between Bush and an imperfect clone, the choice is obvious -- Bush will prevail.

But when offered a choice between Bush and a candidate who puts forth some real honest alternatives, then you have a glimmer of a chance. The majority of this country is Democratic -- if you ran a candidate who could appeal to moderate Democrats and left-wing radicals like the Greens, you can potentially create an alternative political force that can rival the Republican religious-industrial complex.

A presidential ticket of Howard Dean and retired NATO commander Wesley Clark could stand a very strong chance of winning. But it’s really up to the Democratic party establishment. If they decide to back Kerry, then the battle is lost. The Dean supporters will be so outraged, that they will not vote. I know I won’t. But if they go with Dean -- if they take a chance on a bold candidate with a vision -- then they stand a fighting chance.

Either way, this is a wake-up call for the New Democrats. If they back Kerry and lose in a landslide, then maybe they’ll finally realize that they have to go back to basics -- they have to return to the original tenets of their party. And if they back Dean and win -- well, then they’ve already learned their lesson.

Regardless of the outcome, the era of the milquetoast Democrat is over.

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