Social Democrats, in New Turn,
By Ira Stoll - New York Sun, May 19, 2003
Urge Democrats Toward the Right
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
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
'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
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.'