WASHINGTON - Hillary will be there. So will Kathleen. And Joe and Evan and Tom.
Self-styled “New Democrats'' such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend are flocking along with 500 of their colleagues to Indianapolis this weekend for a reason:
“What happens in 2004 [in the presidential race] depends on what happens in 2002 [in the congressional elections],'' said Mr. Bayh, incoming chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC bills itself as the home of centrist Democrats and is the group that Bill Clinton used as a springboard for his successful presidential bid in 1992 based on the idea that he was not a “tax-and-spend'' Democrat but a “New Democrat.''
Democrats control the Senate by one vote and Republicans narrowly control the House. Next year about one-third of the Senate and the entire House are up for re-election. A switch of a few seats either way could throw the Washington political scene into chaos again and set the stage for the presidential race in 2004.
Indianapolis was chosen for the council's annual convention because, Mr. Bayh said, for 20 years it was dominated by Republican officials from the governor on down. In recent years, that has begun to change, and Indiana has a Democratic governor and senator, and Indianapolis has a Democratic mayor.
And this year's theme will be “enduring values.'' That is aimed, said council founder and President Al From, at convincing middle-class Americans that President Bush is too far right for them, that Democrats have the “new ideas'' to promote old values.
“To a large degree the battle between the New Democrats and the Old Democrats is over,'' Mr. From says. “We modernized the party in the 1990s.'' Such DLC goals as experiments with charter schools, “reinventing'' government and a budget surplus instead of a budget deficit are widely accepted, he said.
There is, however, a big difference: trade. The council believes strongly in globalization and free trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and trade with China. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri does not. Neither does the dean of Democratic women in the House, Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo. And neither do most labor unions, which are big supporters of the Democratic Party.
Mr. Bayh and Mr. From say that their wing of the Democratic Party will triumph over more liberal Democrats because they believe in economic growth, fiscal discipline, an end to class warfare, and that there is “some collective responsibility to solve social problems'' but that big government cannot solve everything.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D., Calif.), vice chairwoman of the DLC and one who is hopeful that Democrats can take back the House next year, says one reason for the DLC meeting is to show voters that while moderate Democrats “are criticized by the far left and the far right, we're not middle-of-the-road mushy compromisers.''
The DLC takes credit, through Mr. Clinton, for ending the old welfare system, reducing crime, and eliminating the budget deficit. If the deficit returns because of a combination of new spending, Mr. Bush's tax cut, and the depressed economy, Mr. Bayh said Democrats will campaign next year on the theme that President Bush “squandered'' the surplus.
When the name of “Al Gore'' is mentioned in DLC circles, there are strained smiles. Even though the former vice president was once head of the DLC, he will not be in Indianapolis. “Gore's a good man, and he would have made a good president,” Mr. Bayh said. “It's easy in hindsight to criticize someone's campaign. Let's just say some of his rhetoric - his populist rhetoric - was not helpful.''
Mr. From says that the DLC this weekend wants to exploit what he thinks are Mr. Bush's vulnerabilities. He says those include public nervousness over the long-term effects of the $1.35 trillion tax cut and “Bush's move to the right on values - he is not where most Americans think they are now.''
As a consequence, he said, “We [Democrats] are on the precipice of becoming the majority party in America. We'll never see a [Democratic] candidate going back to the pre-Clinton Democratic Party.''
Ms. Tauscher agreed, saying that if Mr. Bush had been serious about bipartisanship, he would have courted moderate Democrats like her. Instead, she said, she has been invited just once to the White House where “I was a potted palm standing next to other potted palms.''
Mr. Bayh said Democrats must win the political center. “Our core constituents are working-class Americans,'' he said, “and the way to win them over is not [to tout] big government.''