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Centrist Democratic group stood up?

July 23, 2007 |  5:20 pm

The humidity can get pretty thick this time of year in Nashville, but there are worse places to spend the coming weekend.  The music scene swings, and not just with country tunes. The food is good, especially the barbecue. The Cumberland River meanders through it, and the Great Smoky Mountains aren't that far away.

The Democratic Leadership Council -- not so long ago the prime incubator for fresh party approaches to politicking and governing, with an emphasis on addressing middle-class concerns -- will be gathering in the Tennessee capital Saturday through Monday for its annual convention. But here's who it seems won't be attending: not a single one of the gaggle of Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Conservative commentator Bill Kristol drew attention to this on "Fox News Sunday" and, not surprisingly, saw it as fraught with import. The DLC "was supposed to be the new, more moderate Democratic Party," he said. "The Democratic Party has gone left, and it's going to hurt them presidentially in 2008."

We're not ready to sign off on Kristol's latter assertion, but there's little question the DLC no longer offers the coveted forum it once did. Started shortly after the Walter Mondale wipeout at the hands of President Reagan in the 1984 election, its founding fathers included Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

It rapidly grew in importance, especially as Clinton ascended. He stirred an early buzz for his presidential candidacy in May 1991 with a speech he delivered at a DLC meeting.  Its applause line: "Too many of the people who used to vote for us, the very burdened middle class, have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interest abroad, to put their values in our social policy at home or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline."

Grounding ourselves back in the present ...

... we checked with the DLC today and, although there's a chance a candidate or two might drop by Nashville, it's looking doubtful. The White House contenders, it appears, are otherwise occupied.

Now perhaps we're reading too much into these scheduling conflicts.  Marc Dunkelman, the DLC's vice president for strategic communications, notes that none of the several Democrats chasing the '04 presidential nomination came to the group's convention (which it calls a "national conversation") in '03. And it's true that at this point in the campaign cycle, the candidates are more focused on grass-roots activists and specific constituencies than an organization that focuses on the electorate's broad centrist swath.

Dunkelman adds in an e-mail: "We're on schedule to host several governors, and more state and local elected officials are slated to attend this year's National Conversation than ever before.  If history is any guide, we'll see the Democratic nominee next year."

Still, we can't help but notice that most of the Democratic candidates have hopped from forum to forum in recent weeks: the National Council of Latino Elected Officials, the National Education Assn., the NAACP, Planned Parenthood.

We also notice that virtually every candidate has accepted invites to the YearlyKos convention in Chicago in early August. That's a conclave of the progressive wing of the networks community -- bloggers who, in many cases, see the DLC as a ruinous force among Democrats whose influence can only hurt the party.

It strikes us that a candidate hoping to make a good impression at the YearlyKos confab might not want to muddy the waters by having a few days previously rubbed elbows with those drawn to Nashville.

The DLC, for its part, has no intention of taking a back seat in the effort to shape the Democratic message. Earlier today, it unveiled a new website aimed at serving "as a forum — cutting through all the political hype — for a real contest of ideas."

-- Don Frederick