A problem with principles
Young Democrats, like their party as a whole, still struggle to show integrity on divisive issues

By Marshall Windmiller

Over a thousand young Democrats roared into San Francisco last week for the biennial convention of the Young Democrats of America.

I spent four days at the convention looking for clues about what the party is going to do about the Iraq war. Having once been a member of the group myself, I was also partly drawn by nostalgia. I joined the San Francisco Young Democrats in 1950, when Phillip Burton was its president. Club meetings were then in a small room a couple of blocks from the federal building that now bears his name.

The YDs became a problem for the senior Democrats when they got interested in China and persisted in arguing that the US ought to have diplomatic relations with the Chinese.

The rising star in California Republican politics then was Richard Nixon, who was building his career on flag-waving patriotism, anti-Communism and red baiting. Nixon said only Communists would want relations with China, and used YD resolutions to smear the whole party. So senior Democrats were constantly trying to get the YDs to cool it.

It was a struggle with important parallels to the current situation.

The rituals of this YDA convention were much the same as in the 1950s: the deal-making in the hospitality suites, the evenings on the town, the high-decibel general sessions.

I spent several hours with the platform committee in a very large room with tables arranged in a giant square. At one end was a massive screen projecting the display of the chairperson's laptop, making it easy to add or change language in a platform plank.

The members were bright, well informed, and felt strongly about a lot of issues. But hatred of George W. Bush is a powerful inducement for these young party activists to compromise on issues within YDA. Unity was the convention watchword. It appeared on the blue T-shirts handed out to everyone and on stickers found everywhere.

The platform committee worked all day for three days and beyond the 11 p.m. Aug. 5 deadline. Like most YDs, they were savvy about precinct work and what it takes to win elections. They understood how injudicious wording can cause problems.

The Aug. 4 evening session featured celebrity speakers: House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, and SF mayor Gavin Newsom. Pelosi's speech was less bold than her frequent television appearances and her leadership of the opposition party in the House. She barely mentioned Iraq, but said we should have a military "second to none." The rest was liberal boilerplate tinged with patriotism, concluding with the remark, "Let's hear it for our men in uniform."

Richardson was somewhat stronger. He said the Democratic Party can't continue as a Washington, DC-based party. We need more leadership at the state level, like the 12 Democratic governors in the red states. He lamented all the talk about how to craft the party's message, saying, "I have to first figure out what we stand for."

He regretted the US "obsession in Iraq," but he didn't say what to do about it. "I'm here because you are the future," he told the YDs.

Newsom brought back my memories of the 1957 national YDA convention, in Reno, when then-Senator Hubert Humphrey told YDs to say what they really believed. He lamented that politicians won't say in public what they say to him in private. Publicly they are very good at identifying the obvious, but they don't want to talk about solutions. "I am not popular in my party," he said. "What's the point of winning if you can't advance your principles? You can't talk in ideals unless you are willing to manifest them."

For example, he said, civil unions are like "separate but equal.... It's the biggest problem in our party." He said John Kerry's position on homosexual civil rights was the same as that of Bush and Cheney: for civil union but not gay marriage.

"We need more clarity in our party," Newsom said. "It's about integrity."

During an Aug. 5 discussion on "Opportunities and Threats in the Middle East" between Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Ellen Tauscher of Walnut Creek, both were well informed about Iraq, Israel, and Palestine. They understand the horrors.

There was not much disagreement on Israel-Palestine: The US should be more engaged in pushing for the two-state solution. The mistakes of the Bush administration in Iraq were outlined and the disasters noted. Tauscher said, "If we leave, it will be worse.... We should put our foot on the accelerator and train Iraqi troops as fast as we can. But we can't cut and run."

Frank said he used to feel that way, but "now I am for beginning to withdraw."

I spoke with Tauscher afterward about her repeated use of the phrase "cut and run." I said that language suggests any withdrawal would be cowardice. She replied with what appears to be the Democratic Party consensus on Iraq, namely: Bush created the problem; let him clean it up. If we call for withdrawal, the Republicans will blame the post-withdrawal consequences on the Democrats. Bush is in charge. He should move first.

Tauscher predicted Bush will make his move to withdraw in September of next year, just before the midterm elections. I said between now and then thousands of Americans and Iraqis will die. Shouldn't the Democrats try to prevent that? She wasn't impressed with that argument.

So what did the YDs decide to do on Iraq? The new platform says: "We support, in the long-term security interests of the United States, efforts to determine a timely, responsible withdrawal from Iraq that leaves Iraqis responsible for their sovereign future without a permanent American presence in the Middle East."

Does this show the clarity or integrity Newsom called for?

Back in 1960, the YDs helped elect Democrat John F. Kennedy. He didn't open relations with China. Neither did Democrat Lyndon Johnson. Republican Richard Nixon did it in 1971, earning the political points that his opponents were too timid to grab.

Marshall Windmiller is professor emeritus of international relations at San Francisco State University.