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Some Liberals Can’t Accept ‘Lesser Of Two Evils’

As Jesse Jackson, the fiery liberal icon, strides to the podium at the Democratic National Convention today, Joyce Bowers will - quite literally - be on the outside looking in at a party she no longer recognizes.

Bowers, a middle-class professional from Minneapolis, voted for Clinton four years ago. But that, she said, was before the “new Democrat” president became a “Republicrat.”

“I’ve had it,” said Bowers, who will march on the United Center today to protest Clinton administration policies. “I can’t stand it anymore. I was almost going to buy the lesser-of-two-evils argument, swallow hard and vote for the guy. But I can’t. I really don’t know what Bob Dole could do that’s worse at this point.”

Bowers is one of the lost liberals of the Democratic Party, a neglected - some say irrelevant - vestigial wing of the party that alternately is aghast and incensed by a president willing to wipe out welfare’s 60-year-old promise to help those who need it and to boldly declare that big government is dead.

Like Republican candidate Dole, who abruptly began ignoring the conservative GOP platform in San Diego earlier this month, Clinton has calculated that the key to his second term belongs with the ideological middle.

And that has left the party’s bleeding hearts with just two options: Hail the party as big enough to absorb dissent of all stripes or - as a decided minority is doing here this week - condemn Clinton as a philosophical traitor.

The assault from the left is ironic because it comes from what had been the party’s traditional base and it arrives at a time when the party is united as it has been only a few times in recent memory. This week, Clinton will become the first Democratic incumbent president in 60 years to be renominated without an intraparty fight.

The more pragmatic liberals, such as Jackson, are adopting a political strategy with the Clinton administration that mirrors the approach the president himself says he’ll apply to affirmative action: Mend it - don’t end it.

“We need to have a big tent when we leave here,” Jackson said before he addressed the California delegation Monday. “And if that big tent is inclusive of these various interests, we’ll have the numbers to win. If we tolerate different points of view without being punitive, then we will deserve to win. We’re not fighting for welfare as we have known it; we’re fighting for jobs and day care as we ought to know it.”

Not so conciliatory is U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, arguably the most liberal member of the House of Representatives. Waters said liberalism’s star has been in descent since well before Clinton burst onto the national stage in 1992, and he has only sealed its fate.

“Bill Clinton is a politician who believes that you do anything it takes - whatever is necessary to get elected,” said Waters. “Unfortunately, some of us think you should provide leadership even when you think it makes it tough for you.”

Surveys of the 4,320 delegates have found them consistently more liberal than Clinton and rank-and-file Democratic voters. On the left wing’s issue of the day - welfare reform - more than half the delegates oppose cutting off public assistance after five years, compared with two-thirds of Democrats nationwide who support the proposal.

While 38 percent of all Democrats favor giving gay and lesbian couples the same benefits as married heterosexual couples, 61 percent of the delegates here support the idea. And while most Democratic voters support shrinking the size of government and cutting taxes, delegates generally are opposed.

According to a New York Times survey of both parties’ delegates, the Chicago Democrats are a reverse image of the staunchly conservative San Diego Republicans. Fully one-third of the Democratic delegates consider themselves very liberal or somewhat liberal, compared with 27 percent of Democrats nationwide and just 16 percent of all voters.

In short, Clinton’s political instincts place him closer than the activists in Chicago to the American mainstream.