New Democratic style is to come out swinging Party attacking interest groups

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Signaling an unusually combative public posture for the Democrats, party Chairman David Wilhelm leveled a sweeping attack yesterday on the gun lobby, the insurance lobby, the anti-tax lobby, the religious right and, of course, the Republican Party.

"The party of Bill Clinton is an aggressive and confident party, willing to confront its foes, ready to respond to attacks quickly and effectively," Mr. Wilhelm said at the fall meeting of the Democratic National Committee.


"And let's be very clear: our foes are not limited to members of the other political party; they are the people and institutions who will fight to maintain the status quo."

Mr. Wilhelm then took on organizations that have opposed the Democratic Party on issues ranging from health care to abortion: the Health Insurance Association of America, the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition, the Citizens for a Sound Economy and the National Federation of Independent Business.


The bashing appears to be a shift for a party that has in the past been content to emphasize its difference with the Republicans. Mr. Wilhelm has been accused of not playing an active enough role in fighting the opposition to President Clinton's economic package.

While the groups Mr. Wilhelm singled out have come under criticism from him before, yesterday was the first time he opened such a broad attack on several foes at once.

"The NRA, the Christian Coalition, the HIAA, and Citizens for a Sound Economy are some pretty tough customers," he said. "But if this party is to truly be the party of the people, the party of the public interest, then these are battles we're going to have to be willing to wage."

Mr. Wilhelm's biggest target was the Health Insurance Association of America, and for reinforcement in denouncing the group, he was joined by former Gov. Richard Celeste of Ohio, who is running the drive to promote Mr. Clinton's health-care package.

As Democratic officials distributed the script of a new radio advertisement from the insurance group, Mr. Celeste attacked the spot point by point. Citing a sentence in the ad in which the announcer says, "The Government will set a limit on what everyone can spend for health care," Mr. Celeste accused the group of distortions and angrily declared, "That is flat wrong."

Mr. Celeste also denounced an alternative health plan proposed by Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., that is backed by some Republicans and would require no employer contributions to insurance premiums. "At the heart of their proposal is a failure to meet the test that this health care will be always there," he said. "It isn't enough."

While the Democrats were busy lashing out at rivals, the one issue that divides the party the most, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was kept out of the public eye.