Keeping It Together

It’s not that Democrats don’t have intra-party squabbles. They just know defeating Bush is more important.


The depiction of the Democratic Party as “more united than ever before” made the rounds of television pundits on the national convention’s opening night. While that mantra seems to come around every four years, it appears true when it comes to Democrats’ efforts to defeat George Bush. What’s less clear is which faction will control the party once the election – win or lose – fades into history.

That notion got the star treatment from a piece in the New York Times Magazine, in which Matt Bai explores the rise of the New Democrat Network and its efforts to rebuild a party whose electoral fortunes have fallen in the past decade. Bai also discusses the rise of liberal groups outside the party apparatus that can raise and spend money without kowtowing to the DNC. But even in this piece, which has become a favorite subject of bloggers and commentators, the groups come across as more focused on beating Bush than on ideology. As Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly noted:

“But what really surprised me is that in an 8,000-word story about these people, there wasn’t so much as a single sentence about what they believe in. It’s all about the infrastructure and the fundraising and the message machine — but nothing about the message itself. What are they doing all this work for?”

That, as Peter Beinart of the New Republic states, is a sign of the current Democratic pragmatism – “If NDN has an ideology, it seems to be that ideology is secondary; that Democrats need to embrace whatever and whoever can win.” As the speeches and commentary flowing from the convention have stressed, intraparty factions have fallen into line, with debates about the party’s overall message temporarily on the back burner.

The party’s conservative wing, epitomized by Al From’s Democratic Leadership Council, has rallied behind Kerry. From urges unity with a column in the DLC’s Blueprint Magazine, while trying to cast the Kerry ticket as somehow a victory for the DLC:

“By following the Clinton-DLC formula, the national Democratic Party has recovered nicely. Today’s Democrats, led by John Kerry and John Edwards, stand on the precipice of becoming a majority party again. Our party’s challenge is to build that durable governing majority. As Americans, we have an even greater challenge — to transcend the increasingly bitter partisan division and polarization that, left unchecked, could threaten the very foundation of our democracy.”

From goes on to blame the president for the country’s current polarization, and tout his organization’s centrist goals as an alternative:

“To me, one of George W. Bush’s greatest failures is breaking his campaign promise to be a uniter, not a divider. Despite two unprecedented opportunities to pull our country together — after the 2000 election and after 9/11 — he has governed in a way that has increased partisan polarization, not reduced it…

“In the end, the surest way to reconnect our politics and our people is to rally them around big ideas and solutions to our country’s biggest challenges that transcend partisan divisions. These include providing affordable health care for everyone, achieving energy independence, helping people prosper in an ever more global economy, and offering Americans more chances to serve.”

On the other end of the Democratic spectrum, some on the left end worry about a split within their ranks. Monday’s Los Angeles Times reports on on the dilemma for anti-war activists like Cynthia Peters of United for Justice with Peace, who want Bush out but disagree with Kerry on issues like Iraq:

“The ‘anybody but Bush’ movement makes people think that if Kerry wins we can all go home. But under Clinton we saw the dismantling of welfare benefits. We saw sanctions against Iraq and the bombing of Baghdad. I am under no illusions that Kerry is going to radically diverge.”

In an effort to shore up the party’s left flank, some Democrats have organized forums, with speakers like Robert Reich, Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore on hand to address the concerns of progressives. The idea is to keep the party united against Bush, and teach liberals how to play a role in the new administration’s policies.

While protestors in Boston will rail against the war and other Kerry positions, it’s worth noting that some on the left are not and never were likely to vote for the Democratic ticket. Among those on the left amenable to voting Kerry, activist Ava Cheloff expresses the prevailing view:

“I plan to vote for Kerry, and then, after he wins, I expect to spend a lot of time yelling at him.”

And that’s the rub. If Kerry wins, his administration would play a major role in which faction of the party wins out on crafting the overall message. The success or failure of his presidency would validate that faction or discredit it. But each group within and outside the party knows the only way for a discussion about the party’s path to mean anything in the short term is to elect Kerry, and the convention is showing the results of that realization.