Democrats' Shaky Convergence
By David S. Broder
Thursday, July 29, 2004; Page A23
BOSTON -- The Democrats have convinced most of the journalists covering their convention here that their party has eliminated most of its internal differences. That is true, unless you count the gap between the party's head and its heart.
The head -- the platform and the policy ideas embraced by John Kerry and John Edwards -- belongs to the New Democrats, the group that 20 years ago founded the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which became the political base for Bill Clinton.
But the heart of the Democratic Party -- its activist base, the people who actually turn out the votes that elect Democrats -- is still found in organized labor, the feminist and environmental movements, the minority groups, and the wealthy liberals who finance the movements they have launched to help defeat President Bush.
This gap, acknowledged on both sides, is nothing new. It goes back to the Mondale and Dukakis campaigns of 1984 and 1988, and it survived the Clinton-Gore years to emerge once again at this Kerry-Edwards convention.
It shows in startling clarity when you ask: What do Democrats really believe? The answer for the activist heart of the party is suggested by a Boston Globe poll of a cross section of 400 delegates. As the Globe reported, 80 percent of them say they opposed the decision to start the war in Iraq and 95 percent oppose it now. Unlike Kerry, 62 percent support gay and lesbian marriage. Almost nine out of 10 describe themselves as supporters of gun control.
Similar surveys at earlier Democratic conventions have confirmed that the activists -- the people who have done enough work in their communities and states to claim a delegate badge as their reward -- are not only to the left of the American public but more liberal than the candidates who win nominations in primaries representative of a broader swath of Democratic supporters.
Kerry, who voted to give Bush authority to take on Saddam Hussein, easily dispatched the challenge of antiwar candidates Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and Bob Graham. Then he filled out his ticket with Edwards, who had voted the same way he had. Unlike the delegates, they say that American troops should remain in Iraq as long as it takes to stabilize its democracy. On that -- and on a variety of domestic issues -- their policies reflect the views of the DLC and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute.
Originally, some key DLC leaders backed Joe Lieberman, a former DLC chairman, for the nomination. But when he faltered, they had no problem switching to Kerry, who had been active in their group as well. Edwards was not a DLC member, but only because he saw that Lieberman and Kerry had a better claim on its support. His policy views are perfectly compatible with the group's.
Al From, the longtime chief executive of the DLC, says confidently that "the debate within the party is over and we have won." Except it isn't.
Outside this consensus are the groups on the left -- pressing for immediate action on the war, universal health care, the environment, labor reform, civil rights enforcement and women's issues -- and, as From concedes, "they have the power and the money" to mount the grass-roots campaigns that Kerry, Edwards and most other Democrats need.
Their clout is more visible than ever, since many of them have created a formal alliance called America Coming Together. While the DLC uses its small staff and modest budget to pump out policy ideas and influence elites, ACT has become a $100 million-plus tiger, with thousands of field workers and modern computers, all focused on finding and motivating potential Kerry-Edwards voters.
Between now and November, the Democratic nominees will benefit from the muscle of ACT and the minds of the DLC. But if Kerry wins, you can expect to see a tug of war between the two sides on the staffing of his administration and the policy agenda. Which will come first -- a big health care plan or moves to reduce the budget deficit?
Such debates plagued Clinton in his first two years, until he came down squarely on the DLC side after Republicans captured Congress in 1994. These divisions were an even worse problem for Al Gore in the 2000 campaign, with running mate Lieberman and other DLCers decrying his decision to run a "people versus the powerful" campaign cheered on by the activist groups.
So there are no divisions among the Democrats -- except the one that will matter most if they again own the White House.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company