Democrats have spent the past two years shut out of power in Washington, without a president or a house of Congress of their own.
It has been half a century since that happened. And they hate it.
They hate it so much that they have submerged their customary intramural squabbles -- and Democrats normally squabble like three kids in a two-windowed car -- as party delegates gather this week in Boston. In place of those disputes is a determination to unseat President Bush.
But while the party is emphatically and energetically anti-Bush, Democrats are a bit fuzzier on the subject of what they support. That's where their candidate, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, comes in. His task this week, according to various party leaders, is to lay out a Democratic vision for the next four years -- or at least for the next four months.
For now, the party appears to be united. Factions are null. Hatchets are buried -- but not so deeply they cannot be dug up again after Election Day. Even the party platform, the last refuge of die-hard infighters and bitter-enders, has been drafted with scarcely a cross word spoken.
"It's a happy party. Democrats are hungry to win," said Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Hard to believe that just a year ago Reed was in the middle of a Democratic bloodletting. At the time, former Vermont governor Howard Dean was rallying the beleaguered party with his denunciations of party moderates -- symbolized by the DLC -- over their alleged failures to confront President Bush on Iraq, taxes, education policy and so on. "For too long," Dean charged, "Democrats have been afraid to take on the president."
Dean's campaign collapsed once the voting started, but his aggressive spirit probably will dominate FleetCenter this week. "Bush promised to be the great uniter, and he has been -- he united us," said Steve Rosenthal, head of America Coming Together, a $100 million project to get more Democrats to the polls in November.
Rosenthal's group is part of a broader project called America Votes, which is coordinating the get-out-the-vote efforts of an unprecedented array of often-bickering interest groups. Environmentalists, labor unions, abortion-rights activists, civil rights groups, trial lawyers, gun-control advocates -- they are working together to an extent rarely seen. "We are literally putting our own agendas aside to defeat George Bush," Rosenthal said.
Signs of solidarity are everywhere, from opinion polls that show robust support for Kerry inside the party to the grin-and-bear-it silence of labor leaders when their longtime champion Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) was passed over in the vice presidential sweepstakes.
Then there is the Niagara of money flooding into the party. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe -- widely criticized after the Republican victory in 2002 -- is boasting of $65 million on hand for a barrage of anti-Bush advertising after the convention. And he is promising to raise a lot more.
Kerry's campaign has smashed fundraising records, neutralizing what many had predicted would be a huge Bush financial advantage. Kerry has had more than enough to go toe-to-toe with Bush on the airwaves and in building campaign staffs.
"There's nothing more American than a comeback story," said Jano Cabrera, a DNC spokesman. "And that's basically what we're talking about here. Two years ago, our epitaph was all but written. But now the Democratic Party is more united, more energized and in a better position to take on the Republicans than ever before."
A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press supports that confident view. In May, only half of Democrats predicted a Kerry victory, a figure that rose to 57 percent in June and now stands at 66 percent.
Playing to the Middle
Republicans will be in Boston, too, dispatched by the Republican National Committee. And their belief, RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie said, is that under the surface, these are the same old Democrats. "John Kerry is a far-left duckling that hopes to emerge from his convention as a center swan," Gillespie likes to say.
It is true that one benefit of the anti-Bush accord among Democrats is that Kerry has great freedom to aim his message to voters beyond the party. Four years ago, the fierce desire of Republicans to recapture the White House after eight years of Bill Clinton meant that rock-ribbed conservatives sat with fixed smiles as a parade of moderates addressed the GOP convention. In Boston, liberal Democrats probably will do Kerry a similar favor.
Kerry and the Democrats arrive in Boston after one of the least divisive nomination battles in recent memory. They have tried in the past to put on a united front at their conventions, but sometimes those gatherings merely papered over divisions that resurfaced.
In contrast, the Democratic unity this summer appears more genuine, reflecting not only the common desire to defeat Bush in November but also movement from liberals and centrists to resolve some of the divisions of the past. Trade policy, for example, is far less contentious than when Clinton ran for president in 1992 -- in part because both sides have shifted ground. Cultural issues that once tore the Democrats apart no longer do. And while serious differences remain over the war in Iraq, all factions hold Bush principally responsible, and there appears to be general agreement on the shape of a Democratic foreign policy.
Kerry can move in any direction, said Eric Hauser, a Democratic strategist from the party's liberal wing: "Progressive and moderate and conservative -- anything to beat Bush is a good direction."
The road to this point was rocky, and there are ample reasons to think that this period of single-mindedness may not last much past the election.
In the aftermath of the disputed 2000 election, many of the most prominent Democrats around the country poured their energy into second-guessing Al Gore's presidential bid. Exhausted by two years of crisis -- the Clinton impeachment followed by the Florida recount -- Democrats in the doldrums argued over whether Gore was wrong to keep his distance from Clinton, whether he should have put more time into his home state of Tennessee, whether his recount lawsuits were badly drafted.
When the country rallied to Bush after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the party mainstream lost still more confidence. Unsure and timid, Democrats lost congressional seats in 2002 -- an almost unprecedented failure by an opposition party in a midterm election.
Through it all, grass-roots and liberal Democrats seemed more focused on the enemy. Web sites such as Moveon.org, Democrats.com and Truthout.org skipped the Gore campaign autopsy and directed their fire at what they judged to be an illegitimate -- even a "stolen" -- election result.
These Democrats attributed the 2002 results to a failure by senior Democrats to challenge Bush. They talked of "Bush-lite" Democrats, and extolled the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." A leading Minnesota liberal, Jeff Blodgett, spoke for this movement when he said, a year ago, that "the Democratic Party is perceived as having lost its moorings, as being disconnected from the big values and the big vision of where to take this country."
Many who felt this way found a champion in Howard Dean.
In response, the centrist DLC accused Dean of reviving "the McGovern-Mondale wing" of the party, "defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home." Initially, this invocation of the worst landslide defeats ever suffered by Democrats backfired -- Dean's support grew.
But when Democratic primary voters weighed in earlier this year, they delivered a mixed verdict. According to exit polls, these voters shared Dean's desire to take the fight to Bush. They appeared unwilling, however, to embrace an explicitly antiwar candidate. They liked Dean's spirit more than they liked Dean.
Kerry won the nomination, these polls indicate, precisely because his record as a decorated veteran seemed to make him a more formidable wartime candidate.
The Centrist Vision
"Party unity doesn't mean that Kerry has a free pass" to ignore fundamental Democratic positions, Rosenthal, of America Coming Together, said. "It means there is a lot of running room" for him to shape his campaign agenda.
His speech to the convention on Thursday will be a major step toward defining that agenda. Judging from Kerry's stump speech and the proposed party platform, the candidate will harken back to themes that worked in the Clinton years: willingness to use force, support of middle-class tax cuts, a pledge of fiscal discipline and calls for health care reform.
Once again, labor will have to swallow an essentially free-trade candidate. Peace Democrats will grudgingly ratify a platform calling for a larger active-duty military. Hispanics will be asked to look past the call for tighter borders. A long-held dream of many liberals -- universal health insurance -- will not be on the agenda.
To a Democrat such as the DLC's Reed, this represents a triumph for moderation, "the fourth straight time that the centrist, pragmatic path has come out on top" in Democratic politics. It was Clinton's path in 1992 and 1996, and Gore's path over former senator Bill Bradley in 2000 and now Kerry's road to victory over Dean, Reed said. "That's why the primaries turned out the way they did."
To the left, however, the lesson for today's Democrats is that a punch-drunk and reeling party was revived by the energy and focus of its liberal base. Said Hauser: "Three things happened to get us here. First, Bush and his war in Iraq. Second, Howard Dean. And third, a true marriage of the passion of ideological progressives with some savvy political tactics.
"After the election," he continued, "if we don't go back to those progressive underpinnings and keep building on them, we'll be right back where we were before. The energy is with us -- not the DLC."
In other words, the happy campers of Boston are ready to fight side by side through November, but their brotherhood may not last.
Actually, news arrived last week that as soon as the convention is over, a liberal group will be launched -- Progressive Democrats of America. Its mission: to help the Democratic Party "regain its soul."