Going Long

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AUGUST 9, 2004

Going Long

Boston, Massachusetts

For two days here at the Democratic National Convention, Howard Dean
has shuttled from one delegate meeting to another, acting like the
disciplined party surrogate few believed he could ever be. Every
time the cameras have turned to him, he's talked up former rival
John Kerry, dismissing as irrelevant the very differences that
defined their campaign battle. ("I don't see much difference
between my position on the war and John Kerry's position.") Even
more important, he's toned down the anti-Bush rhetoric that made him
such a controversial figure during the primaries, dutifully
sticking to the Kerry campaign's script of a positive convention.But now, for the first time, Dean is publicly addressing an audience
made up almost exclusively of liberal voters, the type who flocked
to his campaign back when he first took the Democratic primary
electorate by storm. They're gathered (where else?) in Cambridge,
as part of the Take Back America conference being sponsored by the
liberal group Campaign for America's Future. And they have filled
the ballroom at the Royal Sonesta Hotel well past its 700-person
capacity, prompting the fire marshals to shut down the entrance and
forcing several hundred more would-be attendees to wait outside.

Dean does not disappoint. He serves up a few of the old,
controversial standbys, like attacking the Republicans for
campaigning on "God, gays, and guns"; he also manages to trot out a
new one when he urges supporters to run for local office, even if
it's just the local library board, to wrest control of politics
from those who "like book-burning rather than book-reading." But
the real point of his speech is to motivate his supporters to remain
engaged even after the November elections so they can continue
strengthening the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." "You
all get a month off," Dean tells the crowd. "Then it's back to
work."

This isn't just the usual empty appeal to disappointed supporters.
All week, the story in Boston has been the unprecedented unity
among the party's different ideological and constituent groups. And
that unity is real enough when it comes to electing John Kerry in
November. But it also masks an important shift in the thinking of
liberal Democrats, one that could profoundly change the party in
years to come. Just a few months ago, the Democratic establishment
feared that many liberals would abandon the party if their
standard-bearer, Dean, didn't become the nominee, reprising the
disaster of 2000, when left-wing votes for Ralph Nader cost Al Gore
the presidency. Now, the very opposite seems to be happening.
Instead of trying to sabotage the Democratic Party, liberals want
to remake it in their own image.

For the last few decades, left-liberals have often thought of the
Democratic Party as the lesser of two evils. The antiwar protesters
of the 1960s openly disdained not just Democrats but the whole
enterprise of electoral politics, which they considered potentially
co-optive and corrupting. Constituent groups like labor unions,
environmentalists, feminists, and civil rights organizations were
less openly hostile to the Democratic Party, but they were also
factional, using their leverage within the party to demand
concessions that often undermined the party's broader efforts. As
recently as the 2000 Democratic convention, that separatist spirit
seemed alive and well as anti-globalization protestors--heirs to
the '60s activists--staged enormous protests outside the Los
Angeles Staples Center. Arianna Huffington presided over an
"alternative convention" that even attracted a few elected
Democrats in good standing (Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and
Senators Russ Feingold and Paul Wellstone).

But, chastened by the outcome of the 2000 campaign--and the harshly
conservative administration it put in the White House--liberals have
abandoned that approach entirely, leaving the designated protest
areas outside Boston's FleetCenter to supporters of Lyndon LaRouche
and others who inhabit the true political fringe. Kerry may not
have been the first choice of liberals--or, in many cases, even the
second or third--but they don't seem much to care. Although nearly
all activists here oppose the war in Iraq, they've embraced in
Kerry a candidate who voted for it and has yet to disavow that vote;
although nearly all favor not just civil unions but actual marriage
rights for gays, they've signed off on a candidate who says he
opposes same-sex marriage; and, although nearly all are critical
of--if not steadfastly opposed to--free trade, they have endorsed a
candidate who voted for NAFTA and said he continues to support free
trade. (See Peter Beinart, "United Appeal," page 6.) All this has
given Kerry and the Democratic leadership leeway to project a
broadly appealing moderate image--by, for example, herding the
high-profile liberal convention speakers through early on Tuesday
night when the networks weren't broadcasting. "If John Kerry said
we had to revise Brown v. Board of Education because it's outdated
law, we'd all say OK," jokes James Carville, the political
consultant. "Democrats are unified behind the candidate like I've
never seen."

This mentality is evident not only at events like the Take Back
America conference, but also in the activities of new voter
mobilization groups like Americans Coming Together (ACT), which
draws two of its leaders from key liberal interest groups: labor
(former AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal is ACT's chief
executive officer) and women's organizations (Emily's List
President Ellen Malcolm has the same position with ACT).

On the surface, this might seem like nothing more than a short-term
strategic calculation based on a realization that liberals somehow
failed to grasp last time around: Their differences with the
Republicans overwhelm their differences with centrist Democrats.
But the shift is more fundamental than that: Liberals have put
aside their ambivalence toward the party and decided to work for
their causes from within. In fact, they're borrowing a strategy
from one of their arch-ideological enemies: the Christian Right,
which succeeded in changing the direction of the GOP by inserting
its members into the party structure. During his speech at Take
Back America, Dean explicitly invokes Ralph Reed, the former
director of the Christian Coalition, as he talks about the work of
Democracy for America, the political action committee he created
out of the remnants of Dean for America, and the need to run
candidates in elections across the country, no matter how seemingly
insignificant the office or how politically hostile the territory.
"The way Republicans succeeded is that somebody ran for the school
board, somebody ran for the city council, all the way up--and we
didn't do that," Dean says. "We cannot be a national party until we
take our campaign to Utah, Mississippi, and Texas." Already,
Democracy for America has endorsed about 60 candidates for elected
office around the country, from Eddgra Fallin, running for a place
on the Huntsville, Alabama, school board, to William O'Neill,
running for a seat on the Ohio state Supreme Court.

What would it mean to have liberals stage a takeover of the
Democratic Party in this way? To be sure, the party would be forced
to rehash familiar ideological battles, as liberals and New
Democrats fought, for example, over balancing the budget versus
financing new programs. But the consequences of greater liberal
influence in the party might not be as dramatic as is commonly
assumed. Consider Andy Stern. As president of the Service Employees
International Union (SEIU), the largest and most explicitly liberal
union in the AFL-CIO, Stern is one of the American left's most
influential leaders. Yet, when it comes to welfare reform, the
centrist cause that would seem particularly toxic to SEIU's heavily
female, heavily minority population, Stern says he's not looking to
refight old battles. He wants more money for child care and job
training, but he also allows that "it may be that people were
right, that welfare [dependency] really was a cyclical problem."
That's the kind of statement liberals would never have made a few
years ago, yet it's also the kind that resonates with many moderate
and conservative voters. Nor is Stern's positioning unique.
Democracy for America, Dean's organization, dedicates itself to
supporting candidates who are "socially progressive" but also
"fiscally conservative."

To some extent, Stern, Dean, and other liberal leaders actually seem
less concerned with stretching the Democratic Party to the left
than they are with simply strengthening its resolve. Of course, it
remains to be seen whether the liberal movement itself follows
these cues--whether, in the absence of a figure like George W. Bush
to unite them, they lose patience with the Democrats and revert to
their prior ambivalence. But one can hope. Liberals will always be
pulling the Democratic Party to the left, but, as we saw in the 2000
election, both the liberals and the party itself are better off
when those fights stay within the family.

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