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 700person 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 ALF-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.
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.