CHICAGO — The world's oldest existing political party faces an identity crisis as it gathers this week in Chicago.
True, Bill Clinton could become only the third Democrat to be reelected as president this century, and his party might even take back control of the US House of Representatives.
But Democrats are deeply divided over how to redefine themselves and hold together an increasingly fragile base. In an era of smaller government, they are struggling to find a new ideological home somewhere between the New Deal model of Washington as big and benevolent and the Republican ideal of business-led prosperity and individual self-reliance.
Democrats' Identity Crisis
No issue illustrates the Democrats' problem better than welfare. After twice vetoing similar legislation, President Clinton last week signed into law a Republican bill ending the guarantee of federal aid to the nation's poorest children.
Moderates hailed the move as a step toward defining a new Democratic vision of smaller government. Others, including party leaders in Congress, bemoaned it as a betrayal of everything Democrats have stood for since the New Deal.
In fact, the welfare signing reflects the party's central dilemma. To a public increasingly suspicious of Washington, welfare had come to represent the arrogance and ineffectiveness of big government. Had he vetoed reform a third time, Clinton not only would have risked appearing to break a 1992 campaign pledge to "change welfare as we know it," but he might also have been seen as clinging to a shrinking pro-government liberal wing.
Yet by abandoning such core Democratic programs in favor of GOP-drawn reforms, in essence trying to compete with the Republicans on their turf, Clinton is also walking a fine line. He risks losing the distinctions between the parties - and possibly the center of the electorate to either the GOP or a third party.
"Too much is made of Bill Clinton's waffling," says historian Herbert Parmet, author of "The Democrats: The Years After FDR." "Clinton is a bellwether of what is happening to the Democratic movement. The party faces its most significant crisis [in modern times], and he is simply reflecting the sensitivities of a shifting ... base. His signing of the welfare bill indicates the exhaustion of the soul of the party."
How did the Democrats arrive at this predicament? The road starts in 1964 at the party's convention in Atlantic City, N.J.
When Franklin Roosevelt initiated the New Deal to pull the country out of the Depression in the early 1930s, he cobbled together a coalition of northern liberals, southern whites, and labor interests. That base helped prop up the party for 30 years. But when a small band of blacks known as the Mississippi Free Democratic Party demanded seats on the convention floor in Atlantic City, the coalition began to crack.
Roots of the party's discontent
In 1964, the Democratic Party in Mississippi, as in most of the deep South, was dominated by segregationists. They opposed including blacks in their convention delegation. The Free Democrats were equally determined, however, and enlisted the help of Joseph Rauh, head of the Democratic Party in Washington and general counsel to the United Automobile Workers.
Mr. Rauh's involvement ultimately forced the White House to seek a compromise. Working through his likely running mate, Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D) of Minnesota, President Johnson proposed seating two Free Democrats as "at large" delegates, along with a pledge that all southern delegations integrate in the future.
"It is here, in Mississippi, that our story begins," writes Ronald Radosh in "Divided They Fell," "for it was the civil rights movement that launched the Democratic Party on a trajectory that ended in disaster."
The compromise was a watershed, not because it was accepted, but because it was rejected by both sides. Mr. Johnson's bid planted seeds of scorn among southern Democrats.The result, over the next 30 years, was a gradual migration of southern Democrats to the Republican Party - one of the most important electoral shifts of this century.
The Mississippi dispute also gave rise to the "New Left," a web of radical students, black moderates and militants, white liberals, Northeastern Jews, and Communists.
The New Left, convinced that revolution was the only means of changing the political system, exerted growing influence during the Vietnam protests of 1968, smashing the old liberal-labor coalition. By the time George McGovern carried the Democratic nomination in 1972, the party had become the home of what Radosch calls left-wing "constituency groups [it] defined as oppressed: women, blacks, Hispanics, young people, and gays."
Where does the party go from here?
Republicans seek confirmation of a realignment. They now control the South and Western mountain states. They are courting such traditional Democratic constituencies as women, blacks, and the working class. Despite its political revitalization, furthermore, labor represents a shrinking portion of the electorate. And a growing segment of the public - presently about one-third - is independent.
The Democrats have begun to break their image as a party of liberal special interests - which has damaged their standing with the middle class - but it is still searching for a new philosophy.
But for a party that defends the virtues of Washington, defining those virtues in an era of smaller government will be difficult. The Democrats' task is made tougher by the composition of its leadership. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, despite the administration's meanderings on certain issues, are moderate "New Democrats."
The 1994 midterm elections, however, left a more liberal Democratic congressional caucus, led by Reps. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and David Bonior of Michigan, and Sens. Thomas Daschle of South Dakota and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. All were noticeably absent when Clinton signed the welfare bill.
At the center of competing visions of a new progressive ideology is the notion that citizens are entitled to certain government supports based on eligibility. This is the cornerstone of the New Deal and Great Society, but also the backbone of Democratic government expansion over the past 60 years.
If welfare is any indicator, Clinton is returning to his roots as a New Democrat. His just-released book, Between Hope and History, offers a similar conclusion, laying out the framework for a new "progressive" era based on a combination of government and grass-roots activism.
Clinton's former colleagues at the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization devoted to espousing a new progressive politics, argue that renewing the Democratic Party involves three steps: changing the ideology, electing a national leader, and building a new infrastructure to implement reform.
The first two are done, they say. What needs to be done now involves promoting economic growth, empowering the urban poor, and fostering international economic and political freedom. Work-based welfare is a vital first step. Others include making higher education more available, balancing the budget, and building boarder pacts such as NAFTA.
Clinton, for his part, argues for restraining entitlements, but, as their position on welfare showed, Gephardt and Daschle remain hesitant to drop or cut back such programs.
But Herbert Parmet, the historian, worries that the Democrats appear too willing to cast themselves as a kinder version of the GOP. To the extent the Democrats focus on cultural or patriotic themes - such as welfare reform or preserving the American dream - they will lose.
"The Democrats can go in two directions," he says: "argue the case for a mixed economy, or compete on Republican turf."
Among the speakers at the Democratic National Convention this week:
Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Democratic leader of the US Senate
Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Democratic leader of the US House
Mrs. Ronald Brown, Honorary chairwoman of the Democratic National Convention
Richard M. Daley, Mayor of Chicago
Sarah Brady, Chairwoman of Handgun Control Inc.
Christopher Reeve, Actor and activist
Rev. Jesse Jackson, Founder of The Rainbow Coalition
Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Keynote Speaker
Carolyn McCarthy, Candidate for US House from Fourth District, New York
Victor Morales, Candidate for US Senate from Texas
Harvey Gantt, Candidate for US Senate from North Carolina
Hillary Rodham Clinton, First lady
Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland
Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington
Sen. Barbara Boxer of California
Vice President Al Gore
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts