There was a time not so long ago when the Democratic Party looked almost as lively and unpredictable as the Reform Party does today.
Support the war in Vietnam or man the barricades with Eugene McCarthy? Fight for civil rights in the South or appease the Dixiecrats? Expand Uncle Sam's safety net or push for welfare reform? Stick closely to big labor or court big business?
Knock-down, drag-out fights over philosophy and direction were the order of the day, a reminder of humorist Will Rogers's quip: "I don't belong to any organized party. I'm a Democrat."
One of Al Gore's biggest jobs at the Democratic National Convention - and especially in the weeks to come - is bringing together and energizing his party's diverse elements.
Mr. Gore's boss can claim to have left the country in good economic shape and at the top of the heap among nations. But President Clinton's legacy also includes a moderating of Democratic liberal impulses - of "governing from the vital center," as White House spokesman Joe Lockhart puts it.
This conscious push to the center - seen in Gore's choice of Joseph Lieberman as his running mate - has distracted (if not alienated) many activist Democrats. Senator Lieberman is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a pro-business group (of which Clinton also is a leading figure) that has nudged the party rightward in recent years.
One example of this trend on the party's left wing: The congressional Progressive Caucus, a 53-member group of Democrats, got slapped down at the recent drafting of the party's platform. Among the group's defeated proposals were those that would have limited the president's ability to negotiate trade agreements, raised pay and benefits for low-wage workers, and expanded government-funded healthcare.
"They talk about a big tent," grumbled Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, a member of the Progressive Caucus. "But this tent just got a bit smaller."
Will this turn off millions of the party's faithful, thereby giving Republican candidate George W. Bush the advantage in party unity - particularly after the GOP's no-dissent-allowed convention? Gore still has a way to go to lock down votes in his own party, recent polls show. Where the vice president has the support of about 8 in 10 Democratic votes, Mr. Bush is garnering 9 in 10 Republican votes.
"More and more people are feeling that they have no recourse but to go out in the streets and demonstrate," says California state Rep. Tom Hayden (D), a Gore delegate to the convention. Demonstrations have been going on here, just as they did at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. (And just as they did earlier at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and the International Monetary Fund gathering in Washington.)
But in fact, liberal activists (including Democrats, independents, Greens, and others) do have another recourse this year, and that's Ralph Nader - hovering at about 6 percent in national polls, all of which comes out of Gore's base of support.
For several hours here the other afternoon, the party's progressive wing (i.e., those who used to call themselves "liberals") wrestled with itself over what to them is a difficult choice: vote their consciences, or stick with "the lesser of two evils."
"There is a real danger in supporting Nader," author and feminist Barbara Ehrenreich told a public gathering sponsored by The Nation magazine. "Gore is slightly better than Bush on many issues.
"But there are also dangers in not supporting Nader," Ms. Ehrenreich added. "A vote for Gore is a vote for the status quo, a vote for the plutocracy that has supplanted American democracy."
The "status quo" - at least the peace and prosperity the Clinton administration claims as a legacy - is something Gore does want to preserve. But in his speech this week, the vice president also will lay out ways he intends to change things for the better.
Will this rally the diverse Democratic troops? That's a big question, and not just for progressives to the left of the Democratic Leadership Council. There are other potential party fractures Gore must deal with.
The undercurrent of conflict between blacks and Jews has surfaced with the selection of Lieberman (an Orthodox Jew) as No. 2 on the ticket. Large parts of the labor movement (particularly those in mining, chemical manufacture, and automaking) oppose the Clinton-Gore administration's push for an international agreement on global warming that many in these industries fear would cost jobs. Many environmentalists have been disappointed in the administration's record on protecting nature.
There also remains a gender gap: The affable Mr. Bush is apparently more attractive to men than the "wonkish" Gore, leading by eight points in the polls.
"Men are our weakest demographic," concedes DNC chairman Ed Rendell.
Still, traditional Democratic subsets - labor, minorities, and women - are more heavily represented here than they were in Philadelphia. Nearly one-third of the delegates - some 1,500 - are union members. For the most part, such groups can be expected to line up behind Gore.
For example, says Tom Hayden, "Blacks and Latinos are becoming more alienated [with the Democratic Party], but they're not leaving." But not leaving is not the same as enthusiastically working for the party and its candidate - something Gore, who's playing catch-up in the polls - needs in order to win.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society