Across the spectrum of Democrats - from the far left of antiwar, antiglobalization activism to the more conservative, pro-business wing - party members are heading into their national convention with the strongest sense of unity in generations. The goal: To defeat President Bush. The stakes: the very future of the nation, which Democrats see as jeopardized by the current White House in foreign policy - especially in Iraq - and domestically, in the economy, homeland security, and civil liberties.
Soon-to-be-nominee John Kerry doesn't seem to generate great excitement among rank-and-file Democrats, though 90 percent of convention delegates say they support him "enthusiastically," according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.
Other numbers tell a different story, of a party leader at odds with the majority of Democrats on a central issue of the campaign, the Iraq war. Polls show that most Democrats want the US to pull out of Iraq as soon as possible, even if Iraq isn't stable. Senator Kerry and the Democratic platform favor a continued US presence in Iraq until it has stabilized.
Those schisms will stay below the surface, at least until Nov. 2 - a sharp contrast to Democratic conventions past, when walkouts over the platform, and, at times, rioting, shattered any sense of common purpose.
Divisions "are always there and ready to flare at any time, as they have been with Republicans," says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "But at the moment, the Democrats are really like the Republicans four years ago. You'll find people swallowing for almost anything if it will help get Bush out of there."
Two former Democratic presidents - Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter - and the party's 2000 nominee, Al Gore, all emblems of the risks of party fractiousness, will take the stage today in Boston. President Carter's failure to win a second term in 1980 came about in part because he lost the confidence of his own party, opening the way to John Anderson's strong independent candidacy. President Clinton himself benefited from the divided Republicans in 1992, some of whom doomed the first President Bush by backing Ross Perot. Vice President Gore was wounded by the third-party candidacy of Ralph Nader in 2000.
This time, all three elder statesmen will sing from the same page, useful in rallying the Democratic base. Clinton, in particular, symbolizes to some voters the post-cold-war, pre-9/11 era of peace and prosperity in the 1990s. Gore's arm's-length approach to Clinton four years ago will not be repeated in this campaign.
So what happens if John Kerry wins in November? Will the antiwar wing of the party instantly rise up and demand a pullout from Iraq, presenting the new president with a serious challenge from within his own ranks? Some activists already are promising to be first on the front lines of protest.
Some liberals say that Kerry will owe the left wing the most if he wins, because it represents a disproportionate share of grass-roots activism today, coalescing around groups such as moveon.org, America Coming Together, and the movement of former presidential contender Howard Dean.
Tom Hayden, a longtime liberal Democratic politician and activist from California, denies that divisions within the party are harmfully messy. "The fact is that the Democratic Party should be at least three parties coordinated, and it's not," he says. "It should have a right, that's the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council); it should have a left, which is in formation perhaps; and it should have candidates in the center who see that they need the left and right to run with."
Mr. Hayden doesn't believe a Kerry victory, presumably a close one, will give the left any particular claim on the new president's agenda. "When a guy wins the presidential election by 2 percent, he owes everybody," he says. Further, if Kerry wins, he will probably contend with a Republican Congress. And on the outside chance that Democrats take over Congress, it would be by just a few votes, giving the party strong incentive to maintain unity.
So strong has been the party-wide desire to oust Bush that even the fervent antiwar Democrats barely put up a fight over the 2004 Democratic Platform. The document, which for the first time since 1960 begins with national security, decries the Bush administration's doctrine of preemptive military action and promises reforms in intelligence agencies and a new approach to the potential for nuclear terrorism. When the platform committee gathered in Florida two weeks ago to review the document, to be voted on in Boston this week, liberals were unable even to win the handful of votes needed to debate several antiwar planks. They wanted language declaring the war a mistake and calling for a US pullout.
"If the Democrats had wanted to run a campaign of polar opposition to the Iraq war, then they would have turned to Howard Dean" for the nomination, says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank affiliated with the DLC. "If the party adopted the most strident antiwar views, it would have resurrected the old doubts about Democrats on national security - doubts that John Kerry has gone a long way to dispel."