Silence and commotion: These are the defining attributes of the Democrats as they journey to Boston next week for their quadrennial national convention. Those who listen for the party’s internal debates — the very essence of the Democrats’ existence for as long as anyone can remember — will hear only silence. To a surprising degree, the Democrats seem to have reached an accord on several key issues, trade above all, on which they’ve been vociferously divided for a great many years. As to the major issue on which they remain divided — what to do about Iraq — they have agreed, effectively by consensus, not to take issue with John Kerry’s position of maintaining U.S. forces there but augmenting them with allied forces under an international high commissioner. In the end, supplanting George W. Bush’s pre-emptive xenophobia with Kerry’s sensitivity to the decent opinion of mankind is really all that anybody asks.
The commotion, of course, is all about supplanting Bush: The Democratic base is more riled and ready for November than it’s been for any campaign at least since the heyday of Franklin Roosevelt. Through the miracle of the Internet and the catastrophe of the Bush presidency, there are far more Democratic volunteers, vastly more Democratic donors, and clearly more new independent Democratic organizations than ever before. The question of where this movement, this infrastructure, will go on the day after the election is as yet utterly unclear, but we may see some early indications of the shape of this quasi-party-to-come in Boston, too.
With some shock at my advancing years, I realize that Boston will be the seventh Democratic National Convention I’ve attended — the first three as an activist, the other ones as a journalist. (Actually, there’s an eighth — the John F. Kennedy 1960 convention in Los Angeles — which I attended one night of as a kid, since my folks had tickets to the Sports Arena gallery.) My first full convention, 1968 in Chicago, at which I was a Eugene McCarthy staffer about to begin my first year at college, was the most contentious in Democratic Party history (though the 1924 convention, which entailed a 103-ballot war between the party’s Catholics and Protestants before they could settle on a nominee, came close). Democrats bashed Democrats and the Chicago cops bashed everyone, as divisions over the Vietnam War created a breach that nobody could even attempt to close. (Robert Kennedy might have, but he had been dead for 10 weeks when the convention began.)
No convention since has been remotely that rocky, but genuine differences have created real tensions almost every time the party has convened. Since 1984, when Gary Hart, with a base in the fledgling information-age economy, ran a strong primary race against Walter Mondale, whose base was a labor movement then still dominated by manufacturing unions, the normal state of internal Democratic Party relations has been class war. Even Bill Clinton’s conciliatory skills were unequal to the task of persuading free-trade Democrats with backers on Wall Street and fair-trade Democrats representing workers in industries being exported to reach some middle ground. (Not that Clinton was in any sense a neutral party — NAFTA, after all, was his baby.)
Clinton is gone now, as are 2.5 million manufacturing jobs under George W. Bush, and even the free-trade zealots at the Democratic Leadership Council have been compelled to conclude that the joys of globalization are not all that widely shared. John Kerry, who began to deviate from free-trade orthodoxy by backing a series of amendments to the 2002 fast-track bill, and John Edwards, who campaigned against the laissez-outsource economics of the administration, composed their trade differences with no great difficulty when Edwards climbed aboard the ticket. And so the platform that the Democrats will adopt in Boston proclaims, “New trade agreements must protect internationally recognized workers’ rights and environmental standards as vigorously as they now protect commercial concerns,” and insists on including these protections in the core language of trade accords, as labor and enviros have been demanding for the past decade. The AFL-CIO staffers negotiating the platform report that they encountered no great problems in getting the Kerry people to embrace this language. The electoral votes of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan — and the huge contributions that unions are making to the so-called “527” voter-mobilization groups working on Kerry’s behalf — have concentrated the Democratic mind.
Iraq will not divide the Democrats, either. At the conclusion of the final platform deliberations in Miami earlier this month, the representatives of Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign — which controls roughly 1 percent of the delegates — rose to thank the Kerry campaign and the platform-committee chairs for the solicitude with which their out-of-Iraq suggestions had been greeted, though not agreed to. Even the Democrats’ most single-minded doves believe Kerry to be a vast improvement over Bush, and there will be no agitation within the hall for anything resembling an immediate pullout from Iraq.
Omnipresent in the hall, however, right up until Kerry’s acceptance speech, will be a collective anxiety over whether the nominee will at last be able to connect with the American people. For months, every key index in the polls — Bush’s job-approval rating, people’s sense of whether the country is going in the right or wrong direction, apprehensions about the economy and Iraq — has been moving in the Democrats’ direction, with the single exception of the actual margin between Kerry and Bush. (At the moment, if you average the polls, Kerry is up by about three points.) The American people don’t want to return Bush to office, but Kerry still has to convince them that they’ll feel safe — and at least somewhat comfortable — under a Kerry presidency. I’d be very surprised if Kerry isn’t able to make that sale when, surrounded by his onetime boatmates from Vietnam, he finally delivers his speech. Kerry’s campaign biorhythm is that of a closer; he’s tended to hibernate in the middle months of his Senate campaigns and to come on strong in the end.
Even if Kerry steps on his lines, however, the level of anti-Bush zeal in the Democratic base, not to mention Bush’s own floundering performance, may well suffice to put Kerry in the White House. That zeal, that commotion, has proved so great that it’s beginning to force such official party entities as the Democratic National Committee, and such informal newcomers as MoveOn.org and America Coming Together, to contemplate how best to build on their hundreds of thousands of new supporters after the election. With an initial push from Howard Dean, an entire Democratic infrastructure has willed itself into existence where there was nearly none before, and there are no rules or precedents to govern its existence. With any luck, our biggest problem should be how President John Kerry interacts with his new army once he’s in the White House.