At first glance, most observers could be forgiven for thinking the Democratic National Convention will turn out to be a divisive, knock-down, drag-out affair. Not only is the party still licking its wounds from the tough primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but the Republicans are doing their best to stoke the tensions of race, gender, class and age exposed by the drawn-out contest.
The GOP and John McCain released several new ads over the weekend intended to rile up and appeal to the roughly 28% of Clinton backers who have told pollsters they are still undecided or plan to vote for McCain this fall. One titled "Passed Over" implies that his Democratic opponent didn't choose Clinton to be his running mate because he couldn't handle her "truth"-telling, while another features a "proud Hillary Clinton Democrat" declaring her intention to support McCain in the fall. Rumors of intraparty strife reached such a fever pitch Monday morning, including talk that Bill Clinton was upset about the appointed topic (national security) of his speech, that the Obama and Clinton camps issued a joint statement stressing their unity.
Given all that buildup, it may come as a surprise that the Democrats who will gather around the gavel in Denver are actually more united than perhaps at any other point in the past 30 years. When Obama accepts the Democratic nomination on Thursday night, he will inherit a party focused on its determination to take back the White House, and that overarching goal should paper over any lingering resentments or policy differences, at least until after Election Day.
Political parties tend to get pragmatic after years in the wilderness. In 1992, sobered by three straight losses, Democrats nominated Bill Clinton, hoping his moderate, Democratic Leadership Councilformed policies would expand the party's appeal to swing voters. George W. Bush used a similar tactic in 2000, running as a "compassionate conservate" and lecturing his Republican colleagues for "balancing budgets on the backs of the poor."
There are, not surprisingly, still debates among Democrats over details and priorities: a Pew Research survey released last week found Democratic voters split over issues like trade and whether to drill for oil. The crop of more conservative candidates running this election cycle will, if elected, increase the numbers and clout of Blue Dog Democrats in Congress, who don't always see eye to eye with the party's congressional leadership. And Obama's generally restrained style and pragmatic, postpartisan approach to politics have not provided an outlet for the frustration and rage that has developed in some pockets on the left under Bush's two terms.
Still, when it comes to the party's approach to economic policy, foreign policy, and even most domestic-policy issues, Democrats are in broad agreement. Early on in the 2008 primaries, it became clear that there just weren't many real issues dividing the candidates. Nearly everyone wanted to roll back Bush's tax cuts, establish some kind of national health-care system, withdraw from Iraq and work more closely with allies around the world. Democrats even achieved this unity while expanding and diversifying the party, becoming more Hispanic, younger, more affluent, and representing more areas of the country, particularly the West.
The one exception that looked like it might break this Democratic cohesiveness was a midsummer debate over the abortion plank in the party platform always a particularly touchy issue but even more so in light of the continuing anger of so many female Clinton supporters over the primary campaign. After more than a decade of getting walloped by Republicans over votes against the so-called partial-birth abortion ban and now the Born Alive Act (which says that if a fetus survives an attempted abortion medical care must be used to save it), some Democrats have been exploring a new political and substantive approach to the abortion issue. They have relied heavily on the work of Rachel Laser, who runs the Cultural Program at Third Way, a progressive think tank, and has spent three years shuttling between abortion-rights groups and pro-life Democrats to hammer out agreement on a common goal of reducing abortion rates. "Americans find the issue of abortion morally complex," she says, "and they would like to see that moral complexity acknowledged, not swept aside."
But many abortion-rights activists have worried that "abortion reduction" is simply a Trojan horse to allow further restrictions on abortion. When a group of progressive Evangelicals announced earlier this summer that they planned to ask the Obama campaign to add abortion-reduction language to the platform, abortion-rights leaders Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling wrote a furious essay for Salon.com, charging that such a move would be "condescending and sexist," as well as a "tacit condemnation of the choices many women make."
Despite such deeply held skepticism on the left, Democrats went ahead and wrote abortion-reduction language into the 2008 platform. Democrats declare for the first time their commitment to supporting policies including contraception, education and economic support for pregnant women who want to carry their babies to term that get at the root causes of abortion. To make this shift easier for abortion-rights advocates to swallow, Dems have beefed up the party's full-throated support of the Roe v. Wade decision. The negotiations seem to have paid off the abortion plank has been hailed by both pro-life and pro-choice Democrats as an important step forward.
The fact that the most controversial debate in the party this year has revolved around a women's issue does raise the question of whether the frustrated supporters of Clinton will eventually lend their numbers to Obama or whether they intend to be heard through protest votes this year. The recent news that Clinton was never even vetted to be in the running as Obama's vice-presidential pick hasn't helped heal divisions; some Clinton allies like James Carville have suggested that Obama "disrespected" Clinton by not even consulting her on his veep choice. Even so, the Clintons recognize that continued dissent among her core partisans could be a fiasco for the party and put an end to their own political futures. And as the election gets closer, Clinton voters who take the time to compare Obama and McCain should realize, however grudgingly, that only one candidate shares the same policy positions with their Hillary, especially on hot-button issues like abortion.
Just as the Democratic Leadership Council paved the way for Clinton's presidential run in 1992 by airing centrist policy ideas like welfare reform and crime reduction, new progressive think tanks like Third Way have laid the groundwork for Obama's candidacy. But while the DLC's mission was to shake the Democratic Party by its heels, Third Way resembles Obama in style as well. "We play a role helping bridge gaps," says one of the group's founders, Matt Bennett. "I think we've helped move the party in a new direction that opened up the tent a little wider. But we've done it by acting as a broker, helping progressives connect better with middle America."
That sure sounds harmonious. But if Obama does capture the White House, there is no guarantee the Democrats' fragile unity will last very long. "Managing expectations will be the toughest thing," says Bennett. "If he wins, with large Democratic majorities in both houses, there will be a very strong feeling on the left that now is when they're going to get what they want: pull out of Iraq immediately, get universal health care immediately, find alternative energy sources immediately." As daunting as that sounds, it's a problem all Democrats would be happy to have.