After the 2000 presidential election, liberals and centrists blamed one another for Al Gore's loss. Liberals argued that Gore's populist message helped his campaign. Centrists countered that Gore went too far to the left to attract enough votes to win.
No more. The party's two branches are putting aside their differences to achieve a common goal: ousting President Bush from office and stopping his agenda on Capitol Hill. “There is more Democratic unity than I've ever seen,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). He attributes the lack of dissension to Democrats “correctly recogniz[ing] how terrible it would be for every liberal value” if Bush is reelected.
Of course, as Frank pointed out to me, it's often easier to be united in opposition to an agenda than in support of one. That's what Republicans are experiencing now. Deficit hawks are furious about out-of-control spending and the projected $521 billion deficit. Moderates are unhappy about Bush's proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. And Bush has resorted to throwing bones to the evangelicals -- such as the gay marriage ban and recess appointments of two conservative judges, Charles Pickering, Sr. and William Pryor -- to motivate them to turn out this fall.
But the more encouraging news is that Democrats are working together as a party. That's happening in the presidential campaign -- the Democratic National Committee is having supporters sign a “unity pledge” to kick Bush out of office -- as well as in Congress. Last year, House Democrats voted together 100 percent of the time on three votes: the budget conference, Labor-HHS-Education appropriations, and Head Start. House Republicans, by contrast, reached 100 percent unity on only a single vote: their opposition to the Democratic budget.
“The fiscal crisis this administration has caused and the deep debt is bringing us together,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told me. On final passage of
the budget in April, 99.5 percent of House Democrats voted the same way; 94 percent of Republicans did.
Hoyer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are achieving the high unity rates by talking to members to make sure all views are heard. “We're very focused on communicating with members on a regular basis,” Hoyer said. “We have a good sense of what members are feeling.”
Hill Democrats are also planning to coordinate their message with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.),who is planning to meet with lawmakers later this week. Kerry will have representatives work with Hill leaders throughout the year, Roll Call reported Monday. “Our most immediate task is to develop on both the House and Senate sides rapid-response teams,” Kerry deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf, a former aide to Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), told the newspaper. That means Kerry will have a readily available group of lawmakers who can respond to charges made by Bush and other Republicans.
Conveying a consistent message is critical for Democrats to win. One of the things that hurt Gore in 2000 is that he didn't seem to have one single message; he got conflicting advice, reflected in his poor debate performances. Kerry hasn't had that problem. It helped that in the primary debates, other candidates aimed most of their fire at Bush rather than each other. Many of the defeated presidential candidates have followed Gephardt's lead and endorsed Kerry soon after withdrawing.
As Hoyer, who met with Kerry Monday, noted, Democrats have “come together very quickly” after the presidential primaries. “There's not the challenge of bringing the party together there has almost always historically been after every primary season.”
While that's good news, the party needs to continue its efforts to keep party members on the same page. The Republicans, no doubt, will challenge the Democrats' unity. They'll pick statements apart and highlight any differences between lawmakers and Kerry; they've already started going after Kerry for allegedly switching positions on issues. The task for Kerry, Pelosi, Hoyer, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is to highlight how they will work together if Democrats take back the White House and Congress. Telling voters why Bush doesn't deserve a second term is crucial, but giving voters a positive reason to vote for Democrats may be even more important.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.