Smashing expectations with his powerful, emotional acceptance speech, John Kerry is leading thrilled Democrats from Boston into the final stages of this election with greater unity and confidence than they have known in a generation. Steady and serious but often plodding during the many months that led up to his nomination, he again earned his reputation as a skilled political "closer" last night. For this campaign, he has built a consensus within the party around his own ideas and priorities.
Now that Kerry has been anointed the leader of his party, what kind of party does he lead? More of the answer to that question can be found outside the official precincts of the Democratic National Committee than within them.
Even before Kerry's early emergence from the primary pack, the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush had begun to change the Democratic Party -- in ways that were plainly on display in Boston this week. The neurotic preoccupation with intra-party struggles between "new" Democrats and "true" Democrats is gone, replaced by a desire to win and a willingness to build alliances among the party's disparate constituencies and supporters. Perhaps most significantly for the future of political debate in America, Boston framed the new determination to build institutions that can compete with the nation's long-established conservative propaganda machine.
That agenda could be glimpsed and overheard in various places during the convention. The most intense discussions, however, took place in two vastly different venues: the Four Seasons, a five-star downtown hotel, luxe and expensive, overlooking the Boston Common; and the Royal Sonesta, an outpost of the national lodging chain, with all that implies, located on the far side of the Charles River in Cambridge.
In the bars and suites of the Four Seasons, the party's biggest donors congregated, gossiped, and networked. Among those present throughout the week were several of the wealthy activists who have convened the "Phoenix Group" -- a slightly mysterious conclave of the rich and progressive whose purpose is to spend their money wisely and in concert to advance their political goals not only this fall, but over the decades to come.
As explained in a New York Times magazine profile last Sunday, the Phoenix Group and kindred informal committees across the country are planning to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to create a powerful new institutional matrix for progressive Democrats. Their models are the influential conservative foundations that have jointly nurtured right-wing policy shops and propaganda mills since the '70s, except that they would like to proceed much faster and with digital sophistication.
At the Royal Sonesta, meanwhile, the labor, minority and community organizations gathered behind the banner of the Campaign for America's Future and Progressive Majority, were laying their own plans. They too were looking beyond November as they talked about recruiting a new generation of candidates and building grass-roots pressure on a prospective Kerry administration to carry out the candidate's progressive promises -- and go further. Their model might be the Christian Coalition, which used modern campaign techniques a decade ago to build a grass-roots right-wing movement at the base of the Republican Party, and won substantial influence over the GOP in the process. "Take Back America," the title of CAF's conference at the Royal Sonesta, could just as easily have been the slogan of the religious right a decade ago.
For now, the differences between the donors at the Four Seasons and the organizers at the Royal Sonesta matter far less than their shared goal of ousting the Bush administration. Wealthy leaders of the Phoenix Group, such as George Soros and Peter Lewis, have been providing millions of dollars for independent grass-roots activity under the aegis of America Coming Together (which works closely with the groups whose representatives showed up for "Take Back America" events during the convention).
Although there was little evidence of internal class warfare or resentment during the convention, those differences are real. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, acknowledged that the financiers and executives over at the Four Seasons probably disagree with his constituency on certain key issues, such as trade. Business executives are presumably less passionate about labor rights than union officials, to say the least -- and they are also less eager to increase taxes on the top brackets or legislate massive new public investment programs.
While Borosage hopes that many of the funders of the progressive resurgence will come around to positions like those held by George Soros -- whom he admires as an enlightened capitalist -- he also expects conflict ahead. He is well aware that the Phoenix Group includes people who not so long ago were connected with his old adversaries at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (whose presence at this convention was rather muted).
Across the broad middle of the class divide between the Phoenix Group and the labor-led grass-roots groups stands MoveOn, with more than 2 million members whose perspective is broadly progressive but not ideological. Their model is altogether new and their Internet-based organizing and fundraising will allow them to act independently. How MoveOn would intervene in the debates of a new progressive era can't be predicted, because its members make nearly all of its important decisions.
What shouldn't be ignored, however, is the broad agreement among all of these elements of the new progressive movement on such issues as environmental protection, reproductive freedom, civil liberties and the restoration of American prestige in the world. For the moment, all are focused on their common goals -- and on ousting the president whose destructive policies have united them.