After months of bitter disputes over the direction of the party, top Democratic officials from front-running presidential candidate John F. Kerry to House and Senate leaders are coalescing around an election-year domestic agenda calling for higher taxes for wealthier Americans to finance an expansion of health care, education and other federal programs.
With Kerry in position to win the Democratic nomination and mold an election-year agenda with input from his colleagues in Congress, Democrats are essentially splitting the ideological difference between the centrist policies of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and the liberal impulses of many party officials and activists today.
The hybrid ideological approach is reflected in the party's support for putting the brakes on some, but not all, trade deals, starting with one being negotiated with South America; slightly modifying the new education law and increasing spending for it; retaining tax cuts for the middle class; and somehow, holding back government spending enough to reduce the federal budget deficit as fast as, if not faster than, President Bush says he would.
In a nod to the party's more conservative members, especially those in the South, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said there is broad agreement to play down gun control and other cultural issues.
"I cannot recall a time when there was more consensus on the policy direction we should take," Daschle said. "As you go down the list, on virtually every one of these questions, Democrats believe Republicans are ceding the middle, and we are willing to take it."
Kerry said Bush's strategy of playing to his conservative base to maximize voter turnout among Republicans has brought Democrats together on most issues. "George Bush has helped unify the party," Kerry said in an interview last week.
The result: Voters this year likely will be presented with two clear, but not dramatically different, approaches to solving the nation's domestic problems, ranging from failing schools to soaring drug costs.
Kerry and top Democratic congressional leaders have rejected broad policy changes such as repealing all of Bush's tax cuts and moving too quickly to provide health coverage to every American. "While some wanted [to repeal] everything, there is consensus around repealing those [tax cuts] on high income," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Democrats said they will not promote completely undoing two other laws of which they have been highly critical: the No Child Left Behind accountability program for schools and educators; and the Medicare prescription drug plan. "In some places, we have learned lessons," said Kerry, who several times used the word "balanced" to describe the emerging Democratic approach.
But Democrats will promote significant modifications to the education and Medicare laws that would affect the lives of Americans in direct ways.
On Medicare, Kerry and congressional Democrats support allowing the government to negotiate lower prices with drug companies and permitting the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and other foreign countries. Democrats believe this will quickly lower the cost of drugs for American consumers; Republicans counter that such measures will lead to government price controls that could result in less research.
On education, Kerry and congressional Democrats want to maintain the tough accountability standards of the new law but provide states and schools greater flexibility to meet them and, most significantly, provide a big funding increase: as much as $6 billion or more annually on top of Bush's record-high spending on education. Bush supports a more modest increase and maintaining the law as is.
Democratic officials say this split-the-difference policy approach reflects the party's nascent November strategy of stoking its base, already aggressively anti-Bush, but also appealing to swing voters as Clinton did in 1992 and 1996. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean's approach of playing to liberal activists with confrontational ideas such as eliminating all of the Bush tax cuts has been largely rejected by voters and most members of Congress.
Kerry, Daschle and Pelosi said they are confident that Democratic liberals, moderates and conservatives will remain so united in their loathing of Bush that the policy disputes that have long divided the party will cease or at least quiet to a whisper. They point to one constant in polling of voters in primaries and caucuses: Democrats across the board are more concerned about electability than ideological purity.
"The political reality of being out of power . . . means people will swallow things they usually wouldn't," said Steve Elmendorf, a senior aide to Kerry.
To underscore what is at stake, Democrats will highlight the historic potential of the 2004 elections. Bush is the first Republican president since Calvin Coolidge in 1924 to seek reelection backed by a Republican-controlled House and Senate. A GOP sweep of the White House and Congress, some Democrats say, could pave the way for a generation of Republican dominance in Washington -- much as William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt did for Republicans at the turn of the 20th century, and as Franklin D. Roosevelt for Democrats with the "New Deal" in the 1930s.
The Democratic agenda also will reflect the prominence of the South in this year's election: Five of the most competitive Senate seats are in southern states, which traditionally also play a key role in picking the presidential winner. Republicans hold a 51 to 48 advantage in the Senate (there is one independent who usually sides with Democrats) and are considered by political handicappers good bets to retain or widen their edge. Republicans are widely expected to retain their majority in the House; currently, there are 230 Republicans, 204 Democrats and one independent.
Assuming Kerry wins the nomination, party leaders said, the Massachusetts senator will have two distinct advantages in keeping Democrats in Congress united behind him: his long record of Senate service and his political wild card in congressional dealings, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Kennedy can help keep liberals on the reservation when Kerry reaches for the center in the general election, Democrats say. "What Senator Kerry wants to do is to harmonize this message, so it's working for the Senate, working for the House and working for [himself]," Kennedy said.
The Democratic nominee will inherit a congressional party that has been slow to adopt a pugilistic minority mentality but has shown signs of starting to fight as one in the aftermath of the 2002 elections, when they lost seats in both chambers. A voting analysis by Congressional Quarterly found House Democrats more unified on party-line votes than at any point since 1960. "The foundation of our victory that we will have in November is the unity of the Democrats," Pelosi said. Because they are in the minority, they will rely heavily on Kerry or whoever the nominee is to get their message out.
To be sure, trade, taxes and spending will continue to divide the party, much as they do the Republican Party. But the most contentious fights of past years -- tax cuts vs. no tax cuts, unfettered free trade vs. no free trade at all, a costly Medicare prescription drug plan vs. a more modest one -- have been largely settled.
Consider tax cuts. The presidential candidates and Democrats in Congress have been divided over the wisdom of cutting taxes since the day Bush took office. The president has picked up some Democrats for all three of his enacted tax cut plans. At the same time, some Democrats advocated no tax cuts or much smaller ones than Bush's.
Now, Kerry and congressional Democrats are mostly unified behind a plan to repeal the Bush tax cuts for those making $200,000 or more a year, which would result in higher income tax rates and bigger tax bills on dividends and estates for those wage earners. They will oppose Bush's plan to make permanent the tax cuts enacted under his watch. For budgetary reasons, many of the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the decade.
Bush has vowed to make the permanency of tax cuts a top campaign issue. Republicans will paint opposition to this as a large tax hike, because Americans would pay higher taxes when all of those cuts lapse.
Kerry and congressional Democrats instead will press to make permanent only those tax cuts benefiting families with incomes of less than $200,000. This includes tax breaks for married couples and parents, as well as lower rates for all taxpayers.
One big worry for Democrats is whether they will have enough money to communicate to voters that they are not raising taxes for anyone but the rich. Some Democrats privately expressed concern that with Kerry atop the ticket, it might be easy for Republicans to paint them as tax-and-spend liberals.
Once the nomination is secured, Kerry plans to roll out a fairly long list of middle-class tax cuts he would enact as president, a top adviser said, including tax breaks for college, after-school programs, small business and health care.
The trick, Kerry's advisers say, is to fit these tax cuts into a budget that also includes a major expansion of federal health insurance programs, which will be the featured item of the Democratic domestic agenda.
Democrats generally favor an incremental approach to covering the uninsured, starting with the poor and children first, by expanding existing programs. Kerry's solution: Increase federal spending on children's health insurance programs and open the federal employees health insurance programs to the public. The Kerry plan, which would cover about six of every 10 uninsured Americans, carries a price tag of $890 billion over 10 years.