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After decades of fighting, Democrats show unified front

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There is something unusual about the gathering of Democrats in this steamy Southern city, something that may be more significant than just about anything said or done once the convention starts Tuesday.

It’s the sense of harmony.

The famously fractious party that tore itself apart in the 1960s and 1970s over civil rights and the Vietnam War, that lost a series of blowout presidential elections in the 1980s and painfully reinvented itself in the 1990s, faces little of the infighting or self-doubt that for decades seemed as much a part of being a Democrat as worshiping FDR or watching the South, a former party bastion, inexorably slip away.

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It is not as though President Obama is a shoo-in come November. Democratic strategists believe the election will be hard-fought to the end with, at best, a slight tilt toward the incumbent, thanks to shifting demographics and a narrowly favorable electoral map.

But the party is unified to a rare degree: behind the president and against GOP nominee Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans, to be sure.

“Romney’s done us a tremendous favor by turning this race into a contrast,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, especially with his selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, one of the intellectual avatars of the Republican Party, as his running mate. “It’s become a ‘compared to what’ analysis.”

But quietly and with notably little debate Democrats have also rallied behind a broad set of principles dating to the Bill Clinton era — personal accountability, foreign trade, education reform, a muscular defense policy — that used be heresy, the stuff of picketing and platform fights, to many in the party.

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Winning is a big part of it. “When you lose the way [former Vice President Walter] Mondale did and [former Massachusetts Gov. Michael] Dukakis did, it causes a party to step back and retreat and question its assumptions,” said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist, referring to two of the party’s stinging presidential defeats of the 1980s. “When you control two-thirds of the federal government, in terms of the Senate and the presidency, it doesn’t feel like an existential moment.”

The party has its fissures, among them differences over how aggressively to pursue deficit reduction versus investment — Democrats’ preferred term when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars — in infrastructure, education and research, and where to draw the income line when it comes to raising taxes on the well-to-do. (Higher taxes, Republicans say, is one part of the Democratic belief system that never changes.)

There are plenty who fault Obama for devoting too much time to passing his sweeping healthcare overhaul and not focusing enough on the sputtering economy. Many on the left are unhappy with the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan, and angry with his failure to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Others have expressed unhappiness with the relentlessly negative tone of his reelection campaign, though the criticism is heard less frequently these days, given the success in tarring Romney with those tactics and building the president a slim but steady lead in polls.

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If Obama loses in November, those differences will probably be the seeds of discontent as the party debates what went wrong and how to begin its comeback. (It won’t matter much if Democrats hang on to the Senate and manage to win back the House on Nov. 6. With Obama seeking his final term, Democratic jockeying for the big prize in 2016 begins Nov. 7.)

But those disagreements pale next to the fundamental heart-and-soul debate the party waged as its New Deal coalition crumbled in the 1960s and Democrats lost a string of presidential elections, causing some to question whether the party was capable of ever winning the White House again.

“We were dead politically, we were dead intellectually,” said Al From, one of the architects of the centrist credo that helped carry Clinton to the White House in 1992 as a “different kind of Democrat.”

“People didn’t trust us to defend the country. They thought we’d forgotten how to make the country prosperous,” From said. “We wanted to push off the losing Democratic Party of the 1980s with things like welfare reform, service, community policing and emphasizing growth rather than just fairness.”

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The makeover was not without resistance. From’s policy incubator, the Democratic Leadership Council, was derided by the Rev. Jesse Jackson as “Democrats for the Leisure Class,” and liberals and their interest-group allies demonstrated outside its meetings, claiming the party had sold out to corporate interests.

In 2004, Howard Dean rallied the left — and for a time led the party’s presidential nominating contest — with a pointed declaration that he represented the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

But that debate has been largely muted since Obama clinched the nomination in 2008. Clinton will take the stage for a marquee speech in Charlotte as not just the most successful Democratic politician of his generation but also perhaps the most beloved figure in the party today. (The one having no small amount to do with the other.)

The fact that Democrats are meeting in North Carolina, a state Obama carried for the party for the first time in 32 years, in itself speaks to their rejuvenation. While winning the state looks to be a longer shot for the president this time, others that were once solidly or at least strongly Republican-leaning in their presidential preferences, like Virginia, Nevada and Colorado, are now neck-and-neck battlegrounds, or slightly tilting toward the president.

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Looking past November, Democrats are benefiting from strong support among young people and Latinos, the latter the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, and those trends should bode well for the future. Strategists in both parties expect Texas, a state that has not elected a Democrat statewide in more than 20 years, to be competitive by the 2020 presidential campaign at the latest.

But a party’s franchise, like any sports team, is only as good as its performance in the championship. An Obama defeat would inevitably lead to the sort of finger-pointing, second-guessing and backbiting that have been strikingly absent in Charlotte.

“Talk to me after November,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, another Democratic reformist group. “If we lose, that’s all it takes.”

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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Twitter: @markzbarabak


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