In many ways, Senator John Kerry is the perfect candidate for the Democratic Party–handsome and serious, well regarded if not widely loved, deeply experienced in governing policy and sincerely committed to advancing the public good. Above all, Kerry can be counted on not to disturb the party’s uptight wariness toward big ideas and adventurous goals. His meticulous self-caution may be the unspoken reason he was picked as everybody’s default candidate. With Kerry, the long-stewing intramural arguments over what exactly the Democratic Party stands for could be deferred once again. The watchword for 2004 became: Please, no fussing and fighting–we’re Democrats. Dems are, instead, united in an effort to relieve the country of its failed President. They expect Kerry to win the people’s gratitude for not being George W. Bush.

In that event, the gratitude may be short-lived. The Democratic Party has been stuck in slow gear for two decades, as it struggled honorably and heroically to defend important accomplishments from its past against right-wing onslaughts. It struggled, too, to win national elections, recognizing that its old themes no longer seemed to work but deeply divided over how to refresh the agenda with new ideas. As Democratic elected ranks dwindled, the party chose accommodation or shyness. Are Democrats going to be known as aggressive reformers, propelled by advanced ideas from the bottom up? Or do they now see themselves mainly as sound managers, still sensitive but less provocative, steering government in a more business-friendly manner? Bill Clinton charmed his way through these tensions. The party was rewarded with minority status.

John Kerry did not create this ambiguity of purpose, but he also does not intend to resolve it. His career and carefully nuanced positions suggest he is comfortable with straddle politics, and may not even regard it as a problem. He will manage the quandary–with less guile than Clinton but also less skill. Kerry strikes me as a man who loves government but dislikes politics. That is, he has a genuine talent for working through the complexities of high policy in Washington (a quality utterly missing in the incumbent). But Kerry seems quite uncomfortable in the raw, uncharted politics of opening up new terrain–recognizing the potential of untested ideas and mobilizing untapped popular forces to support them. The party’s great Presidents were, above all, politicians with such creative skills.

The weakness is not Kerry’s alone. The contemporary Democratic Party has also drawn back from the kind of up-close engagement with ordinary people that used to be its hallmark. It is still very much a top-down operation, despite this year’s efforts to knock on doors and talk to real people. The mass-market technologies of television-driven campaigns encouraged this distancing but have also weakened the party’s ability to listen and learn, to grasp what’s bubbling up in people’s lives and how Democrats might respond imaginatively. A disconnected politician can still win elections, given the uses of big money, but he may also be blindsided by political upthrusts he didn’t see coming. He loses self-confidence. He relies more anxiously on abstracted analyses from polls, policy experts and pricey consultants. Kerry’s career and campaign reflect these limitations. Within his party, losing touch is a low-grade disease.

Yet, having said all that, I expect Kerry to win this election. My midsummer hunch is he may even win it going away, with the strength to elect a Democratic Senate if not also the House. The warrior President is breaking up before our eyes–trapped by the consequences of his own dumb arrogance and cynicism. Suddenly, the clever manipulations of popular emotions are no longer able to override the visible facts. People can see the man is inadequate, also fraudulent. For some, the retribution is delicious, for others it is embarrassing. Either way, Bush looks like a goner. Only missteps by Kerry could save him (which I do not expect).

If Kerry does win, the gut question facing Democrats again–how do they intend to govern?–can no longer be evaded. If the policy advisers Kerry assembled for his campaign populate the upper ranks of his government, we can definitely expect Clinton lite. Most are Clintonoid retreads, both in economic and foreign policy, schooled to think small and adhere to the conventional center-right principles. Naturally, they would deflect any serious pursuit of many large issues that animate the party’s rank and file: globalization, corporate power, ecology, public investment on a major scale, getting out of Iraq and not repeating that bloody folly elsewhere.

Kerry, I expect (at least hope), is shrewder and deeper than appearances. Even if he’s not, events are not going to cooperate with a straddling strategy and may push him in bolder directions. The economy–deeply wounded by the consequences of Clintonomics–is still trying to regain its normal balance and energies. Inequalities are sure to expand harshly if, as some business types privately expect, the postelection economy slips into stagnation or worse. In those circumstances, the Clinton straddle–balance the budget and let the conservative Federal Reserve run the economy–would become intolerable, especially from a Democratic President. On foreign policy, Kerry will have to decide whether to continue Bush’s “war on terror” as a rational premise for reordering American society or begin talking common sense to Americans about national security before militarism swallows up everything else.

To succeed as President (though he probably doesn’t yet realize this), Kerry will need what his party has long suppressed–a full-throated, deeply contentious debate about its core beliefs and aspirations. Elites abhor the thought, but popular agitation could give Kerry the incentive to change and adopt a far stronger agenda (just as JFK was moved to embrace civil rights). The loose assembly known as left-liberal-labor progressives will doubtless be urged to lower their voices so as not to make life more difficult for the new President. Just as Clinton did, Kerry may ask them to hold off on their reform objectives. They should aggressively do the opposite, in my view. Progressives will be in a weak position with Kerry. They may constitute his electoral base, but Kerry carefully declined to embrace their larger agenda. If they accept that as the last word, their aspirations will become even more marginalized within the party.

In victory, progressives should make themselves a force for troublemaking and ankle-biting (much as right-wing counterparts do for the Republicans). Left-liberals, including organized labor, also have the out-of-touch disease. Having yearned so long for a liberal restoration, many left-of-center stalwarts have not yet answered the tougher question: Why, exactly, do the old liberal formulations no longer generate a stable majority? Perhaps because they no longer speak coherently, convincingly, to the changed circumstances of ordinary Americans or the bizarre deformities wrought by concentrated power in government and the economy. The underlying principles do not change, but progressives cannot change the party until they have also changed themselves. That challenge becomes real if Bush loses and Dems get to govern again. If Kerry loses despite his promising prospects, the party will bathe in bloody recriminations.