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Jewish World Review August 2, 2004 / 15 Menachem-Av, 5764

John H. Fund

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Patriotic liberalism | BOSTON — The Democratic convention that concluded last week was highly unusual. The delegates were so anxious to defeat George W. Bush that they papered over many of their differences in order to project a rare image of Democratic unity. An almost continuous parade of veterans, retired generals and John Kerry's Vietnam comrades were trotted out in an effort to lay to rest the party's perceived national security weaknesses.

Democrats appeared to be taking a page from the Republican game plan of 2000, when the Bush campaign used the party's Philadelphia convention as a chance to showcase "compassionate conservatism" with an array of speakers from minority communities and downtrodden backgrounds. The message was that the GOP wanted many of the same social goals as Democrats —less poverty, better health care —but simply sought to achieve them using different means. Similarly, Democrats tried a makeover of their party at the Boston convention, displaying huge Americans flags and repeating phrases like "strong" and "tough" so often that they sounded like a script from a Tony Robbins infomercial. The Democratic equivalent of "compassionate conservatism" might as well be called "patriotic liberalism."

But that the rhetoric was not in accord with the reality of the party became clear when a New York Times/CBS survey of about a quarter of the convention's 4,322 delegates was released. John Kerry may have the most liberal voting record of any senator according to National Journal magazine but he is to the right of the delegates who nominated him. Nine out of 10 delegates polled totally oppose the Iraq war, three-fourths support abortion with no restrictions whatsoever. Only 4% want tax cuts and 95% say that gay marriage should be legally recognized.

That makes the party's accomplishment in producing a platform that was significantly more moderate than its 2000 version all the more remarkable. Antiwar activists dropped demands for U.S. troops to leave Iraq at a time certain. The platform handles divisive issues by simply ignoring them. It does not mention partial-birth abortion, gay marriage, capital punishment, Alaska oil drilling or the Kyoto global warming treaty. International trade issues are also swept under the rug.

Democrats are ecstatic at their party's product repositioning, with rhetoric that tried to outflank President Bush on the right in the war or terrorism and fiscal discipline. James Carville ran around the convention declaring the president "toast" and the campaign "all over but the shouting." Lawrence O'Donnell, an MSNBC analyst, said most delegates didn't believe Mr. Bush could win. But many of the same people said that about the 2000 race, when a strong economy and Al Gore's choice of Joe Lieberman lifted spirits at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Then came Mr. Gore's poor showing in the debates, constant reminders of Clinton scandals and the popularity of some of Mr. Bush's ideas (such as tax cuts) that Democrats had dismissed.

So Democrats should be careful in not hoping for too much from their makeover. The buzz words of compassionate conservatism may have helped Mr. Bush raise the comfort level that some suburban Republicans felt towards his 2000 campaign, but it largely failed in attracting minority voters. Only 9% of blacks voted Republican in 2000, almost an historic low.

The Boston "makeover" has also apparently not had the initial desired effect of changing popular perceptions about John Kerry. A brand-new USA Today/CNN poll conducted by Gallup after the Boston convention found that the Bush-Cheney ticket now has a 50% to 46% lead over their Democratic rivals in polling that ended on Sunday. The lack of a post-convention "bounce" demonstrates how unusually polarized the electorate has become. Nearly nine of 10 voters say their minds are made up and won't change. "The convention, typically a kicking-off point for a party, is now merely a reaffirmation" of where voters stand, said David Moore, senior editor of the Gallop Poll. Since World War II, every challenger who has unseated a president has led after his convention. For all his efforts, Mr. Kerry hasn't been able to erase doubts that he is terminally indecisive on key issues but will always retreat to a liberal default position when pressed.

His campaign is off to a decent start, but he will have to tackle those doubts himself, especially in the debates with President Bush. No amount of convention flag-waving or careful repetition of muscular rhetoric on terrorism will do that for him.

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©2001, John H. Fund