Democrats suddenly act like Republicans

By Bill Press

BOSTON – What’s going on? This is the eighth Democratic convention I’ve attended, and I hardly recognize the old gang.

In the past, what was so much fun about Democratic conventions was that they were so unruly and so unpredictable. There were fights over the party platform that spilled over into debates on the convention floor. There was always one impossible-to-control losing candidate, like Jerry Brown in 1976, who refused to concede defeat until the last roll call. There were demands by disgruntled delegates to poll their delegation.

And this year? It’s totally tame. For a couple of days, I actually thought I was in New York, not Boston. Democrats were acting like Republicans.

At this convention, everything was carefully choreographed. It was all sweetness and light. Speeches and timetable were tightly controlled. There was no Bush-bashing. There were no spontaneous demonstrations. Every speaker was on message. There was no debate over the platform. The roll call, which used to be every convention’s dramatic moment – when one state finally put the party nominee over the top – took place late Wednesday night, after John Edwards’ speech, long after most delegates had already left the Fleet Center and nobody was watching.

In this year’s Democratic convention, nothing was left to chance. Even signs waved on the convention floor were pre-programmed. No handmade signs were permitted inside the convention center. On Wednesday night, for example, I saw Kerry campaign staff hand out American flags and then, in turn, signs reading “Kerry,” “Kerry-Edwards – A Stronger America,” “Elizabeth” and “Edwards” – each designed and distributed for certain moments in the program.

Despite the careful planning, there were glitches. During Edwards’ speech, volunteers passed out signs reading “Hope Is On The Way” with careful instructions that they were to be waved only during “the last minute of the speech.” But Edwards was already on a roll. He brought delegates to their feet time and time again, and soon – long before he reached his signature phrase of hope being on the way – some zealous delegates started waving their “Hope Is On the Way” posters. Immediately, an army of campaign volunteers started running down the aisles, demanding that delegates hide those signs beneath their chairs until further instruction. National conventions just aren’t what they used to be.

Yet, as much as veteran convention-watchers lamented the lack of spontaneity, such tight discipline enabled Democrats to achieve the convention’s main two goals: to project a new, optimistic brand of politics; and to introduce the American people to John Kerry.

To me, the positive tone came as a big surprise. Conventions are always prime-time opportunities for bashing the opposition. Not this one. The Rev. Al Sharpton is the only speaker I heard all week even mention the name of President George W. Bush. And vice-presidential candidates are the traditional party attack dogs. Not this one. In his acceptance speech in 2000, Dick Cheney attacked Al Gore and Bill Clinton by name over a dozen times. John Edwards, by contrast, urged Americans to “reject this tired, old, hateful, negative politics of the past” and instead embrace the “politics of hope, the politics of what’s possible.”

The lack of focus on Bush, of course, allowed convention organizers to keep the spotlight on John Kerry. Before Boston, most Americans had never seen or heard Kerry, nor knew much about him. Now they do. Starting Monday night, every speaker sang his praises and recited his credentials. He is, said Hillary Clinton, “a serious man for a serious job in a serious time.” He is, said her husband, Bill, a man of “courage, compassion and common sense.” There is no one, said former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili – in a surprise convention appearance – who will be “more resolute in defending America or pursuing terrorists.”

By the time he stepped up to the plate, John Kerry didn’t have to hit a home run. The American people had already lost confidence in President Bush. They just needed to know there was a good alternative out there: strong, competent, experienced, well-informed, ready to take charge – and likable. Kerry more than delivered.

And that sums up the success of this Democratic convention. It changed the tone and direction of the entire 2004 campaign. Five thousand Democrats came to Boston determined to defeat George W. Bush. Five thousand Democrats left Boston excited about electing John Kerry the next president of the United States.