Shining, Happy People: The Dems Hit Boston

Election '04

The Democratic Party is more unified and energized going into this convention than it has ever been.

Say that 50 times in 90 seconds, and you will have an idea of the preconvention message that DNCers – party chairman Terry McAuliffe, convention chair Bill Richardson, and John Kerry spokesperson Stephanie Cutter – were pushing the day before the convention opened. Usually, when politicos mouth the same line ceaselessly they are trying to peddle a falsehood. But this time, the spin seems to be true.

As Kerryfest '04 opens, there is little conflict in Dem-land. No major tussles over who will get to speak from the podium in prime-time. No battles over the party platform. The protests on Sunday – ghettoized in Boston Common – were small and insignificant. The so-called Social Forum, a gathering of lefties, has produced no sparks noticeable to the thousands of delegates and mediafolk who rush from one reception to the next in this summer camp of politics-and-journalism. At an event honoring the late Senator Paul Wellstone, prominent progressives – Al Franken, Arianna Huffington, Jim Hightower – all said Job No. 1 is booting Bush. Once – if – that is done, there will be plenty of time for pushing and pulling with Kerry.

A few of the Wellstonian Dems did voice their frustration with their party. "Too much of the Democratic structure has run away from us," complained Anna Burger, the vice president of the Services Employees Industrial union. Representative Barbara Lee said, "We must insist that Democrats be Democrats – That's the only way we'll take out country back." Author Jim Hightower groused, "The Democratic Party is too tied to monied interests." Going much further, Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner claimed that the "military-industrial complex controls both parties, that the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council "controls" Kerry, and that "it doesn't make sense to vote." But Turner, who also declared that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by the U.S. government because he challenged militarism, was outnumbered. The other progressives, despite any misgivings they have about the Democratic Party, saw no reason to put pressure on Kerry.

Not that they could. The crowd at the Wellstone event, I am sorry to report, was small – about 200. And the audience did not appear to contain many – if any – delegates or others working within the party (outside of the panelists). This was unlike the days of the 1984 and 1988 conventions, when Jesse Jackson brought progressives to the conventions as delegates and as a force making demands. These days there are few pissed-off (at the party) Democrats. Another sign of the times: on Sunday night, Representative Jim McGovern, a strong liberal, and his wife Lisa hosted a party for George McGovern, the party's 1972 nominee (who is no relation to Jim). The place was jammed with old McGoverniks and Democrats of more recent generations. McAuliffe dropped by. Bill Clinton was supposed to do so, too. (Clinton, George McGovern noted, devoted 21 pages of his new book to the 1972 McGovern campaign). So here was George McGovern, the great liberal, being feted by all parts of the Democratic Party, and the progressive Dems in attendance were not grumbling about their party. This would have been inconceivable at recent conventions: a gathering of McGovernite Democrats and no bitching about the party and the nominee.

Bush has been an uniter-not-a-divider ...for Democrats and progressives. The prospect of four more years of W. has concentrated the mind of these folks. "Where are all the fights Democrats are famous for?" the Washington bureau chief of a major newspaper asked me in the lobby of the Westin (where hotel employees were doling out free clam chowder and lemonade).

The primaries, I replied, might have ended with some disappointment among the backers of the losing candidates, but there was little anger at the end of the process. None of the other candidates every really challenged Kerry. Howard Dean was crushed as soon as the vote-counting began. There were not many intra-party wounds left over from the primaries. And there were not that many sharp ideological differences among the different camps. The candidates had disagreed over the vote to grant Bush the authority to launch the war in Iraq. But that difference did not seem to capture the imagination of most Democratic voters.

Now there appears little taste within the party for a debate over what should be done in Iraq. Some progressive Dems back the notion of expressing a date-certain for a pullout of troops, but Kerry does not. Still, this has not become a pitched fight. Perhaps that's because it's an academic question. Should Kerry win in November, he would not take office until January 20th. Who knows now what will be the appropriate policy then? In terms of big-picture principles, Kerry is for trying to internationalize the mess in order to withdraw U.S. troops. And even Dennis Kucinich and Win Without War, the antiwar coalition, don't advocate yanking US troops without replacing them with forces from elsewhere. But the best "plan" Kerry might be able to offer at this point for dealing with the enormous problem Bush created is the argument that he will muddle through better than the guy who screwed things up in the first place.

In any event, the Democrats are shining, happy people. Kerry aides and senior Democrats are even saying they see little reason to go heavy on the Bush-bashing this week. (More on that later.) They want to use the convention – that is, the three precious hours of prime-time coverage they are receiving from the broadcast networks – to boost Kerry's positives. The convention is one big infomercial. And maybe that is as it should be. After all, who can tell what will reach those few likely voters who remain undecided?

But even if all goes well with the infomercial, one Kerry pollster told me, don't look for a big Kerry bounce. It is unlikely the convention will change the minds of the small slice of undecideds, who might well stay flummoxed until they have to cast a vote in November. What Kerry strategists hope is that the convention will strengthen and deepen the support for Kerry that already exists. A convention of unity and comity provides Kerry and other Dems plenty of space to make the case for the nominee-to-be.


Despite all the warm-and-fuzzy feel-goodism of the convention, the structural disconnects of the Democratic Party remain evident. Kerry attacked special interests during the primary campaign. Yet special interests are funding much of the convention, contributing tens of millions of dollars to subsidize events at the convention. This is a same-old, same-old story. But on Sunday night, there was a particularly trenchant example.

At a Congressional Black Caucus reception in the State House to honor the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) – which in 1964 challenged the all-white delegation to the Democratic convention – a large photograph of Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the MFDP, hung next to a banner for Lockheed Martin, the aerospace firm. Lockheed Martin and Verizon were picking up the tab for this celebration. Was that because Hamer, the longtime civil rights champion, was a proponent of antimissile defense systems or a fan of telecommunications reform? No, in a business-as-usual fashion, these two corporate giants were underwriting an event in order to make nice with members of Congress. And the legislators did not mind taking the money.

Speaking to fourteen veterans of the MFDP, Representative Bennie Thompson, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus from Mississippi, said, "Thank you for scratching the conscience of America." Then he turned the podium over to Art Johnson, an executive of Lockheed Martin, who praised the CBC for the "great job they do day in and day out." Johnson added, "We're pleased with the relationship our company has with the Congressional Black Caucus." Was he pleased with the CBC's call for cutting the military budget by a third? Johnson did not say. But no doubt Lockheed Martin is pleased with its ability to lobby the CBC members on a host of legislative matters.

When Representative Elijah Cummings, the head of the CBC, passed out awards to MFDP vets, standing by his side was Peter Davidson, the chief lobbyist for Verizon. As these civil rights advocates came up to the podium one by one, it was Davidson who handed them the awards that bore a photo of Hamer.

I doubt more than a few of the hundreds of people present even thought for a moment about the incongruence of this event. The worst of the Democratic Party (corporate backers looking for – and gaining – access and influence) and the best of the Democratic Party (civil rights heroes) were literally side by side, in collaboration. Talk about coalition building. But in this week of unprecedented unity, it might be impolite for anyone to question that. It would be off message.

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