Election 2004

Conventional Change

"The Democrats are not poised to address long-term problems like the War Powers Act, or the drift from democracy to empire. For almost everyone under their big tent, beating Bush is the only issue."
Toward the end of the Democrats' convention, a couple of veterans for John Kerry stood on the Boston Common watching a group of peace-sign carriers for Dennis Kucinich pass by. "What is this, a time machine?" one of them asked. Like the Kucinich delegates, the vets opposed the war in Iraq. But they excused Kerry's vote to support it by explaining that it was really a vote to give President Bush authority to seek an international consensus. I asked whether that was letting Kerry and the rest of Congress off too easy. After all, it's Congress's duty to declare war, not just pass the buck to the President. They shrugged. "Goes back to the Gulf of Tonkin," one said. Indeed.

The Democrats are not poised to address long-term problems like the War Powers Act, or the drift from democracy to empire. For almost everyone under their big tent, beating Bush is the only issue. Almost no one at the convention, including Kucinich delegates and other progressives, had much appetite for criticizing Kerry.

It was a stroke of genius for the Democrats to pick a theme for their convention that's been working itself out for decades in our culture: healing the rift over Vietnam. At the pageant in Boston, liberal-minded Americans could unite in a consensus that the war was a mistake and that soldiers like Kerry and his "band of brothers" were its victims and heroes, not villains.

Unfortunately, all that healing was of no help in generating a solution to the Vietnam-like situation now unfolding in Iraq. Kerry and John Edwards are mute on the crucial question: How and when do we extract American soldiers from their current directionless, violent predicament? Now that the crazed rightwing think-tankers in the Bush administration have had four years to get us stuck in Iraq and earn the enmity of the world, the Democrats seem to be preparing to drift onward, not with the same "forward-leaning" intensity as the Republicans, but, to use another of the boat metaphors that were so ubiquitous at the convention, without a rudder of their own.

The cost, if Kerry wins, is that the Democrats may beat the Republicans and take office without any effective pressure from within the party for peace, for a more humane program at home and abroad, and for a more rational set of policies that will take us off perpetual high alert.

Even the protesters were polite. When they ventured out of the insane dog pound set up for them outside the convention center – under some elevated tracks, with razor wire enclosing it, a mesh roof on top, and snipers overhead – demonstrators, led by the anti-war group Code Pink, argued briefly with the police. The police insisted the protesters take down a big pink sign – "Bring the troops home now" – that they'd hung on the outside of the giant wall surrounding the convention center. The protesters put it up again a few feet away. But when they finally made their speeches, most endorsed Kerry, only pleading with him to take a more anti-war stance.

Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin spoke to some TV cameras, wearing a sticker that said, "80% of Democrats say Iraq was a mistake."

"The Democrats will lose the election if they don't fire up their own base," Benjamin said. "I'm a Green. I'm giving him free advice because I want to see Bush out of office."

Eric Wasileski, a retired Navy fire controlman, also faced the cameras. "Vietnam started on a lie, and this war started on a lie as well," he said. "Mr. Kerry, you were in Vietnam and you said when you got back it was wrong for the politicians to send people to die there. I pray to God President Bush does not get reelected, and Mr. Kerry, if you take the reins of power, remember your words."

Fernandez Suarez de Solar of Escondido, California, held up a picture of his son Jesus, who died on March 27, 2003, in Baghdad. "I have two goals," he said. "To demand the end of the occupation, and bring home all the troops, and, specifically, here for the Democratic Convention, to put on the table very clearly, what is the position about the war?" De Solar declined to say whom he would vote for in November. "I support the Democratic Party," he said, "but I can't support any candidate." Then he hustled off for a meeting with Michael Moore.

The unity projected from the convention stage was fine – uplifting, in fact, when Barack Obama gave his stirring keynote address. "There are those who want to divide us," he said, but "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America. There's a United States of America."

Talking to delegates on the floor who were cheering Obama, you could see the potential for a Democratic Party to represent something truly great – a united, diverse, and just America.

Seema Shah, an Indian American delegate from Minnesota who supported Kucinich, said she was there to show that "people of different faiths and races can be in the party."

Leon Lynch, an African American steelworker from Pittsburgh, went with his union for Gephardt, but liked Dean the best in the primary field, and thought "Kerry will probably be gracious enough to listen" to progressive voices.

Renee Crawford, a nurse and Kucinich delegate from Milwaukee who was wearing a "delegate for peace" scarf, said, "I support John Kerry 100 percent. She also liked Dean, "because he was the strongest anti-war candidate."

But after the good feeling of the major speeches wore off, there were the same, Clinton-era policies: a small hike in the minimum wage, tax credits for education, balancing the budget, and "finishing the job" on welfare reform. Not to mention the convention planners' dismal attitude toward civil liberties.

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, did a stand-up routine in the dreadful "free speech area." Wearing a tan sports jacket and wire-rimmed glasses and grinning broadly, Terry called out to people who hurried past the protest cage talking into cell phones, "This is how the Democrats treat free speech!" Pointing to the fences and the razor wire, Terry mocked the delegates: "Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy – they'd be proud of the Democratic Party of today!.. Let freedom ring! Woo!" Terry was joined by about a dozen other protesters with anti-abortion signs: "God is pro-life," "Kerry is wrong."

Terry was right. The Democrats reached new heights of censoriousness the same year dissent in the party fell to a low watermark. On the floor, when delegates held up signs that threatened "unity," they were quickly surrounded by droves of Kerry sign-holders.

Dennis Kucinich and other progressives did get a chance to speak from the stage at the convention – mostly outside of prime time. Kucinich used his moment in the limelight to remind the audience "who we Democrats are."

"When we show up holding the banner of social and economic justice, we win," he said. He criticized Bush for leading us into a war that had "nothing to do with Al Qaeda" and where there were "no weapons of mass destruction." Listing all the positions the Democrats ought to stand for, Kucinich repeatedly yelled, "Courage, America!" He concluded with, "John Kerry, America!" as ambient chatter in the convention hall drowned him out and the convention planners got him off the stage to the dated anthem "Power to the People."

Howard Dean seemed to disappear – not even mentioning Iraq in his brief remarks endorsing Kerry. Only Al Sharpton blew everyone off the stage, going overtime with an extemporaneous speech about the stolen election in Florida and Republican hypocrisy – and driving the delegates crazy with delight.

It was at alternate events sponsored by a new group called Progressive Democrats of America where leftwingers made their strongest criticisms of the Patriot Act (which Kerry voted for) and the war in Iraq (which his running mate promised to win). Thunderous applause greeted these broadsides.

Kucinich was the big star at a panel on civil liberties at St. Paul's Cathedral. Speaking from the pulpit, to the packed pews, flanked by handpainted posters that read "Repeal the Patriot Act" and "Civil Rights for All," he criticized random searches on public transportation, the "concentration camp" atmosphere of the "free speech area" for protesters, and the overwhelming police presence. "We are not going gentle into a good night of totalitarianism," he said.

On the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral, I asked Kucinich what he got from Kerry in exchange for his endorsement. "My voice is in," he said. "I'm speaking to the convention." But what about Kerry and the Iraq War? "This war belongs to George Bush, and we're not going to insist John Kerry take the burden of the war until he's in the White House," he said. "If John Kerry desires to take a new position on Iraq when he becomes President, he'll have the support of the grassroots."

Kucinich whipped up the crowd for Jesse Jackson, who came in to deliver the following message: "We who are winners must not have a loser's complex. We who are ants must not have a grasshopper's complex."

Jackson took issue with the people who say Kerry and Edwards need to motivate them. "My experience about motivation is that it comes bottom-up, not top-down," he said. "Slave masters never change their mind. The enslaved change their mind. Abolition did not come top down. Abolition came bottom up. Women's suffrage came bottom up." As the crowd cheered, he shouted, "We can win! We have the power to win! Some amazing things are happening."

Jackson invoked Barack Obama's rise in Illinois and other promising Democratic Senate races around the country. "We keep winning," he said. "We keep winning every day." But he got the biggest response when he condemned the war. "We have a moral obligation. We must end the war in Iraq," he bellowed, to a round of loud stomping and applause. "It's time to bring the troops home and send George Bush home."

Then he urged the audience to go "door to door, house to house," to register voters. "We have the numbers, if we have the will to fight back. Don't let them break our spirits. We marched too long, bled too much. Don't let them break our spirit." Finally, he got his audience chanting along to his familiar chorus. By the end, the whole room was yelling "Keep hope alive!" It was irresistible. But later, on the stage at the convention center, Jackson's speech was toned-down and flat, with the requisite Kerry hagiography grafted on in place of the passionate call to progressives to continue the fight.

At another Progressive Democrats event, Representative John Conyers showed up to deliver the same pitch, pleading with progressives to support Kerry. In a freezing cold gym at the Roxbury Community College, delegates sat in folding chairs divided into sections by state, like the regular convention. Signs on the cement-block walls said "Universal, single-payer health care" and "End the occupation of Iraq" and "Repeal the Patriot Act" – messages that did not make it to the red-carpeted floor of the FleetCenter.

"Let's face it, Ralph Nader – and I am his closest friend in Congress – you are potentially re-electing the most crypto-fascist Administration that has ever existed in my lifetime," Conyers said. "Don't tell me Nader didn't cost Gore the election. He did. And don't tell me he can't cost Kerry the election. He can."

"This is the most exciting convention I've ever been to in my life," Conyers declared, straining credulity. He noted all the progressive speakers, including Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Robert Byrd. "The progressive movement is now gaining a foothold," he said. "Dennis Kucinich is the leader of the Democratic Party. Don't you get it?" Here, credulity snapped.

In conclusion, he told the assembled progressives, there is Edwards, who "may be more progressive than Kerry, for all you know."

"Yes, we're going to vote for candidate Kerry," Boston council member Chuck Turner told the same audience. "But when I hear Kerry say he doesn't believe in a redistributive tax policy, he isn't going to provide the kind of leadership we need."

The Progressive Democrats are determined to develop that leadership – nurturing, as their own rather verbose mission statement puts it, "a new, democratic, grassroots-based, nationally federated organization, through which we shall endeavor, over a period of years, to build an unstoppable coalition."

Granny D., the campaign-finance-reform-walkathon icon and New Hampshire Senate candidate, was at one of the Progressive Democrats events. I asked her what she thought of the main convention so far, and she said she was "very pleased and praying they'll all unite and there won't be a split vote and everybody will vote for Kerry." When I asked her what she thought about Kerry's record-level fundraising, she said, "It's the system that has developed. I've watched it develop through the years. It's not his fault."

I'd never heard so much conciliatory language at what was billed as an "alternative" political event. The truth is, most of the delegates in the convention hall agreed with these progressive "outsiders." As a group, they were way to the left of their candidates on health care, the economy, and the war.

But for the most part, they were even more polite. The Kucinich delegates I spoke to confined their antiwar message to wearing and sharing Code Pink scarves imprinted with the slogan "another delegate for peace." One Kucinich delegate from Minnesota, Faith Kidder, said she felt encouraged because she stuck her fingers in the air, holding up a peace sign during the convention, and noticed delegates for other candidates joining her. She also led a round of the song "Imagine."

"We are talking about how to get a voice at the table without it being a dissenting voice that pulls the party apart," she said. A few Kucinich delegates, in an act of rebellion, decided to vote against the party platform, and even against Kerry's nomination. But they were a minority. Still, Kidder said, "I had a woman who's a Kerry delegate sitting next to me who said, 'This platform is not appropriate.' We see power in that."

Thomas Higgins, a theater tech from Anchorage, Alaska, was the exception. He wore a T-shirt that said "I did not vote for Kerry" with a picture of a purple sheep standing apart from the herd. He broke ranks and voted for Kucinich, not Kerry, on the roll-call vote giving Kerry the nomination, aggravating his fellow delegates on the floor.

"Right now, I cannot support a Democratic war over a Republican war," he said. "Most of the speakers would speak eloquently about health care, education, and then they'd start ranting about increases in homeland security, building up the troops in Iraq, and taking the fight to the terrorists." He hadn't decided whom to vote for yet.

At the alternative convention, some people were wearing shirts that said "I will vote against the war" on the back, and on the front: "John Kerry, don't make me vote for Nader."

Tim Carpenter, an organizer who helped found the Progressive Democrats of America, asked how many people were considering voting for Nader in a swing state. A few hands went up. "We want to talk to you before the day is over," he said.

From my own unofficial survey, it seemed that arm-twisting progressives to vote for Kerry was going to be an easy job.

Lenny Matthews, a nurse from Northern California, had crossed out the name Nader on her "don't make me vote for Nader" shirt and written in "Mickey Mouse." Would she vote for Kerry? "Oh, of course I'll vote for him," she said. But she wanted to send a more pointed message than "all those pom pom fluffers" on the convention floor.

On the final night of the convention, the delegates devoured the red-meat attacks on Bush, which were all saved up for Kerry to throw out. You had to hand it to him, and to the convention planners: They put on an impressive show. The pitch was just right – positive, idealistic, caring about ordinary Americans, the soldiers, the single mothers, and the rest of the great majority of people struggling to get by yet still believing in the promise of America.

The Kerry on paper – who seemed like such a great opponent to the President, if only he weren't such a dud in person – finally merged with the Kerry on stage. His speech was a hit. Most of all, the unity theme – not Democratic Party unity, but a broader, American unity of tolerance, diversity, and social justice – pointed up a stark contrast with the parochial, meanspirited Republicans and put the Democrats in a great position to win in November.

The lingering question is: Then what?

Outside the FleetCenter, the choppers, military police everywhere, and barricades that turned downtown Boston into an armed camp created a heavy atmosphere of foreboding that belied the primetime sunshine inside. The shadow of terrorism bore down on everyone.

Police in riot gear have been a fixture at political conventions since 2000 – a reaction to the WTO protesters in Seattle. In Boston, the atmosphere was ratcheted up a few notches. Cops patrolled the T stops wearing sunglasses and dressed all in black with huge rifles slung across their chests. Since there were no terrorists in Boston, as it turned out, the cops turned their attention to their old adversaries, the protesters. They didn't meet with much resistance.

On the last day of the convention, six demonstrators with an anarchist flag stood across from the Boston Public Library. Three news trucks, three cameramen, and a newscaster in a pink jacket doing a live report blocked the view of the protesters from the street. One of the protesters peeked around the newscaster's shoulder, trying to get into the shot. A young woman wearing a pirate hat beat on a drum painted with the message: "Rich lie, poor die." A group of bemused onlookers in business attire watched from a park bench. They outnumbered the protesters, who were obscured by the TV trucks and heavy camera equipment. An older guy in a baseball cap walked by. "Slow news day," he said.
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