The Democratic National Convention

The Democratic National Convention

The Democratic National Convention

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Christopher Caldwell
8:26 a.m.  Thursday  8/29/96 

       A very weak day, with the exception of Gore. The speakers were either Doctor Jekylls or Mister Hydes. Or let's say a very uneasy superego (Charles Robb urging "strong, steady, and able" foreign policy leadership, but offering no specifics) repressing a volatile id (Maxine Waters urging Clinton to renege on welfare reform, and saying, "They can take this welfare check and shove it"). The cats of dissension and (among some Democrats) a persistent welfare state agenda seem to have been let out of the bag.
       Gore's speech--at least the first two-thirds--was the best of the convention so far. A tour de force, with Oprah-era incantatory gobbledygook ("But we won't let them!"), red meat for the party regulars (attacking "health insurance rip-off artists"), and--at last!--a clear statement of why Clinton should be re-elected. Clinton-Gore is about defending affirmative action and environmental regulation, against all cuts in Medicare and Medicaid (even if they were willing to do business on entitlement cuts last winter), and dead-set against smoking. Not a soaring agenda, but there it is.
       I'm less certain about Gore's closing with his sister's death of lung cancer. None can doubt his grief, but after his 1992 convention speech about his son's car accident, perhaps he's gone to that well once too often.
       I probably should clarify that point about Gore.
       Most of us have had the kind of tragedy he describes, but for a politician to bring it up smacks of emotional blackmail. That's where the "family" business Herb Stein mentioned earlier comes in. As most people understand it, in a family the weakest members have an absolute moral claim on the others. To quote (or misquote) Frost: "Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in." The problem with this Democratic country-as-family construct is that it exposes the country to moralistic fiats from whatever party claims represents the neediest "family members." Republicans aren't wrong to see the ethos of It Takes a Village as a trial balloon for more intrusive government.
       The Democrats' family metaphor also legitimizes the style of passionate, emotional, irrational coercion-in-the-guise-of-everyone-pulling-together that is the model of "family discussions." And that's the problem with Gore's style of argument vis a vis cigarettes. If there's any logic to the Democrats' campaign against cigarettes, that campaign must soon end in an attempt to ban them. As such, it should lead to a mature argument about where government's regulatory responsibilities begin and end. But it won't, and largely because one political side is supposed to wind up in tears, conceding its moral inferiority, before the argument starts.

Alan Brinkley
8:51 a.m.  Thursday  8/29/96 

       I had expected Wednesday night to be the least interesting of an already fairly uninteresting convention, but in fact it was a good night for the Democrats. Al Gore not only greatly exceeded everyone's fairly low expectations, but in fact gave a very good and very effective speech--one that almost but never quite crossed the line dividing emotion from bathos, and one that defined the differences between Clinton and Dole (or at least the differences Democrats want the voters to think about) in very clear and graphic terms. I had been waiting for the Democrats to open up on the 104th Congress (the "Gingrich-Dole Congress," as they like to call it), and tonight they did. I realize most people will remember Gore's speech for the discussion of his sister's death, which packed a big emotional wallop. But I thought the best part was his list of Republican horrors that Bill Clinton prevented--his "we won't let them" litany.
       Over the weekend, like the political junky I sometimes am, I watched C-Span for several hours while it replayed important speeches from Democratic conventions past, stretching back to Truman in 1948 (and perhaps earlier). I was surprised by how flat some of the supposedly great speeches of those years seemed from a distance (Truman in 1948, Stevenson in 1956). But one that did not seem at all flat was Hubert Humphrey's acceptance speech in 1964 when he became Lyndon Johnson's running mate in Atlantic City. I was sitting in the convention hall that night, and I still remember vividly his own litany of popular measures the opposition had opposed and his refrain, chanted by the delegates, "But not Senator Goldwater." Democratic speechmakers have been trying to recreate that speech for years, never successfully. Gore came close tonight.
       Chris Dodd's nominating speech for Clinton was not nearly as moving as John McCain's for Dole, but it was good, unvarnished partisanship and did what this whole convention is clearly trying to do: burnish Clinton's character by focusing on his deeds (or at least on good things that have happened that can be described as his deeds) and not his personal history. Bill Archer gave a pretty good speech (out of prime time) seconding the president. The roll call was just as ridiculous and engaging (and semi-scripted by the campaign) as the Republican one.
       This convention reminds me increasingly not of any Democratic convention I can remember, but of the Republicans in 1984--the upbeat "America Is Back" theme, the jaunty optimism, the chorus of exaggerated tributes to the president. Clinton, of course, does not have Reagan's luck in running against a candidate who has promised to raise taxes--quite the opposite. But he is making a good claim to the "feel good" vote. One question that remains to be answered is whether voters really feel as good as the Democrats claim they should.

Karlyn Bowman
9:17 a.m.  Thursday  8/29/96 

       Al Gore's discussion of his sister's death was over the top and immediately brought to mind his speech four years ago when he talked about his son's brush with death. No doubt both experiences were deeply painful for him, but in a political speech they struck a false note for me. The rest of the speech was solid. Until recently when the president's favorable ratings started to move up, Al Gore was the most popular person in this administration. Unlike Dan Quayle, the early impressions of Gore were very positive and they remain so today.
       The gender gap wars heated up again with presentations from the five Democratic female Senators. The data suggest that women want government to play a stronger role in their lives than men, and the presentations were designed to make the point that Democrats understand this. Will this kind of appeal widen the gender gap or encourage women who didn't turn out in 1994 to do so in 1996? More women and men will turn out in a presidential contest as a matter of course, and the gender gap will probably be about as big as it has been all year.
       Can organized labor come back? Sweeney sounded like an old-time labor boss, but the organization seems to have new vigor. I was struck by a comment a spokesman for organized labor made in an article in the National Journal a few months ago. He said that organized labor wanted to do what the Christian Coalition had done--to move the center of gravity of the Democratic party. The spokesman lauded the organizational skills of the Coalition which seemed surprising because they had borrowed their organizational techniques from organized labor's many years ago. The labor representation at the convention certainly suggests they have the numbers, but it's not clear that they will be as successful. The public is always skeptical of big institutions, but organized labor standing is right down there with Congress's these days. Gallup asked the other day about teacher's unions, and found the public evenly split in terms of favorable and unfavorable images.

Herb Stein
1:39 p.m.  Thursday  8/29/96 

       Well, so much for family values. Maybe the Morris affair gives another reason for not having any more conventions. Too much is made to ride on one day's events. There is too much risk that the elaborately-contrived edifice will be blown down by one whiff of reality.
       Anyway, I turn to more suitable matters. I wonder whether the feeling of irrelevance of the convention, which I have but others may not, has a cause deeper than any we have yet mentioned. Maybe the national convention has become irrelevant because the national government has become irrelevant to our most pressing problems. Or, at least, because we haven't yet discovered how to relate the national government to our problems. The national government is good at defense. It is good at managing the money supply. It is efficient at transferring large amounts of money around by fairly objective standards--as it does with Social Security and somewhat with Medicare. But it is not good at dealing with crime, which has never been mainly a federal responsibility. It has had little responsibility for dealing with basic education and doesn't seem well-qualified to do much about it. It doesn't know how to keep children from having children. And the idea that the federal government can do much about preventing teen-agers from smoking does not seem very credible. So when I hear people at the Democratic convention talking about the things that need to be cured, I ask myself what they have to do with it, anyway.
       The situation is no different at the Republican convention. They only promise to give us our money back by cutting taxes. But they can't give us our money back. They can only transfer it from one of our pockets to another, or from our children's pockets to ours.
       These thoughts are also connected with the It Takes a Village idea, that was derided at the Republican convention and extolled at the Democratic. I think the Democrats are misleading themselves and us by analogizing the village with the federal government. The village is a larger community than the family and it is important. But the word village suggests something special in the way of interpersonal relations that, for want of a better word, I will call "love." Hillary is right to say that to raise a child requires more than the attention of a nuclear family. It requires the love of a surrounding community. But the federal government is not well qualified to supply that. That is one reason why I am struck by the disconnect between the warm feelings expressed at the convention and the programs through which those feelings are to be given effect.