Party conventions and platforms

George Will

8/1/2004 12:00:00 AM - George Will

WASHINGTON -- The Democrats in Boston did much to justify two much-disparaged things -- party conventions and platforms. The convention performed a vital legitimizing function, and the platform, particularly in its tactical evasions and silences, indicated how a senator who has represented a liberal state for 20 years adjusts to courting the country.

     The  process of picking presidential nominees has been democratized. The proliferation of primaries has removed the process from the supposedly unclean hands of elected officials and party bosses. Bosses were always important and often decisive when they had machines to boss -- until about 40 years ago. As recently as the late 1960s, the governor of Pennsylvania controlled 40,000 patronage jobs. Twenty years later there were 2,000.

     Today it is possible for remarkably few voters -- representing only themselves, unlike the officeholders and bosses of the bad old days -- to be decisive. John Kerry won the nomination in a sprint that lasted 29 days -- from the Iowa caucuses to the Wisconsin primary. Effectively, he was picked by the approximately 135,000 persons -- 0.06 percent of Americans of voting age -- who supported him in Iowa and New Hampshire.

     The convention actually was a useful laying-on of hands -- the uniquely clean hands of the great unwashed, ``the people'' from around the nation. Or at least a fair sampling of the current composition of the activist base of the world's oldest party. For example, about one in 10 delegates was a teacher, including 415 members of the two big teachers unions.  

     Kerry's platform is a 37-page flinch. It turns a perpetual chimera, ``energy independence,'' into a promise, but flinches from suggesting a tax on gasoline consumption or drilling anywhere that might annoy Democrats, which means ... anywhere. His platform advocates ``rigorous new incentives and tests for new teachers.'' Notice: only new teachers. Of today's teacher-certification tests, The Wall Street Journal reports that ``someone with about a 10th-grade education could pass them.''

     Bush's scarlet sin against the environment supposedly was his turn away from the Kyoto agreement on global warming, by which the world agreed that Americans should pay most of the costs. But the two paragraphs that Kerry's platform devotes to ``international leadership to protect the global environment'' mentions neither global warming nor Kyoto.

     That is how a Massachusetts Democrat runs for president when he knows that four of the last five Democrats elected president were from Southern or Border states (including Harry Truman from Missouri). But although Kerry's platform is militantly bland, politics has been becoming less so for more than a generation.

     In House and Senate votes in 1970, when Vietnam divisiveness was at its peak and the polarizing Richard Nixon was in the White House, about one-third of all votes found a majority of one party opposed by a majority of the other. By 1998 the partisanship was more severe, with half the votes involving opposed majorities. In that year 98 percent of Republicans voted for at least one of the four articles of impeachment against President Clinton; 98 percent of Democrats voted for none.

      James Q. Wilson and Karlyn Bowman, writing in the Fall 2003 issue of The Public Interest, say that American politics -- and journalism -- are both  experiencing a ``profound'' case of what is known in business as ``market segmentation.'' Voters, and especially ``more educated voters,'' are much more comfortable than they were a generation ago with ideological labels and much more apt to pick their party on the basis of its ideology. The existence of Fox News and public broadcasting news testifies to large ideological blocs of news consumers.

     The segmentation of the national political market is much as it was four years ago. Yes, eight of the nine states where Bush was weakest in 2000 (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont)  elected Republican governors in 2002 or 2003 (California, by recall). And yes, these eight have a quarter of the nation's population and almost half (46.7 percent) of the electoral votes needed to win (126 of 270). But Bush is unlikely to carry any of them. None of the eight has voted Republican since 1988.

     It is commonly said that ``9/11 changed everything.'' But it did not really change the basic fact of today's politics. Even before 9/11, the 57-point disparity between Bush's support from Republicans (88 percent) and Democrats (31 percent) was larger than any polling had ever recorded for any president. Strange but true: The 36 days following the 2000 election -- Florida -- may have had a bigger impact on American politics than did Sept. 11, 2001.