John Kerry's acceptance speech Thursday night, the climactic and only consequential moment of the Democratic National Convention, will probably give him a bounce in the polls. Such speeches usually do: Since 1976, Democratic nominees have gotten bigger convention boosts than Republicans, sometimes large, sometimes temporary. But more important is what the speech and its reception tells us about the party and its nominee.
When I started attending Democratic conventions in 1968, the question was whether the love the winning nominee had earned from his supporters would transfer to those who had backed another horse. Would Jesse Jackson delegates bond with Michael Dukakis?
This year the question was different. The Democratic delegates, almost all selected by the Kerry campaign, came to Boston joined not by love of John Kerry but by hate for George W. Bush -- and all they believe he stands for. They saw in Kerry, the decorated Vietnam veteran, the best tool to beat Bush. The assumption by Kerry strategists was that a majority of the country's voters have already rejected Bush. (James Carville, on the afternoon of Kerry's speech, qualified this some by saying that a majority was as close to rejection as you can get.) The task then was to establish Kerry as an acceptable alternative, and in particular as a commander in chief who would defend America against attack.
Kerry, like John Edwards the night before, mouthed those words with some vigor. But more than Edwards, he struck an equivocal, nuanced note. He went on at much greater length about the need for, in the convention slogan, ?respect in the world." He talked about responding to an attack rather than, as George W. Bush does, of taking the fight to the enemy.
When he pledged to ?build a stronger American military" -- a pledge that would have brought a roar of approval at a Republican convention -- he was met with silence. When he threw zingers at George W. Bush, which he did frequently despite his calls for bipartisanship, he was met with prolonged cheers. To get the ringing reception he needed in the hall, he indulged in the Bush-bashing that his strategists have been saying turns mid-electorate voters off.