LOS ANGELES -- State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak of Elizabeth, N.J., was ebullient about the 2000 presidential election, thanks to one event: the selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as vice-presidential nominee. Lesniak was one of a half-dozen or more Democratic National Convention delegates who approached me to volunteer their enthusiastic approval of Lieberman as they arrived here over the weekend. That is actually a symptom of weakness in the world's oldest political party.
The delegates had been reading the polls and making their own assessments, and Al Gore was beginning to look like a loser against George W. Bush. What forestalled this convention opening amid a sea of melancholy was the unexpectedly favorable reaction to Lieberman as a bold stroke, wildly applauded by the news media. It is reminiscent of the rush of optimism temporarily seen at the 1996 Republican convention, when Bob Dole surprisingly tapped Jack Kemp as his running mate.
The boost from Kemp did not last long, and neither may Lieberman's. "It's too much of a burden for Lieberman," an influential liberal Democratic businessmen whom I have known for three decades told me after refusing the use of his name. Like Lieberman, he is Jewish, and he reflects the concern of older-generation Jews that Lieberman may become the fall guy for a Gore defeat just as Kemp is blamed in some quarters for Dole's loss.
Making the parallel between the Republicans in '96 and the Democrats in '00 can go too far. Gore is a much stronger candidate than Dole, and the Democratic pessimism prior to Lieberman was not comparable to the Republican pre-Kemp malaise four years ago. Yet, the notion that so inoffensive and ordinary a politician as Joe Lieberman can single-handedly win this election as the embodiment of niceness is in keeping with the mood as the convention convenes.
While picking Lieberman has been described as a bold stroke because of his religious faith, his selection on the contrary reflects the Democratic desire to win by being pleasant. The Democrats, traditionally prone to internal blood-letting, are matching the Republicans in seeking the 21st century model of the antiseptic political convention.
Nothing demonstrates this desire better than the insistence by the Gore campaign that Rep. Loretta Sanchez close down her fund-raiser planned for Hugh Hefner's Los Angeles Playboy Mansion. Democratic leaders grumbled that news-starved reporters made too much of a trivial incident.
In truth, it is anything but trivial. Sanchez, a two-term House member from Orange County, Calif., is surely no political heavyweight. But she had been lionized inside the party for having vanquished gadfly Republican Bob Dornan in 1996 in a previously GOP stronghold, named as one of the two co-chairmen of the Democratic National Committee and given a speaking berth at this week's convention.
It was, therefore, no small matter that the party hierarchy threatened to strip her of these honors if she went through with her Playboy Mansion gig (forcing her humiliating surrender after a day or two of defiance). The Gore campaign, in as absolute control at Los Angeles as the Bush campaign was at Philadelphia, wanted no reminder of the party's libertine image in the 1960s and early 1970s to mar this convention's placidity.
That means the Democrats, no less than the Republicans, forbade public controversy. While challenging the validity of delegates used to be a Democratic way of life, there was not one Democratic credentials fight this year. A prefabricated platform was presented to the delegates as a fait accompli, with no minority report filed.
How was it possible to avoid a floor fight on foreign trade, which splits the Democratic Party down the middle? By the platform really saying nothing, not even mentioning the labor-opposed U.S.-Chinese trade agreement that President Clinton has fought for.
Burial of internal difficulties under a cloak of niceness may suit the Republicans well in 2000, but important Democratic strategists are concerned that this convention -- however orderly -- may not give Americans a reason to vote for Vice President Gore. They argue that an assault on Gov. Bush will be necessary, even if Gore in the interest of niceness last week publicly swore off personal attacks on his opponent.