LOS ANGELES -- Although the 4,370 delegates to the Democratic National Convention want to present a united front for the Gore-Lieberman ticket, their discontent seeps out. They constitute America's party of the left, and current Democratic policies somehow seem too centrist for them.
President Clinton's Monday night political swan song may have been the tour de force claimed by political analysts, but it was irrelevant to the problem. Nor did the left-of-center barrage at Tuesday night's convention satisfy listless, restive delegates. The two old lions of the Democratic left, a little past their peak, could not duplicate their past convention triumphs -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1980 and Jesse Jackson in 1988.
This is more serious for Al Gore than whining by activist ideologues. Democratic leaders have not disguised their concern that the party's liberal base is unenthusiastic about Gore. Since Democratic presidential candidates have not won a majority of white votes for a generation, they rely on minority voters who today are less than energized.
That is denied by the party's African-American regulars such as Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who hopes for a Democratic victory to make him the most powerful black government official in U.S. history as chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. "Look at that," he told me as we looked at the sea of black and white faces on the convention floor Tuesday night. "It's not Europe. It's America -- a mosaic."
That mosaic can be troublesome politically, as when veteran Rep. Maxine Waters took issue with Sen. Joseph Lieberman's longtime opposition to racial quotas. Black regulars were mobilized for the ticket. At a meeting Tuesday, Lieberman vowed his support for "affirmative action" and District of Columbia Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton defended Lieberman by reading from my column about his liberal voting record.
But several black delegates told me that Waters is in better touch with African-American opinion. Even the support of the black politicians, however, can be shaky. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, a freshman lawmaker from Cleveland told me: "Certainly, I would have preferred somebody else (rather than Lieberman), but I feel Gore can influence him."
One liberal congressman who is a convention delegate, a white liberal with a district becoming non-white, told me of his problem on condition that I could not identify him. "There is nothing here to bring out my people to vote," he said. Here is a case where the party's national ticket is not as liberal as the party.
The ludicrous Playboy Mansion affair could further undermine the Democratic base. Party leaders bullied Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California into removing her Tuesday night fund-raiser from Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion, but she retaliated by declining to address the national convention. Now Democrats wring their hands over possible ill effects on the important Hispanic vote.
Erosion of the Democratic base coincides with Ralph Nader's threat as the Green Party's presidential candidate. National Democrats minimize the consumer advocate's menace, but it worries such grass-roots politicians as James Apa, executive vice president of the national Young Democrats and a Washington state delegate. Why, I asked, is George W. Bush threatening to carry his state that once was considered safe for Gore? Apa had a one-word answer: Nader.
As his party's new leader, Al Gore confronts a political conundrum that he must at least begin to solve in his acceptance speech Thursday night. How can he secure the base while reaching out to independents who provide the margin of victory in national elections?
Gore's answer has been to copy Harry Truman with old-style, bash-the-corporate interests populism. That's why he went to Truman's old home of Independence, Mo., Monday to imitate the former president in attacking Republicans and health providers.
But Truman may be an unsuitable Democratic role model for 2000, in the opinion of one of the party's most sophisticated consultants. Truman successfully practiced his populism back in 1948, which was the last year in which Democrats comprised America's majority party. The only way Charlie Rangel's mosaic can win national elections is through a combination of Bill Clinton's political mastery and Republican incompetence. Both may be lacking this year.