A failed convention

Posted: Aug 21, 2000 12:00 AM
LOS ANGELES -- Heavy hitters in the Democratic Party who prayed for Al Gore's acceptance speech to retrieve a failed convention got the bad news Thursday afternoon. In a few hours, the presidential nominee would deliver a "laundry list" of policy initiatives. That accurately forecast an imitation state-of-the-union address, devoid of political poetry. Why should Vice President Gore give so prosaic a recital of liberal policy initiatives in what everybody called the most important speech of his career? It's because he and strategists believe he cannot win a personality contest with George W. Bush and must draw hard lines with "populist" issues that really amount to assaults on business interests who have forged the nation's prosperity. A combustible left-wing agenda wrapped in a pedestrian laundry list was not the only incongruous element of the convention. Sen. Joe Lieberman, initially celebrated for a bringing a centrist tone to the ticket, spent the whole week moving left. The Gore campaign never came to grips about whether it was trying to solidify the party's liberal base or reach out to undecided independents. The televised image of innumerable Gore pennants floating in a packed convention hall did not accurately convey what was really happening on the floor. Delegates found it difficult to maintain a level of enthusiasm as their nominee recited familiar proposals to expand the role and responsibilities of government. The president of the University of California student body, standing in front of me, began leaping up and screaming "Go, Gore, go!" with every promise made, but eventually ran out of steam. There was nothing new for delegates and faithful television-watchers in Gore's litany: prescription drugs for seniors, health insurance for all, more federal money for schools, gun control, abortion rights, gay rights. They had heard it all this week in nearly identical language from scores of convention speakers whose words were vetted, edited and often written by Gore campaign staffers. In a speech long on prose but short on poetry, the most memorable line was "I stand here tonight as my own man." That generated more applause than anything else in the vice president's speech because the delegates understood the necessity of Gore separating himself from Bill Clinton. "He said what had to be said," State Sen. Vince Demuzio, a former Illinois Democratic chairman, told me as he left the floor after the speech -- not exactly a rave review. President Clinton's spectacular swan song last Monday got the convention off to an uneven start, from which it never really recovered. Instead of introducing his successor to the country, the self-indulgent president celebrated himself. While Gore planned to concentrate on his liberal programs for the future, Clinton was totally out of phase by sounding the "you never had it so good" theme. Lieberman, whose selection as vice president momentarily energized the convention, ended up paradoxically forcing a leftish tone here. That was needed to reassure African-Americans, school teachers and other elements of the Democratic coalition alarmed by Lieberman's previously moderate positions. By the end of the convention, many Democrats were saying Gore would have been better advised to reassure the party's liberal base by picking Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, permitting freedom to moderate the issues. In truth, however, Kerry or anybody else as his running mate would not have deflected Gore from reciting his laundry list. Ever since denouncing Gov. Bush's acceptance speech in Philadelphia as short on substance, the Gore strategic team had been determined to lay out policy differences with the Republican nominee. It may be possible that populist rhetoric and liberal proposals will have the remarkable effect of swaying undecided voters. But even ardent Gore partisans concede that the Los Angeles convention did not turn around the presidential race. Gore is down to his third opportunity to transform this election. The first chance disappeared when Bush performed well in Philadelphia. The second chance came here. Reflecting a view that is widespread inside the party, one veteran Democratic consultant told me as the convention began: "It's slipping away from us, unless we really get a boost here." They did not. That leaves the presidential debates as Gore's third and last chance.