'United' Democrats?

Posted: Jul 29, 2004 12:00 AM

 BOSTON -- Shortly before 5 p.m. on Tuesday at the FleetCenter, with hardly a fifth of the delegate seats filled and only C-SPAN's cameras on, the 2004 national Democratic platform was adopted by barely audible acclamation. These delegates are inheritors of an old tradition that has involved their party in often-ruinous platform battles. At long last, say today's Democrats, we are "united."

 In fact, this unity is an illusion, reflecting the transformation of national political conventions to infomercials. If debate were permitted, a dozen or more planks would have produced a traditional platform donnybrook. Delegates swallowed their left-wing principles to accept a watery platform and avoid an internal struggle. They were guided by the party's sole unifying force: the defeat of George W. Bush.

 This forbearance for the party's internal differences can last no longer than Nov. 3, when President Bush's fate will be settled. If Sen. John Kerry wins, the party's left wing will press an agenda set aside to achieve electoral success. If Kerry loses, it will be worse. His campaign's moderation will be blamed by forces insisting on moving left the next time. These alternative prospects project a future fully anticipated by sophisticated Democrats I talked to in Boston.

 The truth obscured by deception at the FleetCenter popped out in multiple ways. On Sunday, the day before the convention began, The New York Times-CBS poll of about one-fourth of the 4,322 convention delegates put them to the left of most Americans and most fellow Democrats -- including John Kerry. Nine of 10 delegates polled totally oppose the Iraq war, three-fourths support abortion on demand, only 4 percent back tax cuts and only 5 percent oppose recognition of gay marriage.

 Also on Sunday, a forum of leftist delegates (including several members of Congress) declared themselves for radical changes in America after the election. They also showed their contempt for the Kerry campaign's injunction not to assail President Bush with personal abuse. "Send the idiot back to Texas!" said Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers union.

 On the next day, Monday, Andy Stern in an interview with The Washington Post showed what radical labor leaders really think of the Democrats. "It is a hollow party," said Stern, who heads the giant Service Employees International Union (SEIU). An early supporter of Howard Dean for president, Stern said electing Kerry would slow "evolution" of the Democratic Party's dialogue. Although Stern backed down Tuesday under pressure from his brothers in labor, his original comments as head of the nation's largest union were telling.

 Given this reality, the Kerry campaign's ability to control the Boston convention is extraordinary. This is the 23rd national convention I have covered, and I never before saw anything approaching the avoidance of a platform fight here. The clever beginning was to name Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, one of the fiercest liberals in Congress, as platform drafting committee chairman. Because of her reputation, DeLauro was able -- for the sake of party unity and victory in November -- to adopt a platform less liberal than the 2000 model.

 Anti-war activists dropped demands for U.S. troops to leave Iraq at a time certain. The platform handles divisive issues by simply ignoring them. It does not even mention partial-birth abortion, gay marriage, capital punishment, Alaska oil drilling or the Kyoto global warming treaty. It is hard to believe that such staples of liberal ideology could be kept out of a Democratic platform, but they were.

 The platform also avoided taking sides on the international trade issue that divides both major parties. Yet, stem-cell research was packed into one speech after another. In abandoning the old-time ideological religion, the convention repeatedly assailed Bush in broad terms for diminishing strength at home and losing respect abroad.

 The convention's suppressed frustration could have been the source of the emotional greeting to Dr. Dean on Tuesday. Democrats dodged a bullet this year when the Dean candidacy collapsed, and the party was spared another unwinnable nominee. His well-received speech to the convention was mostly about himself, his most flattering characterization of John Kerry being that Howard Dean was for him. It did not seem much like a united party then.