BOSTON—John Kerry’s victory jog through the Democratic primaries wasn’t electrifying political drama, but it was fascinating to watch because Kerry’s leisurely lapping of the field couldn’t be explained by the conventional axioms of presidential politics. In the general election, Kerry has continued his rule-breaking ways. He’s the same John Kerry—boring, craggy, and cringe-inducing—such as when, during his Sunday night, live-from-Fenway-Park interview on ESPN, he ducked the question of whether to induct Pete Rose into the Baseball Hall of Fame (“That’s up to the writers. I think, probably, that’s pretty difficult.”) and tried to have it both ways on whether Roger Clemens should be inducted as a member of the Boston Red Sox (“Well, obviously, we think [Red Sox] but there are evenly divided opinions here.”). But despite his limitations as a candidate, he’s still engaged in a campaign that’s suspending the normal laws of politics.
Even a casual viewer of Hardball knows that the first rule of an election that involves a sitting president is that it’s a referendum on the incumbent. This election, however, has turned out to be the opposite. It’s a referendum on the challenger. Kerry probably isn’t responsible for this turn of events, but he’s benefiting from it: The referendum on the incumbent is over. President Bush already lost it. This presidential campaign isn’t about whether the current president deserves a second term. It’s about whether the challenger is a worthy replacement.
So, even though there are supposed to be only five persuadable voters left in America, I’m inclined to think that the next four nights will be worth watching. Can the Democrats re-enact the successful 2000 Republican convention, a parade of moderation and diversity that convinced the nation that George W. Bush was a decent fellow who could be trusted with the levers of power? Four years ago, partisan Republicans were so consumed by Clinton hatred that they would shriek ecstatically every time Bush said he would “uphold the honor and dignity of the office.” They channeled their rage into pragmatism: After eight years of Clinton, GOP primary voters wanted to beat Al Gore so badly that they rallied around Bush months before the primaries began, based on nothing more than the fact that he seemed electable. They made a calculated bet that Bush was a guy who would sell well, and they were right.
Now it’s the Democrats’ turn to see if their similar gamble will have a similar payoff. But I wonder if this convention will be as restrained as the one Republicans held four years ago. There’s a big-name loose cannon on the bill on each of the first three nights: On Monday it’s Al Gore; on Tuesday it’s Howard Dean; and on Wednesday it’s Wesley Clark. Each one is smart, beloved by a portion of the party, and capable of rhetorical sobriety. They’re also all capable of going off the deep end.
Four years ago in Philadelphia, it took nearly two full days for a Republican speaker to even use the phrase “Clinton-Gore administration.” On the eve of this convention, the Democrats were still sating their appetite for vitriol. A labor delegate caucus I attended Sunday was either an indication that the party isn’t quite ready to tone down its rhetoric, or it was a Bush-bashing bachelor party, a final sowing of oats before the inevitable settling down. “This is where the first American revolution started, and the humiliating defeat of a king named George began,” AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said. “And, brothers and sisters, it’s where we’re starting a new American revolution.” Rep. John Lewis called George Bush the worst president of his lifetime. Dick Cheney was booed as a “calloused backroom operator.”
Then John Edwards was introduced to speak via satellite. He gave his standard speech, about leading the world rather than bullying it, about not going to war needlessly, and about John Kerry’s heroism and service in Vietnam. He also delivered a line that is consistently his biggest applause-getter at the Kerry-Edwards events I’ve attended. It’s Edwards’ answer to “honor and dignity,” Bush’s subliminal catchphrase from the 2000 campaign.
Every day, Edwards likes to say, every day John Kerry sits in that Oval Office, “he will always tell the American people the truth.” The crowd erupted, as they always do. And during the entire speech, Edwards never said the president’s name.