Anger has been the chief characteristic of the Democrats all year long. But now another emotion is seeming to come into play–they’re happy. Why? Because they think they’re going to win and this convention is going to help them do it. Why? Well, to find out I talked to a smart Democrat or two. What follows is the analysis I heard from them.
First of all, Kerry is obviously very sensitive to the liberal charge and you’re not ever going to hear him refer to himself as one. This means he is determined to avoid the Dukakis trap, and to avoid Al Gore’s mistakes too.
In 2000, Gore positioned himself to the left on cultural issues and was very loud about it. Clinton said abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. Gore pretty harshly denounced supporters of a partial-birth-abortion ban. Clinton said we need to mend, not end affirmative action. Gore mounted the ramparts in defense of affirmative action. Clinton supported various gun-control measures, but didn’t go as far as Gore, who endorsed a national gun registry.
Kerry will try to be very much in the Clinton tradition. This week will feature lots of talk of values and faith, and the party will attempt to project a welcoming attitude toward those voters who might not agree with it on cultural issues.
There has been an internal debate within the Democratic party for a long time about whether Democrats should just not talk about “Republican” issues. Howard Dean forcefully argued for that approach in the Democratic primaries. Kerry’s message may have been influenced by Dean in important respects, but not here. Kerry is comfortable talking about national security. Fiscal conservatism is one of his talking points, and, of course, he has taken to talking about values.
Kerry can emphasize all this here this week because he is freed from playing to his base, since it is so united in its animus to Bush. So he can attempt to reach out to those elusive swing voters. Edwards is a helpful choice in that regard. He sounds like a cultural moderate, i.e. he has a southern accent. He specializes in inclusive-sounding rhetoric and he can be critical of Bush without sounding nasty.
Sounding nasty will be, of course, out at this convention. It will be a red-meat audience that won’t need any red meat. Kerry could come out for making all of the Bush tax cuts permanent and get rapturous applause.
This, again, puts Kerry in a much better position than Gore, who still had to tie down his base with his convention. Gore also needed a home run, whereas this time there is a sense that Bush is on the defensive and that Kerry doesn’t have to do anything shortsighted or risky. Gore, finally, was unveiling a whole new political persona at his convention: the angry, fighting populist. You could argue that Kerry’s moderation is something new as well, but he has been on this track since the nomination and it is one that is safe and sensible.
Does Kerry lack a message? Well, there is one in there somewhere and it will basically be a reassuring one. He will say that he has better ideas about how to defend the country after 9/11 than Bush, that he has specific plans to handle issues domestically where Bush has been lacking (health care, energy, the economy, etc.), and that–implicitly at least–he will bring a return to the good times of the 1990s (Clinton’s speech in primetime tonight will play to this notion). The message, in brief, is “We can do better.”
Now, you may not buy all of this analysis, or even most of it, but it is why Democrats are feeling good today. Is it possible for a group of people to be hopping mad and serenely self-confident at the same time? We may be about to witness it.