A Dull Democratic Party

When they convened in Philadelphia last month, their show of unity was just that – a show

American politician Senator Ted Kennedy stands in the aisle of a crowded bus during his campaign tour for the Democratic nomination for president in 1980. Credit: Robert McElroy/Getty

Discredited and traumatized by the debacle of 1980, the Democrats who gathered in Philadelphia for their midterm convention saw everything coming their way, and no one wanted to mess up the prospects. They are looking toward the congressional elections this fall, and drooling. Jobs, the economy, the environment, equality for women, social security, nuclear arms control – these issues have already locked in major constituencies for November, so the new buzzwords from the party gurus, the pollsters and the media consultants are "fairness" and "balance." With the notable exception of Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, most Democrats are still afraid to attack Ronald Reagan in personal terms, preferring to portray his administration as right-wing extremists and themselves as the responsible center. No fussing or fighting, no gouging or kneeing.

Therefore, the performance in Philadelphia was not only dull but fraudulent. The Democrats do not have their act together. They are not unified. They seem like a dead circus whose weary performers suddenly see the crowds streaming back into their tent and are not sure how to react. Circuses depend upon illusion for their thrills, but in the Democrats' case, it may be the performers, not the audience, who are deceived.

Wherever Democrats convene, the hotel elevators do not work, nor does the air conditioning. This tradition, at least, endured in Philadelphia. In the lobby of the Bellevue Stratford, a swarm of sweaty delegates was elbowing and bumping onto crowded elevators. One overloaded car jammed on the fourth floor –– Philly firemen to the rescue –– and aggravation was rising. The delegates' destination was the 19th floor, where Walter Mondale, putative candidate for president in 1984, was holding a big reception in the Rose Garden room. Mondale is so popular among his fellow Democrats that in the last Gallup poll, all of 12 percent of them named him as their favorite. Still, free drinks and handshakes with an ex-Veep pull stronger than the Hispanic caucus.

Surrounded by TV lights, Mondale was doing "hi-ya's" with a long line of people on their way to the bar when suddenly his smile glazed over. "There's a politician behind you," Mondale said to the man whose hand he was shaking. Next in line was Teddy Kennedy, who got 45 percent in the same Gallup poll. They exchanged stilted greetings, then Kennedy swung off into the room, pulling all the electricity with him – the crowd, the TV cameras, the scribbling reporters and autograph seekers, all captivated by the Kennedy magic. It was a playful demonstration of a political reality. Mondale is wobbly. Kennedy is still the star. Poor Fritz.

Afterward, some were clucking with disapproval. "I'm political myself," grumbled one delegate, "but I thought that was in bad taste." Since when have Democrats been worried about bad taste? Bad taste used to be the party's middle name, especially at these midterm conventions, where everyone poured bile and discontent on one another. In 1974, a fight over a new party charter angered labor delegates and other old regulars. In 1978, Kennedy put a match to the bonfire with a rousing speech that ignited the party's latent hostility toward its own president, Jimmy Carter.

This year, they were overcome by rampant moderation. For Democrats, this was unnatural, like a go-go dancer in a baggy suit, and the results were predictably dull. For three days, the six or seven middle-aged white males who would like to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984 peddled amiability and earnestness at cocktail parties and luncheons, while the 900 delegates wandered from workshops on campaign mechanics to long and boring platform-drafting sessions. Party chairman Charles T. Manatt presided like a boorish schoolteacher, shushing delegates who chose to make conversation over the boilerplate speeches.

Billie Carr, a grandmotherly national-committee member from Texas who still believes in old-fashioned brawls, sat in the front row of her delegation, scratching her foot and denouncing the empty deliberations. Chairman Manatt had just scolded her by name from the rostrum for talking too much. "We're operating under martial law here," she said. "They know who the dissidents are, and they've got us all scattered so we can't do anything. I guess I could scare up 300 people who would raise hell, but, shit, it's tiresome getting hit in the head."

There was no incentive for steamy oratory on behalf of lost causes: The rules guaranteed that only agreed-upon drafts of party positions would be adopted by any workshops or ratified by the full convention. "That whole platform thing," Carr said, "I can sum it up for you: 'Reagan is bad. We are good. We don't like crime.' I really think we're selling people short when we've got economic chaos in the country and we don't want to say anything more than that."

In a few respects, the Democrats did advance gingerly beyond those sentiments, but it was done in such a manner that the hard arguments were evaded. The economics task force, for instance, nodded toward the neoliberals by endorsing the idea of a simplified income tax that would undermine the progressive structure liberals have always defended. The old liberals have chosen not to fight it, but in return, they want endorsement for their old-fashioned jobs program, the sort that neoliberals denounce as fiscally irresponsible. This is a marriage of contradictory ideas that can't last.

The most significant action, insufficiently appreciated in the daily news coverage, was the party endorsement that "welcomes and supports" the campaign for a freeze on all nuclear weapons. Six months ago, mainstream Democrats barely knew that this citizen's movement existed; now they realize they had better pay homage to it or face a lot of nasty questions back home. One of the presidential aspirants, the normally hawkish Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, signed on as a co-sponsor of the Kennedy-Hatfield freeze resolution a few days before the Philadelphia convention. Two other presidential hopefuls, Senator John Glenn of Ohio and Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, aren't co-sponsors but talk like they love the idea.

While everyone played to the freeze sentiment, the movement's activists should not be deluded by the appearance of Democratic unanimity. The hawks of the party added fine print qualifying the final document so they could claim the right to oppose the freeze at a later date. Then Ben Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative dusting off his Democratic credentials after several years of flirting with Reagan Republicans, amiably informed the foreign-policy task force that pro-defense Democrats want to build the next generation of nuclear weapons before anything gets frozen, and that they'll be heard from later.

"It's no secret that there is great division in the Democratic party over the freeze," Wattenberg said. "It's not just alleged hawks like me who have problems with the freeze. We Democrats are cordially agreeing to cordially disagree. We Democrats, to use a newspaper phrase, are in array."

The freeze advocates ought to have shown a little more courage and opted for creative disarray. It was obvious that doubters like Wattenberg would have been shouted down if the conflict had been joined. Lon Newman, a delegate from Portage County, Wisconsin, expressed the overwhelming sentiment: "Central Wisconsin is certainly no hotbed of radical ideas –– unless you go back to Joe McCarthy –– but my local party has unanimously endorsed the freeze. So has the state party. Our national party needs to keep up with the people."

A mellower mood prevailed, however, and nobody forced an argument. "Everyone is being too accommodating here," said Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas. "We ought to show a little toughness."

The Democrats also took a dive on the bloody war in the Middle East. Though many delegates gagged in private, they assented in silence to a strongly worded pro-Israeli resolution that practically congratulated Menachem Begin for the destruction of civilian life and property in Lebanon. A few delegates suggested mildly that the party ought to at least take note of Arab casualties, so a brave compromise was forged: A sentence was added that publicly put the Democratic party on record against death.

"The party has no idea of what it stands for or where it's going," observed Pat Caddell, one of the party's leading public-opinion experts."It can pull itself together over Reagan, but it can't define itself. That can't be done by committee. That's going to be done by the candidate who grabs control of it and gives it a sense of which way to go."

Yet even Ted Kennedy has lowered his voice –– a little. A few weeks ago, the senator, campaigning for reelection in Massachusetts, delivered one of his rousing speeches to an association for the mentally handicapped. Afterward, a retarded child came up to him and innocently asked, "Why are you so angry?" The boy's mother intervened. "He's not angry at you. He's angry about the budget cuts," she explained. "I thought he was shouting at me," the boy said.

Kennedy tells this story on himself to emphasize that he has gotten the message. His speech on the final day of the Philadelphia convention was bravura, a medley of applause, laughter and knockout punch lines, but it was modulated well below the red-eyed and florid levels he is capable of reaching. In touching the chords of shared Democratic feeling, Kennedy was without peer. Nobody else came close. If the others don't polish their acts before the primaries, Kennedy is going to own the whole circus.

Senator Alan Cranston of California gave a dull speech badly, stepping on his own best laugh line. "In the spirit of unity," Cranston declared, "I pledge my wholehearted support to Ted Kennedy –– in 1982." Instead of laughter, he got applause.

The other Fritz –– Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, who would probably settle happily for a Kennedy-Hollings ticket in '84 –– seemed downright forlorn at the podium. Senator Hart, who was everywhere in shirt sleeves, selling issues and youth, did not arouse the troops, either. Senator Glenn, the ex-astronaut, seemed earthbound, too. Like Jimmy Carter, Glenn is relaxed and likable off-camera, but put a microphone in front of him and he'll launch into windy, five-part answers to every question.

Walter Mondale came to the convention with the most elaborate network of floor leaders and spear carriers, including ex-Carter administration cabinet members who were calling themselves the "over-the-hill gang." The Mondale line is that while Kennedy has the big lead in the polls, Mondale will out-organize him among party regulars. This sounds like the same centrist caution that carried Senator Edmund Muskie over the hill to oblivion in 1972. Nonetheless, Mondale's convention speech was a minor triumph, compelling enough to dispel the notion that he is already finished.

Still, the only undiluted triumph belonged to Kennedy. For 40 minutes, he made the Democrats feel young and yeasty again, not a bad illusion for a political party still so confused about itself. Unlike the others, Kennedy senses that the public is ready for direct, personal jabs at the president, and he took some: "If Ronald Reagan does not know the facts about how this recession began, then Ed Meese ought to wake him up and tell him,"Kennedy roared.

Kennedy also had the wit and nerve to do what others avoided –– that is, to say a nice word about the Democrat who wasn't there, Jimmy Carter. "I had my disagreements with the last administration," Kennedy intoned, "but on the vital issue of human rights, Ronald Reagan is wrong –– and Jimmy Carter was right." The audience rose in sustained applause that soon became a chant throughout the hall: "We want Ted."

Everything is coming Kennedy's way. For three days, Kennedy made the ritual calls on every delegation and interest group, huddling with schoolteachers and state party chairs, meeting in private sessions with big-city mayors, dining with the Texas delegation, having coffee with the labor caucus. In every hotel lobby and meeting hall, his celebrity overwhelmed the event. More importantly, the issues that favor the Democrats in '82 are Kennedy's issues, from the economic disaster of Reaganomics to the gathering momentum for a nuclear freeze. While some of his competitors veered toward the right, Kennedy stood up for the old liberalism last year when Reagan was in fashion. Now, that steadfastness is paying dividends. "The struggle last year sometimes seemed lonely,"Kennedy pointedly reminded the delegates. "But events since then have reaffirmed a vital truth: The last thing this nation needs in the 1980s is two Republican parties."

The Iowa delegation enjoys the fact that their caucus is the opening event of every presidential season; in Philadelphia, they cast informal ballots on their preferences of the moment. Kennedy got six votes; Mondale, three; Hart, one; and three were undecided (two were leaning toward Kennedy). This is probably a fair measure of Kennedy's current advantage.

Or is the tide toward Kennedy also an illusion? He arouses an excitement among Democrats that none of the other candidates can match, but he also causes a certain queasiness. The politicians wonder if the public is once again playing tease with the last Kennedy. They remember seeing this before. Kennedy led the polls in 1979, until he became a declared candidate. Then the Democratic voters turned abruptly to Jimmy Carter, as if to punish Kennedy for his presumption. After Carter had sewn up the nomination, folks started surging back to Kennedy, and he won the closing primaries. Had people forgiven him at last for the sins of his youth, namely Chappaquiddick, or was it another game, leading him on so that he'd run again in the future?

The question still bothers Reverend Robert Drinan, the former congressman and Jesuit priest who is now the president of Americans for Democratic Action. "All over the country," Drinan said, "liberal Democrats say, 'We like Teddy on the issues, but... ' And they don't have to finish the sentence. But here, they acted like that doesn't matter, as if they wanted to believe in the delusion, at least for a while."

My own hunch is that voters will look differently at Kennedy in 1984, just as they reacted more favorably to the resurrection of the "New" Richard Nixon in 1968 or to the comeback of the twice-rejected Ronald Reagan. The deep-dyed Kennedy hatred will endure, of course, but having punished him so brutally in 1980, many voters may be prepared to believe in his expiation. Against a large field, Kennedy's hard-core support –– from 25 to 30 percent of the Democrats –– gives him a powerful edge in the primaries, especially if the Reagan administration continues producing economic misery and a jittery foreign policy. Kennedy's fate, like the future of his party, is not entirely in his own hands.

Kennedy's liberalism looks strong for now, but he is ill-prepared for the possibility that economic conditions might gradually improve over the next two years, pushing his party toward a safe, middle-of-the-road candidate. And so far, the senator has not convincingly addressed the questions on which he is most vulnerable: In times of budgetary crisis, how is the government going to pay for all those programs he espouses? If restored to power, would liberalism clean up its act?

After the senator's speech, House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, schmoozing on the convention floor, made this prediction: "If the economy is bad, Teddy is a cinch. If it isn't, then he has a lot of problems."

This much I know. If Teddy Kennedy isn't for real, the Democratic circus is in deep straw.