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Is the Democrats’ New Harmony for Real?

Was the subdued convention a peak at a focused party or simply an act?

Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Michael Dukakis, join hands, presidential, debate

Senator Al Gore, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis join hands before presidential debate sponsored by the Daily News on April 12th, 1988.

Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

The new, Disneyesque look of the Democratic party owes everything to that great teacher of modern political technique, Ronald Reagan. The diverse, fractious political party that for twenty years fought itself in convention halls and in the streets has at last learned the lessons of the Republican media managers. A sunny face in soft focus in a necessary mask for contentious reality. Boring television makes good politics.

Any small-d democrat who believes, as I do, in an honest dialogue about how the country is to be governed laments the Democrats’ conversion. We used to be able to count on the party to pile the nation’s laundry on the table and noisily sort through it in full public view. This was always entertaining and sometimes ennobling, for the Democrats were the advance guard of American politics that battled over the great issues, like civil rights, before it was really politic to do so.

Over the years the Democrats paid dearly for this. Caricatured by the skillful propagandizing of the GOP, Democrats became the party of weird voices, threatening and unreliable. This flaky image was never accurate, of course, but the quadrennial drama of the Democratic convention seemed to corroborate it. In modern politics, image overpowers reality. A slightly dotty, twice-married, grade-B movie actor from Beverly Hills, California, bankrolled by right-wing millionaires, emerged as the voice of the common man.

In Atlanta, under the impressive management of Michael Dukakis and his Boston handlers, the Democrats went bland and wholesome on us. They borrowed page after page from the GOP handbook: Hide the thorny details under euphemisms. Project the gauzy, homespun images that even the most doltish citizen can relate to. Talk in the broad, symbolic language of the American experience — family, work, flag, optimism. Package the hard choices of politics as sentimental slop.

Given the clockwork efficiency and banality of their convention, enervated delegates, even Dukakis supporters, grumbled. But they didn’t grumble very loudly. Because, above all, the Democratic party wants to elect a president this fall. After that’s accomplished, the Democrats will get back to the real tensions that divide them, the substantive questions that were muted so successfully in Atlanta about what kind of political party they want to become.

In spite of what most political analysts concluded, my reading of the Democrats is that beneath the suburban platitudes, this is a party gradually pivoting toward a more liberal future. Just as the Republican party moved hard right behind a wall of mushy family rhetoric, the Democrats are going in the opposite direction — toward a more populist agenda — under the cover of a managerial reformer named Michael Dukakis. This year, when Republican orators make their perennial complaint about the Democrats’ becoming more liberal, I think, for a change, they will be right.

In the crowded hotel lobbies and barrooms, the convention wisdom on Dukakis went like this: He is a bloodless tactician whose minions eviscerated the event of all content to avoid any controversy. This was true enough, but it overlooks an important point. Dukakis had a willing accomplice in creating this false aura of contentment — the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

The party’s platform, for instance, would have been the ideal battleground for Jackson. After declaring his vision of the Democratic program, Jackson could have lost honorably to the superior forces of the Massachusetts governor. Instead, there were a couple of polite, perfunctory debates but none of the desperate passion that usually accompanies these encounters.

Robert Borosage, Jackson’s issues adviser, explained: “The reason we didn’t have a real fight over the platform is that the Dukakis people gave us so much of what we wanted — as long as we were willing to accept language so broad and generalized that the ideas sound innocuous. Seventy percent of the platform is actually from Jackson’s agenda, but you’d never be able to figure that out unless you were an expert.” The platform indeed touches nearly all of Jackson’s bases but leaves out the sticky details that might upset voters or give the GOP hard ammunition this fall.

On the most explosive issue before the convention, the question of Palestinian self-determination, the Jackson forces chose discretion over valor. They put the matter on the schedule for debate but declined to force a roll-call vote — a tally that doubtless would have alarmed many Jewish voters and exposed Jackson’s own delegates to controversy back home.

This spirit of accommodation, likewise, was extended to Dukakis’s choice for his running mate, Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, who is a business conservative not really different on economic issues from George Bush or Ronald Reagan. Despite the snit over missed communications. Jackson responded warmly to Bentsen and even cast him as the peacemaker who helped bring together the two camps.

Bentsen has two large virtues that Jackson and his delegates could celebrate. First, unlike most Southern conservatives of his generation, the senator has been a genuine supporter of racial equality since the earliest days of his career. Second, Bentsen represents a smart choice politically. If Dukakis wins Texas, and with it the election, Jackson’s goals will be advanced, too. With Dukakis in power, Jackson automatically becomes more influential, whether inside or outside the government.

The reality of this was understood by everyone at the Atlanta convention, where twenty-one percent of the delegates were black and the overwhelming majority of the delegates, white and black, agreed with Jackson’s more liberal agenda, though not with his candidacy.

“Let’s make this clear,” Jackson told a caucus of his labor delegates. “We’re not talking about threatening to leave the convention. We’re talking about threatening to stay.”

What so many white people have a hard time grasping about this man — but which was so obvious in Atlanta — is that Jesse Jackson is playing the long game in American politics. Yes, he thrives on today’s headlines and the presence of TV lights and cameras. Yes, he would like to be the first black president someday, or vice-president, for that matter.

Meanwhile, Jackson intends to build the Democratic party of the coming decade — defining the main issues not just for this year’s election but for two years or five years hence. He is putting up the tent under which old liberal-labor groups can gather again, with or without Jackson as their leader, and push Dukakis and the party toward a more liberal program. A politician playing the long game isn’t interested in kamikaze gestures that only stir transient emotions — especially if he thinks he will win.

Jackson’s bravura performance at the convention was not, I thought, the speech everyone saw on television but an earlier appeareance he made Monday morning before a caucus of his own delegates. The meeting room at the Marriott Marquis was jammed with 1200 folks, two-thirds of them black, stoked on righteous pride and feeling feisty as they waited for their candidate.

But at another location, Jesse Jackson was folding his banner. In broad terms, Dukakis stiffed him — gave Jackson nothing that had not already been agreed upon weeks before. Then they held a press conference where Jackson declared victory. The only suspenseful question remaining for the convention was how all this was going to go down with Jackson’s own fired-up troops.

Amid the bedlam of the Marriott meeting room, the vanquished candidate took the podium and hushed his delegates instantly with his opening words: “Mrs. Rosa Parks.” The meaning resonated throughout the room — Parks was the seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, who in 1955 refused to move to the “colored” seats, in the back of the bus, and was arrested. Her defiance was the spark that launched Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade. At Jackson’s instruction, everyone jamming the aisles knelt — as reverently as children at Sunday school.

“All of us are on her shoulders,” Jackson said solemnly, introducing Parks. Then he called out the names of the civil-rights martyrs. Suddenly, Atlanta’s political hoopla was placed in a more exalted context, a part of the long march of history — slow, sometimes tragic, but inevitably triumphant, because the cause was right.

“I’m going to ask you to do a hard thing,” Jackson said. “Put your focus on why we’re here. If you’re following my lead, then reflect my spirit, attitude and discipline. We don’t have the time to fill up the media airwaves with pollution. This is not vacation time.”

Jackson then sketched out a political agenda that goes far beyond 1988. It is his formulation of a permanent activism, from appointing state party leaders in the South to enacting liberal national legislation. “Today’s protests are tomorrow’s mainstream,” Jackson said. The civil-rights history he had invoked — and his own astonishing rise as a political leader — made the promise more plausible.

Jackson’s speech was as deft as anything I’ve ever seen a politician achieve with his listeners — building their commitment to future struggles and simultaneously cooling them out about the one they had just lost. He took them to the mountaintop and, at the same time, gently led them to accept reality. When the delegates were interviewed later by scores of reporters, they repeated the lines that Jackson had taught them: “Discipline — details. Not show business — serious business. Not fireworks — noble works.”

Jackson is already creating the structure for this kind of politics. He has formed his own political-action committee — the Keep Hope Alive PAC — and raised nearly $1 million to finance voter-registration drives and progressive state and local candidates. The Southern equation is obvious: without black votes, white Democrats lose. To build a stronger national base, Jackson intends to concentrate on on-site voter registration, which he calls “the civil-rights issue of the 1990s.” This legislation would remove the technical impediments to voting, so that tens of millions of poor and alienated citizens could be easily mobilized on election day. Such a change would vastly liberalize the shape of the American electorate, and incumbents of all stripes will naturally resist it. Jackson understands the resistance to it and intends to lobby for it state by state, especially where blacks and other minority groups have sufficient leverage, until it becomes a winning national issue.

Beyond his own organization, Jackson is talking to like-minded party leaders about establishing a “progressive leadership council” that would pull together all the liberal elements of the Democratic party and provide a permanent voice for a more aggressive program. If Dukakis becomes president, the council would be a constant voice urging him leftward — or attacking any drift to the right.

“Close enough to serve and far enough away to challenge,” Jackson said of his own future role. “A good combination of leadership and street heat.”

For Jackson himself the vision of a permanent liberal movement within the party represents a much different challenge. Can he play coalition politics, which requires patiently building a sophisticated network of political alliances? In other words, can he suppress his own ego in situations where his charisma would do more harm than good? Even a lot of his potential allies are skeptical. But my own sense of this man tells me not to underestimate his capacities. Jesse Jackson may never get to be president, but he has spent twenty years doggedly building this force within the Democratic party, and at every turn he has proved to be more astute — and more pragmatic — than either friends or opponents imagined possible.

Despite appearances, the Atlanta convention clearly demonstrated a yearning for a more activist party. Surveys of delegates showed overwhelming support for Jackson’s views — from tax increases to reduced defense spending — even though most agreed with Dukakis that these positions should remain submerged for the campaign.

Moreover, a generational change was evident among the delegates — the maturing of civil-rights and New Left activists into working members of the party. These were the people on the outside twenty years ago. Now they are delegates and elected public officials. They are a minority today but approaching the front ranks of power. Some were for Jackson, and some weren’t, but their political values are a lot closer to his than to the party nominee’s. In the primaries, Jackson carried the vote of Democrats under thirty-five.

At the convention, Michael Dukakis brilliantly launched himself as a candidate, evoking but not fully embracing all the latent sentiments within this divided party. His acceptance speech made general commitments to the liberal causes — health care, education and arms control — but without details. The words and symbols he projected are all-American and comfortable: competence, integrity, family values. Democrats in general are extraordinarily optimistic about their election chances, even conservative Democrats from Republican states such as Oklahoma, South Dakota or Indiana. While the lefties are disgusted to see the Democrats ape the mealy themes of Republican campaigns, they are content to view 1988 as a transition toward something bolder.

“This is not a yuppie suburban party,” said one Dukakis adviser. “There is a big lump of progressive forces moving through it, and it’s not limited to the Jackson camp. The Duke is astride this leftward movement, and his instincts are often compatible with it — but he’s not part of it. If he governs conservatively, he is going to be in conflict with it.”

The lack of content in Dukakis’s campaign to date contains its own risks — like an NFL team sitting on a lead by playing prevent defense. If some surprise this fall suddenly hurts Dukakis, he has not given people much to hang on to. Running for president on a promise to be competent and honest is thin gruel.

Even if the strategy wins, Dukakis may regret the consequences. A candidate who makes no hard commitments will find that he has no popular mandate for his programs once he is president. Bland campaigns produce bland administrations, and the present circumstances cry out for strong action.

A year or two from now, if things go badly for President Dukakis, if he tries to pursue a regime of economic austerity against the liberal impulses of his own party; he will be confronted by a powerful insurgency from within his own ranks, led by Jesse Jackson and probably others. Then all of the important arguments that were neatly suppressed in Atlanta will be in full view — and threatening his presidency.

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