The Boston Bash

John Kerry's convention was a hit, so how did Republicans reframe it as a failure?

Mere minutes after John Kerry’s acceptance speech ended the Democrats’ national convention in Boston on July 29, tens of thousands of delegates and party glitterati dashed from the convention hall in search of booze. This wasn’t necessarily a comment on the quality of Kerry’s speech. Rather, it reflected one of the central goals of a national convention: to send delegates home filled with enough partisan spirits to turn out the vote. A horde of conventioneers clad in dark suits and evening gowns made its way west from the FleetCenter along Causeway Street. Some of those not invited to the A-list parties turned left on Portland Street and ducked into McGann’s pub. A sign in the window announced the spot to be “John Kerry’s favorite pub.†(It’s rumored in Boston that Kerry and former Gov. William Weld shared a beer there the day after Kerry won their heated 1996 Senate race.) Inside, the place was brightly lit and slathered in wood paneling. A television mounted high above the bar was already replaying clips of Kerry’s address. Delegates, reps from various left-leaning interest groups, and reporters-—floor passes still dangling from their necks—surged toward the wooden bar. With so many people pushed together, voices overlapped, but the conversation topics were the same: How had Kerry done?

All week, Kerry’s convention-closing speech had remained the one element of suspense in a carefully scripted convention devoid of the usual intra-party Democratic sniping. The kumbaya feeling arose mostly because the party’s left wing was present and accounted for, not chasing after a quixotic third-party crusade. The left, so boisterous in its dissent four years earlier in Los Angeles, is so determined to remove Bush that it offered nary a peep of discord in Boston, even when the Kerry campaign took to air-brushing invectives against Bush from convention speeches. It wasn’t hard to locate anti-Bush rhetoric, though. Much of it surfaced across the Charles River, in Cambridge, where the Campaign for America’s Future put on an impressive three-day “Take Back America” rally with well-attended speeches by Howard Dean, Michael Moore, Robert Reich, Dennis Kucinich, Jesse Jackson, and prominent union leaders, feminists, and environmentalists. Many of the speakers delivered the kind of condemnations of the Bush administration that the Kerry folks wouldn’t permit in the convention hall. But this was no “shadow convention,” full of grumbling about Kerry’s campaign or the direction of the party. Instead, it was pure pep rally. In an off-the-cuff political sermon, Jesse Jackson even argued that the party was so unified behind Kerry that the nominee could satisfy the faithful by simply showing up for his much-anticipated speech and not setting himself on fire. “If Kerry came out tonight [July 29] and lost his voice and his two front teeth, and only said, ‘I’ll appoint a civilized Supreme Court,’ that would be enough for me.”

Undecided voters were no doubt looking for a little more. All week this worried some delegates and party officials. Would Kerry appear too stiff on stage? Would he come off as strong enough to fight terrorism? Word that Kerry was writing most of the speech himself prompted fears that he’d deliver a long-winded snoozer.

So when Kerry walked on stage that Thursday night, the arena was suffused with nervous energy. And when Kerry, standing in front of his swift boat crew mates from Vietnam (his “Band of Brothers”), saluted and uttered his “reporting for duty” line, it sent the assembled delegates into a frenzy. It was just the kind of aggressive opening line that many had been hoping for.

The speech that followed, while short on actual policy, was full of verve and passion (at least by Kerry’s standards). He spoke in short, declarative sentences. The speech’s nimble word-plays, courtesy of former JFK speech writer Ted Sorensen (“It’s time for those who profess to care about family values to start valuing families”), recalled the rhetoric of an earlier era, when it was the Democrats who had framed the public policy debate. The speech put Kerry forward as a man devoted to his military service, who had prosecuted criminals, who is okay with guns, and willing to promise a middle-class tax cut. The Republicans were sure to contest that image. But at least the challenger seemed ready for it. After Kerry aced his first big test of the campaign, the general feeling among delegates leaving the FleetCenter seemed to be that he had seized control of the race. The question wasn’t if Kerry would beat Bush, but by how much.

Even Republicans seemed impressed, at least initially. The day after Kerry’s speech, a Republican operative told The New York Times, “It’s so tough for me to say to you on the record…. I think Kerry had a terrific convention. He presented an image that will be attractive to independents and undecideds.” Bush pollster Frank Luntz observed to the Times that “[Kerry] walked out of Boston having moved people to the pro-Kerry camp. It’s a big deal.”

At McGann’s pub, the reviews were nearly uniform: Kerry was a hit. Standing near the bar, a soft-spoken NPR reporter pronounced himself “impressed.” Gathered around a table near the back, operatives from various lefty interest groups appeared downright giddy. A blonde staffer from the League of Conservation Voters, up from D.C. to organize the group’s convention events, smiled broadly, as if she had pleasantly surprised herself with a new realization. “We’re gonna win,” she said.

Two months on, the other gavel has dropped. As the election enters its final months, numerous polls have anointed Bush the leader, well positioned for reelection. A once-slim Kerry lead in the polls has turned into a deficit. As Kerry’s support has apparently softened, so too has his party’s optimism. “I was on Cloud Nine,” said Austin delegate Trista Allen. “I can’t say I’m really on that Cloud Nine any more after that Republican convention. I find myself doubting [that Kerry can win].”

The popular perception of the Democratic convention shifted dramatically. What seemed a rousing success to those who attended it is now commonly viewed as a missed opportunity, the start of Kerry’s August swoon. The current conventional wisdom posits that Kerry erred by focusing almost exclusively on his Vietnam War service during his convention speech. That approach, the thinking goes, opened Kerry to attacks on his service record. The footage of Kerry’s hokey salute before his speech has aided this revisionism. The clip has been shown so many times now that it’s become the convention’s defining image.

Reread Kerry’s speech, however, and it becomes clear that Vietnam was but a small part of a larger message. Kerry referenced his service in Vietnam in just five paragraphs in his 92-paragraph speech. The address contained a flurry of high-minded rhetoric about carrying forward the spirit of the civil rights movement that has been all but forgotten. While it’s certainly true that Kerry’s tour of duty was a major theme of the convention, highlighting a candidate’s military record during an election centered on national security would seem smart politics. And as Allen, the Austin delegate, observed, “They were going to attack him no matter what he said. If he hadn’t talked about [Vietnam], they would have said, ‘He didn’t mention it because he didn’t do anything over there.'”

The Republican deconstruction of John Kerry evolved in three stages. First came a slow revision of his convention as too focused on his Vietnam record. Then in early August, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad campaign attempted to undermine that record, with some success, according to numerous national polls. Finally, along came the GOP convention, when Kerry heard himself branded as unfit to be commander-in-chief. “It baffles me that they attacked his strength,” Allen says. “Actually, it doesn’t baffle me. It’s really smart. I wish we had done that.”

The question now is if Kerry’s campaign can regain its footing in time to mount a final charge. There is no doubt what kind of fall election season lies ahead. The Bush campaign knows the road to victory: Make this a contest about “character;” make the voters distrust, even revile, the Democrat; stoke fears that he will be weak and indecisive in facing the nation’s enemies; keep pummeling him, lampooning him, demeaning him; whatever it takes. In short, much the same strategy the first George Bush deployed against another Massachusetts Democrat 16 years ago. And therein lies Kerry’s possible salvation.

The 1988 presidential election is considered the nastiest, most vile presidential campaign in recent memory, at least until this year’s. In that race, George H.W. Bush and his campaign consigliere, Lee Atwater, made easy work of the liberal Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis: soft on crime, soft on defense, against the Pledge of Allegiance, a gun-hater, a tax-raiser.

Kerry, who once served as lieutenant governor in Massachusetts under Dukakis, remembers the 1988 campaign well. Just as Bush has worked so diligently to avoid the pitfalls that doomed his father’s reelection, so too the Kerry team seems determined not to repeat Dukakis’ mistakes, and not to get whacked by the same Atwater tactics, this time in the hands of Karl Rove.

Kerry will not roll over, as Dukakis eventually admitted he did. Kerry will strike back. And he has some advantages that Dukakis lacked. Not in charisma or in oratorical style, but in the backing of a unified party and a re-energized left that will be as hostile to Bush’s “character” as the Rove machine will be to Kerry’s. This time, key activists on the left (Michael Moore,, etc.) even know how to raise money and use the media effectively.

Still, avoiding Dukakis’ fate will be easier said than done. Dukakis was wrong when he asserted in 1988 that the choice facing voters was one of “competence,” not ideology. It’s not yet clear whether Kerry has taken that lesson to heart. It will be tempting for Kerry to criticize the many incompetencies of the Bush administration and to sell himself as a potentially better manager of the economy and a better commander-in-chief. While that all may be true, it’s a flimsy defense against an all-out attack against the Democratic Party’s core ideological principles.

Kerry, from the beginning, has had trouble taking a clear stand on the Iraq war. (His statement in early August that he would have voted to authorize war even knowing there were no WMDs further muddled his Iraq policy and may prove a defining gaffe.) But where does the Democratic Party stand? Much of the rank-and-file detests Bush’s war, and the radical assertion of the theory of “preventive” war. At the Boston convention, however, the party sought to establish its willingness to use military power. In the party platform, the matter is handled as follows: “People of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq, but this much is clear: This Administration badly exaggerated its case…. This Administration did not build a true International coalition… [and] rushed to war without exhausting diplomatic alternatives.” This is Kerry’s case. He supports the president’s authority to start a preemptive war in Iraq, but he would have handled that authority more competently. It’s hard to fit that on a bumper sticker. Worse yet, to the average voter, it sounds a lot like waffling.

Democrats are often said to have an advantage if they can shift the debate to domestic issues. But the Republicans are ready to use their time-tested weapons here, too, to raise questions in undecided voters’ minds about what the Democratic Party stands for. The Democratic candidate, Bush will argue, is stuck in the tax-and-spend mentality-—just what you would expect from a Massachusetts liberal.

Can this possibly work after four years of Republican fiscal irresponsibility? Spending time with the Texas delegation at the convention, we found little concern about handling the tax-and-spend charge. Ken Bailey, political director for the Texas Democratic Party, said that polls show the “majority don’t mind spending a little more” if it goes to education and health care. He asks, “Are we better off than we were when Clinton was in?” He doesn’t see how the Republicans can claim the fiscal responsibility banner: “They’ve been wasting money.”

Howard Dean worked throughout the primary to combine a passionate appeal for New Deal approaches (such as expanding health care) while claiming at the same time to be a fiscal conservative. Here’s how Dean put it at the “Take Back America” rally in Boston. “I’ll tell you something about being a liberal,” Dean said. “Bill Clinton was the only president in 20 years to balance the budget, so if you want a balanced budget you better have a liberal, because you can’t trust the Republicans with your money.”

There’s a lesson for Kerry in how Dean approached the tax-and-spend charge. He turned it around and denounced the Republican Party’s “borrow-and-spend” policies. Dean recognized that the Republican Party has lost its credibility as a fiscally responsible party. If Kerry, however, is kept on the defensive about whether he will increase spending and raise taxes, he will eventually wither, like so many Democrats before him, under the label of a tax-and-spend liberal.

That likely goes for the entire race. If Kerry remains on the defensive (where Dukakis too often found himself)—on Iraq, on terrorism, on taxes—he loses. If he can find a way to turn the rhetoric around and fire back, he’s got a fighting chance.

Additional reporting and writing contributed by former Observer editor Dave Denison.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST