Democrats at convention anxious despite the cheers

GERMOND & WITCOVER

July 18, 1992|By GERMOND & WITCOVER

NEW YORK -- Delegates leaving political conventions are almost always described as "euphoric." In this case, the best we can do is "cautiously optimistic."

The good news for the Democrats is that the convention was managed without any evidence of serious divisions in the party, at least on the surface, and without the nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton, being obliged to publicly kowtow to any of the constituencies the Republicans love to call "special interests." Jesse Jackson, for one, was treated like just another party leader.

Moreover, Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, demonstrated both a cool professionalism and enough of a hard edge to encourage party activists to believe they make up a ticket that won't embarrass them. They managed to get through the week here without doing anything that would give the Republicans an obvious political opening; nobody threatened to raise taxes (except on the rich) or legalize marijuana.

But Bill Clinton is not a leader who inspires frenzy in his supporters.

They will sing and dance for him, wave their placards and flags and cheer on cue. But the emotional connection is limited. He is a conventional politician running a conventional campaign that is based on putting together the right pieces of the electorate to defeat President Bush, not on remaking the world.

The post-convention optimism, despite the gaudy numbers for Clinton in new opinion polls, is tempered by two nagging concerns. No one quite knows what to make of Ross Perot's departure, but everyone knows Clinton would have been better off if it hadn't happened. And, more to the point now, no one knows how the Bush campaign will savage Clinton on his personal history, but everyone knows that it surely will happen.

This is the core of the tentative quality so conspicuous among the Democrats here this week.

They read the polls telling them Bush is extremely vulnerable and Clinton is getting an even bigger bump than Michael S. Dukakis enjoyed four years ago.

But they have not forgotten how the Bush campaign destroyed Dukakis and wonder if it can happen again.

"I think we have a chance," a Midwestern senator said, "but we have to see what they've got up their sleeves."

To some extent, this anxiety is a natural state for a party that has lost five of the last six presidential elections. Democrats have begun to wonder if they deserve to win. But in this case it is also a function of the questions about Clinton. They admire his gritty performance as "the Comeback Kid," but they are reminded of his political baggage every time they hear the president or Dan Quayle talking about "family values."

In fact, the Democrats probably have more reason to be optimistic than they realize.

The context of the campaign -- an electorate shot through with pessimism about the future and angry about the last four years -- is ideal for a challenger. Bush has been floundering all year without any sign that he understands how to make a convincing case for a second term. The notion of an incumbent as the champion of "change" -- the buzzword these days -- is laughable on its face.

They also should be encouraged by the fact that Clinton is, despite his boyish looks, a political tough guy who is willing to get into the president's face on the values question and to take the offensive from the outset, as he demonstrated so clearly in his endless acceptance speech. His managers, moreover, include much of the best talent in the party rather than some Arkansas mafia of limited experience and acuity.

By rolling out of the convention on a six-day bus caravan through the industrial East and Midwest, he is demonstrating that he intends to be the protagonist in this political drama, forcing the action rather than reacting to the White House. Clinton seems to understand that, favorable polls or not, you have to go out and pick the apples off the trees.

But the kind of Democrats who become delegates to national conventions are the kind of people who like a little wine and music with their politics.

If Mario Cuomo had been the nominee, it is safe to speculate that the response among the delegates would have been far more emotional and visceral. Bill Clinton gives them a realistic chance to win the White House, but he doesn't do much to get the juices flowing.

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