WASHINGTON -- Democrats gather in Chicago this weekend seeking a counter to whatever political gain Bob Dole realized from the Republican convention at San Diego. In this age of pervasive hostility toward politics and politicians, the party needs to present itself, accurately or not, as a bland and seamless entity.
President Clinton's convention planners have written a story line to make time in the eye of the cameras every bit as elaborately staged as the one followed so successfully by the Republicans -- even to the point of having Mr. Clinton arrive by train as delegates chart his progress from their seats in the convention hall.
It's a little hokey, but no worse than Elizabeth Dole's carefully choreographed foray onto the convention floor with a hand microphone. Hokey or not, polls indicated that her appearance was swallowed with relish by the convention viewers.
As a practical matter, the campaign is unlikely to be affected much, if at all, by the convention so long as the Democrats avoid any memorable gaffes. The only conventions anyone remembers even a month later are those where something went wrong.
The best example is the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where protesters against the war in Vietnam clashed with police. Images from that tumultuous convention were a factor in Hubert H. Humphrey's narrow loss to Richard M. Nixon.
Other conventions have left less dramatic images of dissent and disorganization that voters found alarming. The Republican convention in San Francisco in 1964 provided the spectacle of the Barry Goldwater delegates booing Nelson A. Rockefeller and the press. The Democratic convention in Miami Beach in 1972 was so ineptly run that the nominee, George McGovern, didn't get to deliver his acceptance speech until close to 2 a.m.
Most recently, at the 1992 Republican convention the dominant role of the religious right proved offensive to many independents and moderate Republicans.
That convention is the one the Republicans had in mind when they went to such lengths to present a pleasing picture at San Diego last week. The goal was to prevent the press from focusing too closely on the differences within the party on abortion rights, and it was largely achieved; the differences were still there but largely papered over.
Liberal anger on welfare
No issue is as potentially divisive for the Democrats at Chicago. The only serious argument in the party now is liberal anger at the president's decision to sign a welfare-reform plan they consider harsh and threatening to the poor. The Democrats already have settled on a platform written in the White House, and there is no reason to expect any welfare protest beyond a few demonstrations outside the convention center.
This seems to be the ultimate goal in political conventions today -- to present at least a facade of unanimity to an electorate that ostensibly prizes a positive message over all. What is missing in these minutely scripted events is any clear delineation of the differences between the political parties or of the differences among constituencies within the parties.
On the face of it, the Republicans who met in San Diego were a remarkably homogeneous group. The delegates were overwhelmingly white and middle-class, and they appeared agreed on the Bob Dole agenda of tax reduction and in their hostility toward liberalism and Bill Clinton. But that picture obscured huge gulfs in the cultural values and priorities between, for example, Republicans from the suburbs of Philadelphia or Chicago and those from the small towns of the South and Far West.
The Democrats obviously would like to project a similar picture of harmony from Chicago, despite the fact that the party is made up of so many racially and culturally diverse groups. The imperative is to control the great center of the political spectrum.
It is likely to make for a dull convention as more and more television viewers switch to old movies on cable channels. In the politics of 1996 there is no premium on passionate argument.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 8/23/96