Sensing victory, Democrats decide they can live with Clinton after all DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Campaign 1996

August 30, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

CHICAGO -- A curious contradiction runs under the surface of the Democratic convention. It has been dedicated far more to the glory of President Clinton than to that of the Democratic Party. That's no surprise: Incumbent presidents seeking re-election are always politically selfish. They always control the convention down to the smallest detail, and they have a single priority.

At the same time, however, there has been little evidence of passionate support for the president. This does not mean there has been any lack of enthusiasm in the sign-waving cries for ''four more years.'' And delegates clearly wanted to give emphatic backing to Hillary Rodham Clinton against her Republican critics.

But behind the cheering and the signs Democrats have been measured and practical in their expressions of appreciation for their leader. ''He hasn't been ideal from our standpoint,'' one prominent black leader said on the floor the other night, ''but he's our guy and he's a hell of a lot better than Bob Dole.''

''The important thing,'' said another liberal veteran, ''is that he's on a roll and so are we. We can worry about later later.''

On the face of it, there should be undiluted enthusiasm for Mr. Clinton. Except for those who are here because of their official positions, the delegates were all chosen in his name in primaries and caucuses in which he faced no opposition.

But Democratic activists, the kind of people most likely to become delegates, are still more inclined to be traditional liberals than ''new Democrats.''

Missing, however, has been any issue controversy of the kind that has characterized so many past Democratic conventions. Most liberals are dismayed at the president's approval of the welfare-reform plan, but even Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo were willing to give him a pass on the issue for the time being.

Not many conventions ago, Democrats imposed all sorts of litmus tests on their leaders. You couldn't be nominated if you supported capital punishment or the MX missile or a dozen other things. Now the only ideological requirement seems to be support for abortion rights.

It changed four years ago. The Democrats of 1992 had many reservations about their nominee from Arkansas, but he was the one who had made it through the primaries -- however feeble the competition -- so he was the man for the season.

The balm of power

This time the new maturity of the Democratic Party has been encouraged by another factor -- the pain of two years of Republican control of Congress. Democrats have discovered the difference between being a committee chairman and being the ranking minority member.

And now, to their considerable surprise, they have begun to believe that President Clinton may be able to lead them back to dominance, at least in the House if not in the Senate. The prospect of Newt Gingrich being returned to the back benches is a powerful inducement to genuine party unity.

Many Democratic leaders who don't feel any great warmth toward Mr. Clinton have come to admire his political skills. His carefully crafted offensive over the last 10 days -- a sugar plum a day for the voters -- has been a 10-strike in the opinion polls. It is no longer totally unrealistic to believe he might win by a margin large enough to produce the necessary 20 seats in the House.

Another prop to Democratic optimism has been their collective judgment that Republican nominee Bob Dole is such a weak opponent that a Democratic landslide November 5 is possible.

Some opinion polls are showing Mr. Clinton's lead back to 14 or 15 percent, the kind of lead that would be difficult to lose barring some world-class gaffe by the president. And he is not the kind of candidate likely to provide such an opening. Political professionals in both parties rate him a clear favorite in the impending debates that would offer the most obvious opportunity for Senator Dole to break through.

Democrats here may not view Bill Clinton with the kind of adulation Republicans showed for Ronald Reagan but they see him as a winner.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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