WASHINGTON -- Like a kid sneaking a peek at his birthday presents and spoiling the fun of the party, John Kerry has managed to take all the surprise out of the Democratic convention by picking his vice presidential nominee three weeks before the first balloons drop in Boston.
Mr. Kerry played it safe by choosing Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate, but it might have boosted convention ratings if he had held the announcement until the delegates gathered. But maybe there was method in his precipitate action.
Usually, political conventions are a forum to showcase a party's best and brightest, as well as to reward old party faithful. The convention is supposed to set the theme for the general election campaign by giving voters a reason to vote for the party's nominees. But Democrats can't seem to think of a reason to vote for John Kerry, although they can come up with plenty of reasons to vote against President Bush. So it might have been awkward for the Democrats to come to Boston and try to put on a convention packed with positive themes.
They are not so much trying to sell American voters on the Democratic Party and its nominees as they are trying to paint George W. Bush as a demon. If much of the convention speculation centered around the vice presidential pick, it would have thrown them off message. And perhaps even more dangerous, it would have invited scrutiny about what the Democrats are actually offering the American people, other than catharsis for Bush haters.
Most public opinion polls show the race neck and neck, with few undecided voters. Events -- a terrorist attack that took a large number of American lives in Iraq or, worse, in the United States; a big jump or decline in jobs; or an embarrassing revelation about one of the candidates -- might change things before Election Day. But chances are, the margin in this election will remain razor-thin right up to Nov. 2. Democrats are hoping for the worst to beat Mr. Bush, but it's not much of a platform.
Traditionally, the vice presidential nominee is the party attack dog, taking direct aim at the other side. But Mr. Edwards seems ill-suited for this role. He refused to attack his fellow Democrats in the party primaries -- which may be one reason Mr. Kerry was willing to put him on the ticket.
And even when he criticized the president or decried the state of the U.S. economy, he never seemed to muster so much anger as wistful regret. With his "aw, shucks" manner and boyish good looks, he managed to sound optimistic about the future even when he was complaining about the present. He's no Richard Nixon, or even Al Gore. In fact, the vice presidential nominee he most reminds me of is Dan Quayle -- minus Mr. Quayle's more impressive Senate accomplishments.
This leaves the role of hatchet man to Mr. Kerry himself, or party surrogates such as Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Although Mr. McAuliffe excels in the role -- there is not a nastier guy in politics today -- few people even know who he is. Mr. Kerry could go on the attack, but when he does, he comes off as even more dour than his already doleful persona projects, and that may wear thin by the fall.
Democrats will try to convince Americans that we are enduring the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression, that we are as unsafe as we were on Sept. 11, 2001, if not more so, and that Mr. Bush is a liar.
But the facts don't comport with Democrats' reality. We've had 10 straight months of solid job gains, and good economic growth. The gross domestic product increased by roughly 4 percent in each of the last two quarters, a rate higher than in the comparable quarters leading up to Bill Clinton's re-election in 1996. And we've had the best rate of consecutive, three-year gains in productivity in almost 50 years. And despite the desire of our enemies to spill American blood everywhere they can, we haven't been attacked on U.S. soil.
That leaves the Democrats to hammer away at the president's truthfulness. But will Mr. Kerry, who's changed political positions as often as his underwear, make a convincing case that he's more of a straight shooter than Mr. Bush? I guess we'll just have to wait until Nov. 2 to learn the answer.
Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.