A chance to bounce, or tumble

July 19, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The Democrats have just unveiled their plans for their national convention in Boston next week. It will seek to project their prospective nominee, John Kerry, as the nation's best remedy for the troubled times under the slogan "Stronger at Home, Respected in the World."

With signs of improvement in the American economy but President Bush still struggling to extricate himself politically from the mess he's made in Iraq, the second half of that pitch figures to offer Mr. Kerry the better chance of winning in November.

Though he voted for the 2002 Bush resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq and then voted in protest against funding it, the Massachusetts senator has based his post-invasion opposition on Mr. Bush's near-unilateral actions in Iraq and his foreign policy generally, which have widely alienated the international community.

FOR THE RECORD - Jules Witcover's column yesterday included an incorrect year for Ronald Reagan's campaign against President Jimmy Carter. It was 1980. The Sun regrets the error.

Earlier in the campaign, Mr. Kerry boasted of unidentified world leaders telling him they hoped he'd beat Mr. Bush in the fall, then he backed off. But heavy criticism of Bush policy from leaders in France, Germany, Russia and other nations has left little doubt that Mr. Kerry's election would, in their eyes, make America more "respected in the world."

Whether that will be enough to put Mr. Kerry in the White House is a big question, however. Americans generally don't like getting advice from foreigners on how they should vote. So Mr. Kerry will be attempting at the convention in his hometown of Boston to reinforce his own credentials.

But polls indicate that his main argument for support of the voters continues to be that he is not George W. Bush in an election that still promises to be a referendum on the incumbent. That circumstance makes it imperative that Mr. Kerry demonstrate he is a desirable and safe alternative to the beleaguered but still popular Texan.

Mr. Kerry thus finds himself in basically the same position as Ronald Reagan in his 1976 run against similarly beleaguered incumbent Jimmy Carter. The country wanted a change, but Mr. Reagan had to overcome doubts about his age and intellectual wattage, which he did in debating Mr. Carter.

Before the Bush-Kerry debates this fall, however, Mr. Kerry will be looking, as all prospective nominees do, to his party's convention and the spotlight it affords him. While the TV networks don't cover conventions as they did in the past, the nominee's acceptance speech will get the full treatment and will offer Mr. Kerry his best shot so far at selling himself.

National conventions can be both opportunities and pitfalls for the candidates they nominate. In 1948, the Democratic meeting in Philadelphia gave Harry S. Truman the platform for denouncing the Republican "do-nothing Congress," which helped him upset Thomas E. Dewey that fall.

By contrast, at the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco, nominee Barry Goldwater helped seal his fate against incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson with his declaration that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."

In 1984, also in San Francisco, Democrat Walter F. Mondale helped cook his own goose against Mr. Reagan by saying, "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did." It was goodbye, Fritz.

And in 1988, when George H. W. Bush in New Orleans invited voters to "read my lips - no new taxes," he was elected. But after he proceeded to go against that flat pledge, he lost in 1992 to Democrat Bill Clinton.

So convention acceptance speeches can help make or break nominees and presidents. Mr. Kerry's will be awaited with interest by voters and with both hope and trepidation by his supporters, as will Mr. Bush's in New York a month later.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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