Democrats can't keep lid on anti-Bush sentiments

July 28, 2004|By Jules Witcover

BOSTON - Here where America's most famous tea party was held more than two centuries ago, the Democratic Party is striving its best to keep the lid on a kettle of anti-Bush outrage that constantly threatens to boil over.

Determined to accentuate the positive in coping with public uncertainty about prospective presidential nominee John Kerry, his strategists have decreed that this week's national convention speakers hold in check their hostility toward President Bush, on everything from his policies to his persona.

But even on opening night, the Democratic tea kettle was whistling as party leaders from former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter to former Vice President Al Gore, with varying degrees of restraint, kept the heat on the man they all want ousted from the White House in November.

Mr. Gore, who won half a million more votes than Mr. Bush in 2000 and has the most reason to get apoplectic about Mr. Bush's Supreme Court-anointed election, was surprisingly benign and even jocular in reminding the delegates, "Take it from me: Every vote counts."

He told the delegates he wasn't staying awake nights "recounting sheep" in a country where "every boy and girl has the chance to grow up and win the popular vote." He called on all those who share his frustration "to remember those feelings" but channel them into working for Mr. Kerry's election.

"Let's make sure not only that the Supreme Court does not pick the next president," Mr. Gore said, "but also that this president is not the one who picks the next Supreme Court." These were mild words compared to a recent Gore rant against Mr. Bush on everything from the war in Iraq to burgeoning deficits at home.

Borrowing Ronald Reagan's famous question in running against Mr. Carter in 1980 - "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" - Mr. Gore asked 2000 Bush voters: "Did you get what you expected from the candidate you voted for? Is our country more united today?" And he addressed voters for Ralph Nader: "Do you still believe there was no difference between the candidates?"

Mr. Clinton, too, pretty much contained himself on Mr. Bush for the sake of keeping the focus on Mr. Kerry. "We Democrats will bring the American people a positive campaign," he said, "arguing not who's good and who's bad, but what is the best way to build the safe, prosperous world our children deserve."

Having said that, Mr. Clinton went on to make some veiled but obvious comparisons between Mr. Kerry's Vietnam-era military service and that of Mr. Bush - and, notably, his own non-service.

In a clever switch on the old class-warfare argument, the newly wealthy Citizen Clinton cast himself as a beneficiary of Mr. Bush's tax cuts for the rich, then complained he didn't want seniors to have to "take their Social Security checks and endorse them over to me."

In still another thinly veiled barb at the president, Mr. Clinton drew loud applause by saying, "Strength and wisdom are not opposing values."

It was left to low-key, smiling Jimmy Carter to get the tea kettle whistling loudest. In a clear reference to allegations that Mr. Bush went AWOL during his stateside Air National Guard service, Mr. Carter noted that Mr. Kerry had "volunteered for military service" and "showed up when assigned to duty."

And while Mr. Clinton and other speakers danced around the Iraq war, Mr. Carter castigated Mr. Bush for launching "a confused and disturbing strategy of pre-emptive war." The country needs Mr. Kerry, he said, "to restore life to the global war on terrorism. We cannot lead if our leaders mislead," referring to Mr. Bush's warnings about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that were never found.

So much for the Kerry strategists' plan to keep the lid on anti-Bush outrage. Whether outspoken or a seething undercurrent of delegate sentiment, it remains the unmistakable backdrop for Mr. Kerry's bid to get a positive bounce from this latest Boston tea party.

Note to readers: In a recent column on Voice of America staffers petitioning Congress regarding an internal reorganization, I failed to note, as I should have, that a relative of mine by marriage signed the petition.

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

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