Blaming the GOP for the great divide

July 30, 2004|By Jules Witcover

BOSTON - Heading into the general election campaign against the Republicans, the Democrats who wound up their convention here last night are under no illusions about the buzzsaw of negative attacks they face from President Bush and the Republicans.

Vice presidential nominee John Edwards, in his convention speech, took note of the GOP tactic, asking, "Aren't you sick of it?" - in the same way he made capital of deploring intramural Democratic attacks during the primaries. "In the weeks ahead," he said, "we know what's coming, don't we?"

That awareness was behind the concerted effort by a series of speakers to cast their rival party as a dangerously divisive force in today's politics.

Even as convention speakers were urged not to bash President Bush too much here this week, they seized on the president's promise as a candidate in 2000 to be "a uniter, not a divider," accusing him of betraying that pledge ever since his inauguration.

Sometimes it was said in sarcasm, as when Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe on opening night recalled the Bush promise and mocked: "Let me ask you, are we united?" Indeed, Mr. Bush inadvertently was the principal reason for the week's Democratic togetherness - in the party's zeal to get him out of the White House come November.

Former President Bill Clinton took up the theme, saying the Democrats operated on a policy of inclusion for all, whereas the Republicans "believe America should be run by the right people - their people. ... In other words, they need a divided America, but we don't."

Mr. Clinton charged that Mr. Bush squandered the unity that came out of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and demonstrated a philosophy of rule-by-division by giving tax cuts to the rich at the expense of America's less fortunate.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy the next night continued the theme. "America needs a genuine uniter," he said, "not a divider who only claims to be a uniter."

The convention keynoter, Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama, in response to Republican bashing of Mr. Kennedy and his party in this heart of liberalism, brought a roar from the hall by saying: "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America - there's the United States of America."

Mr. Obama, confirming his billing as a rising Democratic star, also derided those who talk of "red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats," as portrayed on those television election maps, by way of challenging the premise of clear-cut party division in the country.

Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the Democratic nominee, also appeared to be deploring divisiveness in an earlier statement against what she called "sometimes un-American traits that are coming into some of our politics." It was her use of "un-American" that precipitated her row with a newspaper writer that she ended by telling him to "shove it."

In any event, in blaming President Bush for being a divider, the Democrats were lamenting a condition that existed before he took office. At the time of the 2000 vote, political scientists were already describing the country as a "50-50 nation," and the label was confirmed by the election's razor-thin margin.

Still, the Republicans did give the Democratic convention ample justification for leveling the allegation of divisiveness, with their relentless hammering at Democratic nominee John Kerry as a flip-flopper on foreign policy matters who can't be trusted with the nation's security.

With polls indicating that America is still pretty much a 50-50 nation, the debate will continue over which party is responsible for the sharp division. But the Democrats aren't so naive as to think that casting the Republicans as the bad guys will tip the scales their way.

In 1980, with today's positions reversed, Republican Ronald Reagan ran against a beleaguered incumbent in Jimmy Carter, and no amount of Carter-bashing likely would have been enough had Mr. Reagan not overcome considerable doubts about his capacity as a national leader.

The Democrats' concentrated convention effort to sell Mr. Kerry as a safe alternative on national security shows they similarly recognize that neither Bush-bashing nor GOP-bashing will do the trick unless Mr. Kerry himself passes muster with the voters as a prospective commander in chief between now and Election Day.

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

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