- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2000

"How do we top that?" That was the question much on the minds of Vice President Al Gore and his campaign advisers in the afterglow of the Republican gathering that just ended.
For all the pre-convention talk about this year's Republican conclave being a "bore" (at least to the television networks), it was very much in the tradition of successful conventions of earlier eras. "Success" in convention terms usually suggests the presence of four key elements: avoidance of mistakes, displays of party unity, the articulation of a clear message and a likable candidate. This year, the Republicans had all of them.
Democrats, no doubt, will try to "trump" the Republicans in both symbolism and substance. That may prove a tall order.
Mr. Gore's first challenge was to pick a running mate as well prepared to assume the presidency as Richard B. Cheney. Anything less would have suggested he undervalues the post he claims prepared him for the presidency. In his choice of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Mr. Gore has shown himself able to strike out in new and surprising directions. As in the case of Mr. Cheney, the senator from Connecticut, best-known for admonishing President Clinton but not for wanting to hold him to account, will not pull too many votes. He comes from a part the country that is already heavily Democratic. His Jewish faith may increase the intensity in which his co-religionists support him, but will not add significantly to the Democratic vote. They already make up one of that party's most reliable group of constituents.
Mr. Lieberman does provide balance in a different way. Much as Mr. Gore did for Mr. Clinton, he adds "character" to a ticket that appears devoid of it. In 1992, Mr. Gore was the veteran paired with the draft dodger, the confessed experimenter with marijuana to the man who never inhaled, the solid family man compared to oh, never mind. Today, Mr. Gore stands as the man tainted by Clinton scandals as well as the perpetrator of some of his own. So he has turned to Mr. Lieberman in an act of cleansing if not contrition.
In selecting him, Mr. Gore passed over two Democrats who possess many of Mr. Cheney's strengths and might have proved his equal or superior in electoral appeal: Robert Rubin and Leon Panetta.
Another way the Democrats can match the Republicans in extending their party's appeal would be to demonstrate at their convention that they, too, have built a bigger tent. For them, diversity would not mean an increased display of minorities, women and homosexuals (Republicans readily concede them an edge here), but more business people (from companies large and small), veterans and sportsmen. It also would require making room for more than one point of view on abortion, school choice and gun control. That is not about to happen. Mr. Lieberman might have made some of this happen, given his advocacy of school choice, parental notification and privatization of Social Security, but he is already backpedaling to satisfy Mr. Gore's core constituency.
Democrats usually run well when they present themselves not as the party of special interests, but of an ever-growing middle class. All but one successful Democrat to be elected president since Franklin D. Roosevelt did that. (Jimmy Carter's road to victory was paved in the ashes of Watergate and by fellow Southerners wanting to make a point.) Mr. Clinton's grandest achievement as a politician may have been to stitch that moniker back onto an increasingly left-leaning party that repeatedly and deliberately tossed it away.
Mr. Gore will have a tougher time of it. As Mr. Clinton's vice president, he crossed swords with powerful union leaders ("bosses") who opposed "new Democrat" initiatives such as trade. Winning them back and fending off defections to Ralph Nader in states rich in electoral votes such as California and Michigan will require assurances that he will govern to the left of Mr. Clinton on these matters. Thus, Mr. Gore even with the moderate Mr. Lieberman standing beside him comes to his convention with less room in which to maneuver than Mr. Clinton had back in 1992. Even if such were not the case, reinventing the party once again might prove too unconvincing a task.
Then there is the convention's location. In Los Angeles, local color will be drawn to celebrities. That will be certain to deflect attention away from a nominee who admits to being "charismatically challenged." It also will generate headlines about something they do not want mentioned: sex.
Already, the Democrats are engaged in a public-relations spat with one of their substantial corporate contributors, Playboy Enterprises, and two of their core constituencies over a fund-raiser Democratic Rep. Linda Chavez booked at Hugh Heffner's Playboy Mansion. Proceeds are earmarked for Hispanic organizations. Party leaders appear torn between their lust for funds and their reluctance to embrace (publicly at least) the "Playboy philosophy."
Add to this an avalanche of street protesters, emboldened after their Philadelphia tryouts, their ranks replenished by Hollywood starlets, and the Democrats may well be on their way to their most "exciting" convention since 1968. Whatever else was said about it, no one ever called that convention a bore. Most think it cost the then-sitting and able vice president, Hubert Humphrey, the presidency.

Alvin S. Felzenberg is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where he directs its Mandate for Leadership 2000 project.

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