It's Message Time
As the Democratic National Convention begins, the real question is: Can Kerry's team keep his party on message?
3:30 PM, Jul 25, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
This doesn't mean conventions are meaningless. They matter, just not as much as they used to two or three decades ago. In the old days, the presidential nominee, the party's platform and even who would be seated as delegates were decided at the convention. Now all that is set in stone well before convention time.
Something quite different will be decided at the Democratic convention, that begins here today, and at the Republican convention in New York starting on August 29. The issue is whether the script written for each convention, largely by the presidential nominee's campaign, carries the day. As we've seen in the past 20 years, sometimes delegates refuse to follow the script and sometimes the script is simply bad. Mostly, though, the script is rigorously obeyed.
In Boston, the script calls for Democrats to display unity. In fact, all convention scripts put a premium on unity. That should be no problem here, since Democrats are united in loathing Bush. That Kerry fails to excite many Democrats isn't really important. It's enough that he's their party's choice to oppose Bush.
The Democratic script calls for two other things. One, speakers are supposed to stress national security, patriotism, and fighting terrorism. Strength in military and foreign affairs is the designated theme, the plan being to take on frontally an issue that has doomed Democratic candidates in the past. Second, Kerry wants speakers to play down their hostility to Bush. Shrill attacks on the president won't help, his strategists believe.
If the script holds, Kerry will look good. If it doesn't, if speakers at the podium and delegates being interviewed by the media wander off message, reporters and commentators will say so. They'll be critical--a little bit, anyway.
We've seen what it looks like when things go wrong. At the Democratic convention in New York in 1980, the theme of unity behind the reelection of President Jimmy Carter fell apart as supporters of Senator Teddy Kennedy and other party dissidents refused to play along. At the Democratic gathering eight years later in Atlanta, the script barely got off the ground. Instead, Jesse Jackson dominated the convention with his demand for platform and other concessions from presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Jackson hogged press attention to Dukakis's detriment.