IF YOU'RE a Democratic strategist, there are two ways you can look at last week's Republican convention in Philadelphia: You can be irritated. Or you can be dismissive. Al Gore's campaign team in Nashville has chosen the latter.
More than a year ago, Gore's strategists decided to respond to talk of compassionate conservatism by ignoring it. George W. Bush, they argued, was a conventional southern conservative, his moderate language merely a clever cover for the usual right-wing agenda. Early on, Gore did his best to paint Bush as a puppet of the Christian Right. More recently, the Gore campaign has portrayed Bush as a tool of Big Business. The terms have changed, but the theme hasn't: Don't believe the lie. Bush only looks different. He's much more extreme than he seems.
This line of attack had become less plausible since the South Carolina primary. The convention destroyed it entirely. Bush may be, in secret, a right-wing extremist, but after the convention's multiculturalism on parade, he certainly doesn't look like one.
Yet, the Gore campaign has continued to air commercials implying that Bush and Cheney are too ideological to lead the country. The problem, says a Democratic consultant who has worked with Gore, is that the strategy worked before, against other opponents in other elections. Head Gore consultant Bob Shrum "is doing Newt bashing against Bush," the consultant says. "Cheney whetted their appetites for that sort of thing. There is no end of people taking some experience they had in politics and turning it into a solution for a current problem."
The "current problem" for Democrats, says the consultant, is how to counter the slippery but relentlessly upbeat message of the Republican convention. One option is to mock it. Many Democrats do. "It's the Sally Field convention," says one -- "'You like me, you really like me.' It's awfully needy." Amusing as this is, it's not much of a counter theme.
James Carville thinks he has a better one. Philadelphia, he says, was "a convention about nothing" ("the Seinfeld convention," he and other Democratic cable television fixtures have called it). "If you're going to take out the incumbent party, it better be about something more substantial than, 'we're nice.' They didn't come to set an agenda. They're not leaving on the Tax Cut Express. To just be civil is not enough."
Carville sounds frustrated, and it's easy to see why. The convention didn't give the Gore campaign much rhetorical ammunition. (Blind mountain climbers and Down syndrome sufferers don't work well in attack ads.) But Carville swears there's more to it than that. "I'm not speaking as a Democrat," he says, "I'm speaking as someone who thinks that partisanship and spinning and political argument is good for the country."
And then, sounding wistful, Carville launches into a description of the sort of Republican convention he'd like to watch. "I want to see some small businessman get up there and rant about how the Clinton-Gore administration has got him tied down by taxes and regulation. I want to see some attacks on eight years of rule and what went wrong. I want to see a clash, a conflict, a fight. I don't mind if a little name-calling breaks out."
This is not a majority view. A political consultant complaining about non-ideological politics is like Henry Ford whining that you can't get a good buggy anymore. Even Carville seems to know this. "In the dial groups" -- focus groups where participants turn a dial to register their likes and dislikes -- he sighs, "the public says it wants people to be less political."
And how should Gore, an instinctive brawler, respond? Well, says Carville, at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, they need to present Gore "B.C. -- before Clinton." Polls, Carville says, show that "when people find out about Gore from 1970 to 1992" -- his months in Vietnam, his years as a reporter and in Congress -- "their opinion of him rises." The other thing the Democratic convention needs to showcase, Carville says, is "Tipper. More Tipper."
Carville describes all of this as "context" for Gore's life. It sounds a lot like the sort of soft-focus, issue-free politics he has just been criticizing. Is it? "Yeah," admits Carville, "a little bit." The Republicans may have put on a shallow convention, he says, but "they've done it beautifully."
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.