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Bushless in Boston 

Progressives, pawns and prawns in our cowardly democracy

Thursday, Jul 29 2004
Photo by Joeff Davis

BOSTON — With the speakers required to submit their podium copy in advance to party managers eager to homogenize the nationally televised message, who can be surprised that avuncular Jimmy Carter, railing against the “super-rich,” came off — by midweek — as perhaps the most radical voice to be heard on the floor of the Democratic National Convention?

The political discipline imposed by the DNC’s producers on the dais went way beyond the corseted standards of, say, the Republican Party and flirted with what Marxist-Leninists call “iron discipline.”

After nearly four years of many a Democrat branding Bush a liar, a lout, a dope and a smirking chimp. After suggesting he came to power through a coup, or that he might have winked at Saudi involvement in 9/11 (which, according to some, might in itself have been some kind of a self-inflicted American Reichstag). After tarring him as the most radical, or the most dangerous and, at a minimum, the worst president of our lifetime. After all this, it was all of a sudden taboo to as much as mention President You-Know-Who from the convention stage.

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Maybe this is a wise strategy aimed at sewing up the decisive swing vote. Or maybe it’s the usual party timidity. What’s for sure is that, this week at least, it ain’t even up for a debate.

Go no further than poor Howard Dean’s speech Tuesday night. I’ve never been a great fan of Doctor Dean, but I winced with empathy when I saw the on-camera role the party had assigned him. Given barely a handful of minutes, and with his former campaign manager Joe Trippi denied the courtesy of a floor pass, Dean was assigned Jesse Jackson’s old cleanup position. Get up onstage, Howard, and bark any of the straying sheep back into the fold.

You’d think the guy who so much as invented the Democratic campaign this cycle, the candidate who jump-started the base, who literally put the party back in the race and who almost re-invented the process of grassroots politicking, might be afforded a tad more latitude.

But no. “I’m Howard Dean and I’m voting for John Kerry” was the nut of Dean’s mini-speech. More than a loyal Good Soldier, Dean had been re-programmed into the unblinking Manchurian candidate.

I’m not blaming him. These were simply the rules that were imposed. Either comply with the 3-by-5 card of mind-numbingly mushy DNC talking points, or you don’t get off the bench:

We Democrats have never been so united.

We Democrats have never been so energized.

We Democrats guarantee that John Kerry is safe for you to elect.

We Democrats are moderates in favor of a strong America.

And, most importantly, we Democrats have no differences among ourselves.


It was another scene altogether just a few hours earlier when the same Howard Dean, unreeling a very different speech, had 1,500 amped-up, chanting and clapping Democrats hanging off the rafters and overflowing into the streets of Cambridge in, yes, one more event titled “Take Back America.” Dean’s much more fiery address to an auditorium full of progressives was a reminder that his meteoric rise late last year came not only because he directly confronted President Bush but also because, in many ways, he was also running against the Democrats. Vowing that Kerry will be elected in November, Dean told the roaring crowd, “And then you’ll get only a month off because our work will just be beginning. We’ve got a lot of work to do rebuilding the infrastructure of the Democratic Party after 20 years of neglect.”

Indeed, in the course of his 25-minute speech, Dean didn’t mention John Kerry but two or three times, and spent most of his time encouraging his listeners to construct a new bottom-up movement that could carry a class-based message of reform beyond traditional ideological lines.

There was nothing better than Howard Dean’s two deeply contrasting speeches separated only by a handful of hours — one on the DNC floor and one outside — to underscore the dilemma of liberals and progressives during this convention week that kicks off the final phase of the 2004 campaign. For all the jibber-jabber about unprecedented Democratic unity, there’s a palpable anxiety that ripples through the party activist ranks. The liberal “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” may, in fact, have become the motor force of this year’s national campaign, but everyone knows John Kerry was not its first choice.

Liberals and progressives assembled here are constantly asking themselves just what — if anything — they’re going to get out of their marriage of convenience with Kerry.

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