California Democrats moved sharply to the left in their annual state convention over the weekend in Sacramento, overwhelmingly opposing the war in Iraq even as public-opinion polls showed most Americans moving to a position of support for a U.S. attack. Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, of L.A., spoke for most California delegates when he denounced the war, while outside the convention hall, L.A. Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg and State Senator Richard Alarcon helped lead 500 protesters urging the half-dozen Democratic presidential candidates visiting the convention to oppose the war.
California draws this kind of attention from presidential candidates not only because of its role as a national political ATM but also because next year’s primary calendar may make it the biggest enchilada of the primary season’s Super Tuesday. The earliest engagements, in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere, may yield a split result. So March 2 — when California and nine other states, including New York, all vote — may prove decisive.
The war protesters needn’t have reminded former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who lit up the convention with one of the most tumultuously received speeches it has seen in years. Dean, a rather cerebral dark horse and medical doctor whose campaign not so subtly encourages comparisons to The West Wing’s flinty yet passionate President Jed Bartlet, also a brainiac New England ex-governor, declared that he is running “to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” The Dean campaign has the same slogan as the “Bartlet campaign,” which came up with it first, and enjoys the support of West Wing star Martin Sheen. Excoriating every aspect of the Bush agenda, Dean upshifted into an explosive close denouncing the Iraq war, shouting, “I want my country back!” as the delegates screamed. Afterward, Dean’s literature table was rushed by delegates who took every one of his buttons and signs.
Dean also pointedly criticized two of the top-tier Democratic candidates, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards, for supporting the Iraq war in Washington and criticizing it in California.
Actually, only Kerry could be accused of that. Edwards bravely spoke of his support for military action against Saddam and was roundly booed for it in the course of a generally well-received speech in which he skillfully turned around his surface image as a wealthy, pretty-boy Southern lawyer and made of it a populist parable, that of the mill worker’s son who became a trial lawyer and struck it rich suing powerful corporate interests on behalf of the average American.
The other top-tier candidates who voted for the Iraq war, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt, did not attend. Gephardt’s absence was scarcely noticed. This longtime lion of congressional politics is so familiar that his time may have come and gone. Lieberman did at least send a video of himself, which proved to be a disastrous move, prompting the spectacle of a convention full of Democrats in a Democratic stronghold roundly booing their 2000 vice-presidential nominee.
The putative early front-runner, Massachusetts Senator and Vietnam War hero–turned–war protester John Kerry, had a mixed performance. Unable because of his schedule to address a convention session on Saturday or Sunday, Kerry was invited to make some remarks at the chairman’s Friday-evening reception. After raising big bucks at a San Francisco fund-raiser, and following an afternoon press conference in which he skillfully defended his vote last fall authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq along with his current disdain for the impending invasion, Kerry treated this event, generally a meet-and-greet affair, as something far more formal, delivering a 40-minute address that most of the crowd quickly tuned out. The occasion was casual, the room was hot, the sound system was poor, and the din of most of the delegates chattering over their wine and cheese was more than noticeable, yet Kerry soldiered on, his superrich wife, Teresa Heinz, looking more than a little uncomfortable standing by his side throughout the speech, which included several “in conclusions” that unfortunately were not. This caused former Governor Jerry Brown, who’d attended Kerry’s San Francisco dinner, to note that he wasn’t sure Teresa Heinz “likes campaigning that much.” Well, not if she’s going to have to stand there during a speech that’s five times as long as it should be. Kerry is clearly a seasoned senator with many interesting things to say about foreign policy, national security, political corruption, and energy and environmental policy, but if he doesn’t develop a better sense of where he is, his candidacy will be in trouble.
With Dean proving so powerful an anti-war voice, it may not be easy for the other anti-war candidates to emerge. Controversial New York civil rights leader Al Sharpton and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun risk stalemating each other in their appeal to African-Americans even as they struggle to distinguish themselves in their opposition to the war. It may take something else to break through.
Just as George W. Bush took the stage in the Azores to announce that there was only one day left for diplomacy before Saddam had to “immediately and unconditionally disarm,” radical Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the onetime boy mayor of Cleveland, began his speech to the convention. With song. Kucinich has taken to opening with snippets not from show tunes, but patriotic hymns such as “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This most militantly anti-war of the candidates, chair of the House Progressive Caucus, uses his singing both to startle the audience — at which he succeeded — and to juxtapose his sense of patriotism with what he sees as a sinister right-wing takeover of America. It’s something he started when he wowed the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action at a Los Angeles conference as he denounced the war on terror not long after 9/11.
What will he do about the start of the Iraq war? Not what other ranking Democratic war critics say they’ll do. “I will keep on speaking out and protesting,” Kucinich said before his speech. Even with American troops in battle? Yes.