Photo by Ted Soqui
A number of mysteries and if-onlys still hang over the 2000 Democratic National Convention, held, of course, in Staples Center in downtown L.A. The first is why the Democrats selected Los Angeles at all.
Mayor Richard Riordan had invited both parties to hold their conventions in Los Angeles, but the Republicans declined. For the Democrats, coming to Los Angeles was, I suppose, a way to celebrate the huge political fact that California, the nation’s most populous state, had become solidly Democratic, and that it was Los Angeles where that realignment had been most pronounced. Given that California was securely theirs, though, the Democrats might have opted to hold their convention in a swing state. But Riordan’s promise that he would raise all the required funds from local sources plainly made L.A. the venue of choice.
As the convention loomed, however, it became clear to the Democrats that Riordan couldn’t come up with the money. It required the last-minute intervention of Terry McAuliffe, then the party’s finance chair and an accomplished megabucks fund-raiser, to come up with the cash — and, indeed, McAuliffe had to pay some contractors in cash to ensure that the hall would be ready in time.
Coming less than a year after the world-shaking demonstrations against the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle, the decision of a segment of the American left to demonstrate at both parties’ conventions was a foregone conclusion. The tactics that had worked brilliantly in Seattle had already taken on a life of their own, detached from any realizable strategic goal, but that was hardly a deterrent to a movement that thought itself on a roll.
And Lord knows, the Democratic nominee in waiting, Vice President Al Gore, had not exactly run a model progressive primary campaign. He’d pilloried his primary rival, former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, for daring to present a plan for national health insurance — a bedrock Democratic commitment since 1948. That said, the difference between Gore at his worst and George W. Bush at his best was clearly huge. Not that a number of the demonstrators or, later that year, Nader voters, chose to notice it.
So the convention and the demonstrations both came to L.A. And the Weekly did its damnedest to cover both. Nine months earlier, we had decided to produce a daily newspaper during the four days of the convention. To put it mildly, producing a daily, funding it with advertising and getting it distributed to all manner of strange venues placed a tremendous burden on the entire Weekly staff, but the project also engendered so much excitement that it went off almost without a hitch.
For Democrats, progressives and Weekly staffers alike, convention week had something for everyone. There were the predictable events where glamour met power — both overrated, but fun to report on for that very reason. There was Arianna Huffington’s Shadow Convention, one of several forums where a liberal critique of mainstream politics was entertainingly presented. There were the street actions, the most engaging of which came from a group called Billionaires for Bush and Gore, and the routine police overreactions. There were the convention rituals themselves, including, in the usual obeisance to the party’s left wing, speeches from Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson that were segregated into a liberals-only hour.
Within the Gore campaign, meanwhile, a real story was unfolding. A day before Gore’s acceptance speech, it became known that he had discharged Mark Penn, the pollster out of the Democratic Leadership Council centrist wing of the party, and hired Stan Greenberg, a pollster who’d been talking up the potential for a more populist politics. Gore’s speech, when it came the following night, was more populist than anything he’d said in years, positioning him as the tribune for working people and the nemesis of corporate power. That night, he surged into a lead over Bush that he did not relinquish until he sighed himself out of the lead during his first debate with W. (And that he regained on Election Day, not that it did him any good.)
As it happened, Gore’s shift to a more populist and confrontational, and less corporate-friendly, politics pointed the way to the only strategically viable path for the Democratic Party. The success to date of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign testifies to the rank and file’s exasperation at the party’s timidity in opposing Bush’s radical agenda. All of this year’s presidential candidates but Joe Lieberman are campaigning to the left of where the party positioned itself during the Clinton years — and in that, Clinton himself is cheering them on. In that sense, the party can be said to have begun to regain its voice during the Democratic National Convention of 2000. Good thing — for there’s nothing the United States needs more just now than a full-throated Democratic Party.