If you're a Democratic Party flunky, you're probably breathing a huge sigh of relief today, even claiming that John F. Kerry hit a home run last night. Or a stand-up triple, or a ground-rule double. Or at least that he bunted safely, and then scored on a sacrifice fly. (If you're a Republican operative, of course, you're still going on about Mrs. Kerry's, or Al Sharpton's, speeches.)
A sense of relief is to be expected when you've hitched your star to the wagon of a guy who blames his bodyguards when he falls on the ski slopes. It may well be true that, as a number of pundits have claimed, Kerry gave the best goddamned speech of his career last night. But that's a little like saying Yoko Ono's latest CD is her best-ever: It may well be technically true, but so what?
Still, there's little doubt that, after a convention which provided very little in the way of unambiguous success, Kerry gave a serviceable speech last night, one in which his famously stentorian (read: aloof, imperious, boring, wooden, etc.) manner actually might have been an advantage rather than a clear liability.
But were his ramblings—in which he promised to cut middle-class taxes, create universal health care, be tougher than tough against terrorists but be less bellicose than George W. Bush, improve education, replace job-killing incentives with job-creating ones, and balance the budget—enough? Tellingly, the substance of his speech was stretched as thin as his 6 foot, 4 inch frame (which his daughters oddly lingered over in their introductory remarks). The guy looks weary already and for a second after taking the stage last night, it seemed as if he had achieved his primary goal merely by getting to stand in front of the crowd.
What is it we used to ask about Poppa Bush: Where's the vision thing? We should ask the same of John Kerry. There were no controlling gestures, metaphors, or ideas in his speech, apart from the sad-sack salute to the crowd and the low-carb refrain that "America Can Do Better." What a useless, uninspired phrase! It concedes too much, in the same way the slogans for the old Piels beer ("It's a good drinking beer") and Carlton cigarettes ("If you smoke, please try Carlton") conceded too much. It also evokes mediocrity—we can do better? For god's sake, even the hapless Jimmy Carter, who ushered in an age of diminished expectations, dared to ask Why Not the Best?
"America can do better" is especially lame coming from a candidate who spent the past 20 years in the Senate and voted for a number of major proposals—the resolution on Iraq, the PATRIOT Act, No Child Left Behind—put forth by the incumbent president. If the country can in fact do better, then part of the problem has been the Kerrys of the world.
The lingering impression from the last week's spectacle is that the Democrats are happy simply to say that their convention went off without a hugely embarrassing spectacle—say, Ralph Nader being tasered outside the Fleet Center while trying to gain entrance, or Ted Kennedy floating off into the rafters during his blissfully already-forgotten speech. The Dems played it safe, censoring speeches and wrapping themselves in the flag whenever possible. But is playing defense a sound strategy when you're in a dead heat with an incumbent president and you're in a legislative minority in both houses of Congress?
Time will tell. And so will the Republican National Convention, a month away in New York. From the early rumblings, the GOP is also dedicated to playing it smart—which in this election cycle means running away from your party's longstanding identity with a quickness usually only seen in steroid-addled Olympic sprinters.
Just as the Democrats stressed the unum rather the pluribus—a welcome respite from their insistence on identity politics—the GOP is apparently dedicated to keeping its Pat Robertsons and Trent Lotts locked in the cellar for its convention. No talk of lesbian witches and political cross-dressers this time around. Instead, they're bringing in mega-wattage stars such as Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who shine in a way that no Democratic officeholder (except possibly for the little-seen Hillary Clinton) can manage. And who, more important, offer up for public consumption Republican faces that are pro-abortion rights, comfortable with gays, and friendly toward immigrants. In other words, Republicans in name only.
So Election 2004 may be shaping up as the fake Democrats against the fake Republicans. Can America do better? You'd think so. But apparently not.