Jewish World Review July 30, 2004 / 12 Menachem-Av 5764

Paul Greenberg

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The big shift

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The safest way to cover a national political convention is at a distance. Looking at the goings-on in Boston from afar is like peering at any other strange galaxy through a telescope: The largest features stand out, the details blur. And the most impressive feature of this week's Democratic national convention is a carefully crafted, almost old-Boston propriety.

Like many another convention of the Big Two, this production is artfully designed to present a new, appealing image of the party in question. And American political parties are always in question. If they're still alive and kicking, that is. To live is to reassess.

The wildly gyrating Democratic party of the primaries, aka the Mad Dog stage of every presidential election, is now morphing into the very image of celestial harmony. Remember the party of Howard Dean and Wesley Clark and Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich? Well, forget it. Here's the plan: The party on display at the FleetCenter is to be John Kerry's sedate, centrist model. A party you can trust. One that speaks, rather than shouts. That's what the script calls for, and that's what will be served up.

"I belong to no organized political party," Will Rogers used to say proudly. "I'm a Democrat." He wouldn't recognize the almost Republican respectability of this year's convention.

Just as the GOP now strives to be the very picture of diversity and moderation (once every four years), Democrats try to present themselves as the party of unity and moderation-once every four years. Unity and moderation, that's the ticket at Boston-like Kerry and Edwards.

Only third parties with an ideological agenda tend to stay in wild character throughout a presidential campaign. See 1948, when Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats (formally the States Rights Democratic Party) and Henry Wallace's comsymps (formally the Progressive Party) tried to peel off both wings of Harry Truman's embattled Democracy. And failed, much to the satisfaction of those of us who believe a stable republic requires two parties-no more, no less.

When major parties adopt radical rhetoric-see the Goldwater flier of 1964, or the McGovern debacle in '72-the surest result is defeat.

Happily, we live in times when Ralph Nader is only a spoiler, much as Republicans love him in that role, and Pat Buchanan isn't even running any more. Both grand old parties still turn toward the center after the primaries, if not before.


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Nor are there any Great Issues-despite all the worries about a worrisome war, and the usual Sky-Is-Falling rhetoric. It's like there's some big cliché factory up there in the sky that goes into full production every four years and showers the national conventions with hackneyed phrases. ("We stand at the crossroads..")

But despite the snow machines hauled out by both parties, no major new direction in policy foreign or domestic seems in the offing. Like the Me-Too Republicans in the years of Democratic ascendancy, the Democratic establishment is now offering to do much the same things for the country only better (win the war on terror, continue the economy recovery). September 11th may not have changed everything, but surely it changed some things. And brought us together despite all the divisive rhetoric of an election year.

Naturally this discomfits those who like a little drama with their presidential elections. Like those political scientists of more histrionic bent. (No list of oxymorons is complete without Political Science.) This just in from one Darrell West, who is identified as a political scientist at Brown University, which evidently remains a bastion of the more febrile kind of political analysis: "The United States is really at a turning point."

Then there is CNN's William Schneider. Last time I spoke with him, he'd just assured a convocation of Southern newspaper publishers that the Democratic nominee would almost certainly be Howard Dean. Now he seems to have confused this presidential election with Armageddon: "It's about as big of a choice as Americans will ever get."

I understand. If you're a talking head, you can't very well say this is a humdrum election year. Who'll stay tuned? You've got to justify all the drum rolls and spiffy graphics.

For a little perspective, though his view of this election isn't nearly as exciting or excitable, I'd recommend Maurice Carroll, a pollster at Quinnipiac University: "I don't think this election is anything special. This country has survived for more than 200 years, and we've been through some Lulus." And this presidential election, despite all the requisite hullabaloo, ain't one of 'em. It may be close, like the never-ending election of 2000, but close isn't the same as consequential.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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