The Way We Were

Tuesday night at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles was nicknamed "Liberal Night." But "Nostalgia Night" would probably be a truer sobriquet.

After all, the marquee performance - billed for weeks as the emotional epicenter of convention week - was by Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. A cast that included her Uncle Ted Kennedy, the dean of Democratic convention remembrance fests, and cousin Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland's lieutenant governor, supported her.

And there was, of course, Mr. Keep-Hope-Alive himself, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy's only close rival in the torch-carrying category. Even Bill Bradley's quick shot felt more like a fond recollection of his quirky campaign's few hot moments than a dramatic reconciliation address by a serious former challenger like, say, John McCain's speech two weeks ago.

But unlike the Philadelphia love-in, representatives of the Democratic Party's various factions and "special interests" were allowed to come out at night - in prime time. Even the likes of union leader Gerald McEntee and abortions-rights lobbyist Kate Michelman were given precious evening real estate.

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One perhaps unintended result of this, also unlike the Republicans in Philadelphia, is actually a fairly accurate, honest portrait of the whole Democratic Party and not just the Clinton-Gore centrist, chameleon aspect of the party.

The downside, though, at least in terms of political stagecraft and attempted brainwashing, is that the Democrats' message is muddled. For better or worse - okay, definitely worse - the Republicans relentlessly hammered out one great, big uber-message during their entire convention - "We're nice, we're inclusive, we're not your daddy's GOP."

So after two days, what's the Democratic mega-message?

Is it the theme of the first day, "Nostalgia Night I: Bill Clinton?"

Is it the theme of the second day's "off-stage" event in Michigan, the "symbolic passing of the torch" from Clinton to Gore?

Is it the theme of "Liberal Night" - "We're more inclusive, really?"

Or is it the theme of "Nostalgia Night II" - "We've got better heroes?"

Is the theme simply "Vote for Gore?" Not yet. Besides, conventions are about parties, not just candidates.

One reason why the Democrats staged "Liberal Night" was pretty simple - they had to. They believe the Gore campaign has not consolidated its core supporters as well as the Bush campaign has. Republicans on Bush's right were happy to sta quiet in Philadelphia, satisfied, apparently, with the candidate and his poll numbers. Democrats on Gore's left aren't so pliant.

Perhaps Republicans are hungrier from being in the political wilderness, more willing to make sacrifices for the team. Perhaps Democrats are fat and happy from their White House suppers.

But Tuesday also showed how much many Democrats miss their old, "liberal" crusades and causes. The triumphal adulation Clinton basked in Monday night made it easy to forget that. It was striking that one of his biggest applause lines was the promise that "we can make America debt-free for the first time since 1835."

That was 1950s, Taft Republican talk. It was but one reminder of how deeply Clinton co-opted his opponents' positions, how he blunted their "wedge" issues and how he changed the party's cosmetics. In short, how Clinton did what Democrats accuse George W. Bush of doing now.

If Monday night was a reminder of how far Clinton has moved his party, Tuesday night displayed some of the costs of that move.