A party with its image in transition ON POLITICS

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- In advance of this Democratic National Convention, there was much talk about the opportunity it presented to reintroduce Gov. Bill Clinton to the American people, after his survival through the politically debilitating primary season.

It was said that the convention would be a critical chance to take voters past all the allegations of personal misconduct or misjudgment that haunted Clinton from the New Hampshire primary to the New York primary and beyond. It would be a vehicle to let them know who Bill Clinton really was: behind his Rhodes scholarship, a barefoot boy of humble beginnings from Hope, Ark., whose own life has been a struggle.


That process has finally begun, with the formal nomination of Clinton. But it is notable that in the first two days of the convention there seemed to be more concentration on reintroducing the Democratic Party to the American people -- that is, the new Democratic Party as reshaped in a more moderate image.

With the Republicans already tipping their hand that they will slap the old tax-and-spend label on the Democrats, the first two days' speakers, and the platform passed here, focused on trumpeting how the party has turned away from its old spendthrift ways.


Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia, in one of the keynote speeches, pointedly observed that the party no longer was supporting unlimited welfare benefits, and that recipients at some point would be required to work to receive them, if they were able.

Miller's most illustrious predecessor, former President Jimmy Carter, who not too many years ago was a man the party would rather have forgotten, was greeted like a returning hero as he talked of the party getting back to the moderation he espoused in the White House. Whether that message was best coming from the president who was thrown out by the voters after one term is, to be sure, another matter.

Two of the old party's most celebrated firebrands, former Rep. Barbara Jordan and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, were mere embers of their former oratorical flames. Jordan delivered a boring and benign acknowledgment that the party had to change or die, and Jackson was relatively docile in a lukewarm endorsement of Clinton, though he thundered in his trademark fashion at his speech's end.

In what was by far the emotional highlight of the first two nights, the party presented two AIDS victims to the convention to tell their stories and to plead for the support they castigated President Bush for withholding. While it could be said that the fact that one of them was a homosexual was the sort of breakthrough the old liberal party might have produced, the context focused on the need to address the disease, not on the lifestyle of the victim.

The second AIDS victim was a well-to-do white woman who had contracted the disease in a blood transfusion and had already lost a young daughter to it. Her narrative helped convey the message that the AIDS scourge can touch anyone, not just the historical beneficiaries of liberal Democratic largesse.

In a way, the floor protests from the supporters of former Gov. Jerry Brown of California over the exclusion of his reform agenda from the platform, and the diverting but minor issue of whether he would be required to endorse Clinton to receive speaking time, also made the point that the party had changed. For once, the liberals were seen by viewers as the outs in the party, although Brown does not by any means represent most liberals at this convention.

Still, the way he was handled -- and Jackson as well -- told viewers that a new crowd was in charge. Also, the Democrat who tried to carry the old liberal banner in the primaries, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, has been no more than a bit player at the convention, with his champions, organized labor, another favorite Republican target, muted as well.

None of this is likely to dissuade the Republicans from trying to indict the Democratic Party once again with the liberal label, which the GOP has managed over the last 12 years to reduce to a dirty word in politics. But the task is likely to be much harder, with the Jerry Browns and the Jesse Jacksons clearly cut out of key roles in the shaping of party policy, and many traditional liberal positions toned down.


Now it is up to Clinton, and running mate Al Gore, to maintain the new moderate image. And fitting each like a glove as that image does, it shouldn't be hard.


There is a certain irony in the Democrats' decision to use this convention as an occasion for a tribute to Robert F. Kennedy.

The contrast between his brand of politics in 1968 and that of Gov. Bill Clinton today couldn't be sharper.

Mr. Clinton is a consummately cautious politician, who has gone to great lengths to build a centrist coalition behind a centrist program. Mr. Kennedy operated on the outer edge of the Democratic Party in demanding radical changes in the policy on the Vietnam War and in dealing with problems of the underclass. He was also an especially daring politician who, for example, chastised white college students, a natural constituency for him, for accepting draft deferments and allowing others to fight the war for them.

Much of the difference was a result of the different context.


Mr. Kennedy came along in a time of economic expansion when there were still highly emotional litmus-test issues to be settled, most notably civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

Today there are no issues with a comparable emotional content -- with the possible exception of abortion rights.

But Robert Kennedy was a candidate who evoked a frenzied response from Democrats. If Bill Clinton is capable of inspiring anything similar, he hasn't shown it.