Challenge for united Democrats

BOSTON — BOSTON - If humorist Will Rogers were alive today and in Boston, he might want to take back his famous comment: "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat."

Except for the unpleasantness of threatened picketing by unionized city police dissatisfied with an arbitrated wage settlement, the Democrats holding their national convention here this week appear to have their political act together.


With the presidential nominee, hometown Sen. John Kerry, and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, in place, the self-styled "party of the people" seems as much at peace with itself as it has been in years.

The one reason above all else is George W. Bush. The hostility toward the Republican president is intense. And the disagreement with his policies, domestic and foreign, is as deep as Boston Harbor.


Mr. Bush's boast as a candidate in 2000 that as president he would be "a uniter, not a divider" has been proved true with the Democrats, who have come together in their determination to oust him from the presidency in November.

That focus has marginalized intramural arguments among party factions, with even the centrist Democratic Leadership Council embracing Mr. Kerry for all of his clear identification as, in the Republicans' favorite taunt, "a Massachusetts liberal."

Democrats who remain chagrined at Mr. Kerry's support of Mr. Bush's resolution authorizing war against Iraq now applaud his vigorous criticism of the president's conduct of the post-invasion challenge there. Even staunch war opponent Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, the last man standing against Mr. Kerry in the race for the presidential nomination, has now endorsed him.

The one most important decision a presidential nominee makes is his choice of a vice president, and when that nominee makes it at his national convention, it's welcome fuel for delegate conversation and news media assessment. But by picking Mr. Edwards in advance of the opening gavel, Mr. Kerry deprived both groups of anything much to chew over.

So how will the Democrats occupy themselves this week? They need to talk up their candidate and hope that he can, in his acceptance speech, give voters convincing reasons for supporting him other than that he is not Mr. Bush.

That reason alone will be enough for the cheering Democratic faithful doing their best before the television cameras to generate enthusiasm for Mr. Kerry. But many other Democrats, and independents who will be a critical factor in the close race widely predicted, still need to be sold on Mr. Kerry as a safe alternative to Mr. Bush on foreign policy.

The president has done more than his share to raise doubts not only about why and how he initiated the war in Iraq, but also about how he has pursued it at the expense of greater concentration on the broader war on terrorism. Now it's up to Mr. Kerry to convince voters he's the man to get the country's foreign policy back on track.

Outlines of the fall campaign are already apparent. It will not be unlike the 1988 campaign, when the senior George Bush questioned the patriotism of Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis. The issue then was Mr. Dukakis' veto of a Massachusetts bill requiring schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.


This time around, the junior George Bush will be relying on voter support of him as a wartime president while arguing that Mr. Kerry, after supporting the Bush war resolution, flip-flopped with his vote against the $87 billion Congress authorized to finish the job.

Anticipating this battle plan, the Democrats in Boston will continue to play the best card they have for combating challenges to their candidate's patriotism - Mr. Kerry's Vietnam War record and the army of veterans rallying to his side.

If the 2004 election is to come down once again to patriotism, there may be no better place for Mr. Kerry to play that card than in his own backyard, which likes to consider itself the cradle of the republic. Certainly the president will play his patriotism card a few weeks from now in New York, on the eve of the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks there.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.