What I Saw at the Conventions

I left the Philadelphia convention two weeks ago thinking George Bush would probably win. I left Los Angeles fairly certain of it.

In tone and feel the Philadelphia convention was like that of 1980, the Reagan convention of spectacular unity in the face of high stakes. Philadelphia too was unified, and not only by hunger. The Christian Coalition was over here and happy and the Log Cabin Republicans were over there and happy; peace reigned, primarily for two reasons.

One was that Republicans have been concussed to a degree still not fully appreciated by Bill Clinton, whom they think of not only as probably disturbed but strikingly unconcerned about our nation’s security (the nuclear secrets gone, the president uninterested in moving toward protecting us from nuclear attack, etc.). Modern Republicans have never felt this way about an American president, and it shocks them still. It has also concentrated their minds, making internal battles seem secondary and self-indulgent.

The other reason is that the overwhelming majority of Republicans have come to respect George W. Bush, and get what he’s about. He is the next step after Ronald Reagan. Mr. Reagan spent his time awakening an economy in deep REM sleep and beating back Soviet communism. He knocked down walls. Now Bush the younger will spend his time building, doing the unfinished business of greater prosperity and freedom.

So that was the Republican mix in Philadelphia, antipathy plus agreement. Not to mention the hunger that comes from eight years out in the presidential cold. But that time, the convention seemed to suggest, was spent rethinking, bringing up new talent, questioning old ways. When I saw Condoleezza Rice address the convention as the expected next head of the National Security Council, saw Rep. J.C. Watts (R., Okla.), saw so many other fresh talents, I thought of what Andre Malraux told Whittaker Chambers after reading the galleys of “Witness”: “You did not come back from hell with empty hands.”

*   *   *

Los Angeles was different, though equally revealing. The Democrats have returned from heaven with empty hands. Schedules slipped, Joe Lieberman was brought to heel by Maxine Waters, the perpetually enraged California congresswoman who emerged as a party powerbroker, and the best speech of the week, the cleverest and most worthy of deconstruction, was not that of the presidential nominee but of the president, who had a chance to boost Mr. Gore through anecdote and example, and did not.

Gone was the discipline and cleverness of the Clinton era. During big speeches the podium area was crowded with donors and party hacks hugging each other, throwing high fives and blocking the view of the delegates massed to the right and left of the stage. The night of the Gore speech I watched two little black kids happily tossing Lieberman signs in the air as they waited for the candidate. That’s better than the Republicans, I thought, little kids with front-row seats. Then Gore came bounding through the crowd and, pivoting like a man who’d been fully briefed on where his marks were, squatted down to the children and patted their heads. The kids weren’t just props; when Mr. Gore was through, they were obvious props.

Mr. Gore’s speech all but announced the party was returning to habits and assumptions that were not just pre-Clinton but pre-Carter, offering an estimated $1 trillion in new programs. The pose was populist but promised to be problematic: If you’re going to wage class warfare you’d better do it with the passion of George Wallace or Pat Buchanan, and you probably shouldn’t do it at all when the biggest demographic shift in America is the number of new investors.

*   *   *

Bill Clinton was like a big magnet floating over the conventions of ‘92 and ‘96, and whichever way he moved all the pieces of iron filing followed. But in Los Angeles, Mr. Clinton disappeared, and took his magnetism with him. All the pieces of metal on the floor went this way and that and finally slid to the left, just as they had before 1992.

Al Gore is not a magnet. It isn’t just the lack of shades-wearing, sax-playing charm. Mr. Gore lacks the confidence of a great man, or a psychopath, that he should be adored and followed. He is full of doubts and constantly shifts shapes. And he doesn’t have 12 years of loss behind him to help him spur his party. Mr. Clinton played savior, but now the party has already been saved. Now it’s smug.

*   *   *

This is what I realized in L.A.: It wasn’t a newly unified Democratic party that produced a victor named Bill Clinton, it was Mr. Clinton who produced a unified party. He unified them through their hunger, which he matched with his own.

But the changes he brought were not serious, and so not lasting. They were not grounded in the desire to change but in the desire to win. His party could now change back so quickly, could pivot back to the past, because that, now, seems the way to win, at least according to Mr. Gore’s strategists. Clintonian moderation was as evanescent as a Clintonian promise or a Clintonian statement: It was just meant to get through the moment.

It was said of Jimmy Carter when he left the presidency that he’d left no footprints. I thought Bill Clinton was a real bigfoot, he left a real impression, but in Los Angeles it looked as if his footprints too had been washed away in the tide.

*   *   *

The Democrats in Los Angeles also showed another attitudinal change. They acted as if they deserve to lead, not as if they’d better hustle to win leadership. They remind me of the Republicans in ‘92. They seem to have lost their edge, and lost a lot of the bright young men and women of the War Room. A lot of them are gone, some of them broken by the Clinton experience, some in television and consulting. The Democrats’ talent coffers are depleted.

In the 1970s and ‘80s the Democrats weren’t as good as the Republicans at the stagecraft of conventions; they didn’t approach the level of sophistication of the Reagan era. By 1992, however, they’d learned how to have a slicker, smarter convention production, and in ‘96 they blew the Republicans away in stagecraft. They even invented a new art of campaign film biography, with the brilliant Linda Bloodworth-Thomason creating a classic of political propaganda with “The Boy From Hope.”

But this year in Philadelphia the Republicans beat the Democrats at stagecraft, with a message of clarity that broke through the screen: We are diverse and young and moving forward, breaking out of the old era.

*   *   *

There will be dramas in the coming months; it will not be a quiet campaign. There may be government shutdowns and fierce debates and amazingly negative advertising. It isn’t over. But I think I saw the modern Democratic Party begin to crumble again in L.A., and I think I saw the modern Republican Party being born.

Now the campaign proceeds at greater speed and with greater urgency. At the end of both conventions, a hunch. If the Clinton-Gore apparatus is facing its end, its death throes won’t be pretty. Some living things quietly die when badly wounded, but many animals are most dangerous when most endangered.