"You'll think you're looking at a Republican convention"
August 6, 2004 | Pages 4 and 5
ALAN MAASS reports on the Democrats' flag-waving convention in Boston.
"YOU'RE GOING to see more veterans, more patriotism, more talk about protecting our country," one anonymous official told the New York Times as the Democratic Party convention was getting underway in Boston. "You're going to think you're looking at a Republican convention."
That was no exaggeration. The Democrats' convention came wrapped in red, white and blue, and bristling with symbols and images of the U.S. military machine. The convention to coronate John Kerry had one message above all others--that the Democrats could be counted on to go to war and promote U.S. military power overseas.
Party honchos managed the event down to the last detail. Who got to speak to the convention--and what they were allowed to say--was designed both for maximum appeal to a television audience and to communicate unity behind Kerry and his me-too Republican Lite policies.
Concessions to the party's voting base--the unions and mainstream liberal organizations that turn out millions and millions of votes for the Democrats--were few and far between. Instead, Kerry's campaign team kept a tight leash on speakers.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell was assigned to give the main convention speech on environmental issues. His draft came back heavily edited by Kerry's advisers. "They wouldn't let me use the line 'You know, our current energy policy was written by big oil, of big oil and for big oil,'" Rendell said. "But somebody told me...we have gotten significant money from the oil companies." In fact, behind the scenes, there was another convention--to celebrate these very corporate big wigs and power brokers who really pull the strings in the Democratic Party.
"While the party's leaders wax earnest at the city's convention center, their corporate sponsors--usually conglomerates with some critical business pending in Congress--hire the city's hippest nightclubs and most prestigious venues, where they dispense expensive liquor, live music and the intoxicating presence of celebrities to delegates, journalists and politicians alike," Thomas Frank, editor of the left-wing Baffler magazine, wrote in the Financial Times. "In the past days, I have attended lavish soirées thrown by certain regional telecommunications giants and seen heroes of the 1960s feted by weapons manufacturers."
As for Kerry himself, the entire event seemed organized around celebrating his four months as a boat commander during the Vietnam War. The convention center halls were decorated with 30 huge blown-up pictures of Kerry dressed in uniform. When Kerry arrived in Boston midweek, he actually sailed in on a boat surrounded by fellow veterans.
During the week and before Kerry's speech, retired generals and assorted other figures from the military establishment paraded across the convention stage to underline his credentials as a war leader. No speech at the convention was complete without a tribute to Kerry's Vietnam record--though Bill Clinton managed to twist the naval metaphor further than anyone.
"Since we're all in the same boat," Clinton rambled, "we should choose a captain of our ship who is a brave good man, who knows how to steer a vessel through troubled waters, to the calm seas and perfect skies of our more perfect union."
Kerry's own hour-long acceptance speech that capped the week relentlessly repeated the same stories. The flag-waving and teary-eyed tributes to patriotism might have shamed Republicans. But that was the point. The whole theme of Kerry's speech was to show that a Democratic administration would be better warriors in the fight against "terrorism" and more effective in pursuing American interests in the world.
And convention delegates--90 percent of whom opposed the Bush administration's war on the Iraqi people, according to one survey--zealously cheered every last warmongering phrase of Kerry's speech. Kerry did his best to avoid talking at all about his nearly 20 years as a senator, maintaining a liberal image to win votes back home, while going along with the rightward-moving agenda in Washington.
He cried crocodile tears about U.S. factories being shut down--but neglected to mention that he voted for the NAFTA corporate trade deal. He complained about the disaster of public education under Bush--but didn't explain why he voted for Bush's disastrous No Child Left Behind Act.
Kerry even had the gall to defend his votes in favor of Republican-sponsored cuts in spending on programs for the poor. "I broke with many in my own party to vote for a balanced budget, because I thought it was the right thing to do," Kerry whined. "No, John," left-wing author Greg Palast wrote the next day, "it wasn't. It was craven political cowardice, going with the anti-government hysteria."
Anyone who plans to vote for John Kerry in order to defeat George Bush should think long and hard about what they learned about Kerry from the star-spangled convention in Boston. He doesn't deserve your vote.
How Kucinich caved in
NO MATTER how unlikely his chances, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) refused to the very end to abandon his liberal campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Even after John Kerry had the nomination locked up, Kucinich kept running--"to give people an opportunity to voice their concerns," he said.
As Kucinich told an audience during a panel discussion on the antiwar movement at the Boston Social Forum last month, "I ran for president as a Democrat to bring these principles into the party." Fine words. Only when he said them, Kucinich had abandoned his campaign and endorsed Kerry--and given up on any attempt to get a call for a definite withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq into the party platform. Following the time-honored tradition of liberal Democrats who fail to win the party's presidential nomination, Kucinich fell in line behind the more conservative nominee.
He even had the gall to attack independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. "It's entirely consistent for Democrats to choose someone who they feel has the best chance of defeating George Bush and, simultaneously at the grassroots, support the principles that my campaign was about," Kucinich explained. But it's not consistent at all.
Kucinich proved that when he gave up on the fight he promised to make to get a set date for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq written into the Democrats' platform. Under pressure from Kerry's operatives, Kucinich told his supporters on the platform committee to back down. Outrageously, the plank adopted by the committee says that "people of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq."
The so-called "compromise" on withdrawal is incomprehensible--promising that a Kerry administration will pull U.S. troops from Iraq "when appropriate so that the military support needed by a sovereign Iraqi government will no longer be seen as the direct continuation of an American military presence."
Sandy Berger, former national security adviser under Bill Clinton and John Kerry's representative in negotiations on the platform, bragged, "We didn't give up anything." He characterized Kucinich's supporters as a "group of people who want to win"--and were willing to give up what they believed in for the sake of helping John Kerry.
The occupation of Iraq isn't the only issue where the Democrats' platform is a joke. The finished product deals with controversial questions by simply ignoring them. Among the issues that aren't even addressed--in the name of "party unity"--are so-called partial-birth abortion, gay marriage, capital punishment, Alaska oil drilling or the Kyoto global warming treaty.
Labor's brief peep of dissension
THE DEMOCRATS' Boston convention was stage-managed down to the last detail to present a picture of complete unity behind John Kerry. All week long, there was really only one peep of dissent among Democrats--from Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest union in the AFL-CIO.
On the opening day of the convention, Stern admitted to a reporter what no one else would--that the labor movement and the Democrats both face a "deep crisis," caused by employer attacks and declining membership on the one hand, and the Democrats' drift toward Republican Lite policies on the other.
Stern told Washington Post reporter David Broder that "both organized labor and the Democratic Party might be better off in the long run if Sen. John F. Kerry loses the election," Broder wrote. Kerry's election, Stern told Broder, would stifle the "evolution" of debate within the party and among unions about new directions.
Stern is a leader of the New Unity Partnership, a coalition of five big unions that claims to represent a different strategy for labor, including more resources devoted to organizing. "I don't know if [such an initiative] would survive a Democratic president," Stern said, because of the pressure on union leaders to fall into line behind Kerry--as they did behind Bill Clinton during the 1990s.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders like Kerry have undermined union efforts to turn out blue-collar voters by refusing to address what Stern called the "Wal-Mart economy"--low wages, persistent underemployment and lack of health care. "It is a hollow party," Stern concluded.
Within hours, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was hauled out to repudiate Stern's comments. Stern himself backtracked in later interviews, stressing that the SEIU still planned to spend $65 million to elect Kerry--twice the level of spending in 2000 and more than any union has ever devoted to an election campaign. Nevertheless, Stern put his finger on the truth about the one-sided relationship between labor and the Democrats--even if he tried to take his words back later.
Turning Boston into occupied territory
THE DEMOCRATS worked hand in glove with the Bush administration's Department of Homeland Security to make sure that the democratic right to protest was the last thing that could be seen on the streets of Boston. The cost of policing the convention topped $50 million--more than half the estimated total price tag of $95 million.
Some 5,000 cops and law enforcement officers from two dozen local, state and federal agencies participated in turning Boston into occupied territory for the duration of the convention. The centerpiece of the strategy was the "free speech zone" where activists were supposed to hold their demonstrations.
The "protest pen" was surrounded by 9-foot-high fences topped with razor wire--and located beneath an elevated train bridge that was patrolled by armed soldiers. Even convention delegates were quick to tell the media how much the "cage" looked like the Bush administration's internment camp at Guantánamo Bay. Yet not a word about this was heard from party leaders like John Kerry, Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter.
The biggest demonstration of the week was an antiwar march and rally organized by International ANSWER on July 25. Some 3,000 people turned out--thought the crowd would no doubt had been bigger if the demonstration didn't coincide with the last day of the Boston Social Forum.
Everywhere around the protesters was the heavy-handed presence of the police--Massachusetts "storm-troopers" in riot gear, other agents holding machine guns, helicopters buzzing the crowd and more. Throughout the week, most demonstrations ignored the protest pen and found a different place to gather.
In fact, one of the few to be held inside the "protest zone" was a 200-strong demonstration against Israel's continuing occupation against Palestinians and construction of a "security fence" across the West Bank. The point of holding this demonstration within the pit--with its fences topped with barbed wire so reminiscent of Israel's apartheid wall--was lost on no one.
Speakers at the protest pointed out that there were no differences at all between Democrats and Republicans when it came to all-out support for Israel. The only difference between Kerry and Bush, as one speaker pointed out, was in the make of their limousines and the kind of caviar they eat.
Bill Keach and Joe Knott contributed to this report.