After Republican Touchdown, A Chance for Democrats to Score

POLITICS

The Republican National Convention was a remarkable piece of political stagecraft that probably exceeded even its planners' expectations.

Unwittingly, however, the GOP has presented the Democrats with a unique opportunity, of which they should take full advantage at their Chicago convention, starting Aug. 26.

Of course, the Republicans' "Hail Mary" strategy, launched with the brilliant selection of Jack Kemp as Bob Dole's running mate, scored a big touchdown last week.

They presented an image of unity, despite still-bitter differences over abortion and other issues. They cloaked themselves in moderation, with Colin Powell, Susan Molinari, and Elizabeth Dole in the spotlight, and Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, and Newt Gingrich in the shadows, despite the fact that the latter three exert far more influence over party policies and a platform that was treated as a pariah. They embraced diversity, with women and minorities taking center stage, despite the fact that the GOP remains virtually all white and, at its highest levels, mostly male. And they spoke of tolerance and inclusion.

There were times when I had to pinch myself to remember that I was watching a Republican, not a Democratic convention. Consider the words of Colin Powell: "[O]ur party ... must always stand for equal rights and fair opportunity for all. And where discrimination still exists or where the scars of past discrimination contaminate the present, we must not close our eyes to it, declare a level playing field, and hope it will go away by itself."

Elizabeth Dole said her husband would "protect and preserve and strengthen that safety net for those who need it." Kemp spoke of an America "that makes the ideal of equality a daily reality" and "transcends the boundaries between races."

In his acceptance speech, Dole pointed to the exit signs for "anyone who has mistakenly attached himself to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion." And he acknowledged that "the bridge between failure and success can be the government itself."

This softening of the sharp edges the GOP congressional and extremist wings chiseled in the party's image the past several years comes at a price. For it moves the debate to the Democrats' home turf. Tolerance, inclusion, equal opportunity, compassion - these are Democratic values. When the other side accepts a big part of your world view, you have an advantage.

So having scored their touchdown, the Republicans moved to the Democrats' home field and handed over the ball in good field position.

To move the ball downfield, the Democrats in Chicago must adopt a two-pronged strategy, with President Clinton taking to the air and other speakers sticking to the ground game. The president's acceptance speech must remind America of his administration's considerable and largely unsung achievements; paint a bold, positive vision of the future; and present a compelling rationale of why he deserves another four years in office.

The president should praise Mr. Dole for his apparent embrace of tolerance and diversity, hope that it truly represents a new leaf for the party of "Willie Horton" and Jesse Helms, and hold the GOP to never playing the "race card" again.

Having done this, Clinton should then say that if you're an American who wants a compassionate and efficient government, who wants equal opportunity, who wants to spread the benefits of a strong and vibrant economy to every citizen, and who wants a nation that appeals to "our better angels," the Democratic Party is your only home. If you want what we want, vote for the real thing.

Other convention speakers should contrast the flickering images the GOP so craftily presented on TV with the reality of a party whose principal policymaker is Newt Gingrich and whose dominant interest group is the Christian Coalition. They should condemn Republican party leaders who professed not to have read the GOP platform and disavowed a document that is, by definition, a party's vision and agenda.

Democrats must be delicate in their treatment of Dole. There should be no personal attacks. Rather, they should question why Dole, in his acceptance speech, left out the last 35 years of his life (as ABC commentator Jeff Greenfield noted) when he has been one of the most powerful and influential figures in the 20th century. And they should raise Mr. Dole's contradictions, such as, his history of deficit-fighting and his recent embrace of "dj-voodoo" supply-side tax-cutting.

Democrats must be careful: American voters have apparently lost their taste for strident negativism in presidential campaigns. That is why the GOP kept Buchanan and Gingrich off center-stage, and had Dole restrain his attack-dog instincts. The biggest task for President Clinton and the Democrats is to present a more compelling vision for the future than does the GOP.

The Republicans have unintentionally given the Democrats a helping hand. Now, can the Democrats reach the end zone? Stay tuned.

*Charles T. Manatt is former chair of the Democratic National Committee and current chair of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

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