The Democratic National Convention in Chicago has proved every bit as choreographed and staged as the Republicans' gathering in San Diego. For all the rhetoric about allowing dissent, the Democrats were careful to keep Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo, and others opposed to the recent welfare-reform act out of prime time and off network TV.
Perhaps more significant, in Chicago, as in San Diego, the moderates have run the show. As Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt told reporters at a Monitor luncheon, never have the basic centrist impulses of Americans been so apparent.
There's a reason for this: Both parties realize from bitter experience that they can't win just by carrying their own base of voters. They need to capture swing voters and more than 10 to 20 percent of the other party's base to win the presidency. So the president claims credit for enacting welfare reform, raising the minimum wage, easing small-business taxes, and enacting a health-insurance portability bill - though a GOP Congress passed them.
Also of note is the president's attempt to make news during the convention week with his train ride through crucial battleground states. His rapid-fire proposals - deny guns to those who batter wives and children, create a $2.5 billion national literacy program so that all children can read by third grade, clean up urban toxic-waste sites, and encourage businesses to hire people on welfare - are aimed squarely at the great center of American politics.
The Democrats must not only seize the middle ground, they must push the Republicans off it in the public mind. They try to do this by derogatory reference to Newt Gingrich, portrayal of the GOP as "extreme," and by insisting that Bob Dole's proposal to cut taxes and balance the budget will create economic havoc.
On this last point, they may be succeeding. One public opinion poll shows that up to 70 percent of the public doubts that taxes can be cut 15 percent and the budget balanced at the same time. But Clinton risks giving tax cuts more credibility by restating his own $100 billion proposal, originally promised in the 1992 presidential campaign. He may add targeted cuts in his acceptance speech tonight.
If the campaign debate revolves around balancing the budget versus cutting taxes, it will be conducted on Clinton's terms. But if, as Republicans hope, it becomes a debate over how much to cut taxes, the GOP will have pulled the president into its home court.