Americans watching the Democratic convention, especiallly the two-hour truncated version adopted this week by the national networks, may fail to appreciate a subtle thread running through it.
This thread is the political process of binding - the effort to bring together a party's elements, ambitions, interests. One example of binding was the meeting between Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, and Jesse Jackson, in which each tacitly agreed to support the nomination winner.
The process will occur again at the Republican National Convention next month in Dallas. The GOP has been preparing for just such a binding for months. The new hot-line agreement with the Soviets, for example, or the administration's more affirmative attitude toward arms talks, is part of the effort to bridge the pragmatic and ideological and other divides in the party.
If successful, each national party would hope to emerge from the Thursday night acceptance speeches with an image of unity, a definition of its platform, the broad themes for the fall campaign set in place, and a fresh motivation to wage the contests. And each ticket would customarily hope to gain 6 or 8 or 10 points in the polls against the opposition.
It would thus be a mistake to write off the party conventions as so much hoopla, acrimony, and rhetoric. They have a tremendous amount to accomplish in a short period of time. By this measure the Democratic convention at midpoint has been proceeding apace.
A winning presidential candidate would be criticized if he did not promptly seize control of the levers of power which a convention and a party apparatus afford him. But when Walter Mondale reached too precipitately for that power by ousting party chairman Charles Manatt, he was rightly reprimanded by the party's elders and operatives. A compromise was worked out under the lead of California Rep. Tony Coelho. Such adjustments are also what politics is all about.
A positive side of the Manatt flap was that it gave Rep. Geraldine Ferraro a much-needed respite from the limelight to prepare for rigorous exposure ahead.
Similarly the Democrats had to work out the place of Jimmy Carter in the context of 1984. He was put near the beginning of the program. He was given his due - although many Americans watching the opening-night session may have thought that Carter kicked off the convention, an emphasis unintended.
The actual keynoter, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, gave one of the best addresses of that genre in recent memory, at least as perceived by party professionals in the Moscone Center. He laid out in lawyerly and at times emotional fashion a case for the Democrats in 1984. It was not a speech intended to convert the public at large so much as an attempt to rally the party lieutenants who will have to go home to organize the contests from the precinct level on up - to convince them that the Democratic standard still merits proud bearing. It pointed to the goal of unity and political energy for the Thursday night finale - and certainly enhanced the political stock of Mr. Cuomo himself.
The party platform likewise is part of the binding process. More about its contents another time - such as an obvious absence of spending programs in the face of large deficits and a changing public outlook. It focused the party's attack, sensing a potential Reagan vulnerability on arms talks, social justice, and the environment, and it echoed the Reagan emphasis on economic growth.
Party platforms should not be viewed cynically. True, the '84 Democratic platform is long and detailed. True, candidates often depart from platforms in office, if not during the campaign. But history shows a surprisingly large portion of party platforms get enacted by Congress eventually.
A convention may appear on television as chiefly a media extravaganza - and what else can one say about an event in which 13,000 news people outnumber the 6 ,000 delegates by 2 to 1?
The Democratic convention, like the Republican to follow, has its private, serious work to do. Conventions are the occasions when forces in a pluralistic society assemble and seek, in a few short days, to transmute the competing interests, expectations, and egos into something called a positive national campaign. This effort, this week, for all its exhibitionism, can be quietly appreciated by Americans of Independent, Republican, or Democratic leaning.