THE Democratic Party began the process of coming together - the root meaning of ``convene'' - this week in Atlanta. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and his staff were offered key but not closely defined roles in an expanded Dukakis-Bentsen campaign. The Jackson role in Atlanta has not been played out. But the prospect dimmed of a repeat of the kind of dissension we saw in 1980. Then, Sen. Edward Kennedy's forces drove the sitting President Jimmy Carter to the wall on prime time - challenging even the precedent of delegates sticking with a candidate they were elected to represent on the first ballot.
Then, the Republicans had their convention troubles too. Some of the Reagan faithful were so reluctant to take on defeated rival George Bush that they offered former President Gerald Ford - Reagan's 1976 nemesis - a power-sharing deal to join the ticket. When time ran out on that bit of foolishness and Ford spurned him, Reagan went to the convention floor to accept the obvious choice, Mr. Bush.
This time it has been the bobbing and weaving Jesse Jackson who has been playing hard to get - asking for a ``partnership'' that would be something less than power sharing but more than face saving. In yesterday's press conference after a face-to-face meeting, Governor Dukakis and the Rev. Mr. Jackson indicated the subject of a specific Dukakis administration role for Jackson would wait until after the election.
Media candidacies like Jackson's can parlay the squeeze of time - a fortnight prime-time window - into concessions. This is not exceptional. The coming together of factions is what politics is all about. Jackson has already played this opportunity in masterly fashion.
A coming together of the party's factions is evidently occurring quickly enough to provide the Democrats with the 15 or so point lead anticipated by strategists in both parties by the end of this week. Jackson can help secure that prospect with his scheduled speech tonight.
The Nov. 8 general election itself is really the nation's business meeting. This meeting belongs to no one party and to no one wing or constituency - in the Democrats' case, not black, white, or rainbow. The primaries begin that process of convening; the platform writing and the convention are major steps in the process.
However smooth or rough the convention, the campaigns seek to solidify their support through the rest of the contest and to appeal to independent and crossover voters.
Despite an apparent early Dukakis lead in the polls, the election looks to be very close by November. The GOP's New Orleans convention, Bush's lift-off pad, is still a month away. At the moment, the electorate's view lies somewhere between unenthusiastic toward Bush and uninformed about Dukakis. The election could be either ticket's to win or lose.
To have a successful convention this week the Democrats must do four things: become truly, not cosmetically, united behind their ticket; aim the party's message beyond the liberal-leaning people inside the Atlanta Omni to the swing voters around the country; show the public something importantly new about Mr. Dukakis; and put the Republicans on the defensive. In August the Bush Republicans must return the favor.
This agenda has a better prospect of success with indications of Mr. Jackson's full endorsement.