How Boston may play as convention city

Its patriotic past offers rich resonance, but its political leanings may not jibe with mainstream voters.

Think of the proud patriots of the American Revolution. Think of the academic prowess of Harvard University and MIT. Think of the nation's first modern factory, the world's first computer, the world's biggest - or at least costliest - construction project.

In choosing Boston as the site of its 2004 convention, the Democratic Party has chosen a city of undisputed renown, a city of big ideas if not big shoulders - America's unofficial cerebrum.

Yet it's unclear whether Boston's big ideas will help or hinder a party that's trying to reposition itself to regain the White House - or even just one half of Congress. This liberal city certainly harbors a political culture that some say could send the wrong signal as the party tries to rebound from a devastating setback in Election 2002.

To be sure, modern party conventions operate inside a media bubble that often makes geography irrelevant: Sweeping skyline shots become little more than TV postcards. Yet the host city does provide a cultural and political context.

At the very least, Boston's convention will have cheeky slogans like, "The Republicans are coming, the Republicans are coming!" And there could be stronger local influence. After all, liberal icon Sen. Ted Kennedy will host. Hometown Sen. John Kerry might even be the nominee.

Furthermore, in this era of flag-waving patriotism - and Republican dominance on issues of national security - American revolutionary imagery could be hugely useful to Democrats. "You want patriotic? We've got patriotic," says David Nyhan, a former columnist who helped woo the Democrats. "We've got George Washington sleeping under an elm tree in Cambridge, we've got Raytheon," which makes Patriot missiles. Not to mention Paul Revere's Old North Church, John Adams, and more.

Indeed revolutionary icons could help in two ways - fueling Democrats' quest to overthrow the man they see as an imperial president, and inspiring Americans to stand strong against global terrorism.

Yet for all its patriotic potential, Boston is largely out of step with suburban, independent voters - the coveted quarry of American politics. They tend to be socially liberal - tolerant on race, class, abortion, and even sexuality. But they're fiscally conservative, resisting taxes and big government.

But Boston's just about the opposite: fiscally liberal and socially conservative. Here, big-government activism connotes lofty goals of helping less fortunate neighbors. And there's also a deep strain of social and cultural conservatism. Most infamous was Boston's racist resistance to school desegregation in the 1970s. Even today's theater scene is "not where you go for the avant-garde," observes William Fowler, director of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

"Just because we have a lot of brainy people here doesn't mean we're necessarily smart - and having a lot of intellect doesn't mean we connect with the politics of modern America," says Dr. Fowler.

To wit: Massachusetts was the only state to vote for George McGovern amid Richard Nixon's 1972 landslide win. (After Nixon's resignation, one politico proclaimed it "The I-told-you-so state.")

Still, some Democrats see now as the perfect time for the party to return to its roots - and Boston in 2004 as the ideal spot to celebrate that change. "Democrats have got to start talking like Democrats, and if they do, they'll win elections," says former presidential standard-bearer Michael Dukakis. "Tax cuts for the wealthy never revived any economy - except maybe a Caribbean economy," as rich Americans sunned themselves on beaches, he says.

Meanwhile, Republican snickering about Boston being out of the mainstream has already begun. "If I were a Democrat, I would feel a heck of a lot more comfortable in Boston than, say, in America," teased Texas Rep. Dick Armey at a Monitor breakfast yesterday.

The idea that sparked the American Revolution - tax cuts - isn't exactly a core Democratic value. But there's room for reinterpretation, suggests David Axelrod, a Democratic consultant: "Maybe we'll dump some tea in Boston Harbor and say, 'No tax cuts without representation!'"

Boston Basics

Population: 589,000

Number of colleges & universities: 68

Number of jobs the convention will create: 5,000

Percentage of Massachusetts voters registered as Democrats: 36

Percentage registered as Republicans: 13

Boston firsts: First subway, post office, library, and public school in the US

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