As the Democrats begin their convention, the expectations for the next four days are frankly pretty low.
The candidates have already been picked. No floor fights will be waged over the platform. And with events so carefully staged, the feeling is that conventions like this one are a drag. Americans would rather watch cop shows, which at least offer some drama. And presidential candidate John Kerry says he wants to calm the anti-Bush fervor among the delegates, even though Democrats are feeling more passionate about the outcome of an election than they have in years.
To play it safe would be a mistake. If there was ever a time for the Democrats to act up, it's now.
I know what would make this a great convention for me. If, instead of hearing well- dressed, well-modulated politicians make their stock speeches, I could hear ordinary, ticked-off folks who aren't worried about looking unkempt, sounding polite or breaking a sweat, talk about how the issues affect them. Wal-Mart employees explaining how hard it is to live off Wal-Mart's meager salaries and benefits. Unemployed folks telling what it's like to have their benefits run out and still be out of work. Seniors who can't afford their medicine, even with President George W. Bush's prescription discount cards.
I want to hear from cancer patients who are legally barred from getting medical marijuana, from gays and lesbians who want to get married but can't, and from the parents of schoolchildren who've been left behind despite the president's promises. I'd also like to hear from women who can't buy emergency contraceptives over the counter, and from Iraq war veterans who suffered grievous injuries and want to know what it was for. Stories like theirs cast the parties' differences in sharp relief, and the people listening at home can identify with them. For that matter, why isn't Michael Moore, the schlumpy movie director who's managed to fire up more Americans than John Kerry has so far, giving a keynote speech, instead of being relegated to a sideshow?
None of these things will happen because the Democrats, who are themselves divided over these issues, want to put on a united front. But with so much going on in the country right now that's out of whack, I don't need to see a warm, fuzzy image of the Democrats. I want these people catch fire.
A few great speeches would help make the convention worthwhile. We can depend on Al Gore and Bill Clinton to give smart, heartfelt talks about the party's core values and what direction the country should be moving in. But I'm counting more on Howard Dean to rally the troops. Ridiculed for being too volatile and angry during his own campaign, he still touched a nerve in Democrats who were equally angry about what the Republicans are doing and needed to hear from someone who didn't mince his words. Dean's rage should fill the convention hall.
It will also be exciting if the convention embraces Barack Obama, a hot, young black senatorial candidate from Illinois. Obama belongs to a rising generation of black politicians who could signal a move away from the old-style black leaders in the party who see African-Americans as endlessly downtrodden, instead of as people who need the same opportunities as everyone else.
And this will be John Kerry's chance to excite the troops and convince the nation that he's a better choice than George W. Bush. So far he's come across as vaguely better on the issues, but not especially compelling. If he thinks Bush has gotten us bogged down in Iraq, then he should give us his strategy for getting us out. If he thinks the country still isn't safe against terrorists, then he should tell us what he would do that Bush won't. And if he blames Bush for the sorry state of the economy, he needs to tell us how he plans to stoke it up.
Kerry doesn't need to hold back. He needs to show the same anger and resolve that he displayed as a young man speaking against the war in Vietnam. If he can do that, then this convention will be far from boring.
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