Cover Story

Can't stop thinking about yesterday

It was music liberal Democrat delegates did not want to hear: Bill Clinton's L.A. farewell aria. Trailing in the polls, and with a wooden, uninspiring nominee, the Los Angeles delegates could be excused a little nostalgia. Will the Clinton swan song be a precursor to an electoral swan dive for the Democrats?

Issue: "Life after Clinton?," Aug. 26, 2000

in Los Angeles - The ushers boogied in the aisles. The delegates danced in place. Even members of the press tapped their feet, hidden by the ledges that support their laptop computers. "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow," Fleetwood Mac admonished over the loudspeakers. "Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone." But the revelers in L.A. really weren't thinking about tomorrow, and they wished that yesterday would stick around just a little longer. They even turned their wishes into a chant ("Eight more years! Eight more years!"), as if, by sheer emotion and force of will, they could delay the change that so many of them seemed to dread. That change, of course, was the passing of the torch from Bill Clinton to Al Gore. The delegates came to L.A. to do just that, but they were not particularly enthusiastic about the task. They muttered darkly about the polls. They worried openly about personalities. They calculated the odds in the Electoral College. Indeed, despite the almost non-stop revelry, a palpable sense of dread permeated this party, like teenagers worried that their parents might come home early and shut down the celebration. Their worries may be justified. Nominee Gore is still down in the polls, even after slowing the George W. Bush bandwagon by naming a running mate and capturing the media spotlight. With his own party fractured and restive, Mr. Gore faced the daunting task of appealing to moderates while motivating his liberal base. But violent protests outside the hall-and mixed messages on the inside-showed just how difficult his task might be. And then there's the Clinton problem. It's not that Mr. Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky; that's old news. It's not that Mr. Clinton is still under investigation for various ethical lapses; that rarely makes the news. The problem is simply that Bill Clinton is Bill Clinton: a larger-than-life personality and consummate political animal who craves the limelight and thrives on the adoration of his public. This was supposed to be the week he took his bows and stepped off the stage. Instead he dominated it, giving one of the best performances of his life and setting the bar impossibly high for his famously wooden understudy. In one of the most theatrical entrances ever, Mr. Clinton strode alone through a maze of stark, white walls, a camera just steps ahead. As he neared the stage, the delegates watched his progress on huge Jumbotron screens throughout the hall. The music swelled subtly as the president approached, and the roar of the crowd ratcheted upward with each step. Finally, in a flash of light, Mr. Clinton emerged stage left. The roar gave way to the kind of high-pitched screaming usually reserved for rock stars. Journalists in the press section stood-not because liberal reporters needed a better view, but simply because they couldn't resist the perfectly orchestrated emotion of the moment. It felt more like a second coming than a last hurrah. The delegates, many of whom distrust Mr. Clinton's "New Democrat" aspirations, nonetheless greeted him as the savior who had given them eight years in the White House. And Mr. Clinton wasn't about to let them forget it. In a defiant, emotional valedictory address, he hit constantly on the accomplishments of his two terms, taunting critics who said the economic boom was due to market forces rather than White House decisions. With an eye on the history books, he claimed credit for millions of new jobs, record budget surpluses, greater racial equality, lower taxes, and smaller government. He took pains to point out that Al Gore was at his side all along, but the references seemed almost an afterthought. Again and again he went off-script to inject personal reminiscences and proud asides. Again and again the TelePrompTer stopped its steady scrolling as the president chose to tell his own story in his own words. As the speech went on-13 typed pages in all-Mr. Clinton added ever more asides, as if he were loath to reach the end of the script. The last two pages of text took him roughly as long to deliver as the first five, and when it was finally over, he stood for long moments on the stage, his face flushed with emotion as the cheers of the crowd washed over him. "Amen! Thank you, Jesus! Amen!" cheered one female delegate, adding her voice to the waves of adulation thundering through the hall. "What you gonna say to that?" she asked of no one in particular. "Mmm-hmm, gonna be tough to top that. Tough to top that, I'm telling you." Which is precisely the problem for Al Gore. Though by all accounts a good and decent man untainted by the character flaws of his boss, he clearly lacks the innate political gifts that allowed Mr. Clinton to energize and unify the many factions that make up the Democratic Party. The danger to the Democrats is that without the force of the Clinton personality at the top of the ticket, those factions may lose interest or drift apart, delivering the White House to the GOP. As Mr. Gore prepares to battle Mr. Bush for independent, centrist voters, polls at the beginning of the convention showed him with the firm support of only 75 percent of the members of his own party. (Mr. Bush, by contrast, was winning firm support from 90 percent of Republicans.) That meant the vice president had to worry about solidifying his liberal base, just when he wanted to focus on moderate suburban voters. At the convention site, it quickly became obvious just how restless the liberals had become. On the second night of the convention, the Gore team treated the delegates to more liberal nostalgia: Jesse Jackson harshly attacked the entire Bush family, warning voters repeatedly to "stay out the Bushes"; Bill Bradley endorsed more government welfare programs and said that if those don't work, "shame on me, shame on you, shame on all of us"; Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg spoke of the importance of keeping a pro-abortion majority on the Supreme Court and tightening gun control; Teddy Kennedy demanded that the Democratic ticket make the "driving dream of my public service" come true and "secure the promise of health care for all." Away from the convention floor, for 90 minutes every day, a small group of disaffected libs calling themselves the Campaign for America's Future held discussions in a nearby hotel to emphasize "progressive" issues that Mr. Gore was downplaying. A few blocks away, Arianna Huffington's so-called Shadow Convention gave voice to still more disaffected lefties, including such icons as Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, and Tom Hayden (Jane Fonda's husband in her radical, anti-war days). Among the issues discussed: the "failed war on drugs" and the legalization of marijuana-not exactly the image that the new, family-friendly Democrats want to present to centrist voters. And those were just the respectable malcontents who debated their issues in air-conditioned comfort. Outside, in a fenced-off parking lot dubbed Liberty Park, thousands of protesters gathered in sweltering heat to denounce the death penalty, police cruelty, cruelty to animals, immigration laws, war, homelessness, the patriarchal society, the lack of bike paths in Southern California, and a host of other Establishment abuses. Their protests occasionally turned ugly: On opening night several people were injured when police on horseback waded into the crowd, swinging clubs and firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Protesters responded by pelting officers with rocks, bottles, lead pipes, and anything else they could get their hands on. The violence in L.A. underscored the protesters' sense of frustration with and betrayal by the Democratic Party. "What were we going to say to the Republicans, that we disagree with their policies?" said one protester, explaining the relatively small effort in Philadelphia. "They already know that. But the Democrats think we belong to them. They think we're with them. We're here to say that they don't represent us, and they'd better not take us for granted." Indeed, it seemed that the hapless Gore campaign could take almost no one for granted in the City of the Angels. Vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman spent his first day in town largely behind closed doors, holding the hands of angry African-American leaders who found him insufficiently liberal. His sin? Voicing support in 1995 for Proposition 209, the California ballot initiative to end racial preferences in state government and university admissions. Maxine Waters, the notoriously leftist congresswoman from south L.A., emerged from a meeting to say she was sufficiently mollified by Mr. Lieberman's avowed support for affirmative action. "I feel confident campaigning for him," she announced, to the relief of Gore advisers. "I was not going to do it if he did not address these issues." By the time he took the stage Wednesday night, Mr. Lieberman appeared to have quelled the doubts about his liberal bona fides. His ovation was long and enthusiastic, and he continued to get a warm response throughout his speech as long as he hewed to the party line. His longest ovation came when he said public-school teachers should get more pay. Moments later, however, when he said "no parent should be forced to compete with popular culture to raise their children," the great hall was mostly silent. Clearly, Republicans will try to play up such differences in coming weeks, raising doubts in the minds of liberals and disheartening the Democratic base. Even after Mr. Lieberman's speech, such doubts boiled just below the surface. "The delegates have already fallen in love with him," said Neal Fowler, a delegate from Alabama, but in the darkness of the buses shuttling delegates back to their distant hotels, two Ohio delegates grumbled about Mr. Lieberman's "disgusting" voting record. "He hasn't really changed his positions," one of the women insisted. Without Bill Clinton's strong personality at the top of the ticket, such doubts could boil over by November. If so, Democrats could again be singing "Yesterday's gone,"and with it, the White House.

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