The Democratic Convention: Sober reality follows orgy of Bush-bashing

AFTER warming up with a riotous orgy of Bush-bashing, the Democratic convention was yesterday preparing to give a rousing approval to the new-model, centrist policy platform designed to showcase the moderate policies they hope will carry Bill Clinton to the presidency in November.

Right from the start of proceedings, the broad thrust of the party's campaign to regain the White House after 12 years was plain: an all-out attack on the present occupant, and an unrelenting effort to persuade voters it is no longer a ragbag of disparate interest groups, but sufficiently united and realistic to be entrusted with the presidency again.

'America's economy is collapsing before our eyes,' proclaimed Governor Zell Miller of Georgia, one of Mr Clinton's staunchest Southern supporters, in one of Monday's three curtain-raising keynote speeches in Madison Square Garden. 'George Bush just doesn't get it,' he said to rapturous applause. 'He doesn't see it, he doesn't feel it, and he's done nothing about it.'

But after the opening razzmatazz, the platform debate was likely to pose a sterner test of unity: whether Democrats have finally dropped their high-taxation, high-spending ways. And the two other keynote speeches were full of pointers to the task ahead, of conveying the message to a disillusioned nation that sacrifices are unavoidable, without offering an easy target for Republican counter-attack.

'Giving up the desire for more of everything now is the key to having more of something better in our future,' warned Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey. The black former congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas struck a similarly sober note. The Democrats too were partly responsible for the huge federal deficit. 'Why not change from a party with a reputation of tax-and-spend to one with a reputation of investment and growth?' she said.

Haunting the Democrats is the fate of their last presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis, who in 1988 left a euphoric convention in Atlanta with a 17-point lead in the polls but three months later was thrashed by President Bush, not least because he failed to convince on the economy.

This time a similar headiness is in the air, despite the fact that Mr Clinton is only running even with Mr Bush and the all-but-declared independent candidate, Ross Perot. But the Clinton camp is keeping an iron grip on proceedings to minimise divisions and project a suitably serious and responsible image.

Four amendments sponsored by the unsuccessful primary contender Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator, were due for debate last night, along with a potentially controversial speech by the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who has been sniping at Mr Clinton for weeks over his alleged indifference to black voters, and other traditional poor Democratic constituencies.

But by arranging for all this to happen while much of the nation was riveted to the annual baseball All- Stars game, Clinton supporters who control the agenda have tried to ensure that any disruption will cause as little impact as possible.

What real suspense is left surrounds the former Governor of California, Jerry Brown, who still has 600 pledged delegates. Insisting on his right to address the convention on his own terms, the quixotic Mr Brown was planning last night to nominate himself and then deliver his own seconding speech.

To Democrats' delight, their own meticulously orchestrated love-in is in stark contrast to the continuing dissent within the Perot camp. Yesterday one of the Dallas billionaire's campaign co-chairmen, appointed barely six weeks ago, was forced to deny a Washington Post report that he was about to quit in frustration at the refusal of his new boss to heed his advisers' counsel.

For the time being, Hamilton Jordan, former Democrat and former chief-of-staff of President Jimmy Carter, is staying on: 'I've signed on for the long haul,' he said. But aides confirmed widespread discontent at Perot headquarters after a string of campaign-trail gaffes, his sliding poll ratings, and his unwillingness to address specific issues in detail.

Rumours have also been laid to rest that Douglas Wilder of Virginia, the country's lone black governor, might jump ship and offer himself as a possible Perot running mate this autumn. The move would have been a major embarrassment to a fellow Democratic governor from the South, on the eve of his coronation tomorrow night. But Mr Wilder, who briefly ran in the Democratic primaries, is now scheduled to address the convention tomorrow and endorse the Clinton/Gore ticket.

Meanwhile, the Democrats' vice- presidential candidate is unusually visible here, hammering away at his favourite theme. At an open-air speech to environmentalists in Central Park, Mr Gore mocked the claims of Mr Bush (at present in California to attend the baseball game and sign a bill on forest protection) to be the 'environmental' President as a joke, 'as phoney as a three-dollar bill'.

(Photograph omitted)

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