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Kerry, Democratic Party Need to Embrace ‘Liberal’

Preaching to the congregation of the Democratic faithful in the convention hall on Monday night, Bill Clinton raised the strongest surges of emotion with his repetitions of the phrase, biblical in spirit and intonation, “And John Kerry said, send me.” Send me to Vietnam, up-river with an American flag into the storm of war; send me into the political wilderness in Washington, down-river with the American Constitution to drain the swamp of lies. Send me to form a more perfect union, to widen the circle of opportunity and deepen the reach of freedom; send me to find a safe passage through the dark and troubled waters of terrorism to calm seas and clear skies.

Each mention of Kerry volunteering to go somewhere else in search of truth or death or justice brought with it another roar of approval, another gust of applause, and when Clinton ended his sermon on the by then familiar refrain — “Let us join as one and say in a loud, clear voice: Send John Kerry” — the crowd rose to its feet and complied, the joyful noise unto the Lord loud enough and clear enough to be heard in heaven and Copley Square.

It was a tribute both to the force of Clinton’s oratory and to the willingness of the convention delegates to wave their hats and dance on chairs, but it still left open the question, “Send John Kerry to do what?” Obviously to win the November election, but apparently to do so in a manner not apt to vex the editors of The Washington Post or the governors of the New York Stock Exchange. The Senator’s campaign managers were careful to stress the point while handing out the signs and posters in the Fleet Center. “Optimism” the watchword, “values” preferred to “issues,” no anger with the platitudes, no sarcasms in the soup. Remember, friends, that the American presidency is a Republican job, and what we have on offer is a better Republican than George W. Bush — our man is as well acquainted with the glory of money and the songs of Yale, but steadier in character, more temperate in disposition, more reasonable in judgment. Not a man likely to tinker with the engines of free trade or change the policies toward Israel and Iraq, but when compared to the present occupant of the White House (of whom we must remember, friends, to say nothing negative or foolish) a truer and more agreeable companion, better read, more widely traveled, a stronger fashion statement.

Or so at least is the line of argument distributed by the Senator’s agents to any restive delegates who maybe wished to cast a vote for Franklin Roosevelt or Howard Dean. The old days, they said, were dead and gone when a national election put two different jobs out for bid, one of them for a Republican president of the United States, the other for a Democratic president of the United States. The two jobs had so little in common — in the first instance to feed the rich and amuse the poor, in the second to rescue the poor and educate the rich — that they required few or none of the same skills. The Democratic applicant came equipped with cost estimates for the building of bridges, hospitals, schools and roads — as a contractor hired to perform a public service for the tenants of the American commonwealth. The Republican applicant presented the credentials of a private consultant to the country’s upscale landlords, recommended by the right sort of people, bringing an architect’s drawing of Snow White’s castle — golf courses tastefully appointed with $4 million homes, the property under 24-hour surveillance, the lawns being mowed by non-union dwarves who whistled while they worked.

But those were the days when the word “liberal” was not yet politically incorrect, before the tools necessary to the Democratic job went missing on the construction site of Ronald Reagan’s Magic Kingdom, when the American people were still being asked to vote for a president of their own country, not for “the leader of the free world,” which, as even Barbra Streisand knows, is a job reserved for a Republican.

Alone among the speakers to the convention on Monday night, Jimmy Carter, the last of the applicants for the position of Democratic president of the United States, wasn’t afraid to recognize George Bush as a lying imbecile or to say that in this year’s election what is “at stake is nothing less than our nation’s soul.” Not only its soul, but also its existence, both as an idea and as a set of map coordinates marking out the space in which to conduct what Benjamin Franklin knew to be the sometimes disorderly and impolitic experiments with freedom.

By electing a more compassionate conservative or a more moderate and intelligent Republican, the Democratic Party might regain its hold on power, find its way back to the fountains and reflecting pools of federal patronage in Washington. It wouldn’t do the country any favors, wouldn’t replenish its wealth or save its soul. The task in hand requires a president not embarrassed by the name of liberal, and if the convention wishes to lend meaning to its own best and brightest words, it will send John Kerry out of the hall as a genuinely Democratic candidate, not as a figure of Bill Clinton’s pretty speech.

Lewis Lapham is the editor of Harper’s Magazine.