The Washington Times

It is a truism of presidential politics that a successful convention is one from which the party emerges united – fired up for the dozen or so weeks prior to the election. There was a time when the convention’s first order of business was to select a nominee. That is something generally long settled nowadays, and in fact most commentators -myself included, though you’d think we’d have given up predicting by now in this surprising year – expect today to be the day when the possibility of dethroning the establishment candidates in each party ceases to exist.

But what then? What have we learned from the primaries about the requirements for party unity?

Inevitably, discussion turns at this point to the question of the vice presidential nominee. Guessing names is a fool’s errand. How predictable was Dan Quayle’s selection by George Bush? Who guessed Bill Clinton would tap another Southerner, Al Gore? Bob Dole’s choice of Jack Kemp was wildly popular with Republicans in the summer of 1996, but no one expected it. There are some things to be gleaned from the primaries, however – specifically, in the challenges to the front-runners.

Bill Bradley has been running against Al Gore from the left. The former New Jersey senator’s principal line of attack against the vice president is that Mr. Gore arrived rather late in his political career at the core positions of the Democratic Party on a number of issues, especially abortion. In addition, Mr. Bradley has attacked Mr. Gore for insufficiently progressive vision. The portrait Mr. Bradley has painted is one of timidity in the face of political pressure.

The charges do not seem to have wounded the vice president very much. The party understands that Mr. Gore is entirely reliable on pro-choice matters. And if, as a senator from a southern state, he was once less reliable,Democrats have shown themselves willing to make allowances for the political pressures on a Democrat from Tennessee.

Mr. Gore wants the mantle of the center, though. He is heir to President Clinton’s “Third Way,” New-Democrat mode of governance. Mr. Gore does not wish to be tagged with the old “liberal” label.

Mr. Gore has therefore probably not been too put-off by Mr. Bradley’s attacks from the left. They buttress his claim on the center. While many Republicans watching the Democratic debates have formed an impression of two left-wing candidates, in fact one is reliably more left-wing than the other. Mr. Gore is probably not going to be talking about “white skin privilege” during his campaign.

That said, there is a substantial segment of liberal opinion within the Democratic Party for whom the Third Way represents an unwelcome departure from core principles. In the end, Mr. Gore needs to reassure this faction. So while he will want to emphasize his centrist credentials to voters, it seems likely to me that he will want to make sure the liberal wing of the party is as comfortable as possible. It strikes me that in thinking about a vice president, he will look slightly to his left.

On the Republican side, George W. Bush has also faced a challenge from his left. Although John McCain has described himself as a proud Reagan Republican and has a conservative voting record, on policy matters, his sharpest attack on Mr. Bush has been his objection that Mr. Bush would cut taxes for the rich.

In response, Mr. Bush emerged during the primaries as the conservative favorite. This is perhaps not where he wanted to be, given his early emphasis on “compassionate conservatism.” He is likely to be returning to that theme in an effort to appeal to some of the independent voters who favored Mr. McCain.

But does that mean Mr. Bush will want a hard-core conservative as a running mate – to shore up his right flank as he makes a move to the center? That is a more dubious proposition.

Mr. McCain’s attack on Mr. Bush, when it has been effective, has been a little more nuanced than the usual left-right politics. Mr. McCain has been, first and foremost, a candidate promising reform. This led Mr. Bush to counter that he is a “reformer with results.” The other strength Mr. McCain brought to the campaign has been a compelling biography – his character is unshakable. He has been, indisputably, a man of gravity and seriousness of purpose. Anyone standing next to Mr. McCain would look unheroic by comparison, and Mr. Bush is no exception.

So it is, I think, that whereas Mr. Gore has a political matter to contend with, Mr. Bush has a slightly different problem. For him, uniting and motivating the party are likely to be a matter of buttressing the seriousness of the endeavor. If Mr. Gore needs someone with a good left jab, Mr. Bush needs someone with a good amount of gray hair.