The Washington Times

There was a time when Democrats were better at the craft of politics than Republicans. Given the dominance of congressional Democrats for the 40-year period from 1954 forward and the overall policy impact of FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Democrats certainly knew what they were doing. But those days are gone, and against all expectations, it is the Republican Party that is better at politics nowadays.

The simplest test is this: George W. Bush’s convention ended last week with the president positioned exactly where he wanted to be for the remainder of the campaign. He united and energized the party, mounted a robust defense of his first-term record, queued up a second-term agenda, reminded voters of the stakes, pointed out deficiencies in his opponents and re-emphasized the personal quality Americans find most attractive in him, his steadfastness.

No one would say John Kerry began his Labor Day weekend where he wanted to be. Now, perhaps the comparison is unfair and the real test comes in the weeks ahead – and indeed, the ultimate test isn’t until November. Mr. Kerry, after all, had what he and most observers thought at its close was a successful convention as well, certainly one that came off exactly according to plan. Sorry, but what the GOP convention revealed in New York was what was missing from the Democratic convention in Boston.

True, a convention is no longer a place at which intra-party business, such as selecting nominees and crafting a platform, gets settled amidst much internal strife. Instead, it is about putting together a package, presenting an image and an appeal to voters, setting out the party’s themes for the upcoming campaign during the only period of time in which a single party is the focus of political attention. A convention is an exercise in disciplined political communication.

Now, if you think that what I just said means that the new media age has made conventions a matter of show and symbols, not substance, you are making exactly the mistake Democrats made in Boston. The demands of the new media age notwithstanding, politics has not yet – and I think never will – become an exercise in pure formalism, in which the winner will be the one who is most skilled at manipulating symbols in a fashion pleasing to voters. Yes, you must manipulate symbols effectively. Democrats certainly did this in Boston, with a parade of appealing speakers and with the emphasis placed on John Kerry’s Vietnam service. This “communications skill” is one component of political competence. But it is not the only one.

Content matters. And at the end of the convention in Boston, it was content that was missing. The Democratic Party staged a show meant to buff the persona of John Kerry to a high sheen and succeeded in doing so. The trouble is that there was no real programmatic agenda behind the man, nothing that John Kerry stood for, no irreducible substantive core of conviction and commitment without which he would not be who he is. He emerged hollow, and it was no accident that he emerged hollow. Apparently, no one thought he needed to be anything much more than glittering surface.

Now, part of this was probably a product of an erroneous theory of the 2004 election popular among Democrats, namely, that voters decided long ago to get rid of Mr. Bush. Had this been true, perhaps one need do little more than stand up someone plausibly presidential. But I think the adoption of such a theory is itself part of the problem, an indication of a loss of political touch. It all but assumed that Mr. Bush would not bother to mount a campaign, so discredited was he and so little did he have to say. When your strategy for victory assumes that your opponent can’t or won’t fight, you have a problem.

But it looks to me like the Democrats’ problem here is deeper still. What exactly is the content of the Democratic message? I have asked this question before, but still there is no answer: Why, apart from personal ambition, does John Kerry want to be president? What is it his mission, and his alone, to accomplish? Now, I don’t mean to suggest that no one has ever been elected president without such a sense of purpose, and indeed, Mr. Bush may not have found his own until September 11, 2001. But find it he did, and it was that substance (not merely style and show) that was on display in New York.

Now Democrats say Mr. Kerry (and they themselves in general) have been altogether too nice, that Mr. Kerry must answer the Republican attacks with attacks of his own. Perhaps. But with what will he attack when he attacks? What will he say? The substance matters, as the drubbing the GOP administered to him has shown. Democratic Party politics has lost the connection between form and content, and the result is the emptiness now on display.