The Democrats' anger-management platform

Kerry and Co. are so damn civil and happy, it's almost scary. But will the disciplined new party be able to summon the passion?

Published July 28, 2004 5:42PM (EDT)

Forget Disneyland -- for the next few days, Beantown is the happiest place on earth. Or at least the most civil.

The Kerry campaign has put the kibosh on Bush bashing, preferring to make their candidate's positive vision for the country the overriding theme of the convention.

It's the Anger Management platform -- and a very sensible strategy.

Unfettered rage at Bush, his corporate cronyism and his lies about Iraq (oops, I think that's one of the proscribed phrases; my bad) has fueled the Democrats since a movement of outraged activists gave the party a much needed spine transplant during the primary season. Kerry picked up the baton in Iowa and has run with it to great effect. At the moment, 54 percent of Americans feel that the country is moving in the wrong direction -- and nearly three-fifths say we need to change course.

Now it's time for Kerry to convince voters that he's the one to chart the new direction, and to define just what that direction will be.

So everywhere you go here -- or, at least, everywhere the police allow you to go -- everyone is reading from the same positive playbook.

At a star-studded and jampacked pre-convention event honoring Bill and Hillary Clinton -- the A-list affair was so overbooked that many VIPs had to hover outside the door, waiting for someone to leave before the fire marshals would let them in -- the former first couple was humble and on message, with Bill describing himself and Hillary as "foot soldiers for Kerry-Edwards." They had clearly gotten the Anger Management memo, and the former president, in particular, avoided the more critical stance he has recently adopted toward Bush. The only whiff of a dig at W. was Clinton's assurance that the one thing Democrats could count on was that, this time, "every vote will be counted" (this must be on the list of preapproved phrases; I've heard it a number of times since arriving in Boston -- and it never fails to draw a cheer).

As Tad Devine, Kerry's senior campaign strategist, described it to me: "I tell everyone, 'It's OK to throw the occasional elbow; just avoid the flagrant fouls.'"

The harmonious vibe at the Clinton party was so strong that William Safire, the New York Times Op-Ed page's conservative grise, turned to me after scanning the room and said, "There's so much discipline and unity here, it feels like a Republican Convention."

If there was one place where you would have expected the kid-glove approach to fall by the wayside, it was at the tribute honoring the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, held at the Old West Church, on Cambridge Street. The event was standing room only and was attended by some of the most progressive members of the Democratic Party, including panelists Jim Hightower, Al Franken and Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers of America. Four years ago, Wellstone had spoken at the Shadow Convention in Los Angeles, delivering a fiery call to action to progressive Democrats: "I'm tired of waiting ... It's time for us to find our own voice, to do our own organizing, to push forward on reform, to push forward on issues of economic justice, and to make the United States of America, this good country, even better."

But even among this most passionately anti-Bush crowd, the wellspring of rage bubbling just beneath the surface remained almost entirely bottled up.

You know that the Positivity Party is in full swing when Al Gore, who the L.A. Times' Ron Brownstein says has been "channeling the Democratic id in podium-pounding speeches that seem designed to end with the distribution of pitchforks," takes to the convention stage and delivers an unfailingly upbeat message. One of his few discordant notes Monday night was, like Clinton's, a dig at 2000: "Let's make sure," he said, "that the Supreme Court does not pick the next president -- and that this president is not the one who picks the next Supreme Court." The former V.P. was quick to point out, however, that he's made peace with the contentious past: "I don't want you to think that I lie awake at night counting and recounting sheep." He didn't say anything about lying in bed counting and recounting dangling chads, however.

Anger, and the wisdom of keeping it in check, were the subject of a pair of competing briefings I attended on Monday afternoon at the Four Seasons hotel, the hub of behind-the-scenes campaign activity away from the Fleet Center. One featured Harold Ickes of America Coming Together, which has now raised $80 million, a substantial chunk of which will be spent in August taking the whip to Bush's hide. The other featured pollster Stan Greenberg discussing the mindset of potential Nader voters. "Anger," he said, "is the defining characteristic of the Nader voter. They loathe Bush but they don't want to cast their vote for the lesser of two evils. They want to vote on principle." In other words, if Kerry is going to persuade them to pass on Nader and vote for him, he's going to have to show them that he stands for more than just not being Bush.

I had my own Close Encounter of the Newly Unified Kind when I shared a stage with Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe at a raucous rally of more than a thousand College Democrats. It was less than two years ago, after the Democrats' November 2002 debacle, that I wrote a column titled "Bring Me the Head of Terry McAuliffe!" Now here we were hugging, him saying some nice things about me, and me giving him my ancient Greek secrets for helping his battle-ravaged voice to heal ("Don't forget the cayenne pepper!").

It just goes to show you what four years of George Bush in the White House can do to bring people together. I suppose he really is a uniter, not a divider.

With trashing Bush all but verboten, the Dems' natural feistiness has been routed into other directions. The most conspicuous of these is the outbreak of hotel envy that has swept across Fortress Boston. At this convention, you are where you stay.

Here's the local pecking order: Staying at the Four Seasons means you are a serious power player. Chad Griffin, the Los Angeles political strategist, is staying there, as is Rob Reiner, as is real estate developer and early Kerry fundraiser Richard Ziman, as is Jonathan Lewis, a major Democratic donor and fundraiser for America Coming Together, as are multiple big-time New York Kerry donors.

"We got numerous calls," Griffin told me, "offering any price for us to vacate our rooms." And someone inside the Kerry campaign informed me with mounting irritation that they had received a tidal wave of calls from big donors complaining that they were given rooms at the new Ritz, and not at the Four Seasons -- even though "you can throw a sandwich from one to the other," as the exasperated Kerry staffer put it.

The distinction between the old Ritz on Newbury and the new Ritz on Avery Street, across the park, is a whole other story, worthy of a Ph.D. thesis. For the moment, suffice it to say that the old Ritz is considered much hotter than the new Ritz, and that Larry King is staying there.

Bad as hotel envy is, skybox envy is even worse. There are so few of them at the Fleet Center that even super-high-end contributors Ron Burkle and Steve Bing have been asked to share one.

Job one of this convention is moving the party faithful from Anybody But Bush backers to out-and-out Kerry enthusiasts. On the surface at least, that task seems to be mission accomplished (although such a reference would probably be vetoed by the powers that be for having too much of an anti-Bush subtext).

The vital next step is winning over the majority of Americans who have turned away from Bush but who are not yet comfortable turning control of the ship of state over to Kerry. Thursday night's acceptance speech will go a long way toward determining his ability to sway those undecided voters.

David Thorne is convinced Kerry will succeed with flying colors. Thorne is one of Kerry's closest friends and the twin brother of Kerry's first wife -- they were together at Yale and joined the Navy at the same time. He's also the mastermind behind Kerry's highly successful Internet operation. I ran into Thorne, who has seen the speech, at the New York Times party at the Gamble mansion, and he gave me a preview not of its content but of its character.

"Have you seen the letters that John wrote to me when we were in the service?" he asked. "They show what a passionate, thoughtful, committed person he was -- and that's the guy you'll be seeing on Thursday night."

The flip side to the Democrats' Anger Management strategy is the widespread anxiety over whether Kerry will deliver in his big moment. Absent the anger, will he be able to convey his passion and his vision for the country?

And no strategy has yet been invented to manage this anxiety. Only a kick-ass speech on Thursday will put an end to it.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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