In Boston, a Ringing Call for Change
Clinton Rallies Democrats On Day One of Convention
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; Page A01
BOSTON, July 26 -- Led by former President Bill Clinton, the Democratic National Convention opened here Monday night with a tough and sustained critique of President Bush's policies and a partisan rallying cry to delegates to convert their bitterness over the disputed 2000 election into fresh energy aimed at electing John F. Kerry in November.
To a chorus of cheers and sustained applause, Clinton called the 2004 election a stark choice between two major political parties with deeply held and fundamentally different views of how to meet challenges at home and abroad.
"We Democrats want to build a world and an America of shared responsibilities and shared opportunities . . . where we act alone only when we have to," he said. Republicans, Clinton added, "believe in an America run by the right people -- their people -- in a world in which America acts unilaterally when we can and cooperates when we have to."
Clinton staunchly defended the Massachusetts senator, saying that when young men such as himself, Bush and Vice President Cheney found ways to avoid going to Vietnam, Kerry volunteered for service there. And he mocked Bush and the GOP for suggesting that Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), would be soft on terrorism. "Strength and wisdom are not opposing values," he said. "They go hand in hand."
With Kerry and Edwards campaigning their way to Boston through battleground states, the opening-night program also featured former president Jimmy Carter, former vice president Al Gore and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). The Democratic luminaries sent a jolt of energy through Boston's FleetCenter that got the convention off on the high note that organizers had hoped for.
Gore opened his speech with humor about his fate in the 2000 election and then issued an appeal to both those who backed Bush four years ago and those who supported third-party candidate Ralph Nader, urging them to reconsider what their actions had meant for the country.
"I want to say to all Americans this evening that whether it is the threat to the global environment or the erosion of America's leadership in the world, whether it is the challenge to our economy from new competitors or the challenge to our security from new enemies, I believe we need new leadership that is both strong and wise," Gore said.
Carter was even more pointed in his critique of Bush's record. "The United States has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of preemptive war," he said. "With our allies disunited, the world resenting us and the Middle East ablaze, we need John Kerry to restore life to the global war against terrorism."
Despite claims by Kerry campaign officials and Democratic Party leaders that this convention would accentuate the positive, the first night's speeches echoed the same criticisms of Bush that Kerry, Edwards and other candidates for the Democratic nomination have sounded throughout the campaign.
But with Kerry in an extremely tight contest with Bush and seeking to use the four-day gathering to flesh out his political profile and convince voters that he is fit to serve as commander in chief in a time of terrorism, Monday's speakers also sought to highlight what they described as Kerry's courage and fitness to lead and said he would provide a needed contrast to the leadership style of the incumbent president.
"He will lead the world, not alienate it," Hillary Clinton said. "Lower the deficit, not raise it. Create good jobs, not lose them. Solve a health care crisis, not ignore it."
The 44th Democratic convention marked the first major party convention since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the extraordinary security around FleetCenter and throughout this historic city offered a reminder to the dramatically altered landscape on which the 2004 election is being fought.
That changed climate has put new burdens on the Democratic challenger to demonstrate his national security credentials and, Kerry advisers said, much of the work of this convention will be aimed at giving voters confidence in his leadership. "The major thing we're trying to achieve is for people to see him . . . as someone who is ready to lead this nation," Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Democrats have the luxury of focusing almost exclusively Kerry and his credentials this week because of the extraordinary unity within the party. In contrast with past conventions, many of them wracked by major disputes and minor wrangling, the delegates have set aside whatever differences they have behind a wall of unity in their desire to defeat Bush.
One more sign of that goal to set aside differences came Monday afternoon, when former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who shaped the Democratic race through much of 2003 only to see Kerry overtake him in the Iowa caucuses, released his delegates in a symbolic gesture of solidarity and urged them to support Kerry and Edwards when the roll is called on Wednesday night.
Clinton produced the evening's highlight reel, with an oratorical flourish designed to remind voters of the prosperity his eight years in office brought to the country and to argue forcefully that it was Democratic policies that had produced those conditions.
Bush, he said, squandered "an amazing opportunity to bring the country together under his slogan of compassionate conservatism and to unite the world in the struggle against terror" in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Instead, he said, the president and his congressional allies chose to "push the country too far to the right and to walk away from our allies."
Clinton said Republicans supported tax cuts for wealthy Americans such as himself while cutting funding for programs aimed at helping children and working families with child care, job retraining and after-school assistance.
"If you agree with all that, by all means, reelect them," he said. "If not, John Kerry and John Edwards are your team for the future."
Clinton's speech, which concluded just as the networks were ending their prime-time broadcasts, was interrupted by several standing ovations and by frequent shouts of "You tell him, Bill!" from people in the hall. He was greeted by delegates waving Kerry-Edwards signs reading "America's Future."
"I can sum up my reaction in one word: phenomenal," said Jay Augustine, a delegate from Louisiana. "I thought he hit the nail right on the head with the positions that our country should be moving toward. You could not ask for a sharper contrast between what Democrats stand for and what the party in power believes in."
Gore was the first of the major speakers Monday night and he began on a humorous note with a reference to his bitter defeat in 2000, when he won the popular vote but lost the presidency after a 36-day recount in Florida that ended with a Supreme Court decision that tipped the Electoral College vote to Bush.
"I know from my own experience," he said, "that America is a land of opportunity where every little boy and girl has a chance to grow up and win the popular vote."
Gore was a sentimental and popular favorite among the thousands of delegates. People in the massive hall rose to their feet well before New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had finished his introduction. The roar for Gore was so loud that his name could barely be heard from the floor by the time Richardson finished.
Gore argued that Bush abandoned his pledges to unify the country and pursue compassionate conservatism. Instead, he said, Bush has weakened environmental protections, brought about the erosion of civil liberties and turned record projected surpluses into record deficits. "Let's make sure that the Supreme Court does not pick the next president," he said, "and that this president is not the one who picks the next Supreme Court."
The former vice president saved his strongest words for Bush's conduct of foreign policy, an area he has spoken about repeatedly in the past two years, beginning with a speech in 2002 urging Congress not to give Bush the power to go to war with Iraq unilaterally. Gore said Bush diverted critical resources from the battle to defeat Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network to lead the United States into Iraq.
"Wouldn't we be better off with a new president who hasn't burned his bridges to our allies and who could rebuild respect for America in the world?" he asked. Gore, who spoke before the major networks began their coverage, said Kerry, with whom he came to the Senate in 1985, demonstrated the same kind of courage on the floor of the Senate that he had shown in combat in Vietnam. "He never shied away from a fight, no matter how powerful the foe," Gore said.
In closing, Gore exhorted the delegates not to forget 2000. "To those of you who felt disappointed or angry with the outcome in 2000, I want you to remember all those feelings," he said. "But I want you to do with them what I have done: focus them fully and completely on putting John Kerry and John Edwards in the White House in 2004 so we can have a new direction in America."
"He really put the purpose of the convention in the proper perspective," said Ramon Garcia, a delegate from Edinburg, Tex. "He told us where we've been, where we are and where we're going."
Carter said Kerry knows the horrors of war and said the Massachusetts senator, far more than Bush, would safeguard the country against terrorism. "Truth is the foundation of our global leadership, but our credibility has been shattered and we are left increasingly isolated and vulnerable in a hostile world," he said.
He described the choice for voters starkly. "Ultimately the issue is whether America will provide global leadership that springs from the unity and integrity of the American people or whether extremist doctrines and the manipulation of truth will define America's role in the world."
Between the main speeches, the convention featured video feeds from around the country with Americans offering short speeches of support for Kerry and Edwards.
The convention was gaveled into session promptly at 4 p.m. by Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe. Earlier in the day, Cahill and strategist Tad Devine offered an upbeat appraisal of the Democrats' chances of taking back the White House in November. Devine painted an expansive portrait of the electoral map for the fall campaign, saying that the Kerry team made a strategic decision in the spring not to concentrate most of its resources in a few critical battleground states, such as Ohio, and instead attempt to enlarge the playing field to states Bush won and that have been trending Republican.
From the opening ceremonies through Thursday's acceptance speech, Kerry's Vietnam War experience will form one of the major subtexts of convention week and, Kerry advisers believe, constitutes one of Kerry's major assets as a candidate.
Democrats staged the first of what will be a series of veterans' events, this one featuring Kerry's Swift boat crew members from Vietnam as well as retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark and former senator Max Cleland (Ga.), who lost three limbs in Vietnam and has campaigned tirelessly for Kerry all year.
Staff writer Paul Farhi and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company