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The Democrats' Topical Depression

By Tina Brown
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page C01

While Republicans just move on when they make mistakes, Democrats in New York go into therapy. It took no time at all for last week's righteous rage against the Bush campaign's stoking of the Swift Boat Veterans' smear campaign against John Kerry to morph into self-flagellation about the way the candidate is blowing it.

The sight of the GOP partying in the Democrats' own back yard just rubbed salt in the wounds. Protesters toting coffins in Union Square couldn't distract anyone from one jarring, panicky fact: The Swift boat assault had worked and the president was pulling ahead.

John McCain, here with wife Cindy, has become Bush's cheerleader in chief. (J. Scott Applewhite -- AP)

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Democratic dismay had been mounting since the Kerry campaign's latest waffle on Iraq. Kerry adviser Jamie Rubin commented to The Washington Post (before he retracted it) that the candidate, knowing what he knows now, would "in all probability" still have launched a military attack against Saddam Hussein if he were president. George Soros, whose deep pockets are helping a massive get-out-the-vote campaign, is said to have taken one look at the antiwar passion in the streets on Sunday and started worrying about the dampening effect of Kerry's failure to differentiate himself from Bush on this issue.

Cartoonist Art Spiegelman was so depressed at the news after his return from vacation in France that he started to gird himself for defeat. "I am not preparing to lose," he corrected me. "I am preparing to leave." There was also a strong collective yearning for Kerry to pack up his water skis, windsurf board, mountain bike and other high-speed jock props until he had won the only race that matters.

All the insecurity bore out what Bill Clinton told a dinner party in Chappaqua last summer: "Republicans wake up every morning fixated on moving the ball. Democrats wake up desperate not to drop it."

Against this mood, the party thrown for Sen. John McCain by his 49-year-old wife, Cindy, at an East Side restaurant to celebrate his birthday and to stroke the media had the dreamy quality of an alternative political world. Here, instead of being seen as The Enemy as they are in Bushland, media types felt once again the respected pillars of the fourth estate. The senator's fearless informality conjures up the pre-blog, pre-cable era when the off-the-record stuff over cocktails can be about racy adventures he's shared in foreign junkets or irreverent asides about Senate colleagues. Meanwhile, Cindy -- who has traded the blond crop of the 2000 campaign for shoulder-length glamour -- shimmered around the party in a mint-green Chanel suit, dispersing deftly targeted warmth. It made every hack feel like Scotty Reston, every cable babbler like Edward R. Murrow.

Democrats here still wanted to believe, against the clear evidence of his voting record, that McCain was nearly their guy. And then -- boom! -- his big speech the next night. It was one thing for McCain to dismiss the possibility of the vice presidential spot on the Democratic ticket, but did he have to turn himself into the president's formidable cheerleader in chief? It was all the more traumatic for Dems that their "bipartisan" hero evoked his Vietnam valor by never mentioning it once. While Kerry's Vietnam reputation flails in the political rice fields, McCain's is thrown around his damaged shoulders like an invisible cloak.

On the convention floor the sea of cowboy hats and diamante W pins pitched you straight into the raucous rodeo with destiny. For New Yorkers used to the name of Sen. Rick Santorum surfacing only as a laugh line, it was strange to collide with the purposeful weenie himself bristling with clean-cut cockiness in a patch of TV light and a circle of rapt North Carolina delegates. Stranger still to find yourself caught up in a conga line of swaying adulators behind Dick Cheney as he barreled through the crowd with his wife, Lynne, looking more like a bored retiree at a school field day than the Prince of Darkness.

It was left to Rudy Giuliani to seize the fight back from McCain-ish statesmanship and take to the streets of New York. The former mayor's wolverine smile as he filleted Kerry's flip-flops was the pre-Churchillian Rudy we used to love to hate. It was typical of Rudy that halfway through his speech he almost forgot where he was and plunged back into gangbuster book-tour mode, where he's the shameless star of every anecdote. But his joke about Kerry's penchant for taking two sides being the reason for John Edwards's Two Americas will remain the defining joke of the political season.

After Night 2, Democrats were breathing a little easier. Arnold's big fat bloviations and Laura Bush's numbing niceness were the wake-up call that all is not lost. The big C of Courage is all very well, but what about the little c of competence? The relentless serenity of the first lady's smile made one suddenly long for the irritating complexity of Teresa Heinz Kerry. Night 3 was better still. Zell Miller's thundering anti-Kerry tirade was like Savonarola on steroids.

New reports had started to circulate about the shake-up at the top of the Kerry campaign, plus an anecdote about what Kerry had said to an anxious supporter at a Hamptons fundraiser last week: "Just wait. You have no idea how hard I am going to kick their ass." (This, however, was followed by more gloom that the campaign shake-up meant not fewer but more consultants on the conference calls.)

What the Democrats' wobblies showed was the lack of a core connection to Kerry, which makes it hard to sustain faith. No amount of changes at the top will provide that unless, as Richard Ben Cramer, the author of the definitive book on the 1988 campaign, "What It Takes," told me, Kerry finds something to say that "matches his own story."

McCain, Rudy and Arnold found that match this week. But so far Kerry has found only the Clintonian echo of "Send me." As Cramer put it, "He has to find that thing in himself that stretches him to the size of president. Not for us but himself. This can't come from outside. When he finds it inside, the American people will know it's there."

© 2004,Tina Brown

© 2004 The Washington Post Company