LAST NIGHT'S Democratic Party rules fight was about two things: dumping Jimmy Carter -- and dumping cumbersome reform. When it was over and the president had prevailed, Sen. Kennedy recognized the meaning of it, accepted the inevitable and announced that he was withdrawing from contention for the nomination. In effect, the battle between the two men for the nomination was over when the vote was counted. And so was the effort to renounce, this year, the thrust of the reforms the party had been crafting for the past decade.
There will be time to look back at Sen. Kennedy's campaign and to think about his future role in the party and the Senate after the senator has addressed the convention tonight. But for now, what remains of interest to us is the simple fact that the crucial fight itself was conducted in the awful duplicitous code that has unfortunately marked the whole Democratic campaign this year. Dumping Carter, dumping reform -- that was not the way the issue was argued, even though, in practical terms, you could make a pretty compelling case for each. And many people -- quietly, backstairs -- have made such a case, people who are nominally and reluctantly supporting the president or who are appalled by the effect reform has had on the functioning of the party. But you didn't hear those important Democrats who 1) were not for Edward Kennedy and 2) are worried sick about the Carter candidacy and the Carter presidency, saying, "For Gods-sakes, let's nominate someone else." And you did not hear them saying, "These reforms have drained the element of leadership and the capacity to reason from our procedures." No, you heard mostly about the God-given constitutional rights of the delegates and the rape of conscience and the rest. You knew that wasn't really what any of the players was principally concerned about.
In this sense, anyway, the boil-up over the bound-delegate rule may have been the perfect symbol for the whole dragged out Democratic drama this year. Forgive our cynicism. It at least has this virtue: it is cynicism about cynicism. On paper, after all, in theory, the past 10 months or so provided an absolute flowering of the democratic process under revised and more equitable rules. Public money available for all who could demonstrate a sufficient level of grassroots support; an influential and popular senior senator challenging an incumbent president for the nomination, along with a challenge to both from the governor of the country's most populous state.
And yet it never rose above that deadening level of exchanged duplicities that everyone recognizes for what they are: I am not a candidate . . . I haven't decided whether to run . . . I cannot debate because it would be dangerous for the country . . . I still intend to be nominated . . . and so on. What more fitting than that it should end in a blaze of Uriah Heep-like concern for the civil liberties of the delegates or the faith of the primary voter in the benevolence of the system?
The first night of the convention in New York, while the nomination was still in contention, was surely not the right setting for the Democrats to go back to the drawing board on the thrust of their reforms or to reach any respectable conclusions about what needs to be thrown out of their new charter. And by then, too, it was probably much too late for Third Forcers, with or without a revision of the rules, to start making the case in an open and forthright way for denying the president renomination. So more games were played. But we think this is costing the Democrats plenty.
Anyone who observed the VIP wives of Detroit chatting vigorously away right through their husbands' speeches knows, of course that no party has a corner on televised blather in our time. But the public noise that passes for speech coming off that podium struck us as simply classic political cliche. It's something else when politicians look you in the eye and say, "I am really going to level with you now," and then do their number.
The Democrats are big on reforms. We don't suppose they will ever find the perfect, foolproof charter they are looking for. But deep down, for all its flaws, reform has not been the problem this year. It is the obvious double talk of the players that has been the problem. That surely is the big turnoff in our political life, and straight talk from the candidates is surely the real reform people are yearning for. Some of the people all of the time have had it.