Later this week, John F. Kerry will lay his claim to the Democratic Party's future. On Monday night, his party was still fixed on some unfinished arguments about the past.
"We told you so" is an impossible sentiment for many Democrats to resist -- and they did not even try Monday night. The fresh young faces who exhilarated another Democratic convention when they first joined the cause 12 years ago are no longer so fresh.
Bill Clinton's salt-and-pepper hair from 1992 is now solid white. Al Gore has lost a good bit of his hair. These familiar figures -- one man famous for survival, the other for electoral misfortune -- made their case that the country would be better off if the policies of the 1990s had been empowered for another term four years ago.
Bouncing ebulliently on to the stage, Clinton boasted of the "peace and prosperity that we left America in 2000." President Bush has said Clinton left him the opposite -- an economy starting to flag and a terrorist threat that had grown unchecked for years before Sept. 11, 2001.
But Clinton, in a speech scheduled to reach a national audience in the one hour major networks devoted to convention coverage, declared: "The only test that matters is whether people were better off when we finished than when we started. Our way works better."
Whichever side one comes down on in judging the merits of Clinton's record, his spirited 25-minute turn at the podium proved anew what even his Republican critics acknowledge: that the 42nd president is one of his generation's great political performers. A homespun style softened the edge of biting partisan commentary, as he made an impassioned case against Bush's economic and foreign policies, and for Kerry's character and national security credentials.
The former vice president, a less reliable performer, was likewise in polished form. Brandishing humor with a cutting edge, Gore acknowledged that he had hoped to be addressing this convention as a president seeking reelection. "But you know the old saying: You win some, you lose some. And then there's that little-known third category," said the former vice president, who won the popular vote in 2000 but lost the electoral college vote when the Supreme Court resolved Florida's contested result in Bush's favor.
The convention crowd roared its approval. Privately, Kerry's campaign had reason to sigh in relief.
For different reasons, Gore, Clinton and the third anchor of the administration who spoke Monday night, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), presented cause for anxiety among Kerry operatives. Kerry did not want his convention to be overshadowed by sour grapes from Gore, by Bill Clinton's more flamboyant personality, or by speculation about Hillary Clinton's possible future as a presidential candidate. These were the reasons they spoke on Monday, three days before Kerry's acceptance speech.
When the night was over, it seemed that Kerry's team had little reason for concern. All three mixed the case for their own records with vigorous endorsements of the nominee's record and values.
The arguments that echoed though FleetCenter on Monday night involve more than debating points from politicians reliving old battles. In important ways, the 2004 election will be waged over these very themes.
Bush has maintained that he has acted aggressively to confront al Qaeda and a defiant Iraqi government, which were allowed to build and grow more menacing during the 1990s. Kerry counters that Bush has replaced the budget surpluses that Clinton left him with yawning deficits, and that he would return to the Clinton administration's emphasis on working though alliances and international institutions.
Gore, according to a Democrat familiar with his speech preparation, stayed up nearly all night Sunday laboring over his remarks, which like those of other speakers were reviewed in advance by the Kerry campaign. He challenged "those watching at home tonight who supported President Bush four years ago: Did you really get what you expected from the candidate you voted for?"
Invoking Bush's own campaign phrases from four years ago, Gore asked: "Is our country more united today or more divided? Has the promise of compassionated conservatism been fulfilled, or do those words ring hollow?" Citing job-loss figures, Gore added, "By the way, I know about the bad economy -- I was the first one laid off."
While Gore leavened his remarks with humor, another voice from the Democratic past made no effort to soften his criticism of Bush. Former president Jimmy Carter, who on other occasions has made clear his contemptuous feelings for Bush, said that the president's policies represent an abrupt break from historical tradition. He recalled serving as a naval officer under Democrat Harry S. Truman and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, when Americans were sure that the country's leaders "would not put our soldiers and sailors in harm's way by initiating wars of choice unless America's vital interests were in danger."
These allusions to Iraq, made without mentioning the war specifically, were followed by jagged personal digs at Bush -- something Kerry had said in recent interviews he was hoping the convention would avoid. Carter noted that Kerry volunteered for military service and "he showed up when assigned to duty," a clear reference to unproven Democratic charges that Bush improperly skipped out on some 1970s National Guard obligations. The point was not lost on the convention audience, which cheered its approval.
Clinton arrived on stage to the theme song of his 1992 campaign, Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)." His speech was a composite of lines he has favored on the campaign trail for nearly a year. He returned to one of his new favorite rhetorical devices -- noting that as a recent arrival to millionaire status he benefits from Republican tax cuts, even as average Americans suffer from rising deficits and lower social spending.
"You might remember that when I was in office, on occasion, the Republicans were kind of mean to me," Clinton said. "But as soon as I got out and made money, I became part of the most important group in the world to them. It was amazing. I never thought I'd be so well cared for by the president and Republicans in Congress."
Likewise, Clinton has been honing over time his argument on behalf of Kerry's character. In Vietnam, he said, Kerry did not need to go into combat but instead volunteered, saying "Send me" -- a motif, Clinton asserted, for a life of public service.
Clinton asserted that he wanted a "positive campaign," declaring that both sides in the election were good people acting on genuine principles. Without breaking stride, he pivoted to say that Republicans "favor concentrated wealth and power" who care about keeping the "right people -- their people" in office.
He said because their policies are further to the right than a majority of the electorate, "our friends have to portray us Democrats as simply unacceptable, lacking in strength and values."
"In other words, they need a divided America -- but we don't," Clinton added.
Hillary Clinton said Kerry would succeed by returning "once again" to party priorities. "He will lead the world, not alienate it. Lower the deficit, not raise it."
With a knowing smile, she referred to her own greatest political and policy debacle. Saying Kerry would "solve a health care crisis, not ignore it," she added: "I know a thing or two about health care. And the problems have only gotten worse in the past four years."