Did the Liberal Lions Roar Too Loud for Gore?

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Whenever parties dance toward the center, as have these New Democrats and these different kind of Republicans, there are always deals of pragmatism with the base that brung 'em, deals of silence with the old guard. George W. Bush could stuff the God-wingers away for his show because they are desperate to return to power. But Al Gore has bigger and more popular voices than that in his party, and there has been no opportunity to bargain into them submission.

And so for a night in the sagging middle of this Clinton-Gore-Lieberman convention, the liberal lions were let out of their New Democrat cage. It was an indulgence the Republicans hadn't dared risk, but it was one these Democrats couldn't well avoid. Not with star-power politicians like Jesse Jackson, Teddy Kennedy and Bill Bradley ready to sing the praises and the necessity of Al Gore. But somewhere on Gore's way to the left coast, the chronically overshadowed vice president must have wondered if these lions couldn't have left a little more of the roaring to him.

Oh, the call to arms was as telegenic as could be, especially considering these three were all would-be presidents once, and none ever made it through a primary season. Jackson began sullenly — perhaps miffed at his pre-prime-time, pre-Caroline time slot? — and ended deafeningly, waving his arms and raising his eyes and shouting "Stay out the Bushes!" But his not-so-long-ago terming of Bill, Al and Joe's DLC as "Democrats for the leisure class" hung over the speech, and as he hit the nights'-end pundit circuit Jackson made little effort to let the evening's rote unifiers cancel that old gripe out.

Teddy Kennedy was at his old-time booming best, lashing together the generations of Camelot and insisting that the strength and breadth of his support for Gore had only two precedents, each named Kennedy. The arms rose up and the hands thrust out, rally-style, turning shoulder pads into great hulking wings, giving the reverential crowd their big Brahmin in all his glory, soaring in call-and-response — "Fight for Al Gore because... HE IS FIGHTING FOR YOU" — like a linebacker angel. The subject was health care, which surely Gore needs to own, but the word, again and again, was "All." Health care, Kennedy's shining issue, for all our children. All our seniors. All our people. If memory serves, that is farther than Al Gore has ever been willing to go.

Bill Bradley was willing, and of course he was on next — and sounding extremely presidential. The only politician around with the halo to make "shame on all of us" an applause line gave a tight and moving speech that sounded nothing like the listless death throes of that bruising primary campaign. "Let me get right to the point — we're all here to elect the next president of the United States, Al Gore," he began, but by the time he had made his way through the explanation of how enemy becomes endorsee he had set a very high bar for the nominal star, not just in health care policy but in rhetorical polish. Perhaps Bill Clinton's was not the only valedictory of the week — perhaps Bradley's was liberalism's too. But Gore's Thursday night hurdle grows ever higher.

The lions seemed a tad catty on a night when the journalists' row stood visibly empty and the networks stood down — those watching Bradley, and then keynoter Rep. Harold Ford Jr., had to flip to stay ahead of the Teddy and Caroline tour of the convention-hall news desks. For Gore, who has many minds still to change, this night of challenging praise may prove bedeviling. Luckily for him, much of America wasn't watching.