Masterpiece theater

Sunday, August 1, 2004

The master returned to center stage last week as Bill Clinton showed how to address a convention and use issues to win elections.

Facing a national consensus that terror, Iraq and homeland security are the key issues, Clinton dragged America back to the domestic issues on which Democrats retain a strong edge. Long after Clinton's recitation of his own achievements has faded, his effort to reinject health care, Social Security, Medicare, drug prices, education and crime into the national debate may endure.

By reminding voters how much they would support the Democratic agenda were it not for Bush's strong stance in fighting the War on Terror, he opens the door for a major shift of national issues to those on which Kerry has a clear edge.

Can John Kerry walk through the door that Bill Clinton has opened? Will he realize that he can't win on terrorism and focus on the domestic agenda on which Democrats can win? By framing the issues as he did, Clinton articulated the differences between Democrats and Republicans without bashing Bush by name. By avoiding the four-letter word B-U-S-H and speaking instead of party positioning on key issues, he avoided the backlash that comes against any candidate who spends his convention time bashing his opponent. But, at the same time, he attacked Bush all the same by articulating the opposition in programmatic and partisan, rather than personal terms.

How odd that it took Clinton, the draft dodger, to make the case for Kerry the war hero. By speaking of "sailing the ship," Clinton has given Kerry a metaphor he can use for the rest of the campaign.

But one other four-letter word was almost entirely absent: I-R-A-Q. Clinton raised the possibility that a Democrat can again win not just by maximizing the domestic issues that dominated our attention before 9/11, but also by minimizing the war we are now in. Rallying his constituency and his program once again, he worked to roll back the clock to the simpler times in which we once lived.

But there is still a reality out there. Al-Qaida will be heard in this election. The date is not Sept. 10, 2001. The War on Terror is unavoidable. It will intrude into this contest and remind us of why we need Bush.

But for one night, in the thrall of the master's voice, we recognize the beat of the drummer to which we once marched.

And what of the contrast between Bill's speech and Hillary's introduction? How could one witness the modulated, varied, emotional delivery of the former president and not realize that the would-be president's delivery was flat, shrill and one-dimensional? The now brown-eyed lady from New York couldn't stand on the same platform with her husband.

Dick Morris is a syndicated columnist.

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