Opening with optimism

THE DEMOCRATS opened their national convention last night, heeding the call to accentuate the positive but mindful that there is one reason for their extraordinary party unity. From Mayor Menino's welcoming exhortation to "take haaaht" that better times are coming, it took about 10 minutes for Maryland congressman Steny Hoyer to call on his fellow delegates to "reject the fiscal irresponsibility of this administration." From there it was off to the races. Former President Jimmy Carter bluntly accused the Bush administration of a "radical departure from basic American principles and values."

But it was Al Gore, wistful but determined, who brought the delegates to their feet. Gore not only attacked the Bush administration's policies on the environment, civil liberties, and the invasion of Iraq; he reserved a special scolding for those who supported Ralph Nader in 2000. He offered a litany of harmful administration policies and then asked, "Do you still believe that there was no difference between the two candidates?" Every vote counts, he reminded the crowd. "Don't let anyone talk you into throwing it away."

As befits a stage-setting opening night, the Democrats touched all the bases. There was the familiar tableau of the nine Democratic women senators celebrating advances for gender equality. There were calls for more-affordable prescription drugs, better educations for all the nation's children, a secure retirement for the elderly, and humorous digs at the plutocrats in the opposing party. But the reality of life after 9/11 was never far from the party's mind. Domestic issues, usually the Democrats' strong suit, frequently took a back seat to strength and security.

John Kerry's military bona fides were invoked by Carter, 80, who served as a Navy submarine officer. "I am proud to call Lieutenant John Kerry my shipmate," he said. Slyly exploiting the comparison between Kerry's record and the episodic service of President Bush, Carter said of Kerry: "He showed up when assigned to duty." The crowd went wild.

The evening's timeline shifted from past to future, with the voices of John F. Kennedy, Barbara Jordan and other late party icons providing goosebump moments. It was barely necessary to remind the crowd that the last Democratic president left the country in far better shape -- economically, socially, militarily -- than many Americans find it now. But until Bill Clinton stood before the cheering delegates and raw emotion at last made an appearance, the evening had a generalized, formulaic feel. Party discipline is fine, but Kerry still needs to add clarity and detail to his policies and his own self-portrait if he is to make a credible case. This convention is Kerry's best opportunity to become something more than candidate Not-Bush.

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