Conventional Wisdom


SURE, THE FINAL TALLIES in this weekend's Democratic Convention were non-binding. Of course candidates have in the past overturned the verdict of the delegates in the September primary. Yet it would be difficult to play down the significance of this year's affair. Assuming that the vast majority of professionals recognize the importance of an event in their field--a rather safe assumption with politicians--one should note that nearly every Democratic incumbent and aspiring officeholder in the Commonwealth came to Springfield last Sunday.

The leaders of both legislative branches, Sen. William Bulger and Rep. Thomas McGee, put in an appearance at the podium in the opening ceremonies Friday night. Other legislators and congressmen came as delegates or just to talk with constituents. Like many other candidates, Scott Harshbarger, running for Middlesex County district attorny, was officially on the floor as a Sargent at Arms though he spent less time clearing the aisles than he did cluttering them with constituents whose hands he wanted to shake. Cambridge Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci had a Page's tag around his neck but spent the afternoon chatting about conventions of years past--his first was in 1936--and trying to gainer votes for his son Peter, running for the state legislature.

Even Gov. Edward J. King, who at one point threatened to ignore the convention, who pursued it only when it appeared that his absence might threaten his spot on September's ballot, and who criticized the whole affair as divisive and unrepresentative of the party, took a brief turn on the floor to greet what few supporters were there. His one moment in the spotlight, in fact, was a press conference, which he spent complaining about the convention officials who would not allow him to make a speech.

The analysts were there, including reporters of every medium from nearly every city in the state. A group of political scientists from the State University of New York at Potsdam and the University of Massachusetts came to distribute surveys to all of the delegates. The venerable David S. Broder, columnist for the Washington Post and noted authority on political parties graced the hall.

MOST OBSERVERS at Springfield focused their attention on the event's impact on the party. Earlier this decade, officials cancelled the convention because of the negative effects many said it had on party unity. Two years ago, however, party officials decided that party loyalty had crumbled even further, and concluded that a convention might be just the thing to restore some order to one of the most inclusive political organizations in the country.

But another opportunity offered for the careful observer was the juxtaposition of two of the Commonwealth's leading liberal politicians--Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 and former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. Nominations for senator and governor were the first two items of business Saturday morning, and as expected, Kennedy and Dukakis won the respective honors without a hitch. But the path each took demonstrates the contrasts between the two politicians' careers and their positions in Massachusetts politics.

After Kennedy received the near-unanimous endorsement of the body, he came to the podium. As he walked forward, a long blue Kennedy banner unfurled, and the delegates rose to their feet. "Well at last, here today I am getting a wish I have had for a long time. I finally get to come before a great convention and accept its nomination," Kennedy facetiously opened his acceptance speech. He was, of course, alluding to the presidential nomination which eluded him in 1980, and he was, in effect, belittling the state slot that he has been able to take for granted for two decades. The speech, his traditional call to liberalism and attack on "the trickle-down economics [which] has brought a tidal wave of economic catastrophe," could just have been easily been delivered in Washington or in New Hampshire, save for a few local references sprinkled in.

It highlighted the anomoly: Kennedy, brother of the president, presidential aspirant, leading advocate in the nation for progressive causes, working within the context of state politics. While his junior colleague. Paul E. Tsongas, performed an integral task, chairing the deliberations, Kennedy left promptly after his lights faded.

"This is a very special moment for me," Dukakis began his speech. "When I walked down the steps of the State House in January of 1979, I never thought I would be standing on this platform to accept your nomination today." Routed in the primary four years ago by the upstart King. Dukakis blamed his misfortune largely on complacency. He has taken nothing for granted in mapping out a thorough comeback strategy. Making the most of this Dukakis-dominated weekend, the former governor cloaked himself in the mantel of the state Democratic Party: "we put together a force that is too large, too diverse, and too strong to be stopped--today, in September, or in November."

Contrasting the two speeches also helps demonstrate the different campaigns the two face and the different wings of liberalism they represent. Kennedy's largely rhetorical address centered on general subjects like the potential for economic revitalization and the possibility of nuclear destruction. Dukakis, who views himself as more vulnerable when taking the traditional left-wing stances, outlined his five-part platform, which included planks aimed at cutting crime--"there is no inconsistency between civil liberties and tough law enforcement. Because without public safety there is no liberty"--and cutting taxes. The difference has not gone unnoticed by strong Kennedy backers and traditional liberals like state Rep. Saundra Graham of Cambridge, who still holds a grudge against Dukakis for cutting social programs during his administration and who insists he has not sufficiently committed himself against doing it again.

The grand gathering at the Springfield Civic Center was designed to bolster the supposedly disintegrating state Democratic organization. Determining whether it has succeeded will have to wait until next November, when it will become clear whether the party can unify behind the winner of what promises to be a rather bloody primary. In the short term at least, it gave the politicians a chance to politic, the analysts a chance to analyze. Most of all, the convention provided an interesting, behind-the-scenes look at the differences--ideological and personal--in the party.