By Richard S. Dunham The warm-up speaker for the main event had a not-very-subliminal message (or, as George Bush would say, subliminable message) for the American people: John Kerry is a man of strength. And he shares your values. "Decisive. Strong," is how North Carolina Senator John Edwards described his 2004 running mate to delegates and Americans in Boston. "Is this not what we need in a Commander-in-Chief?"
In case you missed it, the password this year is "values." Edwards said the word again and again as he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for Vice-President on July 28. Eight times in all. Six times in the first five minutes of his address.
"We hear a lot of talk about values," the son of a mill worker told an adoring crowd and a national TV audience. "Where I come from, you don't judge someone's values based on how they use that word in a political ad. You judge their values based upon what they've spent their life doing."
GOLDEN THROAT. Another password is "strong." Eight times, Edwards mentioned how his partner in Presidential combat was, in many ways, strong. What would a President Kerry do? "Make America strong." "Strengthen your families." "Make our military stronger." "A new President who strengthens and leads our alliances." And just to make sure the TV viewers figured it out, the campaign handed out thousands of "Kerry-Edwards: A Stronger America" placards. Get the message?
It was good training for being second banana. Edwards, the best orator in the Democratic primary field, channeled that skill into a new cause at his party's national convention as he reprised his campaign stump themes of "the two Americas" giving way to "the politics of hope" in "one America."
Why the need for the sledgehammer approach? Because a majority of Americans still view the Democratic Presidential candidate as a flip-flopper who tells people what he thinks they want to hear. In the midst of a war against terrorism, voters don't want an inconstant leader who waffles in the face of danger.
COUNTERATTACK LAUNCHED. So the Kerry campaign feels it's vitally important to repeat -- over and over -- the candidate's history of bravery under fire. In addition, it trotted out nine high-ranking retired military officers who have endorsed Kerry, including former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John Shalikashvili, to stand before the flag-waving audience.
The Kerry team knows it faces an all-out assault from the Bush-Cheney campaign on the social issues that bitterly divide Americans. Even before Edwards' speech was over, the Republican attack machine was already trying to portray Kerry/Edwards as out of the mainstream on issues ranging from gay rights to abortion to gun control to the death penalty.
Rather than debate values on terms defined by the Republicans, Edwards tried to change those terms. "Hard work should be valued in this country," the nominee said, "and we're going to reward work, not just wealth." Helping working families pay for college and health insurance are family values, too, Edwards declared. "Their families are doing their part," he said. "It's time that we do our part."
GAPS IN THE TAPE. By defending hard-pressed families, Kerry is "a man who represents real American values," optimism and opportunity for all. Instead of the man from Hope (Bill Clinton), it's the men of hope in this Presidential campaign.
Edwards' up-from-the-bootstraps tale was moving. So was his recounting of Kerry's Vietnam War heroics. But curiously missing from Edwards' speech was the last 30 years of Kerry's life: his Viet Nam War protests after leaving the service, Kerry's early political career in Massachusetts, and his two decades in the Senate. Edwards spoke little of his own years as a successful personal-injury lawyer in North Carolina that made a child of the working classes into a man of deep pockets.
But that's a debate for another day. The Republicans are sure to fill in the details that Edwards overlooked. On a rainy Wednesday night in Boston, the issues were defined by the Democrats. Strongly so. For more on the Democratic National Convention, see BusinessWeek Online's continuing coverage at www.businessweek.com/election2004.htm
Dunham is editor of BusinessWeek's Washington Outlook column