Bickering Not Allowed

Democrats come to Florida to fight over a party platform and what happens? No fighting!

 "We've got real plans, we've got a better sense of what's happening to America. And we've got better hair." -- John Kerry, introducing running mate John Edwards at a Cleveland rally

"You need to call Dennis, he's freaking out!" sputters Charles Lenchner, thrusting his cell phone at Tim Carpenter. Lenchner's face, already a sickly pallor after two days without sleep, has managed to turn even paler. The John Kerry love train has arrived in South Florida, and for Lenchner (quixotic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich's assistant campaign manager) and Carpenter (Kucinich's convention coordinator), it's a train that seems to have rolled over their backs.

After a string of disastrous presidential primary showings -- the Cleveland congressman even failed to win his own city -- Lenchner and Carpenter have stopped talking up their boss's long-shot bid to head the Democratic Party's November ticket. Their new goal has been to cement Kucinich as a national standard-bearer for the party's left wing, coalesce the country's growing antiwar sentiment, and bring it all to a head here, at this past Saturday's Democratic Platform Committee meeting inside Hollywood's Westin Diplomat hotel. The results haven't exactly been auspicious.

The Kerry and Edwards love fest hits town, charming even antiwar holdout Dennis Kucinich
The Kerry and Edwards love fest hits town, charming even antiwar holdout Dennis Kucinich
Antiwar holdout Dennis Kucinich
Antiwar holdout Dennis Kucinich

"No, no, it's better that you weren't here to work the floor," Carpenter coos into his phone, trying to talk Kucinich down off his ledge back in Ohio.

Still Kucinich isn't the only leftist "freaking out." Snapping his phone shut, Carpenter calls over to Lenchner: "Let's pull our troops together. People look confused."

Twenty or so self-described "Kucitizens" gather around Carpenter in the hotel's hallway for a battlefield update, their numbers a far cry from what Kucinich staffers had been touting just two days earlier. "Hundreds of Kucinich campaigners and political allies, armed with petitions bearing hundreds of thousands of names, will begin arriving in Miami," Kucinich's office had announced. Their goal? "To push hard" for a Democratic platform plank calling for the rapid withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Iraq.

Instead the mass of promised antiwar activists turned out to be this beleaguered band of twenty. And their petitions bearing several hundred thousand signatures had been downsized to a vague "15,000 pages" worth of names. Meanwhile, just a few yards away inside the hotel's ballroom, the 186-member platform committee was sailing through its work, readying a final document for the Democratic Party's July 26 national convention in Boston -- all without so much as a hiccup, let alone a tendentious back-and-forth over Iraq.

"They didn't think we could do this!" crowed Cleveland Congresswoman and platform committee co-chair Stephanie Tubbs Jones to the assembly before her, citing the record time being set in brushing aside more than 150 amendments demanding everything from repealing the Patriot Act to civil rights for transgendered people. "They didn't think we could stay on-message!"

Back outside, Carpenter is trying to put the best face on this rout and calm his group -- one of whom is in tears. "I did a hard count," he explains of the fifteen committee-member votes needed to force a floor debate, "and we were four short."

Still Carpenter takes pride in some fresh compromise language about to be added to the platform, a sentence on the war he'd painstakingly hashed out during a late-night meeting with several key Kerry advisers, including Sandy Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser and a figure widely seen as short-listed as a Kerry administration secretary of state; and Rand Beers, currently heading Kerry's foreign policy team.

"We kept the Kerry people up until 4:00 a.m.," Carpenter boasts, apparently considering this a victory in itself. "I want us out [of Iraq] yesterday," he continues, "but this new language is so much better from where we were when I got off the plane."

And the new magic sentence? American troops would be withdrawn "when appropriate so that the military support needed by a sovereign Iraqi government will no longer be seen as the direct continuation of an American military presence." Kulchur couldn't see how this stilted line differed from Kerry's earlier campaign trail pronouncements, or even from Bush's stand. But Carpenter insists it was all a huge step forward for the antiwar movement.

"This doesn't mean we're selling out," Lenchner chimes in, "it means we're taking it to the next level. I'm willing to believe that the party agrees with us, but just won't say so publicly."

Of course Lenchner isn't the only one willing to suspend disbelief over Kerry's agenda. Indeed while Kerry may constantly cite the necessity of adding both NATO and Arab troops to the U.S. forces bunkered in Baghdad, these presumed partners have all emphatically vetoed such a plan. Yet beyond these hollow paeans to internationalization, there's little to distinguish Kerry's Iraq policy from Bush's -- he's prepared to maintain a military role in that country for as long as a democratic reconstruction takes.

To those who see the Iraq war as a vital part of the larger struggle against radical Islamism, Kerry's refusal to cut and run from the Middle East is reassuring. But over in the antiwar milieu, Kerry's common ground with Bush has produced a strange disconnect, what Ralph Nader has labeled "ABB syndrome," Anybody But Bush. Even the anarchists have given Kerry a free pass: The Black Bloc -- the roving bandanna-masked street fighters who ran amuck in downtown Miami during last fall's FTAA protests -- are headed en masse to August's Republican National Convention in Manhattan. Yet most appear to be bypassing the Democratic convention and any replay of Chicago '68, conserving their resources -- and their bail money.


Later that afternoon, outside the hotel ballroom, Rand Beers and Sandy Berger hold court amid a scrum of reporters. Having quashed the last bit of intraparty discord on the way to Boston, both men look like the proverbial cat who'd just eaten the canary. Kulchur wades in.

Mr. Berger, Dennis Kucinich's people are calling the new amended language on Iraq a major change.

"The language on Iraq is very consistent with what Senator Kerry has been saying all along," Berger replies coolly.

"We think we've come to an agreement with the Kucinich people on a way ahead that we think represents what has always been John Kerry's position," adds Beers. "We shouldn't be in Iraq any longer than we have to be, but we have to ensure that when we leave Iraq, we do it in a way that doesn't leave chaos and catastrophe in our wake."

Another reporter asks: "Would you say today's meeting demonstrated an unusual level of unity?" Just beyond the circle, Tim Carpenter looks on expectantly.

Beers and Berger both grin before responding. "Unusual?" Berger chuckles. "I'd call it a delightful unity."

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