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Albert's Hubert Problem

A sitting vice-president heads to a convention where an angry left plans protests? To Al Gore, that's a pretty scary flashback.

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You're Bill Daley. You just resigned as secretary of Commerce, a job you took more seriously than any of your predecessors, who mostly used it to pump up their value to the private sector. A job that let you eclipse the president's trade representative and take charge of the administration's effort to establish permanent normal trade relations with China. A job that positioned you to step up to Treasury secretary in the next Democratic administration. All you have to do is make sure Al Gore gets elected -- or there won't be a next Democratic administration for a while.

Last week, when you settled into your new job as chairman of the Gore campaign, someone must have asked you what to do about the world trade protesters who will descend on the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. With mass demonstrations scheduled for every day of the week, you must have realized that next month's convention could be the most protested since the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey in your hometown of Chicago in 1968. And you remember what that did to your father, Richard Daley, who's remembered not as a progressive mayor but as the commander-in-chief of the single largest deployment of police brutality in the television age.

Nineteen sixty-eight was the last time the Democrats nominated a sitting vice-president, which is all too eerie a coincidence. Back then, you watched what was supposed to be a well-oiled rally for Vice-President Humphrey turn into a chaotic brawl from which his campaign never recovered. You have to be wondering whether the same thing can happen to Gore. You have to be wondering what you can do about the demonstrations. For now, one thing you're certainly not going to do is talk about them, which is why I'm not waiting for you to return my call.

Unlike those of 1968, this year's protesters will be marching against "corporate greed," police brutality, and the death penalty, and in favor of "global economic and environmental justice" and "Women's Les/Gay/Bi/Trans and disability rights." One thing that hasn't changed is that the Republican convention won't draw nearly so many protesters as the Democrats. To the left, Republicans are hopeless on such issues and not worth the energy it would take to start a dialogue. But since Democrats are more sympathetic, they constantly inspire hope, which leads inevitably to disappointment and then recrimination.

If things do get out of control, the protests will become the story of the week, and Al Gore's nomination-acceptance speech will be as memorable as Hubert Humphrey's.

Eight years of Clinton-Gore -- their partial repeal of welfare, their gutting of habeas corpus, their bombing of countries that posed no threat to the U.S., their retreat on the kind of environmental policies than Gore's book promised -- has left the left in full recrimination mode. Now that they have a presidential candidate of their own, Ralph Nader, who's polling enough if-the-election-were-held-today votes to hand the White House to the Republicans, they're determined to use the Democratic convention to move even more voters from Gore to Nader and the handful of presidential candidates to his left.

Estimates of the number of protesters expected in Los Angeles have risen from 10,000 to 50,000. By comparison, the Democratic National Committee is expecting 40,000 -- delegates, spouses, media, etc. -- so the demonstrations could easily be bigger than the convention itself. In any case, it wouldn't take a lot of protesters to muddle up Gore's message. When the World Trade Organization met in Seattle last winter, 30,000 protesters made the city look like Beirut. And when the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank met in Washington in April, just 1,300 protesters made downtown impassable for days.

Both Philadelphia and Los Angeles have tried to create designated protest zones -- fenced-in locations blocks away from the convention halls set aside for rallies. But the ACLU rushed into federal court in both cities, claiming the protesters have a First Amendment right to demonstrate closer to the conventions. In the Los Angeles case, the judge ruled in favor of the protesters and will order an expansion of the designated areas.

It might not even make a difference. Most of the activists planning protests in Los Angeles have refused to even apply for the permits they need to demonstrate in the designated areas. So far, only three permits have been granted -- in a city that burns police cars just to celebrate Lakers victories. Which means that thousands are going to be guilty of marching without a permit. And that the Police Department that brought you the Rodney King beating is going to have to decide what to do about that.

Could the demonstrations get as out-of-control as they did in Seattle? The good news/bad news of last week was that John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said that organized labor won't be there. That could cut out half the protesters, but it would be the wrong half -- labor was a civilizing force amid the chaos in Seattle.

If things do get out of control, the protests will become the story of the week, and Al Gore's nomination-acceptance speech will be as memorable as Humphrey's. That would hurt him -- smoothly running conventions can be counted on to give their nominees a bump in the polls. And since Bush shouldn't face any serious distractions in Philadelphia, he'll probably emerge with an even wider lead. Some Gore strategists have even proposed announcing Gore's vice-presidential pick the day after the Republican convention so their candidate can generate as much of the week's big news as Bush and prevent him from picking up too many points in the polls. Even if they try that, the Gore campaign might still need to come out of their convention on a big California wave that it can ride all the way to the election. But if protesters drown out Gore's convention-week message, he'll be dead in the water.

Speaking of water, Gore's planning a boat trip up the Mississippi River and across the Great Lakes after the convention. It will take him into the battleground states of the Midwest with plenty of momentum and feed the media beast with an endless supply of pictures of Gore greeting heartland voters in jeans and a polo shirt. If the convention goes smoothly, the boat trip will, too -- it could even generate the kind of swooning press coverage the Clinton-Gore bus trip got in '92. But if Gore walks ashore to questions about convention protests -- whether he approves of the tactics the LAPD used, whether he could have done more to prevent demonstrations from getting out of control, whether he agrees with anything the protesters had to say -- his campaign will have wandered off-message and the protesters will have wandered even farther off into the wilderness of American politics.


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