The main questions about the Democratic National Convention that opens Monday in Atlanta have nothing to do with the party's presidential ticket.
Instead, the questions center on how far Jesse Jackson is going to keep pushing his thwarted ambitions not just for himself but for his liberal agenda, and how quickly and thoroughly the Democrats can heal their self-inflicted wounds.The possibilities range from unity to confrontation.
If the convention appears quarrelsome and disorderly to the national television audience rather than just lively, the Democrats could easily hurt themselves far more than George Bush and the Republicans ever could.
But if the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket does some fast fence-mending and if the Jackson camp will restrain itself, the Democrats could have a good shot at occupying the White House.
Such restraint should entail more than just a realistic recognition that the Jackson camp can only hurt their candidate and their cause by possibly unruly protest demonstrations that have been threatened outside the convention hall and maybe even inside, too.
It also involves at least a tacit acknowledgment that America isn't ready for a political agenda as extreme as the one that the Reverend Jackson and his followers keep pushing despite the wishes of the Democratic Platform Committee.
Yes, Jesse Jackson has ably articulated the Democratic party's traditional concern for social justice and compassion for the less well off. He also has brought enormous enthusiasm and millions of new voters into the political process.
But in doing so, he has consistently espoused positions far to the left of the mainstream. And he threatens to keep pushing them in floor fights at the Atlanta convention on a dozen or more issues, including his call for higher taxes on the wealthy, a Pentagon freeze, more spending on education and Head Start, no-first-use of nuclear weapons, and Palestinian self-determination.
By contrast, only one plank favored by Jackson can be found in the remarkably brief document - 4,700 words compared to the usual 45,000 or so - produced by the platform committee. Even that lone exception is a mistake. It's a plank promising to include South Africa on the official list of terrorist states. Never mind that, under current definitions by the State Department, it doesn't belong there.
Missing from the proposed platform - and wisely so - are many of the planks that burdened the Democrats in the past. Gone, for example, is any mention of gun control, capital punishment, and Medicaid coverage for abortions.
Perhaps significantly, the platform also avoids any mention of tax increases and does not say how Michael Dukakis and the Democrats would deal with the huge federal deficits. Clearly, the party has learned the painful lesson it was taught when Walter Mondale suffered a resounding defeat in 1984 after volunteering that he would hike taxes.
Instead, Dukakis is pressing his bid for the White House mostly on the basis of such comparatively neutral issues as his claim to superior competence, integrity, and experience.
The country should be able to start assessing at least the parts of that claim involving competence and experience on the basis of how well Dukakis and his camp heal wounds and control the Democratic national convention in Atlanta.