Of the 60 speakers who will address the Democratic national convention during the prime hours of 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. this week, 29 are members of Congress. Perhaps that's not a surprise considering that both men on the ticket are sitting senators, and that presidential nominees have to pay obligatory dues to leaders on the Hill. But it also speaks to the important role lawmakers will play in trying to help John Kerry become president as they attempt to win back control of the Capitol.
“The momentum is certainly on our side,” said Representative Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, who will introduce Ron Reagan on Tuesday night to address the need for more stem-cell research. “People recognize we need a new direction in America.”
Those words echoed what House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer said on July 22, when he predicted that Democrats could repeat the Republicans' surprise victory of 1994, when they succeeded in taking control of Congress. “This dissatisfaction has allowed Democrats to defy expectations and recruit enough good candidates and raise enough money to be within striking distance of taking back the House in November,” he said.
Delivering the keynote address at the convention is Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama, who has no credible GOP opposition this fall. Obama will talk about the role of community service and the need for jobs, families, and communities to come first.
Promoting House and Senate members during the convention makes sense: Not only does it showcase the diversity of Congress, it demonstrates the need for a Democratic president to have a Democratic Congress. It may be too much to hope that Kerry will have coattails, given the fact that most polls are within the margin of error a little more than three months before election day. But if Kerry can move those numbers starting this week, voters angry at the Bush administration and comfortable with the alternative may be encouraged to vote a straight ticket, sending more Democrats to the Hill.
Speaking at the convention is to the lawmakers' advantage as well. Even though the networks aren't showing the whole convention lineup, the program provides a chance for members to gain widespread visibility for the Democrats' message, which Langevin described to me as helping working families, promoting affordable health care and stronger job creation, protecting homeland security, and restoring America's reputation internationally.
Representative Mike Honda of California, who will speak Tuesday about service, leadership, and personal courage, said talking about the economy and jobs is the “mantra” of congressional Democrats. “That's the message that we have to share with the American people,” he told me.
It's a perfect opportunity for congressional Democrats to highlight how much more they could get done with Kerry in the White House, especially if they are in charge of the Hill, too. Kerry would have more chance of crafting an agenda that could actually pass Congress -- unlike the Republicans, who still don't have a budget, energy bill, or transportation bill. Perhaps that would encourage members to stay in town, unlike this year, when House members are on track to work the least number of days in 48 years.
As someone with 19 years of experience in the Senate, Kerry knows what it takes to make the Hill work -- unlike George W. Bush, who holds it in such disdain that it's an afterthought. Even though Congress wants to pass a two-year tax-cut extension, Bush is pushing for five years, unwilling to take a partial victory and revisit the issue later. That's a lesson he should have learned from Bill Clinton's health-care debacle. Of course, for Bush, the policy doesn't matter, only the politics; it's a way for him to paint Democrats, who would oppose longer extensions, as fiscally irresponsible liberals.
The most important thing to come out of the convention is not only what Bush and the Republicans have done wrong but what Kerry and the Democrats will do right. The fact that Kerry has united a party after a 10-way presidential primary -- all of the defeated candidates will speak on stage -- and has the support of liberal and moderate lawmakers is a credit to him. Seeing the potential of what he could accomplish in Washington next year should encourage a public frustrated by the GOP's inaction. By helping to get that message out in Boston, Hill Democrats are not only helping Kerry but helping themselves, too. Hopefully, they'll get across to voters just how much is at stake this fall.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.