In July, Democrats will gather in San Francisco to choose their nominee for the Presidency of the United States. Democratic conventions, points out INC. senior writer Joseph Kahn, are notoriously fractious affairs. Kahn knows, because the first one he covered was the Chicago convention of 1968, probably the single most divisive political gathering in modern American history. And after a long and sometimes bitter series of state primaries, the expectation this time around is for more of the same. Out of such impending chaos will come a candidate and a platform, and before the assemblage adjourns, both may appear a bit bruised. That is the good news for Republican reelection officials.
The bad news for the rest of the country is that several unconventional views about the direction and priorities of the American economy may not get the serious airing they deserve, in and beyond San Francisco. These concerns have been most forcefully articulated by Gary Hart, a legitimate (if ultimately unsuccessful) challenger to Walter Mondale for the mantle of party leadership. Hart, whose "new ideas" theme was often ridiculed by his politically well-heeled opponent ("Where's the beef?" joked the former Vice-President, as if Mondale were a walking steak sandwich himself), has, in fact, a package of ideas that, although not entirely novel in its particulars, is brand-new to the rhetoric of Presidential campaigns. With its emphasis on free trade, entrepreneurship, job retraining, and access to capital for small growth companies, for instance, it differs significantly from Mondale's pro-labor protectionism or from the big-business beneficence of President Reagan. Hart has, moreover, drawn major support -- financial and otherwise -- from such nontraditional political bastions as California's Silicon Valley, where the old realities of the Depression and the New Deal tend not to mean much. Surely somebody out there must have been hearing something.
It is worth noting, I think, that Hart has run an "entrepreneurial" campaign in at least two ways. Substantively, he has accomplished this by focusing part of his pitch on growth-sector issues that reach beyond trickle-down economics and bailout employment schemes; indeed, one legacy of his challenge may be a much sharper future distinction between "small-business issues" and real entrepreneurial concerns. Stylistically, he has demonstrated how a political outsider can take his case to the people as any bedrock entrepreneur would: with little regard for the prevailing wisdom of the marketplace. As public relations czar Regis McKenna, a key Hart organizer in California, puts it, "Mondale has a market-share outlook -- take a piece and add another piece -- while Hart started from nothing and tried to build something." Adds another Hart enthusiast, Newport Beach, Calif., video mogul Stuart Karl, "It's like [Steven] Jobs and [Stephen] Wozniak with Apple [Computer]. They didn't begin that company with a lot of market research telling them what to do. Their attitude was, 'Go for it.' So is Gary's."
In goint for it, unfortunately, Hart has also managed to project a real gap between his promise and his performance. Having captured the attention of an entrepreneurial constituency, he failed to deliver enough specifics to draw many of them into the center of his campaign. What went wrong? Kahn, whom we dispatched in April to talk to Hart as part of our projected coverage of the fall campaign and its growth-sector agenda (or absence of same), found one ready answer. "Ever since New Hampshire," Hart lamented during an interview on his campaign plane, "Mondale has been attacking me so aggressively that there haven't been many opportunities for informed debate on the issues." Maybe so. Yet when invited to elaborate on just such issues -- and specifically to cite other voices that might be heard in Washington during a Hart administration -- the Colorado senator demurred. Asked simply to name the thinkers who had influenced him most on entrepreneurial ideas during his tenure on Capitol Hill, Hart had to reach for his own book, A New Democracy, to refresh his memory. One of the names he rattled off was that of a heavy Mondale backer. Oh well, says our writer, "It had been a long day, and all of us were tired."
The longest day will come for the Democrats themselves, however, if they ignore the deeper meaning of the Hart campaign. "If Gary Hart made it to the Oval Office with his 'new ideas' theme intact," said one top political consultant (not Hart's), back in March, "it wouldn't matter as much that he had any new ideas as it would that he would attract the kind of people who do. And that definitely includes the emerging leaders of the entrepreneurial economy.These people couldn't even get in the door in a Reagan or Mondale administration, and they know it. Politically, Hart is an empty vessel waiting to be filled. I know one thing for certain: By 1988, all the candidates, Republican and Democrat, will be Gary Hart-type candidates." If that is so -- and the demographic pull in that direction is strong indeed -- then a lot more politicians will be looking at and responding to the "rising tide of entrepreneurship" that Hart made a rhetorical centerpiece of Campaign '84. And that is worth thinking about, even in the dog days of July.