As I sat in the Madison Square Garden bleachers and watched John McCains opening-night speech to the RNC, I kept longing for Poppy Bush and his great 1992 Houston convention.
Twelve years ago the president sat in his special convention box with Pat Robertson, a firm believer in cosmopolitan devil conspiracies, at his side. There was the never-to-be-forgotten Christian Coalition rally led by Pat Boone, dressed in white-red-and-blue and quoting wildly from Scripture as frenzied devotees and delegates shouted their amens. Later that same day Marilyn Quayle came to the convention floor and mistily reminisced about meeting dear hubby Dan during a college-era rally in favor of the death penalty.
And who among us who experienced it up close from the media seats will ever forget Pat Buchanans prime-time culture-war declaration along with its vow to take back America street by street and block by block. As Buchanan ended his speech, leaving us all a bit breathless, Ill always remember looking to my side and seeing the momentary wrinkle of fear cross Norman Mailers face. As loud booms exploded over our heads and the smell of burned powder tinged the air, it took us a moment to realize that the GOP was merely setting off some in-the-arena fireworks and that we were not, fortunately, the first targets in Buchanans just-initiated kulturkampf.
Now that was what you call a real Republican convention! Whoever put that sucker together makes the careful managers of this weeks neatly canned RNC show look like a gaggle of girlie-men.
The catch, of course, was that just a few months later Old Man Bush, unable to crack 40 percent of the vote, was routed by a tainted governor from a small Southern state.
I dont know that the whoopin wild Houston convention had much to do with the sorry outcome. But the lesson was, nevertheless, learned. And weve never had a Republican loony show like that since and likely will not for some time to come.
Which means that the story that comes out of Madison Square Garden is pretty damn slim. Whats left to be anticipated when the Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated their discipline in fashioning a very sharp and simple message and then guaranteeing that it gets endlessly repeated?
For several weeks before the RNC, the media choir had been unanimous. Ill even admit to some of my own complicity in making the same prediction as everyone else that in a transparently cosmetic gesture this fundamentally conservative party would use the convention to showcase its more moderate, even liberal faces. Just about any big-name Republican too moderate to win a national GOP primary, anyone from McCain to Rudy Giuliani to The Governator, would be given great prominence.
But thats not really what happened. Not that these guys arent in fact more liberal than the Republican mean (they are). But the convention planners said the theme of the first night would be Courage of a Nation. And thats exactly what it was with not even a hint of sleight of hand.
Fishing among the freakish political waters of Hollywood, the Republicans hooked the goofy and pretentious Ron Silver and then released him kicking and flapping before the convention. With his hip near-shoulder-length hair and his overstylized oratory, the meat of his message was, nevertheless, Republican blood-red. The first of the nights speakers to conveniently conflate the war in Iraq with the war against al Qaeda, Silver declared: This is a war we did not seek. This is a war to which we had to respond . . . the president is doing exactly the right thing.
Later that night Silver popped up on MSNBC, lauding Ralph Nader, endorsing national health care, slamming both parties for being on the corporate take, but then re-endorsing Bush because, he said, nothing else mattered if we lost the war against Islamic fundamentalism.
Thats why the McCain we saw this week was not the straight-talking maverick who bucks his own party on issues of campaign finance reform and corporate welfare. Instead it was the fire-breathing, jingoistic, superhawk ex-POW McCain who addressed the convention and passionately argued in almost so few words that fighting the Taliban and fighting Saddam were the same. And while McCain genuflected toward bipartisan civility and recognized the sincerity of Democrats, his speech was but a gussied-up threat of Us or Them, either Republican leadership of this unspecified, ongoing, multifront and endless war, or some dark chaos under the unsteady rule of his good friend John Kerry.
I got as much of a laugh as anybody when McCain took the opportunity in his speech to bash the silliness of Michael Moore. But, my personal satisfaction aside, it was a real low point for McCain and a sorry disappointment for many who have admired his thoughtfulness and gravitas (especially compared to the incumbent he so passionately endorsed). McCain knows better than to toss that 300-pound chunk of lard into the center of the final phase of a crucial presidential election that has already suffered enough distractions, including Michael Moore. But McCain did it anyway, and there wasnt an ultraconservative in the house who was discomforted.
Likewise with Giuliani. This wasnt the pro-choice, ex-Democrat, open-handed and broad-minded Rudy, the onetime mayor of the most diverse city in the world who managed the tragedy of 9/11 with grace, competence and a sense of solidarity. This was, rather, the mean-spirited, prosecutorial Rudy the Prick shamelessly comparing George W. Bush to Winston Churchill, taunting his rivals as sissies and rhetorically dispatching Kerry and his pantywaist followers as if they were just one more claque of nettlesome squeegee-men.
Even the immensely likable Arnold couldnt resist dredging up the remains, no less, of Richard Nixon and, inexplicably, praising Tricky Dicks words as a breath of fresh air.
In short, these Republican moderates are, indeed, Republicans. So why not use them to carry the fundamental messages that unify the party? Much better than re-inflating some horror show like Jerry Falwell, whom I spied ambling solo rather aimlessly through the convention halls the other night, more than likely searching for an open TV microphone.
On convention opening night there was a terrific human crush as the heavy security checks created a bottleneck at the entrance to Madison Square Garden. My colleague David Corn and I found ourselves momentarily squeezed up close to superconservative Phyllis Schlafly (a true Falwell comrade and one of the aging cultural warhorses of the Reagan revolution). We had seen her earlier in the evening at a conservative cocktail party, and David and I had joked about what we might ask her. Now David took his shot and asked her if she was upset by all the moderates and relatively liberal pols who were to dominate the dais. Schlafly wrinkled her nose and made a dismissive sweep with her hand. Not at all, she answered. So long as we get our platform.
Which, of course, she did, as the GOP planks call for criminalizing abortion and banning gay marriage. But it would be just as far off the mark to conclude that her Neanderthal ilk quietly controls the party and simply uses the moderates as a beard. The platforms of each party are written by small groups of true believers and in the end matter very little, says Carla Halbrock, a board member of the gay and lesbian and therefore moderate Log Cabin Republicans (LCR). Halbrock hurries to explain to reporters gathered at an LCR pre-convention event that she is, in fact, straight. She joined LCR, she says, because thats the only socially moderate Republican group you can find in Texas a place where I could find other people like me.
But, please, no pity for Halbrock or the Log Cabin Republicans or any of the other GOP moderates. They are not gang-pressed prisoners of the right. Theyre all voluntary hostages, and few show much inclination to break out. Were for free markets, a strong defense and low taxes, says Halbrock. Theres more than unites us than divides us.
Sound familiar? It does to me. Talking to the Republican liberals is pretty much like talking to the Democratic progressives. They both desperately want to be part of a party that, in each case, is willing to tolerate them, take their votes and sap their energies, but in the end cares little for them and certainly isnt going to turn much, if any, power over to them. If you scratch your head wondering why on earth Log Cabin Republicans are Republicans, then try asking why the Deaniacs and Kucinich-oids are Democrats.
The nexus of political power resides in the bureaucratic center, really the center-right of both parties, where money and influence outweigh ideological nuances. Thats why the Republicans at least are coming out of this convention feeling very good about themselves and, increasingly, about their prospects in November.
Ive been to both conventions this year, says a friend, a former aide to Pete Wilson now working as a nonpartisan policy adviser, whom I bump into while looking in on the California delegation. You know what delegates of both parties have in common? he asks with a smile. They both hate John Kerry.
Its a funny line, for sure. And its an exaggeration only by degree. When I later come across my friends old boss Pete Wilson on the convention floor, he tells me hes feeling better about Republican chances in November because The Democrats took a big gamble on making security the theme of their convention. And now it looks like it might not be working for them.
John Kerry, back in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, predicted (correctly) that the Republicans would bank this election on the issues of national security. And when he taunted his rivals to Bring It On, I wrote in these pages that Kerry should beware of what he wished for.
Indeed, instead of matching his critics move for move, Kerry flinched. He made his convention all about Vietnam, not Iraq. And now that the Swifties have besieged the Vietnam story, Kerrys left the Bushies standing alone, and unchallenged, on Iraq.
That leads us to the great irony of this Republican National Convention. The Republicans chose to come to New York in a bald-faced grab at exploiting 9/11. At the time, they couldnt have known that the war in Iraq would be a much more important issue. Nor would they know that the couple of hundred thousand anti-war demonstrators who marched this week are being ignored not only by the party of Bush but by their own party the Kerry Democrats.
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What an opening for Bush. Frankly, I find it almost stupefying. The theme of Bushs convention-closing speech is The Ownership Society meant as a paean to private enterprise and privatization. But herein resides a final irony. Few, if anyone, are going to remember the little Clinton-like domestic applet programs that Bush is going to announce. Immensely more profound is a different kind of ownership being cemented here this week.
The Republicans are, rather boldly, assuming full ownership of what wiser folks assume is the inevitable disaster of the Iraqi war. One convention speaker after another may be spinning, obfuscating, blurring or embroidering, but no one is dodging or flinching. You wanna talk Iraq? Then lets talk Iraq. This here is a war president and, yes, this is his war. Whatchagonnadoaboutit? The other guy already said if he had to do it over again, hed again vote war authority to Bush.
Just as the American death toll nears a thousand. Just as the number of American wounded crosses 7,000. Just as Najaf, like Fallujah before it, exposes the limits and the folly of American firepower, George W. Bush and the Republicans not only dont flee from the issue of the war, they embrace it. From the McCain moderates right through to the Dick Cheney crackers crowd. And the delegates stomp and cheer and wave the flag.
Talk about turning lemons into lemonade. The Republicans are squeezing hard, and they are probably as surprised as anybody to see how little resistance they meet.