I. THE STATE OF PLAY
It’s the halfway point in the Republican convention, and the Democratic nervousness is palpable. It’s not that the Republicans have much of a message, but they’ve been playing it over and over since the Democratic convention. The message has come in two parts. For most of August, the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth insisted that John Kerry had not been a credible leader in Vietnam and would be a disaster of a leader today. (All evidence — chiefly, the testimony of the men Kerry actually led — to the contrary notwithstanding.)
Now it’s September, and what we’ve learned so far at the Republican convention is that George W. Bush, by contrast, exhibits firm, resolute, determined leadership. Those are the words, and assertions, that have run through the four main speeches of the convention so far — John McCain’s, Rudy Giuliani’s, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and Laura Bush’s. What none of them has particularly cared to discuss is Bush’s actual record. Karl Rove has taken pains to ensure that no reminders of the ongoing war in Iraq will pop up; Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Colin Powell are nowhere to be seen. And as for the state of the economy — are you kidding?
As the Bush people see it, they win if this election is all about character, by which they mean their portrait of their candidate as steadfastness personified and their portrait of Kerry as a lying weasel whose Vietnam service they “honor” even while suggesting he faked his wounds. Thus the steady elevation of “leadership” over all other considerations, a theme hammered on relentlessly Monday night by both Giuliani and McCain. There might be times, Giuliani allowed, when issues mattered, but “in times of danger, as we are now in, Americans should put leadership at the core of their decision.”
Up to a point, the GOP’s game plan is working. Coming out of the Boston convention, Kerry led Bush by 8 percent when voters were asked which of the two would be a better commander-in-chief. But in a poll in Tuesday’s Washington Post, Bush is now ahead by 10 points on the same question. (On the question of presidential preference, the poll has the two candidates tied at 48 percent each.)
Democrats are starting to get that queasy feeling that it’s all slipping away. Tuesday was filled with rumors that the Kerry campaign was about to undergo a major shake-up — that campaign strategist Bob Shrum and communications director Stephanie Cutter were on the way out — rumors that campaign sources pooh-poohed. But in the wake of weeks of unanswered Swift Boat slanders, Democrats were pondering how the Kerry campaign could have thought it didn’t need to fire back.
The failure, until the past week, to set up a rapid-response war room has triggered a larger anxiety about Kerry’s campaign: that it is all inoculation and no offense. The presentiment is largely true, but that doesn’t mean the Kerry campaign need remain that way.
Indeed, the best antidote for Democratic panic is to read the polling on whether Americans think their nation is headed in the right direction, or the economy sound, or the war in Iraq a good idea. The fundamentals still favor the challenger. And the primary question of the campaign’s final two months is whether the challenger can return the discussion to the fundamentals.
For their part, the Bushies want to turn this contest into a mandate on machismo, and they do so with some very specific swing voters in mind. Giuliani’s ode to construction workers in his Monday night speech marked one reaching out to this group; so did the video feed earlier that evening of a dissident firefighter local in Wisconsin, whose president said that his members would follow Bush into a burning building.
In fact, Bush has led them into a burning building of a sort: The economy that’s been home to blue-collar white males is now fully engulfed. In the battleground states of the industrial Midwest, an entire stratum of work has been eliminated, either shipped abroad or simply shut down. The Bushies’ hope is that downscale Midwestern men will overlook such trivialities and vote as downscale white male Southern cousins have for time immemorial — indifferent to their own, or the nation’s, economic interests, focusing solely on their cultural affinities to right-wing candidates and their cultural antipathies to left-wing ones. The Bush strategy is plausible only because the industrial unions of the Midwest have been so decimated. The voter mobilization programs of such Democratic “527” groups as America Coming Together are really directed at providing a political equivalent for those once-powerful unions, endeavoring to persuade these voters that embracing a macho leader only makes sense when he’s actually on their side.
John Kerry will have ample opportunity to make that case in the forthcoming debates. It shouldn’t be that hard, not with every economic indicator highlighting just how embattled the middle class actually is, and with a war in Iraq that has no plausible end point. A little populism from the Democratic nominee would go a long way over the next two months, and though it’s not Kerry’s first language, he has been known to speak it fluently enough.
II. THE MODERATES COMETH
Talk about industrial-strength chutzpah! Both John McCain and Rudy Giuliani devoted time in their Monday-night speeches to evoking the spirit of national unity that arose in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “I remember the support being bipartisan, and actually standing hand in hand, Republicans and Democrats, here in New York and all over the nation,” New York’s former mayor said in an almost wistful tone. In that moment, said McCain, “we were not Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. We were not two countries. We were Americans.”
Well, yes, and for a time that unity held. Most Democrats and liberals supported the war in Afghanistan launched soon after the attacks. But who is responsible for blowing that unity to smithereens? Not John Edwards, despite the reference to his Two Americas speech. Let’s try, rather, the guy whose leadership both McCain and Giuliani were extolling — George W. Bush.
For Bush, the war on terror (under which rubric he also lumped his Iraqi adventurism) provided a way for him not to rally the country to his side, but to sunder it to his advantage. He forced Congress to vote on giving him a blank check to make war just a month before the 2002 elections, and he forced them to vote on a homeland security bill that would deny union rights to government workers. The war on terror was all well and good, but it also enabled Bush to wage a war on Democrats, which he’s pursued at least as avidly and somewhat more expertly than his wars overseas.
McCain’s was surely the closest thing to a national unity speech we’ll hear at this convention, which is the reason it left the assembled Republicans cold. Indeed, the animal spirits of the right-wing delegates didn’t have much occasion for display last night, save in response to Giuliani’s attacks on John Kerry and, most especially, in response to McCain’s one-line zinger at Michael Moore. Now, that’s the Republican Party — the right-wingers yelling for Moore’s scalp.
After extolling the virtues of unity, McCain almost backed into his case for Bush. He defended the war in Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein may not have been a clear and present danger when Bush opted to attack him but was sure to become so in the years ahead. “The years of keeping Saddam in a box were coming to a close,” he warned. Actually, from what our forces have discovered, Iraq’s military was growing steadily weaker with each passing year, but you can't very well argue for the war on the basis of Saddam’s waning strength.
Giuliani was nowhere so reticent in his backing for Bush. Unlike McCain, he took out after Kerry’s alleged flip-flops with a zeal born of a determination to persuade Republican right-wingers that he really was one of them. The right will never fall for this, even though Giuliani made a good impression on them. Besides, if there’s room for one social moderate in the rightists’ little hearts, it’s not for either McCain or Giuliani, but for the man who so far can’t be president — Arnold.
The oddity, and charm, of Arnold’s speech was that it had precious little to do with the rest of the convention, or even the election. There was a little about George Bush’s perseverance and leadership — there seems to be nothing else anyone on the podium can say on the president’s behalf. There was essentially nothing on John Kerry, save one zinger about economically pessimistic girlie men.
There was, rather, Arnold on Arnold and his political evolution. It is an immigrant’s story, and it had a little of an immigrant’s tone-deafness to some nuances of political life that a native would be more likely to grasp. I daresay Schwarzenegger will be the only speaker at this convention to speak the name of Richard Nixon, who inspired Arnold to register as a Republican. Schwarzenegger provided a series of litmus tests by which listeners could know whether they, too, could be Republicans, but that Nixon story had to stop some of them at the git-go.
Since he can’t run for president, since he wouldn’t attack Kerry, and since not even he can deliver California for Bush, Arnold must be evaluated outside the realm of normal election politics. The speech was fundamentally his political coming out — much of it familiar to Californians who had heard his speech at the 2003 state Republican convention, or his inaugural address. Once again, Arnold made his well-worn case for libertarian over social democratic economics — not an argument, really, just a litany of unprovable assertions. The atmospherics of the talk, though, far surpassed his earlier performances. Resplendent in what looked in the hall to be white tie, black coat and orange complexion, standing in front of a giant, if projected, American flag in the manner of George C. Scott’s Patton, Arnold provided a splendid diversion from the business of the convention, which is slander and misrepresentation.
III. COUNTRY RATS IN THE BIG CITY
The literature on the interaction between national political conventions and their host cities is a slim one. On occasion, in the days when conventions were for choosing, not just crowning nominees, the locals in the galleries played a role: cheering on Abe Lincoln in Chicago in 1860 and Wendell Willkie in Philadelphia in 1940. (On the other hand, the galleries in L.A. in 1960 were boomingly for Adlai Stevenson, but John Kennedy had the nomination sewn up.) On other occasions, candidates’ alliances with the host political machine proved helpful, as in Chicago in 1940, when the spontaneous demonstration to “persuade” Franklin Roosevelt to seek an unprecedented third term began when Chicago’s sewer commissioner, from somewhere beneath the arena and far from the public eye, commandeered the sound system and began chanting, “We want Roosevelt!” (This incident went down in political lore as “The Voice from the Sewers.”)
What’s never happened before is a convention being viewed by its host city as an alien intrusion — but that’s just what’s happening in New York this week. When the Democrats convened in Chicago in 1968 (I was there as an 18-year-old staffer for antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy), anti-war demonstrators came from near and far to oppose the war. But roughly one-third of the delegates inside the convention agreed with them, and old Mayor Daley certainly wasn’t risking his re-election when he made clear to his cops that they could treat the protesters as roughly as their little hearts desired.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, by contrast, has surely hurt his chances for re-election by inviting George W. Bush’s Republicans to town. The president who has opted to govern from the right and to take the country into a discretionary, unnecessary and unpopular war is wildly unpopular here, and the city is now home to two distinct sets of activities, of, by and for two utterly opposed political camps.
This is so far from the norm of how a city and convention interact that it is almost in a class by itself in American political history. Last month’s Democratic convention in Boston, for instance, featured outdoor concerts for delegates and locals alike. No convention planner even contemplated such a mixing of populations here in New York, however. Delegates travel through the city in buses with police escorts; their parties are cordoned off by the cops; getting into their hotels requires running a gauntlet of separate security forces. At times, you get the feeling the Republicans may as well be holding their convention in Baghdad.
The California, Ohio and Tennessee delegations, for instance, are shacked up in the Marriott Marquis Hotel at Broadway and 46th, where a bewildering array of security forces make sure that no actual New Yorkers down on the streets can defile the sanctity of the hotel. When I was entering the hotel early Sunday evening, around the time that the day’s mega-protest demonstration was breaking up, a same-sex kiss-in was in full swing across the street from the hotel, while a roving troupe of drum-bangers was booming its way down Broadway. A phalanx of cops stood between the kissers and drummers and the hotel, lest any of the demonstrators dart across the street, scoot past hotel security, and plant a wet one on an unsuspecting delegate from Cincinnati.
The Republicans’ connection with their surroundings is a sometime thing at best. On the fifth floor of the Marriott, where a number of Republican organizations have their offices, the National Federation of Republican Women have set up shop in the Clifford Odets Room. Odets, of course, is the onetime Communist playwright whose 1930s plays — Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing in particular — are probably America’s most notable left-wing plays until the advent of Arthur Miller.
But it gets better, or worse, than that. All the rooms on the fifth floor of the Marriott Marquis, a hotel which contains within it a Broadway theater (currently reviving the ever-moribund Thoroughly Modern Millie), are named after playwrights — there’s the Eugene O’Neill Room and the Moss Hart Room. And the communications staff for the Ohio delegation inhabits the Bertolt Brecht Room — or is supposed to; there was nobody in the room named after one of the few genuinely Stalinist artists of the past century when I peeked inside it. The Odets Room, by contrast, was fairly humming with Republican women talking politics. Not surprisingly — and probably just as well — none of the women I spoke with had any idea who Clifford Odets was.