The Widening Gyre: In Which the GOP Gets Rolling
The Republicans got their convention into full swing tonight – though with hardly a mention of the word "Republican". The messages of the night seemed to be, first, that a McCain/Palin ticket is the ticket of reform in Washington, that they are the real change candidates. Implied in this is a rejection of the last eight years of Republican control of the White House. Despite Pres. Bush's speech tonight, the word from this year's RNC is that the party, somehow, had nothing to do with Bush's administration – that Obama/Biden are part of the Washington machinery, the "swamp", and that McCain/Palin would bring a reformist spirit and a record of accomplishment.
Second, continuing in the same vein, we heard the call of the cult of the individual. Rarely, did tonight's speakers tout Republicans as Republicans; rather, we heard names: Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan (in a shoddy video tribute), George H.W. Bush, John McCain.
Third, we heard about military. Unsurprisingly, the convention spent the most time on this. P.O.W.s, other veterans and the siblings of a soldier killed in Iraq received acknowledgment. And all night the crowd waved signs that said mostly "Country First" and "Service". Several speakers lauded McCain's support of the troop 'surge' as evidence of his legislative bravery, his wisdom and his dedication to the troops. Even Pres. Bush mentioned this -- though he didn't mention who put the troops there, ill-equipped, in the first place.
Fred Thompson gave the bang-up speech of the evening. He really galvanized the crowd, less with his nimble (if dubious) slights of Obama -- only a smooth-talker, "the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee to ever run for president" -- and more with his militaristic rhetoric and his lauding the rough-and-tumble personalities of the candidates -- like Palin's ability to field-dress a moose (that's a hunting term, for you weenie liberals out there). Thompson, chuckling, even managed to sell McCain's impressive accruing of demerits at the Naval Academy, driving a hot rod and dating a stripper as signs of an admirable rebellious quality that helped get him through what he suffered in Vietnam.
But the peak of the speech came with Thompson's telling of McCain's life story – particularly his horrific treatment for more than 5 years in the hands of the Vietcong. Unquestionably it was powerful and effective. Even moving. The terrors McCain endured surely extend far beyond even the imaginations of most of us. Thompson did acknowledge that McCain's tortures as a POW do not qualify him to be President; but, he said, they do reveal his character, which, he implied, does.
Thompson did mock the Dems for thinking we're in some "Great Depression" but later invoked the current "economic downturn" when slighting Obama's ideas on taxes. He also, in an except to the message of the night, invoked the accomplishments of "the Republicans" in among other things, balancing the budget in the '90s. He failed to mention Pres. Clinton -- and to mention the huge imbalance the following Republican administration has created. But the crowd liked it. And he ended strong, with a plea to "keep America the greatest country that the world has ever seen."
Sen. Joe Lieberman followed Thompson – referring to himself as a Democrat though he's currently an Independent. The Democrats' nominee for VP eight years ago, Lieberman seemed to make the crowd really unsure how to react, and his speech started slowly. The delegates didn't really seem to go for his party-isn't-important spiel. But he hit stride with his touting of McCain, the candidate's courage to stand up alone for his beliefs, his claim to not really being a politician, and how a President McCain would best protect the USA -- with a good offense.
The party luminaries interviewed on the floor tonight, at least by MSNBC, seemed to have all received the same talking-points memo. They all now tout Gov. Palin as more experienced as an executive than Sen. Obama, particularly when charged that they'd nominated an inexperienced VP while running on charges that Obama was inexperienced and therefore unqualified. She's 'governed' they say, and he hasn't. Of course, by that measure, neither has McCain. It's a semantics game that the GOP has often played well and that Dems have not. Pols -- like Sen. Sam Brownback -- got behind the message but did seem unconvincing in their delivery that they believed Palin the best choice.
It's also a slight shift in message from the first reaction, which seemed to be "So what?" and "But she's just going for VP, not President." So, the message on the already beleaguered Palin is that she's experienced as an executive, brave and a stranger to Washington -- and that any mention of her personal life, particularly by The Media, is classless and irrelevant and, basically, some sort of unfair fabrication.
But will the Republican's self-distancing work? Has the nation so quickly forgotten the last eight years – and the present? Or, as tonight charged, are these new Republicans who reach beyond party lines? Maybe they're right. Shouldn't the particular candidates matter more than their party affiliations? Ideally, new blood is new blood regardless of the mascot. But, as tonight's speakers continually reminded us, we do not live in an ideal world.
A repeated message of the evening was "You may not agree with our candidates on all the issues, but you'll agree they're the best people for the job." Will that be enough to keep the White House in elephantine hands? Should it? Should voters ignore candidates' stances on issues – or at least be willing to give on some topics? And would McCain and Palin really operate independently of their party, particularly the fat-cats and corporate interests they claim ready to destroy? Should the public rely on the GOP itself having changed since it brought Bush into power twice?
The one refrain from the past eight years that neither Bush nor Thompson nor Lieberman avoided – despite all their talk of reform and progress – was that we live in a dangerous world, surrounded by enemies who seek our destruction. That dovetails (ironically) with the militaristic fetishism of the evening. Will Americans vote out of fear again? That, Democrats might say, is more of the same.
And it brings this question: Is military service the only way to serve our country? And this follows hard upon: Can we measure experience? (This topic seems a disaster for either party to try to own now.) Lastly, who seeks the center in this election? And will it work?
The Democrats, despite more direct attacks on their opponent (as far as we've seen from the RNC), seem to be searching for that center, to appeal to all Americans – or at least the fabled 'middle class'. The Republicans, despite their claims to speak for the real America, their inclusion of Lieberman and their mentions of environmentalism and women's progress, in the more recent actions of McCain and the choice of Palin, seem to be talking firmly to their more conservative base. Perhaps no other topic received as enthusiastic crowd reaction tonight as that of abortion.
What Democrats must be watching now is how the Republican strategy will unfold over the next two days. That will help them determine their next steps and set into motion the home stretch of this race.
Questions still linger about the early confusion in the St. Paul convention. Has the slow start really been just in deference to the hurricane that hit the Gulf coast? Or did that coincide with disorganization within the party coming out of the DNC and McCain's choosing Palin? Are the Republicans taking a page out of the playbook of George W. Bush – and therefore of Richard Nixon – by standing not too long in the sun of public scrutiny? Would that be a sign of things to come from candidate and perhaps President McCain? A continually opaque White House would certainly not be the spirit of reform in Washington.
Regardless, the Republicans (though they might not want that moniker at the moment) seem to have gotten themselves on a roll and seem bloody dedicated to uniting behind their (new?) party lines.
Technorati tags: politics, Palin, Republican, Obama,President, Biden, McCain, convention.