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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Bush Hits a Ground Rule Double

I have to admit at the outset here that I’m really struggling to remain objective about the 2004 GOP convention. Plenty of people (including many Democrats) a lot smarter than me have overruled my low opinion of the Guiliani and Schwarzenneger speeches. And my basic reaction to Cheney’s speech as the sort of thing you’d hear at a small-town Rotary luncheon hasn’t turned out to be a trendsetter, either.
So: I assume my objectivity gland has swollen up and maybe busted, and perhaps I missed the brilliance and political power of George W. Bush’s acceptance speech.
To be sure, the prez delivered this speech well, as he generally does when he doesn’t have to think on his feet. There was a bit of Gerson poetry here and there. Even when he attacked Kerry, he managed to remain relatively upbeat. And he really, really has mastered the art of suppressing his natural smirk with the lip-pursing thing and an occasional Pepsodent smile.
Having said that, my impression of Bush’s Big Speech is that it performed several tasks fairly well, without conveying much of an overall case for his re-election. He checked a lot of boxes, without getting outside the boxes much at all. Specifically he:
(1) Offered a superficial defense of his record on domestic issues, about as thorough as Cheney’s Rotary speech;
(2) Labored through a second-term agenda that convinced media bean-counters to announce “15 new initiatives,” though I only counted two that were really new, assuming you don’t take seriously his content-free lines about reforming and simplifying the tax code;
(3) Identified himself and his party with a combo platter of Clintonian, New Democrat themes, ranging from the general endorsement of “empowering government” to specific, if hazy ideas about lifelong learning.
(4) Hit Kerry with several of the poll-tested “flip-flop” lines we’ve heard throughout the convention, while perhaps opening up a second front by talking about Kerry as an example of old-fashioned, pre-Clinton liberals.
(5) Echoed the general convention message that 9/11 equals Iraq, and that questioning how we are doing in Iraq questions America’s courage.
(6) Reinforced the personal message that he knows who he is and what he wants to do, even if he can’t explain it before or after the fact.
(7) Threaded an important needle by including mildly “self-deprecating” lines about his verbal challenges and his Texas swagger, without ever admitting a single mistake in how he’s run the country.
Predictably, the delegates were pretty quiet during the obligatory domestic stuff, really waking up when Bush checked the cultural conservative boxes of “respecting the unborn” and defending traditional marriage, and then getting into the groove of chanting “USA” and “Four More Years” when he boasted about the brilliant success of his foreign policies.
All in all, the speech reminded me of a moment at the end of the 2000 Democratic Convention, when I was standing on the floor amidst the balloon drop, and a friend of mine who worked for Gore came up to me and said: “Whaddya think? Ground Rule Double?”
Like Gore’s 2000 speech, Bush’s effort tonight struck me as tactically successful, but strategically questionable. To stretch the baseball metaphor, it was a Ground Rule Double, and not a home run, because it went over the fence thanks to the peculiar dynamics of the home park. These dynamics revolved around a convention where Bush’s explanation of his record and agenda were held to the minimal standard associated with world-historical figures like Reagan and Churchill, who had bigger fish to fry than such trivial matters as keeping their countrymen employed or managing the aftermath of “liberation” struggles.
Lest we forget, Churchill lost his first post-war election, and Reagan left office before the messy residue of his policies could interfere with his generally successful legacy.
For all the triumphalism and rhetorical overkill of this convention, it’s still unlikely that a majority of Americans revere George W. Bush enough to give him a pass on his domestic or international policies, or his meagre plans for the future.
We’ll see what the polls say, but I still believe this election is John Kerry’s to lose. Bush needed a big rally in New York, but it’s not clear he’s got a lead, and it is clear he doesn’t have a lead that’s safe going into the late innings.

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