Arnold and Laura: It's the War, Stupid
The official theme of Night Two of GOPalooza was "People of Compassion." But the real message of the evening was, Safety First. The key moments of the evening were designed to depict George W. Bush as the decisive leader who by launching the war in Iraq has protected, well, you and, of course, your loved ones. The convention has demonstrated that the no retreat/no surrender Bush campaign actually wants this election to be about Big Daddy's war.
In the early part of the program, speakers did praise Bush's policies on education, health care and home ownership. But the talk did little to jazz the crowd. When Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist hailed Bush for advocating health savings accounts and for passing a (rather limited) Medicare prescription drug benefit, the delegates politely applauded. In the Bush family box, George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush chatted with friends, barely paying attention to Frist. But then Frist blasted trial attorneys. Barbara Bush immediately jumped to her feet and began applauding enthusiastically. Her husband joined in. So did Commerce Secretary Don Evans and C. Boyden Gray, a corporate lawyer and longtime Bush family friend. Health savings account – no big deal. Beating up on trial attorneys – that rang their bells.
But the big bang of the night came when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger certified Bush a genuine action hero. In a crisply-written and well-delivered speech chockfull of good lines, Schwarzenegger retold his own coming-to-America tale to celebrate the American dream. He portrayed the United States as the force for freedom and liberty in the world. But his uber-goal was to present Bush as the best darn protector-in-chief in the world:
"The president didn't go into Iraq because the polls told him it was popular. As a matter of fact, the polls said just the opposite. But leadership isn't about polls. It's about making decisions you think are right and then standing behind those decisions. That's why America is safer with George W. Bush."
By the time of the invasion, Americans were supportive of a war in Iraq to deal with the supposed WMD threat. But that didn't stop the delegates from cheering wildly for Schwarzenegger. They ate up his bright, shining rhetoric about America:
"We're the America that fights not for imperialism but for human rights and democracy.... When that lone, young Chinese man stood in front of those tanks in Tiananmen Square, America's hopes stood with him. And when Nelson Mandela smiled in an election victory after all those years in prison, America celebrated, too."
This was Hallmarkian history. Schwarzenegger neglected to mention that not too long after the Tiananmen Square massacre Bush the Elder moved to improve ties with the butchers of Beijing and that Ronald Reagan – hero to Schwarzenegger and every other Republican in the room – supported the racist regime that had imprisoned Mandela (and that a congressman named Dick Cheney had opposed imposing sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa). But why ruin a good story with reality? Schwarzenegger comes from a Hollywood obsessed with happy endings. He'll probably make a version of Moby Dick someday in which he plays Ahab and actually catches and kills (single-handedly) that damn white whale.
Schwarzenegger put his scriptwriters at the service of Constable Bush. We must "terminate terrorism," he declared. He recalled how an American GI who had lost a leg in Iraq had told him he planned to return to Iraq, vowing "Arnold... I'll be back." And, Schwarzenegger noted, "America is back" – back from recession, back from the 9/11 attacks – because of one man: George W. Bush.
Schwarzenegger had little to say about compassion. His was a war speech. He breezed by his sharp differences with the party on social issues. Still, there's an obvious, but irresistible, point to make: the Republican Party that opposes abortion rights and gay rights – with no wiggle room in its platform – goes gaga over a fellow who believes it's perfectly fine if women destroy their babies and people engage in immoral and perverse sexual relations. (Don't write to complain; I'm using their terms for effect.) On the convention floor, I asked several delegates whether they could reconcile the apparent contradiction between assailing abortion as an abomination and embracing a man who supports abortion rights. Susan Stephens, a grandmother from Alabama, told me that while she considers abortion mass murder, she still can cheer for Schwarzenegger. "I know it sounds like I'm a sell-out," she remarked. "I'd like to talk to Arnold. I believe I can change his mind." And when Alan Keyes, a fundamentalist and fervent abortion foe now running for Senate in Illinois, walked by, I asked if he thought it was appropriate for the GOP to spotlight a Republican who says it is okay to engage in what Keyes has called one of the greatest evils of all time. Keyes was uncharacteristically restrained: "It's not the sort of thing I would do. But the task of making sure George W. Bush gets elected belongs to them. We have to hope and pray it works."
Tactics over principles? I never thought I would hear Keyes endorse such relativistic means. But if Schwarzenegger could transfer some of his silver-screen swagger to Bush, then even Keyes was not going to complain.
When Laura Bush addressed the delegates, she too skipped over the compassion stuff. She noted that she could talk about education, about health care, about home ownership, "about the fact that my husband is the first president to provide federal funding for stem cell research," but such matters were not foremost on her mind (or the minds of the campaign strategists). "I want to talk about the issue," she said, "that I believe is most important for my own daughters, for all of our families, and for our future: George's work to protect our country and defeat terror so that all children can grow up in a more peaceful world." (In her brief reference to stem cells, Laura Bush disingenuously described her husband's policy, for she failed to say that he imposed limits on stem cells research that, according to most biotech experts, prevent the development of an effective research program.)
"My husband didn't want to go to war," Laura Bush maintained, "but he knew the safety and security of America and the world depended upon it."
And that is the essence of the Bush campaign's sales pitch. Safety is job one. Everything else? Sure, we can debate the No Child Left Behind Act, tax cuts, and health care. But what trumps it all is Bush's willingness to do whatever must be done to protect the United States. Even though polls show a majority of Americans now believe the war in Iraq was a mistake, Bush is not backing off. His campaign refuses to treat the war as a problem. Instead, it presents the war in Iraq as Exhibit A for the case that Bush has the cajones to defend America. This may well make strategic sense. After all, if you have a messy war (sold to the public with falsehoods and fibs) on your hands, you may as well make as much of it as possible. And how do you turn a liability into an asset? Just say it is, over and over. It helps if you have a movie-star hero leading the chorus. In the first two days of the convention, the Bush campaign has clearly revealed its credo: It's the war, stupid.