As I sat in the First Union Center absorbing the last night of the Republican convention, I couldn't help recalling the wisdom of the late black feminist poet Audre Lorde, who counseled that you can't dismantle the master's house with his own tools. While George W. Bush would no doubt welcome Lorde into his new Republican Party (and even give her a spot in the speaker's lineup), he would no doubt disagree with her take on tools and dismantling. After all, Bush reached deep into the Democratic toolbox to pull off a pretty good demolition job this past week.
He did this by placing traditionally Democratic issues (Social Security, Medicare, education, and a deep concern for the poor) at the top of his agenda and redefining them on terms favorable to his message of an oh-so-slightly more limited government. But he was clearly inspired by the thieving ways of the current master in the Big House: William Jefferson Clinton, who pilfered issue after issue from the Republicans over the last eight years, most notably crime, taxes, balancing the budget, and welfare reform.
Bush's political heist is, in its own way, as slick as something in a Hollywood caper flick. Even more stunning was the enthusiasm with which party activists stood lookout by being on their best behavior. Who says those in the stupid party can't learn? Word on the scene was that if Dubya thought that necrophilia was what turned the public on, the delegates would cheerily volunteer to start cruising local graveyards for fresh corpses. Even such hard-core conservatives as Phyllis Schlafly refused to criticize Bush for downplaying the issues about which they care most (abortion, in Schlafly's case, and maybe beehive hairdos).
Part of this, of course, is that people take from a speech what they want to. Last night, for instance, Bush stammered, "Churches remind us that every soul is equal in value and equal in need." Religious conservatives no doubt heard the need for God in public schools. Liberals looking for a reason to vote for Bush heard the multicultural message and the phrase "equal value." The result in both cases is applause.
And there was certainly plenty of it on the convention floor last night. Thanks to a nice and anonymous connection, I got to park myself amidst alternate delegates galore with a clear view of the stage. Bush busted up the guy to my right, who clapped like a trained seal and laughed to the point of hyperventilation at such frivolous and red meat lines as: "Growing up, [my mom] gave me love and lots of advice. I gave her white hair," and "[Gore] now leads the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But the only thing he has to offer is fear itself." The woman to my right leapt to her feet when he promised to sign the partial birth abortion bill into law.
For my part, I welcomed the night's emphasis on partially privatizing Social Security, since about the only thing I want from the federal government is for it to take less of my money. (For those who didn't watch the entire night, four pre-Bush speakers emphasized Social Security reform—which tells me that it's something that this wannabe president with a purpose is serious about.)
Bush's most masterful rhetorical moment came when he told the story of a juvenile offender he met at a juvenile jail in Marlin, Texas. He didn't tell it as a way to demonstrate that he's tough on crime, or to promise to lock the kid up even longer than Al Gore might. He told this Texas tale to put flesh on the bones of compassionate conservatism. Said Bush, "If that boy in Marlin believes he is trapped and worthless and hopeless—if he believes his life has no value, then other lives have no value to him—and we are all diminished."
He then spoke of how such problems erect a wall in our society between those with "wealth and technology, education and ambition," and those with "poverty and prison, addiction and despair."
Just as Al Gore and Bill Clinton were checking their back pockets to find them picked clean, Bush redeployed Ronald Reagan's most memorable Cold War line in a context that conservatives—and perhaps the rest of us, too—could not only understand and tolerate, but clap wildly for. "And my fellow Americans," said Bush, "we must tear down that wall."
Over the past four days, members of the media could be heard grumbling about the scripted, un-newsworthy, and therefore uninteresting nature of the convention. They're right that it was scripted, of course, but they've got it all wrong. By pulling off a successful, feel-good show that genuinely moved the American people (so say all the polls and focus groups), Dubya's forces did us media a huge favor: The Republicans have actually made the Democrats' convention, a scant week away in the City of Angels, a sequel well worth checking out.
Indeed, George W. Bush's kinder, gentler GOP (hmm, maybe his father is pulling strings) has emerged as a force to be reckoned with, even as it raises any number of questions: Is it for real, first and foremost? Can he take his act on the road successfully, where anything can happen? Exactly how will Al Gore and his pals respond to Dubya's taunts in L.A.?
One thing's not in doubt: Bush's forces pulled off at least one trick that Harry Houdini would have been proud to call his own. As I was leaving the First Union Center after the final prayer, the black singer Chaka Khan was putting on the convention's last song-and-dance number. "Chaka Khan at a Republican convention," I heard an alternate delegate say to a friend. "Who'da thunk it?" His friend replied, "Not me in a million years."