ST. PAUL—The levees in New Orleans were not breached, and Republicans had the first night of their convention on the second night of the convention. The convention managers have had to rearrange the order of speakers and the schedule, and they managed to come up with an effective presentation.
Term-limited presidents have spoken to their parties' national conventions—Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, Ronald Reagan in 1988, Bill Clinton in 2000, and now, on the video screen, George W. Bush in 2008. It was timed carefully: he concluded, by my watch, at 9:02 Central time, which is to say before the one hour that the commercial broadcast networks have taken to devoting to national convention proceedings. He was introduced by Laura Bush in her second appearance in two nights. This time she gave a brief list of the achievements of the Bush administration and an endorsement of John McCain and Sarah Palin. The Democrats, of course, presented the last eight years as a period of unmitigated national decline. Laura Bush's list was not exhaustive, but as I stood on the floor I noted that there were big cheers for the program to fight AIDS in Africa which has increased aid recipients from less than 50,000 to nearly 2 million. As I noted last week, even Bill Clinton paid homage, even if it was only a single word, to his successor's work on this program. And she got a cheer for noting that we have delivered freedom to 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq and that Bush has kept America safe.
Bush had a thin smile during much of his presentation from the White House—a smile that I took as one of satisfaction. He had a couple of zingers, at "the angry left," at those who would not drill for oil offshore. Of McCain, he said, "He is not afraid to tell you when he disagrees with you and, believe me, I know." So much for the Democrats McCain = Bush meme.
The best delivered speech of the night came from Fred Thompson. He gave a hearty endorsement of Sarah Palin (the only candidate to know how to field-dress a moose, except maybe Theodore Roosevelt) and a salute to 96-year-old Roberta McCain. Then he launched into a beautifully delivered speech describing John McCain's life and, in excruciating detail, what he went through as a prisoner of war. This is familiar stuff, to me and surely to many voters, and yet as Thompson, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly, told the story I was moved, the audience was moved (it was about as silent a crowd as I have ever seen in a national convention) and I imagine many television viewers were as well. Thompson did not name or directly refer to Barack Obama. But in his peroration he asked voters to ask the following questions as they went into the booth. "Who is this man? Can you trust him with the presidency of the United States?" Another such line: "no teleprompter speeches designed to appeal to America's critics abroad." Guess who that's about?
I found Joe Lieberman's speech that followed something of an anticlimax. It was nothing like the fiery speech another Democratic senator, Zell Miller, gave for Bush four years ago. It was a direct appeal to rise above party and to vote for McCain and, he took care to add, Palin (so he's dis-endorsing not one but two of his fellow Democratic senators). "My Democratic friends," he said, "are trying to convince you that John McCain is someone else"—a diplomatic way to put it. And "eloquence is no substitute for a record."
Tuesday night was more about undermining themes the Democrats sounded at their convention and did not make much of an attempt at reframing the substantive issues in a way that favors Republicans. Last week I thought that the Democrats' argument that the election of McCain would be nothing more than a third term for Bush was unsustainable. This is not an election in which the candidates seemed generic (as arguably they did in 1988), but in which their specific characteristics are vivid and memorable. There is just too much different in McCain, his issue positions and his general political thrust, for him to be caricatured as just another Bush. I think not only Thompson and Lieberman, but Bush himself, made this argument effectively.
Both Thompson and Lieberman painted McCain as a reformer, as one who has opposed leaders of his own party. Thompson described Palin that way too. One reason McCain selected Palin, it seems pretty clear, was her record of bucking leading Republicans and attacking corruption in government. Her selection strengthens this theme, potentially puts it front row center, in a way that no other choice would have. The obvious contrast here is with Barack Obama, who has gotten along very well with what I have called le tout Chicago, starting with but not limited to Mayor Richard M. Daley.
This night was not about economic issues, and I think that neither party has yet set out their economic policies in any principled way, although the Democrats made a start last week. Nor did the Republicans (and Lieberman) do much of anything to undermine the Democrats' picture of themselves as ordinary people who care about and will help ordinary people, except for Thompson's sharp lines on tax increases.
The Republicans did a little more on energy, one issue on which opinion has shifted their way sharply this year. When gas costs $4, suddenly even the governor of Florida and the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors want to drill offshore. Thompson flayed the Democrats a bit on this, and I expect to hear much more from Palin tonight. And to learn much more about her.
Who is this man? Can you trust him with the presidency of the United States?