YORK - Part of the press kit for the Republican National
Convention (RNC) is a packet of "Republican Macaroni
Cheese Dinner", provided by Kraft, which has a
"Republican IQ test" on the back. Actually the real
test, as with the convention itself, is to read the
ingredients in the small print on the side. It contains
as many chemicals as the chemistry set I used to have as
a schoolboy, and was certainly not digestible for the
The old saying has it that
you can't fool all of the people all of the time. But as
the convention opens in New York, that is not the
challenge facing President George W Bush and his
eminence grise Karl Rove. At worst, they only
need to fool 50% plus one of the population for the next
two months. And if Governor Jeb Bush, the president's
brother, controls Florida with his accustomed strong
hand, maybe not even that.
In fact, the target
victims are the 20% or so swing voters, since the
partisan spirit is such that each side takes its core
voters for granted, assuming that they can take almost
any degree of abuse for the cause of victory. And they
can take it for granted that few, if any, of the voters,
committed or undecided, will look at the actual
ingredients but will act on their perception of the
In the old days, the conventions were
where the parties actually chose their presidential
candidates and argued about their policies. Nowadays,
the primaries and the party bosses have already made
that choice, so the convention is more like a coronation
ceremony, much glitter and little substance. The actual
nomination of the candidate has all the tension of a
North Korean general election, and nobody apart from the
party faithful reads, let alone cares, about the party
platforms, the policies on which the party nominally
goes to election.
The conventions are hugely
expensive events, but the media time they buy is without
price. In a country where the media do not cover
national politics to the same degree, or even in the
same sense, as in many others, the conventions give a
chance for the contenders to hit the media markets in a
big way, to craft their messages. It is assumed that
there will be a "bounce" in support for each candidate,
one reason for which is that most voters did not really
know who they were or what they claimed to stand for
until after they had had saturation media exposure.
Especially in recent years, both parties'
platforms are a sop to the activists: but while the
Democratic contenders will cast them aside in their rush
to the center, the Republicans have a basic honesty.
They will apply theirs while hoping none of the swing
voters actually reads or refers to it.
Democratic leadership will betray its diehard followers
by pursuing a much more centrist position once elected.
But the Bush administration, in this convention as with
the last one, will be flying totally false colors. It
has a pact with its followers: it will pretend to be
moderate for the swing voters, but has convinced its
core conservative supporters that once elected it will
deliver what they wanted, which is probably even more
than is in its platform.
Consider: the twin
themes of the RNC are the "war on terror" and
compassionate conservatism. The keynote speakers of the
convention are Senator John McCain, ex-New York mayor
Rudy Giuliani, New York Governor George Pataki,
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the
retiring Georgia Senator Zell Miller, who once nominated
Bill Clinton at a Democratic National Convention.
Except for Miller, who as a southern Democrat
was far to the right of most northeastern Republicans,
they all won their elections by explicitly repudiating
the Republican line on social issues. McCain, whom
Bush's supporters slimed in the primary, and who has
called (unavailingly) on the president to disavow the
similar sliming of Democratic candidate John Kerry, is
widely known to hate Bush and is acting out of extreme
party loyalty, or because he has been promised a top job
in the next administration.
But the party
platform repudiates everything they stand for. Giuliani,
Pataki in New York, and Schwarzenegger in California,
would never have been elected in their home states if
they had hewed to the pro-gun, anti-abortion and
implicitly anti-gay planks that will quietly and without
public notice be included in the Republican platform
It does not matter that New York
hosted possibly the biggest protest march ever at a
party convention. This convention is not intended to win
over New York. It is intended to evoke the memory of
September 11, 2001, and the World Trade Center for the
heartland of America.
But watching carefully
inside the convention will be the disciplined ranks of
the hardline Christian conservatives, who expect that in
return for the silence and lack of dissent while all
these liberal speakers hold forth, their fundamentalist
vision will be implemented in the next term. One extra
reason for their good discipline is that they made
exactly the same bargain for the last election, and most
of them think the president delivered. He owes them and
he knows it, but also, he actually seems sincerely to
believe much of their agenda.
dodged one disastrous war in Vietnam and having started
another in Iraq, passing himself off as the assured
commander-in-chief in the "war on terror" should, on the
face of it, be a hard task. But we only have to remember
that his campaigners' genius, backed by the media's lazy
inattention or outright complicity, had persuaded 70% of
Americans that Saddam Hussein was behind September 11,
which this convention is intended to commemorate.
Any campaign that can slime the reputation of a
combat veteran like Kerry to the advantage of a
candidate who actually dodged the war, like Bush, has a
lot going for it.
This convention, like that
Macaroni cheese, will go a long way to divert people's
attention from the small print on the outside of the
package and the lack of substantial nourishment inside.
Kerry has two months to come out fighting.
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