FEAR FACTOR. It was visible while it was unfolding, but now that the Republican National Convention is over, it's even more obvious: this was a convention built on fear of the most visceral sort - fear of terrorism, transmogrified into fear of John Kerry, the indecisive flip-flopper who lacks the resolve to deal with terrorists.
After all the build-up, all the tension, it finally exploded last night in an orgasm of release when the Great Protector, George W. Bush, took the stage. You can analyze the president's actual speech all you want. I thought it was an extremely effective address that laid out a strong case for the sort of moderate conservatism (with a few feints to the hard right) that would probably command a majority of the electorate.
Of course, he hasn't governed that way up until now, and there's no reason to think he would govern that way in the future. But, like all convention speeches, this was a political tool, not an effort to win some sort of debate. What's important is that Bush came across as in command and at ease, sincere, with just the right mix of humility and arrogance. When he welled up toward the end, talking about the sacrifices of the soldiers who've died or been injured on his watch, it was a genuine, heartfelt moment. Regardless of what you think of Bush's war policies, it's clear that the human consequences of his actions weigh on his mind. That's good.
Much has been made of Bush's negative attacks on John Kerry. I think that's overblown. Bush's rather mild remarks were well within the bounds of political decency. What was indecent, of course, was that the president let his fellow Republicans (and one nominal Democrat) soften Kerry up before he ever took the podium. Never mind the past week - the past month has been marked by some of the most mind-boggling attacks in modern political history, thanks to the lying Swifties and their enablers in such media quarters as Fox News and talk radio. And if the Swifties aren't formally tied to the Bush-Cheney campaign, they certainly enjoy many informal ties in terms of money and Texas political connections.
That's why analyzing Bush's speech is essentially beside the point. It was the last move in a game that began shortly after the Democratic National Convention ended: impugn Kerry's patriotism; scare the hell out of the public by talking ceaselessly about the terrorist threat; lie about and distort Kerry's record; build up Bush as the Good Daddy who will deliver us from evil; and then trot Bush out on stage for some hands-on reassurance. Not to play down the skillfulness in how Bush performed; Kerry supporters can only dream of their man's coming across and connecting as naturally and easily as Bush does. But Bush really had the easy part.
Although the convention may be largely remembered for the unhinged Zell Miller's accusing Kerry for near-treason because he chose to run for president in a time of war, one of the most loathsome performances of the week was delivered just before Bush's appearance, by New York governor George Pataki. I recommend Chris Suellentrop's piece on 9/11 porn (he calls it "nostalgia") here. What Pataki did was make absolutely explicit the overall theme of the last week, and the last month: that not only will Bush protect you from the terrorists, the Democrats won't. Kerry can only hope that any voter who believes he wouldn't have retaliated against Al Qaeda is a voter who was already lost to him.
Overall, I think the Republicans got what they needed out of their convention, unless Miller's crazed rant comes back to haunt them (it should). It was ugly. But it worked.
KERRY ON THE OFFENSIVE. Is this smart? No doubt it comes after much debate among his campaign staff. But I'm not sure it's a good idea for Kerry to be the messenger for this harsh a message:
For the past week, they attacked my patriotism and even my fitness to serve as commander-in-chief. Well, here is my answer to them: I will not have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and who misled the nation into Iraq.
If nothing else, it will make it difficult for the Democrats to argue that the Republicans were too negative at their convention. It's also intellectually dishonest, since Kerry seems to be suggesting that you can't criticize his proposals to deal with terrorism unless you served in the military.
On the other hand, since the media haven't been paying much attention to Kerry's surrogates - including his running mate, John Edwards - I guess they figured the time had come for the candidate to do it himself. It's a gamble.