The Republicans got down to business tonight by doing a couple of things. First, they emphasized that the campaign is going to be fought on the issue of national security; second, they made sure to differentiate themselves on national security policy from Senator John Kerry and the Democrats.
This may not sound politically remarkable, but there were rumors swirling in New York that the Bush re-election campaign would shift its focus to domestic issues and propose ?big things? for a second term. The president may yet do that in his acceptance speech here on Thursday night, but the main speakers on Wednesday, Senator Zell Miller, (D - Georgia), and Vice President Dick Cheney, focused almost exclusively on President Bush?s response to the terrorist attacks on September 11.
The two men?s approaches could not have been more different. Senator Miller, has been extremely critical of his party?s position on national security and expressed these views in a book titled, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat. Politically, he served as a counterpoint to Ron Reagan, son of the late Republican president Ronald Reagan, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention last month. Much was made of the son of a Republican president who endorsed the Democrats? position on stem cell research. No doubt much will be made of Senator Miller, who endorsed not just the position of the president on national security, but the president himself.
Senator Miller pulled no punches, and while he attacked the policy positions of the Democrats, he also attacked the mindset and attitudes of his party from which those positions emanated. He complained that the Democrats had a ?manic obsession to bring down our Commander-in-Chief.? He bitterly criticized those Democrats who either endorse or coalesce behind the view that American soldiers in Iraq are ?occupiers?. ?Nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators,? he said. Senator Miller took off the gloves, and in his southern drawl, (which to someone who lived for a long time in the Deep South sounds refreshing after five days of thick New York accents) engaged in some good old-fashioned bare-knuckle political brawling.
Vice President Dick Cheney, for his part, kept the gloves on and laid out a policy case against John Kerry the senator, not John Kerry the Vietnam veteran. In a set piece repeated quite often here in the past few days, Republican after Republican acknowledges and even praises Senator Kerry?s service in Vietnam; polite applause follows, and then all returns to normal. Like in Boston, the campaign has decreed an official position ? when it comes to Senator Kerry?s service in Vietnam, praise it, applaud it, and move on.
Vice President Cheney did move on and squarely laid out what appears to be the administration?s strategy for the election. He said the election boils down to a race for commander-in-chief. He then eviscerated Senator Kerry for what he called the senator?s inconsistency on national security issues and his votes in the U.S. Senate against military spending bills. In his acceptance speech in Boston, Senator Kerry vowed to defend the country against enemies and said he would respond with force if attacked. But Republicans will argue, apparently, that Senator Kerry?s record in the U.S. Senate shows, as the vice president put it, ?a habit of indecision ... a message of confusion.?
The Democrats quickly responded with spokesman Joe Lockhart accusing the Republicans of ?slash-and-burn politics? and saying that ?Dick Cheney and Zell Miller looked like angry and grumpy old men.?
But there was one thing the Republicans did for sure, and that was differentiate themselves from the Democrats. Longtime political analysts in Boston said that Senator Kerry?s acceptance speech spent too much time dwelling on the events of 30 years ago and not enough explaining how his policies would be better than those of the president; and he failed to draw sharp distinctions between himself and the president except in the most general terms. With the two speeches from Zell Miller and Dick Cheney, the Republicans made sure there is no doubt differences exist between the two campaigns and they spelled out exactly what they were.
So now the stage is set for the president?s speech on Thursday. The stage is going to be reconfigured so President Bush can speak ?in the round,? surrounded by delegates rather than facing them from a podium. But it?s going to be more important what the president says, not how he says it, even in the video age. The moment is here, the delegates and press are ready. So is the public who will judge the speech and cast their ballots accordingly. The U.S. presidential campaign is getting ready for a major event which could help determine whose right hand goes up at noon on January 20, 2005.