Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 2004 / 16 Elul, 5764

Collin Levey

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GOP did put its on its best face — true American heroes | Since the Republican National Convention kicked off this week in New York, media gypsies have been dragging out their tape measures to examine the "big tent" of the GOP. The opening speakers' trifecta of John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger, many exclaimed, shows Republicans are on the defensive again, trying to recapture that frisson of inclusiveness that they had back in 2000 when Dubya was just a governor.

We certainly don't object to the giddy peering at what our newsmen consider rare and curious specimens of the "Republican moderate" (read, pro-choicer). But here, in their hurry to declare the "right wing" in retreat, they mistook the real reason the three men were chosen. It was not for their drawing-room opinions, but because all three are men of action — associated in the public mind with strength and power.

Were the intention to play to the left, by the way, there are quite a few GOP "moderates" out there who might have demonstrated effectively how much Republicans can sound like Democrats. Yet, somehow, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter were nowhere to be seen. (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will have his turn later.) Instead, Americans were introduced to a war hero, an action hero and a hero of Sept. 11, 2001.

All three men know that this, not their abortion stance, is the secret to their political cachet at this moment. The Governator never misses an opportunity to recall his former career fighting terrorists from the Third Dimension. And while John Kerry took the Democratic podium to declare himself a hero "reporting for duty," McCain stood to salute his commander in chief.

Giuliani's memories, both poignant and funny, recaptured the exact spirit of confidence that endeared him to Americans three years ago. And this has been the key difference between the conventions so far: In contrast to the self-congratulation at the Democratic National Convention in July, the message of the three men was understated strength.

It's a message that the Republicans would be well advised to carry over from the national-security front to the domestic agenda for the second term. The goal is not maximum splashiness, but forcefulness. Or, in Arnold's version, "Don't be economic girlie men."

That principle is critical to the Republicans in the next few days as they begin to create new enthusiasm in the base. With the exception of the early successful tax cuts, President Bush's first term had too many congressmen feeding at the trough. The administration signed on to a massive new drug entitlement and abdicated on Social Security reform, while other plans languished. Those "moderate" positions won little loyalty from either side of the aisle.

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So, the "big tent" discussion is fine as far as it goes: Republican values should have broad appeal because national security should be the first priority. But the social issues that have traditionally defined the split between the parties in the headlines are nearly non-issues this year. (Remember all the furor over "strict constructionism" and Supreme Court nominees last time?) Instead, the tent seems bigger because the stakes are higher — the party cares most about the core issue of American safety and leadership in the world.

Hopefully, that same molten center will occupy the president when he gives his speech later tonight. There has been fair criticism in recent weeks that the Republicans seem to be playing both sides of the electoral equation simultaneously. No sooner had Bush proposed amending the Constitution to prevent gay marriage to woo the base than Vice President Dick Cheney hurried out to make clear — presumably for the benefit of swing voters — that not all Republicans were in that ship after all. In a different sort of election, those suave maneuvers might slip through — but there is no room for them here. Republicans need to articulate a cohesive platform — they can't afford to look like Kerry, fleeing to the center in pursuit of the swing voters who don't seem to know what they want.

JWR contributor Collin Levey is a weekly op-ed columnist at the Seattle Times. Before joining the Times in September 2003, she was an editorial writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal. Comment by clicking here.

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08/19/04: Big picture doesn't justify charter-school foes' glee
08/12/04: Getting to the root of the stem-cell debate
08/05/04: This band of brothers has a different view of Kerry
07/30/04: Putting a lid on the loose lips of Teresa Heinz Kerry
07/08/04: Presidential contest is shaping up as a battle of professional archetypes
06/25/04: Could Nader help the Dems?
06/17/04: Odd man out: Al Gore's journey into irrelevance
06/10/04: A chance to settle down and see where we are

© 2004, Collin Levey