latimes.com: A strong case for change is played down
PHILADELPHIA (Los Angeles Times) -- In the earnest, temperate and empathetic speeches from Colin L. Powell and Laura Bush that opened the Republican National Convention Monday night, one element was conspicuous by its absence: An aggressive case for why the country should change direction after two terms of a Democratic administration.
That's no coincidence. To a striking extent, George W. Bush's presidential campaign
is assuming that after eight tempestuous years with Bill Clinton, Americans are ready to
change--and that Bush's principal task is to convince voters, especially moderates in
swing states, that he would be an acceptable successor.
"People are really hungry for change, and we need to give them something to hang
that change on," says Mark McKinnon, Bush's media advisor. "The picture of what
they don't like is in their minds; what they want to see is the alternative."
That conviction is producing a convention focused less on persuasion than
reassurance--less on building an argument against Democratic presidential candidate Al
Gore than reinforcing perceptions of Bush as strong, caring and centrist, all themes that
the Texas governor's wife and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stressed
Bush himself is promising an acceptance speech Thursday with a message stressing
bipartisanship, national unity and inclusiveness--themes more common for an
"It's almost like Bush is running for reelection with peace and prosperity," says
Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
This softest of sells concerns some GOP strategists, who worry that the traditional
tendency among voters to reward the party in the White House for good economic
times could reassert itself and power Gore to a victory on election day.
"I'm not sure [the Republicans] have made the case for change," said one senior
GOP operative. "That ought to be the objective for [Bush's] speech and how it should
Bush aides promise the convention will draw more contrasts with Gore and make a
sharper case for a new direction as the week progresses; today's program, for instance,
is likely to accuse Clinton and Gore of allowing the nation's defenses to dangerously
But Bush advisors insist the convention's overall feel will continue to be much less
combative--and even much less partisan--than usual. "There will be contrasts," says
Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, "but it's going to be a different tone."
Ironically, it's partly Bush's success in his own party that's allowing him to strike this
less partisan note. Ordinarily nominees use their conventions to unify support from their
base voters; that typically requires an ideological message that excites activists.
But partly because of antipathy toward Clinton, and partly because Bush emerged in
the GOP primaries as the favorite of party regulars, the Texas governor has been
receiving support from 90% or more of Republicans in surveys for months. Moreover,
the hunger for the White House after Clinton's two victories has muted conservative
demands on Bush for ideological purity.
Independents are key targets
These factors have given Bush the freedom to aim the convention squarely at
independents, who often respond most to messages that are the least partisan--like
those Powell and Laura Bush delivered. In the early evening session, planners gave
about as much time to Democrats supporting Bush and gospel choirs as they did to
"You have the most unified Republican Party since Ronald Reagan's reelection in
1984; the Christian right is completely subdued," says Wittmann, the former
Washington director for the Christian Coalition. "You don't have any task [at the
convention] but to appeal to that prototypical woman voter who lives in the suburbs of
Indeed, the party's more conservative elements have been mostly relegated to the
Siberia of the daytime program, long before the broadcast television networks have
tuned in. On Monday, for instance, the party paraded half a dozen Senate candidates
through the podium at noon--for a grand total of about 20 minutes.
Some of their messages were quite pointed. Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.) denounced
Democrats as the party "of dependency." Nebraska Atty. Gen. Don Stenberg, the
GOP Senate candidate there, declared that Bush could appoint "one more conservative
justice on the Supreme Court" who would vote to uphold state bans on "partial-birth"
abortion. But nothing remotely as ideological flowed from the prime-time speakers.
Bush's own arguments for change so far have been relatively light on both ideology and
confrontation--more a gentle nudge than a hard sell. His case for evicting the
Democrats amid a strong economy has rested on two pillars.
First, Bush acknowledges prosperity as a given--but argues that it provides the
opportunity for more ambitious reforms than Clinton and Gore have pursued in
education, the military, Social Security and Medicare. Or, as Bush put it to the
convention himself Monday night: "I want to use these good times for great purposes."
Second, he has promised to "change the culture" in Washington while reducing
partisan hostility and upholding "the honor and dignity" of the presidency. This message
has more of an edge in that it strikes at voter disappointment and anger at Clinton's
personal behavior--the sentiment that Republicans believe offers the strongest impetus
for change this year.
Yet, even on this ground, Bush has tread relatively lightly: He criticizes Clinton much
less often, and much less sharply, than most Republicans. Bush spends more time
proclaiming his own commitment to bridging Washington's partisan divisions--a point
both Powell and Laura Bush underscored Monday.
That soft touch reflects not only Bush's own instincts--he's rigorously avoided
personal attacks in Texas--but his campaign's belief it does not take a more direct
assault to surface voter disappointment in Clinton, or doubts about Gore's candor. "The
cues are subtle," says one Bush advisor. "We don't have to say much because voters
already know it." It took only a brief reference to restoring "respect" for the presidency
to inspire the loudest applause Laura Bush received Monday.
In some ways, the Bush campaign's calculation that it needs to reassure, more than
convert, voters is reminiscent of the bet by Michael S. Dukakis against Bush's father in
1988. Dukakis' campaign believed that voters were inclined to remove the GOP from
the White House after President Reagan's two terms, but needed to be convinced that
Democrats could be trusted in the Oval Office.
Though he criticized Bush, Dukakis worked most to reassure swing voters that he
had learned from his party's mistakes--a process that culminated in his famous
convention declaration that the '88 election was about "competence, not ideology."
GOP turned tables on Democrats in '88
In the end, though, the failure to make a more compelling case for change helped
doom Dukakis. Republicans turned the change argument back on him, with Reagan and
Bush emphasizing how much the nation's economy had improved since President Carter
had left the Oval Office. "We are the change," Reagan declared at the GOP convention
that summer, as Bush rode to victory a rising wave of optimism about the country's
With the economy much stronger now than when Bush's father left office in 1993,
and the percentage of Americans saying the country is on the right track again rising,
Gore and Clinton will be able to craft a similar case against changing direction at the
Democratic National Convention later this month.
It may not be until the Democrats make that case for continuity that Republicans will
know whether they needed to build a stronger argument for change while they had the
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