Frame Game

The GOP Convention 

The Republican National Convention opened Monday with a series of theatrical devices, explicit and implicit, to shape public opinion. Here’s a scorecard of what worked, what didn’t, and why.

1. Ethnic diversity. It’s one thing to showcase a couple of tokens. But at some point, sheer volume makes tokenism an empty charge. If everyone on the team is black, it’s a black team. Last night’s speakers—those who uttered more than a sentence and weren’t just musical entertainers—consisted of seven blacks, six Hispanics, four Jews, an Asian, five white women, and three white, Christian men. That’s three white, Christian men out of 26. And all three were obligatory: the presidential nominee, the speaker of the House, and the Senate majority leader. They were the tokens.

If volume alone doesn’t convince you, there are other criteria for distinguishing tokenism from substantial outreach. Was the evening’s subject matter the same old suburban Republicanism? No, it was the urban struggles of disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics. Were serious proposals for alleviating these struggles discussed? Yes, in considerable variety and detail. Did these proposals substantially challenge or reverse any of the party’s previous political and policy commitments? Yes. For example, Elaine Chao of the Heritage Foundation outlined the party’s thematic and concrete about-face on immigration policy since 1996.

2. Colin Powell. Here’s another test of the authenticity of outreach: Is the party willing to offend elements of its base? Is it willing to lose money and votes? Powell, whose speech was reviewed by the Bush camp, took this risk at least three times: 1) “It’s time to stop building jails in America and get back to the task of building our children.” 2) “Where the family is not up to the task, the rest of us must step in. … Our children are a gift from God, not only to their parents, but to all of us. They belong to us all. We are all responsible for them.” 3) “Some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but you hardly hear a whimper when it’s affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax code with preferences for special interests.”

3. Family values. Republicans used to champion strict family values: no abortion, no homosexuality, no sex education. They ridiculed Democrats for reducing morality to soft liberal notions such as compassion and tolerance. But this year, on cultural matters, the Republicans want to make love, not war. The only values-oriented pitch Monday night was a video about the “Character Counts” curriculum, which, according to students featured in the video, teaches kids the importance of “trustworthiness,” “respect,” picking up your clothes, and letting your brother play with your toys.

4. Laura Bush. Appearing by satellite, George W. Bush retold the story of how, when he asked Laura to marry him, she extracted from him a promise that she wouldn’t have to give speeches. Bush often tells this story to make the point that it’s the only false promise he’s made about his marriage. Last night, he told the story to make the point that Mrs. Bush isn’t a natural politician and was speaking from the heart. Judging from her speech, both of these spins are deceptive. She is a natural politician, and he’s fibbing about it.

Smiling sweetly, Mrs. Bush delivered the evening’s sharpest zingers: 1) “George’s opponent has been visiting schools lately, and sometimes when he does, he spends the night before at the home of a teacher. Well, George spends every night with a teacher.” 2) “[George] sets a tone that’s positive and constructive, a tone that is very different from the bitterness and division that too often characterizes Washington, D.C.” 3) “Moms and dads and grandparents … say to George, ‘I’m counting on you. I want my son or daughter to respect the president.’ ” With syrupy stabs like these, who needs Elizabeth Dole?

5. The “rolling” roll call. Roll calls were interesting when there was suspense about which candidate would be nominated and how many delegates he’d get. Thanks to the modern primary system, that suspense has been absent for the last several conventions. Now we have an additional absurdity: The losing candidate—this year, John McCain—releases his delegates to the winning candidate before the roll call. So what’s the point of counting? To manufacture suspense about which state will put the winner “over the top.” The party manufactures this suspense by choreographing an elaborate alphabetical sequence in which the big delegations “pass.” The small states finish voting, but the would-be nominee doesn’t have quite enough to claim victory. Which big state will deliver the decisive increment? The party arranges things so that its most dearly targeted swing state gets that honor. The “rolling” roll call stretches this intelligence-insulting charade from one night to four.

6. What’s missing. Viewers tend to notice what’s present but not what’s absent. Last night, what was absent was more profound. House Speaker Denny Hastert spent perhaps five minutes discussing the GOP’s congressional agenda and results. Other than that, not a word was devoted to the arena in which virtually every national political battle of the last four years has been fought. Having lost those battles, the GOP is erasing them from history, substituting the story of Texas for the story of Washington, D.C. (To read Frame Game’s previous forecast of this strategy, click here.) Reporters had to track down Newt Gingrich in the bowels of the convention hall to ask why he had been edited out of the picture.

7. Scripts. Messages are clearer when they’re scripted. But when they’re too scripted, the script becomes the message. The Republicans are in danger of crossing that line. Bush’s words and gestures while speaking by satellite were so canned and stiff—and the students sitting behind him looked so mannequinlike in their obedient stillness—that his message lost the feeling of reality. When even a black church sermon is robbed of its force by the minister’s repeated glances at the pages laid out on his pulpit—as happened Monday night—the scripting has gone too far.

8. Filters. Two different audiences saw two different conventions. The few who watched it raw on C-SPAN saw a parade of women and minorities at the podium. But those who watched the networks and even most of the cable news channels missed nearly all those speakers, since they weren’t in prime time or were ignored while TV reporters interviewed people on the floor or outside the hall. Many network reporters undermined the convention’s ethnic-outreach pitch by reminding viewers that the delegates were far more white, male, well-off, and conservative than the speakers.

9. Ambient noise. As clear as the GOP’s message was to anyone who saw it unfiltered, it must still overcome the din of alternative and discordant messages from sources outside the convention hall. The obvious problem is Bush’s enemies, who are trying to drown out his inclusion pitch by drawing attention to Dick Cheney’s congressional votes on Head Start, South Africa sanctions, and freeing Nelson Mandela. The less obvious problem is Bush’s friends—in this case, his father, whose impromptu threat “to tell the nation what I think about [Clinton] as a human being” delighted a conflict-starved press corps and distracted some attention from the party’s feel-good message.

Overall score: For one night, the Republicans’ tactics succeeded brilliantly in delivering their message. But there’s a big risk that over the course of four nights—or three months—the tactics will dissolve the message.