Ballot Box

Laura Agonistes

Blogging from the Republican Convention, Day 2.

11:22 a.m. PT—I’ll wrap up the review of Tuesday’s speeches with Laura Bush. First of all, I like Laura. But any spouse who talks this much about enjoying the campaign trail must have a screw loose. I constantly hear and read about political spouses who want nothing to do with campaigning because it’s so repetitive, exhausting, and privacy-invading. It eats your family life. The media expose your every quirk and hound your children. Some political spouses talk or even threaten their partners out of running for president.

Not Laura. “I’m enjoying this campaign,” she volunteered. Speaking of her daughters, she effused, “We are so happy they are campaigning with us this fall.” I hope for her sake she was faking it. But it didn’t look that way.

Discussing stem-cell research, Laura engaged in a bit of artful timing that the transcript doesn’t capture. “I could talk about the fact that my husband is the first president to provide federal funding for stem cell research–” she began. This was a gesture to the secular middle, the folks Kerry has been trying to pry away from Bush on the grounds that Bush has limited money for such research. But the delegates in the hall last night represented the religious right more than the secular middle. So before they could absorb the slap, Laura rushed into the second half of the sentence: “and he did so in a principled way, allowing science to explore its potential while respecting the dignity of human life.” At this point, Laura paused, and the delegates applauded. They got their bouquet, while the press got its “Bush supports stem-cell research” line.

Laura tried to convey what her husband is like in person. She started off by confirming the impression we all get: He always “knew where he wanted to go.” Later, she boasted, “His friends don’t change—and neither do his values.” But when it came to Iraq, her spin changed. Before the war, “I knew he was wrestling with these agonizing decisions,” she said. Agonizing? More than any other president, Bush has denied agonizing about almost anything. It must be Laura who did the agonizing. She’d like us to think her husband is as reflective as she is. She’d like to think so herself, and I’m sure she does. But we’re not married to the guy. We’ve just hired him for four years. So it’s easier for us to face up to his thoughtlessness.

You can’t expect objectivity about a candidate from his wife—actually, in the case of Teresa Heinz Kerry, you can—and Laura certainly seems smitten. “I’ve seen him return the salute of soldiers wounded in battle,” she said last night. I’m not sure what this signifies, coming from a man who never served in battle and has sent these soldiers into harm’s way on false pretenses. But evidently, in Laura’s eyes, it amounts to valor. She went on to applaud the troops’ “infectious spirit of uniquely American confidence that we are doing the right thing and that our future will be better because of our actions today.”

The person most clearly infected is Laura herself. After all, she shares a household, a dinner table, and a bed with the Typhoid Mary of American overconfidence, her husband. “He brings that optimism, that sense of promise, that certainty that a better day is before us to his job every day,” she told the audience. That’s Bushism: Ignore the evidence, believe, and reality will follow. “With your help, he’ll do it for four more years,” Laura concluded. I’m sure she believes that. But reality is something else.

9:45 a.m. PT—I want to go back to a couple of speakers I didn’t have time to discuss last night. One is Michael Steele, the lieutenant governor of Maryland, my state. I met Steele a few months ago at a television studio. Nice guy, very friendly. Maybe that’s what happens when you’re a minority within a minority—in Steele’s case, a Republican who has to deal mostly with Democrats (Maryland’s majority party), and a black guy who has to deal (especially in his party) mostly with whites. I’ve always suspected that being gay and Catholic, or being Jewish and Republican, has the same healthy effect.

Steele was given plenty of time last night to tell minorities why they should consider the GOP. He did a good job, foreshadowing many of the points Arnold Schwarzenegger would make later in the evening. “You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift,” Steele said, quoting Abraham Lincoln. “You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. … You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and incentive. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they should do for themselves.” The delegates responded with a furious ovation.

Steele hammered two of my favorite black Republican themes. One is self-help: “We must look to ourselves and not to government to raise our kids, start our business, or provide care to our aging parent.” The other is a shift from civil rights to better economic exploitation of those rights. “What truly defines the civil rights challenge today isn’t whether you can get a seat at the lunch counter,” he said. “It’s whether you can own that lunch counter.”

The wisest line of the Democratic convention came from Bill Clinton: “Strength and wisdom are not opposing values.” The wisest line of the Republican convention so far has come from Steele: “Hope is not a strategy.” Pressing this theme, Steele shredded the piety so many liberals mistake for good policy: “Hope doesn’t protect you from terrorists. Hope doesn’t lower your taxes. Hope doesn’t help you buy a home. And hope doesn’t ensure quality education for your children. … It’s results that matter.”

Great point. Unfortunately, it left Steele in the awkward position of trying to explain why, if results matter more than hope does, we should vote for a president who’s running on hope and lousy results. So Steele touted Bush’s tax cuts as a benefit in their own right, glossing over their failure as economic policy and their tiny benefit to the folks he was appealing to. I nodded when Steele said government’s job was to “give us the tools we need and then get out of the way and let us put our hopes into action.” But that was Bill Clinton’s philosophy, too, and he gave us much better results than Bush has.

If economics and self-help are the best messages of black Republicanism, the worst is surely the manipulation of religion and character issues to con many blacks into voting against their interests. Steele took a step in this direction when he used John Kerry’s foreign policy to argue that Kerry lacked the “strong leadership” to run a good domestic policy. And he totally crossed the line when he hammered Kerry for opposing a federal ban on gay marriage. Republicans use the gay issue with blacks because polls show they’re morally conservative. But banning gay marriage won’t buy you a lunch counter.

I almost laughed out loud when Steele said he’d been inspired by “Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan, and Maebell Turner (Steele’s mother).” In the back of my head, that old Sesame Street tune began playing: One of these things is not like the others … And when Steele boasted that “a majority of Republicans in the United States Senate fought off the segregationist Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” all I could do was smile. Many of those Republicans are no longer Republicans. And those segregationists are no longer Democrats. And the Civil Rights Act is the reason why.

8:48 p.m. PT—Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, takes the stage around 9 p.m. ET. He’s here to play doctor. Years ago, when Frist was first elected to the Senate, Bob Dole delivered one of his trademark giveaway lines, announcing at a press conference that Frist was on hand to give the GOP “credibility” on medical issues. That’s Frist’s job again tonight. He’s going to try to sell America on the virtues of the prescription-drug program Bush signed this year, which was supposed to be a big political winner but hasn’t turned out that way.

Frist opens with a Dole-esque gaffe of his own. His prepared text accuses some Democrats of not wanting “seniors” to participate in the drug program. Frist accidentally calls them “senators.” This slip takes place just as Frist is about to accuse Democrats of caring more about politics than patients. Evidently it’s Frist who has politics on his mind.

The speech is laden with dumb lines. “Tell ‘em Dr. Frist prescribed it,” the senator quips.

He calls Kerry “the Dr. No of tort reform.” He says Kerry’s prescription will be “Take a handful of tax increases and don’t call me in the morning.”

Here’s a prescription for you, Sen. Frist: Take two new speechwriters.

Frist rehashes the usual Republican rhetoric against Democratic health care ideas. He accuses Kerry of a “trillion-dollar government-run plan” that will “empower those who tax you,” not “those who cure you.” He touts health savings accounts as a way to “own” the money you save for medical care. But he also touches on two of this year’s most interesting emerging issues.

One is tort reform, featuring John Edwards in the role of Satan. Frist practically shouts, “The culprits are the personal-injury trial lawyers, and we oppose those predators!” A faint hiss emanates from the floor. Frist rips the “litigation lottery” in which lawyers get the “jackpot” and everyone else pays. “You can no longer be pro-patient and pro-trial lawyer!” he fumes. He speaks of a good doctor who, despite never having been sued, has been priced out of the liability insurance market by doubling rates. The upshot, according to Frist, is that the doctor has dropped the insurance.

I guess I’m missing something. The doctor has dropped insurance for physicians who might get sued for malpractice and lose. But the doctor hasn’t been sued, because he doesn’t commit malpractice. What exactly is the problem here? Isn’t this a libertarian success story?

Frist is more persuasive on another issue, stem-cell research. Answering Ron Reagan’s speech at the Democratic Convention, he explains to the delegates the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells. He doesn’t deny the virtues of the latter: “Both fields hold promise.” From this reasonable position, he attacks John Kerry’s dishonest characterization of the Bush policy. Kerry has repeatedly accused Bush of banning stem-cell research. “What ban?” Frist rightly asks. “Shame on you, Mr. Kerry.”

Frist exaggerates Bush’s support for the research, ignoring the budget’s low dollar amount and describing it only as “record levels.” But he does a good job of clarifying the basis for Bush’s funding restrictions. “An embryo is biologically human. It deserves moral respect,” he says. To my surprise, this earns him the biggest applause of the night. He concludes by promising “an ethical framework for scientific discovery.” This is the way conservatives must learn to think and talk about stem-cell research. If they want science to be friendly to religion, they’ll have to make religion friendly to science, too.

6:45 p.m. PT—I guess this is Appease-the-Right Night. Not long after Elizabeth Dole leaves the podium, Sen. Sam Brownback shows up to reaffirm the GOP’s commitment to “the sanctity of every human life.” Brownback’s speech turns out to be a masterpiece of framing. He isn’t here to talk about abortion. He’s here to talk about AIDS—and fold the GOP’s pro-life position into it.

“Our nation is again called to the defense of human life and dignity,” Brownback says. “HIV/AIDS is one of the greatest moral and humanitarian crises of our time. Over 20 million people have died of the disease.” He touts the money Bush is spending to fight the disease. Along the way, he works in conservative-friendly policies such as abstinence education.

Brownback runs through a litany of issues that have recently become important to Christian conservatives. He speaks of “the 14-year-old girl trafficked and sold into prostitution,” “the prisoner working to turn away from a life of crime” (who might be helped by a faith-based rehabilitation program), and “the man held in a foreign prison for practicing his faith.” I’ve always thought the development of these issues was one of the most brilliant feats of the Bush administration. Essentially, the Bushies found new issues to occupy the energies of religious conservatives and keep them from demanding sharp changes on abortion, birth control, and other issues that tend to get Republican politicians in trouble. Changes have been made on those issues, but within politically safe boundaries.

Still, Brownback gets his biggest reaction when he restates Bush’s pledge to “protect every human life.” And he closes with a pledge to safeguard both “the child in the womb” and “the mother carrying her.” I assume this is a reference to the recently enacted Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which neatly positioned the GOP as a protector of women as well as fetuses. The religious right is learning and rethinking. The secular left will have to do the same.

6:10 p.m. PTElizabeth Dole delivers the first significant speech of the night. I’ve always thought of her as a plastic doll. Her words are infallibly syrupy and meaningless. Her trademark pasted-on smile increasingly resembles a death mask. When she ran for president four years ago—five, really, since she dropped out early for lack of support—she stuck to her script more assiduously than any other politician I’ve seen. That’s saying something. Tonight is no different: She hardly adds a word to her prepared text.

But the content turns out to be very important. Dole’s speech is the first socially conservative speech of the convention, and she doesn’t hold back. Every touchy issue that was dodged by last night’s pro-choice or anti-anti-gay speakers—Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Ron Silver—figures in Dole’s speech.

“We believe in the dignity of every life,” says Dole. I’m waiting for her to elaborate on this code word for abortion, but she suddenly transforms it into a different issue: “We believe in life—the new life of a man and woman joined together under God. Marriage is important not because it is a convenient invention or the latest reality show. Marriage is important because it is the cornerstone of civilization, and the foundation of the family. Marriage between a man and a woman isn’t something Republicans invented, but it is something Republicans will defend.”

Wow. I had no idea Dole felt so strongly about the sanctity of marriage. It certainly didn’t stop her from marrying a divorced man and singing his praises in countless campaigns.

Then Dole gets back to abortion. “We believe in a culture that respects all life—including the most vulnerable in our society, the frail elderly, the infirm, and those not yet born.” She robotically enunciates every word—”not … yet … born”—to make sure every pro-lifer in the arena is satisfied that these issues are being given sufficient time. It’s a big job, compensating these people for Monday’s Shut-Up-About-Social-Issues Night. If I were a pro-life delegate, I’d be more impressed if these words were being delivered at 10 p.m., when the networks tune in, instead of 8 p.m.

Here’s where, as a maven of abortion politics, I get to pull out some embarrassing quotes from Dole’s presidential campaign. This is from the Washington Post on Aug. 17, 1999:

Asked in an interview whether she supports spending federal money to pay for abortions, Dole initially said she opposed using Medicaid dollars on the medical procedure. “I’m not for, ah, you know, federal funding for abortions,” she said, seated in a conference room of a local business. “I’m for continuing the current situation, which prohibits federal funding for abortions.”Told that current law allows using Medicaid money for abortion in instances of rape, incest or when the woman’s life is in danger, a Dole aide interrupted to dispute that. Then Dole said: “I have been in favor of continuing what we are doing now. I just want to be sure exactly what the current situation is. Let’s don’t pursue that further now because I need to check that.” …Dole has long supported legal abortions for women who are the victims of rape, incest or if the woman’s health is jeopardized. But when asked whether she viewed the question of spending Medicaid funds for poor women’s abortions as a fairness issue, Dole replied: “I think I am against federal funding for abortions.”

You get the picture. Dole isn’t exactly the right person to be telling pro-lifers that the GOP has a spine about this issue or even knows the federal policies about it very well.

Dole concludes with a declaration of faith—”In America I have the freedom to call that man Lord … and … I … do”—and a slap at “activist judges trying to strip the name of God from the Pledge of Allegiance, from the money in our pockets, and from the walls of our courthouses.” But in expressing sorrow for the people harmed by recent hurricanes and tropical storms—and paying tribute to those who have helped them—she inadvertently slights her own state. “If a storm named Charley or Francis strikes, we help them,” she says.

Excuse me? How about Gaston, the storm that just blew from South Carolina to Virginia? The robot has screwed up. Somebody check her batteries.