GOP Message: Bush Tops Kerry on National Security

The national political conventions of 2004 are history, and at first light they seem to have proven again that in politics, as in baseball, it's better to bat last.

The Democrats met in Boston (for the first time ever) and nominated a homegrown liberal in John Kerry. The themes of their convention included the faltering economic recovery, the loss of good jobs to foreign rivals, the need for better education and health care. But the primary focus of their event was on matters military. They staked their claim on their nominee's credentials as a decorated hero of the Vietnam War, suggesting he would better manage the current military challenges facing the nation.

The Democrats' bottom line in a sentence: This country's wagon's in a ditch and we've got our most plausible candidate for commander in chief in more than 60 years.

The Republicans, holding their convention later as is the tradition for the party in the White House, met in New York City (for the first time ever) and re-nominated President Bush, a Texas conservative. The four nights of their version of the political media festival also featured multiple messages: patriotism, confidence and high moral purpose. But if you sift through to the hard nub, the essential element was to define and dismantle Kerry. In large part, this was done by portraying President Bush as resolute and Kerry as desperate to be on all sides of an issue.

To sum up the GOP convention's subliminal point: You may not like some of our decisions, but at least we know how to make them.

Both parties' messages were more than faintly defensive. The Democrats' relentless emphasis on martial matters seemed an over-correction (if not an outright apology) for the relatively low priority they had assigned such concerns in the past.

The Republicans, who at Christmastime felt assured of a triumphant re-election romp for President Bush, seemed to sense their vulnerability to a disappointing economy and a frustrating struggle in Iraq.

Each side was pursuing an aggressive strategy for recovery from real or imagined weaknesses. The Democrats addressed their past record on national security by short-shrifting the issues on which pollsters show voters actually prefer Democrats, and using their time in the national limelight to highlight Kerry's credentials to be commander in chief. That left the impression that they thought national security trumped all else in the post-9/11 world.

Similarly, the Republicans recited a short list of accomplishments and plans on the domestic front, then provided short explanations for their actions widening the war on terror from Afghanistan to Iraq. Finally, on each night and in nearly every speech, they turned to trashing the Democratic nominee.

The net effect was to devalue domestic issues overall and to elevate the notion that national security rules the agenda and will do so indefinitely. On this basis, the Democrats were giving the Republicans home field advantage. They have dominated this territory for half a century. And once it was clear the Democrats wanted to go after the security issue, the Republicans could scarcely believe their good fortune.

Truth is, the domestic agenda does not yield much in the way of sparks these days. Bush himself, on the convention's final night, outlined goals for a second term that sounded very much like those he had for the first. More tax cuts, more trade, more freedom from business regulation and liability suits. By and large, these aims were either sidetracked after the Sept. 11 attacks or pursued in a diluted form.

So now the president approaches a second term promising a new set of ideas but still repackaging bigger tax cuts, partial privatizing of Social Security, pools of small businesses to permit discounted health care insurance and "health savings accounts" to encourage saving and provide a buffer against catastrophic illness.

But having touched on a few of these issues, the president concluded the convention by turning to Iraq, the Middle East and a vigorous evisceration of the Democratic nominee. "You know where I stand," the president said more than once, leaving open the strong possibility than voters do not know the same about Kerry.

Over the course of the Democratic convention, President Bush came in for occasional direct criticism inside the hall (far worse things were said of him outside). And in New York, Kerry was ripped as an old-fashioned big-government liberal, as a supporter of abortion rights and as an opponent of a Constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman.

But Kerry was most often tasked for his tendency to vote or speak one way on a given issue and then, at some later point, adopt a quite different view. This "flip-flop" tag has been used to beat others before, as it suggests an irresolute and indecisive man often seen in a tweed jacket with patched elbows. Any recourse to academic locutions in explaining apparent contradictions makes Kerry or any other such target appear hopelessly unable to make up his mind and stick to it.

This subordination of the convention to a set of tactical moves may ultimately backfire on both parties and their candidates. The Democrats chose a playing field on which Republicans have long dominated, including in the postwar 1940s and 1950s when Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur loomed large over the GOP. When Gen. Tommy Franks, Army commander for Afghanistan and Iraq, appeared on stage the last night in New York, it seemed just one more confirmation that this issue was not up for grabs.

Still, the Republicans may have bought themselves an equally onerous problem when they chose to vilify Kerry to such a degree. The speech by Sen. Zell Miller on Wednesday night set a new standard for slash, at least in memory. That decision helped make the third night of the gathering the liveliest, but it may also mean a backlash among some social conservatives with questions about Bush's devotion to their issues.

NPR's Ron Elving is senior Washington editor for NPR News.

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