Posted on August 24, 1992 in Washington Watch
With the conclusion of the Republican Convention, George Bush leaves Houston still trailing in the polls but coming back strong.
The Bush campaign did not get all of the boost they would have liked from the convention, but they did manage to accomplish a number of key objectives necessary for a November victory.
The Republican’s Convention in Houston was not as well-orchestrated as the Democrat’s New York affair. The Democratic Convention was a thoroughly-scripted multi-media production. From beginning to end it was organized and focused and quite captivating. Most of the speeches were short and well-rehearsed. The numerous theme-setting videos blended well with the rest of the production, and the music selection varied widely and helped to put the conventioneers in the right mood at the right time. By the end of the week the Democratic party had radically redefined Clinton as a strong leader and a family man—insulating him (it was hoped) from expected Republican attacks.
The Republican Convention, at least its first three days, was not as smooth by comparison. After a reaching an emotional peak on Monday night following former President Ronald Reagan’s powerful and moving address, the next two nights were uneven and unorganized, filled with very long speeches that didn’t quite manage to connect with the delegates in attendance.
To be fair, the Republicans went into their convention with an enormous and unfair disadvantage: for the most part the media was not on their side. A number of analysts in the press, in fact, have noted the lengths to which some major television networks and daily papers went in order to discredit the Republican Party both before and during its convention. Instead of simply reporting the events as they occurred at the convention, these media outlets focused on dissidents who were attending the convention and examined in detail their complaints with the Party and with President Bush’s leadership.
The Center for Media and Public Affairs noted in a study published last week that the television news coverage has been extremely unbalanced in its coverage of the campaigns. Since the conclusion of the primary season in June, coverage of Bill Clinton has been 56% positive, while only 34% of the attention given to George Bush has been positive. During the same period, evaluations of Vice President Dan Quayle have been overwhelmingly negative, with only 23% of the reviewers rating him positively while 77% rate him negatively. The coverage of Senator Al Gore since his selection as Clinton’s running mate has been 96% positive.
But despite their own miscues, logistical problems and a hostile press, the Republicans did manage to accomplish most of their political goals both before the convention and during its first three nights.
James Baker’s agreement to become the new White House Chief of Staff is a critical move for President Bush. This is because the White House Chief of Staff is not simply in charge of managing the President’s staff, but is primarily responsible for how the Administration presents itself to the nation as a whole.
The White House has not been functioning well and it was not coordinating its activities at all well with the Bush reelection campaign. While Chief of Staff John Sununu ran a very effective White House, he was not well-liked by the campaign operation. With his replacement by Samuel Skinner eight months ago, the Bush campaign hoped that the situation would improve. But Skinner lacked the control and direction that Sununu had brought to the White House staff.
Baker is the right man for the job and he made the move at the right time for the President. Baker will have near complete control because he is the senior Bush ally in the Administration. As one Bush Administration official put it, “He can demand that something be done and it will be done, because people know he can speak for Bush.” Baker is also an experienced campaign hand and will provide direction to that effort.
Not only is Baker bringing some of his key staff from the State Department to help him, but his appointment has given sufficient confidence to other Republican operatives who had been keeping at arms-length from the reelection effort. They are now coming back to the President’s campaign team.
Not only will the campaign and White House now have the needed direction, but there also appears to be a growing sense of unity among the diverse wings of the Republican Party. While conservatives and moderates will still fight over various issues that divide them, a truce seems to have been reached which allows them to work together toward the goal of a Bush victory in November.
Democrats not only stifled any and all debate about abortion at their convention, they did not even allow opponents abortion the opportunity to speak in New York. The Republicans, while mobilizing their conservative strength to push strong anti-abortion language and a very right-wing social agenda in their platform, did allow a debate to occur. Moreover, a number of pro-abortion leaders in the party were allowed to speak. During the week preceding the convention and in several speeches at the convention itself the message came through quite clearly: `differences on social issues may exist, but here is George Bush’s platform—let’s debate it, but lets unify to support our candidate.’
The intense Republican debate will no doubt continue and even intensify, especially after this year’s elections, but for now an apparent unity of purpose has been established and that is good news for George Bush.
The first and most important political objective at the convention was defining the themes that George Bush will use in his reelection bid. While the stage was being set to announce these themes during the convention’s first three days, they came through most strongly on the convention’s final day.
Because the convention wasn’t quite in tune at first, that final day had an all-or-nothing quality to it. Many in the media had pronounced that George Bush needed to deliver the best speech of his life if he were to have any hope of saving his campaign.
Not only did George Bush do precisely that, but the actual conclusion of the convention was a well put-together and dramatic tour de force, embodying all of the qualities that make political conventions the great events they are.
Vice President Dan Quayle also put on a strong performance. His speech not only served to define the themes for the convention (themes that would be repeated and amplified in Senator Bob Dole’s introduction to President Bush’s speech—and the President’s speech itself), but perhaps most importantly redefined Dan Quayle as a witty but tough and unyielding conservative. In some ways Quayle’s speech was as important for the campaign as was Bush’s. If the Democrats and the media could continue to define Quayle as a dimwitted fumbler, not only Quayle but the entire Republican campaign would have suffered. Quayle turned the tables by attacking the media. In affect, he said, “They attack me and make fun of me because they don’t agree with my philosophy—but I will not bend.”
While Bush needed to define his vision for the country and reestablish his leadership—Quayle needed to define himself once and for all. And he did.
The video which introduced George Bush was probably the most powerful moment of the convention. It was a well-produced and rousing historical sketch of the qualities that make Presidents great. And it was clear in its conclusion: George Bush has those qualities. He has led the country through difficult challenges, and he can be trusted to lead once more.
By the time the video ended and George Bush walked out onto the podium the convention was at an emotional high point. He did not appear as the Democrats had sought to define him—weak and failed and defensive. He projected a strong and confident mood.
His themes were those that the convention had been developing all along: restoring family values as a cornerstone of public policy; the changes taking place in the world are good for America; America’s leadership role in the world must continue; his policies to improve the economy haven’t failed—Congress hasn’t enacted them so they simply haven’t been tried.
It was on these last two points that the President focused conservative attention. After recounting the American victory in the Cold War which occurred during his and President Reagan’s administrations, he noted that his opponents have criticized him for focusing too heavily on foreign affairs at the expense of domestic needs. But, he asked, how could the leader of the free world have ignored the demise of the Soviet Union, the collapse of communism in the Third World, and the challenge of the Gulf War? And he asked, in contrast, what if Democrats had been in the White House during those twelve years? Would the transitions in the world been as positive and as sweeping?
The President then recounted his efforts to put forward an educational policy, a health care policy and a policy to promote economic growth, and noted how the Democratic Congress blocked each of those efforts. “They failed to pass them,” he said, “and they say I’m a failed President!” He turned the tables on Congress and said that American needs to change, but that the change it needs is a new Congress.
The convention concluded on as a high a note as any in recent memory. George Bush did what he needed to do to put his campaign back on track. Overnight polls show that his is still lagging behind Bill Clinton, but that he is gaining ground quickly. More importantly, with the conclusion of the convention the building blocks for a successful campaign are now in place: an effective White House and a campaign team that can exert a precise control over their operations, a unified party that is confident that it can win, and well-defined themes with which to challenge the message of the opposition Democratic Party.
The battle lines have now been drawn. The President’s task is still formidable—Bill Clinton has already shown himself to be a string and resilient candidate with an effective campaign team. But, for the first time in months the President is fighting back and the playing field is beginning to even.
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