Back during the bleak winter when the rookie presidential candidate was getting cuffed around by his Republican opponents, I had a long talk with a veteran Iowa Republican who had seen them all come and go through the state's famous caucus process. "Our voters will make their decision based on one simple image in their heads. Can they envision this candidate raising his right hand and taking the presidential oath on inauguration day next January."
In a nutshell, that is the test W. has been taking all year, as he was poked and prodded by a series of Republican opponents. The somewhat inarticulate, halting candidate we saw back in Iowa and New Hampshire has hardened into a solid platform performer. His fabled smirk well under control, his eyes steely, his voice firm, he delivered the necessary partisan messages and the "compassionate conservative" anecdotes with a sufficient skill that assured Republicans he's not just some Junior trying to take over the family firm.
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You could almost hear the Gore strategists turning to each other in their war room and saying, "We've got a problem."
It should be duly noted that Bush is the beneficiary of a great system. The long primary system, as brutal and excessive as it can be, gives a candidate with little national experience a chance to improve his communications skills along the way. McCain, Hatch, Bauer, even Keyes (who may still be running for all I know) all helped W. get to the point where he is a formidable opponent.
Bush also demonstrated that, even with his parents in the hall, he doesn't look like just another son of a patrician trying to capitalize on daddy's name. As a veteran observer of George the Elder's campaigns, I kept listening for the old man's preppy cadences in W's performance. I stopped, convinced there was no point, when he got to the mandatory rhetorical laurel for his running mate, "Ahm so proud to have Dick Cheney bah mah sahd." W. doesn't look, move or sound like his father at all, a tribute not to him but to the migratory style of American life in the last generation.
And this is not his father's Republican Part. Democrats may wish it were and may try to convince the voters it is. But I can guarantee that Lee Atwater, the archetypal theorist of Father Bush's Republicanism, would have hated this speech. No wedge issues. No Willie Horton. No culture wars.
In fact, if Rip Van Winkle had fallen into a slumber in the early days of Bush the Elder's reign and had woken up tonight to hear this speech, he probably couldn't tell if it were being delivered by a Republican or Democrat.
On Social Security: "No Changes, no reductions, no way."
On taxes: "...those in the greatest need should receive the greatest help."
On big business: "Corporations are responsible B to treat their workers fairly, and leave the air and waters clean."
On race and class: "On one side are wealth and technology, education and ambition. On the other side of the wall are poverty and prison, addiction and despair, we must tear down that wall."
So here we have George W. Bush turning one of Ronald Reagan's most famous rhetorical flourishes from the Cold War into a weapon in a war on poverty. And he did it effectively, which nicely demonstrate how his speech appealed to the party faithful in the hall and the undecideds in TV land.
Bush also offered a candid and quite perceptive take on Bill Clinton. "So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But in the end, to what end?"
Well, how voters answer that question will have much to do with whether Bush wins or loses. In short, will they credit the incumbent party for today's prosperity?
The prosperous times pose a dilemma Bush had to tip-toe around in his speech and that will vex him in the fall. He must acknowledge the prosperity without giving credit to the enemy. Trickier still, he must give voters a reason for changing teams.
His argument was, "We will use these good times for great goals."
He showed Thursday night that he can make that argument well.