Convention MIA: Power Bushies

Delegates hold signs at the 2004 Republican National Convention, New York City, 8-31-04
This Against the Grain commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

The central insight that informs most all media analysis and partisan criticism of the Republican convention is that it's all a marketing job that disguises how conservative the party truly is by sending a cast of moderate actors into the primetime lights.


Hillary Clinton, with a phrase now much quoted by we press types, called it a Potemkin convention. My vast research staff is still working on it, but I feel confident in saying that every convention, Democratic and Republican, since the Stalinist 1968 Chicago debacle has been called a Potemkin convention.

It's time to send the whole Potemkin spiel the way of Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, the man who built the fake villages for Catherine the Great. Every American who has not been on monastic retreat can speak knowledgably about exactly where the star speakers are to the left of the party platform and the delegates' surveyed opinions on the great issues of the day. We get the picture.

We know modern conventions hide party fractures, ideologically excessive activists and bitter losers in the name of marketing; we know that if they don't do that, we press types declare conventions failures; we know that when conventions succeed, we press types declare them boring.

Having watched the cavalcade of moderate studs for the first two nights, a couple questions occur:

Why are there no key players from the administration or Congress on the roster, besides the president and vice president? It's one thing to try to hide the ideological composition of party activists; it's a whole other thing to keep the people who actually run the government off the stage and substitute political celebrities who have little power or influence.

Were McCain, Giuliani and Schwarzenegger chosen because their moderates or because they are stars? Why are the stars of the Republican Party (besides the president) moderates?

Why are there more rising stars among Republicans than Democrats?

Let's take them one at a time.

In recent years, incumbent presidents have taken different approaches to bringing administration bigwigs to conventions.

In 1992, after four years in office, Bush the Elder had no fewer than seven Cabinet members address the convention in or near prime time spots (there was more primetime then since network coverage was much more extensive).

One of them, Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, had a big speech. A recently departed National Security Council aide named Condoleezza Rice gave a speech. The keynoter was Senator Phil Gramm, an influential legislator and no pin-up boy. Bob Dole and Bob Michel, the Congressional Republican leaders, had roles as well.

Now the Republican convention of 1992 was a debacle, but not because Cabinet members defended their regime. It was the fire-breathing of Pat Buchanan and Marilyn Quayle that burned that house down.

Four years later, Bill Clinton allowed no members of his Cabinet onto the podium. Christopher Reeve gave a big speech, along with Tipper, Hillary and Jesse. It was one of the phoniest, most superficial conventions ever, and that's saying something. I guess it worked and, in a way, was a classic case of Clintonism.

Bush the Younger, deeply committed to doing everything different from 1992, has also made the convention almost a Cabinet-free zone, except for two minorities: Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. John Ashcroft, John Snow, Tommy Thompson, Gale Norton - people with power on domestic policy - are out. (Secretaries of Defense and State rarely address conventions.)

As for Congress, Dennis Hastert and Bill Frist spoke, but didn't have primo real estate on the convention schedule. No Tom DeLay.

The striking thing about the four people given key speaking roles - McCain, Giuliani, Schwarzenegger and Zell Miller - isn't that they don't represent the party well or that they are centrists; they have no power in the administration. Giuliani is out of office. Zell Miller is a retiring Democrat. Arnold has nothing to do with the federal government and McCain is a pest to the administration.

It would have been nice to hear more Bushies make the case for themselves. Perhaps the administration fears, perhaps wisely, that letting John Ashcroft and Tom DeLay loose in the Garden would make the Marilyn Quayle-Pat Buchanan duo seem like Hansel and Gretel.

This leads to the next question: were the Big Three picked because of ideology or star power? I can only guess, but I'd bet it was star power.

Either way, it begs the next question, which is more interesting anyway: why are moderates the party's stars? (Polling indicates that the most popular Republicans with the general public right now are McCain, Schwarzenegger and Powell.)

A. Because more Americans are moderate than conservative or liberal; therefore well-known moderates will do better in polls, and elections.

B. Because Americans don't like ideologues and that's what moderates aren't.

C. Because Americans like independent spirits who take on sacred cows at their own peril and that is what moderates who fight their own party do. Liberals and conservatives, despite their fire and righteousness, are seen as sacred cow ranchers in today's political culture. (In post-Arnold America, this kind of maverick is called a "muscular moderate.")

I'll go for the combo platter, all of the above. It might seem to follow from A, B and C that moderates would always be nominated for president, but, remember, nominees are selected by party activists and not by voters at large.

So now we ask, why does the GOP seem to be producing more stars - and more "muscular moderates" - than the Democrats? Some Democrats may protest that observation - but tough, it's true.

Look at the quality of the presidential timber sniffing around Madison Garden: McCain, Giuliani, and Frist, and, one notch down, Mitt Romney, Chuck Hagel and George Pataki. Consider the out of town options: Powell, Tom Ridge, Condoleezza Rice. And from Austria, Arnold. Many of these folks fit the muscular moderate mold too.

And if Kerry loses, who will be the anointed for the Democrats? Hillary, John Edwards and, er, well, maybe Evan Bayh. And I guess Bayh is moderate.

As for mavericks, the Democrats have already devoured their last one who made it big, albeit fleetingly, Howard Dean. But he shot from the left, not the center.

Then there's Joe Lieberman, who tried - but failed - to become a John McCain of sorts for the Democrats.

I have no smooth answer. But I imagine the right answer might help explain the travails of both John Kerry and Al Gore.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer