Improv Night At The RNC

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani blows a kiss to the delegates at the Republican National Convention Monday, Aug.30, 2004, in New York.
This column from The Weekly Standard was written by Christopher Caldwell.

What a role reversal. After a Boston convention in which Democrats delivered a simple message ("We Like the Army") with the discipline of a Prussian military drill, Republicans -- if Night One in New York is any indication --are following up with improv night at the coffee house. The GOP on display is a kinder, wittier, more ... sensitive party than the one of popular caricature. This means (in theory) more swing voter appeal. But the first night didn't put much of a premium on discipline. This means (in practice) squandered opportunities.

Democrats figured there were more votes to be won in the center of the electorate than on their party's fringe, and oriented their convention around that calculation. (More Army, less gay marriage.) Republicans have vacillated before that decision, and have wound up letting their spokesmen wing it. On one hand you have John McCain wooing swing voters with a thoroughly non-partisan speech, in which he appealed to the "millions of Americans, not all Republicans," watching the convention. On the other, you have Dennis Hastert ridiculing Democrats as attendees at John Kerry's "Boston Tax Party." They're both defensible strategies. But doing both on the same night is like hitting the brake and accelerator at the same time, or putting laudanum in your coffee.

Worse, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to do both in the same speech. Giuliani should have been the oratorical silver bullet of this convention. Bush's response to September 11 is the basis on which his presidency (rightly) will be judged. The one person with unimpeachable authority to say what he wants about it is Giuliani, who -- manna from electoral heaven -- is a pro-Bush Republican who got elected by swing voters. So why was Giuliani chosen to speak on Monday night (when the networks weren't present) while the novelty-act Georgia "Democrat" Zell Miller gets to go before a national audience to heave red meat at Southern conservatives who'll vote for Bush anyway?

Giuliani's speech was not what it could have been. A magnificent 18-minute kernel of post -- September 11 reminiscences, humor, anti-Kerry invective, and skillful courtship of the Jewish vote (by linking decades of terrorism against Israel to contemporary terrorism against America) was bloated into a 45-minute shaggy-dog story by Giuliani's own extemporizing. Some editor failed to stand up to him. The speech collapsed under the weight of attempting to do two incompatible things: (1) woo liberals conservative on defense with the same commonsensical appeals he used as mayor to woo liberals conservative on crime and disorder; and (2) fling invective at the Democrats (implying they swear a lot) that played well in the hall but will keep crossover voters from crossing over in the first place.

Again, driving up turnout by appealing to the fringe and winning undecided centrists by appealing to their reason are both defensible strategies. But the latter appears the wiser one. The most important challenge for Republicans at this convention is to show that they believe in the Iraq war, and to explain why. This ought not to be a partisan challenge. The fiery speech about September 11 by the actor Ron Silver ("We will never forget, we will never forgive, we will never excuse") anchored the evening. This was the message of McCain ("unpardonable enemy" . . . "savage atrocity") and Giuliani, too ("barbaric terrorists"). Meanwhile, the invocation by an American imam, and the praise from a (covered) Muslim woman victimized by Saddam Hussein's regime marked a return to the subtlest achievement of the Bush presidency -- its ability to wage a war against a fundamentalist strain of Islam while promoting tolerance for Islamic devotion at home.

The theme of the convention ("A Nation of Courage") may be its most innovative tactic. It shifts the discussion on martial virtue from the two candidates (which naturally leads one up the Mekong Delta, to candidate Kerry's advantage) and places it on the electorate. This has the advantage of being modest, and it attempts to shame those to cast what we might call the Zapatero vote -- the wishful-thinking vote that says opposition to the war will lead terrorists to call it off. This is defensive and smart, the kind of political astuteness Republicans seem to come up with exactly half the time.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

By Christopher Caldwell