The Subliminal Convention

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On night two of the Republican convention, political theater critic Eric Engberg investigates the case of the openly gay free trader and the case of the muzzled maverick.

Putting on a political convention in the era of the "Infomercial Convention" involves choreographing on two simultaneous productions.

The first, which a Busby Berkeley or comparable master showman would know how to stage, is the "Action" convention, in which the party sells its wares by showing off its stars and rallying joyously around its symbols. A stream of worthies are sent to the podium to mouth the party's current set of beliefs and sing hymnals to the wisdom and compassion of its candidates. This is the easy part.

The second convention the party is conducting on television is more complex and subtle beyond words. Here we are in the land not of some glitzy Hollywood choreographer, but in the psychological underground of McLuhan and Freud. This is the subliminal convention, in which things that are said - or left cleverly unsaid - send a message to the viewers about where the party's head is.

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The Second Night of the Republican shindig in Philadelphia provided some textbook examples of how the subliminal convention is produced.

Case Study #1: Gay Rights

The GOP generally opposes gay rights proposals and is widely viewed by homosexuals as being hostile to their political agenda. Neither the GOP platform this year nor the candidate, George W. Bush, have indicated any shift in that stance; to do so would invite a rebellion by Christian conservatives and other hard right delegates.

Yet there stood Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, the only congressional Republican who has acknowledged that he is gay, making a featured address before the convention in prime time.

In a strange act of political "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Kolbe was introduced by co-chair Rep. Jennifer Dunn as "a leader of promoting America's role in the world" - whatever that may be. There was no mention of his sexual orientation. Kolbe then proceeded to discuss free trade, an issue where there is virtually no controversy among Republicans at all.

It would be difficult to escape the conclusion that Kolbe, given an honored prime-time spot on the convention schedule that was offered to only a very few of his House colleagues, was part of an effort by the Bush forces to show gay voters that compassionate side the candidate keeps talkig about.

It is politically less risky to use a symbol than to encourage a real debate on the substantive issues of gays in the military, single-sex marriage, AIDS research or other topics of concern to the gay community.

But the power of social issues to divide remains potent, despite the Bush camp's desire to mute such divisions for this feel good convention. The Texas delegation B the candidate's home state crowd B was angered at Kolbe's selection. And many of them prayed silently throughout his remarks as a form of protest.

Case Study #2: We Love Independent Mavericks, Too!

Anyone named Bush has a right to worry about giving a former opponent a featured spot on the convention program. George the Elder did that for Patrick Buchanan in 1992 and got his brains bashed in for his generosity.

The campaign between George W. Bush and John McCain last winter, it is easy to forget, was one of the most bitter in recent decades. But it was critical for Bush to reach out to the segment of the electorate that was mobilized by McCain's "Straight Talk Express" and his message of reform and revitalization. These independent-minded, younger voters could be critical swing voters in some of the key states Bush will need against the Democrats in November.

So a "McCain Moment" was needed. But the planning had to be carefully done; it couldn't be too big of a Moment. Why? Because McCain's hard-nosed views on the need to eliminate big money, corporate and otherwise, from the political process are abhorrent to most of the Republican rank and filers and about 99.6 percent of Republican officeholders who rely on that very same money.

Equally important, there is also a lurking fear among the Bush team that their tiger suffers from a "charisma gap" with the former POW hero.

So McCain's speech had to be upbeat and "Bush-centric," cleansed of references to the evils of big dollars in politics. The ex-Navy pilot, true to the "Can Do" traditions of a military professional, gave just such an address. Earlier, in an interview with Dan Rather and other CBS News reporters, he had been asked if he was still committed to fixing the campaign finance cesspool. He answered, "There will be blood all over the floor of the U.S. Senate. We will not rest until there is campaign finance reform."

But once McCain got to the podium, the subject seemed to disappear. In fact, there was an odd valedictory quality to McCain's speech. He is only 63, and if Bush should lose in the fall, McCain would automatically become a top contender for the 2004 nomination. Yet he spoke to the convention about his own mortality, saying at one point, "I will not see what is over America's horizon."

He spoke, in short, as though two Bush terms in the White House are inevitable. It was just the message the Bush campaign wanted to hear.