By Richard S. Dunham
Call it the revenge of the uncompassionate conservatives. After two days of generally upbeat rhetoric from the GOP's moderate wing (Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Arnold Schwarzenegger), the scowling face of the Old Right was front and center at the Republican Convention on Sept. 1. And the delegates on the floor of Madison Square Garden, who had sat through Laura Bush's loving tribute to her husband and other paeans to America, got what they really loved -- down-and-dirty Kerry-bashing.
Vice-President Dick Cheney and Georgia Senator Zell Miller, a lapsed Democrat who has been disowned by his party, took turns savaging the Democratic Presidential candidate as a dangerous ultraliberal and naïve multinationalist. "Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending. I want Bush to decide," the Georgian declared, his anger and bitterness palpable. "John Kerry, who says he doesn't like outsourcing, wants to outsource our national security."
The choice of Cheney and Miller as tag-team hatchet men made sense. Neither is exactly popular. Democrats have dubbed the Georgia Senator "Zig Zag Zell" and "Zellout Miller." The liberal activist group American Progress described him as "America's most discredited senator," a lawmaker who in 2001 praised Kerry as a fiscal conservative, "one of this nation's authentic heroes, one of this party's best-known and greatest leaders—and a good friend." Talk about a flip-flopper!
But Miller, the leader of Democrats for Bush, is retiring from the Senate, so his party colleagues can't do anything to punish him for his apostasy. So now, Miller says: "For more than 20 years, on every one of the great issues of freedom and security, John Kerry has been more wrong, more weak, and more wobbly than any other national figure." With "good friends" like Zell, who needs enemies?
Cheney, too, has little to lose. He's already a lightning rod for liberal anger for his bellicosity in foreign policy and the lucrative no-bid Pentagon contracts that his former employer, Halliburton (HAL ), has garnered. An Aug. 23-25 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll found Cheney's popularity at a new low. His approval rate stands at 44%. Among independents, that number is a dismal 36%, down from 49% in October, 2003. Given a choice between Cheney and Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee John Edwards, voters prefer the North Carolina senator, 52% to 42%.
Saddled with those numbers, the Veep had nothing to gain by trying to convince voters that he's a warm-and-fuzzy grandpa. He just aimed his bazooka and fired coolly at the enemy. "Senator Kerry's liveliest disagreement is with himself," Cheney declared, as the delegates chanted "flip-flop, flip-flop." "His back-and-forth reflects a habit of indecision, and sends a message of confusion...Senator Kerry says he sees two Americas. It makes the whole thing mutual -- America sees two John Kerrys."
57 VARIETIES OF LEADERSHIP.
But Cheney and Miller had plenty of company in the bash-Kerry brigade. Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey ripped the voting record of his state's junior senator -- a history that was all but ignored during the Democrats' recent confab in Boston. "Why can't he own up to his voting record?" she demanded. "The fact is, John Kerry can't win by telling us the truth. Because the truth is that John Kerry -- and not Ted Kennedy -- is the most liberal senator in the United States. He is simply out of the mainstream -- and he shifts with the tides."
Healy's boss, Governor Mitt Romney continued the verbal pummeling -- and even took a gratuitous swipe at the candidate's wife, heiress to the Heinz (HNZ ) pickle fortune. Kerry "campaigned against the war all year, but says he'd vote yes today," Romney said. "This nation can't afford Presidential leadership that comes in 57 varieties! We need a decisive President that stands his ground."
Yes, sir, partisans love this kind of cutting criticism. In Boston, Democratic loyalists were palpably frustrated by the Kerry campaign's order to limit the use of invective. It took a freelancer like Reverend Al Sharpton to serve up this kind of raw rhetoric.
On the GOP side, though, it's not the out-of-the-mainstream rebels but the Establishment bigwigs who took the sharpest whacks at the man from Massachusetts. While the first two days of the convention had upbeat themes -- compassion and patriotism -- the floor speeches were honeycombed with attacks on Kerry. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) delivered some of the strongest criticism. Likening the Democratic convention to the Boston Tea Party, he declared on Aug. 30: "Instead of tossing tea in the Boston Harbor, John Kerry wants to throw the taxpayers overboard.... This is no time to pick a leader who is weak on the war and wrong on taxes."
Even Giuliani's predominantly positive oration skewered Kerry for changing his mind on the efficacy of the invasion of Iraq. Between now and November, Kerry "still has time to change his position four or five more times," Giuliani jabbed.
The crowd in Madison Square Garden loved it. How it'll play with swing voters disgusted with attack-politics-as-usual could be a very different story.
Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington Outlook editor
Edited by Mike McNamee