The Mother of All Conventions

Edward Luttwak writes about Saddam and Clinton’s re-election campaign

Iraq’s three Republican Guard divisions had just reached the 36th parallel when Clinton was told that the architect of his ‘family values’ election campaign, Richard Morris, was about to be exposed in the press as the assiduous client of a call-girl, with whom he had shared White House secrets. It was the worst possible kind of scandal for Clinton, given the past stories of his own extra-marital affairs, now more relevant than ever because of his decidedly puritanical electoral stance. And the scandal came at the very worst time for Clinton: on that Thursday, 29 August, he was preparing to make the big acceptance speech that would close the Chicago Convention, before thousands of Democratic Party delegates, and the tens of millions who would watch it in their homes. Clinton’s media experts were offering ‘pre-speech’ briefings to set the right tone, but all day long TV and radio news throughout the United States was preoccupied with stories about Morris, his call-girl, and Clinton’s unique dependence on his fallen adviser, with whom, apparently, he communicated more often than anyone else, including Hillary. White House claims that Morris was only one of many ‘temporary, part-time, consultants’ were ignored by the media, or simply ridiculed.

The Democrats, of course, had to follow a challenging Republican Convention – brilliantly made for television by Haley Barbour, the Party’s national chairman. The appearance by Nancy Reagan spoke for itself. The elevation of Colin Powell into some sort of co-candidate and the exceptional prominence given to Elizabeth Dole, who made the most of her opportunity by wading into the crowd on the floor to do her husband’s This Is Your Life, broadened the production’s appeal by presenting four stars instead of two. Besides, Dole has the merit of being a poor speaker, and because he is such a poor speaker he looked and sounded deeply sincere, far more so than the always eloquent – too eloquent – Bill Clinton.

Nobody could fail to notice the up-front strategy: a role-reversal exercise that presented the Republicans as the party of blacks (Colin Powell), almost-feminists (an entire squad of assertive, dynamic women politicians) and ‘caring’, even liberal, white males (Jack Kemp). The logic was simple enough. Starting off with Robert Dole, the quintessential tough-guy white male candidate, the wounded veteran (= ‘war hero’ in current parlance), a man’s man of few words, the Convention would have been a total failure if it had unfolded as a celebration of manly virtues. That would only have satisfied the white males and anti-feminist white females who will vote for Dole in any case, while further alienating the semi-feminist females, semi-liberal white males, middle-class blacks and other minorities that the Republicans must attract in substantial numbers to defeat Clinton.

Similarly, having ended the primary season strongly identified with the extreme positions of lower-income ‘New Republican’ activists, who care more about abortion than income tax, the Party was fully recaptured in San Diego by establishment (‘country-club’) Republicans. Not only was tax-cutting given an absolutely central role at the expense of ‘family values’, but the rejection of that entire ideology was underlined by the prime-time featuring of two explicitly ‘pro-choice’ speakers, Colin Powell and Congresswoman Susan Molinari, and by the entire tone of Dole’s acceptance speech, long on tolerance, silent on abortion.

Again, the logic of this strategy of dissociation was quite simple. Of all voters, the New Republicans are the least likely to go over to Clinton, whose ‘flexibility’ cannot possibly extend to embracing their uncompromising positions on abortion, censorship etc. Hence the Party can take the New Republican voters for granted, while appealing to the affluent, including suburban New Democrats, with their zero-deficit-plus-growth package, the miracle cure promised by the Laffer theory, a.k.a. ‘supply-side’ economics. True, many of the affluent of both parties are also well-educated, and few Americans who read newspapers believe in the theory that cutting taxes reduces deficits by prompting an upsurge of work, earnings and tax revenues. But that is only the disposable outer wrapping of the real goodies, the tax cuts themselves, in which the affluent can and do believe.

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