GOP Locks In on Theme, and Opens Fire on Kerry

Times Staff Writer

It’s the terrorism, stupid.

With their relentless, double-barreled attack on Democratic nominee John F. Kerry on Wednesday night, Vice President Dick Cheney and keynote speaker Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) reduced President Bush’s case for reelection to virtually a single argument: Bush would be tough and resolute in the war on terrorism and Kerry would be neither.

Cheney, more than Miller, also sought to present Bush as a visionary leader who had reconstructed America’s foreign policy to confront global terrorism, much the same way President Truman and his advisors built a new international order after World War II.

But such positive arguments were overshadowed by an attack on Kerry far more sustained and ferocious than anything Bush faced during prime time at July’s Democratic National Convention in Boston.

As striking as the heated tone was the narrow focus: Apart from fleeting references to education and the economy from the vice president, Cheney and Miller confined their speeches almost entirely to national security.

That followed the pattern set by earlier speakers such as former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who lavishly praised Bush’s strategy in the fight against terrorism and staunchly defended the war in Iraq, but said almost nothing about the president’s domestic record.


The emphasis on national security has been every bit as determined as the economic focus in 1992 that led Bill Clinton’s campaign to summarize its strategy in the ringing phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Sources familiar with Bush’s acceptance speech, to be delivered tonight, insist he will promote a second-term domestic agenda built around encouraging ownership and reforming government. But that appears likely to register as only a minor chord in a convention that has vividly dramatized the Bush campaign’s belief that its best hope of victory is to burnish confidence in the president’s ability to protect the nation -- and to heighten the doubts about whether Kerry is up to the job.

With only one night left, the Republican convention increasingly looks like the mirror image of the Democratic gathering. During their four nights, Democrats devoted the most effort to polishing Kerry’s credentials as a potential commander in chief and to questioning Bush’s strategy in the struggle against terrorism. Republicans are putting almost all of their energy into undermining Kerry’s credentials to be a commander in chief and defending Bush’s national security decisions.

The pile-driver attack on Kerry’s national security credentials at the Republican convention -- following the assault on his military record from a group of Vietnam veterans over the last month -- has created twin challenges for the Democrat: maintaining his credibility as a potential leader and finding ways to shift more attention to domestic issues, such as the economy and healthcare, where polls show he holds an advantage over Bush.

Senior Kerry advisors said they believed the attacks Wednesday were so heated that they would backfire with swing voters. But the intensity of the GOP assault this week could increase the pressure on Kerry from Democrats who believe his campaign has not been nearly aggressive enough in criticizing Bush and presenting a case for change.

Yet the convention’s never-give-an-inch defense of Bush’s strategy since Sept. 11, culminating in his decision to invade Iraq, also could seed dangers for the president later in the race.

In effect, the GOP has spent this week suggesting to voters that if reelected, Bush will not deviate from an approach to national security that has divided the nation. Bush receives strong marks in polls for his response to terrorism. But in recent surveys, including a University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Survey released Wednesday, about half of Americans say the war in Iraq has not been worth the cost.

“It’s nice to be firm in what you believe in, unless of course it’s the wrong direction,” said Madeleine Albright, secretary of State under President Clinton and a Kerry advisor. “At those times, resolute can be translated as stubborn and uncompromising.”

Resolute might also best describe the way Wednesday’s speakers focused on national security and pressed their case against Kerry.

Cheney diverted from the theme only long enough to breeze through three quick paragraphs defending the administration’s record on education, the economy and healthcare. Miller sent some clear cultural signals to religiously devout voters by twice underscoring the president’s faith.

But mostly, Miller and Cheney encouraged voters to place national security at the top of their priority list by presenting the threat from terrorism in the starkest terms. Cheney called it “the greatest challenge of our time” and, echoing neoconservative thinkers, presented Islamic terrorism as a danger comparable to that posed by the most massive military machines the United States has confronted.

“Just as surely as the Nazis during World War II and the Soviet Communists during the Cold War, the enemy we face today is bent on our destruction,” Cheney said.

Having defined the threat, Miller and Cheney moved in fierce and unrelenting language to portray Kerry -- and the Democratic Party -- as incapable of meeting it.

Miller’s martial, confrontational speech might have been the angriest at a national convention since Patrick J. Buchanan’s “culture war” address to the GOP in 1992. But in substance, Miller’s speech seemed more directly a descendant of a memorable convention address 20 years ago from another former Democrat. In 1984, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, President Reagan’s U.N. ambassador, electrified the GOP convention when she said that her former party wanted to “blame America first.”

Miller, though still a nominal Democrat, presented Democrats in the same light. “In their warped way of thinking, America is the problem, not the solution,” he said. “They don’t believe there is any real danger in the world except that which America brings upon itself through our clumsy and misguided foreign policy.”

Both men reprised, albeit in even sharper language than usual, the Republican charges that Kerry was indecisive and weak. Miller insisted that Kerry’s attitude toward defense spending would leave the U.S. military armed with “spitballs.”

Both men also echoed Giuliani in seeking to turn Kerry’s principal foreign policy argument against him. Throughout the campaign, Kerry has argued that Bush has weakened America’s security by alienating traditional allies and isolating the United States; the Democrat pressed that case again in his speech to the American Legion on Wednesday, condemning Bush’s Iraq strategy.

But Cheney and Miller presented Kerry’s pledge of greater cooperation as a sign of weakness. “Sen. Kerry denounces American action when other countries don’t approve, as if the whole object of our foreign policy were to please a few persistent critics,” said Cheney, whose style was as understated as Miller’s was impassioned.

Democrats dismissed those criticisms as a misrepresentation of Kerry’s views. While Kerry has pledged to consult more closely with allies, he has also repeatedly said that he would never give other nations a veto over American security, and also had not ruled out the preemptive use of military force against terrorist threats.

“The bottom line is he has flat-out said he would not give up authority to the United Nations,” Albright said. “But there are times that one has to recognize that we are stronger if we are able to take action in cooperation with others.”

Yet even with the inevitable hyperbole and distortion, the parallel charges from the two sides -- the Democratic claim that Bush has alienated allies, and the Republican charge that Kerry would capitulate to them -- point toward a central choice facing Americans in November.

Kerry has made clear that he would give allies greater input into American decisions, hoping it would yield greater cooperation in Iraq and the war on terrorism more broadly. Bush, with his emphasis on preemptive military action and “coalitions of the willing,” has devised an approach to foreign affairs that generally places American freedom of action as a higher priority than international consensus.

For more than a year, virtually every leading Democrat has argued that America will be more secure in a world where it is respected rather than resented. This week, by contrast, Republicans have repeatedly belittled the United Nations and presented foreign criticism of Bush as proof of his determination to protect America.

In the uncompromising words that have flowed from the podium this week, the GOP seems to be betting that in a dangerous world, Americans would rather be feared than liked.