The most successful Republican convention in my memory was the one in 1988 that helped propel Vice President George Bush from underdog into runaway winner. What can we learn from that convention?
Prior to the convention, the MSM drumbeat had successfully convinced most Americans that things were going badly and that change was needed. But objectively, that was not the case. The economy had been booming for at least five years, relations with the Soviet Union hadn’t been better since World War II, and in fact the evil empire was starting to collapse. Unhappiness with the Reagan administration centered on the Iran-Contra affair, a genuine scandal in my opinion, but one that should not have over-shadowed the peace and prosperity of the Reagan years.
The Republican convention succeeded because the Republicans (and especially Reagan in one of his best speeches) reminded voters of the successes of the past eight years. After several years of negative media drumbeat, voters remembered that things were actually going quite well, and hadn’t done so during the Carter years. All that was left was for Bush to deliver an acceptance speech that demonstrated his capacity to continue the legacy, which Bush did and then some.
This year are there important similarities with 1988, as well as important differences. The objective situation now isn’t as good as it was then. The economy has been booming for one year, not five. Our deadly enemy is not collapsing, as far as we can tell. Our soldiers are dying in a distant and controversial war. On the other hand, the situation is not nearly as bad the media drumbeat would have it. The economy has improved dramatically in the past twelve month and is doing far better than anyone had a right to hope for on September 12, 2001. The enemy has failed successfully to attack the homeland since then. The situation in Iraq has stablilized since last May, and we actually seem to be making progress towards establishing a new government.
Since these developments have been under-reported, the Republicans have a realistic shot at obtaining a “bounce” from the convention, though certainly not the kind of bounce they got in 1988. Throughout the year, the most consistently troubling poll number for Bush has been that a clear majority of Americans believe that the country in headed in the wrong direction. For the reasons stated above, it’s questionable whether that sentiment is consistent with reality. The main task of the Republicans this week should be to show that it is not.
But the Republicans need to be careful about their narrative. It certainly can’t be the “happy days” or “morning in America” narrative of some past conventions. The message on the economy should not be “you’ve never had it so good,” but rather that the economy has come back from the recession Bush inherited and from the huge jolt of 9/11 thanks to the hard work of Americans aided by the tax cuts. Republicans should also remind voters of some of Bush’s domestic initiatives, such as those regarding education. Most voters are probably not even aware of them, thanks to the MSM. But we cannot overplay our hand here either — the theme needs to be that we are beginning to tackle these problems, not that we have solved them.
Nor can the party go overboard in touting the absence of terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the hopeful situation in Iraq, since all of this is subject to change without notice. Yet Americans must surely feel safer now than they did at the end of 2001, and the Republicans need to explain why President Bush’s policies, including the war in Iraq, have made us safer. It’s not as easy a sell as 1988. But it shouldn’t be that difficult either, provided that the party makes a serious effort, instead of simply trying to put on a moderate face.
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