The GOP's Blue-State Convention Slate

When you look at the slate of prime-time speakers the Republicans announced this week for their national convention in New York this August, it brings to mind Yogi Berra. It’s deja vu all over again.

For entirely different reasons, it resurrects images of 1992 and 1996.

It brings back 1992 because that’s when then-Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia was the most conservative prime-time speaker at the Democratic convention. This year, Miller (now a senator but still a Democrat) will be the most conservative prime-time speaker at the Republican convention.

To be sure, Miller is an excellent choice. He can be warm and witty–while shredding adversaries. Just standing on the podium at the Republican convention, he will demonstrate how far Democrats have drifted from the values of Middle America.

In 1992, Miller helped persuade Americans that Clinton was a “New Democrat.”

Clinton’s message that year–he said he wanted to cut taxes, end welfare as we know it and make abortions “rare”–was about as truthful as his 1998 grand jury testimony. But it worked: Clinton broke the Republican electoral lock on the South and defeated President George H.W. Bush.

The younger President Bush and Vice President Cheney will speak at this year’s convention, of course, as will their wives. They can be counted on to give well-crafted and effective orations. But beyond them–and the Democrat Miller–all the speakers on the prime-time roster hail from more liberal precincts in the GOP.

They include: Education Secretary Rod Paige, Arizona Sen. John McCain, New York Gov. George Pataki, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Paige champions school choice–but also massive spending increases–in a Cabinet agency Republicans once vowed to abolish. McCain authored a campaign finance law that restricts free speech. Pataki, Schwarzenegger, Bloomberg and Giuliani are all very liberal on social issues.

Bloomberg, who will open the GOP convention on Monday night, told NBC’s Tim Russert in 2001: “I am pro-choice. I am pro-gay rights. I am in favor of gun control and against the death penalty . . . and I will try to convince others the error of their ways if they disagree.”

From Pataki to McCain, this year’s speakers list recalls 1996. That’s when Pat Buchanan, whose presidential campaign I managed that year, and who won the Republican caucuses in Alaska, Louisiana and Missouri, as well as the New Hampshire primary, was banned from speaking.

The campaign of candidate Bob Dole invited many “moderates” and social liberals to speak prominently at that convention. Then-Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, who is pro-choice, was keynoter. Then-New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, Colin Powell and former President Gerald Ford played major roles. So, too, did George Pataki and John McCain, who are featured again this year.

But in this “big tent,” there was no room for any prime-time voice of unapologetic, traditionalist conservatism. On Election Day, the big tent collapsed, and Clinton won an Electoral College landslide, 379 to 159.

The argument for keeping Buchanan and other outspoken conservatives off the podium at the 1996 convention was that Buchanan’s conservative speech on the first night of the 1992 convention had sunk the senior George Bush. But this is demonstrably untrue.

Two separate polls showed that the senior Bush received a big bounce from the first three nights of the 1992 convention. A CBS poll gave him a seven-point jump, and a Houston Chronicle/Hotline poll gave him an 11-point jump. “The Republicans,” the Associated Press reported on Thursday morning of the convention, “picked up support among voters under 45, Catholics, those in the Midwest and South, and those with family incomes over $50,000, according to a CBS analysis.”

That’s a good profile of the swing voters most crucial to President George W. Bush’s campaign this year: Socially conservative middle-class voters in the Midwest and South. These are voters who can tilt key “blue” states that Bush narrowly lost in 2000 (Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin) and “red” states that he narrowly won (Missouri, Florida).

But, so far, their voice, their future leaders and the promise the GOP offers them in the years beyond Bush are not adequately represented on the speaker’s platform at the 2004 Republican convention. Beyond the president, the vice president and Democrat Miller, most of the voices there will be officials from deep in the blue states or who share blue-state values.

When Bush leaves office, conservatives will battle these blue-state Republicans for the fate of the GOP. It will be a ferocious fight. But in the noble cause of moving that fight to a starting date in Iowa in 2007, the Bush campaign ought to add some conservatives to their lineup in New York this August.