Monday was the deadliest day for American troops in Iraq since May 2, though seven more Americans died the next day in a series of attacks, as intensive fighting erupted in the Sadr City slum of Baghdad. This news comes on the heels of a grim August, in which 66 American troops were killed and close to 1,100 were injured, the most injuries of any month since the war began. By Tuesday afternoon, the overall American death toll had passed 1,000, with no end in sight--and, with Iraq's scheduled January elections in doubt, no clear progress there to justify the mounting toll.
The car bombing incident is worthy of mention not because it was unexpected--mortar attacks, RPG ambushes, bombings, kidnappings, infrastructure sabotage, and assassinations in Iraq have continued without pause, now at a rate of more than 100 attacks per day, since the handover of sovereignty to an American-appointed Iraqi government on June 28--but because it provides a stark moment of cognitive dissonance when juxtaposed against the message that came out of the Republican Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York. There, over four evenings, a broad array of speakers, including one extremely angry self-identified Democrat, Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, who bizarrely questioned his party's right to campaign against President Bush, all joined voices to assure the country that all was going well for an America at war under the steely, assured, unwavering resolve of George W. Bush.
It also proves that the convention was, as the Democratic counter-spinners insisted, a "masquerade," though not precisely in the way the Dems meant. Yes, as the DNC operatives pointed out from their temporary headquarters five blocks south of the Garden on Seventh Avenue, the RNC was an extended game of hide-and-seek, where the Santorum wing of the party was safely hidden away behind the doors of banquet rooms closed to the press or relegated to out-of-prime-time speaking slots. But more substantively, the Republicans were forthright--perhaps too forthright--in expressing what they believe.
Since 9/11, under the missionary neo-conservatism of George W. Bush, the Republican Party has reshuffled the deck of its priorities. The convention served as the coming out party for this new agenda: the war on terrorism, seen as a fundamental, apocalyptic battle between the forces of light and darkness, and disingenuously redefined to include Iraq, now outranks the culture war, or even the once supreme anti-government tax-cutting agenda, in the hierarchy of Republican issues. The masquerade, then, was not that Republicans hid what they believed, but that they concealed all the unpleasant, inconvenient facts--Iraq's lack of connection to 9/11, Hussein's lack of WMD, a horribly bungled occupation that has allowed Iraq to emerge as the new Afghanistan, the fear and resentment of America spreading across the globe as the result of swaggering American unilateralism, the continued threat posed by al Qaeda--that contradict the grand vision they presented of an America in complete control of her destiny, and their repeated assertions that Bush's unreflective resolve alone ensured our success in the world.
Bush himself, who experienced several moments of uncharacteristic (and unscripted) honesty in the week prior to the Republican conclave, was back to his old certitude as he addressed an adoring crowd on Thursday evening. Just days earlier he had described Iraq, oxymoronically, as a "catastrophic success" and opined, quite reasonably, that waging war on an idea was unwinnable according to any conventional metric of modern warfare. During his convention speech, however, he reverted to form in asserting, simply, that "we will prevail" against terror because of the "tough decisions" he had made to "confront threats to America before it is too late." And he joined his preceding Republican speakers in promoting the mirror-image message, just as forcefully articulated, that an America reeling under the eternal fogginess of the nuanced mind of John Kerry would be doomed to paralyzed confusion and vulnerable to the implacable foes of American liberty.
The Republicans, in short, made it crystal clear that they will make their stand on their stewardship of the Iraq war, which they conflate, shamelessly, with the war on terror. That they see Iraq this way is in part defensive, of course, since admitting the extent of their miscalculation would all but hand victory to the Democrats in November. But it was also something more: an expression of the Republican yearning for a unifying mission for both the country and the party. Right or wrong, the convention proved that they have not just a message, but also "a clear, precise, and consistent vision," as Rudy Giuliani put it in his Monday night speech. Indeed, if his father lacked "the vision thing," Bush 43 has the opposite problem. All he has is the vision thing. It's reality that 43 has a problem with.
Before the convention began, delegates arriving in heavily Democratic New York were confronted with angry anti-Bush demonstrators numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Some Republicans, like initiative king Tim Eyman, elected as an alternate, spent several hours Sunday afternoon out on the streets exchanging catcalls with the protestors.
Most stuck to more conventional activities. Each morning delegates gathered for breakfast in a small hotel conference room, where they were serenaded by pep talks from party leaders.
At times these breakfast speeches, which I dutifully attended, were downright weird. Bush's Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, spoke on Monday, sharing a surreal story of American progress in Iraq. She said, her voice laden with pious fervor, that during a recent visit there, she met a U.S. army captain who has taken it upon himself to hold seminars to train Iraqis as "nonprofit board members." The absurdity of this, given the violent reality on the ground there, is completely lost on Chao, or on her raptly listening audience.
Karl Rove, too, made a brief, if anticlimactic, appearance on Wednesday, though he said little beyond exhorting Washington's delegates to work hard for Bush's reelection. A phalanx of burly, unsmiling aides shouldered aside the press contingent as Rove beat a hasty retreat.
Each day the convention had a distinct theme. Monday's was "A Nation of Courage." Tuesday was "People of Compassion." Wednesday was supposed to convey "A Land of Opportunity." And Thursday: "A Safer World, a More Hopeful America." In truth, however, these slogans were mere window dressing. Almost universally, the main speakers each night returned again and again to Bush's handling of the war on terrorism while relentlessly attacking Kerry as a feminized weakling. Kerry "talks of leading a more sensitive war on terror," a grim-faced Dick Cheney intoned Wednesday as the hall erupted with laughter, "as though al Qaeda will be impressed by our softer side." Cheney's speech, though, was pattycake compared to that of Miller's ranting, rage-filled diatribe that had delegates swooning.
In fact, many of the delegates hate Kerry with as much passion as Democrats despise Bush. In the hotel bar one evening, I overheard two Republicans. One opined that Kerry should be "strung up" for his famous criticism of the Vietnam War before the U.S. Senate in 1971. In the convention hall on Monday night, some delegates mocked Kerry's war wounds by plastering themselves with bandages inscribed with purple hearts. Every time Kerry's supposed inconstancy was mentioned by a speaker--and this line of attack was repeated endlessly--the delegates invariably broke into a singsong chant of "flip-flop."
The denunciations of Kerry were harsh, particularly after Democrats mostly refrained from attacking the president in Boston, and effective. But they are also a sign of weakness, indicating that Republican strategists believe their only hope of winning is to make Kerry seem completely unacceptable in the minds of voters.
Building up Bush, tearing down Kerry, ruthlessly exploiting the war on terror for partisan advantage while ignoring all of the evidence that the invasion of Iraq was a terrible miscalculation: It may be enough. This Bush vision of perpetual war against the forces of evil is simple-minded, but it is also purposeful, tribalistic, and deeply seductive--so long as you don't delve too deeply into its ramifications. It is as comprehensive as the national mission provided by the Cold War prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bush made this link explicit in his speech, saying that just as America faced "the tyrannies of the 20th century," he believes "America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century." This can mean war against the terrorists who attacked us (al Qaeda), or those who harbored them (the Taliban), or, and here is where it gets dangerous, even those we deem bad (Saddam Hussein). "Peace through strength" is how Washington State Republican Party chair Chris Vance described the core tenet of the post-9/11 Republican Party to me over drinks late Wednesday evening. "Overwhelming military superiority and the will to use it." Almost as an afterthought, he added, "keeping taxes low and growing the pie."
This was, as Vance's prioritization suggests, not a convention much concerned with home front priorities. Bush's domestic record--particularly more than 1 million jobs lost and the accelerating erosion of the country's manufacturing base during his tenure--remains a gaping vulnerability. Bush did run through a laundry list of rehashed proposals that define his brand of big government Republicanism, all tied together under the rubric of what he calls "an ownership society." But he did not offer any details of how he intends to pay for his programs--partially privatizing social security, reforming the tax code--given the massive federal deficits he has created with his tax cuts and pork-barrel spending.
Instead, the absolute determination of Bush to follow through on the national security course he has charted, for better or worse, was the convention's central theme. The party's stalwarts pounded home this storyline relentlessly and with an effective lack of subtlety or nuance. Such top-down message discipline had its political virtues. The convention provided a comforting narrative divorced from the grubby reality of unpleasant present-day facts: Our intentions are good, our successes impressive, our future bright--provided Bush remains in power. It was, additionally, stripped of all headache-inducing complexity: A monolithic if shadowy entity known as "terrorists" attacked us, and now we attack them in Iraq. And it was, at least initially, successful: following three weeks of vicious, unsubstantiated, yet highly successful attacks on Kerry's Vietnam service--the Kerry campaign faced its Willie Horton moment and flubbed it, mounting only a belated, tepid defense--the latest poll has Bush enjoying a 7-point lead over his rival.
But that bounce is likely to be ephemeral because political speeches, no matter how artfully staged, are always vulnerable to being judged against facts on the ground. And if John Kerry has been too kind, squandering the month of August in a misguided effort to take a blandly safe high road, the gloves are now off. Kerry's new stump speech has a simple theme that strikes squarely at Bush's vulnerabilities: If you believe the country is headed in the right direction, vote for Bush, Kerry says, but if you believe the country needs a change of direction, vote for Kerry. Wrong tack voters still outnumber right-track voters; the fundamentals of this race still favor the challenger. While Republicans believe they can distract the American public from the failures of the administration, reality has a way of intruding. Witness, for example, the ongoing chaos of Iraq.