Blogging from the Republican Convention, Day 1.

Politics and policy.
Aug. 31 2004 2:08 AM

Giuliani Plays Offense

Blogging from the Republican Convention, Day 1.

11:04 p.m. PT—Rudy Giuliani, New York's former mayor, wraps up the night. He repeats the line put forward by McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that we're "one America"—not two, as John Edwards suggests—and must unite behind our president.

More egregiously than McCain, Giuliani equates the plotters of 9/11 with the butchers of Iraq. He recalls Bush's vow that the terrorists who attacked America would "hear from us." "They heard from us in Iraq," says Giuliani. To get around the absence of WMD, he adds that Saddam "was himself a weapon of mass destruction." Please. There's nothing less suitable for strained metaphors than weapons of mass destruction. They're horribly literal. Don't insult the gravity of these weapons by suggesting that even if the country you invaded didn't have them, the guy who ran the country is sort of like one of them.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The twist Giuliani adds to McCain's argument is an obsessive repetition of two opposing concepts. Giuliani calls them "offense" and "defense." Defense is what lily-livered liberals advocate: waiting for terrorists to attack us. Offense is what Bush is doing: hitting the terrorists before they can hit us. The offense/defense metaphor treats the use of force as a football game, in which the enemy is clear, and every attack we launch is an advance. This eliminates the salient complication of reality: Al-Qaida and Saddam were distinct adversaries, and attacking the latter wasn't necessarily an advance against the former.

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The defensive mentality is related, in Giuliani's worldview, to appeasement. He blames the Germans and Italians for coddling terrorists in 1972 and 1985. This led, by a seamless train of logic, to the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. These are the same gutless Europeans who tried to "appease Hitler," according to Giuliani. The Hitler-Saddam analogy figures heavily in his speech, as does the likeness of George W. Bush to Winston Churchill.

Most troubling are the outright misrepresentations Giuliani inflicts on John Kerry. For weeks, the Bush campaign has claimed that Kerry called himself an "antiwar" candidate on Iraq. Chris Matthews, the interviewer who actually used that word, has pointed out that Kerry did not. Other news organizations, including Slate, have noted that Kerry said he opposed the war as Bush conducted it, not categorically. Giuliani doesn't care. He repeats that Kerry "declared himself as the antiwar candidate." Putting more words in Kerry's mouth, Giuliani says the senator claimed "that certain foreign leaders who opposed our removal of Saddam Hussein [italics mine] prefer him" to Bush. And referring to Kerry's claim that he voted "for the $87 billion [for postwar Iraq appropriations] before I voted against it," Giuliani jokes that Kerry needs two Americas so that in the second America, "he can vote against exactly the same thing" he voted for in the first America. The delegates roar their approval, but it's a lie. What Kerry voted for was an alternative that would have paid for the $87 billion by rolling back Bush's tax cut.

In a time of war, Giuliani concludes, "Americans should put leadership at the core of their decision. There are many qualities that make a great leader, but having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristic of a great leader." No. The most important characteristic of a great leader is being right. And the most important characteristic of a great speaker—contrary to the view of my colleagues who are raving about Giuliani's speech—is being honest. Bush wasn't right, and Giuliani isn't honest, and no amount of bullheadedness can make up for that.

10:20 p.m. PT—I supported the Iraq war because I thought, erroneously, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I never saw any evidence that he had anything to do with 9/11 or was a major sponsor of al-Qaida. Bush's persistence in implying such a link signified nothing more to me than his usual idiocy. I figured he couldn't tell the difference.

But the men who take the stage tonight to repeat this spin aren't Bush-league idiots. They can tell the difference. And they're deliberately obscuring it.

Bernard Kerik, who was New York's police commissioner on 9/11, tells the convention that in the face of the evil wrought that day, "We had to respond. We had to fight this war abroad." Well, yes. We had to fight abroad. But abroad is a big place. Afghanistan, yes. But Iraq? Finally "Saddam will be held accountable," Kerik vows. But for terrorism? For posing a threat to the United States? Or for being yet another bloody dictator?

John McCain, the guy I voted for in 2000, takes the stage at 10 p.m. to defend the Iraq war at length. He makes a good point my antiwar friends neglect: The alternative to war in Iraq wasn't "a benign status quo." Too many liberals ignored Saddam's defiance of the 1991 cease-fire and the United Nations. But McCain carries this argument beyond what the evidence supports. The choice "was between war and a graver threat," he says. Really? After all the fruitless searches for WMD? A graver threat?

McCain says sanctions and containment failed in Iraq. "The years of keeping Saddam in a box were coming to a close," he says. "The international consensus that he be kept isolated and unarmed had eroded to the point that many critics of military action had decided the time had come again to do business with Saddam." McCain adds, "Whether or not Saddam possessed the terrible weapons he once had and used, freed from international pressure and the threat of military action, he would have acquired them again." But the premise is false. Thanks to the American veto in the U.N. Security Council, the sanctions couldn't have been overturned without our acquiescence. And the upshot of our postwar study of the remnants of Iraq's WMD programs is that those sanctions, despite rampant corruption, were working far better than we had imagined.

McCain says the war has emboldened freedom-loving Arabs. "By destroying his regime we gave hope to people long oppressed that if they have the courage to fight for it, they may live in peace and freedom," he says. "Our efforts may encourage the people of a region that has never known peace or freedom or lasting stability that they may someday possess these rights." You have got to be kidding me. How many Arabs are looking at Iraq's chaos on television and envisioning peace or stability?

To gloss over these myths, McCain urges us to focus not on facts but on emotion. He lauds Bush's "determination" and "unflagging resolve. ... He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield. And neither will we." Never mind that the target of this resolve, and the cause for which we're shedding blood, has changed.

And never mind the other issues in this election. On 9/11, "We were not poor or rich," says McCain. "We were not two countries. We were Americans. ... We are not enemies, but comrades in a war against a real enemy. ... Stand up with our president and fight." Forget the tax cuts. Forget the outsourcing. Forget the dividend tax breaks and the estate tax repeal. Pay no attention to the hand in your pocket. Close your eyes and think of America.

This is your brain on nationalism.

7:15 p.m. PT—Of all the names on this convention's list of speakers, none shocks me more than Ron Silver. Silver is an actor, one of those Hollywood types Republicans like to ridicule. Just a few weeks ago, the Bush campaign was mocking Kerry for suggesting that Kerry's Hollywood supporters spoke for the heart and soul of America. But here's an actor who, in the opinion of the Republicans applauding around this arena, does speak for the heart and soul of America. Nothing matters but the bottom line. That's Hollywood.

Silver doesn't present himself as a Hollywood guy. He calls himself a New York guy. He talks about his parents and grandparents who lived here. He says his neighbors were murdered here on 9/11. "We will never forget. We will never forgive. We will never excuse," he thunders. The crowd applauds wildly.

I recognize this character: the Angry Jew. (Relax, I'm Jewish.) No Christian could get away with saying, "We will never forgive" in prime time at a major party convention. Forgiveness is a fundamental Christian value. You can condemn Osama Bin Laden's evil all you want, but you're not allowed to make the point in terms of denying forgiveness.

Jews don't have this problem. We're Old Testament people. We don't read that stuff about turning the other cheek or the meek inheriting the earth. We tried the meek approach and got slaughtered. We read the part of the Bible that talks about Yahweh and slaying the Philistines and your blood shall be on your own head. That means you, Osama.

I'm the kind of guy Silver ought to connect with. He does. He talks about freedom, democracy, strength, and courage. He says he's a liberal but is sick of his liberal friends bemoaning oppression around the world while refusing to use force to do anything about it. I want to shout, "Tell it!" But Jews don't do that.

"This is a war in which we have to respond," Silver declares. The crowd eats it up. But respond how? This is where all that talk of strength and courage breaks down. What good are strength and courage if they're applied without judgment? If you go bravely into war in the wrong place, based on the wrong intelligence, where's the virtue in that? Where's the virtue in spending the blood and treasure of your country—and squandering its anger and resolve—against the wrong target?

Jews like to argue about such philosophical matters, so I'll challenge Silver. Courage without judgment is no virtue in the Jewish tradition, Ron. It's no virtue in the American tradition, either.

6:45 p.m. PT—Denny Hastert delivers the first big-name speech of the evening. Hastert, in case you don't watch C-SPAN, is the speaker of the House. I know, you thought Tom DeLay had that job. But DeLay is just the guy with the power. Hastert is the guy with the title.

I'd like to tell you I'm watching Hastert deliver his remarks onstage. But I'm not. I'm watching him on an oversized (but not oversized enough) movie screen suspended above the stage. I've traveled to New York and wound my way through endless layers of security to get inside Madison Square Garden so that I can watch the speakers at this convention on the equivalent of a big TV screen. That's because the GOP has banished us reporters to a section almost behind the stage. Draw your own conclusions.

Hastert, being from Illinois, likens Bush to Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. He says Bush shares the "Lincoln vision." What is this vision? Hastert talks about Bush's faith in the private sector and "peace through strength." I see the Reagan in those ideas. But the Lincoln? Come on.

Hastert hits the predictable notes. He calls John Kerry "weak on the war and wrong on taxes." But he also drops in a word that suggests an emerging front in the war between the parties. Kerry, he says, is on wrong side of "litigation" as well as taxation and regulation. What's notable about this trinity is that it departs from Reagan's formula. Excessive litigation was a concern of the Reagan administration, but was never put on a par with the war against excessive taxation and regulation. Litigation has become a bigger economic issue than it was in Reagan's time. Bush really hates it. And in John Edwards, the Republicans have found a personification of this alleged evil on the opposing ticket. I'm curious to see how serious Bush is about adding a third front to Reagan's war.

6:33 p.m. PT—This will be an interesting convention for me. Five years ago, when I moved out of the District of Columbia—a one-party state, minus the statehood—I had to think seriously about which party to register with. I was sick of the liberal dogmatism of my college and post-college friends. I'd come to the conclusion, through personal and political experience, that while Democrats had the right values, Republicans had a better operating theory of human nature: People behave more virtuously and wisely when they bear the consequences of their actions.

I also agreed fundamentally with something Newt Gingrich said a lot when he was speaker of the House: If we leave the money in Washington, the liberals will spend it. So, when George W. Bush got elected, I wasn't terribly disturbed. I thought he was dumb and unqualified, but with a fat surplus accumulating in Washington, sending the money back to taxpayers before Congress spent it struck me as prudent.

I didn't agree with the conservative urge to legislate on abortion, homosexuality, or other moral issues. But in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, I found a Republican who shared my libertarian instincts on those questions: Rep. Connie Morella. On many spending issues, Morella was to my left. But I was happy to find a sensible representative who didn't have to follow the Democratic Party's line of bribing approved constituencies and equating virtue with spending.

The Maryland Democratic Party refused to let me vote in its primaries if I registered as an independent. The Maryland Republican Party, in need of converts, demanded no such loyalty oath. So, I registered as an independent and voted in Maryland's Republican presidential primary for John McCain, whom I admired even when I disagreed with him. Then I voted for Morella in a tight general election contest, and she won. I was beginning to feel comfortable thinking of myself as a liberal Republican, even if this was one of just a few pockets in the country where people like me could find a place in this party.

Four years later, I come to this convention stripped of that feeling. The past four years have alienated me from this party. I'm here, among other things, to find out why.

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