Frist is more persuasive on another issue, stem-cell research. Answering Ron Reagan's speech at the Democratic Convention, he explains to the delegates the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells. He doesn't deny the virtues of the latter: "Both fields hold promise." From this reasonable position, he attacks John Kerry's dishonest characterization of the Bush policy. Kerry has repeatedly accused Bush of banning stem-cell research. "What ban?" Frist rightly asks. "Shame on you, Mr. Kerry."
Frist exaggerates Bush's support for the research, ignoring the budget's low dollar amount and describing it only as "record levels." But he does a good job of clarifying the basis for Bush's funding restrictions. "An embryo is biologically human. It deserves moral respect," he says. To my surprise, this earns him the biggest applause of the night. He concludes by promising "an ethical framework for scientific discovery." This is the way conservatives must learn to think and talk about stem-cell research. If they want science to be friendly to religion, they'll have to make religion friendly to science, too.
6:45 p.m. PT—I guess this is Appease-the-Right Night. Not long after Elizabeth Dole leaves the podium, Sen. Sam Brownback shows up to reaffirm the GOP's commitment to "the sanctity of every human life." Brownback's speech turns out to be a masterpiece of framing. He isn't here to talk about abortion. He's here to talk about AIDS—and fold the GOP's pro-life position into it.
"Our nation is again called to the defense of human life and dignity," Brownback says. "HIV/AIDS is one of the greatest moral and humanitarian crises of our time. Over 20 million people have died of the disease." He touts the money Bush is spending to fight the disease. Along the way, he works in conservative-friendly policies such as abstinence education.
Brownback runs through a litany of issues that have recently become important to Christian conservatives. He speaks of "the 14-year-old girl trafficked and sold into prostitution," "the prisoner working to turn away from a life of crime" (who might be helped by a faith-based rehabilitation program), and "the man held in a foreign prison for practicing his faith." I've always thought the development of these issues was one of the most brilliant feats of the Bush administration. Essentially, the Bushies found new issues to occupy the energies of religious conservatives and keep them from demanding sharp changes on abortion, birth control, and other issues that tend to get Republican politicians in trouble. Changes have been made on those issues, but within politically safe boundaries.
Still, Brownback gets his biggest reaction when he restates Bush's pledge to "protect every human life." And he closes with a pledge to safeguard both "the child in the womb" and "the mother carrying her." I assume this is a reference to the recently enacted Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which neatly positioned the GOP as a protector of women as well as fetuses. The religious right is learning and rethinking. The secular left will have to do the same.
6:10 p.m. PT—Elizabeth Dole delivers the first significant speech of the night. I've always thought of her as a plastic doll. Her words are infallibly syrupy and meaningless. Her trademark pasted-on smile increasingly resembles a death mask. When she ran for president four years ago—five, really, since she dropped out early for lack of support—she stuck to her script more assiduously than any other politician I've seen. That's saying something. Tonight is no different: She hardly adds a word to her prepared text.
But the content turns out to be very important. Dole's speech is the first socially conservative speech of the convention, and she doesn't hold back. Every touchy issue that was dodged by last night's pro-choice or anti-anti-gay speakers—Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Ron Silver—figures in Dole's speech.
"We believe in the dignity of every life," says Dole. I'm waiting for her to elaborate on this code word for abortion, but she suddenly transforms it into a different issue: "We believe in life—the new life of a man and woman joined together under God. Marriage is important not because it is a convenient invention or the latest reality show. Marriage is important because it is the cornerstone of civilization, and the foundation of the family. Marriage between a man and a woman isn't something Republicans invented, but it is something Republicans will defend."
Wow. I had no idea Dole felt so strongly about the sanctity of marriage. It certainly didn't stop her from marrying a divorced man and singing his praises in countless campaigns.
Then Dole gets back to abortion. "We believe in a culture that respects all life—including the most vulnerable in our society, the frail elderly, the infirm, and those not yet born." She robotically enunciates every word—"not … yet … born"—to make sure every pro-lifer in the arena is satisfied that these issues are being given sufficient time. It's a big job, compensating these people for Monday's Shut-Up-About-Social-Issues Night. If I were a pro-life delegate, I'd be more impressed if these words were being delivered at 10 p.m., when the networks tune in, instead of 8 p.m.