With Two Months to Go, the G.O.P. Convention Aired a Lot of Distortions

We noticed a headline in the Washington Post that called the Republican convention in New York an “Electoral Collage.” Our dictionary defines a collage as “an artistic composition made of various materials glued onto a picture, and/or an assembly of fragments.”

As the New York Times put it, “for all the lack of real news,” the G.O.P. convention was “intriguing” for the party leadership’s “daring to use” New York City, “with all its wounds and wariness.”

There were predictions that anti-Bush demonstrators would include 100 women draped in American flags and wearing “protest panties” so they could perform a “mass flash.” They did, and were arrested. Mimicking Paul Revere, bicyclists rode down Lexington Avenue shouting, “The Republicans are coming!”

Post-9/11 apprehension spurred the New Yorker magazine to lead the issue it put on newsstands during the convention with a fascinating itemization of why largely Democratic Manhattanites—or Americans anywhere—might be leery of visiting Republicans. One over-long sentence by Hendrik Hertzberg summed it up:

He wrote that New Yorkers were “alarmed by the performance of the incumbent administration during the past three and a half years—alarmed by its mania for shoveling cash to the very rich at the expense of families of middling means, its servility to polluters and fossil fuel extractors, its reckless embrace of national insolvency, its hostility to science, its political alliances with fanatic religious fundamentalisms of every stripe except Islamic, . . . its partisan exploitation of our city’s suffering after the attacks of September 11, 2001, its transubstantiation of the worldwide solidarity that followed those attacks into worldwide anti-Americanism, and its diversion of American blood, treasure and expertise away from the pursuit of al Qaeda to a bloody occupation of Iraq that appears to have done nothing to weaken Islamist terrorism and may have done more than a little to strengthen it.”

After that, you may mutter “Whew!” But it doesn’t say it all. A more compact indictment came from the Washington Post columnist, E.J. Dionne, writing in the Washington Monthly magazine:

“What would President Bush do with a second term? Let’s take him at his word. Bush is engaged in a bold (and, if you disagree with him, dangerous) project to dismantle the social advances of the New and Fair Deals, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. He wants to throw more risk onto the individual, free corporations and employers from regulation that protect employees and consumers, and reduce the government’s role in providing retirement security.”

Yet Newt Gingrich calls his party “the broadest Republican Party since President Teddy Roosevelt.” A G.O.P. website claims that its convention brought together “the most diverse group of delegates in party history”—17 percent of them from racial or ethnic minorities.

A leading nonpartisan magazine, the National Journal, asks whether both party conventions have “become the dinosaurs of presidential politics.” It says they are no longer “the battlegrounds they used to be” because primary elections and state caucuses select the presidential nominees and neither party’s convention has even a hint of suspense about its outcome. And now more and more states are allowing people to vote weeks ahead of the final Election Day by mailed-in absentee ballots.

Absentee voting will be easier than ever this year. Twenty-four states allow their citizens to vote by absentee ballot—in other words, by mail—for any reason. Others may require an explanatory excuse—assertions of illness, disability or travel on Election Day. One way to check that out is to go to the website www.johnkerry.com, then click on “Register to Vote” and on “Absentee Ballots.” Or make a phone call to your local government, requesting an absentee ballot by mail.

The only remaining smoke-filled rooms today are those of the shrinking number of TV-watching householders. In 1952 the main television networks gave a total of 300 hours to the two major-party conventions. In 2000 they gave them a total of 18 hours, and this year their convention airtime was a total of three hours each, with one night blacked out entirely.

Americans who didn’t watch—or, even if they’d wanted to, could not tune in to—this year’s measly coverage of the national conventions by the major TV networks are not the only citizens who may find the coverage inadequate. The broadcast media’s convention blackouts have been even darker when it comes to covering congressional and gubernatorial election contests.
After scanning data on what happened in the 2002 election season in 10 politically combative states, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate finds that regional and local television coverage of debates among congressional and gubernatorial contenders was minimal. Of the 174 candidate debates, 58 percent were not televised, and TV stations affiliated with the national networks and their commercial-strewn programming ignored 73 percent of them. Of the major-network stations, NBC’s coverage was stingy but best; ABC’s was the worst.

WE BETTER STAY WELL—The bureaucratic administrator of the Medicare program managed to wait a day after President Bush had heralded his alleged plan to help the elderly survive soaring medical expenses to announce the largest dollar increase for coverage in Medicare’s history. In 2006 the monthly charge is to rise 17 percent, to $78.20.

An independent watchdog group, the Medicare Rights Center, called the increase “a body blow to millions of older Americans living on fixed incomes”—people it said “are already staggering under the relentless increases in the cost of prescription drugs.” Meanwhile, a growing number of state governments have authorized the purchase of cheaper drugs from Canadian pharmacies, a political critique of the Bush administration’s strong support of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry.

According to interviews with senior citizens published in the National Journal, many angry seniors still refuse to try out the complicated new discount drug cards that the Bush White House managed to get through Congress.

By the end of July, two months after the new cards took effect, only 4 million Medicare beneficiaries had a discount card out of the 33 million Americans eligible for them. Only 1.7 million of them had signed up on their own, indicating some understanding of the system, while 58 percent have been automatically enrolled by their HMOs. Medicare will launch its more complicated system of permanent drug benefits in 2006.

That’s all part of the president’s concept of the “ownership society,” an ideologically driven plan that really means that as market forces are imposed onto health care, more needy people will not have access to it.

Under Bush they probably also won’t see an increase in the federal minimum wage, pinned for years at $5.15 an hour by the refusal of the Republican-controlled Congress to raise it. Thwarted there by the G.O.P. majority’s inaction on Democratic proposals to raise the national minimum wage, proponents of higher pay ceilings have turned to state ballot initiatives this fall, which are expected to bring Kerry supporters to the polls.

That may well increase the Democratic voter turnout, particularly among African-Americans, Hispanics and low-income workers, and particularly in two swing states, Florida and Nevada. Voters there can support state ceiling increases to $6.15 an hour. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia have already raised their minimum wage levels to as much as $2 an hour over the federal level.

GIVE ‘EM ZELL—If rising health care costs, other soaring prices, slumping employment and increasing poverty were no-no’s on the Republicans’ convention agenda, the Swift boat veterans’ attack and other discredited smearing tactics aimed at their Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry, were topic-A.

At the convention, some nasty partisan attacks came from Vice President Dick Cheney, among other party stalwarts. But the most calculatedly callous anti-Kerry hollering was delivered by a Democrat picked as the Republican convention’s keynote speaker, Senator Zell Miller of Georgia. The newspaper headlines on that included: “The Zell Out,” “Mad as Zell,” and “Zig Zag Zell.” A Democratic National Committee press release was headlined: “Zellephant Gone Wild!”

In what we can really call a nut shell summary of his attack, Miller smeared Kerry’s anti-war activities after his return from Vietnam and some of his Senate votes against appropriations for weapons. Then, curling his lips, he shouted: “This is the man who wants to be commander in chief of our U.S. armed forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?”

“Our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down the commander in chief,” Miller went on.

Manic? In Miller’s case how about maniacal? On camera later with Chris Matthews on his MSNBC cable show Hardball, Miller didn’t like Matthews’s doubting questions and his critique of Zell’s overzealous spiel. Miller first threatened to “cancel this interview,” then told Matthews that he wished “we lived in the day when you could challenge a person to a duel”—meaning Matthews, and not with spitballs.

H.L. Mencken’s observation of pre-television conventions that even back then they were “ill managed and inefficient carnivals” is truer than ever. That this one veered toward the zany and the ugly was not missed by observers. The Washington Post reported that it was “clear that Miller’s thrusts had drawn blood, but it was not clear whether the blood was Kerry’s or Miller’s own.” Asked later by NBC’s Tom Brokaw if she and the president agreed with Miller’s assault, First Lady Laura Bush said, “I don’t know that we share that point of view.”
Kerry’s return fire was not in spitballs. “I am not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq,” he said. Referring to Cheney’s repeated dodges of the draft during the Vietnam war, Kerry said, “I guess I’ll leave it up to the voters whether five deferments make someone more qualified to defend this nation than two tours of duty”—i.e., his own.

“Let me tell you what I think makes someone unfit for duty,” he continued. “Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this nation. Doing nothing while this nation loses millions of jobs makes you unfit to lead this nation.”

FLIP-FLOP—Bush has flip-flopped recently from calling his invasion of Iraq “a miscalculation” and the war on terrorism unwinnable without a “long-lasting ideological struggle.” He now says America will win the war on terror and will convert the world to Americanism.

An ideological struggle? Nearly 1,000 American troops and some 16,000 Iraqis have been killed in the Iraq war so far. As we went to press on Labor Day, seven U.S. Marines were killed in a car bomb explosion set off by Iraqi insurgents.

In a recent report on the endless war in Iraq the New York Times said there is “emerging discord” on Iraq within the ranks of the formerly influential pro-war neoconservatives in Washington. The Times says that in this election year there are “three G’s in the Republican culture wars deck—gays, guns and God.”

And deregulation? According to “Ten Thousand Commandments,” a scathing attack on federal environmental, safety, health and economic regulations by the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning Washington think tank, the institute finds that deregulation is the order of the day. In 2003 the Federal Register had 71,269 pages of regulations listed, 4,336 fewer pages than in the 2002 edition. (See FYI for the battle over this trend.)

For his part, Kerry has been reacting to rising concerns among Democrats about his campaign by consulting with former President Bill Clinton, speaking with him in a 90-minute telephone call at a New York hospital just before the former president’s open-heart surgery, and adding former Clinton aides to his staff. Clinton reportedly urged Kerry to quit his emphasis on his Vietnam biography and to focus instead on his agenda for dealing with job losses and the financial crunch of health care costs. A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that less than 40 percent of its respondents had a firm idea of how Kerry would deal with those.

Bush has tried publicly—if not actually—to disconnect his campaign from the television attack ads on Kerry and his Vietnam experience created by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group. He has called for an end to the so-called 527 finance committees, which have bloomed under the new campaign-finance law. That switch comes late. Newsweek labels the president’s call for a ban on all 527 organizations “a transparent dodge,” adding that “the man who was once an inept right-wing president but a nice guy is now just an inept right-wing president.”

Unfit for Command, a book by two accusing former Vietnam Kerry buddies, John O’Neill and Jerome Corsi, has now hit the top of the New York Times best-seller list. A national poll in August by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that nearly half of the poll respondents had seen or read about the anti-Kerry Swift boat ads. A CBS News poll showed that Kerry’s support among veterans had dropped to 37 percent, from its height of 46 percent following the Democratic convention.

The Wall Street Journal tells us that the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the major corporate interest groups in Washington, says big business will “get the best people and the greatest assets we can rally” to beat the Kerry-Edwards ticket.

But how they will do against voters in the working class gets a grim forecast in Newsweekmagazine, which says that workers are concerned and “business confidence remains fragile.” The unemployment rate is 5.5 percent nationally, but 5.9 percent in Ohio and 6.8 percent in Michigan, two of the “swing states.”

On the day Bush mounted the convention’s special presidential podium, the Journal editorial page ticked off some of the anti-Bush charges, scolding him “for pursuing tax cuts, amid recession and war, that have brought back the deficit.”

Not enough? “He is blamed for invading Iraq instead of concentrating on Al Qaeda. He has also—pick your favorite sins of recklessness—upset our venerable global alliances, dumped the sainted ABM Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol, opened Medicare to market competition, demanded too much from public schools, and loosened restraints on the Justice Department and the FBI.”

The Journal editorial’s conclusion: “No wonder his opponents are bitter. They understand that a second Bush term could well alter the country’s political landscape for a generation.”