The first full day of the Republican convention—the schedule was put back from Monday because of Hurricane Gustav—went off smoothly. President Bush was beamed in from the White House, and Fred Thompson and Joe Lieberman were the other headliners. No sign yet of Sarah Palin, due to speak on Wednesday, and the subject of almost every conversation in the margins of the event. Whatever the rest of the country may think of her, whether she proves to be an asset or a liability to the McCain campaign, her selection has generated extraordinary excitement and enthusiasm here.
At the same time, though, her arrival on the ticket threw the first day’s pace off a little. With Palin nowhere to be seen, day one, as they say, buried the lede. The idea was to devote it to introducing John McCain, but is any American politician less in need of an introduction?
The tributes were well enough done. True, Bush’s reference to McCain’s spirit being more than a match for the “angry left” was a bit puzzling. (Does anybody even in this hall think that Obama represents the angry left?) But Thompson’s funny, punchy speech had everybody asking, why wasn’t he like that during the primaries? Aside from the sustained ovation for a fallen soldier, Thompson got the biggest cheer of the night. (“And we need a president who doesn’t think that the protection of the unborn or a newly born baby is above his pay grade.”) His speech even had a morsel of policy content (taxes are a bad thing), which otherwise would have been entirely absent from the day. But there was nothing very surprising and, thanks to Palin, it all seemed a little beside the point.
Lieberman’s speech certainly ought to have seemed surprising, but his apostasy is old news. Eight years ago, this man was Al Gore’s running-mate; now here he was speaking up for the Republican nominee. He rested his case on the fact that McCain is an extraordinary man and these are extraordinarily dangerous times. But he said little to elaborate. He got a round of applause for Bill Clinton—no mean feat with this crowd—when he contrasted Clinton’s occasional willingness to work with Republicans with Obama’s record. And he got one big laugh: “If John McCain is just another partisan Republican, I am Michael Moore’s favourite Democrat.” If I had been just another of the partisan Republicans packing the hall, I might have been a little insulted by that, but the audience either failed to make the connection or was in a generous frame of mind.
Most Democrats by now detest Lieberman, of course, but one other thing he said might persuade those who don’t to get with the program. He not only praised McCain’s support for the surge of forces into Iraq (fair enough), but contrasted this with Obama’s “voting to cut off funding for our American troops on the battlefield”. That was tendentious at best, and the most aggressive attack on Obama of the day. Obama has never argued for funding to be cut off; he wanted a timeline for withdrawal attached to the funding. He did vote against a funding bill that failed to include such a provision; but then Lieberman himself, and most Republicans, also voted against a funding measure that did include such a provision. One way or another, almost everybody has voted against funding for the troops. Lieberman’s charge was unfair, and did not sit well with his appeal for one-nation bipartisanship.
And then again, there is Palin. Lieberman, widely thought to have been McCain’s first choice for VP (McCain is said to have switched because the base would not wear it), applauded the selection. “Governor Palin, like John McCain, is a reformer. She’s taken on the special interests and the political power-brokers in Alaska and reached across party lines to get things done. The truth is, she is a leader we can count on to help John shake up Washington. That’s why—that’s why I sincerely believe that the real ticket for change this year is the McCain-Palin ticket.” Lieberman and McCain see eye to eye on national security. But Lieberman is pro-choice on abortion, and a social liberal in other respects as well, whereas Palin is a social conservative. Genuine though his admiration for McCain may be, stretching his endorsement to the whole ticket seemed a stretch too far.
One last observation. Barring breakdowns later in the week, the Republicans have won the platform war hands down. The Democrats had their cheesy game-show set followed by the much-derided Greek column thing. The Republicans have a clean, reflective stage in front of an enormous high-definition screen, used so far to excellent effect. If I were with the DNC, I’d find out who was responsible and book them for 2012.