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Bush Odd Man Out

POSTED: September 03, 2008, 12:00 am

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It was a strange evening by any measure as the Republican Party finally kicked off its convention after being delayed by Hurricane Gustav in the Gulf Coast. On a night when the party formally made the case to the public for Senator John McCain's candidacy, a sitting President sat home, a formal rival gave the keynote address and spent as much time heralding the vice presidential nominee as he did defining the top of the ticket, and a Democratic outcast appealed to Democrats and independents to support the Republican ticket.

In a reversal of fortune President George W. Bush addressed delegates to the Republican National Convention via satellite from the White House, choosing to skip a personal appearance at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The president became the first incumbent since Lyndon Johnson in 1968 to skip his party's convention. It is a far cry from the hero’s welcome President Bush received four years ago when the Republicans gathered at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The president's low public approval ratings, driven by an unpopular war and a faltering economy, has made him persona non grata within his own party, as evidenced by his absence from the convention. It is a stark turn of events from the president who stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln several years ago and declared "Mission Accomplished" after the capture of Sadaam Hussein in Iraq. That George W. Bush, boastful and confident, is a far cry from the George Bush who stayed home rather than have the failings of his administration identified with his party's standard bearer for 2009.

In many ways the comparison to Lyndon Johnson is inevitable: an unpopular president entrapped by an unpopular war. The difference is that at one point this president had the upper hand on public opinion; an advantage President Johnson never enjoyed. It is easy to forget that President Bush had significant public support at the onset of the war. Even when fighting was prolonged and Sadaam Hussein remained at-large, the nation was still rallying behind the president despite growing international criticism of the war. Once the former Iraqi leader was captured it appeared as though Mr. Bush would ride off into the sunset with his legacy sealed. It was not to be. The American public grew restless with the sustained fighting in Iraq and high number of injuries and casualties of U.S. troops. The White House "narrative" around the U.S. occupation of Iraq also began to wilt as it became evident the administration's claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction could not be substantiated. A parade of weapons experts contradicted the administration's assessments of Iraq and began to publicly take issue with the White House over its justification for war. Further damaging the president's credibility was the exodus of Secretary of State Colin Powell after it became clear to the general that the administration had badly miscalculated the probability for success in Iraq.

The degree of public dissatisfaction with the president is no clearer than in his decision to avoid this week's convention. For an outgoing president, the last convention before leaving office should be a grand send-off; an acknowledgement by the party of achievements and successes, against the backdrop of partisan revelry. It is hard to imagine Ronald Reagan or William Jefferson Clinton, despite the latter's impeachment, for that matter hiding out at the executive mansion as his party convened to select its presidential candidate. Both of those men saw the public as a tool, to be bent and twisted into shape for political advantage. George W. Bush's decision to opt out of the convention, though personal in nature, sends a larger signal to the American public about his party and the Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain. While the party faithful may accept, and some welcome, the president's absence from the convention, it does suggest an abandonment and repudiation of the Bush doctrine - a development that may not escape the notice of the electorate.

Delivering the keynote address was former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, a former presidential aspirant best known to many as an actor from his years on the popular Law and Order series. Thompson was an early favorite for the GOP nomination but his celebrity status did not transition into popular support. His role as the keynote speaker evoked memories of the Republican National Convention of four years ago when he introduced the biographical film of President Bush. This time around his role was to set the stage for the Republican nominee and draw distinctions between Senator McCain and his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama. From the outset it was clear the Republican Party had decided to wrap itself in the flag, evoking a patriotic theme and selling Senator McCain's life story as validation for his fitness to occupy the White House. Rather than highlight the differences in policy positions that distinguish Senator McCain from Senator Obama, Thompson spent the better part of his speech painting a heroic picture of the GOP nominee.

Thompson also made certain to praise the selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as Senator McCain's running mate, claiming her as a fresh face far outside the Beltway. He also took a jab at television pundits for their skepticism over the Palin pick. The news earlier in the day that Palin's teenage daughter was pregnant was obviously on the minds of the convention managers, sensing the need to embrace Palin with a public show of support. Judging from the crowd reaction and their embrace of Palin, party officials had determined that the night had to be used to establish the Alaska governor’s credibility with the larger American public. Thompson, for his part, repeatedly referenced Senator McCain's military service and his experience as a POW during the Vietnam War. To make his point, Thompson spoke of Senator McCain's physical disability and the fact that he cannot raise his hand to salute the flag; imagery to connect voters with McCain on a patriotic level.

Following Senator McCain was Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, an Independent, and once a Democrat and a former vice presidential candidate himself, who suggested that Senator McCain's maverick status had transcended partisan politics on Capitol Hill. Lieberman relayed his personal friendship with Senator McCain and suggested the Arizona Republican was the candidate the country needed at this time, given the state of the economy and world affairs. Lieberman also defended McCain's position on the Iraq War, suggesting he was the first to back the troop surge over the objections and doubts of Democrats, including their party's nominee. Senator Lieberman's role at the convention has brought the long serving senator full circle; from serving as former Vice President Al Gore's running mate in 2000 to facing a primary challenge and running for re-election as an Independent, to speaking before the partisan faithful of what had been for most of his career the opposition party. Given his high profile role on behalf of Senator McCain, Senator Lieberman will likely face total isolation should Senator Obama prove victorious in November and Democrats gain a veto proof majority in the Senate.

Next up for the Republicans on Wednesday evening is former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and vice presidential nominee Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

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