Reaganesque at the Republican Convention

by Charles Kesler

The politics and oratory at the Republican National Convention got better and better as the evening proceeded. Who knew that Rob Portman could be an engaging speaker, or that Tim Pawlenty could be funny? Huckabee displayed his considerable folksiness and cunning — preaching becomes him — though he was perhaps too obviously clinical in his cool treatment of Brother Romney’s Mormonism. Condoleezza Rice has given the same speech, albeit in slightly different versions, many times over the past few years, but I never heard her deliver it better than tonight. It neatly combined foreign policy, economic policy, and American exceptionalism, culminating in her own story of growing up in Jim Crow America and rising to be secretary of state. It is a wonderful story, and she told it movingly. The audience gave her a standing ovation — for her remarkable life in this remarkable country, not for her (earlier) remarks on Bush 43’s policy of democratizing the Middle East. Future Republican secretaries of state, please note.

As a musician, Rice may have appreciated the crescendo that she began, which climaxed in Paul Ryan’s powerful speech. In between came Susana Martinez’s winning remarks, which recounted her moment of conversion or rather realization: “I’ll be damned. We’re Republicans!” she told her husband after a free lunch with two gently proselytizing GOPers. After that, she understood that there is no such thing as a free lunch. As the first woman Hispanic governor — is there an App for these kind of records? — she allowed that she and Mitt Romney were from “different cultures” but shared a belief in the American dream and way of life. In the old days or at least in the old understanding, that would have meant they shared the same culture in the decisive sense. Are we afraid to say that anymore?

Paul Ryan’s performance was brilliant. To my mind it seemed Reaganesque, humorously and expertly flaying the Obama administration not merely for failing to deliver on its economic promises but for daring to conceive of Hope and Change as a replacement for America’s founding principles. Ryan and Reagan share a midwestern sensibility that is deeply appealing to Americans, though the congressman lacks Reagan’s Hollywood sparkle and gubernatorial experience. But one governor on the ticket may be enough, and in some ways Ryan has both a deeper knowledge of policy and a broader education in conservatism than Reagan did, certainly at age 42. Is Ryan’s argument on Medicare too far ahead of public opinion, as Reagan’s on transferring welfare programs to the states was in 1976? I hope not.

Two general observations: Senator John McCain’s discussion of foreign policy, which began the evening, echoed Rice’s and was no more compelling. It received the briefest of reprises in Ryan’s speech, and sounded the only false note in his well-crafted remarks. Is a third term of George W. Bush’s foreign policy (some of which is worthy, to be sure) the only Republican prescription on offer? Second, “you didn’t build that” is the gift that keeps on giving. But isn’t every speaker’s identification of the Republican party with economic striving and success, laudable as these are, when the ticket is headed by a fabulously successful businessman, laudable as he is, a bit one-dimensional? What happened, to pick an obvious theme, to Lincoln freeing the slaves? Rice (the logical candidate) did not mention him nor claim credit for the GOP as a party of antislavery principle. The political courage, justice, wisdom, and moderation of the party’s greatest statesmen (think Reagan’s anti-Communism, too) fits in so nicely with the theme of hard truths and tough choices that it’s a shame when Republicans miss the chance to toot their own horn, and to disturb the other party’s moral pretensions.

— Charles Kesler is author of the upcoming I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.

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