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At the Super Bowl of Politics, Bush Was Mr. Comeback

August 21, 1988|TOM BETHELL | Tom Bethell is a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.

NEW ORLEANS — Attending a real live political convention, rather than staying home and reading about it, goes a long way toward restoring one's faith in these quadrennial events, now regularly compared to dinosaurs by TV commentators. Less significant groups convene at the drop of a hat. Why not Republicans or Democrats once every four years?

"It's the Super Bowl of politics," an alternate delegate from Colorado told me in the Superdome, when I asked him why he had come all the way to muggy New Orleans at his own expense. "You get to meet a lot of people that you hear about, or speak to on the phone, but otherwise would not meet."

True, there is not enough news to justify the presence of 15,000-odd journalists. But then they are under no obligation to show up. As C-SPAN's successful, gavel-to-gavel coverage shows, modern electronic technology is increasingly displacing the very anchormen and on-camera interpreters of events who are so eager to tell us that meaningful political conventions are a thing of the past. But the fact that the conventions now provide only a minor role for Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, et al., does not mean that the conventions are now unimportant for the party faithful who attend them.

The Republican Party's convention here did much to revive the fortunes of its candidate, Vice President George Bush. His acceptance speech was both well delivered and well received. A couple of attempts at humor (when he referred to his "silver foot" and challenged critics to "make my 24-hour-time period") were unsuccessful, and it is significant that these were both last-minute additions to his speech. Bush simply cannot read such contrived lines as well as President Reagan. Perhaps Hollywood experience is needed. But everyone here says, and surely the television audience grasped, that Bush is a good and decent man, qualified both in character and experience for the job of sitting at what he called "that desk."

But it was the substance of Bush's speech, rather than his style of delivering it, that should give him the greatest boost as he enters the fall campaign. On a number of key issues--Pledge of Allegiance, death penalty, voluntary school prayer, gun control, abortion--the vice president forcefully delineated the chasm that separates the two major political parties. It is certainly reasonable to suppose that those who voted for Reagan because they liked his position on the issues will in November vote for Bush. "When you have to change horses in midstream," Bush argued, "doesn't it make sense to switch to one who is going the same way?" Indeed it does.

It is true that no presidential candidate will get very far on the "social issues" if the economy is in trouble or the nation not at peace. But the economy continues to do well. And if the supply-siders are right in their contention that low taxes are the key determinant of economic prosperity, then Bush should do well on this score too. His repudiation of higher taxes could hardly have been more strongly worded. In predicting congressional calls for more taxes next year, and his refusal to raise them ("and I'll say to them, read my lips, no new taxes"), he made the prospect of tax increases in a Bush Administration that much less likely. Bush was perhaps more adamant on the subject than Reagan himself ever was. And it was at this point in his speech that the large audience reacted with its greatest display of enthusiasm.

George Bush still has some problems with his running mate, Dan Quayle, of course. Further revelations could force the Indiana senator off the ticket. Here Bush showed that it is risky to neglect the candidates who have been winnowed, sifted and media-exposed throughout the long primary season. With a running mate such as Sen. Bob Dole or Rep. Jack Kemp, there would have been no surprises. It is hard to deny that in picking someone without a national constituency, Bush showed weakness.

But the question whether Bush can establish himself as "his own man," independent of President Reagan, already seems irrelevant. Reagan is temperamentally only too happy to step out of the spotlight.

The spotlight will now be on Bush and Reagan will be, by comparison, in the shadows. Barring new revelations about his running mate, I now believe that Bush should win this race.

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