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Two Faces of the GOP

August 31, 2004

It is true, as everyone complains, that the political party conventions get more scripted and stage-managed every four years. But that doesn't make them meaningless. Who you pretend to be says something about who you are, and more about who you're afraid people think you are. The conventions are where the parties stage their dreams and suppress their nightmares.

The Democratic convention was a fantasy on the theme of patriotism and military service, like a festival in ancient Sparta. Dr. Freud would have had an easy time with this. The party is insecure about national security. Understandably, given the opposing party's skill at portraying the Democrats as lily-livered appeasers. But the constant celebration of John F. Kerry's war record spared no time for his more valuable -- and more characteristically Democratic -- antiwar record. This reactive posturing left little opportunity for Democrats to stage the kind of Harvest Bounty festival they are better at.

The Republicans spent the last few months feeding raw meat to conservative activists and playing dirtball against the Democratic nominee. Now, at their convention, they portray their party as a bath of sweet reason in which all are welcome to soak away their disagreements, even over war, even over terror.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona (the unassailable warrior), former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and others to come are put forward to demonstrate that George W. Bush's Republican Party will let you vote for its candidates no matter how you disagree with them. A sugarcoated Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) went to the cable networks to talk of compassion and sensitivity.

There is a real dilemma here for Republicans who are a bit more concerned about the environment or civil liberties than their party. Or concerned at all about abortion rights, growing disparities in income, and civic equality for gays and lesbians. These are issues their party is indifferent to, or causes that it actively opposes. The dilemma is even more burdensome to the small slice of the electorate that is truly undecided.

Almost nobody's political views perfectly track the platform of either party. The platforms themselves are scrapbooks of positions and bromides, rather than consistent ideological statements. Most voters carry mental scrapbooks of their own.

But there is something cynical about these outbreaks of broad-mindedness -- cynical beyond the fact that they come and go with suspicious convenience. The social issues on which Republicans emphasize the openness of their party are the ones about which broad-mindedness makes the least sense. If you believe that abortion is killing an innocent child, how can you add, "But it's no big deal if you disagree"?

The writer Hendrik Hertzberg invented a term for people who are more progressive on social issues than they let on. He called them "closet tolerants." The Republican Party, we strongly suspect, is a hotbed of closet toleration. Its leaders don't care nearly as much about abortion, gay marriage and so on as the party rank and file. They may actually disagree with the party's official position and agree with dissidents like Giuliani and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But the party leadership must pretend to disagree with the moderates even as it pretends to welcome them. It all comes out sounding opportunistic and unconvincing, even if much of it is sincere.

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