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Consistently Inconsistent

September 03, 2004

"I am running for president with a clear and positive plan to build a safer world and a more hopeful America," President Bush said Thursday night. His well-written speech would have been more convincing if he had not actually been president for the last four years.

In 2000, George W. Bush ran for president promising a "humble" foreign policy and warning against ambitions to remake other countries, let alone the world.

On domestic concerns, Bush '04 does sound a lot like Bush '00. The contrast is with what Bush actually did, or didn't do, in the years between. He also sounded a lot like a Democrat. "I am running with a compassionate conservative philosophy," he said, using a term we heard a lot four years ago and not much since, until this week. "Government should help people improve their lives," Bush said, promising to "transform" health insurance, pension plans and worker training, among other things.

Consistency is an undervalued virtue in our political culture: consistency between what you said before and what you say now, between what you say and what you do, between what you say and the truth, even what you say from one sentence to the next. The praise and prizes these days go to skilled self-reinvention for the needs of the moment, also known as spin.

Democrats do it, but Republicans do it better. One night GOP speakers are attack dogs, the next night they're kinder and gentler. Their platform feeds raw meat to the hard right, while their moderates take the stage and fan out to TV interviews, reassuring swing voters that they don't really mean it. Was Franklin D. Roosevelt a Republican? You might think so, given how often his name was invoked. Well, whatever.

The convention's lowest moment may have been New York Gov. George E. Pataki's suggestion that the Clinton administration is to blame for 9/11 because it ignored the evidence and ducked the fight against terrorism. We don't recall Pataki or Bush warning of this danger, if it was so obvious.

Sen. Zell Miller's vile keynote address will be cherished forever by connoisseurs of live-for-the-moment rhetoric. It was, of course, full of technically true lies (John Kerry, as senator, voted to kill various weapons systems -- the same ones that Dick Cheney, as secretary of Defense, also tried to kill, and so on). But the speech reached its transcendent moment when this Democratic senator stood before thousands of Republicans baying for the defeat of a Vietnam War veteran by a man who chose to defend Texas instead, after weeks in which attacks by Republicans on Kerry's Vietnam service dominated the news. Miller praised "the American soldier." He condemned those who would allow national security to become an issue in "partisan politics." And Madison Square Garden cheered because he was referring to the Democrats! We guess you had to be there.

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