Bush without Bounce


One week after the event, it is clear that the Republican National Convention in Houston failed to produce the "big bounce" needed to put President Bush back in close contention. Any number of theories can be trotted out to explain this flat result: the lack of a convincing recovery plan in Mr. Bush's much-touted acceptance speech, the stridency of religious-right speakers in putting down whole groups of Americans, the attack on working women (as personified by Hillary Clinton) despite their increasing numbers, the whole issue of "family values" presented in a divisive, attack mode.

Whatever the answer -- and the continuing weakness of the economy may be closest to the mark -- Mr. Bush's disappointment is well-deserved. Houston was not a good convention, even in terms of hard-nosed politics. While it may have firmed up the president's core support, it turned off many voters he will need to win in November. Even GOP campaign manager Robert Teeter figures Mr. Bush is 10 points behind -- an imposing gap.

Perhaps the dynamics of a political party losing steam, unity and coherence doomed the Houston convention from the start. Such was the fate of the 1984 Democrats, when they perversely turned leftward at their San Francisco convention and ceded the center to Ronald Reagan, of all people. Activists on the fringes rise in power the more their party sinks into adversity, and Houston was no exception. The likes of Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were allowed a prominence that pushed the GOP rightward and was bound to hurt.

Newly installed White House chief of staff James A. Baker III is not about to allow this foolishness to continue. He sent Mr. Bush before the American Legion to remind the country that he served in World War II and his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, maneuvered out of the Vietnam war. He sent him into Missouri not to preach about family values but to punch at Mr. Clinton's flirtation with the protectionist elements in the Democratic Party.

These are legitimate issues, far more telling than attempts by social conservatives to ban abortions absolutely or prevent distribution of condoms in public schools -- positions opposed by the majority of voters. It may not be edifying to hear contenders for the presidency calling each other fear-mongers and opportunists (as they undoubtedly are out on the hustings). But if these taunts prove to be springboards for real discussion of the world-leadership qualities required in a president or the profound economic changes needed to restore U.S. competitiveness, they can be endured.

With the conventions over, the campaign is moving into a new phase in which the slugging will be more personal, the intensity will build to the fever pitch of presidential debates and the American people will start to decide what course is best for their future. "Family values," as a political issue, deserves immediate burial -- not an after-the-campaign burial as was the case with the 1988 GOP exploitation of Willie Hortonism.

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