SAN DIEGO -- Political conventions, which are not designed to stress the dignity of the species, often are exercises in auto-intoxication, and Republicans, who began convening here
in a mood that fell far short of festive, have been made chipper.
The immediate cause of this transformation is Jack Kemp, but the decisive factor has been Bob Dole's decisiveness.
Preconvention news stressed platform strife regarding abortion, and the possibility that Pat Buchanan would arrive in Southern California with a chip on his shoulder the size of all of California.
Regarding abortion and Mr. Buchanan, Senator Dole did what a 1960s Berkeley newscaster used to advise listeners to do: "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own."
The choice of Mr. Kemp moved the media's one-track mind off of abortion and completed the marginalization of Mr. Buchanan (a candidate who rode into town on a 41-primary losing streak). By doing both, the choice disrupted the plans of the Clinton campaign.
The Clinton White House, which has always been indistinguishable from the Clinton campaign, and which has at most a one-track mind, wanted to run the sort of campaign that President Johnson ran in 1964, when Bill Clinton was 20 blocks away, an impressionable freshman at Georgetown University.
Johnson ran against Goldwater's "extremism." ("Moderation" was later revealed to mean 500,000 military personnel in a ground war in Asia, and the rampant inflation of the federal government.) So the latest lyric of Mr. Clinton's one-note chorus is that Jack Kemp is an "extremist."
Actually, Mr. Kemp is just a promiscuous optimist. As a rhetorician he does not hew to the rule recommended to Catholics making confessions -- "be brief, be blunt, be gone" -- precisely because he overflows with the spirit of America as Stephen Vincent Benet celebrated it: "This land unsatisfied by little ways."
He overflows because he lacks a sense of tragedy, which is a defect in a philosopher but is an asset -- arguably a necessity -- for an American politician.
He was once asked if there is some rate of national economic growth -- 4, 8, 10 percent, pick it-- that of itself would essentially solve the myriad problems that afflict places like Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project. He said, essentially: Yes.
He is wrong, but he is so because an American faith is in his chromosomes. This faith -- that prosperity is the universal solvent of social problems -- makes him immune to pessimism and makes Americans allergic to undiluted conservatism, which takes a bleaker view of things.
There may be a soupcon of extremism in Mr. Kemp's cheerfulness, but such cheerfulness is part of the warp and woof the nation's character.
Mr. Clinton had planned a reprise of Truman's campaign against the Republican-controlled "do-nothing 80th Congress." (Which actually did many things, but declined to enact the Democratic platform in 1948.)
However, Mr. Clinton can hardly campaign against the 104th Congress, which has passed, among other things, telecommunications law revision, the line-item veto, portability of health insurance, welfare reform and even that feeble heart of Mr. Clinton's miniaturized agenda, an increase in the minimum wage.
Republican plans have changed, too.
Until Bob Dole began making his own news by embracing, in a span of five days, Kempian economics and its namesake, Republicans seemed reduced to hoping they could win by reminding voters of Joycelyn Elders and Lani Guinier, people the public has long forgotten and whom the malleable Mr. Clinton would probably deny ever having heard of.
In 1952 comedian Mort Sahl regaled nightclub audiences by exclaiming, "Eisenhower stands for 'gradualism.' Stevenson stands for 'moderation.' Between these extremes we must choose!"
Eleven elections later, Republican success in shifting the center of political debate rightward has pulled a Democratic president so far in that direction that Mr. Dole was, for a while, forced to try to open daylight between himself and that president by becoming a movie critic.
But now Mr. Dole has, by his economic program and his running mate, defined his candidacy in a way that President Clinton cannot copy, so he must merely convince the country, which is more conservative than at any time since the 1920s, that the president's election-year conversion to conservatism is unconvincing.
During recent months of self-pity caused by that conversion, Republicans have resembled the woman in a Balzac story who had been sick so long that when at last she had been cured she felt she had been stricken with a new disease.
Now Republicans have convinced themselves that Mr. Clinton's conversion is the homage that weakness pays to strength.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 8/15/96