It’s official: the 2004 campaign is a referendum on whether the United States should wage a crusade to bring liberty to the repressed of the world–particularly in the Middle East–in order to heed the call of God and to protect the United States from terrorists who target America because they despise freedom. Or, at least, that is how George W. Bush would like the contest to be framed.
In his acceptance speech, Bush pushed the message of the week–it’s the war, stupid–to lofty heights. Like the speakers of previous nights, he fully embraced the war in Iraq. But while John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Zell Miller, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Laura Bush depicted the war as an action necessary for safeguarding America, Bush also placed it within the context of an even grander mission. “America,” he proclaimed from that altar-like podium, “is called to lead the cause of freedom in the new century….Freedom is not America’s gift to the world. It is the Almighty God’s gift.” (Minutes earlier, New York Governor George Pataki described Bush as the Supreme Being’s gift to the United States: “He is one of those men God and fate somehow lead to the fore in times of challenge.”)
This rhetoric was nothing new for Bush. He has made these points previously. But at the end of a week in which the war was presented as the Number One reason to vote for Bush, he chose to highlight the messianic side of his military action in Iraq. It was this part of the speech that soared. During the first 35 minutes, Bush ticked off a laundry list of domestic initiatives, as Bill Clinton liked to do. But Bush did so without the enthusiasm that Clinton displayed when discussing such subjects. It was as if this was the obligatory portion of the evening; Bush had to talk about something other than the war to prove he has a second-term agenda. It was an act of self-inoculation, an attempt to preempt Democratic criticism that he doesn’t care about the close-to-home stuff. He tossed out a few new (but modest proposals) and the old standbys: health savings accounts, partial privatization of Social Security, tax reform, and tort reform. Especially tort reform–which the GOPers regard as a blow against John Edwards. The delegates roared when Bush pushed this button–much more loudly than when he promised more money for Pell grants or low-income health clinics. As for the details of his domestic agenda, Bush told the crowd to check his website.
He took a couple of spirited swings at John Kerry, deriding his challenger for having voted against the antigay Defense of Marriage Act, for having declared that Hollywood is the “heart and soul of America, and for opposing the $87 billion in funding for the Iraq war. And Bush briefly dished out the red meat to the social conservatives: a few words of support for “the unborn child,” a poke at activist judges, a vow to oppose gay marriage. But his passion was reserved for the war on Iraq and the larger undertaking.