This Year’s Republican Convention: Same Party, More Fun

Douglas Koopman

August 1, 2000

The Republican convention in Philadelphia made lots of people angry.
Particularly upset were the mainstream media and their friends in the
“chattering class.” These purveyors of conventional wisdom didn’t like
the diversity, didn’t like the tolerance, and didn’t like the new link
between these values and the candidate’s religious faith.

That’s not quite right. The media and punditry love to talk about
diversity and tolerance, and they usually praise it when they think they
see it. But they hated this convention’s consistent message of true
tolerance without complete acceptance, and respect for diversity without
mindless quotas. Mostly, they didn’t like this convention because it
directly challenged their own carefully nurtured stereotypes about the

The Philadelphia funfest unveiled not a new Republican Party but rather
a new, attractive, and well-disciplined presentation of longstanding
party principles. There were three reasons why Philadelphia worked so
well for Republicans.

The first reason is George W. Bush. This was the nominee’s convention
from start to finish. The program’s diversity directly reflected Mr.
Bush’s intent to welcome to his Republican Party folks of any ethnic,
social or other background. While his father might have used the
four-second sound bite “message: I care,” the younger Bush took four
days to illustrate in myriad ways his concern for others less privileged
than himself. This was a new generation of Republican leadership, the
“gap” between now and then eerily underlined by the minor stroke
suffered by former President Ford. While some elements of the party are
no doubt less open than Governor Bush, the dominant feeling at the
convention was relief that someone who can present its core values
accurately and attractively again headed the party.

Take, for example, the linkage between religion and politics, again a
popular subject given Al Gore’s choice of Orthodox Jew Joseph Lieberman
as his running mate. One usually expects from Republican presidential
candidates a fairly clear assertion that America is God’s chosen,
righteous, nation. That chosen position usually leads to two major
policy consequences — a strong defense that preserves “the American way
of life” for its citizens, and (at least for the last twenty years)
opposition to abortion and pledges to restrict its practice. George W.
Bush’s speech was different. There were, of course, proposals to
strengthen defense and limit abortions. But these were placed in the
policy section of the speech, placed far away from any religious
reference. The religious language came later, and it was exclusively
personal in tone, expressing the candidate’s own need of grace and
experience of peace. The candidate’s religious experience had only one
consequence that could at all be tied to policy — tolerance and love of

The second reason was the substantive agenda of the convention or, more
precisely, the lack of such substance. With no controversies to
resolve, conventioneers needed to be entertained. Entertained they were,
but they were also introduced to a more interesting and inclusive way of
talking about their party. There was a palpable excitement among at
least some conventioneers over the program, not because it presented a
new Republican Party but rather because it gave them fresh material to
talk about Republican principles in new and exciting ways.

The third reason was public fatigue with the Democrats and Bill
Clinton. For all their talk of diversity, opportunity, and special
attention to lower income Americans, the public has seen little change.
The national Democratic leadership is no less white, male, or privileged
than the Republican leadership. The reverse discrimination of quotas has
not receded despite promises to “mend” if not end affirmative action.
And, for those that focus on the supposed gap between rich and poor,
that gap is no smaller after eight years of Clintonomics. The moral
advantage that Democrats have claimed since the Watergate years has
finally eroded to zero.

All told, it was a frustrating convention for those who love to hate
Republicans. Healthy political parties constantly seek majority public
support so that they can win elections and determine government policy,
their major objectives. To do so, parties often attempt to change at
least their image, if not their principles. The Republican convention
displayed a healthy and apparently popular change of emphasis. In
response, Democrats seems to be making their own set of healthy
decisions, although their image at this point seems more tarnished and
their policies less credible. The proof, as they say, is in the
pudding. At the least, it should make for an interesting, and close,
election campaign.

Douglas Koopman teaches political science at Calvin College and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.