NEW YORK - Almost as if his time here had been less than pleasant Shawn Macomber bolted town yesterday afternoon and left me with TAS's press credentials, and thus a seat in Madison Square Garden for the President's acceptance speech last night.
The energy in the air when George W. Bush walks into a stadium packed with Republicans is hard to overstate. It was palpable even in the zone of maximum blasé -- or, if you happen to be sitting next to a couple of bitter Village Voicers, outright hostility -- known as the periodical press stand.
Just as Democratic delegates' enthusiasm with the pro-military gestures in Boston often seemed muted, the preferences of the GOP faithful, during the President's domestic agenda laundry list, was clear: Tax reform, tort reform, health savings accounts -- huge cheers. Increased funding for community colleges, a "health center" for every poor county in America -- polite applause. (Many in the crowd, no doubt, wondered about the bill as they hesitated to cheer.) Among the loudest cheers came when the social conservative agenda -- "mak[ing] "a place for the unborn child" and "the protection of marriage against activists judges" -- made a rare primetime appearance.
But the meat of the speech was the suitably long foreign policy passage. Bush defended his foreign policy record, restating his argument on Iraq:
After more than a decade of diplomacy, we gave Saddam Hussein another chance, a final chance, to meet his responsibilities to the civilized world. He again refused, and I faced the kind of decision that comes only to the Oval Office -- a decision no president would ask for, but must be prepared to make. Do I forget the lessons of Sept. 11th and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country? Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time.
He took pointed shots at John Kerry:
… and wise counsel of leaders like Prime Minister Howard, and President Kwasniewski, and Prime Minister Berlusconi -- and, of course, Prime Minister Tony Blair. Again, my opponent takes a different approach. In the midst of war, he has called America's allies, quote, a "coalition of the coerced and the bribed." That would be nations like Great Britain, Poland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, El Salvador , Australia, and others -- allies that deserve the respect of all Americans, not the scorn of a politician.
Most importantly, he emphasized his strategic outlook for the future, albeit in softer focus than Rudy Giuliani did on Monday:
I believe in the transformational power of liberty: The wisest use of American strength is to advance freedom. As the citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq seize the moment, their example will send a message of hope throughout a vital region. Palestinians will hear the message that democracy and reform are within their reach, and so is peace with our good friend Israel. Young women across the Middle East will hear the message that their day of equality and justice is coming. Young men will hear the message that national progress and dignity are found in liberty, not tyranny and terror. Reformers, and political prisoners, and exiles will hear the message that their dream of freedom cannot be denied forever. And as freedom advances -- heart by heart, and nation by nation -- America will be more secure and the world more peaceful.
It's not easy to tell, sitting in the hall, how a speech plays on television: I can't quite gauge how well the speech held the attention of a non-captive audience (it did seem to drag a bit in the middle), and I don't know how much of a distraction the security disturbances were. (In the hall they were a big distraction-- it's hard to ignore a woman being dragged away next to you wearing an undergarment labeled as a "pink slip" for the president -- which was exacerbated by delegates shouting at the infiltrators.) But my sense is that this should leave Republicans relatively optimistic, especially when compared to Kerry's acceptance speech in Boston: a candidate who can tell a joke ("People sometimes have to correct my English -- I knew I had a problem when Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it") always has a leg up on a candidate who can't ("I'm not kidding, I was born in the west wing!"). Bush hit all the important points, and hit them well. Is it time to declare certain victory? Not quite. But from where I sat, this certainly looked like a successful end to a successful convention.
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