PHILADELPHIA -- Not too far from Independence Hall, where the founding fathers engaged in a spirited and at times contentious debate in drafting the Declaration of Independence and later the U.S. Constitution, the Republican convention is a debate-free zone. What is it the Republicans don't want us to hear?
Delegates are setting the stage for George W. Bush, who will accept his party's nomination for president on Thursday night after a week of pleasantry rarely seen at a national political convention or in this bastion of Democratic power. The only political agitation here comes not from local Democratic officials, who are on best behavior lest they tarnish their city's image, but from fringe protest groups and Democratic "truth squads" parachuted in by the Gore campaign.
It is a civil, upbeat affair so far, just as the script calls for. Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson will not be seen or heard. They are the scary faces and voices of the old Republican Party, and they clearly have no place at the stage-managed coronation of a man who bills himself as "a different kind of Republican." Instead, the stage at First Union Convention Center this week will belong to a teacher, a fireman, a children's advocate, a farmer, a small businessman, a single mother, a Vietnam prisoner of war and the great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt. Prime-time speaking slots are reserved for party celebrities such as John McCain, Colin Powell and Bob and Elizabeth Dole, and for the nominee's wife, Laura Bush, a former school librarian.
The Grand Old Party would have voters believe it has been born again, but it's difficult not to be a skeptic. Any temptation to shout "hallelujah!" is easily suppressed when one tries to square what's going on here in the City of Brotherly Love with what has been going on in the Republican Congress in Washington, a pit of rancorous partisanship, or in the party platform-writing sessions. And as Bush has discovered, trying to reconcile the far-right congressional voting record of his running mate, Dick Cheney, with the campaign's "compassionate conservatism" theme is proving to be a tougher sales job than the Texas governor may have imagined.
The GOP platform in some areas is a kinder, gentler document than past versions, and that's to Bush's credit. Much to the dismay of hardline conservatives, it no longer calls for abolishing the U.S. Department of Education or making English the nation's "official" language. It also softens the anti-immigrant language of the 1996 platform and includes passages that sound more welcoming and inclusive. But as a gesture to hardline conservatives, the Bush campaign left intact the plank opposing abortion in all cases, even when the life of the mother is at risk, and calling for "the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life. . ."
Republican congressional leaders, meanwhile, are going along with the convention script written by the Bush campaign, but their record back in Washington is not one Republicans want to highlight here. No amount of reassuring convention rhetoric can hide the embarrassment of this do-nothing, showboating Congress. The Capitol Hill Republicans have had a busy year, but most of their legislative activity has been aimed at scoring political points, not addressing the country's problems.
They're here to take a bow for passing a string of fiscally irresponsible tax cuts they know President Clinton will veto. But they have yet to show they are serious about ensuring the future of Social Security and Medicare or passing a plausible prescription drug plan, a minimum wage bill or campaign finance legislation. Their budget is phony, and when lawmakers recessed last week to head for Philadelphia, they still had not passed a single one of the domestic spending bills required to run the government in the next fiscal year.
The challenge for Democrats is not to let the Republicans get away with their Philadelphia Story. The Republican script has changed, but at its core it's the same old party and the same old agenda. You don't have to scratch the surface of this convention very hard to realize that.
© St. Petersburg Times