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After Philadelphia: Could we actually have an engaging, consequential campaign?

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

Bush's address Thursday set out his doctrine of "compassionate conservatism"  
Republican Convention 2000
George W. Bush acceptance speech

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)

In this story:

Putting a face on 'compassionate conservatism'

Note to Democrats: Debate substance


PHILADELPHIA (CNN) -- The Republican convention changed my mind -- not about who may win or lose, but about the nature of the coming campaign. I now think it may actually be both engaging and consequential.

It would have been impossible for this year to be less engaging and less consequential than 1996. In that year, an incumbent president in a time of relative contentment faced a sadly over-matched challenger with nothing very interesting to say. From the spring to the fall, neither the standings nor the discourse changed in any significant way. There was no clash of ideas, no spirited contest, nothing.

This year, with no incumbent running (and you can almost see President Bill Clinton pacing the White House at night, railing against the outrage of the 22nd Amendment), the prospect of a new president would have provided at least some seasoning to the campaign season.

What has happened now is that the Republicans have produced not just a new face, but a new frame for their party that will require the Democrats to battle on the terrain of ideas and policy.

Putting a face on 'compassionate conservatism'

What happened in Philadelphia, I think, is that the Republican Party put some meat on the bones of the phrase "compassionate conservatism."

We in the press were at pains this week to point out the Republican convention's "diversity" message of everything from speakers to entertainment -- African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic and gay and disabled Americans, music more out of a Motown revue than "Up With People."

Bush, second from left, and running mate Dick Cheney greet supporters Thursday with their wives Laura, left, and Lynne  

But the message went deeper than that. When a party showcases its likely next secretary of state and top foreign policy adviser, and they are, respectively, an African-American man and an African-American woman, this is more than symbolism. "Tokenism" does not apply to two chairs in the White House Situation Room.

Moreover, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's acceptance speech Thursday night was a major step forward in explaining to the nation what "compassionate conservatism" means.

In the most powerful section of his speech, Bush told of going to Marlin, Texas, and meeting a 15-year-old African-American who had been incarcerated for committing a violent felony. Bush said the young man asked, "What do you think of me?" What he seemed to be asking, Bush said, was, "Do I have a chance?" And, by Bush's interpretation: "Do you, a white man in a suit, really care about what happens to me?"

Bush used the story to frame his argument that he intended "to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity." The political implications of that promise, in my view, are what will make this coming campaign so interesting.

Note to Democrats: Debate substance

When a Republican candidate of aristocratic breeding can stand before a Republican convention and talk with sympathy about a young black felon, something genuinely significant has happened.

Retired Gen. Colin Powell delivered a speech on Monday, the first day of the convention  

In my view, it means that an effort by the Gore campaign to attack Bush's intentions will not work. It means that Vice President Al Gore and the Democrats will have to show why Bush's sentiments have not worked in Texas and will not work nationally.

The Democrats will have to deal with the remarkable degree of specificity that Bush laid down in his acceptance speech. They will have to argue that his education plans, his Social Security reforms, and his tax cuts are in fact harmful to the majority of Americans, and would in fact offer more comfort to the most comfortable.

It will not work for Gore to keep repeating the phrase he fell in love with in 1996, and accuse Bush of promoting "risky schemes." Bush's gentle ridicule ("If he had been there when Edison was testing the light bulb, it would have been a 'risky anti-candle scheme'") may have retired that phrase forever. At the least, it will require rehabilitation of Gore's own speech.

And it will not work for Gore to paint Bush as a spoiled frat boy in over his head. This convention, and Bush's speech, took care of that. Besides, any battle fought over "likability" would be a disaster for Gore. As Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson told me with characteristic bluntness: "Gore is the hall patrol monitor, who turned in another kid for running in the hall so he could get extra credit."

Former President George Bush applauds his son's acceptance speech Thursday  

What may work is a head-to-head clash on -- dare I say it? -- public policy.

"Look at this national economy," Gore might say. "Look at the national crime rates, the juvenile violence rates, just about every other social indicator. Now look at what has happened to the working poor, to the air and water, to the health care of the elderly and of the very young in Texas. We know whose ideas worked and whose did not."

Such a campaign, with dueling claims and counterclaims, would provide a clear choice. It might for a time divert our attention from "Survivor" and the coming Olympics.

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It might persuade us to think for a time about what we will do with this prosperity and tranquility, about whether and how we will begin to address some of the most persistent and troubling elements in our public life.

Now that would be a campaign worth covering -- and watching.

  • Election 2000

Democratic National Committee
George W. Bush for President
Republican National Committee

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