Two Narratives

SEPTEMBER SURPRISE…This has been a — what’s the adjective I’m looking for? — surprising convention. We high-falutin media personnel (particularly us intern/bloggers) love our pre-event storylines, it makes covering the convention so much easier. And this time, the storyline was not only obvious, but seemingly based in fact. With McCain and Giuliani headlining the first night, Arnold taking the second, and fair-weather Democrat Zell Miller attaching himself to the third, it seemed clear that the Republicans were going to paint a hopeful, inclusive portrait of their party. But then, between McCain’s call-out of Moore and Miller’s Emperor Palpatinesque performance, a funny thing happened. It became clear that moderation was not the theme of the week and a new narrative was needed. In the resulting scramble for storylines, two distinct narratives have emerged:

? Illusion, the first, has been best expressed by the LA Weekly’s Josh Bearman. This launches from the observation that the delegates seem, well, unexcited. Where the Democratic convention offered crushing crowds and enough body heat to render the Fleet Center suitable for baking, the Republican convention seems sparsely attended and unenthusiastic, to the point that Maryland Lt. Governor (and token black guy) William Steele had to go camp-counselor on the delegates, repeatedly exhorting the crowd to turn up the volume for the renomination of the ticket. There’s been no attempt to set forth an agenda, little effort to build up Bush and no feeling of security or strength emanating from the stage. Instead, we’ve seen fear-mongering, a focus on this dangerous world, and an assurance that John Kerry will bring the country to its knees, right before handing Osama (c’mon, you remember him) a key to the gates.

? Extremism, the second, has been best explained by TNR’s Noam Scheiber. All the Republican moderates featured on the stage are looking for further advancement within the party. More often than not, that means the 2008 nomination for president. And prevailing in that contest requires, as John McCain will tell you, some love from the conservatives who power the primary. So instead of using the convention to showcase their broad appeal, they’ve used it to showcase their right-wing appeal. Since these guys suffer from a, uh, lack of belief in current conservative extremism, they’ve resorted to base us-against-themism, requiring full-throated attacks on Kerry. Instead of painting a moderate, kind face on the party, the convention’s been hijacked by outcasts trying too hard to show they can be part of the gang, too. One by one, they’ve lined up to slash, rip, and detonate homemade effigies of the Democrat, appearing for all the world like a surprisingly blood-thirsty mob. Now, that might be effective, but no one on earth is going to mistake it for moderation.

This speaks to a political calculation by the Republicans, a gamble that this election no longer turns on appeals to the center but excitement among the base. The base will vote against, the center will usually vote for. So if you want the middle, you give them a party they’ll love; if you want the base, you give them the other party to hate. Tonight, I fully expect Bush to try and make himself loveable. But the Republicans have spent the rest of the convention demonizing the Democrats, and along with Bush’s appearances on fishing shows, speeches at Nascar rallies and advertisements in red states, that speaks to a significant uncertainty that moderates are reachable or important in this election.

Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein is the founder and editor-in-chief of Vox.com.