The remark was Mason's variation on what former Tennessee Republican chairman Jim Burnett had said the previous day about Buchanan, the GOP's former ideological bulldog, now a would-be Reform Party candidate for breakfast. "Nobody here is shedding any tears about his departure," Burnett had said.
The translation in both cases was that the national Republican Party seems to have learned its lesson from two straight presidential defeats by Bill Clinton's Democrats. In 1992 at Houston, Buchanan's opening-night philippic set the tone for what the sometime TV commentator called a "culture war" against the Democrats. It is generally believed that then President George Bush had a hard time living down that diatribe, which may have contributed to his defeat by challenger Clinton, who was simultaneously trying to steer the Democrats away from their fringe elements into the political center.
In 1996, Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, et al. had a solid hold on that center, and GOP nominee Bob Dole, though a mellow man personally, was saddled with the same kind of angry retro- rhetoric -- a fact which Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, a major force at this convention, said Tuesday caused the same end result: a revolt against national Republicanism on the part of the electorate.
That was then; this is now when Frist -- one of three co-chairs of the GOP platform committee -- and various other Republican luminaries, not excluding nominee-to-be George W. Bush himself, the apostle of "compassionate conservatism," have made a conspicuous effort to remake the Republican countenance as a sort of national Happy Face, featuring harmony, toleration, and make-nice attitudes of all sorts.
The two pieces de resistance of all that Monday night were Laura Bush, the sweet-dispositioned wife of the candidate and an ex-schoolteacher who dropped words like "Head Start," General Colin Powell, the former Desert Storm commander who followed her with a rebuke to corporate special interests and a call for affirmative action.
None of this was accidental, Frist explained to the Tennessee press corps Tuesday. He made it clear that the Republicans this year would try to claim the same center that Clinton has occupied for his two elections and two terms. Even what Frist sees as the agile, combative debating style of Democratic nominee-in-waiting Al Gore will play into the GOP's hand's he said. "People are tired of all that anger, all that meanness, and in-your-face stuff," he said.
Frist Gains in Stature
Frist was not bashful about pointing out what is shaping up as a major role for himself in national Republican affairs. The state's junior senator, who says he was apparently the last alternative prospect talked to by the Bush team before the selection of Dick Cheney as the candidate's running mate, will shortly be named, he announced, as the Bush campaign's official liaison with the U.S. Senate.
Even though Frist is running simultaneously for reelection to the Senate, he is not expected to be sufficiently taxed by the victor of Thursday's Democratic primary -- either John Jay Hooker, Jeff Clark, or Shannon Wood -- to be seriously threatened with defeat. Hence, his hands will be relatively free for campaign work on Bush's behalf. If nothing else, he made it clear Tuesday, he is regarded as a kind of Republican counter in Tennessee to native son Gore.
As Frist reminded reporters Tuesday, he will precede the acceptance address of the newly nominated Bush Thursday night with a key speech of his own on the need to add a prescription drug plan to Medicare -- a theme which is itself a concession to his party's new centrist perspectives.
On the same day, Frist, a heart-and-lung transplant surgeon, will do some highly publicized volunteer medical work at Philadelphia's Nueva Esperanza clinic in a Hispanic neighborhood as part of a GOP media blitz to illustrate the idea of "compassionate conservatism."
And, according to the National Journal, it was largely thanks to Frist that Bush had an official platform he felt he could live with. As the Journal noted in its last pre-convention issue, Frist managed on Friday to re-implant an education plank that conservatives on the platform committee had previously managed to dump.
As committee co-chairman, the senator submitted an amendment that, as the paper suggested, restored a version of the Bush principles that called for raising academic standards, reforming Head Start, and allowing federal dollars to follow' children from failing schools to schools of their choice."
Frist also assisted in holding the line against efforts on the committee to abolish the Department and Education and, in general, to phase out the federal role in education. Ideas like those were given sanction in the 1996 GOP platform but were rejected this year.
"Gov. Bush has offered a vision and agenda that truly captures the spirit of the American people around the concept that no child should be left behind," Frist told the committee. He added, "My goal as a co-chairman is to marry the will of 107 delegates with the vision of George W. Bush." The senator played the role of matchmaker to the hilt, rejecting efforts by naysayers like platform committee member Cheryl Williams of Oklahoma to defeat the Frist amendment on the grounds that, as Williams said, it would give "the appearance of federal control of all education."
The final result, as Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer put it: "Now the Republican platform on education in 2000 is a marked departure from the 1996 platform, and properly so."
Former Shelby County Republican chairman David Kustoff elaborated somewhat this week on the parallels between the 2000 Republican campaign strategy and that of Clinton's Democrats in 1992. "In both cases, the party that wanted to win the most badly made a point of going to the center. Not everybody in either case was real happy, but the hunger to win was such that even those who might want to disagree kept quiet about it," Kustoff said.
(As an illustration of his point, arch-conservative preacher Jerry Falwell was quoted as saying about the larger component of gays at this year's Republican convention, "This is a political party, not a church. You have to do what you have to do to win.")
And national Republican committeman John Ryder of Shelby County agreed. He also noted that it was likely that actual policy would follow calculated rhetoric and saw this as another parallel to 1992. In other words, deeds do tend to follow words in politics, and if Bush and company pull off their centrist campaign this year, they may enact real changes in their party's performance -- much in the way that Clinton came to co-opt traditional Republican goals of budget-balancing, welfare reform, and Law-and-Order.
A Gentle Demurrer
The Republican strategy drew some scorn Tuesday from Tennnessee Democrats, who disputed the legitimacy of their centrist claims. U.S. Harold Ford Jr. showed up at the Convention Center Tuesday to mock the GOP pretensions, and State Republican Chairman Chip Saltsman contended the Democrats were playing the race card in a move that would backfire.
The only full-fledged African-American delegate among Tennesseans at the Republican National Convention, meanwhile, said both parties have let blacks down. "The Democrats take the African-American vote for granted and Republicans feel that the Democrats have the vote already,'' said state Revenue Commissioner Ruth Johnson.
Former Democrat Johnson, is the only black among the 37 full delegates to the GOP convention from Tennessee. But eight of the 37 alternates are black and the delegation arguably . reflects the state's African-American population percentage, said Kustoff,who doubles as the statewide director of the Bush campaign..
By comparison, Tennessee Democrats will send a delegation of 81 delegates and 11 alternates to their party's convention later this month. Twenty-four of the 81 full delegates and two of the alternates are black, said Greg Wanderman, executive director of the state Democratic party.
Ford's presence at the Covention was primarily to underscore the differences between the parties on health care, said his spokesperson, Jody Bennett. But she said he also wanted to address what he saw as the falsity of the Republicans' claim to a true diversity.
Wanderman made the point that most of the delegation's alternates (including most of the Tennessee blacks attending) will be seated in the "nosebleed" sections of the upper deck. Kustoff retorted, "Our leadership, in Governor Bush, has been extending a hand to African-Americans, Hispanics and other minority groups whose members are conservative by nature but often have not voted Republican."
There was no disputing one point. The Tennessee delegates here (whose hotel is almost in the "nosebleed" perimeter of the Philadelphia areak incidentally) share the general optimism of the attendees at this year's convention. Tennessee Republicans, most of whom saw the handwriting on the wall at the previous two conventions, see the word "victory" written on the wall this year.
And moderation, toleration, and diversity -- pursued both as means and as end -- will apparently be the surrounding graffiti. Respond to Jackson Baker at: email@example.com