Friday, March 17, 2006

The GOP Does Its Thing

Party luminaries put their best foot forward at the weekend's SRLC meeting in Memphis.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 17, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Face it: The conclave of Southern and Midwestern Republicans who just met at The Peabody for three days, attracting presidential candidates and big-time national media alike, are not as square around the edges as Democrats (who see themselves as the curators of cool) would like to believe.

The main public business of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference got under way Friday with a former governor of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander, playing "Love Me Tender" and "Memphis, Tennessee" on the piano and reached its climax, more or less, with Mike Huckabee, the governor of adjoining Arkansas (and one of the aforesaid presidential hopefuls), playing a hot and credible bass on "Free Bird" during a Saturday night jam session.

Oh, there was a plenary session on Sunday morning, with a gospel choir and Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp speaking and a few other housekeeping details going on. But by then the event's presidential straw-vote poll, first of the 2008 presidential campaign, was history, most of the attendant press had decamped, and the majority of SRLC delegates -- from 35 states overall, as Tennessee senator Bill Frist had made a point of telling the home-state media on Friday morning -- were somewhere between the check-out desk at their hotels and the check-in desk at the airport.

Anyhow, the real drama of the convention, such as it was, was played out between those first notes tickled by Alexander and the licks hit by Huckabee. Much oratory and a generous quantity of bloviating had ensued. Tons of barbecue and other comestibles underwent liquidation. And there had been the requisite amount of schmoozing and, if the testimony of South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham can be read between the lines, carousing.

Graham, a bachelor, was tousled and casually dressed when he showed up for his spot on the dais Saturday morning, in the wake of dour and moralistic musings by Kansas senator Sam Brownback, a social conservative. "That was one noble and high-minded speech," Graham began. "Well, that part of the program's over. We're going to have real fun for a few minutes. And I'd appreciate less clapping, because my head hurts. I don't know about y'all, but I stayed out way too late."

Graham continued to stoke his audience with insider jokes, the 50-year-old senator suggesting at one point that if he followed all the precedents of his predecessor, the late centenarian Strom Thurmond, "my wife'll get born sometime next year."

Once he got going, though, Graham struck the same chords with his folksy drawl as almost everybody else who spoke, going somewhat lighter on anti-abortion rhetoric than Brownback, but sticking close to the party song-sheet on issues like tax cuts and tax credits and the planned elimination of the "death tax" (read: estate tax), "which is socialism." Harping like most other party orators on the need for immigration reform, Graham cracked that "it's harder for me to get my bags through the airport than it is for somebody to walk across the border."

Like the other speakers, too, he pledged continued fealty to his admittedly down-in-the-polls party leader, President George W. Bush, whom he characterized as being "under siege" but insisted was "the Winston Churchill of our time," especially in his determination to seek out Islamic terrorists everywhere and, in a flight of rhetoric that got the delegates on their feet, "capture 'em and kill 'em!"

So there it was: Graham's brief sweep -- like the other speakers at the tightly run weekend affair, he had roughly 15 minutes to do his thing -- indicated some of the elements of a credo that, as he maintained, had brought the Republican Party in his lifetime from "nowhere to somewhere" in the South and made this region the "anchor of the party": fiscal frugality, deregulation, border control, rally-round-the-flag rhetoric.

Add to that the celebration of conventional mores that most of the speakers poured on thick. Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney surprised many observers by coming down from what he described as "the bluest state in the Union" and finishing second to favorite-son Frist in the straw-vote poll. Part of that was due to Romney's reported marshalling of a corps of College Republicans to inflate the vote, but his success may have owed as much to his denunciation of the gay unions recently declared legal by the judiciary in his state.

Marriage is about "the raising and nurturing of children," insisted Romney, going on to declare, "Every child in America has the right to a mother and father." And, to further indicate the extent to which he was on the side of the conservative angels, Romney added the crowd-pleasing non sequitur, "This country should never become the France of the 21st century!"

And every Republican eminence, without fail, celebrated the recent confirmation of a host of conservative federal judges, notably including Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Majority Leader Frist, in his sit-down session with members of the Tennessee media as the convention was getting under way, had cited that as his "single greatest accomplishment" the fact that, through last year's eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation over the filibuster, he had been "able to right a court system that was terribly broken."

In his own remarks to the delegates later that first morning, Frist's Tennessee colleague Alexander would make the issue the centerpiece in his triad of Democratic misprisions -- "higher taxes, liberal judges, and mediocre schools."

And how did Democrats respond to all this? State party chairman Bob Tuke came down from Nashville and made himself available to the media, along with such local Democratic stalwarts as state senator Steve Cohen and county commissioner Deidre Malone.

"I fought the war in Vietnam, not in a bar in Alabama," ex-Marine Tuke pointed out dryly in a dig at the current commander in chief. Tuke said the war in Iraq had been undermined by the "lack of people with military experience" in the Bush administration. "That's why they're pursuing the wrong strategy, have failed to see that the troops have armor, and have forced Guardsmen to endure endless extensions of duty. There's an utter lack of sensitivity. They've cut veterans' benefits and underfunded the V.A. and first responders and failed to provide for proper port security."

And so on, in a perhaps telling catalog of reasons why, especially in the wake of the recent controversy over administration plans to lease ports to Arab emirates, Bush's poll numbers have plummeted.

Republicans at the SRLC meeting took note of the poll problem, with several of them, like erstwhile party maverick John McCain of Arizona, himself riding high in the polls, using it as an opportunity to declare a need for party solidarity. Other Republicans -- like Frist, who pointedly noted to reporters his role in putting the controversial port transfer on hold -- declared a discreet distance from Bush, where necessary.

Here and there, other critics of the Bush administration made their play -- like gay activist Jim Maynard, who led a group of protesters keeping a daily vigil across Union Avenue from The Peabody. But for the most part, the Republicans were able to showcase their cause (and the host city, for that matter) without much resistance. Leading Democratic officials, including mayors Willie Herenton (see Viewpoint, p. 19) and A C Wharton and Congressman Harold Ford Jr. made what amounted to courtesy calls during the three-day meet.

Some of the most telling rebuttals of the gospel preached at The Peabody, or at least of its chief priest in Washington, came, usually off-camera and off the page, from members of the respectably sized national media contingent in attendance. In reviewing the politics of straw-vote polls like the one held in Memphis, syndicated pundit Charlie Cook recalled candidate Bush "crashing and burning" during a Midwestern conclave of Republicans eight years ago. "It set him back at least six months," said Cook.

And on Sunday morning, MSNBC's Hardball host Chris Matthews, strolling around downtown in search of vintage Memphis architecture, confided to a group of autograph seekers that he'd had dinner with Bush just a month previously, and thought him a "nice guy" but one who was out of his element as president.

As for those who want to succeed Bush, home-stater Frist didn't wow many onlookers with his speech on Saturday but did win the straw vote, with almost 37 percent of the nearly 1,500 votes cast. Romney made his surprising second-place showing with 14 percent, and third place was tied between Virginia senator George Allen and a vote of confidence for Bush himself. (McCain, still regarded with suspicion by party regulars despite his lofty popularity in most polls, floated the Bush vote in advance as a tactic, most observers thought, to distract attention from his own anticipated showing. He ended up with 4.6 percent.)

If nothing else, the Republicans in Memphis put on an impressive display of their range. Consider Huckabee: In addition to his demonstrated ability to do Skynyrd riffs, he's a bona fide Baptist minister and a marathon runner who shed 110 pounds in something like a year's time. With the 2006 off-year elections just ahead, Democrats have somewhat less time than that to work off their own dead weight and begin to play catch-up.

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