When I was in the political polling business, my boss, Peter Hart, used to say, "He who frames the issues tends to determine the outcome of the election." In his Thursday night speech at the Republican National Convention, George W. Bush framed the issues in a magisterial address that sent him a long way toward winning the general election and that sent him some smaller distance toward effective governance in a second term.
"This young century will be liberty's century," said Bush in the graceful, understated lilt of his best speeches. "By promoting liberty abroad, we will build a safer world. By encouraging liberty at home, we will build a more hopeful America. Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom."
Liberty: The Republicans made a shrewd decision by holding their convention in New York, three miles from the World Trade Center site, with the Statue of Liberty rising over the harbor. Speaker after speaker -- John McCain, Rudolph Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Laura Bush, Zell Miller, Dick Cheney and George Pataki -- made the argument that George W. Bush could be trusted to protect the nation and, as some but not all said, John Kerry could not. Old media -- the broadcast networks (each of which attracted fewer viewers than Fox News) and The New York Times and the news pages of The Washington Post -- would have liked to make much of the differences of some of these speakers from Bush on issues like abortion. But on the issues that they chose to talk about, the convention speakers were solidly with the president.
Bush himself made a strong case for his foreign-policy choices and for the military action in Iraq. And he made it clear, in a rare personal part of his speech, that he did not relish ordering troops into war but was acting to protect the American people. Expanding the zone of freedom, he argued, is the only way ultimately to defeat Islamist terrorism. And he threw a nice zinger at John Kerry for calling our coalition of the willing a "coalition of the coerced and the bribed." John Howard of Australia, Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Tony Blair of Britain are coerced or bribed, Sen. Kerry?
On domestic policy, Bush combined a series of old and fresh policy proposals under the theme of using government to enhance liberty. "Many of our most fundamental systems -- the tax code, health coverage, pension plans, worker training -- were created for the world of yesterday, not tomorrow. We will transform these systems so that all citizens are equipped, prepared -- and thus truly free -- to make your own choices and pursue your own dreams."
Bush's critics have a point when they say his prescriptions were vague. Tax simplification is a fine idea, but there were no details. Making individual investment accounts a part of Social Security does test well in polls and could help Bush with young voters, but there was little more to go on than what he set out in 2000. Portable health savings accounts: interesting, but not familiar to most voters.
As he has before, Bush wants to leave much of the heavy lifting to key legislators in Congress and has only begun to let them in on his plans. He needs to emphasize these issues much more strongly in the campaign if he hopes to develop the political momentum necessary for getting them enacted, in one form or another.
But the wind may be at his back. For months, old media have been shaping the news in ways designed to hurt Bush's chances. Yet old media could not squelch the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story, and Bush now has the megaphone of the presidency in his hand.
True, many people are still seething with hatred of Bush: You could see them in the streets of New York. But consider last week's Florida primaries to pick Senate candidates: More Republicans turned out than in the Democratic primary, even though they're outnumbered by registered Democrats.
Enthusiasm for George W. Bush ("you know where I stand") may be greater than for John Kerry ("I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it"). I gave the Democrats a B, a good grade, for their convention. I give the Republicans an A.