The Republicans got a bounce out of their convention. The Democrats did not. Why? Elementary. The Republicans had something to say. The Democrats did not. Something always beats nothing.
The Democrats purposely chose a candidate with a 22-year history in elective office entirely barren of any distinction. Can you name a single significant bill that bears John Kerry's mark? A single important speech? A single legislative achievement? A single idea of any kind associated with Kerry's name? The Democrats chose a candidate known for political calculation, a talent for nuance and an unswerving dedication to swerving constantly to avoid political risk. In other words, they chose a cipher.
Not a bad strategy when the news for the Bush administration -- the Iraq insurgency, Abu Ghraib, the Sept. 11 hearings -- was awful. Pick a cipher and make this a referendum on the president. A plausible idea, but it did leave everything up to chance. Worse, it leaves everything up to the other side.
How did the Democrats spend the four days at their convention? Saluting the Swift boats. Why? Because John Kerry has taken so many positions on Iraq and the war on terrorism that he has nothing believable or useful left to say. All he can say is "Vietnam."
In the bizarre midnight rant that he gave in Springfield, Ohio, minutes after the president's acceptance speech at the Republican convention, he went into a long denunciation of all that's gone wrong in Iraq. One waited for his alternative policy. What did he offer? "I defended this country as a young man, and I will defend it as president of the United States of America."
Pathetic. Douglas MacArthur, Curtis LeMay and George Wallace could have made an equal claim. What kind of qualification is that for the presidency?
At their convention, the Republicans had something to say. It was simple and clear: There is a war on, and we are tough enough to deal with it. Not because of what we did 35 years ago but because of how we have dealt with our various enemies for the past three years.
Now, some people will weigh the results of these three years and approve. Others will not. But at least this is a case -- a plausible claim that bears scrutiny and debate.
John McCain gave a serious and sober defense of the Iraq war on grounds of "realism" -- the prudential grounds that with the sanctions on Saddam Hussein collapsing, the choice was not between war and some imagined peaceful status quo but between war and a hugely unstable and gathering threat.
Three nights later President Bush gave the other grounds, the "idealist" rationale for war. In an argument of a length and coherence exceedingly rare in a convention speech, he gave an elaborate defense of democratization as the only serious answer to the nihilism festering in a repressed and oppressed Middle East -- a nihilism that exploded upon us on Sept. 11.
You can take that argument or leave it. You can take McCain's argument or leave it. But these are arguments, ideas that inform policy. "I was a war hero" is a non sequitur that only a party plagued with pacifism for the past 30 years could imagine is a convincing rationale for leadership.
The only Republican misstep was Zell Miller. Not because he was over the top. He was. But so what? No political convention is complete without at least one over-the-top speech. Bill Clinton's Boston address featured a hilarious passage professing the utmost respect for Republicans, pointing out that Republicans merely have a different worldview from Democrats: Republicans simply think it is best to throw widows and orphans into the snow -- while taking their lunch money so the rich can have larger yachts. We are all patriots, Clinton explained genially. We just have different political opinions.
The real problem with Miller was that he overshadowed Vice President Cheney's speech, which should have been that night's centerpiece. The Cheney speech was brilliant, a surgical dissection of John Kerry delivered with the soporific calm, the preternatural restraint of a chief pathologist's report at hospital Grand Rounds.
Will the bounce last? Undoubtedly not. The Bush lead will narrow. But it will not be Kerry doing the narrowing. It will be the world. Bad news is always out there. In the middle of a middling economic recovery, there is always bad economic news to accompany the good news. And the fighting in Iraq will continue to haunt this presidency.
Bush will slide. Kerry will surely fight, but he will mostly flail. He has become a spectator. This election was and remains a referendum on Bush. That's how the Democrats wanted it.