It has long been an obvious opening for the Republicans -- push back against the multilateral, France-centric obsessions of the Democrats with a message of national pride. The counter to John Kerry's storied endorsement from foreign leaders, to Michael Moore's vicious notion that all that's wrong with the world is somehow the fault of the United States, to the Democrats' call for a new president to go grovel in European capitals, is an unabashed assertion of American virtue and exceptionalism.
The Democrats made feints toward embracing a robustly patriotic rhetoric in Boston. The Republican reaction in New York was "see you, and raise you." If you had a sense Democrats were just learning to read their lines, the Republicans had them down and let them loose in a ringing fashion.
The story of post-World War II American foreign policy, as told from the GOP podium during prime time, is this: In the early stages of the Cold War, America "pushed the Soviets out of Iran," kept Greece from the domination of communists, and preserved the freedom of West Berlin (Zell Miller); in winning the Cold War, it liberated people "from Poland to Siberia" (Miller); its hopes stood with the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square and with Nelson Mandela (Arnold Schwarzenegger); it sends volunteers, missionaries and doctors abroad and donates more AIDS funding to the developing world than anyone else (Schwarzenegger); finally, it freed Afghanistan and Iraq (everyone).
The word "liberation" had an honored place in the GOP vocabulary. In Boston, only Joe Lieberman dared mention the word in describing what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. In New York, even the first lady used it. Zell Miller thundered: "Nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops 'occupiers' rather than 'liberators.'"
The nationalism of the New York Republicans had four legs: freedom, unity, idealism and sovereignty. The role of America, the GOP said, is to spread freedom abroad and preserve it at home. It is freedom that "makes goodness possible" (John McCain), and attracts those immigrants who "come here as I did because they believe" (Schwarzenegger). It is freedom that knits together the Bush program, in its foreign policy and its resistance to over-regulation and over-taxation.
Despite our freedom to pursue our own dreams, we are still one people. Schwarzenegger made it one of his GOP bedrocks that we shouldn't be treated as members of "interest groups." He confronted the two-Americas rhetoric of John Edwards, evoking the unity of national purpose embodied by America's troops, who "believe we are one America, and they are fighting for it!" Can we disagree with one another? Of course. But within reasonable bounds. McCain pleaded for "an argument among friends who share an unshaken belief in our great cause, and in the goodness of each other."
The GOP nationalism is anchored in idealism, lest it become mere bullying or bombast. McCain captured this most eloquently, speaking of how American troops "sacrifice to affirm that right makes might" and "that love is greater than hate." After 9/11, President Bush famously vowed that the world would soon hear from us. That warning had the whiff of vengeance to it. But as Rudy Giuliani pointed out: "They have heard from us a message of peace through free, accountable, lawful and decent governments."
It is American power, not any multilateral institution, that is the guarantor of those ideals. "This country, not the United Nations, is the best hope of democracy," Schwarzenegger declared. We reserve the right to exercise that power in a sovereign manner, free of noxious constraints. Miller hit Kerry for wanting to "let Paris decide when America needs defending. I want Bush to decide."
None of these speeches could have comfortably been given at the Democratic Convention. The Boston Democrats still has not shed its suspicion of American power acquired during Vietnam. That is not a problem affecting the New York Republicans, who truly believe America has nothing to be guilty about or apologize for.