Columbus, Ohio–If there was any doubt about the importance of Ohio in this year’s presidential race, I think last week’s pre-acceptance-speech Bush rally here in Columbus erased it. There’s a reason the campaign chose Columbus to be the final stop before Bush’s acceptance speech. Ohio is going to be a serious battleground, perhaps even the battleground, for the next 60 days.
So what does a campaign rally the day before a presidential acceptance speech involve? Well, in this case it featured over 20,000 pumped-up Bush supporters forming gigantic lines in order to file into a hockey arena and wait for hours to cheer the president until they were hoarse.
The line for ticketed attendees formed early and soon was snaking around a couple of blocks in the recently revitalized Arena District in downtown Columbus. Waiting inside the arena, one was struck by the fact that Ohio lacks a popular, charismatic political leader who could rally the crowd prior to Bush’s arrival. With most of Ohio’s elected officials already in New York, Congresswoman Deborah Pryce played the role of M.C. She spoke for a few minutes and then introduced a devastating campaign video that relentlessly highlighted the tortuous history of John Kerry’s public pronouncements on Iraq. Using video clips from the past ten years, the documentary-like presentation made clear just how difficult it is to make sense of Kerry’s constantly changing positions. The hard-hitting yet humorous video would be a highly effective way to reach independent voters; it’s too long for a TV commercial but would make for an excellent grassroots video (downloaded from the official website or even passed around on CD-Rom).
Since Deb Pryce and U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine were unlikely to whip the crowd into frenzy, the Bush campaign brought in some Ohio sports personalities to liven up the gathering. Former Ohio State, and Detroit Lions, football player Chris Spielman spoke to the crowd for a few minutes about the values and faith that he shares with President Bush; he touched on abortion, school prayer, and faith-based initiatives.
When Bush finally entered the arena, the crowd erupted in raucous cheers and applause; the audience was so into it that they seemed unwilling to allow golf legend and Columbus native Jack Nicklaus to introduce the president. They clapped for a few minutes solid while the president and Laura Bush waved and smiled; Nicklaus stood awkwardly at the podium wondering when he might be able to say a few words and sit down.
After a few softly spoken words by the Golden Bear, Bush began his speech. As everyone knows by now, Bush is not a naturally gifted orator but he does have a comfort level and a naturalness that works well in these situations (it helps that he knows that these are his people). Of course, he is, in a sense, also speaking through the media to undecided voters; he is both laying out his message to undecideds and motivating his supporters to push him over the top. The highly orchestrated events of modern campaigns have this weird duality to them: The speaker reaches out to convince voters, but almost everyone present is already a vocal supporter.
Bush’s speech looked back on what we have been through as a nation and what his administration has accomplished, while acknowledging that there is still work to be done. The president presents himself as a man who says what he means and does what he says; he argues that his administration has delivered on its promises despite serious obstacles, and that they need four more years to finish the job. Early on in the speech Bush returns to the domestic issues that marked his 2000 campaign: education, health care, and tax cuts. He outlines how the system was failing to produce reform in these areas and how his administration worked with Congress to pass legislation on all three of them. Liberals, and some conservatives, might want to argue about the merits of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Medicare prescription-drug bill, or the Bush tax cuts; but the president draws a clear connection between the issues he campaigned on and results he delivered (he echoes the “Reformer with Results” theme he used in the 2000 primary).
The tone of his speech is a unique blend of conservative rhetoric and centrist policy. Bush speaks about conservative values (family, faith, community) and often touches on conservative policy goals (local control, lower taxes, less regulation) but the legislative result is often more centrist. The No Child Left Behind Act may have conservative goals (standards, accountability, etc.) but it nevertheless involves a higher degree of federal involvement than most conservatives would like. Bush touches on conservative ideas when discussing health care as well, noting that doctors and patients–not government bureaucrats–should make health-care decisions; and he speaks passionately about medical savings accounts and other tools to give individuals control over their own lives. But again, the resulting policy is an expensive federal entitlement for prescription drugs–not something most conservatives are happy about. Much ink has been spilled about Bush being a “big-government conservative” and whether that is an oxymoron, but if you compare Bush’s rhetoric with his policies it seems clear he is running on that platform.
What really seems to excite the crowd, however, is Bush’s dedication to fighting the war on terror. His comments on foreign policy draw contrasts between Bush and his opponent. Bush presents himself as a tough leader who will make the hard choices and protect American interests; Kerry is a man unsure of where he stands and unwilling to do what it takes to protect our interests. The contrast is touched on again and again. Bush: tough, determined, unrelenting, on the offensive, willing to act alone, etc. Kerry: vacillating, defensive, legalistic, defers to the U.N. and to Europe, etc.
Iraq is presented as a test case of leadership. The evidence clearly indicated that Iraq was a threat and 9/11 required that threats be dealt with before they materialized. Bush took action and the world is a safer place as a result, while Kerry continues to vacillate and hedge. Bush makes a dig at Kerry’s recent statements that, knowing what we know now, he would still vote to authorize force. Quips Bush: “I appreciate your clearing all this up.” During this section the crowd is energized, and frequently rises to its feet. It seems clear to me that Bush’s determination and commitment to do “whatever it takes” is a big factor in his increasing support. The general public, unlike the media and policy wonks, is uncomfortable with too much “nuance” when it comes to national security. Bush simply brings more clarity and passion to this issue than Kerry does.
It is difficult to gauge how an event like this plays to the wider electorate, but Bush seems comfortable on the stump and has a coherent message. This may or may not presage a Bush victory in November, but one thing is clear: The crowd of Bush supporters left the arena fired up about their ticket. And that is worth quite a bit, in early September.