Analysis of Bush Acceptance Speech
frame game (Slate: Friday, 4 August 2000)
Bush's Acceptance Speech
By William Saletan
George W. Bush is running against an administration that is
presiding over the best economy ever. He is one of the least
experienced politicians ever nominated for president, and he
represents a party that has been humiliated in the national policy
wars of the past six years. Yet somehow, in his speech at the
Republican convention Thursday night, Bush managed to describe
these conditions so persuasively that he now leads Al Gore by 11
percentage points in a post-convention NBC poll. How did Bush do
- Recast ends as means. Every administration presides over some
things that go well and some that don't. In Gore's case, the ratio
of good to bad is exceptionally high. To adjust the ratio in his
favor, Bush defined everything that was accomplished in the last
eight years as raw material given to Gore. By subtraction, this
reduced Gore's "record"--what Gore has done with the raw material--to
everything that wasn't accomplished. Bush declared, "America has a
strong economy and a surplus. We have the public resources ... to
strengthen Social Security and repair Medicare. But this
administration, during eight years of increasing need, did
nothing." He added that "prosperity can be a tool in our hands used
to build and better our country" and that "the Clinton-Gore
administration has coasted through prosperity." Notice the
metaphors. Whereas Gore and President Clinton have portrayed the
economy and the surplus as ends (gardens "grown" by wise policies),
Bush portrayed them as means (a resource, a tool, a downhill road).
By switching metaphors, Bush changed the question from what Gore
has done for the economy to what Gore has done with it.
- Discount solved problems. When the country's glass is half full,
the challenger points out that it's half empty. When the country's
glass is completely full, the challenger points out that the next
glass is half empty. This year, the economic glass is full, but the
moral glass isn't. So Bush argued that baby boomers have
"discovered that who we are is more important than what we have."
This is a bit like discovering after dinner that reading a book is
more important than eating dessert. The emergence of your
intellectual appetite presumes that your physical appetite has been
satisfied. By couching our transfer of attention from economics to
morals as a "discovery," Bush camouflaged this satisfaction.
- Erase inconvenient history. Gore has spent eight years fighting
Republicans in Congress and preparing to run for president based on
the story of that fight. But last night, Bush told a different
story: In Texas, "We improved our schools dramatically. ... We moved
people from welfare to work. We strengthened our juvenile justice
laws. Our budgets have been balanced with surpluses. And we cut
taxes." What about the story of Clinton and Gore and Newt Gingrich?
Bush blew it off: "I don't have a lot of things that come with
Washington. I don't have enemies to fight. I have no stake in the
bitter arguments of the last few years." No stake? That's a
flat-out renunciation of the congressional GOP--and an audacious end
run around Gore's election strategy.
- Repackage inexperience. Critics have called Bush unschooled in
federal policy debates. Last night, he replied that because he's an
outsider, he can "change the tone of Washington to one of civility
and respect." Doubters have said Bush hasn't prepared himself for
the presidency. Last night, he answered proudly, "For me, gaining
this office is not the ambition of a lifetime." He implied that his
innocence could wash away the nation's sins and cynicism: "After
all of the shouting and all of the scandal, after all the
bitterness and broken faith, we can begin again." He even wiped
clean the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty: "Now is the time not to
defend outdated treaties but to defend the American people."
- Generalize moral failure. As Bush described it, Clinton's trysts
with Monica Lewinsky didn't just disgust and embarrass the country;
they corrupted public education and national defense. "This
administration did not teach our children, it disillusioned them,"
Bush asserted. And while "America's armed forces need better
equipment, better training, and better pay," he added, they also
desperately lack "a commander in chief who earns their respect."
Conversely, Bush offered to restore the nation's moral health
simply by fulfilling his pledge "to uphold the honor and dignity"
of the presidency.
- Shift the association of risk. Clinton and Gore have trained
swing votes to associate "security" with government programs, in
contrast to "risky schemes" such as tax cuts and Social Security
privatization. Bush reversed this equation. Money diverted from
Social Security to individual retirement accounts will be in
"sound, responsible investments," he argued. "It's just not a
program, it's your property. Now is the time to give American
workers security and independence that no politician can ever take
away." While Gore has observed that people can lose their savings
in the stock market, Bush pointed out that this risk is relative,
since people can also lose their savings in a government trust fund
raided by politicians for other purposes.
- Break the liberal fallacy. As the uproar over Dick Cheney's
voting record illustrates, liberal politicians and journalists
equate concern about a problem with willingness to fund federal
programs that purport to alleviate that problem. In his speech,
Bush rejected this assumption: "The alternative to bureaucracy is
not indifference. It is to put conservative values and conservative
ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity"
through targeted tax credits and grants to private social service
agencies. Rather than administer aid directly, Bush argued,
"Government can take the side of these groups, helping the helper,
encouraging the inspired."
- Redefine cultural issues. Gore wants to focus attention on
traditional moral issues such as abortion, which can be reduced to
yes/no debates to scare swing voters. In his speech, Bush responded
in two ways. First, he diluted the familiar issues from yes/no
debates to differences of degree. Rather than admit he favors
outlawing nearly all abortions, Bush said he supports parental
consent laws and a ban on partial-birth abortions. And rather than
insist on abstinence-only sex education, he called for "elevating
character and abstinence from afterthoughts to urgent goals."
Second, rather than mute his religious faith, he advertised it as a
source of compassion, an inspiration "not to judge our neighbors
but to love them."
Thanks to these tricks, Bush has bumped up his lead to double
digits. But two weeks from now, Gore gets his turn at the wheel--and
if the vice president is half as good at spinning as the Texas
governor says he is, Bush will need all the head start he can get.
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