RNC mixed messaging

The ideals of “country first,” and “service” won lavish praise at the Republican National Convention last night. The realities of the Republican party and President George W. Bush got rather less respect.

A parade of speakers in St. Paul, including Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a Hispanic businessman, an Arizona educator and President Bush (speaking from the White House via video link) hailed the prospective nominee John McCain for his courage as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, his 26 years in Congress, even his decision to adopt a child from Bangladesh.

Partisan rhetoric was, for the most part, muted. “John McCain doesn’t speak the language of service. He has lived a life of service,” said Bachmann, presumably in reference to the too-eloquent Democratic nominee Barack Obama. In a clumsier swipe, President Bush averred that if McCain’s North Vietnamese captors could not break his resolve, the “angry left” could not either.

The crowd of 20,000 people responded with rapt attention and the occasional standing ovation, even as the last two speakers of the evening worked hard — Bush loyalists might say too hard — to distinguish the nominee from the man he hopes to succeed.

Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson noted with a hint of admiration that the party’s new standard bearer once dated a stripper. (The TV cameras mercifully spared us Cindy McCain’s reaction to her husband’s taste in female company.) Thompson reminded the Republican faithful that young Congressman McCain bucked Ronald Reagan on the wisdom of sending U.S. troops to the Middle East, an observation that seemed to send a ripple of unease through the crowd. And Thompson described the federal government, run for the last eight years by the already-forgotten incumbent, as “wasteful and too often incompetent.” No one was heard to object.

The solution to the “nightmare” of contemporary Washington, said lapsed Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman, was John McCain. Among the Arizona Senators’ many accomplishments, Lieberman explained, was his hostility to “corrupt Republican lobbyists” — some of whom were no doubt itching to exit the premises in search of strippers unfamiliar with public service. Lieberman added kind words for the various legislative accomplishments of Bill Clinton, the former Democratic president who warmly endorsed Obama just a week ago — and the confused crowd responded with applause.

To be fair, it has not been an easy convention for the GOP rank and file. On Monday, Republicans who pride themselves on traditional family values had to learn to scratch the phrase “illegitimate child” from their vocabularies, lest they be taken as less than loyal to prospective vice president (and grandmother) Gov. Sarah Palin. Last night, they began to learn another lesson: that McCain’s campaign slogan, “Country First,” also means “We got no brand.”