TO: President Bush
FROM: Jeff Shesol, Clinton speechwriter
RE: The Renomination Speech
As we both know, I'm not on your team. If I were, I would urge you to deliver an acceptance speech that's uplifting, forward-looking, and a little bit funny. But your speechwriters, I expect, are seeing to that. They, and you, don't need my advice (and surely don't seek it). All the same, I've got a stake in how your speech turns out this Thursday -- less because I'm a Democrat who's rooting for your rival than because I'm an American who, if you win in November, will be living in the climate you create over the next four years. So I'm less concerned with what you say than with where it leads.
This week in New York marks the reappearance of the Compassionate Conservative, haggard and twitchy after four years in an undisclosed location, but still alive. Compassion, your spokesmen tell us, is the theme of this convention. Steadfast conservatives like Sen. Rick Santorum are having to throw elbows just to get minor speaking roles, while the prime-time slots are going to moderates more suitable for mass consumption -- such as the former mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani and the current governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's a blue-state lineup for a red-state crowd.
Meanwhile, delegates -- as part of a volunteer drive called "Compassion Across America" -- are being encouraged to pick up litter in Prospect Park, rebuild Harlem with Habitat for Humanity and feed the homeless at the Bowery Mission.
All this strenuous compassion will reach a crescendo on Thursday when you take the podium. Early reports indicate that your speech is heavy on the pulpit, light on the bully. There will surely be tough talk on terrorism, but a review of your recent speeches reveals that in the first eight months of 2004, you have used the word "compassion" more than twice as often as you did in the same period last year -- a kind of extended warm-up for Thursday's performance.
If that's the case, you will be providing a bookend to your 2000 address, a speech so comfortable with "empathy" and "inclusion" that it could have been delivered by a Democrat (at least of the New variety). Your talk of compassion was counterintuitive -- but credible, based on what we had been hearing out of Austin. You were interested in education, and had a lot of friends who were Democrats. It all seemed promising. That night in August 2000, members of both parties -- even members of the Clinton staff -- wondered whether we were hearing the founding speech of a new, more moderate GOP.
The promise of that moment is in tatters now. It's hard to imagine that the sheep's clothing of compassion will fit you very well after the last four years -- or that you can wear it convincingly after running with the wolves.
"I do not reinvent myself at every turn," you declared in 2000. That, for the most part, is a promise you've kept: After the rightward march of your first days as president, you've shown little inclination to drift back toward the political center. Until now. At least for the purposes of this campaign.
That, I suspect, is why the archconservatives don't look concerned. They're not muttering that another Bush has gone wobbly. Lord knows they'd be howling and wielding pitchforks if they actually believed you were converting to centrism. With the election this closely fought, the right appears mostly willing to hold its collective tongue, secure in its faith that with you in the White House, the next four years will look a lot like the last four, and much to their liking.
Therefore, in stark contrast to your father's 1992 renomination, there will be no fire-breathing Pat Buchanans at this one (not even the current Pat Buchanan, whose opposition to the war in Iraq has put him far outside the GOP's tent). Your bona fides, unlike your father's, cannot be questioned. True conservatives know who you are and what you stand for, even when you sound more Rockefeller than rock-ribbed.
Call it born-again compassion. Can such an audacious strategy actually work? It's as if Lyndon Johnson, who presented himself as the peace candidate in 1964, had done so again in 1968, after four years of war. But it just might work. This week's convention will be skillfully stage-managed, and a strong speech can work a kind of alchemy, turning waverers into supporters, replacing doubt with resolve. A "compassionate" message may do just that. It may bring the undecideds into your embrace and make the difference in November.
But I would urge you to think beyond the election. This is a campaign not just for the presidency, but for your credibility -- weakened by the war as well as some voters' feeling that "we've been had." In 2000, a good many middle-of-the-roaders gave your claims of compassion the benefit of the doubt. Very few will consider doing so again. According to party strategists, these are precisely the people you're trying to reach this week.
As I've said, they may come your way. But if they do, what will they think when you unveil your first post-election budget? In May, a memo by your Office of Management and Budget was leaked to The Washington Post. The memo notified federal departments that cuts are coming in 2006 -- virtually across the board. The very same programs you have been citing in your campaign -- education and Head Start; nutrition for women, infants and children; homeownership; job training -- are all slated for substantial reductions.
Last time around, compassionate conservatism was a head fake -- we looked left, you went right. Running this play again may win you the game, but over time, it will cost you and the country. If your convention speech implies, again, that compassion is just around the corner, and you fail, again, to deliver, your second term will be marked by greater distrust, wider division and deeper disaffection with the political process.
As a second-termer, you wouldn't have to face the electorate again. But you would have to reckon with the choices you've made and the cynicism they invite.
"When I act," you said in 2000, "you will know my reasons. And when I speak, you will know my heart." Four years later, for all the talk about straight talk, your heart and your motives mystify many of us, at least on the Democratic side. But we have learned a great deal about your values and priorities.
You haven't made apologies, haven't acknowledged mistakes. Your policies have proudly, unabashedly declared that deficits don't matter; that tax cuts for the well-to-do create jobs for the rest of us; that America's allies are more a hindrance than a help; that security concerns trump civil liberties.
These, I think it's now safe to say, are your beliefs. Your supporters salute them, your detractors deplore them. Either way, your record reflects them -- and so, therefore, should your speech. A ringing defense of these principles, grounded in your policies, would define your first term and chart a very clear course for a second.
"If you share these beliefs," you could say, "then lend me your support. If you don't, then let the chips fall where they may. Either way, let it be said that I made my case and stood my ground. Let it be said I had the courage of my convictions."
Jeff Shesol is a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a speechwriting firm in Washington. He was deputy director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton.