President George W. Bush accepted the Republican nomination for a second term Thursday night with a lofty speech casting his reelection as crucial to the spread of democracy across the world and to the security of Americans at home.
In an address that subordinated domestic policy proposals to the campaign against terrorism, Bush delivered an emotional appeal that he be viewed as the leader best suited to keep the nation safe. The president proposed a simplification of the federal tax code and renewed his call for a revamped Social Security program and a host of smaller initiatives ranging from medical savings accounts to more testing of high-school seniors. But he devoted the bulk of his speech, and his rhetorical flourishes, to the national security message that forms the core of his candidacy.
"This moment in the life of our country will be remembered," he told the delegates from a podium at the center of Madison Square Garden. "Generations will know if we kept our faith and kept our word. Generations will know if we seized this moment and used it to build a future of safety and peace. The freedom of many, and the future security of our nation, now depend on us."
The speech began and ended with references to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on this city, and the response to terrorism was woven through the 5,000-word address, the majority of which was devoted to national security. "In the heart of this great city, we saw tragedy arrive on a quiet morning," Bush said at the beginning of the address. Toward the end, he added: "My fellow Americans, for as long as our country stands, people will look to the resurrection of New York City and they will say: Here buildings fell, and here a nation rose."
Bush's prime-time speech wrapped up a four-day convention characterized by repeated praise of his terrorism-fighting credentials, bitter criticism of Democratic challenger John F. Kerry's character and policies, and large street demonstrations in heavily Democratic New York. Though protests were generally calm, arrests exceeded 1,700 for the week -- nearly triple the number from the violent 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A judge ruled Thursday that the police illegally held hundreds of anti-Bush demonstrators without charges or access to lawyers for more than 40 hours.
Bush's address combined many passages from his usual stump speech, familiar slogans such as "compassionate conservative" from his 2000 campaign, and mocking, dismissive jabs at Kerry. "He's proposed more than $2 trillion in new federal spending so far, and that's a lot, even for a senator from Massachusetts," he said. "To pay for that spending, he is running on a platform of increasing taxes -- and that's the kind of promise a politician usually keeps."
On foreign policy, Bush ridiculed Kerry for voting against an $87 billion spending package for Afghanistan and Iraq -- "My opponent and his running mate voted against this money for bullets and fuel and vehicles and body armor" -- and for denigrating allies in Iraq as a "coalition of the coerced and bribed." Bush said these were "allies that deserve the respect of all Americans, not the scorn of a politician."
After drawing criticism this week for suggesting that the war against terrorists could not be won, Bush filled his acceptance speech with optimism. "We have reached a time for hope," he said after recalling a verse from Ecclesiastes. "This young century will be liberty's century." The terrorists, he said, "should be afraid, because freedom is on the march."
Addressing the Democratic criticism that he unilaterally plunged the United States into war in Iraq, Bush said the invasion followed "careful diplomacy," and he described the decision as agonizing. "I faced the kind of decision that comes only to the Oval Office -- a decision no president would ask for, but must be prepared to make," he said.
The speech dealt lightly with some of the more vexing issues facing the Bush campaign. The president dealt only briefly with jobs and the economy, and the Democratic National Committee was quick to point out that he made no reference to Iran, North Korea or Osama bin Laden. Bush, who has criticized Kerry for saying his goal was to reduce troops in Iraq six months after taking office, said he wanted to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq "as quickly as possible, and then our troops will return home."
The president's hour-long address was in some ways the inverse of his acceptance speech four years ago, which put a robust domestic agenda above national security concerns. "None of us could have envisioned what these years would bring," Bush said Thursday of his first term, adding: "Because we have faced challenges with resolve, we have historic goals within our reach, and greatness in our future. We will build a safer world and a more hopeful America -- and nothing will hold us back."
Compared with the ambitious domestic agenda for his first term -- a huge tax cut and a revision of federal education laws -- Bush's proposals for a second term were relatively modest items that he had already proposed, such as a plan to use "comp time" and "flex time" instead of overtime, and an expansion of college grants for low-income students. He renewed calls for some moribund items from his first-term agenda, including energy legislation and making his tax cuts permanent. Bush set a goal of increasing the public and private supply of housing by 7 million units over the next 10 years, and he promised "opportunity zones" to depressed manufacturing areas -- a nod to battleground states such as Ohio.
Bush was vague about the largest of the new proposals he made Thursday -- reforming the federal tax code, which he called "a complicated mess" that causes Americans headaches. "In a new term, I will lead a bipartisan effort to reform and simplify the federal tax code." He was equally brief in discussing Social Security, offering no specifics as he renewed his call for "allowing younger workers to save some of their taxes in a personal account."
The president spoke of societal changes that have brought more women into the workforce and caused Americans to change jobs more often. "Many of our most fundamental systems -- the tax code, health coverage, pension plans, worker training -- were created for the world of yesterday, not tomorrow," he said. "We will transform these systems so that all citizens are equipped, prepared -- and thus truly free -- to make your own choices and pursue your own dreams."
The most passionate elements of Bush's speech were about his war leadership. "We have fought the terrorists across the Earth -- not for pride, not for power, but because the lives of our citizens are at stake," he said. "We are staying on the offensive -- striking terrorists abroad -- so we do not have to face them here at home."
The emphasis of the speech on terrorism reflected the calculation of Bush's staff that he is likely to win if he can shift the focus of public attention to national security and terrorism and away from Iraq and the economy. The speech continued the efforts of other convention speakers -- whose remarks were vetted or written by the Bush-Cheney campaign -- to conflate the war in Iraq, which is generally unpopular, with the war on terrorism, for which Bush still receives strong marks.
Bush lumped the invasion of Iraq with the attack on Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks as part of one big war on terrorism, saying that the "army of a free Iraq is fighting for freedom, and more than three-quarters of al Qaeda's key members and associates have been detained or killed."
"Our strategy is succeeding," he said. "We have led, many have joined, and America and the world are safer."
Despite the party's extensive orchestration efforts, Bush was twice interrupted by hecklers as he delivered his speech, first by a lone woman shouting, "Lies, lies, people die," and then by several people who shouted when he brought up the subject of Iraq. Bush was momentarily distracted as the crowd drowned out the protesters with chants of "Four more years."
Bush spoke in a theater-in-the-round format, standing atop the eagle on the presidential seal in an oval platform above the crowd. The hall was decorated with campaign slogans such as "People of Compassion" and "We Salute Our Troops," and star-spangled signs saying "USA." Delegates, some wearing cowboy hats or military caps, booed when Bush mentioned Kerry and frequently leapt to their feet to applaud.
Though much of Bush' speech was grave, the crowd roared with laughter when Bush sought to deflate the criticism of him as a cowboy, saying: "Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking.' " The delegates showed particular delight at Bush's mention of his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.
For the fourth straight night when the dominant topic was national security, New York Gov. George E. Pataki set the tone in introducing Bush. "I thank God that on September 11th, we had a president who didn't wring his hands and wonder what America had done wrong to deserve this attack," he said in a speech that disparaged Kerry. Before that, several retired generals, led by former U.S. Central Command chief Tommy R. Franks, took the stage in front of images of fighter jets to attest to Bush's strengths as commander in chief. Immediately preceding Bush's appearance, a video showed Bush standing in the ruins of the World Trade Center, comforting the widow of a fallen police officer and throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium.
Bush continued that theme in his speech. "I believe the most solemn duty of the American president is to protect the American people," he said. "If America shows uncertainty and weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. This will not happen on my watch."
Bush closed with the soaring rhetoric that has characterized his major speeches. "Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America -- and tonight, in this place, that dream is renewed. Now we go forward -- grateful for our freedom, faithful to our cause and confident in the future of the greatest nation on Earth."
Bush went into the evening edging up in polls and claiming momentum, although he remains in a statistical tie with Kerry in most surveys. Aides said early signs are that this week's convention has been successful at restoring the issue of terrorism to the center of the campaign, but they were warily awaiting Friday morning's release of the Labor Department's August employment report, which will indicate whether the economy is faltering or rebounding. The economy remains a major concern and subject of news coverage in several crucial states, including Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania; despite recent gains, 1.1 million jobs have been shed under Bush's tenure.
The week-long barrage on Kerry's qualifications as a war leader produced an unusually caustic response from the Democratic nominee, who held a midnight rally in Springfield, Ohio, shortly after Bush finished. "We all saw the anger and distortion of the Republican convention," Kerry said, in remarks released in advance by his campaign. "For the past week, they attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as commander in chief. Well, here's my answer: I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq."
Bush aides had said before Thursday's acceptance speech that it was his best opportunity to lay out his goals for a second term. The "biggest goal" of the convention, campaign strategist Matthew Dowd said, was to make Americans "understand we have a plan and an agenda." And White House communications director Dan Bartlett said Thursday that "at the conclusion of tonight's speech, the American people will have a clear idea of where he wants to take the country for the next four years."
Republican allies of the president said that it was not necessary for him to lay out a detailed agenda, only to list his priorities so that if he wins the election he can tell lawmakers his ideas have the support of the people. "It's important to bring up second-term agenda items, not necessarily for political reasons, but so that President Bush can reasonably claim a mandate if he is reelected," said Rep. Rob Portman (Ohio), a key White House ally on Capitol Hill.
Gen. Tommy R. Franks, former head of the U.S. Central Command in Iraq, takes the stage in front of images of military equipment to attest to the president's leadership strengths."We have reached a time for hope," President Bush said in his speech, adding that terrorists "should be afraid, because freedom is on the march."