George W. Bush accepted the Republican nomination for president Thursday night, asserting that President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had failed to "use these good times for great goals" and promising to change the "bitter" culture of Washington. "They had their chance. They have not led," Bush said. "We will."
Only six years after he first won elective office as governor of Texas, Bush, 54, ascended to the summit of a party he has tried to recast in his own image, which he described this way: "Optimistic. Impatient with pretense. Confident that people can chart their own course."
And humorous. Bush brought down the house in the first minutes of his remarks, lauding Philadelphia as the city where George Washington served as the nation’s first president — "or as they called him back then, George W."
The 2,066 delegates responded enthusiastically, interrupting their nominee 72 times with applause, including three eruptions that lengthened into mini-demonstrations. Thanks to the audience outbursts, the 3,900-word speech, which campaign officials had expected to take about 45 minutes to deliver, in the end clocked in at an hour and 13 minutes.
Dark clouds amid the sunniness
Given the chance to avenge his father’s loss to Bill Clinton eight years ago, Bush acknowledged the record prosperity of Clinton’s years in the White House but portrayed them as a "squandered" opportunity.
He condemned Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for leaving behind millions of Americans not fortunate enough to have taken part in the boom of the 1990s, declaring: "The surplus is not the government’s money. The surplus is the people’s money."
Bush suggested that the nation’s unprecedented prosperity could be as much a burden as a blessing.
"Times of plenty, like times of crisis, are tests of American character," Bush said. "Prosperity can be a tool in our hands used to build and better our country. Or it can be a drug in our system, dulling our sense of urgency, of empathy, of duty."
Bush said that what he called the "Clinton-Gore administration" has "coasted through prosperity."
"Our current president embodied the potential of a generation," he said: "So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But, in the end, to what end?
"So much promise, to no great purpose."
The good economic times are a challenge that Bush said the Democrats will be unable to meet after eight years of a Clinton administration he described as lethargic, self-satisfied and bitterly partisan, building on a theme developed Wednesday night by his vice presidential running mate, Dick Cheney.
Bush described Gore as paralyzed by the partisan rancor of a gridlocked Washington political culture — "the politics of the roadblock, the philosophy of the stop sign."
Acknowledging that he "may lack the polish of Washington," Bush spun his outsider status as a plus: "Then again, I don’t have a lot of things that come with Washington experience. I don’t have enemies to fight. And I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years."
The Bush specifics
Addressing Democratic accusations that he lacks substance, Bush talked in detail about a wide range of policy issues and offered specific, targeted programs. Among them:
- Education: Bush criticized a practice known as "social promotion," passing students along to the next higher grade each year no matter how poor their grades. "Too many American children are segregated into schools without standards, shuffled from grade to grade because of their age, regardless of their knowledge," he said. "This is discrimination, pure and simple — the soft bigotry of low expectations."
Bush said that "local people should control local schools" and that "those who spend your tax dollars must be held accountable." Foremost, he said, parents of children in failing schools should be be given government vouchers to help them pay for private education.
"When a school district receives federal funds to teach poor children, we expect them to learn. And if they don’t, parents should get the money to make a different choice," he said.
- Social Security: Bush acknowledged the political peril of Social Security, which he said has been called the "third rail of American politics — the one you’re not supposed to touch because it shocks you. But if you don’t touch it, you can’t fix it. And I intend to fix it."
Bush said he would "keep the promise of Social Security ... no changes, no reductions, no way."
For younger workers, he proposed "the option — your choice — to put a part of your payroll taxes into sound, responsible investments."
- Military security: Bush repeated a common Republican criticism that the armed forces are under-equipped, under-trained and underpaid, and he called for deploying missile defenses to guard against attack from so-called "rogue states" like North Korea and Iraq, a Clinton proposal that Russia has rejected as a violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
In just about the only instance in which he agreed with Clinton on a specific policy issue, Bush declared: "Now is the time, not to defend outdated treaties, but to defend the American people."
- Taxes: Rather than call for a radical restructuring, Bush listed a series of specific changes designed to "bring common sense and fairness to the tax code."
Bush supported the politically popular move to eliminate the estate, which is tied up in Congress with an unrelated issue, and called for lowering the minimum income tax rate to 10 percent from its current from 15 percent.
- Abortion: Acknowledging dissenters sincerity but rejecting their plea for tolerance of their views, Bush restated the party’s traditional opposition to abortion and promised to sign any congressional bill to outlaw a late-term procedure opponents call "partial-birth" abortion.
Sections of Bush’s address echoed the combative speech Wednesday night in which Cheney temporarily retuned the convention’s upbeat tenor with its first head-on attack on the Democratic ticket.
Like Cheney, Bush refrained from direct personal assaults on Clinton, never once mentioning the president’s impeachment or campaign-finance investigations. Unlike Cheney, he offered a litany of direct criticisms of Gore.
The vice president, Bush said, is overly cautious, legalistic and untrustworthy. Gore would characterize a fact, he charged, as "a risky truth scheme."
"He now leads the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But the only thing he has to offer is fear itself.
That outlook is typical of many in Washington — always seeing the tunnel at the end of the light."
‘Intimate ... personal’ introduction
Bush took the podium at 10:03 p.m. ET after a the airing of a 9½-minute biographical film produced in Kennebunkport, Maine, in June during a birthday celebration for Bush’s mother, former first lady Barbara Bush.
"We wanted to try to capture a sense of the person that we’ve gotten to know," said Stuart Stevens, the Bush media adviser who directed the film, titled "The Sky’s the Limit."
Afterward, as tradition dictates, Bush was joined on the podium by much of his family, including his wife, Laura, and their twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara. Bush’s parents, however, stayed in the audience, reflecting the campaign’s wish that the former president and highly popular former first lady not overshadow the new nominee.
Along with most of the other convention speakers, Bush’s primary rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, also joined the gathering, having returned here by train Thursday afternoon at the Bush campaign’s request.
Bush embarks on his campaign first thing Friday morning. After a prayer breakfast and a meeting of the Republican National Committee at a downtown hotel, he flies to Pittsburgh to begin a train trip through the Midwest, which is considered a crucial battleground in the general election. By Sunday, the Bush express will have stopped in Akron, Ohio; Detroit; Chicago; and Springfield, Ill.
On an even keel
Friends and aides said Bush was determined to keep the most important day of his career as normal as possible.
With his speech written, rewritten 16 times, rehearsed and ready to go the day before, Bush started his morning with a workout on an exercise bicycle before embarking on a full day out and about in Philadelphia.
After dropping by a luncheon tribute to his wife, Bush visited Hahnemann University Medical Center to see former President Gerald Ford, who was recovering from a mild stroke he suffered late Monday.
Speaking with reporters afterward, Bush said the former president "looked great" and that they chatted about Cheney’s acceptance speech the night before, "because Cheney was Ford’s protege."
Big convention boost
A daily tracking poll released Thursday suggests that Bush is seeing a substantial boost in popularity from this convention, during which Republican organizers have showcased minority and "real world" speakers to present an inclusive and friendly face to America.
The survey, conducted jointly by a Democratic and a Republican pollster for Voter.com Battleground, showed Bush leading Gore by 13 points — 49 percent to 36 percent — a full five-point rise from Wednesday’s poll.
More than half of 1,000 registered voters surveyed earlier this week said that what they’ve heard about Bush makes them more likely to support him. Just more than a third said that about Gore.
The poll found Bush leading in every region of the country except the Northeast, and in every age group.