The Conventional GOP

The let's-be-honest obligation before the Republican Party this week is to reveal its real stripes, not just the stripes of red, white, and blue.

Party conventions, sadly, have drifted away from a transparency of open and serious political debate, as Americans witnessed last month during the Democrats' sanitized gathering in Boston.

Last week, during the traditional preconvention "writing" of the GOP platform, Republican leaders showed they prefer to suppress or ignore diverse views among the faithful for the sake of made-for-TV unity behind President Bush's record and agenda.

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In that exercise, the GOP's internal differences over issues ranging from environment to immigration to excess government spending were papered over, mainly in favor of sticking to the central theme of Mr. Bush as war leader. The convention's four days of speeches, too, reportedly have been well scripted to exude harmony, or at least a temporary image of "moderation," as both parties race to the center in the final weeks of the campaign. (Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat, is giving the GOP keynote speech on Wednesday.)

Even the staging for Bush's Thursday-night acceptance speech at Madison Square Garden has been designed to have him be seen encircled by delegates, with a sort of theater-in-the-round message of unity and focus.

The fact is that the party in power has decided it can't afford messy big-tent divisions if it wants to retain control at both ends of Pennsylvania Ave. From the party's moralists to its libertarians, from its isolationists to its democracy exporters, delegates have been told it's better to spend time celebrating in New York than canvassing in the corridors.

GOP elders still long for the unity they once felt under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and briefly during the Republican surge under Newt Gingrich in the mid-'90s. This time, they've been scared into closing ranks because of Bush's squeaker victory over Al Gore in 2000 as well as some polls showing John Kerry ahead.

The GOP is kidding itself, however, if it thinks the small percentage of undecided voters will buy into that front. The country remains acutely split over complex issues, such as Iraq, and knows a party with pat answers built on little grass-roots debate runs the risk of not being open to fresh ideas.

The closed nature of the Bush administration, with its penchant for extreme loyalty and tight-lipped flow of information, is reflected in this four-day Republican event. But as the Iraq experience showed, staying on message can easily turn into staying on autopilot when the wing's on fire.

The party of principles has forgotten a key principle of balancing competing ideas, rather than squelching inconvenient ones.

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