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Commentary: McCain turns to old GOP themes, buzzwords

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  • Tuesday's themes at GOP convention dealt with patriotism, "Putting Country First"
  • President Bush attacked "The Angry Left" at convention
  • Bernstein: McCain once rejected old GOP themes, now embraces them
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By Carl Bernstein
CNN Contributor
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Editor's Note: Award-winning journalist and best-selling author Carl Bernstein, best known for his reporting work with Bob Woodward about the Watergate scandal, serves as a political analyst for CNN. Most recently, Bernstein wrote "A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton," a detailed portrait of the junior senator from New York and former Democratic presidential candidate.

Carl Bernstein says Republicans returned to old themes, including patriotism, to attack Democrats.

Carl Bernstein says Republicans returned to old themes, including patriotism, to attack Democrats.

(CNN) -- Democrats take note: the Republican convention was resolutely on-message Tuesday night, sounding old themes and buzzwords that have worked for the GOP in the past.

It's those same themes that John McCain, who once rejected the approach, has now embraced as the only way to the White House. "The Angry Left," "Liberals," "The Media," -- the familiar litany of right-wing Republican demons -- rocked the house in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The message: McCain, Sarah Palin and the Republicans are the true party of patriotism, as if the Democrats aren't. In the repetitious theme of the evening, the Republicans would "Put Country First," as if the Democrats wouldn't.

The Democrats' first response to the evening, in a statement from the Obama campaign about the GOP's failure to address economic problems in the country, said nothing -- perhaps at its peril -- about the real Republican message.

The theme was first sounded by actor Robert Duvall in the short film he narrated; followed by speaker after speaker and later interspersed in filmed tributes to Ronald Reagan and to a Navy Seal hero who died in Iraq. That is the theme invoked as the motif of John McCain's life.

Perhaps the most extreme example of the implication that the Republicans have a lock on patriotism and "Putting Country First" came in video footage of a first-responder going underwater to rescue occupants of a car that plummeted in the Minneapolis bridge collapse. (No word at the convention about problems of infrastructure in the country -- just people (apparently only Republicans) who would "Put Country First."

Meanwhile, consistent with the demonizing subtext of this theme, President Bush attacked (rather incongruously, but with plenty of antecedents in Republican history) "The Angry Left" -- perhaps an attempt to stigmatize those who would question Sarah Palin's credentials.

A quick video tribute to Ronald Reagan referred to "the media [who] despised him." Former Sen. Fred Thompson pounded Barack Obama as "the most liberal" presidential candidate in history, and brought the convention to its feet. He also warned of losing the Supreme Court to the Democrats and "liberalism" (to delirious applause). Thompson said McCain's pick of Palin had thrown the Democrats' "friends in the media into a state of panic" (pandemonium in the hall).

John McCain, in a different time in his life (i.e. running against George W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000), specifically rejected this approach. He courted and charmed the dreaded "media" monolith and enunciated a post-partisan vision (yet definitely consistent with conservative orthodoxy on many big questions).

McCain also railed against the culture wars that his party and campaign are now intent on stoking as the way to victory. (Remember, only months ago, when the promise of this election was that there were two nominees who understood the enduring damage of the culture wars to the country and its political system?)

Will the Republican message on display last night work? It was essential to George W. Bush's defeat of John Kerry and pulled Bush to parity with Al Gore in 2000. George H.W. Bush relied on the approach in 1988. Bill Clinton recognized the strategy, addressed it substantively and forthrightly and buried it.

The McCain campaign and the Republican Party of 2008 are betting that Barack Obama won't be nimble enough to repeat Clinton's feat, and that they have found the formula (including putting Palin on the ticket at a moment when the election seemed to be eluding them) to victory.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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