YEARS AGO, back when he first worked for Florida Rep. Andy Ireland--back, in other words, when he was a Democrat--Ed Gillespie would have fit right in here.
But things change. When Ireland switched parties in 1984, Gillespie switched too. "I liked President Reagan's approach to governing and it just made sense to me," Gillespie told the New York Times recently. It was a wise decision. Or at least a profitable one. These days, of course, Gillespie heads the Republican National Committee. Before that, he was an archon of Washington's lobbyist class. And before that, he was an acclaimed Republican strategist, drafting portions of the 1994 Contract for America and shepherding Elizabeth Dole into the U.S. Senate in 2002.
At lunch on Monday, as he struggled to finish his chicken and mashed potatoes, Gillespie spoke with a group of reporters. Republicans are a minority in Boston, this week and in others, but it has become a tradition of sorts for a party to stakeout the opposition's convention, and so Gillespie heads a team of about 30 Republicans, all of whom are responsible for "getting the word out" about President Bush's successes while "combating" Democratic "misinformation." A host of Republican surrogates will be sifting through the city, too, including Rudy Giuliani and Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman. The Boston Republicans deliver daily briefings. They launch nattily produced websites like Demsextrememakeover.com. They "keep the focus on the issues," Gillespie said.
And they will probably be ignored. "We'll probably be on the jump page," Gillespie said. "But we're happy to have our nose pressed up on the window of the convention." This isn't the chairman's first Democratic convention. He showed up in 1996, as former RNC chair Haley Barbour's protégé. And he doesn't mind being surrounded by his opponents. "It's much more fun to be at the other guy's convention," he said.
What does Gillespie think about the Democratic convention? The Democrats are trying to "reposition" Kerry, he said. They want to make him more "likeable" and "moderate." They may succeed. "They'll get between 8-12 points," he said.
IT'S FUNNY. If you talk to Democratic strategists here, they tell you that John Kerry needs to use his acceptance speech on Thursday to tell the country what, exactly, he stands for. But talk to Gillespie, and he tells you we already know what Kerry stands for: tax hikes, defense cuts, and the idea that multilateralism is an end in itself. Who would have thought? It's as if the Republicans have a more coherent take on Kerry than the Democrats.
And some Democrats agree with the GOP, Gillespie said. Georgia Democratic senator Zell Miller, for example, is in Boston--to stump for Bush. Miller's a Democrat in name only, of course. So I asked Gillespie if he thought Miller has any cachet among members of, as you read in the papers, "the most unified Democratic party in history."
"Miller is not alone," Gillespie said. Some Democrats, like Louisiana's Rodney Alexander, have decided not to show up to the DNC this year. In South Dakota, a Democrat named Stephanie Herseth won a special election last month. What's interesting is that she did so by emphasizing her solidarity with Bush on Iraq. (One reporter asked Herseth whether she wanted Kerry's help. Her response? Laughter.) "Since Bush took office in 2001," Gillespie continued, some "199 elected officials have changed their party registration" from Democrat to Republican.
Zell Miller will speak at the convention this year, incidentally. Just not the Democratic one. The senator will nominate president Bush at the GOP convention in New York next month. However, for Miller, this will be old hat. He's done it before. He nominated Bill Clinton in 1992.
Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.