09/04/2012 05:22 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

GOP - or Fearful Old Party? A Tale of Two Speeches

"President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise... is to help you and your family." - Mitt Romney, acceptance speech.

That line from Mitt Romney's acceptance speech has been gnawing at me. It implies a false choice -- worse, a choice that Romney has never believed in himself. It suggests that the American present can only thrive at the expense of the American future. But it also violates every lesson about the environment in the conservative message manual. Recall most spectacularly Frank Luntz, who told Republicans, "Assure the public of your values and intentions. Use strong, active words: 'preserving and protecting'."

Tampa displayed other jarring contradictions in what, you have to assume, was a carefully planned performance. There was Ann Romney's wonderful speech on love, followed by Chris Christie's keynote address attacking love as a transient value contrasted with toughness and respect. (The Clint Eastwood moment, amusing as it was, falls I think in the category of "stuff happens even in scripted events.")

Tonally, something was off. So I went back to the last speech given by a Republican Presidential nominee running against a Democratic White House -- George W. Bush's Philadelphia acceptance address twelve years ago.

What I found shocked me. If you take Romney's speech -- and those of Santorum, Christie and Ryan -- as signs not of Romney's own perspective but of his party's, and contrast it with Bush's acceptance message, the fear and darkness that have infiltrated the GOP is marked and alarming. It is not just that today's GOP is harder-right, more conservative, more rigid. It is also almost clinically depressed about America.

Bush attacked Bill Clinton's failure to leverage the opportunity offered by prosperity to achieve great things for America as a unified community and nation.

Romney talked about the struggles facing individual families to just get ahead.

Bush talked about the need for vision, greatness and character in America as a nation -- "we" was the signature pronoun:

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. Our opportunities are too great, our lives too short to waste this moment.

But our new economy must never forget the old, unfinished struggle for human dignity. And here we face a challenge to the very heart and founding premise of our nation.

Bush called on the importance of big community, inclusive community, the "unum" in e pluribus unum.

Our sense of community -- our sense of community was just as strong as that sense of promise. Neighbors helped each other. There were dry wells and sand storms to keep you humble, lifelong friends to take your side, and churches to remind us that every soul is equal in value and equal in need.

Romney offered neither great national purpose nor a challenge to America's character. He focused only on small victories in a harsh world. There is a sense of resentment at the economic struggles of the past five years.

It is not what we were promised .... Every family in America wanted this to be a time when they could get ahead a little more, put aside a little more for college, do more for their elderly mom who's living alone now or give a little more to their church or charity.

Over and over the operative adjective is a: "a little...." "But what could you do? Except work harder, do with less, try to stay optimistic. Hug your kids a little longer; maybe spend a little more time praying that tomorrow would be a better day." This is a small, meager, shrunken vision of the American dream.

Romney addresses, over and over, the struggles of individuals -- not the nation. Even in recalling the Apollo moon mission, the emblematic symbol of national effort and success for his generation, he closed by saying that landing on moon justified "the utter confidence that when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American." As if Neil Armstrong had somehow built the Apollo moon mission himself, in his garage.

Like Bush, Romney references community -- and roots it locally -- but with a subtle, telling difference. Bush's community was singular and embracing. Romney's is plural and parochial:

We look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad. ... The strength and power and goodness of America, has always been based on the strength and power and goodness of our communities, our families, our faiths.

That "s" tells it all. Don't trust the nation. Retreat to yourself, your family, congregation and friends.

Bush, like Reagan before him, sounded a confident optimism, using that buoyancy to contrast himself with Al Gore.

So tonight, we vow to our nation we will seize this moment of American promise. We will use these good times for great goals ... They had their chance. They have not led. We will.

He quoted a friend, "Live on the east side of the mountain. It's the sunrise side, not the sunset side. It is the side to see the day that is coming, not to see the day that has gone," and went on to say, "Americans live on the sunrise side of the mountain...."

Romney -- like the Tea Party -- spoke from the sunset side of the mountain. Reagan and Bush's optimism is not there, much less in Chris Christie's startling opening speech of his putative 2016 race for the Republican nominate.

Time and time again the Bush who stood in Philadelphia sounds more like Barack Obama than the Republican Party that presented itself in Tampa. Even on taxes, Bush argued only that people should be paying "no more than 30%." Romney is proud to have gotten his bill down to 13%!

Bush responded to horrific slaughters at schools by promising to protect children "by finally and strictly enforcing our nation's gun laws." Romney ignored them. Bush closed, in the most memorable portion of his acceptance, laying down as his core challenge a "compassionate conservatism" that would reach out and bring into the American dream disenfranchised, bitter, even criminal young men and women -- people who simply did not exist in Tampa except as warnings against the perils of too much love.

Indeed, Bush's challenge to Gore, "He now leads -- he now leads the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt , but the only thing he has to offer is fear itself," could be fired back at Romney -- just substitute Reagan for Roosevelt. This indeed may be where Mitt Romney the moderate comfortably meets the Tea Party radicals -- Romney's present character as a man who stands for nothing was forged by his fear of the principled leadership which denied his father the presidency. Fear also drives the Tea Party -- fear of change and an American future different than the past. Those two fears joined in Florida last week.

So in many ways, the Tampa convention was a counterpoint not to Obama and the Democrats, but to the George Bush who campaigned in 2000. The Republican Party is suffering from an auto-immune disorder against its own past. Bush, of course, governed very differently -- Dick Cheney saw to that. And the gradual but now complete takeover of the GOP by an economic past based on fossil fuels began shortly after Bush's election, with his abandonment of his campaign pledge to "heal the planet" by cleaning up green-house pollutants. (Indeed, the "war on coal," which noisily decried in Tampa, is, substantively, nothing more than Obama's delivery of Bush's 2000 campaign pledge to clean up old, dirty power plants.)

Combine the economic power Koch Industries and other coal and oil producers obtain by feeding the insatiable appetite for dollars of Karl Rove's campaign machinery with the crabbed fearfulness of this Republican Party, and suddenly Romney's mocking line about "healing the planet" makes sense. Taking care of the future is a collective endeavor, not an individual one. It is a national mission, not a parochial one. If you are afraid of such a challenge, one defense is to make fun of it -- particularly if someone pays you handsomely to do so.

It has always been a truism about presidential elections that the party and candidate of optimism win's. It is another truism that in bad economic time the incumbent loses. In many ways, 2012 will test which of those two principals trumps. The early readings are hopeful. Gallup reports that Romney's speech bombed, getting by far the worst public reactions of any acceptance speech since they began asking the question -- only 38% said it was "good or excellent", with an unprecedented 10% saying it was "terrible", twice as high as ever before. (Bush's 2000 speech got a 51% positive rating, with a record low 1% saying it was terrible.)

But either way the fact that one of America's two major political parties has lost faith in the national dream and our collective future, embracing a narrow and purely individual struggle for economic advancement in a brutal world, looms as a damaging fault-line through the nation, and a serious threat to its future.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."