TOM PUTNAM: Good evening. I’m Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. And on behalf of John Shattuck, CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation and all of my library colleagues, I welcome you and thank you for coming. The title of this evening’s forum was coined by Theodore H. White, a native of Dorchester, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Making of the President 1960. In the book, White describes John Kennedy this way, “No candidate in modern times has so urgently yearned for the power of the presidency or more eloquently or precisely declaimed what that power is to the people he sought to lead.” JFK’s opponent that year, Mr. White offered a less laudatory assessment, describing Richard Nixon as “a quintessentially insecure man.” White writes that he once asked Vice President Nixon how he could bear campaigning, shaking hands all day, smiling. And Mr. Nixon finished the thought for him by saying, “And all the while you are smiling, you want to kick them in the shins.” [Laughter]
Tonight’s discussion is part of a special Kennedy Library Forum series on presidential leadership in conjunction with our new exhibit, “The Making of a President,” which was made possible with the generous support from the AIG Private Client Group, and our exhibit [Laughter] -- I hoped to get some laughs with this introduction but I didn’t anticipate getting it there. And our exhibit media sponsors, WCVB TV. Our sincere thanks to AIG and to the sponsors of the Kennedy Library Forums, including lead sponsor, Bank of America, represented here tonight by Massachusetts president Robert Gallery, along with other generous Forum sponsors, the Lowell Institute, Boston Capital, the Corcoran Jennison Companies The Boston Foundation and our Forum media sponsors, The Boston Globe, NECN and WBUR, which broadcasts Kennedy Library Forums on Sunday evenings at 8:00, and is represented this evening by general manager Paul La Camera.
To examine the making of the president 2008, we have assembled three of our countries finest journalists to frame in real time the current campaign in a historical context and discuss its mold-breaking precedence.
As a reporter in Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau, Eleanor Clift, who will lead this evening’s conversation, covered Jimmy Carter’s bid for the presidency, followed him to Washington as Newsweek’s White House correspondent and began a long career at the magazine as Washington Bureau Chief and political columnist. She is a regular analyst on Fox news in The McLaughlin Group, a weekly political conversation she once described as, quote, “televised food fights.” [Laughter] An author of numerous books, including two with her late husband, Tom Brazaitis, Clift shares her personal story in Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics. She writes, “While the country watched the events surrounding the death of Terry Schiavo, I watched my husband. He was in a hospital bed in our living room, battling the ravages of kidney cancer that had spread to his bones and his brain. As I wrote about and commented on the Schiavo situation, I kept quiet about the end of life process I was overseeing in our home for the person I had been closest to for more than 20 years.” Eleanor Clift is also co-chair of the Board of International Women’s Media Foundation and joins us here at the Library at an annual conference honoring the courage of worldwide female journalists in the name of the late Boston Globe correspondent, Elizabeth Neuffer, who lost her life trying to get the story right in Iraq.
Jonathan Alter is a columnist and senior editor for Newsweek and correspondent for “NBC News.” It was in the latter capacity that he broke the story on election night 2000 of a problem with butterfly ballots in Palm Beach County where voters claimed they intended to vote for Al Gore, but mistakenly cast ballots for Pat Buchanan. Only in America. In the early hours of the national debacle, Alter was one of the first to predict that the Florida recount was headed to court.
Jonathan Alter is the author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, the story he writes of, quote, “how at one of our darkest moments in American history, a political and communicative genius saved American democracy.” And while I don’t mean to undercut the sales of Jonathan’s book, he mentions in his acknowledgements that while writing it he discovered a school report he wrote at age 11, in which he penned, quote, “FDR was an amazing man and a great president because he knew what he was doing. He was not physically strong but his spirit was.” For anyone who doesn’t have time to read the book, Mr. Alter continues, “That’s all you need to know.” [Laughter] Mr. Alter’s newest book is Between the Lines: A View Inside American Politics, People and Culture. It, along with Eleanor Clift’s memoir, will be on sale in our museum store after the forum, and all of our panelist will be happy to sign books following tonight’s discussion.
We first invited Mark Halperin to speak here on Presidents’ Day last February to analyze the 2008 campaign. Approximately a month before the Iowa caucus, he called to say he would be happy to join us, assuming -- which seemed a fairly safe bet at the time -- that by mid-February the nominees for both parties would have emerged. [Laughter] Somehow it took a bit longer than that to resolve the Democratic ticket.
Mr. Halperin is editor-at-large and senior political analyst at Time Magazine and a political analyst for ABC news. He has been described as, quote, “the insider’s insider insider, the leading purveyor of inside dope and a man who never sleeps.” His mantra is, “There always is a tidbit. You just have to ferret it out.” Having covered five presidential elections, he’s already written two books about this one, The Undecided Voter’s Guide to the Next President in which he handicapped the race before it began. And The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008. In this latter book, he describes the potential for this election to get bogged down -- I know some of you may find this shocking -- by a political culture that provides incentives for candidates, activists, interest groups and the news media to emphasize ideological extremism and personal attack. But he concludes the book with this hopeful prognosis: nearly everyone agrees in principle that our politics and journalism need to improve. But that will only happen if, quote, “an enlightened public will punish the politics of cynicism and reward the politics of creativity and civil dialogue.”
As we open tonight’s forum and continue our launch of the 2008-2009 Kennedy Library Forum Series, we aspire to nothing less, an enlightened public, engaging in civil dialogue that in the spirit of the man whose memory we honor inspires us all, ignobles our politics and forges creative solutions to the challenges of our times. In the words of President Kennedy, let us begin. [Applause]
ELEANOR CLIFT: Well, good evening. And in the spirit of Theodore White, I must say, today’s journalists would give anything to get the kind of access that he had to presidents. That is unheard of today. And goodness knows we have so many journalists out there scrounging for every little tidbit of information and the campaigns don’t make it easy, until after they’ve lost. And then everybody wants to tell you it wasn’t there fault. [Laughter] It’s just how it works.
Well, I’m very glad to be with you here this evening. Of course, I’m glad to be anywhere where I get to finish a sentence without getting interrupted. [Laughter] [Applause] So, John McLaughlin, eat your heart out. I’m the moderator tonight. [Laughter] I’m going to ask each of my colleagues here to sort of state their views on the state of race and I’ll offer some observations here of my own.
Republicans are almost gleeful because John McCain is in a better position here after Labor Day than anyone thought possible when he wrapped up the nomination in the early spring. And his running mate seems to be the most unlikely choice. But she has attracted extraordinary attention. I can’t believe on Saturday night I turned on CNN and there was a documentary. And I actually watched their Sarah Heath play her high school basketball game. And today I’m trying to sort out whether the fact that she installed a tanning bed in the governor’s mansion in Alaska, whether that was an elitist act or what middle Americans do when they have darkness for half the year. So the Republican ticket has created more excitement, I think, than anyone thought possible. And Democrats are pretty gloomy. That is sort of a permanent state of mind of Democrats. [Laughter]. But they feel like they’ve seen this movie before, that they’ve been through two consecutive presidential elections that they should have won and that they lost. And they are watching Barack Obama on the campaign trail and he’s sort of maddeningly cool. You know, why isn’t he getting worked up the way Democrats are?
And we’ve come off of now two weeks of Sarah Palin all day, all the time. But now the financial crisis that we are witnessing and the fact that there was laughter here at the mention of one of the premier insurance companies is really an extraordinary commentary. It makes me feel like we are all on the Titanic here, and we are just having a grand old time while the music is playing. But the seriousness of the economic situation, I think, would wash away some of the silliness that we’ve been through the last couple of weeks. And I don’t think either candidate has really set out a compelling economic message. And I remember 1992 and, “It’s the economy, stupid.” “I feel your pain.” “I’m going to focus on the economy like a laser.” I mean these are slogans, statements, that have stayed with me, however many years, what is it, 18 years later? And the Obama campaign has shifted from a “change we believe in” to “change we need.” That’s about the closest they’ve come to an economic message.
So I think we will talk amongst ourselves and then take your questions. We’ll talk about the economic issues and then the various X-factors in this campaign from the issue of race to the issue of gender and sexism to the ground game. And, you know, the person who wins is the person who gets the most voters to the polls. It’s not rocket science.
So, Mark, why don’t I ask you to begin. If you want to just give a few words about—you’ve been on the campaign trail? You’re heading to Michigan tomorrow, I understand. You are going to see the governor again. It’s the Palin-McCain ticket.
MARK HALPERIN: They will both be there. Thank you, Eleanor. Thank you for inviting me. It’s great to see so many people interested in the election here. Since I am famous for not being able resist a cheap joke, I have to say I’m glad the AIG exhibit is a temporary exhibit. [Laughter] I think that is probably a good idea, so the library doesn’t have to worry about the long-term funding.
This is a really exciting election to cover. It is a really big, important story and it is a serious time. The country is at war. We have an economic crisis. And I think more important, as serious as the short-term crisis is, is the long-term economic anxieties of working class Americans, and all Americans, whether America can be a manufacturing country, whether we can be a country that does trade with the world, what our education system and our work force relationship will be going forward, a lot of very big issues.
And, unfortunately, while these two candidates bring a lot of strengths, not just to being candidates but one of them to being president, they have a lot of profound weaknesses, too. One that they share is they are not very good, I think, at connecting their biographies and their life experiences up with programmatic and thematic solutions for the problems facing the country now. And I think we are seeing not a battle of sort of two weak candidates but two flawed candidates.
They are also two candidates who really believe, have spent their whole careers talking about, the importance of working in a bipartisan and sometimes non-partisan way. And I think that’s gone out the window, and I don’t think it’s coming back. And I think it is going to make it difficult for the winner to govern with an overwhelmingly liberal Democratic Congress, whether it is Senator Obama or Senator McCain.
In terms of the current state of the race, I’ll talk about it in three ways, briefly. One is, in terms of the Electoral College, I think the greatest thing that has happened, the most significant thing that has happened in the last three weeks, is I think Sarah Palin and the success of the Republican convention has solidified a lot of the red states. It has made the list of targeted red states that President Bush won in 2004 that Senator Obama can win shorter. And it’s put some of the states, while still in reach, makes them much less likely for him to win. That was the big advantage I thought he had just a few weeks ago. He had more plausible combinations to get to 270 electoral votes than Senator McCain. I thought then, and I still think now, for the most part, that Senator McCain has two paths. He can win all the Bush states except for maybe one or two small ones. Or he can win Michigan and then lose a few more red states. Those combinations I don’t think have expanded because of Sarah Palin, yet. What it does do, though, as I suggested, is it takes Senator Obama’s red state possibilities, reduces the number, gives him fewer combinations to get to 270.
Another way to look at the race, I believe, is the messages that the campaigns are driving. I believe that the presidential campaigns are about defining yourself on your own terms and defining your opponent on your terms. And I think Senator McCain and the Republicans are doing a much better job. John McCain has made himself not the candidate of experience, but all of a sudden he’s the reformer with Sarah Palin. And I think he’s done that pretty effectively. And contrary to what I bet a lot of you think, I think he has not just some legitimate claim to that but probably more important this close to election day, I think he’s got a resonance with the American people based on his past presidential campaign and his public image, historically, to convince people that he is, in fact, someone who will shake up Washington despite his long service there.
The last one, which goes to something Eleanor alluded to, which may be the most important, is psychology. I think that Bill Clinton, one of the things that he has said is, in a competitive election, like a competitive sporting event or a competitive business competition, psychology matters a lot. The winner is the one who withstands pressure, the one who understands how to get inside the opponents’ head and rattle them. And I think the Republicans are doing a much better job.
Many of the things that Senator Clinton predicted would happen, some privately and many publicly, if Barack Obama became the nominee, we’re seeing right now. If we see them from here on through Election Day, I think Senator McCain will win. And I think the moment now, can Senator Obama speak to kitchen table issues, very important. Can he threaten in red states, very important. But I think the moment now for him, somehow he has to show the country that he is tough enough to stand up to John McCain and Republican attacks. He has to show that he can define himself on his on terms.
I’ll say, finally, Republicans I think have succeeded, as of today, in simultaneously painting Barack Obama as a pointy-headed, Ivy Leaguer and some sort of street organizing hoodlum. Very difficult to do both at once. You know, they painted John Kerry just as a flip-flopping, wind-surfing Frenchman all in one direction. [Laughter] This is two different things at once and I think they have succeeded. And I think Barack Obama needs to define himself for the American people. Because the attacks that we’ve seen that have, it seems to me rattled him, seems to me defined him in the eyes of the swing voters in Michigan and Ohio and elsewhere who are going to decide this election. Those attacks have just begun. You’re going to see in the next few weeks beginning -- direct mailings and phone calls and Internet -- that is going to talk about Barack Obama in terms of crime and drugs and morality issues that are going to define him for a lot of voters. And he’s going to have to have a foundation so people look at him in a different way than Republicans want to define him. I’m not predicting Senator McCain will win. So no one misunderstands. I’m not advocating it. But my snapshot of the race right today, is Eleanor is exactly right. One side has momentum and confidence and the other side, not necessarily among Senator Obama’s top aides, but among a lot of other Democrats. And I think Senator Obama’s aides might do themselves well by being a little more worried. There is a fair amount of worry and concern about the current trajectory of where we are.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Jon, okay, is Senator McCain reformer with results and Barack Obama not tough enough to stand up to the attacks of a combination of Ivy League elitist and a community organizing hoodlum? It’s quite a combination.
JONATHAN ALTER: Reformer with results, that slogan comes from Karen Hughes who worked for George W. Bush in 2000 after Bush had lost the New Hampshire primary to John McCain. He was crushed in the New Hampshire primary. And he had just a few weeks to turn it around, a much shorter period, I think, three weeks between New Hampshire and South Carolina. And he emerged one day as the Texas reformer with results, which the McCain people at the time thought was preposterous. But he went on to win the South Carolina primary and the nomination, as you know.
It’s interesting to reflect a little bit on that South Carolina primary. I had an interesting experience there. On the afternoon of the primary I ran into a couple of McCain’s aides in the lobby of the hotel in Columbia, South Carolina. And they told me that the exit polls were in and that McCain had lost. And that they were going to go up and tell the candidate, who was just waking up from a nap. So I, like a pushy reporter, I kind of clung to them and went up in the elevator with them. When they knocked on the door, McCain answered the door and he saw me standing in the background and he gestured me in as well with them. So I was in the room with three of his aides and John and Cindy McCain when they gave him the bad news that he had lost the South Carolina primary. And to make it worse, they told him he had lost among veterans. And at that point Cindy McCain burst into tears and says, “How can they do this? How can these people do this? This is just awful. This is disgusting.” She was talking about the Karl Rove tactics that had been used against McCain in that primary. And John McCain was very calm and said, “It’s just politics, honey.” But I reflected on that recently because what they’ve done now is, they haven’t actually adopted the slogan “Reformer with Results,” but they’ve taken almost all of the other tactics that were used against them in that famous primary in 2000 and they are now using them. And a lot of them are the same people. Steve Schmidt who is running the McCain campaign is a Karl Rove protégée.
I think they took a hard look at their chances of being elected without driving the Straight Talk Express on to the low road and decided they couldn’t do it. And that they really basically did have one option. And it’s to put journalists -- many of whom like me were very fond of McCain in 2000 -- in a kind of a tough position because the conventions of our business require us -- or they don’t require us but they push us in the direction of what I call, “Even Steven-ism.” You know, one side is negative and the other side is negative. And you get kind of a phony balance, which sometimes is at odds with the truth. And the truth is that, sure there’s a little bit of mud that is coming from the Obama side. But the vast volume of the mud and some seriously irresponsible, and in some cases completely untruthful advertising, is coming from the McCain side. So how does mainstream journalism -- it’s easy for me because I write a column and I can say whatever I want -- but how does mainstream journalism deal with this, I think, is one of the unanswered questions of this campaign.
And I do think in the last few days you did see some pushback from the old mainstream journalism that we are a part of. You know, we are considered dinosaurs by the bloggers. But some people forget that dinosaurs bite. And there is, you know, maybe a little kick left in this old media to play the referee and to resist some of the rather intense pressure that is coming from the McCain side to try to stigmatize the press and energize their base, in part, by running against us.
This is a very old tradition in the Republican Party. It goes back at least to 1964 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco when Goldwater was nominated and the reporters were jeered by the delegates. And we saw it again in 1988 when George Bush had an only half playful sign, “Vote Bush. Annoy the Media.” In both cases it didn’t work for the Republicans. So there are some questions as to how successful running against the press can be. But I think in the last few weeks it has been relatively successful for McCain.
Now, just in terms of the state of the race right now, briefly. I’m from Chicago originally. It gives me some advantages in having known Barack Obama for longer than most of my colleagues. But it also made me a Chicago Cubs fan. I grew up just about a few blocks from Wrigley Field. In fact, I’m going to go to a Cubs game in Chicago this week. And my feeling now is that, just as John McCain said, “We’re all Georgians,” a couple of weeks ago, in the Democratic Party what people are saying is, “We’re all Cubs fans.” Or think of a few years ago what it was like to be a Red Sox fan before they won the World Series, just this sense that they are going to blow it. Even if they have a lead, they are going to blow it. This is going to end badly. And being philosophical about it if you’re a Cubs fan or where it used to be to the Red Sox you can say, “Well, any team can have a bad century.” [Laughter] But Democrats are in a more fearful frame of mind about mistakes. And so they don’t have a real sense of humor about it right now. And you can see a lot of hand wringing, hear a lot of gloom and doom talk. I think it’s silly, not that Obama is necessarily going to win the election. I think it’s a dead heat right now and it could easily go either way. But all is not lost for Democrats. Not only do you have three debates coming up, which give Obama an opportunity to do what Ronald Reagan did in 1980. Remember, in some ways these are similar elections. And this is the way the Obama camp sees it.
In 1980 you had double digit unemployment, inflation and interest rates. And you had an incumbent president; that was a difference, Jimmy Carter. But, you know, the status quo was very unpopular. The vast bulk of the country thought that the country was on the wrong track. And yet, at this point in 1980, even after Labor Day, it was a dead heat because there was a lot of uncertainty about Ronald Reagan. Who is this cowboy? Do we really want to take a chance on him? And he had said some things that were very disturbing to people. He seemed out of the mainstream, much more out of the mainstream, actually, than Obama does right now. And yet with the help of a couple of one-liners in the debates, “There you go again.” “Are you better off than you were four years ago?,” Reagan was able to prevail. And I think he won by about seven points. It wasn’t a landslide like ’84. But he won pretty comfortably and he pulled away in the last couple of weeks. So I think the Obama game plan is -- to return for a moment to another Chicago sports team -- is a Chicago Bulls idea.
Obama is not a Cubs fan. He’s a Bulls fan. And he believes in bringing it in the fourth quarter. So it’s the fourth quarter and I think that people felt he brought it at the convention with his acceptance speech, but they are looking for more signs for him to really turn it on in the debates.
And, also, in the day-to-day, cut and thrust, where I think he’s had his real problems—and there was another example of it today. McCain gave a really tough speech on corporate greed and very anti-Wall Street. You would have thought he was John Edwards if you read the text of the speech that he gave today. And Obama gave a thoughtful speech that had some criticism of McCain, but no lines that had what they call in the advertising business, stickiness. So he talked about a philosophy of government that got us in trouble, deregulating and not supervising our markets and all the rest. But he didn’t call it anything that a headline writer used. He didn’t call it a bankrupt philosophy. He just called it a philosophy. So what are the headline writers supposed to do this afternoon and tomorrow? Say, Obama attacks McCain’s philosophy? That’s not really the sharpest message that you want.
So he has some real challenges here in coming up with the stigmas that are central to general election politics. It’s about pinning the tail on the other guy and stigmatizing them as many different ways as you can. And as they said in The Godfather, you might say it’s unfortunate. As JFK said, “Life is unfair.” But as they said in The Godfather, “This is the business we have chosen.” This is the real world that they are living in right now and they better accommodate themselves to it pretty quickly if they want to win this election.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Well, Obama launched his political career as a presidential aspirant by being a different kind of politician. So there is always this tension between how he presents himself and playing the game of politics as usual. In Teddy White’s style, what have we learned about the characters of these two men and how they might serve as president?
John McCain, there is a reservoir of affection for him, certainly among the Washington media, who he once referred to as his base. And Michael Kinsley wrote an article saying how dastardly it was of the Republicans to nominate somebody the Democrats could not hate. So it seems to me that John McCain gets cut a lot of slack, thinking he has to do this. He can’t win any other way. If he’s president, he’ll be a high-minded president and the low road will be history.
Barack Obama, the fact that he doesn’t seem to be fighting back enough, does that give us a warning about the kind of president that he would be? Or is this the kind of president we should want, somebody who is more thoughtful? Why don’t you take a …
MARK HALPERIN: All right. There are a lot of questions.
ELEANOR CLIFT: A lot of questions.
MARK HALPERIN: And some of them too hard for me so I’m going to skip those.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Okay. [Laughter]
MARK HALPERIN: I think, to take slight issue with what you said, I think in the last week or so there have been a fair number of Democrats I know who have learned to hate John McCain—who think, in fact, he has sold his soul to the devil to do whatever he needs to do to win. [Applause] You know, normally if I go on TV and I say something like that, the next day I’ll get, or that night, I’ll get e-mails and phone calls from the campaign about whom I spoke. Last night I went on the Anderson Cooper Show and I said pretty much what I just said, that it appears John McCain is now willing to do and say anything, harking back to what Jon Alter said, about the comparison to Bush in 2000. And the fact that I got no calls or e-mails from the McCain campaign, I take as a tacit endorsement that they agree. [Laughter]
JONATHAN ALTER: I got them [simultaneous conversation] last night. They pushed back.
MARK HALPERIN: Maybe they are watching your shows and not Anderson. I think that there was a time in the Democratic nomination fight when Senator Clinton, it was clear to Senator Clinton and her aides, that the only way she could be the Democratic nominee was to destroy Barack Obama, to do what George Bush did to John Kerry in 2004 to make him an unacceptable choice. So that the election is not a choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama or now between John McCain and Barack Obama, but a referendum on Barack Obama to make him unacceptable.
Senator Clinton, I think, was inclined to take on that task. But the constraints of a Democratic nomination fight are different than a general election electorate. And there are certain things that I bet you she would have done had it been a general election, that she could not do. And so she narrowly lost to Barack Obama.
What you are seeing now is John McCain not restrained by a long period -- I won’t say a career -- but a long period of trying to engage in a different kind of politics. And where his aides made it clear, again as Jon said, the only way he could win was to eliminate Barack Obama as an acceptable alternative. And I believe the success he’s had with some voters, and as I travel covering the campaign, boy I hear some anecdotal stuff that makes me confident that this analysis is correct, I think they are eliminating him for some people. And their chance of winning to eliminate him for enough people in just about five states, and maybe fewer in order to win this election.
ELEANOR CLIFT: You said to eliminate him, eliminate him …
MARK HALPERIN: As an acceptable alternative.
JONATHAN ALTER: What is sticking [simultaneous conversation] what is sticking?
MARK HALPERIN: Well, here is one that is most resonant for me. I think that even if their intent of showing Barack Obama shooting a basketball or showing Barack Obama with Paris Hilton was not racial. I think it had that effect. I think when they make fun of him being a community organizer at the Republican convention and talk about him as being part of the Chicago political machine, they are now referring to the Dalys.
When I was in a conservative part of the country recently, and I was being driven somewhere by a nice, elderly man, and he told me he had been undecided before the convention. He was voting for John McCain because he heard at the Republican convention the Barack Obama was a community organizer and he didn’t much like that. Didn’t know what it meant but it sounded pretty bad. And just that day he had been listening to Michael Savage’s radio show. Those of you not familiar with Michael Savage, he is kind of like a right wing Rush Limbaugh. [Laughter] And he said Michael Savage had explained to him what a community organizer was, at least in the case of Barack Obama. As a community organizer, Barack Obama organized African-Americans in Chicago to riot. That is what he had been led to believe.
JONATHAN ALTER: You know, that community organizer story reminds me of the story about George Smathers. Does anybody remember him? He was a senator from Florida and a very, very close friend of John F. Kennedy. And he was in a campaign with Claude Pepper. In fact, he ended up unseating him in this campaign. Claude Pepper was a senator before he was a member of the House and an AARP champion. And he didn’t just call him Red Pepper, which was one of his better lines. He said in one speech, Smathers did, “Pepper had a sister who was a notorious Thespian in New York.” [Laughter]. It worked for him.
I have my doubts about this strategy by McCain. Because you always pay a price when you go heavily negative, especially if you’ve built your career on this idea, as he put it at the convention, “Country First.” You know, that sets you up to be brought low. We don’t know whether Obama can bring him low but McCain, by being so negative and so willing to say anything to be president, has set himself up a little to be brought down.
I also think that he took a big risk in selecting Palin, which everyone is now assuming has paid off. You know, all of us, the conventional wisdom is, this is a master stroke. Certainly he had a lot of movement in the polls as a result of it. But I think we need to wait before we can conclude that it was definitely the right thing to do. Because in doing so, he had to change themes very late in the campaign from experience to change.
Now, change and reform are more powerful messages than experience, as Hillary found out. She changed from experience, too, because it wasn’t working for her. It rarely does. But if you do it late and you are running against somebody who has embodied change for a pretty long time, it’s risky. So we don’t really know yet whether he has completed the metamorphosis into the change candidate.
There was a very funny e-mail from a humorist, Andy Borowitz, that just went out today where he satirically said that John McCain is going to start running against white men with white hair. And at a certain point you might reach a point of diminishing returns with that kind of comment.
MARK HALPERIN: I was happy to be able to dodge most of your hard questions.
JONATHAN ALTER: I jumped in.
ELEANOR CLIFT: No. No.
MARK HALPERIN: [simultaneous conversation] But I wanted to touch on one, which is McCain and the core of what you asked about, what we are learning about their character in terms of president. I think there is no doubt that if John McCain wins, he will sit down with a bunch of us, finally, and talk about how unfortunate it was he had to do all these things in order to win. I think what we are seeing now is how uncomfortable he is doing this. He doesn’t do press conferences any more. I’m going to spend two and a half days with him, and I hope to get close enough to him to be able to spit a watermelon seed at him. That’s the standard I’ve set. I’m not going to literally do it but that’s what I’m going for. And he hasn’t had a press conference in a month. He rarely talks to the press. But he went on “The View” the other day and subjected himself to the extraordinarily tough grilling of Joy Behar and Barbara Walters, who asked him very tough questions.
John McCain’s campaign scored extraordinary political victories, not just short-term ones but I think ones that will have some resonance, saying that Barack Obama called Sarah Palin a farm animal wearing cosmetics. I will not say the actual phrase because I do not like to perpetuate. I mean, that’s what they did. And they cried a river of crocodile tears. They went to the full message machine of sending something to the House floor to demand an apology.
I mean it was really—as a professional I appreciate what they did, but it was really predicated on a lie. And they said that to Senator McCain and he gave an answer that said, “Well, he chooses his words carefully. He might not have meant that but he chooses his words carefully. I still don’t quite understand what that means.” But the body language was extraordinarily uncomfortable. And if they believe they can only win by keeping this up for the last 50 days, I think his head is going to spin around or he is going to simultaneously combust or something, because this does not fit his constitution.
He knows what’s going on. He’s not oblivious to it. And you saw this with Bush 41 as well. The same thing happened. He was better at containing himself in public when this stuff was going on at his behest or at least on his behalf. McCain, I think, is totally uncomfortable and it is revealing. Now, I think for some people where, from watching the reaction, who think it is revealing and ugly, and I think other people might take some small comfort in it, that at least he knows just how outrageous it is what he is doing.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Well, it does smack of trying to have it both ways.
JONATHAN ALTER: Do you want to talk about that question of how …
ELEANOR CLIFT: Well, from what we are seeing, does that give you comfort that either of these men would be a president who could lead the country in tough times?
JONATHAN ALTER: It used to be that people said you learned a lot about what kind of president somebody would be by what sort of campaign they ran. And I think that, like so much political wisdom, was disproven by the Bush experience. He ran a superb campaign in 2000 and I think we know what kind of president he’s turned out to be. So the way I look at it [simultaneous conversation] …
ELEANOR CLIFT: And the first President Bush ran a really negative campaign and then governed in a much higher … he always separated the two.
JONATHAN ALTER: Yes, that is right. He did that. You know, I feel that the big question in the presidency is temperament. And Franklin Roosevelt famously described by Oliver Wendell Holmes as having a second class intellect and a first class temperament. And Richard Neustadt, who was the head of the Kennedy transition and a real friend of this institution and a beloved professor of mine when I was in college, focused heavily on temperament when he was assessing the presidents.
And this is a big issue, I think, in this election. I’m not sure it is a big issue for the public as a whole, but it is a big issue for people who want to try to make this connection between the campaign and the presidency. I did a little experiment over the last few weeks, and I called some Senators and former Senators I knew and I reached six of them. And I asked each a simple question. They were a combination of Republicans and Democrats. And I said, “Is John McCain temperamentally unsuited to the presidency?” And five of the six said, “Yes.”
MARK HALPERIN: But only after laughing uproariously for several minutes, right?
JONATHAN ALTER: At the question because it was such an obvious question?
MARK HALPERIN: Yes.
ELEANOR CLIFT: It is such a loaded question.
JONATHAN ALTER: Yes, but because it was so loaded, they basically -- as several of them said-- you know, they’ve all had experiences of him blowing up at them. And then they forgive him. You know, I’ve forgiven him and others in the press have for various transgressions over the years. He asked our forgiveness for pandering on the Confederate Flag in South Carolina. And the reason he’s forgiven is because everyone knows what he went through and how horrifying it was.
We talk about electing the first African-American president. McCain would be the first POW president. And that was a terrifying and a horrible experience. And he is justifiably cut a lot of slack for it in the Senate. But that doesn’t really address the question of what happens when you apply that temperament to the pressures of the presidency.
And Obama wants to have this debate. He actually said in his acceptance speech, “I welcome a debate on who has the judgment and temperament to be president.” The problem is, with the exception of Republican Senator Thad Cochran who said a chill went up his spine when he thought of the idea of McCain in the White House: “He is too erratic and hot headed for the job.” And then he was, of course, forced to back off from that statement. But with the exception of his comment, none of the rest has been willing to go public. So I think until they are, you might see that in the next few weeks. Or you might not because they would have to serve with him if he lost or if he was president. It’s a big question as to whether you will see this temperament issue raised more.
As far as Obama, I think the guy’s got a lot of shortcomings, certainly politically. We’ve been talking about some of them. But I do think it is fair to say that he has both a first class intellect and a first class temperament.
ELEANOR CLIFT: You know, I think a lot of people, journalists, recoil from raising the temperament issue about John McCain because that was how the George W. Bush people beat him in 2000 by ceding all of these scurrilous rumors, really. So you don’t want to play into that line of tack.
JONATHAN ALTER: Right.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Mark touched on race. I know the Obama campaign has gotten impatient with reporters sometimes being too inquisitive about the role that race might play in this campaign. And what they have said is, “You know, if we lose you will say it was because of race and if we win, you’ll say it’s despite race.” And the Obama campaign feels like race is a factor, of course, but it’s not a driving factor.
I’m wondering where you place it given your comment earlier. The Obama people basically say that for every vote they lose on the race issue, they pick up two votes, people under 30 who think this is positive. Now they are counting on a new electorate, frankly.
MARK HALPERIN: Right. I think it’s the biggest barrier he faces to winning this election. And I think they will pick up votes, but a lot them will be in states like this one where the Electoral College implications are nil. The difficulty is, it is combined with being new to national life and being inexperienced and being young. And it is great that we got a female candidate to run and be a serious contender for her party’s nomination without national security being an issue.
And it’s great, and the Obama campaign is correct that he’s gotten this far largely not having to deal with race in a day-to-day way. Reverend Wright forced his hand a little bit. But I think in the states that will decide this election that is a way to define who is going to win. Will he, in Ohio, pick up a vote or two, they claim, for every vote he loses for people who voted for John Kerry, who won’t vote for an African-American?
And I think when we see the messaging that we are going to see, not in press conferences and television ads but in direct mail and phone calls, I think it is at least a debatable premise. And race atop all the other characteristics I listed that go into that, I think, is a big part of it.
You know, whenever there are public opinion polls that show ignorance on behalf of our fellow citizens, it’s a little upsetting. People thinking there is a connection between, a proved connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks. The percentage of Americans who today think Barack Obama is either Muslim or was raised Muslim or at one point was a Muslim is really high given the facts. And it will be higher on Election Day because many people will tell voters that as well as associated things. And so there is going to be a lot of negative information. And I believe—I’ll say again. I’m not advocating this, I’m not endorsing, quite to the contrary, but I believe that there will be a lot of work done on this and it is the biggest barrier he faces to winning.
ELEANOR CLIFT: When you say it is the biggest barrier, is there anything he can do to overcome it?
MARK HALPERIN: It’s very difficult. It’s very difficult. I decided a while ago that I wasn’t going to pull my punches in talking about this stuff in public, so I will continue to do that. I think one of the boxes he is in now is people, amongst the advice the campaign gets publicly and privately all the time, is he should get angry. He should show how angry he is at John McCain. I guarantee you there are Republican strategists who will take that video tape if he gets angry and they will use it in a way to play to racial stereotypes that I think will be harmful to his chances of winning. And they are aware of that in Chicago. They understand that. It is not his nature. He doesn’t get angry that often. But given what they’ve done to him in the last week, I think most Americans would like to see a presidential candidate get angry. But I think a lot of Americans would be manipulated if he did get angry.
ELEANOR CLIFT: He did say, “Enough.” [Laughter]
JONATHAN ALTER: Well, I think they figured out how to get out of that particular box. And you will see this in the debate. And they understand that if he’s angry about what’s been done to him, then he’s losing. And he looks like an angry black man. If he is angry about what’s been done to you, well, maybe not this audience …
ELEANOR CLIFT: To the country. To the country and the voters.
JONATHAN ALTER: To the country and the American people by this economy, if he’s passionate about that, then he is winning. And I think they get that distinction. But they are in a lot of different boxes as Mark said. I mean one that’s struck me in the last week was there was an ad about -- a McCain ad -- about Sarah Palin and how everybody was beating up on Sarah Palin. It was trying to make it look like the Democrats were a bunch of sexists, which is rich. [Laughter] But they had a line, “She’s good looking. The Democrats say she’s good looking, you know, blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah. They say she is good looking” quote. That was a line that Joe Biden in a typical Biden-ism said at one point in the days after her selection. But it wasn’t over Joe Biden’s picture. It was over Barack Obama’s picture. And I wonder, well, why wasn’t everybody seizing on this? Why were all the Obama people jumping on this? I think the reason is they know that if they do jump on it, they are setting off a conversation, which is a distraction and which will just make certain white voters even angrier about racial grievance. So they just let it pass. But there are those kinds of things that play on the deepest stain in our history, the most racist canards in our history—the way the Harold Ford ad, you know, “Call me, Harold.” This idea that “black men coming for our white women” goes all the way back in American history.
And so there’s so much. One of the things that makes this a fascinating election is there is so much that is going on beneath the surface. But there are things that advantage Obama in that way, as well, that are not very well understood. Just to take Ohio, which is central, again. If Obama can carry Ohio, he can win this election. And I read recently that there are 470,000 college students in Ohio. Nine out of ten are Ohio residents. Between September 30th and October 6th the Democratic Secretary of State of Ohio (used to be a Republican in 2004) has set up a process where you can go in and register to vote and vote by absentee at the same time. These schools are very well organized for Obama. He has drawn extremely well, as you know, among young people in this race. If he can net even a fraction of those 470,000 students that gives him a leg up that you might see turn up in some of these polls that don’t do so well in sampling cell phone users.
MARK HALPERIN: I would like to say one more thing about race because I don’t want to lead you with the impression that I think all of this is based on the McCain campaign and the Republican manipulation or efforts to define Obama. Go look at the election returns from a couple of things in the Democratic nomination fight in Ohio, where Senator Clinton won. Go look at how Senator Obama did in rural Ohio, in counties that are outside the big cities. Then go look how he did in West Virginia in the primaries and in Kentucky in the primary. These were primaries that came late in the calendar after the Senator was declared the winner mathematically, after he had spent more money than Senator Clinton. His free media coverage was so positive. He got shellacked in those places. And one thing that I could never get from the Obama campaign, a question I could never get them to answer was, “Why did that happen? Why is it that you did so badly under circumstances where historically you should have done so well, given where you were in the calendar and the process?”
And again, I think the answer, unfortunately is, race, as primary reason why. And the voters in those counties and in those states resemble the voters that he is going to need at least some of, even if he does expand the electorate in Ohio and elsewhere, if he is going to win the five or six states that are going to decide this election.
JONATHAN ALTER: I completely agree with that and they got angry in an unwarranted way, the Obama campaign, at Newsweek for doing this on a cover after West Virginia and Kentucky, for the reasons that Mark described. But I think we should be a little careful about focusing too much on rural areas. Those have been Republican for a very long time. And, you know, there was never much of a chance that he was going to carry any of those counties. Certainly John Kerry didn’t and Al Gore didn’t really, either.
The election is going to be determined in the suburbs. And that is where the Palin pick is still a question mark. We know that she does fantastically well in rural areas. We know she does fantastically well with conservatives, particularly high-school educated white women. The question is with college-educated white women living in the suburbs. How will she go? They are a very, very important swing group in this election.
ELEANOR CLIFT: She captured the attention of a lot of these voters, but they really don’t know what she believes and they are not sure she is prepared to be president. One last question on the Clintons and then we will turn it over to the audience.
MARK HALPERIN: People are never interested in the Clintons. [Laughter] I wouldn’t bother. [Laughter]
ELEANOR CLIFT: Oh, well. What can the Clintons do? Are they in a position to carry some of these voters in these key states for Obama? And, two, would Hillary Clinton have been a stronger candidate, or if she were the nominee would we be talking about Bill Clinton’s library donors and we would have a whole different set of negative messages? So what can she do? Should she have been on the ticket? Number one or number two?
MARK HALPERIN: I’ll answer number one.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Okay.
MARK HALPERIN: I’ll pass on number two. Whenever I speak I always survey the audience. I didn’t do that tonight. But one of the questions I ask is, Raise your hand if you are going to vote one or two. Choice one is: things I know about the Clintons’ personal lives from covering them from 1991. And number two: the details of Barack Obama’s healthcare plan. Raise your hand if you are more interested in hearing about number one. [Laughter] I see about four hands. And raise your hands if you are more interested in the details of Senator Obama’s healthcare. [Laughter] All right. So you are an audience of liars, we’ve established.
People are really interested in the Clintons I’ve found and what can they do? I think Senator Clinton was remarkably prescient and accurate about a lot of what this year would be like. I was skeptical that there needed to be this cathartic moment at the convention as she described it. I think it was absolutely dead on. I think it was orchestrated perfectly, and I think it really did unite the party and remove some of the real bitterness in the hall and nationally among her supporters.
I think also, unfortunately for the Democratic Party, she was right about Barack Obama’s vulnerabilities in the general election. There was a period where she thought he could not win. I think she’s softened on that, and I think that is right. But her deep skepticism that you could take a McGovern, liberal coalition, add some African-Americans and win primaries and caucuses and that meant you could win those states in the general election, she thought that was wrong. And, again, she may be proven right. You take a state like Georgia where Obama won the primary easily, and he’s all but pulled out of that state to win it as a matter of the general election.
I think the Clintons are also right, to answer your question, when they say, “We cannot win this for Barack Obama. We can help, like other surrogates, and certainly we can hurt if we’re not seen as cooperating.” But they believe that this is up to Barack Obama and that he’s got to go out and win these voters. And I think you will see some campaigning. That Senator Clinton has already done some. President Clinton is going to Florida and he will do some other things. But he has got a pretty full fall schedule, including his Global Initiative next week. So they will do some things but I think it is largely immaterial. I think what they did at the convention was important. I think fundraising is sort of important. But mostly I think they are right. It’s up him, not up to them.
JONATHAN ALTER: I think it would be very helpful for Obama to campaign with Bill Clinton, in particular, in Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania, if necessary.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Bill Clinton not Hillary Clinton.
JONATHAN ALTER: Well, both. Both.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Both.
JONATHAN ALTER: They had a meeting last week. But, you know, there is a certain nostalgia among a fairly large number of voters for the Clinton years. And if you’re driving an economic message and you want to say, “Look. Things were horrible under Bush. And they were a lot better under Clinton.” It helps to have Clinton standing there with you. And I do think that they are more on the same page now. And that in many ways, Obama is an heir to a lot of Clinton’s ideas.
I think he does genuinely want him to win. He was terribly angry and the bitterness lasted longer than it does for Clinton who usually relinquishes it more quickly. But I think it is starting to dissipate now. The moment I noticed it was at the convention when, at the end of Bill Clinton’s speech, you could see that he was feeling the love. [Laughter] This was a guy …
MARK HALPERIN: Was there some visual sign of that? [Laughter]
JONATHAN ALTER: I wasn’t close enough. [Laughter]
ELEANOR CLIFT: Maybe you don’t have to be that close. [Laughter]
MARK HALPERIN: See, that goes a lot farther than my [simultaneous conversation] for the record. [Laughter].
JONATHAN ALTER: That actually is a good segue into a very quick Clinton story I want to tell. But, you know, he was so worried that particularly African-American Democrats didn’t like him any more. And I think once he realized that they still loved him and kind of all was forgiven, that, you know, he just felt better. And he is going to be more genuine in the advice, the good advice, that he gives to Obama.
The story that I was going to just quickly tell is that on the single most embarrassing day of the American presidency, when the Paula Jones deposition was playing all over television, and, you know, the president of the United States is talking about the most intimate details of his sex life. It was exactly ten years ago this month, and the opening day of the General Assembly at the United Nations. And Clinton was in New York. And I scammed my way into a reception. And Newsweek hadn’t talked to him for quite a while since Eleanor and my colleague, Michael Isikoff, had kind of broken the story.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Eleanor? Not me.
JONATHAN ALTER: What?
ELEANOR CLIFT: I didn’t break the story.
JONATHAN ALTER: No. No. And my colleague, I said, Michael Isikoff.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Michael Isikoff.
JONATHAN ALTER: Maybe the Michael Isikoff part didn’t come through. No, it was not us. But, you know, we hadn’t see him for a long time. And I saw him and I thought that he would shun me. And he was in one of these almost scary, effusive, upbeat moods. And first he says, “You know, some heads of state from South America came up to me and whispered in my ear, ‘You know, you’re lucky. Because in our country when they stage a coup d’etat they use real bullets.’” [Laughter] But then he said something that has always stuck with me. And I said, “You know, we’re talking about huge Democratic losses in the midterm elections in 1998.” And, of course, you know the Democrats won those elections. And he said, “This is all going to be fine because if you give the American people enough information, they always get it right.” That’s what Clinton said.
Now, I wouldn’t use the word “always,” but I think a lot of this comes down to one’s faith in the ability of the American people to apply their common sense. And if you think that the American people are basically, you know, a bunch of boobs and if you are a Democrat you are going to go and cry on your pillow and assume Obama is going to lose. If you think that … if you look over the recent and maybe even more distant history, that there is some degree of common sense and that when people do sit down, 150 million of them, and watch those debates that, you know, they are going to maybe sort it through in their own way, even if they are not all that knowledgeable about the issues. Then I think Democrats can be a little more hopeful. So one of Clinton’s great skills was he did always trust the people on some level.
And I think one of the reasons for Obama’s confidence—and he is very confident. I don’t think he is rattled. He might be ineffective now, but he is not rattled or worried. He believes he is going to be the next president. And I think the reason he believes that is because part of him does have tremendous faith in the American public. Otherwise, why would he be where he is now, I think, is the way he reasons that.
MARK HALPERIN: Can I say two quick things?
ELEANOR CLIFT: Sure. And if you want to ask questions, you might begin to line up at the mics.
MARK HALPERIN: Two quick important things. One is I think just to pick up on what Jonathan says. I think we have two presidential nominees in the major parties who are in public service for the right reasons, who do have confidence and trust in the American people, who will not only accept the results no matter how close it is, but the loser will go back to the Senate and I think work very closely with the winner. And I think that is all incredibly important and valuable in an election that is important.
The second thing is when I said a visible, physical sign of feeling the love I meant the thing where he bites his lip [Laughter]. Just to be clear. Because I would like the option of being invited back. [Laughter]
ELEANOR CLIFT: All right. Okay. Let’s go here and then we will take the line over here. Yes.
AUDIENCE: First, I want to thank everybody. This has been great. I have a comment and a question. My comment is, this period of time our friend David Plouffe refers to this as Democratic bedwetting time. It is perhaps a more accurate description. But my question is this: There is a lot of euphoria among the Democrats when Barack Obama picked Joe Biden, sort of, you know, a sigh of relief. Here is somebody who adds to the experience. However, another way of looking at it is you have a campaign theme built around change and being bold and not doing things in the traditional way of Washington. And then you go and you make your first pick, which is inconsistent with your theme. So my questions are this. Could you please comment on what you think of that? And then, secondly, if you are going to go in that direction, should the pick have been Hillary?
ELEANOR CLIFT: I must say I thought the night of the convention that Joe Biden was like a rock star. Like, who knew? But he has since faded and I take your point. Which of you want to respond?
JONATHAN ALTER: Well, I know it is very fashionable. Even Joe Biden said maybe Hillary should have been Obama’s running mate. But I just think that one of Obama’s big problems right now is distractions. And the Clintons, as talented as they are, are famous for distractions -- some of them of their own making, some of them of the media’s making, some of them related to things in their past that the press would have been all over. You know, a story about a Ukrainian oligarch giving the Clinton Foundation $100 million dollars was a one-day story in the New York Times last winter, and nobody picked up on it. If that kind of story came out now, I think you would see at least a couple of days consumed dealing with that sort of thing. So I don’t think they were wrong to go in a different direction. And I also don’t think they were wrong to have somebody with some experience on the ticket. It really doesn’t weaken Obama’s message. He is exotic and change-oriented enough as it is. And it does help on the reassurance front, which is a big part of Mark’s point, about people not being totally comfortable with Obama, not just because of his race, but because of his lack of experience.
ELEANOR CLIFT: I think Biden is a responsible governing choice. He knows where the bodies are buried. He helped bury half of them.
JONATHAN ALTER: I think his decency comes through. He just has to worry about being patronizing in a debate. And if he can avoid that, he will be okay.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Over here.
AUDIENCE: Good evening. My name is Steven Goode and I’m a government and politics teacher at the John D. O’Brian School here in Boston. I have a comment and then also a question. I actually have a lot of comments but I’m going to … [Laughter] … But after hearing some of the things I heard tonight I have a lot of comments but I’m going to keep it short. I also saw Anderson Cooper last night as well. I had comments about that, too.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Okay.
STEVEN GOODE: So I’m just going to, I guess, use someone that is very respected, Tiger Woods, and talk about the race issue. So I’m going to present this to the panel. It was said that for Tiger Woods, “If you say that I am black, does that mean my mother doesn’t exist?” That’s part of my comment.
The question that I have for you, you pretty much vilified Barack Obama in the sense that you said, “A lack of experience.” If he is in the Senate and he has no experience because he’s a Senator, but he’s been there the least amount of time, it seems like John McCain is the one with the least amount of experience, because he has been there the longest. So I don’t see how you can justify saying he doesn’t have experience. And then the question is, how does, here in America, a person of color -- which might be a better term -- who graduated from Harvard, went to the best school in the country, and graduated, went on to great things, how is that not the American dream and how do we turn it around with McCain who … I mean, his experience was not there. To me he is a person of privilege.
JONATHAN ALTER: He is an affirmative action baby.
STEVEN GOODE: Exactly. I mean he got into the War College because of a phone call. So it’s amazing how the political spin machine of the Republican Party has vilified this candidate. How can the media allow that, and continue to allow it?
ELEANOR CLIFT: Well, the Republicans have been very good at going at their opponents’ strength and the media, the mainstream media, is a fairly toothless giant these days.
STEVEN GOODE: Dinosaur.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Dinosaur, I think, to use your word. Right. And the whole new media world that we live in, we get stuff into … it goes viral. And then the corrections and the Pinocchios that people give out. They don’t really catch up.
STEVEN GOODE: I don’t think the experience thing, it cuts that much for McCain politically and it wouldn’t cut at all for me substantively. In the current issue of Newsweek, take a look at their records, because for all the talk of lipstick on a pig, how about let’s look at their Senate records. One of the things that amazed me is that they each only have three bills with their names on it. McCain’s been in the Senate for 22 years. Obama has been there for three and a half years.
And, you know, I won’t bore you with why, but it’s sometimes the amount of service you have been there and the amount of time you have been there doesn’t necessarily reflect great accomplishment. So I think when Sarah Palin said that Barack Obama had accomplished nothing in either the state senate or the US Senate, it was simply untrue.
ELEANOR CLIFT: We go over here. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Well, first I guess I wanted to say I’ve been and am a very ardent Hillary Clinton supporter. I don't know if she would have made a better candidate, but I think she would have. But, anyway, I think having said that, though, I’m very concerned that John McCain picked Sarah Palin to attract Hillary Clinton supports and found that, you know, “Well, she’s a woman. She’ll get a high percentage of the Hillary Clinton vote.” I found that singularly offensive, and I was wondering what you folks thought about that.
But I also was wondering -- you probably have all heard, of course -- that she isn’t being allowed—or not only is she isn’t being allowed but not answering anything about the investigation. And now there is a lawsuit that’s coming from Alaska, some folks in Alaska, to prevent the investigation from actually going forward, saying that—I think that it was—I forgot the grounds, actually, that they are suing on. But my concern is, here is a woman that had precious little experience. She, by most measures, would never have been presented to the country as a candidate. And yet she has certainly some momentum, and I’m wondering if you folks think she will have any real staying power?
ELEANOR CLIFT: I think that’s the open question. Right now the two sides are battling over how to frame her.
MARK HALPERIN: I think the obligation of anyone that is the major party nominee is to pick someone who is manifestly qualified to be president as their running mate. I went around saying that for many months leading up to Veep stakes when people talk about political considerations -- winning a state or raising money, or compatibility or the opposite or complementary or whatever. I think you have one obligation and I think voters are going to be smart enough to figure out which of the candidates met that obligation. [Applause] Or maybe both did.
JONATHAN ALTER: Just to amend that or to add to that very briefly. John McCain himself said, I believe, on 15 different occasions, something similar to what Mark said before he made his choice.
ELEANOR CLIFT: And John McLaughlin, who is not a noted left-winger, predicted on the McLaughlin Group last weekend that in a week her minuses would outweigh her pluses. So from his lips to God’s ears. [Laughter]
MARK HALPERIN: And given the superficiality of our political media culture …
ELEANOR CLIFT: It may take longer.
MARK HALPERIN: If they keep her away from sustained interviews—she is doing another one next week with another network anchor -- but if they keep her away from daily interactions, it’s possible that she will be pretty much what she is now, which is not necessarily someone who appeals to supporters of Senator Clinton, who does appeal to suburban voters, shores up the rural vote and excites people about a candidacy that was not as excited that they needed to be in order to win.
JONATHAN ALTER: Don’t underestimate how popular she is. When McCain is with her, he has huge crowds. When he is not with her, yesterday, there were a lot of empty seats. So he is getting back with her. You will see them in Michigan. If you think of it as like an “American Idol.” You know, we’re just at the beginning of that season so I think the fascination with her has at least a few weeks to run and maybe through the election.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Well, she would have back up in Tina Fey. I never saw such a dead on impression. She was so good. [Laughter] Yes.
AUDIENCE: I think you suggested something about the importance of superficiality, you know, elements. My question is about the one-liners that you referred to before, the ones with stickiness, with resonance. There has been an absence of that coming from Obama, as it seems to me. And I’m wondering is it his writers? Do these lines come from the candidate or are they from advertising people? Where do they come from?
ELEANOR CLIFT: Excellent question.
JONATHAN ALTER: I’m curious about that, too. What do you think about that Mark?
MARK HALPERIN: In what respect? [Laughter] The day after the interview I went on Joe Scarborough’s show. And after every question they asked me, I said, “In what respect?” And the first three times they didn’t get it and then they just got mad. But that’s a pretty memorable line. It is a very good question. You know, Senator Obama, early on in his Senator seat and when he first was a presidential candidate, he worked with an incredibly talented speechwriter. Now he works with more than one.
But the guy he worked with then, his name was John Favreau, exactly the same as the actor but not the actor. And Senator Obama does not—at the time would say, “I don’t like sound bites. I want my speeches to be thoughtful paragraphs, ideas,” the kind of stuff that Jon talked about before that are heard and listened to as serious ideas. And if you put it in sound bites it distracts from that. They’ve gotten him off of that to some extent.
I don't know the actual answer as a matter of process now, because I haven’t done any reporting on it. I know that part of the problem right now, that I think relates to this but is a wider problem in terms of message, generally, is one of the downsides of the collegial operation that Senator Obama has put together has contrasted with now the very centralized operation that Senator McCain has in the hands of Steve Schmidt. Steve Schmidt wakes up and says, “This is the message today. This is our positive frame. This is our negative frame.” It’s executed pretty well. Senator Obama has seven people at least on his staff who are very good at doing that kind of thing, of saying, “What should our message be today? How do we incorporate that into a sound bite?” My sense is that in the process, it is so collegial that it is not as crisp and sharp and as fine in its decision making. So there are many days and many speeches when Senator Obama simply doesn’t yield a sound bite that is sticky and memorable.
Someone here name a line besides “Enough,” name a line from his great acceptance speech. Very hard to. There were no great, memorable lines even though it was a great speech and that tends to be his style. And the current, superficial climate in which we live, as Jonathan said, if he had given a sound bite today or even yesterday on the economy, it would have been on all the networks and it would have broken through. He just chooses not to do it, and I think the process that he has is not yielding not just specific sound bites for him to deliver, but also that notion that that should be done daily.
ELEANOR CLIFT: But how does someone who came to prominence because of his oratorical skills now not have any memorable speeches?
JONATHAN ALTER: Because it’s a marketing skill. It’s more of a marketing, advertising skill than an oratorical skill.
ELEANOR CLIFT: I see.
MARK HALPERIN: Even his great speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines -- that was really one of the decisive moments in the campaign. It was a great speech but there are no historical lines.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Right.
MARK HALPERIN: Same with the race speech. The race speech was extraordinarily well received, probably one of the best speeches any of us have covered. Yet, again, he just doesn’t believe in the marketing aspect of speeches. I think it will serve him very well if he is elected. I think it is not great … And it is also why he had trouble in the debates in the nomination fight because he doesn’t think that way. He doesn’t communicate that way. And those that are worried about him in the general election debates say he is going to suddenly have to start to communicate in a way that is more in line with the former.
JONATHAN ALTER: You know, it’s a really big problem. But somebody who also had the problem was Bill Clinton in 1992. There was nothing really memorable that he said. In ’96 they tried building a bridge to the 21st century, because they kind of got the memo on needing sound bites. But he also didn’t like them and I think for the same reason, which is that, if you are a pretty smart guy, it is kind of boring to just unfurl these sound bites. And you think you are sounding like a phony when you are doing it. But they’ve got to get over that if they want to win and they do want to win. So we will see. It’s a big question in the next few weeks. If you start hearing the sharp one-liners out of Obama, he will do better.
MARK HALPERIN: Like, “Good jobs at good wages.” [Laughter] That is a little local humor that I thought some of you would appreciate. [Laughter]
JONATHAN ALTER: Dukakis actually came up with a good sound bite for Obama the other day, which the Obama people apparently liked. He said, “John McCain has never cast a vote on behalf of working Americans.” You know, it is kind of a tough shot.
ELEANOR CLIFT: How do you prove that?
JONATHAN ALTER: The onus is on them.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Okay.
JONATHAN ALTER: And, actually, there aren’t a lot of votes that he cast that were pro labor or whatever.
ELEANOR CLIFT: All right. Over here.
JONATHAN ALTER: You have got to try. You have to throw stuff up against the wall and see what sticks.
AUDIENCE: Maybe the Chicago Cubs could use this but it partially took a guy from Texas to convince people in New England to cowboy up. Now, possibly, what we need is to cowgirl down. My brother can’t be here. He is busy getting spit on by prisoners. He’s a priest. But he decides we need a better—what did he say? My wife didn’t want me coming up here [audio loss] Dorchester is, anyway.
JONATHAN ALTER: We’re glad you are here.
AUDIENCE: It was when I was here. I’m back again. It still is. But he told me that when he used to shoot pool to bring money home, which we needed because we were deficient, we were on welfare; when he would come home, he said, “Oh, I don’t beat anybody when I play pool. I play my game straight, the best I can. And I let the other guy beat himself.” Now, possibly there is something to that. Possibly. But it was wonderful hearing you people. Thank you. [Applause]
JONATHAN ALTER: Well, that is a lot of Obama’s strategy. I mean in boxing terms they call it rope-a-dope, and that is what he did with Hillary, to a large extent. And I think you went right to the core of what the Obama strategy is. It is just kind of steady as you go. Stay with your message. Don’t let all this advice distract you, and let the other guy come across as erratic and unready.
MARK HALPERIN: Is your last name Axelrod? [Laughter]
AUDIENCE: No. But the other thing is I still play basketball, which I love. I’m not too good but people know I’m around. And the other thing is you don’t play the other guy’s game at all. You play your game. You take the initiative. You take over the game. [Applause]
ELEANOR CLIFT: All right.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you for the Forum tonight.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Sure. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: A couple of comments. First there were Democrats who have disparaged the press, Mayor Daly being one them, the first Mayor Daly. And I come from the south side of Chicago. I’m a Sox fan, and I’ve been here since ’81. Just a question. How you frame a message makes a difference on its impact. I think we will all agree on that. And could it be that the Obama campaign is choosing to frame the negativism, which is constantly coming up. Particularly today, they did a good job, if you will, on attacking McCain’s economic faux pas, we will say, historically as well as recently.
Now, he’s backpedaled off of what he said yesterday. But there is a constant drum beat of negativism coming out of the Obama campaign but it doesn’t take the same flavor, the same style. Michelle Obama says that he, her husband, shapes the messages that he gets very much. And his style is that of an attorney, some people are thinking, which looks at both sides of the case and the nuances, statements. And that’s maybe why you don’t hear those statements.
My question is, in looking at the negativism that is coming out, because Biden is definitely on the attack—I think you would agree with me on that. How come we always are saying, though, that the McCain campaign, which I think would agree with what Mr. Halperin said, is using a strategy that he sort of ignores or tries to. But it is always them that is on the negative.
JONATHAN ALTER: Could I try to answer that? Because this is something I’ve been looking at closely. Yes, Obama has plenty of attack ads. And he runs them below the radar. But when he makes a charge against McCain in those ads, there’s usually at least a grain of truth to the charge. Maybe not a whole salt shaker full, but there’s a little bit of truth to what they are saying and to what he is saying. So if he says that McCain voted for something, yeah, somewhere in McCain’s record you can find that he did vote for that.
But when McCain says that Obama voted to teach kindergartners sex ed, that’s just a lie. When a McCain ad says that Obama was insulting Sarah Palin as a pig, that’s just a lie. When a McCain ad says that Obama is responsible for high gas prices, maybe it’s not a lie but it’s absurd. And so, you know, we get trapped if we just say, “Well, they are both doing the same negative stuff,” so as not to be seen to McCain supporters as if we are being unfair. Our first obligation is to be fair to the truth, not to be fair to one side or the other. [Applause]
ELEANOR CLIFT: I will say we are at seven o’clock. I see that there are several people lined up. If one of you has a really terrifically burning question … Laughter]
AUDIENCE: I do. [Laughter]
ELEANOR CLIFT: Okay. She is at the front of the line so let’s here from her.
AUDIENCE: I want to go back to the temperament issue for the moment, because I think fundamentally that may have the most, great weight in the future for us. If Obama can’t make John McCain lose it during one of the debates so that the American public does not get an opportunity to see erratic behavior—but if it’s well known that that behavior is out there, what is the responsibility, dinosaur or not dinosaur of our fourth estate, to make sure we hear about it, hear about it truthfully, not one way or the other but as a fact, this is the temperament. [Applause]
ELEANOR CLIFT: It’s very difficult because you can’t get people to go on the record saying these things, right?
MARK HALPERIN: The Associated Press and The Washington Post, I think, have taken the most serious runs at doing this story by talking to people. And I think—I feel for myself, and I recommend those stories to you if you are interested in this topic—I feel for myself I have an understanding of what makes Senator McCain behave that way when he does it and sort of what the implications are for presidential decision making. And I’ve thought a lot about it and I’ve studied it and I think, to me, it is not disqualifying based on what I know.
But I’d urge anybody who cares about that to read those stories and I hope there are other stories that lay that out. There are no perfect candidates left in this race.
ELEANOR CLIFT: There were some originally? [Laughter]
MARK HALPERIN: I think Dennis Kucinich is perfection personified. [Laughter]
ELEANOR CLIFT: Okay.
MARK HALPERIN: By some measures.
ELEANOR CLIFT: That’s right.
MARK HALPERIN: So is that a concern that any sensible voter should have and does have about Senator McCain? Without question. And I’ve got concerns about it. But it’s not my only concern about whether Senator McCain would be a good president. And I have plenty of concerns about whether Senator Obama would be a good president. Here’s what I think would be unfortunate. If just as there are people who think no matter how the Ohio returns are reported, that the machines are fixed by the Republicans. No one should think that the reason you are not reading and hearing more about that is because the press doesn’t think it’s a story or doesn’t want … a reporter wants to hide the truth from you. Every reporter I know knows this is an issue. And many people have made a run at the story. Jon Alter made calls on it. I’ve made calls on it. It is difficult to report. But, again, I don’t believe based on what I know that it is disqualifying. It’s unsettling but there are other unsettling things about Senator McCain and unsettling things about Senator Obama.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Okay. Well, thank you all for coming. We will be in the bookstore if you want to speak to us individually.
END OF FORUM