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Convention Dispatches Live: Thursday

Terry Neal
washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent
Thursday, September 2, 2004; 10:00 PM

The 2004 Republican National Convention comes to a close Thursday night with speeches from New York Governor George E. Pataki and President Bush.

washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent Terry Neal took your questions live from the convention on the speeches, the atmosphere and the latest political news.

Terry Neal (post.com)

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Terry Neal: Great to be back with you all for the last night of the Republican National Convention. I'm looking forward to taking your questions. So let's get right to it.



Oradell, N.J.: Washington Post's Neal distorted Kerry's support for Bush's Iraq war policies

On the August 31 edition of CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown, Washington Post chief political correspondent Terry Neal misrepresented Senator John Kerry's answer to President George W. Bush's public challenge to Kerry to state whether "knowing what we know now, he [Kerry] would have supported going into Iraq." Neal stated that Kerry said that he "would have done the same thing that George [W.] Bush did" regarding the Iraq war.

But that's not what Kerry said. Responding to Bush's challenge, Kerry said on August 9, "Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have." As an August 10 article in The Boston Globe noted, Kerry made a clear distinction between giving the president the authority to take action and the actual invasion of Iraq. Kerry sharply challenged the timing and manner in which Bush conducted the war:

The Massachusetts senator said, "My question to President Bush is: Why did he rush to war without a plan to win the peace? Why did he rush to war on faulty intelligence and not do the hard work necessary to give America the truth? Why did he mislead America about how he would go to war? Why has he not brought other countries to the table in order to support American troops in the way that we deserve it and relieve a pressure from the American people?"

From the August 31 edition of CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown:

NEAL: He [Kerry] said he would have done the same thing, even knowing what he knows now, he would have still made the decision to go to war in Iraq, or as he says to authorize the war, whatever the case.

He [Kerry] had a real opportunity to distinguish his leadership from George [W.] Bush's leadership on this issue of the war, but now he's taken what is probably the biggest issue off the table by saying that he would have done the same thing that George W. Bush did.

Neal's remarks echoed an August 11 Washington Times editorial, which also misrepresented Kerry's statement from August 9, as Media Matters for America previously documented.

Terry Neal: Thank you for your question. I have received others like it today, and I'd like to address this issue. This is what I have said to others:

I think my words are being taken out of context a bit, and I think people, eager to find fault, are leaping to the harshest possible conclusion about something that was, at worst, imprecision on my part. From the transcript, this is what I said:

TERRY NEAL, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: Well, I think the Democrats really have a problem. I think it goes back -- in a lot of ways, you know, the swift boat thing has not been a good thing for Kerry, but, in some ways, it's done one good thing. And it's sort of obscured the discussion over his answer about Iraq, which I think is the most important -- I continue to believe is the most important issue this year. He said that he would have done the same thing. Even knowing what he knows now, he would have still made the decision to go to war in Iraq or, as he says, to authorize the war, whatever the case.

When I said "he would have done the same thing" I wasn't suggesting that Kerry has said he would have conducted the war the same way as George Bush. Nor was I suggesting that Kerry said if he were president he would have gone to war. Of course not. That's not even what the question was. The question was, would have a voted the same way.

I was saying "he would have done the same thing" by voting for authorization. I will grant you that I could have been more artful in how I stated it, but hey, I'm answering a question on live TV and thinking off the top of my head. To suggest anything more ominous is really over the top.

Where some people will continue to disagree with me is over whether whether authorization and making the decision to go to war are the same thing. I understand that there is a technical difference, but for the Democrats who oppose this war and voted against it in Congress, that is a distinction without a difference. It's hilarious that some people are suggesting that I am a part of some right-wing plot when Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich took the same position during the primaries.

For the record, I stand 100 percent behind my point. And that is that it creates a political problem for Kerry to say that he would have voted for the resolution even knowing what he knows now.


Kensington, Md.: Bravo! Give 'em hell, Kerry! I just read the Democratic challenger's remarks tonight in response to the three days of slander and utter disregard for reality we've seen coming from the GOP Convention. If Kerry replaced his top guys recently as reported, it was a smart move. They were reining him in so tight he was sounding like a passive whiner.

These past few weeks have been downright surreal, the media ruminating like starving cows over the nuances and details of Kerry's Swift Boat service. Meanwhile, the GOP elephant in the living room, with its gang of draft evaders down to its final chicken hawk, stood innocently by drawing nary a comment from the press. Maybe now that Mr. Kerry has given you all a few soundbites to work with, you will do your jobs -- bring some balance and perspective this whole "Vietnam (non)service" debate?

washingtonpost.com: Kerry Says Republicans Distorted His Record (washingtonpost.com, Sept. 2)

Terry Neal: Did everybody wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?

I'm going to let a believer in the vast right-wing conspiracy from Kensington get a comment in here.

And then...


Washington, D.C.: Zell Miller hasn't "evolved," or "moved right" as you say in your column. That's his whole point -- that it's the Dems who have moved left, leaving people like him behind. And he's correct -- there's no question that the Democratic Party has largely been taken over by the ultra-secular, counter-culture big government types, a process that started in the early 1970's. Can you name a single conservative, or even moderate, Democrat in the House or Senate leadership? Daschle is no moderate. What really started the conservative Dem movement to the GOP was not race, though that was a factor. It was the feeling that the new Dem leadership seemed to actively dislike their more conservative New Deal cousins -- seemed to care more about the rights of criminals than of victims, and not to mind too much when law and order broke down in the cities; seemed to oppose patriotism, as if publicly admiring the nation was bad; seemed to hate the military and to take a very soft stand against communist expansion; seemed to love ever-increasing taxes and regulations, all the while poo-poohing the notion that the economy could do better and be more innovative. Miller supported Clinton in 1992 and 1996, because he thought that Clinton was working to bring the party back toward the center. Miller's right about the Democratic Party not being a national party any longer, that is, able to appeal to a broad spectrum across class, regional, and cultural lines. The problem is that the GOP is not a national party either. That's why we're so badly divided.

washingtonpost.com: Old Zell Miller, Not the Same as the New (washingtonpost.com, Sept. 2)

Terry Neal: ...then a view from the other side of the spectrum.


Anonymous: Terry,
Every time I have seen you comment on the campaign in the past month, you indicate that John Kerry is in big trouble and that George Bush has great momentum heading toward Election Day. Your comments seem to offer no historical perspective at all. Kerry is in the best position of any challenger to an incumbent in 60 years. According to Gallup, no incumbent has won re-election without being at least 10 points ahead in its polls as of mid-August. Since February, every poll has shown that a majority of Americans believe the country is on the "wrong track" -- and no incumbent has ever won re-election when that index was so high. Since April, Bush's approval rating has been at or below 50% in every national poll -- again, no incumbent in six decades has won re-election with approval ratings at that level. Despite polls showing the race neck-and-neck nationwide, both a bipartisan NPR poll and a Fox News poll in late October showed that Kerry's lead in the battleground states is 11 to 15 percentage points. As we all know, that has a great bearing on the Electoral College -- the only vote that really counts come Nov. 2. Given all of these factors, I would encourage you (and your colleagues) to frame your commentary regarding this election in the context of all of these facts. Otherwise you do your readers and viewers a great disservice. Thank you.

Terry Neal: I'm always careful to say that this race is still close, probably a dead heat. But there has been small movement in the polls in recent weeks, and it's been in Bush's favor. You would have a right to be offended if I said I was happy about that. But that's not what I said. I just pointed that out as a fact.
I have also pointed out in some interviews and I believe in one of my chat from a few days ago that Kerry is leading in many of the battleground states.
I have also been careful to say that it doesn't make much of a difference at this point anyway. There's two months to go. I talk about the polls primarily because I'm asked about them all of the time.


Earlysville, Va.: Zell Miller's angry rant last night seemed way over the top. Is that going to boomerang on the Republicans and Bush? I am basically a middle-of-the-road voter who used to support Bush but has moved toward Kerry. This performance (which reminded me of the angry rhetoric of the 1960s, including those of die-hard segregationist Southern Democrats) made me all the more committed to Kerry.

Terry Neal: Well, that is the question that remains to be answered on the macro level. Will Miller's speech serve its purpose, which was to move some swing voters to the Bush side, or will it undermine it, by turning off swing voters and engergizing Kerry's base?
I still think it's too early to broadly answer that question.


York, Pa.: The Kerry campaign has finally decided just tonight to step up the heat on Bush. The first round launced of a strong series of planned attacks is a speach to be given later tonight, though part of the text has been released. Do you think it's too late for the Kerry campaign to turn things around so that they still have a chance to win?

Terry Neal: Great question. My understanding is that the Kerry campaign has been reluctant to take the offensive out of a belief that swing voters don't like negative campaigning.
But that has caused a few problems, the primary one being that the Bush campaign seems to be controlling the ebb and flow of the campaign by setting the agenda each week, while Kerry responds to that agenda.
The campaign is now attempting to reverse that tide, and I'm hearing a lot of Democrats say it's about time.


Laurel, Md.: Zell Miller's speech was the most disgusting piece of trash I have ever seen at a political convention. I am glad that some in the media took him to task for his hate-filled, back-stabbing comments.

How on earth does he think he can make tell those lies about John Kerry after praising him as a "hero" and making positive comments about his Senate career in the recent past?

Terry Neal: This is what I was talking about earlier--will Miller's speech just end up firing up the Democratic base.
I wrote about this in my column today on washingtonpost.com.
And yes, Miller did praise Kerry effusively just a few years ago. In my column, I noted how in March 2001, in introducing Kerry at Georgia's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, Miller said this: "My job tonight is an easy one: to present to you one of this nation's authentic heroes, one of this party's best-known and greatest leaders - and a good friend. …In his 16 years in the Senate, John Kerry has fought against government waste and worked hard to bring some accountability to Washington. Early in his Senate career in 1986, John signed on to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Bill, and he fought for balanced budgets before it was considered politically correct for Democrats to do so. John has worked to strengthen our military, reform public education, boost the economy and protect the environment."


San Francisco, Calif.: How can Kerry counter false innuendo? It seems to me he as slipped a little not because people believe the Swift Boat Veterans charges, but because they have poisoned the air, and Kerry has lost control of the agenda. How can you fight slime, without flinging slime?

Terry Neal:
Of course, it's not my job to give Kerry or any other politician campaign advice. But you do raise a good question...The bottom line is that campaigns are about making distinctions between you and your opponent. Kerry barely mentioned Bush's name in the month of August and found himself slipping--albeit by only a few points. The question is how do you draw those distinctions without becoming overly negative and turning off voters.
This election may very well turn on how well Kerry is able to find that balance.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Honestly, tonight I was expecting the president to hit it out of the park not only because its expected of him but because he has to. So... is it just me or is this kind of flat?

Terry Neal: I'm still thinking about this. It's difficult for me to judge, because I'm here in the convention center and the crowd is reacting enthusiastically. I know it may be coming off to you quite differently on TV.
I will say, you're right. The president usually does hit it out of the park in speeches when he needs to. I covered the Bush campaign for the Post in 2000, so I've been listening to him for a long time. And this doesn't seem like his strongest effort.


College Park, Md.: The Republican Convention aside, do you get a gut feeling, like I have, the Kerry's not-so-swift boat is sinking fast?

I smell fear in the progressive liberals. I think they know they are backing a total washout at this point.

Any comment?

Terry Neal: No, I don't sense panic yet. But I do hear concern. But remember, people were saying the same thing about Kerry in the primaries, and he came out of nowhere at the last minute.
There's plenty of time for this thing to go either way.


Silver Spring, Md.: Why are Zell Miller's changes called an evolution while Kerry's are called "flip Flops" or for that matter President Bush saying that he is against nation building and does so in Iraq or says he is opposed to tariffs and imposed them on steel or says that we can't win the war on terror and the next day says we can or... You get my point.

Terry Neal: Well, I think it's John Kerry's critics who call him a flip flopper. And I suppose Miller's and Bush's critics are free to call them whatever they want as well.
I can't answer for everything the media monolith does. But I will point out that I did a column several months ago that raised this issue about whether Kerry was the only flip flopper in the race.
My point was not that Kerry is not a flip flopper and Bush is, or vice versa. It was to point out that all politicians flip flop to some extent...
I listed some of Bush's flip flops:

The president initially argued that a federal Department of Homeland Security wasn't needed, but then devised a plan to create one.

•He resisted a commission to investigate Iraq intelligence failures, but then relented.

•He opposed, and then supported, a two-month extension of the 9/11 commission's work, after the panel said protracted disputes over access to White House documents left too little time.

•He initially said any access to the president by the commission would be limited to just one hour but relaxed the limit earlier this month.

And of course, a few days ago, he said the war on terrorism was not winnable and the next day said America would win the war on terror.


Terry Neal: Well folks, I've got to jump off a few minutes early. It has been a real pleasure chatting with you this week. My days have been long. I'm tired. And I'm looking forward to going home to see my family. But I've had a good time, too. I honestly believe in the process. And I think what's happening here, as in Boston, is important. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedules to come to washingtonpost.com to chat with me about it.
Goodnight and God bless.



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