Post Politics Hour

Alec MacGillis
Washington Post National Political Reporter
Thursday, August 28, 2008; 10:30 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Washington Post national political reporter Alec MacGillis was online live from the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Thursday, August 28  to discuss the latest in political news.

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Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts

____________________ Looks like Alec isn't going to be able to make it this morning, but we should still have Shailagh Murray at 11 a.m. ET.

_______________________ Looks like both Shailagh and Alec are having trouble getting to the workspace this morning, but we should get going a little after 11:30 a.m. with Alec MacGillis. Sorry for the delays.

_______________________ Alec will be on as soon as he gets set up at Invesco Field.


Friendship Heights, Md.: So why didn't Senator Kerry give that speech he gave last night four years ago? Somehow I wonder whether he would be speaking last at this year's convention if he had.

Alec MacGillis: Greetings, everyone, Alec MacGillis from the Post campaign team here in Denver. Let's start with Kerry, who did seem to make more of a mark last night between Bill Clinton and Biden than many might have expected. But the fact is, Kerry's been speaking out stronger against the Republicans all year since his endorsement of Obama the day after the NH primary. Who knows, maybe it's the liberation of a presidential race loss -- see Al Gore. Kerry's hard words were particularly notable of course given that he was briefly considering McCain as a possible running mate in '04.


Washington: Bill Clinton's speech, while good, made me wide-eyed in amazement sometimes. I still think that he believes this is the '90s, before Sept. 11, when people only watched network news and read the New York Times, The Washington Post, etc. Every time he opened his mouth about global warming, I thought, when he was president, what did he do? He didn't even bring the Kyoto treat up for a vote! One of many examples. It's almost like Democrats sometimes think the movies they help create -- "An Inconvenient Truth," "Fahrenheit 9/11," etc. -- are 100 percent fact, and policy should be based of it. Scary.

Alec MacGillis: This is a very good point, which is often overlooked in all the Democrats' huffing about the Bush administration's failures on global warming. The truth is, even with Al Gore as his vice president, Clinton opted not to press ahead on serious action against carbon emissions. There was the flirtation with a BTU tax, which ran into stiff opposition, but that was it. We tend to forget that the great boom in SUV's happened in the cheap-gasoline 1990s. Now, granted, there was less of a scientific consensus then than now when it came to warming, but Gore knew enough to make the case to Clinton, and clearly failed.


Annandale, Va.: Every time Obama makes a decision or statement, the media rush to the McCain campaign for a reaction. (I'm sure there will be more of this in reverse once McCain does or says something). My question is, why? It's like the Redskins executing a pass play and the sportscasters going to the Cowboy's bench for their thoughts on the play. Are they going to say: "Brilliant! We never saw it coming?" Why do you keep doing it?

Alec MacGillis: Some smart media criticism here. The media is very concerned about seeming balanced, so there's always the call to get the reaction to the ping pong hit. Back and forth, across the net. The problem, one might argue, is when one side or the other clearly has a valid point, and instead of declaring it as such, the media offers the counter from the other side, which in this case may be less valid, and doesn't take it upon itself simply to tell the reader or viewer who is right in this case. Sometimes it becomes stenographer instead of referee.


What I Want To See: Michelle and Biden dumping Gatorade on top of Barack when he finishes his speech. That is an image the working white man understands!

Alec MacGillis: Great idea. It would certainly help to undercut the grandeur the already-lampooned grandeur that the classical columns on stage seem to be striving for. Unless they used ambrosia instead of Gatorade...


New York: Hello! I know that the Clinton sturm und drang made for good headlines, and their speeches were the stem-winders people have been longing for at this convention, but come on. Couldn't they both have confirmed their full-throated support of Obama two weeks ago, saving everybody the drama and anxiety, and perhaps even undercutting the GOP attack ads? Seems like a lot of time wasted in navel-gazing at a crucial time for the party. Thanks.

Alec MacGillis: This gets to the heart of this convention, and could be argued two ways. Did the Clinton drama distract from the Democrats' themes and issues and Obama himself? Or did it draw interest and viewers to a convention that would otherwise seem as predictable and stage-managed as conventions usually tend to be? Had either Clinton given that full-throated support a few weeks ago, would it have had the impact that it being delivered in this setting. Now, stepping back even further, it could certainly be argued that there would have been no full endorsement needed at all from them had the final bitter months of the primary not caused such damage--the fanning of the Michigan-Florida flames, etc.


Austin, Texas: Have you been to a Republican convention? Is the "vibe" very different?

Alec MacGillis: It most certainly is different. It's more ordered, less rambunctious. And, there's no getting around it: the crowd is much, much less racially diverse.


Fairfax County, Va.: What did you think of Joe Biden's speech? I was sorry not to see a little more about it in your story. After Saturday, I was expecting a bouncy "happy warrior," but the tone was much more serious and urgent. In a way, it was a reminder that the catastrophe of the past eight years isn't a punchline, and that the stakes at hand are really high. I liked what he said about the people's homes you see from the train, where they are worrying about losing the house, declining home values, how to afford college and so on. I have taken that train many time,s and it's true, you do think about the people who live along the tracks as you travel by. In my opinion this would make a great ad. Just for fun, though, I also enjoyed Obama mingling with seemingly countless Bidens on stage after the speech.

Alec MacGillis: My sense is that there was some pressure on Biden to deliver a more serious, tough speech rather than a happy warrior one because most of the week's previous major speakers -- Teddy, Michelle, Warner -- had for various reasons not been in position to aggressively go after the Republicans. Clearly Biden's role is both to be that aggressor while also mixing in as much of the VFW-hall Happy Warrior. I think you'll see him going back and forth. And good observation on the train trip -- we had a nice piece about his train-riding in yesterday's paper, and it's really worth thinking about, how taking that trip every day may have influenced him as a politician. Instead of driving in from McLean, Va. every morning like the other senators, he rides past the sad blight of East and West Baltimore. That has to have some effect.


Biden's vetting not full and complete?: Thanks for great chats! Have you seen the Los Angeles Times article today about Biden and his son and potential conflicts of interest? Business dealings of the Biden family could be problematic for him ... his brother and sons have close ties to a law firm that has benefited from the senator's congressional votes. How do you think the Republicans will use this? And as to the convention being not very well managed for TV, do you think the Democrats blew a lot of chances to remind the voters of why they want/need/deserve change after eight years of incompetence and bankrupting the nation? Business dealings of Biden family could be problematic for him (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 28)

Alec MacGillis: There are definitely some questions being raised about Hunter Biden, and it's interesting that the Obama campaign, with all its emphasis on new politics and ethics, decided to go ahead and pick Biden despite surely knowing about all this conflict stuff. From what I've read in the Post and elsewhere so far, the most relevant questions seem to involve the retainer that Hunter was on from MBNA at the same time as his father was involved in crafting controversial bankruptcy reform legislation.


Charlottesville, Va.: Just a thought -- maybe the classical columns are not meant to evoke grandeur, but are meant to evoke the memory of the Lincoln Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech?

Alec MacGillis: Very good point. We're getting some word here that that may in fact have been the goal. Today is after all the 45th anniversary of King's "I have a dream" speech, and there is probably no one Obama models himself on more closely than Lincoln -- the other skinny former lawyer and former state legislator from Illinois who also served only briefly in Washington before the White House.


Tampa, Fla.: Does John McCain have the guts to pick Lieberman as is running mate? I keep reading that McCain really likes Lieberman and wants him on the ticket, but that McCain's handlers tell him the religious right will go ballistic. Do you think this might only encourage McCain to pick Lieberman?

Alec MacGillis: Good point. If ever there was someone who might be tempted to spurn the advice, one would think, it's McCain. But then again, Democrats would probably argue that McCain has so far been perfectly willing to go along with his advisers' instructions so far when it comes to employing some tough tactics of a sort that many did not expect from McCain. But maybe the veep pick is a more personal matter for him where he sticks with his own instincts.


Cleveland: How do you guys cover the convention? Do you watch all the speeches the whole night, or are you interviewing people, or both? I wonder because I've been turned off by how the networks are covering it. I switched to C-SPAN because I wanted to actually watch the convention, and not spend hours listening to strategists and pundits criticize and discuss something they actually aren't watching because they're too busy talking to each other. I would've missed what was a really fiery and passionate speech by John Kerry if I'd been watching the other networks.

Alec MacGillis: We're doing a bit of everything. We have quite a few reporters here, so you'll have some of us in the hall watching the speeches from the press box, others down on the floor getting reaction from delegates, others in the hallways trying to get tips and insight from the strategist types or important governors/congressmen, others back in the media filing tent pulling together feeds as they come in. It's a remarkably big effort for a production that is not exactly bursting with true news -- whether there's as big an effort in four years, we'll see.


Fairfax, Va.: If for just a minute you had to think about the themes of the convention -- as opposed to the moving Kennedy tribute, Michelle Obama's speech with adorable Obama daughters, eruption onstage of limitless yet likable Biden family members, and the Clintons (and oh yes, that smart, capable guy, Malia and Sasha's dad, I'll remember his name in a minute) -- what would they be? Do you think that the themes still got out there, if only subliminally, or were buried by all the personalities? And does it matter?

What I keep seeing that's different from other years is a really big outreach to Republicans and independents (e.g. the person who nominated Obama was a Republican Iraq veteran, Mark Warner gave a post-partisan keynote, etc.), plus an emphasis on pretty much everybody's working-class origins, creating a focus on the middle-class squeeze re: housing, health care, jobs, etc.

Alec MacGillis: You're right, the themes have been somewhat submerged in the grand drama of the Clintons' return to the fold and the emergence of these two new families to replace them. I suppose we won't really know what the themes were supposed to be until after Obama's speech tonight, whether he goes with the basic outlines in Bill Clinton's speech -- restoring the American dream and America's leadership abroad -- or whether he goes with something more along the lines of his '04 speech, around national reconciliation.


Prescott, Ariz.: So a bunch of Focus on the Family Republicans were praying for bad weather for Obama's speech; it looks like the weather is going to be good tonight. I see that Hurricane Gustav is scheduled to hit New Orleans at the exact same moment that the Republican Convention is scheduled to start. Is this proof that God has a sense of humor?

Alec MacGillis: Going to put this one up without comment -- it's a question many will be asking, but I can't presume to know the answer -- as Obama would say, it's above my pay grade.

All I can say is that you know they're running out of hurricane names when they resort to Gustav. And yes, the weather here today looks pretty much perfect.


New York: Bill Clinton did something important last night by reminding Americans that he too was derided in 1992 as being too young and too inexperienced to be commander in chief, which to all but a few die-hard wingnuts, looks pretty ridiculous in retrospect. In doing that he laid the mantle of his own credibility as president on Obama, which despite the cable babblers who've never gotten it, is substantial to the American public. Is he really going to be campaigning alongside Barack in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania? If so, smart! Say what you will about Bill, he's still a helluva politician.

Alec MacGillis: That was indeed a key moment in his speech. He finally offered up the same rationalization for Obama's experience, comparing it to the criticism he got in '92, that many of Obama's supporters had been offering up all along, especially after that Charlie Rose interview last winter where Clinton flat out suggested that he didn't think Obama was ready.


Arlington, Va.: The media seems to repeat the Democrats economy-bashing without any critical thought or analysis. Is that because the newspaper industry in particular really is in a depression, and you're projecting your own pocketbook issues onto the rest of us?

Alec MacGillis: Boy, the media critics are out in full force today! But you have a point - there's no doubt that our own doldrums in the newspaper business affect the way we view the broader economy. That said...there seems to be plenty of evidence out there that things aren't going so hot.


Maplewood, N.J.: It is often said that the way a candidate runs his campaign tells you a lot about how they'll govern. McCain has eschewed his history as a decent and honorable person/politician (a rarity) and gone hook, line and sinker with the "whatever works" Rove theory. Is it fair to ask which McCain will govern, the guy that the press and a lot of the country have come to like or this evidently new one? (Please, no excuses such as how the Official Campaign isn't responsible for the rest of the apparatus. If he's the leader, can't he at least decry the tactics and the practitioners?)

Alec MacGillis: That is indeed a valid question to ask, particularly since one of McCain's main selling points has been his proven ability to work across the aisle in the past -- McCain Feingold, judicial appointments, etc. If his campaign has adopted more of the hard-edged Bush/Rove model, provoking such negative reactions from formerly friendly colleagues like Biden and Kerry, can he pivot back to the old model, assuming that's what he would want to do?


Hampton, Va.: Listening to Bill Clinton describe the plight of the American people last night, you'd think we were all living like Barack Obama's half-brother in mud huts in Kenya on a dollar a day. But the latest economic data says that the American economy grew at a robust 3.3 percent in the second quarter. Why can't the Democrats let go of their Carter-esque malaise? They already have locked up the votes of the poorest Americans. Why keep beating this drum?

Alec MacGillis: Smart question, which gets to something that Peggy Noonan wrote today in her Wall Street Journal column, about the Democrats' tendency to overemphasize the plight of the neediest, perhaps to the exclusion of the broader number of voters who aren't completely in the pits but still have their own worries and concerns. (She also argued that the Republicans tend to do the opposite, appealing to the latter at the expense of the former.) But I think that the reason Democrats are beating the economic plight drum this week is a bit different than it's been in the past -- they're doing it now precisely because they are NOT so sure that they've got the vote of the neediest Americans locked up. They are very worried that Obama will not get as many votes as one might expect from lower-income white voters in places like western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. In fact, Democrats for the past decade or so have not owned these voters nearly as much as one might think they would judging by their programs' appeal to them.


San Diego: I hate to bring policy into what has been a lovely process discussion but ... apparently, John Goodman (not the actor, but the McCain health care policy advisor) said that we shouldn't call people "uninsured" because everyone with access to an emergency room basically has insurance. Huh? Is this McCain's health care plan? Send everyone to the ER?

Alec MacGillis: Always glad to get a policy question. I hadn't seen this comment reported, thanks for bringing it to my attention. It's reminiscent of something Bush said in the past year or two extolling the emergency room option. My hunch is we'll be hearing a lot more about the contrasts in health care approaches in the next two months -- it's been oddly overlooked so far in the general election.

_______________________ The Master Has Arrived (Wall Street Journal, Aug. 28)


Raleigh, N.C.: Good morning! I understand the Republican tactic of attacking Obama's strength -- his charisma -- by implying that he's a celebrity, an empty suit. That makes sense. However, the specifics of some of the attacks seem to rely on inertia and a lack of memory. For example, the kerfuffle about the Greek columns -- do the pros in the McCain campaign not remember that Bush had the same kind of backdrop in 2004? If they don't remember, are they aware of Google image searches? It just seems like they could make the same point more intelligently, rather than rely on the media to not provide context. Have you or anyone getting this spin asked how Obama's backdrop is qualitatively different from Bush's in 2004?

Alec MacGillis: True, Bush had his own columns in 2004, which should undercut the Republican scorn somewhat. But then one might ask: since when is following Bush's example a positive for the Obama campaign to invoke?


Alec MacGillis: Alright, folks, that's all for now, need to start getting ourselves over to the football stadium to fight our way through the heavy, heavy security. Thanks to all for the great questions.

_______________________ Thanks for sticking out the delays -- come back after Sen. Obama's speech tonight to get analysis and answers from Washington Post associate editor Bob Kaiser. We'll also have live Web casts on our site from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. to the end -- our anchors and guests will take your questions during that as well.


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