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Election 2008: A Conservative Look at the Convention

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Jay Nordlinger
Senior Editor, National Review
Thursday, September 4, 2008; 10:00 AM

Senior editor Jay Nordlinger of the National Review, the conservative journal founded by William F. Buckley Jr., will be online Tuesday, Sept. 4 at 10 a.m. ET to look at what the base of the Republican Party has liked and disliked about the convention so far.

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A transcript follows.

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Jay Nordlinger: Hi, I'm Jay Nordlinger, a senior editor of National Review. (The magazine Bill Buckley founded in the mid-1950s.) I'm here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, attending the Republican convention, as I did the Democratic convention in Denver. I look forward to answering/grappling with questions this morning.

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Arlington, Va.: Wow! Who knew Sarah Palin's speech would be so fantastic? While I had reservations about McCain's pick last week, now I get it. The race is on!

Jay Nordlinger: Many, many people are responding the same way this morning.

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Dryden, N.Y.: Thanks for being here. I am as (socially) liberal as they come, but I love your magazine. I' have been watching the Republican convention, and I've finally got an analogy in tone. It reminds me of a combination of the Barry Goldwater convention of '64 and the McGovern convention of '72. How well do you think this will play among socially liberal women like me (who believe in birth control and are not evangelical) who are totally turned off by the Palin, etc., and the religious stuff?

Jay Nordlinger: Every candidate is a mixed bag. It's hard to like someone 100 percent. I think Palin will appeal to a lot of people who aren't with her on everything -- simply owing to her naturalness, freshness, intelligence, directness, and all that jazz.

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Great Falls, Va.: Let's assume for the sake of discussion that McCain-Palin wins in November, that Palin convinces McCain to reverse his position on drilling in ANWR, and with gasoline prices still high, that McCain takes up that fight relatively early in his administration. Would that be a good use of political capital, or is it just too big of a fight, relative to the benefits that would come from winning it?

Jay Nordlinger: I have a feeling "too big a fight" -- but that is a hunch. Hard to be scientific about that kind of thing.
Forgetting the matter of McCain's reversing a position -- to many, ANWR is not so much a political issue, or an energy issue, as a quasi-religious subject.

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Great Falls, Va.: Let's suppose McCain is elected and, as has been widely speculated, appoints Joe Lieberman to Secretary of Defense or some other cabinet position. Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican, can appoint Lieberman's successor in the Senate. Can she find a decent Republican choice in that bluest of states? The only name that comes to mind is Chris Shays, who isn't all that conservative and whose congressional seat probably would flip to the Democrats if she vacated it.

Jay Nordlinger: I confess it's getting hard to find a Republican in Connecticut, but there must be SOMEBODY. No state is that "blue" -- yes?
P.S. on Chris Shays: An unorthodox and rambunctious pol, but in many ways interesting and admirable.

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Washington: I am a former moderate Democrat (the first vote I ever cast was for Henry Jackson in a primary) who has leaned Republican for several years. I always have respected and admired John McCain for his independence and willingness to criticize when he thought it was necessary (e.g., Rumsfeld), but what has now secured my vote for him as president is his selection of Sarah Palin. I was just awestruck by her speech last night. Poised, self-confident, intelligent, eloquent and humble. Once I saw her in action, I finally could understand why McCain selected her. What a star!

Jay Nordlinger: Very, very common response over the last many hours.

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Washington: What are the policy positions on which Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton agree?

Jay Nordlinger: They are really opposite thinkers and actors. Hard to say.

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Chapel Hill, N.C.: Though I find her politics repellent (and I am a white, middle-class mom), I found Palin's speech electrifying. Given that Republicans have gained so much mileage for bashing Obama's "speechifying" and his celebrity qualities, what will they do now that their favored candidate can be described with exactly those same terms?

Jay Nordlinger: There is a certain irony to that, isn't there? Fighting extraordinary speech-making with extraordinary speech-making. What Palin's partisans will say is: This is a woman with something to back it up. There is no artifice in her performance -- nothing too fancy. It's just her. Hockey mom happens to have a boatload of political talent.

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Rockville, Md.: Thanks for taking my question, Jay. Early in Sarah Palin's speech, she noted something about parents of special needs children potentially having an advocate in the White House -- clearly a reference to her own family situation, and a comment that's sure to score political points with some. I'm wondering about your take on what I see as a double standard of "bringing family into politics" -- i.e. that Mrs. Palin can use her family context seemingly as a political lever, but that others (e.g. the media, opposing candidates) should leave her family alone.

Jay Nordlinger: Always a tricky matter, always a conundrum -- in every campaign (and often in private life as well).
How do you resolve things? I like something the late Abe Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times, said. Asked how he edited, he said, "With my stomach."

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Crozet, Va.: After last night's display of contempt for community organizing, it seems that the Republican party is determined to never again get an urban vote. What do you think?

Jay Nordlinger: I think that will go down well with a lot of people. How many urbanites know what a "community organizer" is? What Palin was doing was puncturing -- upsetting certain poses.
But I'm reminded of the old truth that you can't please everyone, or be all things to all people.

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Palin's speech, of course: I was stunned by how mean she sounded -- her speech came across to me as very angry and condescending towards Obama and Biden. I really want to like Palin, but I still feel like I have no idea of her positions or plans. When we will learn more about her?

Jay Nordlinger: Time, time. (And people are on her "like ugly on ape," as the first Bush used to say.)

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Washington: I'm a Democrat voting Republican, so I don't want to find fault, but isn't there something about what's happening in St. Paul, Minn., that reminds one of Goldwater 1964? News reports at the time said the crowd in the hall literally growled at the media, and I felt the same during the Palin screed.

Jay Nordlinger: A bit of that, yes. Others might refer to it as "righteous anger." Will it play well, nation-wide? That sort of thing usually doesn't. But it's very early yet, general-election-wise. (Remember when things kicked off pretty much on Labor Day?)

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Philadelphia: Governor Sarah Palin significantly raised taxes on oil companies. Is this something that concerns conservatives?

Jay Nordlinger: I think conservatives are looking big-picture and that nothing can dislodge their great affection for Palin, short of her experiencing some kind of instant conversion.
And, incidentally, there is a fair amount of "economic populism" in the Republican party, for good or ill. They're not -- we're not -- all Hayekians. (Well, SOME of us are!)

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Tuckahoe, N.Y.: Jay, you're an honest man. Is this how Republicans are really talking in private?

washingtonpost.com: Mike Murphy and Peggy Noonan Trip over Live Mics on MSNBC (Note: Bad Language) (YouTube, Aug. )

Jay Nordlinger: Republicans are nervous about Palin but hopeful. And, after last night, far more hopeful than nervous.

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Keyport, N.J.: The parade of candidates lining up for 2012 last night was disturbing. Romney seemed to be auditioning for the Letterman show and Giuliani only needed a hunting vest and rifle to make his act complete. These bozos already have written McCain off, and it shows.

Jay Nordlinger: A minority opinion, I imagine! (Not that minority opinions are wrong -- I've had many of them!)

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Maryland: Why wasn't Sen. Elizabeth Dole on the short list for vice president?

Jay Nordlinger: I think there is a feeling that her time has passed. But what a good question -- I haven't thought of her in years. (Goes to show you.) What a star she was. Sad about politics, as in other fields of life.

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Boston: I sort of slept through Biden's speech (these late-night conventions are tough on us East Coast Elites!), so it's hard to compare, but was Palin singularly focused on just attacking Obama -- and getting meaner as she went along?

Jay Nordlinger: There was a fair amount of tartness and sarcasm. Maybe a tad too much. But there were many, many other aspects to that speech. And I think a lot of Republicans felt: "They've been pounding us for a long time. We took many hits in Denver, and since the Palin pick -- not just from the Democratic party, but from the media. And at last it's our turn to talk back."
Part of what we saw last night was the release of pent-up emotion.

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University Park, Md.: I watched Palin's speech last night on PBS. Right after she said her first zinger of the night, the PBS cameraman swung to a lady who was being forcibly taken out of the convention center. What was going on there? Was she heckling, threatening, drunk? The crowd already was booing (it was something she said about Obama), so I'm not sure. Good times, good times...

Jay Nordlinger: I thought it was an anti-Republican protester. Hard to be sure. But many such people know they will get on camera, and so they "act up." (That's the name of a protest group, right?)

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Nice speech: But how will she do on her feet when asked for details of issues beyond energy? Or when probed for the details that show she has taken in quite a lot of earmarks for Alaska? She has charisma and intelligence enough to read a speech written by someone else, but is going to need to cram like crazy for the vice presidential debate. I really, really hope we aren't picking someone because she's a "hockey mom." I see baseball moms, soccer moms and hockey moms every day -- not a one of them is fit to lead the country. All of us moms juggle insane amounts of activities and work, but that's hardly the necessary criteria for the highest office. It doesn't make her vice presidential material, but that's how this is framed.

Jay Nordlinger: "Hockey mom" is just a little trope (true as it is) -- sort of like Jimmy Carter "peanut farmer." Palin is one savvy pol, and so, of course, was Jimmy C. (who had one term as governor of Georgia before grabbing for the brass ring, and getting it.) (Extraordinary year, 1976.)

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Maryland: When is roll call? (I want to know for sure that the ticket is going to be McCain and Palin. It's a weird feeling.)

Jay Nordlinger: I'm afraid there's no suspense in such matters anymore! Not since Kansas City in 1976, I guess. (Remember when Reagan picked a running mate before the convention -- Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania?) (We are really in the realm of trivia here.) (And you of course remember that President Ford dumped his vice president, Rocky, for Senator Dole.)

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Kingston, Ontario: Mr. Nordlinger, re: "her naturalness, freshness, intelligence, directness and all that jazz," I can't help noticing that you don't mention competence. I can see that she embodies a certain character type that conservatives approve of, but that's not the same as the ability to do a job -- in this case, an extraordinarily demanding job on which people's security may depend.

Jay Nordlinger: Oh, I think we kind of like the idea of job performance too (strangely enough).

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Anonymous: Not being negative, but did anyone expect a former TV sportscaster to have problems reading the teleprompter with gusto?

Jay Nordlinger: Sounds sort of like what they used to say about Reagan!

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Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Spiro Agnew gave a great rabble-rousing speech that was written for him by others as well. All this does is take the experience argument -- a good one -- away from McCain, and gets the GOP base that doesn't like him all that much a wee bit excited for a day. Today it's back to reality. You stickin' around?

Jay Nordlinger: Not 100 percent sure what "stickin' around" means -- but, yes.

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Do you guys know "Hockey Moms": As Gov. Palin alluded to last night ... it is not a positive term. Most of the country could care one whit about hockey, but up here it means these moms (and dads) who yell, scream, fight one another regarding their kids play time. Not a nice club setting like the "soccer mom" of 2000 or 2004 or whenever that came into vogue.

Jay Nordlinger: This anti-hockey prejudice is the kind of hate that cannot be tolerated in America. (Just kidding.)

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McLean, Va.: The convention has seemed pretty flat until Palin took the stage last night. Is that just a TV effect, or has it seemed that way in person? If the latter, do you suppose that tonight will have a carry-over effect from Palin's stellar performance?

Jay Nordlinger: The convention seemed flat till Wednesday, for sure. (No offense to Fred Thompson and Joe Lieberman, who performed fine.) I think Wednesday night will prove the banner night. Although the presidential nominee's speech, of course, is the most important -- it cannot be otherwise, even with a sensational and controversial veep nominee.

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Roseland, N.J.: Does John McCain need to come out tonight with something very specific that people can take away and say "okay, now I see how a John McCain presidency will be different than the past eight years"? I mean something deeper than simply asserting he's a "maverick who will shake things up." By tomorrow, will we know how he will shake things up?

Jay Nordlinger: McCain's speech should be a mixture of policy specifics and (attempted) uplift -- of "prose and poetry," as they say.

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Washington: Let's put aside all of the current candidates. Just how much foreign policy experience and how much executive experience are necessary to be a good president or vice president?

Jay Nordlinger: It depends -- that's a lame answer, but also a truthful one. Depends on the person, depends on the circumstances. Think of Lincoln. (And Al Gore made this point in his Denver speech.) Think of James Buchanan -- was anyone EVER more prepared to be president, resume-wise? No.
Think of George H. W. Bush -- did anyone EVER hold more jobs, pre-presidency?
Etc., etc. We probably vote on whether we agree with a person and respond to a person -- professional background aside. (Although these things are all mixed in, of course.)

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Cincinnati: Jay, being a maverick is great when you're one of 100, but could you please explain to me why it's good to have a maverick in charge of the country? I'd prefer someone who does adhere to a group -- the will of the American people. My biggest fear about John McCain is that he'd have a Dr. Strangelove moment if the red phone rang at 3 a.m.

Jay Nordlinger: A) The will of the people is hard to discern -- often there are contrasting wills. Think of how divided Americans have been in recent years. And office-holders are called on to express independent judgments. B) You never quite know how a person will handle an office until he gets there.

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Northern Virginia: I'm one of those undecided voters that both campaigns are courting. As noted, Sarah Palin came out on the offensive last night, no doubt -- and like another poster, I found her rather condescending. But I suppose such attacks are typical in vice presidential candidates' speeches, yes? Speaking of which, now that Palin has established herself as such, do you think Biden might still be perceived as "picking on the nice, humble family woman" when he goes after her in the vice presidential debate?

Jay Nordlinger: A) The traditional role of the veep candidate is to be a bit of a "bad cop" while the presidential nominee is more the "good cop." B) I think Biden can simply be himself. Although a lot of people said (the first) Bush made a mistake in 1984, when he turned to his opponent and said, "Let me help you with that, Mrs. Ferraro." (The question had to do with nuclear weapons, I believe.)

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Lebanon, Kan.: Can you describe for us what it's like to attend one of these conventions? We only see the prime time speeches.

Jay Nordlinger: Lots of conversations, lots of socializing. A fair amount of boredom ("Nothing's going on"). And then some excitement, when speeches get hot.
And remember: People often like to be among the like-minded, especially if they don't get much of an opportunity elsewhere.
One thing I regret about modern conventions -- fewer funny-looking hats, fewer balloons. In short, more normalcy. More respectability. There's supposed to be a good amount of goofiness at conventions. They've sobered up.

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Jay Nordlinger: Well, the hour is up. Sorry I couldn't get to more. I typed as fast as I can (and that's one of my few bona fide skills). Thank you.

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washingtonpost.com: Upcoming discussions from the Republican National Convention today: Post congressional reporter Paul Kane (live now), RedState editor Erick Erickson at noon, Post political theater critic Dana Milbank at 1 p.m., "The Conservative's Handbook" author Phil Valentine at 2 p.m. and "Los Republicanos" author Leslie Sanchez at 4 p.m.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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