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Analysis: McCain's Acceptance Speech

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Thursday, September 4, 2008; 11:00 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Thursday, Sept. 4 at 11 p.m. ET to examine Sen. John McCain's speech accepting the Republican nomination for president.

A transcript follows.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Hello again. Hard to believe that we were here just one week ago discussing Sen. Obama's speech. It's been quite a week. I'd like to try to repeat the participatory discussion we had last time by inviting everyone to give their own commentary on Sen. McCain's speech tonight. Please send me two or three cogent sentences summing up your reactions, and I'll post as many of them as I can. Or ask any questions that you have, and I will try to answer them. We'll be here for an hour or so.

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Charles Town, W.Va.: I'm not naive, but how can Sen. McCain cast himself as an agent of change when he himself has been in the Senate a quarter-century? And how can he call stand up to Mitt Romney's call to "throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain and Sarah Palin" when, as Paul Begala said on CNN Wednesday night: "For eight years George W. Bush has been running the White House; for six of the last eight years, the Republicans have run the House of Representatives; for five of the last eight years, they have run the Senate; and for all of the last eight years, they've run the Supreme Court. ... Seven of the nine justices were appointed by Republicans. That's not a heckuva big liberal government from my perspective. It seems that Sen. McCain is running against his own party as much as anything else, his acceptance speech notwithstanding.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is of course a central question. This speech had some fascinating sections in which McCain seemed to be running against the last eight years, but I wonder how they will be received by the public? Welcome thoughts about that. It isn't easy for McCain to cast himself as the agent of change, yet his oldest friends fervently believe that he can be just that.

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Austin, Texas: A little known fact not brought out about McCain's wartime captivity is that he was broken by torture, confessing for Vietcong propaganda by stating: "I am a black criminal, and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate." During the debates McCain has not used his personal example about why torture does not work. McCain would be my "war hero" if he would stand up to instruct Americans about this abusive and evil crime using his personal example. Did McCain address this important issue connecting his past experience with this present concern that American government officials tortured prisoners detained during our war on terror?

Robert G. Kaiser: You sent this comment before you had heard the speech, which in fact did include a poignant reference to this: "They broke me," he said of the North Vietnamese.
Surely that experience colored McCain's views in the debates on torture. His critics argue that at crucial moments, he went along with the Bush administration's efforts to preserve at least some room for the interrogation methods McCain himself once seemed to consider torture. It's a complicated issue of course.

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Sydney, Australia: How is Sen. McCain going to be inclusive -- as that is only real way to unite?

Robert G. Kaiser: He answered this question several ways tonight. And he has always been willing to work with anyone who will agree with him in Washington, no matter the party. Campaign finance reform was passed because he worked not only with Senator Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, and also with reformers in Washington like Fred Wertheimer who were detested by many of McCain's Republican colleagues. But he has been willing to change his position on issues like off-shore drilling and tax cuts when he found himself out of step with Republicans whose support he thought he needed.

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Germantown, Md.: John seemed out of touch with the rest of the convention. He rarely mentioned God, and actually proposed compromise instead of red-meat partisanship. It was a little jaw-dropping, like maybe he hadn't bothered to watch the previous two days.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the comment

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Dallas: When will John McCain move from 30 years in the past to the future? War stories can take him only so far?

Robert G. Kaiser: McCain's personal story is one of the most compelling of any modern politician's. In a completely different way, Obama's story is also compelling. That's one of the reasons this is going to be such an interesting contest.
Those stories are about the past, of course. But the electorate may well be more focused on the future now.

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New York: I have to wonder if anything really changed from McCain's speech -- The Palin pick seems to take a front seat, and the McCain speech that just ended was longer on the past than the future, and we are watching Palin's family on the stage more than McCain's. As a convention it was odd. Do you think this was really a game-changer for the Republicans?

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, what I think is irrelevant. I thought the speech was a B at best; McCain just is not an orator, and this was not a brilliant piece of writing. And the crowd stomped on a lot of McCain's lines.
But I just heard Michael Beschloss say on PBS that it was "the greatest speech" McCain ever gave. I doubt it, but others will have to decide.

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washingtonpost.com: In a More Diverse America, A Mostly White Convention (Post, Sept. 4)

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Bethesda, Md.: I've gotten the impression from this convention with the applause lines of "drill baby drill," talk of kicking the liberals out of Washington while cheering every mention of Bush, etc., that the people in that arena are living in their own bubble on non-reality.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting.

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Seattle: So, is the audience still really old and really white? I mean, even my northern state has more Hispanic and black people than that...

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's a link to a good story from today's Post on the ethnic makeup of the convention, and the questions it raises about the political map.
It is a remarkably white, middle aged or senior citizen audience. A lot of Americans won't see themselves in that crowd.

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East Lansing, Mich.: Both last night and tonight, TV cameras showed protesters being forcibly removed from the convention floor. I haven't seen any news coverage of it. Who are they, and what are their issues?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm sure there will be coverage tonight. The shouting of "USA< USA" you heard in the early portion of McCain's speech was the crowd trying to cover up the protesters. Come back to washingtonpost.com for a good story soon.

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Minneapolis: I think McCain did a good job tonight, mentioning just enough policy issues to keep people happy, but not too many. It isn't really the time or place to discuss policy, it was to accept and be grateful for what he has. He acted with respect to the other party and made a commitment to work together for a better cause. I am very excited for the coming weeks to see how everything unfolds. What do you think we should expect for the debates?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think the debates will be very important. I have no crystal ball.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Addendum RE Beschloss above:
Mark Shields is now refuting him sharply--not at all one of McCain's best speeches, he says, also on PBS.
You pays your money...

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Reston, Va.: Every four years we hear the same thing from presidential candidates -- we're gonna change Washington, etc. Yet four out of the past five presidents have been "outsiders." Doesn't that at least suggest we might consider giving an insider who knows the ways of Washington a crack at the big chair?

Robert G. Kaiser: What a provocative idea!

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Stone Mountain, Ga.: McCain was at his best in the personal expression of his experience in Vietnam and his personal evolution of true patriotism. That I believe. His willful misrepresentation of Obama's positions tonight, lack of details in his own policies and his new-found pandering to the social right, however, belie his claim to be a "maverick."

Robert G. Kaiser: Many thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: The executive experience argument has been used against Sen. Obama lately, but doesn't his successful leadership of a multimillion dollar organization, assembled entirely within the past three years that, which was able to enter a competitive market with high barriers to entry, compete with and defeat its opponents -- including one with strong brand identification and millions of loyal supporters-- show what kind of CEO he would be?

Robert G. Kaiser: I made a similar point last week, after Obama's speech. Anyone in politics I know has been impressed by the Obama campaign, one of the very best-run in recent history.

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Oakhurst, Calif.: Will you continue investigating Palin's credentials and political policy/history, or has the media acquiesced to the McCain camp's pressure to stop any further researching?

Robert G. Kaiser: I hope you really don't believe that The Washington Post would be deterred from doing its constitutional duty by "the McCain camp's pressure." I can assure you that it will not.

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Fairfax, Va.: What was your reaction to the extended Sept. 11 footage at the Republican convention? I was sickened by it. How could anyone attempt to politicize Sept. 11 by reopening those wounds? Wouldn't you criticize any media outlet that exploited that much Sept. 11 footage?

Robert G. Kaiser: Several similar questions. It reminded me of Karl Rove's speech to Republicans in early 2002 instructing them to use the 9/11 attacks for political advantage. Not a great moment in my opinion.

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Specifics: Do you think McCain ever will need to give specifics on his policy, or is it best for him to stick to generalizations and rhetoric?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think he can or will try to avoid specifics. Indeed, he offered quite a few tonight.

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Demographics: Someone mentioned the demographics of the crowd. I read today that there were only something like 37 blacks out of all the delegates. That whole arena only about 1 percent African American. I also read that the Republican delegates were two-thirds men, while the Democrats had a slight majority women. I think it shows the inclusiveness (or lack thereof) of the two sides.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. See above. I think it was 36, but you could be right!

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: Mr. Kaiser: Your first thoughts on hearing that a Georgia congressman described Sen. Obama as "uppity"?

Robert G. Kaiser: I saw that earlier. You know, everyone in the media is having a difficult time dealing with race in this election year. But we all know, do we not, that with the first serious black candidate for president in American history, and with our tortured racial history, race is certain to be at play here for the next two months, and far beyond. The Congressman at least reminded us that we kid ourselves if we avoid the matter ourselves.

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The meaning of the backdrop: I might be reading too much into it, but you probably noticed that the backdrop used to superimpose video behind McCain to be seen by the crowd turned into either a plain blue or green background behind him on TV. Maybe that was a glitch, but I think it wasn't. That leads me to believe that the real focus of McCain and his campaign was the faithful on hand, to drive up their enthusiasm -- as compared to Obama, whose set last week was much different on TV (looking like the West Wing) than in person. Obama was reaching out to the wider audience; McCain is trying to fire up the base.

Robert G. Kaiser: I disagree. 30-40 million people were watching; it would be really dumb to think the crowd in the hall was more important than that huge audience. I'm quite sure the McCain camp was aiming at the broader country.

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Fort Myers, Fla.: Will McCain's contradictory narrative -- I want to move past partisanship by bringing Palin along for the ride -- fly?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know. I do believe the questions about Palin will be with us throughout the campaign. I know of no examples of a relative amateur walking onto the stage of presidential politics and performing in an error-free fashion for two months. And I know countless examples of real pros screwing up under pressure.

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St. Paul, Minn.: You can't work to eviscerate your opponent on one night and then brag about your ability to work across party lines the next. That's not being a maverick; that's trying to be all things to all people.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.

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Broomall, Pa.: I'd be interested to hear what Republicans think would happen if McCain wins. There is about zero chance that the House or Senate will flip, and a good chance that the Democrats' majorities will increase. If the mood in the country is for "change," wouldn't a McCain presidency produce change-stopping gridlock?

Robert G. Kaiser: Of course it is impossible to predict. If the Democrats lose the White House this year, they will be in a terrible funk, I suspect.

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Minneapolis: Wow. Well, I liked the speech, but it came too late for me. It's clearly an attempt to reach out to the independents and set a new tone for the general election to pivot toward the center, but yesterday was so rabidly geared toward the Republican base that it just felt forced to me. I don't believe it. CNN commentators just said that the convention united the Republican Party. Well, I'm a moderate Republican and I don't feel united. I think he saved the base for himself in the past few days, but I don't believe what he said today compared to the rest of the week, which has been so focused on the social conservatives and what I would term the "religious right" that has taken over what used to be my party.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Adrian, Mich.: Has anyone in the press talked with either of the Alaska senators about what they think of Palin and their fellow Republicans railing against them as examples of how government is corrupt and needs to change?

Robert G. Kaiser: So far the Alaskans have remained mum. That can't continue for long.

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Biloxi, Miss.: I missed a good portion of McCain's speech. Quite honestly, I was a bit unimpressed by some of the content last night by Palin against community work. They were focused on the military and the great work they do -- and that is fantastic work that they do. When I did tune in he again was speaking about the military. With their focus on the military, what impact will this have on his position on the Patriot Act and its impacts on our civil liberties? The speeches did not make me feel safe, but rather, threatened. Keep in mind I did not hear all of McCain's speech.

Robert G. Kaiser: I suggest you read or watch the whole speech.

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Baltimore: So, I noticed McCain wasn't wearing a flag pin tonight. I'm guessing that the right won't make a big deal of this like they did with Obama a year ago.

Robert G. Kaiser: McCain doesn't routinely wear a flag pin. Never has.

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Ames, Iowa: I continue to fail to see how being a soldier means the ability to lead an army, which in turn means the ability to be president. Why is this always the line of thought? It was for Kerry as much as for McCain, and both times it seems to very narrowly construct the position of the president.

Robert G. Kaiser: Boy do I agree with you. Being a soldier has no connection I know of to being a good president.

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Lismore, New South Wales, Australia: Was it a mistake on the behalf of Republican strategists to allow the climax of the two conventions to be the McCain speech?

Robert G. Kaiser: They had no choice in the matter. I do wonder what independent voters who watched both Obama and McCain would say about the two. They were very, very different.

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Philadelphia: Former McCain fan here. Really poorly produced video to begin -- he deserved better. The first three-quarters of the speech were unconvincing -- to himself. That part was incoherent and he knew it. The biography and the finale were inspiring, but not in a "vote for him" way but in a "thank you" way. I'll add that with a theme of "country first," the speech was gratuitously about him. I blame Salter for that. He needed to be less direct about himself, and more inspiring about what we face together. I think Obama's speech was far, far more collective and self-effacing. Someone should analyze it.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. Clearly, a decision was made that the convention would tell and retell McCain's prisoner-of-war story. Did they overdo it? I can't answer.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: Uh, Sen. McCain does know that his party has had the control of the White House for the past eight years, and the Congress for six of those eight years? Just wanted to make sure, in light of his repeated sweeping statements about changing the Washington establishment. A senator for 30 years, he himself is the establishment to most of us non-Washington insiders!

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Here's a link to a story of mine that ran in Monday's Post about McCain's Bush problem. He is running for the third consecutive Republican term; history, as my story explains, shows how hard this will be. He would much prefer to run as a challenger, I suspect--it suits his personality. So tonight he tried to cast himself as an insurgent. Can he pull that off?

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Whereas with Obama's speech, the historic feel of the moment evoked Kennedy, with McCain, even given his quite evident sincerity and decency, all I could think was Dole.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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washingtonpost.com: The Friend He Just Can't Shake (Post, Sept. 1)

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Fargo, N.D.: Last week you used this forum to laud Obama. This week, all you are posting are criticisms of McCain. Couldn't The Post have found someone who at least could pretend to be objective for a moderator?

Robert G. Kaiser: Hey, my job is to do my best to evaluate these speeches. I'm not here to support anyone, but rather to help people understand what this old reporter thinks happened, in Denver and in St. Paul. My view is no more authoritative than anyone else's. Please ignore it if it doesn't help you.

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"St. Paul, Minn.: You can't work to eviscerate your opponent on one night and then brag about your ability to work across party lines the next. That's not being a maverick; that's trying to be all things to all people.": Wait, is St. Paul, Minn. talking about Denver? The biases of the liberals and conservatives consistently amazes independents like me.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for this.

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London: I understood that it was the received wisdom that vice-presidential candidates had little effect on the result of the general election, with Lyndon Johnson being the exception in that he "delivered" his state. Is Sarah Palin going to change this law by being important in her own right, or were Sen. McCain's references to her just for the convention audience?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think she can become more important this year than McCain, but as the commentators on TV are pointing out right now, she was the big star of this convention.

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Washington: The POW section was very effective, but was anyone still watching? Overall the speech was terrible -- he is not a good speaker. Question: McCain said he wants to get rid of unemployment insurance. And replace it with what?

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.

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Independent voter: I think Obama's speech talked about what he would do and the future. McCain's speech talked about who he was and the past. From an independent standpoint, Obama was much more impactful. I also feel that the past two days of very harsh partisan attacks may energize the Republican base, but might lose the center.

Robert G. Kaiser: and thank you.

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One-term McCain?: Thank you for taking questions. My question is about last nigh. I believe it was the governor of Hawaii who kept asserting that if McCain is "elected in 2013, we'll have" such and such. She must have repeated that year at least three times. Is the GOP/McCain trying to telegraph that he'll only serve one term? I've seen no reporting on these specific comments.

Robert G. Kaiser: Sorry I missed the Hawaiian, however you spell that. There were several members of the punditocracy who urged McCain to use this speech to announce that he would be a one-term president, as a way to prove that he wants to be a bipartisan unifier, and also to defuse questions about his age. He obviously rejected that advice. I don't think it's plausible to think he has a secret plan to quit after four years, do you?

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Pullman, Wash.: Do you think that McCain deliberately planned to unload with nasty attacks all night Wednesday, then claim post-partisanship in his speech Thursday, or was his speech toned down at the last minute because of some evidence of backlash for independents and women? The whole Republican National Convention seemed confused to me.

Robert G. Kaiser: Couldn't you make a similar comment about the Dems? Both want to mobilize their base supporters,and also appeal to independents. Not easy for either.

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Phoenix: Just a couple of comments, if I may. I intend to vote for John McCain, but I must be honest and admit that I found this a very disappointing speech -- bland, clunky and awkwardly staged. I'm also very worried by the fact that McCain himself seems so shaky in recent weeks. He stumbles over words, he looks clumsy and he appears generally ill at ease. Unless something dramatic happens, I am very pessimistic about his chances in November.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for this. I agree that he wasn't at his best tonight. Because he is 72, I suspect lots of people, like you, are going to be looking for evidence that maybe he is slipping.

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Los Angeles: Why is no one giving the nod to Barack Obama as a Constitutional scholar who has taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago for 10 years? Isn't this the epitome of the kind of experience we need at the top? Lord knows I don't want to see the Constitution completely shredded.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.

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St Paul, Minn.: Can we critique last night's speech? Palin's speech really struck me when she was talking about how little you should think of someone who is just a charismatic good speaker with nice rhetoric. Did anyone else see this as ironic? I'd take the charismatic good speaker with nice rhetoric who is talking about how things are for his audience rather than the charismatic good speaker with nice rhetoric who is using it just to tear someone else down.

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes this is permitted. I'd also like to hear from a Palin fan. Thanks.

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Bethesda, Md.: I heard several conservatives say McCain had to and would confront his party's failing tonight. Did I miss that? I didn't see it. I also heard he would talk a lot about healing, but I must have missed most of that as well. Mostly I heard that Obama wanted to do dumb things that wouldn't work, and McCain wanted to do smart things that would work. Am I wrong?

Robert G. Kaiser: Geez, you better go back and re-read the speech.

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Jessup, Md.: This strikes me as a speech like Bush 1 gave about a thousand points of light -- something soft to try and show a certain image that would have broad appeal, but it's being given at a time when unemployment soon will be 6 percent and troop returns will be delayed. I don't think it will fly in today's environment, with McCain-Palin compared to Bush-Quayle. We are not that naive anymore.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks

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Ithaca, N.Y.: I doubt you'll be willing to give me your true opinion on this question, because it's sort of a loaded question, but I assure you I mean it innocently: Doesn't the Republican Party seem to be "meaner" or maybe play more "dirty" than the Democrats? I think of the way the Republican ruined John Kerry's reputation with Swift Boat, etc., four years ago. I guarantee the Democrats won't try that with McCain. It's similar regarding statements about each other's positions -- many of the statements that Giuliani and Palin made about Obama last night were such huge exaggerations that they bordered on outright lies.

I remember the Democrats talking at their convention about how McCain voted with Bush 90 percent of the time. It was an unflattering and unfair characterization (perhaps), but not misleading on the same scale. Is this just because Republicans are willing to do it more? Or, can Democrats not do it for some reason (in other words, if they could get away with it, they would)? If so, why can't they get away with it?

Robert G. Kaiser: I won't answer in the terms you have used. I don't think all Republicans fight dirty, though some surely do, nor do I think that all Democrats fight cleanly. I do think that the Republican Party of Eisenhower, Scranton, George Romney, Hugh Scott, Jacob Javits and such -- that is, the pre-Goldwater, moderate, largely Northern and Northeastern Republican Party -- was a lot more genteel than this one.
This is too complicated a question to try to deal with in this forum, not enough time.
But it is a fact, according to Congressional Quarterly, that McCain voted in support of President Bush's positions 90 percent of the time over the last seven years. That is in my article on Bush and McCain that is linked to somewhere above.

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Salt Lake City: I'm very surprised to see/hear that nobody seems to be asking this question: What kind of President would Sarah Palin be?

Robert G. Kaiser: The editorial writers of America have begun asking this question, and I'm sure we'll be hearing it a lot in the weeks and months ahead.

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Chicago: McCain's speech is already getting panned as mediocre at best. If such is the case, my question is, why? Palin's speech must have been written by the pros in the McCain campaign -- all she had to do was recite it well (which she did). Why can't they write a great speech for John McCain? If they can, why can't he -- after some 30 years in office -- give it a decent delivery?

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting comment. Your judgment may not be universally accepted, but your facts are accurate I think.

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Portland, Ore.: McCain's story, a genuine, heartfelt story -- will make him very difficult to beat (and I'm a Democrat). I think the independents will take a very close look at him, and that could cost us the election. And I think that's too bad, because while he's a good man, I believe his policies are very bad indeed. One thing that gives me hope is the vice presidential choice -- while it makes his base very happy, will her very conservative, pro-life positions really play with undecided voters? My prayer is that they will not. By the way, Jesus was a community organizer; Pilate was a governor.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for an interesting comment.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Hi Robert. I haven't yet seen the speech, but having watched McCain the past few months, I'm a little afraid to for his sake. Can the country survive four years with someone who cannot soar rhetorically? One other point: I have not met a single Swede -- not even those on the Swedish political right -- that wants to see John McCain elected. What does that say about where we are right now in the world?

Robert G. Kaiser: This will be the last one tonight. Thanks to all for another lively chat.
Yes, it is possible to be a successful American president who can't give a great speech. Eisenhower did that. We don't require a gifted orator, but I agree with you that it helps.
As to your Swedish friends, I don't know them of course, but suspect that, like so many in Europe, they too might be victims of Obamamania, a powerful virus.
We'll be back during the campaign, perhaps after the debates. Thanks again for all the good comments.

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