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Instant Analysis With The Post's Robert G. Kaiser

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Monday, July 31, 2000; 11 p.m. EDT

What do you think of the coverage of the Republican National Convention -- online and off? What was your impression of Laura Bush's Monday night address? What did you think of Colin Powell's convention speech? What do you expect from Arizona Sen. John McCain and Elizabeth Dole on Tuesday?

Robert G. Kaiser (Post photo)

Discuss your reactions to this week's GOP convention in Philadelphia in a nightly live online discussion with Washington Post senior correspondent Robert G. Kaiser. Kaiser is The Post's former managing editor and was an early proponent of online journalism. 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.

washingtonpost.com: Bob, you've covered a number of conventions. How does the one you're seeing compare in style and tone?

Robert G. Kaiser: Welcome to washingtonpost.com's post-convention discussion and analysis. I'm hoping we can get a lively discussion going here. We'll have 45 minutes or so, if there are enough questions to keep us going!
Now in reply to this first question, I have been watching conventions since the '60s, and over those decades you do have a feeling that they have definitely changed! This was political theater, which is the modern format. If we see a spontaneous event this week -- or at the Democratic convention later in August -- it will be because someone screwed up. These are meant to be tightly organized, tightly scripted, entirely predictable affairs. Tonight's performance certainly lived up to that billing.

Washington, D.C.: How do you think Laura Bush did on her speech? Do you think she is helping or hurting her husband's campaign?

Robert G. Kaiser: For someone who once made her husband promise that she would never have to give a speech, I thought Mrs. Bush looked pretty darn good tonight. She is poised, handled the crowd pretty well, gave her speech with apparent conviction and sincerity -- or so it seemed to me. But over the years I have learned that my reactions to such moments are often out of synch with the voters,' so I advise you not to invest too heavily in my interpretation. I'd be interested in what others thought; please send in your own critique of both Mrs. Bush and Gen. Powell.

Waldorf, Md.: For some reason, I did not think that Powell was as effective a speaker and advocate this time as in 1996. His 1996 speech seemed to hit the mark more. This speech was a little too preachy, somewhat contrived, and lecturing. It did not do much for me and I quickly tuned parts of it out.

Am I wrong?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm going to answer this after I show you the next question...

washingtonpost.com: How does Colin Powell, 2000 convention speaker, match up with Colin Powell, 1996 convention speaker?

Robert G. Kaiser: I thought the previous questioner's answer to this question was at least as good as mine will be. I've heard Powell give his basic speech promoting volunteer activity to help the nation's young people several times, so I may be getting jaded, but I personally didn't think it was as effective tonight as it has been in the past -- at this year's American Society of Newspaper Editors' convention, for example. But he certainly gave the Bush campaign what it wanted -- a ringing endorsement of the governor and his record in Texas.

Washington, D.C.: I'm sitting here watching Laura Bush speak to the crowd. She seems bright, articulate and likable. But in the end, do you think the first lady makes one whit of difference to the candidate or how people perceive him?

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's an interesting comment on Mrs. Bush's speech. I suspect that attractive, intelligent, competent spouses make very little impact in a presidential campaign -- which, in my estimation, is exactly what we have this year in Tipper Gore and Laura Bush. It would be interesting someday to have a really eccentric individualist in this role, but I fear I may not live to see that. Modern politics seems to screen out the eccentric, in candidates and spouses.

Alexandria, Va.: Wasn't Bush supposed to arrive at the convention with Cheney? Why did Cheney come first?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you're under a misapprehension here. My understanding has been that Bush would not arrive until Thursday. He's taking this well-orchestrated tour through swing states from Arkansas to Pennsylvania to get extra media attention, and that has been the plan for some time.

Washington, D.C.: What do you think makes the difference between a good candidate and a winning candidate? Sometimes just being a good candidate isn't enough.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm with you. Good candidates can't win when running at the wrong time and/or against the wrong opponent. Historically, winning candidates have things going for them outside the boundaries of the electoral campaign itself that often -- some political scientists think ALWAYS -- make the difference. Adlai Stevenson was a good candidate in 1952, but he couldn't lay a glove on Ike. Nixon was a strong candidate in 1960, except for one bad performance in the first TV debate, but he couldn't beat JFK. Humphrey was a terrific candidate in '68, but Nixon won anyway. Good economic times help incumbent parties; unpopular wars help challengers; bad economic times help challengers; etc. I suspect that before this campaign is over, the Democrats will look stronger than they do tonight, if only because it's hard for the incumbent party to do badly in an extraordinary economic boom. I don't think it's IMPOSSIBLE, but it's hard.

Washington, D.C.: Bush has pretty conspicuously pulled back from the red-meat attack night. Do you think Gore will forego the slam-the-Republicans route, or is he likely to go after them with fangs bared anyway?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a good and interesting question. Because Bush is now ahead in the polls, and is likely to open up a somewhat bigger lead during the course of this week (that's the usual pattern during a convention), I suspect the Democrats are going to feel they have to start challenging him directly and pretty bluntly at their convention. And because Bush is ahead today, the Republicans can be more comfortable sounding statesmanlike and inclusive.

Baltimore, Md.: Do you think Cheney was a good pick? Will his voting record make any difference in the long run?

Robert G. Kaiser: A recent Washington Post poll reminded us that the overwhelming majority of Americans say the running mate has no impact on their voting decision. If you remember 1988, polls showed voters were much more favorably inclined toward Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, than toward Dan Quayle, the Republican. Nevertheless, Quayle's running mate won the election.

Arlington, Va.: Mr. Kaiser, the Republicans tonight have portrayed themselves as an inclusive party representing all parts of America. But are we seeing the real convention on TV? Is the audience as diverse as the speakers? What do your eyes tell you?

Robert G. Kaiser: We know that the convention is far less diverse than the people on the podium were tonight. The Republican delegates for many years, and again this year, are overwhelmingly white, male and well-to-do.

washingtonpost.com: For the record, Alexandria, GWB arrives here Wednesday.

Robert G. Kaiser: My editors caught an error...

Philadelphia, Pa.: Are not both you and your questioners missing the point about Powell's speech? Wasn't the important part of it the challenge to the assembled conservative Republicans to once again claim the mantle of the party of Lincoln and drop their opposition to policies like affirmative action?

Robert G. Kaiser: Perhaps you're right. Powell did something very similar four years ago -- he sticks to his guns on these issues. Obviously, it takes some nerve to tell a group of people who don't believe in affirmative action (according to a poll of the delegates I saw today) that they should support it.

New Canaan, Conn.: I am surprised at how flexible the Republican Party seems to be. They have already critiqued themselves like I have never heard before (Colin Powell was quite surprising).

What happened to the old party guard? Did someone send them invites with the wrong address? Or is the GOP really evolving?

Robert G. Kaiser: Your reaction is obviously just what the Republican organizers of the convention were hoping for. If you look at the stories from Washington Post reporters in Philadelphia this week, you'll see repeated references to Republicans, including the most fervent conservatives, saying they want to bury their differences this year to elect George W. Bush president. They are aching to get back into the White House -- they readily admit. I suspect that's what's happened to the old guard, as you call them. When you ask "is the GOP evolving," to my ear you are implying that there is a monolithic GOP. I don't think there is. There have always been moderates and conservatives in the party. In my lifetime, the big change has been that what was once a moderate majority has been displaced by a decisive conservative majority. The conservatives are still the dominant -- but not the only-- force in the party.

South Hadley, Mass.: How intentional do you think the female and minority inclusiveness were?

Robert G. Kaiser: Completely intentional. The organizers made no bones about it.

Scarsdale, N.Y.: Yes, but Gov. Dukakis lost that election. Gore and Bush are very close candidates. A bad VP choice may have had impact, no? (if for nothing else it showed bad judgment)?

Robert G. Kaiser: Of course you're right. If Al Gore picks John Rocker as his running mate, he'll lose the election.

South Hadley, Mass.: Mr. Kaiser, do you think that the Republicans made a wise decision in asking Rev. Graham to close the day with an explicitly Christian prayer? It seems that doing so might clash with some 'inclusivity' concerns.

Robert G. Kaiser: Billy Graham seems to be close to both George Bushes. The younger Bush gives Graham credit for helping him straighten out his life. And of course Graham has been a friend of presidents for decades. Of course everyone is entitled to interpret his presence as they wish.

Philadelphia, Pa.: Why should we care about what you think? So far, you are just plain wrong.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is the sort of reader that every pompous commentator needs! I thank the gentleman. And I think I know his name.

Frederick, Md.: Have conventions become irrelevant? Is there anything to be gained for an average American to bother to tune in?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'll be interested to see how many Americans tune in to this convention, especially before Bush's acceptance speech on Thursday night. There are 15,000 reporters in Philadelphia tonight (Howard Kurtz tells us). How could the convention be irrelevant with so many reporters in attendance? Yes, that is a trick question. In fact, I think the conventions ARE irrelevant in practical terms. But they still seem to have a place in our political life as symbolic events, and the acceptance speeches have become one of the very few moments when the candidates for president actually get the attention of many millions of Americans. For that alone they are probably worth saving in some form. But four days of each one? Wretched excess.

Grand Isle, Vt.: How are the Republicans responding to President Clinton's argument that their convention is phony, an effort to "blur, blur, blur" the real differences between the Republicans and the Democrats?

Robert G. Kaiser: I suspect they won't respond at all.

Santa Rosa, Calif.: How does one separate the candidate from his party? George W. seems to be an all-around capable and decent person but his party is anti-gun control, anti-environment and anti-abortion, all positions that the majority of U.S, citizens disagree with.

Robert G. Kaiser: Your reaction is one the Democrats will be cultivating in the weeks ahead. Our polls show a large majority of Americans say it doesn't make any real difference who wins this election. I bet a quarter they won't be saying that in October. One of the historic purposes of the campaign is to remind voters of their partisan instincts (which remain strong in Americans) and of their basic convictions on emotional issues like the ones you list.

New York, N.Y.: What is the aspect of conventions that the press most often overlooks? Is there something beyond the run-of-the-mill delegate stories or platform fights?

Robert G. Kaiser: I've been looking at this question for 20 minutes trying to come up with a good answer, and I'm stumped. I honestly believe that today's conventions are essentially news-free. The last newsy convention I remember was 1980 in Detroit, when Ronald Reagan flirted with offering Gerald Ford a sort of co-president role if Ford would be his vice presidential nominee. At the last minute, that idea collapsed, and George H.W. Bush got the Gipper's nod. I fear the truth is we don't miss much, because there isn't much to miss.
That's all for tonight. Please check back during the week: I'll be here every night at 11, and look forward to hearing from many of you. Good night.

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