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Instant Analysis With The Post's Robert G. Kaiser

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Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2000; 11 p.m. EDT

Wednesday night is GOP vice presidential candidate Richard B. Cheney's opportunity to introduce himself to the nation in an address to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. How did the former defense secretary and Wyoming congressman do?

Robert G. Kaiser (Post photo)

Discuss your reactions to this week's Republican convention in a nightly live online discussion with Washington Post senior correspondent and former managing editor Robert G. Kaiser. 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.

Robert G. Kaiser: Welcome to the third night of our post-convention discussion. I'd love to hear from anyone with an opinion about how this evening's events, particularly Dick Cheney's speech, might have played with the American public. We now know that this convention is getting really small audiences on television--do you think tonight could have changed that?

Charlottesville, Va.: What Democratic veep could really stand up to Cheney in a debate among the ones Gore is said to be considering? Right now Cheney seems unbeatable.

Robert G. Kaiser: Unbeatable? I'm not certain about that. George Mitchell is a fine debater. So is Sen. John Edwards, a longshot choice for veep. I'd be interested in knowing more about why Charlottesville thinks Cheney looks unbeatable.

Alexandria, Va.: Cheney is doing a lot to equate Gore to Clinton. Will this strategy work? What about Clinton's recent comments on Bush? Appropriate party banter, or totally uncalled for?

Robert G. Kaiser: Finally tonight the Republicans in that hall got some of the red meat they've been denied this week because the organizers of the convention wanted to be, well, vegetarians. That is, they wanted to avoid negative politics. But Cheney's job, the traditional vice presidential candidate's job, will be to knock the opposition from time to time, and he got a good start tonight. Will the Republicans be able to make Gore into Clinton II? Sure, lots of people will go for that line. And lots of people will utterly reject it. Those would be, in turn, the Republicans, and the Democrats. The swing voters will be the key, and I have no idea whether Gore will be able to establish his independence with them. That will be the main story line for this election, I suspect.

Shepardstown, W.Va.: Cheney seemed to jump right on Gore in his acceptance speech. Can we expect more of this as the campaign goes on? I thought Bush wanted to run a positive campaign. Or is it going to be Cheney's job to do the negative campaigning? Thanks.

Robert G. Kaiser: I guess I just answered this one. There's no way, in my opinion, that we're going to avoid a lot of negative campaigning in this election. When have we ever avoided it? It's part of the game to attack the opponent, and the game is going to be played vigorously this year.

Washington, D.C.: So how did you think Lynne Cheney's speech went over? Does she have what it makes to be in the White House? Do you think she'll overshadow Laura?

Robert G. Kaiser: Mrs. Cheney did fine, I thought. As to the rest of your question, here's what I think: Americans love their version of royalty, which is the first family. I remember vividly in 1963, after JFK was killed, wondering if the country would ever be even slightly interested in the Johnson family, who seemed so bland and uninteresting compared to the glamorous Kennedys. And within a few months, Lucy and Linda Bird and Lady Bird and even the dog were all national celebrities, not to mention LBJ. The first family will always overshadow the second family, and everyone else. That's the American way.

N.C.: Who do the polls say is leading the presidential race in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Florida?

Robert G. Kaiser: What is washingtonpost.com supposed to be, your local library? Seriously, I do not have the answers to this question in my head. Look at the polling section of On Politics for some answers. But here's what I think is the main poll finding of recent weeks (from our Post poll): About two thirds of Americans say they aren't paying much attention to the campaign yet. And about two thirds say they don't think it makes any difference who wins in November, Gore or Bush. What does this mean? That ALL polls now, in these states, in the whole country, in your neighborhood bar or your church, are pretty much meaningless. Personally I am waiting for the first polls after the Olympics--in early October. This year, I suspect, those will be the first ones worth paying close attention to. And yes, when I make predictions of that kind, I am wrong much, if not most of the time.

Washington, D.C.: How do you think Ford's stroke is going to affect the convention?

Robert G. Kaiser: The Republicans in the convention are saddened by President Ford's illness, but I don't see it having much impact on the convention.

Washington, D.C.: As laid out by Cheney, the latest Republican appeal seems to go: yes these have been prosperous years under Clinton and Gore -- but all the same, many opportunities were missed. Will that resonate with voters?

Robert G. Kaiser: You may have asked the key question about the campaign. Obviously Gore can't claim full credit for the economic boom, but at the same time, he is going to claim a lot of credit. Will voters agree? That will depend, I suspect, on how artfully the Democrats make their case. I expect we'll be reminded, for example, of all the predictions Republicans made in 1993 when they voted unanimously against the Clinton tax plan. They predicted, almost unanimously, recession and disaster; instead the country got the deficit on a downward path for the first time in a dozen years, and a prolonged boom. That will be one Democratic argument. But that's ancient history--will it resonate with voters? I just don't know. I also wonder how cheney and/or Bush will spell out those "missed opportunities." This is, to me, the heart of Bush's problem this year: he is running against an incumbent party under whom the country has had an absolutely fabulous economic record. PErsonally I don't think presidents deserve a great deal of credit for economic performance in most cases, but polling and history both show that the American people DO give their presidents credit, and blame, for economic performance.

Washington, D.C.: The only way that the Republican convention could get better ratings is if they stopped making it what I would call a bad off-Broadway show. Who is in charge of planning this thing?

Robert G. Kaiser: The man in charge of the convention is Andrew Card, former secretary of transportation and deputy white house chief of staff in the administration of George H.W. Bush. He now works for General Motors, but is on leave to put on the convention.
I guess the question is, could P.T. Barnum have made this thing more fun to watch? Or is it in the nature of a convention that has no suspense, no drama, no mystery to be unappealing to viewers? I think I lean toward the latter explanation. But it would be fun to have a Barnum give it a shot!

Detroit, Mich.: Did it seem as rather awkward to you as it did to me that although Cheney attacked Clinton/Gore constantly for doing nothing, he himself gave little talk about the Bush/Cheney proposals?

Robert G. Kaiser: My guess is that this was an agreed-to division of labor: Cheney takes the shots at Clinton and Gore tonight, Bush lays out the program for the future tomorrow night. Let's check that theory out in 24 hours.

Norfolk, Va: In searching for a compelling reason for change, I'm not sure one was offered. What do you consider the Republican strategy is, then?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is another very important point. You get the impression from listening to the Republicans that they want the public to conclude that Clinton's personal failings (and perhaps Gore's too) are reason enough to change parties in the White House. Again I wonder if, in a boom like this one, that argument will sell. Polls show Americans think the country is going in the right direction. Polls show Americans are very pleased with their own personal situations. Will those same Americans want to throw the bums out? Of course none of us knows today, but that's the big question.

Detroit, Mich.: Why has there been little to no talk or references made about the successful affirmative action plan (10% automatic acceptance) used by the state-funded universities in Texas? One of the attacks made by liberals is that the Republicans have been all talk about inclusion and helping minorities. Doesn't it seem Bush is missing a golden opportunity thus far-especially since the Texas plan is a very palatable plan of AA.

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think I agree that this Texas program has been kept a secret. A lot of people have praised it, including Democrats and black leaders, and I am sure Bush will keep talking about it, as he has in the past. It does seem like a strong argument for Bush's approach, at least for a lot of people.

Cincinnati, Ohio: What has been Cheney's effect upon the all-important independent voters?

Robert G. Kaiser: Of course I don't know the answer. Cheney has always struck me as a thoughtful, articulate and serious person. I wouldn't give him an A for political oratory tonight, but I do think he looked calm, strong and intelligent, qualities that may well appeal to independent voters. But as I said a couple of nights ago, the evidence is pretty powerful that Americans don't vote for or against a presidential candidate because of their opinion of his/her running mate. Even in polls where people might exaggerate how thoughtful or careful they are about how they decide whom to vote for, huge majorities say they don't really pay attention to the running mate.

Va.: Who do you think would be the best Democrat nominee for v.p. in light of Mr. Cheney's performance? Could Bob Kerrey deflate his defense background by simply reminding the public that Cheney "had other priorities" than serving the country during war?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think Al Gore has a really big challenge in choosing his running mate (though, see above, his choice in the end may not make that much difference). Gore and his aides can see plenty of pluses and plenty of minuses to all the people who are getting mentioned these days; none is a slam dunk natural for the job. It's interesting to me that in both parties there didn't seem to be a very long list of strong contenders. In this anti-political age, it's very hard for a politician to develop a national reputation, and very few do. The only well-known figure Gore can pick is George Mitchell, I think, and even Mitchell isn't a household name. The suspense will be over in a week or so.

Detroit, Mich.: Personally, I think Cheney did a wonderful job in his speech tonight. He did what he was brought into do: rally the Republican base. I have rarely met a Republican who doesn't dislike Clinton. He's one sure way of unifying the party.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your view.

Knoxville, Tenn.: Is the constant questioning about Cheney's past record going to finally subside completely or is it going to dog him throughout the race?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think the Democrats will continue to make an issue of the fact that Dick Cheney is a died-in-the-wool conservative, because many of his old conservative positions are unpopular among some Americans the Democrats will be targeting in November. I sense from your question you think "constant questioning about Cheney's past record" is unfair somehow. I don't see it that way myself. Politicians tell us who they are by the way they handle the issues they have to deal with, vote on, etc. Cheney has told us he's a conservative, and his conservative stands on issues like abortion and gun control will persuade some Democrats to keep talking about those votes. Seems fair to me.

Ohio: Generally speaking, how much does style count over substance in a presidential election?

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, I don't think we can point to very many examples of style trumping substance in presidential politics. It might be easier to cite cases in which posturing trumped substance--that is, cases when candidates didn't tell us what they really felt in their hearts, but instead told us what their pollsters recommended they tell us. Even that may be too cynical. By and large I think American swing voters, the people who decide our close elections, vote on the basis of considerations they think are substantive and important.

Alexandria, Va.: How do you expect the Democrats in Los Angeles to counter the themes and messages of this convention? What will their lines of counterpoint, contrast or counter attack be, in general (that is, what might you expect)?

Robert G. Kaiser: A few guesses: The Dems will tell us that Bush's proposals for the economy--tax cuts, partial privatization of Social Security and so on--risk bringing back the huge deficits of the REagan-Bush years, and risk derailing the longest economic boom in modern history. The Dems will tell us that the country shouldn't want to emulate Texas, which, compared to other states, does not have a fabulous record for clean air and water, high educational attainment, health insurance for children and some others. And the Dems will tell us, or imply, that George W. Bush isn't up to the job, isn't ready for prime time. I think the problem with this list (and I could go on)is that every item on it has a negative flavor. Gore doesn't seem to have found a clear affirmative voice. That may be a pretty serious problem.

Ohio: Why the heck did the RNC hand out those big sausage looking things that people are hammering at together instead of applauding?

Robert G. Kaiser: Now there is a good question! I wondered how many non-political-junkies stuck with Cheney's speech tonight through all those sausage-thumping interruptions, cheers and chants. Is that real emotion, or contrivance? I guess each of us has to answer for ourselves, but that kind of thing does risk turning off the swing voter, I'd bet.

Cambridge, Mass.: Considering that Cheney had other priorities during the Vietnam War (not true objections with the war, such as those which drove Clinton to dodge the draft), does it seem a bit pandering that he made such a heavy overture to the american war dead at the end of his speech, or am I merely partisan and jaded?

Robert G. Kaiser: We haven't met, so I don't know how partisan OR jaded you are. The fact is that politicians love to honor the war dead. Remember Reagan and Clinton at Omaha Beach? It's just irresistible, I guess. Maybe it should be, too.

Robert G. Kaiser: That's it for tonight. I have to say I have been impressed each evening by the quality of questions--and also the quantity. Thanks to all of you for taking part in this discussion. We'll do it one more time tomorrow night--the most important night by far for Bush and his party. Good night.

washingtonpost.com: Thank you to all who participated. Please join Instant Analysis with Robert Kaiser, Thursday, at 11 p.m. EDT.

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