Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs

February 8, 2008

BILL MOYERS: Just two days after Super Tuesday, and just hours after Mitt Romney bowed out of the race, John McCain delivered his first make-or-break speech as the almost certain leader of his party.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I know I have a responsibility, if I am, as I hope to be, the Republican nominee for President, to unite the party and prepare for the great contest in November.

BILL MOYERS: His audience was thousands of conservative activists from all over the country, at their annual gathering in Washington. They have been skeptical about McCain; some of them, downright hostile.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: John McCain has stabbed his own party in the back I can't tell you how many times. He stabbed his own president in the back on legislation a number of times. He doesn't support his party or his president when the chips are down.

BILL MOYERS: And now, James Dobson, a titan of the Christian right, has spurned McCain and endorsed Mike Huckabee instead. So even as he is being fitted for the winner's crown, McCain must persuade the Republican base that deep down he's one of them.

On the Democratic side, there's a different kind of division: of numbers more than ideology. Think about it: on super Tuesday more than 14 million Democrats cast ballots in 22 states across the country, and only 100,000 votes — less than one-half of one percent — separated Hillary Clinton from Barack Obama.

So who to turn to after Super Tuesday? Well it's the person I often consult in times like this — one of our foremost students of politics and the media — Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

BILL MOYERS: Let's begin with McCain. Can he bring them around?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: McCain's in an interesting situation because with the Dobson endorsement of Governor Huckabee, comes a featuring of those issue positions that differentiate McCain from his conservative base. But at the same time, signal to moderates and independents that he might be a very attractive general election candidate.

At the same time, when we look at that speech, what we see is he's featuring everything about him that is conservative. At the same time, saying something that's very important to those conservatives -- "You know where I stand. I will not obscure those positions. We agree about more things than we disagree." And he's inviting the conservative audience to hear, as a central claim, "Because I'm true to my convictions, because I don't change my convictions, and I don't obscure my positions, you can believe me when I say, I will govern as a conservative."

BILL MOYERS: But this is the man, we have to remember, who back in 2000 seethed at Jerry Falwell for opposing him, when he was running-- when McCain was running against Bush. But later, when he needed the conservatives on the right, and particularly the religious right, he went down to Liberty University and virtually prostrated himself before Jerry Falwell. What does that say to his audience? Can they believe that he's being consistent?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Look at the issue positions that Senator McCain has taken, and you see a very interesting and complex voting history. Senator McCain voted for embryonic stem cell research. Now you might say, "Well, that's what's in the odds with conservatives," and it certainly puts them at odds with some, but not with Nancy Reagan, who presumably embodies Reagan conservatism.

He opposed the amendment to state that marriage is between a man and a woman and as a result, on those two positions, embryonic stem cells and same sex marriage Constitutional amendment, he has the same voting record as Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.

But his reasoning on that, is reasoning that you might think would resonate with conservatives if they listened, "You shouldn't amend the Constitution unless you have an actual problem." And the implicit argument, you shouldn't casually amend the Constitution.

Now those are the positions that are being featured by Dr. Dobson* when he's endorsing Governor Huckabee. Those are also the positions that people who say, "There's no difference between Senator McCain and Senator Clinton, or Senator Obama," are featuring. Here's the question, for conservatives -- which are more salient to you, that block of decisions on which you agree with them, and he's arguing, that's the majority of my career are those that you disagree.

And second question, how important is the Supreme Court to you? Because underlying central claim of John McCain is that he is fundamentally different from the Democrats. And what is one major difference, that everyone believes is real? He would appoint a different kind, or nominate a different kind of Supreme Court justice.

BILL MOYERS: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL this week was reminding conservatives with an op-ed piece that McCain, you can trust McCain to put more Alitos and Roberts on the court.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And he supported those candidacies very strongly. That op-ed piece was interesting, though, for a second reason. Inside that op-ed piece, which was circulated to the McCain mailing list, by the McCain campaign, is this statement: "The judiciary is different. On January 20th, 2009, six of the nine Supreme Court justices will be over 70. Most of them could be replaced by the next president, particularly if he or she is re-elected."

John McCain, as the press routinely reminds us, is 71. In the process of circulating that op-ed, and circulating the argument about appointment of justices, John McCain implicitly, with his base and with the country, raises the question now being raised in newspaper accounts, including visibly, by Anna Quindlen in NEWSWEEK, and by a young man who stood up and asked Senator McCain if he wasn't too old. McCain's response, "Sit down, you little jerk." But you know, is there an age issue here, and if so, what does it mean?

BILL MOYERS: If he is elected, he will be the oldest man to enter the White House, ever.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: But Ronald Reagan served through a second term at an age that would be comparable to the age that Senator McCain would be at in the first term. The problem with the discussion of age is that we are not having an intelligent discussion of what it means. It's now being raised. It's raised parenthetically, in a column by David Broder, who says, "It will be a greater concern in the general election than it was in the primaries." What is the question that is under the age, so-called age issue? I think it's actually physical and intellectual competence. And the question, can a person sustain the intense workload of the presidency, the pressure of the presidency, and also be over 70 years old?

BILL MOYERS: Anna Quindlen says, in fact, a year in the White House is-- is a dog year, seven years, you know, and there's something to that. You look at the pictures of the men who enter, so far men, who enter, and when they leave, they've aged a lot more than normal.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The — by the way, I think a bizarre metaphor. I think analogizing prospective presidents of the United States to dog aging is just a little bit strange. But one of the underlying issues, I think, should be as we talk about this — to what extent is there a legitimate concern there, and to what extent is there not?

And here's the way I would frame this issue. We should be concerned if there's a health issue, that is attached to aging. Now how do we know that, young people have health issues too. For example, we know that people who've smoked for a long time are more likely to die of a smoking related illness. They're more likely to have heart problems. They're more likely to die of lung cancer. Well, Barack Obama smoked until very recently. We know that your parents' longevity has a small predictive effect on your longevity, and we know that John McCain's mother, visibly featured in the backdrop of his rallies is mentally competent, articulate—


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: — funny, witty, and also —

BILL MOYERS: "I've got good genes." And he can point to her, 95 years old.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And she's about to celebrate a birthday, I think, this week. And so that becomes a sort of tacit rebuttal. And what it does is it reframes the age question. It sets 71 against 96. Now Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee, it sets, 45, 46, 47 against 71, 72, 73. And that's a different kind of contrast.

BILL MOYERS: Do we have a right to expect all the candidates to release their medical records, and their family histories?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I believe we do. And I think it should be as central a question as our questions about their experience in office and their voting records. Some illnesses may carry genetic implications. Alzheimer's disease is one of them. President Reagan's mother had Alzheimer's disease. It's possible that in his second term, he was beginning to suffer some of those symptoms. It's possible that the assassination attempt may have made some of that worse. So there's some things that we want to ask about, not necessarily to disqualify a candidate, but because we want to understand the full implications of the health records that is available, and the implications, if any, for governance.

The trauma to this country if a president were to die in office is such that we have a right to know. And also, importantly, there have been major cover-ups in the past. The Kennedy campaign in 1960 effectively covered up Addison's disease. The Tsongas campaign effectively covered up the recurrence of cancer, and had Paul Tsongas, Senator Tsongas been elected president, he would have died in office. So we ought to, I think ask, what do we want to know when the age issue is raised? I think we want to know about health.

BILL MOYERS: Let me go back to the challenge still facing McCain in bringing this party together. Let me read for you, and put on the screen for my viewers, what the conservative Christian leader, James Dobson, said earlier in the week about McCain. Quote, "I am deeply disappointed the Republican party seems poised to select a nominee who did not support a Constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage, who voted for embryonic stem cell research to kill nascent human beings, who opposed tax cuts that ended the marriage penalty, and who has little regard for freedom of speech, who organized the gang of 14 to preserve filibusters, and has a legendary temper and often uses foul and obscene language. I cannot and I will not vote for Senator John McCain as a matter of conscience." And of course, he has now endorsed Mike Huckabee. What signal, or signals, is he sending?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, first, that endorsement makes salient the moderate to liberal voting record that Senator McCain has on some central issues that are of concern to social conservatives. What does Senator McCain say? To CPAC? I have a reliable--"

BILL MOYERS: Conservative meeting, right--.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: --"reliable pro-life voting record. I've always been pro-life." What does Reverend Dobson* say? "Not on embryonic cell, stem cells." What does Senator McCain say? At the CPAC meeting -- he said, "I would make the Bush tax cut permanent." What does Reverend Dobson* say? "He voted against the first two Bush tax cuts."

Now what you're seeing is a contest over what you should feature in your voting decision. Should you feature the moderate to liberal McCain, or should you feature the conservative McCain? And the signaling is going both ways. Those who are saying, "Let's feature those moderate to liberal votes," are saying, "Those are so important to us and so similar to Senators Obama and Clinton, that we would rather stay out of this election, or vote for the Democrats, than vote for Senator McCain."

BILL MOYERS: Let's turn to the Democrats. There seems to be a consensus among the mainstream media that there's very little difference between Obama and Clinton, not just in numbers-- and delegates now. Very little difference, but also in ideas. They seem very much out of the same pod. What do you, what, how do you see it?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The, certainly their voting records are similar, although if you look at the NATIONAL JOURNAL composite rating, you'd-- you'd say, for at least the year 2007, that Senator Obama is marginally more liberal. But what you're seeing, I think, as a result of the fact that on most of the issue positions on the big picture goals, they agree.

What you see, the Democratic party, it does have a sense of where it wants to go on issues, as a result. But you're seeing signals that it has some different vision of what that is going to incarnate itself as. So what Senator Obama's featuring is change, and now he looks to his legislative record and he says, "I championed ethics reform." Now it doesn't mean that Hillary Clinton didn't support ethics reform. But, yeah, Senator Obama was more visible.

What does Hillary Clinton go back and feature? First, a lot more specific things that she's done. She's got a longer record. But she also does something very interesting. She challenges Senator Obama in a debate to support her as she takes on the presumption that President Bush will try to have a long-term presence in Iraq. What she's saying is, "I know how to exercise power." That's not about something she had done in the past. It's something she's doing in the future. What does she do, when she's responding to overall, the Obama notions about generational change? She tries to forecast forward, all of the things that she had done in the past that equals experience plus change, not simply change. His argument is change. Her argument is experience plus change. His argument is judgment versus experience.

BILL MOYERS: And the party seems so divided between those two options at the moment, that this week, I can spend hours on the Internet reading about the dream ticket, Clinton-Obama, Obama-Clinton. Do you think this campaign is shaping up so that either could accept the other?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: One of the things that I think is interesting about the rhetoric that Senator Clinton is using is that it makes it very difficult to then make the argument that Senator Obama could be a vice-president--


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: --to be able to assume the presidency. When you make the argument that "I'm ready from day one," implicitly, he's not. When President Clinton says, "It would be a roll of the dice," what you are arguing is, this person isn't qualified to be president. There's some words that are very, very damaging. They're damaging, first, because it makes it harder to name that person as a vice-presidential candidate, if you've just argued the person's unprepared to assume the presidency. But also, suppose Senator Clinton's not the nominee. Those are the kinds of words that come back in attack ads.

Some of the most effective attack ads in the history of the presidency, '64, the words of Governor Scranton and Governor Romney, Mitt Romney's father, used against Barry Goldwater, arguing that he is not within the mainstream of the Republican party. 1980, the words of Edward Kennedy, used against Jimmy Carter, a very effective attack ad for Governor Reagan. The Hillary Clinton line of argument makes it more difficult for her to nominate, name Senator Obama vice-president. It also makes it more makes it more difficult for him to become president, should he become the nominee.

BILL MOYERS: Is he doing the same thing to her, so it would be difficult for him to ask her to be his running mate?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: When Senator Obama, sometimes carefully and with nuance, sometimes much less so, suggests that the Clinton years were not years of great accomplishment, and he doesn't look back to them as a result in those moments, as moments the Democrats can be very proud of, he makes it far more difficult to create an alliance back to that part of the party, and it denies him some of the intellectual ballast that comes with suggesting that Democrats can lead on the economy, in a way that's fiscally prudent.

BILL MOYERS: Last question. What do we look for now? What comes next, in your playbook?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I would look to the next primaries. People are talking about Governor Huckabee staying in, as if it were some major liability. It's not necessarily a liability, because it keeps the news attention focused on Senator McCain and Governor Huckabee.

And to the extent that they've been civil toward each other, to the extent that it's interesting to watch, the dynamic between the two and Governor Huckabee's just fun to watch. He's got a great sense of humor. It keeps a parity between the two parties, which means the capacity to learn about the contrast, is potentially gonna carry forward. We need as much of that as we can get, before this whole thing is obscured by talk about strategy, tactics about who's gonna put together enough delegates, to ultimately become the nominee. The issue differences between these nominees are not stark enough to make that much difference. We actually have an issue profile of what the race for presidency's gonna look like.

BILL MOYERS: Well, as they say the show goes on, and we'll be back to review it. Thank you, Kathleen.


*A viewer has pointed out that James Dobson actually has a clinical psychology degree, not a divinity degree, and is Dr. Dobson, not Reverend Dobson. Kathleen Hall Jamieson regrets the error.

Moyers Podcasts -- Sign Up for podcasts and feeds.
Our posts and your comments
For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ