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Shields, Brooks and Historians Offer Insight on RNC’s Day Two

September 2, 2008 at 10:00 PM EDT
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At the close of the Republican convention's second day, political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks and historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith examine the strengths of the night's speeches and the rally for the GOP party in St. Paul.

JIM LEHRER: And let’s get some closing thoughts on this night from Mark Shields and David Brooks, our convention historian team of Richard Norton Smith, Michael Beschloss and Peniel Joseph. And on the floor is Judy Woodruff.

Judy, let’s go to you first. Your thoughts?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Jim, if these Republicans lost the first night of their convention, they’ve certainly tried to make up for it tonight. We’ve seen the crowd start out somewhat anxious.

We talked to delegates earlier in the evening. They were a little nervous. They knew they’d lost time. They knew that there had been distractions. There’s clearly talk about the Palin nomination.

But after hearing from Laura Bush, from President Bush — this crowd was on its feet for the president, who is deeply unpopular in the country, but popular with the delegates in this hall — then hearing from Fred Thompson, who went out, threw out the red meat I think a lot of these delegates were looking for, went after Barack Obama without naming him, and then called him the most liberal, most inexperienced presidential nominee in American history.

And then we just heard from Joe Lieberman making an appeal not only to Republicans, but to Democrats together, so coming full circle. The delegates, from the looks of tonight, will leave this convention hall, I think, feeling a greater spirit, more united, and probably more confident going into this very, very tough fall campaign after the second night of this convention.


John McCain's story

JIM LEHRER: Richard, you know Republicans. You've been to many Republican conventions and been involved in a lot of Republican figures. What would you place this kind of speech, the speeches tonight, this night, the message, et cetera, compared with prior Republican conventions in similar circumstances? Or has there ever been similar circumstances?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, it's interesting. I think Judy's right. This crowd goes out tonight feeling probably a lot better than they did even coming in this evening.

I was struck by the extent to which this night was about John McCain's personal story. And as we all know, it is a very powerful story.

But it's interesting. Here we are, two months before the campaign, and you have -- before the election, and you have the feeling this is still a candidacy driven very much by biography.

And I suspect what a lot of people are eager to hear over the next two nights is a lot more about what a McCain presidency would actually mean, whether it's the economy, or health care, or a host of other issues.

One other thing I would just add as an asterisk, knowing some Republicans and having been around Republicans, I don't think you can overestimate the emotional surge in this hall that arises from the sense as a result of the Sarah Palin feeding frenzy that the "media," quote, unquote, is out to get them.

A call for bipartisan participation

JIM LEHRER: And you think -- OK, well, let me ask Peniel about that. Do you think that there is -- there was something going on in this hall beyond what was said at the podium and a lot -- and some of that flowed directly from the Sarah Palin situation?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Certainly. I think that tonight, it was an extraordinary night. I think Joe Lieberman's speech quoting George Washington, who was against parties, at least partisanship, and calling for a bipartisan participation in this next election, Democrats, independents to vote for McCain, really building on what Richard said, based on biography rather than specific public policy proposals.

And I think the controversy over the Palin choice is energizing their base. And they really feel they're trying to rally around Palin in a way that -- when we think of 1972, George McGovern didn't, and when we think of 1988, George Bush, in fact, did.

JIM LEHRER: Michael Beschloss, terms like partisan paralysis, culture of Washington, bringing the parties together, national unity, these are -- I can't -- I don't recall anybody in either party not calling for that publicly.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Sounds good.

JIM LEHRER: Does this have any more resonance than the usual such calls?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Maybe not a lot. And as a matter of fact, you know, you were talking a moment ago, Jim, about going after the media, which never hurts to do for a speaker at any convention, maybe particularly a Republican one.

And, in 1964, probably the most powerful applause line at that convention, the Republicans in San Francisco, aside from the one given by -- the speech given by Barry Goldwater, Dwight Eisenhower, of all people, who people thought of as rather mild-mannered, said, "Let us particularly scorn the sensation-seeking columnists because, my friends, I can assure you these are people who couldn't care less about the good of our party."

And there was almost an animal roar. One lady started screaming, "Down with Walter Lippman!" It really brought down the house.

The other thing you were saying, Jim, about, you know, reaching across the aisle. You know, Joe Lieberman's speech tonight, I think it probably can be fairly said, if he had been nominated for vice president this week, we probably would have heard maybe three-quarters of the words that we heard tonight.

That was probably large chunks of an acceptance speech that he never got to give. The reason he never got to give it, we are told, is that John McCain wanted to choose him, but his party said you can't reach across the aisle, you can't nominate a Democrat who has very differing views from many of us and from John McCain.

And so there was a great irony that here he is saying, "Let's all reach across the aisle," to a group that essentially prevented John McCain from choosing a Democrat, Lieberman, as vice president.

JIM LEHRER: Interesting point.

Mark, good night for the Republicans?

Strengths of day two

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Better night, certainly, than last night, Jim. I'd say this, that I have never seen a convention night like this in my life. It is unlike any event I have ever seen.

They're running against their own party without running against their own party. The Democrats of 1968 ran against Lyndon Johnson, ran against the war in Vietnam. They're not running on the specific policy; they're running on the Bush record. But they won't say they're running.

The big applause lines were the McCain-Palin ticket is the real ticket for change this year. Now, many of you are angry and frustrated by our government, and for good reason. You know, it was just, all the way through, there was a criticism of the status quo, of the record that John McCain is forced to run on, and I -- without ever really confronting that record explicitly.

And, you know, I think it was -- that's the reason it had to be about John McCain, had to be about biography, had to be about him, and it was so heavily freighted in that direction.

JIM LEHRER: David, going in, you said that one of the things that had to be done, if it wasn't done tonight, it has to be done before this convention is over is that the Republican Party has to open itself up. It has to invite others to be involved. Did they take a step that way tonight, do you think?

'Shaking up' Washington

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Not in policy terms. They really didn't break any orthodoxy in policy terms. There were moments when people would praise John McCain for doing things people in this crowd probably didn't support -- immigration reform, campaign finance reform, some of the centrist judges things.

But they didn't really go in that direction. The one thing they did do over and over again was talk about shaking up Washington. That's clearly going to be the major theme of this campaign. It's a different version of change than Barack Obama offers. It's less "Let's inspire us to rise above." It's more "Go in the there and fight the special interests." It's fighting. It's combative.

The other thing they did -- and I think Republicans do this well -- a cascade of emotions: dislike of the media, faith, public service, patriotism, heroism, admiration for the people who gave their lives, a whole cascade of emotions tonight that I think will cheer up Republicans and move them, make them feel more actively involved in the party.

But the underlying theme hit again and again and again: shake up Washington, which is a repudiation of Bush or at least the Bush years.

JIM LEHRER: Almost like what Mark was saying, to paraphrase that, they acted like somebody else had been in charge these last few years.

DAVID BROOKS: "Nobody here but us chickens." Yes, no, but they would say -- it's the culture of partisanship, which Joe Lieberman hit so forcefully. But certainly Bush was part of that. There's no denying that.


OK, well, look, thank you, David. Thank you, Mark. Thanks to all.