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Shields, Brooks and Historians Examine McCain’s Message of ‘Change’

September 4, 2008 at 10:55 PM EST
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Buoyed by spirited speeches, the GOP convention came to a close Thursday night. Analysts Mark Shields, David Brooks and a panel of historians discuss the strengths and weaknesses of John McCain's acceptance speech and the GOP message of "change" in Washington.
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JIM LEHRER: And now let’s go to our analysis and closing thoughts from Mark Shields and David Brooks, as well as Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, and Peniel Joseph, and Andrew Kohut. Judy Woodruff is down on the floor.

Judy, are you there? And can you hear us?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, Jim, I can hear you. I don’t know if you can see in the background — well, I guess you can — the balloons, the confetti, it’s everywhere. The music is the Wild West. The Republicans know how to throw a big national convention. They’ve done it again.

John McCain, not somebody one thinks of as being a particularly skilled orator, but he gave a great speech tonight. The crowd was on its feet time and again. He told his personal story, as you heard.

He started out telling Barack Obama, “I respect you, I admire you,” but then he went on to say, “I will not take backseat to anyone.” He said, “I’ve fought the lobbyists.” Time and again, he said, “I’m going to fight for you.”

And he wove all of this, his personal story in with what he will do for the domestic, for the economy, on the domestic front, and then he was tough when he talked about Russia.

So time and again, he struck notes that resonated with this crowd, and probably nothing resonated more than when he mentioned the name early in his speech of his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin. So firing on all cylinders tonight, Jim, I think you can say.

JIM LEHRER: Richard — thank you, Judy — Richard, firing on all cylinders? Is that the words you would use to describe what happened tonight?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: I think so. You know, it’s interesting. Clearly, the Democrats have no monopoly on hope and change, because the biggest change that occurred this week is this party has hope.

This is a party that came in to St. Paul, if not defeatist, then, quite frankly, highly skeptical of its own chances. This was a party that came here not terribly unified, not altogether thrilled about its nominee.

All of that, I think, has been transformed in the course of the last three days. You could feel it last night during Governor Palin’s speech. You can feel it tonight.

It’s interesting the pivot away from George Bush. Senator McCain spent more time tonight apologizing for the last eight years than he did boasting about the last eight years.

And, finally, we’ve talked several times about whether this was too biographical, whether there was a lack of specifics, particularly on economic issues.

Challenges ahead for Obama

Peniel Joseph
Brandeis University
Three big things stand out to me about this week, Jim, first, God, guns, and country. Those are the resounding themes of this convention linked to biography and really linked to the pick of Sarah Palin.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: My sense is the Republicans are very good at stagecraft. And I think the biography that we've heard all week long melded very nicely into the substance, if you will, of the speech. Sen. Obama is in for the fight of his life.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Peniel Joseph, Sen. Obama is now in for a fight for his life?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Absolutely. Three big things stand out to me about this week, Jim, first, God, guns, and country. Those are the resounding themes of this convention linked to biography and really linked to the pick of Sarah Palin.

Second, Palin has successfully solidified McCain's conservative base. And she really gave a speech last night that echoed Pat Buchanan's 1992 culture wars speech, but she did it more elegantly.

Finally, diversity, or lack thereof. This convention's delegates are 93 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, 2 percent black. This party has seemingly ceded the minority vote to Barack Obama and the Democrats, which may have real clear electoral implications.

In 2004, George Bush got 14 percent of the black vote in Ohio and 56 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida, two key swing states that got him re-elected.

JIM LEHRER: All right, Peniel.

To you, Michael, what about the word, the term that Richard used, that it was a transformed party. And you also pick up on what Peniel said.

Enthusiasm for Sarah Palin

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
It was a great speech, Jim, easily the greatest speech that John McCain ever gave. And you can see the difference between Tuesday night and tonight.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Yes, it sure is. You know, it was a great speech, Jim, easily the greatest speech that John McCain ever gave. And you can see the difference between Tuesday night and tonight.

This is a party with enormous intensity, especially after a very powerful speech by Sarah Palin last night.

And the interesting thing is, about 10 days ago, John McCain by all accounts was intending to choose Joe Lieberman and go in a very different direction, which would have been to -- you know, cause there to be a bridge to Democrats, try to go for independents, knowing that the group in this room probably would not have been as enthusiastic as they are tonight with the choice of Sarah Palin.

The interesting thing is going to be whether he can augment this kind of intensity in the hall, in this party, in his base with the kind of independents in swing states he's going to need to win the election.

Can I make one other point?

JIM LEHRER: Sure, absolutely.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You know, when you look at these speeches, you know, the people who write them always looked at acceptance speeches of the past. And this one had references to other acceptance speeches by earlier nominees, but the ones that I found were all Democrats.

Harry Truman, 1948, both he and McCain referred to a do-nothing Congress. John Kennedy, McCain talked tonight about getting this country moving again. And of all things, Al Gore in 2000, "I will fight for you."

I think one of the things that we would have expected perhaps least would be that John McCain would be quoting Al Gore.

Virtues, flaws of McCain's speech

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
You would swear that this was the speech of a party, an insurgent challenger of a party that had been out of power for 12 years, taking on entrenched incumbency in Washington.

JIM LEHRER: OK, thank you, Michael.

Andy Kohut, what about the point that Peniel made about the diversity or lack of, as he said, in this -- in this Republican Party, as represented by this convention, and what this could portend for the election itself, and particularly picking up on what John McCain said about it all?

ANDREW KOHUT, President, Pew Research Center: Well, I think that that's the reality of the Republican Party. And the mission here was to deal with the Republican base. As these fellows have said, this has been a very good Republican -- a very good speech for the Republicans.

What I'm concerned about from McCain's point of view is how this speech struck the independent swing voters who are down on traditional Republican values.

It was a very enterprising Republican speech in the policy parts of it, emphasizing cutting taxes or keeping taxes low, cutting government spending, anti-bureaucracy, and choice. There wasn't much mentioned about the environment. There wasn't much mentioned about health care, issues that really concern these independents who are so down on -- on the Republicans, on Republicans, and something that McCain has to struggle with.

And that is what I see as the limitations of an otherwise very successful speech.

JIM LEHRER: OK, thank you, Andy.

Mark, somebody called it a great speech. What would you call it?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I yield to no man in my respect and admiration for Judy, for Richard, and for Michael. I cannot acknowledge -- I've heard John McCain give great speeches, but this was not one of them.

John McCain is one of those politicians who can speak more eloquently and passionately about others than he can about himself. He gave a far better speech for Bob Dole in 1996 than this speech was tonight.

I would defy, challenge anybody to read this speech not knowing that John McCain was a Republican giving it. You would swear that this was the speech of a party, an insurgent challenger of a party that had been out of power for 12 years, taking on entrenched incumbency in Washington.

Just not simply the words, as Michael mentioned, about getting this country moving again, but, you know, it comes back, Jim, to phrases like "failed administration," Jim, you know, get this country working for you again, "old big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second crowd in Washington."

It's a "throw the bums out" speech. And, boy, I think that's a really tricky thing, without, as Andy, just emphasizing Andy's point, without any overt appeal that I can see in it -- maybe I'm missing it, maybe it's implicit, tacit -- to either disaffected Democrats or to independents.

So where he talks about ideology or programmatically, he talks to his base of the Republican Party, but thematically it's about throwing the rascals out. So, to me, it's a speech that doesn't work.

JIM LEHRER: A speech that doesn't work, David?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, if he's throwing the rascals out, that sounds like a pretty good speech to me.

I do -- I hear Mark's point. I think there is a disjunction between the "throw the rascals out" and the policy part. The policy part was fine, but it wasn't as bold as, frankly, I would have liked it, as bold a change.

And you saw his limitations as a speaker. He's not the smoothest and most elegant of speakers.

But I think what burns through the speech and which people will remember is the intense desire to rise above the last eight years. And that's what allowed him to build to that crescendo at the end, which was truly impressive.

And it wasn't necessarily because he's the smoothest speaker, but you saw that intensity. And you saw a man who's been sickened by what's happened in the last eight years and, to be fair, was protesting it at the time. And then I think that burned through.

I would agree with Mark that he hasn't got the policy transformation to go with his internal transformation. And so I do see that limitation. I'm afraid, because of that, he may have allowed people to say, "I really love that man, but I may not support him."

And I still think that policy piece is incomplete. But, nonetheless, I would regard it as a successful speech because it got -- the people will remember, the thing they'll remember, this guy really, really wants to change the way things have been. And he's been doing it.

McCain's yearning for 'change'

David Brooks
The New York Times
He gave a little section there where he said, "We've betrayed ourselves. We've lost our way." And I thought the applause was kind of tepid at that moment. But he had to say that. I think he was absolutely right to say that.

JIM LEHRER: And he wants to change a government that's being run by his own party for the last eight years. How is that going to go down with the people in the hall?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he gave a little section there where he said, "We've betrayed ourselves. We've lost our way." And I thought the applause was kind of tepid at that moment. But he had to say that. I think he was absolutely right to say that. I think he believes it to his core.

JIM LEHRER: Do you not think, Mark, that that will play well out in the hall? You said you didn't think so. You thought that...

MARK SHIELDS: I just think, Jim, I mean, the biography is compelling. It's John McCain is running as John McCain. I mean, that's what we've had all week.

And he spoke -- you know, I think he spoke convincingly. I think he spoke passionately about his feeling of service, about calling others to service. I mean, it's the first time, I'll honesty say, in a generation that I can remember an American president or a nominee for the presidency saying, "Join the military." George Bush never asked anybody to join the military after 9/11.

JIM LEHRER: Or become a teacher. He went through a long list of things.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, become a teacher. I mean, he really did. I mean, that was moving. But I just -- I'm just afraid that, if you're listening to that speech, you're saying, "Wait a minute, whose side is he on?" And I guess -- you hope, if you're John McCain, you say, "He's on my side."

JIM LEHRER: All right, we're going to leave it there.