Emily Bazelon and Christopher Beam discuss Obama's acceptance speech and McCain's veep choice.

Emily Bazelon and Christopher Beam discuss Obama's acceptance speech and McCain's veep choice.

Emily Bazelon and Christopher Beam discuss Obama's acceptance speech and McCain's veep choice.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Aug. 29 2008 6:39 PM

Conventional Wisdom

Emily Bazelon and Christopher Beam field questions about Obama's acceptance speech and McCain's veep choice.

See Slate's complete Republican National Convention coverage.

Slate XX Factor blogger Emily Bazelon and Trailhead blogger Christopher Beam were online at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about the big headlines after the end of the Democratic Convention and preceding the Republican Convention. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Emily Bazelon: Hi, everyone,

Chris and I are happy to be here this morning to chat about our week-long fixation—the Democratic Convention. Chris has been in Denver and I've been glued to my TV set, like a lot of you, I imagine. Fire away!

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Seattle, Wash.: Hi Chris and Emily!

So Sarah Palin. How do Obama and Biden attack her in the way they've been going for the jugular with John McCain without looking like bullies? Can they just ignore her? I'm really, really not being sexist, but she's no Hillary, if you know what I mean.

Thanks!

Emily Bazelon: The trickiness of attacking Palin is one of the reasons she's a great pick on paper. She helps McCain go after the women's vote, which his people think is crucial to his victory. She has executive experience. She has all kinds of wackiness in her bio—her husband is a snowmobiling Eskimo, her fifth baby was born this year, with Down Syndrome, she used to be a fisherman (fisherwoman). All that without even bringing up Alaska, the state the lower 48 thinks might not be real.

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I don't think Obama and Biden can ignore Palin. But we really know nothing about how she'll respond to being on the national scene. What role will she play in the campaign? What will they use her for? One thing about her does help the Democrats, I think: She helps neutralize the argument that the Republican ticket is the choice of experience, because she's a 44-year-old who became governor two years ago.

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Claverack, N.Y.: The immediate reaction from one disgruntled Hillary supporter I know was, she was resentful that McCain would think her stupid enough to be won over by an inexperienced Christian conservative from Alaska.

I have no idea if that's a representative reaction, but there you are.

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Emily Bazelon: How refreshingly rational—a story about a Hillary supporter that's about basing her choice for president on policy implications rather than gender. We'll see if that becomes the dominant trope, or if your friend is an outlier.

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Prescott, Ariz.: I have one idea for Obama. Make a commercial with lots of cute polar bears running around and talk about Sarah Palin's science-ignoring crusade to keep polar bears off the endangered species list.

Emily Bazelon: Ah, playing the polar bear card. And it could be paired with making the point that Palin's stance here undercuts McCain's support for fighting global warming. (Though to be fair, they aren't the same thing.)

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Washington DC: Last night's speech was amazing. How does he move forward and begin to flesh out his promises? What is the smartest way for the campaign to respond to McCain's choice?

Christopher Beam: Last night's speech worked, I think, because it serves as a blueprint for the next few months. Rip McCain for being out of touch, yet claim to be staying above the fray. Paint him not as a malicious person, but as a fuddy-duddy. It's not that he's cruel—just ignorant. He also had that long riff about "Change is ..." that answers all the people who were asking, "What do you mean by change?" He didn't exactly lay out the nuances of his tax policy or energy policy, but just the rhetorical repetition of "Change is ..." goes a long way toward undermining critics.

Responding to McCain's choice: The Clintons are more important than ever. Bill certainly set the tone for reconciliation Wednesday night ("That makes two of us"), but now that McCain has picked Palin, they've gotta double down. Have Hillary attack Palin herself. Suggest McCain picked her out of tokenism. Remember all the Hillary fans who said they'd be insulted if Obama picked Sebelius? Get them riled about Palin, too.

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Indianapolis: Why doesn't the Obama Campaign emphasize the "fall of the Moral Majority" (Bush and his cronies)—from Delay, Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Foley, Vitter, Craig, etc., which also has led to the total disregard for America's "moral authority" from players like Russia, China, etc.

Christopher Beam: I think they do get at this quite a bit—on the corruption front, at least. When Obama talks about politicians in the pockets of lobbyists, these are the guys he means. He also talks a lot about reestablishing America's moral authority in the world. But on the question of personal morality, I think he's rightly hesitant. Foley no doubt hurt the GOP in 2006, and Vitter/Craig have only made it worse. The brand is damaged. But Obama is running against McCain, and McCain isn't really lumpable into that category of moralizers. Also, that comes close to the "personal attacks" Obama says—says—he's going to avoid.

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Chicago: How do you think Obama and Biden will maintain their momentum out of Denver? What will their response be to McCain's VP choice, if any?

Emily Bazelon: The immediate response will include some gracious notes, I would think (and hope). But I'd imagine Joe Biden will feel pretty confident going into the vice-presidential debate. He'll have to be sure not to be TOO confident, in fact, since the bar will be so much higher for him (a veteran senator) than for her (a newbie governor).

About momentum, I think Obama-Biden continue the "eight is enough" theme, the driving home of McCain's ties to Bush, and their claims that it's unlikely that his maverick past will translate into a maverick presidency on the economy, the war, abortion rights. It's attack time.

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New York, NY: I think the main focus of Obama/Biden has to be on her uber conservative and pro-life stance. That will hopefully turn the PUMAs off who weren't already by an obvious play for the "woman vote."

Emily Bazelon: Yes there is this odd disconnect in the stance of the Hillary supporter who says she is voting for McCain even though she is ardently pro-choice on abortion. That's the position of the Hillary delegate who made the McCain ad (quite an effective ad, I'd say). It's a look back at McCain, not a look at what he's saying presently—or, I'd argue, likely to do in the future. What matters are his judicial appointments, and he says now that he wants more judges like Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito. They are jurists who are far more likely to curtail or overturn Roe v. Wade than any justice Obama would appoint. Sure, I suppose it's possible that McCain could back away from that promise. I don't think that ending the legal right to abortion is what gets him up in the morning. But he needs the abortion-opposing faction of his party to govern as well as win the election, and they are very good at making it clear that judges are what they care about, and demand.

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Rockville, Md.: According to some left-leaning blogs, PUMAs are not appreciable enough in number to pose a serious threat to Obama. They cite a PUMA convention in DC that had to be downsized because not enough people showed and report that PUMA gatherings at the DNC were similarly small in number.

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If true, you wouldn't know this from the MSM (especially the cable news channels), and the only explanation is that they've sought out these voters to create a conflict-filled narrative.

How prevalent were the PUMAs at the DNC? Did you have to dig to find one or were they everywhere like the MSM says?

McCain's pick for VP seems to think he believes the MSM.

Christopher Beam: The members of PUMA—and the number of people who show up to their rallies—aren't particularly numerous. But McCain is banking that they're representative of a larger, silent minority, which I think is accurate. Not every Hillary fan is going to say, "In November, I'm voting present." But enough have "lingering questions" about Obama—read: a gut aversion—that McCain can probably skim off a few votes, potentially in swing states.

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For sure, the media has played up their influence. Conventions are designed to be story-less, and the temptation to exaggerate Clinton/Obama tensions was too much. Plus, the poll numbers showing Clinton voters still hesitant to vote for Obama (what is it now, 25 percent?) justify the coverage. But even the reporters here in Denver agree the PUMA crowd is just a vocal sliver.

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Concord, N.H.: Well, now that McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as VP candidate has sucked all of the oxygen out of the Internets, how do you think McCain's choice will play out over the next 2 months?

I would imagine Palin would get soundly defeated by Biden in the VP debate, but there are sinkholes everywhere he could fall into. I fear that any criticism launched at Palin's relatively thin resume compared to Biden's depth of knowledge will gleefully be painted by the Republicans as sexism. He also has a tendency to be a bit...paternalistic...which could lead to sounding condescending.

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McCain pretty much just doubled down and went all in. I thought the primaries were interesting—this is going to be a fascinating couple of months.

Emily Bazelon: Yes Biden will have to be very careful to come off as authoritative rather than condescending. But to give him credit, he was an effective debater in the Democratic contest, before he dropped out—one of the most effective, I think. And he never said anything that came off as sexist toward Hillary. Palin is a different opponent, since she doesn't have Hillary's stature and hasn't been around the Washington block. But Biden's handling of himself is still a good sign.

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Boston: Is McCain so attention-starved that he resorted to a gimmick to take the day's news coverage over Obama?

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Christopher Beam: Not sure if you're referring to McCain's "congrats!" ad last night or the Palin pick today. But either way, I think they're both fair game in a tough, hard-knock election. The ad was respectful—if secretly undermining—and the veep pick is just good strategy, timing-wise. If you think this is gimmicky, wait till you see what the Dems have in store for St. Paul ...

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Portland: With McCain picking Palin it would appear that Obama has nothing to fear from Hillary. If Clinton hated the thought of Obama picking Sebelius she must really be livid about a pretty young thing trying to steal her supporters. Do you agree with me that Hillary will be extremely motivated now to see that Obama gets elected?

Emily Bazelon: I suppose Hillary might see the Palin choice as pandering. But she might just as easily be cheered that McCain picked a woman. Whatever his reasons, it's another gender barrier broken. And Hillary is wise enough to know that's a het benefit for women, even if—or because—it's coming on the other side of the aisle.

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Columbia, Md.: I'm neither a Hillary supporter nor a woman, but I think that you miss the point in your rather snide response to a previous poster. The reason why there is so much passion among her supporters is not merely because she is a woman, but rather because she is perceived to be a highly qualified candidate who deserves the nomination (better than the supposedly less qualified Obama). I don't see these voters lining up behind Palin, who seems intelligent, but let's face it, is not Hillary Clinton.

Emily Bazelon: Was I snide? Oh dear. Yes, there was certainly a strong case for Hillary on the basis of her experience. I don't question any of her supporters—choosing her, in the primaries, was entirely rationale. I'm talking about NOW framing the Obama v. McCain choice in terms of gender, ie, because I'm angry with Obama, and don't think he deserved to be the nominee, I'm going to vote for McCain, never mind the policy implications. As Hillary said in her speech, to support her was to care about a laundry list of Democratic policy proposal and emphases. A list that John McCain simply doesn't espouse.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Chris and Emily—I'm curious to know your take on how the Obama campaign is going to approach McCain's VP pick. There were mild snickers about Palin's relative inexperience when names were floating around before. But, as you're well aware, that's the same criticism leveraged against Obama. So what do you think they're going to say about her?

Thanks!

Christopher Beam: I'm sure they'll go after 1) her pro-life record (although her decision to have a child with Down syndrome will likely make that line of attack seem nasty), 2) her inexperience (she's been governor for less time than Obama's been a senator; yes, it's rich coming from Obama, but inexperience has been a major weapon in McCain's arsenal), and 3) her support for ANWR drilling (McCain opposes it—for now), and 4) the controversy over whether Palin had a state trooper fired who was in a custody battle with her sister.

In fact, they already are.

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Atlanta: Governor for two years? Doesn't know what the Vice-President does? Isn't this choice more than a little condescending to women? Are people actually going to fall for this?

Christopher Beam: David Plouffe, is that you?

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Outliers: Unnhh....the only outliers on the Hilary women issue have been the chattering members of our overmediated society. Hillary voters, like the voters for thousands of other losing campaigns over the centuries will be voting for the party whose concerns reflect their own. Your abilities to find a few camera/quote hungry folks and create a narrative is a great work of bad fiction, but your customers know it is a transparent fiction.

Emily Bazelon: I've argued elsewhere that you're right about that, but I've been struck in the last week by the polls of Clinton supporters on their view of Obama. As Slate's John Dickeron wrote this week, "Roughly 30 percent of Clinton voters say they won't vote for him, and this is not a one-poll anomaly." Now maybe this will change, but 30 percent is a high number. If those women don't live in key battleground states, than maybe they don't matter as much as the number would suggest. Still, I'm very curious to see if the convention makes that 30 percent response fall.

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Boston: Palin seems to me an exceedingly short-sighted pick. It's such a transparent attempt to capitalize on Obama-hating PUMAs, that theoretically has the potential to affect US leadership for the next four years. What if McCain gets elected and drops dead six months in? (God forbid, but you never know.) How are they going to cast Palin as "in it for the long-haul"?

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Emily Bazelon: I agree that making the case that Sarah Palin could easily take over as president, if need be, is the hardest selling point for the GOP. But we'll have to see how she performs in the coming weeks. She's wholly unfamiliar to almost all of us now. She won't be, soon enough. Maybe a few weeks of campaigning shouldn't really be enough to prove anything. But I think it will matter nonetheless.

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Alexandria, Va.: I think you response to New York, implying that Hillary's supporters only voted for her because she was a woman, is part of the reason why Hillary supporters are upset still. I know that I voted for Hillary because she was the better candidate in my mind. Although I am still unconvinced by Obama I will probably vote for him. But every time I have an Obama supporter give me a hard time for stilling being unconvinced it makes me NOT want to vote for him!

Emily Bazelon: OK, I've posted once explaining that this is not what I meant, and I apologize for not being clear the first time around. I am talking not about the Obama v. Clinton choice, in which the case for Hillary was entirely sound. I'm talking about framing Obama v. McCain in terms of anger over Hillary's loss, which to me seems short sighted.

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Is This a Joke?: McCain is not exactly the picture of health and vitality. What does he get by putting in someone that no one, and I mean no one would ever consider for the Presidency in that very public spot?

Christopher Beam: The "heartbeat from the presidency" argument might be the toughest one for McCain/Palin to answer. Especially when, as you say, he's no spring chicken. But ultimately, people don't vote based on veeps. Sure, the choice is seen as a proxy for their judgment in general. But I think very few Republicans will see Palin as a deal-breaker. Of course, the vice presidential debate could change that.

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Hillary Supporter: I have to agree with Clavericks assertion. Before McCain picked Palin, I was sure I would write in Hillary's name. Now I don't know. I didn't think the election could get worse but it just did. I have to say though, reactions like yours—saying how refreshing to hear a Hillary supporter base his/her choice on policy—is insulting.

Emily Bazelon: Well that's interesting that you feel that way, about not writing in Hillary's name any more. And apologies again for having insulted you, because that's not the meaning I intended (see last posts).

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Bethesda: "her pro-life record (although her decision to have a child with Down syndrome will likely make that line of attack seem nasty)"

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It doesn't have to, if it's done right. There is a way to applaud her own personal choice—pointing out that she was able to make it because of available family, emotional, logistical, and financial support that she is so fortunate to have—while arguing that she would like to take away other women's right to make such a personal, decision—i.e., to make her own choice mandatory for all.

Emily Bazelon: Yes I think that's right. It will be up to the Democrats to finesse this carefully. But wait, can we just stop for a second and contemplate how amazing it is, in a lot of senses of the word, that we are about to have a Republican vice-presidential nominee with a son going to Iraq AND a small baby?

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Washington, DC: As a gay man, I'm not really seeing all that much difference now between the tickets when it comes to gay rights.

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Having vetoed anti-gay legislation that would prohibit the Alaskan government to pay same-sex benefits, she's gone on record as being about as supportive as Obama. She spoke in favor of the anti-same-sex marriage amendment they had in Alaska, but with Obama's states' rights approach to marriage, he should be okay with that.

What do you think?

Emily Bazelon: What about judicial appointments? Who is more likely to pick judges who would frown on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the workplace, for example?

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Washington, DC: I can't believe the confidence with which people are predicting that Biden would blow away Palin in a debate. Have you people ever heard Biden speak? It takes him five minutes to say his name. He's an utter bore and he comes across as the ultimate pompous inside-the-Beltway politician who can't help but smile at his own image whenever he passes a mirror. All Palin has to be is fresh and succinct, and she'll win.

Sorry to interrupt the Democratic caucus you're holding here—let's see if you'll post a naysayer's voice.

Emily Bazelon: Duly posted. When I cover the Senate Judiciary Committee, I get a headache from rolling my eyes at Biden. He is long-winded to a fault. But he was good in the Democratic debates, before he dropped out of the race. A debate isn't the Q and A of a Senate hearing. It's a different species of presentation. It's possible for Biden to be terrible in one setting but awfully good in the other.

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Alexandria, VA: Of all the woman in America, this is the best one McCain could pick? Really?

Emily Bazelon: It's not easy to find a Republican woman, in government, who is sufficiently prominent and opposes abortion. And is in what the McCain camp must have decided was the right age bracket.

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Laurel: I've watched very little convention coverage, but I did catch the "Barney Smith" speech, and it troubles me A LOT. He's exactly the kind of person who longs for an America that is not coming back—well-paying unionized blue-collar jobs.

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I bet if you examined who voted for Bill Clinton twice and George W Bush twice, you'd find a lot of them fit the profile of whites without college degrees; and I suspect they are the swing voters in this election. But to imply that such people are going to return to the standard of living they enjoyed when energy prices and foreign competition were low, is to raise false hopes that can't help disappoint in the long run.

Christopher Beam: I'm still convinced Barney Smith got picked for his name alone.

To your question, pandering is a proud tradition at conventions. But I think Obama is careful not to suggest that high trade barriers and job protection is the only solution. Hence all the talk about "green collar jobs"—a myth, by some people's lights—that will be created in the energy sector. McCain, meanwhile, has been more blunt. He tells people their jobs aren't coming back. Obama's decision to cast McCain's view as pessimism rather than realism is just the nature of campaigns.

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Navy Yard: Do you think a President Obama would use the office as a pulpit to get black culture to reform itself? As in telling young blacks it's a bad idea to have multiple children out of wedlock. That it's wrong to be homophobic and prejudiced against Latinos and Asians. You could respond that all people should be taught that. But as a black I think he has a duty to his race.

Emily Bazelon: Obama has done some of this as a candidate, by talking about the damage black fathers do by leaving their children, and adding to that points to his own experience of growing up without a [father]. I do think that he has a clear and credible stance on this, and that he's likely to continue making the point as president, and is uniquely positioned to do so.

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Durham, UK: I am a massive Obama supporter, and wonder whether you think he has finally done enough to connect with the 'blue collar' workers and PUMAs. I just cannot see, albeit from a British perspective, how in a head-to-head, Obama could not win.

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And do you think, as I do, that Obama is going to make McCain look very old come debate time, I'd be interested to see how much affect you think that will have.

Emily Bazelon: Yes I think you have company on your continent in thinking that Obama should blow McCain away, and if he doesn't, that's because Americans are nuts! But to be fair, he'd be the least experienced president we'd have had, by several measures, at least in the history I can remember. He will have to figure out how to make McCain seem old without making himself seem young and callow. It's like the Biden-Palin question: Being perceived to have the upper hand carries inherent risk.

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The District: Mr. Beam,

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You refer to Hillary supporters' lingering doubts about Obama as "gut aversions." Do you think it's possible there are other reasons Hillary supporters might not be on board with Obama? For one, that they might not all have been avid Dems? I mean, I'm not a republican, but I can't say McCain's record of service, bipartisanship, and pissing off his own party isn't somewhat...attractive.

Sure thing—true blue Democrats should get over it and vote Democrat, but there were more than a few independents out there pulling for Hillary for reasons other than policy, no? I'm interested to see what those people do in November...

Christopher Beam: Of course there are other reasons. But I think—and this is just my opinion—that a lot of the polling questions you see (like "What do you value more, experience or change?") are just proxies for people's gut feelings about the candidates. When asked, voters will often describe their choice in terms of policy or character, but I think it usually just boils down to, do you like him or her? Especially in the Clinton/Obama race, when their policies (with the exception of health care) were largely identical.

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New Jersey: I REALLY liked the speech last night. I thought for sure Obama would sideline environmental talk, but he made forceful points about it, and Al Gore got to talk about it at length as well. To me that means Obama's going to resist pandering campaigning.

Emily Bazelon: I'd like to think that talking about the environment is good politics as well as good policy. With gas prices soaring, people are paying attention. Maybe there's an opportunity for the next president to capitalize on real worry about global warming, in addition to leading on this one.

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Dorota, Holmdel: Emily: how do you think a vice-presidential debate look between Biden and Palin, especially when foreign policy is discussed?

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Emily Bazelon: Biden will have facts and stories at the tip of his fingers that Palin won't. Of course that should help him. But as a couple of astute chatters have already pointed out, it would be a mistake to count Palin out. We don't know her well enough to know what she's capable of (at least I certainly don't). And overconfidence can backfire, on its own.

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Annapolis, Md.: Doesn't Sen. Biden have a 20-year-old daughter? I'm wondering why she didn't put in an appearance at the Convention. Or did I somehow miss her? I pretty much watched the entire thing. Thanks.

Christopher Beam: I don't know about Biden's daughter, but after this week, I would like to see a debate between Malia Obama and Meghan McCain.

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The Bar: Why should the bar be set lower for someone who has such a statistically high chance of being our President sometime in the next four years?

Emily Bazelon: It shouldn't. But it will be, because people will predict that Biden will wipe the floor with her, and then if he doesn't, that itself becomes a form of victory.

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Portland, Ore.: It seems to me that when Obama is able to present his case to the public he is at his best. When the talking heads blab away to fill the 24 hour news cycle he stumbles. Conversely, McCain sounds great in theory but when you see him talk it is frightening. The only advice I would have for Obama is to keep putting in the face time and prepare for the debates. And also say dishonor when talking about McCain because that seems to be a trigger word that sets off McCain's notorious temper.

Christopher Beam: Tweaking McCain's temper—subtly, I'm sure—is probably going to be a part of the Obama plan. Especially in debates. Dishonor, age, "doesn't get it"—they've gotta stoke the volcano.

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Emily Bazelon: Thanks everyone for the excellent questions. It's great to chew over these campaign ins and outs with you, especially at this heady moment—one convention down and one to go!

Thanks,

Emily and Chris