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What are Americans looking for?

The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute (Center for the Study of Politics and Governance) continues to put on four excellent seminars a day, geared to attract Republican delegates and national media here for the convention, but open to the public. (Full schedule. [PDF] All events are free and open.  Advance reservations are recommended. Audio-video of all sessions are also available online.)

I attended several of them today. Here are a few highlights:

During a mid-morning session, which was supposed to be about “What Americans are Looking For,” pundit Charlie Cook (the Cook Political Report) had a weird conversation with himself over John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Nice Charlie wanted to make it an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other discussion of the choice. But candid Charlie couldn’t stop indicating what he really thought. I’ll link to the audio below for those who want to hear the full segment, but here’s a hasty, partial transcription:

“The thing that’s got me scratching my head, I don’t know whether the selection of Governor Palin was brilliant or insane. My guess is it’s one or the other. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of in-between.

“People will either love her, they will be charmed by her, they will think she represents something that’s long been missing in American politics and it just gives a B-12 shot to McCain’s change-reform image. And this is either just a truly inspired selection or it was just the nuttiest damn thing anybody ever saw…

“The biography, the narrative is certainly there. But on the other side of the equation, I was talking to a friend of mine who is the head of graduate school and one of his students said it had taken him three interviews to get a server job at Ruby Tuesday, which sounds like it was more than the governor had…

“I guess I put too much, or a great deal of weight on the experience issue. And that’s one reason I missed the call on Obama, because I thought experience made a big, big, big difference when people were making decisions on presidential races and that’s why I thought Clinton or one of the others would have the advantage over Obama.

“Now I think obviously what’s happened over the last eight years and the president’s and the vice president’s job approval ratings have devalued temporarily the experience factor. It’s not what it was five or eight or 10 years ago and it’s not what it probably will be five or eight or 10 years from now. But it’s been devalued now to the point where it’s probably one of the few times in our history when a Barack Obama could win party nomination, at a time when experience is valued down.

“So I tend to place too much value on experience, I know that, and that’s what’s pulling me back from being convinced that this as an insane pick. I kind of think it’s up in the air. I wouldn’t have taken this risk, to be perfectly honest.

“What seems to have happened, from the folks I’ve talked to, is that Senator McCain desperately wanted to pick Senator [Joe] Lieberman. Really, really, really wanted to do it but when too many party leaders basically said ‘at best you’ll have a walkout, at worst, they will burn the building down if you pick Lieberman, and [former Gov. Tom] Ridge is the same thing.’

“He still was so committed to shaking things up, to a pick that would break some eggs to make the omelet. And if you can’t do a Lieberman or Ridge, what do you do? And Sarah Palin’s narrative, it is so different from anybody we’re normally used to seeing in these jobs that, y’know…

“I still think this thing was still competitive enough that I’m not sure I would have done a hail Mary or a hail Sarah pass. To me it was giving up the experience issue and maybe reinvigorating the change/reform message. The outsider message. Maybe there was a greater pickup there than swapping off the experience message, I don’t know…

“I can understand the aversion to, OK, you don’t want to tick off your base, so OK then don’t do a Lieberman or a Ridge, but I’m not sure I would have gone over this far.

“But the organizational challenge is great.  There’s not a single state where John McCain is as organized as George W. Bush was four years ago. There’s just not one. If you’re not going to be able to build an organization in time, then I guess you’d better fire up your base. But given the 7-13 point party ID edge, getting the base isn’t enough, you have to reach into the middle.

“Does Sarah Palin reach into the middle and grab some of these independents and peel some of them off?  Maybe she does. Maybe the narrative does.

“The one thing I do think is pretty absurd is the idea that this is going to peel off any Hillary Clinton voters. I think you could take the 18 million votes that Hillary Clinton received and if you pulled out all the pro-life, no exceptions, lifetime NRA members, then OK, she’ll go after those — both of them…

“So I guess if this year had been the kind of year they normally are, then I would have been real dismissive and said this is nuts. And now I’ll just say I’m not sure whether this is crazy or brilliant. We’ll see soon enough…”

AUDIO: Charlie Cook on the Palin choice

Andrew Kohut
Top pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, on the same panel, decided to simply identify a set of questions, the answers to which will us, Cook’s phrase, what we will see soon enough. (These are paraphrases):

Will young voters really turn out in the numbers that their current enthusiasm levels suggest they will? (If so, big advantage for Obama.)

Will Republicans, who are expressing indifference and disillusionment, act on those feelings by staying home on Election Day?

Will the Dems and Dem-leaners, who so far haven’t said they are for Obama, come around for him?

Can McCain convince independents (many of whom like him) that he will govern differently than Bush?

Can Obama overcome the experience argument?

Will concern about McCain’s age increase? Will the Palin pick increase that worry?

Will white working-class women be attracted by Palin to the Repub ticket?

Will the weak economy be fatal to McCain because he is tied, by party ID, to President Bush and his dismal approval ratings?

Will race remain a second-tier issue or will it really cause many white Dems to vote against their usual party ID?

Will the choice of Palin remedy McCain’s problems with the Christian conservative base?

Bill McInturff
The third member of the panel, Republican pollster Bill McInturff, declined to tell the audience what he knows about how McCain came to pick Palin.

McInturff, who does a lot of language testing, said Dems are vulnerable to language suggesting they don’t do enough to keep America strong. Repubs are vulnerable to language suggesting they don’t do enough to work with the rest of the world.

McInturff, by the way, in answer to Kohut’s first question, expressed no doubt that young people and African-Americans will turn out in big numbers.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson and others
The late-morning panel featured political communications guru Kathleen Hall Jamieson, plus two journalists who have been doing ground-breaking work on checking the accuracy of ads and other political speech.

Jamieson said that because such ad watches tend to focus on whatever is false and misleading in ads and campaign speeches, they risk promoting cynicism. In fact, most of what’s in political ads is true and most of what candidates promise to do if elected, they do try to do.

She also said that the easiest kind of false message to sell about your opponent is one that is consistent with the stereotype of the candidate’s party. For example, if your ad argues that the Democratic candidate wants to raise taxes, it will tend to be believed, even if it’s false.

In fact, panelist Bill Adair of the excellent fact-checking site Politifact said that the biggest deception by the McCain campaign so far is the exaggeration of Obama’s platform on tax increases. Team Obama’s biggest deceptions have been ads linking McCain to big giveaways to oil and pharmaceutical companies that went beyond McCain’s record.

Brooks Jackson of the path-breaking, agreed that McCain’s biggest inaccuracies have been about Obama’s tax plan. He said Obama has exaggerated some biographical facts. Early Obama ads said he had “worked his way through college.” When asked for specifics, these turned out to be summer jobs. Now Obama says he got through college on scholarships and hard work.

Adair also had some examples of campaigns changing their claims after his team had identified deceptions. But often, he said, “I feel like we’re shouting in a crowd that can’t hear us.”

Senators, journalists, political scientists
The last panel featured two senators, two journalists and two political scientists speculating on how Obama or McCain would actually govern.

PolySci guru (and Minnesota native) Norm Ornstein opened by reading a list of six qualities important to a president, as compiled by political scientist Fred Greestin, namely:

Public communications skills.

Organizational capacity (aka executive talent).

Political skill (not just to get elected, but to forge governing coalitions).


Cognitive style (you need someone who is good at listening to diverse viewpoints).

Emotional intelligence. (I’m sure this is brilliant, but I only half get it.)

Ornstein and his co-moderator Tom Mann then invited Republican Senate Whip Jon Kyl (of Arizona, which means he knows McCain very well) to think about what McCain could get done if he gets elected but faced (as he likely would) big Dem majorities in both houses.

Kyl emphasized earmark reform and other efforts to rein in “wasteful Washington spending.” He said McCain was famous for his ability to work with Democrats, seems to love forging bipartisan coalitions even when it angers the Repub leadership. Kyl noted that, however counterintuitive this may be, some of the biggest legislation of recent times has occurred during period of divided government.

The key would be whether the Dem-jaority was willing to help McCain on issues of mutual interest or would be motivated by partisanship to deny him any political credit. “It’s hard to overstate the degree to which corrosive partisan politics has taken over Washington, D.C.,” Kyl said.

Minnesota’s own Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, was asked how Obama would govern, assuming he would have a substantial Dem majority in both houses. She identified what she predicted would be Obama’s three top priorities: making health care more affordable, reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil in a way that also helps with global warming, ending the war in Iraq in a way that starts improving the United States role in the world.

She said his leadership style will follow the style he has shown in the campaign, smart, steady and with a plan. But she noted that since it can take 60 votes (to break a filibuster) to get legislation through the Senate, he will still have to work with Republicans, and she believes he can.

Chicago Sun-Times reporter-blogger Lynn Sweet, who has been covering Obama, got very specific. Obama will rely on his own senior senator, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who is already in the Dem leadership, to handle his needs in the Senate, and his friend (and former Clinton insider) Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill. and a member of the Dem leadership team) in the House. He will be fully prepared to disappoint his liberal base by making deals with Republicans or moderate Dems in order to get things through. Obama, she said, is a guy who “goes by the numbers.” If he needs 60 votes in the Senate, he will find the 60 votes and do what he needs to do.

Kissinger added to panel
A late programming note from my perch at the Humphrey. Polysci maven Larry Jacobs of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance announced that Henry Kissinger will be added to the Thursday 8:15 a.m. panel on “Democracy and America’s Role in the World.”

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