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Matt Welch: In the hour of chaos Americans want to hear about policies, not fearless leaders

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome to our coverage of the vice presidential debate. Joining us now to share his thoughts is Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of Reason Magazine and author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick. Matt joins us from Washington, DC. Thank you, Matt.

MATT WELCH, EDITOR, REASON MAGAZINE: Thanks for having me back.

JAY: So the myth of the maverick was actually one of Biden’s themes tonight. He over and over again said John McCain is not a maverick, and he went through many examples of it. Sarah Palin didn’t really have too much of an answer. What did you think of that part of the exchange?

WELCH: It’s kind of interesting. Democrats have started very belatedly to chip away at this kind of encrusted myth that’s surrounded McCain for years, decades even. They don’t want to go too far, because you don’t really want to tell the American people things that seem sort of completely opposite of what they’ve heard for a long time—it’ll sort of beggar belief. And you don’t want to be perceived as going after a war hero’s record, which of course they never really will touch. The interesting thing, from my point of view, is that, you know, the maverick angle is still basically the only thing that Sarah Palin herself has to offer. I mean, she’s a sort of energetic and vivacious person. I think she performed really well tonight, especially, you know, based on expectations. But if you think about McCain at the convention and in the last several weeks, and Sarah Palin, they’re not running on policy; they are running on the sort of “great man” or the “great woman” theory of politics: “We’re just going to go in there, and we’re going to clean it up, and we’re going to get the bad guys,” and all this sort of virtuous-person-will-clean-up-complex-system, so we don’t need to understand what that complex system is. And, unfortunately for them, perhaps fortunately for us, I don’t think that the climate in America right now is one where people are feeling like, “Oh, I’m so bewildered. I just need someone who is virtuous and pure to come and clean it all up, and I don’t really need to understand it myself.”

JAY: Yeah. Has the last few days profoundly changed this election, the kind of assertion of a reality of an economic crisis?

WELCH: Well, yes. I wouldn’t put it as the assertion of a reality. In many ways, I think Americans have been very skeptical of the kind of scaremongering coming from President Bush, and Henry Paulson, and other people, and both presidential candidates, McCain and Obama, and Hillary Clinton, and others, people [who] are saying, basically, if you don’t pass this bill, we’re going to have economic depression. I don’t think people are buying that. I mean, I do a lot of talk radio on the right, I do public radio on the left, and I’ve talked about the bailout a lot, which I’m dead-set against, and I’m shocked: in every single context, I haven’t heard a single person, like, call in and say, “You know what? We really do need to bail these people out.” There’s anger against this and a deep distrust of Washington about this.

JAY: I think there’s great skepticism about the bailout. But isn’t there quite a profound fear that [there] really is [an] economic crisis coming? And the bailout, I think the skepticism’s that bailout’s the answer.

WELCH: I’m not entirely convinced that there is a huge economic fear. Maybe I’m living a blinkered existence, but if you think about it, unemployment in this country right now is 6.1 percent. I am old enough, and you are probably old enough too, to remember when 6 percent was considered the threshold number under which, if we had unemployment, then, you know, inflation would run out of control. It was basically considered full employment in modern economics to have unemployment that low. This is a high moment now that we’re supposed to be freaked out about. And, again, I’m getting a lot of this when I’m talking to people about it. They’re like, “Yeah, my 401(k) went down.” You know what? It’s based on the stock market. Stock markets are volatile. We shouldn’t necessarily, you know, construe this to mean that the economy is going to hell in a hand basket.

JAY: Well, let’s go back to the debate. Most people thought the only thing at stake in this debate was whether Palin would crash and burn or not. And there was a growing feeling that Palin had proven herself, especially over the last couple of interviews with Katie Couric and before that, to really not know what she was talking about. So that seemed to be all that really was at stake tonight. First of all, do you agree with that? And then, if so, what’s the result?

WELCH: It’s not, unfortunately for Palin, the only thing that was at stake here. It’s the way that the narrative came in going in. And in that respect it will be played off for the first, you know, 16 hours or so as a big victory for Palin, and I kind of understand that. But, again, this is a bad year for Republicans—they need to do better than not as bad as you think. They actually have to go out and grab some Democratic voters. And if you think about what is the challenge for Obama and what was it before his debate with John McCain, it is that people don’t really know him, he doesn’t have a lot of experience, he’s black, he’s got a weird-sounding name, and, you know, we’re a big, responsible country, we’re the big military that is everywhere—can you really trust the guy? He came off in the first debate as a really serene, calm person in the middle of a crisis, whereas McCain has just been flying off the handle. I think you saw the same thing here tonight. I would never call Joe Biden serious in any way, shape, or form, but compared to Sarah Palin, he gave off a sort of like, “I’ve been around, I know some details about Pakistan and about world policy,” and all this kind of stuff. And he is the one who had gravitas on the podium by a factor of two or three. That, ultimately, it’s the kind of thing where, like, Biden lost on points. And a lot of people in the first McCain-Obama debate reacted to say, “Oh,” you know, “McCain won self-evidently.” And I thought at the time, no, he didn’t, because he didn’t win enough. And I think the same is true in the Palin debate. She needed to do more than not be bad and to be very personable; she needed to actually go out there and grab some voters [inaudible] knock them off their game. I don’t think that she did.

JAY: I thought Biden in some ways, and maybe because they learned from the first presidential debate, took on a couple of the concepts that McCain’s been delivering in a more direct and effective way, and most importantly this whole issue of victory. When she said tonight, “John McCain knows how to win a war,” and when McCain said that, I thought Obama shied away from taking that on directly, and tonight Biden took it on directly. He said, “We’re against preemptive war and we’re against regime change,” and by implication, that is, if you think that’s what victory is, well, that’s the mess you guys got us into. And I thought he was more effective, frankly, than Obama had been the first time. What’s your thinking on that?

WELCH: I thought so too. I mean, it must be very tempting to say, “Look,” you know, “what war do you know about victory?” You know, that sounds a bit cruel, but it has the ring of truth. But, no, he’s more effective in engaging that. On the other side, though, Palin actually attacked him with some ability in tag team with Gwen Ifill, the moderator. Biden has been one of the most interventionist Democrats for the last 15, 20 years, and there really, you know, is a short handful of people who’ve been so consistently advocating the use of US force abroad. And as Palin pointed out on a couple of occasions, Biden was supporting, you know, more McCain-esque things, necessarily, than Barack Obama thinks. Ultimately that doesn’t matter, because this is about presidents and not vice presidents, but there is something to that. So Biden wants us to sort of navigate this narrow land here, where we say that, okay, maybe I was for Iraq, but I was wrong about it and Obama was right, and that McCain’s wars, unlike my wars, are going to be more preemptive and sort of less legal. You run into some problems with a war like Kosovo, which has less sort of international justification on some levels than Iraq ever did, although it sustained far fewer casualties. But, still, I think that even though that might be kind of a narrow difference, it’s still a big difference. And McCain’s preemptive war strategy, which he’s been talking about now for more than 10 years, is still something that Americans are only now starting to understand. And so every time, I think, that Biden or anyone else brings it up, they’re going to be scoring points.

JAY: Just one final take on it from a more political point of view. As a libertarian, you’ve been in touch more, perhaps, with an audience that’s voted Republican. The Ron Paul libertarians have been under the roof of the Republican Party. What’s your sense of where that section of independent quasi-Republicans are right now?

WELCH: Freaked out about the bailout, first and foremost. It’s a real watershed moment in Washington, DC, when the president of the United States says, “If you don’t give the Treasury and the Federal Reserve unprecedented powers and nationalizing huge chunks of the mortgage industry, we’re going to head towards a depression.” That’s just uncharted territory. And there’s a lot of people just saying, “Okay, I’ve had enough of the Republican project.” You know, “We cast our lot with those guys for long enough. It’s time for a course correction.” The Ron Paul vote is not going en masse anywhere. It is scattering to Chuck Baldwin, to Bob Barr; it’s going to be a lot of write-in votes for Ron Paul. It’s actually a big mess, and it’s a discredit to both Paul and to Bob Barr, and to some other people, in the way that they kind of managed that enthusiasm and that movement. On the other hand, I think that that is a power in politics now. It might not be organized, but it’s going to have an effect, and it’s had an effect on the unpopularity of the bailout so far.

JAY: And in terms of the horse race, does it affect it, the Obama-McCain horse race?

WELCH: I think only to the extent that there’s a narrow band of libertarian-minded Republicans who are feeling restive, who just don’t want to vote for McCain. McCain is a big interventionist Republican. He goes off about greed on Wall Street as if he was Oliver Stone in 1987, and he is, you know, the original neocon in many senses, and people are tired of that approach. So I think he’s going to lose support of people who had been voting Republican for awhile. Those people, some of them will vote for Obama, some will vote for Barr, they’ll vote for who-knows-what, but they won’t vote for McCain, and that will be a problem for him in some swing states like Colorado, Nevada, and Georgia.

JAY: Thanks so much for joining us tonight, Matt.

WELCH: Thanks. Any time. Thank you very much.

JAY: Bye-bye.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine. Welch's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, LA Weekly,,, Wired, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Daily Star of Beirut, and dozens of other publications.