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Matt Welch, editor of libertarian magazine, talks about McCain, Palin and myth

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Hello, and welcome to The Real News and our ongoing coverage of the Republican National Convention. Today, who’s the real Sarah Palin? And what does her choice tell us about John McCain? Joining me to diScuss the Republican presidential ticket is Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of the well-known libertarian magazine Reason, which you can find at—and if I got that wrong, Matt, you’ll correct me in a second—and the author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick. Welcome, Matt.

MATT WELCH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, REASON MAGAZINE: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.

JAY: And did I get the URL right?


JAY: Good. Well, you must have gotten that very early in the fight for domain names. So Sarah Palin’s choice. In an article you wrote a few days ago, you called Obama’s choice of Biden safe. You called it a defensive move. Now, I guess, they would argue “prudent.” They said McCain’s choice was bold. Some would call it reckless, perhaps even desperate. So what’s your thinking today?

WELCH: Well, I still agree with that. I mean, as a purely political calculus, which is one way of looking at it—not the most important way, but certainly one way of looking at it—Obama was trying to cover up for issues that he feels other people have with him, which is that he’s young, he’s inexperienced on foreign policy at a time when the nation is at war and America is just sort of continually anxious about foreign policy, and he’s sort of suspiciously “other” in some undefined way—people don’t know him that well; he’s African-American; he’s got a funny name with Hussein in the middle of it. So picking Joe Biden was a way to sort of cover his tracks. Biden is not a spectacular guy by any stretch of the imagination. Everybody knows him. He’s kind of a clown. He’s also very smart and has great knowledge precisely on foreign policy, and he helps Obama in the sort of northwestern or northeastern Rust Belt.

JAY: Right. But hasn’t Palin’s choice now shifted the conversation to Obama’s judgment, not so much to Palin’s judgment, but to McCain’s judgment, for making what looks like such an un-vetted, shallowly thought-about, narrow political move? Apparently, even Karl Rove was quoted yesterday as calling this a political decision, not a governance decision.

WELCH: Oh, I mean, that’s obvious. What she brings to the ticket is mostly political and not, in the parlance of John McCain, in words that are all over this arena, “country first.” I mean, John McCain is running on a campaign that the single transcendent issue that we’re all fighting for, that he’s running for, is to fight a radical Islamic extremism. Okay. Fine. If that is your issue, you can’t really credibly say, “Well, I’m 72 years old. I’ll be the oldest president, first-term, in the history of the country. Let’s take the 40-something governor of Alaska who’s never uttered a word about foreign policy in her life.” That just doesn’t add up. That’s not country first; that’s election first. I mean, it’s a bold move electorally, ’cause he’s going after Hillary Clinton voters, but as a question of policy and sort of a window into McCain’s decision making, it’s something else. And he’s very impulsive, as this shows. He’ll just snap and make some decision. And he likes to surprise people, which is an interesting character trait, and a guy you want to drink with in a bar, tell some stories about what it was like to go chase strippers in Brazil when you were a midshipman, and all that kind of stuff. But as someone who’s making a serious decision about the future of the country, it leaves a little something to be desired.

JAY: Right. Now, in the same article that you wrote, you talked about, with what seemed to me a little bit of excitement on your own part, or at least talking about libertarians, you said as a libertarian it’s as close to a libertarian as you can ever hope for on a major ticket. But what’s libertarian about her?

WELCH: That was a quote from David Harsanyi, a Denver Post columnist, and not my own. What’s libertarian about her is that she is, if nothing else, a pretty free spirit, an independent-minded person, not the typical Washington politician in the sort of form of Joe Biden. And as an independent myself, I’m attracted to weirdos who own guns and shoot caribou, and have a kind of non-traditional life, and come from towns of 6,000 people. You know, as a friend of mine said who’s from Alaska, you know, they’re basically like Jerry Falwell, except they like to roll their own. So I appreciate having people who are a little bit different. She’s also gone against her own party in Alaska. She’s fought corruption; she’s fought pork. She’s been an interesting character.

JAY: Okay, let’s dig into that. Let’s start with the free spirit. There’s a story now in The New York Times, and it’s surfaced other places, that one of the earliest things she did was try to ban books in the local library, and then that librarian apparently either was fired or quit.

WELCH: I mean, a lot of stories are coming out, and it’s part of the non-vetting process that’s happening, basically, in the media. Every day there’s something new. She apparently tried to or asked whether she could ban a book at the local library. You know, she was supposed to be this big anti-pork crusader, but there’s evidence linking her up with delivering tons of federal sort of wasteful spending for Alaska. So some of the shine has definitely come off, and it’s not much credit to McCain that he’s finding out about this stuff as it goes along.

JAY: But the one I find most striking, that they allowed her to make such a big issue of saying no to the “bridge to nowhere.” McCain made a speech about it. It was really her opening calling card. And it turns out it seems to be a straightforward lie, that she took the federal money. The budget for the bridge was just too high, so she wound up spending the money on something other than the bridge, and spent all kinds of state money building the road to the “bridge to nowhere,” which I suppose makes it a road to nowhere, although I think the people that live there are now quite angry that they’re being called “nowhere.” But this doesn’t seem to be breaking through into the Republican Convention. And I wonder, in Republican circles, do people know that this was a fabrication?

WELCH: Well, I think people are more at this point rallying around her on the convention floor. It’s pretty striking to me. Yesterday, the enthusiasm, you know, primarily was and will always be for Ronald Reagan, and much more than it is for most other living Republicans. But there was a lot of enthusiasm about Sarah Palin. There’s a feeling like, you know, this is sort of an interesting offensive move. And when the media’s sort of piling on right now, it plays into this broad Republican narrative that has some truth and a lot of fiction, which is that the media’s out to get them. So now they’re going to rally their sort of troops around Palin. But that doesn’t paper over the fact that there is some disquiet among people who wonder about McCain’s judgment, especially those people who are most concerned about foreign policy who have traditionally really liked McCain, because he’s really interested in foreign policy, and he’s just interventionist as all hell, and that plays well to that little wing of the Republican base. So those people are starting to get sketchy. But McCain has a fundamental problem, which is that the Reagan coalition is breaking up. You know, you have the Christian conservatives here, for whom she was great—everyone loves her, because she’s a big evangelical with strong, strong views. There is the sort of fiscal conservatives, who are the people who dislike McCain the most and dislike the modern Republican Party because George Bush has spent more money in office than Lyndon Johnson. And then there’s the national security hawks. There used to be within the Republican Party a tradition of being skeptical about foreign interventions and being skeptical about spending a lot of government money. That tradition is completely on the run.

JAY: Let’s return to this in Part 2 of our interview. And the question I’m going to ask Matt is: is the Palin appointment or choice the prelude to a rout of the Republican Party? And if it is, what does it mean for the various factions of the Republican Party who fight for the soul of what will be the Republican Party? Please join us for Part 2 of my interview with Matt Welch.


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.