Emerging Conservatives Discuss 'McCain Appeal'

The Republican National Convention kicks off in St. Paul, Minnesota today with the GOP poised to take back momentum gained by Democrats at their National Convention last week in Denver. Author Reihan Salam, of the Atlantic, is joined by Laura Elizabeth Morales, of Young Conservatives of Texas, discuss emerging conservatives and what John McCain can do to persuade voters with his message.

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DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

I'm Deborah Amos and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is in St. Paul, Minnesota for the Republican National Convention. Coming up, we'll bring you a snippet of Minnesota's distinct sound, but first, reclaiming the conservative base. That's one of the challenges facing John McCain this week, as the Republicans kick off their convention tonight. Another goal is maintaining the momentum created by his unconventional pick for running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. The move successfully snatched the headlines from his Democratic rival Barack Obama, who just the night before the choice of Palin was announced, made history by becoming the first African-American to lead a major political party. But will this be enough to carry the GOP all the way to the White House come November? We turned to two emerging conservative voices, both under 30, for some answers. Reihan Salam, associate editor of the Atlantic and a fellow at the New American foundation. And Laura Elizabeth Morales is the director of public relations for the Young Conservatives of Texas. Welcome to both of you.

REIHAN SALAM: Hi, thanks for having us.

LAURA ELIZABETH MORALES: Thanks you so much for having us.

AMOS: Great. I'm going to talk to you in a minute about Sarah Palin as the vice president choice, first I want to focus on the bigger picture and I'm going to turn to you Reihan. Let's talk about St. Paul, you're there to participate in the convention. And Senator McCain has asked that this convention be scaled down to handle business, only out of respect for the residents of Louisiana. Does the party lose some momentum by calling it off for today, maybe tomorrow? Who knows what happens for the rest of week?

SALAM: I think that's entirely possible and I think it's utterly irrelevant. I mean, I think that you know, sure it helps to have a convention that's dominating the new cycle, et cetera. But I think that this is too big an issue, I think the Democrats would've done the same thing, and I think that it's the - it was the only appropriate thing to do.

AMOS: Laura Elizabeth Morales, your thoughts - we talked to earlier with Michel Martin about the convention bounce, and that could be askew, what do you think is possible?

ELIZABETH MORALES: I do have to agree somewhat, I think the most important thing is getting the residents of Louisiana and those affected areas the help that they need. And I think that the GOP, as well as Democrats, both recognize that this isn't a time for politics, this is the time to be an American, and take care of these people who are in need.

AMOS: We've had the weekend to let the idea of Sarah Palin as vice president sink in, and in case our listeners missed it, and who knows how you can do this. Here's a bit of Sarah Palin. She's addressing a crowd in Dayton, Ohio just after it was announced she'd be joining John McCain on the ticket. Well, maybe we're not going to hear that, so we're just going to assume that our listeners have heard that. Both of you, what do you think of this pick? Let's start with you, Reihan.

SALAM: I was very surprised and very pleased. I have been an enthusiast when it comes to Sarah Palin for a long time. I think that's true of a lot of Republicans and I think she's just an extraordinary, highly, a typical figure in a very good way. She's someone who took on a corrupt Republican establishment in her own state. She's someone who, you know was a citizen and a mother who decided that - you know she was going to take responsibility for governing her town and later for governing her state. And I think that - that's something that, you know, I mean, that's Jimmy Stewart. I mean that's really rare and very impressive. So I think that it was really refreshing. It's also interesting to see how much of a Rorschach test she is, how different folks react to her depending on, you know, their cultural presuppositions. And I think that's really scrambled the race in lots of interesting ways.

AMOS: In the media, there's been this talking point of it, and it goes - and the argument goes like this - John McCain's most effective attack on Barack Obama is that he's young and inexperienced, yet he has picked a candidate who's even younger and less experienced than Obama. Is that a problem, Laura?

ELIZABETH MORALES: I find that debatable to talk about the experience as she was as far as Palin in reference to Obama. When you think about it, Palin has executive experience, which is what we're looking for when we're electing a president and a vice president. The rest of candidates have served as senators, Barack Obama has served as a state senator and he is young. But the difference between Palin's experience in regards to Obama's is that Palin has accomplishments to show for what she's done in office. She took on a corrupt government, she's taking on spending, she's taking on the energy issues. And actually has the experience and the credibility to talk about these things with not just the presumptions of - say, hope and change, she actually has substance to go along with her message.

AMOS: And Reihan, do you think that he is going to have to tone down his attacks on Obama and experience?

SALAM: I don't. I think that one thing that has been really striking about this race is, you know, we've seen both John McCain and Barack Obama proved to me - much ruder, tougher politicians than any of us ever expected. Some might say even ruthless. But I think that when you're looking at Sarah Palin and her particular kind of experience as someone who has running a business, et cetera. It's experience that has resonance with a lot of people. So I don't necessarily think that's true. I think that it's actually another way of doubling down on the experience argument by complicating the Democrats case to some extent.

AMOS: If you are just joining us we're talking with young Conservatives Reihan Salam and Laura Elizabeth Morales about what the Republican Party needs to do this week to have a successful convention. Some of us in the talking classes say that John McCain needs to be a - in a reformer role during this Convention because the party has shifted away from its core values. Reihan, do you see those divisions in the party?

SALAM: I sure do. I think that there is a real ongoing dispute about the identity of the Republican Party. It has to do with the constituencies that the Republican Party represents and how these constituencies have changed over the last couple of decades. I think that Republican voters have traditionally been aspirational voters. I think that, you know, when you look at support among more affluent voters, I think you have a real cultural divide. But I think that when it comes to lower middle-class, working-class voters, the ones who support Republicans tend to be those who were economic optimists. And I think that economic optimism has taken a real beating in recent years because of the broader downturn, the housing market, broader state of the economy. And I think that, you know, that's why you see Republicans making a strong case on the cost of living.

You see they're making a strong case on gas prices and I think you see some signs they are going to extend that message to other areas as well. The idea that, you know, we're here to help you move ahead economically by dealing with a lot of big ticket expenditures. So, I think that's the right direction for the party to move in. My hope is that, you know, what you saw happen during much of the Bush years is just, ooh, everything is great, you know, you are being misled, the economy is booming, et cetera. I think that that didn't really connect with people and I think that was a dangerous mistake and made Republicans look out of touch.

AMOS: I wanted to ask you, Laura, and it's going back to this core value problem, there are times I have the idea that McCain is running against the Republican Party. If you look at the platform, they use this phrase grassroots Republicans as if this is a new offshoot of the main GOP. Palin suggests the same thing. She is a reformer. She went after Republican officials in her own state. Do you think the two of them - that there is a subtle message between the two of them that, yes, we are Republicans but we are not those Republicans?

ELIZABETH MORALES: I think they definitely is a subtle message and I do think a lot of people were - on the GOP side - were hesitant to accept McCain as a candidate as was shown in, you know, you just look at the blogosphere and the news that are out there about him they said he couldn't motivate the Conservative base. But I think choosing Palin is a really great way to show that not only is he ready to re-accept his Conservative values but he is ready to represent not just those extreme far right people that vote - but there is also this moderates and those liberals who will end up voting Republican in some case, and that he's a candidate for all-Americans. It's about bringing the party back to unity in those core values. Palin definitely does that and gets that core back but McCain is running to be president of all-Americans, not just some.

AMOS: Barack Obama has generated excitement in the political process, particularly among the youth. Both of you are under 30, Reihan, you're 28 and Laura, you're 21. In fact, this is your first election that you can vote. What can John McCain do to bring back some of those younger voters who have been so interested in the change message of Barack Obama?

SALAM: I think that this is a struggle that's going to take a very long time. I think that when you look at, you know, my generation and Laura's generation, I think that, you know, the past eight years have really shaped their sensibility and their outlook. I think that it briefly looked in 2001, 2002 as so this generation would skew Republican, and I think now it looks as though it's going to skew Democratic. If you look at the Reagan generation, folks are in their late 30's or early 40's now a lot of them remain staunch Republicans to this day, so I think that there's going to have to be a long process of winning these voters over.

One thing that's very interesting about Sarah Palin, is that her social conservatism is different and in some respects more in tune with younger voters. For example, she is much friendlier to gay rights, but she also is strongly pro-life. That actually parallels the views of lots of people under the age of 30. So I think that that's something that's very interesting, a kind of less sharp, less strident, but no less conservative social message. So I think that there are going to be interesting things, interesting moving pieces but you know, in the next couple of months, will, you know, McCain being able to win over fervent Obama supporters among the young? I don't think so. But I think that, you know, what's going to happen four years from now I think that you need just to establish that ground work to affect change later on. So, I think that that is a real challenge. It's going to be lasting challenge.

AMOS: And Laura, do you come from a Republican family or did you decide on party affiliation on your own? Those are not mutually exclusive questions.

ELIZABETH MORALES: I actually decided on party affiliation and where I stood on politics on my own. I was a debater in high school so I was constantly questioning both sides of the political spectrum and eventually I found that the principles of conservatism and free market policies and social conservatism was where I agreed with, and we've seen in history that those have really worked out for Americans and for the rest of the world.

AMOS: And I want to ask you, Laura, this because you - I know that you are speaking to us from Texas, very close to the Mexican border. You are a Latina and I understand that you have strong views on immigration. Do you agree with John McCain's immigration policy?

ELIZABETH MORALES: I actually have some issues with John McCain's immigration policy as with a lot more Republicans like myself do. The thing that I see most different about the border, having grown up here in McAllen, Texas which is literally just a few miles north of it, is that there's a really rich cultural atmosphere here with a great booming economy that we need to embrace and accept. But at the same time, I think all of us can agree there are problems with border security and as well with the immigration process. So I think the most important thing to concentrate on is to stop giving incentive packages to those who immigrate here illegally, things like in-state tuition, the DREAM act things like that. And also punish those employers and hold them accountable for hiring illegal immigrants because they're really the once who lower the quality of life. And the most important thing in all of this is to make sure that everyone has a good qualify of life, and everyone has the opportunity to work and learn. However, there's a process to that and people need to do that the right way in order to come in to this country.

AMOS: Reihan, I wanted to ask you a little bit more specifically about the kinds of voters that the Republican Party has to go after. I was looking back at some statistics and in 2000, President Bush was able to get - hike up his African-American vote by two percent which was 11 percent over all. It seems unlikely he is going to do that this time. So - and maybe that's an assumption on my part...

SALAM: You think?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AMOS: Not going to be able to that. So where does he have to go to make up those numbers? Where does McCain have to go?

SALAM: I think that McCain is - well, that's a tough question to answer. I think that there are states like Pennsylvania and Ohio where there are lot of voters, a lot of non-college educated voters who, let's not forget, are about 48 percent of the electorate in this country and it's a group that's often ignored. It's a group, you know, I think that, you know, constitutes a sort of a large number of swing voters and certainly it's a group that's pandered to. But in terms of what the real economic concerns are, I don't think that you hear a lot of real substance. You hear, for example, you know, Obama and Clinton debating over who is going to fight free trade more and then after the primary has settled, you hear Barack Obama talking about the - that was overheated and amplified. I think that, you know, McCain who is very strongly pro-free trade has a burden to actually talk about those issues and those anxieties that he hasn't fully yet.

But I think that if he does that successfully and I think picking Palin is a sign that he might, he has a lot of votes that he could win in those constituencies. You know, in big Midwestern states that are not necessarily friendly territory to Republicans, generally. States like Michigan. States like, again, Pennsylvania. So I think that - you know the truth is that Barack Obama is going to scramble the map. The truth is that there are lots of purple states out there. A state like Colorado, you know, might flip this time around, which is why McCain is going to really have to concentrate on those states that, you know, have felt neglected and where there are lots of voters who have just not felt as if their interests were being met during the last eight years by Republicans or also by Democrats who make a lot of promises but don't always deliver. So I think that that's a real opportunity.

AMOS: So this map is going to look different than it has for many, many years?

SALAM: Well, the thing is - the last truly interesting election we had was 1992. Because you got Ross Perot split the Republicans. You had this real upsurge and enthusiasm. And since then, we've had interesting candidates, but the map has looked roughly the same. You have that big Republican L, you have the Blue Coasts. I think that this time, that might be the case, we have very interesting candidates and you might see the exact same map. But I think there's a real chance that McCain, because of his identity as not a kind of traditional southern evangelical familiar Republican figure, but as a truly national figure, one who doesn't have a regional identity so much as this, you know, strange, you know, national patriotic reformer identity that, you know, could see a change in that map. And Barack Obama, of course, is also a very distinctive figure certainly, you know, in terms of his rhetoric and in terms of his, you know, kind of cultural profile who could also scramble the West. So I think it's possible that we'll see a different map.

AMOS: Just very quickly from the two of you. What are you looking forward to seeing this week if this convention gets under way? Let's start with you, Laura.

ELIZABETH MORALES: I'm looking forward to hearing the message about country first, which is the thing that McCain and Palin are both campaigning on. And I think Gustav really changes the tone of the convention to really focus on country first. There's a lot of divisiveness in politics right now but it's important to remember that we're fighting for what's good for Americans. And I think that the ticket is going to be really interesting, and seeing the convention shift to that tone of talking about country reform, prosperity and peace is going to be very good to see and really good to hear for all Americans.

AMOS: And Reihan, very quickly.

SALAM: I think that we need to talk about how the world is still a dangerous place, a world of competition, and about how we need someone who is tough enough to take a lead.

AMOS: Thank you very much, Reihan Salam, associate editor at the Atlantic and the co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream." He joined us from St. Paul. Laura Elizabeth Morales is the communications director for the Young Conservatives of Texas. She joined me from the studios of KTEX in Weslaco, Texas.

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