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NEAL CONAN, host:

As the presidential election approaches. We've asked four people to make the case for the two major party candidates on foreign and domestic policy later this week. Our guests include John McWater for Democrat Barack Obama and Lawrence Engelbert for Republican John McCain. We start today today with Michael Gerson as assistant to the president. He used to be the principal speech writer for George W. Bush. He's now a columnist for the Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

That position precludes him from political endorsements. But he's agreed to talk about the conservative case for Senator John McCain and if you'd like to join us, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Conservatives, we want you to call today and make your final argument for John McCain. Again, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at NPR.org/blogofthenation. Michael Gerson is here with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Former Speechwriter, Bush Administration): Great to be with you.

CONAN: And critics said that Senator McCain, well, some have complained all throughout his career that he is not really a true conservative, at least not on some issues. Do you make him out to be the conservative candidate for this election?

Mr. GERSON: Well, these were some of the very reasons that I was attracted to him when he was at the very bottom of his political fortunes. We'd fired all the staff and other things.

CONAN: About a year ago.

Mr. GERSON: Yeah. Exactly. And I wrote at the time. He had made some conservative enemies but for some good reasons. He was the man who took a very responsible position on immigration reform that was unpopular in his party. He was the man who opposed torture which turned out to be very, very right position from a public diplomacy standpoint. He was pro-environment in many ways that Republicans weren't. He was one of the sponsors of the bill in the congress that cap-and-trade legislation. And he ended up being a vindicated prophet on the surge. He was very concerned about the conduct of the Iraq War from the summer of 2003, very early.

Those reasons, I found compelling. There should be some good results for having good judgment. It doesn't always happen that way in politics and may not happen this way in this election. But he's shown his ability in a way that I don't think Barack Obama really has, to take on his party in key ways to be, I think, heroically right even when it's hard. And those are the kind of virtues, I think, Americans ought to consider at least in their presidential choice.

CONAN: Campaign reform, of course, McCain-Feingold?

Mr. GERSON: That's another example.

CONAN: We nearly think of as a bedfellows, certainly a not ecological bedfellow. Then again, probably the most important thing in the case in which he's taken on the leadership of his party in the United States Senate is bitterly opposed by people like Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for example. Nevertheless, you mentioned immigration reform. A lot of people think he's runaway from immigration reforms in his campaign.

Mr. GERSON: I think that he had to trim somewhat in the course of the primaries. He was still better than any of the other candidates in talking about the essential dignity. Even of illegal immigrants, I remember a speech he gave in Florida, a very costly political speech where he talked about a little girl that had died at the boarder who had a bible in her backpack. These were the kind of things that a good man does even in a tough political circumstance.

It was not the message we were hearing from Romney or Thompson or a lot of the others. And it indicates a fundamental decency, a core. But your campaign finances is another example on that. And it's something you can't forget a man's whole career just because he's had a month of nightmare, because of the economic crisis - which has I think hurt Republican's across the board disproportionately. And, the reality here is that I think that he shown over the years, both judgment and decency. And those things should be considered.

CONAN: Let's talk about energy for just a moment. One of the things that he has made a linchpin of his campaign "Drill Here, Drill Now." And he came around to the position that the states ought to be allowed to make the decision on offshore drilling I think a whole three weeks before Senator Obama did.

Mr. GERSON: That's right exactly.

CONAN: They both used to be opposed to it.

Mr. GERSON: No, that's exactly right. I mean that's what four-dollar a gallon gasoline does to people. And there's some - that's a natural political process. But, I do think on the energy issue. That was an issue that he seized on pretty early with what - if you get past the rhetoric and the drilling rhetoric and other things. I mean he set out a position that was broad and fairly responsible. I'm talking about alternatives, talking about nuclear, talking about drilling, talking about conservation. Those are the very things that Congress will be considering in the next energy bill under either president. As, you know, to get the kind of political deal, that's unnecessary to try to wean us off this addiction to oil.

CONAN: You said talk about alternatives, there's quite an argument from the Democrats that he does talk about alternatives, he doesn't vote that way.

Mr. GERSON: Well, I tell you one of the - I think that record is a little bit mixed, but I do think one of the things that the most important things that can be done to encourage alternatives to carbon-based energy. Is to put a price on carbon itself, that's what a cap- and-trade system does. This is the most effective method to encourage alternatives, is to increase the price of the production of carbon. And, you know, the bill in the Senate was McCain-Lieberman.

It was a pioneering bill and indicates, I think hopefully from my perspective, a shift in the Republican Party which by the way we've seen in every other English speaking conservative party in England and in Australia and other places. They have, you know, become firmly towards an environment of responsible environmental agenda and taken real leadership on those issues. I think McCain, people forget this in midst of a campaign, is an important transitional figure in American conservatism on that issue in particular.

CONAN: Yet, the one alternative fuel that is widely available now up, he opposes ethanol.

Mr. GERSON: That's true. I think he believes that that's a kind of Iowa related boondoggle in a lot of ways. But, you know, ethanol, as you know, has its own problems in kind of putting pressure on the price of corn and world food supplies and a lot of other things. So I mean there are arguments both ways on that issue. But I - you know, I think that the indications are on energy policy as president that McCain would be quite mainstream on those issues instead of resistant.

CONAN: Let's get some callers into the conversation. Our guest is Michael Gerson, currently the Roger Herzog senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. We're asking conservatives to call today to make their final argument for John McCain. Today we're focusing on domestic policy. 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. And yes, we will have advocates for the other side as well later this week - former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger will be with us to talk about specifically foreign policy. Let's begin with Scott, and Scott's on the line with us from Hot Springs in Arkansas.

SCOTT (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

SCOTT: Hi Neal, this is Scott. I was calling more to talk about the negativity of Obama's idea about the financial situation like giving money to those that need it the most. And McCain's (unintelligible) to give it to those who actually work hard for it. I've lived in Reunion Island, a French island off the coast of Madagascar, and they actually do that. They gave it to who they supposedly needed it at the most. And what happens is when you turned 18, they gave them 2000 French francs. And if they got a job, they lost it. If they got married, they lost it. So you had a man and a woman who was 18 year older, getting this 2000 French francs. And guess what they did, they did nothing. They set around and drank beer. They got drunk and they had kids.

CONAN: And you really believe that Senator Obama's going to turn us into the French island of Reunion? The weather would be better in a lot of places but other than that.

SCOTT: I'm just saying that if we start giving money to those who so-called deserve it the most, that they're going to take it for granted. Those who work hard, that's about the American dream. My wife is from another country who just got her citizenship after seven years of working for it. That's the whole dream, you work hard for something, you can have anything you want in this country. It's not about giving it to those who don't deserve it. It's about giving to those who truly deserve it. Those who need it are those that will work hard for it. And I mean I see it, you can go out. Those people who don't know the other side of the world, know, what it's like not to have anything. And they will work hard to have something.

CONAN: Scott, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

Mr. GERSON: I do feel that John McCain had a really tough initial period in reaction to the financial crisis. He really kind of the - kind of strong...

CONAN: Fundamentals of the economy.

Mr. GERSON: You know, attacked the Fed for bailing out others, and attacked Chris Cox and seemed very unsure of himself. But, I think you can an argument that John McCain finally, maybe by luck or process of elimination actually has an economic message, which is 'Do you really want to increase taxes going into recession.' Or you can argue both sides of that issue, but it's a real argument. And he has a symbol, which is Joe the Plumber, you know, a somebody who doesn't want to be taxed. And he has a quasi gaffe which is the spread the wealth argument. So that argument has gained a little bit of traction, I think, with people in red states that traditionally support Republicans. And a lot of the battles are talking place now in Virginia and Ohio and in a lot of places.

CONAN: Most analysts will say all of them...

Mr. GERSON: Yes, exactly. And everybody - but that specific message may well have some resonance in those states, because they are traditionally red states. So I do think that he's kind of stumbled into a more effective economic message, and it's a serious argument. I mean it's kind of Hooverism in a certain way to increase taxes going to a recession. And I do believe by the way that if Barack Obama's economic team, which are not irresponsible were designing our economic plan right now, it might work differently. They designed it during a hard-fought - you know, Democratic primary. And it does seem a little bit out of tune with the times, and now McCain's is trying to take advantage of that.

CONAN: We're talking today with Michael Gerson as we're hearing about final arguments for the presidential candidates. He used to write speeches where George W. Bush. He's now a columnist for the Washington Post. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation, which is coming to you from NPR News. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Leslie, Leslie was - with us from - excuse me, Lake Placid in Florida, not New York.

LESLIE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

LESLIE: Thanks for taking my call. I like McCain because he's been in Washington. He knows the people that he can appoint to as his cabinet that can solve the problems that we're facing. And Obama hasn't been there long enough to know anyone in Washington or in the nation of the whole that can solve these problems. He just doesn't have any experience.

CONAN: The experience issue has been John McCain's number one card since the very beginning of the national campaign, Michael Gerson.

Mr. GERSON: I agree with that. I mean - you know, what you saw only about six weeks ago in mid-September or early September, is a race that was about equal. People forget that in the aftermath of the economic crisis. And a lot of the concerns for those people who were not supporting the Democratic ticket at that time related to the experience issue. I think that McCain would probably be smart to raise, you know, a principle high tone way to raise some of those issues again as a closing argument. You know, these are difficult times and talk about Iran or you talk about, you know, economic crisis.

The problem here, though, is that in the three debates, Barack Obama portrayed an image of amazing stability, of kind of an even keel that I think defused some of this argument and made it more difficult for McCain. That's the good result of Barack Obama's debate performances. They looked stable in a crisis and undermined that very argument.

CONAN: Leslie, would you be comfortable on the experience issue if Governor Palin had to step in and take on the role of president?

LESLIE: I think that was his worst mistake. If he'd a picked Romney or Giuliani, I think, he would already have won this thing.

CONAN: And Michael Gerson, a lot of people agree with Leslie.

Mr. GERSON: Well, I was a little partial to Joe Lieberman who I think is a real hero. He is somebody that I have a lot of respect for but -

CONAN: But might not have escaped the Republican Convention alive.

Mr. GERSON: But, right, exactly, but it's - the reality here is that this issue of experience is a double-edged sword for both parties. If you were skeptical about Palin, it doesn't speak much about four years in the Senate with Barack Obama. And of course, the argument goes the other way.

CONAN: Leslie, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

LESLIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk with Rod, and Rod is on the line with us from Tucson, Arizona.

ROD (Caller): Hey, guys. Thanks for having me on. I just want to mention one of those things I like most about McCain is he actually considers nuclear energy. And I am a big proponent of nuclear energy, and I think it's one of the best sources to get independent off oil.

CONAN: Nuclear power, seeing a revival. Of course, no nuclear power plant built in this country since Three Mile Island, Michael Gerson but a lot of people - there are still unresolved problems about where do you put the waste. Nevertheless, a lot of people are looking forward - looking to that, I think independent of who gets elected president.

Mr. GERSON: No, I agree with that. I think it's very, very difficult. I spent part of the summer up in the Arctic Circle looking at our global warming issues. I think it is very difficult to be concerned about global warming and not to be at least open to the possibility of nuclear power as part of a package here. And whatever eventually emerges from the Congress is going to have those elements of conservation and alternatives and drilling and nuclear and - you know, I think that's true of either candidate.

CONAN: Rod, thanks for the call, appreciate it.

ROD: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And I've heard it said, Michael Gerson, that even if John McCain should win the nomination, win the presidency next Tuesday, a week from tomorrow, week from tomorrow, that the battle will then begin for soul of the Republican party that we've seen. He may be a transformational figure but nevertheless, he would not be running probably for re-election four years hence. What do you make of this battle between the sort of the populists and the, what some describe as anti-intellectuals in the party and those who think the party has to move in a different direction?

Mr. GERSON: Well. I think it's serious. You are already seeing a lot of postmortems before even the funeral in this case. And a real division between a group of people that's seem to resent a kind of conservative populism and people who embrace it. Sarah Palin's appeal in many ways and she did have a significant bump for McCain initially was being a Westerner who combines a kind of libertarian social values - libertarian economic views with conservative social values and has appealed to a lot of Americans. I think it's going to be hard for Republicans to win without that.

CONAN: One quick call. This is Katie. Katie calling us from Jacksonville in Florida.

KATIE (Caller): Hi, I was calling actually, I made my decision today on who I was voting for based on the segment earlier about the one party government and I feel that, you know, we need diversity in our government so I am going to be voting for McCain this time.

CONAN: Katie, thanks very much for the information. You're voting - early voting there in Florida.

KATIE: Actually, I probably would just wait till Election Day.

CONAN: OK. Katie, thanks very much for the call and Michael Gerson, you may not have been listening but we're talking about one party rule in another part of the program earlier today.

Mr. GERSON: No, I think that's a strong closing argument for McCain as well. I think it's one of the negative arguments about Obama is that there is a huge amount of pent-up liberal demand in the Congress. It's going to be hard for him to stand against it and that Americans generally prefer some kind of ballots in the system.

CONAN: Michael Gerson, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations joined us here in Studio 3A, thanks very much for you time today.

Mr. GERSON: Nice to be with you.

CONAN: Tomorrow John McWater joins us to make the case on domestic policy for Senator Barack Obama, join us then. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I am Neal Conan in Washington.

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