McCain Too Moderate, Some GOP Conservatives Say A new poll from the Pew Center for the People and the Press, shows Sen. John McCain of Arizona with a strong lead over the other Republican presidential hopefuls. Yet some conservative Republicans say McCain is too moderate a GOP candidate.
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McCain Too Moderate, Some GOP Conservatives Say

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McCain Too Moderate, Some GOP Conservatives Say

McCain Too Moderate, Some GOP Conservatives Say

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington sitting in for Neil Conan.

A new poll from the Pew Center for the People & the Press shows Senator John McCain with a strong lead over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney among Republican voters nationally. Forty-two percent of registered Republicans said they would support Senator McCain. But some republicans, especially conservative Republicans aren't happy with Senator McCain's record on immigration reform, the environment, or taxes. Others are worried about his personality, his age, or how frequently he has partnered with Democrats and criticized his Republican colleagues.

On conservative talk radio, on TV, and in editorials, some Republicans have said they can't support McCain, that there isn't a Republican candidate they can embrace. A handful have endorsed Democratic candidate Barack Obama. It brings up the question, what does it mean to be Republican these days?

For Republicans in our audience, is there a candidate for president that represents your thinking, or will you have to settle for someone?

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog. It's at npr.or/blogofthenation.

Later on the opinion page, what is all the talk of change really mean in this presidential election? But first, finding the Republican nominee.

In the '90s, Ralph Reed was the executive director of the Christian Coalition. Now he is the founder and president of Century Strategies, a political consulting firm. He joins us from the studios o Crawford Post Production in Atlanta.

Mr. Reed, good to have you with us.

Mr. RALPH REED (President, Century Strategies): Good to be with you, Lynn.

NEARY: Now in this field of Republican candidates - John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Ron Paul, is there anyone that you would describe as a conservative Republican?

Mr. REED: You know, I think that, you know, Paul would certainly fall into the category of a small L libertarian, calling for, you know, a sort of a - what he would say not an expansionist foreign policy and a greatly delimited government. I think Huckabee and Romney are traditional conservatives when you look at the Republican Party in the post-Reagan era. Huckabee's running into some issue, of course, because he, you know, has gotten into some tangles with economic conservatives. He had some tax increases and some fee increases in Arkansas and so forth, but beyond that, a traditional conservative.

Romney, of course, more of a northeastern moderate when he was governor and as a US senate candidate in the '90s. But as he sought the nomination, I think it's fair to say that no one has more aggressively built bridges to conservatives than Mitt Romney. And I think now that he is, at least, in a sort of a three way race with Huckabee and McCain, he's saying more of those folks flock to his banner.

And John McCain, I think, you pretty fairly, well, summed it up in the introduction. He is a man who came to Washington in the 1980s as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution to use his phrase. But over the years, he has been a maverick, you know, a backbencher at times, a contrarian within his own party. On immigration, voting against both Bush tax cuts, opposing the federal marriage amendment, McCain fined gold which many conservatives believe was an unconstitutional infringement on first amendment political speech. And I think that these issue differences combined with, you know, his personality, which has caused him at times to, you know, to sort of engage into some prickly exchanges with his foes within the party, are going to present some challenges should he be the nominee. I don't think they're in super bowl challenges, but they're going to be challenges.

NEARY: What are the main challenges for social conservatist? What needs to happen for social conservatist to get behind McCain?

Mr. REED: Well, I think that - you know, it's very interesting because we're really on unchartered waters. We - assuming that McCain emerges as the nominee, and I think it's premature to say that that would be the case, but clearly he's emerged as the front runner. But should he be the nominee, it will be the first time we've had a presidential nominee of the party who won the nomination while losing the votes of conservative and evangelical voters in the primary process. That may change, by the way, on Super Tuesday. We'll have to see. But the most recent exit polling data we have is from Florida and in Florida - which was a close primary, not open to independents - he carried only one in every five votes of very conservative voters, and about one in every four votes of self identified evangelicals.

NEARY: Does that mean then that the power of the evangelical wing of the Republican Party is seriously diminished? Is that essentially what that means?

Mr. REED: I don't know that I would use the term diminish, but I would certainly say it was fractured.

Romney was getting about a third of that vote, meaning the self identified evangelical vote. Huckabee was getting about a third of it. Had I tall been able to coagulate behind a single candidate, it probably would have been enough to propel somebody to victory, say in Florida or South Caroline, but was divided. For example, if you look at the exit polls from - and even the precinct by precinct returns in upstate South Carolina, particularly, say Greenville Country or Spartanburg County. You know, Thompson was getting 20-25 percent of those votes. So he and Huckabee were splitting that vote and allowing McCain to break off right tackle. The truth is - the dirty little secret of Republican Party politics is that has really always been the case.

In 2000, for example, George W. Bush got about 37 percent of the evangelical vote in Iowa, and the rest was divided among Alan Keys and Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes. So the front runner has always gotten his fair share, and then the others have split the rest, making it difficult for, say, the insurgent candidate to gain critical mass.

The question is what will happen should McCain become the nominee having done so poorly among the grassroots conservatives of the Party? And I think…

NEARY: Well how do you explain that McCain is in the position that he's in right now? Does it mean that the party itself, not just the evangelical vote but the party itself is very badly fractured and is that the explanation for it? If this candidate that so many people are unhappy with is - seems to be rising to the top?

Mr. REED: Well I think there are probably two main explanations. The first is it is the first election since 1952 when you have not had an incumbent president or vice president seeking the nomination of his party. In the case of the Republican Party, of course, that means there was no clear front runner. There was no obvious place to go and the result was that everybody scattered. I mean it was like watching a bunch of 10 year olds all trying to kick the soccer ball at once. You had everybody running to Thompson for a while, and then everybody running to Romney for a while and people couldn't really figure out, you know, who is the bona fide conservative in this race.

And I think the second reason for it, beyond the obvious appeal of McCain as a candidate, and he's a very appealing candidate with his biography and his status as a former POW, you know, straight talk and all the other attributes they bring in to the race, is the fact that all the other candidates, in one way, shape, or form, had some flaws that made it hard for them to really set the base on fire.

So in the case of Romney for example, he had been pro-choice, and then became pro-life. Certainly they welcomed his conversion, but it meant that there were questions about why hadn't he been there earlier. In the case Rudy Giuliani, he was openly pro-choice and had been as mayor of New York City. In the case of Fred Thompson, he got in and for a while looked like he might be the flavor of the month, but then he said that he oppose the Human Life Amendment and oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment. So nobody, in the way, say Reagan did in '80, or George W. Bush did in 2000, was really able to solidify and unify all those grass roots conservatives.

NEARY: We're talking about…

Mr. REED: And McCain was clearly the beneficiary of that.

NEARY: We're talking with Ralph Reed about what it means to be a Republican this election year. If you'd like to join our discussion, the number is 989-8255. If you are a Republican, which candidate are you looking at and are you thinking you might have to settle on a candidate this year.

I'd like to get another guest in this discussion. Now Ross Douthat is senior editor at The Atlantic and a blogger at theatlantic.com, and he joins us here at in Studio 3A. Good to have you with us.

Mr. ROSS DOUTHAT (Senior Editor, The Atlantic): Great to be here.

NEARY: You've been listening to Ralph Reed. I wonder if you agree with his analysis of what's going on internally within the Republican Party right now and - as we're seeing it reflected in this - what has been kind of a confusing up until now sort of a nomination process, and now seems to be solidifying, it looks like, around McCain.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Sure. I actually agree with a lot of what Ralph said. I do think that there's something else going on here too, though, which is that the Republican brand in a certain way is weaker than it's been, maybe, in a generation. If you look at polls, not only of President Bush's job approval rating but other indicators like party identification nationally is going against the Republicans to a greater degree than in decades; fund raising for the Democrats is off the charts, for the Republicans it's stagnant or falling. And so it make sense that a party in a time of transition when it's possibly weaker than it's been in a while would become fractured as the various - not just the various candidates but the various interest groups within the party. As Ralph said, they're all trying to kick the ball but part of why that's happening is that they all see an opportunity to reinvent the Republican Party in various directions.

So for instance, early in the race, you saw a lot of hawkish, socially liberal Republicans rallying around Rudy Giuliani. Seeing in, you know, the current Republican moment a chance to reshape the party at that direction. And similarly, the rise of Mike Huckabee in Iowa in particular can partially be attributed to a lot of social conservatives saying, you know, look, we've sat on the sidelines long enough. This is our chance to have one of our own win the nomination and so forth.

So in a way, I mean, the worse case scenario for the Republicans is that they're at a position a kin to where the Democrats were, say in 1972, coming at the end of a long period of dominance where, you know, that dominance is ending. It's not clear where the party goes next and so everyone's jocking for control.

NEARY: Yeah. And I want to get into this. We're going to have to take a break shortly but the Republicans, you know, during that period when they were in their heyday like to think of themselves as the party with the ideas. Is that time over or is the party bereft of ideas at the moment? Is that part of the problem?

Mr. DOUTHAT: Well I do think that if you look particularly on the domestic front, at some of the issue that the Republican majority was built on; crime, taxes and so fort, the Reagan revolution, for instance, happened at a period of high crime and high taxes. Now taxes are low, crime is low, so the Republicans at least need some new issues with the risk to pursue voters.

NEARY: All right. We're going to continue talking about that when we return.

If you like to join the conversation, the number is 800-989-8255. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

We'll get to the opinion page a little later in the hour and talk about a word we're hearing a lot in this campaign, change.

Right now, though, our focus is on Republicans and the divide between some conservative Republicans and the leading candidate for the Republican nomination Senator John McCain.

If you're a Republican voter, is there a candidate for president that represents your thinking or were you have to settle for someone? Are considering a candidate outside the Republican Party? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Ross Douthat is still with us. He's senior editor for The Atlantic and Ralph Reed is also with us. He's the founder and president of Century Strategies. And let's get a call in now from Kim(ph) and she's calling from Indiana. Hi, Kim.

KIM (Caller): Hi, How are you?

NEARY: Good. Go ahead.

KIM: Yeah. I'm a registered Republican and I would just - there is no way I would ever vote for Mitt Romney. I don't feel like he is trust worthy. I feel like he would say what whatever it takes to get elected. I think he would buy the election if there is any way possible. He would just dip into his personal fortune and any other money he can to get there. He would outspend, outspend, outspend. And I would vote for almost anybody other than him.

NEARY: Have you been following the election closely so far?

KIM: Very closely.

NEARY: Very closely?

KIM: Yes, ma'am.

NEARY: And - what are you feeling about Sen. McCain as a candidate at this race?

KIM: I trust him. I, you know, I don't like everything about him. I do - I like the fact that, I think, he sticks to his guns. I know that not everybody like him. I do feel like he might be willing to work across the aisle. He has done that in the past (unintelligible) his legislation. Well, you got to buzz the gridlock. So, you know, I think that whether he has done popular stuff in the past, we do need somebody who would work across the aisle.

I do like the fact that he has been a hero and the fact that he wasn't a coward and didn't leave his men behind in the past. I think that that stands to his credit. I, you know, I would still have to look at the rest of - the rest of the campaign. I would not vote for Hillary Clinton but I would consider Barack Obama depending upon how everything goes.

NEARY: All right. So you're still - even open to Democrats.

KIM: But I would like to also possible see a Huckabee-McCain ticket.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much, Kim.

KIM: Thank you.

NEARY: You sort of summed up a whole lot of thinking of a lot of people out there. And let me just ask you, Ralph Reed, before we let you go. Interesting, I think, what Kim said about, you know, we have to buzz the gridlock and interested in McCain because maybe McCain can work with people across the aisle when in fact that was one of the things, I think, he's being criticized for by those who don't support him.

Mr. REED: Yeah. No question as it's so often the case with an appealing candidate. They're strength is also a weakness. And in John McCain's case, the fact that he is willing to take on his own party, willing to stand on principle even when it doesn't serve him sometimes politically as he did in co-sponsoring the comprehensive immigration legislation with Senator Ted Kennedy last year when his - it contributed to his then campaign's collapse. You know that's very - people are looking for that. People are hungering for a politician that doesn't just tow the party line.

On the other hand, if Sen. McCain wins the nomination and can't unite his party and can't bring conservatives on board in a very competitive race - and I think this will be very competitive - you know, that can be a liability. So the challenge for Sen. McCain should he become the nominee is how does he unite his party and bring conservatives into his campaign in larger numbers without losing what is clearly his best asset which is that maverick, straight talker who will call it like he sees it without respect to party orthodoxy, it's going to be very hard, I think, to pull off and in fact, last year, when he went to Liberty University and spoke at the commencement of Jerry Falwell University and when he reversed himself on taxes, he had voted against the Bush tax cuts and then announced that he wanted to make them permanent, they were many in the commentary than in the media who said, hey, whatever happened to Mr. Straight Talk?

So - I'm not saying he can't pull it off, but it'll be interesting to watch.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us today, Ralph.

Mr. REED: You bet, Lynn. Thank you.

NEARY: Ralph Reed is founder and president of Century Strategy.

And I'd like to, now, bring Matthew Continetti in to the discussion. He's a staff writer for The Weekly Standard. He joins us in Studio 3A also, good to have you with us.

Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETII (Staff Writer, The Weekly Standard): Nice to be here.

NEARY: I'd like to continue with what we just heard Ralph Reed talking about and that is the challenges for John McCain. This person who's kind of seen as a straight talker, a maverick who can deal with the other side of the aisle if need be. And you know, at the same time, he has to appeal to that Republican conservative base. Can he do it? How can he do it?

Mr. CONTINETII: Well in my opinion, there are two different critiques of McCain happening now in the right. And the first one is programmatical. It's people who disagree with him on campaign finance reform, or immigration reform, or climate change, or any one of the several issues in which McCain differs from conservative orthodoxy.

And then, though, there's the - what you might call a characterological critique of John McCain. This is what you've mainly find a lot if you listen closely to the talk show host, the conservative radio talk show host and some bloggers. They dislike him personally. And it's not really political, actually. It's his temperament; it's their view that he can't be trusted. It's their view that he's - his reputation for heroism, he wears it on his sleeve or the - he caters to media taste.

This critique isn't about politics at all.

NEARY: And why is that dislike so deep? I have to admit that I haven't completely understood that. That really a most vitriolic dislike for John McCain that you hear coming from some conservative circles. Ross?

Mr. DOUTHAT: Well, I think part of it is just the impression that he likes attacking his fellow Republicans more than he likes attacking Democrats. And that's…

NEARY: What's an example of that?

Mr. DOUTHAT: Well, I mean, if you - some of it is just the tone. The sort of - the sense that he - and you saw it on the 2000 campaign where it was - John McCain never seemed happier than he was likening the Bush campaign that he was running against to Darth Vader and himself, to Luke Skywalker. And never seemed more in his element than - when he was going after Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as agents of intolerance. And then if you look at the way he talks about Hillary Clinton say, or Barack Obama, either of whom are - could be his opponents in the fall. He's always very respectful. He, you know, he treats them as friends in a way he doesn't treat his fellow Republicans as friends.

Although, I would disagree with Matt a little bit. I think that the characterological and the political critiques overlap. I think that a lot of the anti-McCain voices see the fact that for instance he loves to carry favor with the media and both a character flaw and something that will, you know, lead to him perusing more liberal policies if he's in the White House.

NEARY: You know it's kind of stunning to hear someone like Ann Coulter. We had a piece of tape with Ann Coulter on Fox saying, well, you know, if it's going to be McCain, we'll have to work for Hillary Clinton because you've also been hearing, well, the one thing that's going to unite Republicans in the end, perhaps, is if Hillary Clinton is the nominee that, you know, there is a such dislike for the Clintons that that would, in one way, unite. So to hear someone like Ann Coulter, tongue-in-cheek, who knows if she really means it. But just to even hear her say something like that…

Mr. DOUTHAT: I'd like to hear someone beside Ann Coulter say it before I took it seriously.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. DOUTHAT: I mean there's a sense in which she is more of a performance artist ultimately than a political commentator.

NEARY: No, but it's like - it's like one of those little signals of how (unintelligible), I think, maybe.

Mr. DOUTHAT: No. But what's strange though is it didn't really come out until the last week and a half when it suddenly became clear that John McCain was going to become the front runner, and then there was this outpouring of anti-McCain sentiment that you really hadn't heard through out the campaign. And it often seemed like a lot of the movement conservatives spent more time worrying about Mike Huckabee earlier in the race and attacking him as not a real conservative. And then - and yet now you hear Ralph Reed saying, well, Huckabee is a real conservative, Romney is a real conservative, McCain isn't. But this has come very late in the game and I'm not sure why that is.

Mr. CONTINETII: Coulter's statement just speaks to how much it isn't political, though. For her - for Ann Coulter who's a thorough bred conservative, there is no issue on which she is not at the farthest right on.

NEARY: Right.

Mr. CONTINETII: For her to say that she would support Hillary Clinton over John McCain just goes to show that it's totally based on his personality, a deep dislike of him personally. Because there's - but, I mean, yes he's a centrist on some issues, but if you look at the totality of both candidates clearly, as a conservative, you would go with the more right leaning one and that would be John McCain in this case.

NEARY: We're talking about Republicans and what it means to be Republican in this election year. If you'd like to join the discussion, the number is 989-8255. And we're gong to take a call now. That's 800-989-8255. And you can give us a call. Our - you can send an e-mail to talk@npr.org.

We're going to talk to Roger(ph) and he's calling from Michigan. Hi, Roger.

ROGER (Caller): Hey there.

NEARY: Go ahead.

ROGER: My comment is, is that one thing to look at is electability. McCain is widely know for being a critic in the Republican Party, and with the Republicans, well, not being very popular, he has electability issues. Another example is his credibility as far as they like the war is concern. All the Republican candidates strongly support the war but John McCain is the only one who actually has credibility of all that. With his experience in Vietnam, military background and being head of the arm services committees. As such…

NEARY: So you think that John McCain is the most electable candidate. Is that what you're saying?

ROGER: Versus, say, it more like Hillary Clinton? Absolutely. You choose from the other candidates, sure that means more conservatives and may be more Republican appealing, but realistically, we have to deal with independence and widely unpopular views of the Republican Party. Besides, someone like Hillary or Barack Obama will easily become president. John McCain is the only one who stands a chance. Key word, chance.

NEARY: Okay. Thanks fro your call, Roger. Matt Continetti, what do you think about that? I mean is that why Republicans are beginning to sort of move in McCain's direction as they think maybe he is the one that's electable?

Mr. CONTINETTI: It's just like McCain's mom said a few weeks ago. That sooner or later the Republicans wouldn't like it but they'd have to hold their noses and vote for her son John McCain. And the electability argument, I think, is a strong one there in terms of McCain's appeal to independence. However, McCain is, by no - in my opinion, by no means a sure deal to win the general election if he is the Republican nominee, and his electability can change. Things change over time and this is a long campaign. For one thing, the critiques of his character that you now hear coming from the right will soon come from the left. And for another thing, McCain has moved rightward over the course of the campaign, whether it's on immigration or on taxes.

And so an opponent, whether it's Hillary Clinton or whether it's Barack Obama, would be able to say that perhaps this person, McCain, is not as straight talk as he makes himself out to be. Again, closer to what I think what Ross is alluding to where the political critique blends in with the characterological one.

NEARY: Let me read this e-mail. This is an e-mail Lorie(ph) in Oklahoma. And she says, regarding your question about who we are going to support. I'm a 54-year-old white lifelong conservative Republican, but this year, for the first time in my life, I have contributed to a political campaign. Barack Obama represents to me the change we so desperately need. My children's generation are angry, as they should be, at the mess my generation has made of our country's affairs. What we need is someone to inspire us to the cause, the changes - to change. One person, even the president cannot change everything, but one person can inspire all of us to see the change is finally made.

That is a very interesting e-mail from a Republican saying that she's going to support Barack Obama. And before I ask you two to respond to it, I do want to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Ross, what's your reaction to that? I have - this is not the first time that I've hear Republicans say they might be able to support Barack Obama.

Mr. DOUTHAT: I mean, I think it suggest two things. First, that voters care a little bit less about issues and more about more intangible issues of personal appeal than, say, people in Washington do. Because by almost any measure, I think Barack Obama is to the left of Hillary Clinton on the issues. And if you look at their voting records in the Senate, that's (unintelligible) out. But -and yet, Hillary Clinton inspires this visceral, almost revolution among many Republican voters in a way that Barack Obama simply doesn't.

And that segues into my second reason for the sentiments the e-mailer expresses, which is that Obama has mastered the ability of disarming Republicans without agreeing with them. And you see this particularly in his recent book, "The Odasity of Hope." Merely by summarizing conservative arguments on issues ranging from taxes to abortion to judicial appointments, and being respectful about conservative opinions, he make conservatives like him even though he isn't actually taking any conservative positions. He's just saying, you know, here's what conservatives believe.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUTHAT: I respect them. I think they're intellectually honest. I don't agree with them but I respect them.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. DOUTHAT: And in today's politics, that's - I think to a lot of voters it feels like a big thing.

NEARY: It's really interesting thing that he had on that plate it's all set if he got elected and how conservatives who voted for him would feel about it if he got elected.

Let's take another call. We're going to go to Grant(ph) calling from Minneapolis. Hi, Grant.

GRANT (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

GRANT: Is Ralph Reed still in?

NEARY: Ralph Reed is gone, I'm sorry to tell you. But we have two wonderful guests here, Ross Douthat and Matthew Continetti.

GRANT: I hope he's still listening. I shared a college Republican group in my college. This was about 10 years ago. We had about 1,500 students and a strong end Democrats group. I was able to get a group going with about 75 members and we registered about 200 people a year. But the Republican Party began to loose me under his watch.

NEARY: Under Ralph Reed's watch?

GRANT: Yes.

NEARY: And so where are you now? Are you in the Republican Party or you're not in the Republican Party?

GRANT: I'm not sure how to classify that. I simply - we're writing checks we can't cash. And I don't care to see you spend money, print money, borrow money from China and other countries, and expect future generations to foot this bill for which this lifestyle to which we become accustomed.

NEARY: Is there any Republican out there that you do like?

GRANT: Yes, Ron Paul. And I don't care about electability. Electability - it's a distraction that devalues the principle of the voter. It allows expediency to preempt those principles. It allows a party to construct the set of choices which moves us further from out values. And I keep seeing candidates who are willing to continue spending and borrowing $9 billion a day.

NEARY: All right. That's…

GRANT: We need to look at - we need to look at the constitution and what that authorizes. And then look at what the government currently does. It has far exceeded that and it's time for that to stop. And I really feel strongly about that.

NEARY: I can tell.

GRANT: (Unintelligible) Ron Paul if I have to.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Grant.

GRANT: Thank you.

NEARY: Now there's a very strong argument being made by a Republican - may be Republican arguing for fiscal - decide on undecided fiscal conservativism which is one of these factions, but it's a faction that seems like within the conservative wing of the Republicans.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, the most - I mean the most prominent fiscal conservative of the Republican side is John McCain.

NEARY: Right.

Mr. CONTINETTI: I mean, his entire fiscal policy is spend less. That didn't go to the Ron Paul levels but it is today deficit hawk of the - kind of the aversion that we haven't seen in Republican circles, actually, since before the supply-side revolution in the late '70s and 1980s.

NEARY: All right. Well, we're out of time. Thanks to both of you for joining us this afternoon. Ross Douthat is senior editor at The Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com. Matthew Continetti is the staff - a staff writer for The Weekly Standard.

And coming up, it's TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. I'm Lynn Neary, it's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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