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New Yorker Festival: Ryan Lizza, Hendrik Hertzberg, George Packer, Dorothy Wickenden

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On Saturday afternoon the primary participants of The New Yorker’s delightful and addictive “Campaign Trail” podcast collected for a live version of same, sort of like when Monty Python did The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. Ably guided by moderator Dorothy Wickenden, Ryan Lizza, Hendrik Hertzberg, and George Packer engaged in a spirited and relatively unepigrammatic discussion about the state of the 2008 campaign.

The most startling line of the session may have been Hertzberg’s image of McCain being reduced to “seeds and stems.” Later on, Lizza compared Palin’s impact on the McCain campaign to a fire on the deck of a ship that already had a large hole in the hull. With her adequate debate performance on Thursday, the fire has finally been put out, but the hole has yet to be addressed and will probably do the campaign in. Observing that Palin supplied the appearance of coherence without actually being coherent, Hertzberg and Lizza collaborated to come up with the Colbertian term coherentishness to describe her performance.

Noting that the Democratic coalition this year will likely consist of the educated class, minorities, and young voters, Packer noted that some have begun to call Obama “George McGovern’s Revenge.” Packer fretted about the Democrats’ problems securing white working-class voters, while Hertzberg pointed out that unions still play a big role in the Democratic Party.

I have mixed feelings about all of this: white working-class voters play a talismanic role in American politics quite apart from their actual electoral importance, which has been decreasing over the years. In principle, if Dems can build a larger coalition without them, they should do so. And yet, and yet.

Packer did point out that it was union canvassers, not Obama campaign staffers, who were bringing the realities of McCain’s health care plan to voters. Unions still are that rare group with the ability to supply political education to a wide swath of society and the incentives to do it well.

On Obama’s famous equanimity, Lizza told an enlightening story that reassured beat reporters, hungry for stories of blowups or breakdowns, that the candidate was human after all. In Denver, when Obama was rehearsing his big convention speech, when he reached the section in which he invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, he choked up, stopped the speech, and had to leave the room.

Noting that about 80% of new registered voters who pick a party are Democrats, Lizza said mildly, “George Bush has not made the Republican Party cool for young people”—then, noticing the understatement, added, “This is the killing fields.”

Packer made a great point about Palin’s somewhat maddening speaking style (and I don’t mean all the you betchas). I had noticed that she favors passive constructions, but Packer zeroed in on something more fundamental: “The key is her syntax. There are no verbs in it. There are gerunds, there are participles, but no verbs. Identity politics is nouns—hockey moms.”

Lizza perceptively noted that “Sarah Palin is a phenomenon of a party in decline, a phenomenon of decadence.” Asked by an audience questioner how big a disappointment “liberals like me” are in for, Lizza joked, “Massive,” and Packer followed up with the nub: “The question is, is he FDR or Bill Clinton?” Indeed.


George Packer, Ryan Lizza, Hendrik Hertzberg, Dorothy Wickenden


Ryan Lizza, Hendrik Hertzberg
(photo credit: Debra Rothenberg/startraksphoto.com)


A very representative summary, Martin.

I wish I’d known you were there; I’d have said hello!

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