DNC: Extreme Message or Makeover?

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report with Brit Hume," July 28, 2004 that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: Some observations now from Fred Barnes, executive editor of the "Weekly Standard," Mort Kondracke, executive editor of "Roll-Call," and Mara Liasson, national political correspondent of National Public Radio (search). Fox News contributors all.

The Democrats. There is not much doubt about what unites the Democrats here. And it isn't particularly John Kerry. It's really the fear and loathing of George W. Bush, perhaps enunciated best by Ted Kennedy last night, when he said the only thing we have to fear is four more years of George W. Bush. And yet much of that is being subdued, to say the least, in the rhetoric heard from the convention platform. Although not all of the rhetoric is so subdued.

Everything the Republicans are saying about this convention is under the rubric of the phrase "extreme makeover." Legitimate criticism? Unfair? What?

MORT KONDRACKE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "ROLL CALL": I think, you know, that's become the habit of both parties to get dressed up in like a Halloween costume of the other party, when they come to have their conventions. In 2000, all of the faces that you saw almost on television at the Republican National Convention (search) were either black or brown. You know, it was like a combination of the NAACP and La Raza (search) convention.

That's not who is mainly represented in the Republican Party. Those were the days of compassionate conservativism.

HUME: Certainly African Americans have been pretty well represented at high levels in the Bush administration. I suppose it would be argued.

KONDRACKE: Yes. But there aren't that many of them. Practically every black Republican was there on the stage.

(LAUGHTER)

HUME: Right.

KONDRACKE: Here you never hear the word "liberal." Everybody is waving the flag a lot. Talking about military strength. Most of these people were against the Iraq War to start with. Barack Obama last night, said that John Kerry would never hesitate to use force if it he had to defend national security. Well, John Kerry had a chance in 1991, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. And he voted against the war. It's like that.

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, NPR: You know, I think the one thing that has been papered over — the difference between the podium and the floor here — is the issue of Iraq. In other words, the platform doesn't say we're against the war in Iraq. All of the speakers have said the war in Iraq was mishandled by President Bush. But as Mort just said we wouldn't hesitate to use force if necessary. That's where a big split has been papered over.

Not unlike the Republicans in 2000, where social issues were kind of kept to a minimum and they put on a great show of diversity on the podium.

However, I actually think that it's been a very long time since the Democrats had a fractious convention. I mean it was 1998. Ninety-two and '96 were a lot like this. They put together a very centrist looking image. There were no platform fights. I think what Republicans long for is the days of the old Democrats where they were a big mess. And they formed a firing squad. They got in a circle. And it just hasn't been like that for a while.

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": It hasn't because nothing is decided here. And so, this is an exercise in discipline. And these folks are very, very disciplined. I'll have to say.

Look, there is no question about the Republican charge of extreme makeovers. This is an extreme makeover and it's working for the Democrats. There is no question about that either. Who have — when you get to the broadcast networks, so far, what have people seen? They've seen Bill Clinton, who is a great speechmaker and so on. And that's Bill Clinton at his best. When he's back alone in the Oval Office — well, I won't get into that.

And then they've seen last night, they saw Obama talking about one America and patriotism. Tonight they'll see John Edwards. I doubt if he repeats his two Americas speech, which was so popular with some Democrats, at least during the primaries. And then John Edwards. And that's all really most people are going to see. And it's going to sound a lot different than what is the normal Democratic rhetoric.

There was a poll by "The Boston Globe," that says that 95 percent of them believe that the decision to go to war in Iraq was wrong. And yet, that's not coming up much at all. I think Jimmy Carter may have hinted at that in his speech. But we just don't hear that.

HUME: And was cited for disagreeing with the platform.

LIASSON: Right.

BARNES: It's like these are a bunch of heavy drinkers who decided not to have a drink at all this week.

KONDRACKE: Yes. And I think it basically works and very few people are punching through it. You know, we probably are. But I don't know that the other networks are saying this.

HUME: Let me just ask a question about the coverage of these events, Republican and Democratic convention alike. And the fact that they have now devolved into four-day shows, rallies in which the party frames things in the way it wants to be seen. Are we in any position, collectively as news media, to unmask this? Or do we ultimately kind of have to go along and report it with a straight face?

LIASSON: I think that we're in a position to unmask it, if there was some incredible disparity between the platform itself and what was on the podium. That hasn't happened. This is a party that has kind of gotten itself together.

HUME: Well, wait a minute. What about between what motivates the delegates and the party? And what we know does and what we're seeing?

LIASSON: I think that has actually been covered to a certain extent. Although, if you are covering the convention and the proceedings here, that is hard to find.

BARNES: Yes. And look. Brit, what's going to happen is I don't care what we say that they're faking, you know, that they're wearing a moderate mask and so on. What's the main thing that people are going to get out of this convention or the Republican convention? The speeches. That's what they're going to hear. And so what they're saying there, which is a much more moderate message, is what people are going mainly take out of this convention.

LIASSON: Look, they are four-day infomercials and we're here to watch them and talk about them.

HUME: Indeed, to put them on the air or at least to some extent.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You can't treat the commission's report as something that you hope will go away. You can't treat the commission's report, as something that sort of represents a threat to America that will go away because this threat won't go away. And the recommendations of the commission make sense and they should be implemented now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUME: That was John Kerry yesterday. And his camp continues to pound away at the theme that he, John Kerry, will adopt the commission's recommendations basically wholesale — not in all their particulars necessarily, but in general and in principal. And George W. Bush and his team are not doing it, that the president is dragging his feet. He's taking his time. He could have done some of this a long time ago.

Is this an issue that will work here?

BARNES: No. I don't think it'll work. Look, Brit. Review the bidding first. First, we heard after the report came out, we heard from House speaker Deny Hastert who said — correct me if I'm wrong — but I think he said I don't think we'll even get to these this year. And then he is attacked by Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House. And John Kerry jumps in.

And Republicans realize, wait a minute. We're going to get routed on this issue. We better do something. So then Hastert and Tom DeLay, the House majority leaders say, we're going to start on this right away. We'll take it up in August. And the president says...

HUME: Probably there are some 15 hearings scheduled now during the August recess.

BARNES: Then the president said I may be on vacation, but we're going to be talking about this and some of these I can put into effect right away. And no doubt he will.

Some are pretty silly, you know, the U.S. should offer more moral leadership in the world.

LIASSON: Well, he already thinks he's doing that.

BARNES: That's one of the recommendations. And there are other things like that. I think this was all for show and Republicans realized they might be vulnerable on this and decided well, we're going to act.

LIASSON: This whole issue of what to do about terrorism has followed a similar pattern. The president resists the Homeland Security Department; then embraces it. He resisted the 9/11 Commission; then he embraced it. The same thing with these recommendations.

Kerry rushed to the head of the parade on this one to embrace the recommendations of the report. And the Republicans, as Fred said, are trying to catch up.

HUME: They're making the point then, the Kerry people said look, to whatever the extent the Republicans have done this, they're following Kerry's lead.

LIASSON: That's the point they're trying to make. Now you know, is this some huge difference? For Kerry, he has to get these opportunities wherever he can. If he can try to show that he would be stronger on terrorism, because he embraced the recommendations of the commissions faster and more vigorously than President Bush. You know, that is one way to demonstrate that. I think it's pretty small and real weak.

HUME: We've now got this headlong rush on all sides to embrace this commission. The commission, which only a month or six weeks ago, seemed bent on further disgracing itself after very controversial behavior during the hearing.

LIASSON: But it didn't.

HUME: It didn't. And it did so by producing a document that didn't attack either administration, Clinton or Bush on terrorism. And then got itself embraced. But are these recommendations all something that should they be endorsed and grabbed and adopted without much question?

KONDRACKE: No. I think that they require a good deal of deliberation, some of them about whether you want an intelligence czar? Who should it be? What agencies fall under his control and so on? Or her control? And that requires — you can't do this instantly. And a lot of...

HUME: They're trying to.

LIASSON: That's why there are 15 now. There are 15 hearings.

KONDRACKE: It's easy for a challenger to say do this right now, when you don't have the responsibility of actually doing it, or reorganizing the government, or figuring out how much money it's going to cost, and so on.

I mean, you know, some of the recommendations. For example, Richard Lugar of Indiana has said year in and year out that there's not enough funding to secure the nuclear weapons in the old Soviet Union. Now that's one of the recommendations here. And I think it is a legitimate thing to say let's do it. But there is other stuff that Bush is plainly doing, like prioritizing...

HUME: Let me ask this question about the recommendations. Was the commission's report so widely accepted by the public because of the specifics of its recommendations or because it wasn't partisan?

LIASSON: Because it wasn't partisan but that gave it an opening for people to take a look at the recommendations. I think John Kerry is looking for his equivalent of the missile gap and this is about as good as he's gotten so far.

BARNES: Look, does anybody think, if all of these recommendations had been accepted a year or two before 9/11 that it would have been averted? Of course not. That wouldn't have happened at all.

These are mainly bureaucratic recommendations. You're shifting boxes around on a chart. And maybe some of them will be passed but they don't matter that much.

HUME: That's it for the panel. But stay tuned to see what happened when Brian Wilson went out for an English lesson Boston style. That's next.

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