Palin’s Impact On Presidential Race Analyzed

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

September 5, 2008

Sarah Palin’s selection as John McCain’s running mate has energized the Republican base. E.J. Dionne joined David Brooks on All Things Considered to discuss Palin’s impact on the 2008 election and how she changes the race.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: We turn now to our regular political commentators, David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. Both of you are fresh from the Republican convention in St. Paul. Welcome back.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be back.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

BLOCK: Now, I want to start by playing a little bit of audio from John McCain’s speech last night. It’s a series of clips, where John McCain repeated a certain word that’s usually associated with his opponent.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Change is coming. We need to change the way government does almost everything. We are going to change that. In America, we change things that need to be changed. When we tell you we’re going to change Washington – 1950s, that’s going to change on my watch.

BLOCK: That’s a lot of change from the nominee of the incumbent party. I’m going to begin with you, E.J. Can John McCain, a career senator who’s an absolute Washington insider, really run on a message of changing Washington?

Mr. DIONNE: I don’t think so. Our programs have failed, let us continue and we’ll make change. I mean, it’s a very, very complicated act. And it’s an admission that the last four years, last eight years have not been very successful. But that was only part, I think, of the whiplash I feel I’m getting rid of still coming back from there.

First is the whiplash of the McCain-orchestrated convention Wednesday night, which was full of vituperations, divisive attacks on Obama. You know, whipping open the cultural divides in the country. And then, the next day, appears John McCain saying, you know, he’s going to bring us together. He’s going to have Republicans and Democrats work together. It just didn’t work, the two messages, at the same time.

The other odd thing was to hear all these politicians get up and praise Sarah Palin, who most of them don’t know at all. An Alaska reporter I talked to last night – who doesn’t wish her ill, by the way – said that he was amazed at the politicians getting up, saying that, he said, it’s like they’re saying, I know she is the most impressive politician in America and I just can’t wait to meet her. And so, I think there was a lot of, I don’t know, hypocrisy might be the word, but there was just something about these contradictions at that convention that I’m still trying to sort out.

BLOCK: David, knowing you and reading your column this morning, I sense that you had a very different experience there in St. Paul.

BLOCK: What do you think about this notion that John McCain is running on this message of change while also saying, I’m more experienced because I’ve been in Washington for decades.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I think it’s something he potentially can get across. I mean if you look at his record, he actually, I mean what you saw in the speech last night, it was not a particularly great speech, but you saw the indignation at what has happened over the last 12 years and he’s got the record to prove it. I mean, running against his party on campaign finance reform, running against his party and both parties on earmarks, running against his own party on corruption. He actually does have a record of actually trying to create change, and I think voters will see the indignation about what Washington has become. They’ll see the experience in fighting it.

What they probably won’t see is a road map for change. I thought there was a mismatch in the speech between the really transformational desires and intentions and the policies which were not there, and it’s, neither Barack Obama nor John McCain have radically transformational policies for their own parties.

Obama needs to have that a little less because his party is the out party. What McCain accomplished, I think, in the speech was to open the door and people say, well, this guy does sincerely want change, he’s got an experience of promoting change. The danger, I think, for him is he turns into Bob Dole, somebody people admire but they don’t see why they should vote for him.

Mr. DIONNE: I agree with David in being surprised. If I take David right at how little policy McCain had in that speech, well, I’m not talking about immense amounts of detail. But just a sense of direction he had – vouchers, which he’s talked for about – for a long time. He had wage insurance. But there really wasn’t much about solving problems. And in terms of this he is not a creature from Washington. I still think he’s going to have to explain in the course of this campaign. He has flip flops in order to win the Republican nomination. He’s back way off on immigration.

That word was mentioned, I think, not at all at this Republican convention. He’s flipped on tax cuts. He’s flipped on oil drilling. So that it is harder today for John McCain to make the case that he is a transformational figure or even a change figure, forget transformational, than it was, say, when he ran in 2000.

Listen to the full interview »