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McCain’s Running Mate Sarah Palin Makes GOP History

September 4, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Convention attendees and a panel of historians offer perspective on the significance of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's historic nomination and the challenges on the campaign trail.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Jim, as we look at the challenges John McCain faces tonight getting his story across, we’re going to talk to two Republicans from two very different parts of the country.

They are United States Sen. Olympia Snowe from the state of Maine and Trey Grayson, who is a secretary of state for the state of Kentucky.

Thank you both very much for being with us.

Senator Snowe, to you first. When John McCain talks about changing Washington, you know Washington very well. You’ve served there almost 30 years. What does he need to say? How big is the hurdle that he has to climb to get his message across about that?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), Maine: Well, you know, it’s interesting, because it shouldn’t be a high hurdle, given his experience in Washington and his predisposition in working across the political aisles, he’s done consistently in challenging the political status quo each and every day, having made his mark in bipartisanship, which I think would resonate with voters across this country, most especially independents, whom we have to attract in order to win this election.

In fact, Democrats and Republicans are going to have to look at ways to attracting independents. And John has had the experience, not just talking about it. He’s actually — he’s actually done it. And that’s why Joe Lieberman was here to speak on his behalf.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trey Grayson, from your perspective in the state of Kentucky, looking at Washington, John McCain has been there for 30 years. How does he get across the notion that, yes, I’ve been there, but I’m going to change things?

TREY GRAYSON, Kentucky Secretary of State: I think what Senator Snowe talked a lot about, the fact that he actually has done things. He’s worked across party lines.

If you look at all the attempts over the last couple of years to bring a bipartisan consensus together, he’s been right there either leading it or being part of it. So what he ought to do is point to those successes and say, “You know, put me charge, and maybe we can solve some more problems, too.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Snowe, Senator McCain obviously identified as the maverick in the Republican Party. Does that make it harder or easier for him to get things done?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: I think it’s going to make it easier, because I think everybody understands that, in order to change Washington, you really do have to change the political environment in order to affect change for America. There’s no other way of doing it.

And the fact that he has been a maverick in order to assert his positions on critical issues like climate change, for example, a very important issue, they were just discussing here this evening, and it’s so important to this country.

I mean, John has been there time and again. He’s affected change not only in defense, national security, Gang of 14, when we had to avert, you know, a major crisis in the United States Senate on judicial appointments, patient liability for managed care reform, the list goes on. I’ve known him for 25 years.

And he’s been nothing but change for this country in trying to create solutions. He knows that’s the only way to make it better for Americans.

Half of GOP senators no-shows

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Grayson, again, from the perspective of somebody who's not in the nation's capital, what needs changing?

TREY GRAYSON: A lot. I mean, I think one of the biggest things is that there are so many problems that this country faces that Congress hasn't really worked to address.

The Democrats and Republicans have opportunities to work together, but too often they don't do it. And I think a president who's strong and respected by people on both sides can bring people to the table, find common ground, and make some compromises.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you have a Republican who's been president for the last eight years. The Republicans have been in charge of the Congress for many of the last 20 or 30 years.

TREY GRAYSON: Right. Well, and, you know, that's a fair question, but my response to that would be John McCain is a different kind of Republican. He works with Democrats, and he's got a proven track record of doing that. He knows them.

And that gives him a shot. And he's also starting with a fresh slate. You know, any time you've been in office for two terms, even if you're ending on a popular note, it's difficult to get that energy and enthusiasm.

John McCain will start fresh with a great running mate on the ticket, and I think he's got a chance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Snowe, we checked with the offices of all 49 Republican members of the Senate. Half of them are not here in St. Paul for this Republican convention. Does that say anything to you about John McCain or the ticket or the party?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: I think it's most likely that many of them are at home campaigning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some of them are.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Yes, some of them are, because it's so close to the election, and we have to go back in session next week, and we don't know how long that session will last. It may be the end of the month; it may not be.

So I think people are looking at that for other reasons. But it has nothing to do about John McCain or the Republican Party. If anything, I think there's such strong enthusiasm for John McCain.

We realize that if we were going to win this election, it had to be John McCain as our nominee, and that's why I supported him early on, because he understands that you have to balance things out in Washington, the president and the Congress have to work together to get anything done.

And I think we know that we have to get things done for the American people. They deserve no less than that, and John understands that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, very quickly, Mr. Grayson, how does John McCain pull together the different parts of the Republican Party, the social conservatives, the economic conservatives, the national security conservatives?

TREY GRAYSON: Well, I think starting with his selection of Sarah Palin, that helped that process. You could sense a change here in Minneapolis-St. Paul on Friday when the announcement was made.

The folks who were already here from the Platform Committee and the Rules Committee, they were ecstatic. They were floating. And the base has joined in.

He's always had a good appeal to the moderates and the national security conservatives. So I think he's bringing us together, and tonight will be the final piece.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trey Grayson, who is secretary of state for the state of Kentucky, U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe from Maine, thank you both very much for talking with us.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim, that's two delegates.

JIM LEHRER: OK, got them. Thank you very much, Judy.

And now for some history, and to Ray Suarez.

Role of VP pick alters with time

RAY SUAREZ: Jim, we're joined by presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, and Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University.

And, gentlemen, we are going to hear tonight from a man who's been the all-but-certain nominee since March, but the sensational story of this convention week has been his number-two pick.

Peniel Joseph, can you think of some other times when the vice president has been the big story of a convention in a campaign?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Recently. John Edwards in 2004 really gave a convention speech that upstaged John Kerry. The base was very, very excited about Edwards, and in that primary campaign he came in second place.

By the time Edwards gave his speech, he was the person who talked about race, he talked about social issues, he really talked about the kind of issues that many grassroots Democrats felt should have been the nominee's purview, but Edwards energized that ticket and took a lot of attention away from the top candidate.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: First of all, no presidential candidate chooses the vice presidential candidate in the hopes that it will be a sensation.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Or is too much of a sensation.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, exactly. A classic example, it works both ways. In 1968, Richard Nixon picked an obscure first-term governor of Maryland named Spiro Agnew because it was thought he would appeal -- he would counter George Wallace's appeal in the South, part of the southern strategy.

And it didn't quite work out that way. Agnew became, to the Democrats, at least, a figure of fun. There was a famous commercial that simply said, "Vice President Spiro Agnew" and 30 seconds of laughter.

On the other hand, Hubert Humphrey picked Ed Muskie from Maine, who was immediately and permanently dubbed Lincoln-esque. On election eve, Richard Nixon didn't have his running mate with him on the telethon. Hubert Humphrey made sure to showcase his.

On the other hand, on Election Day, it didn't prevent the Nixon-Agnew ticket from winning.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's right. And, you know, the amazing thing is that usually these things, when vice presidential nominees get attention, it's because it's blowing up.

I mean, Richard Nixon, for instance, in '52 after the convention, in September of that fall, you know, there was an expose of a fund that Nixon kept in his Senate office suggesting that Nixon was corrupt. He had to give the Checkers speech. Eisenhower almost dumped him from the ticket.

Thomas Eagleton we've talked about this week, McGovern chose in 1972. Dan Quayle, of course, there were so many questions about Quayle when George H.W. Bush chose him that it threatened to overshadow George H.W. Bush. It didn't, because Bush gave a great acceptance speech.

But maybe the most ironic one was 1984 when Walter Mondale, feeling a need of bringing some excitement, he said, to his campaign, chose Geraldine Ferraro and chose her over Dianne Feinstein of California because he was worried that Feinstein's husband was involved in business transactions that might be scrutinized. As it turned out, Ferraro had the same problem, didn't help.

Potential of VP role often unseen

RAY SUAREZ: Have there been any cases where the vice presidential nominee has surpassed expectations, ended up being a real asset, ended up gaining kind of attention that wasn't expected when they were named at the convention?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, again, I would say Muskie, certainly in '72, who, as soon as that race was over, was automatically installed as almost a prohibitive favorite for the '76 nomination.

Hubert Humphrey -- it's funny. Hubert Humphrey was picked in '64 after a characteristically prolonged and somewhat humiliating tryout by LBJ and he proceeded to give the speech of his life. Still, I would argue, maybe the best partisan, funny convention speech, certainly by any vice presidential nominee.

And the problem was he distinctly outshone President Johnson's oratory. It may have contributed to the miserable four years that he had as vice president.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One who surpassed expectations was 1904, Henry Gassaway Davis, the vice presidential nominee under Alton Parker, 80 years old, ex-senator, was put on the ticket because he could give a lot of money to the campaign. A lot of people didn't expect him to live until Election Day. He did.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Al Gore in 1992, after that pick, Clinton's poll numbers went up. They went on a bus tour. And even though Gore was not a dynamic speaker, he really brought a lot to that ticket.

RAY SUAREZ: And even though at the time, if anybody will remember, he was thought to have broken all the rules of running mate selections from the adjacent state, around the same age, and on and on and on.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Two moderate southern senators who really transformed the Democratic Party.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thanks a lot.